It’s probably different for more “casual” (aka reasonable) fans of the NHL, but for someone deeply embedded in the day-to-day ebbs and flows of the 2013 season, it’s easy to forget that this is only a 48-game campaign. The hockey is still largely the same, especially since the league basically has the same exact scoring problems that takes a little bit - but not all - of the fun out of watching contests that don’t feature the marquee teams.*
Yet every now and then you step back and realize that we’re basically two-thirds through the condensed campaign.
One thing that makes it a little clearer - for me, at least - is that some squads are going on unlikely streaks. While the Chicago Blackhawks’ historic season-opening run is untouched, I thought I’d take a varied look at the two biggest current ones … and maybe touch on at least a few other trending teams.
PENS MORE POWERFUL
With Tuesday’s solid 2-1 win against the Washington Capitals - which actually displayed some promising flashes of “the old” Alex Ovechkin - the Penguins are on a 10-game winning streak. Let’s break it down.
The elements: It's kind of fun that the 10-game run is neatly packaged in the month of March. It started off with some high-scoring games (7-6 OT win against Montreal, back-to-back 5-4 victories) and then a 6-1 win against the New York Islanders on March 10 seemingly served as the bridge from blowouts to tight nail-biters. Including that game, the Penguins have allowed exactly six goals in the last six contests. Overall, the Penguins are winning in a variety of ways ... even without Evgeni Malkin.
Fantasy benefits: Beyond the usual suspects, Tomas Vokoun is looking better, Brandon Sutter’s proving himself as a solid Jordan Staal supplement (though short of fantasy brilliance) and Paul Martin keeps improving his stock. I’d stop short of a full-on recommendation with Matt Niskanen, but he’s getting bigger minutes with Kris Letang banged up.
Is it real?: Yes, although the whys and hows could change when Malkin comes back. It’s hard to blame the Penguins for being more aggressive (and thus sloppier) with their full complement of players. After all, it’s no fun driving a Ferrari just a few miles above the speed limit all the time, right?
Misc: With all the worries about the salary cap because of Malkin and Letang eventually needing new deals after 2013-14, it’s interesting to note that GM Ray Shero has structured things so that the team has as much flexibility as a big-spender could probably ask for. More expendable guys’ deals expire after 2013-14 (Chris Kunitz, Tanner Glass's ridiculous $1.1 million, Brandon Sutter, Brooks Orpik, Niskanen and so on) as well.
The Penguins will probably need to let Pascal Dupuis get a big raise from his $1.5 million - possibly somewhere else - though.
NOT SO BLUE JACKETS
Any lengthy streak is hard to foresee in parity-soaked league like the NHL, but the Columbus Blue Jacket’s 11-game run with at least a point is still shocking.
The elements: They’re 7-0-4 and Sergei Bobrovsky’s been flat-out amazing.
Fantasy benefits: Look, I’ve been a proponent - relatively speaking - of Bobrovsky’s the past few seasons, but I’d be a huge liar if I claimed that I saw this coming. He’s the obvious boon here and could be gold if you try to sell high or just hope that the luck keeps going. Vinny Prospal remains one of the league’s best-kept secret successes in his own right.
Is it real?: Any time a team depends on a) unsustainable goaltending and b) one-goal wins, it’s not totally real. The Blue Jackets have only won one of those seven games by more than a single score (a 3-0 win against Detroit on March 9).
Misc: So, what happens with Steve Mason this summer? I doubt that the Blue Jackets will re-sign him since most (if not all) of the people who would be stubborn enough to deny that they made a mistake investing in him are already gone. Does some team give him a backup job? Will he need to sign a two-way contract? Is he going to get shipped to Europe? It should be intriguing.
Jump for streaks that are more like “trends.” I won’t be mad if you skip the state of the game-ish footnote below, either.
* - That scoring problem is why the talk of the upcoming GM meetings is making me irritated. Maybe a coach’s challenge is a good idea and hybrid icing is taking a disgracefully long time to embrace, but the real problem that needs to be addressed is the fact that the NHL encourages many teams to grind out wins/charity points by dumbing everything down with passive and bland hockey.
Look, I know that winning gives people that little dopamine rush and many poorer teams would struggle if skilled players weren’t getting the Han Solo in carbonite treatment, but how many new fans are you really going to earn playing that way? What about casuals who could potentially become regulars? I doubt many of them want to wade through waves of yawn-fests when they could just watch “Workaholics” on Netflix instead.
Sure, the ratings are good, but I’d wager they’d be much better if creativity was promoted instead of being encumbered. And things could get ugly once that new car smell wears off (and/or the 82-game doldrums return next season).