Each week “Between the Blue Lines” canvasses the NHL and shares five insights. With the first month near its conclusion, several interesting storylines are beginning to emerge.
That 70s line is on fire
They are the most productive line in the NHL right now. Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, and Tanner Pearson are second, fourth, and fifth in points per 60 minutes at five on five and have 16 of the Kings’ 21 goals this season. The Toffoli-to-Pearson stretch pass against Columbus on Sunday exemplified this line’s deceptive speed, and also showed how continuity can look like telepathy.
“That 70s line” can skate, pass, shoot, and hit; versatility makes them dangerous on the forecheck and off the rush. Most of all, they can make plays when they have room or when they are sandwiched between opposing bodies in a congested area. When players on a line can advance the puck masterfully and make any decision they want from any area of the ice, they become extremely difficult to stop.
Montreal sits atop the league
The Canadiens are off to a roaring start; only the Anaheim Ducks have as many points, and the Habs have a game in hand. After allowing 18 goals in their first five games, the Canadiens are displaying the stingy defense that they have become known for under the structured auspices of Michel Therrien.
Montreal is flooding the strong side with forwards and defensemen, aggressively pursuing the puck carrier, and packing the middle when an opposing skater has the puck in space and there is not a Canadiens’ skater in close proximity to challenge him. Montreal’s coherent five-men movement in its own zone allows it to transition with support. The Canadiens possess three forward groups capable of manufacturing offense and maintaining a territorial advantage in the offensive zone.
Last season, the Canadiens were a poor possession team – their 48.4 Fenwick Close placed them 22nd in the NHL. But this season, they have seen improvement, with their Fenwick percentage jumping to 50.9 during an early schedule heavy in Eastern Conference teams that made the playoffs last season.
Winning faceoffs is a good way to improve a team’s shot attempt differential – Montreal has jumped from 17th to second in faceoff-win percentage – but there has also been marked improvement from Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. These two forwards continue to represent Montreal’s best way to jump from playoff team to perennial Cup contender, and both have looked great in the early going.
The Canadiens have two dangerous scoring lines – the P.A. Parenteau trade was a great offseason move – with a third that is capable of getting hot. Goaltender Carey Price has also stopped 93 shots on 97 attempts over the club’s last three contests, and gives the Habs a chance to steal games when they are playing poorly. The Canadiens are extremely tough to beat when they get contributions from their special teams, when they are winning the one-on-one matchups and races for the puck, and when Price is hot.
Ottawa is in trouble
The Senators started off the season 4-1, and have only lost their last two games in overtime and by one goal. Also, they have a plus-two goal differential. Could Ottawa be a surprise playoff team? Not likely. The Senators are 29th in the NHL in Fenwick Close and shots against.
Defenseman Erik Karlsson is leading the team in points, and there are not enough substantial forward contributors to provide this team with any meaningful attack time. Milan Michalek is paid $4 million a season to score goals, but only tallied his first goal last night against Chicago. The same goes for Bobby Ryan, who was just extended to a very healthy $7.25 million a season and has two goals and two assists and a wretched 38.1 Corsi. Kyle Turris, Clarke MacArthur, and Mika Zibanejad are all in larger roles than they would be on a better team.
Most importantly, the Senators have an unsustainable .963 save percentage at five on five. Although their shooting percentage is 5.52 and should probably rise, this team is worse than its record indicates, and things could get real ugly very soon.
Are the Panthers good??
The Panthers have a minus-six goal differential and are 29th in goals per game. So maybe “good” is overstating it. But Florida’s defensive group is off to a strong start, with Willie Mitchell, Brian Campbell, Aaron Ekblad, and Dmitry Kulikov all 52 percent or higher in Corsi and five on five. The Panthers are in the top ten in goals against and five on five goals for/against. They even boast a Fenwick Close that is at 52 percent – good for 13th in the NHL.
But to be fair, the Panthers have started off this season with five of their seven games against non-playoff teams from last season, and the Avs, who were in the playoffs, have been awful. Florida’s own zone play and zone exits have looked more cohesive, and the mixture of veterans and youth has yielded a team that can move the puck and create some offense. The Panthers have not converted on many of their scoring chances – at five on five they have the lowest shooting percentage in the league – but they can be competitive this season. Especially if they can start finding the back of the net.
The Vladimir Tarasenko surge is coming
Vladimir Tarasenko appeared to be an obvious candidate to jump into the 30-goal club this season after putting up sensational goals per 60 minutes at five on five numbers last season. He is 22, entering his third NHL campaign, and his dynamism with the puck and quick-release shot nearly swung the series against Chicago in the first round of the playoffs last season. But so far, the production has not been there. Tarasenko has 30 shots on goal in seven games, but only one goal. His shooting percentage is 3.3, 12.1 percent lower than in 2013-14.
The good news is that his shooting percentage will jump with better puck luck, and also because Tarasenko is getting plenty of scoring chances. He has shown his characteristic nifty stickwork and a propensity to slash through the offensive zone, but his finishing has been off-kilter (clearly). St. Louis has placed Jori Lehtera at pivot with Jaden Schwartz and Tarasenko, and so far that has looked promising. Once Paul Stastny returns, the Blues will have two playmaking centers who they can pair with the electric winger.
Tarasenko’s season has not gone according to script from the outset, but not for a lack of scoring opportunities. And there are many, many games yet to play. Tarasenko will still lead this team in goals or come very close, but he needs to keep shooting and placing himself in the right position – just like he has so far.