COLUMBUS, Ohio - Mathieu Garon stopped 29 shots for his 17th career shutout, extending his strong play at home in leading the Columbus Blue Jackets to a 3-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night.
Rick Nash, Derick Brassard and Kyle Wilson had goals and Jake Voracek added two assists for the Blue Jackets, who have won six of eight.
Garon, a second-round pick by the Canadiens in the 1996 draft, played three seasons for Montreal. He improved to 8-0-4 in home games since joining Columbus as a free agent in 2009.
The Canadiens, who had won four of five, were shut out for the second time this season. Carey Price made 21 saves.
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP)—Niklas Backstrom stopped 36 shots, Andrew Brunette scored the game's only goal and Minnesota shut out the powerful San Jose Sharks.
The Sharks held an 18-4 shots advantage midway through the second, but found themselves trailing after Brunette scored a 5-on-3 goal with 7 minutes left in the period.
The Wild killed five power plays, highlighted by a key stop with 7 minutes remaining in the third. The Sharks entered as the top power-play team in the NHL at 31.6 per cent.
It was Backstrom's first shutout since March 3 at Calgary. The win snapped a five-game losing streak for the Wild against San Jose.
TORONTO (AP)—Sergei Gonchar and Erik Karlsson scored power-play goals 2:26 apart in the second period, and Ottawa beat slumping Toronto.
Mike Fisher had the other goal for the Senators on a penalty shot.
Brian Elliott appeared poised to become the third straight goalie to blank the Maple Leafs until Francois Beauchemin trickled a point shot by him at 5:15 of third period. That ended the team's goal drought at 167 minutes, 39 seconds, the franchise's longest in 83 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Toronto went 181:45 without scoring from Dec. 3 to Dec. 8, 1927.
Clarke MacArthur also scored for the Maple Leafs, who have managed only nine goals while going 1-5-1 in their last seven games. Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf left in the second period with an apparent injury to his left leg.
Bryan Bickell has been sidelined for much of the season as he gets treatment for multiple sclerosis, but the 30-year-old took part in practice for the second time in less than a week.
The hockey world was shocked in mid-November when news came that Carolina Hurricanes winger Bryan Bickell had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
At the time of the diagnosis, Bickell, 30, said he had been struggling to understand what had been going on with his body for more than a full season, dealing with health issues that were at the time diagnosed as the symptoms of vertigo. The issues dated back to the 2015 Stanley Cup final, during which Bickell captured his third Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Upon learning of the MS diagnosis, though, Bickell said he was hopeful that he would eventually find his way back into action and continue his NHL career, and in December, Bickell told reporters that it could be a month or more before he was able to return.
“It’s not a sprint, it’s going to be a marathon, and it’s going to take some time to get things right, ideally, to get me back on the ice,” Bickell said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus. “That’s what I’m hoping for…It could be a month, it could be a couple months to get back on the ice.”
Well, two months after the diagnosis, Bickell appears to be on his way back, even if that just means getting onto the ice with teammates. Bickell returned to the ice in a non-contact jersey late last week and was again out for practice with teammates on Monday. It could signal the start of what would be an inspiring return to the lineup.
Bickell was last able to suit up on Oct. 30, but it was almost clear then that something was ailing him. He skated only 5:45 in the outing, was out the next four games, listed as out with an illness five games later and the announcement of his diagnosis came on Nov. 11. In seven games with the Hurricanes before he hit the injured list, Bickell scored one goal and was averaging less than 10 minutes per game.
There may be some hope that knowing what is ailing him could even help Bickell get his career back on track. According to Lazerus, Bickell said he had grown frustrated with his play and not knowing what was wrong didn’t help matters. Now, with Bickell knowing what he’s dealing with and getting proper care, there’s the potential for him to find his game. But, if nothing else, everyone around the league will be thrilled just to see him get back on the ice.
The Avalanche are on pace to have one of the worst seasons of any team post-lockout, but embracing failure can be the recipe for future success that Colorado needs.
There was a moment in Tuesday’s game between the Avalanche and Blackhawks where it appeared Colorado was going to pull off what would have been one of their most significant wins of what has been a troubling season. A three-goal second period had the Avalanche ahead 4-3 with an 18-14 shot advantage over one of the Western Conference’s best teams.
Then the wheels fell off. In the third, the Avalanche were outshot 12-5, Blackhawks rookie Vinnie Hinostroza potted two goals in three minutes before the midway mark of the frame and the game was capped off with an empty-netter from Chicago’s Tanner Kero. A once-promising one-goal lead was washed away. Colorado left the ice having suffered it’s 28th defeat in 42 games.
But was anyone all that surprised? This season’s Avalanche bunch has been arguably one of the worst teams the league has seen in the post-lockout era, and that’s not the least bit hyperbolic.
In the decade-plus since the lost 2004-05 campaign, the NHL record for most regulation losses by a team in a season in 51, which the Buffalo Sabres did back-to-back in 2013-14 and 2014-15. By comparison, the Avalanche are on pace to lose 55 games in regulation. The worst points percentage came when the 2013-14 Sabres picked up only 52 of a possible 164 points. As of Wednesday, the Avalanche are on pace to finish with a .321 points percentage, the second-worst post-lockout mark. That would give Colorado a grand total of 53 points, and that’s rounding up.
Then there’s the Avalanche’s sixth-worst post-lockout goals for per game of 2.05, 14th-worst goals against per game of 3.38 and the kicker — and the reason it could have been expected that the Colorado would blow the one-goal lead against Chicago — an 11th-worst win percentage when leading after two periods. For every three games the Avalanche have led after 40 minutes this season, they’ve lost two. That’s not a recipe for success.
With the Avalanche mired in the league’s basement, five points back of the Arizona Coyotes, there’s no hope of saving this season. It’s gone. It’s over. The only thing left is playing out the year, because the post-season is an impossible goal and climbing the standings doesn’t really serve to help Colorado all that much, aside from maybe selling an extra ticket here or there. Instead, the Avalanche should be using the remainder of this season to chart the course forward.
One of the best things that will happen when the season ends is the opportunity for Jared Bednar to have an entire off-season to work with his staff. Thrust into the coaching position only weeks before the start of the campaign as a result of former coach Patrick Roy’s abrupt decision to resign, Bednar was thrown to the wolves as a first-time NHL bench boss. That said, some improvements, albeit minor, can already be seen. For instance, the Avalanche have seen their league-worst possession rate in 2015-16 increase by nearly 2.5 percent. It’s a small step, but an important one with what we know about the impact of possession on positive results.
But the biggest step for Colorado has to be a fundamental change in mindset. Visions of the 2013-14 Presidents’ Trophy season continue to linger, but the truth is this team is nowhere near ready to compete and there’s not a trade or two that is going to change that fact. The Avalanche are a basement team with holes up front and on the back end. The best thing Colorado can do is accept that they’re a near-historically bad team in this era of incredible parity.
Lucky thing is the Avalanche have the ability to jumpstart a rebuild. Unlike other teams who have had to start anew, such as the Sabres and Coyotes, the Avalanche have the benefit of a trio of young stars in Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog who could potentially fetch a solid return.
MacKinnon has been rumored to be an untouchable in Colorado and with good reason as the 21-year-old has game-changing ability. He is undoubtedly the star you build around, a 20-goal, 50-point player who's still years removed from his prime. His combination of speed and skill was made for today's game and it doesn't hurt that he's being mentored, at least in part, by Sidney Crosby, who he trains with in the off-season. Though MacKinnon has yet to match his 24-goal, 63-point rookie output, that level of production doesn't seem all that unattainable moving forward. And there's the little things MacKinnon does well, too, like win faceoffs, drive play and play big minutes up front as the team's top-line center.
With MacKinnon as the centrepiece, though, it's time for the Avalanche to part ways with one or both of Duchene and Landeskog.
At 26, Duchene has been mentioned from time to time in the rumor mill, but the time appears to be right for him to move on. He has two years remaining on his deal after this season with a $6-million cap hit, but coming off of a 30-goal, 59-point season and again in line to near the 30-goal plateau, that might not be too difficult to move. His value has never been higher, he’s in the prime of his career and, if dealt, he could fetch a considerable package in return. And while Landeskog, 24, won’t command quite the same return, a consistent 20-goal scorer with some fire to his game would draw some interest at the right price.
There also has to be consideration given to dealing away other current contributors. Tyson Barrie, for instance, would draw interest if he was on the block. Colorado doesn’t look to be in any position to compete during what could be some of the best years of his career and, in terms of a return, now might be the time to get the most out of Barrie. Regardless of who goes, though, the most important thing for the Avalanche to recoup would be a few picks and a prospect or two who has potential to be an NHL contributor in a couple seasons’ time.
One of the biggest problems the Avalanche have had over the past several years comes in building a supporting cast for their trio of young stars, and a big part of that has been the inability to hit on any of their draft picks. Since the 2009 draft, where the Avalanche landed Duchene, Barrie and Ryan O’Reilly, only three draftees have become NHL regulars. That’s MacKinnon, Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, who is the team’s top prospect and likely the only other untouchable on the current roster.
Loading up on draft picks and prospects is a tried-and-true method, too, and the more picks the Avalanche can compile, the more shots they have to hit come draft day. Look at this season’s Maple Leafs, for instance. Toronto had good fortune in landing the first-overall pick and an incredible talent in Auston Matthews, but even without Matthews, the grouping of William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and Connor Brown is proof positive that targeting the draft and prospects is the way to turn things around in today’s NHL. With MacKinnon as the Avalanche’s central star — their Matthews, if you will — and a cast of other youngsters acquired over the next few seasons, there’s no reason Colorado couldn’t start to right the ship in two or three years’ time in the same way Toronto appears to be climbing.
Avalanche fans may scoff at the idea of blowing everything up, but there’s nothing left to lose aside from more games. And, realistically, things won’t get all that much worse. When you’re nearing 60-loss territory, a 50-loss season just so happens to be a step in the right direction, and a younger team could allow the Avalanche to find some diamonds in the rough while netting high draft picks to stock the cupboard. If one or two hit, it can change the organization in a hurry.
The truth is there’s no quick fix for what ails the Avalanche at this point, and things aren’t going to get back on track in a hurry. There will need to be fewer notable signings, no attempts to win now and more focus on a draft-and-develop mentality. If that means a few more lean years, so be it, because it’s likely one of the only ways for the organization to take a real step forward.
With Morgan Rielly sidelined, another one of Toronto's top defensemen comes to the fore. Can Gardiner continue to play strong with a bigger burden on him?
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been remarkably healthy this season – must be all that kid blood – but when Morgan Rielly went down with a leg injury early against Buffalo, the squad was put to the test. As the remaining left-shooting D-men, Jake Gardiner and Matt Hunwick were tasked the most. And Gardiner, who came into the NHL as a bit of a wild horse on the back end, proved why he is being trusted more this season.
“He was huge,” said center Auston Matthews. “Going down to five ‘D,’ he came up big. That was really positive for us, being able to shut them down and come out with a win.”
Gardiner ended up playing 29:24, the most any Maple Leaf has played in a game this season. And they seemed like hard minutes; Toronto had to come back from a 2-0 deficit, then defend right to the final buzzer as the Sabres unsuccessfully (but gamely) attempted to tie a 4-3 game. But for Gardiner, making simple plays and letting the forwards push the pace was the key: in the end, Toronto dominated possession 60-40.
“I don’t feel terribly tired,” he said afterwards. “It depends on the game – you play 29 minutes but it’s all in the offensive zone, but another game it’s all in the defensive zone, so it just depends.”
The evolution of Gardiner has been interesting to witness. He’s the best possession player on the team this year and has been one of the best for the past few seasons. He’s a little more responsible with the puck now and is on pace to smash his previous season high for points (his record is 31 and right now he’s at 22 with half a season to go), while playing the same amount of minutes he has been for the past couple years.
“My stats are better than they usually are, offensively,” Gardiner said. “But more importantly, I feel like I’m a more all-around player, playing against tougher competition at times. My goal was to be more consistent and I think I’ve done that.”
Gardiner was a hot-shot prospect back in his Minnesota high school days, playing for the Minnetonka Skippers. High school games in the state run 17-minute periods and teams aren’t very deep, which means top players get a lot more ice time than they would elsewhere. I asked Gardiner if the Buffalo game reminded him of his time with the Skippers and he had a laugh.
“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “I played over half the game back in the day, for sure.”
Rielly is now listed as day-to-day and will miss Toronto’s game against the New York Rangers on Thursday. Given how much offense the Rangers can put up, this will be another good challenge for Gardiner, even though he won’t have to play as many minutes. Some folks have questioned whether or not Rielly is a No. 1 defenseman and while I feel he has the skills and just need a little more help (his partner is Nikita Zaitsev, an NHL rookie, albeit a good one), it certainly wouldn’t hurt the Leafs to have Gardiner evolve even further when it comes to defensive play. The spotlight will be on Gardiner for the short term, so let’s see what he can do.
The usual suspects -- Bergeron, Kopitar, and Toews -- appear to be out of the discussion for the Selke Trophy. Here are five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.
When it comes to handing out hardware at the NHL Awards, the Selke hasn't been all that tough to figure out in recent seasons. For the last five years, the same three players have dominated the voting. Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews have accounted for all five wins, as well as eleven of the fifteen finalist spots.
But this year is shaping up like it could be different, with all three players slumping offensively. Maybe that shouldn't matter, since the Selke is supposed to be a defensive award. But over the years, it's morphed into a trophy that recognizes two-way play, which means you need to be scoring to get much consideration. If you pro-rate the lockout year, nobody has won the Selke with fewer than 55 points in the salary cap era. None of the Big Three are on pace to get there this year.
With half a season left to play, that could still change. And it's always possible that in the absence of a slam dunk candidate emerging somewhere else, voters could opt to play it safe and go back to one of the old familiars. But for the first time in years, the Selke really does seem up for grabs.
So who has a shot? Assuming that Bergeron, Toews or Kopitar don't take the trophy home this time, here are the five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.
Ryan Kesler, Ducks
The case for: The veteran is having his best season since 2011, and is on pace for about 65 points while playing tough minutes for a first-place Ducks team. His advanced stats won't blow anyone away, but they're good enough that the analytics guys shouldn't push back too hard, and everyone loves a good comeback narrative.
The case against: While it wouldn't be held against him by voters, Kesler doesn't really fit our "new blood" theme; he was the last player to win the award before the Bergeron/Toews/Kopitar trinity took over, and he finished third in the voting last year.
More importantly, there's at least an argument to be made that linemate Andrew Cogliano deserves the award, too. If that line of thinking catches on, the two could end up splitting votes and knocking each other out of the running.
Mikko Koivu, Wild
The case for: While it's meant as a single-season award, voters tend to like to treat the Selke as more of a career achievement; it's rare for somebody to win the award without having built up a resume over the years. That works in Koivu's favor, as he's been considered a strong defensive forward for a decade now, finishing as high as fourth in the Selke voting back in 2009. He hasn't come especially close since, but he's had votes every year.
New coach Bruce Boudreau has leaned heavily on Koivu in the defensive zone, and his ability to handle the duties has been a big part of Minnesota's unexpected success. With the Wild emerging as one of the one of the year's best surprises, voters will be paying attention.
The case against: Koivu's all-around numbers are good but not great, and he's benefitting from a sky-high on-ice save percentage and PDO that's unlikely to continue. With Devan Dubnyk looking like the Vezina favorite and Boudreau having a shot at the Jack Adams, voters might figure that their ballots are already getting crowded with Wild names.
The case for: Backlund seems to have emerged as a trendy dark horse pick in recent weeks. It's well-deserved: his numbers are excellent, and he's posting them in tough minutes for a young Flames team that asks a lot of him. His offensive numbers aren't jaw-dropping, but he's leading the team in scoring, and that should be enough to satisfy those "two-way" demands if he can keep it up.
The case against: While Backlund's been an underrated defensive player for a while now, he's never received a Selke vote. Again, you can argue that that shouldn't matter, but history has shown that it does. That could make it tough for him to get enough votes to win outright.
Aleksander Barkov, Panthers
The case for: At 21, Barkov would fit the new blood narrative perfectly. And he's already on voters' radars after finishing sixth in last year's balloting. He checks most of the boxes that voters tend to look for, posting solid offensive stats and strong possession numbers. And in a season where the biggest story has been the emergence of the next generation of star players, you could see the voters turning to one of the best young two-way forwards in the game.
The case against: Barkov is hurt right now and has already missed two weeks, so if he's not back soon he probably falls out of the running. He's also been playing a more offensive role this year under new coach Tom Rowe, which may be good for the Panthers, but probably not for his Selke chances. And given how things are turning out in Florida this year, voters may not be interested in having many Panther names on their ballot.
Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals
The case for: If building up enough support to win the award is a long-term process, this could be your guy. Backstrom generated plenty of Selke buzz last year, but finished just outside the top ten for the second straight year. It helps that he's putting up the sort of big offensive number that voters like to see. And after years of largely playing in Alex Ovechkin's shadow, he seems to be settling in as one of those guys that everyone in the hockey world decides has been underrated for too long. What better way to make it up to him than with some awards ballot love?
The case against: In terms of pure numbers, you could make a good case that Backstrom's defensive game was better last year than it is now. That won't necessarily hurt him with voters who feel like he's finally due, but it could keep him from getting the kind of widespread groundswell of support that would help push him past a strong candidate like Kesler.
Honorable mentions (and why they won't win):
- Brad Marchand (Bruins): He's getting some buzz, and has earned votes in the past. But has he really become a better option than Bergeron right now? And if not, how can you win the Selke when you're not the best defensive forward on your own team?
- Nazem Kadri (Maple Leafs): He's a relatively new candidate who'll face the same uphill climb as Backlund, with the added disadvantage that plenty of people don't seem to like him.
- Sidney Crosby (Penguins): He's been underrated in his own end for years, and you could see him getting some consolation ballots if voters decided to break for Connor McDavid for the Hart. But right now, the Crosby focus is still on the MVP race.
- Joe Thornton (Sharks): He gets votes every year and finally had his first top five finish last season, so the timing seems right. But his offensive numbers are down this year.
- Ryan O'Reilly (Sabres): He's been in the mix before. But the Sabres' disappointing season may doom him; there's never been a first-time Selke winner from a team that didn't make the playoffs.
- Jordan Staal (Hurricanes): He'd face the same hurdle as O'Reilly if the Hurricanes miss the playoffs, although these days that seem less and less likely. He may have the best case of anyone in this section.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.