Three Periods Blog: Metropolitan Division
Hello, everyone. It’s Dan Mount again with another edition of the Three Periods blog. This week I’ll focus my energy on the Metropolitan Division, which is rivaling the Central for the best collection of teams in hockey. The first period will talk about the surging Columbus Blue Jackets, while the second period will break down a possible goalie controversy with the New York Rangers. The third period will look back at the Penguins a year after Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench. I’ll wrap up the blog with a tribute to Craig Sager and hockey fan Alan Thicke. Both men passed away earlier in the week. Let’s get started.
The beginning of the season did not look promising for the Columbus Blue Jackets, as their coach John Tortorella was coming off a terrible showing with Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey. Many predicted that he would be one of the first coaches fired after Columbus missed the playoffs.
Many thought the game passed “Torts” by as his defense-first game didn’t translate early is tenure at the Ohio capital. However, the Blue Jackets have jumped out to quite the started. The schedule may have been favorable in the early part of the season, but you play the teams that are on there. Columbus is a franchise-record 13 games over .500 as of Thursday night, and there are a lot of factors going in its favor. Tortorella may not be known as a nurturer of offense, but his team has put up an 8-goal and a 10-goal game so far this season. The team fired 60 shots on the Arizona Coyotes earlier in the year. It’s not just the offense as goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has found his Vezina Trophy-winning form. The “Number One Cop in Town” is 17-5-2 with a 1.95 goals against average, .934 save percentage and three shutouts this season. The Russian netminder has been beset by injuries and struggles, but looks like his old self again. The division is tough and the schedule will get difficult. However, the Jackets have given themselves a head start and might find their way back to the postseason if this good play continues.
The New York Rangers have been arguably as hot as Columbus, but it’s not due to the great Henrik Lundqvist. Coach Alain Vigneault has relied on backup Antii Raanta to get three wins in a row, including two shutouts in a row.
The Finn has been fantastic this season with an 8-2 mark, a 1.69 GAA, and.941 save percentage. The 27-year-old’s performance has surprised many Blueshirts’ fans and even got some questioning if he could replace The King full time. Lundqvist has had a lackluster year by his lofty standards with a 12-8-1 record, 2.55 GAA and .912 save percentage. He’s been the rock in net for the better part of a decade, but he is 34 years of age. One wonders if he can sustain his great play. Hank has been struggling this season, but there’s no reason to question his position as the team’s number-one goalie. He will be the guy unless he’s hurt or if he has a complete breakdown, which I don’t anticipate happening. It worked out well for the Rangers the last time Lundqvist had extended rest in 2014. The Swedish superstar had to sit out a good stretch of the season after taking a puck in the throat, which forced Cam Talbot to take the reins. The now-Oilers goalie thrived and helped the Rangers clinch the President’s Trophy that season. Lundqvist didn’t have to be rushed back and got to get some much-needed rest and was able to backstop them to a Stanley Cup final appearance. The 82-game season is a marathon and not a sprint. I’m sure Vigneault and Lundqvist welcome this break, and the newfound knowledge that they have a capable backup waiting in the wings.
It was a year ago last week that the Pittsburgh Penguins were in a bad way. The Pens couldn’t stop pucks from going in and some were calling the team the biggest disappointment in the league.
General manager Jim Rutherford and owner Mario Lemieux dumped Mike Johnston and replaced him with Mike Sullivan, who was coaching the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The change was almost immediate and Pittsburgh surged up the standings. Many (myself included) thought the Washington Capitals were going to win the Eastern Conference, but the Penguins rode timely goal-scoring and rookie Matt Murray to the final. Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby took over from there and led the team to its fourth NHL title. Things are still going well one year since the change as Pittsburgh and the Rangers are fighting it out for the top spot in the league. The Penguins are able to plug in either Murray or Marc-Andre Fleury in net and Crosby is scoring goals at an insane clip. Sullivan is only one of three coaches to win the Cup after taking over the team in the middle of the season. (Scotty Bowman and Dan Bylsma, who did it with the Penguins in 2009, are the only two others to accomplish that feat. The Penguins could be in-line for a repeat if things keep rolling the way they are. In Memoriam: I want to take this time to say goodbye to a couple of figures in the world of sports. On Tuesday, we lost actor, Canadian and avid hockey fan Alan Thicke at the age of 69. Thicke was famous for playing the role of Jason Seaver, who was the perfect dad on the TV show “Growing Pains.”
Thicke was also a big hockey fan and was spotted Los Angeles Kings games. His fatal heart attack happened after he was taken off on a stretcher while warming up for pickup hockey game with his youngest son and friends. The other sports death I want to talk about is that of NBA on TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager, who passed Thursday at the age of 65 after a long battle with cancer. I’m more of a hockey fan, but I always would check out the games on Turner Sports because of Sager. His garish outfits rivaled those of Don Cherry. Sager was a professional, but never had a big ego despite being a big star. He was a wonderful person and was great at his job. Both Thicke and Sager will be missed as 2016 continues to take a lot of celebrity passings.
That’s it for this week. Next week I’ll see what each NHL team wants Santa Claus to leave under the tree. Take care.
Dan Mount is a producer for Spadora on Sports. He’s also a writer for NHL on the Ice, the Nashville Predators beat reporter for The Hockey Writers and a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times in Watertown, NY. He can be found on Twitter @DanMountSports