Vegas, baby. Nothing like a quick trip to The Strip to bring together a group of guys.
With three days off during an epic six-game swing through western Canada and California, the Chicago Blackhawks took a little detour to Las Vegas. They held their rookie dinner at Yellowtail, a Japanese restaurant at the Bellagio, and played a little get-to-know-ya trivia game.
“There are some funny things that have occurred in guys’ lives that maybe one or two guys had known but the majority didn’t,” goaltender Marty Turco(notes) said. “It was just some good laughs, some moments that you just can’t …”
“That you dream of during a season.”
Why the pause? Why no more details?
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right?
“I’m not the advertiser that came up with the slogan,” Turco said with a laugh, “but it’s a good one.”
And the trip was a good experience overall for the Blackhawks, a young team with a lot of new faces that not only needed to bond, but needed to get back to playing simpler, more responsible hockey – road hockey. The ’Hawks had gone on quick trips to that point, and they had struggled at home.
The Blackhawks went 4-2-0 on the trip. They’re 6-2-0 in their past eight overall.
All is not perfect. Sprinkled in there were a couple of stinkers – a 7-2 loss at Calgary, a 5-2 loss at San Jose – and Tuesday’s night’s 7-5 home victory over the St. Louis Blues came after they sat back with a 5-1 lead. But generally they’re giving up fewer scoring chances.
“In Chicago, at the United Center, you want to put on a show,” Turco said.
“You’ve got 21,000 people going nuts. Of course you want to make that extra play. … It was long overdue for this team to get on the road and kind of just get to be just the guys and get away from Chicago, get away from everything else that goes on with winning a Cup and get the guys together. It was huge.”
When the Atlanta Thrashers’ season began, general manager Rick Dudley wanted to be careful. He preached patience inside and outside of the organization.
“We’ve tried to keep a lid on people’s expectations early,” Dudley said.
It wasn’t just that he was a new GM, with a new coach in Craig Ramsay, with a lot of new players. It was that Ramsay was a technical coach with a unique approach.
Defensively, Ramsay wants his players free to make a play, not tied to one option. Offensively, he wants four men on every rush, like many coaches, but he’s more willing to live with mistakes than most as long as his players learn from them. He wants a lot of pressure up the ice. That’s just the beginning.
“I couldn’t possibly tell you all the conversations I’ve had with Craig over the last number of years where he would say something regarding coaching that I hadn’t thought of,” Dudley said. “The things that you want to do have to become habitual. That takes time, especially if it’s diametrically opposed to what they’ve done in the past. And what Craig has been able to do in such a short period of time is truly amazing.”
The Thrashers have won six straight, setting up Thursday night’s meeting with the Pittsburgh Penguins, winners of seven straight. But the Thrashers aren’t just hot. They have cut down on their shots against, cut down on their goals against and beaten some highly regarded teams decisively – like the Washington Capitals (5-0), Detroit Red Wings (5-1), Montreal Canadiens (3-0) and Boston Bruins (4-1).
“We look like a pretty disciplined team that executes very well, and the guys have obviously bought into what Craig’s teaching, so it’s gratifying to see it happen as quickly as it has,” Dudley said.
Dudley made sure to qualify that: “You don’t want to get carried away,” he said. But he’s certainly happy with the developmental environment. He would rather his players learn by winning than through the school of hard knocks, and he continued to rave about Ramsay and his staff.
“It’s very, very important that players, if they’re going to reach their optimal level, they have to come to the rink looking forward to it, knowing not only that they’re going to enjoy the process, but that they’re going to learn within that process,” Dudley said. “And I think right now the Atlanta Thrashers hockey players come to the rink saying, ‘You know, it’s a good day to get to the rink and I’m going to learn something today.’ I think both of those are important, and both of those are happening right now.”
After a shoulder injury limited him to 31 games last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Derick Brassard(notes) went to work in the offseason, hitting the gym twice a day to bulk up his upper body, putting on 12 pounds. He received his reward in October – a spot on the top line with star winger Rick Nash(notes).
“I was really excited,” said Brassard, the sixth overall pick in the 2006 NHL entry draft. “In my draft year, they were planning to put me with Rick. He never had a center. Last year, I didn’t really have a good year, and I was not ready to play with him. This year, I want to show that I can play with him and I can be a center. I can feed him the puck all the time, and hopefully it’s going to work.”
It’s a work in progress. Brassard leads the Jackets with 12 assists; Nash leads them with 13 goals. Over a 14-game stretch from Oct. 23 to Nov. 24, Brassard had points in 13 games – five goals and 11 assists in total. But now that Brassard is a No. 1 centerman, he is facing top players night after night.
On a trip to Southern California, Brassard faced the Los Angeles Kings’ Anze Kopitar(notes) one game, the Anaheim Ducks’ Ryan Getzlaf(notes) the next. In consecutive games against the Detroit Red Wings, he faced the top defense pairing of Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) and Brad Stuart(notes). Even though he scored a goal against the Wings, he struggled. Coach Scott Arniel called it “all part of the growing curve for him.”
“It’s harder, but at the same time I think I’m at the point now right now I can play with those guys,” Brassard said. “It’s just, I need to be ready every game because there’s good players on every team.”
If it’s going to work, it’s going to take time.
“I think we’ve found chemistry short term,” Nash said. “You look around at some of the best lines in the league, they’ve been playing together for a couple years. We’ve been together for two months or a month-and-a-half. So hopefully we’ll just keep gaining more and more as we go.”
And Niklas Backstrom is from Finland. Nicklas Backstrom is from Sweden, the Finns’ biggest rivals in international hockey. So Niklas Backstrom wasn’t too happy when, at an NHL event last year, someone brought him a Team Sweden sweater.
“I think I left it on the floor and went out of the room,” he said, laughing.
* Doctors have given Red Wings center Mike Modano(notes) a bit of good news: It’s better that a skate sliced his right wrist than his left. He is a left-handed shot, and his injured top hand will take less pounding when he returns from surgery to repair a severed tendon.
• Modano’s agent, Mike Liut, said Modano faces a tough grind in rehab but still has reason to return after signing a one-year deal at age 40. “Mike’s got a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and that’s powerful motivation,” Liut said. “He came back to take a shot at it. That reason for being here, that hasn’t died.”
• Eleven teams are grouped between 30 and 26 points in the Western Conference, from second place through 12th. “It’s a tight conference historically, and I’ve never seen it this tight, even this early in the season,” Turco said. “I mean, it’s pretty crazy.”
• Chris Chelios(notes) playing in Russia? Chelios, the newly retired 48-year-old now working in the Wings’ front office, smirked and shook his head when asked about the rumor. “I’m still here,” he said.
• Jim Kelley, the Hall of Fame hockey writer, kept on producing columns right up until he died of cancer Tuesday at age 61. He was an inspiration and example. If only we all had such passion for what we do.
- Craig Ramsay