Jaroslav Halak(notes) stuffed his equipment into his bag, zipped it up and stormed off into an anteroom. With two hands, he slammed a heavy metal door behind him, the sound a sharp contrast to the silence and showering of the other St. Louis Blues. For a guy used to slamming the door on his opponents, this was infuriating.
Not only had Halak surrendered seven more goals Wednesday night – three in a span of 3:14 late in the third period, breaking a 3-3 tie and leading to a 7-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings – he had scored on himself.
By now you’ve seen the replay: The puck fluttered in front of Halak after a first-period save. He tried to swat the puck into the corner to his left, but like T.C. Chen at the 1985 U.S. Open, he ended up with a double-hit disaster. The puck went off the paddle of his goalie stick, off his blade and back into the net. Good luck for Drew Miller(notes), who got credit for the goal; bad luck for Halak.
“(Stuff) happens,” Halak said after he had cooled off a bit. The larger problem is that stuff has been happening at an alarming rate lately. The stuff is starting to snowball.
Halak has allowed 19 goals and gone 0-3-1 over his past four games, after allowing six goals during a six-game winning streak. The Blues have gone 0-4-1 since a seven-game winning streak overall.
When the Blues were at their best, they weren’t necessarily scoring much. But they weren’t allowing many scoring chances, either, and Halak was looking like the playoff hero he was for the Montreal Canadiens last season. A T-shirt spotted in the Blues’ dressing room: a pair of menacing eyes on the front, “Halak-Ness Monster” on the back.
So why can’t anyone spot Nessie now?
Well, important members of the team went down with injuries – top-four defensemen Barret Jackman(notes) and Roman Polak(notes), plus top-six forwards T.J. Oshie(notes) and David Perron(notes) – and that great team game suffered for it. The Blues haven’t moved the puck as well. They have spent less time in the offensive zone and more time in the defensive zone. Halak and backup goaltender Ty Conklin(notes) have been unable to compensate for it.
“I don’t think the attention to detail on the defensive side of things has been the way it was prior to all these injuries,” coach Davis Payne said. “We’ve got key guys out of the lineup. There’s no hiding from that. But we’ve got to make sure that the formula stays the same.”
The bad news: The injured players aren’t close to returning, especially Polak (wrist) and Oshie (ankle), who are recovering from surgeries. The good news: At least the Blues are returning home, where they are 6-0-1. They play Friday night against the Ottawa Senators and Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils.
“When teams go through a bad stretch, lose four or five games like this, it hurts,” Halak said. “But it’s hockey. What can we do about the last four or five games? It’s past. We’ve got a lot of hockey left in the season. We can always turn it around.”
The scene was much different down the hall Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena. When Ken Holland walked into the Red Wings’ dressing room, captain Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) presented him with the game puck. Everyone posed for an impromptu team picture. It was a milestone night for Holland, his 600th victory in his 1,000th game as the Wings’ general manager – numbers he didn’t see coming until someone brought them up earlier in the week.
“Time flies when you’re having fun,” Holland said.
Holland already was looking ahead Thursday morning – to the Minnesota Wild on Friday night, to the Calgary Flames on Sunday night. But he couldn’t help but reflect just a little bit, just for a moment. He went from minor-league goaltender to western Canada scout in 1985, then rose to amateur scouting director, to assistant general manager and finally to GM after the Wings won the Cup in 1997.
“Most managers … take over a bad team because the team wants to make a change, they’re struggling,” Holland said. “I got to take over a Stanley Cup team. Obviously the challenge was to try to keep it at the top.”
Holland has more than met that challenge, making him the best GM in the game. The Wings won Cups in 1998 and 2002, when there was no salary cap and owner Mike Ilitch could outspend everyone. When the cap arrived, they did not decline. They won another Cup in 2008 and went to Game 7 of the final in 2009, and today they have the best record in the NHL – 12-3-1 (.781 points percentage).
It’s a marvel that the Wings haven’t missed the playoffs, let alone bottomed out, despite never having high draft picks. They have replenished their roster over and over with shrewd scouting and signing. Holland has had a deft touch with the cap, convincing veterans to take a few hundred thousand less here, a few hundred thousand less there, so he can keep the Wings deep.
Offseason losses and in-season injuries depleted the Wings’ offense last year. But Holland brought back Jiri Hudler(notes) and brought in Mike Modano(notes) over the summer while keeping the core intact, and the Wings are rolling four solid lines. When one group goes dry, another springs up.
The Wings scored seven goals against the Blues, even though Lidstrom was held without a point for the first time in a dozen games. Pavel Datsyuk(notes) and Henrik Zetterberg(notes) carried the Wings early, but now it’s Dan Cleary who is on a six-game goal streak – with eight goals in that span.
“The story of our team is our balanced scoring,” Holland said. “Last year, we were counting on two or three guys. We didn’t have many guys that we could look to for consistent scoring. This year there’s more people, as you look up and down our roster, that you think have the ability to provide offense.”
For Holland, it’s 600 and 1,000 and counting.
A quick Colin Campbell story: Early in the 2001-02 season, Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan(notes) kept going off on the officiating. At one point, he said: “Divers are being rewarded in this league, and without addressing it, the league is losing some of its integrity.” After one game, because he was cut by a high stick and there was no call, he sarcastically flipped the referee the game puck and clapped, drawing a $1,000 fine. Another night, he threw a water bottle that slid on the ice toward the referees.
Campbell, the NHL’s disciplinarian, had heard and seen enough. He couldn’t fine Shanahan more than $1,000, the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, but didn’t feel a suspension was warranted. So he made Shanahan drive from Detroit about two-and-a-half hours into southern Ontario to meet him on the side of the road in the rain. He felt Shanahan had been complaining about diving and diving himself.
“He got out of his car and came into my car,” Campbell said afterward. “We sat there and talked for a half-hour. … He had some issues with the refereeing. I said, ‘This is how it is: At the end of the day, calls are made. They might be right, and they might be wrong. You have bad games. Well, the referees have bad games. But you can’t take it into your own hands. The league’s good. The league’s good to you.’ ”
I dredge this up only to show another side of how Campbell works behind the scenes and to help explain why so many NHL people have stuck by Campbell despite his email controversy this week.
When Campbell’s private words involving Marc Savard(notes) and son Gregory Campbell(notes) became public thanks to a court case, they opened him to charges of bias. But Campbell’s integrity has been questioned before, and people who know him insist the integrity of the game is his highest priority. Criticizing his consistency or judgment on a particular play is one thing. Calling him corrupt is another.
Campbell is a raw, honest guy with a thankless job. He doesn’t hide behind bland, politically correct statements. He says what he thinks, is unafraid of debate and abuse, and doesn’t hold grudges, according to multiple people in the league. Guess who works with him now as the NHL’s vice president of hockey and business development? Brendan Shanahan.
They began with two games in Europe, then marched all over North America on a five-game road trip. Their first two home games were against the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, both losses.
Last week, they blew out the Edmonton Oilers 7-1, then suffered back-to-back blowout losses to last season’s Eastern Conference finalists, falling to the Philadelphia Flyers 8-1 and to the Montreal Canadiens 7-2. Then Wednesday night, they blew out the Ottawa Senators 7-1.
No team’s start has been more insane than that of the Carolina Hurricanes, and yet they have 18 points. They’re one point out of eighth in the East.
“It’s been an interesting venture to this point, but it’s good that we’ve stayed in the mix,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. “I mean, we could have been buried real early.” The ’Canes went 14 games without winning early last season, and a red-hot second half wasn’t enough to save them. “I think you can actually go probably about 10 games and dig yourself out,” Rutherford said, “but you get into that 12, 14 range, it’s pretty much impossible.”
The key for the ’Canes is to ride out the violent swings, stay in contention and allow their young players to mature. Their schedule is home-heavy in the second half.
“We recognize that there are going to be some good nights and bad nights,” Rutherford said. “It’s kind of the way the league is, but it’s certainly the way that younger teams are going to be. … We have to view those games as one game, not where we are or not where we’re going to be come April. If we view those games as one game, forget about it and move on, knowing that we’re going to have some of those, we’re going to be OK.”
• St. Louis defenseman Erik Johnson has only one goal and three assists. He wants to generate more offense, but with the way the Blues are playing, he can’t try to do too much and go lax on defense. “It’s about finding that balance, and I’m working on that right now,” he said. “It’s about time I get out of this funk.”
• Holland said Cleary and veteran linemate Todd Bertuzzi(notes) are in the best shape of their careers and have “found tremendous chemistry.” Bertuzzi is the passer. Cleary goes to the hard areas to score.
• Some mystery ’Canes deserve a lot of credit. “There’s been some guys that I’m not going to mention who have played extremely well based on their situation, because they’re actually hurting pretty good and probably shouldn’t have played,” Rutherford said. “They’re still not 100 percent yet, but I’m pretty pleased with a couple of those guys.”
• When Jack Capuano dropped his debut with the New York Islanders, losing Wednesday night to the Tampa Bay Lighting 4-2, it only underscored how he inherited all of Scott Gordon’s problems. It’s going to take a lot more than a coaching change to alter the landscape on the Island.
• The NHL Players’ Association is expected to announce Donald Fehr as its new executive director shortly. Fehr was wise to wait until he spoke to the players personally and every vote was counted. After all the infighting in the past, he now can claim a firm mandate from the membership.