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THE FAR SIDE OF THE POND: Early Surprises

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10/27/2009 1:53 PM - By Chad Huebner

Since it’s that time of year to be scared out of our wits, I figured I’d write about a few things that have given me quite a “scare” so far this hockey season, right? Except that Halloween doesn’t really scare me. All the horror shows, outside elaborate decorations and haunted houses don’t really offer much of a genuine scare. Oh sure, I  might be surprised by something-a sudden noise, someone jumping out at me from the shadows or the occasional were-bat that’s sucking on my jugular, stuff like that-but that’s not enough to make my hair turn white. Those things elicit more of an “ahhhh!” than an “EEEEEEEEIIIEEEEEE!” from me. So instead, here are a few of the things that have surprised me so far this young hockey season:

I’m surprised at. . . how well the Buffalo Sabres, Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins have started the season.

Yes, that’s right, the Pens. Look, there was a chance the Pens, after playing full postseason and regular seasons the last two years, would have a slow start to this season. But Crosby and Malkin (which sounds a little like a legal firm, one that delivers blistering shots instead of depositions) are part of the young core which doesn’t look like it’ll tire out anytime soon. And Marc-Andre Fleury, he of the 8-0-0 record and the 1.96 GAA, is playing the best start to any season in his career. His GAA the last four seasons is 2.83, 2.33, 2.67, and 1.96. Isn’t this “The New NHL”, where goals are supposed to be pouring in faster than a broken New Orleans levee? At this rate, he’ll have a minus GAA by season’s end. I dunno how that’ll actually happen-maybe instead of stopping shots, he’ll be scoring on them-but I’m sure he’s capable of such a supernatural feat.

As for the Avs and Sabres, would you have picked both of them to be leading their respective divisions? Either one? With the Sabes, would you believe Ryan Miller has an even more miniscule GAA than Fleury at 1.65 GAA? Both teams have a balance attack on offense-the leading scorer for both clubs doesn’t have more than four goals so far. One of those guys is Darcy Tucker. That’s right, the man who, while being a consistent goal scorer, has only a career high of 28 goals in any one season. Craig Anderson (6-1-2, 2.06 GAA) has been a great pickup for the Avs from his days toiling for a sub par Florida Panthers squad. He definitely won’t make people forget St. Patrick, but he should definitely bring stability to a position that has been a problem point for the Avs ever since Roy retired.

But none of these three clubs even hold a candle to the surprise team as of this moment. . . the Phoenix Coyotes. Take a look at the standings, they’re 5-2-0 as of October 22. Four of the teams they’ve beaten were playoff teams last year, and three of those four were in the top five in the entire league: Pens, Sharks, Blues and Bruins. The Coyotes have a balanced attack, with three guys-Ed Jovanovski, Radim Vrbata and Scottie Upshall (all free agent or trade acquisitions, by the way, and were probably considered used up by their former teams)-leading the way with three goals each. And then you have “Brizzy”, aka Ilya Bryzgalov, a guy who was an excellent backup to “Jiggy”, aka Jean-Sebastian Giguere with the Anaheim Ducks and has a respectable record (57-54-11) in three years as a starter for the Coyotes. He’s off to a 5-1-0 start and a. . . get this. . . 1.14 GAA. Yeah, mind blowing isn’t it? This is all coming from a team that was pretty much ticketed for Hamilton-Kansas City-Winnipeg-Quebec, anywhere but Phoenix by this time this season. Wayne Gretzky abruptly left his head coaching position right before the start of the season. . . and maybe that was for the best, as Dave Tippett, former 6-year head coach for the Dallas Stars (who had a .617 winning percentage and two 50-win seasons under his stead) has stepped in and has this team finally believing in itself, despite all the outside distractions.

I’m surprised at. . . the slow starts by the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers.

Looks like this year’s Winter Classic will be a dull affair between these two. Yeah, right. But there is a slight amount of concern at how sluggish these two have looked right from the start. The Bruins suffered a mighty blow when they lost Marc Savard for the next 4-6 weeks, but I would think David Krejci, Michael Ryder and even Marco Sturm would step up to pick up the slack. Tim Thomas has been only so-so (3-3-0, 3.00 GAA) after an impressive 2008-09 campaign. The team’s at .500 right now, and that’s only because they managed to eke out a win against the Nashville Predators at home.

The Flyers started out 3-0, and have followed that up with a 0-2-1 stinker of a stretch. Sure, they technically have a winning record, but wasn’t this the team that really upgraded their grit on defense by trading for Chris Pronger? They also went out and got Ray Emery back from Russia, and we know how much of a head case he can be when things go wrong. Maybe I’m not surprised so much as disappointed that this team isn’t right there at the top of their division along with Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers.

I’m surprised at. . . Chelly signing with the Chicago Wolves.

I guess a quarter century in the NHL wasn’t enough for this guy. After being let go by the Detroit Red Wings, I figured this was it for him, and certainly not the way we expected him to leave the game. At least there could have been the slightest, teeniest, tiniest chance that the Blackhawks would pick him up again, if only for the tons of publicity they would receive for it (and perhaps he could retire as a ‘Hawk after all these years). But the Chicago Wolves have signed him to a Professional Tryout Contract, which basically means he can play for the Wolves for a maximum of 25 games before they have to make a decision on him, or they can release him at any time before that 25-game limit is reached. I doubt he has to worry about a “pay cut.” Anyway, it’ll be nice to see Chelly play in a Chicago uniform once again, if only for a little while (then again, I think I’ve said before that I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to play until he was 50).

I’m surprised that. . . I never knew how good of a minor league team the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Komets have been.

At least, not until I started reading “Legends of the Komets” by Blake Sebring, which gives a little biography on every player/coach/reporter who’s had their number retired or have been honored in a similar way by the Komets. Blake paints some pretty pictures about each of the honorees, throwing in enough good stories to go along with the hard facts. As he points out early in his book, many of these people didn’t envision themselves winding up in Fort Wayne, but when they came there, most of them never wanted to leave. The book also talks about how much the city supported the team over the years and how much it mattered to players and coaches alike: they wanted to perform better because of it. The book also made me want to look up the Komets, and they certainly are one of the best hockey franchises out there: seven championships, 12 regular season titles, and longevity (been around since 1952) that’s right up there with the Original Six of the NHL. Blake’s one book was an eye-opener for me, a guy who thought he knew a thing or two about the history of minor-league hockey. I can’t wait to read his other book “Tales of the Komets”, which, again, gives all the numbers a sports stats guy would love and live off of, plus a bunch of juicy tidbits about the team over the years. I’ll bet I’ll be nicely surprised by that book as well.

Remember; e-mail me at chadhuebner1972@yahoo.com for anything on your mind. Best responses and/or questions will be answered publicly.





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