A LATE LANDING
We ring in the New Year with the Winnipeg Jets a far different team than the one that opened at home on Thanksgiving Sunday. That Jets team looked overwhelmed and flustered by the unfamiliar Stanley Cup atmosphere and lost feebly to the Montreal Canadiens.
That is a distant memory. It was a very different Jets team that began the New Year with a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on New Year's Eve. This is a team that has embraced the crowd, the atmosphere and their venue, arguably the loudest in the NHL and one of the most difficult for visiting teams. Some Leafs officials and fans complained that the crowd factored into a couple of questionable penalty calls against the visiting Toronto squad, who, by the way, possess the worst penalty killing record in the NHL.
BACK TO HIS OLD SELF
The New Year begins with Jarome Iginla back in his "rightful" and familiar place as the centrepiece of the Calgary Flames. Despite three consecutive losses, the Flames are back in playoff contention in the Western Conference and the "old" Iginla has reappeared. It started a few weeks ago when he was named the NHL first star of the week in early December.
He enters 2012 with a respectable 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists) and the Iginla trade talk, which seemed to irk Flames general manager Jay Feaster to no end, has quieted! For now, that is!
NO RHYME, NO REASON
The concussion issue continues as the number one topic around the NHL. We entered 2011 with a healthy Sidney Crosby who took that "first" harmful hit during the Outdoor Classic against Washington. Unfortunately, we begin 2012 with the impact of that hit still being felt with Crosby's season, and possibly his entire future, in doubt.
We are all learning together in the hockey community more facts and information associated with concussions, the more we learn we also discover just how much we don't know.
Who would have thought that Matthew Lombardi would be able to get back to the NHL and play early this regular season? Certainly not the Nashville Predators, who were keen to unload his contract in a trade with the Leafs over the summer. While Lombardi's return (he has played in 20 regular season games with the Leafs) has been a pleasant surprise, that isn't always the case.
It seems like nobody foresaw neither Marc Staal of the New York Rangers nor Peter Mueller of the Colorado Avalanche being out so long. Fortunately Staal returned for the Winter Classic.
A HOLLYWOOD ENDING?
In a move that drew no shortage of criticism from NHL "experts," Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi is earning the early "last laugh" in his controversial decision to hire Darryl Sutter as the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings.
Lombardi and Sutter had an earlier successful run with the San Jose Sharks, but Sutter's last stint as the general manager of the Calgary Flames ended shrouded in ill will and controversy, including the fact that he apparently has not spoken to his brother (and Flames coach) Brent Sutter for months.
Beyond questioning Sutter's fit to coach the Kings, Lombardi was also chastised for putting John Stevens in place as a lame duck interim coach for four games while Sutter attended to personal matters.
As we usher in the New Year, the Kings appear to have once again found their winning ways. Stevens had a brief and respectable run as the interim coach on a difficult road trip and, a seemingly kinder, gentler and friendlier Darryl Sutter has evolved, for now, behind the bench of this winning NHL team.
A NEW STAR IS BORN
Claude Giroux has done everything the Philadelphia Flyers could have hoped for and more in assuming the on-ice duties and responsibilities that were vacated after the trades of Mike Richards to Los Angeles and Jeff Carter to Columbus.
Often when a top young player is thrust into a high profile and demanding position, he struggles to live up to those hopes and pressures. Not with Giroux, the most pleasant surprise among all NHL players with 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) who entered the New Year second overall in NHL scoring, one point behind Vancouver's Henrik Sedin.
It has been hard to get a handle on the top Norris Trophy candidates for this season to date due to injury, contracts and Stanley Cup hangover.
Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins seemed to be the best defenceman in the league until he suffered a concussion weeks ago. Shea Weber of Nashville is another member of the elite defencemen pack, but he also enters the New Year with concussion issues. Drew Doughty of Los Angeles missed all of training camp due to a contract dispute and while he has earned a Norris Trophy type contract, he has yet to round into Norris Trophy type form on the ice.
Zdeno Chara has rounded into that form but he suffered the malaise that struck many of his Boston Bruin teammates who exhibited that classic "Stanley Cup Hangover" for about the first 15 games this season.
Money can't buy you everything! We have heard that refrain in a number of variations not just in the world of professional sports but in the world of everything pertaining to life itself.
The formerly budget conscious Buffalo Sabres are feeling the money crunch in a different way for them. For years they had surprised NHL fans with their ability to make the playoffs when it wasn't expected. Now that new Sabres ownership has made them a "have" team when it comes to money, they expected an easier ride to the playoffs with the likes of Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regher and Ville Leino.
Money has brought them the players but not the on-ice results. Not only do the Sabres begin 2012 out of the playoff picture, they also have experienced two very un-Buffalo Sabres phenomenons. Ryan Miller's status as one of the elite NHL goaltenders has not been evident. And, the Sabres' style of toughness, grit and playing with an edge has taken a hit itself, especially since the lack of an appropriate team response to the Milan Lucic hit on Miller earlier this season.
SAY IT AIN'T SO JOE
Maybe the cure for all struggling teams is for San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton to refer to them as a "soft team." Though he quickly clarified his comments, New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella used those remarks about his team as a lightning rod that has helped propel them into first place in the Eastern Conference as we usher in 2012.
It might be a good omen for Vancouver Canucks fans as Thornton was also giving their captain Henrik Sedin a lack of respect when he playfully taunted him with some old Three Stooges type antics as they were both conversing with a referee during a recent Sharks-Canucks game.
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