The NHL’s All-Star weekend will be upon us before we know it, and once again, the league has decided to make a change to the weekend’s festivities. Although the 3-on-3 tournament is set, the skills competition will have a new wrinkle to it. We’ve also seen our first coaching change of the season, as well as a ridiculous amount of goals this week, and some serious goaltending problems in St. Louis. We’ll dive deeper into these stories as Around The NHL makes its return:
BREAKAWAY CHALLENGE GONE, FOUR LINE CHALLENGE HAS ARRIVED
For the last several years, part of the skills competition at All-Star weekend has included the Breakaway Challenge, an event that was ridiculously gimmicky, but also brought a certain amount of entertainment value to the skills competition. Moments such as P.K. Subban dressing up as Jaromir Jagr, Patrick Kane donning a Superman cape, and Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns bringing their sons onto the ice and letting them participate are things we’ll remember fondly when we look back at the Breakaway Challenge. That all has changed now that the league has put the event on the chopping block and replaced it with the Four Line Challenge. Players will try to hit targets in the net from the closest blue line, center ice, the farthest blue line, and the goal line from the opposite end of the ice. Goalies will be allowed to try shots from the farthest distance, with extra points being awarded if they can hit the targets. While I’ll miss the Breakaway Challenge and some of its quirks, I don’t mind seeing the NHL try something new with its skills competition.
YOU GET A GOAL! YOU GET A GOAL! EVERYONE GETS A GOAL!
Normally the dates of January 17 and 18 are just two more nights on the NHL’s calendar, but on those dates earlier this week, there were 100 goals across the NHL over 14 games in those two days. That’s an average of 7.1 per game, much higher than the typical league average. And that’s not even counting the day before when the Penguins and Capitals combined for 15 in an 8-7 overtime win for Pittsburgh. These two days saw the Stars and Rangers combine for 13, the offensively-challenged Red Wings beat the Bruins 6-5 in a shootout, the Blackhawks and Senators win games by 6-4 scores over the Avalanche and Blues, respectively, as well as the Jets beating the Coyotes 6-3. The following night, the Caps trounced the Blues 7-3 (more on that game in a bit). I think at this point, we’re starting to see fatigue settle in for some teams, and goalies are starting to feel it as well. The World Cup of Hockey and the compressed schedule are finally starting to take its toll, and it has led to some higher scoring games. I don’t expect this trend to last, but it surely has been fun to watch.
ISLANDERS FIRE JACK CAPUANO, MAKE DOUG WEIGHT THEIR INTERIM HEAD COACH
It wouldn’t be an NHL season without at least a couple of coaching changes, and the first one happened earlier this week when the New York Islanders served Jack Capuano with his walking papers. Capuano had been the team’s head coach since November 2010, overseeing the Isles’ trip to the second round of the playoffs last spring, their first playoff series victory since 1993. However, it has been a difficult season in Brooklyn, as salary cap constraints forced the team to make some tough decisions, letting Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, and Matt Martin leave as free agents while trying to replace them with Jason Chimera and Andrew Ladd. That hasn’t worked out so well, as the Islanders have remained at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. It hasn’t helped that the team was carrying three goaltenders for an extended amount of time. General manager Garth Snow said that the team wasn’t looking at bringing Capuano back next year, so assistant coach Doug Weight will be the interim head coach. Snow had a big hand in those personnel decisions, and it ended up costing Capuano his job. Whether or not he’s next remains to be seen.
THE ST. LOUIS BLUES HAVE A SERIOUS GOALTENDING PROBLEM
Last summer, the St. Louis Blues decided to move on from Brian Elliott and anoint Jake Allen the starter, although Elliott had served them well in a platoon over the years and helped the team get to the Western Conference Finals. Allen had long been considered the heir apparent, and the Blues paved the way for him to be the undisputed number one guy going forward when they traded Elliott to the Calgary Flames, especially since Elliott wanted to be an unquestioned starter. So far, that move has backfired dramatically for the Blues. On Thursday night, Allen was pulled after giving up two goals on three shots in the first period against the Washington Capitals on home ice. Head coach Ken Hitchcock put in backup Carter Hutton for a couple of minutes, and then proceeded to put Allen back into the game. Allen then gave up a pair of goals in the second period, prompting Hitchcock to yank Allen again in a game the Blues would lose 7-3. It was the third consecutive game in which Allen has been pulled and the fourth time that has happened in his last six starts.
“I don’t know how far it sets him back. There’s a lot going on right now. A lot in his head. He’s locked up mentally, and he’s going to have to fight through this,” said Hitchcock after the game.
In 34 games, Allen’s save percentage is a terrible .897. Hutton’s is even worse at .892 in 20 games, 12 of which he has started. It’s clear just by watching him that Allen is in a mental funk right now and it has become tough to watch. Hutton hasn’t provided much in the way of relief, and the team has been pressing now that they haven’t been able to rely on their goalies. Throughout Hitchcock’s tenure with the team, St. Louis has consistently been one of the league’s best defensive teams. That has changed this year, and if their goaltending situation doesn’t straighten itself out, they could find themselves in danger of falling out of a playoff spot. They’re currently third in the Central Division, but only have a two point lead on Nashville, who holds the last wild card spot, and three ahead of Los Angeles, who is the first team on the outside looking in.