Wednesday, October 3, 2018

When opening week games go horribly wrong

On​ Tuesday, we had​ some​ fun​ with​ the​ idea of​ overreacting to​ the season’s first​ week. It’s a silly​ thing​ that hockey fans​​ tend to do, and we usually end up looking back in a few months and wondering what all the fuss was about.

But every now and then the hockey gods like to smack us on the nose with an opening-week game that’s so lopsided, we wonder if they’re trying to tell us something. It’s one thing to lose a game or two. It’s another thing entirely to see your team get blown out of the water. That’s when it’s time to worry.

Or is it? I fired up the hockey-reference play index to see how many teams had been blown out by five goals or more in one of their first three games of the season during the cap era. It turns out to be rare, but not overly so, happening about twice a year on average. And as it turns out, some of the teams on the wrong end of those lopsided scores turned out just fine.

So today, let’s provide a dose of optimism for any teams that happen to get embarrassed this week. If they’re lucky, they’ll end up having a season like one of these seven teams.

The team: The 2017-18 Winnipeg Jets

The game: With hopes high that this would be the year the Jets finally returned to the postseason and maybe even win the first playoff game in their v2 history, Winnipeg hosted the Maple Leafs for their season opener. It was Steve Mason’s first game as a Jet, not to mention an early test against a fellow Canadian team hoping to contend in the near future.

It didn’t go well. The Leafs jumped out to a 3-0 lead, widened the gap to 6-0 at one point, and went on to a 7-2 win.

The aftermath: Patrik Laine described the game as “just embarrassing” and one columnist remarked that the Jets would “need to go back to the video machine for another look at that defensive game they thought they had patched up in training camp”. (For their part, Maple Leaf fans reacted with their typical mix of humility and good grace.)

The Jets looked almost as bad in their second game, a 6-3 road loss to the Flames in which they gave up 45 shots, as well as five unanswered goals after the first period. But they wouldn’t lose two straight in regulation again until December, recording 114 points and making the conference final.

In a sense, the first two games probably helped, since they weakened Mason’s hold on the starter’s duties and paved the way for Connor Hellebuyck’s emergence as a Vezina candidate. And besides, as bad as their start was, the Jets weren’t even the biggest loser of that season’s opening week …

The team: The 2017-18 Pittsburgh Penguins

The game: After opening their season with an overtime loss at home, the Penguins headed to Chicago for a battle between two teams that had combined to win six of the last nine Cups. We all figured it was going to be a classic. It was not.

Instead, in a game that still stands as one of the strangest of the season, the Blackhawks shelled the Penguins 10-1. It was one of the most lopsided games of the modern era, and the Penguins’ most embarrassing loss since the dark days of their pre-lockout bankruptcy era.

The aftermath: When asked what went wrong, Sidney Crosby responded with: “Do we have enough time? It’s embarrassing.” Kris Letang described it as, “no effort, no emotion.” Coach Mike Sullivan called the outcome “disturbing.”

Then, the Penguins went out in their next game and shutout the eventual Presidents’ Trophy winners Nashville, 4-0.

That didn’t quite cleanse the memory of the Hawks wipeout, but it set the Penguins back on track. They ultimately failed to win a third straight Cup, but did finish with 100 points and win a playoff round and everyone largely forgot about the Chicago debacle.

(Well, maybe not everyone. That night’s starting goalie was the newly acquired Antti Niemi. It would be one of only three appearances he’d make as a Penguin before being waived with a 7.49 GAA and a .797 save percentage.)

>> Read the full post at The Athletic