Spotlight on the Opponent: John Tortorella

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What: Vancouver at Detroit
When: Monday, February 3, 7:30pm (TV: FSD)

Hockey players and coaches are typically known for their humility, their “aww, shucks” demeanor and for being approachable.

Reasons for this are varied, though the one I’ve often clung to is that so many of them hail from tiny towns in North America and even Europe. Their upbringings have mostly been unassuming and not filled with money and largess—for the most part.

Then there’s Vancouver Canucks coach John Tortorella.

“Torts,” as they call him, is no wallflower. In a sport where the coaches are known for changing expressions as often as we change the oil in our car, Tortorella doesn’t leave anyone guessing as to what his emotions are at any given moment.

Tortorella mixes it up with officials, the media and even other coaches.

So it was no surprise, really, that Torts was the NHL coach who blew his top a couple weeks ago and ended up getting suspended (without pay) for 15 days.

The incident occurred after the Calgary Flames and coach Bob Hartley put out a fourth line of players of ill repute to start their game against the Canucks on January 18.

You know what happened. Mere seconds after the puck was dropped, all 10 skaters on the ice squared off in a line brawl.

Torts didn’t like it.

He took his displeasure out on Hartley verbally, jawing at the Flames coach over the glass partition separating the two benches.

But Tortorella didn’t stop there. Hence the suspension.

After the first period, Tortorella tried to bull his way into the Flames locker room. It’s unclear what he intended to do, once he got in there.

It didn’t matter, as Torts was forcibly shoved away from the locker room door, though Flames goalie coach Clint Malarchuk, who nearly lost his life as a player when his jugular vein was cut by a skate, did emerge, annoyed at Tortorella’s antics. But Malarchuk didn’t come near Tortorella as the Canucks coach was driven back. Security cameras stationed in the hallway captured the action.

For the ill-advised attempt at locker room invasion, the league suspended Tortorella for 15 days.

That suspension ended just in time for the Canucks’ visit to Detroit tonight. Torts will be behind the Vancouver bench.

To hear him tell it, Tortorella has learned his lesson.

“It hasn’t been a great two weeks,” Tortorella said Monday morning on ESPN.com. “It’s been very embarrassing for my family, myself and more importantly everybody else around me that I’m supposed to represent.”

But that isn’t to say that Torts is suddenly going to become the second coming of steel-jawed, expression-less Scotty Bowman behind the bench, either. But he does acknowledge a need to channel his passion better.

Can he do it? Leopards don’t change their spots, as they say. But maybe they can be less…mean.

“I let a lot of people down,” Tortorella said. “I have to make amends here by getting back at this. I’m going to be who I am. I just can’t go off the rails as I did.

“Off the rails? I was off the country.”

If you’re going to the game tonight at the Joe, don’t expect to see a muted version of Tortorella. That’s not who he is, nor is it what he will ever be.

Only time will tell if the incident against the Flames will have any long-term effect on how Torts conducts himself and whether he is able to harness that passion.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Max Pacioretty

Max Pacioretty

What: Montreal at Detroit
When: Friday, January 24, 7:30pm (TV: RDS; TSN; NLHN-US; FSD)

The Montreal Canadiens’ leading goal scorer is a Connecticut Yankee in Coach Therrien’s Court.

RW Max Pacioretty, 25, has 21 goals to lead Les Habitants, though he has only nine assists to go with those goals. It’s an unusual combo for Pacioretty, whose young career shows 89 goals and 94 assists thus far.

Pacioretty was born in New Canaan, CT and was Montreal’s 1st round pick (22nd overall) in the 2007 Entry Draft.

The goal scoring took a while, but for the Canadiens, it’s been worth the wait.

In his first 86 NHL games, Pacioretty scored just six goals. In 201 games since, he’s fired 83 goals into enemy nets.

There’s more to Pacioretty than just a sniper’s touch. He’s also a survivor.

In 2011, Pacioretty suffered a broken neck, but recovered and his determination resulted in Pacioretty winning the Bill Masterton Trophy following the 2011-12 season, which is given to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to the sport of hockey.

Pacioretty is also a member of Team USA for the upcoming Olympics in Sochi.

He has local ties, too—playing one season for Red Berenson at the University of Michigan, racking up 39 points in 37 games in 2007-08.

In December, Pacioretty was the subject of trade talk, as word spread that the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers were interested in acquiring him and his $4.5 million/year salary, which is guaranteed thru 2019. Canadiens fans were opposed to the idea, overwhelmingly.

The only black mark on Pacioretty is that in last year’s playoffs, as the Canadiens were being stunningly KO’d by Ottawa in the first round in five games, Pacioretty went scoreless in four contests—big, fat goose eggs in both the goals and assists columns.

The Canadiens currently hold a playoff spot, so Pacioretty might get a chance to end his mini, four-game post-season scoreless streak this spring.

Pacioretty wears no. 67 for the Canadiens.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Alex Steen

Alex Steen

What: St. Louis at Detroit
When: Monday, January 20, 7:30pm (TV: FSD)

You know you’re off to a good start when you can miss 11 games due to a concussion and still be, far and away, your team’s leading goal scorer when you return.

The Blues’ Alex Steen didn’t come out of nowhere this season, but his jackrabbit start wasn’t exactly expected.

Steen already has tied his career high with 24 goals—all accumulated in the season’s first 35 games before he was shelved due to the concussion, which was brought on by a series of hits as opposed to one bone cruncher.

Steen, 29, returned on Saturday, and he will be in the Blues’ lineup tonight in Detroit.

The St. Louis crowd gave Steen a standing ovation on Saturday, as well they should. Never before has Steen in his nine-year NHL career pumped pucks into the net with the frequency that he has this season.

The fast start earned Steen a contract extension, signed earlier this season.

Steen will play for his native Sweden in the Winter Olympics next month in Sochi.

Steen’s goal scoring exploits are baffling, but in a good way, if you’re a Blues fan.

Only twice before has Steen scored 20+ goals—in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. Before and after those two years, Steen has been more of a 15-goal kind of guy.

In last year’s lockout-shortened season, Steen had eight goals in 40 games, much more his speed.

But this year?

Someone who knows him well has some insight.

Steen’s dad is Thomas Steen, who showed up in goalie’s nightmares when he played in the NHL for the Winnipeg Jets in the 1980s. The elder Steen notched 264 goals in his 14-year NHL career.

“(Alex) looks happy and not much is bothering him,” Thomas told CBC Sports in late-November. “He plays for a great team that is working together.

“I think every year a player gets a little better, a little more comfortable. But he feels good, his spirit is good.”

The Blues acquired Alex Steen in November, 2008, from Toronto, along with D Carlo Colaiacovo, for Lee Stempniak, who now plays for Calgary.

Steen wears no. 20 for the Blues.

 

 

Spotlight on the Opponent: Rick Nash

Rick Nash

What: Detroit at NY Rangers
When: Thursday, January 16, 7:00pm (TV: FSD)

Perhaps there isn’t a more enigmatic player in the National Hockey League than the Rangers’ big LW, Rick Nash.

If Nash always played as big as his size,  he’d own Manhattan.

Instead, the former Columbus Blue Jacket has been marginally impressive since the Rangers acquired him in a blockbuster trade in July, 2012.

Last season, Nash was excellent—42 points (21 g, 21 a) in 44 games. But in the playoffs, when the Rangers needed him the most, Nash pretty much disappeared (1 g, 4 a in 12 games).

This season Nash has battled some injuries and has played in only 31 games. But in those 31 games, Nash has just 20 points (11 g, 9 a).

Since that poor playoff and subsequent slow start this season, there have been whispers that while Nash was a big fish—literally and figuratively—in a small pond while playing in Columbus, maybe the frozen pond of New York is too big for him.

Those whispers grew louder and louder this season, until they became a low din. The Madison Square Garden faithful started to make Nash the target of their ire.

But a funny thing happened on the way to purgatory.

The Canadian Olympic roster was announced on January 6, and the Ontario native Nash made the cut. Since then, his play has picked up.

Nash scored the game-winning goal last Friday against Dallas with less than two minutes to play. He was on his back when he made the play.

As the Rangers pressed in front of Dallas goaltender Kari Lehtonen, Chris Kreider shot the puck off him. The rebound fell to Nash, who knocked it in with 1 minute 58 seconds remaining.

“I think it was 50 percent luck — well, probably 70 percent luck and 30 percent skill,” Nash said of the winning goal, his 10th of the season and his third in three games. “I was just following the puck. It went a little bit higher than anticipated, but luckily it went in.”

“(Nash) is playing great,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said after the Dallas game, which came on the heels of the Rangers’ upset win in Chicago.

If Nash can continue his rejuvenation, it will greatly help the Blue Shirts, who are on the fringes of playoff contention. With the season past the halfway mark, every point from here on out is precious.

And, if New York makes the tournament, a certain left winger will be looking to make amends for last year’s awful post-season. And that can’t be good for opposing goalies.

In 749 career NHL games, Nash has 321 goals. So it’s not like he forgot how to score overnight.

Nash wears no. 61 for the Rangers.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Matt Carkner

What: NY Islanders at Detroit
When: Monday, December 23, 7:30pm (TV: FSD+)

Matt Carkner

If there’s anything Matt Carkner is familiar with, it’s an NHL penalty box.

Carkner, 33, is a defenseman for the New York Islanders by trade, but his hobbies include fighting and being whistled off the ice.

For his 212-game NHL career, Carkner has accumulated 484 penalty minutes, well over two per game.

Carkner is a late bloomer of sorts. He had a couple cups of coffee with San Jose and Ottawa, but didn’t make it full-time in the league until the 2009-10 season, at age 29.

Carkner was drafted way back in 1999, at age 18, by the Montreal Canadiens as the 58th overall pick of the NHL Entry Draft, but he never signed with the Habs. His first pro contract was signed in 2001, with the Sharks. Carkner made his NHL debut by playing in one game for San Jose in the 2005-06 season.

If you Google or YouTube Carkner, you’ll find lots of fight videos, mainly because Carkner fights a lot. His is sort of a dying breed—the pure enforcer whose mere presence on the ice could lead to a scrap.

This season, Carkner has played in 28 games, has all of three points, but has been whistled for 77 minutes in penalties. Typical Carkner “production.”

Carkner has been more of a career minor leaguer than an NHLer (he’s played in 527 minor league games, almost three times as many as in the NHL), but part of that has been due to injury. Carkner has battled through two serious knee injuries and a significant wrist injury along the way. The Islanders are his fourth NHL organization—five if you count the Canadiens.

Carkner wears no. 7 for the Isles.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Phil Kessel

What: Detroit at Toronto
When: Saturday, December 21, 7:30pm (TV: CBC; NHLN-US; FSD)

Phil Kessel

If you’re going to trade a 36-goal scorer, you’d better be sure you’re getting something in return.

On September 10, 2009, the Boston Bruins traded RW Phil Kessel to the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was a calculated risk.

Kessel had just completed his third season as a Bruin and was, at age 21, on the cusp of greatness. Kessel scored 11, then 19, then 36 goals in his first three seasons after being drafted 5th overall by the Bruins in the 2006 Entry Draft, a product of hockey-rich University of Minnesota.

The Bruins took that risk, dealing Kessel and a 1st round draft choice for Toronto’s 1st and 2nd round choices in the 2010 Entry Draft. The Bruins used those picks to draft Tyler Seguin and Jared Knight, respectively. Seguin turned into a bright young star, but he has since been traded by Boston to Dallas, a deal that occurred over the summer.

Kessel, meanwhile, hasn’t stopped scoring for the Maple Leafs.

Kessel has popped in 136 goals since the trade, with a high of 37 occurring in 2011-12. He is lethal on the power play, and has added 24 game-winning goals since becoming a Leaf.

Kessel is known for his hard, heavy shot and his playmaking, especially for a winger. Kessel had 45 assists in that 2011-12 season.

Kessel’s streak of four straight 30-goal seasons only came to an end because last year was truncated by the lockout. Still, Kessel was able to fire 20 pucks into enemy nets in 48 games, which projects to over 30 goals in a normal, 82-game season.

This season, Kessel has 17 goals and 15 assists in 37 games—another 30-goal season looks to be on the horizon.

Kessel wears no. 81 for the Maple Leafs.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Sean Monahan

What: Calgary at Detroit
When: Thursday, December 19, 7:30pm (TV: FSD)

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Just two days ago, the Winged Wheeler put the opponent spotlight on 43 year-old Teemu Selanne.

Today, it’s someone who could easily be Selanne’s son—in terms of age, that is.

Sean Monahan is 19 years old but he isn’t playing like it. There’s a veteran’s goal-scoring touch emerging already.

Monahan has 10 goals in 27 games this season for the Calgary Flames, who made the center their first round draft pick (6th overall) in the 2013 entry draft.

The 10 goals is good enough to tie Monahan for the Flames’ team lead, along with fellow center Mike Cammalleri. Monahan has six assists, and his 16 points are tied with D Kris Russell for second place on the team, behind points leader Jiri Hudler (remember him?), who has 9 goals and 21 assists.

So how is this Brampton, ON native getting it done so far?

Well, first, Monahan is probably thankful for remaining in the Flames lineup, given what happened to him the other night in Boston.

Monahan was checked from behind and boarded by the Bruins’ Brad Marchand, a hit that did not result in a suspension, which irritates the Flames.

“(Marchand)’s a dirty player,” Flames LW Curtis Glencross told WEEI.com after the game.

Monahan has already suffered a hairline fracture to his foot, an injury in late-November that caused him to miss a few games.

Monahan was listed as the #5 prospect in North America, according to many scouting think tanks. He was drafted from the OHL, where he played for the Ottawa 67s.

Ever confident, Monahan declared that he was ready to play in the NHL right away, which he proved after making the team in training camp.

Monahan didn’t waste any time getting started on his NHL career, tallying an assist on opening night against Washington, then scoring his first NHL goal one night later against Columbus.

With the exception of the foot injury, Monahan hasn’t really stopped scoring, though his six assists are a little low for a top three center at this point in the season.

Monahan wears no. 23 for the Flames.