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Around the NHL: Better Data, a Western Threat, and that Wilson/Reaves Thing

By Ryan Black, Sports Talk Philly staff writer 

Last week, I declared that the Buffalo Sabres looked “pretty real” as far as good teams go. In doing so, I did note that they’d get one of their first real tests from back-to-back games against the impressive Toronto Maple Leafs and Nashville Predators. They responded to my kind words and that key test by stretching a two-game skid into a five-game losing streak.

The Sabres looked up to the task in both, coming up just short to Nashville in a 2-1 loss before losing an overtime barnburner against the Leafs, which Auston Matthews won with just seconds left in the extra session on one of the greatest snipes you will ever see, period.

But after four straight one-goal losses, the Sabres looked ragged and disoriented Saturday against the Flyers, who slapped them 6-2. I apologize to the Sabres for cursing them, and we’ll try to lift that spell (and place it on another upcoming Flyers opponent) with this week’s Around the NHL.

“Scoring is up” seemingly confirmed: The NHL has now hosted more than a third of all the games that will be played this season, so there’s finally a substantial data set to check back on all of the “scoring is way up” columns that popped up in October. And, as it turns out, scoring is still trending higher than it has in any season from the last two decades, other than one. Teams are averaging 3.08 goals per game, the same amount they did during the power-play crazy 2005-06 season, when the league emphasized its crackdown on obstruction. A far higher percentage of scoring this season has come at even strength, however.

A glance through this week’s scores illustrates the trend. An individual team scored five or more goals in a game at least 25 times in just seven days, with a ton of blowouts (the Flyers weren’t even the only team to lose 7-1 this weekend) and some track meets, like the Calgary Flames’ 9-6 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“At 8-6, I think we still have a really good chance,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella joked after that game. “They score the ninth one and take the wind out of our sails.”

Flames on high: Speaking of those Flames, they’re our team to maybe curse this week. They’ve spent the last four seasons alternating between making the playoffs and missing them, following a five-year absence from the dance. Like the Sabres, though, they’re starting to look like a team that’s in the process of stepping firmly back into league relevance. After a 5-2 Saturday night victory over the injury-riddled Nashville Predators, they assumed sole possession of first place in the Western Conference.

A lot is going right in Calgary right now. They have four forwards averaging over a point per game: Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan, and Johnny Gaudreau, who is the oldest of the bunch at just 25 years old. Veteran defenseman Mark Giordano, 35, is flirting with a point per game pace in what looks to be a career year--though he’ll be suspended for two games after an ugly knee-on-knee hit that took out the Minnesota Wild’s Mikko Koivu. He’ll be eligible to return when the team faces the Flyers on Wednesday.

A big part of Calgary’s success has been goaltending in recent weeks. Veteran netminder Mike Smith came over last season, but a rough start this year opened the door for surprising newcomer David Rittich to see some starts. Though Smith still plays more games and seems to be rounding back into form, Rittich has impressed with an 8-2-1 record and .919 save percentage.

The Wilson/Reaves thing: If you’re enough of a hockey person to have made it this far, you probably know what happened in last week’s Stanley Cup Final rematch between the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights. Capitals super villain Tom Wilson mixed it up a few times with Knights battleship Ryan Reaves, culminating in Reaves blindsiding Wilson, causing his helmet to pop off and his unprotected head to smack into the ice. Timeless hockey violence.

The aftermath has been a blur of strange optics. Wilson’s critics flocked to internet comment sections and forums to celebrate the vengeance. Wilson, often a purveyor of brain damage, is out for the foreseeable future with a concussion. Reaves first agreed to autograph pictures of the occasion, with Wilson lying on the ice injured, for a local memorabilia vendor, before realizing that was in terrible taste and reversing course.

No supplemental discipline was assigned to Reaves for the hit (he was given a five minute major during the game) because, despite being late, it contained no head contact. But the NHL then deferred on even considering punishment for a number of actual headshots this week, ranging from Jori Lehtera’s rather obvious elbow on Oliver Bjorkstrand to Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s shot to the chin on Kyle Clifford, which kept the Los Angeles Kings forward from traveling with the team to their next game. The NHL’s policies towards illegal hits appear to be, still, quite the work in progress.

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