1. Praise for Stone
Mark Stone has been getting some well-deserved love this week. It started with a ridiculously-dominant performance against the Red Wings. Then Ian Mendes wrote an article talking about how Stone deserves Calder buzz. Then last night Stone was phenomenal against the Lightning, scoring his 20th of the season and assisting on Patrick Wiercioch's game-winner.
Stone is a special player. He's on pace to lead the league in takeaways this year, the first time in the 10 seasons the stat has been recorded that a rookie will do it. The last time he went two games in a row without a point was February 25th and 26th. Three games in a row without a point? December 19th to 27th. In 2015, he has 40 points in 41 games, an 80-point pace. It's important in all this to remember he's just 22.
It's very tempting to play What If. What if Stone had been getting real linemates since the beginning of the year? What if he'd been getting significant minutes for the whole year? In the end, the Calder Trophy would be nice for Stone, but it's not the end. He looks to be a fantastic player for years, and that's what matters a whole lot more for Sens fans.
2. Praise for Lazar
Ian Mendes wrote an article yesterday about how Curtis Lazar has looked more confident lately. I've definitely seen some of the same. When he scored three goals in four games, they were all on wrist shots from the slot, not net-crashing goals. For me, that was positive. He'd been part of the most exciting line on the team with Erik Condra and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, but Lazar had looked like the third wheel on that line. Not bad, just not the driving force. Those goals showed that he was starting to come into his own.
Last night, probably fueled in part by Mendes' article, I watched Lazar a lot more closely. He definitely looked more poised that I was used to. He used his speed to go around guys. He tried to carry the puck rather than passing or dumping it in. I noticed one shift in particular in the third when he was deep in the defensive zone, playing the breakout role the centres often play. Lazar came into the season with high expectations, and I'd felt like he'd been kept up mostly because the Sens needed to sell the future. I didn't doubt his future, I just wasn't sure this was the year to keep him up.
These last couple weeks i think have given us a better idea of what's to come in Lazar's future. He's defensively responsible, but he can also bring the offense. With Stone, Lazar, and Pageau all starting to play prominent roles, the team's future is looking brighter and brighter.
3. Lineup decisions
Dave Cameron has really been under fire lately. There seem to be two camps: those who think he's panicking as a rookie coach facing adversity under pressure for the first time, and those who say he's earned some slack with the great play he's led the team to recently.
My first instinct is to complain about Cameron. For all he's done well with this team, he's lucked into a lot of things. For every Chris Phillips scratching, he's had injuries to Chris Neil and suspensions of Jared Cowen helping him out. The Sens' recent run has been rather luck-fueled. There's no amount of coaching that can lead a goalie to post save percentages over .930 for 12 games in a row. Paul MacLean was making such terrible decisions by the end of his tenure that basically anyone would look better in comparison.
In continuation with that, his moves in recent games reeked of desperation. Dropping the inexperienced Mike Hoffman off the top line to spark him seemed like a panic move. Putting Zack Smith, a guy pretty fresh off injury with no goals in his last 24 games (1 assist in that span) with Mika Zibanejad and Bobby Ryan seems like a poor idea. There was a point in last night's game where Ryan was on with Smith and David Legwand. I don't care what mishmashed line was on right before that, that's a terrible use of Ryan.
On the other hand though, Cameron has done lots of good with this roster. He's given Stone the chance to thrive. He put Hoffman with Zibanejad and Ryan in the first place. He was smart enough to continue scratching Cowen after the suspension, giving Wiercioch the chance to play. The Sens haven't been allowing 35+ shots per game. Their possession stats have crept up to above 50%. I'm sure any bad reaction I had to Cameron's decisions was amplified by the losing streak in which the Sens were mired.
So I'm kind of on the fence about this. I don't agree with the moves, but no coach will do exactly what I want him to do all the time. In the midst of a losing streak, I'm sure in part I was just looking for a scapegoat.
Dustin Byfuglien got four games for this hit, shown below just in case you somehow happened to miss it.
As some have pointed out, this was consistent with what the NHL normally does. At this point, the games are pretty much playoff games, and J.T. Miller wasn't injured on the play. The suspension allows Big Buff to return for their last game of the season against the Flames, which may have big playoff implications.
To me, that seems very wrong. It was the most predatory hit I can think of since this one:
Shawn Thornton got 15 games for that one. Of course, Brooks Orpik was injured on the "play" and missed a couple games. The game was before Christmas. The Bruins were strongly in playoff place. Thornton was hardly crucial to the Bruins the way Byfuglien is to the Jets.
To me, that's all wrong. Byfuglien could've broken the guy's neck. The play was not part of any form of hockey I can think of. Byfuglien's been fined three times. I think he should've got 15, no matter where his team is in the season, to show that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable in hockey. Both the Jets and Byfuglien dodged a bullet here. Hopefully for their sake, he smartens up and doesn't toe the line for a good long time.
5. Hammond's month
It's been mentioned earlier this week by B_T, but I think it deserves mention again: Andrew Hammond has had a strong month. He was the NHL's first star of the month. On top of that, local media named him Ottawa's nominee for the Masterton Award. He's unlikely to win, but a 27-year-old going on a surprising run, tying a 77-year-old record, and lifting his team back into the playoff picture is extremely impressive. I'm not sure how this story ends, because Hammond is most definitely not a .940 goalie in the NHL. Does he settle as a starter somewhere for a couple years? A decade of being a backup? Can he be the next Tim Thomas-esque story? One thing is for certain though: he has guaranteed himself an NHL contract somewhere next season. That's probably the best news for him at this point.
And if he flops next year, he's still got a lifetime supply of McDonald's out of his play this year.