Goalies in North Division challenged by nightly offensive barrage

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The division, compromised of the seven NHL teams based in Canada, has the top three NHL scorers: Edmonton Oilers centers Connor McDavid (28 points; nine goals, 19 assists) and Leon Draisaitl (26 points; eight goals, 18 assists) and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner (21 points; six goals, 15 assists).

It also has eight of the top 10 goal-scorers in the NHL, including Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews, who is the leader with 11, and Vancouver Canucks forward Brock Boeser, who is second with 10.

Video: VAN@TOR: Matthews dazzles with goal in 1st

There’s also Quinn Hughes of the Cancucks, who leads NHL defensemen with 17 points (one goal, 16 assists).

Twelve of the top 27 players in the NHL in points play in the North, as well as six of the top nine in shots on goal. Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk leads the NHL with 62 shots on goal, and McDavid is second with 61.

At the same time, four goalies among the top 25 in save percentage (minimum three games) play in the North. Jake Allen, in his first season with the Montreal Canadiens, is fifth with a .933 save percentage in six games; Jacob Markstrom, in his first season with the Calgary Flames, is 14th with a .921 save percentage in 11 games; Jets starter Connor Hellebuyck, who won the Vezina Trophy last season, is 15th with a .920 save percentage in 10 games and his teammate, Laurent Brossoit, is 18th with a .918 save percentage in three games.

Given the amount of high-end scoring talent North Division goalies are facing, maybe they should be allowed to add a few points to their save percentage to level the field.

“I’m not sure how you come up with the right type of formula to do that, but I don’t mind that idea at all,” said Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, who leads the NHL with nine wins in 12 games but is 27th with a .908 save percentage.

There are statistical measurements to weigh the quality of shots and scoring chances goalies face within each division and adjust those numbers for better comparisons, but goalies aren’t worried about such calculations.

They are more concerned with countering the collection of high-end scoring talent combined with a seemingly more wide-open style of play in the North.

“We’ve faced the Oilers a few times now and the games are a little bit more like the old-school days,” Andersen said. “You find a way to win 4-3 and that’s a good game and you’re happy with the win. It’s not like the heavy Western Conference that used to be all low-scoring games.”

There have been nine games this season when one team has scored at least seven goals and North teams have done it four times; no other division has more than two. The Maple Leafs lead the NHL with an average of 3.71 goals per game, the Canadiens are fourth (3.57) and the Oilers eighth (3.44).

Of the 18 shutouts in the NHL this season, three have been recorded by North Division goalies, two by Markstrom and one by Mike Smith of the Oilers.

Braden Holtby signed with the Canucks as a free agent on Oct. 9, 2020, after playing his first 10 NHL seasons with the Washington Capitals. In eight games he is 3-5-0 with an .885 save percentage, the lowest in his NHL career.

“There’s a ton of talent in this division, so it’s a lot of fun to challenge yourself against that,” he said.

Things may get tighter when teams find their defensive identities and implement plans to negate the talented players in the division, but there is no way to completely counteract such skill.

The task becomes even more difficult when killing penalties. Four of the seven North Division teams are among the top 15 in the NHL in power-play percentage, led by the Maple Leafs, who are fourth at 34.9 percent.

Canadiens goalie Carey Price provided an inkling of what it has been like for goalies in the North when he was asked about playing against Matthews after a 4-2 loss to the Maple Leafs on Wednesday.

Video: Maple Leafs cruise past Canadiens, 4-2

“We have to take his time and space away if we can,” Price said. “His game speaks for itself. He’s a powerhouse guy and he’s got an amazing shot, so it’s kind of the same story for every superstar in the League … it’s fun to watch him play out there when I’m not on the ice with him.”

The Canadiens play at the Maple Leafs on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CBC, SN, CITY, TVAS, NHL.TV).

Unfortunately for goalies, the intradivision schedule means they usually are on the ice against an offensive force each game.

There have been suggestions that the familiarity of playing an opponent up to 10 times this season will allow goalies to refine their scouting books.

That may be true for some, but Hellebuyck looks at it another way.

The Jets have a collection of high-end offensive talent, headlined by center Mark Scheifele and forwards Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers. Practice against those players is the best preparation for facing other scorers, says Hellebuyck, who reads and reacts to each situation instead of relying on a book.

“It’s more about catching a good feeling and maintaining it,” he said. “You don’t want to falter your confidence at all, especially in this shortened season and short window to get it back, so I’m going to keep my confidence high winning games, doing whatever it takes.

“It might be a bunch of high-scoring games, but wins are going to be the most important part of this season.”
 

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