We all know things can change rapidly in hockey and in the EURO League, but suddenly everyone is asking, “Who can stop the Greeks?” Athens, which came close to its first EURO Cup Finals series last season, is the fastest out of the gates this season with 8 wins in 8 games. They will put the unblemished record on the line this weekend with back-to-back games against Bern and Edinburgh. Only Belfast – which has all but wrapped up the league’s Most Improved Team Award (too bad there’s not such a trophy) – is within 5 points of the Greeks so far.
Both of those teams have benefited from super hero goaltending. Chances are, the rate at which Athens’ Cam Ward and Belfast’s Cory Schneider have been stopping pucks will change and the win-loss records will suffer. But both have yielded just 8 goals in 7 games. That’s good for a 1.13 goals against average and save percentages of 96.4 for Ward and 95.4 for Schneider. Their coaches are wise men because their backups have only gotten into one game so far. Nicklas Backstrom gave Ward a rest and kept up the amazing pace with a 1-goal game, stopping 24 of 25 shots. Poor Devan Dubnyk of Belfast looks like a novice compared to the other three goalies. When he got his chance to start instead of Schneider, he gave up 4 goals and Belfast lost its only game, a 5-3 defeat at the hands of Gothenburg.
It doesn’t take a lot of mind bending to believe that Ward and Schneider are the main reasons Athens and Belfast are ranked 1 and 2 in penalty killing thus far as well.
On offense, Belfast’s whirlwind forward corps is helping them score at a fast rate. The Giants are tied with Paris atop the league with 4.25 goals per game. Right behind them is Athens at 4.13. The two teams are also among the top 5 in the league in shots on goal, along with Paris and two surprises to this point: Minsk and Edinburgh.
Belfast is the fourth stingiest in the league in allowing shots on Schneider (25.88 per game) and Athens is in the middle of the pack at 30.75 shots allowed per game.
Here are a few statistics of note on the two teams.
- When David Backes gets rolling, they’ll really be good. Ryan O’Reilly’s 13 points in 8 games have been a major reason the Greeks are unbeaten. He has picked up the slack for the top center on the team, Backes, who is having trouble scoring goals. He has just one in 37 shots for a 2.7 shooting percentage. When Backes’ slump ends, Athens will be healthier.
- At about that time, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien should cool down. Big Buff has scored 5 goals in 14 shots for an unsustainable 35.7 shooting percentage.
- Ian White is Ward’s new best friend. The defenseman has blocked an average of 2 shots per game this season.
- The forwards are pretty balanced and all contributing to the cause. Sidney Crosby leads the team in shots on goal and is near the top of most offensive and defensive stats lists. But Matt Moulson, a second-line left wing, is in the running for the star of the first 8 games honor. The $9 million free agent prize is tied for the team lead in goals with 6 and is shooting at a torrid 30 percent pace. Currently, he is listed on the Giants’ third line with Matt Duchene and Vladimir Tarasenko. Wait, did I just write “third” line? (Squeegee sound as hands rub eyes). Yes, that’s what it says.
- On paper, Matt Hunwick looks like the weak link on the team. But on ice, he hasn’t hurt them. Teamed with veteran Dan Boyle on the third defense pairing, Hunwick is plus 4 and Boyle is plus 5. That puts them ahead of the second tandem of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Victor Hedman at this point. And while Hunwick doesn’t contribute to the offense and doesn’t hit much at all, he is second among the team’s blueliners in takeaways with 7 in 8 games.
- Matt Duchene leads the team in shorthanded goals with 1 and in faceoff percentage at 58.4 percent.
- Belfast has won three of their last four games by the score of 6-1.