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Three Periods: Year of the Backup Goalie; Pens' mighty defense; Fowler takes flight for Ducks

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Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include the amazing start to Martin Jones’ NHL career; the Penguins’ defensive improvement; Cam Fowler’s maturation; mea culpa on Wilson-Schenn hit; and notes on the Ducks, Senators, Rangers.

FIRST PERIOD: Martin Jones shines brightest in Year of Backup Goalie

Martin Jones went undrafted. He had never played in the NHL before. Now here he was on Dec. 3 after three-plus seasons in the minors, starting in goal for the Los Angeles Kings against the Anaheim Ducks – crosstown rivals and fellow Western Conference contenders.

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Martin Jones is the latest in a long line of NHL goalies to emerge from obscurity this season. (Getty)

The 23-year-old stopped 26 of 28 shots through three periods and overtime, then came to the bench as the crew cleared the ice for the shootout. He took off his mask.

“You think you might see a little bit of … not so much panic, but a little bit of worry in his eyes,” said Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford. “And he was just on the bench smiling, very laid-back and casual.”

Jones faced nine Ducks in the shootout and stoned them all. The Kings won, 3-2. And that was just the beginning.

Since coming up because of an injury to Jonathan Quick, Jones has gone 6-0-0 with a 0.82 goals-against average, .972 save percentage and three shutouts, an incredible start even in the Season of the Backup and Third-String Goaltender.

All over the NHL, whether according to plan or because of injury, teams have won without their starters or even their backups in net. Jones is third on the depth chart in L.A. behind Quick and Ben Scrivens, who is 7-3-4 with a 1.66 GAA, .941 SP and three shutouts. The Ducks have their own rookie who won his first six decisions earlier this season, Frederik Andersen, who is 8-1-0 with a 1.74 GAA and .938 SP.

Look at how many backups and third-stringers have excellent records and/or statistics. The list includes NHL veterans (Peter Budaj, Brian Elliott, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Jonas Gustavsson) and goaltenders with little NHL experience (Phillip Grubauer, Chad Johnson, Eddie Lack, Curtis McElhinney, Marek Mazanec, Justin Peters, Antti Raanta, Alex Stalock, Cam Talbot, Jeff Zatkoff).

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On a case-by-case basis, these are small sample sizes and don’t necessarily portend goalie controversies, let alone herald future Hall of Famers. Teams also tend to buckle down defensively when a starter is out. But in the big picture, this speaks to the depth of talent at the position and the fierce competition for playing time. There lots of goaltenders and only 30 No. 1 jobs in the NHL.

There is a reason Jones has not been in awe. He did not come out of nowhere. He grew up skating at Rogers Arena, home of the Vancouver Canucks, because his father, Harvey, spent 15 years as the vice-president and general manger of arena operations there. He played with Marc Crawford’s son growing up, and Crawford coached the Kings from 2006-08. Crawford told Ranford about him.

Though Jones went undrafted, that was largely because he backed up an older goaltender his first two seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen. Ranford said the Kings jumped at the chance to invite him to training camp. They loved his professionalism and signed him in 2008. He started the next two years in junior and represented Canada at the World Junior Championship, then spent three seasons with the American Hockey League’s Manchester Monarchs, putting up solid numbers. In 13 AHL games this season, he had a 2.24 GAA, .927 SP and one shutout.

“Until he got called up, he was dominating,” Ranford said.

Since he got called up, he has dominated. Jones is 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, with an athletic, butterfly style and a calm, quiet demeanor. After the shootout victory over the Ducks, he posted back-to-back shutouts over the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens, including a 31-save performance at the Bell Centre. That game ended in a 6-0 rout, but it started with Jones making saves on the penalty kill. Then came 38 saves at Toronto, 37 at Ottawa and 24 against Edmonton.

Yes, the Kings are the top defensive team in the NHL (1.89 goals against per game) and make their goalies look good as much as vice-versa. Yes, it’s only six games. No one is getting carried away. No one expects him to keep this up. But it’s not a fluke that a guy like Jones can win in the NHL.

“He’s become a very, very good AHL goalie,” Ranford said. “Now with what he’s done at the NHL level – it’s very early on in his NHL career – he’s hoping for bigger and better things to come.”

SECOND PERIOD: Martin helps Penguins buckle down defensively

In 2011-12, the Pittsburgh Penguins allowed 2.66 goals per game, 17th in the NHL. Last season, they allowed 2.48 goals per game, 12th in the league. This season, they’re allowing 2.17 goals per game, fourth in the league.

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Pens assistant coach Jacques Martin (back right) has been key to the team's defensive turnaround. (USA Today)

They have been good defensively despite a plague of injuries and suspensions that has especially affected their blue line. Rob Scuderi has missed 25 games, Paul Martin 13, Kris Letang 12, Brooks Orpik five.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been so good that teammate Craig Adams called him the Penguins’ best player, even though the Pens have, you know, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Fleury has a .924 save percentage, well above his career average of .910. Zatkoff has been good, too, and the poise of 19-year-old rookie defenseman Olli Maatta, a 2012 first-round pick, has helped.

But a lot of it has to do with a commitment to team defense. They addressed their weaknesses after they were upset by the Philadelphia Flyers in a wide-open first-round series in 2012 and survived a scare from the New York Islanders in the first round last season.

Not only did they hire a new goalie coach, Mike Bales, they ended up hiring a veteran assistant coach in the process, Jacques Martin. While asking Martin about a candidate for the goalie coach job, general manager Ray Shero asked Martin if he was interested in joining the coaching staff himself.

Shero had once worked with Martin in Ottawa, when he was an assistant GM and Martin was the head coach. The Penguins also had lost to the Canadiens in the second round in 2010, when Martin was the Habs’ head coach and won with stifling defense and great goaltending. After multiple conversations and a meeting with coach Dan Bylsma, Martin felt it was a fit.

“I think they’ve got a great coaching staff here,” Martin said. “People do a great job. They work extremely hard, and they’ve been successful. Maybe the one area maybe we’ve added is experience.”

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Martin has helped the Penguins make some changes and refine what they were doing already. “He’s bringing a lot of things,” Letang said. “He wants to make sure we play the right way, that we play under control, managing the puck the right way.”

The Penguins emphasize keeping a third man high in the offensive zone to prevent odd-man rushes. They now play a left-wing lock in the neutral zone. In the defensive end, they are more cognizant of covering the point in shooting lanes so they can block shots, and they collapse more often in front of the net. In 2011-12, they ranked 22nd in blocked shots. Last season, they ranked 10th. This season, they rank fourth.

Bylsma doesn’t care much about shots against. Though the Penguins rank fourth in shots against (27.0 per game) after ranking 16th last season (29.2), they ranked fourth in 2011-12 (27.4), too. What matters to Bylsma is scoring chances against. The Pens track them internally – the number, the quality, the type. They won’t share the information, but they say the numbers are down significantly.

“I think last year we made some good steps in trying to buckle down defensively,” Crosby said, “and I think this year it has carried on through.”

THIRD PERIOD: Once a major minus, Fowler is blossoming into a plus player

Say what you want about the plus-minus statistic. These numbers leap out at you: minus-25, minus-28. They look like black marks on the bio of Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler, and they bother him.

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Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler has been successful playing against opponents' top lines this season. (Getty)

But those came in Fowler’s first two seasons in the NHL – 2010-11 and 2011-12 – when he was only 18 turning 19 and 19 turning 20. It is supposed to take time to develop on the blue line at the NHL level, even if you were drafted in the first round, 12th overall.

Fowler was minus-4 last season, playing the lockout-shortened schedule as a 21-year-old, and coach Bruce Boudreau started trusting him to defend top players in the playoffs. That boosted his confidence.

Now Fowler is plus-4 playing against top players regularly with partner Ben Lovejoy, and he still just turned 22.

“He’s become a better defenseman,” Boudreau said. “He could always rush the puck. He could always skate. Now he’s defending. He plays against the other team’s top line every night, and doing a great job at it.”

Fowler had 10 goals and 40 points in 76 games as a rookie. He has nine goals and 59 points in 155 games since. That’s OK. He is taking pride in preventing points as well as producing points, and he’s more aware and engaged every second he’s on the ice.

He said he was guilty of “taking a few seconds here or there off” in his first couple of years. He could get away with that at lower levels, but not in the NHL. “You’re going to get burned,” he said. He doesn’t want any more minuses.

“It’s tough,” Fowler said. “I wish it wasn’t that way, but that’s something that I need to learn from. … This year I feel I’ve made a big jump, and the responsibility I’ve been given by my coaches to go against the other teams’ top line is I think a testament to that and proves that I’m on my way to being a more complete player.”

OVERTIME: Mea culpa on the Wilson-Schenn hit

OK. I admit it. I was wrong.

After the Washington Capitals’ Tom Wilson skated down the ice and smoked the Philadelphia Flyers’ Brayden Schenn on Tuesday night, George McPhee called it a “great hit,” Adam Oates called it “clean” and Alex Ovechkin said it wasn’t dirty.

I wondered on Twitter about the wisdom of a GM, coach and captain patting a 19-year-old kid on the back for a bad hit – a hit that earned a five-minute major, game misconduct and hearing with the department of player safety. I said mixed messages were part of the problem with player safety. (I wrote the same thing in the original version of this column.)

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To me, it was clear. By rule, charging is defined as “the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner.” Even when I saw NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan’s explanatory video, I still thought it deserved a suspension at first. No matter what his intent, Wilson traveled a long distance and violently checked his opponent. It was reckless, sort of the same way it is reckless when a player intends to check an opponent through the body and ends up picking the head.

But this is why these videos are important. After watching it again and again, I can see the reasoning: I didn’t think it was boarding because Schenn turned at the last moment. Well, it’s not charging because the situation changed at the last moment. Wilson entered the zone on the forecheck while his teammate had the puck. He even coasted. He didn’t decide to check Schenn until late, and even though he was already at high speed, he took only a stride or two. It wasn’t reckless, the same way it isn’t reckless if a player intends to check an opponent through the body and picks the head because the head changed position at the last second.

Hard hits are still legal.

This was a tough one. I’m sure there were disagreements within the DPS, as there often are. There is a reason this got all the way to a phone hearing. But this is why Shanahan and the DPS have a tough job, and this is why we must be careful jumping to conclusions after an incident – or even a while afterward.

SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL

— The next Ducks defenseman to watch: Hampus Lindholm. He was the sixth overall pick of the 2012 draft, and he’s 19, about to turn 20 on Jan. 20. Again, say what you want about the plus-minus statistic, but in contrast to Fowler’s early struggles, Lindholm is plus-19. He also has two goals and 11 points in 34 games. “When you watch him out there, he looks like he’s been in the league for a long time,” Fowler said. “He’s so poised with the puck and he skates so well.”

— Inside and outside the Ottawa organization, NHL people have been saying the Senators miss Daniel Alfredsson, who left as a free agent in the summer after 17 seasons as captain. The perception was reinforced Wednesday night when GM Bryan Murray and coach Paul MacLean addressed the team after a 5-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils – and especially when MacLean told reporters afterward: “There’s a lack of focus, there’s a lack of leadership, there’s a lack of preparation, just a lack of wanting to play in the National Hockey League and be a team that is willing to do what it takes to be elite.”

— The Hockeytown Winter Festival is ambitious – days of outdoor events at Comerica Park leading up to the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium. The Detroit Red Wings have sold at least 20,000 tickets for each day of college, junior, minor-league and alumni games, but they have not sold out anything yet, including the alumni showdown. They were hoping to get a bump when Steve Yzerman committed to the roster, but they are still at about 30,000. The Winter Classic is sold out and will draw more than 100,000.

— The New York Rangers are struggling under coach Alain Vigneault, and already some are suggesting they miss former coach John Tortorella, who is on a roll with the Canucks. But consider this: the Rangers have 34 points through 35 games with a new coach, a new style, a horrendous early schedule, a lot of injuries and a bad start by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. They had 37 points through 35 games last season. Torts’ time had run out in New York, and he has better personnel in Vancouver. Vigneault needs a fair shot.

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