Inside the NHL

For all the late saves made by Kraken goalie Philipp Grubauer in Sunday’s victory over the Washington Capitals, his biggest of the night came in the first period.

The Kraken had gotten off to an energetic start. But as has happened too often, the home side made a mistake — with defenseman Jeremy Lauzon turning the puck over — and it wound up in the net on Washington’s first shot.

Unlike previous games, the Kraken didn’t let up. They kept going at the Capitals determined to make amends. But another turnover, by Morgan Geekie, in Washington’s end led to a breakaway down the left side by Connor McMichael, and you could sense an all-too-familiar script playing out.

Let McMichael score, and the game was over. How did we know? The Kraken are 0-11-0 when falling behind by two goals, and this practice of opposing teams capitalizing on every mistake is not one most NHL clubs can mentally overcome.

But unlike previous efforts, when he had appeared out of position or simply muffed unscreened shots, Grubauer cut down the angle and made the kick save needed.

From there, the Kraken, afforded new life by the goaltending they are supposed to have, kept coming. They quickly tied the score, were rewarded with a pair of goals just seconds apart in the second period and never looked back. 

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Welcome, folks, to the version of the Kraken advertised for months and that finally appeared in the 18th game. The lazy narrative that it’s OK for the Kraken to play like an early 1990s expansion team because nobody expected a repeat of the Vegas Golden Knights going to the Stanley Cup Final four years ago can finally be retired, as we’ve seen what they should be.

Nobody expects the Kraken to play for a championship this season. But nobody that built this team, including an ownership that paid $650 million for favorable expansion rules enabling it to compete early, expected four wins the first 17 games.

And had the Kraken more often played as they did Sunday, they’d be winning roughly as many games as they lose and fighting for a playoff spot. We saw Sunday what a “relentless” team truly looks like.

Epitomizing the effort was Brandon Tanev, who led a short-handed charge up the ice in the game’s waning minutes with the Capitals on the power play trying to overcome a two-goal deficit. Tanev minutes earlier had limped to the bench after being struck by a shot, but now, rather than merely dumping the puck down the ice was carrying it full speed ahead in what became a dangerous Kraken counterattack.

Again, that’s what relentless looks like. Never affording your opponent a chance to relax. It was fitting that Yanni Gourde clinched the Kraken victory with an empty-net goal, because he and Tanev have long exemplified the relentless approach often missing from the larger group.

So, the goal scoring and prevention could stand to repeat what we saw against the Capitals.

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Look, nobody expects Grubauer to stop every shot, even those deflecting off his glove the way a third-period goal by Alex Ovechkin did Sunday. Ovechkin is climbing the NHL’s all-time leaderboard for a reason. Afford him any opportunity from decent range, and he’ll score even with Terry Sawchuk, Patrick Roy and Andrei Vasilevskiy tending goal simultaneously. 

Grubauer and backup goalie Chris Driedger are expected to stop more pucks than they have, even on turnovers, point-blank one-timers and partial screens. Otherwise, the Kraken could have saved the $9 million spent on both this season and offered $2 million to two replacement-level netminders that stop only the shots they’re supposed to while letting everything else in.

The rest of the Kraken need to help their goalies by not forcing them to be perfect. They don’t boast a lineup of Ovechkins that score from anywhere, meaning they must keep skating for 60 minutes to generate quality chances.

And just as Grubauer picked them up when they allowed a McMichael counter off aggressive play in the offensive zone, the Kraken need to pick their netminder up after allowing a goal by scoring some of their own. Moreover, they need to score when a game is still winnable.

You can toss around the team’s NHL-average 2.8 goals scored per game from the first 17 contests, like Kraken players do with those celebratory stuffed mackerel after a rare home win, and claim it’s enough offense. But the meaning of that nightly average is debatable when inflated by three goals the final 10 minutes facing a 7-0 deficit vs. Colorado, or two in the final six minutes when down 3-0 against Chicago, or two the last 11 minutes trailing 3-0 and 4-1 to Minnesota.

Nightly averages won’t show how the Kraken four times fell behind by two in a loss to Anaheim before countering on each occasion with a goal but getting no closer. Again, considering the Kraken have lost every game in which they’ve trailed by two, it’s fair to question whether those four goals scored against the Ducks merely padded the nightly average with no serious chance of actually winning.

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To recap: All 11 goals by the Kraken in four consecutive losses to open the homestand came when trailing by two or more and with their ability to win severely compromised. But sure, they averaged nearly three goals per game.

Not scoring enough when games are still winnable explains the Kraken being 0-9-0 when trailing after the first period. A team often scoring two goals or fewer per night — as the Kraken have in nine games already — is going to lose, well, pretty much every time.

As the Kraken have in going 0-8-1 in those contests.

So, no, the Kraken haven’t yet been good enough at either putting pucks into nets or keeping them out.

They were good enough Sunday when playing a full 60-minute, unrelenting game. Is that high-energy style sustainable over 64 remaining matchups? Probably not. But keep it up over two-thirds of those, and the Kraken could get close to winning as many as they lose this season and give fans the competitive team that was touted.

We now know what that competitive Kraken team is supposed to look like. And though it isn’t necessarily a Stanley Cup finalist, it sure isn’t a 4-12-1 cellar dweller, either.