Tag:St. Louis Blues
Posted on: February 19, 2012 4:38 pm
Edited on: February 19, 2012 8:48 pm
 

Weekend Wrap: No hating on Wings now

The weekend saw Detroit's home streak go from 21 in a row to 23. (Getty Images)

By Brian Stubits

I took a lot of heat for suggesting last week that the Red Wings' home win streak, as impressive as it is, might be deserving of a little side not in the history books thanks to the shootout.

But even I'll concede now you can forget that. I said if the Wings continued to push out the streak it becomes a non-issue and you are just left in too much awe of what Detroit has done. They've done exactly that.

After failing in their last five regular-season games against the San Jose Sharks, the Wings instead finished off a six-game homestand with another win, a hard-fought 3-2 victory at the Joe. For those counting at home, and I'm sure that's most all of you, that's 23 consecutive home wins, three more than the previous record.

It all underscores a bigger point. Sure, the NHL record is great and all, but that's nothing more than a nice stat to go in the history books. Otherwise it means nothing. However it will mean something if the Red Wings earn the Presidents' Trophy, or at least the top seed in the Western Conference.

You look hard to find holes on this team. At one point you might have said it was the backup goaltending, then Jimmy Howard got hurt, Joey MacDonald was called up and he has proven he is capable of replacing Ty Conklin. More than capable, in fact.

Before the season the hole was glaring on the defense. That's why they brought in some players to help in that regard, although none seemed to be all that significant at the time, at least to me. Oops.

While one of those additions, Mike Commodore, has been sparingly used, you can't say the same for Ian White. Despite pretty solid career numbers, I wasn't too crazy about a guy who played on three different teams last season (Calgary, Carolina and San Jose). Apparently that was a silly worry.

He has been as solid a plug into their blueline group as anybody out there. He chews up more than 23 minutes per game, he contributes some offensively and is on pace to smash his career best plus/minus mark (currently he is plus-29). I know, I know, plus/minus doesn't mean much, but you'd rather have a player who is that far above zero than below it, wouldn't you?

Moreover, they have scoring depth. Who'd a thunk that Drew Miller -- no longer just the brother of Sabres goalie Ryan Miller -- would be on his way to 15 or so goals? He is one of the 10 Red Wings players who are in double digits in goals this season. That means there is little reprieve at any point in a game against the Wings.

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Obviously you're a good team when you win 23 in a row at home. Clearly no slouch is going to get that done. But the biggest thing about this home streak for me is that it will contribute to them playing a lot more at home. Ironic, I know. But what really matters will be the home games beyond the guaranteed 41.

Philly's problem

This week the Flyers made not one but two trades to get help on the defensive corps. While the help was definitely needed, not a lot is going to get better if the goaltending duo doesn't improve.

A sight that has become all too familiar this season, Ilya Bryzgalov was yanked mid-game after Matt Cooke scored the all-too rare 3-on-5 goal. Sergei Bobrovsky came in and din't perform any better. Eventually it ended in a 6-4 loss for the Flyers to the intrastate rival Penguins.

But evidenced by the downpour of boos from the Wells Fargo Center faithful, this has been a season-long issue for Philadelphia. Heck, it's been a lot longer than this season, but it was supposed to be resolved when they brought in Bryzgalov.

His save percentage has been floating around .900 all season. Right now it's sitting square on that mark, the lowest of his career. His goals against average is up to 2.79. His only worse season was in 2008-09 when he gave up 2.98 per game with the Coyotes.

Needless to say this isn't what the Flyers invested so much into him for. You have to think that with the success the team has had despite the goaltending woes, if either one of the goalies could get it going and start playing up to an acceptable level at minimum, they could make some serious noise in the playoffs.

You just wonder if that's possible at this point, if it's in either goalie with the current situation, from the defense in front of them to the coaching. It's a conversation that continues to linger around the Flyers.

Just check out what the Flyers had to say, including Bryzgalov after Saturday's loss.

Hockey Day in America

So among all the American players playing on Sunday, who'd a thunk that Paul Gaustad would be the first to score on Sunday's Hockey Day in America?

Assuming you don't count Canadian-born Jason Pominville even though he does play for the American natonal team as a dual-citizen, it was his Sabres teammate that scored the first goal by an American. He barely beat Drew Miller in Detroit for that honor.

It was part of a rare breakout for the Sabres. It's been a big struggle for them this season in Buffalo, but they brought out the scoring sticks and pounded the Penguins 6-2. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't do much for Buffalo who is too far out of the playoff picture, but it was perhaps a nice audition for Gaustad in this month of the trade deadline.

He's not going to be as sought after as a lot of the other players, but some team seeking grit and toughness with a side of skill, Gaustad could fit somewhere. Just go back and watch his work on Evgeni Malkin on Sunday to get a sense of that.

Unlucky break of the weekend

Speaking of Hockey Day in America, one of the other big games of the day was the St. Louis Blues visiting the Chicago Blackhawks. It was also a big matchup in the Central Division as well.

As is the case with every Blues game, it was a low-scoring affair that turned with one bad break. This one going against the Blues.

The game-winning goal for the Blackhawks technically went to Dave Bolland, but if they could, it should have gone to the Blues' David Backes, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The centering pass shot off of Backes and he couldn't stop the puck from going in the net in time. The 'Hawks eventually potted an empty-netter for their third straight win after the nine-game skid.

Vancouver love

This year's NHLPA players poll voted the Vancouver Canucks as the league's most overrated team. Don't think I'd agree at all in calling them overrated. They were one game from winning the Cup last season and as we all know, only one team can win the Cup each season. I mean the Canucks have won the games to put them in the positions they've been in each postseason, it's not like it's a fabrication, they earned those points.

In fact, I'd say that this team doesn't get enough credit, at least in the States. They seem to be in the news a bit, but not often for their play. Yet all they do is win as DJ Khaled so eloquently said. This is the team that could take away from that Red Wings home-ice advantage in the West this postseason.

That's because they extended their points streak to 12 games after beating down the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-2 on Saturday in Vancouver. They are 9-0-3 in that time. They became the second team behind the Wings to reach the 80-point plateau.

Perhaps that overrated label has come from the fact that we expect this now. It might also explain why they are winning so quietly. Or maybe it has been the large amount of overtime and shootout wins, especially lately. But no matter the reason, people should probably pay attention.

Just can't Capitalize

Every time you think the Washington Capitals are going to get it going after a big and impressive win, they fall flat. It happened again this weekend.

They took two points from the division-leading Panthers on Friday night in a dominating effort, outshooting Florida by a wide margin. So how'd they follow that up? By looking like the Caps we've seen for the most of Dale Hunter's tenure ... being outshot and outchanced for the majority of the game and losing a low-scoring affair to the Lightning 2-1.

It seems every step they take forward they take one step back. It's why the Panthers are still sitting in first place in the Southeast with just 65 points. That's the seventh most in the Eastern Conference yet best in the division.

At some point if the Caps are going to make the playoffs they need to start stringing together a couple of these wins in a row instead of missing these chances.

Quote of the weekend

“I haven’t been on a vacation for 15 days,” Boudreau said. ”This is ridiculous. The East has no idea how lucky they are. And I think every team in the West should start with 10 points before the season starts.

“Eight games and 15 days. And I’m sure Pittsburgh goes through it, too. But when you have a four-game road trip in seven days, you’re coming home exhausted. We’re at seven days right now and this is just the halfway point in our trip.

“For a guy that’s played in the East or coach in the East as well, I don’t know how they do it,” he said. ”I really don’t. It’s quite a testament to every team in the West’s character for not griping as much as I’m doing right now about it.

“You don’t even know what hotel room you’re getting into. You forget the hotel rooms and everything during the course of the day on this trip. It’s pretty Wild. But it is what it is. You can’t use it as an excuse and you’ve got to keep going.”

-- Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau on the travelling for his Anaheim team. It was technically said on Thursday, but hey, it's worth pointing out, particularly as the Ducks went from New Jersey on Thursday to Carolina on Friday and Florida on Sunday evening.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: February 17, 2012 1:58 pm
Edited on: February 17, 2012 5:01 pm
 

Weekend Preview: Hockey Weekend in America

Hossa and the 'Hawks are about ready to return home. (Getty Images)

By Brian Stubits

Weekend schedules: Friday | Saturday | Sunday

In case you didn't know -- and chances are you didn't -- this weekend is Hockey Weekend in America. Mostly it's a name attached to a normal weekend of games, but dammit it's Patriotic and I'll be a son of a gun if Old Glory doesn't get me pumped up for anything.

The weekend showcase will be the triple-header early Sunday in what has become the spotlight game of the week now that football is in hibernation until the end of summer. Your choices -- OK, NBC's choices to show you based on where you live -- are Sharks at Red Wings (yes please!), Blues at Blackhawks (I'll take that) and Penguins at Sabres (hey, it looked good at the start of the season). It wraps with a game at 3 ET on NBC Sports Network as the Bruins visit the Wild.

With no slight to that Blues-Blackhawks game back in Chicago (home sweet home, eh 'Hawks?) the Sharks-Wings battle is the one to really watch. For if the Red Wings are still riding their record win streak into Sunday -- a mighty big "if" with the Predators visiting the Joe on Friday night -- then this will be the biggest threat to date.

There aren't many teams that can say this, but the Sharks have had Detroit's number recently. They are one of the few teams who have won in Detroit this season, doing so way back before Halloween. Go back to the beginning of last season and the Sharks are 9-4 vs. the Wings, including the playoffs. That includes five consecutive wins in regular-season matchups.

Must be coach Todd McLellan still knowing a secret or two to beating his old squad.

So while the bout in Motown might be the best from an action standpoint and as far as NHL history is concerned, I argue the more meaningful game is the one in the Windy City.

It was such a massive relief for the Blackhawks to finally end their losing streak that had peaked at nine games. Against the Rangers, no less. That's not like ending the skid against the Blue Jackets -- their final stop on this massive road trip Saturday -- it's the type of win that can really signify that things are alright. Taking down the best team in the league in their barn? Talk about a slumpbuster.

A return to home ice will be nice. Think about how you feel when you walk back in your front door after a vacation. Now think of how great that feeling is when you've had about the worst vacation you can imagine.

Then again, it's not so great when you have a house guest like St. Louis sitting on your porch awaiting for you to let them in. The good news is they aren't the type of guest who trashes your place, they're respectful that way. They are just 10-12-3 away from Scottrade Center.

Extended metaphor aside, there's no better time than now for the Blackhawks to regain their footing. That would put an end to the ridiculously stupid Patrick Kane trade suggestions and allow them to safely put space between them and the playoff chasers in the West.

One thing to consider: Face-off will be at 11:30 local time to accommodate NBC's time slot. That's an awfully early wakeup call after so long away from home.

Southeast showdown Part V

The Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals will square off for the fifth time this season Friday night in Florida. Strangely enough, it's going to be the first time that Tomas Vokoun has started a game back in Sunrise, his former stomping grounds, and the first start against the Capitals period for Jose Theodore this season. It's a bit odd that the No. 1 goalies have only received two of the eight starts in this series so far this season.

It makes sense both starters get the nod on Friday. It's another massive night for these teams. If the Panthers can do what they have done twice already this season and beat the Caps at home, they'll move six points up on Washington in the division. That's a nice cushion when we're getting down to 25 games or fewer left this season. Not insurmountable, but nice.

This is the third time these two have met this month. The last meeting was a 4-0 whitewashing by the Capitals in D.C. Coach Dale Hunter referred to that as a playoff game before it began and the Caps make it look as such. Since? They're 1-3-1. By my count, that'd have them eliminated (from the mythical Feb. playoffs, folks).

The good news is that Mike Green might return for the Caps against the Panthers. He's stopped and started so many times this season you'd think he was driving on the Washington Beltway during morning rush hour.

There will be a lot of interesting things to watch for in the game, but one for me will be the intensity of the Caps. In their last visit to Florida, Karl Alzner explained away their poor start by the lack of energy in the building. A pretty soft excuse in a pivotal division matchup.

They can't afford to start slow again. The Panthers have been doing that a lot lately themselves and coach Kevin Dineen is determined to make that stop in such an important game.

Desert streaking dogs

Holy Coyotes that team is hot right now.

Perhaps it's been a push to help garner interest to keep them in Phoenix, I don't know, but the Coyotes have caught fire. Just when you were ready to bury them in the desert sand, they spring off a run like this. "This" would be six wins in the last seven games to get into the playoff seedings at the moment.

To further their standing in the, um, standings, they get their own pivotal matchup. The Dallas Stars, one of the plethora of teams on their heels outside of the playoff picture at the moment, come to the desert on Saturday night.

It's a classic "four-point game" for the teams battling in the West and Pacific Division. Here's hoping there's a better than normal crowd to watch it, should be close to a playoff atmosphere.

Keystone clash rekindled

The Flyers and Penguins will renew acquaintances again this weekend. It's the start of a stretch with a lot of meetings for the intrastate rivals.

It will be the first of four meetings for the teams from now until April 7, the final day of the season. No wonder the chirping between the fan bases has been mostly quiet this season, they have hardly met.

The importance here should be pretty clear. As of now they are jockeying back and forth -- and with New Jersey -- for that all-important fourth spot in the East, the only home-ice award that goes to a non-division winner. It's very possible that these four tilts, starting with the Saturday matinee, will decide that race.

Plus it's about that time of the season where the Flyers could really stand for Ilya Bryzgalov to heat up and carry some momentum into the postseason. He's back in action now after an illness and this is the type of game where it would be so big if he came up humangous big for the Flyers but unfortunately the kind we've come to expect a few bad goals this season.

Sibling rivalry renewed

Unlike the last time the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings met, this one won't be about the coaches. Very much, at least.

Brothers Brent and Darryl Sutter this time get the undercard billing with another battle of teams at the bottom of the playoff picture out West.

After their own long road trip, you'd think coming home might be enough to jolt that putrid 2.07 goals per game number for the Kings. Well they were shut out by the Coyotes on Thursday night at Staples Center, so you can probably shoot that theory down. Fact is they haven't been able to score much anywhere, no matter if it's at home or not.

The way it stands going into the weekend, L.A. is clinging to the eighth spot out West and Calgary is right behind them. Pretty astonishing I think, but the Flames are still right there.

So you see, this one is about a lot more than a sibling rivalry.

We're going streaking!

Here are the streaks -- both good and bad -- headed into the weekend.

Red Wings: Considering they've been playing a lot at home recently and they have an NHL record win streak going, it's no surprise they've won four straight. Two toughies this weekend with Nashville and San Jose visiting.

Anaheim Ducks: In the midst of an eight-game road trip, the Ducks have run off three in a row. They head to the Southeast now and face the Carolina Hurricanes and Panthers.

Sabres: It keeps getting worse and worse. After seven unanswered goals against on Thursday, they now have a three-game skid. They have the Canadiens on Friday and Penguins on Sunday.

Capitals: Needing to go on a tear late like they have in recent seasons, the Caps are instead sputtering. They do the Florida double-header this weekend entering with a three-game slide.

Wild: Six-game skid ... and likely counting. A back-to-back at the Blues and vs. the Bruins doesn't figure to be the remedy. This weekend could all but officially bury their once promising playoff hopes.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: February 11, 2012 1:42 pm
 

St. Louis and Detroit's home-ice domination

HomeIceWesternConferenceBy: Adam Gretz

Sitting on top of the NHL standings with 76 points, the Detroit Red Wings are in a rather familiar position as one of the top contenders to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Always a dangerous team come playoff time, the Red Wings domination on home ice this season has to make them one of the scariest teams to match up with in the postseason if they can secure the No. 1 seed and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

After Friday's 2-1 shootout win against the Anaheim Ducks, the Wings pushed their home record on the season to 22-2-1, a mark that only one other team in the league can come close to matching -- their central division rivals, the St. Louis Blues, who currently own a 22-3-4 record on home ice.  

As of Saturday afternoon, only five points separate the two teams in the standings while St. Louis still has three games in hand. Seeing as how the two teams are nearly unbeatable on their home rinks but are .500 teams on the road (between them the two teams are 44-5-5 at home, but just 25-26-4 on the road) wrapping up the top spot in the division, as well as what could be the top spot in the conference, has to be a top priority for both clubs.

Given the upcoming schedules, you have to like the Red Wings chances. Detroit is currently riding a 19-game winning streak at Joe Louis Arena, the second longest run in NHL history, trailing only the 20 game runs that the 1975-76 Flyers and 1929-30 Boston Bruins achieved (oddly enough, the Red Wings next home game is on Sunday night against the Flyers).

The incredible thing about Detroit's winning streak at home isn't just the number of wins, it's also that a lot of these games haven't even been that competitive. Of the 19 wins 10 of them have been by a margin of three goals or more, and overall they've outscored their opponents by an 80-27 margin.

They're not just beating teams at home, they're crushing them, and they're in the middle of a stretch that has them playing nine of their next 12 games at home.

The Blues? Eight of their next 12 are on the road.

Unless either team does something to reverse the script that's been written through the first half of this season, this looks like a pretty big opporunity for Detroit to open up quite a lead in the Central Division race.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.
Posted on: February 5, 2012 4:06 pm
Edited on: February 5, 2012 4:16 pm
 

Weekend Wrap: Nothing to Laich in Caps loss

By Brian Stubits

The Washington Capitals lost to the Bruins on Sunday on their home ice, 4-1.

As big of a loss as that is for the Caps, seeing Brooks Laich go down in the game is as big of a concern as anything for Washington right now.

In the second period, Laich was playing the puck behind the Bruins net when Boston defenseman Dennis Seidenberg delivered a check into the boards. It looked innocent enough but there was some contact on the play that pinned Laich's knee against the boards. Moments later he was being helped off the ice and down the tunnel toward the locker room without putting any pressure on his leg.

He came out during a television time out to test the knee but he couldn't go on. He left the arena with a brace on his knee and with the help of crutches.

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"I’m not a doctor, but with these things sometimes there’s some swelling ... But I don’t think it’s anything serious," Laich said after the game. "I'll get some ice on it and see how I feel when I wake up."

"He's day to day right now," Caps coach Dale Hunter said after the game. "We're just going to wait and see."

They better hope so. It's no secret that this season the Caps are in a dog fight just to make the playoffs. With the loss today, they remain out of the playoff seedings in the East at the moment. If they are going to sans Laich for any length of time, that makes things even tougher.

The Capitals already have a weakness up the middle with Nicklas Backstrom still on the sidelines since he was hit in the head by Rene Bourque. They can't afford to lose another center like Laich, who is one of their more consistent players and is a big piece for a team that hasn't been scoring much.

The good news for Washington is that despite the loss, they actually outshot an opponent on Sunday afternoon. They had 36 shots to the Bruins' 30, so there's that. Their pace of shooting has been way too low for well over a month now so that's a step in the right direction.

But they need to keep their fingers crossed Laich will be OK. He's a very underrated player for the Capitals, a solid two-way guy that probably every team in the NHL would like to have on their side.

With a win over the Canadiens on Saturday, normally you'd say a weekend split isn't bad. But depending on how Laich comes out of this, it could be.

Hit of the weekend

Watch Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik send Daniel Paille of the Bruins flying through the air at center ice.

I'm not sure it's 25 feet as the Penguins announcers says. I have a hunch they might have been dabbling in the art of hyperbole, something I do myself from time to time. But that still is probably the greatest hit in the history of hockey hits.

In this day and age you're not used to seeing the Bruins players acting as the ragdolls, they're usually the ones doing the pushing.

Shootout shutdown

The Colorado Avalanche are historically good when it comes to the shootout. They just don't lose in the "skills competition." That was until Saturday.

On the season the Avs were 7-0 in shootouts. Go back to last season and the streak was 10 consecutive shootouts. For an event that is statistically close to a tossup, that's pretty remarkable.

Of course, all good things must come to an end. The Avalanche finally lost a shootout this Saturday to the division rival Vancouver Canucks, failing to score in their three attempts.

Their shootout success has been a big reason why the Avs are as close in the playoff picture as they are. Those are crucial points to be picking up. And while losing the extra point to the Canucks doesn't seem like the biggest thing in the world considering they likely aren't catching the reigning Western Conference champs in the Northwest, it is obviously critical in the hunt for that eighth spot.

What a game

Speaking of shootouts, the only other team this season who had yet to fall in a shootout also suffered the fate on Saturday.

Despite two goals from Todd Bertuzzi (his first was the 300th of his career), the Detroit Red Wings couldn't hold onto their late third-period lead against the Edmonton Oilers.

Of course Sam Gagner played a huge part in the Oilers effort. He scored a point on each of the Oilers' eight goals against the Blackhawks in Edmonton's last game and then he was in on each of the Edmonton's first three goals against Detroit.

While he didn't get in on the game-tying goal in the final minute for the Oilers to snap his streak, Gagner did tally a score in the shootout, helping the Oilers eventually prevail thanks to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' shootout goal in his first game back, giving the Red Wings their first shootout defeat.

It was one of the better games of the season, a very entertaining, back-and-forth game. Minus the shootout, it had everything most every hockey fan likes to see.

Hit of the weekend Part II

I'm not sure this can compete with the Orpik-on-Paille hit, but it's still worth watching. I mean, who doesn't love guys being dumped over the boards?

The Wild and Stars got together for a crucial game for the West playoff picture and at least this hit showed how big it was. Watch Jake Dowell get dumped over the boards and into the camera well by Jed Ortmeyer of the Wild.

I'd say that's as good as time as any for a line change.

Quote of the weekend

“It was a party. It’s always fun. It keeps you in the game. Who knows, though? The next game I might get 15 to 20 shots, and you have to be ready for that, too.” -- Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators goalie on facing 43 shots against the Blues. (from the Tennessean).

Only a goalie could think his team facing 43 shots in one game could be considered a party.

Then again, when you beat a division rival 2-1 and move second place in the ultra-competitive Central, well then it might feel pretty good.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: February 3, 2012 3:14 pm
Edited on: February 3, 2012 3:51 pm
 

Weekend Preview: Winter Classic redux at MSG

Before Thursday, Giroux's last goal was against the Blueshirts in the Classic. (Getty Images)

By Brian Stubits

Weekend Schedules: Friday | Saturday | Sunday

Let's go back just over a month on the NHL schedule, shall we? The Philadelphia Flyers had just finished losing to the New York Rangers in one hell of a finish in the Winter Classic hosted by the City of Brotherly Love.

The first half of the game was pretty dull, no scoring. But the game made up for it with a great second half, including a penalty shot in the final minute.

Among the two goals that the Flyers potted that cold January day was a beauty from Claude Giroux. It was his 18th of the season. It was a great start to the season that led me to pick him as my midseason Hart Trophy winner.

Would you believe that Giroux went the entire rest of the month without a goal? In the remaining 12 games in January, Giroux had nine assists.

You could look at it as a classic case of regressing to the mean. Giroux can score, but in his previous four seasons with the Flyers he never scored more than 25 (the mark he hit last season). Interestingly, he has exactly twice as many assists in his career as goals at this point. So his 18 goals and 29 assists were a bit out of whack. He's still a play-making center.

The only thing I wasn't sure about if it was a regression to the mean or not is if we were going to see a new way of playing for Giroux. There was obviously a lot more pressure put on him to carry the load after the offseason the Flyers had, jettisoning Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.

Well, a Flyer can't change his wings. Or something like that.

Now of course Giroux scored on Thursday night in the Flyers' win over the Nashville Predators and ruined the nice little tie in I was going for here. That being the Flyers visiting Madison Square Garden on Sunday and the Rangers for their first encounter since that day outside in South Philly.

It should be a nice appetizer for the Rangers/New York Giants fans before the Super Bowl.

Little will be all that different from that Jan. 2 meeting either. The teams are still two of the best in the NHL, fighting each other in the Atlantic Division and the Rangers are even expected to be wearing their Winter Classic jerseys. Old-schoolers can rejoice, that would mean the Rangers are wearing white (or at least off-white) at home again. For one day.

Yes, it will be a pretty familiar feel, except for, you know, the game being played indoors on a quality sheet of ice (no disrespect to Dan Craig, the NHL's ice guru). And perhaps a different Giroux from that earlier meeting, but the same Giroux the Flyers have fallen in love with and have come to count on, goals or not.

Central casting

It seems like every weekend there is a massive matchup from the Central Division. I guess that happens when you have four of the eight teams in the league that have reached the 65-point mark.

Between the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators, that's 36 games against one another throughout the season. So if the schedule were completely balanced, it would actually be more than once a week.

So it's not a rare occurrence to see one of the games. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be missed or not enjoyed to the fullest.

That's why we suggest you don't miss out on the Blues' visit to the Predators on Saturday night. It might help if you like defensively sound hockey, though.

This is their fourth meeting this season and if we throw out the Predators' 4-2 win in the second game of the season seeing that it's pre-Hitchcock, each game has played out the same way, a 2-1 shootout win for the Preds. That's not a lot of scoring but it doesn't mean it's not a lot of good hockey.

Don't underestimate the importance of all these games in the Central. They are what people like to call four-point games because of the potential swings they can cause in the standings. Considering the second and third seeds will go to the Pacific and Northwest, the second spot in the Central by season's end will be crucial, it will give that team home-ice advantage against what will surely be another Central foe.

Battle of Ontario resumes

Here Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul thought they got their month's worth of booing last weekend in Ottawa. Nope.

Those two plus the Leafs' third All-Star, Dion Phaneuf and the rest of the guys from Toronto will head for the Quebec border and meet the Senators in the Canadian capital on Saturday night.

This season the stakes have been ramped up in the Battle of Ontario already with the success the teams have enjoyed thus far and their battling at the bottom half of the East's playoff picture. But this one is crucial for the Sens.

This will be their second game back on home ice since Jan. 16 (Friday night they host the Islanders) and for the first time this season, the Sens have lost four straight in regulation. For a team that has played more games than anybody in the NHL, that has made their somewhat comfortable position in the playoff picture much more perilous. Considering the Leafs are one of their competitors for one of the East's eight spots, you can see why this is a massive game for Ottawa.

The captain is back

That would be the Capitals captain, Alex Ovechkin.

On the other side of that provincial border down in Montreal, Ovechkin will play his first game since his three-game suspension before the All-Star break. Because of the time off it feels like Ovi has been out much longer than three games, his last game coming way back on Jan. 22.

"I'm not used to watching the games from upstairs and staying [on the ice] after the morning skates," Ovechkin told Chuck Gormley of CSN Washington. "I'm pretty excited. I miss hockey a lot. It's a situation where you miss the game and you're tired of watching."

The Caps weren't bad in his absence, playing honestly about the same level they were with him, going 1-1-1 in the three games. But there's no doubt he's welcome back in the lineup for his offensive ability on a team that just isn't doing a whole lot when they have the puck these days.

Star showdown

The old North Stars and replacement Stars (see: the Wild) get together for another one of their reunions that's always slightly uncomfortable for the fans back in Minnesota.

But they are clearly much more meaningful this season, more than just some interesting nostalgia coming back up to the fore. This is about the playoffs.

The West has six spots pretty much spoken for already and the Kings are making a good case for the seventh. That means there are a lot of teams fighting for one final spot in the playoff picture, currently held by Minnesota. The Stars are right behind them, three points back with a game in hand. So yea, the games are pretty big.

Of course that includes Saturday night's tilt in Dallas. Both teams could stand to get some wins going again as the Wild are just 4-5-1 in their last 10 while the Stars are 3-6-1 in that same span.

Fight for Florida

Are you noticing a little bit of a rivalry sense this weekend?

While I hesitate to call the Panthers and Lightning rivals, they get the nod based on nothing more than being division and intrastate rivals.

It's hard to quite believe, but this Saturday's game in Tampa Bay will mark the sixth and final meeting between them this season and there are still 30 or so games to go in the season.

Don't let the importance of the game for the Lightning be lost. Their playoff hopes are slim but not non-existent. A chance to take two points from the Southeast-leading Panthers would help them stay within striking distance. It's pretty close to the clichéd must-win game for the Bolts.

We're going streaking!

Here is a look at the streaks, both good and bad, headed into the weekend across the NHL.

San Jose Sharks: Believe it or not, this is the only team in the league right now that has a winning streak (three games in a row or more). And the Sharks barely qualify with three straight. They visit the Coyotes on Saturday night looking for four straight.

Senators: Already covered above, they have lost four in a row in regulation for the first time this season. They have two home games, against the Isles and Leafs.

Blackhawks: Punctuated by that beatdown by Sam Gagner -- I mean the Edmonton Oilers -- the 'Hawks have actually lost four in a row. Their only game of the weekend comes Friday night in Calgary.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Still smarting from that loss that shouldn't have been a regulation loss against the Kings, the Jackets ride their six-game skid into Anaheim to face the Ducks on Friday.

Colorado Avalanche: The up-and-down boys from the Rocky Mountain State are going downhill again. Four consecutive losses follow them into a Saturday matinee with the Canucks.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

Posted on: January 26, 2012 7:45 pm
Edited on: January 26, 2012 7:45 pm
 

NHL playoff race at the All-Star break

NHLPlayoffRaceAllStarBreakBy: Adam Gretz

Back in December I looked at the teams you could probably consider as being out of the playoff race at that point in the season, and how difficult it would be to overcome a slow start, even a quarter of the way through the schedule. Obviously, as you get deeper into the season teams that are on the outside of the playoff picture have an even more difficult time climbing back into it. Those points are tough to make up, and by the time you reach this point in the season you start to get an idea as to which teams are good, and which teams are not.

As we head into the All-Star break this weekend, we're a just passed the halfway point in the season, and in the Eastern Conference there are probably only two teams that currently sit outside of the top-eight that can still be considered to be in the playoff face: Toronto and Winnipeg.

The Maple Leafs are currently in a three-way tie with New Jersey and Florida with 55 points, but lose out on a tiebreaker. The Jets are barely holding on to their slim postseason hopes, trailing both the No. 8 seed, as well as the top spot in the Southeast Division, by five points.

The other teams in the East? See you guys next season.

The Western Conference has a few more teams still in contention as Colorado, Dallas, Calgary and Phoenix are all within three points of the current No. 8 seed, the Minnesota Wild. But even though some of those teams are still within striking distance, the bottom of the playoff picture in the west has a logjob of six teams (Los Angeles, Minnesota, and the four teams mentioned above) fighting for just two spots.

It's not just the fact you have to make up the points, but that you also have to jump over a number of teams, as well.

To get an idea as to how difficult a point deficit of even three or four points is to overcome at this point in the season, I went back over the standings at the past three All-Star breaks (not counting the 2010 season, as there was no All-Star game that year due to the Olympics). Of the 48 teams that held a top-eight spot at that point in the season, 40 of them went on to make the playoffs.

Of the eight teams that worked their way into a playoff spot over the remainder of the season, only two of them overcome a deficit of more than two points -- the 2010-11 Sabres, which overcame a six-point deficit, and the 2008-09 St. Louis Blues, a team that was nine points out at the break. Four teams overcame one point deficits, and two overcome two point deficits.

The race in the east this season has a pretty similar look when compared to last season's, not because of the teams involved, but in the sense that we have a pretty good idea as to which teams are going to represent the conference. Last year the Atlanta Thrashers held the No. 8 spot at the break (yeah, they had a great first half) but were replaced by the Sabres by the end of the season.

The Western Conference is a little bit cleaner this season, as last year's playoff race at the break had every team with the exception of the Edmonton Oilers within at least five points of a playoff spot. The Sharks and Kings, both one point out at the break, ended up making the playoffs, while the Dallas Stars let a six-point lead in the Pacific Division at the break slip away by losing 20 of their final 32 games.

Photo: Getty Images

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.
Posted on: January 24, 2012 11:49 pm
Edited on: January 24, 2012 11:58 pm
 

Should Matt Cooke have been penalized?

By: Adam Gretz

Questionable plays that involve Matt Cooke are going to get more attention than plays that don't involve Matt Cooke because, well, his reputation is what it is, and that's just the way these things work, for better or worse.

That's why this boarding call on Barret Jackman with just a little over a minute to play in the third period of Pittsburgh's 3-2 shootout win in St. Louis on Tuesday night is at least worth another look. Not only because it involved Cooke, but also because it was a big call at a big moment in what was at the time a physical, hard-fought game that was on the verge of going to overtime.

This is the play that earned Cooke a two-minute minor for boarding. The question becomes how much of Jackman's faceplant into the glass the result of a hit from behind, and how much of it was due to any sort of embelishment from the Blues' defenseman or a last second turn? Based on the replay angles it almost appears as if Cooke's initial contact is from the side, and not a hit from behind.

You decide:



Even though he was initially shaken up, Jackman eventually returned to the game.

Because every play gets looked at by the league, this will get another look from the NHL's disciplinary czars, but this seems to be more on Jackman than Cooke, who has continued to be on his best behavior this season. Even with this penalty on Tuesday night, he's still only registered 16 penalty minutes this season. He had over 100 in each of his first three seasons with the Penguins.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter.
Posted on: January 22, 2012 3:04 pm
Edited on: January 22, 2012 3:56 pm
 

Weekend Wrap: Halak, Elliott duo dominating

Halak and Elliott have nine shutouts combined(Getty Images)

By Brian Stubits

When it comes to the awards season, not many people pay much attention to the Jennings Trophy. The goaltender hardware that matters is the Vezina, going to the top individual goaltender. But this year the Jennings race could be almost as compelling and debateable.

In case you need a refresher on one of the lesser-known NHL awards, the Jennings goes to the best goaltending tandem for one team. It's a way to recognize the best backups as well as starters in the league.

Now I'm starting to wonder just which duo is going to take the trophy home. It seems to me to be a two-horse race and will likely remain that way through the rest of the season: The Boston Bruins or St. Louis Blues.

Everybody knows about the Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask pairing in Boston. As great as Thomas is, it's Rask that's having the better season of the two with a 1.69 goals against average and a league-high .943 save percentage. To be honest, they are probably still the favorites.

But don't dismiss Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis. The only thing putting them in second place right now is the slow start to the season for Halak. I think it's safe to say he has rebounded just fine.

On Saturday night Halak grabbed another win when the Blues gave the Sabres their 12th straight road loss, 4-2. For Halak it meant a 14-game unbeaten (in regulation) streak. In that time he's an astonishing 11-0-3 and he has three shutouts now in his last five starts.

Let me put it this way to tell you how good this duo has become: On the season Elliott has five shutouts and Halak has four. That means they have shut out opponents in more than 19 percent of their games this season. Just how Ken Hitchcock likes it.

In all, it's part of the crazy trend that we're seeing under Hitchcock in St. Louis and the success of the Blues. In the month of January they are 8-0-1. At home now the Blues are 21-3-3. And check out this one from NHL.com's Brian Compton: With David Perron in the lineup (so stretching back two years), the Blues are 25-1-2 in their last 28 games. Unbelievable.

The return of Halak, though, is the most interesting aspect to me. The Blues brought him in from Montreal after that spectacular close to the season and playoff push with the Canadiens with the hope that he was going to be their feature goalie. It didn't start out that well. Last season was not good up to any starter's standards for Halak and you were left to wonder if this was another example of a playoff cinderella falling back to normalcy.

It was continuing this season, too. Remember back to the beginning of the year when Elliott was the only one winning in St. Louis. It seemed like the backup was on his way to becoming the starter for the Blues. Elliott is the one who earned an All-Star berth and turned a two-way contract into a three-year extension. Halak was becoming an afterthought.

So much for that theory. Apparently all it took was Hitchcock to come to town and bring a system to help Halak succeed. Usually I subscribe to the theory that if you have two starting goaltenders you really have none. That doesn't work in St. Louis, not this year.

It has all led to another unbelievable fact: the Bruins are no shoe-in for the Jennings this season.

All-time Canuck

Speaking of the Jennings Trophy, one of last season's winners, Roberto Luongo (along with his teammate Cory Schneider) took a rare honor home on Saturday after the Canucks' 4-3 win over the Sharks. With it he passed Kirk MacLean to become the franchise's all-time leader in wins with 212.

More from the weekend
Recaps
Stories

The rare honor? He currently holds that record for two franchises as he is still the all-time leader in wins for the Florida Panthers as well.

Not too shabby for a guy who has been treated awfully harshly over the years in Vancouver, particularly in the last year. It's been tough to keep the perspective on things that, yea, Luongo is a pretty damn good goalie.

Of course, he has been blessed enough to play in front of some good teams that can, for example, help him get a win against one of the best teams in the league despite giving up three goals, as was the case against San Jose.

Luongo won't be in the conversation this season for any of the regular-season awards, Vezina or Jennings. But don't mistake that for a goalie that isn't still one og the better netminders in the game.

Wings keep rollin', rollin', rollin'

Seriously, all due apologies for the Limp Bizkit reference a decade after the fact.

But the point stands: If the Detroit Red Wings are playing at home, they are going to win the game. The snuck past the Columbus Blue Jackets in the shootout on Saturday to extend their franchise-record home-winning streak to 16 games.

Imagine that, the Wings have been plowing through the rest of the league this season but need a shootout to get by the NHL-worst Blue Jackets.

Some people criticize when good teams sneak past bad teams. Me? I often take the other approach: Good teams find ways to win games when they aren't at their best. I'd put the shootout win for the Wings over the Jackets in that category. Still, a win is a win and now Detroit is only a couple of games from the NHL record.

One-sided rivalry

That describes the battle of Alberta at the moment.

Nobody is going to confused the Calgary Flames for juggernauts right now, except maybe their rivals in Edmonton.

The Flames continued their dominance over their provincial neighbors on Saturday with a 6-2 beating of the Oilers. You know it's one-sided in the series when Lee Stempniak is recording hat tricks.

For those keeping track at home, that makes nine consecutive wins in the series for the Flames. Man, that really has to sting the fans in Edmonton. They have to be dying for the team to return to respectability, getting dominated by the Flames isn't a sign you're there.

Quote of the weekend

“It’s hard to get shots when you don’t have everyone playing the right way, I guess. It’s going to take 20 guys. Tonight, I don’t think we had 20. It’s hard to say [how many they did have] right after a game. I’m sure it will be clear on video, but we need more. You need four lines if you want to win games in this league, bottom line.

“We’ve got to find more ways to score goals. There’s maybe some guys gripping the stick, but at the end of the day, guys have got to find the back of the net. It can’t just be one or two guys. That’s what it feels like it’s been, at least lately. We need more goals from lots of people." -- L.A. Kings captain Dustin Brown (from L.A. Kings Insider).

Well I know one of those 20 that didn't help in the Kings' 3-1 loss to the Avalanche on Saturday, backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier.

Lame jokes aside, it's a season-long issue that isn't getting much better under Darryl Sutter. The Kings just can't score and it's a massive testament to Jonathan Quick that the Kings are still in the thick of things in the Pacific Division.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter.

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com