Posted on: March 4, 2012 10:42 am
Edited on: March 4, 2012 2:03 pm
 

Pregame Skate: More big ones in Southeast, West

Florida hasn't had much if any luck with Ottawa of late. (Getty Images)

By Brian Stubits

The Pregame Skate is back. Every morning for the rest of the season we're going to take a look at the games that have the greatest significance in the push for the postseason for you to digest while you drink your java. We'll throw in some miscellany for the fun of it.

Playoff Race

6 ET, Ottawa at Florida

A pretty amazing thing has happened in the Southeast (that is until you remember it's the Southeast we're talking about here) and that is that it has become a four-team race. Through it all, the Panthers have held onto the lead atop the division but that's not really by their own doing.

Coming off a 3-1 loss to the Predators at home on Saturday, they make a quick turnaround and face the Ottawa Senators in Florida this evening. The problem? Florida can't beat Ottawa. The Sens have taken nine consecutive games in the series and five straight at BankAtlantic Center. That's not exactly inspiring when the Tampa Bay Lightning are suddenly breathing down their necks.

The odds still favor the Panthers to make the postseason with a greater than 70 percent chance at this point. Not quite as comforting as the 90 percent odds earlier this week. Realistically, though, the odds are sure starting to feel a lot lower than that.

It's about time they started to win on home ice if they want to return to the playoffs. In the last six home games they have played, they are a very disappointing 1-4-1, including a 6-2 shellacking by these same Senators. That's not going to cut it.

At this point, with the way the Sabres have come charging back to life as well, they might need to consider it Southeast Division or bust. And with it being a four-team race, it would be a good idea for them to start picking up points again.

7 ET, Philadelphia at Washington (NBC Sports Network)

One of those four teams in that Southeast Division race, the Washington Capitals, need some points just as bad if not worse than the Panthers do right now. That's because their target is as much the eighth seed as it is the Southeast lead. In that race they are still one point behind Winnipeg (with two fewer games played) but are just one point up on the Lightning and Sabres.

My, how interesting the East has become. It seemed just a few days ago like it was a nine-team race.

Just when things were starting to feel a little better in the nation's capital after three straight wins, the New Jersey Devils came into town and smacked them down to the tune of a 5-0 beating. They need to be able to rebound from that in a hurry with the Flyers coming to Verizon Center for the Sunday nightcap.

That shouldn't be an easy task. Philadelphia has been one of the league's best teams away from home this season. They are 20-11-2 away from Wells Fargo Center. Somewhat ironically, that's the same exact record as the Devils away from home. That would seem to be a bit ominous for the Caps in holding home ice today.

6 ET, Dallas at Calgary

Turning our eyes back to the race that has been this crazy all along, the West has another pivotal matchup when looking at that playoff push where it seems just about every team is in the hunt.

Somewhat lost across the league of late has been the play of the Stars, who have not only stormed into playoff position but can actually overtake the San Jose Sharks today in the West. Granted, games in hand and all of that, but it still speaks to how far Dallas has come in recent weeks (and how much San Jose has fallen).

The Flames meanwhile are one of those chasers of Dallas. That's why this is such a critical game. It's like any old division battle where it's described as a four-point game. Well, Dallas has the potential to build a somewhat formidable six-point advantage by the end of the night on Calgary or have it cut down to just two points on the Flames (never mind the Kings and Avalanche part of the equation).

What's interesting is that this is the first of three games between these two in the month of March. They will have a home-and-home near the end of the month as well. There is still plenty of chances for each of these teams to take their destiny into their own hands.

Others worth watching

12:30 ET, Boston at Rangers (NBC): Keep in mind, we highlight the games with meaningful impacts on the playoff race, not necessarily the best games of the day. If you want the latter, here you go, a classic matchup among two of the East's best. This comes as highly recommended viewing.

4 ET, Chicago at Detroit (NHL Network): See the above statement on the Rangers and Bruins and here you go. The Blackhawks have been able to regain a little footing and are slightly clear of the pack at the bottom of the West again but not many go into Detroit and pick up points.

7 ET, Colorado at Minnesota: Not to neglect the Avs here (and Wild to a small extent) as they are still in the playoff hunt here too. If they can get a win and the Flames keep the Stars pointless, Colorado will be just one point back. Minnesota comes in seven points back with three teams in between.

Your promised miscellany

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

Posted on: March 3, 2012 11:59 pm
Edited on: March 4, 2012 12:06 am
 

Winners & Losers: Maple Leafs win Carlyle's debut



By: Adam Gretz

There's always a winner and a loser in the NHL, and this is a new nightly look at some of the winners and losers in the biggest games and biggest situations across the league.

Winners

Toronto Maple Leafs: It's too soon to start planning the parade in Toronto, but the Randy Carlyle era at least got off to a good start thanks to a 3-1 win in Montreal, and it was a pretty solid performance by the Leafs as well. And a much needed one.

Toronto won for just the second time in its past 12 games, and did so by nearly doubling the Canadiens on the shot chart (42-22) and receiving a pair of goals from Mikhail Grabovski, both of which came in the third period, including the eventual game-winner at the 11:45 mark.

The Leafs still have a ton of work to do in the playoff race now that the Lightning and Sabres have worked their way into it, but it's a good start, even if it's just for one night.

[Related: Maple Leafs 3, Canadiens 1 -- Leafs hire Carlyle]

Nashville Predators: Saturday night was a big night for all of Nashville's trade deadline pickups during their 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers.

Andrei Kostitsyn scored his first goal as a member of the Predators and added an assist, Paul Gaustad had an assist and won 68 percent of his draws, and Hal Gill played 18 minutes, blocked a pair of shots and was credited with an assist of his own.

Pekka Rinne was also pretty sensational for Nashville between the pipes stopping 39 of the 40 shots he faced and winning his league leading 36th game of the season.

The win gives Nashville 83 points on the season and has the Predators in a pretty comfortable playoff position, currently fifth in the Western Conference..

[Related: Predators 3, Panthers 1]

Tampa Bay Lightning: I'm starting to believe this can really happen for the Lightning. Making the playoffs, that is.

They're a great home team and the schedule the rest of the way is heavy on the home side, and Steven Stamkos looks unstoppable right now with two more goals, including the game-winner, in a 4-3 overtime win on Saturday night.

[Related: Lightning 4, Hurricanes 3 -- Stamkos does it again]

Losers

Boston Bruins: Bad day all around for the Bruins. Not only did they lose in regulation to the New York Islanders, 3-2, but they also lost goaltender Tuukka Rask to an undisclosed injury that appeared to be to his left leg, preventing him from putting any weight on it as he left the ice.

The Bruins still haven't won consecutive games since the middle of January, and you have to go all the way back to late December to find the last time they were able to string together a stretch of at least three straight wins.

They look … human.

[Related: Islanders 3, Bruins 2 -- Rask injured]

Phoenix Coyotes: The Phoenix Coyotes were pretty much unable to lose in February, going 11-0-1 for the month to take over first place in the Pacific Division, and now they appear unable to win in March.

On Saturday night they dropped the second straight game, this time losing at home, 5-2, to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The worst team in hockey. That is a bad, bad loss for Phoenix, and one the Coyotes might look back on at the end of the season if they lose the division (or, worse, miss the playoffs) by one or two points.

[Related: Blue Jackets 5, Coyotes 2]

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter and like us on Facebook
Posted on: March 3, 2012 10:20 pm
Edited on: March 3, 2012 10:28 pm
 

Stamkos does it again for Lightning

LightningBy: Adam Gretz

The Southeast Division has officially gone from completely unpredictable to absolutely unbelieable, and is suddenly a four team free-for-all as we head into the stretch run of the regular season. The only team that appears to be out of it is the Hurricanes.

With their 4-3 overtime win in Carolina on Saturday night, combined with the Panthers 3-1 loss to Nashville, the Tampa Bay Lightning are now just two points out of a playoff spot, and only four points behind Florida for the top spot in the Division and what would be a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference. This is a team that was thought to be finished just two weeks ago, and had traded a number of players prior to the trade deadline, according Pavel Kubina, Steve Downie and Dominic Moore.

The Lightning have now won four in a row and seven of their past nine, and their schedule the rest of the way seems to work in their favor with 10 of their final 17 games at home -- including one stretch with seven in a row -- where they have a 20-9-2 record for the year.

They still have a game in hand on the Jets, the team they're chasing for the No. 8 spot, and they still have four games remaining with Winnipeg and Washington.

Steven Stamkos is doing most of the damage for the Lightning, and he added two more goals on Saturday night, including the game-winning goal in overtime as he continues his incredible goal-scoring pace, giving him 47 on the season.



You know, maybe 60 goals isn't out of the question for him this season.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter and like us on Facebook.
Posted on: March 3, 2012 9:08 pm
Edited on: March 3, 2012 9:14 pm
 

Video: Don Cherry sounds off on Brian Burke

By: Adam Gretz

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been the talk of the NHL on Saturday thanks to their decision to replace head coach Ron Wilson with Randy Carlyle.

During the first intermission of The Leafs game against Montreal, Hockey Night In Canada analyst Don Cherry used his Coach's Corner segment to put general manager Brian Burke in the crosshairs and let loose on the type of rant that has become synonymous with Cherry over the past couple of decades. 



Among the things Cherry sounded off on were Burke's apparent attempt to go behind his back and get him fired (according to Cherry), and the fact the Maple Leafs don't have enough players on their roster from Ontario (at the present time, they have zero). He then read off a list of teams that have multiple players from Ontario, including recent Stanley Cup winners, and ripped Burke for having too many American players and players that have come through the NCAA.

No matter what your opinion of Cherry is, this is probably the exact argument that you would expect to hear from him.

This all sounds pretty similar to when there was a controversy in Montreal from a small, vocal minority earlier this season because the Canadiens didn't have a french-speaking coach or enough french-speaking players. Basically, according to Don Cherry math, good teams that have a lot of Ontario players are good because they have a lot of players from Ontario.

Nevermind the fact that they simply have good players, regardless of where they come from. Wouldn't you want to take your chances with a team of great European players or great American players against a team of bad players from Ontario? Of course you would. A general managers job is put to the best possible team on the ice that he can -- not assemble a team made of players from the local city, state or province.

At the end of the day, Maple Leafs fans have been waiting since 1967 for a Championship, and they've been watching one of the longest current playoff droughts in the NHL. I have to imagine they truly don't care about the birthplace or hometown of their players making up the roster just as long as they win games.

(By the way, if you get through all of Cherry's rant he does also focus on the story of Ryan Wood, which is perhaps the saddest hockey story you'll ever see.)

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter and like us on Facebook.
Posted on: March 3, 2012 2:44 pm
Edited on: March 3, 2012 4:27 pm
 

Tuukka Rask leaves game with injury

RaskBy: Adam Gretz

The Boston Bruins use Tuukka Rask more than most teams use their backup goaltender, and that's because Rask is probably good enough to be a starter on a large number of teams across the league, and along with Tim Thomas he helps to form what is arguably the best 1-2 goalie duo in the NHL.

Rask had to leave Saturday's game against the New York Islanders, a 3-2 Bruins loss, early in the second period with appeared to be a left leg injury after he attempted to make a save on a shot from Matt Martin. Rask had to be helped off the ice and did not put any weight on his left leg as he made his way to the locker room.



Following Saturday's game Boston coach Claude Julien said Rask will not accompany the team on its upcoming road trip.

In 21 starts this season Rask has posted an 11-8-3 record to go with a .929 save percentage and three shutouts. He's been Thomas' backup for each of the past three seasons and has seen significant playing time during that stretch, putting up number that have rivaled those of Thomas.

It's not a good time for the Bruins to lose him as their schedule starts to pick up down the stretch, including numerous back-to-back situations where Rask would be expected to get some starts. If he misses any extended period of time it's going to certainly add to Thomas' workload.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter and like us on Facebook.
Posted on: March 3, 2012 12:24 pm
Edited on: March 3, 2012 12:32 pm
 

Burke made decision after fans chants



By: Adam Gretz


During a recent loss to the Florida Panthers, fans at the Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, voiced their frustration by chanting "Fire Wilson," their way of demanding the team replace head coach Ron Wilson.

It's not the first time fans -- for any team, in any sport -- have taken part in a such a chant, but it's not often you hear a general manager admit that it played any kind of a role in the decision to dismiss the coach, as Brian Burke did on Friday evening.

During Saturday's press conference to introduce Toronto's new head coach, Randy Carlyle, Burke admitted that his decision to make the move came, in part, after the fans chants last week.

“After the last home game it occurred to me it would be cruel and unusual to let Ron coach another game in the Air Canada Centre,” said Burke. "I don't fault the fans. If you buy a ticket and you want to boo, you can boo. Fans show their emotions in many ways. But the deadliest thing is when a fan votes [with] their feet and they don't come."

It's not hard to think back to the old Marv Levy quote about how, "the minute you start listening to fans, you'll be sitting next to them." Perhaps Carlyle better hope the fans don't quickly turn on him if things don't get turned around instantly.

The Leafs enter Saturday's game in Montreal in 12th place in the Eastern Conference with 65 points, five points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the final playoff spot. They've also lost 10 of their past 11 games.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter and like us on Facebook.
Posted on: March 3, 2012 10:25 am
 

Pregame Skate: Randy Carlyle's Toronto debut

Carlyle

By: Adam Gretz

The Pregame Skate is back. Every morning for the rest of the season we're going to take a look at the games that have the greatest significance in the push for the postseason for you to digest while you drink your java. We'll throw in some miscellany for the fun of it.

Playoff Race

CanadiensMaple Leafs7 ET, Toronto at Montreal: Well, it is still technically a game in the playoff race, at least for Toronto, even though their chances appear to be hanging on be the tiniest of threads. And if the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, long-time bitter rivals, have anything in common this season it's that they both seem to be a complete, dysfunctional mess at the present time. Their meeting on Saturday night in Montreal will be the debut for new Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle after he was announced as the new bench boss on Friday evening, replacing Ron Wilson.

Is it a needed move to give the Maple Leafs a boost to get back into serious playoff contention? Or is it simply too little, too late for this season, and rearranging deck chairs on what looks to be a sinking ship?

Toronto has lost 10 of 11 entering Saturday's game, and suddenly finds itself behind Tampa Bay and Buffalo in the standings. The Maple Leafs haven't made the playoffs since the NHL came out of the lockout in 2005-06, and the only other team that can make that claim is the Florida Panthers, and their drought looks like it has a pretty good chance to come to an end this year.

CanucksSabres10 ET, Buffalo at Vancouver: Thanks to wins in five of their past six games, and a 10-3-3 mark in their past 16 games, the Buffalo Sabres are another team that's found a way to work their way back into the playoff picture, and a lot of that, at least recently, is due to the play of goaltender Ryan Miller.

The veteran netminder has had his share of struggles this season, but over the past couple of weeks he has been playing like he did back in 2010 when he was the best goalie in the league -- and the Olympics -- and at no time has he looked better than he has over his past two games, recording back-to-back shutouts in wins over Anaheim and San jose.

Over their past wins, which have been by a combined score of just 3-0, the Sabres have allowed Miller to be peppered by 82 shots (that's 41 per game), many of them quality chances, and he's turned aside every single one of them.

Over his past six starts he's allowed just seven goals.

The only thing at stake for the Canucks on Saturday night is ... well, pretty much nothing. Even if they lose they're still going to be the top team in the Western Conference.

DucksKings10:30 ET, Anaheim at Los Angeles: Just 24 hours after picking up a huge two points thanks to a 3-2 win against Calgary, due to a last-minute goal from Ryan Getzlaf, the Anaheim Ducks have to jump right back into it on Saturday night in Los Angeles against one of the many teams they're still chasing in the standings.

The Ducks enter the game four points behind Los Angeles, and still seven points behind Dallas for the final playoff spot in the West, and as has been the case for the past couple of months, and will be for the remainder of the regular season, this is a game the Ducks pretty much have to win if there is going to be any chance to complete this late-season comeback.

At least Friday's game finally moved them ahead of one team -- the Minnesota Wild -- putting them at 12th place in the West.

The Kings, meanwhile, are fresh off a 4-0 win in Minnesota and need the two points just as much as Anaheim does. After Saturday the Kings hit the road for five of their next six games, and it looks to be a brutal stretch of games that includes matchups with Nashville, Chicago, Detroit (twice) and another game with Anaheim.

Others worth watching
7 ET, Tampa Bay at Carolina: After knocking off the New York Rangers on Friday the Lightning have an opportunity to continue their own late season playoff push in Carolina, and just to show how completely bonkers the playoff race currently is, the Lightning still have an outside chance of winning the Southeast.

8 ET, Columbus at Phoenix: Another tight divisional race is out west in the Pacific, as the white-hot Coyotes enter Saturday's game against Columbus two points ahead of the San Jose Sharks. The Blue Jackets recently played the role of spoiler by blanking the Avalanche in Denver, and the Coyotes are coming off what was their first regulation loss since the end of January.

10:30 ET, St. Louis at San Jose: And the team chasing Phoenix, San Jose, has an important -- and tough -- home game against the toughest team in the league to score against, the St. Louis Blues. Good news for the Sharks: for as good as the Blues record is, they've been pretty mediocre away from home.

Your promised miscellany
For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter and like us on Facebook.
Posted on: March 2, 2012 10:59 pm
Edited on: March 3, 2012 1:00 am
 

Winners & Losers: Lightning stay alive



By: Adam Gretz


There's always a winner and a loser in the NHL, and this is a new nightly look at some of the winners and losers in the biggest games and biggest situations across the league.

Winners

Tampa Bay Lightning: Perhaps we gave up on the Tampa Bay Lightning too soon, because after their 4-3 overtime win against the New York Rangers on Friday night they now find themselves in the 10th spot in the Eastern Conference, just four points out of the final playoff spot with two games in hand on the Winnipeg Jets.

Hope is still alive, and, heck, they're even within striking distance of the first place Florida Panthers, trailing them by six points. And with the way that division has played out this season, especially over the past couple of months, anything appears to be possible, no matter how whacky or unbelievable it might seem.

Steven Stamkos also added to his league-leading goal total by scoring his 45th of the season.

[Related: Lightning 4, Rangers 3 -- Playoff Race -- Can Stamkos score 60 this season?]

Zach Parise and the Devils: A little bit of good news, and a little bit of bad news for Zach Parise and the New Jersey Devils on Friday. The good news is that Parise netted a hat trick in a 5-0 dismantling of the Capitals. The bad news, at least as it appeared to be initially, is that he was shaken up after he was sandwiched in a collission involving Brooks Laich and Matt Hendricks.

The Devils say that he's fine, but it still looked bad when it happened.

The win moves them ahead of the Ottawa Senators and into a tie with the Philadelphia Flyers for the No. 5 spot in the east.

[Related: Devils 5, Capitals 0]

Chicago Blackhawks: Perhaps the Blackhawks 2-1 win over the Senators can be the start of another streak. It's certainly been their theme over the past month, winning three, then losing nine, then winning four, then losing three and now winning two. Big challenge on Sunday against the Red Wings, though, but Friday's game was a big two points for a team that's fallen dangerously close to the playoff bubble.

[Related: Blackhawks 2, Senators 1]

Anaheim Ducks: Ryan Getzlaf broke a 2-2 tie with less than a minute to play in the third period to give the Ducks a huge 3-2 win over the Calgary Flames. The Ducks still didn't gain any ground, points-wise, when it comes to catching up to a playoff spot (Dallas, the current team in the No. 8 spot, also won on Friday) but they were able to move ahead of at least one team for the time being, pulling ahead of Minnesota.

[Related Ducks 3, Flames 2]

Losers

Minnesota Wild offense: After having the best record in the NHL after 30 games the Wild have been one of the worst teams in the league ever since, and they looked every bit that bad on Friday night during a 6-0 loss in Detroit.

For most of the night it appeared as if there was some sort of invisible force field around the Red Wings end of the ice, preventing Minnesota from entering the zone and establishing any sort of attack time. For the night, the Wild generated just 19 shots on goal, and by my count, only four of them can be considered to be quality scoring chances.

Four of their shots came from beyond the blue line. That's not going to create goals.

By comparison, I have the Red Wings with 17 quality scoring chances. Tough night for the Wild.

[Related: Red Wings 6, Wild 0]

Washington Capitals: As mentinoed above, the Capitals were pretty much crushed in a game they needed -- which can be said for all of their remaining games, most likely -- and at home.  And with Tampa Bay's win, the Capitals now have even more company in the playoff race.

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @agretz on Twitter and like us on Facebook.
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com