Posted on: November 29, 2010 12:30 pm
 

The week ahead

Guess you could say it won't be a brother's keeper.

It had that potential, and certainly the Atlanta Thrashers visit to Colorado was shaping up to be one of the most interesting games of the week. Unfortunately, it one has lost a bit of its luster because Avalanche forward Chris Stewart broke his hand in a fight over the weekend.

Too bad. This was going to be the first meeting ever for Stewart and his older brother Anthony, and it would have been a nice story about siblings who were both first-round picks, but took much different paths to get where they are today. 

For his part, Anthony was taken by Florida in 2003 and then spent several years unsuccessfully trying to crack the Panthers lineup on a regular basis before being released. Meanwhile Chris, taken in 2006 by Colorado, spent only one season in the minors, and is now a star in Colorado.

In fact the younger Stewart had a breakout season last year for Colorado with 28 goals and has led the team in scoring for most of this one. But Anthony finally seems to have found an NHL home with Atlanta, where he has settled in on the third line and has already scored more goals than in his career to date.

Unfortunately they’ll have to wait until next season to face off against each other because Chris Stewart is also a power forward in the truest sense of the term, and players of that ilk tend to stand up for themselves even if it is costly. And this case, the smackdown of Minnesota’s Kyle Brodziak not only cost him a chance to play against his brother for the first time in the NHL, it also takes a big weapon out of the Avs arsenal.

Fortunately, Colorado has a few others, which is why the Avs are averaging more goals per game than anyone. Mind you, the Thrashers aren’t exactly slacking off on offense either these days, firing an average of 39 shots in their current five-game win streak and getting nearly four goals a game. They’re on a roll, the Avs are tough at home, so this should be interesting even if only one Stewart boy is around.

A couple of other games of note this week happen in St. Louis and in Ottawa.

The Blues host the Capitals on Wednesday, and you can bet that Washington will be up for facing goalie Jaroslav Halak, who ruined their season with a remarkable playoff performance while he was with Montreal. The Capitals have gotten back on track in their last few games after stumbling for a week or so, while the Blues have been nearly unbeatable at home this season. But they lost their last game at the Scotttrade Center and will be playing in Chicago the night before, while Washington will be coming off two off-days.

And if you love open hostility, make sure to check out the Sharks visit to Canada’s capital on Thursday, when Dany Heatley returns to Ottawa for the first time since forcing a trade away.  The Senator faithful never got a chance to tell Heatley how they really felt about him, and you can bet they’ll make sure they don’t blow the opportunity now.
 
Category: NHL
Posted on: November 26, 2010 5:00 pm
 

First quarter awards

Have to have these with report cards, right? So here goes. My picks for the individual hardware after 20-odd games.

Hart Trophy (MVP): Steven Stamkos. The 50 goals in 50 games watch is on for him. Stankos is leading the Lightning to a possible division title and is now in all conversations about the game’s best player.  Runners-up are Sidney Crosby and Mike Richards.

Vezina Trophy (Goaltender):  Tim Thomas. The 36-year-old has had a remarkable turnaround season and is making the Bruins a real threat in the East. LA’s Jonathan Quick has been outstanding as well and so has Montreal’s Carey Price.

Norris Trophy  (Defenseman): Nicklas Lidstrom. The 40-year-old future Hall of Famer is still playing like he’s 10 years younger than he is, and being a dictating force for a Red Wings team that is aiming at another Stanley Cup. Meanwhile give credit to Dustin Byfuglien for how his production after switching back to the blue line and to Boston's Zdeno Chara for doing his thing for the Bruins.

Calder Trophy (Rookie): Logan Couture. He’s not the leading scorer among the freshman, but he has put up some key points and is playing in more and more important situations for the Sharks. Jeff Skinner in Carolina has had electrifying moments and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is a big reason the Flyers are in first place.

Jack Adams Award (Coach): Guy Boucher. He’s taken what Steve Yzerman gave him and turned the Lightning into a very good team and very fast. Scott Arniel has been no slouch either in Columbus, while the job Terry Murray is doing in Los Angeles shouldn’t be overlooked.

Lady Byng Trophy (Sportsmanship): Martin St. Louis. He gets a lot of ice time for Tampa Bay and takes very few penalties, and most important puts up lots of points. Runners-up are Patrick Sharp of Chicago and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom.

Selke Trophy (Defensive forward): Mike Richards. The Flyers captain does it all at both ends of the ice and has become one of the game’s best young leaders. Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk still has no peer at pilfering pucks and Vancouver’s Manny Malhotra is one of the top shutdown guys in the league.
Category: NHL
Posted on: November 24, 2010 2:59 pm
Edited on: November 24, 2010 5:14 pm
 

Savard is on the Marc

Marc Savard got a pretty nice Thanksgiving gift today, even if it was a little early.

“(Adam)McQuaid gave me a little elbow on the jaw,” Savard said with a grin after the Boston Bruins morning skate. “I felt nothing, so I felt good.”

And relieved, no doubt.  Savard has not been in the Bruins lineup yet because of lingering concussion symptoms from the controversial hit on him delivered by Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke last March, but this morning, he took part in first full-contact workout of the season. Savard was cleared Tuesday by doctors at the University of Pittsburgh, where he spent an entire day going through a battery of advanced neurological tests.

“I was pretty cool testing actually,” he said. “And the doctor said I passed with flying colors, so that made me feel good.”

What made him feel better though was getting back on the ice for real. Savard has been doing some light skating for the last couple of weeks, but took part in all the drills, including the puck battling ones at the end of practice. And Savard came away saying he felt strong and confident about resuming his career. There were times during the summer when he wasn't sure.

"I went through some tough times and some dark days, but I’m really happy to be where I’m at today,” he said.

Savard isn't sure when he'll be back in action though. He needs more high-intensity practices to get in game shape, although that's a challenge these days because the Bruins have a busy schedule in the next few weeks. And the Bruins need to figure out how to fit his salary back into their cap structure when the center comes off the injured list. Somebody has to be moved, with Michael Ryder being the team's preferred victim, but difficult to sell because of his contract.

In the meantime, Savard says all he wants to do is to get back on the ice. And he even sees a little bright side in all this.

“I’m feeling as strong as ever," he said. "And with the knee problems I’ve had over the years and with the rest I’ve got, I’m quicker and skating better.” 

Happy Thanksgiving.
Category: NHL
Posted on: November 15, 2010 8:24 pm
 

Just another manic Monday

A few hours in transit and the world just tries to pass you by.

Not long after I landed in Denver this afternoon, I learned about the firing of New York Islanders coach Scott Gordon. Wasn’t wasn’t much of a surprise though, given that his team is mired in a 10-game losing streak with no real end in sight.

Hard to blame Gordon though considering the dearth of talent he had to begin with and the long-term injuries key players Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo suffered just before the season started. Gordon actually got a lot more out of the Islanders than he probably should have over the last two seasons, but New York, as usual, has been running things on the cheap. And in the end the coach was victimized. 
That happens in hockey and so does the occasional firing of a referee, which sparked the big news of the day because of revelations about emails sent by the NHL’s chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell relating to one particular case.

The emails, published by blogger Tyler Dellow of mc79hockey.com, were used as evidence by former referee Dean Warren in a complaint about wrongful dismissal brought before the Ontario Labor Relations Board. The complaint, which was dismissed last month, claimed that Campbell was impartial, not only in his efforts to get Warren canned but in situations with his son Gregory, a former Florida Panthers player now with the Boston Bruins.

Dellow published several emails the senior Campbell sent to then director of referees Steven Walkom that had negative comments about Warren and Boston’s Marc Savard and built a scenario that questioned Campbell’s integrity. Dellow suggested that Campbell didn’t suspend Matt Cooke for his blind-side hit on Savard last March because he had a personal dislike for the Bruins player he described as “a little fake artist.”

Thing is the incident happened just days before the GMs meetings and those types of hits were at the top of the agenda, so for Campbell to do anything untoward in that circumstance does seem like a bit of stretch.

What doesn’t seem like a stretch though, is the Calgary Flames decision to send young forward Brett Sutter back to the minors. Sutter is Calgary GM Darryl Sutter’s son and his uncle is Flames coach Brent. The younger member of the clan got himself arrested outside a bar in Phoenix last week, embarrassing not only the struggling organization, but his embattled father and uncle who have been feeling the heat since last season in Calgary.

An interesting start to the week.
Category: NHL
Posted on: November 10, 2010 4:23 pm
 

A pickup pick-me-up

Listen, who knew the Winter Classic would be such a marketing hit for the NHL? Remember that first New Year’s Day game in Buffalo a few years back was an out-of-the-box idea too. And now that the league has set up an official department for different thinking with Brendan Shanahan at the helm, anything is worth a try.

You never know what could work when it comes to the All-Star Game. The almost-annual event is a sizzle instead of steak kind of thing that rarely gets anyone really excited. That's especially for the players who sometimes seem less than enthused about losing a long weekend off in late January.

Of course the All-Star festivities tend to make up for it with a pretty good party for them, but by the time the game rolls around, the only thing that really matters for the players is not getting hurt.  It’s not exactly like the old days, say back when the All-Star Game had its official debut in 1947 and a young forward named Gordie Howe would run an opponent into the glass because he “hated those bastards.”

But times have changed and so has the game itself, going through so many different incarnations in the last six decades that it has become a part of league history without having any real tradition. It all began with occasional games as fundraisers for former players in the 1930s, but under the league’s brand, formats have been inter-conference games, Cup champs against the all Stars. North America versus the world and challenges against Soviet teams.

In other words, just about anything goes so the next one on Jan. 30 in Raleigh will be a big boys’ game of pickup. The new concept that Shanahan and NHLPA rep Mike Ouellet announced today will have still fans involved in choosing six starters – three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie -- with the balance of the rosters, another 36 players, chosen by the league. Players will vote to elect a captain and two alternates for each team, and they will choose teammates to fill out the required number of players for each position. The will also decide which ones will take part in the skills competition.

On a conference call, both Shanahan and Ouellet tried to sell the idea that this format would energize the players, which is likely only  if things are close in the third period and the competitive juices take over. That does happen in All-Star Games at times. Shanahan in fact mentioned the 1996 game he played in Boston, when Bruins legend Ray Bourque scored the go-ahead goal with 37 seconds remaining and the East desperately held on to win. And the 2009 game in Montreal went down to the wire too.

The trigger is getting the players into it according to Shanahan, something he believes will result from this format.

“When we talked about it with players, their eyes lit up,” Shanahan said.  “I think if a suit from the NHL was tapping me on the shoulder and telling me to go out and win as opposed to Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux saying the team is depending on you, there’s a different feel when your peers are asking you to do something. It becomes a little bit more competitive for the team.”

Maybe, if say Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby end up as captains of the different teams and get to choose their teammates in another showdown for bragging rights.  All Star weekend is only a few weeks after they meet up in this season’s Winter Classic, and after the conclusion of the HBO 24/7 series featuring their real teams.

So this actually could be fun. At least until they come up with the next idea.
Category: NHL
Posted on: November 8, 2010 1:36 pm
Edited on: November 9, 2010 8:17 am
 

Dino gets his due

Dino Ciccarelli had to wait a long time for his Hall of Fame call, but at least the master of the short-range goal gets to be a part of history with his induction.

Just not necessarily because of what he did.

That’s not a knock on the former right winger who annoyed opponents as much as he hurt them by putting up some pretty big numbers. Ciccarelli played 19 seasons with North Stars, Capitals, Red Wings, Lightning and Panthers and remains one of the top 20 goals scorers of all time, despite retiring more than a decade ago. He had 608 goals in the regular season and 73 more in the playoffs, and he is probably best remembered for doing things the hard way, getting to the front of the net and taking the punishment that came with it.

Of course Ciccarelli never won a Stanley Cup or an award so having him as the only former NHLer did raise some eyebrows when the announcements were made last June. Several other eligibles like Joe Nieuwendyk, who won three Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy, and Adam Oates, who didn’t, but had more than 1,000 assists and helped turn Brett Hull into a scoring machine, had pretty good credentials too. And you can make cases for others like Mark Howe, Doug Gilmour or Eric Lindros.

Apparently though, there was some confusion among the voters this year, so Ciccarelli gets to go solo, but the Hall’s headliners tonight will really be the women players who will be the first to join. USA Hockey icon Cammi Granato and Canadian legend Angela James are the pioneers, and really, they are the ones who will make the class of 2010 one for the ages.

The newcomers to the Hall include the driving force behind the Red Wings long run of success, executive Jimmy Devellano and the late Daryl “Doc” Seaman, a founder of the Calgary Flames.  What it should have included though was former coach Pat Burns, who has been a portrait of courage as he battles through terminal cancer.

Burns doesn’t need the sympathy vote though. He won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey, brought the Montreal Canadiens to a Final and helped resurrect the Toronto Maple Leafs. And along the way, Burns won the coach of the year award three times, more than anyone else. His lifetime record is 14th among NHL coaches and who knows what it would have been the cancer not forced him out during the lockout.

Burns deserves to be in. Hopefully he’ll get to see it happen.

 

Category: NHL
Posted on: November 4, 2010 3:35 pm
 

Deep dish defense

Dustin Byfuglien is tied for the NHL scoring lead among defensemen, but he isn’t the only Atlanta blue liner putting up numbers this season. In fact the Thrashers back end has scored 29 points in its first 12 games, the second-highest total in the league behind the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That helps explain why the Thrashers, who do not have a $100-million forward in their lineup anymore, woke up this morning leading the Eastern Conference in scoring. In fact, the only team in the league with more goals so far is Chicago, where Byfuglien, three other Atlanta players, along with GM Rick Dudley and associate coach John Torchetti all came from.

The name of the game in Chicago is attack, and it tends to start from the back end where the Blackhawks are fortunate to have some of the game’s best puck-movers to lead the way. Atlanta’s group isn’t quite as accomplished, but so far they are doing their best to emulate the Stanley Cup champions’ philosophy.

“That’s the mindset,” Torchetti said. “We come from Chicago where it was run-and-gun, but here we have to be a little more selective.
That said, we like the idea of guys jumping up into the play and helping make things happen.”

Byfuglien has been leading the way with 12 points in as many games, while Tobias Enstrom is close behind with 10 points. Enstrom though, picked up 50 points last season which means the Thrashers have some pretty potents weapons coming from their own zone.

“They complement each other well,” Torchetti said. “Thing is teams are starting to shadow Buff a little bit so Toby is going to have start shooting some more.”
Category: NHL
Posted on: November 2, 2010 1:30 pm
 

Trading places

Anyone else get the feeling there is a bit of role reversal going on these days between teams on the opposite side of the Hudson River?

Okay, so maybe it isn’t all that obvious yet since the season is only a month old. But so far it’s fair to suggest the New Jersey Devils are crumbling under the weight of what now looks like ill-advised spending on the free agent market. Traditionally, that’s been the fate of the Rangers, but lately, New York is starting to win games in prototypical Devils-like fashion, combining a great goaltender with a non-descript lineup that plays a tightly structured game and works its way to wins.

“We just need to grind,” Rangers coach John Tortorella was saying after New York edged the reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on Monday. “That’s the type of team we’re trying to become, that’s the type of mindset we have to have.”

Not that there is really much choice, not for now anyway considering that Marian Gaborik, Vaclav Prospal and Chris Drury have hardly played for New York this season. In fact, Gaborik’s three games played are actually more than the other two combined. But for a team that is offensively challenged to begin with and is now missing some of its biggest offensive threats, the Rangers are getting results by playing a better ‘team’ game and doing little things like blocking more shots than anyone in the league.

Naturally it helps to have a goalie like Henrik Lundqvist, who again showed off his all-world talent against the Blackhawks, particularly in the final period when he stoned Chicago’s high-pressure offense. Lundqvist often can cover up a lot of shortcomings, but the Rangers success of late – they have won five of the last seven after dropping three of the first four – has been more about work ethic than star power.

Then again, that could be because young forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan are not yet widely recognized as Stars. They’ve been on a line all season with another youngster, Artem Anisimov, a unit that that has been one of the best in the league and on fire during the team’s recent run. Callahan, who is what hockey types would describe as an “old-school” player, is on a seven-game point streak, while Dubinsky is tied for third in the league in goals and Anisimov has five assists in the last five games.

“It seems right now we’re clicking,” Callahan said.

And leading the way for the Rangers too, although Michael Del Zotto, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal,the foundation of the blue line, are all stepping up their games. And of course Lundqvist is being Lundqvist, with the upshot being that the Rangers are in the thick of the playoff pack, a spot they hoped, but were not necessarily expected to be in. Unlike the group across the Hudson, where the Devils and their $100-million-man Ilya Kovalchuk have been in systemic and focal disarray since the start of the season.

“The biggest strength is that it’s a team,” Tortorella said. “Everybody is playing for one another so that’s a good thing early in the year. We gotta keep building on it.”
Category: NHL
 
 
 
 
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