Sunday, February 28, 2010

The End -- Winners and Losers

Gone - flitted away,
Taken the stars from the night and the sun
From the day!
Gone, and a cloud in my heart.

~Alfred Tennyson

Tennyson’s quote might apply to the end of a star-studded, excitement-enducing, memory-making two weeks in the annals of Olympic hockey. Or it might apply to the victory that Team USA appeared ready to snatch from the jaws of defeat in the gold medal game, only to have the gold medal that surely would be draped around their necks stolen in the blink of an eye by the one player it seemed that everyone outside of Canada did not want scoring the tournament-winning goal.

The gold medal game was everything a hockey fan could want, capping a second week of inspired – and disappointing in some respects – hockey of the sort that the stretch run of the NHL’s regular season will find hard to top. As in Week 1, there are winners and losers…

Winner: Sidney Crosby

90 percent of life is timing, and Crosby certainly has that. On the other hand, as the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” And Crosby is nothing if not prepared for what opportunities present themselves. Call that – getting the tournament winning goal – “lucky,” if you so choose. He had a quiet Olympics, if you can call 3-3-6 in six games quiet. But he was there in overtime of the gold medal game, doing what he was coached to do since he was knee-high to a gnat. He went to the net. He took a feed from Jarome Iginla and after getting inside position on USA defenseman Brian Rafalski (a sequence that took maybe two seconds) he snapped the puck behind Ryan Miller and sent 35 million Canadians into ecstasy. If Alex Ovechkin was the winner of the first week and added to his legend, Crosby was the winner in the tournament’s second week and added to his legend.

Which do you think counts for more?

Loser: Alex Ovechkin

The second week of the tournament was perhaps the worst week of his professional career on several levels. Week 1 ended in thunderous fashion – a crushing open ice check on Jaromir Jagr that directly led to a goal at the other end that propelled the Russians to a 4-2 win over Czech Republic. But it would be the last highlight moment for Ovechkin, whose Team Russia earned a bye into the playoff quarterfinals. There, the Russians met Canada, earlier in the tournament than anyone might have thought would happen. And there, just as his Capitals did last year against a Sidney Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins team, his Team Russia laid an egg on the Canada Hockey Place ice, falling behind early and going quietly in a 7-3 loss to the eventual goal medal winners.

It is colossally unfair to say that Crosby won and Ovechkin lost, at least if you adhere to the notion that hockey is a sport that depends so much on teamwork and depth. Truth be told, Canada had both, and the Russians had neither. The NHL and KHL players of Team Russia looked as if they were skating in different time zones, and the Russians were outed as a team that had real performance issues on the lower half of the forward lines, on defense, and in goal. Ovechkin, strong as he is, was not able to drag 17 other skaters and a goaltender into a more concerted effort. But life isn’t fair, and if Crosby – now a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold medal winner – is the winner of the second week and the tournament, then fate decrees that Ovechkin – now a part of two early exits in his last two tournaments – be the loser, made worse by what was characterized (fairly or not) as surly attitudes toward the media and a confrontation with a fan with a camera. That’s life.

Winner: Team USA

In an odd sort of way, Team USA wins the week for losing. Nothing could compare to the utterly shocking win of Team USA in the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, and if the Americans had won the day on Sunday, it would have been a source of pride for Americans, certainly. But it would always be seen as an inferior result to the Miracle boys. In losing as they did in such heartbreaking fashion to arguably the most talented assemblage of hockey talent in the history of the sport, the Americans fought back from a two-goal deficit, took the superior Canadians to overtime, and ultimately lost because the best player left in the tournament finally showed up.

The romanticism of losing gloriously aside, there is a practical side to this. The Americans were a very young team, at least by the standards of Olympic hockey that include NHL personnel. This is a team that can reasonably be reconstituted in large part in four years, and it will be a powerhouse. And if there is a winner-within-a-winner here, it is Brian Burke, who assembled a “team” rather than a mere collection of star players. He had a mission and a purpose in mind, and darn near pulled it off.

Loser: Team Russia

More for the management of the franchise than for the players themselves, although there were less-than-expected performances there, too. As the tournament wore on, it became apparent – and Team Canada laid bare – that the Russians were a fiction. Scrape away the patina of talent that players such as Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk bring to bear, and the Russians were a collection of players that might not have been the best the country had to offer. And on top of that one might add some truly head-scratching coaching on the part of Vyacheslav Bykov, and it was a case of poor management that doomed the Russians. It was like learning after the fact that design flaws incorporated into the building of the Titanic doomed it to sinking when it was finally struck by an iceberg.

Winner: Roberto Luongo

Replacing a legend on the biggest stage on the planet can’t be easy, especially when you are doing it in your home country in a city where you earn your living. That was the burden Roberto Luongo had to bear in replacing Martin Brodeur for Team Canada in Vancouver. But Luongo bore the burden well, not by being spectacular, but by being reliable. You could say that giving up a goal in the last half minute of the gold medal game was his stepping into the fitting room for goats horns, but he was solid in the overtime. In the end, he was the man playing the most important position on the ice in a winner-take-all game who thrust his arms skyward in victory. More than any player on the ice for Team Canada, including Sidney Crosby, Luongo was a winner.

Loser: Henrik Lundqvist

How bitter must it be, having not allowed a goal on 41 shots in Week 1, earning a bye into the playoff quarterfinals, allowing four goals on 14 shots and losing to a Slovakian team that Team Sweden should have beaten going away to go to the semifinals and a date with the Canadians. It was the game-changer, so to speak, of the tournament. And perhaps the most reliable single member of Team Sweden’s roster had one of the worst games of his career.

Winner: Team Slovakia

The Slovaks were the surprise of the tournament, beating the Russians, the Swedes, and throwing a mighty scare into the Canadians in coming back from 3-0 down to get within a goal before losing, 3-2. Pavol Demitra had a tournament to dream for: 3-7-10 in seven games. But there also were Marian Gaborik with four goals to lead Team Slovakia, Marian Hossa getting nine points for the tournament, and Richard Zednik and Michal Handzus getting six points apiece. Jaroslav Halak stood tall in goal, giving his teammates the confidence to play aggressively at the other end.

Loser: Team Slovakia

It was a last hurrah in all likelihood for several members of this team. Four years hence, the Slovaks are likely to have to replace Demitra, Handzus, Zednik, Miroslav Satan, and others. This could be the high-water mark for some time for the Slovaks.

Winner: Washington Capitals fans

If by “winner,” you mean being selfish as a Caps fan and getting all five Olympians home ahead of time (ok, Ovechkin stuck around) to get a head start on the resumption of the NHL season.

Loser: Hockey fans

Because it’s over. But in six weeks, we have the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Winner: Canada

We have to claim a bias here. We just like the relative simplicity and intimacy of the Winter Games much more than the Summer Games. And for the impressive technical achievement that was the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Games in China in 2008, we liked the folksy quirkiness of these Games so much more. The self-effacing barbs cast by the likes of William Shatner, Catherine O’Hara, and Michael J. Fox at all things Canadian give voice to the sort of decency and good humor that makes one think that “nice” is not a four-letter word. And Canada, even from a few thousand miles away, it looked like you put on one helluva party.


OK, there are none, despite what you might have read up to here. These are the best athletes on the face of the earth, whether they won a medal or not. And even if they perform feats than we can never dream to achieve, they do so in such a way that allow us to have those dreams.

Questions, Questions... Part 6

And now we come to the last segment in looking at the big questions facing each team. It’s the Pacific Division to round things out...

San Jose: Can they change the reel up in the film room?

Let’s face it, there are no questions about San Jose’s talent. They are skilled, deep, balanced. They are a 120-point or so club on paper, and they are likely to get there or close to it by the end of the regular season. And it doesn’t mean a thing. For as hockey fans know, we’ve seen this movie before. Team assembles talent, scores a ton of goals, gets a ton of assists from Joe Thornton, slices their way through the West like a shark through a group of seals in shallow water.

Then… splat. Guys can’t find the back of the net, Thornton disappears, goalies are as sturdy as tissue paper, they look like extras in "Finding Nemo."

Including this season, the Sharks have won at least 40 games in eight of nine seasons and topped 100 points four times (this season will make five unless the team is spirited away by aliens). And for all that regular season success they have a total of six playoff series wins in eight seasons, reaching the conference final (and losing) only once and being eliminated in the first round twice.

Some folks might think that the addition of Dany Heatley this season will give one last shove of a spine up the Shark’s backs to get them to the promised land of a Stanley Cup. That is entirely possible, but there is the lingering specter of Joe Thornton and his playoff problems – 41 playoff games with San Jose, 6-29-35, and a minus-2, and three playoff series wins (not more than one in any season) in his four years with the Sharks coming into this season.

If the Sharks can’t find another movie to entertain their fans, none of their gaudy records or statistics in the regular season will matter.

Phoenix: Are they running out of gas?

Phoenix is one of the surprise teams this year. Given up for dead (or the movers) at the start of the season, they have put together a 37-21-5 record so far. It is a team that plays a structured game that emphasizes minimizing opponents’ chances (tied for ninth fewest shots allowed per game) and taking advantage of what opportunities are presented to it.

But that kind of game is played on a thin margin. 31 of Phoenix’ 63 games were one-goal affairs heading into the Olympic break, and the ‘Yotes were 21-5-5 in those games – the most one-goal wins in the league so far this season.

Phoenix had a five-game winning streak straddling the end of January and the beginning of February, but since then has lost three of five games. And what emerged over those ten games was a shrinking offensive production. In their last seven games the Coyotes have scored only 11 goals, and six of those came in a win over the woeful Oilers. Three times were the Coyotes shut out through regulation and overtime. That’s a team that needed a break.

But now the question is whether they can keep walking on the good side of that fine line that is one-goal games. Were the last five games a blip, or a warning of things to come?

Los Angeles: What do you get when you sum all the parts?

Because if you look at the individual parts… the Kings have one scorer in the top 60. They have one goal scorer in the top 40. They are ranked higher than tenth in only one major team statistic (goals scored per game). But… the Kings have eight players with at least 30 points (as many as top scoring Washington). They are top 15 in goals allowed per game, 5-on-5 play, and power play.

And perhaps most important, the Kings have been playing the “slow and sure wins the race” sort of game this season – 8-4-2 in October, 7-6-0- in November, 8-5-1 in December, 10-4-0 in January, and 4-1-1 in February. When play resumes they will have three more games against Dallas (against which they are 3-0-0 this year) and three other games against Pacific Division foes (the Kings are tied with San Jose for the most in-division wins in the Pacific). They are 14-5-1 in the 2010 portion of the season, outscoring their opponents 60-46 along the way (3.0-2.3).

This is a club that for most of the season has been playing as more than the sum of its parts and was in the midst of playing some of its best hockey of the year leading up to the Olympic break. For them, the chore is to make sure that the break is not a momentum killer.

Dallas: Can Marty find his game… in Dallas?

There was a lot of rumor spreading around that goaltender Marty Turco was going to be moved at the trading deadline. Well, with Alex Auld having been picked up by the Rangers on waivers and recently added Kari Lehtonen being, well, Kari Lehtonen, Turco is the only reliable goalie around for a club that is tied with Detroit for ninth place in the West, one point behind the struggling Calgary Flames.

Turco has not had a “Turco-esque” sort of season in that his goals against average, if the season ended today, would be the second highest of his career (last year’s was worse). But his save percentage of .915 is better than any season since he stopped 93.1 percent of the shots he faced in going 31-10-10 in 2002-2003.

What’s more, he seems to have perhaps shaken off the cobwebs that seemed to plague his game earlier in the year. He is 5-2-1 in his last eight decisions, 1.74, .952, and two shutouts.

Of no small amount of concern to Dallas fans, though, is that Turco had weak finishes in each of the last two seasons – 1-6-2 to finish up last year and 3-8-2 to wrap up the 2007-2008 season. If there is one thing to suggest that he might not suffer a similar fate this year is that he has appeared in only 43 games so far, putting him on a pace for 58 appearances, the fewest appearances he would have had since he had 55 in the 2002-2003 season (55). He should be fresher.  Turco seems likely now to get a heavier workload down the stretch, and he’ll need to shoulder it well if the Stars are to have any chance of overtaking Calgary and holding off Detroit and the teams on their rear bumper to gain a playoff spot.

Anaheim: Psst… can we just tell Hiller it’s still the Olympics?

Jonas Hiller had a fine fortnight in Vancouver for Team Switzerland with a 2.47 goals against average and a .918 save percentage, despite going 1-3 for the tournament. It was a bit surprising that he came up so large in that he stumbled into the Olympic break a bit with the Ducks: 3-2-0, 3.23, .908 (six of the 16 goals he allowed were in a single game, a 6-4 loss to Los Angeles on February 4th).

Overall he has had a solid year, but certainly not a spectacular one. He is ranked 26th in goals against average (2.70) and 13th in save percentage (.919). One problem he has is one not of his making. He is facing more than 33 shots per 60 minutes of play. As a team Anaheim allows the third highest shots-per-game total in the league. 42 times Hiller has played a full 60 minutes (allowing for being pulled for an extra attacker or going to the bench for a penalty about to be called). Only nine times has he faced fewer than 30 shots.

With as much difficulty as newly arrived backup Vesa Toskala had in Toronto, it seems iffy that he would get a lot of appearances down the stretch with the Ducks only two points behind eighth-place Calgary. But with 46 appearances Hiller is about to step into uncharted territory – that number of appearances ties the career high he set last year. He did finish strong last year, though. After March 1st he was 9-3-0 in 14 appearances, 2.52, .917, and one shutout. The Ducks are going to need that kind of stretch run performance this time around to get the Ducks into the top eight.

Questions, Questions... Part 5

Four down and two to go in our look at the big question concerning each team down the stretch of the NHL season. Next, the Northwest Division.

Vancouver: Is this how Bob Hope and Bing Crosby did it?

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made seven pictures together in their careers commonly referred to as the “road pictures.” The pair, teamed with Dorothy Lamour, would take the road to such exotic locales as Singapore, Zanzibar, Rio de Janiero, or Hong Kong. Well, the Vancouver Canucks are in the midst of taking their own road production to such locales as Columbus, Nashville, and Phoenix, a product of having to get General Motors (excuse us, “Canada Hockey”) Place ready for and broken down from the Winter Olympic games.

Vancouver has already spent eight straight games away from home, going 4-4-0. Coming out of the break they still have six road dates to complete before returning home on March 13th. It will be a telling six game road trip for several reasons. First, the Canucks will play two sets of three games in four days. Maybe they’re rested, maybe they’re rusty. Second, all of the games are against Western conference teams. This could have seeding implications for the Canucks down the road as they are currently in third by virtue of their leading the Northwest Division, but only tied for sixth in points in the conference (they hold the tie-breaker – more wins – over the team with which they are tied, division foe Colorado). Third, Vancouver is the only club in the top-eight in the conference with a sub-.500 road record (14-15-1). If they can get past this stretch of games in fair shape, they have 10 of their last 15 games at home. If, on the other hand, they stumble along the road, they could tumble rather quickly through the floor of playoff eligibility; they have an eight-point lead over ninth-place Dallas and Detroit (all three with 21 games remaining).

Vancouver seems a pretty safe bet at this point to make the playoffs, but this six-game road trip to start the home stretch will go a long way toward determining where they will start those playoffs – in the friendly confines of General Motors Place or on what has been the less than forgiving road.

Colorado: Can the Avs be more than Craig Anderson?

Goalie Craig Anderson has received a lot of praise this year for the season he is having. It is well deserved – tied for fifth in wins (31), 13th in goals-against average (2.42), seventh in save percentage (.924), tied for third in shutouts (six). Only twice this year has he lost consecutive games in regulation (a two-game streak on October 30/November 1 and a three-game streak in late January).

But while the surprising Avalanche, largely due to Anderson, have the ninth-best goals-against mark in the league, what might be getting lost is that they also have the ninth-best offense in the league. And they have done it largely by going young. The top three goal scorers are all 24 or younger – rookie Matt Duchene (19), Chris Stewart (22), and Wojtek Wolski (24). As a matter of fact, of the seven players for Colorado with at least ten goals, only Milan Hejduk (34) is older than 25.

Colorado has been reasonably consistent over the past few months – 8-5-1 in December, 7-5-0 in January, and 5-2-0 in February. If they can maintain that consistency, they will finish comfortably in the top-eight (they have an eight-point lead over ninth place Dallas and Detroit). If they can improve upon it, they can move past Vancouver, with whom they are tied at 76 points, into the three-seed in the West.

The question is not so much whether Anderson can keep up his pace. In two years as Tomas Vokoun’s backup in Florida before this year he had a combined record of 23-13-6, 2.54, .924, with five shutouts. The question will be whether the young guys can continue to keep up Colorado’s scoring pace over the season’s last 21 games.

Calgary: Will fried Kipper taste good in April?

Miikka Kiprusoff has played the third most minutes in the NHL this season. He was tops last year with more than 4,400 minutes. He was fourth the previous year with a few ticks under 4,400 minutes. He was third the year before that. Since the lockout Kiprusoff averaged 4,404 minutes a season. And this year, he played more than 250 minutes in backstopping Team Finland to a bronze medal in the Vancouver Olympics. Now, here is another set of numbers, Kiprusoff’s record in his last 15 decisions of the regular season since the lockout: 9-3-3, 8-6-1, 7-7-1, 6-9-0. See a pattern there?

Calgary is hanging on for dear life to a playoff spot. They stand in eighth place in the West, one point ahead of Dallas and Detroit, two points ahead of Anaheim, four ahead of St. Louis, and five ahead of Minnesota. That means that Kiprusoff isn’t likely to get much – if any – of a break down the stretch (he appeared in Calgary’s last 13 games heading into the Olympic break). Given that the Flames scored only 44 goals in the 22 games since January 1st, there will only be more pressure on Kiprusoff to hold the fort.

Minnesota: Can the Wild climb out of the hole they keep digging for themselves?

The Wild dug themselves a hole right out of the start this season. In their first dozen games the Wild were 3-9-0. The Wild dragged themselves out of that hole by going 17-7-3 in their next 27 games. Since then, though, Minnesota is 10-11-1.

These last 21 games has been a roller coaster ride for the Wild – a four-game losing streak, a four-game winning streak, then another four-game losing streak and a three-game winning streak. They keep digging holes, and then climb almost out of them, only to find themselves digging again.  It is the theme of their season.

Part of Minnesota’s problem, and one of the things that makes their performance look more and more like a roller-coaster ride (and not in a good way) is that they do fine in one-goal games (19-11-4), but in games decided by two or more goals, they are 11-16. That points to a certain defensive problem, and in fact the Wild have allowed at least four goals in nine of their last 21 games (they are 1-8 in those games).

Coincidentally, the Wild have scored at least four goals in nine of their last 21 games and are 8-1 in those games. This is a club that just cannot put together a consistent mix of offense and defense over any stretch of games. And until they do, they will spend their time digging and climbing, digging and climbing.

Edmonton: Can we get this over with?

Last in points, tied for last in wins, 29th in scoring, last in defense, last in 5-on-5 play, 29th in penalty-killing. Since a five-game winning streak to open December, the Oilers are 4-23-2. Their goaltender has run afoul of the law. The only thing Edmonton fans have to look forward to is the possibility of seeing Jaromir Jagr in an Oiler jersey next season. And as a Caps fan, we’re here to tell you, “good luck with that.”

Questions, Questions... Part 4

Done with our big question for each team in the East, we head west and the Central Division…

Chicago: Can Huet do-it, or is Niemi dreamy?

No team in the NHL has a lower goals-per-game average than the Chicago Blackhawks (2.31). But in that number lies another – 24.4. That would be the number of shots that Chicago goaltenders face per game, also the lowest in the league. If you put them together, then the performance of their goaltenders – Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi – looks rather pedestrian, a combined .905 save percentage.

Drill further… Huet has never won a playoff series (he is 6-10 over three playoff series with three different clubs), and Niemi hasn’t yet appeared in an NHL playoff game.

We are getting into uncharted territory for Huet. With his next appearance he will top his career high in regular season appearances in a season, which currently rests at 42 (with Montreal in 2006-2007 in addition to this year). He has been a bit shaky of late, too – 2-2-1, 2.83, .881 in seven appearances heading into the Olympic break. Niemi, on the other hand, has been hot… or lucky. He is 8-2-0 in his last ten appearances, but with a 2.60 goals against average and a .897 save percentage. In his last three appearances he has allowed 11 goals on 82 shots (.866) but has won them all.

As good as Chicago has been this year – currently holding the third highest point total in the NHL – this pair of goaltenders is likely to be quite sufficient to get the Blackhawks to the playoffs with the first or second seed (they hold a nine-point advantage over third-place Vancouver and trail top-ranked San Jose by two points). But is this the pair that will take them home?

Nashville: Is average good enough?

Out of the 30 teams in the NHL, Nashville is 16th in scoring, 17th in defense, 12th in 5-on-5 play, 13th in shots on goal, 12th in standings points overall, they are 9-9-2 in the 2010 portion of the season. They’re standing in the town square of Averageville. It is a club that boasts – if that is the term – one 20-goal scorer (Patric Hornqvist). The Predators do not have a player with as many as 40 points. Both goalies have goals-against number that are north of 2.5 goals per game.

You wonder how this team is ten games over .500. But there they are, seventh in the Western Conference at the moment, but only seven points ahead of 13th place Minnesota. Their hold on that playoff spot is not the tightest.

Where Nashville is not average, though, is in special teams. And this might be the fault line on which the club’s success down the stretch might ultimately rest. The Predators have struggled on the power play this year – they are tied for 24th in the league at 16.7 percent. And it’s not as if they’re getting a lot of chances to improve on their success (tied for 22nd in total power play opportunities). They have, however, given hints of improvement. In the six games leading up to the Olympic break Nashville was 8-for-29 on the power play (27.6 percent).

While their power play has struggled, but shows some recent signs of life, the penalty killing has been a more troubling problem. The good news is that here, like the power play, they face fewer chances than most teams – tied for fourth fewest penalty killing situations in the league. But killing off only 76 percent of them – tied for third worst in the league – could be the club’s biggest problem down the stretch. In those same six games leading up to the Olympic break the Predators killed off only 20 of 28 shorthanded situations (71.4 percent) and allowed at least one power play goal in each of the games. If they don’t right themselves on both sides of the special teams equation, they could find themselves on the outside looking in, in the competitive West.

Detroit: Will the Gimmick be their downfall?

Folks keep waiting for a Detroit run. Well, the Red Wings haven’t won consecutive games since winning at San Jose and at Los Angeles in early January. They haven’t won more than two consecutive games since mid-December. Still, with all that the Red Wings sit in a tie for ninth place in the Western Conference, one point behind eighth-place Calgary.

But if there is one thing that could haunt Detroit in the off season, it is this – in their last 15 games the Red Wings have gone to a shootout six times. They lost five of them. Had they split those six games, instead of going 1-5, they would be a point ahead of Calgary rather than a point behind. They would be ahead of Dallas, instead of tied with them (one of the losses coming to the Stars). No team has lost more games in extra time this year than the Red Wings (perhaps ironically, they are tied with the team with which they are tied in the standings – Dallas).

Having played 18 of their 61 games into extra time, they could have another six or seven at that pace down the stretch. If they don’t find a way to win more of those games, things are tight enough in the west where it could be the difference between games or golf in April.

St. Louis: Will it be Chris Mason or… Chris Mason?

How is this for streaky… lose five, win four, lose three, go 2-1, lose two, win three. That is Chris Mason’s last 20 games in goal for the Blues since Christmas. Overall in that span he is 9-7-4, 2.47, .911, and two shutouts. Fair numbers, but there is the problem of that streakiness.

If streakiness can be a good thing, then Blues fans might take a look at Mason’s record from last year. He finished up the regular season 9-1-1 in his last 11 games, with a 2.08 GAA and .924 save percentage with two shutouts. Then again, there was his finish two years ago with Nashville… Starting on Valentine’s Day he was 1-5-2 in his last 11 appearances (he had three no-decisions in relief of Dan Ellis and lost three other games in which he started but did not finish), 3.80, .862.

St. Louis is four points out of a playoff spot. Which Chris Mason shows up will likely be the biggest factor in whether the Blues can make up that difference, hop over the four teams ahead of them, and find their way into the playoffs.

Columbus: Can we get a do-over?

Off of their first-ever playoff appearance last year, as well as being an over-.500 club as late as December 14th this season, Columbus finding itself three games under .500 and in 14th place in the West has to qualify as a huge disappointment. December was hardly the stuff of happy holidays for the Blue Jackets, as they went 2-9-5 for the month, including a nine-game losing streak (0-7-2). What killed them was an utter lack – absence, in fact – of offense. They scored only 29 goals in 16 games for the month (1.81/game) – only 15 in the last 11 games of the month – and their only two wins came via shutout, one of those in overtime.

Even if they stopped the bleeding since (10-10-1 in the 2010 portion of the season), the December fall killed their chances for the rest of the winter. There will be no spring on the ice for Columbus, even if they are only nine points out of a playoff spot. Having to climb over six teams is too much to overcome, and for the Blue Jackets, it’s “wait ‘til next year.”

Bear Hunting in Winter

Ever go to a military air show and see the sleek fighter aircraft going through their motions? The breathtaking mix of speed and power?

Well, that was the Hershey Bears last night as the home team strafed the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, 9-2, in front of a sellout crowd that included Capitals’ coach Bruce Boudreau, who was on hand for a book signing of “Gabby: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer.” It was Washington Capitals Night at Giant Center, and it looked as if the Bears were doing their best to show the big club that there are guys down on the farm who merit a good long look at the big club. In that sense, it was a somewhat odd game, given the score…

-- Despite nine goals, only seven players shared in the scoring. The Keith Aucoin - Alexandre Giroux - Andrew Gordon line went 4-7-11, plus-6 for the evening, but that only got them second best among the forward lines.

-- Mathieu Perreault – Chris Bourque – Steve Pinizzotto went 5-7-12, plus-12 (that’s not a misprint), Perreault netting four goals for the evening, including a successful penalty shot.

-- The Bears put withering pressure on Bridgeport from the drop of the puck. Perreault scored the first of his four goals 1:44 in, the Bears scored all nine goals in the game’s first 37 minutes, and Hershey put 50 shots on goaltenders Nathan Lawson and Scott Munroe.

-- It was almost sad to see the misfortune of Brendan Witt for Bridgeport. A former first round/11th overall draft pick of the Caps, he seems to be at the end now. He was a minus-4 for the evening and looked incapable of keeping up with the speedy Bears.

-- For all of the offense unleashed on Bridgeport, the Bears were “only” 1-for-5 on the power play, and the crowd seemed a bit perturbed early at the Bears’ difficulty in scoring on the man advantage, especially when the Tigers managed to net a shorthanded goal 15 seconds into the Bears’ first power play of the evening.

-- That was a franchise record for goals allowed by Bridgeport. And it could have been a lot worse if not for some fine netminding by Scott Munroe in the third – he turned away all 19 shots from the Bears in the period.

-- Braden Holtby shook off a bumpy stretch with a pretty solid effort. He had been 1-3-0 in his last five appearances (one no-decision), 3.77, .876. Tonight, 22 saves on 24 shots.

-- Tyler Sloan and Quintin Laing were in the lineup for the Bears on assignment from the Caps.  Sloan had an assist and was a plus-3; Laing was held off the scoresheet and was minus-1.

Nights like this make one wonder whether there is any team in the AHL who can defeat the Bears in a seven-game series down the road. It’s a club that is difficult to defeat when they’re on the road (19-9-0) and almost impossible to defeat at home. They score (4.32 goals/game), keep their own net clean (2.42 goals against/game). And right now they are at the top of their game -- 21 home wins in a row (26-3-2 overall)… more than half a home season’s worth of games. They’ve averaged almost six goals a game in doing it (5.90) – five times scoring at least eight goals – and shut down opponents (2.14 goals against/game). Amazing.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Why Hockey is Better -- Reason No. 3,298

Today's reason why "Hockey Is Better"... in the other major professional team sports and in some individual sports, on-field exploits are chronicled exhaustively, adding to the legend of such figures as Peyton Manning in professional football, LeBron James in professional basketball, and Derek Jeter in major league baseball.  All of them and many others are athletes who deserve praise for their on-field/court achievements.

But in those sports we see chronicled just as exhaustively the 'off-field" problems of too many of the players in those other sports -- substance abuse accusations in professional football and major league baseball, run-ins with the criminal justice system, behaviors that might be described charitably as "immature."  Those problems are those of a small minority of players, to be sure, but they are problems that seem to persist and damage their respective sports.

Meanwhile, in these last two weeks hockey fans have basked in the joy of seeing the best athletes the sport has to offer playing under their respective national flags.  Almost without exception, it has been an advertisement to the grace, skill, and grit that is hockey.  But it is not without its off-ice interruptions, and here is where the sport parts ways with other professional sports.  Over the last two weeks, perhaps the biggest off ice story of the Olympics was a certain player being surly with the media.  One commentator, in fact, stated that for the player in question, "it's unacceptable for a player of his stature not to fulfill his obligations as a spokesman for the game."

Gee, that's it?  That's all you've got for "controversy?"  A player not speaking to the press on demand?  A couple of seconds with a camcorder?  Truth be told, I would have wished that Alex Ovechkin had been a little more accommodating to the press; I think it is in his interest, the NHL's interest, and the interest of the Olympics (including the 2014 Games in Sochi).  But I don't stand in his shoes.  I don't know what pressure he feels to get ready for these games on the international stage, where the burden largely lies on him for the results of Team Russia (I could say the same for Team Canada and Sidney Crosby, but that is a much deeper club and better able to take the performing pressure off of the young center).

If this is the biggest "off ice" problem hockey has at the moment -- or Canadian women celebrating a gold medal enthusiastically (like I'd bet a lot of the press did when they were in college and their sports teams won big games) -- then hockey is in pretty damn fine shape.

Questions, Questions... Part 3

Now that we’ve covered the Southeast and the Atlantic, we’ll finish our tour of the Eastern Conference with a look at the big question for each of the teams in the Northeast…

Ottawa: Has the clock struck midnight for “Cinderelliott?”

Starting on December 10th, when he shut out the Philadelphia Flyers, 2-0, at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Senators goaltender Brian Elliott went on one of those runs that players dream of. Over a 20-game stretch starting with that shutout in Philly, Elliott went 13-5-0, 1.97, .927, with three shutouts. Only twice did he allow as many as four goals in a game. With Elliott leading the way, the Senators climbed through the standings, close enough to division-leading Buffalo to see the hairs on the Sabres’ necks stand up.

The last game in that 20-game run for Elliott was a 3-1 win against Vancouver in which he turned away 29 of 30 shots. However, since then, one wonders if the coach has turned back into a pumpkin for the netminder. While Elliott is 3-2-0 in the five games since his win over the Canucks, he’s done so in somewhat ugly fashion – a 3.65 GAA and .893 save percentage. Perhaps even more ominously, only one of those games was played against a top-tier offensive team (he allowed five goals in a 6-5 win over Washington). Three of the games were played against teams in the lower third of the team scoring rankings (Detroit, Calgary, New York Islanders).

You might think Elliott was somewhat gassed after having assumed the mantle of number one goaltender, but going into that five game slide he played in only nine consecutive games, and before that played in six of the previous 15 games.

The schedule sets up well for Elliott and the Senators coming out of the Olympic break in that they don’t have to face a lot of offensive powerhouses. But if Ottawa is going to finish atop the Northeast and make any dent in the playoffs, Elliott has to find that glass slipper – uh, goalie skate – again. Being on the north side of three-and-a-half goals a game allowed won’t do it.

Buffalo: Has there been too much “Miller Time?”

Ryan Miller has been on the ice for 3,078 minutes this season, eighth among NHL goaltenders. He has been between the pipes for each and every one of the 240 minutes played by Team USA so far in the Vancouver Olympics. He will be there on Friday to face the Finns, and he seems a sure bet to be there to face either Canada or Slovakia on Saturday or Sunday in one of the medal games. So, add 360 minutes to his total for the year. That will bring him to 3,438 minutes of ice time this year, just five minutes short of his entire total for the regular season last year with 22 games left to play this season for the Sabres.

The comparison to previous years might have some relevance as the Sabres move forward after the break. Let’s assume Miller would get 15 starts in the last 22 games in an effort to give him some sort of break from his recent workload. In his final 15 games last season, Miller was 8-5-2, 2.72, .916. Those numbers are consistent with his season-long numbers. But this year he has the Vancouver workload and a stretch run that could push his total minutes – NHL regular season and Olympics – past his career high of 4,474 two seasons ago, and that season did not end especially well for him: 7-7-3 in his last 17 games with a 3.34 GAA and .877 save percentage.

Boston: Who is the go-to guy here?

Marco Sturm leads the Bruins with 18 goals. There are only five other Bruins with as many as ten goals for the season. There are 57 NHL players with more. Since January 1st, the Bruins have averaged 2.14 goals per game in going 7-10-4. They scored more than three goals in a game twice over the 21 games of that period. They are averaging 1.6 goals a game at home over that period and have not scored more than two in any of them.

One might say that goalie Tim Thomas is having problems, and one might be right. But you could recombine the DNA of Terry Sawchuk, Gerry Cheevers, Patrick Roy, and Martin Brodeur and not have a goalie who could win consistently behind this cohort of skaters. This is a team that hasn’t scored more than two goals in consecutive games since early December. They simply do not give their goalies any breathing room. Boston is rumored to be interested in the Blues’ Keith Tkachuk, Columbus’ Raffi Torres, and the Kings’ Alexander Frolov. None of those players is a solution for the systemic lack of offense that plagues the Bruins. Even if they add one or more of those players, the Bruins might have enough defense and goaltending to outlast teams beneath them to land a playoff spot (they are two points ahead of the Lightning and Rangers, three ahead of the Thrashers, all with their own problems), but they would be a prohibitive underdog in a first round playoff matchup.

Montreal: How long can they live by the sword before dying by it?

And by “sword,” we mean “power play.” Montreal is second in the league in power play conversions (24.6 percent), but they are brutal at 5-on-5 play (tied for 17th). Here is perhaps a useful comparison to shed light on the problem for Montreal. Since January 1st the Canadiens have scored 49 goals in 20 games. Of that number, 16 have come via the power play (32.7 percent). Compare that to the Washington Capitals, who have scored 102 goals since January 1st, 26 of which have come on the power play (25.5 percent). The Caps are the NHL standard for 5-on-5 play this year, true, but outscoring Montreal by 76-33 when not on the power play still points to a full-strength problem for the Canadiens. Put another way, The Canadiens are dead last in the league in power play opportunities. If they can’t unleash the sword of their power play more often and Montreal scores 1.6 goals a game without the benefit of what the power play contributes, it could be a problem as the regular season winds down.

Toronto: “Deal” or “No Deal?”

The only question left for the Maple Leafs this season is “who goes and who stays?” The Leafs certainly haven’t been shy about using the trade route to retool the roster. Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, J-S Giguere are the big names acquired via the trade route this season, which leaves only the mysteries of whether Alexei Ponikarovsky will be moved (that seems close to a betting certainty) and whether Tomas Kaberle will offer the club a chance to trade him (since GM Brian Burke has stated he won’t ask Kaberle to waive his no-trade clause). Other than that the only performance question concerning the Leafs is whether they can play spoiler. On that score, it is worth noting that they play Boston, the Rangers, and Montreal in the last week of the season. Given that those teams seem likely to be fighting for their playoff lives down the stretch, the Leafs will be in a position to play precisely that role.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Dream Game That Wasn't

"I think how we start the game it's like small kids and big kids play against each other and big kids dominate."

That succinct summation by Alex Ovechkin after Team Canada defeated Team Russia, 7-3, last evening says it all. It was The Dream Game That Wasn’t. And for Caps fans it looked an awful lot like a certain Game 7 of a certain Stanley Cup Quarterfinal from 2009 when the “big kids” of Pittsburgh dominated the “little kids” of Washington on their way to a 6-2 win.

Like that other game from 2009, the competitive portion of this one ended early. Ryan Getzlaf got the home country started only 2:21 into the game, then Dan Boyle and Rick Nash scored less than a minute apart in the game’s 13th minute to put some distance between the Canadians and the Russians. Dmitri Kalinin got one back less than two minutes after Nash’s goal. But the dagger into the heart of the bear was probably Brenden Morrow – a fourth liner on Team Canada – getting a goal with less than two minutes in the first period to give Team Canada a 4-1 lead at the intermission.

And thus, the Dream Game was over.

What was left was more eerie resemblances to last spring’s Penguin rout of the Capitals…

-- Evgeni Nabokov being relieved early in the second period when defenseman Shea Weber solved him (Semyon Varlamov was relieved in Game 7 last year after defenseman Kris Letang scored early in the second)

-- The shot domination by the winners. Canada outshot Russia 42-28 in this one (the Pens outshot the Caps 30-21 in Game 7 last spring).

-- The contributions the winners got from down the roster – six different Canadians share the seven goals last night; five different Penguins shared in the six goals they scored against the Caps in Game 7.

-- The absence of any impact from Alex Ovechkin. He had three shots last night (no points); he had three shots on goal in the Game 7 last spring (a late goal that didn’t impact the outcome).

It’s not as if Ovechkin was singularly absent, although as the “best player on the planet,” that absence was most keenly felt. His linemates – Alexander Semin and Evgeni Malkin – looked like junior players playing against, well, pros.  To be fair, the "second best player on the planet" -- Sidney Crosby -- was pretty much absent, too, but Canada proved a much deeper team than the Russians.

And just an aside… if anyone wants to make a bet with you on the San Jose Sharks winning the Stanley Cup, and they take the Sharks? Drive them to the ATM so they can take out some money. Because Evgeni Nabokov isn’t… money, that is.

And just another note of relevance to the Caps, the losses by Russia, Sweden, and Czech Republic mean that all five Caps (Ovechkin, Semin, Varlamov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tomas Fleischmann) will be coming back to DC to rejoin their teammates, unless they stick around to take in the rest of the Games.

For the Canadians, their brain trust ended up looking like geniuses with this outcome. Getzlaf, who was the subject of much discussion concerning his ability to play at all with a high-ankle sprain, got the Canadians off and running with their first goal. He also had two assists. The decision to keep him on the roster rather than replace him with Philadelphia’s Jeff Carter looks like a stroke of genius.

As does the decision to keep Mike Green off the roster. There are those (count us among them) who thought choosing Dan Boyle over Green was a head scratcher. Boyle had a goal and two assists last night and now is plus-6 for the tournament. As for other defensemen, whose roster spots Green could have occupied, Duncan Keith had a couple of assists, and even Chris Pronger contributed a helper.

Coach Mike Babcock’s decision to mix up lines to create a more physical obstacle for Alex Ovechkin worked well. Deploying Rick Nash on the forward line and Shea Weber on the back line seemed especially effective.

And as for Roberto Luongo as a replacement for Martin Brodeur in goal, he was not brilliant, but he didn’t allow any soft goals that could have let the Russians back in the game.

24 hours ago, Canada was fretting that they’re hockey team would fail to medal and become the final mockery of the “own the podium” theme. Well, this morning their path to a gold medal looks a great deal brighter. The Swedes lost to Slovakia in a shocker. Finland disposed of the Czechs, and the Americans looked quite beatable even as they defeated the Swiss, 2-0. From goats of the games, Team Canada now has to be considered the solid, if not overwhelming favorite to capture the gold medal.

And that, for now, makes Canada pretty happy with Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gonna Fly Now...

Hello, everybody, and happy Olympics from a very unusual place. We're in Vancouver in Canada. I'm Stu Nahan at rinkside, and this promises to be the most-watched event in hockey history. The Rampaging Bear from Russia, Ovey Balbovechkin, and from Cole Harbour in Canada, Sidney Dragsby.

Since that tragedy in Detroit and the death of the Red Wings’ reign as Stanley Cup champs, Dragsby has been nicknamed ‘Death From Below.’

The Prime Minister is here and other members of Parliament…they have made their way to their seats high above the rink here at Canada Hockey Place…

I know you're busy just now...but I want to tell you some things I never told you. I know sometimes I act stupid and take stupid penalties. But you kept me around when others would have said, ‘Drop that bum.’ You give me respect. It's hard for me to say these things because that ain't my way... but if I could just be someone else, I'd want to be you. You're all heart.


Now blast this guy's teeth out!

I'll try.

Balbovechkin is starting to make his way toward the ring. Listen to this crowd! This borders on pure hatred.  Ovey's face is absolutely like stone. He is the picture of concentration. The booing crowd here does not seem to bother him one bit. The champ has a look tonight that can burn through lead.  Listen to this crowd. It sounds insane... Now the entrance of the darling of Canada... Sidney Dragsby, a man with an entire country in his corner.  Look at the expression on the face of Sidney Dragsby. He seems impervious to the madness of the crowd. He's like a volcano just waiting to erupt.

I must break you.

Remember what I said back there about wanting to be you?


Forget it.

There's the opening face off. Balbovechkin picks up the puck at center ice… the Canadian following him into the corner… Once more, it's Dragsby backing up Ovey with a poke check… Balbovechkin is not staying on balance because of the Canadian’s stick.

Balbovechkin is pounding away at the midsection of the Canadian defense!

He hit him with everything he's got! - Dragsby just smiled at him.

Dragsby is continuing to punish Ovey Balbovechkin!

Ovey Balbovechkin is just trying to get through this first period.

He's not only fighting what appears to be an invincible opponent... he's also fighting a very hostile crowd.

What's happening out there?

He's winning.  I see three of him out there.

Get the one in the middle.

There's the bell for round two, uh, faceoff to start the second period. It's been a one-sided fight so far.

It will take more than luck for Ovey to survive this period.

Ovey Balbovechkin has taken Sidney Dragsby's best punches so far.

He's hit! - The Canadian’s hit! It's a huge hit!

Now it's Ovey Balbovechkin coming after Sidney Dragsby! The Canadian wants to go on! He hits Balbovechkin in the [edited for younger audiences, but it’s somewhere south of the navel and north of the knees]. It's a gutter war! No holds barred in Vancouver! This is shaping up to be a personal war. Right now, it's anybody's boxing match… uh, hockey game.

You're doing good. I couldn't do better myself.


You got him hurt bad. Now he's worried. You hit him! You hurt him! You see? He's not a machine! He's a man! You want it more than he does! No pain! Take it to him! Get up!

This place is ready to explode. Lethal punch after punch! Amazing willpower! Neither man backing off. Ovey Balbovechkin's determination is actually winning over the once-hostile crowd. This is incredible.

What period is it?

Third. One more period.

There's no stopping us now. This is our period. No stopping now! You start, and you don't stop! All your strength! All your power! All your love! Everything you've got! To win, you have to knock him out! Shoot ‘til you can't shoot no more! This is your whole life here! Knock him out! Do it now!

Which one of these fighters will be standing at the end of this period? Dragsby snaps out a wrist shot, and another. Ovey taking punishment, trying to get inside the Canadian defense! He's completely exhausted. Balbovechkin is chopping the Canadians down! He SCORRRRRRRRRRRRRES!!!

Ovey Balbovechkin has done the impossible!!!... and these people love it! It is absolute pandemonium! More than ever, Ovey has proven himself a true champion!

Thank you. I came here tonight... and I didn't know what to expect. I've seen a lot of people hating me... and I didn't know... what to feel about that, so... I guess I didn't like youse much either. During this fight, uh, game... I seen a lot of changing… the way you felt about me... and the way I felt about you. In here... there were two guys... killing each other. But I guess that's better than million people watching ice dancing. What I'm trying to say is... if I can change... and you can change... everybody can change!

I just want to say one thing to my fans in Washington... who should be home sleeping…

We’re gonna win the Cup, too!!!

Questions, Questions... Part 2

In the first installment of looking at the big question facing each team, we looked at the Southeast Division. Next up, the Atlantic…

New Jersey: Can you see the end from here?

If Team Canada roars back to take a gold medal at the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, and it is Roberto Luongo thrusting his arms skyward in triumph between the Canadian pipes, then there is going to be something more than a murmur asking the question about whether now, as he approaches his 38th birthday (May 6th), Martin Brodeur is coming to the end of a glorious career. Not this year, certainly, or even next year, but in terms of his being on the short list of goaltenders considered the best in the NHL we might be in sight of the end.

Truth be told, Marty’s been giving signals that this might be happening long before an iffy game against the Americans in the preliminary round of Olympic men’s ice hockey. Since Christmas, Brodeur is 11-12-2 in 25 appearances with a 2.61 GAA and .906 save percentage. It gets worse. Since he shut out Florida, 2-0, on January 20th, Brodeur is 4-6-2, 2.95, .879, and he has allowed fewer than three goals only three times.

And it is not as if this is a new development. Marty staggered to the close of last year’s regular season, too. In his last 11 games last season he was 4-6-1, 3.25, .897. Then, he and his Devils lost in the first round of the playoffs, Brodeur allowing four goals in three of the last four games of that series (each of those three games lost by New Jersey).

In 11 of 12 seasons before last year, when Brodeur was sidelined with an arm injury for much of the season, he finished his regular season well to the north side of 4,000 minutes played. With almost 3,400 minutes played this year, it would take an injury or an act of God (or Jacques Lemaire) to keep him from another 4,000 minute season, with his Vancouver minutes on top of that. New Jersey has the problem of being in something of a seeding bind. They are only one point ahead of Pittsburgh for the Atlantic Division lead (with the top-three seed winning it would provide) and two points ahead of Buffalo, which occupies the number five slot in the top eight at the moment. The Devils could find themselves looking at losing home ice advantage for the first round. It might not mean much, though, unless Brodeur’s recent results are merely an in-season slump. But if it’s another weak finish in store, well, it might not matter where Jersey plays.

Pittsburgh: Is more Sidney “too much” Sidney?

Caps fans will argue otherwise (emotionally, but that’s why we’re “fans”), but there is much to admire in the still-young career of Sidney Crosby. Not least among those things is an attitude that will not let him cut corners – he addresses weaknesses in his game critically. In his rookie season he was weak on faceoffs (45.5 percent). Since then he has become one of the best of that art in the league (11th as of the Olympic break). He was seen as primarily an offensive player early in his career, but has made himself, if not “Selke-class” on defense, then certainly an honest two-way player. The one thing that seemingly, given the high bar set for him, hadn’t yet come around was his ability to finish.

Well, he is on his way to putting that one to rest, too. At the break he is tied with Alex Ovechkin for the league lead in goals (42), already setting a career best mark. But the question going forward is whether more goal scoring from Crosby is too much goal scoring from Crosby. So far this year, he is responsible for 22.3 percent of the total number of goals scored by the Penguins. That, too, would be a career high (surpassing the 16.0 percent of Penguin goals he had in his rookie year). The trouble is, even with Crosby’s increase in goal scoring the Penguins are on a pace for the second lowest total of goals of Crosby’s tenure (248, which would best the 240 they had in 2007-2008).

A persistent problem, or so the narrative goes (with no small amount of truth), is that while the Penguins are strong down the middle with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal, they have been persistently weak on the wings. On the other hand Crosby is, as an accompanying narrative goes, the preeminent set-up man of this era. As evidence, he did help make Colby Armstrong a 16-goal scorer (in 47 games) in Crosby’s rookie year. Is it reasonable to expect that he could elevate the production of most any winger he has flanking him?

He’s had to deal with the absence of his regular left winger – Chris Kunitz – for much of the year, and it is true that his other regular winger (Bill Guerin) isn’t a spring chicken anymore. Perhaps it is a case of Crosby taking advantage of what openings are provided, with a dash of weakness on the wing thrown in. But are the Penguins a lesser club for Crosby’s assuming more of the goal-scoring burden? Offensively, this is (at the moment) objectively true in terms of their goal production. For the Penguins to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, they might have to find a way for Crosby to score fewer goals himself and take greater advantage of his playmaking gifts (which is perhaps the Penguins’ true “character,” much as the Caps character is defined by Alex Ovechkin scoring bushels of goals). If they don’t, and the Penguins become more of a one-note band, instead of a symphony, they’ll be singing a sad song this spring.

Philadelphia: Can a team go far without a “page one” goaltender?

The “page one” term refers to the statistical tables at the website. The goalies take up two pages of information, and to be a “page two” goalie in any statistical ranking (wins, GAA, save percentage, etc.) is to be among the lesser producers at that position in the league. While the Flyers’ goaltenders are not, strictly speaking, “page two” goalies, Ray Emery and Michael Leighton are not a pair to strike a lot of fear in the hearts of opposing shooters. Emery ranks 24th (of 45 goalies ranked) in goals-against average, Leighton ranks 27th (combined with Philadelphia and Carolina). In save percentage they rank 30th and 31st, respectively.

Philly hasn’t been able to win consistently with goaltending.

This has been a recurring theme for the Flyers ever since they stopped winning Stanley Cups when Gerald Ford was President of the United States. And while one could argue that the tandem of Emery and Leighton is statistically better than Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov/Michal Neuvirth for the Capitals, the Flyers also average almost a full goal scored less per game than do the Caps. For the Flyers, there is less room for error among their goalies.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that Emery was 5-2-0 going into the Olympic break after losing five straight decisions in six appearances (the last decision coming in his first turn back after missing six weeks to injury). He also has a 1.73 GAA, .936 save percentage, and two shutouts to round out the numbers. If a healthy Emery is a productive Emery – more reminiscent of the goalie who started the year 11-4-1 in his first 16 decisions – the Flyers will have to be reckoned with.

New York Rangers: Can’t anybody here shoot this puck?

Except for Marian Gaborik, of course. Gaborik has accounted for 22.2 percent of the Rangers’ goals this season (35 of 158). But it gets more ominous for the Rangers. Since January 1st Gaborik has nine goals in 20 games, itself a drop-off in his pace in the 2009 portion of the season. But three of those nine goals came in a single contest – a hat trick against the Avalanche on January 31st. As Gaborik’s pace has fallen off, the Rangers aren’t seeing anyone picking up the pace. In 22 games since the start of the new year, Rangers not named “Gaborik” have scored a total of 45 goals (2.04/game). And yes, it does get still worse. 14 of the 54 goals the Rangers have since January 1st were scored in consecutive games in mid-January – a 6-2 win over Montreal and an 8-2 pasting of Tampa Bay. That’s two goals a game otherwise, even with Gaborik in the lineup.

The Rangers have been shutout four times in their last 17 games and have scored a single goal on four other occasions. Henrik Lundqvist can’t pitch a shutout every time out. The Rangers simply have to find scoring from somewhere… anywhere. If they don’t, they will go quick and quiet into the off-season.

New York Islanders: Can pluck and luck get them unstuck?

The Islanders, bless their souls, are one of the hardest working teams you will ever see this season. Yes, they have a glorious prospect in John Tavares – third on the team in scoring at the moment – but he is a minus-18 for the year, too (tied for second-worst on the team). Kyle Okposo will be a top-notch power forward someday, but today isn’t that day. He’s good, and will get better, but he isn’t yet at the point where a team can lean on him to carry them for long stretches. Mark Streit is one of the best power play point men in the game, but he’s getting next to no help on the blue line. The Islanders have a number of other young guys who have promise as well.

For the time being, while the young guys develop, the Islanders have to be better than the sum of their parts, work harder than their opponent, and get the bounces to win games. The trouble is, they haven’t been doing a lot of that lately – not unexpected at this time of the year for a club that has gotten by on guile and effort to this point of the season. The Islanders are 3-10-0 in their last 13 games going into the Olympic break since a four game winning streak in mid-January.

On paper, the Islanders have not lost contact with the top-eight teams. They are six points behind eighth-place Montreal with a game in hand. But as a practical matter – five teams to climb over and 20 games to do it with a thin roster – it is almost a betting certainty they will not accomplish the feat of making the dance. They will have to be content with the knowledge that better days do lie ahead, just not this year.