Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun talk about the surprise Senators, big names who should return soon and the befuddling Sharks.
Burnside: Good day, my friend. Well, I must give credit where credit is due. The oft-maligned (by me, anyway) Kyle Turris set up the winning goal for the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night to defeat Buffalo 4-1. The win propelled the Senators into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference -- over the Sabres. Nice for GM Bryan Murray to see immediate dividends from a deal with Phoenix that cost him a top defensive prospect in David Rundblad and a second-round draft pick.
The Coyotes also won, surviving a late penalty shot to defeat Florida 2-1. The Yotes are tied in points for eighth place in the Western Conference (they’ve played more games, so are technically ninth), so maybe this is one of those deals that works out for both squads. Rundblad did not play Tuesday, but he’s part of a very impressive crop of youngsters along the Coyotes' blue line.
But let’s look ahead to the Philadelphia Flyers’ visit to Dallas on Wednesday night. I spoke with surprising young netminder Richard Bachman, who has had an immediate impact on the Stars in the absence of Kari Lehtonen, who is out with a groin injury (hardly shocking given Lehtonen’s history). The Stars lead the suddenly weak-kneed Pacific Division, and Bachman has been a big part of keeping the team on track with a 4-1 record.
But the story of the night will be the potential for the pride of Hearst, Ontario (one of many hockey luminaries to come from the small, northern outpost) to return to the Flyers’ lineup. With all the bad news surrounding concussions of late, this would be almost too much to hope for.
LeBrun: It is certainly Claude Giroux's intent to return, from what I’m told, but we’ll see whether the Flyers’ training staff gives it the final green light. If so, what a relief for the Flyers and their fans, who held their breath when the league’s leading scorer went out with a concussion. As we’ve all found out all too well, unfortunately, over the past few years, there’s no timetable for a concussion. Everyone reacts differently to it. No one would feel better, by the way, of Giroux's returning than teammate Wayne Simmonds, whose inadvertent knee felled Giroux on a freak play.
You mentioned the Senators, however. It's hard to believe they’re sitting in a playoff spot as we speak today, tied with the rival (and fading) Maple Leafs with 36 points. Murray made no bones in September about how he viewed this as a retooling season, one that could have some short-term pain to gain the long-term benefits of properly rebuilding the base in the hope of eventually cobbling together a contender.
He would never admit it, of course, but I’m telling you he’d be as surprised as the rest of us to see the Sens’ immediate rise with so many young players playing crucial minutes. One of those young bucks is 20-year-old defenseman Jared Cowen, Ottawa’s first pick -- ninth overall -- in the 2009 NHL entry draft. He’s playing top-four minutes on the blue line and looks like he belongs. He’s a big reason, along with the offensive machine that is Erik Karlsson, that Murray felt comfortable dealing Rundblad in the Turris deal.
Burnside: Another guy who looks like he’s making remarkable progress in coming back from what looked to be a potentially long-term injury is Tampa’s Martin St. Louis. After taking a puck to the face courtesy of teammate Dominic Moore during the morning skate before a game against the New York Rangers on Dec. 8, no one could guess how long St. Louis would be out. Yet he joined his teammates on their western road trip and skated Tuesday with them in San Jose. There’s a possibility St. Louis will play Wednesday night, but more likely he’ll return after the Christmas break. Not a moment too soon for a Lightning team that has struggled to find the consistency that marked its advancement to the Eastern Conference finals this past spring.
As well as Steven Stamkos has played -- he leads the league with 20 goals and is sixth with 37 points -- I don’t think there’s any way the Lightning get a sniff of the playoffs without St. Louis, a surprise if well-deserved finalist for the Hart Trophy last season. The Lightning woke up Wednesday morning six points out of eighth in the Eastern Conference, in 13th place.
Meanwhile, your annual Cup-winner prediction, San Jose, is hanging on to eighth in the West, and it looks like the enigmatic Martin Havlat will be out of action at least short term.
LeBrun: Well, let’s be honest, the Sharks are either third in the West or eighth in the conference depending on the day. If they beat Tampa on Wednesday night, they’re back into third in the conference. Which I think we can both agree is where they’ll end up at the end of the regular season -- atop the Pacific Division. The Sharks have played well in the past few games after hitting a rough patch. It’s unfortunate for Havlat, because after struggling for the opening two months, he was finally coming into form when he got hurt.
It's interesting to see the Minnesota Wild have extended their recent slide to five games (0-3-2). Injuries have taken their toll on the surprising team. The Wild are now dealing with the kind of key injuries that many teams have had to cope with this season. It was finally their turn. The Wild’s five-game stumble has opened the door for the powerhouse Canucks to chase down first place in the Northwest Division. Vancouver is only three points back with two games in hand on Minnesota. Ever since you wrote that glowing piece on the Wild, Scotty, they’ve been snakebit.
Burnside: Actually, it was interesting that in a conversation at the team hotel in Los Angeles, rookie head coach Mike Yeo acknowledged the team would go through a stretch like this. All teams do. And he predicted that people would assume this was the “same old Wild” revealing their true nature. The good thing for the Wild is that they built themselves a cushion that should see them ride out a rough stretch -- provided it doesn’t turn into a month of losses. Their goaltending is too good, although I don’t see any way the Wild actually finish ahead of the surging Canucks. The Canucks are looking very much like the team that dominated on both sides of the puck all last regular season.
As for the Sharks, I agree they should not just win the Pacific but also run away with the division given Anaheim’s descent and the up-and-down nature of the Stars and Coyotes. But "should” and “can” are two entirely different things, so we’ll see whether the Sharks can shake the cobwebs loose in the new year.
I think it may come down to a three-way battle in the Pacific between the Kings, Coyotes and Stars for that final playoff spot, and that’s assuming Darryl Sutter can coax more offense out of the anemic Kings -- something I’m not entirely sold on, as you know.
LeBrun: Coming into the season, I again labeled the Pacific Division the best in the NHL, but it has been far from it so far this season. Anaheim’s dramatic plunge and L.A.’s surprising struggles have dragged down what was once last season the best division in the league. Right now, you’d be hard-pressed not to say the Atlantic is tops in the league with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, the Rangers and Devils all holding down playoff spots as of today. Those first three teams are all playing like Cup contenders with a revived New Jersey team not too far behind. Tough sledding in that division, boy, that’s for sure.
Until Thursday, Scotty.