Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss how the Kings have improved under new coach Darryl Sutter and the rivalry between the two Pennsylvania teams.
BURNSIDE: Good day, my friend, and top of the New Year to you and yours. It's not quite time for New Year's resolutions, but maybe I should consider rethinking my view of the coaching change in Los Angeles. With Darryl Sutter behind the bench, the Kings aren't necessarily channeling the 1976 Montreal Canadiens, but they are coming up with the points.
Wednesday night was the team's most impressive win under its new head coach, a 2-0 effort against the top team in the Western Conference -- the Chicago Blackhawks. Sutter is coaxing a little more production out of his lineup as Trent Hunter and Jarret Stoll got the markers and Jonathan Quick was outstanding. The win moved the Kings into a tie for the final playoff berth in the West, and they have yet to lose in regulation since Sutter took over. Who knew? Not me, that's for sure. You, of course, thought the move was a brilliant one for general manager Dean Lombardi so, as much as it pains me, I tip my cap to you.
As you know, I am in Pittsburgh, so what do you make of the renewal of state rivalries tonight?
LEBRUN: Well it’s early yet, the Kings having played only four games (3-0-1) under Sutter, but yes, this is pretty much what I anticipated with his arrival. This was too good a lineup to be underachieving as much as it was. Sutter’s track record as a coach suggests he squeezes the most out of a roster, and so far that’s just what he’s done.
Winning in Chicago will do wonders for that team’s confidence. Quick had to be outstanding, especially in the third period, when the powerhouse Blackhawks came on like gangbusters and outshot the Kings 18-10. Quick shut the door for his NHL-leading fifth shutout. And as much as Rangers fans complain to me that Henrik Lundqvist doesn’t get enough national attention for his merit as a Vezina contender, I think it’s Kings fans who have the most to complain about, because I don’t think Quick gets nearly the kind of credit he deserves for putting up yet another terrific season. He’s top five in the NHL in my opinion. And mark my words, the Kings will make the playoffs.
Speaking of the playoffs, the Flyers and Penguins clash tonight in Pittsburgh, where you arrived yesterday (loved your Sidney Crosby piece, it was strong) and wouldn’t it be great to see these two Pennsylvania rivals hook up again next spring? We’ll settle at least for tonight’s return by Jaromir Jagr, who after talking to Pittsburgh for a number of weeks (as well as Detroit) surprised everyone by signing with the Flyers last July. Have to think he’ll be hearing a few boos tonight.
BURNSIDE: Gee, I hate it when you’re right. And worse, I hate it when you offer me praise after being right. My New Year’s resolution (or one of them) is to be more gracious. (Good luck with that, I say to myself.) Not sure I’d put Quick in my top five, but I will acknowledge that in a very disappointing first half, especially offensively, he has been a lone bright light. And you may be right about the playoffs. But you also know that just making the postseason won’t be enough for ownership in L.A. given the money they’ve invested in that franchise and the importance of being a real player in the crowded sports and entertainment landscape on the left coast.
But on to the game here in Pittsburgh tonight. I would suggest Jaromir Jagr has been one of the surprise feel-good stories of the first half. Who knew what the 39-year-old had left in the tank, yet he’s on pace for a point-a-game season, and listening to coach Peter Laviolette yesterday and GM Paul Holmgren earlier in the season, you have to be impressed with the leadership role the five-time scoring champ has assumed in a team that is without its captain for the rest of the season. For all his quirkiness, Jagr remains both a rare talent and a guy who works tirelessly at his craft. Good for him for coming back regardless of the jersey he’s wearing and proving doubters wrong.
Should be a great atmosphere at the Consol Energy Center tonight, and Jagr will no doubt get booed lustily. Curious, though, to see how they react to Max Talbot, the 2009 Stanley Cup hero who returns as well for his first game in Pittsburgh since signing a big deal with the hated Flyers this summer.
LEBRUN: I don’t blame Talbot one bit for taking a better financial offer. Gritty, two-way checkers like him are going to have one, maybe two, chances in their career to cash in. I know Penguins fans talk about his lack of loyalty, etc., but if you were in his shoes, with a one-time chance at making the most money in your career, knowing as we all do now more than ever that you’re one hit away from it all being over, you’d understand why he left. He went from making $1.05 million last season in Pittsburgh to $1.75 million on average per season on a five-year deal in Philly. That’s both a big raise plus long-term security for Talbot. I can’t imagine anyone not understanding that. Will he get booed tonight as well? I suppose so. He was a tremendously popular player in Pittsburgh and the fans hated seeing him sign with the rival Flyers.
Speaking of rivals, how about that clash last night in San Jose between the Sharks and Vancouver Canucks? The repeat of last spring’s Western Conference finals lived up to billing with a monster of a game. Andrew Ebbett tipped in Kevin Bieksa’s point shot in overtime for a 3-2 win, but the Sharks were full value in this one to have at least gotten a point, having outshot the Canucks 16-4 in the third period. Great tilt between two Cup contenders. And I think it was important for the Sharks -- who have been inconsistent this season -- to have performed like they did last night, to show they can still play with a red-hot powerhouse like Vancouver. Great tilt last night in San Jose.
BURNSIDE: I know that you have your computer set to the "default" mode in the fall when you make your Stanley Cup predictions and that default key has a Sharks logo on it. But I’d be a lot more impressed with the Pacific Division leaders if they actually won a few games (OK, they won four in a row before losing to Anaheim -- huh? -- and the Canucks).
Still, they should be able to sleepwalk their way to the division crown given the offensive outage in Los Angeles and Anaheim’s season-long slump. But before we close, I’d be interested in your take on the Ron Wilson contract extension in Toronto. The Leafs, beaten by the Florida Panthers in their last outing on Tuesday, are a mediocre team at best and anyone who thinks extending Wilson’s contract is anything but window dressing is using spoiled maple syrup. Is there any doubt that GM Brian Burke will have to fire Wilson if the Leafs, just one point out of ninth in the Eastern Conference, fail to make the playoffs for the seventh straight year?
LEBRUN: Given the deep pockets at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, a contract extension doesn’t manufacture the kind of job security it does in other markets, that’s for sure. I think your assessment of the Leafs as a mediocre team is a little harsh, although if you mean that to say they’ll be in a dogfight for one of the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, then I agree with you. That’s the way it was supposed to be from the beginning, but a torrid October gave some Leafs fans false hope that the club could actually challenge for the Northeast Division lead. Not so. Still, I see some improvement in this club from a year ago, and while the late run for a playoff spot last season I believe was a mirage born out of having the pressure turned off when everyone gave up on them last February, this season the Leafs are hanging in there with the pressure still on. Oh, but that penalty killing. It’s been a story for a few years here in Toronto. They’re dead last in the NHL right now, killing only 72.7 percent of opposing power plays. No way they make the playoffs unless they improve in that area.
Well my friend, I will see you in Philadelphia tomorrow morning as we get set to cover the Winter Classic weekend together leading up to the big game Monday afternoon. Talk then.