Today, Scott Burnside and Craig Custance take a stab at figuring what will happen to the Capitals, Penguins, Coyotes and ... Mike Yeo?
BURNSIDE: Greetings, Mr. Custance. I watched the Pittsburgh-Washington tilt last night with more than a little melancholy. It was a terrific hockey game, with goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun making some big saves, and there were lots of big hits. In the end, the Caps emerged with a hard-fought 1-0 victory. Still, it seems like a million years removed from that classic playoff series of 2009, when both teams were at the tops of their games. Absent from last night’s match were Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Jordan Staal, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. A veritable All-Star squad of the injured.
With the win, the Caps moved past Pittsburgh into eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The two teams have the same number of points, but the Caps have played one fewer game. Shocking, isn’t it, to consider that one or both of these two perennial Cup contenders could miss the playoffs.
Good news, at least relatively speaking, was that Crosby was joining the Pens on their road trip and was scheduled to start skating again on his own. But what that means as far as a potential return to action, who knows? The Caps are an interesting study because they miss Green so much on the blue line that it’s been difficult for them to gain any sort of traction under Dale Hunter. They had won four in a row, then were outscored 10-4 in a rocky two-game road trip out West before last night's big win at home over the Pens. Perfect world? Both teams get healthy in the second half and sneak into the playoffs, setting up a couple of terrific first-round matchups, maybe against Boston and the New York Rangers. Thoughts, my friend?
CUSTANCE: I had the same thoughts you did while watching that game last night. A showdown between the Penguins and Capitals used to be appointment television, so it was a little strange seeing it relegated to a game between two teams fighting for the final playoff spot. The Capitals won the game, but man, you could just see the fight in the Penguins. There's a lot of pride on that roster, and amid their losing streak, they showed signs that they're a team you wouldn't want to face. They just need to find ways to score.
The good news is that Sidney Crosby is making progress in his recovery and could be working toward a return this season after rumors circulated that he might be out all year. Earlier this week, I suggested to Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis that Crosby should just shut it down until the playoffs and show up for Game 1 of the first round. "If he feels good, he will come back. It's as easy as that," Dupuis answered. "I'm not going to lie to you. I want to get my centerman back." My plan is slightly flawed because there's no guarantee the Penguins would even make the postseason without Crosby, and that makes his recovery this time around a little more interesting. I have to believe, on some level, that it was a little easier to be extremely patient while the Penguins were winning. An intense competitor like Crosby must hate to sit and watch the team lose while he's out.
BURNSIDE: Both teams will face hard decisions in the coming weeks depending on their place in the standings. Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero has never been shy come trade deadline time to try to give his team the best chance at a long playoff run, as witnessed by his acquisitions of Marian Hossa, Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin, Alexei Ponikarovsky (OK, so that didn’t work out so well) and Alex Kovalev (ditto). But if half your core is out with injury -- and there is no real indication when or if those core players will return or whether it will be too late when they do -- what is the upside to adding pieces at the cost of draft picks or prospects? Of course, if you think you’ll get at least some of those players back, and especially if you think you can get Crosby back at some point, then your team suddenly has the potential to challenge the Bruins or Rangers come playoff time. Obviously, things will become a little clearer for Shero as the Feb. 27 trade deadline approaches, but it will be interesting to watch it unfold.
As for Caps GM George McPhee, he also has been active at recent trade deadlines. But given the precarious position his team is in, what more does he do, and will his moves be predicated on the statuses of Backstrom and especially Green, who will be almost impossible to replace outside of acquiring a guy like a Ryan Suter?
CUSTANCE: That's the thing with these two teams. There's not a move they can make that is more important than getting healthy. The Capitals have just one loss when Green plays, and there's not a more important forward on this team than Backstrom, and that includes Alex Ovechkin. But of the two teams, I would say that the Penguins have to be a little more urgent in their trade talks. You want to reward guys like James Neal for gutting it out and battling while the stars recover. The problem is that opposing general managers see what we see. Brian Burke jokes that his rival GMs offer up anchors when the Leafs are struggling, and I'm sure Shero is getting offered plenty of anchors right now.
Changing gears, the Western Conference offers up some interesting matchups tonight. Canucks versus Blues. Wild versus Blackhawks. I spent a lot of time yesterday at Coyotes practice. They're in the middle of the most grueling part of their schedule, where a home game has been rare. They'll play in Detroit tonight and are coming off a tightly played game against the Rangers that they lost in the shootout.
"The schedule, you never want to make that an issue. As a coach, you try to monitor your team and where their energy levels are physically and mentally, [but] this has been a challenging part of our schedule, for sure," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "Every day we come, we pound away and try to find a way to get things done. Sometimes it's not pretty."
The Coyotes sit three points outside of a playoff spot but are squarely in survival mode.
BURNSIDE: Yes, the Yotes are in tough, as always, given that they will have little financial wiggle room come the trade deadline. But getting Mike Smith back from injury is key to the team’s hopes of sneaking into the postseason for a third straight year. The Yotes are three points out of eighth and have to hope the seventh-place Minnesota Wild keep sliding. That was a big win for Minnesota the other night as they blew a lead, then hung on for a shootout victory in Matt Cullen’s 1,000th game.
And here’s a shout-out to one of the game’s classiest players. Cullen told me during a recent visit with the Wild (when they didn’t stink) that he thought there were some parallels between this team and the Carolina team on which he played that won a Cup in ’06. A win against a Chicago team that, before beating up on Columbus (ho-hum, who doesn’t do that every night?), had gone four games without a win would do wonders for the Wild’s confidence. I have to give rookie head coach Mike Yeo all kinds of credit, though, for benching Devin Setoguchi against the Sharks after the winger missed a team meeting. If Setoguchi has any shame at all, he’s going to blow the doors off tonight after putting his coach and teammates in a tough spot the other night.
CUSTANCE: Every coach talks about accountability, but actions like that prove it. Mike Yeo has been outstanding in Minnesota this year and has to be considered a Jack Adams Award contender along with Kevin Dineen, John Tortorella and Ken Hitchcock.
All right, I know you don't want to talk about All-Star rosters, but I'll bring this conversation full circle. The rest of the All-Star team will be announced today, and it's quite possible that we have an All-Star Game without Crosby or Ovechkin, unless Ovechkin's recent charge is enough to get him in. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, though; this game could be an opportunity to highlight emerging stars Claude Giroux, John Tavares and Jordan Eberle. Jamie Benn could be on the bubble, but he's another guy who deserves national recognition. It'll be interesting to see who fills those final couple of roster spots. It's always a tough decision. Well, Scotty, it's been fun. Enjoy the games tonight!