Daily Debate: Full night of statement games

March, 8, 2012
3/08/12
10:48
AM ET
Scott Burnside and Craig Custance preview a full night of action in the NHL and discuss the playoff implications surrounding the games.

BURNSIDE: Good day, my friend. How is Columbus? Is the city abuzz over Thursday's Jeff Carter homecoming as the suddenly smoking-hot Blue Jackets entertain the L.A. Kings? Interesting tilt to say the least, but that's the great thing about this time of the season: Every night seems to have at least one "statement" game on the docket.

For me, I like to see how teams under extreme pressure respond, not just to setbacks, but to success too. Take Buffalo. The Sabres were bounced in a big game Monday in Winnipeg that could have moved them back into the playoff bracket but rebounded Wednesday to beat Carolina in overtime at home. The power play managed to score twice in one game for the first time since Dec. 26. The Sabres are 7-1-2 in their past 10, but they head to Boston on Thursday to play a Bruins team that is more than a little ornery given their tepid play of late. The two teams have lots of bad blood between them thanks in large part to Milan Lucic steamrolling Sabres netminder Ryan Miller earlier this season. For me this is one of those "show me" games. Buffalo is just two points out of eighth once again and a win in Boston would go a long way to suggesting their renaissance is more fire than smoke. What say you -- are you a Buffalo believer or not? My prediction, by the way: Boston 5, Buffalo 2.

CUSTANCE: Columbus is fantastic, especially the sweet potato fries from Tip Top, but part of me does wish I could be in Boston to watch what should be an intense game. I have to admit that I thought it was a bit puzzling the Sabres weren't more active in selling off pieces at the deadline, but maybe GM Darcy Regier had a better feel for how close his team was to getting back in the race. Since the deadline, in which Regier landed the ultra-talented Cody Hodgson, the Sabres are 4-1. Now, if you're looking at the Eastern Conference playoff race and you're betting on goalies, who better than Ryan Miller? Since the All-Star break, he's 11-3-3 with a 1.84 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. And not to oversimplify the race, but if you look at the teams fighting for the No. 8 spot -- Winnipeg, Buffalo, Washington, Tampa Bay, Toronto -- not one of them has a winning record on the road, and that's being kind. It could just come down to who plays at home the most. But I'll pick the Sabres in Boston. Miller is 2-1 against the Bruins this season with a 1.45 goals-against average. He'll keep it going.

What about your favorite division, the Southeast? Big one Thursday in Washington, where the Lightning can actually catch the Capitals in the standings with a regulation win. Can they pull it off?

BURNSIDE: The Lightning remain an enigma wrapped up inside a paradox covered by a layer of "huh?" And the questions keep coming for a team that stayed in the playoff hunt in spite of unloading three everyday players before the deadline in Dominic Moore, Pavel Kubina and Steve Downie and now have no No. 1 goaltender with the surprising Mathieu Garon gone long-term with a groin injury. Last year’s playoff hero, Dwayne Roloson, has been, well, awful, and that leads me to believe that Guy Boucher will give AHL call-up Dustin Tokarski every chance to keep the Lightning’s modest playoff hopes alive. The 22-year-old has been on a tear for the Lightning’s AHL squad in Norfolk, but this will truly be a baptism by fire as the Lightning are just four points out of eighth with a game in hand. They have to leap over three teams to get to the playoffs, including their opponent Thursday, the puzzling Washington Capitals.

The Caps continue to suggest they are a team without a clue as they blew a 2-0 lead against Carolina the other night and lost in overtime. I know this isn’t all about Alex Ovechkin; it’s never about one guy, but if there ever was a time for Ovechkin to prove he’s "the man," that he’s a leader and that this is his team, now would be it. Honestly, though, I don’t see it. With Steven Stamkos making a late bid for a Hart Trophy a la Corey Perry of last season, I think the Bolts keep it interesting and the Caps keep floundering. You?

CUSTANCE: Well, if Brad Thiessen can all but end Toronto's playoff hopes, I guess Tokarski can extend Tampa's. The Lightning are proving to be a stubborn group, which shouldn't be surprising considering Martin St. Louis is the heart and soul of that group. And Stamkos has certainly propelled himself into Hart Trophy consideration, but boy, games like the other night scare me. Ottawa put up seven on Tampa, and I know two were empty-net goals, but still, five goals is a lot to surrender in the midst of a playoff race. I realize Tokarski was down in the AHL setting records with his eight-game winning streak, but now he's in the middle of an NHL playoff race. That's a lot to ask of a 22-year-old. I guess the bottom line is, all these teams fighting for that No. 8 spot in the East have serious flaws and it's hard to get really excited about any of them.

Can we talk about the West instead? Big one in Dallas on Thursday between the Sharks and Stars. San Jose is reeling and struggling to score goals, but the Sharks have owned Dallas this season. The Stars are playing great and coming off an impressive 5-2 win in Vancouver and absolutely killed it during a Western Canadian road trip. But I see an opportunity for the Sharks to come out of their slumber. We've seen them struggle for long stretches in the past before putting it together in time for the playoffs. It needs to happen soon for the Sharks, and I say they come out on top 4-2. What about you?

BURNSIDE: The Sharks remind me of the Washington Capitals both historically and in their current state. So much talent. So much promise. And yet they seem to be missing some key ingredient. The Sharks have managed to win just twice in their past 11 games. Given the mediocrity of the Pacific Division, they should have been running away with the division lead. Instead, they appear aimless. We’ve asked all season (and beyond, really) about the leadership abilities of Ovechkin. OK, so where is Joe Thornton in all of this? Dan Boyle? Patrick Marleau? When GM Doug Wilson struck out on the Rick Nash front at the deadline, he seemed to have settled on an acceptable Plan B by beefing up his offensive corps with Daniel Winnik and T.J. Galiardi, whom he acquired from Colorado for Jamie McGinn. Now it’s McGinn lighting it up for the Avs and Colorado is now tied in points with the Sharks (although the Avs have played three more games).

Whether the Sharks have owned the Stars or not, I am becoming a believer in Glen Gulutzan and, yes, even Kari Lehtonen, whom you and I have both seen wilt under the pressure of being "the man," so I see the misery continuing for the Sharks on Thursday. In fact, I’ll be a bit surprised if we don’t wake up tomorrow to find that the Sharks are outside the playoff bubble altogether.

But before I leave you to the city of Columbus, I want your prediction for Thursday’s homecoming ball at Nationwide Arena.

CUSTANCE: The Kings are going to keep things rolling in Columbus. We've seen nearly every other Western Conference team go on a long winning streak, except for Los Angeles. The Kings have now won three games in a row, and they're actually scoring goals, which wasn't the case earlier this season.

"We're playing well, we're getting pucks to the net -- couple lucky breaks," center Mike Richards said when we chatted following practice Wednesday. "We're giving up a little too much defensively right now, but we're winning hockey games."

Jeff Carter is proving to be a good fit with the Kings and has clearly sparked the team offensively, but just as importantly, Los Angeles is excited about the ability of defenseman Slava Voynov, who is helping fill the void created by Jack Johnson's departure.

"You look at how [Dean Lombardi] built his team -- you don't weaken one to strengthen another," Darryl Sutter said. "Voynov for his age is a pretty good player. And he's going to be a really good player."

Columbus is playing well right now under Todd Richards, but the Kings are just three points out of first in the Pacific and fighting for their lives in the playoff race. They need this one.

Well, Scott, it's been fun. Enjoy the games!

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