<
>

Daily Debate: Postseason scramble

3/23/2012

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss the pending punishment for Duncan Keith and the playoff races in the East and West.

BURNSIDE: Well, my friend, it's the end of another week. We have just a little more than two weeks left in the regular season, yet there have been significant developments. Tops on the list has to be the loss of Vancouver Canucks star winger Daniel Sedin, who took a nasty elbow to the head courtesy of former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith earlier this week and left the team to return to Vancouver. There's no real timetable for Sedin’s return, who suffered a concussion, and that could spell real trouble for the defending Western Conference champions. Although his numbers may be off a bit from last season's Art Ross scoring turn, Sedin leads the Canucks with 30 goals and 10 power-play goals. Can we start to calculate the potential impact his loss would have on the Canucks’ Stanley Cup dreams? They rebounded nicely with a big 2-1 win in Dallas on Thursday, a win that set the dominoes tumbling in the crazy Pacific Division, but it’s hard to imagine the Canucks advancing deep in the playoffs if their top goal scorer isn’t able to play.

As for the Pacific, the Stars' loss coupled with the Los Angeles Kings’ shootout win over St. Louis vaulted the Kings into the top spot in the Pacific. Phoenix, without Shane Doan, who was serving the first of a three-game suspension for elbowing in a play not all that different from the Keith-Sedin incident, held off Colorado. The Avs technically dropped out of the top eight in the Western Conference, although they’re tied with Dallas in points. Finally, the beleaguered San Jose Sharks came up with a monster 2-1 win over the defending Cup champs from Boston. How tough are things out West? San Jose is currently in 10th place, a point behind Dallas and Colorado. Wow!

LEBRUN: I'm going to require a cat nap on my office couch at some point today, Scotty, because I couldn't resist staying up to watch those Pacific Division games Thursday night. Just wish my 9-month-old twins would learn to sleep past 6 a.m. Speaking of twins, Henrik Sedin rocked on without his brother Daniel, showing leadership in a strong effort with two assists -- setting up the opening goal by Mason Raymond -- as the Canucks bounced back in Dallas. I spoke with Canucks assistant GM Laurence Gilman on Thursday, and Daniel was going to require further medical evaluation before the club would have any idea what it was looking at in terms of his absence.

In the meantime, the fate of Duncan Keith took a bizarre twist Thursday. At first, from what my sources told me, the league informed the Keith camp that he would have a phone hearing (meaning a suspension five games or fewer) on Friday at 2 p.m. ET. Later in the day, according to a source on Thursday night, Keith was asked about waiving his rights for an in-person hearing. In other words, the league would have the right to suspend Keith north of six games per the terms of the CBA (but it doesn't necessarily mean the league would). As of Thursday night, it wasn't clear whether Keith was going to waive his right to an in-person hearing or to fly to New York. But it certainly muddied the picture on his hearing.

But back to the ice, where the action was furious Thursday night, I was flipping back and forth especially between the games in L.A. and San Jose. There was some big-time hitting in both games. The Kings made it a season-high six in a row with the Jeff Carter shootout winner. They’re now 10-3-0 in their past 13 games, outscoring opponents 42-25. I wouldn't want to face this Kings team in the first round, Scotty. And the Sharks -- on life support -- pulled off a must-win over the Cup champs. I spoke with Sharks captain Joe Thornton Thursday morning, and it was clear in his voice that he would make sure his troops understood they had run out of chances and needed to buckle down. He led the way on the opening goal by creating the turnover that led to Joe Pavelski's marker. That set the tone for the evening.

BURNSIDE: You know how Vancouver fans and the local media will respond if Keith isn’t given a hefty suspension given their constant paranoia vis-a-vis conspiracies and the like. And there was no need for Keith to make that play on Daniel Sedin regardless of whatever transpired earlier in the game.

Meanwhile, you’ve got to feel a bit for Dallas. How tough would it be for the Stars to fall out of the playoffs after such a nice run for a team that was an afterthought for many prognosticators this past fall? I spoke to Stars owner Tom Gaglardi and president Jim Lites this week, and they’ve really seen the fan base respond in recent days, and not making the playoffs would be a real kick in the shins. But there they are in eighth place as we speak Friday morning. They’ve won one of their past four and now face a home-and-home with Calgary on Saturday and Monday. The Flames are on their last playoff legs and need to sweep this series to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive.

But let’s turn our attention eastward, my friend. Speaking of flickering, the Winnipeg Jets have an absolutely must-win situation on their hands Friday night in Washington. The Jets are five points back of eighth-place Washington with a game in hand. The Caps lost in a shootout in Philadelphia on Thursday, so the door is open for the Jets to close the gap a little. You can bet Buffalo will be cheering for the Jets or at least keeping a close eye on the scoreboard at Madison Square Garden, where the Sabres will be Friday night for a date with the Rangers. The charging Sabres are just a point out of eighth, and you know a surprise playoff berth would take some of the sting out of a largely disappointing season for the Sabres.

LEBRUN: I can’t let you get away with that Vancouver conspiracy comment, my friend. That was a nasty hit on a franchise player. I don’t blame Canucks fans for being up in arms. Keith isn’t a dirty player, but he deserves to get suspended for that one. Originally, I was thinking two to three games, but the more I watched it, I’d be more comfortable with four to five games for that hit -- an outright blow to the head, and the puck wasn’t around.

OK, now that I’ve tapped your knuckles a bit, let’s move back to the Eastern playoff race. Friday is a massive night in the battle for eighth, indeed, and let’s face it: The Jets need two points in regulation or it’s over. The Sabres, meanwhile, face a mighty tough one at MSG. I have a Ryan Miller Q&A blog today, Scotty, and you’ll be interested to read how he explains his team’s charge up the standings after a disastrous first half to the season. He’s certainly a huge reason the Sabres have rocketed up the standings, sporting a .939 save percentage in his past 15 starts (11-1-3). Does Miller remind you right now of the dude who nearly stole the gold medal for Team USA in February 2010?

BURNSIDE: Just so we’re clear, I’m not suggesting Keith doesn’t deserve to take a seat for his hit on Sedin. But you also understand that, whatever the penalty, it won’t be enough for the riotous fans in Vancouver. That’s just the way it is.

As for the Sabres, Miller is leading, as franchise netminders do, by putting aside all the external distractions and giving his team a chance every night. But it needs more, in my books, and this is the time for guys like Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford and Derek Roy to show their stuff, to show their mettle. This is a team that has failed to rise to the challenge in recent years -- witness its turn against Boston two years ago in the first round of the playoffs or last season when it had Philadelphia on the ropes in the first round and couldn’t close the deal. Although the Sabres' surge to the edge of the playoff bracket is admirable, it will mean absolutely zero if they can’t get over the hump. I still think the Caps, with Alex Ovechkin playing his best hockey of the season, will keep the Sabres outside the dance and will set up a long summer of reflection for the underachieving Sabres.

LEBRUN: After Friday night, the Sabres have seven games left: home games against Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Toronto; road games at Washington, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston. While ending the season at Philadelphia and Boston seems like a daunting task, those two teams may have nothing to play for come April 5-7. Call me crazy, but I think the Sabres are going to pull this off, my friend.

Have a great weekend, Scotty, and stay clear of Vancouver fans.