- Scott Burnside, NHL
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1. Leadership lacking in Edmonton
It seems everyone is prepared to give the Edmonton Oilers a free pass this season no matter what they do. While the red flares are shooting up all over the league, at least as far as the media are concerned, with teams from Calgary to Long Island to Toronto, everyone seems to pretty much shrug their shoulders at the Oilers' foibles. Fair enough. We get that they are rebuilding after a dead-last finish last season. We are a big fan of coach Tom Renney, and we think he has the perfect temperament to coach a young team that has miles to go before they sleep. But, youthfulness doesn't excuse lethargy and downright incompetence on the ice and there have to be hard questions asked about the ancillary parts of this team and the example they're setting for the team's young cornerstones, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi.
During a just-completed four-game Eastern road trip, the Oil were crushed 7-1 and 6-2 by Carolina and Detroit, respectively. They blew a 3-1 lead against woeful New Jersey, allowing the Devils to win their first home game of the season. Then to close out the trip, they led the New York Rangers 2-1 before giving up seven unanswered goals en route to a 8-2 shellacking on Sunday. And this with backup Martin Biron in goal for the Rangers.
So, just who is setting the example in Edmonton? Dustin Penner? He was minus-4 on Sunday and has shown little inclination to use his size or his abilities for the greater good. Defenseman Tom Gilbert? Likewise minus-4 on Sunday and minus-10 on the road trip.
The Oilers' sorry plight brings into sharper focus the questionable decision to banish veteran defenseman Sheldon Souray to the AHL after his squabble with management last season.
Could Souray's presence in the lineup (when he's not injured, as he is now) have been any worse an example than what the Oilers' "leadership" core has shown thus far? One would think not.
2. On the road again
Coaches in general don't like to discuss the schedule because, like the weather, what else are you going to do but get your umbrella out when it rains? Yet you could hardly blame Tampa head coach Guy Boucher for shaking his head as he packs for yet another first-quarter road trip.
After dropping a 4-1 decision to the Minnesota Wild on Sunday in Tampa, the Lightning are back on the road this week for games in Long Island, Philadelphia and Buffalo.
Before Christmas, they will have completed their second trip to the West with a swing through Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. By the time Canadians finish celebrating Boxing Day on Dec. 26, the Lightning will have played 36 games, 22 of which will have been played away from the St. Pete Times Forum.
Throw in the crippling spate of injuries that has seen the Lightning lose captain Vincent Lecavalier and Simon Gagne long term along with Steve Downie (he returned to action Sunday), and Boucher acknowledged these are difficult times for the team.
"It's survival time. Let's not kid ourselves, until Christmas it's survival time. We know it. We knew it. What we didn't know is that we were going to get all these injuries and all these guys that were sick," Boucher said.
The Lightning began the season as one of the top offensive teams in the NHL but have managed just 13 goals in their past seven games.
On Sunday the Lightning outshot Minnesota 38-18 but couldn't take control of the game when it was there to be taken.
"We want to see through the clouds. We're in a cloud right now," Boucher said.
Not that the Bolts are the only team that longs for some home cooking. As of Monday morning, the New York Islanders had played a league-low five home games and a league-high 12 road games. They have not won a game anywhere since Oct. 21, 11 games ago.
3. Wild becoming legit contender
Slowly but surely, the Minnesota Wild are edging themselves back into a position where they may be more than just a team that hovers around the edge of the playoff bubble.
Although they still rank 27th in goals per game, they have managed to lop off almost a goal per game from last year's weak defensive effort.
They currently rank sixth in goals allowed per game and combine that with two top-rated special teams and it's easy to see why the Wild are pleased with how they've turned things around as they began the week in second place in the Northwest Division, four points back of Vancouver.
"That's the strength of our team right now, our specialty teams play and our goaltending," GM Chuck Fletcher told ESPN.com.
Improving the team's goals against was a top priority from Day 1 of training camp. But Fletcher also understands there is more than a little impatience in the State of Hockey given that the team hasn't won a playoff round since 2003 and has missed the playoffs the past two seasons.
Even though the team has been without five to seven regulars pretty much since the start of the season, they still have managed to ice a squad that boasts the NHL's top power play and a penalty-killing unit that is ranked seventh.
On Sunday, the power play accounted for two more goals in a 4-1 victory, a game in which they were badly out-chanced.
"We bend a lot but we don't break," Fletcher said. "It's hard when you lose skilled players," he said. "It's been a bit of a challenge for us."
4. Elliot earns Senators' confidence
Funny how things go when it comes to goaltending. Two years ago when the Ottawa Senators added Pascal Leclaire from Columbus, they hoped the deal would solidify a position that had been in turmoil since Ray Emery's fall from grace after the 2007 run to the Stanley Cup final. But Leclaire has been prone to injury and when healthy, prone to playing poorly. In his place has stepped Brian Elliott, who was drafted in the ninth round by the Sens back in 2003. How long ago was that? They don't even have a ninth round anymore. Yet Elliott has earned the confidence of a Senators team that has surged back into the hunt for the Northeast Division crown with a 9-4 record that includes five straight victories and seven wins in his past eight appearances.
Saturday, Elliott backstopped the Senators to a 2-0 win over Boston with 31 saves in a game that saw Tim Thomas suffer his first loss of the season.
The victory also saw the Sens leapfrog Boston in the Northeast Division standings.
5. Odd man out in Philadelphia
Just in case you thought life was fair, we bring you the soon to be uncomfortable issue confronting Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren.
Netminder Michael Leighton is back skating and will soon be healthy enough to rejoin the Flyers after surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back. When he does, the red-hot Flyers will have three netminders and Holmgren will be in the unenviable position of having to dispose of one of the goaltenders who helped make the Flyers' improbable run to the Stanley Cup final last spring possible. Barring a setback to Leighton, it is likely Brian Boucher will find himself sent to the AHL as the odd man out in the rotation. Of course, it was Boucher who stoned the New York Rangers in a shootout in Game 82 last year to get the Flyers into the playoffs. He was the goalie who helped the Flyers dispose of New Jersey in five games and was the goaltender that started the Flyers' historic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit against Boston before he was injured and Leighton carried the freight the rest of the way.
Regardless of that valiant effort, Boucher will likely be set out with the trash in the coming days thanks to the impeccable play of rookie netminder Sergei Bobrovsky who has 10 wins, tied for second in the NHL, and boasts a save percentage of .932 and 2.08 GAA.
The Flyers could carry three netminders, but that makes little sense vis a vis the salary cap, so when Leighton gets clearance to play one will have to go. Fair? No. Reality? Indeed.
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6dScott Burnside and Craig Custance