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5 Things: Flames rising as Wild fall, tiebreakers outlook, drama in Phoenix

3/24/2011

1. Iginla gamble paying off

We will admit to being quietly surprised when Calgary interim GM Jay Feaster was so emphatic in his insistence that he would not seek to move captain Jarome Iginla before the Feb. 28 trade deadline.

When Feaster took over for GM Darryl Sutter, forced out by ownership, the Flames were buried in the Western Conference standings. They were saddled with bad contracts and a barren assets cupboard. Iginla, who had struggled through the first part of this season, had two more years left on his current deal and a no-move clause, but it seemed like moving the classy captain might be the best thing for all concerned. Iginla would have fetched a veritable king's ransom on the trade deadline market -- the Bruins and Kings were among the teams that were rumored to have been interested in Iginla's services -- and, well, the Flames weren't going anywhere, right?

"When I first got here there's no question we were getting those phone calls about Jarome and Kipper [netminder Miikka Kiprusoff] and Robyn [Regehr]," Feaster told ESPN.com on Monday.

Cue the dramatic music.

Feaster refused to entertain the notion of moving his prized asset just as he had resisted the temptation to move Tampa Bay captain Vincent Lecavalier when the same kind of dynamics existed in Tampa before the lockout. Feaster's stand was justified when the Bolts won a Cup behind Lecavalier in 2004.

Now, we're not suggesting the Flames will hoist the chalice this June, but watching Iginla become just the 10th NHL player to score at least 30 goals in 10 straight seasons during Sunday's 3-2 win over Nashville, you know that no one is going to want to face this team in the first round of the playoffs. The Flames have the best winning percentage of any Western Conference team since Jan. 1 with a 20-6-2 record, according to our friends at Elias Sports Bureau. Only the New Jersey Devils have a better winning percentage in that period.

By the deadline, Feaster acknowledged those calls looking to strip the Flames of their core of players, including their captain, had stopped entirely.

"They knew that we weren't going to be trading those guys out and that I was going to keep my word," Feaster said.

Iginla, who scored his 30th of the season in dramatic fashion on a penalty shot Sunday, has five goals and three assists in his last four games. The Flames, fifth in the Western Conference as of Monday morning, are 3-1 over that period.

While the offensive production is nice, Feaster said Iginla's overall contributions have been even more important, including him embracing head coach Brent Sutter's style of play.

"He's just been an important part not just offensively," the GM said.

2. Wild need Koivu back

On a team that has little profile, Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu is truly the quiet star. One has only to look at the current Western Conference standings to understand how important the big center is to the Wild. Before Koivu went down with a broken finger against Anaheim last month, the Wild had won 10 of 14 and had managed three three-game winning streaks over that period to vault themselves back into the playoff picture in the tightly packed Western Conference. Since then, the Wild have managed to win just three times in eight games without Koivu in the lineup. As of Monday, the Wild had sunk to a tie for ninth with Anaheim and Nashville. They are just one point out of eighth place, but unless they either get Koivu back in the lineup -- the Wild are hoping he returns before the end of the regular season -- or find a way to win without their captain, it will be another disappointing spring in the State of Hockey.

3. Playoff tiebreakers

Speaking of the Western Conference, it's going to be interesting to see how the new rules for tiebreakers impact both who gets into the playoffs and home-ice advantage.

Look at Monday's standings and you'll see Minnesota is ninth, even though they have played the same number of games and have the same number of points as Nashville and Anaheim. Anaheim has more wins, the traditional first tiebreaker, but this year shootout victories don't count for tiebreakers, so Anaheim drops below Minnesota in the standings because they have four shootout wins and the Wild have only two. What will be interesting is if the Los Angeles Kings fall into a tie for eighth. They will be in trouble given that they have seven shootout victories, which is tied for the league lead. Nashville, technically 11th because of their shootout record -- they have six shootout victories -- will now have to out-point rivals as opposed to simply tying them in the standings, as will the Ducks and Kings.

In the Eastern Conference, the New York Rangers will bear watching as they have seven shootout victories as well and so can't afford to end up in a tie for the eighth spot given current stats. They are coming off a 7-0 drubbing of Philadelphia on Sunday, so maybe the point is moot, but having missed the playoffs last year losing in a shootout in Game 82 against the Flyers, it would seem cruel if the Rangers ended up missing the postseason for a second straight year because of their success in the shootout (or rather lack of success in regulation or overtime).

Another interesting potential shootout impact could be atop the Southeast Division standings. The Capitals have edged ahead of Tampa by a point with the two teams set to clash Monday evening in Tampa. The Lightning have five shootout victories while the Caps have just two, so a tie between the two would likely be decided in Washington's favor based on current shootout records and drop Tampa into a more difficult first-round playoff matchup, at least in theory. Bottom line is that already compelling playoff races will have an added element of intrigue as the final month of the regular season unfolds.

4. Coyotes days in Phoenix numbered?

Hard to see that the city of Glendale's planned lawsuit against the Goldwater Institute -- ESPN.com first reported the city's plans to take the public watchdog group to court over their interference in the sale of municipal bonds Saturday evening -- will have any impact on the final outcome.

Indeed, a number of sources connected to the torturous process in Glendale believe the final dye has been cast and that it is only a matter of days before the lease agreement with Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer falls apart and the league formally announces it will move the team to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season.

The threat of the lawsuit, which multiple sources told ESPN.com was to be filed Monday, was seen as a last-ditch effort to get the Goldwater Institute to back off its threat to sue the city over the lease agreement, which Goldwater believes contravenes state laws on "gifts" to businesses or individuals.

The fact the suit was expected to name not just the institute but individual members of the board was seen as a scare strategy, the idea that seeing their names on a lawsuit would perhaps prompt board members to quietly ask that the institute rethink its hard-line stand on the city's proposed lease deal with Hulsizer.

Hard to believe that will happen given that such a move would erode, if not destroy, the institute's reputation as a hard-line attacker of government misdeeds.

If Goldwater holds fast on its opposition to the sale of municipal bonds, it's difficult to see how the sale could go through, and without the sale, the chances of a new lease agreement with Hulsizer is seen as negligible, and without a lease agreement, there is no sale of the club.

5. Isles have reason for optimism

It's a shame that the actions of knuckle dragger Trevor Gillies have overshadowed what has been an impressive renaissance by the New York Islanders in the second half of this regular season. Yes, the Isles will miss the playoffs for the 12th time in the last 16 seasons and fifth time since the lockout, but since the All-Star break, the youthful Isles have not lost two games in regulation in a row, have won 10 of 19 games and have allowed just four power-play goals in their past 10 outings. According to Islanders' team statisticians, since a horrific 1-17-3 run ended in late December, the Isles' 20-14-15 record is second only to the Boston Bruins over that period in the Eastern Conference.

There are reasons for optimism up and down the Isles' lineup, hope that should extend far beyond this second-half spasm of success.

Defenseman Andrew MacDonald, for instance, is second on the team with 11 power-play assists and has 25 points in 52 games this season.

"He's playing with a lot of confidence right now," head coach Jack Capuano told ESPN.com on Monday.

Capuano, who replaced Scott Gordon as head coach in mid-November, coached MacDonald when both were with the Islanders' AHL franchise in Bridgeport, and Capuano has seen the 24-year-old blossom since being given opportunities he might not have had had the Islanders not been decimated by injury early in the season.

"He's playing 22, 25, sometimes 28 minutes a night," Capuano said.

MacDonald is paired with another promising young defenseman in Travis Hamonic.

Netminder Al Montoya, a former first-round pick of the New York Rangers who was recently acquired from Phoenix for a sixth-round draft pick, has been solid in goal and suggests that there is perhaps life between the Islanders pipes beyond the injury-prone Rick DiPietro.

Montoya is 4-2-2 in his last eight starts and has allowed just 15 goals over that period.

Capuano said Montoya understands that he's been given a golden opportunity to re-establish himself as an NHL netminder.

"I respect the fact that he comes to work every day. He's as focused as can be," Capuano said.

It is customary for teams outside the playoff races to view the final third of the regular season as a kind of extended tryout for next season. But Capuano said that hasn't been part of the discussion in the Islanders' room.

The team has embraced the systems employed by the coaching staff and cut down on the mistakes that cost them games earlier in the season, the coach said.

"The main thing is that they believe in one another. They're great friends," Capuano said.