Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Cross Checks [Print without images]

Thursday, November 17, 2011
Daily Debate: Big gamble in Chicago and free fall in Carolina

By Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun

Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun discuss the surging Hawks and slumping Canes.

Custance: Good morning, Pierre, hope you're well-rested after a fun few days hosting the hockey world in Toronto. We shared a few minutes with Stan Bowman before he boarded a plane headed for Vancouver to watch his Blackhawks try to avenge a four-goal loss to the Canucks from earlier this season. He must have been very pleased with what he saw from Chicago last night. The Blackhawks steamrolled the Canucks 5-1 in a matchup that is anything but just another night on the 82-game schedule. We asked Bowman about his team's power play, and he was pretty honest about it. "That's been a struggle," he said. Well, maybe it's less of a struggle now.

The Blackhawks scored their first two goals of the game last night on the power play, with Andrew Brunette and Patrick Kane getting things going for the Chicago power play. Perhaps even more impressive was that Chicago kept the dangerous Canucks power play off the ice by staying out of the penalty box. That's four straight wins for the Blackhawks, who have opened up a six-point lead on second-place Nashville. Have the Blackhawks established themselves as the team to beat in the West?

LeBrun: Well, I predicted a Blackhawks-Sharks conference finals, and I feel very much comfortable with that right now. One thing Bowman told us as well is that he felt the “big guys'' were leading the way so far this season, and that is very true. Jonathan Toews is a 200-foot threat, while Kane has a team-leading 21 points. Kane vowed before the season that he would try to bring his game to another level this season, and he's on pace for a career-high 90 points after potting 73 points last season. But to me, a real important key as well has been the play of defenseman Nick Leddy. He's gobbled up big minutes after the departure of Brian Campbell, and whether he'd be able to do that would have a huge bearing on this season. So far, Leddy has proved more than capable.

Custance: You're right about Leddy. We chatted briefly a couple of weeks ago, and he said his comfort level and confidence level are much higher this season. "Last year, it was all kind of new," he said. I understood the necessity to trade Brian Campbell, but I had thought Chicago would miss him more than it has. Bowman gambled on Leddy, and it is paying off. As for Campbell, he's been great in Florida. GM Dale Tallon has repeatedly shown his faith in Campbell -- first by signing him to that huge contract, then by trading for it. He was criticized for both, but Campbell hasn't disappointed in either case.

Speaking of disappointments (that was a Burnside-like transition, was it not?), the Hurricanes lost again Wednesday night -- and did so in ugly fashion. It's never good to hear players say afterward that they never showed up for a game, but those were the comments coming from the Carolina room. Carolina is 3-7 in its past 10 and currently in the No. 14 spot in the East. Coach Paul Maurice has to be at least a little nervous, or maybe it's time for a trade. I can't imagine GM Jim Rutherford letting this slide continue much longer without action.

LeBrun: I was hearing whispers this morning that the Hurricanes are very much active on the phone looking at what was out there. Rutherford won’t sit on his hands while this slide continues. My sense is that a trade is likelier to come before a coaching change. Perhaps a trade can buy Maurice some time behind the bench, but if the losses continue to pile up, he might be in trouble as well. American Thanksgiving is the time-honored threshold on the calendar for teams to size up what they have and get ready to act on the trade front. In Carolina, that’s been sped up a week, if the Hurricanes are able to find what they want out on the market.

The Columbus Blue Jackets also continue to work the phones, I was told this morning, in search of a goalie.

Custance: Yeah, I'm not sure Carolina and Columbus can wait another week to make changes. Interesting game for the Blue Jackets tonight against the surging Bruins. Although it's too late for Columbus to regain any hope of the playoffs, a win over the reigning champs might help build a shred of confidence. It has to start somewhere, right? Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch pointed out that the Blues have as many points (seven) during the Ken Hitchcock regime as Columbus has all season. Another reason to credit Doug Armstrong for taking action when he did, and another reason to question Columbus for doing the opposite.

As much as I'd like to watch the last-place Jackets take on the Bruins, the game I'm more interested in is Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay. The Lightning held a players-only meeting after their loss to the Jets and need to pick up some points during a home-friendly portion of the schedule. They've been good at home but face a big test in the Atlantic-leading Penguins.

LeBrun: Sidney Crosby will be watching his teammates play again tonight as his wait continues. He certainly can take his time with the way his club has played without him. It's simply amazing to see the Penguins leading the Eastern Conference at 11-4-3 without No. 87 in the lineup. Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal have all stepped up big-time, and let’s not forget head coach Dan Bylsma.

Enjoy tonight’s games, Craig.