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Monday, November 1, 2010
5 Things: Briere's hit, Sabres' woes, backups wanted

By Scott Burnside

1. Briere's suspension

The NHL on Monday handed down a three-game suspension to Danny Briere after he gave New York Islanders forward Frans Nielsen a shot to the head with his stick in the waning minutes of the Flyers' 6-1 rout Saturday.

The two players were jawing at each other before the draw and Briere then swing his stick cross-check-like and grazed Nielsen's noggin. Despite the "five games minimum" howls from some in the hockey media, I must admit I could have gone either way on this one.

I didn't like the league's assessment that Jordin Tootoo's flying hit on Carlo Colaiacovo late in the Blues' victory over Nashville on Thursday night was justly penalized on the ice (major for charging) and warranted no supplemental discipline. Having seen the league's handling of that incident, I believed the same standard could have been used on Briere. Both Briere and Tootoo have histories of being suspended and both plays were reckless, but neither Colaiacovo nor Nielsen was seriously injured. Briere was issued a major for the stick infraction and thrown out of the game.

Bottom line for those who think the league plays favorites with its talented players: The Briere suspension reiterates that inconsistency in discipline doesn't take into account how many goals a player has (Briere leads the Flyers with six); inconsistency is just a fact of life with the league as it tries to figure out what the line is between "a bad thing" and "a really bad thing."

2. Blue-line Byfuglien

There was a lot of discussion about how the Atlanta Thrashers were planning to use former Chicago power forward Dustin Byfuglien after they acquired him from the defending Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the offseason.

GM Rick Dudley spoke with Byfuglien's stepfather, a former teammate and roommate of Dudley's from the World Hockey Association, and was told Byfuglien preferred playing on the back end. Despite his success as a forward, the Thrashers were intrigued by Byfuglien's size, shot and mobility, and hoped his presence on the blue line would complement an improving group of defensemen.

"He was moved to forward out of necessity," Dudley told ESPN.com on Monday. The fact he played well at forward "didn't mean that he couldn't play defense," the GM added.

So far, the experiment is paying dividends for the improving Thrashers. Byfuglien leads the NHL with three game winners, including a spectacular end-to-end rush against Buffalo on Friday night. He leads all defensemen in shots and is averaging 22:13 a night in ice time, playing mostly with former all-rookie team member Tobias Enstrom. The two have combined for 20 points in this young season.

"Buff is a difference-maker," Dudley said. "I'm not going to say he's perfect defensively, but he's getting better."

So are the Thrashers. They have collected points in four straight games (2-0-2) and are 5-4-2 overall.

3. Don't forget the Sabres

Much of the early-season attention has been focused on the New Jersey Devils' woes, and with good reason. Heading into Monday's tilt against Vancouver, they are a league-worst 3-8-1. Yet, hiding in the shadows of the Devils' miserable start are the Buffalo Sabres, who aren't much better off with the first month of the NHL season in the books. The Sabres (3-7-2) are riding a three-game winless streak and have been outscored 14-6 over that stretch.

Even with defending Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller in goal, the Sabres are 23rd in goals allowed per game and are 27th on the penalty kill. On the other side of the puck, the Sabres aren't faring much better (22nd in goals per game and 20th on the power play).

Over the past couple of years, much of the discussion about the Sabres' woes has centered on personnel, especially after they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs last season. And certainly the Sabres have seemingly suffered from an acute leadership void since the departure of players like Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Brian Campbell and Jay McKee, among others.

The team has been ultraconservative in its approach to free agents, preferring to wait on the development of homegrown talent like Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford and defending rookie of the year Tyler Myers. Thus far, Myers has struggled in his sophomore campaign. He has been a healthy scratch and has committed a series of defensive gaffes, including being stripped of the puck and giving up a short-handed goal against Dallas on Saturday.

But beyond the personnel, the Sabres may also be victims of the league catching up to their style of play. Coming out of the lockout, Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff and his staff found a way to attack the offensive zone with speed that, combined with a talented roster, made the Sabres one of the most dynamic teams in the NHL.

"The game has changed. Teams don't play it the way they did a year ago," Ruff said during a recent chat with reporters. "I saw from two years ago where there was maybe three or four teams playing the same. Now, probably in the East, you've got 13 teams that are defending the rush the same way, which has changed."

Sadly for the Sabres, they haven't managed to stay ahead of that learning curve.

4. Gotta have backup

The face of goaltending in the NHL is changing before our very eyes. Philosophies are now divided over whether a team is better off allocating precious cap space to a topflight goaltender like Roberto Luongo or Martin Brodeur, or putting that money in team defense or scoring and spending less on competent (if not lower-profile) goaltending.

Last season, the Blackhawks and Flyers showed that low-profile netminding can get you to the Cup finals. Detroit won a Cup behind Chris Osgood in 2008 and then went to Game 7 of the finals the next season against Philadelphia with a goaltender often given little regard around the league.

This season, we are seeing more evidence that regardless of which side of the goaltending fence you favor, having a capable backup is crucial and, conversely, the lack thereof can spell big trouble.

Montreal's Carey Price and Dallas' Kari Lehtonen have combined to play in 19 games this season, but both their backups (Alex Auld and Andrew Raycroft) came on to provide important relief last week. Auld allowed just one goal in his first start of the season as the Habs topped the Islanders, while Raycroft helped the Stars stop a three-game slide with a 34-stop shutout of the Buffalo Sabres.

Without Craig Anderson, who's hurt in Colorado, Peter Budaj is going to have to carry the freight, and the perennial backup has played well thus far with a 3-0-1 record. The best example of a backup making a difference can be found in Pittsburgh, where Brent Johnson has turned in a sparkling 5-0-1 record with 1.16 GAA and .960 save percentage while starter Marc-Andre Fleury works out some kinks in his game.

It hasn't always worked out perfectly for the backups and their squads, though. Martin Biron got a win against Toronto, but looked soft in a loss to Atlanta last week. So, Rangers coach John Tortorella went with Henrik Lundqvist in back-to-back games even though Lundqvist had lost the first one to Carolina. It turned out to be a good move as Lundqvist shut out Toronto on Saturday (hey, who doesn't shut out the Leafs these days?). Calgary backup Henrik Karlsson earned a win in his first NHL game while giving Miikka Kiprusoff a rest, but then was ineffective in a 6-5 loss against Colorado.

5. The 'other' Sedin

Hovering in the shadows of last season's superlative effort by Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik Sedin -- a 112-point campaign that saw him take home the NHL scoring title and the Hart Trophy as league MVP -- was his brother Daniel. Although he suffered a foot injury that limited him to 63 games, the "other" Sedin collected 29 goals and 85 points.

So much for the shadows. So far this season, Daniel Sedin has managed to collect at least a point in every Canucks game with seven goals and 12 points. Not that Henrik has been any slouch -- he's just a point behind with 11. But after that, things drop off pretty quickly for the Canucks, who don't have any other player with more than six points.

Should the Sedins continue to produce at this level (they began the week just outside the top 10 in league point production), it will be interesting to see if they split the vote when it comes time to pick an NHL MVP next spring.

As for Daniel's point streak, he has a long way to go to match the all-time points streak from the start of a season -- that was 51 games by Wayne Gretzky in 1983-84.