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Friday, February 10, 2012
Daily Debate: Playoff hopes fading

By Scott Burnside and Craig Custance

Custance: Happy Friday, Scotty. Hope you're well. Thursday turned out to be an incredible day for hockey. It started early for me with a trip to downtown Detroit, where hockey dignitaries met to officially, officially announce the 2013 Winter Classic (Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium). GM Brian Burke has already promised a win for the Maple Leafs, while Detroit GM Ken Holland refused to get roped into trash talking. But it was fun to see those two great personalities go at it a bit. I got an early taste of what it's going to be like shuttling back and forth between Detroit and Ann Arbor for the big game -- this promises to be the biggest Winter Classic yet, which should be fun. But the games Thursday night were just as compelling, if not more. I'm not even sure where to start.

Gomez
After scoring his first goal of the season against the Islanders on Thursday, Scott Gomez has 8 points.
Scott Gomez finally broke through with his first goal of the year, the $7 million special. Even that was overshadowed a bit by Max Pacioretty's hat trick. It was such a deflating loss for the Islanders, who were starting to gather some momentum for a long-shot playoff bid. Now, the Islanders drop to No. 14 in the East while Montreal clings to playoff hope thanks to a three-game win streak. I don't believe either are playoff teams, but it further muddles up the trade market since GMs of these teams don't seem eager to declare themselves sellers. Islanders GM Garth Snow continues to say Evgeni Nabokov isn't on the trade market, but you can't help but wonder if that loss erodes some of the certainty.

Burnside: Hello, Craig, or should I just dub you Mr. Winter Classic given that this will be a home game for you next year? The Islanders are, needless to say, one of the more curious teams around. I spoke earlier this week with P.A. Parenteau, who is having a breakout year for the Islanders with 48 points in 53 games (his 37 assists rank fifth in the league) but could become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Nothing doing in terms of contract talks yet, but I’ll be surprised if they don’t come to some sort of agreement.

But the Nabokov thing doesn’t make any sense (does anything when it comes to Islanders goaltending?) given that Kevin Poulin and Al Montoya need to be given a chance to prove whether they’re NHL-level goaltenders. Nabokov is not a long-term answer for the Islanders. He might not even be a short-term answer given the very tenuous position of the Isles’ and their dwindling playoff hopes.

The Habs, likewise, can’t be fooled by this brief period of strong play. Pierre Gauthier, almost certainly working his last trade deadline as Habs GM, has to take advantage of what would be significant demand for defenseman Hal Gill and perhaps try to move the enigmatic Andrei Kostitsyn. But you’re right, regardless of how you feel about Gomez, who has morphed from clutch player in New Jersey early in his career to one of the league’s great underachievers, it was good to see the monkey finally climb off his back with his first goal in more than a year.

For me, though, I was dumbfounded to watch the Washington Capitals spit up a two-goal lead in the waning minutes of regulation and then lose in a shootout against a plucky Winnipeg squad. That allowed Florida to reclaim the top spot in the Southeast Division and drop Washington back out of the playoff bracket. Winnipeg, by the by, is just three points behind Washington now.

Custance: Would it be wrong to give the Southeast's playoff spot to someone from the Atlantic? Regardless of who ends up winning that division, that will be the one of the worst No. 3 seeds we've seen in a while. That's such a bad loss for the Capitals, who need to stockpile points at home since they play so poorly on the road, where they have a record of 9-14-3. Six of Washington's next eight games are on the road, so there's actually opportunity for Florida to build a cushion if the Panthers can string together a few wins here.

After a quick trip north to play the Islanders and Devils this weekend, the Panthers have a nice little four-game homestand, including a big one against the Capitals on Feb. 17. Now, I realize there were a lot of empty seats on the television screen when I watched the Panthers' 3-1 win over the Kings on Thursday night, but I loved how the fans showered the team with rats as the players gathered at center ice to salute the fans after the game. Great to see that some hockey traditions live on in a nontraditional hockey market. I have to tell you Scotty, your preseason pick of a Panthers playoff berth is looking more and more prescient. I was sincerely concerned about your mental well-being when you made that bold prediction this summer.

Burnside: You’re not the first person to question my mental state, my friend. But you’re right, it was a big win for the Panthers, who seem to find a way to avoid those soul-sucking losing streaks that have in the past dashed many a Panthers playoff dream.

Now, as for my other outside-the-box preseason pick, the Minnesota Wild, that’s another story. The Wild were waxed by a very good Vancouver team 5-2 Thursday night and dropped to 10th place in the Western Conference. Tough times for the Wild. Rookie coach Mike Yeo told local reporters after the game: “We flat-out stink the last two months. We stink.” He’s right. Time for GM Chuck Fletcher to look at pieces he can move, which I assume will include defenseman Marek Zidlicky, among others. Too bad for a market that has waited a long time for this franchise to develop into a contender and had such high hopes after the team’s terrific play through the first half of the season. The Wild were supplanted as the current eighth-place team by Phoenix, which won its fourth in a row, downing Calgary 2-1 in overtime. Goaltender Mike Smith continued his hot hand, stopping 23 of 24, but there’s hardly room to breathe at the bottom end of the bracket with Dallas, Minnesota and Calgary all tied with 58 points -- two back of Phoenix. Anaheim starts an eight-game road trip in your town tonight, so we’ll see if the Ducks are going to continue to play Cinderella or just be pumpkins. The other game that I’ll be watching with interest tonight features the floundering Chicago Blackhawks in San Jose.

Custance: Just an absolutely huge game for the Blackhawks, who have deteriorated defensively lately. Coach Joel Quenneville admitted to letting the defense slide a little bit as long as the offense made up for it, but it sounds like he tightened things up with a film session and intense practice on Thursday. I realize those long West Coast trips aren't an easy stretch, and between the circus and Disney on Ice, the Blackhawks have had their share this season. But you can't let it get out of hand, and the slide needs to stop tonight for Chicago.

As for Anaheim, I'm headed down in a few minutes to talk to the Ducks and try to get the pulse of that room. The Coyotes are the league's most resilient team, so I still think it's a long shot for Anaheim to sneak into that No. 8 spot, but coach Bruce Boudreau has done it before. I'm looking forward to seeing what he has to say.

Burnside: Worth noting after Thursday night is that the Kings, who pulled goaltender Jonathan Quick after the second period in their loss to Florida, are just four points ahead of ninth-place Dallas, and the Stars have two games in hand on the Kings. When the Kings played so well under Darryl Sutter after he first replaced Terry Murray -- I admit I was shocked -- it looked like they would cement themselves as a playoff team, but they have gone a little sideways in recent days as the offense has dried up once again. The Kings have managed 14 goals in their past eight games. That’s not enough. They finish up a five-game road trip, four of which were against Eastern Conference foes, Saturday against the Islanders, and then face a stretch where they will play Phoenix twice, Dallas, Calgary and Colorado, all of whom covet the Kings’ place in the standings. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that unless the Kings find a way to generate more offense to support Quick -- who is having a Vezina Trophy-worthy season -- they’re in trouble.

OK, my friend, that’s all I’ve got. Talk to you next week.