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Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Debate: On Stamkos' heroics, playoff wobbles


Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun go at it about Steven Stamkos and the playoffs. Have at it, boys.

CUSTANCE: Greetings, Pierre! Just when you think we're going to get a little clarity in the Eastern Conference playoff race, Monday night happens. All the Capitals needed to do was beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, and we're talking about the possibility of another Southeast Division championship. By now, we should know better. Of course they didn't win, and they struggled again late to prevent even a shot at overtime. Now, before we try to solve the Capitals' issues, and there are plenty, let's talk Stamkos. He scored two more Monday night. We recently received our awards ballots, and that includes the Hart Trophy. I know you recently had a conversation with Martin St. Louis, Stamkos' teammate, about his incredible season, and St. Louis thinks Stamkos should be in the Hart conversation. I wasn't willing to even entertain this thought since the Lightning won't make the postseason, but I'm starting to imagine what Tampa would have looked like without him this season, and it's ugly. He's pretty darn valuable to the Lightning. He has three games to score two goals and reach 60 on the season. He also has a shot at 100 points. While I think the Hart should and will go to Evgeni Malkin, do you reserve a spot in Las Vegas for Stamkos as a Hart finalist? Because I think he belongs there.

LEBRUN: No question in my mind, Stamkos at least deserves to be a Hart finalist, despite playing for a non-playoff team. His season has been out of this world. As one NHL scout told me for that story I wrote last week, "His 55 is the new 65." Well, make that 58 goals and counting. The scout’s point is that goal scoring is down this season, and for Stamkos to even challenge for 60 goals would be that much more impressive than when Alex Ovechkin turned the trick four years ago when goal scoring was higher in the NHL. The thing that sticks out from my conversation with St. Louis last week was how he talked about Stamkos’ work ethic and Stamkos' willingness to continually change his game in order to stay ahead of opposing teams. Indeed, when you look at the ways Stamkos has scored goals this season, he has added new areas on the ice where he is willing to go to in order to score. That’s a sign of an all-world player. Even his empty-netter Monday night before the clock expired was exciting. But yes, about those Caps … is there a tougher team to figure out this season? First, you think they’re dead in the water after losing at home to Buffalo last week. Then they bounce back with wins over Boston and Montreal while the Sabres stumble with two losses, and it appears all is good again. Then, on Monday night, in what should have been a guaranteed two points against Dwayne Roloson and the Lightning, the Caps find a way to blow it. Mind-boggling.

CUSTANCE: I know. I honestly feel for Capitals fans because it must be absolutely maddening to live and die by what that team does on the ice. Washington still controls its own destiny, but I was talking to an NHL coach about Washington, and he pointed out that the Rangers host Washington on the final day of the season. New York might not have anything to play for in the standings, but he suggested there will still be plenty of motivation. "They would love nothing more than putting the Caps out after the Capitals have put them out two of the last three seasons," he said. It's not going to be easy for Washington. The one thing I'll say about those players in Washington is that they've shown remarkable resiliency. You're right, Pierre, we were ready to write them off after the Buffalo loss, and they continue to battle. I'd just feel a lot better if they could hold a lead late in the game. But that might be asking too much. Ovechkin was held without a goal, his third consecutive game without scoring. He still has 10 this month, and if he can somehow get four in his final two games, that's a 40-goal season. By our new math, that's 50, right? Not bad.

LEBRUN: Speaking of rivals that would like to ruin another’s season, there’s not much else to play for if you’re the Toronto Maple Leafs -- except sweeping a home-and-home with the Sabres, which would destroy a divisional opponent’s season. The Leafs, easily the worst team in the league over the past six weeks, somehow beat the Sabres on Saturday night and now can really inflict pain with another win Tuesday night in Buffalo. The Sabres’ schedule then sees trips to Philadelphia and Boston to end the season. At first, when I saw these two games a few weeks ago, I wondered if the Sabres might luck out because neither the Flyers nor the Bruins would have much to play for. Well, Philadelphia is in a crucial battle with Pittsburgh for home ice in its Nos. 4-5 first-round playoff series. And the Bruins? While technically they have nothing left to play for, I wonder if the same doesn’t hold true as you mentioned above with the Rangers and Caps. Would Boston relish knocking out its divisional foe? Let’s remember the Milan Lucic/Ryan Miller incident from October as the context. To be fair to the Sabres, as they enter tonight's game, they are still without injured defensemen Tyler Myers (foot) and Christian Ehrhoff (knee). That’s mighty tough.

CUSTANCE: Yeah, they're banged up, but I'm not sure fans in Buffalo would allow that to be an excuse for losing twice to the Maple Leafs with a playoff berth on the line. Before completely focusing on Tuesday night's games, we have to get in our required Pacific Division mention. Huge, huge win Monday night for the Los Angeles Kings, who took care of business against Edmonton with a 2-0 win. For all those bubble teams looking to secure a playoff spot, that's how you do it. Another shutout for Jonathan Quick, who has a league-best 10 this season. It was suggested to me Monday that if Quick played in Boston or New York, the Vezina Trophy race would be over. Defenseman Slava Voynov scored the game winner in the third, and it reminded me of coach Darryl Sutter's comments shortly after the Jeff Carter trade. I asked him what he was going to miss about Jack Johnson, and he immediately turned the conversation to Voynov, who was going to see an expanded role. Sutter had complete confidence in the 22-year-old Voynov and pointed out the way GM Dean Lombardi built this team. "You don't weaken one [position] to strengthen another," Sutter said. "Voynov, for his age, is a pretty good player. And he's going to be a really good player."

LEBRUN: Voynov has been terrific since his call-up. He’s exactly the reason Lombardi was willing to move Johnson; the GM knew Voynov was able to fill Johnson’s skates. It’s funny, though, that you mention the Vezina vote. I just got off the phone with an NHL GM who was talking about his Vezina vote (the league’s 30 GMs vote on the Vezina). He told me he was voting Henrik Lundqvist first, Quick second. I suspect that’s likely going to be the case for most GMs, although some might put Pekka Rinne ahead of Quick for second. Honestly, between those three netminders, there’s no bad choice. But it’s likely accurate that Quick will fall victim to playing most of his games when half the league’s GMs are asleep at night. The Kings now have a two-point lead on Phoenix and three on San Jose for the Pacific Division lead and the all-too-important No. 3 conference seed it carries. The Coyotes host the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night (mind you, the Jackets beat St. Louis over the weekend) while the Sharks face a tough one in Dallas, with the Stars one point behind eighth-place San Jose in the West. You know the Sharks badly want to get back to being just one point behind the Kings before their dramatic, home-and-home finale with Los Angeles on Thursday and Saturday.

What a fantastic week of hockey. Until tomorrow, Craig.