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Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Debate: Oh, what a night


Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun go at it one last time in the regular season. Peace, boys!

CUSTANCE: Hey, Pierre. Wow, where to start? I don't think it's overstating it to say that Tuesday night was the wildest the NHL has seen this season. At any one moment, you had teams on the cusp of clinching a playoff spot finding ways to lose and others so close to being eliminated finding ways to win. Even if your team wasn't playing, there were so many games with seeding and serious postseason implications that it was impossible to not watch. Let's start with the wild one in Buffalo. The Maple Leafs jumped out to a 3-0 lead, and Jake Gardiner's impressive goal in the third period extended Toronto's lead to 5-3. About that time the Florida Panthers were handling the Winnipeg Jets pretty easily and were getting ready to break out the Southeast Division champs T-shirts and hats. It was about that time the entire night turned. The Jets scored four unanswered on the Panthers, and the Sabres rallied to tie the Maple Leafs with a Jordan Leopold goal that will be hotly debated. There was a scrum in front of Ben Scrivens that lasted 10 seconds but must have felt like an eternity for Toronto fans, Washington fans and anyone else who wanted to see the Sabres lose. I couldn't believe there wasn't a whistle. Referee Mike Hasenfratz had a better view than I did from my living room, but, boy, that's a tough way to lose if you're a Toronto fan. Can you imagine the outrage we'd be hearing if that game had meant anything to Toronto?

LEBRUN: Instead, Leafs fans should be cheering that goal counted since they should be focused on trying to get into the bottom-five lottery pick and nothing else should matter to them. I think you can certainly debate whether Leopold’s goal should have stood but you can’t ignore what incredible magic was on display in Buffalo Tuesday night. Derek Roy’s overtime winner capped an electric night, and I’m thrilled for those loyal Sabres fans who have hung in there through a season that’s tested their emotions. The Sabres close out the season with road games in Philadelphia and Boston. The Flyers are three points behind the Penguins for home ice in their first-round series, so they will still want to play for something Thursday night against Buffalo. The Bruins have nothing on the line at all Saturday, but you wonder if they wouldn’t delight in knocking out the Sabres, who lose out on the tiebreaker with Washington by virtue of the Capitals having more ROWs (regulation and overtime wins). But back to Tuesday night, which for my money was the most entertaining evening of the NHL season. A game with gripping drama played out in Dallas, where you could argue the season hung in the balance for both the visiting Sharks and host Stars. Make it a home-and-home sweep for San Jose, which won 5-2 to pull back to within one point of Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles, ahead of a dramatic home-and-home between the Kings and Sharks to close out the regular season. The key moment in the game was when Antti Niemi thwarted Dallas star Jamie Benn on a clear breakaway with about five-and-a-half minutes to go in the third period. Moments later Sharks captain Joe Thornton crushed the hearts of Stars fans with a top-corner shot past Kari Lehtonen to make it 4-2. Game, set, match. The Stars are now three points out of a playoff spot with only two games remaining, and they’ll look back at dropping five of their six games with San Jose in the season series as a key factor in likely missing the playoffs.

CUSTANCE: Yeah, that was the Sharks team we've been waiting for all season long. The challenge for San Jose will be maintaining that high level in their final two games against the Kings, because they haven't been able to do that yet this season. You also can't help but notice that GM Doug Wilson's trade-deadline deal with the Avalanche is starting to even out after Jamie McGinn initially made it look pretty lopsided. T.J. Galiardi scored his first goal with San Jose and, based on his reaction immediately after, seemed to be pretty happy to get that off his back. Daniel Winnik opened the scoring for San Jose and he continues to provide some of the depth up front the Sharks were missing. This might be it for the Stars, but if you're a hockey fan in Dallas you have to be encouraged by what you saw this season. That's a playoff team next season. For my money, Benn is the league's most underappreciated young player. He's a superstar in the making and showed it again Tuesday night with his patience and poise in setting up Alex Goligoski's goal. The final score didn't necessarily show it, but Kari Lehtonen was pretty darn good for the Stars, too. "When they're on, they're a tough team to beat," said an NHL coach I recently asked about Dallas. "Really tough."

LEBRUN: I’m with you on Benn, in fact he was the fifth selection on my official Hart Trophy ballot I sent in to the NHL Wednesday. That’s how high I am on him. You make an excellent point on the Sharks-Avalanche trade. If you’ve watched Sharks games over the last two weeks, you will have noticed that Winnik is having a real impact on that fourth line for San Jose. He’s the kind of guy who is going to grind out important minutes in the playoffs, too. I don’t mind that trade at all for Wilson. But the Sharks remain eighth because the plucky Phoenix Coyotes picked up two points again with a home win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, Mike Smith stealing this one for the home team, setting an NHL record for saves in a regular-season shutout with 54 in a 2-0 win. Make it three straight shutouts for Smith, whose name came up with an NHL GM I spoke with Wednesday morning who plans to include him on his list of five names for his Vezina Trophy ballot. Smith is making people in Phoenix forget about Ilya Bryzgalov. That’s for sure. And credit Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke, who continues to work his magic in the desert with netminders. But for the Coyotes, this was an ugly effort; they were lucky to win.

"We're going to figure some things out like lineup changes," coach Dave Tippett told reporters afterward. "When you give up 18 shots on your penalty kill, you're going to be under siege most of the night. By getting outshot the way we have, that means you don't have the puck enough, and that's what's happening."

Still, the Coyotes are tied on points with the Kings and one ahead of the Sharks and amazingly could win the division if they win their last two games and the Kings don’t sweep the Sharks.

CUSTANCE: Can you imagine if the Coyotes end up winning that division? That save Smith made Tuesday night on James Wisniewski brought back memories of Dominik Hasek. It was one of those highlights in which I called my wife into the room to show her, even if she couldn't care less. It's a light schedule Wednesday night, so we won't be enjoying the same kind of fireworks. But the Blues are back in action and need two points against Detroit if they want to try to catch the suddenly surging Vancouver Canucks, who won again Tuesday night. Vancouver has opened a three-point lead on St. Louis for that No. 1 seed in the West. For a team with 109 points, the Canucks have kind of flown under the radar, but the reality is we're all just waiting to see how they perform in the playoffs. And they know it. "You want to finish as high as possible and get home-ice advantage," Canucks assistant GM Laurence Gilman said when we chatted earlier this week. "They know, at this stage in our evolution, people are going to judge us by what we do in the playoffs, but you have to place yourself in the best position possible."

LEBRUN: The Canucks haven’t dropped a game since star winger Daniel Sedin went down with a concussion. In fact, they’ve won a season-high seven straight and are peaking at the right time, heading into the playoffs. And yet, there are still issues, as friend and colleague Ed Willies points out in his Vancouver Province column, notably that Ryan Kesler’s second line isn’t producing like it should. And I think we all know how Kesler’s line is critical to Vancouver’s playoff success. If the Sedin twins are going on the top line and Kesler on the second, opposing teams have a nightmare in trying to stop them. When Kesler played hurt in the Stanley Cup finals last year, it hindered his effectiveness and helped Boston really key on the twins. Something to watch for as the playoffs get under way next week.

Enjoy the remaining four nights of regular-season hockey, my friend. I’ll catch you on the other side.