Cross Checks: Evgeni Nabokov



We often describe the first day of free agency as a frenzy.

Guess what?

Friday, they finally got the frenzy part right.

From the moment the marketplace officially opened at noon ET, there was a non-stop acquisition of horseflesh from virtually every corner of the NHL map.

And in the wake of a five-year deal for Valtteri Filppula worth $25 million in Tampa and the five-year deal Stephen Weiss signed in Detroit for essentially the same amount and the $36.75 million the Toronto Maple Leafs committed to David Clarkson over the next seven years -- and a total of 63 deals worth a record $411.9 million -- remind us again why we had a lockout?

If that doesn’t confound your puzzler, well, more than a few things did on this most active of free-agency days.

Herein a look around the league at the events that made sense, made little sense and made no sense after the dust had cleared.

Ottawa Senators
The Senators said goodbye to their venerable captain, Daniel Alfredsson, who signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings. But within a couple of hours, GM Bryan Murray had landed an elite top-six forward in Bobby Ryan from Anaheim. Ryan will be a great fit on and off the ice in this Canadian market. It cost Murray big-time in the form of Jakob Silfverberg, a first-round draft pick, and former first-round pick Stefan Noesen. But the Sens, who also signed Clarke MacArthur to a two-year deal, are well-armed for a playoff battle in what looks now to be the toughest division in the newly realigned NHL.

Detroit Red Wings
It was a curious day for the Wings as they signed an aging Alfredsson to a one-year deal worth $5.5 million, evoking memories of the disastrous turn in Detroit by an aging Mike Modano, and then signed Weiss to a big five-year deal at $4.9 million a season, even though Weiss has toiled in relative obscurity in Florida his entire career. He’s played in just seven playoff games, all in 2012. The Wings also failed to immediately re-sign veteran Daniel Cleary or bring back impressive first-year player Damien Brunner or center Valtteri Filppula, who signed in Tampa. In other words, a few steps in a circle.

Tampa Bay Lightning
And since we’re on a Red Wings kick, let’s look at the Filppula signing. Five years at $5 million a year is a lot for a guy who had 17 points in 41 games this season (he did register 66 points in 2011-12). As a second-line center in Tampa who will ostensibly replace Vincent Lecavalier, is Filppula up to the task, or were those 66 points a mirage and will he settle back to his career norm of 40 or less? Let’s put it this way, for GM Steve Yzerman’s sake, Filppula better be on the ascending arc of his career or this is going to look pretty ugly in the wake of the Lecavalier buyout.

Columbus Blue Jackets
Still don’t quite get why Nathan Horton was in such a hurry to get out of Boston but guess all those trips to the finals must have been annoying somehow. Horton signed a whopper seven-year deal worth $37.1 million with the Blue Jackets, who are trying to build off last season’s dramatic if ultimately unsuccessful run to a playoff berth in the Western Conference. Still, is Horton really ready to be the guy in Columbus after being able to exist in the shadows for the most part in Boston? Streaky doesn’t really describe Horton’s history offensively and that won’t cut it for a team that has made the playoffs just once in its existence and has never won a postseason game.

Nashville Predators
Good bounce-back day for GM David Poile after just missing out on Daniel Briere as he added versatile veteran center Matt Cullen and hardworking Matt Hendricks along with Viktor Stalberg to bolster the Preds’ anemic offense. The Preds will, seemingly, always be about success by committee and these three additions should make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Cullen shortly after he signed his two-year deal worth $7 million told us it was difficult to leave his home state of Minnesota, but that the Preds’ hardworking style was attractive to him. Although injuries slowed Cullen at the end of this season, he can do it all, including taking important draws, working the power play and killing penalties.

Phoenix Coyotes
How rich is this? Two days after nearly having to relocate, with new ownership assured for at least the next five years, the Phoenix Coyotes were major players, snagging the top-producing free-agent forward, center Mike Ribeiro. The skilled Ribeiro signed a four-year deal worth $22 million and will rejoin head coach Dave Tippett, for whom he played in Dallas. The Coyotes have long been lacking depth down the middle. No more. Phoenix also signed Thomas Greiss to back up Mike Smith.

Pittsburgh Penguins
Just when you think GM Ray Shero is all out of cards up his sleeve, he pulled out "The Piece" -- or rather repatriated "The Piece," defenseman Rob Scuderi, who was a key part of the Pens’ runs to the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup finals. Scuderi, who also won a Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012, signed a four-year deal with the Pens for a total of $13.5 million and will help solidify the blue line of a team that once again looks Stanley Cup-ready with Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis all re-signing deals in recent days.

Carolina Hurricanes
On a day when lots of bigger names were signing a lot bigger contracts, we liked the additions in Carolina of defenseman Mike Komisarek, who was bought out by the Toronto Maple Leafs and who has a ton to prove as he tries to get his NHL edge back. And then there was the signing of backup netminder Anton Khudobin, formerly of the Boston Bruins. Lots of folks believe Khudobin, the former ECHL goaltender of the year, has NHL starter stuff. Pending Cam Ward’s durability, Khudobin might be among the steals of the free-agent market.

Toronto Maple Leafs
Few players were pursued as vigorously as former New Jersey Devil winger David Clarkson. Edmonton, Ottawa and Boston were among the teams interested in the rugged winger with the scorer’s touch. But the Toronto native ended up coming home and signing a whopper seven-year deal with the Leafs worth $36.75 million. With the addition of Jonathan Bernier and Dave Bolland, the Leafs look to have better depth than a year ago (they also re-signed Tyler Bozak to a five-year deal on Friday worth $21 million). They are still thin down the middle but Clarkson will give Randy Carlyle the tools to ice three potentially potent scoring lines, which will be crucial to the Leafs' efforts to return to the playoffs for a second straight year.

New Jersey Devils
Speaking of the Devils, their big signing of the day, Ryane Clowe for five years for a total of $24.25 million, seemed to illustrate the difficulty the franchise continues to have in attracting top-end talent. Clowe, like Clarkson, is a rugged forward with a nose for the puck, but he is also coming off a series of concussions, so his durability -- especially given his brand of game -- has to be suspect. Bottom line is the Devils needed someone to help fill the void created by Clarkson’s departure, and they had to overpay a player with health issues to get that done. Not sure how that strategy sustains itself long-term. The Devils did add another proven scorer in Michael Ryder, who signed a two-year deal worth $7 million late Friday afternoon, joining fellow Newfoundlander Clowe in New Jersey. This is a lateral move, the Devils being Ryder’s third team in the past four years having gone from Boston, with whom he won a Cup in 2011, to Dallas and now to New Jersey.

Philadelphia Flyers
It didn’t turn out to be much of a surprise when the Flyers signed Ray Emery to a one-year deal worth $1.65 million. Emery wanted a chance to earn back a starting job and the Flyers represented one of the few teams with that kind of dynamic. The fact Emery had played for the Flyers was a bonus. But the big question is whether Emery, who was so good as Corey Crawford’s backup with the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks -- going 17-1 with a .922 save percentage during the regular season, has the durability to become a starter again. Emery will split time with Steve Mason, and given Mason’s up-and-down career, there’s no reason to think Emery can’t be the man, as long as his body goes along with the plan. And, oh yeah, the Flyers remain over the salary cap so GM Paul Holmgren still has a little work left.

New York Islanders
Weird day for goaltenders. With Ilya Bryzgalov and Tim Thomas still looking for a place to land late Friday, the Isles re-upped netminder Evgeni Nabokov for one year at $3.25 million. Apparently no one in the Islander front office bothered to look at tape of the Isles' first-round playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Perhaps GM Garth Snow has a Plan B that will reveal itself at some point, but right now the Isles do not possess enough goaltending to get in the top four of their division despite adding character forwards Cal Clutterbuck at the draft and signing Pierre-Marc Bouchard on Friday.

Edmonton Oilers
Loved the Oilers' addition of veteran defenseman Andrew Ference to a four-year deal worth $13 million. If it’s one thing the Oilers need, it’s some maturity on the blue line. Ference won a Cup with Boston in 2011 and was part of the Bruins’ run to the finals this spring, logging more than 24 minutes a night in the postseason. Not sure about Boyd Gordon signing at $3 million a year for three years, but someone had to take on the departed Shawn Horcoff’s role (the former Edmonton captain was dealt to Dallas). Jason LaBarbera was inked to a one-year deal to come in to back up Devan Dubnyk, which is fine if you believe Dubnyk is the guy to lead this team out of the wilderness, but right now the Oilers look to have no better than the sixth-best goaltending in their new division.

Boston Bruins
You can’t beat the irony of this one. The Bruins were spurned by Jarome Iginla at the trade deadline when Iginla waived his no-trade clause and joined the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then the Bruins waxed the former Calgary captain and the Penguins in four games in the Eastern Conference finals, allowing just two goals in four games and leaving Iginla without a point in the series. Of course, Friday afternoon Iginla signed a one-year deal worth a $6 million cap hit (the final compensation is dependent upon bonuses) with the Bruins because, well, why not? The Bruins, shut out of the Alfredsson talks, among others, as they tried to plug the holes that have opened up on the right side of their lineup, are actually a nice fit for Iginla. As was the case at the trade deadline. And would it surprise anyone if the rugged winger lights it up after having a difficult time with the Penguins especially against the Bruins? Of course not.

Minnesota Wild
Interesting afternoon for GM Chuck Fletcher, who unloaded salary in Devin Setoguchi, essentially giving the winger away to the Winnipeg Jets for a second-round pick, and then picking up rugged winger Matt Cooke, signing him to a three-year deal worth $7.5 million. Setoguchi has one year left on his deal worth a $3 million cap hit. He started slowly with the Wild this season but playing with Matt Cullen ended up with 13 goals and 27 points but Setoguchi was never the perfect fit in Minnesota and so he joins a Jets team that continues to collect other teams’ castoffs. Cooke, a part of the Penguins’ Cup-winning team in 2009, will ostensibly replace Cal Clutterbuck, who was dealt to the New York Islanders at the draft. Cooke is well-known to Fletcher and to head coach Mike Yeo, both of whom were with the Penguins during that Cup run.

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- What a fitting end to the Islanders' 2013 season, that they left the ice with the Nassau Coliseum crowd on its feet -- even after a heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins in Game 6 -- saluting the team’s stellar effort in its first playoff appearance since 2007.

That should be the lasting image -- not Brooks Orpik’s game winner -- that each player conjures up when looking back on the team’s first-round series against the top-seeded Penguins.

[+] EnlargeNew York Islanders
AP Photo/Kathy WillensThe Islanders should be proud of all they accomplished against the No. 1 seed Penguins.
Making it to the postseason was not enough for the Islanders, who surprised some doubters and captivated the league’s attention with their plucky play, but it should be regarded as a monumental step forward for the organization.

The Islanders couldn’t match Pittsburgh’s depth or experience, but they had the grit, heart and desire in ample supply to push the Penguins in a six-game set.

For so many years, the Islanders have suffered the indignities of the down-trodden and the ridicule that comes with annual bottom-five finishes.

But that perception of the Islanders is bound to change after this.

"We’ve taken a lot of heat in the past three years since I’ve been here, a lot of criticism from the media, people looked at us as a laughingstock," said heart-and-soul grinder Matt Martin, who finished with a game-high 11 hits Saturday night. "Throughout this series, we showed we can play with anyone. We’re excited about the future. We think we have something special here."

The Penguins acknowledged that, too.

After wrapping up their fourth win of the series -- a game that required them to erase three separate one-goal Islanders leads before Orpik’s deciding goal 7:49 into overtime -- they had plenty of respect for the Islanders as they convened at center ice for the customary handshake line.

[+] EnlargeJohn Tavares, Sidney Crosby
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsJohn Tavares said this experience will just serve to motivate the Islanders next season.
"Just walking through the line, they said so many good things, just that you guys have a really good team here. You know, I don’t think this team has heard that in a long time," said rugged forward Colin McDonald, who gave the Isles a 2-1 lead with 37 seconds remaining in the first period. "That’s one of the few positives you can talk about right now. I think as an organization, as players, maybe we gained some respect back, and I’m really glad the fans supported us the way they do. I hope this is just the start, a stepping stone looking ahead to next year."

The Islanders received the requisite secondary scoring Saturday from the likes of McDonald and Michael Grabner to build off John Tavares’ wrist shot from the slot that gave the Isles a 1-0 lead 5:36 into play.

But the Pens showed resilience in a tough road test during which they were outshot 38-21 and superstar Sidney Crosby was held to one point. Each time the Isles gained momentum, the Penguins found a way to even the score. Less than six minutes from the Islanders forcing a winner-takes-all Game 7 in Pittsburgh, Pens defenseman Paul Martin unleashed a one-timer that deflected off Frans Nielsen to knot the score at 3 and send the game into overtime.

"I think we outshot them again today and created a lot of opportunities, but times that we could’ve gone up and taken a bigger lead, we just couldn’t do it," said Tavares, who on Friday was named one of three Hart Memorial Trophy finalists for the league’s annual MVP. "They stayed with it, and maybe that’s why they’re moving on."

"It was every bit of a battle in those six games," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after his team punched its ticket to a second-round matchup against the seventh-seeded Ottawa Senators.

Special teams hurt the Islanders and veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov failed to steal a game, but the Penguins were the team to come up with the big plays when it counted.

For that reason, the Islanders will pack up for the offseason, with the hunger to win even more intense now that they know what it takes and how it’s done.

"It’s what I’ll be thinking about all summer," said Tavares, who finished the series with three goals and five points. "It’s what pushes you every day, and you finally get to experience it. We got here and we weren’t satisfied with getting here. I thought we competed real well, we played with them most of the series and dictated the play a lot of the series, too. They just took advantage of most of their opportunities."

The Penguins remained composed throughout the series, keeping doubt at bay even when the Islanders' Cinderella story seemed to be gaining traction. Bylsma made a bold but necessary goaltending change in replacing starter Marc-Andre Fleury with veteran backup Tomas Vokoun after a bafflingly bad performance in Game 4. That move paid dividends as the latter turned away 66 of 69 shots faced in his two starts to close out the series.

And in moving on, Pittsburgh managed to exorcise some demons from last spring’s implosion when the team was upset in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers.

"I think we fought it a little bit, that history, and we fought it in different ways," Bylsma said. "But again, we had to be excited to win and not thinking about the past."

The Islanders don’t have that luxury, however. With their first taste of the playoffs also comes their first devastating sense of disappointment.

That won’t abate any time soon.

"Right now, it’s just tough, but in a couple of weeks when we look back at the season, I think we’ll realize we took a big step in the right direction," Nielsen said. "But, we’re definitely not satisfied with that. It’s still a long way to go. It’s not a success until we’ve got that Cup, but I think it’s a step in the right direction."
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The Islanders are not simply happy to be here.

Proving that they can be more than just competitive with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Islanders edged the top seed in the East 6-4 in a wild romp at Nassau Coliseum Tuesday night to even the series 2-2.

Scoring six goals against a supremely shaky Marc-Andre Fleury, the Isles might also have planted some serious doubt within the Penguins' room about their starting goaltender.

[+] EnlargeJosh Bailey
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsThe Islanders evened up the series at two games apiece on Tuesday.
Fleury has now given up 14 goals in four games this series, leading many to wonder whether veteran backup Tomas Vokoun will get the start in goal for Game 5 on Thursday in Pittsburgh.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma declined to say who would start, but he didn’t rule out Vokoun as a possibility.

“We’re not going to talk about our starting goaltender for Game 5 right now,” Bylsma said.

It wasn’t just Fleury who gave up questionable goals -- Isles netminder Evgeni Nabokov has a few he’d probably like back as well -- in what turned out to be a wildly entertaining game between two teams trading scoring chances at a frenetic pace.

After seeing leads quickly evaporate in the first two periods, the Islanders rattled off three goals in the final frame. Captain Mark Streit, who finished with three points, tied the game at 3 with his second goal of the game early in the third, and superstar center John Tavares snapped a 4-4 draw to score what would hold up as the game-winner midway through the period.

Tavares stick handled his way to the doorstep and chased his own rebound to beat Fleury’s outstretched pad for a 5-4 lead at 10:11. Fourth-line sparkplug Casey Cizikas added an insurance goal with less than two minutes remaining -- the final display of Fleury’s frustrating night.

Before that bizarre play, in which he was out of position and slow to react to Cizikas cutting to the net, Fleury gave up a real softie to Kyle Okposo in the second period.

Okposo threw the puck at the net from behind the goal line and banked it in off Fleury’s pads at 18:36.

The handful of blunders was eerily reminiscent of last year’s meltdown in the first round of the playoffs, when Fleury surrendered a dizzying 26 goals over six games to the Philadelphia Flyers.

“We know how he played last year against Philly, but we just want to go get traffic in front of him, get shots, shoot the puck,” Okposo said. “We didn’t shoot the puck enough in the second. We came out in the third, peppered him and got in his kitchen a little bit.”

Rugged forward Matt Martin said the team let Fleury off too easy in Game 1 when he recorded a 5-0 shutout. Since then, they’ve amped up the pressure.

“Game 1, we didn’t test him enough. He had a shutout. Luckily, Game 2 we were able to get some on him and since then, we’ve been able to capitalize on our opportunities,” Martin said. "I think if you take away any goalie’s confidence, it’s hard to make saves.”

By contrast, the Islanders confidence seems to be soaring after Game 4’s victory, one that ensures they’ll get another game at home in front of a raucous Nassau Coliseum crowd.

"Game 3 was heartbreaking and we found a way to put it behind us, so the nice thing is that we get another game at home here," Martin said. "The crowd’s been fantastic for us."

Even without top-pair defenseman Andrew MacDonald, who was forced from the game with an upper-body injury in the second period, the Islanders seem encouraged by their chances from here on out.

They’ll take momentum into Game 5 and the knowledge that these Penguins are a beatable team.

Although an inexperienced squad, the Islanders have matured, both from earlier this season and maybe even earlier this series, into one capable of managing the momentum swings and surges within a game.

“We put so much effort into getting here, there was no doubt we wanted to make the most of this opportunity," Tavares said. "We weren’t just satisfied being here. We believe in this room, obviously. ... There are a lot of guys stepping up for us here and that’s what we need.”


PITTSBURGH -- A night that began with a familiar celebration of Sidney Crosby’s greatness and a reminder of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ embarrassment of riches ended shockingly with the New York Islanders reminding the favored Penguins that hard work sometimes trumps talent.

The plucky Islanders, down 3-1 before the first period was eight minutes old -- thanks to a pair of Crosby goals in his first game back after missing more than a month with a broken jaw, and another by former Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin -- refused to go silently into the night, ultimately squeezing past the Penguins by a 4-3 margin to even this Eastern Conference quarterfinals series at 1-1.

Game 3 is Sunday afternoon on Long Island.

Embarrassed 5-0 in Game 1 on Wednesday, the Islanders made good on pregame promises to be better, to work harder, to put more pressure on the Penguins.

Although there will no doubt be criticism of Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who misplayed the winner off the end boards with 7:37 left in the third period, the fact is he was under siege much of the night as the Islanders fired 42 shots, the first time the Penguins have given up 40-plus shots in a playoff game since a triple-overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators in 2009. Even when the Islanders were trailing, they were the better, more consistent team, creating chances off the rush and by pressuring the Penguins defense with an aggressive forecheck.

They tied the game just past the midway point of the second period with the second of two goals in the middle frame and then won it on a Kyle Okposo shot that came off the end boards and bounced into the net off Fleury.

It was a somehow fitting end to this contest, an ugly goal that on this night was a reminder of the resiliency of a youthful Islander team.

"It was a different goal. I just saw it go off the end boards and I saw it bouncing towards the net, and I was hoping somebody was just going to whack it in," Okposo said. "It just kind of took a crazy bounce and went off him, and I could see it kind of trickling and I was just saying, 'Go, go, go.' And it was able to find the back of the net."

The goal was the first-ever playoff goal for Okposo, who had earlier in the second period bloodied Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen in a spirited fight that seemed to spur the Islanders on.

It was also the first-ever playoff goal for Matt Moulson, who scored the Isles’ first, and for Colin McDonald, who scored the second, and for Matt Martin, who tied the game just past the midway point of the second period.

"It’s huge. It was a big goal and we kept fighting all game," Okposo said. "That was a big character win for us."

Maybe it was the early lead, maybe it was the return of Crosby and the electricity in the sold-out Consol Energy Center, but the Penguins were guilty of a surprising casualness with the puck, especially after building the early lead for the second game in a row.

There were defensive breakdowns and a lack of discipline.

Deryk Engelland took two first-period minor penalties, the first of which led to the Moulson goal.

Then, when the Penguins pushed back late in the second period during a four-minute power play, veteran netminder Evgeni Nabokov, yanked early in the second period in Game 1, was terrific, stoning Crosby and Malkin during the same sequence.

"It’s huge, I think, for us as a team, as a group, being in the playoffs and lose the first game the way we lost, I think this game was a little bit of a statement game," said Nabokov, who stopped 30 of 33 shots. "Anytime you fall behind 2-0, 3-0, the next stop is important. That’s what I was trying to do: stop the next one, and then stop the next one."

After looking timid and uncertain in Game 1, the Islanders showed that they are capable of jumping up the playoff learning curve in a hurry. The game marked the sixth time this season they have come from behind on the road while trailing by two or more goals.

"We had our legs going. You could tell we were playing our game," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "When we play that kind of hockey, we normally give ourselves a chance to win."

So, now what?

"I don’t think we feel like we did enough to deserve that one," Crosby said after. "It’s the playoffs. You lose games sometimes. We have to make sure we learn pretty quickly from this one, though. It’s not the way we want to play."

While there was a celebratory air about the Islanders dressing room -- or was it relief? -- as they packed their bags to return home for the next two games, there was also the understanding that what was accomplished on Friday night will soon be rendered moot if they cannot answer with even more of the same.

"It’s only one game. We can’t get too excited," Martin said.

"It won’t mean anything" if the same effort isn’t there on Sunday, he added.

Everyone in the playoffs appeared to have stylized T-shirts that reinforce a message or a theme. The Pens have one with the No. 4 on the back, referring to the four games it takes to get out of the first round.

The Islanders have a shirt that reads: "Started From The Bottom Now We’re Here."

After Friday night’s gutsy comeback win, that sentiment couldn’t be any more apropos.

PITTSBURGH -- Islanders coach Jack Capuano talked before the game about the need for his team to stay disciplined. Yet early in the first period, former Penguin Brian Strait took exception to a Matt Cooke hit on one of his teammates and gave Cooke a shot as Strait was coming onto the ice, drawing an interference penalty. The Pens’ Beau Bennett scored late in the power play to put the Isles behind the eight ball early on. The power-play goal was aided by the fact a clearing attempt by the Isles struck one of the on-ice officials in the neutral zone and allowed the Penguins to quickly return to the Islander zone.

***

Veteran netminder Evgeni Nabokov was yanked early in the second period after allowing four goals on 15 shots. Three of those goals came after he took a Jarome Iginla rocket off the top of his mask, a shot that left him momentarily dazed in the first period.

"I never had that. The chunk was out, and I think the mask is done," Nabokov said.

"It’s the first time I’ve actually felt it," Nabokov said, adding that he was lucky the puck hit the top of the mask as opposed to a more direct impact on the forehead or cage.

"Yeah. Good mask," he said ruefully.

***

Pittsburgh defenseman Mark Eaton, who was part of the Pens’ Cup-winning team in 2009 before departing for Long Island, where he played for two seasons, signed with the Penguins in February as a free agent when the Penguins were beset by injuries. He drew an assist on Pascal Dupuis’ second goal Wednesday night, his first point of the season. He led all players with eight blocked shots. When the Penguins are healthy along the blue line (Brooks Orpik missed Game 1 with an injury sustained late in the regular season), Eaton usually plays with Kris Letang his defense partner during the ’09 Cup run.

***

Marc-Andre Fleury’s sixth postseason shutout leaves him tied with Tom Barrasso for the most playoff shutouts in franchise history.


PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins showed up for work Wednesday morning wearing T-shirts with the No. 4 on the back, a nod to the immediate task of winning four games to get out of the first round of the playoffs.

No word on whether those same shirts will be worn Thursday with the "4" crossed out and replaced by a "3" after the Penguins whipped the New York Islanders 5-0 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

They’re just T-shirts, of course: some fabric and a little lettering, including the phrase, "Here We Go."

But the shirts speak to a mindset, a narrowing of the focus to the task at hand.

When you are a team as deep and talented as the Penguins -- and when there is as much discussion about a long playoff run, a possible trip to the Stanley Cup finals, another championship -- it might be easy to forget about first things first.

If you look at the big picture, if you look at what is needed to win a Cup, "It’s a bit overwhelming," Pittsburgh forward Craig Adams said after Wednesday’s game.

And if you start thinking about that, "you’ll never get there," he said.

"Everyone wanted to hand us the Cup last year, and we saw how that turned out," Adams added.

And there’s the rub.

In an interview before Wednesday’s game, Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero went to great pains to reinforce that his team was very mindful of the Islanders, even though the Pens were the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the Isles the eighth seed.

"I know this team has a great deal of respect for the Islanders," Shero said. "There’s no way we’ll be underestimating them."

Those are the kinds of sentiments that are on display when you’re coming off a 2012 playoff season that really ended before it began with the Penguins blowing a 3-0 lead against Philadelphia in Game 1 and quickly falling behind 3-0 in the series en route to a six-game loss. It was the second consecutive one-and-done playoff spring for the Penguins, and they have won just one playoff round since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.

So you can understand if there is an emphasis on the details this time around.

"We’ve been preaching that all year," Adams said. "I think we’ve been humbled."

After one game, it would appear the message has sunk in, as the Penguins methodically took apart an inexperienced Islanders team that is playing in the postseason for the first time since 2007.

The Pens took advantage of an early power play to go up 1-0 after a terrific play by Beau Bennett, who cut in from the right side and roofed a shot over veteran netminder Evgeni Nabokov. Bennett wouldn’t be in the lineup if it weren’t for the fact that doctors declined to let captain Sidney Crosby suit up for Game 1.

Talk about taking advantage of your opportunities: Bennett scored in his first-ever playoff game.

The Penguins would add another power-play goal early in the second period by Kris Letang before Pascal Dupuis, the king of even-strength goals, added two while the teams were playing five aside. Tanner Glass rounded out the scoring with his first-ever postseason goal.

Defensively, the Pens killed off four Islander power plays and limited the Isles to 26 shots, providing netminder Marc-Andre Fleury with ample protection. Fleury, who endured a nightmare series last postseason against the Flyers, earned his sixth postseason shutout.

"Everything went great tonight," Dupuis said. "Yes, we did play the right way, but you have to keep saying to yourself it’s only 1-0."

If there was cause for concern for the Penguins, it was the loss of James Neal, who got tangled up with Travis Hamonic early in the second period and did not return. There was no information on his status for Game 2 Friday.

Also, Jussi Jokinen, who added two assists and continues to be a point machine since coming over from Carolina at the trade deadline, went off the ice gingerly after a collision with Islanders forward Marty Reasoner, who was assessed a kneeing major with 2:10 left in the game.

The Islanders, meanwhile, looked like a team whose most important players (outside Nabokov) were playing in their first playoff game. Reasoner, playing in his 24th career postseason game, was the player with the most playoff experience among Islander skaters, and he’d been a healthy scratch for the final 10 regular-season games.

John Tavares, who figures to be among the finalists for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, was a nonfactor, finishing the night without a shot. Likewise, Brad Boyes and Matt Moulson weren’t the players who combined for 25 regular-season goals.

Head coach Jack Capuano said the team’s work ethic and determination weren’t what they had been during the final month of the regular season, when the Isles secured an unexpected playoff berth, and the execution was lacking.

Nabokov, a player Capuano referred to as an extension of the coaching staff given his experience, was given the hook just 1:51 into the second period after the Pens made it 4-0 with two goals in 32 seconds.

Although he was beaten twice by hard, high shots courtesy of Bennett and Letang on the power play, this loss wasn’t a function of poor goaltending. Instead, this was a loss that was, pure and simple, about one team being light years ahead of another in terms of getting the job done.

"Obviously, I think it was a little bit too easy for them, for the Penguins. All-around game has to be better. Better saves, more saves. I guess it’s got to start with me," Nabokov said.

"I’ve got to make key saves at the key times and give the guys a chance to battle. But the game was over basically at the beginning of the second period, it’s four-zip, and it’s really tough to come out of it against that type of team. So [I] have to find a way to tighten up and be better," he said.

Of course, as the Pens’ T-shirts remind us, this series is not the best of one.

The Islanders have a chance to regroup, and one imagines whatever nerves and butterflies might have invaded their bodies Wednesday will have dissipated by the time Game 2 rolls around Friday night.

"I don’t think anything is easy. You have to come out, and you have to work hard. It’s got to hurt to play; I heard somebody in the locker room actually say that: It’s got to hurt to play," Nabokov said.

"I think we have to come out next game, and we have to be ready, be more physical and just make it hard on them everywhere, every inch of the ice. We have to battle for every inch of the ice, everywhere. I think that’s the only way we can play with that team because, otherwise, they’re too skilled. They’re too good."

Penguins excited to play outside in Chicago

May, 1, 2013
5/01/13
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PITTSBURGH -- Although the Penguins have been involved in two previous outdoor games -- playing in Buffalo in the inaugural Winter Classic in Buffalo in 2008 and hosting the Winter Classic at Heinz Field in 2011 -- there was still excitement voiced about the opportunity to take part in another outdoor game, this one March 1 in Chicago against the Blackhawks.

Defenseman Paul Martin grew up in Minnesota and playing outdoors was part of his childhood.

"It takes you back. For me, I grew up skating on the pond," he said.

Martin took part in the 2011 Winter Classic as a member of the Penguins and is looking forward to the Chicago event.

"Definitely, we all enjoyed it," he said.

Penguins president David Morehouse told ESPN.com these events are important especially after the lockout.

There has to be a greater emphasis on marketing the league "and how we project the game," Morehouse said.

"We have to be less of a tribal sport and more of a broader sport, where people watch games just to watch the games, not just their teams, and I think these kinds of things help that," he said.

Because the Olympic tournament is dominated by NHL players, Morehouse also likes that the Chicago game will follow the end of the Olympic tournament, and perhaps act as a catalyst toward keeping the casual fan who might have been following the Olympics to stick with the NHL game.

"I think as we're trying to broaden and expand the brand and get more and more casual hockey fans to be deeper and more energetic hockey fans, these are the kinds of things we're going to have to do," Morehouse said.

"I think we're enthusiastic about these types of events and we’ll always say 'yes' when we're asked," he added.

Experience issues

One of the key storylines of the Islanders-Penguins series will be the lack of playoff experience in New York's lineup. Sixteen Islanders available to play in this series have never played in an NHL playoff game, including key personnel John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Josh Bailey.

But one player who has been down this road a few times is netminder Evgeni Nabokov, who leads the team with 80 postseason appearances.

His importance to the club and the Isles ability to stay close against the heavily favored Penguins cannot be overstated.

"I think with Nabby, he's an extension of your coaching staff," head coach Jack Capuano said Wednesday.

"He's a guy that can settle the room down. I know over the last couple of days we've had some real good meetings with our hockey club and he's been pretty vocal about his experience, along with a few others," the coach said.

Nabokov played in 41 of 48 games for the Isles this season.

"It's a long series, and the one thing I think that Nabby will tell you there's no panic no matter what happens. There's going to be surges, there's going to be momentum throughout the course of the game and throughout the series," Capuano said.

Need to know: Inconsistent Islanders

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
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  If there is one thing that separates the good teams from the mediocre and the great ones from the good, it's consistency of effort. Poor teams invariably see wild swings in effort and results, sometimes within a few days. Monday was a perfect illustration of that. How do the New York Islanders look so good -- dare we say almost playoff-ready? -- in handling New Jersey 5-1 on Saturday night, then turn around and lay a complete egg in a 7-0 shellacking at home Monday afternoon by Philadelphia? Embarrassing. Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov (is there no Plan B on the island in terms of goaltending?) gave up three in the second and three in the third, and from reports out of the game, he might have been the Isles' best player. It was just the third road win for the Flyers, one of the reasons they're outside the Eastern Conference playoff bubble.

  Not a good day in Colorado for the on-ice officials, who blew an offside call that led to a Colorado goal, nor for Nashville backup Chris Mason, who has been solid this season but allowed six goals on 18 shots in less than two periods of play as the Predators were nipped 6-5. The game was the first for the Avalanche after blowing a 4-1 lead in Edmonton Saturday night, a game in which they gave up an Oilers-record 56 shots. Things looked like they might follow a similar pattern Monday as the Preds kept eating into Avalanche's leads, launching 38 shots on Semyon Varlamov, but the Avs held on. On the disputed goal by the suddenly red-hot Matt Duchene, officials mistakenly believed the Predators had played the puck back into their zone, allowing Duchene -- who was offside -- to go in alone and score.

  Kudos to the Ottawa Senators and coach Paul MacLean for being able to turn attention away from the loss of Erik Karlsson for the balance of the season. With Ben Bishop giving Craig Anderson a break in net, Bishop matched the peerless Martin Brodeur save for save as the Senators ended up with a 2-1 victory in a shootout Monday afternoon. Jakob Silfverberg scored the only goal of the shootout. Bishop stopped 30 of 31 shots, while Brodeur stopped 29 of 30.

  Speaking of the Northeast, it's become a very interesting place to be this season. The Toronto Maple Leafs won their sixth in seven games with their 3-0 victory Monday over the hapless Florida Panthers. Meanwhile, Montreal was taking care of business against a much-improved Carolina Hurricanes team, defeating the Southeast Division leaders 3-0 for its fourth straight win. With starting goalie Carey Price feeling under the weather, Canadiens coach Michel Therrien went back to Peter Budaj for a second straight time (Budaj beat Philadelphia Saturday). The point totals are a bit misleading because Boston has played two or three fewer games than the rest of the division, but as of Tuesday morning, Montreal assumed the top spot in the Northeast, with Boston, Ottawa and Toronto all among the top eight in the Eastern Conference, as well.

  The Anaheim Ducks are doing in the Pacific Division what the Chicago Blackhawks are doing in the Central: threatening to run away and hide. The surprising Ducks won again Monday, edging Columbus 3-2 to improve to 12-2-1. The win was the Ducks’ fifth straight, and their plus-14 goal differential is tied for second in the league behind the Blackhawks. The Ducks lead Phoenix by seven points with a game in hand, as the second-place Coyotes (8-6-2) continued to put their slow start to the season behind them with a 4-0 whitewashing of Calgary on Monday. The Coyotes have won four of five but are proving how hard it is to make up ground in the division. As for the Blackhawks (12-0-3), they have a shot at tying an NHL record for the best start without a regulation loss when Vancouver visits Tuesday night. The record for starting without a regulation loss was set by the 2006-07 Ducks, who went on to win the Cup after starting the season 12-0-4.

Nabokov giving it a think

February, 27, 2012
2/27/12
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With only a few hours left until the trade deadline passes, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov is mulling a contract offer from the Islanders, a source confirmed to ESPNNewYork.com.

Regardless of whether he accepts the deal, Nabokov is not expected to be moved. Despite significant interest in the 36-year-old netminder -- the goaltending market is thin for teams looking to bolster the position -- GM Garth Snow told ESPNNewYork.com that he has no intention on trading him.

Al Montoya might be another case, however.

A source told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun that the Islanders are shopping Montoya.
Some quick notes on a quiet Sunday before the deadline on which Ben Bishop was traded to Ottawa:
  • A day after yet another loss, which ignited calls for the firing of head coach Ron Wilson, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke says a change behind the bench was not in the cards.

    "I’m not contemplating a coaching change," Burke told ESPN.com.

    The Leafs are winless in four games (0-3-1) and have won only once in nine games (1-7-1), outscored 35-17 during stretch, to slide out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

    Burke went on TSN radio in Toronto on Wednesday and suggested the Leafs would look at what’s out there on the goalie trade market, given the struggles of Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer.

    But Burke, as of 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday, said nothing was imminent on the trade front.

    While Burke refused to discuss specific names, sources confirm the Leafs have talked to Columbus about Rick Nash but my sense is that they were not close on that front.

    On the goalie front, it’s believed Toronto has interest in Evgeni Nabokov, but Isles GM Garth Snow told ESPNNewYork.com’s Katie Strang on Sunday that he was not looking to move the UFA-to-be netminder. The Isles and Nabokov’s agent, Don Meehan, have discussed a contract extension over the past week.

    As I reported earlier this past week, the Edmonton Oilers and Leafs have also chatted about Nikolai Khabibulin but my sense is that Toronto isn’t keen on that extra year on the goalie’s contract.
  • The Boston Bruins are still hoping to add both a forward and a defenseman. A source told ESPN.com on Sunday that B’s have interest in Daniel Winnik, T.J. Galiardi and David Jones -- all three Colorado Avalanche forwards are very much in play. Winnik and Jones are UFAs July 1 while Galiardi is an RFA July 1. The Bruins have interest in possibly dealing for one of them.
  • The Winnipeg Jets are in the thick of the playoff race, so they have to be careful with what they’re going to do. I was told Sunday by a source that Johnny Oduya was getting the most traction. No surprise there, he’s a UFA July 1 and would be a good rental pickup for a contender.
  • Still no contract extension for Ryan Smyth (UFA July 1) in Edmonton. Talks began Thursday. It’s worth keeping an eye on. Teams like Detroit, Boston and the Rangers have shown interest in adding Smyth but the veteran winger and the Oilers agreed two weeks ago that he would stay put. In return, though, you can’t blame Smyth for likely wanting to get an extension done to give him some security. Look for it to be a two-year deal if it gets done.
  • The Minnesota Wild were taking calls this weekend, of course, on goalie Josh Harding, a UFA on July 1. If Ben Bishop netted a second-round pick, Harding should garner a better asset given his NHL experience.
  • There was twitter buzz Sunday that Montreal Canadiens center Tomas Plekanec was willing to waive his no-trade clause. False, as it turns out.

    "I’ve never had a conversation or discussion with [GM] Pierre Gauthier and Montreal regarding a need to address his no-trade clause," Plekanec’s veteran agent, Rick Curran, told ESPN.com on Sunday. "He’s never broached the topic. I had dinner with Tomas last night, as well as Tomas Kaberle, and never once did we ever discuss a trade or anything like that. It’s not an issue whatsoever."

    Plekanec is in the second season of a $30 million, six-year contract.
  • With teams looking to add goaltending depth, Islanders netminder Evgeni Nabokov has generated some interest as Monday's deadline looms, but he does not appear to be on the block.

    "I'm not looking to move him," GM Garth Snow told ESPNNewYork.com's Katie Strang via text message Sunday.

  • It’s been a tough few days for the playoff-hopeful Calgary Flames, as they were pounded 6-1 by Edmonton and then lost to Phoenix and Philadelphia in the shootout after leading in both those games.

    Still, as of Sunday, the Flames were just one point out of eighth place and GM Jay Feaster was holding to his playoffs-or-bust mentality.

    Feaster said Sunday that he has no intention of moving top center Olli Jokinen, who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

    "I’ve already met with Olli and told him I am not moving him. I told him I’m not shopping him, and when I do receive calls I tell them he is NOT in play," Feaster said in an email message Sunday.

    “We also discussed focusing on getting into the playoffs and then discussing a new deal postseason. He is totally on-side with all of that,” Feaster said.

    Jokinen leads the Flames with 50 points.

    As for trying to move other assets, Feaster isn’t planning to make any alterations to his roster. In fact, he is hoping to get injured players David Moss, Blair Jones and Chris Butler back in the next two to three weeks.

    “We feel our destiny remains in our own hands,” Feaster said.
    --Scott Burnside

Debate: Who are the Leafs going after?

February, 23, 2012
2/23/12
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Brian Burke has shown time and time again in his GM career that he’s not afraid to act, and the man who runs the Toronto Maple Leafs has decided to add more drama before Monday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline.

Burke broke the news on TSN 1050 Radio in Toronto on Wednesday evening -- later confirming it with ESPN.com during a phone call -- that the club has decided to explore what’s out there on the goalie market in the wake of recent netminding struggles of Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer.

It doesn’t mean for sure they’ll get a goalie, but they are going to see what’s out there and judge the price tags. Burke said the front office discussed it for the first time Wednesday. It had not looked at outside goaltending until this point, just a few days removed from the trade deadline.

That doesn’t allow for much time to get something done, and the prices are usually high at this time of year, but let’s look at the possibilities for the Leafs:

Evgeni Nabokov, New York Islanders: At 36, Nabokov has had a bounce-back season as proved by his .925 save percentage. He’s slated for unrestricted free agency July 1, so he’s the ideal rental player. My understanding is that he would gladly waive his no-trade clause for a move to Toronto. And don’t forget he played for Leafs coach Ron Wilson during their San Jose days. Here’s the catch, however: The Isles are in negotiations with Nabokov agent Don Meehan regarding an extension. And even if Nabokov doesn’t sign, Isles GM Garth Snow has shown in the past he doesn’t just give away rental players, so it’s no sure thing he will move him, even if he can’t sign him over the next few days. Still, this would be the most obvious target for Toronto.

Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild: Like Nabokov, Harding is a UFA July 1, so he’s a rental. Thing is, like the Isles, the Wild haven’t quite decided what to do ahead of Monday’s trade deadline. It’s really going to depend, I think, on the quality of the trade offers and where Minnesota sits in the standings. But the club is certainly open to listening.

Anders Lindback, Nashville Predators: I believe there’s interest here on the part of the Leafs, but there’s also the realization that the Predators aren’t about to give away a 23-year-old goalie who holds lots of promise. It’s not that he’s unavailable; the Preds would move him, but only in the right deal. Translation: high price.

Curtis Sanford, Columbus Blue Jackets: Sanford is another rental, and frankly he’s played reasonably well for the league’s doormats this season. The question you have to ask yourself if you’re Toronto is, how much of an upgrade is he on what you have?

J.S. Giguere, Colorado Avalanche: The former Leafs netminder is healthier now than he was last season in Toronto but he’s not a rental player, having another year left on his contract, at $1.25 million. He’s played well for Colorado this season, he’s been a good tonic for Semyon Varlamov, and I’m not sure how interested the Avs would be to change that.

Antero Niittymaki, San Jose Sharks: You can bet your bottom dollar that Sharks GM Doug Wilson would love to dump his discarded No. 3 netminder on the Leafs. Niittymaki has an .891 save percentage in nine AHL games this season. He’s fully recovered from a surgically repaired hip, but teams are obviously wary. He’s been a very effective netminder in the past, but I doubt the Leafs would go here unless it was a last resort.

Scott Clemmensen, Florida Panthers: He’s a UFA July 1 and a former Leafs farmhand, in 2007-08. He’s played decently in Florida this season, with a .908 save percentage, but I think the Panthers would move him if a team called. Two questions here: 1) Would Florida move him to a team it is battling with in the East playoff race? and 2) Is this really an upgrade for Toronto?

Ben Bishop, St. Louis Blues: Total wild-card entry. It would be a big-time gamble for the Leafs to hand the keys to another young and inexperienced netminder, one with only 13 NHL games under his belt -- none this season. But some people around the league are high on the 25-year-old’s abilities.
Ray Whitney is on the radar of a few contenders and with good reason, the Wizard amazingly leading the Phoenix Coyotes in scoring at 39 years old.

An unrestricted free agent July 1, he could be on the move if the Coyotes fall out of the playoff race over the next two weeks.

Sources have told ESPN.com that Boston, San Jose and the New York Rangers covet the slick playmaker.

The tricky part is that Whitney has a no-move clause that calls for him to list eight teams to which he’d be willing to be traded. A source told ESPN.com on Thursday that that conversation had yet to happen, which makes sense since the Coyotes remain very much in the playoff race at this point.

Still, a name worth keeping an eye on.

RED-HOT ISLES


The New York Islanders are on a roll, and the last thing on their mind right now is the thought of being sellers come trade deadline day. They believe they’ve got a shot at a playoff spot in the East and that’s their only focus at this point.

"Yeah, we have a lot of belief in that locker room," Isles GM Garth Snow told ESPN.com Wednesday. "Within the last few weeks, we’ve really turned it up a notch as a team. Our specialty teams have improved. We’re just looking forward to the next game."

Veteran netminder Evgeni Nabokov has been lights-out of late. He’s slated for unrestricted free agency July 1, which is why his name is often floated in trade rumors, but that’s not what Snow has in mind at this point.

"We have no intention of moving Evgeni," Snow said. "He’s been great for us. His performance speaks for itself."

There haven’t been any contract talks between the Islanders and Nabokov’s camp, but it’s not out of the question down the road.

"Yeah, we’d consider all options, we’re just not at that point yet," said Snow. "We just finished [signing] Frans [Nielsen] and we obviously have a few other players who are unrestricted free agents in July, so we’ll just chip away at them."

Among those other UFAs-to-be is forward P.A. Parenteau. Talks have begun there but still no deal.

"We’ve been having a dialogue with his agent and we’ll see where it goes," Snow said.

LEAFS HOST WINTER CLASSIC?


The Toronto Maple Leafs will play in Detroit for the Winter Classic next Jan. 1, the first step in what they hope is hosting one.

"We would definitely want to, the league knows we want to host it one day," Tom Anselmi, the COO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, told ESPN.com Thursday. "We’d like to host it either in conjunction or in the lead-up to our 100-year anniversary. But obviously we need to figure out the building issue."

The 20,000-seat BMO Field, where MLS team Toronto FC plays, is the most likely site for an outdoor NHL game in Toronto. But 20,000 seats won’t cut it. The Leafs would need to expand the stadium, perhaps only temporarily, to have any chance at hosting a game.

Anselmi also reiterated the Leafs’ desire to host the NHL Entry Draft and the NHL All-Star Game somewhere around or leading up to the club’s centennial anniversary, which is in 2017.

SENS AT THE DEADLINE


Ottawa’s slide down the standings has certainly tied the hands of GM Bryan Murray. He can’t commit to being a buyer or seller at this point with his team on the playoff bubble.

"The one thing we have is a plan going forward, we think we know that we have some young kids coming that are valuable and we’re not going to trade them," Murray told ESPN.com earlier this week. "We’ll see if there’s anything that makes sense, but in all likelihood it’s status quo at the moment, anyway."

In a perfect world, if the Senators can climb back up the standings over the next two weeks and gain more comfort from the danger zone, they’ll look to add a forward.

"We’ll see, we’ll let it play out here," Murray said. "If we bounce back, we may have to make a different decision. But at the moment, we’re just going to hold and see if we can get our better players to play better."

Murray hasn’t sat on his hands over the past month, though.

"I did make a couple of calls," Murray said. "I found out an approximate price. It’s not cheap. I don’t know how many trades there are going to be this year, but the people selling are going to have high demands. It sounds like that anyway."

DUCKS AT THE DEADLINE


Based on what I’m hearing from other teams, it would appear more and more that if the Ducks were going to move one of their big guys, it would likely happpen in the offseason.

You never say never, because the Ducks could get an offer for Bobby Ryan they just can’t refuse before Feb. 27, but the prevailing thought around the league is that if the Ducks decide to move a big chip like Ryan or Ryan Getzlaf -- and that remains an if -- the offseason presents a better opportunity to involve more teams in the mix.

Just like the Flyers did with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter last June.

Besides, the Ducks are on a roll right now, so they haven’t given up on the season.

Top offensive blueliner Lubomir Visnovsky could still move before Feb. 27, however, although the Ducks aren’t giving him away. He’s not a rental player, he’s got another year on his deal, so Anaheim will move Visnovsky only in a traditional hockey deal, not a rental deal where it gets a bucket of pucks.

The interesting part about Visnovsky is that while his cap hit for next year remains at $5.6 million, pretty hefty, his actual salary drops to $3 million, so that might interest some teams.

Niklas Hagman (UFA July 1) is getting some nibbles as well. He’s a versatile player and your typical depth forward, rental addition.

LEAFS AT THE DEADLINE


The Leafs would have preferred to have made their deal by now. GM Brian Burke doesn’t like adding players right at the deadline. He prefers to make his deals at least a month out so that the player or players have more time to get acclimated to the new surroundings.

But it didn’t happen for the Leafs, just like it didn’t happen for most other contenders who were shopping in January but found the prices too exorbitant given the lack of sellers.

The Leafs’ desire is to add a top-six forward with size. They’re not easy to find.

The other factor Toronto’s front office must weigh is that the team has gone gangbusters since the calendar flipped to 2012, and one must consider that when contemplating making a roster move to a dressing room that’s in sync right now.

"Yes, momentum and chemistry both factor in whether you shuffle the deck," Burke told ESPN.com Wednesday.

The key, at least in my opinion, is to make sure if you make a big addition that the reaction in the room is players feeling euphoric that the team has a better chance to win now. As opposed to wondering why a teammate they’re fond of has been dealt.

Speaking of the Leafs, second-line center Mikhail Grabovski -- slated to be UFA July 1 -- remains unsigned, although his agent Gary Greenstin did recently chat with Toronto.

"I spoke with Maple Leafs management a couple days ago and I believe they understand our position and we understand their position," Greenstin told ESPN.com via email Wednesday. "Like I said before, Mikhail loves the city, organization and the fans, and we know the fans like him too. He would like to stay in Toronto and win the Stanley Cup with them, but he is in his prime years in his hockey career and this has to be right for Mikhail and it has to be right for the Maple Leafs."

KUBINA WRINKLE


Veteran defenseman Pavel Kubina will be an unrestricted free agent July 1, so naturally if and when the Lightning become sellers, he’d be a man of interest to contending teams.

One wrinkle to note, however. Kubina has a limited no-trade clause, which states the Lightning must ask him for the five teams he’d be willing to move to. That conversation has not yet happened.
Today, the fellas go at it over Sam Gagner, the Blackhawks and Jimmy Howard's pinkie. Bring it.

BURNSIDE: Greetings, my friend. Well, that was one for the ages for Sam Gagner on Thursday night, wasn’t it? The young Edmonton Oiler who has been the subject of trade rumors scored four times and added four assists as the Oilers spanked the Chicago Blackhawks 8-4. It’s the second time this season the Hawks have been crushed by the lowly Oil, having suffered a 9-2 pasting earlier in the season. Gagner, the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft, has never quite lived up to expectations, and you wonder whether he is another example of a player who was rushed too quickly -- and the result has been an eroding of confidence and production. Even with his four-goal outburst Thursday, Gagner has just nine goals on the season and has never topped the 16-goal mark. Likewise, he has yet to equal the 49-point mark he established in his rookie season.

So, does a night like Thursday that saw him equal a franchise mark established in the Oilers’ glory days by Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey suddenly make him attractive on the open market? You’d have to think Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman will remember this performance as he trawls for some offensive depth and a defenseman before the Feb. 27 trade deadline. Of course, Hawks fans will be up in arms about another disappointing defensive/goaltending outing that saw Corey Crawford yanked early in the third period after having allowed five goals on 28 shots. There aren’t any real obvious fixes to the Hawks’ goaltending issues, assuming you believe there are issues. Evgeni Nabokov? Hardly seems like an upgrade. What say you, my friend?

LEBRUN: Gagner got to play between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle on Thursday night, and you saw what he can do when he gets an opportunity. What a sensational and historical night for Gagner. He’s been subject of trade rumors because his camp wondered whether he’d be a better fit elsewhere because he’s mostly played on the third line this season. His people believe that he’s at least a second-line center. If the Oilers do trade him, and that’s far from certain, they’d require a top-four defenseman in return, the one area they’re keenly focused on improving. My sense, though, is that the Oilers will keep Gagner.

As for the Hawks, now 25th in the NHL in goals against per game, the search for a defenseman takes on added pressure after that mess. Crawford must take his share of the blame, as well, but I really don’t think the Hawks are looking for another goalie at this point. I think they’re committed to the sophomore netminder. He was dynamite in the first round of the playoffs against Vancouver this past spring, and there’s no way that was a fluke.

BURNSIDE: Here’s the dilemma for Bowman, as I see it. The Blackhawks can light it up with anyone in the league -- they are fourth in goals per game -- and have a blue line that boasts top-end talent in former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Canadian Olympian Brent Seabrook and up-and-coming blueliner Nick Leddy. But right now, where would you rank their goaltending in the conference? Hard to argue that Jimmy Howard (more on him in a moment), Roberto Luongo/Cory Schneider, Brian Elliott/Jaroslav Halak, Pekka Rinne and Antti Niemi wouldn’t rank ahead of Crawford (and Chicago backup Ray Emery). Throw in Jonathan Quick, who is having a Vezina-worthy season in Los Angeles, and Niklas Backstrom of the eighth-place Wild, and you could argue quite persuasively that the Blackhawks have the worst goaltending of the eight teams currently in the playoff bracket in the West. Can they overcome that and win a round or two or more? Well, that’s the great debate, no?

The Blackhawks, in the middle of a nine-game road trip, travel to Calgary on Friday night. Calgary is another one of those teams trying to decide if it's a buyer or a seller. If the Flames fall off the pace -- they are five points out of eighth in 11th place as we speak -- you have to wonder whether GM Jay Feaster might entertain offers for Miikka Kiprusoff. The veteran netminder has a no-move clause through the end of this season, but the Flames’ rebuilding has to start somewhere, no? And given Feaster’s repeated insistence that he’s not moving captain Jarome Iginla, maybe Kiprusoff is where it starts. And if you’re Chicago, well, food for thought, no?

LEBRUN: The Hawks won the Cup with an untested rookie in Niemi in June 2010. I rest my case. Speaking of goaltending, though, the Red Wings will have to do without Howard for a bit. The NHL’s wins leader (32) suffered a broken pinkie finger in Thursday night’s 4-3 shootout victory at Vancouver. The Wings officially say Howard will miss two games before being re-evaluated after the team returns home from its road trip. A source told ESPN.com Friday morning that he might be out two weeks or so. Either way, it doesn’t sound too serious. Joey MacDonald has been called up to back up Ty Conklin, whom head coach Mike Babcock hasn’t showed a whole lot of confidence in this season. This should be an interesting test for the Wings.

BURNSIDE: You are right about the Red Wings’ goaltending depth issues. Conklin has played in only 10 games this season and has an .886 save percentage. Even though Howard’s injury doesn’t sound that serious long-term, do you think this hastens the urgency to find a more suitable backup for the Red Wings? It was GM Ken Holland, after all, who tried to nab Nabokov a year ago when the former San Jose mainstay cut short his experience in the Kontinental Hockey League. The New York Islanders grabbed him, however, and Nabokov has been OK with a pretty mediocre Islanders squad. But he’s not the long-term answer there. (Kevin Poulin appears to be the heir apparent with Al Montoya still looking to get a shot at the No. 1 job, too.) So, Nabokov to Detroit does seem a logical move and perhaps even more so with Friday's news.

LEBRUN: I think it really depends on how Conklin or MacDonald do in Howard’s absence and how long Howard ends up being out. If for some reason the backups struggle and Howard doesn’t heal quite as quickly as the Wings had hoped, maybe it forces Detroit’s hand. But otherwise, I don’t think that’s a priority for Detroit right now. My understanding is that the Wings will consider acquiring a top-six forward the most important item on their shopping list before Feb. 27, and that remains the case even with Howard’s injury.

Well, my friend, enjoy the weekend, and we’ll get back to this next week.

1. Goalies galore causing confusion for Islanders

New York Islanders fans are quick to point out the goaltending isn’t the prime reason the Isles are once again ensconced at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. And we agree -- but only to a point.

Yes, the talented collection of young forwards hasn’t gelled as expected or hoped. Calder Trophy nominee Michael Grabner has been slow off the mark with four goals, and Kyle Okposo has yet to notch a single goal. But for us, this is a team without an identity in large part because the Isles continue to wrestle with the three-headed goalie monster. From training camp, this loomed as a potential distraction, a detractor from the good things that were going on for the Islanders.

Until the team sheds one of the heads, it will continue to stutter step through the season and take yet another step toward irrelevance. Take Al Montoya, the young netminder who played so well down the stretch last season for the Islanders and earned a one-way, one-year deal for his efforts: Montoya was rewarded with the first three starts of the season and went 2-1 and allowed just four goals.

After a win by Evgeni Nabokov, Montoya lost 4-1 to Tampa on Oct. 20 and then disappeared. In the seven games since Montoya’s last start, the Islanders have won one game. We understand the desire to see what veteran netminder Nabokov has got and the practical nature of getting him games so his trade value might be enhanced. But throw in the human albatross, Rick DiPietro, and the goaltending situation is untenable.

DiPietro is 1-1-2 with a 2.67 GAA and .904 save percentage. He is what those numbers suggest, an average goaltender who is prone to injury and who has a contract that extends until the day after forever (actually the end of the 2021 season). Look around the NHL this season and teams have identified their best goalie and ridden him, even if their best goalie at the time happens to be the back-up. It has been so in Minnesota, St. Louis, Tampa, even Buffalo.

The Isles, meanwhile, sputter around trying to find room for three goalies, which is at least one and more likely two too many. Until that gets rectified, don’t expect much more than what we’ve seen from the Isles, which is more of the same, which is to say, more junk.

2. Hard work pays off for Harding

Among the many refreshing stories this season has been the return to not just NHL action but NHL stardom for Minnesota Wild netminder Josh Harding. The Regina, Saskatchewan native missed the last part of the 2009-10 season with a hip injury and then returned to action last season only to blow out his knee in the Wild’s first preseason game.

He acknowledged in an interview this week he had no idea where his NHL career might resume, if at all. Yet the Wild gave him another chance in part because they were impressed with his dedication to rehabilitating from the knee injury. That faith has been rewarded in spades early in this season as Harding has gone 4-0-1 and was named the NHL’s first star of the week. His .965 save percentage is tops in the league and his 1.18 GAA is second. “It was a long road but I’m happy with where I’m at right now,” Harding told ESPN.com. “Definitely I had my doubts.

I wasn’t sure where I’d have to go to get back,” he said, admitting that the American Hockey League and Europe were options he thought he might have to consider. “Now my job is to make sure that they made the right decision,” Harding said. So far, no complaints from GM Chuck Fletcher. He thinks the adversity Harding faced in coming back from two significant injuries suffered in succession, really a battle for his career, has made the 27-year-old mentally stronger. “This is really a remarkable story,” Fletcher told ESPN.com. “There’s been no hesitation in his game.”

Harding was a rare bystander Tuesday, when the Wild blanked Calgary, but it’s hard to imagine he won’t get the call when the Wild take on San Jose Thursday. It has been an interesting start for the Wild, whose power play and special teams play need to be better (the Wild PP was tied for 26th heading into action Wednesday), while the team’s even-strength scoring has been in the top 10 in the NHL. That balanced production from the top two lines and the play of unlikely goaltending hero Harding have given the Wild lots to be optimistic about as they continue on an early but crucial five-game road trip. As for any friction between Harding and the team’s perennial starter Niklas Backstrom, Fletcher said that’s a non-issue. “Both of our goalies are uniformly liked and respected by their teammates,” he said.

3. Backstrom back to fine form

The Washington Capitals continue to be an interesting study what with the continued lack of Alexander Ovechkin-like production from the Caps’ captain. But one player who seems to have bounced back from an offseason production-wise is top center Nicklas Backstrom. After signing a whopper 10-year contract extension, Backstrom saw his point totals drop from 101 in 2009-10 to 65 last season. The playoffs were likewise a disappointment for the slick center as he seemed to be pressing too hard and accomplished little, failing to score and adding just two assists in nine postseason games.

We spoke with Backstrom during training camp and he acknowledged he had something to prove this season. So far, so good as he leads the Caps with 19 points in 13 games. Head coach Bruce Boudreau said he’s never had an issue with Backstrom’s effort and thinks people get too wrapped up in the stats as a true measure of a player’s worth. “He’s a good player. Last year, things didn’t go in for him,” Boudreau told us this week. And they didn’t go in for his linemates, either. That said, the Caps power play is cooking (they rank third in the NHL), which is good news given the power outage the unit has suffered at times over the past couple of years. Backstrom is a huge part of that success as he essentially quarterbacks the top man-advantage unit.

“He’s the focal point of our power play as he’s always been,” Boudreau said. Now, in classic chicken-egg fashion, you may ask whether the power play is more effective because Backstrom is handling the puck with more maturity and confidence (his 14 assists lead the league), or are Backstrom’s points totals back at a more comfortable level because the power play is working. Certainly Boudreau has adjusted the team’s approach to the power play, but it only works because Backstrom is more like Backstrom.

4. Laraque know all, apparently

Is there a player who has a more self-inflated view of his self-worth than Georges Laraque? After accomplishing next to nothing during his NHL career beyond literally beating opposing players, Laraque has become ubiquitous, pontificating on an endless string of topics -- some related to the game, some not. He has even penned a book about his inspiring life. But what is unappetizing about the book is Laraque’s assertion that many NHL players are taking drugs of various kinds.

Laraque was in a position to know after playing in 695 NHL games. We can't say with 100-percent certainty that the NHL is a 100-percent clean league -- and, at some point, it would be nice to get some clarity on the subject if the players’ association would institute a drug-testing policy that would take all guesswork out of its claim that hockey is the cleanest of the pro sports. Until then, though, what Laraque does by insisting there is a problem and then refusing to name names is to paint all players with the same brush.

We’ve read pandering interviews where Laraque proudly distanced himself from former Major League Baseball star Jose Canseco, who actually admitted he used PEDs and identified other players who also juiced. But not Laraque. No, he holds fast to the ill-defined "code" that precludes him from being honest. Of course, Laraque insisted he never used those performance-enhancers.

We’re all for free speech, Georges. But if he is truly interested in changing the culture, as he insists he is, then he should name names. Tell us who was/is cheating; tell us which players are tainting the game. If Laraque doesn't do at least that, then he should at least tell the league and the union, so they can take action to clean up the mess he insists exists. That’s assuming Laraque knows.

5. The price of Pekka

A lot of debate about whether the Nashville Predators paid too much, not enough or just right when they inked netminder Pekka Rinne to a seven-year, $49-million contract extension. No one disputes Rinne’s skills. He was a Vezina Trophy nominee last year, and his numbers thus far this season suggest he could well be in for another trip to Las Vegas next June for the NHL Awards. But does the deal make sense for the Preds, who hope to sign twin defensive pillars Ryan Suter and Shea Weber to long-term deals as well.

A quick scan of the top 10 goaltenders in terms of dollars paid out this season, suggests that only three, Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury and Tim Thomas, have won Stanley Cups. (Actually Thomas is 11th on the list according to Capgeek.com, but we’re not counting Cristobal Huet who has not won a Cup and is playing in Switzerland). Of the remaining seven top-dollar earners, only Roberto Luongo has taken his team to a Stanley Cup final since the lockout.

The others, Ilya Bryzgalov, Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Miller, Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom and Martin Brodeur have all failed to deliver meaningful playoff performances on a consistent basis in recent years. Does this preclude the Predators, who have won only one playoff round in franchise history (last spring) from having success with Rinne between the pipes? No. Of course not.

But history suggests paying whopper salaries for top goaltenders is not a proven path to the Promised Land, either.

Watch: Nabokov on Isles' three-goalie system

October, 13, 2011
10/13/11
6:25
PM ET

New York Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov talks about his adjustment to playing in a three-goalie system:

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