Cross Checks: Minnesota Wild

NEWARK, N.J. -- Almost two years have passed since Zach Parise left New Jersey as an unrestricted free agent to sign with the Minnesota Wild, but the wounds were clearly still fresh for Devils fans when he faced his former club in New Jersey for the first time Thursday night.

The crowd of 14,772 at Prudential Center booed Parise when his name was announced in the Wild’s starting lineup. They preemptively booed him even when he was jabbing at the puck on the first shift of the game.

They booed him every time he touched the puck and did not relent once during the Devils’ 4-3 overtime victory.

[+] EnlargeParise
AP Photo/Bill KostrounZach Parise faced a bunch of booing as he made his return to Prudential Center.
The only time they cheered for him was when he was sent to the penalty box for hooking just 7:33 into play. He got the same treatment when he was stuffed by Devils netminder Cory Schneider on a short-handed breakaway attempt later in the period.

There were signs posted along the corner boards, some worse than others. It was clear Devils fans felt abandoned by the once-revered captain.

Parise was not surprised by the reception. In fact, he anticipated it.

"I was expecting that," he said after the Wild’s overtime loss. "I saw a couple signs that were nice. I was expecting the boos. Once you start playing, you drown them out. You don’t hear them."

Parise still felt like the homecoming was a memorable one. He didn’t deny that there was a different feel to this game. He sensed that upon arriving to his old stomping grounds, where he spent seven seasons, the last of which he served as the team’s captain.

"Some pretty weird feelings pulling up to the rink before the game and playing on this ice again, but it was fun. It was fun to be back," he said. "Unfortunately, the outcome wasn’t what we were planning on, what we had hoped for, but for us to claw back into the game and get a point -- that could be big for us late in the year."

Parise was instrumental in leading the Wild’s comeback, cutting a Devils lead in half with a tip of Ryan Suter’s shot while jostling with Bryce Salvador in front of the net just 21 seconds into the third period.

"The first period, he must have been thinking 'Man, this couldn’t be going any worse.' He takes a penalty, does a great job on the penalty kill and gets a breakaway and doesn’t score," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "To see him get rewarded there in the third, for us, it was great because we know what it meant to him."

The Wild tied the game at three later in the frame to take the game into overtime -- earning a much-needed point given their precarious playoff position in the Western Conference -- but ultimately fell after Devils defenseman Andy Greene’s game winner two minutes into OT.

It was a very Devils-esque win. They controlled much of the game and frustrated the Wild for the majority of play. Parise, who led the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals in the spring of 2012, knows that type of game well.

"That’s the style of hockey they play," he said. "They grind, they grind, they grind. They don’t put the puck in the middle of the ice. They play low-risk hockey."

That low-risk hockey isn’t quite the same without the dynamic firepower the Devils used to possess, however. The team lost Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk in consecutive offseasons, leaving fans feeling rightly perturbed. Even franchise goaltender Martin Brodeur said before the game that the Devils should have never let Parise walk.

But he did, making the gut-wrenching decision to sign with his hometown Minnesota Wild and leaving money on the table elsewhere and inking a matching 13-year, $98 million deal with fellow unrestricted free agent, defenseman Ryan Suter. Maybe fans’ ire would best be directed at general manager Lou Lamoriello, as Brodeur not-so-subtly suggested, but they took it out on Parise instead.

"I don’t have any hard feelings towards them. I understand," Parise said. "I wasn’t expecting cheers, so it’s fine."

Parise’s teammate, Matt Moulson, said Parise showed no outward signs of anxiety before the game. Rather, he went about his normal routine and appeared unconcerned. But having just been through an emotional return himself earlier in the week -- facing the New York Islanders on Long Island for the first time since he was unceremoniously shipped out of town to Buffalo -- Moulson could empathize with the mental toll.

"It’s emotional. You spend so many years putting your heart and soul into a team and you have to come back and play against them," said Moulson, who tallied two goals against his old team Tuesday night but was instead cheered by Islanders fans. "Mine was a little different situation but same emotions I think. You pour everything into your team and that becomes your family. It’s a little weird [when you change teams]."

And those ties still appear strong for Parise, because, as much as fans might resent him, he is clearly still beloved by his former teammates. A group of his old New Jersey buddies made its way down to the visitor’s locker room to catch up after what they knew would be a difficult game for him.

Luckily for Parise, who has had this date circled on the calendar for quite some time, it’s finally over.

"You know, I know his time here means a lot. I know what people think of him here means a lot, too," Yeo said. "Obviously, it was a tough decision, a tough move for him. That said, maybe it’s an opportunity for him to -- I don’t want to say move on -- but that’s what we need him to do. Obviously, we’re happy to have him here."
Zach PariseBruce Kluckhohn/Getty ImagesParise admits he doesn't know what kind of reception to expect from fans at The Rock.
Zach Parise noticed one particular date when he first saw the Minnesota Wild’s 2013-14 schedule. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw it wasn’t until March. Midway through the season, he was still able to put the game on the back burner. But now, Parise’s much-anticipated return to New Jersey is right in front of him, with his first game back at Prudential Center against his old New Jersey Devils club on Thursday.

Time to finally face the music.

“I’m excited,” Parise said. “It was a lot of really great memories there and I haven’t been back since. It will be a lot of emotions going through going back to that rink for the first time and everything.”

The 29-year-old Parise, a first-round draft pick (17th overall) by the Devils in 2003, spent the first seven years of his career in New Jersey, where he blossomed into one of the elite forwards in the National Hockey League. He even led the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals in 2012. But after the team’s surprising playoff run that spring, he decided to test free agency and signed with his hometown Minnesota Wild instead of re-signing with the Devils, as many New Jersey fans had hoped. Parise and stud free-agent defenseman Ryan Suter inked matching 13-year, $98 million deals with Minnesota.

Parise hasn’t been back to New Jersey since and doesn’t quite know what to expect from Devils fans in his return Thursday night.

“I’m guessing some mixed reviews,” said Parise, who has 23 goals and 45 points for the Wild this season. “I don’t know, though. I’ve said it before: What’s important to me is how good I was treated when I was there. I understand sports. Fans love their players and their teams and they don’t want to see players leave, but the part I’ll remember most is how good to me when I was there and that’s what matters.”

Parise still keeps in touch with his former teammates. He was planning to get together with a few of them for a low-key dinner Wednesday night. Those friendships won’t ever fizzle for Parise, no matter where he plays. The bond became particularly strong when the Devils advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in '12. Though they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in a six-game series, it was an experience Parise will never forget.

“You develop bonds that you just don’t get when you don’t make it that far,” Parise. “It’s something that, yeah, I’ll always remember.”

His relationship with general manager Lou Lamoriello remains intact, as well. Despite having to make that tough phone call on July 4, 2012, when Parise told Lamoriello of the decision to return home to Minnesota, the two maintain a good relationship. They trade texts occasionally and even an odd phone call here or there. Parise’s wife, Alisha, still keeps in touch with Lamoriello's longtime secretary, Marie.

There is no bad blood between Parise and the organization.

“We have a great relationship,” Parise said of Lamoriello. “I don’t think he holds a grudge or holds anything against me. He understands that’s the way hockey works. We had a good relationship beyond hockey where I would feel comfortable talking to him or calling him or something like that.”

At the time of Parise’s signing, Lamoriello acknowledged that he couldn’t compete with the tug of home. He understood. Parise now gets to see his father, former NHLer J.P. Parise, almost daily. His dad is able to attend morning skates and join Zach for pregame meals, not to mention the time devoted to being an on-site grandpa to Zach's 2-month-old twins (a boy, Jaxson, and a girl, Emelia).

Was coming home as good as he had hoped?

“It’s been better,” he said. “It’s been great.”

Maybe Devils fans will understand that, too. Parise didn’t just chase the dollar signs. In fact, he left significant money on the table to play for Minnesota (Philadelphia made an offer far more lucrative than the one he signed).

Maybe Devils fans won’t understand. But, according to Parise, that’s OK, too.

“People believe what they want to believe. I don’t know. Maybe it made more sense to them since I wanted to go back to Minnesota,” he said. “You never know.”

GM rumblings: Bernier, Backstrom & more

June, 19, 2013
6/19/13
8:19
PM ET
Jonathan Bernier of the Los Angeles KingsJerome Miron/US PresswireHow much longer will Jonathan Bernier play near Hollywood? Several other teams have interest.

BOSTON -- These are anxious times for young goalie Jonathan Bernier, who waits by this phone to find out where he might continue his NHL career.

It’s time for him to go elsewhere and become a No. 1 goalie, something he can’t do with the Los Angeles Kings with star goalie Jonathan Quick in place.

“I’m still part of the L.A. Kings and it’s been a great ride, but I feel really confident and I want to get to the next level to get a real chance to hopefully be a No. 1 somewhere,” Bernier told ESPN.com over the phone Wednesday. “I’m sure the Kings will make the right decision. If I’m staying there, I’m staying there. If not, I’m ready for the challenge.”

General manager Dean Lombardi indicated to Bernier that he would try to accommodate him if it’s a deal that makes sense for the Kings. The whole trade talk scenario is a new experience for Bernier.

“It’s actually exciting,” Bernier said. “But I really can’t control anything. It’s up to Dean. If there’s the right trade for him, I’m sure he’ll make the right call.

"I spoke with Dean at the end of the season, and he told me he can keep me there but also feels he kind of owed me the chance to be somewhere else [as a starter]. So I guess we’ll know in the next few weeks.”

Sources indicate five teams are in the mix on Bernier, to varying degrees: the Philadelphia Flyers, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders, Minnesota Wild and Florida Panthers.

For the Wild, it really depends on what happens with pending unrestricted free agent netminder Niklas Backtrom. If they can sign him in short order, then they would bow out of the Bernier mix. But if it appears they can’t re-sign Backstrom, they can go harder after Bernier or other possible netminders.

The Flyers, meanwhile, have shown interest in Bernier but obviously still have Ilya Bryzgalov on their books. As one source told ESPN.com Wednesday, they’re only going to buy out Bryzgalov if they have a concrete Plan B in place in terms of a goalie coming their way, whether that’s Bernier, Backstrom or any other goalie.

Stay tuned.

SPEAKING OF BACKSTROM ...

GM Chuck Fletcher said Backstrom, 35, has fully recovered from sports hernia surgery. Backstrom was injured minutes before the start of Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks and did not play in the five-game series loss.

“We’ve had some conversations with his representation, and had a good meeting with Niklas before he went back to Finland," Fletcher told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I think clearly he would like to come to back to Minnesota. We certainly would like to have him back. So the will is there from both parties. Now we just have to find a way, with respect to term and the cap and how do we manage all of that."

One of the issues for the Wild is durability, given Backstrom’s injury and the health issues being confronted by backup Josh Harding, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis prior to the start of the season.

Fletcher said he thought the lockout-shortened season was an anomaly, and with Harding missing time, they rode Backstrom hard. That shouldn’t be the case next season.

“I think it’s a fair concern, but certainly we believe Nik will be fully healthy going into camp -- and we hope it’s our camp,” he said.

Although there has been some speculation the Wild might use a compliance buyout on a player like Dany Heatley, who has one year remaining on a contract with a $7.5 million cap hit (but only $5 million in actual dollars), Fletcher said the team wasn’t thinking in general about using the compliance buyout option.

“It certainly isn’t our first choice,” Fletcher said.

Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireKris Letang and the Penguins have not reached an agreement on a new contract.
LETANG UPDATE

The agent for Kris Letang and Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero met Wednesday before the NHL’s general managers' meeting, but a resolution is far from certain at this point.

“We’ve agreed to have further talks,” agent Kent Hughes told ESPN.com after the meeting. “Not going to say more at this time.”

“He’s a very valuable player for our team, and ideally I’d like to sign him and get him extended," Shero told a media scrum after the meeting. "But we’ll see where that goes over the next few days and weekend, so we’ll see."

Again, as I stipulated in Tuesday’s blog, I don’t believe Letang will take a whole lot less than $7 million a year in a new deal, and I suspect that message was reaffirmed by Hughes in Wednesday’s meeting.

My guess is the Penguins need that figure to be lower in order for Letang to fit into the cap puzzle moving forward.

The question now is: If Shero can’t get Letang signed over the next week or two, does he trade him or let him play out his final year in Pittsburgh?

“I think there’s a lot of speculation if we can’t have a deal next week what might happen,” Shero said. “But I can’t go that far. He’s under contract for another year. I think when we get into next week, we’ll cross that bridge and see what happens. But my focus is going to be trying to sign him.”

STARS COACHING UPDATE

Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, in a perfect world, will have his new coach in place by the June 30 draft. However, that’s not set in stone.

“I don’t want to have a set deadline, and all of a sudden it comes and goes,” Nill said after the GMs meeting. “There’s too many candidates out there. I want to make the right decision.”

While Nill would not name his candidates, it’s believed Lindy Ruff and John Tortorella are near the top at this point.

BOLTS PICK

In light of Joe Sakic’s comments that the Colorado Avalanche might not pick Seth Jones with the first overall pick, one wonders what kind of impact that might have on other teams drafting behind the Avs.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, for example, are drafting third overall, and clearly their number one need is a defenseman. However, GM Steve Yzerman says he doesn’t believe in drafting on need only.

“We believe in taking the best player available,” Yzerman said after the GMs meeting. “That’s been our philosophy. Your needs change from year to year. When these kids are available to play, your needs may be entirely different for various reasons. So that’s a rule of thumb we’ve had.”

Would he move his pick up or down?

“We’re quite comfortable with the third pick, but we’re open to any scenario which we think makes us a better organization,” Yzerman said.

Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning
Scott Audette/NHLI/Getty ImagesCould Vincent Lecavalier be on the way out of Tampa?
Recently, local reports in Tampa suggested the possibility of a compliance buyout for Vincent Lecavalier.

Asked generally whether he would use his buyout options, Yzerman responded Wednesday: “It’s something to consider. … Given that we finished in 28th place, we should be looking at every possibility of improving our team and what are options are. Other than that, I can’t say much.”

CLARKSON/DEVILS

New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello remains committed to trying to re-sign power forward David Clarkson before he hits the UFA market July 5.

“We’ll do everything we can to sign him,” Lamoriello said Wednesday. “We’re not looking to do anything else.”

Contract talks have been ongoing. One thing Lamoriello has traditionally not done is trade a pending UFA’s rights during this time period, like the Islanders recently did with Mark Streit.

“You never say you’ll never do something, but we have not philosophically believed in that,” Lamoriello said. “If a player said he didn’t want to play [in New Jersey], that’s another story. You never know, but that’s never come across us.”

BLUES' FUTURE

St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong has his hands full this summer, with key restricted free agents Patrik Berglund, Chris Stewart, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk to bring under contract.

“It’s funny you can sign guys a year before you have to sign them, but when it’s two weeks before it takes a long time,” Armstrong said.

But he made it clear to other GMs: Don’t bother trying to poach those players with an offer sheet.

“With the new ownership group we’re financially solid," he said. "These are core players, and we want to pay them fairly. I’m not concerned at all about an offer sheet, because we’re going to match anything on those guys because they’re good enough players."

[+] EnlargeJaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues
Travis Golby/NHLI/Getty ImagesWith Jaroslav Halak, Jake Allen and Brian Elliott, the Blues have plenty of talent in net.
One situation in St. Louis that is less than clear is how the goaltending will play out next season, with rookie Jake Allen playing well in relief of an injured Jaroslav Halak and a struggling Brian Elliott.

“We’ve called it cloudy, but I think it’s a good cloudy," Armstrong said. "Jake doesn’t need waivers next year, so he can go down, and a fourth year in the American league won’t kill him. Last year Jaro, every time he got ready to get going, the groin went. Brian had such a terrific ending to the season with a less-than-memorable start. We might be best served to come back with all three and let the chips go where they are. But we’re going to continue to debate that internally."

It’s clear, though, that Allen’s development is going to be important moving forward.

“The one thing is we need Jake to get ready, because both those guys (Halak and Elliott) are unrestricted after the year’s over,” Armstrong said.

FLAMES GOALIES

Speaking of goaltending, the Calgary Flames’ goaltending situation remains in a state of flux. GM Jay Feaster said Wednesday he’s still unsure whether veteran netminder Miikka Kiprusoff will retire.

"I don’t think anything’s changed from the where he was at the end of the season," Feaster said. "I think if we forced to make a decision right now he’d say that he’s finished playing. We’ve said we’re going to give him time, and that’s what we’re going to do."

To prepare for Kiprusoff’s potential departure, the Flames signed Joey McDonald to a one-year extension after acquiring him from Detroit during last season. They traded for the rights to former Tampa Bay prospect Karri Ramo and will sign him in July, Feaster said. They also acquired the rights to Swiss netminder Reto Berra and signed him to a contract.

After missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year and being forced to trade captain Jarome Iginla at the trade deadline, the Flames are desperate to return to the postseason dance and respectability.

“We’re looking at everything right now," Feaster said. "As I’ve said, we have three picks in the first round; we have cap space.

"I think it’s unique in that we certainly have an ownership group that’s willing to spend to the cap. We’re looking at guys that might be compliance buyout victims or however you want to call that. Looking at free agency and looking at making trades, too."

The GM did say he wasn’t contemplating any compliance buyouts at this point in time.

NEW PENALTY

NHL executive vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell says GMs also agree to implement a two-minute penalty for fighters who remove their helmets before a fight. So it would be a five-minute penalty for fighting, plus two more minutes for the helmet violation. The new penalty is pending Board of Governors approval.
Brandon SaadBill Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesBrandon Saad has one goal and four assists in his first playoff run.
CHICAGO -- Chicago Blackhawks rookie forward Brandon Saad had it pretty easy in the regular season.

Part of that was Saad's own doing by proving he belonged in the NHL. But from the time Saad was thrown on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa in the season's second game up until the playoffs, Saad has remained in Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville's graces.

But the playoffs have been a rockier road and a reality check for Saad.

When Saad's play began to decline in the first round against the Minnesota Wild, Quenneville treated Saad like any of his players. Winning was all that mattered, and Quenneville did what he felt was necessary to accomplish that. He first decreased Saad's minutes and then he demoted him to the third line.

"I thought he was OK at the start of the playoffs," Quenneville said after Friday's practice at the United Center. "I thought he had an outstanding regular season. I thought he started at a pretty good pace. Almost kind of represented the way he started the regular season. He was fine in the regular season. Didn't have any production to show for his play. Started the playoffs kind of comparable."

(Read full post)

Minnesota Wild's Josh HardingHannah Foslien/Getty ImagesInspirational Minnesota goaltender Josh Harding left Game 4 on Tuesday favoring his leg.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Minnesota Wild’s goaltending situation appears to have gone from dramatic to dire in very short order.

Josh Harding, diagnosed before this season with multiple sclerosis, provided inspirational play coming on at the start of the Wild’s Western Conference quarterfinal series against the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, after Niklas Backstrom was injured in warm-ups before Game 1 last week.

But Harding could be seen laboring during a Game 3 ultimately won in overtime by the Wild, and after a collision with Chicago captain Jonathan Toews in the first period of Game 4 on Tuesday, Harding got up very gingerly and seemed to be favoring his leg or knee.

He finished the period allowing one goal on six shots but did not come out for the second. Instead, backup Darcy Kuemper -- who had been called up from the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate when Backstrom went down -- came on in relief.

He gave up a soft goal to Patrick Sharp on the first shot he faced, then allowed another weak goal late in the third period to Bryan Bickell as the Wild fell 3-0 and now trail the Blackhawks 3-1 in the series; the potential deciding game is set for Thursday in Chicago.

Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said he did not have an update on either Harding or Backstrom, who has been skating in recent days but did not dress as a backup in any game in the series.

Backstrom did, however, appear in the third period in full gear near the Wild bench as though he was the acting backup to Kuemper.

"It was quite a unique situation tonight so, yeah, we’ll update that a little bit more tomorrow,” Yeo said.

Apart from Harding’s health, one question might be why, if Backstrom was able to play had he been called upon, wasn’t he on the bench in the second period? And if he was able to play, why didn’t Yeo use him at some point after using Kuemper for at least one shift, especially after allowing a bad goal?

It was a curious situation to be sure, and one that makes the Wild’s prospects of coming back in the series even more daunting.

“You can’t worry about those things," Yeo said. "You take what’s given to you, and you put your head down and you get back to work."

Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville said the playoffs are often a time when strange things happen.

“I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in the playoffs," he said. "You’ve got to predict the unpredictable. Things happen and you’ve just got to roll with it. Things change so quickly and you’ve got to be adaptable."

That is the harsh reality for the Minnesota Wild.

Nashville's Jordin Tootoo caught Minnesota's Greg Zanon in the Preds' 4-0 win Thursday:

Stock up

Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens: My colleague Pierre LeBrun talked with Habs captain Brian Gionta this week about the team’s bounce-back efforts after a soft January. One of the players making a big impact is call-up Max Pacioretty, who has three goals and three assists in his past six games. The 22nd overall pick in 2007 will make life a little difficult for management when Mike Cammalleri returns from injury, but Pacioretty has impressed. He has been playing mostly with Gionta and Tomas Plekanec on the Habs’ top line, as Montreal continues to battle Boston for the top spot in the Northeast Division.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Minnesota Wild: We have done a lot of talking about headshots and concussions and will continue to do so for the rest of the season and beyond. But it’s always nice to write about a player coming back after such a trauma. One of the reasons the Minnesota Wild woke up in seventh place in the Western Conference on Friday is because of Pierre-Marc Bouchard. He has returned to form after missing 104 straight games recovering from concussion issues and has eight points in his past seven games, including a two-point effort in a big win against Colorado on Thursday. The Wild, meanwhile, have won six of seven.

Stock down

Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta Thrashers: If you’re wondering why all of the Norris Trophy talk has died down for former Chicago power forward Dustin Byfuglien, it may have something to do with the fact the big man has failed to deliver one single point in his past 12 outings. After looking like some crazy hybrid of Larry Robinson and Bobby Orr for the first half of the season, Byfuglien has had zero impact, at least in a positive way, in recent games. Yes, he misses defense partner Tobias Enstrom (broken finger), but the Thrashers need Byfuglien to return to form or they can kiss the playoffs goodbye (again).

Kari Lehtonen, Dallas Stars: Speaking of the Thrashers, former Atlanta franchise netminder Kari Lehtonen has been a rock for the surprising Stars this season, but the rock is showing some signs of cracking of late. Lehtonen has lost three of his past four starts and allowed 14 goals in those three losses, including a 6-3 loss against Boston on Thursday night in which Lehtonen came on in relief of Andrew Raycroft and gave up three goals. The Stars still lead the Pacific Division, but the issue with Lehtonen has always been one of durability and consistency. Can he continue to be the rock the Stars need him to be? Looks like we’re starting to find out.

What to watch for Tuesday night

February, 1, 2011
2/01/11
3:39
PM ET

Boston Bruins (28-15-7) at Carolina Hurricanes (25-19-6), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-1 Boston
Starting goaltenders: Tim Thomas (24-5-6, 1.81 GAA) vs. Cam Ward (22-15-5, 2.70 GAA)
Preview: Two weeks after the Bruins finished a home-and-home sweep of the Hurricanes, Carolina tries to end the series with Boston on a high note. The Hurricanes got only two of their 76 shots past Tim Thomas in back-to-back losses to the Bruins on Jan. 17 and 18. Carolina is one point out of the eighth-seed in the East, while Boston leads the Northeast division.

Chicago Blackhawks (26-20-4) at Columbus Blue Jackets (23-21-5), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 3-1 Chicago
Starting goaltenders: Marty Turco (10-10-2, 3.02 GAA) vs. Steve Mason (15-12-2, 3.20 GAA)
Preview: The Blackhawks begin a six-game road trip in Columbus after All-Star weekend featured four Chicago players, including game MVP Patrick Sharp. Heading into their final 32 games, the Blackhawks are tied for seventh in the West with San Jose and Colorado. Minnesota and Los Angeles are a point behind that group, and Columbus, tied for 13th, is five back.

Pittsburgh Penguins (31-15-4) at New York Rangers (29-20-3), 7:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-1 New York
Starting goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury (23-11-2, 2.19 GAA) vs. Henrik Lundqvist (21-16-3, 2.29 GAA)
Preview: The Rangers have lost four in a row to the Penguins at Madison Square Garden and haven't won a home game against the Penguins since Jan. 5, 2009. Pittsburgh hasn't won five straight at MSG since a streak from Dec. 31, 1989 to March 17, 1991. Neither Sidney Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin is ready to return, but the Penguins are 5-3-1 without Crosby and 2-1-0 without both Crosby and Malkin this season.

Philadelphia Flyers (33-12-5) at Tampa Bay Lightning (31-15-5), 7:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-0 Tampa Bay
Starting goaltenders: Sergei Bobrovsky (21-6-3, 2.42 GAA) vs. Dwayne Roloson (7-3-0, 2.25 GAA for Bolts)
Preview: The East's top two teams face off for the third time this season with the Flyers looking for their first win of the season against the Lightning. The Lightning have won five straight games and are in the midst of a 12-game home stand. The Flyers have won two straight and six of their last seven games. Philadelphia leads the Presidents' Trophy race after 50 games for the first time since the 1986-87 season.

Montreal Canadiens (27-18-5) at Washington Capitals (27-15-9), 7:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 1-0 Washington
Starting goaltenders: Carey Price (24-16-5, 2.36 GAA) vs. Semyon Varlamov (8-7-3, 2.16 GAA)
Preview: The Capitals have looked like a different team since getting stunned by the Canadiens in the postseason. They cruised through last season and won the President's Trophy, but were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by Montreal. This season, the Capitals are 17th in the league at 2.71 goals per game, have been shut out seven times and Alex Ovechkin is on pace for career lows in goals and points.

Los Angeles Kings (27-22-1) at Minnesota Wild (25-19-5), 8 p.m. ET

Season series: 1-1
Starting goaltenders: Jonathan Bernier (5-8-0, 3.08 GAA) vs. Niklas Backstrom (15-11-3, 2.52 GAA)
Preview: After an up-and-down season, the Kings went into the All-Star break on a three-game win streak. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, the Kings now begin a 10-game road trip. The Kings are 5-8-0 in their past 13 road games. The Wild won four of five before the break and are currently tied with the Kings, but Minnesota is just 4-6-1 at home since the start of December.

Vancouver Canucks (31-10-9) at Dallas Stars (30-15-5), 8:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-0 Vancouver
Starting goaltenders: Cory Schneider (8-2-2, 2.35 GAA) vs. Kari Lehtonen (22-11-5, 2.57 GAA)
Preview: The Canucks and the Stars both lead their divisions, but Vancouver has dominated the series. Vancouver has outscored Dallas 11-2 in the two games. But the Canucks will now need to depend on defenseman Lee Sweatt more with an injury to Alexander Edler. Edler, who leads the Canucks with 24 minutes of ice time per game and tops the defense with 32 points, is having back surgery and will be out indefinitely.

Phoenix Coyotes (25-17-9) at San Jose Sharks (25-19-6), 10 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-0 San Jose
Starting goaltenders: Ilya Bryzgalov (19-12-6, 2.64 GAA) vs. Antti Niemi (13-13-3, 2.69 GAA)
Preview: The Coyotes will try to win their sixth straight away from home Tuesday night and end a six-game slide against the Sharks. Phoenix has limited its opponents to 1 for 17 on the power play during its run on the road. Veteran center Joe Thornton has two goals and three assists, and Antti Niemi has posted a 1.50 goals-against average in two wins over the Coyotes this season.

Burnside: This week's games to watch

February, 1, 2011
2/01/11
11:01
AM ET

Tuesday: Flyers at Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET

The third game in a mighty 12-game homestand for the Lightning, and they host the league’s best team (at least for our money). Tampa Bay could pull within two points of Philly for the top spot the Eastern Conference.

Prediction: The Bolts start the post-All-Star weekend schedule with their third straight win.

Tuesday: Canucks at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET

The Stars will be hoping to avenge their 7-1 loss in Vancouver shortly before the break. We wonder if the Canucks will be spending a few nights in Big D before the game as the Stars did in Vancouver? Probably not. Still, this should be a good tilt between two division leaders.

Prediction: The Stars will even the score at home.

Wednesday: Sharks at Ducks, 10 p.m. ET

The Ducks have won seven of their past 10 games and continue to impress. Goalie Jonas Hiller was solid in the All-Star Game, and he’ll have to keep up his strong play against a Sharks team that would like to create some breathing room for itself in the playoff bracket. San Jose is 4-0-1 in its past five contests.

Prediction: The Ducks will continue their strong play and defeat the streaky Sharks.

Thursday: Wild at Avalanche, 9 p.m. ET

The Avs hit the break tied with San Jose for the last playoff berth, while the Wild were just one point back and have come on strong in recent weeks. This is the kind of game that’s going to hurt for the loser.

Prediction: The Avs will get their game going.

Friday: Sabres at Penguins, 7 p.m. ET

The Sabres have some ground to make up if they want to revisit the playoff tournament in April, and they’ll visit a Penguins team still missing Sidney Crosby even though the Pittsburgh captain has been given clearance to begin light workouts. There’s a better chance Evgeni Malkin will be on the ice, but either way, these are the types of games the Sabres have to win.

Prediction: Crosby or no Crosby, the Pens will be too tough for the Sabres.

Last week: 3-2.

Monday: Dallas Stars at Vancouver Canucks, 10 p.m. ET

With the Canucks winless in four and the Stars breathing down their neck in the race for top seed in the Western Conference, this stands as a big game for both clubs.
Prediction: Look for the Canucks to break the streak although it may take extra time.

Tuesday: Montreal Canadiens at Philadelphia Flyers, 7:30 p.m. ET

No love lost between last year's Eastern Conference finalists. Watch for P.K. Subban to continue to rub the Flyers the wrong way. Philly is coming off a big win in Chicago on Sunday, so there could be a bit of a letdown.
Prediction: The Flyers continue to set the pace atop the Eastern Conference standings.

Tuesday: Minnesota Wild at Chicago Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET

Two teams that have been up and down all season. The Blackhawks are back in the middle of the playoff pack, and the Wild are just outside the bubble. Neither team can afford too much backsliding.
Prediction: The Wild come up big on the road.

Wednesday: Washington Capitals at Atlanta Thrashers, 7 p.m. ET

The Thrashers were humbled 7-1 by Tampa on Sunday, while the Capitals have been on a tear since the end of December. The Thrashers need to stop the bleeding as they've fallen into eighth place in the Eastern Conference and are feeling heat from Carolina and Buffalo.
Prediction: The Caps keep rolling and the Thrashers keep falling.

Wednesday: San Jose Sharks at Los Angeles Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET

The Sharks have suddenly won four in a row and began the week in the top eight in the Western Conference. The Kings, meanwhile, are looking to get on that kind of roll and will need to if they want to avoid the monumental disappointment of missing the playoffs.
Prediction: Sorry Kings, the Sharks continue to make life miserable in L.A.

What to watch for Wednesday night

January, 19, 2011
1/19/11
3:15
PM ET

Toronto Maple Leafs (18-21-5) at New York Rangers (26-18-3), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-1 New York
Starting goaltenders: Jonas Gustavsson (6-12-2, 3.13 GAA) vs. Henrik Lundqvist (19-14-3, 2.27 GAA)
Preview: The Maple Leafs seemed to have ignited their offense during a four-game winning streak where they scored 21 goals, but have since struggled to score. And, the Rangers have not had much more luck. After averaging more than 3.0 goals per game at the end of 2010, the Rangers have been held to two goals or less in all nine games in January, giving them the lowest goals per game rate this month (1.44). These teams haven't met since playing three times in October, but the Rangers are 3-0-2 in their past five home games against the Leafs.

Columbus Blue Jackets (21-20-5) at Florida Panthers (21-20-3), 7:30 p.m. ET

Starting goaltenders: Mathieu Garon (8-9-3, 2.66 GAA) vs. Tomas Vokoun (16-15-1, 2.56 GAA)
Preview: The Blue Jackets look to avoid their second seven-game road skid in less than two months in their first meeting of the season against the Panthers. Florida has earned points in four straight games (3-0-1) largely in part to its power play, which is 7-for-18 in that span. But, the Panthers have not beaten the Jackets at home since Jan. 3, 2004.

Minnesota Wild (23-18-5) at Calgary Flames (20-20-6), 9:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 3-2 Minnesota
Starting goaltenders: Niklas Backstrom (13-10-3, 2.58 GAA) vs. Miikka Kiprusoff (17-17-2, 2.75 GAA)
Preview: Niklas Backstrom is expected to make his first start since missing nine games with a hip injury, but rookie Anton Khudobin has been playing very well in Backstrom’s absence. Minnesota is within three points of the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, and Backstrom is 3-0-1 with a 1.22 GAA against the Flames this season. The Flames have had their own goaltending issues as Miikka Kiprusoff was pulled from two of his past three starts. Kiprusoff has not had much luck against the Wild, going 1-7-2 with a 2.48 GAA in his past 10 games, but is expected to get the start. Watch for Flames teammates Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay to find the net as Iginla has more goals and points against the Wild than any other active player with 31 goals and 58 points. Tanguay is fourth on the list with career 42 points against the Wild.

Watch: Tuukka Rask's big save vs. Wild

January, 7, 2011
1/07/11
11:32
AM ET

Check out Tuukka Rask's amazing save on Minnesota's Martin Havlat from Thursday night. (Havlat and the Wild would have the last laugh in a 3-1 win over the Bruins.)



Check out other great videos at our YouTube channel.

What to watch for: Lightning-Capitals

January, 4, 2011
1/04/11
3:19
PM ET

Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitals, 7 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeSteven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin
AP Photo/Luis M. AlvarezSteven Stamkos will try to stop Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals on Tuesday night at Verizon Center.
Steven Stamkos will share the spotlight the next two nights against the league's brightest stars, Tuesday night with Alex Ovechkin and Wednesday night with Sidney Crosby.

It is only fitting that Stamkos is facing the Capitals and Penguins in January, because it was around this time in his 2008-09 rookie season when he started to find his offensive groove. Since the 2009 calendar year began, Stamkos is tied with the most goals in the NHL. His 44 power-play goals in that span are 12 more than anyone else.

The Capitals are coming off a win over Pittsburgh in the Winter Classic and are on a three-game winning streak. The Lightning have won their last two and lead the Southeast Division based on win percentage, because both teams have 51 points in the standings.

Most goals since Jan. 1, 2009

Sidney Crosby101
Steven Stamkos    101
Alex Ovechkin95
Ilya Kovalchuk81

E.J. Hradek's pick: I'll take Tampa.

Minnesota Wild at New Jersey Devils, 7 p.m. ET

Devils goalie Martin Brodeur has been struggling of late and it appears that he will share the goaltending duties with Johan Hedberg, who will get the start in this game. Hedberg has four wins and three ties in nine career appearances against the Wild.

Devils goalies since Nov. 15

Brodeur    Hedberg
W-L-OTL1-10-0*4-5-0
GAA3.75*2.30
Save pct.    .851*.918
* - Worst in NHL since Nov. 15 (min. 10 games)

E.J. Hradek's pick: I'm calling for a Wild win.

Buffalo Sabres at Colorado Avalanche, 9 p.m. ET

The Avalanche were once the highest-scoring team in the league. But in their last six games, they have scored just 10 goals in that span. Since the 1998-99 season, the Sabres are 5-1-2 on the road against the Avalanche.

Fewest goals per game since Dec. 20

Avalanche    1.7
Devils1.7
Senators1.8
Oilers1.8

E.J. Hradek's pick: I suspect the Avalanche will get things turned around with a win over the Sabres.

Detroit Red Wings at Edmonton Oilers, 9 p.m. ET

Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard has come back to Earth after a terrific start. Since Dec. 1, Howard has lost five games in regulation. In the first two months of the season, Howard lost a combined three games in regulation and OT/SO.

Howard's season

Oct.-Nov.    Dec.-Jan.
W-L-OTL14-2-26-5-1
GAA2.522.99
Save pct.    .913.901

E.J. Hradek's pick: The pick is Detroit.

• Hradek's picks for all of Tuesday's games Insider

No warm and fuzzy feelings with this crew! You guys were cranky ahead of Christmas. Let’s look at some rants and thanks for the effort everyone!

moriler: Pierre, when will someone in the American media tell the real story about the Thrashers -- how ownership cares first and foremost about basketball, put an inferior product on the ice for nearly 10 years due to indifference, and only at the start of this season realized that they'll only draw fans if they make an effort to win games. The game against the Devils drew 17,000-plus -- not from fans who wanted to see Kovalchuk (they didn't show up when he was there on those horrible losing teams), but from fans who are starting to realize that this team is what good hockey looks like, and the team is actually worth coming to see now. Years of obvious owner indifference led directly to fan indifference, as it has in so many other cities (NY Isles, Pittsburgh, Edmonton, Chicago, even Detroit pre-Yzerman -- remember the Dead Wings?) -- and yet, because we happen to be in the Sun Belt, everyone clamors for our move despite there having been no actual effort made by ownership to allow hockey to succeed. Even this year we have barely made it to the salary cap floor -- and the fans know it. But this team rolled the dice on chemistry and got boxcars.

I understand that the Canadian media will never give the Sun Belt teams a fair shake, because the constant rumors of relocation are what sells in their world. But I do wish that the major American outlets would step up: Thrashers attendance has been directly due to consistent ownership indifference. It takes time to overcome that.

My take: One thing is clear my friend, it should be worrisome to any Thrashers fan to continually see NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly quoted in various media reports warning Atlanta about the future. While Daly has been very clear in saying the NHL's priority is to keep the team in Atlanta, he also has hinted at the repercussions of the market place not supporting the team. People in Atlanta should not ignore those hints. The league rarely takes that stance with any of its teams. This is a fun and exciting team to watch, they're battling Washington for the division lead and yet the club is 28th in attendance. Not good enough. Traditionally, the Thrashers have had better crowds in the second half. Hopefully that’s the case again.

Ljwinter85: Is there a reason Laviolette isn't being talked about for the Jack Adams? He's turned this team around completely and has the Flyers in prime position to make another run at the Cup. I don't want to hear about how stacked the Flyers are because that shouldn't matter. If Phil Jackson can win coach of the year awards, why can't Lavy? You can have all the talent in the world but if you can't get them to mesh and work together (HEAT) it doesn't matter. Lavy has done a terrific job with this team and putting together balanced lines. I think he deserves some consideration.

My take: Absolutely Laviolette deserves consideration. No argument here. And so does Mike Babcock in Detroit. But this is what happens when the voting comes: Coaches who get less talented rosters to overachieve almost always get more love. Pretty hard to disagree with Dave Tippett's choice last season. That's why Barry Trotz should always be in contention for the miracles he performs in Nashville. How about Joe Sacco and what he's doing with the kids and the injuries in Colorado? Craig Ramsay and the surprising Atlanta Thrashers? How about Marc Crawford in Dallas? Jacques Martin coaching his butt off with Montreal? The list goes on and on ... . Sixteen teams make the playoffs every year and I’d say a dozen coaches have legitimate Jack Adams cases. To me, it’s the hardest award in the sport to figure out.

Deffenbeard: Pierre, it's tough being a Blues fan. The beginning of the season gave us a peak at how dominating this team could be, especially on defense. It wasn't long until the hockey gods turned their back on us. Bobby Orr's first flight in hockey must have cursed the Blues. David Perron has been out for almost two months, Roman Polak is finally coming back after two months, nobody knows when Andy McDonald will return, and T.J. Oshie hopes to return before the end of the season. I hope that we will look back and say "the season really turned around when we found out that Erik Johnson didn’t destroy his knee against Detroit." We even have a rookie that isn't even considered a rookie in Alex Pietrangelo. It must be because he looks more like a 10-year veteran than a rookie. With that said, I'd like to include two positives at the end of this negativity: The Blues still sell out every game, and I still have a chance to see the first championship banner being raised to the rafters.

My take: It really is too bad how the injuries have derailed the Blues' season. They were going so good for a while. I remember putting them first overall in the Power Rankings one week. A lot of teams have injuries but the Blues were ravaged by key injuries to their very top players. That's tough to overcome. The season is far from over but either way, feel good knowing this team is building in the right direction.

jkline19@hotmail.com: As a Blue Jackets fan my wish list and complaint list is long -- but I will whittle it down to two items:

1. No. 1 D-man. CBJ have never had one, and while there guys down in Springfield who maybe can step up eventually, it is a need now.

2. No. 1 center. Help may be on the way in a year or two (with Johansen) -- but again, CBJ have never had a true No. 1 centerman. And no, Cassels and Fedorov were way past their primes when they played for CBJ.

The Maclean years are long gone yet his traces are still here. It kills me to see all the All-Stars playing for other teams that CBJ passed over in many previous drafts for guys who busted.

grrr ... OK -- happy holidays all

My take: Believe me when I say that Jackets GM Scott Howson tried all offseason to upgrade at both those positions, my friend. Easier said than done. Not sure if you've noticed but UFAs are not clamoring to play in Columbus. Which is too bad because I've been to Jackets games and I think it's a terrific NHL market, one that has been underserved by a decade of (mostly) futility. The fans deserve better there. I like Howson and I think he’s got a good plan but it won't come overnight.

fluxzito: All I want for Christmas is for the Minnesota Wild to finally realize that their plan just is not working. Their top scorer is 21st, not in the league, in the Western Conference, in scoring, and they only have two guys in the West Top 40. I thought this offense was supposed to be run and gun. It looks like the typical Wild to me. I would rather see the team rebuild like Edmonton is doing, and what Pitt did for years, (Stall, Fleurry, Crosby, Malkin). What do the Wild have to show for it? Nick Leddy (traded), Tyler Cuma (still in minors), Colton Gillies (bust), James Sheppard (bust), Benoit Pouliot (bust), A.J. Thelen (bust). I prefer watching the Minnesota Golden Gophers than the Wild. Mikael Granlund, please hurry.

My take: What, two wins in a row over Calgary doesn’t turn your crank? Hate to say it, but I pretty much saw this frustrating season coming. Didn’t think this was a playoff team and got lots of heat from Wild fans for saying so in September. Look for GM Chuck Fletcher to try to be aggressive in January and February on the trade front.

BaseballHockeyFan63: Pierre, what is it with you media types and the continued fawning over Crosby? EVERYONE gets it. He's a really good player -- top 3 in the league (currently No. 1, but we all know streaks and trends go in waves). We know he almost single-handedly led the Penguins to a 12-game winning streak. The point streak is impressive.

BUT HE IS NOT THE ONLY PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE. The day after the Flyers stopped the Penguins' streak, basically shut Crosby down (only two power-play points -- EXTREMELY quiet 5-on-5), and regained the top spot in the NHL (in just one game after the Penguins had won 12 in a row) and the headline is Crosby Continues the Streak?! RIDICULOUS. How about "Boucher Continues Hot Streak, Flyers Regain Top Spot?" Or "Struggling Power Play Delivers Late, Flyers Win?" How about focusing on something that is NOT Crosby? How about focusing on how the Flyers are something like plus-37 in goal differential on 5-on-5, more than double the second-best ratio?

Die-hard hockey fans of teams outside Pittsburgh are SICK and TIRED of the Crosby-centric NHL. I know you dismiss this notion, but I can tell you there WILL be many, many fans boycotting the Winter Classic because we are absolutely SICK of the Crosby (and, to a lesser extent, Ovechkin) coverage being shoved down our throats.

It's an old argument, but it is not going to go away until the league starts promoting other players. I understand the business aspect, but this does not help the image of the NHL, or the hockey media, being a joke.

My take: Personally, I haven't written a Crosby column this season. So I guess you weren’t referring to me. But dude, he’s the best player in the world. He deserves the attention. When you have the two greatest players ever in the history of the game, Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr, bringing up Crosby to me in recent conversations and both being incredibly impressed, that says it all. He’s got 10 more points than the second-leading scorer in the league. The guy’s unreal.

anblis: Pierre, I know it's "easy" to bash the refs sometimes but at times you just have to wonder what they are thinking. During the Bruins-Sabres game last week the officiating was awful on both sides. A phantom "boarding call" on Lucic led to one Sabres goal and other poor calls and "non-calls" disrupted the entire game. After Lucic is boarded himself with 2 minutes to go and no call comes, Dan O'Rouke (who was getting most of the grief all night) conveniently positions himself right in front of the Boston bench with a minute to go and calls an unsportsmanlike on the Boston bench because someone says the officiating has been a "joke."

My question/rant is this ... what purpose does that serve? No one directed profanity towards him (and I see that a lot on the ice during the game), and he had to know he wasn't having a "strong game" based on the actions of the players throughout. So with a minute to go he calls a penalty based on a comment only he could hear thus ending any chance of a Bruins comeback? Let's face it: If that occurred during a playoff game or on a HNIC broadcast to a Canadian team, Don Cherry and others would be calling for his head on a platter. Why can't the NHL office acknowledge screwups like this (by fining the ref, etc.) like they do when players cross the line? Julien rarely complains about the officiating but he said "complaining about poor calls and performances rarely changes it." What does that say about the league's office's handling of the refs?

My take: I honestly believe NHL refs are the best in pro sports. Yes they make mistakes, of course they do. They’re human. The game is 100 miles an hour. But when you compare the Big Four in North American sports, I’d take NHL officiating over the other three any day.

KooLeafs23: Pierre, my biggest problem in the NHL these days is the moronic need for players to respond to a clean hit a teammate receives by trying to fight, my point being the recent Subban hit on Brad Marchand. A clean hockey hit that for some reason Gregory Campbell felt he had to protect Marchand so he takes a penalty by trying to get Subban to fight him and then Montreal scores just 2 seconds after the PP is over. While technically not a PP goal, the PP gave the Habs’ offensive zone possession and the Bruins lost by one. What happened to the days where you go out and try to get a hit back? It happens every game now and it makes me sick how it's almost second nature by now in the NHL to respond this way. Does the NHL have any plans to try to do something about this ridiculous way the players act these days?! So frustrating!

My take: Totally, completely and whole-heartedly agree with you. Drives me crazy that players today are like that. It's become part of the culture over the last decade and it’s a real annoyance. If it's a clean hit, take your lumps and move on. And tell your teammates to also move on.

royalsgold1818: I don't understand what is taking so long for the Sutter brothers in Calgary to be fired. An obvious shakeup is needed. For starters, since Brent Sutter arrived, the Flames have been unable to play consistent hockey. A three-game winning streak is unheard of, and he has never been able to get the best out the players he is given to work with. I don't know why people think he's a good coach. All he has done is win a few world juniors, and then take a very talented New Jersey Devils team to two first-round playoff exits. Not to mention he comes to Calgary and we miss the playoffs for the first time since before the lockout. As for Daryl, the fact that he would spend all that money signing Jay Bouwmeester is ridiculous. Do you really want your top defenseman to be so soft that other players aren't scared to play against him? I guarantee other teams are happy to play Calgary, because they have no issues entering our zone because they know Bouwmeester isn't about to take their head off. Finally, we have the worst farm system in the entire NHL, and that is entirely the GM's fault. We have no young talent, and without Kiprusoff we would be the worst team in the NHL (maybe not worse than the Islanders or the Devils, but they are in a league of their own). I think it only makes sense to clean house of the Sutter brothers, let Iginla leave when he wants to go to a contender (don't ask him if they can trade him, let him bring it up, he's earned that) and rebuild for the very distant future.

My take: Could not agree more with you, pal. And I wish I had an answer for you, but I don’t. But I’d be shocked if the Sutters survive into next season if they miss the playoffs again this year. The Dion Phaneuf trade last January was a disaster. Signing Matt Stajan to that ridiculous extension made it even worse. Then flipping Ian White to Carolina this year and for what? Yikes.

SHIMS112001: How in the world is John Maclean still head coach of the Devils?? Lou fires coaches after 100-point seasons (Claude Julien 2006) and with eight games left in the season when the team is in first (Robbie Ftorek 2000). And let's face it: After last season, Jaques Lemaire was fired, he didn’t retire. This is a disgrace to Devils fans! MACLEAN MUST BE FIRED!!!!

My take: I spoke with Lamoriello last weekend. The pain in his voice said it all. This season is killing him. I am surprised Maclean has lasted. But I suspect what Lamoriello is perhaps saying is that the team on the ice is more at fault than the coach. The players that the GM signed and traded for, that is. But whether it’s this season or next summer, Lamoriello needs to find a coach that can get the best out of Ilya Kovalchuk. That must be the priority now.

LesHabs25: I have written to you before concerning my Habs but I have to take you and Scott to task after being part of that chat a few hours ago. Why do you not think this is a team that cannot keep its position atop the Northeast? First off, they don't rely on just a guy or two for all the offensive production. They get it from all four lines. Heck, Jeff Halpern has six goals already! I understand and agree with your comment that Jacques Martin is "coaching his butt off” as evidenced by the fact they have bought into his system. Allowing 72 goals has a lot to do with the goaltender coming into his own but it has to do with defensive responsibilities and their No. 1 rated PK. They have the goalie (or so it seems) for the long run. They have scoring. Maybe not as much as the big boys in the Pens, Caps or Flyers, but as proved last spring they have enough to get by (especially blocking all those shots). The defense may have taken a hit with the loss of Markov, but they now have over $5 million in cap room to go get another guy on the blue line or even a top-6 forward. Langenbrunner? Arnott? Richards? Dare I say it, Kovalev? I am a realistic Habs fan. I don't think they are as good as Pittsburgh, Washington or Philadelphia, but I think they are better than the Bruins and I do NOT see them at any point this season in danger of falling on the brink of missing the playoffs. Thoughts, mon ami? -- Robbie in NY

My take: You could very well be right, my friend. My two main concerns with the Habs are these: 1) Andrei Markov’s absence will be felt more as the season goes on. They’ve done a terrific job playing through it, as they did in last season’s playoffs, but over the course of an entire year they will miss his puck-moving abilities and PP/QB skills; 2) Scott Gomez is the team’s No. 2 center but has only 14 points (four goals) in 31 games, which is eighth on the team, even behind defenseman Roman Hamrlik. That’s not the kind of production you need from a No. 2 center on a Cup contender. The good news is his $7.35 million cap hit only carries through the 2013-14 season. Gulp.

Still, overall, all of your points are valid and it wouldn’t shock me at all if the Habs were able to hold off Boston. And keep in mind the Canadiens can use the cap savings from Markov’s injury and add some help before Feb. 28.

fbullock: Dear SantaBrun, while all teams are wanting a delivery of a shiny metallic object about 90 centimeters tall and weighing 16 kilos this Xmas, I wanted to ask on behalf of all hockey fans for a few items in this weeks rants:

1. Peace for Caps fans as the team got off the snide. See it's not 2003-04.

2. Joy for Flyers and Penguins fans, someday we'll find out who the top PA team is.

3. Good will for Fehr and Bettman. Please, for our sanity, play nicely.

4. Hope that Lou Lamoriello can figure out the cap. Maybe pay the players in pesos?

5. Wish for all fans to remember the passion of the game. No matter if your team is in Atlanta, Phoenix, etc., remember hoping for relocation only gets you so far, you still need passion from a fan base for it to survive. I believe hockey fans live everywhere, not just in cold climates.

So with that I wish all on the rant board and Mr. LeBrun a Merry X-mas and I look forward to talking up the New Year’s rants next week. To all a good night!!!

My take: What a great way to end it before Christmas. Well said!

Tomas Kaberle trade rumors resurfaced in cyberspace this week, but the defenseman's agent told ESPN.com on Saturday that his client had no interest in leaving Toronto at this point.

Any move would have to go through Kaberle and veteran agent Rick Curran because the D-man has a no-trade clause. At this point, it appears Kaberle has no intention of waiving it, which means he could walk away July 1 as an unrestricted free agent and the Leafs wouldn't receive any compensation.

Kaberle would be a nice fit in Montreal now that Andrei Markov is expected to miss the rest of the season, but again, Curran said forget about it.

Speaking of Markov, I was told Saturday that the Canadiens and Markov's camp, led by veteran agent Don Meehan, are planning on talking in the New Year to see if there's a fit contract-wise. Markov is UFA on July 1.

Richards update

It wouldn't be a weekend blog without a Brad Richards update, right? Hey, he's one of the most intriguing situations in the league this season, so why not.

I was told this week that the Toronto Maple Leafs are no longer among the top teams on Richards' wish list come July 1. From talking to different people around the league and connecting the dots, I believe his most desirable destinations are Dallas (staying put), the New York Rangers (he won a Cup with coach John Tortorella), Tampa Bay (back to his roots) and the Los Angeles Kings (team on the rise). Never say never in terms of Toronto, because you never know how much money talks come July 1, but I get the sense the Leafs aren't on the radar for Richards and his agent, Pat Morris of Newport Sports.

In the short term, should the Stars try to move him by the Feb. 28 trade deadline -- and, at this point, I don't know how Dallas even considers that given where it is in the standings -- Montreal could be an intriguing possibility. Because of the Markov injury/cap space, the Canadiens have the capability to do it and I think Richards would waive his no-movement clause for a chance at a playoff run in La Belle Province.

But come July 1, I still think the four teams are his top choices. He really does enjoy Dallas, and the only thing hurting his chances there is ownership instability. The next move for Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk is to sit down with Tony Tavares, who will soon be announced as the new interim president of the team. Tavares will be the voice of the bank lenders, who now own and operate the Stars. Nieuwendyk's hope is to have a good dialogue with Tavares and get the green light to try to re-sign Richards to an extension.

Flyers goalies

Michael Leighton played his final AHL conditioning game Saturday night. So, now what?

"We'll get him back, get him checked out and see where we're at," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told ESPN.com on Saturday.

If he's ready physically, the Flyers would activate him from long-term injured reserve. To do that, they would need to clear cap space. They have eight defensemen and 13 forwards on the roster. Somebody would have to be demoted, waived or traded.

Holmgren said the Flyers plan on carrying three goalies for a while, anyway. Given the delicate nature of Leighton's injury (he had back surgery Oct. 11 for a herniated disc), that makes sense. But at some point down the road, the Flyers will finally have to choose. Rookie Sergei Bobrovsky isn't going anywhere, so the choice will come down to Leighton or Brian Boucher, who has also played well this season.

Tampa Bay's goaltending problems are well-documented, but a source told ESPN.com on Saturday the Lightning don't have any interest in Boucher or Leighton.

The struggling Capitals

The Caps carried a four-game winless streak into Saturday night, but I get zero sense of panic from the organization. Quite frankly (and the Caps would likely never admit this publicly), I believe they're happy the team is facing some adversity this season. Last season, everything came so easy to the Caps during the regular season before facing their first real test in the first round of the playoffs (and we know how that ended up). The belief within the team, which is battling a flu bug, is having a few more bumps along the road now will make them tougher mentally.

Sabres sale?

I was told by a source Saturday that billionaire Terrence Pegula continues to show serious interest in buying the Buffalo Sabres. There is nothing imminent, but the source said something could possibly be in place by the end of this season.

The Wild and their coach

One ongoing storyline in Minnesota has been the future of Wild coach Todd Richards. But GM Chuck Fletcher told ESPN.com on Saturday it's not an area of concern right now.

"We don't think we have a coaching problem," Fletcher said. "Our focus is on our players playing better. We've worked hard the last couple of weeks. We've had players struggling and their game is starting to turn around. We're just trying to get our players to play to their capabilities."

The Canucks and Brian Burke

Given the bad blood between rival GMs Mike Gillis (Vancouver) and Brian Burke (Toronto), it was surprising to see the Leafs GM invited to Markus Naslund's banner ceremony in Vancouver on Saturday night. I'm told owner Francesco Aquilini invited Burke, the former Canucks GM who presided over the team during Naslund's finest seasons. It was a real nice gesture and classy move by the Canucks.

Board of governors note

I spoke with an NHL governor Saturday and asked him what he found the most interesting from the recent board of governors meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. He said he was surprised to learn during a USA Hockey presentation that there were more NHL players from the New York State than Russia. A USA Hockey spokesman confirmed there are currently 25 New York-born NHLers compared to 24 Russians. Things that make you go "hmmmm."

Nordiques fans go to Long Island

More than 1,000 Nordiques fans from Quebec took in Saturday night's Thrashers-Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum. Call me a sucker, but this again shows me there should again be NHL hockey in Quebec City.

I asked NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for his reaction to the Nordiques fans' showing.

"No one has ever doubted the passion of hockey fans in Quebec City," Bettman told ESPN.com via e-mail Saturday.

I believe Bettman would like to put teams back in Winnipeg and Quebec City, but he also wants all 30 teams to remain and succeed in their current markets. All of which leads me to believe that sometime in conjunction with the next CBA, you might start hearing talk of expansion. No one has told me that, it's just a guess.

Praise for Price

Consider Red Wings coach Mike Babcock a fan of Carey Price, telling ESPN.com on Thursday that he believes the Habs netminder is the best in the business.

"Price has been the best so far this season," Babcock told me. "No one had more pressure starting the year. He's really impressed me."

Team Canada in Paris

And finally, here's a neat little note: Team Canada is planning to play an exhibition game in Paris before the April 29 start of the IIHF World Championships. How do I find a way to sell that trip to ESPN.com? Man, I love Paris.

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