Cross Checks: Toronto Maple Leafs

 Head coach Randy Carlyle of the Toronto Maple Leafs Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty ImagesRandy Carlyle is really feeling the heat as the Leafs continue their downward spiral.

If there’s anyone in the world who knows what Randy Carlyle is going through right now in Toronto, it’s Ron Wilson.

Just two years ago in early March 2012, after a late-season skid that dropped Toronto out of a playoff spot, Wilson was fired as Maple Leafs coach and replaced by Carlyle.

So yeah, with the Leafs currently mired in an eight-game losing streak that has dropped them out of a playoff spot and completely freaked out the league’s biggest hockey market, Wilson knows what his replacement is living.

“In Toronto, everything is always out of perspective; they’re either winning games and they’re planning the parade route,” Wilson said on Monday from his home near Hilton Head, S.C., “or you lose a couple of games and everything gets over-exaggerated.”

What Carlyle is going through now, Wilson has felt it.

“It’s pretty hard to coach there without allowing some of these things to kind of affect you,” Wilson said. “That goes for the coaches, but the players, as well. You can’t go anywhere without hearing about what’s going wrong or all this kind of stuff.

“I really feel for the coaching staff and, above all, for Randy right now. He’s got the same thousand-yard stare that I had. But at the end, you almost feel like it’s completely out of your control, everything takes on a life of its own. It’s unbelievable.”

Wilson’s 2011-12 Leafs lost 10 of 11 games before he was fired in early March by former Leafs GM Brian Burke.

“I can’t blame Burkey for what he did,” Wilson said. “He was trying to salvage the season. We had had a good season until we got on that losing streak, that so-called ‘18-wheeler’ that Burkey talked about. It happens, and it takes on a life of its own, and you feel like you have no control, you can’t find a way to get out of it.”

But just like the rest of us, Wilson remembers how it looked for the Leafs just less than three weeks ago after Toronto had some big wins in tough buildings and sat comfortably in a playoff spot. Then the train began going off the tracks.

“It was just a few weeks ago when they played so well in Anaheim and L.A.,” Wilson said. “I mean, what’s happening now, it’s not about goaltending. A lot of nights when I watch the Leafs this year, I think to myself they should be down 4-0, but they’re up 3-2. It’s not goaltending, I don’t think.

“I watched the last two games this weekend; I thought they played OK in those games, but right now they’ve got no puck luck. It’s like maybe they used up all their puck luck earlier in the season when they were getting outshot but still won games. You might say they had a lot of puck luck in those games and it’s dried up now. A lot of the players are squeezing their sticks right now, which tends to happens in these situations.”

Wilson thought the Leafs were on their way to ending the losing streak Saturday at home against the Red Wings.

“I thought after the first period against Detroit on Saturday they would pull away at some point,” Wilson said. “But it never happened; they made a couple of catastrophic errors, like a giveaway at the wrong time. You ask yourself, ‘Why would a guy make a mistake like that, it’s a total lack of awareness.’ That’s kind of what clouds your mind when you’re in a slump like this.

“You wonder why a defenseman didn’t back up a forward in a certain situation or why a forward missed a backcheck. ... When it’s going bad, those things snowball and there’s not much you can do to stop it.”

Wilson, meanwhile, hasn’t coached since his Toronto exit, but remains interested in returning under the right circumstances.

“I would if the situation is right,” said the longtime coach, who also had stints behind the bench in Anaheim, Washington and San Jose and led Team USA’s silver-medal run at the 2010 Olympics. “But I’m not in a position where I say I’m desperate for job.”
Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins and Joffrey Lupul of the Toronto Maple LeafsSteve Russell/Getty ImagesJoffrey Lupul, right, and the Maple Leafs were right there with Boston in their first-round series.

BOSTON -- On the day of Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the Boston Bruins, Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri told the media that this was a “very very winnable series” for him and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not many people believed Kadri then, and they definitely didn’t believe Kadri after the Leafs suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Bruins in Game 4 to fall behind 3-1 in the series.

But Kadri and the Leafs clawed their way back into the series by winning Games 5 and 6, and then held a 4-1 lead with just more than 10 minutes left in regulation of Game 7. It appeared Kadri’s words would prove prophetic.

Then the bottom fell out, and the Leafs watched their three-goal lead and chance to pull off an upset slip away as the Bruins scored three unanswered goals, the third from Patrice Bergeron with 51 seconds left in regulation to force overtime. Bergeron then completed the comeback with his second goal of the game, 6:05 into overtime, to give the Bruins an improbable 5-4 comeback win and crush an overachieving Leafs team that had shown they could compete in what for many of them was their first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“Disappointed,” said Leafs defenseman Cody Franson when asked to describe his feelings after the game. “We gave ourselves a very good chance to win this series, and we gave it away. It’s that simple. We gave it to them.

"Like I said, credit to them. They executed when it counted. You give them credit for that, but it was our mistakes that allowed them to generate those chances.”

Toronto goalie James Reimer -- who made 30 saves in Game 7 and was a lot better than many expected in the series -- was clearly still in shock and dejected when he addressed the media.

“There’s no way to describe it, I don’t think. Just an empty feeling, really,” Reimer said. “It’s over, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You know, when you go through the season and a goal goes in or somebody scores in the shootout or whatever deciding goal that it is -- it sucks, but you’ll get them next time. But a case like tonight there is no next time, it’s just next year. So you know, it’s really just an empty feeling.”

But while it was, as expected, a somber atmosphere in the Leafs’ dressing room, even after this crushing defeat, some players couldn’t deny what this team had accomplished making the playoffs and then coming this close to coming back from a 3-1 series deficit and advancing to the second round.

“Any type of playoff experience is going to help you,” Franson said. “Unfortunately, this is the experience we’re going to carry with us for the rest of the summer, but we had a lot of guys come in and play hard minutes for us. We gave ourselves a good chance to win that series. We just made mistakes at the very end of it.”

Coach Randy Carlyle was critical of his team, but he wasn’t going to deny the progress it has made in a shortened season and since he arrived in March of the 2011-12 season.

“I think what we did is we proved that we can compete -- and this is a sharp learning curve for some of our younger players -- that this is what it’s going to take,” Carlyle said. “We did a lot of good things, but we still didn’t find a way to close it out. So that’s the difference.

"One goal, one bounce, one body check, one blocked shot could’ve made the difference for a win or a loss in the series, and we laid it out on the line and we played hard. And the most disappointing part for me is we lost two games in our building, and that when you’re in the playoffs very rarely can you afford to lose two in your building of a seven-game series. It makes the mountain that much more difficult to climb.”

As Kadri pointed out, there were plenty of silver linings to take from this experience. The problem was that while they know that, it was hard to really embrace it after such a crushing loss. Kadri and the Leafs know they could’ve won this series, and that is why they were even more frustrated. But the budding star who scored his first career playoff goal in Game 7 was doing his best to stay positive and look to the future.

“I truly believe that this is going to make every single person in this dressing room a better hockey player in the future,” Kadri said. “This is an experience you can’t buy, so we are going to take what we can and go back to work next year. I don’t really think you can look at it as a negative thing. We put everything out on the line and it was a grueling series, seven games, and you can’t really ask for much more.

"At the end, they got the job done and we didn’t. There are a lot of things that we can correct, but there’s no use in going back and pointing fingers now. It’s all about how we regroup next year. I know everyone is a little disappointed with how things ended. But at the same time, there is a silver lining with that experience and being able to take that forward.”
James Reimer, David KrejciGraig Abel/NHLI/Getty ImagesJames Reimer, right, skates away after David Krejci's overtime goal won it for Boston.

TORONTO -- The home dressing room felt like a morgue.

James Reimer could barely lift his head.

And James van Riemsdyk said it best, despite an all-out effort by his Toronto Maple Leafs in one of this spring’s most entertaining tilts.

“There are no moral victories in the playoffs,” JVR said before walking off to the showers.

The young Leafs, playoff neophytes before the puck dropped last Wednesday in Boston to open the series, played their hearts out and showed in their fourth game that they’re figuring out what this whole postseason thing is all about.

They went toe-to-toe with the veteran Boston Bruins, a raucous Air Canada Centre crowd jumping out of their seats with every scoring chance in a frenzied overtime period in which the Leafs outshot the Bruins 11-9.

But yet again, a key mistake cost the Leafs. The type of mistake the veteran Bruins, 2011 Cup champs, just don’t make very often.

The Bruins might lose games, but they don’t often beat themselves. That’s what Toronto did on the winner. It was the sliver of a difference in a 4-3 overtime affair.

Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf made a bad pinch at the Bruins’ blue line, crushing Nathan Horton with a big hit but allowing the Bruins winger to chip the puck out to David Krecji, who fled away on a clear 2-on-1 break with Milan Lucic.

And if you closed your eyes on the play and simply listened, you knew what happened next just by hearing the muted ACC crowd.

“You can’t afford to make mistakes that lead to off-man rushes,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “We turned the puck over deep in the corner, then we pinched, gave them an odd-man rush, and they scored a short-side goal to beat us.

“That feels like a dagger after the effort that was put forward by our group.”

A dagger indeed, the Bruins now up 3-1 in the series with a chance to clinch it Friday night at home in what will be a rocking TD Garden.

Krejci capped the hat trick by beating Reimer with a wrist shot that squeezed by the Leafs goalie. Usually a setup man, the Czech center admitted afterwards shooting was not option No. 1.

“Yeah, I was looking to pass the whole way,” he smiled. “But (Lucic) is a lefty, he was on his backhand, so that kind of made my decision easier. I also had (Zdeno Chara) and was thinking about him for a one-timer, because he’s got the best one-timer in the league. But they took him away, too. So I just tried to shoot it. In overtime, there’s never a bad shot. It wasn’t a perfect shot, but it went in.”

Another monster night for Krejci’s line with Lucic and Horton, the trio combining for five points to push their series total to 22 overall in four games.

The Bruins were certainly pushed. They fell behind 2-0 in the opening period, which ignited the home crowd, something that didn’t happen in Game 3 with the Leafs trailing the whole night.

This time, the ACC crowd of 19,708 was as loud as this place can get given the corporate suits in the NHL’s most expensive seats near the ice.

But the Bruins showed their poise and experience, calmly responding to that early deficit.

“Even when we were behind two goals I thought we were making some strong plays and could have easily scored, too,” said the captain Chara, who had four assists. “We bounced back with a really strong second.”

Did they ever, the Bruins scoring three unanswered goals in the middle period in what was easily Toronto’s brain-cramp moment.

And while the Leafs tied it late in the second period on Clarke MacArthur’s goal, the lesson here yet again is that Toronto cannot expect to take stretches like that off and still hope to beat a former championship team.

“Once again it was a small pocket, but it cost us the game,” said Leafs blue-liner Cody Franson, who was again terrific with a plus-3 performance and scoring his team’s second goal.

“We pushed the pace in the overtime, we pushed the pace in the third, we had a decent first period, and a hiccup in the second period. We made some mistakes, but it’s tough. We can’t afford to dwell on it.”

You’re not going to sell the big-picture view on too many players in that Leafs dressing room.

But the fact remains that win or lose in this series -- and it’s obviously not looking good down 3-1 -- this is a team that has grown by giant strides in just eight days and four games of the playoffs.

They’re getting it.

“Yeah, the experience helps us,” Franson said. “We’re a young group. There’s quite a few guys that haven’t gone through it before. Guys are starting to get a little bit more comfortable with the intensity and the emotion that comes with these games.”

All the more reason the Bruins needed to plant that dagger Wednesday night; because a 2-2 series with a Leafs team growing in belief would have been a dangerous thing.

Now they’ve got three shots at winning once, and the odds are obviously strongly in favor of that happening.
Rich PeverlyAP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank GunnWhen the Maple Leafs had the momentum Monday, the Bruins quickly flipped the script.

TORONTO -- The Boston Bruins barely allowed the NHL’s most pent-up playoff crowd to party.

The visitors scored first, and then when the Toronto Maple Leafs gave their fans reason to shake the building with a goal that cut the lead to 2-1 in the second period, Boston tallied right back just 50 seconds later to end the fun.

That was it. About 50 seconds of ear-splitting adrenaline for the locals who have dreamed for nearly a decade of what playoff hockey felt like in their home barn.

"It was a 2-1 hockey game and we had the building going our way, and there was a lot of energy and momentum going," Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said after the 5-2 Game 3 loss. "We made a mistake and gave them a goal, I think, the very next shift. That takes the wind out of our sails."

On a night that was nine years and two days in the making, an electric pregame atmosphere basically fizzled out thanks to a textbook road game by the 2011 Stanley Cup champions.

And the Leafs didn’t even play badly.

No, Game 3 of this Eastern Conference quarterfinals series was actually, perhaps, finally demonstrative of the true reality of these two teams.

The Leafs were brutal in Game 1, the Bruins not very good in Game 2.

Monday night, both teams put a good foot forward but in what is an accurate measure of where both teams stand: the Bruins deeper and more experienced, they made fewer mistakes and capitalized on their opportunities for a well-earned victory to seize a 2-1 series lead.

"You have to give the opposition credit. They came in, they played hard, they forced us to make mistakes and, consequently, they won the hockey game," Carlyle said. "That’s really it -- they made less mistakes than we did, and their execution level was beyond ours."

Which is often the difference between experienced teams and clubs working to gain that type of playoff knowledge.

"You can say they’re a veteran team and that their lineup has been through more wars than ours," Carlyle said. "You explain to your team that every game is a test, every shift is a test. This is a war of attrition. There’s skill involved in it, there’s will involved in it, and there’s luck involved in it. But you have to earn every one of them. We didn’t do enough and we made too many mistakes to give ourselves the proper chance to win."

Toronto had its chances, and there were moments in the game when its speed and transition gave the Bruins fits and led to good zone time.

Bruins/Leafs
AP Photo/Nathan DenetteTuukka Rask turned aside 45 of the 47 shots he faced Monday.
When the Leafs threatened, a confident Tuukka Rask of the Bruins was up to the task, aggressively challenging and doing well to find the puck through screens. He pushed away 45 of 47 shots.

The real difference on this night, though? Mistakes, as in the number committed by a game-yet-still-green Leafs squad finding its playoff wings.

Ryan O’Byrne’s giveaway behind his own net to none other than future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr set up Rich Peverly’s 2-0 goal 5:57 into the second period.

Then, after Jake Gardiner had given the game some life with a power-play goal at 13:45 of the middle period to cut the lead at 2-1, the Bruins stopped that Toronto momentum after Nathan Horton was left unguarded by Leafs forward Leo Komarov in the slot, and the Bruins forward didn’t miss at 14:35.

“I think that was probably the biggest goal for us so far in the series,” said winger Milan Lucic, who was a force with three assists and three hits. “We talked about the crowd, the way the fans were going, it seemed they were creating a lot of momentum. I was just hunting down the puck, got a good bounce and Horty did a good job roofing it when I gave him the pass.”

Once again, a quiet Air Canada Centre.

"When they got that first goal they got the momentum a bit, and it helped us a lot when we got that [third] goal right away after it,” Rask said. “It's a big thing when you play on the road and try to break their momentum, and today, for the most part, we did a pretty good job of that."

Then, Phil Kessel, coming out of his own zone on a power play, tried to give the puck right back to Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf but instead found the stick of Daniel Paille, who skated in alone to beat James Reimer. A brutal giveaway, and a 4-1 goal by the Bruins with 3:23 left in the second which planted the dagger on the Leafs.

Game over.

Those are mistakes you just can’t make in the playoffs and still expect to win.

"We fought the puck pretty good tonight, it was jumping pretty good tonight,” Leafs defenseman Cody Franson said. "Just a little bit soft on the puck. The mistakes we made we ended up playing a lot of defense or they were scoring because of them. …

"We can’t do that in the playoffs, we have to be better than that."

I believe the Leafs will be better. They’ve more often than not picked themselves up this season after a tough loss. And it would not surprise me at all if Toronto tied this series Wednesday night.

Toronto outshot Boston 47-38 Monday night, including 18-6 in the third period, the Leafs showing no signs of rolling over in this series.

But over the course of six or seven games, I think what you saw Monday night will play out as the storyline.

The Bruins are just that much better right now where it matters. Not a lot, but enough.
BOSTON -- With just under eight minutes left in regulation of the Maple Leafs' 4-2 win in Game 2 on Saturday, Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf lined up Bruins winger Daniel Paille for a hit along the boards in the neutral zone after Paille received a pass and passed the puck ahead.

On Sunday as the Bruins were boarding their bus for the airport to fly to Toronto for Games 3 and 4 Monday and Wednesday, Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald and Joe Haggerty of CSNNE.com caught up with Paille, and the Bruins winger didn't hold back on his assessment of the play.

"I haven't seen the video, but I know my head got hit. I'm not sure if it was shoulder or arm, or anything," said Paille. "He's a big hitter. I stood up and didn't fall. I think that's a big reason why [there was no penalty or suspension]."

At first glance it appeared to be an elbow to Paille's head, but in slow motion, it appears that it was Phaneuf's shoulder that made contact with Paille's head.

Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference was suspended one game for an elbow to Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski in Game 1, although there was no penalty on that play, either. The league cited principal contact to the head as a reason for the suspension, so there was plenty of debate on the Internet on Saturday night and Sunday, suggesting that the same could be said for Phaneuf's hit on Paille. However, the league decided to not even review it.

"Plays like that are called [a penalty] normally. Not always, but normally," Paille said. "During a game when a play like that isn't called you get frustrated by it. It's just something that you can't control. You just want to move on and worry about the next game. It was frustrating at the moment, and it was something that caught us off guard."
The rant blog seems to still confuse some people. This is not a forum to ask me about trade rumors. This is a forum to rant. Any other questions, check in with me during my weekly chat, Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET. Now let's look at some rants from this week:

Toews_me19: Pierre, First of all let me say that I love the Blackhawks and I am very proud of their accomplishments last year. That being said...WHY DO PEOPLE KEEP COMPARING THIS TEAM TO LAST YEAR'S TEAM? And why doesn't this team have any heart? When will this team quit playing on its collective heels and play with some flippin' urgency?? When will some of these guys quit waiting for someone else to make a play and do it themselves??? P.S -- did the Hawks forget that hockey games are 60 minutes in length, not 40 or 20. Come on, UGH.

Last year is long gone, as is a great deal of depth, options, players, whatever you want to say that made this team, oh wait...that team, so awesome. Whenever someone says something like "So-and-so defeat the Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks", I want to punch them. This team is not that team so they can't be compared only contrasted -- same core, very different dynamic. And comparing them only causes the pain in my heart to flare into life...pain caused by the necessary roster changes that every team faces every year because of the draconian salary cap.

That being said...the Blackhawks have done a decent job but it's not December anymore. It's time to skate and play to win boys. You are running out of time to get things together and the Western Conference is too tight to let points slip away. If it takes another three years for this team to become lethal again, I may jump in the Chicago River...j/k, but seriously you guys. Go Hawks, sorry for yelling.

My take: Can't say there's a terrible amount of sympathy coming your way since your team was able to enjoy a Stanley Cup last June, something many of our regular readers on this site have never had to experience. So let's not get too carried away with the Chicago pity party. Still, I don't think anyone thought that despite losing half the regulars from the Cup champion squad that the team would be entering the post All-Star break hanging on for their playoff lives. Not with a core still featuring Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. I still think this team will figure it out here over the last stretch of the regular season. One particular statistic points me in this direction: Five-on-five goals/for against ratio. The Hawks ranked fifth overall in the 30-team league with a 1.16 ratio and that’s indicative of a team that at its base, special teams aside, knows what it’s doing most of the time. Barring Kane missing any team flights over the last 30-odd games, I think the Hawks are fine.

bio8r: Why has Keith Yandle not gotten more love from his outstanding play this season. He is the Coyotes most consistent player, plays big minutes every night, and can only barely sneak into the All-Star Game though leading all defensemen in points? I hope people can look past big names like Lidstrom, Letang, and Chara and give this guy some recognition.

My take: Bio8r, you're dead on about Keith Yandle, but to answer your first question: maybe because the Coyotes rank 29th in NHL attendance? If almost no one in his own backyard is noticing, how do you expect the rest of the fans around the NHL to notice? Just a thought. Having said that, Yandle does deserve the recognition, having taken a giant step this season and helping fill the minutes void left by Zbynek Michalek. Shane Doan told me before the season when I stopped through Phoenix during my camp tour that Yandle, before the end of this season, would be among the league’s very top defensemen. He was bang on.

Beastly Backes: The Blues are flat out a bad hockey team. They've won 2 of 12, and the 2 wins are against the sloppy kings. Jaroslav Halak has been inconsistent. One moment he'll make a great save, and the next shot, he lets in an easy goal. He needs to step up. Also, the Blues come out and look sloppy and lack motivation at the start of every game. They go out knowing they're gonna lose. It's great that they have Winchesters and Sobotkas trying to go above and beyond their potential, but the fact is, the coaching staff is extracting every ounce of effort from a lot of average players. Grit is great, but the Blues lack pure talent w/o Perron and McDonald. Even at the beginning of the year, when they won seven straight -- they won every games 2-1, 2-0, 3-1, 1-0 -- they couldn’t score goals!!! Oshie's return is nice and all, but the Blues need more weapons, BESIDES Perron and Andy-Mac. If the Blues don't trade some of their so called "depth" at defense, they will go nowhere. Pietrangelo however is one of the only bright spots on this team. Erik Johnson has played his worst hockey ever this year, Eric the gutless wonder Brewer happens to be playing his best, and Jackman and Polak are still grinding it out. They won't trade youth, which eliminates E.J. and Petro, but Jackman, Brewer and Polak could be trade bait. I personally think that Brewer may actually be worth something this year. TRADE HIM FOR A SCORER!!! GIVE THE "C" TO THE REAL CAPTAIN: David Backes.

BluesFanAlex74: WHY??? WHY DO MY BLUES FAIL? Night in and night out we fail to skate for 60 minutes, defend the net, or dish out hits that make the opposition fly the other way. In a town where hockey is loved, we have players who are young, energized, and have a great hockey sense, but there are also guys who are older and used to be 40 goal scorers (BRAD BOYES) and guys who think standing around and throwing pucks the wrong way are good (ERIK JOHNSON and ALEX PIETRANGELO) these guy would be greater if they knew what to do when the opposition runs around the D-men and behind the net, setting up shop, then scoring because we let the enemy fly in and shoot from the slot. Things were great 10 games into the season, but since Perron and McDonald are gone and we have no inspiration, we are going to lose half our money from season ticket sales because we are not going to win a playoff spot. Great Marketing idea, right? I had hope for this year with a great goalie and young stars, but we have been shot down and self destructive. I hope they find their pace for next year because I don’t think I can take another year of disappointment. From, THE ONLY SMART ONE IN CHESTERFIELD, MO. (JK)

My take: A double dose of Blues' blues. Tough year, indeed. It started with so much promise, St. Louis even leading the ESPN Power Rankings in early November. After improving to 9-1-2 with a win on Nov. 7, the Blues have won only 13 of their next 39 games (13-19-7). Ouch. They actually rallied with an 8-4-2 record in December but went only 2-8-2 in January. Double ouch. But let’s be honest, when you lose two thirds of your top line in T.J. Oshie and David Perron for such a long stretch, plus Andy McDonald, few teams in the NHL can recover from that. And as it was, the Blues actually weren't scoring that many goals even before those injuries. It's going to be a difficult assessment of the season for GM Doug Armstrong should the club not rally back, because he will have almost never had his full lineup in front of him to dissect. If I were the Blues, I would look to add a top-six forward in the offseason if possible -- that would be my priority.

ddiggler08: So, yeah, Patrick Sharp for MVP? What the ####.

My take: Well, Shea Weber, Nick Lidstrom, Anze Kopitar, Loui Ericksson and Danny Briere all had legitimate cases. The consensus press box pick was Weber, who was plus-6 with four assists. Part of the problem is that the 12-member media voting committee (I didn't vote this year, which is only right given my thoughts on the All-Star game) had to select a name midway through the third period. Hopefully next season, the NHL can circle back to USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen, the president of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, and check with him at the buzzer to make sure the MVP pick still stands. Still, I have no issue with Sharp winning because he's such a good story, a blue-collar guy who's worked his way up to this level. Plus, he's from Northern Ontario, so you know he's a good guy.

CapitalsFan74: LeBrun, I have been a Caps fan since 1985. I have seen good and bad Capitals teams over the years (yes, mostly bad). But can anyone explain what is wrong with this team this year? After last year I was expecting a Cup run, but this team is painful to watch. All the "experts" have said over the years that we were not built (defensively) to win in the playoffs. Now we seem to have THAT but are in jeopardy of not making the playoffs at all. How can we be so much better for the playoffs if we cannot win in the regular season?

My take: Indeed the Caps have tightened up defensively, sitting seventh in the NHL in goals against per game as of Tuesday morning, up from 16th where they finished last season. That's an important evolution for their playoff chances in my opinion. But it's about balance. After leading the league in goals last season, they're only 17th as of Tuesday morning, down more than a full goal per game. Alex Ovechkin has two power-play goals on the season. I repeat, Alex Ovechkin has two power-play goals on the season. Unacceptable. Bruce Boudreau's task over the final stretch of the regular season is to better balance his team's new-found defensive play without forgetting how the team was built: with offensive stars. I think he's up to it.

SRDetroitfan: I'm from Detroit and a Wings fan and want to apologize to everyone who has to read people complain about why the Red Wings do not get any Love. I am not going to lie, I love when I see something about the Wings come up in one of these chats or in an article, but Detroit fans PLEASE stop complaining about how much love Detroit DOES not get and how no one pays attention to us. We don't need attention! The way we have played for the past 20 years should be attention enough! And lets be honest...is there really anyone happy with the amount of "love" their team gets from the media?

My take: My man, thank you so much for this post. I can't tell you how many Wings stories both myself and Scott Burnside have written for this website over the last three years. A 2,500-word Nick Lidstrom story, anyone? Wings fans are incredibly sensitive for a market that's done so much winning. Ken Holland is routinely labeled by us as the best GM in hockey. Mike Babcock is often called the best coach by most of the media covering the game. What else can we do????

egotonusf: OK, how do the Lightning win a blowout and then shut out the Leafs, BUT FALL 2 SPOTS IN THE POWER RANKINGS? I guess its just hatred for south hockey, we will see come playoffs...

My take: No hatred my friend, it's because Burnside and I alternate weeks and have different views on where the teams should rank. So a team's performance alone isn't the only factor in influencing the ranking, fixing Burnside's mistakes is also another. Or as Scotty would view it, fixing mine, ha ha.

Dubsg123: Pierre. What really bothers me is how little attention some of the outstanding young players of the NHL get league wide. One of these such players is Anze Kopitar. As a Kings fan, I know that he is one of the best two way centermen in the league, but when you have national hockey broadcasters that announce his name Annzee Kahpiter you really can see how he doesn't get much recognition. In the All-Star Game, he was the first player to score two goals, and he looked like he was having fun doing it. This year on the Kings, the players that have really been getting the attention (at least with the media, thankfully the fans got it right with voting him to the All-Star Game) overshadow his success: Drew Doughty, Jon Quick, Justin Williams, Ryan Smyth, etc. I know that Crosby has a concussion. I know that Ovechkin isn't scoring like he used to. I know that Steven Stamkos is too good to play in the NHL. I just don't want to be hearing their names in a headline article every morning. Let's give Kopitar the love he truly deserves!

My take: Kopitar is 12th in NHL scoring with 49 points in 50 games, having himself another terrific season. While I agree he doesn't get as much attention as some of the other young snipers in that top 15 group, it's ironic that Loui Ericksson is tied with him at 49 points and there's a guy who actually gets zero national attention. I mean, way less than even Kopitar. Here's what I really like about Kopitar -- he's sporting a plus-16 rating as of Tuesday morning. He was a double-digit minus player the first three years of his career. Last season, he finished plus-6. So his progression in his two-way play has been impressive. And when you consider he doesn’t really have a high-end, superstar winger to play with like other centers in this league, you understand that he is indeed full value for his production.

neufeld85: I am a Colorado Avalanche fan and they might be the most frustrating team to watch in the NHL. Whenever they get a lead, I never expect them to hold it. Their defense is pathetic and what happened to Craig Anderson this year? I love Adam Foote but the guy needs to retire, he constantly gets burned by speedier forwards. If it wasn't for all the miraculous comeback wins, the Avs would near the bottom of the West. They have given up the second most goals in the conference this season. Do you think the Avalanche will be able to squeak into the playoffs?

My take: Scott Burnside actually has a nice Avalanche feature story that's going to be posted this week after he spent some time there last week. So make sure to check that out. At this point, this team is not going to make the playoffs unless they can tighten up. Ranked 30th -- dead last -- in the NHL in goals against per game doesn't get you anywhere. Some of it, yes, is Anderson having an off-year, but I rest most of the blame on a blue-line corps that, as predicted by some of us last September, has been dreadful defensively.

benjies77: As a delusional Leafs fan, I, along with the rest of Leafs Nation, thought the Leafs might make the playoffs. Now, rather than rooting for the eighth spot, I'm biting my nails just to see them stay out of the cellar. It pains me to think we will give another lottery to Boston. I love Kessel and hope he will eventually come into his own when he learns to deal with the pressure of playing in Toronto. But, shoot me straight. With the Leafs sitting in the fifth spot of the bottom five, is there ANY hope of them climbing out of the bottom? I feel like that is the only thing left that can "save" another sad season.

My take: As most people know, I live in Toronto, so I see the pain and suffering that Leaf fans go through. My brother-in-law, Mitch, is a die-heard Leafs fan, watches every single game and allows the knife to twist in his gut. I actually sat beside Leafs GM Brian Burke on the flight down to Raleigh last Friday. Believe me when I say no one is taking this harder than him. He wants to turn this around badly. The work will continue over the next few weeks with the trade deadline approaching. Kris Versteeg, Francois Beachemin and maybe Jean-Sebastien Giguere (depending on his health) could get moved, while Tomas Kaberle will be dealt only if he chooses to waive his no-trade clause and the Leafs can accommodate the small list of teams he would hand over. Changes are coming, Leaf fans, hang tight.

curley214: I am so angry that John Tavares was not in the ASG. Yeah, we have it tough right now on LI, but the kid is damn good and earned a spot. I guarantee you if you asked 29 other GM's in the league would they rather have Patrik Elias or JT, 28 would go with JT (Brian Burke would trade his rights back to the Isles for Blake Kessel and the next 11 Leafs first round picks). The Isles get a bad rap and are rebuilding the right way. Kevin Poulin looks promising for the next couple years to get some regular NHL time. DP has been playing and has a .914 save percentage in the past couple weeks. Things are slowly looking better. My question Pierre, when do the Isles unload some assets for some proven help? THANKS!

My take: I don't agree every team should be represented in the All-Star Game, but I do think Tavares should have been at the game anyway. You are right to be angry.

1. It's not just about Crosby

Considering he wasn't even at the All-Star Game this past weekend, we sure heard a lot about Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby. The game's best player is expected to begin light exercise as he struggles to come back from a concussion.

Toronto GM Brian Burke insisted that the recent focus on concussions and blows to the head was directly related to Crosby's situation.

"The concussion thing is the topic du jour," Burke said this past weekend in Raleigh, N.C. "It'll be shoulders next year if there's a rash of shoulder injuries. And frankly, I think the biggest reason we're focused on concussions is because of Sidney. If Mike Brown got that concussion, would you guys all be around with cameras asking about concussions? I don't think so."

Not sure that's fair. We seem to recall a lot of attention on the topic when Marc Savard got hurt, and David Booth before him. That said, if the fact that the game's most marketable asset has been sitting on the sideline for almost a month because of a concussion sparks more interest in the topic, so be it.

2. The playoff picture (who cares if it's early!)

So, we were checking out the standings this morning as we head into the unofficial stretch drive.

With most teams having about 30 games remaining, the playoff picture won't come into focus until the final week of the regular season. That said, if the playoffs began Monday, you would have these first-round matchups: Pittsburgh-Washington, Boston-New York Rangers, Detroit-Chicago and Vancouver-San Jose. And for all those who have been pining for those Vincent Lecavalier-in-Montreal storylines, the Lightning would face the Canadiens in the opening round.

Bring it on!

3. Here come the Red Wings

Hate to fall back on that old adage about "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," but it applies to the Detroit Red Wings.

Detroit has managed to keep a solid cushion over Nashville in the race for the Central Division title and is also within striking distance of Vancouver for the top seed in the West. (The Red Wings are five points out with a game in hand.) All this despite missing key personnel like Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Cleary and Brad Stuart, among others. Well, sound the bugle, the cavalry is coming over the hill in the form of Cleary and Datsyuk, both of whom are expected back in the lineup this week.

The Wings are 6-4-1 in 11 January games, and coach Mike Babcock has seen impressive play from players who might not otherwise get much time on the power play or penalty kill or see top-six forward minutes. Four of the team's victories in January came in overtime or the shootout. The team must still deal with its goaltending depth, as Chris Osgood is out long term with a groin injury. (It failed in its efforts to land Evgeni Nabokov, who was picked up by the Islanders via waivers.) Still, watch for the Wings to take their game up a notch in the coming days. Interesting to note that the Wings play the Predators twice in their first five post-All-Star break games.

4. Tampa Bay and the Southeast race

The Tampa Bay Lightning will continue their monster homestand now that the All-Star break is over. The Bolts won the first two of a 12-game mother-of-all home respite, but the coming days will feature key clashes, including visits from the Flyers and Capitals this week. The Lightning lead the Caps by four points in the Southeast Division race.

Behind Dwayne Roloson, the Bolts have shut out the Caps in the past two meetings, and those head-to-head games will be crucial when it comes to deciding the division crown. It's not just bragging rights on the line in the Southeast, though. The team that fails to secure the division title likely will fall to fourth or fifth in the East and earn a likely first-round matchup with Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Win the division, and you're likely looking at playing Atlanta, Carolina, Montreal or the New York Rangers. On paper, at least, that's a lot more palatable.

A couple of players to watch during this homestand will be Lecavalier and Simon Gagne. Both have struggled with injuries and inconsistency this season but have shown signs of life lately. Their productivity will be crucial to a long playoff run.

5. The players have spoken

Interesting stuff in a wide-ranging poll released this past weekend by the NHL Players' Association and "Hockey Night in Canada." What caught our eye was the list of teams for which players do not want to play.

The Islanders were first in this category, which is understandable. The Isles play in an awful arena and are a mess organizationally. Edmonton was also near the bottom of the list, and that, too, is no surprise. Long winters, small market ... it's just not a sexy hockey place. Not anymore.

But our eyebrows rose in seeing Atlanta and Toronto next in the least desirable of NHL markets. It wasn't that long ago when the Maple Leafs brought in sought-after free agents like Gary Roberts, Alexander Mogilny, Shayne Corson, Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour. And there was winning in Toronto. Under coach (and sometimes GM) Pat Quinn, the Leafs advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 1999 and 2002. They beat Ottawa pretty much every spring. But the same dynamics that made Toronto a cool place during those years -- a lot of media and fan attention -- now make it a place that players want to avoid.

The Leafs haven't been to the playoffs since before the lockout and won't be going again this season. The culture of losing has turned all that attention into a perpetual black cloud. It creates a situation where the Leafs run the risk of having to overpay for free agents, making Burke's task of rebuilding the team even more onerous.

And onerous pretty much sums up the situation in Atlanta. That's what a decade of losing will do for you. But it shouldn't be this way. The climate is great, it's a great place to fly in and out of, and there are all kinds of cultural entertainment options and plenty of green space for families. Yet players want to avoid Atlanta like the plague. GM Rick Dudley is hoping to change the perception, but it's a big challenge, especially with an incompetent ownership that spends more time in court than trying to build a winning franchise.

One final note on the player poll: It was no surprise to see Crosby as the player other players would build a franchise around. But it was interesting that Crosby's coach, Dan Bylsma, was who other players most identified as the coach they'd like to play for. The coach they'd least like to play for: Toronto's Ron Wilson.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Phil Kessel's phone exploded in text messages after he had the ignominy of being chosen last overall Friday night in the NHL’s inaugural All-Star fantasy player draft.

"They were all just asking about the car," Kessel said of his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates. "They're all on trips and stuff. I was supposed to go with a bunch of guys on vacation. They just gave me little bombs.

[+] EnlargePhil Kessel
Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty ImagesPhil Kessel received a car and $20,000 donated to a charity in his name for being the last pick in the All-Star draft.
"They were all happy for me. We've got a great team in Toronto, the guy's are all supportive and we get along great there."

When the draft got down to the last two players, Kessel and Colorado's Paul Stastny, captain Eric Staal joked that since Toronto wasn't much of a hockey market he was going to take Stastny.

Then, with star Alex Ovechkin snapping a photo of Kessel with the camera on his cell phone, Team Lidstrom assistant captain Patrick Kane ended the suspense quickly.

"We're happy with our last pick in the draft, so we'll take Phil Kessel," Kane said.

But, honestly, Kessel said after the event, he's not hurt by going last, especially since he got a brand new car and $20,000 to give to charity.

"I don't care one bit at all," Kessel said. "I'm just excited to be here. It's an honor. I wouldn't get here without my teammates, they play a big role in this.

"I'm just happy to be here. I'm going to have a good time and enjoy myself. When I was a kid, I would never have dreamed of being here. Hopefully, the fans in Toronto are happy to see me in the game. I'll play well in the game for them."

Every All-Star asked had the same answer when asked about feeling bad for Kessel.

"No, he got a free car," smiled Steven Stamkos, an answer echoed throughout. "I'm sure he's pretty happy for that. No, you do feel a bit bad for the last couple of picks. They're sitting there by themselves with the lights on them. But at the end of the day everyone realizes how great every player is that's here."

"Well somebody had to be last," Zdeno Chara said. "But I guess getting a car, it’s also not a bad deal."

Nicklas Lidstrom, the captain and GM of his team, said Kessel has a unique opportunity this weekend.

"He could very well win the car on Sunday, he can be the MVP," said the Wings captain. "That's how much talent we have here."

And the car?

"I'll drive it," Kessel said.

Kessel, a cancer survivor, also got money to donate to a charity of his choice for being the last pick.

"Something good [comes out of it]," Kessel said. "Obviously, $20,000 to charity, that's unbelievable. I'm real excited about that."

Information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

The NHL's trade deadline is exactly one month from today. Where did the season go?

And yet, a month is still a lot of time to determine this year's buyers and sellers.

As of today, there are many teams with legitimate playoff chances, making it a short sellers' list. In addition, some buyers need to wait until the last possible moment so their rental pickups don't count as much against the salary cap.

Factor in both those issues, and that's why there still isn't a lot going on one month out.

[More trade deadline: Hradek: Top 5 trade options Insider | Rumor Central Insider]

"There hasn't been much real talk," Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com this week. "Teams are saying 'We'll talk later, we'll talk later.' But that's fine."

"Most of us have players that we would make available even right now for a trade, either because they're underperforming and/or overpaid," Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier told us this week. "But it's impossible right now to get an agreement on values. We're all hoping that we're going to be able to just charge a cost without taking anything back, and that's not reality. So I think, yes, we're all sitting around to the last day or two again [before the trade deadline]."

It's been a frustrating time over the past month for several GMs who are trying to shake things up.

"There's been lots of talk going on, but it's hard to jar anything loose right now," Columbus Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson said this week.

The two clubs in Ontario have also burned up the phone lines without success. But you'd better believe the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs will try to be busy between now and Feb. 28. The playoffs are a long shot at best.

"I'm open for business, yes, you can get that word out if you want," Sens GM Bryan Murray told us, his sense of humor still intact.

"We now know where we are," Murray added in a serious tone, referring to the team's 13th-place standing in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break, 15 points out of the last playoff spot. "As disappointed as we may be, we have to do something to rectify it."

Prefacing a question by saying I assumed the likes of All-Star youngster Erik Karlsson and top center Jason Spezza (no-movement clause) weren't going anywhere, I asked him how many untouchables he had.

"Yes, there's a couple of guys we wouldn't move," Murray said. "Certainly Alfie [captain Daniel Alfredsson] is another one we wouldn't move. I talked to [owner] Eugene [Melnyk] about that. We're not doing anything there. But other than that, we're open to many things."

The most obvious movable name is veteran blueliner Chris Phillips, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. He's a perfect rental for a contender, a smart player who would help any good team. There are so many clubs looking for help along the blue line, including San Jose, Chicago, Montreal and Boston, among others.

The Maple Leafs had been hoping to pull off some sort of trade to bring in a big center, or at least a big forward, but it hasn't happened. So now what?

"We've been trying to add since well before Christmas without any success," Leafs GM Brian Burke told ESPN.com this week. "We have cap room and budget room, but we haven't been able to get anything done to upgrade our team. So now we're going to look at whatever opportunities present themselves leading up to the deadline, including younger players."

I'm reading between the lines here, but my guess is the Leafs are now finally ready to accept draft picks or prospects in trades after trying so hard to make a more traditional hockey deal. Still, it's not a bad thing for Toronto to clear out some cap space ahead of July 1. They'll need to outbid the New York Rangers, among other teams, for the services of Brad Richards (if he hasn't re-signed with Dallas before then).

Toronto's most coveted rental player would be veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who is a UFA on July 1. At some point soon, the Kaberle camp will likely have to make a decision. They'll need to inform the Leafs whether they'd be willing to waive the defenseman's no-trade clause and, if so, provide the Leafs with a list of teams. In the end, they may choose not to waive it and just ride out the final weeks of his career in Toronto. Burke, always respectful of players with no-trade clauses, will not ask Kaberle to waive it.

Expect Francois Beauchemin (one more season at $3.8 million) and Kris Versteeg (one more season at $3.08 million) to continue to draw attention from other teams, along with veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere (UFA July 1) if he can show he's healthy and can help a team. (Giguere recently told local reporters he would "contemplate" waiving his no-trade clause if Burke approached him about it.)

And what of Sheldon Souray? He has one more year left on his contract next season at $4.5 million ($5.4 million cap hit). He's been buried in the AHL all season and has also battled injuries down there. Will he move before Feb. 28?

"It's pretty clear there's two options: either someone is interested on a re-entry situation or someone is interested in a hockey deal near the [June] draft," Oilers GM Steve Tambellini told ESPN.com this week.

Should the Oilers put Souray on re-entry waivers, teams would be on the hook for half of his contract with the Oilers picking up the other half. Meanwhile, the Oilers are the only team that's clearly out of the race in the West. They don't have any high-end UFAs to sell off, but a forward like Dustin Penner (one more year on his deal at $4.25 million) might draw interest from other clubs.

While the Oilers know where they stand ahead of the trade deadline, plenty of other teams do not. The Blue Jackets are still in it at this point, and their Feb. 28 fate will be decided by their play over the next few weeks. They are five points out at the All-Star break, sitting 13th in the West.

"Yes, we're in no mood to be selling off right now; we feel we still have a chance," Howson said. "It's so tight and it's going to be hard, obviously, coming from behind over a group like this. But if you put together a really strong two weeks together, you get right back close to eighth. It's going to take a real good 10-game run for us to get back into it."

The Panthers are eight points out at the break. Buy or sell a month from now?

"Regardless, we're going to do what's right for the future," Tallon said. "If we can stay competitive this year, that's great, and we'll deal with the cards that are dealt. But we're still keeping an eye on what's best for the future. That's the most important part of this, regardless of what happens in the next month. We're not going to change our philosophy."

Will veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun, UFA July 1, survive the trade deadline? The Panthers have begun preliminary contract talks with his camp, but that doesn't mean anything will get done. Tallon said he spoke to Vokoun's agent again Tuesday.

"It's got to be the right term and the right amount," Tallon said. "I think there are a lot of possibilities when it comes to this. We'll keep hammering away on this and see what happens."

The Sabres, six points out in the East, have a number of UFAs-to-be on their roster, including Tim Connolly, Mike Grier, Rob Niedermayer, Craig Rivet and Steve Montador. Will those UFAs all survive the trade deadline?

"We're getting a lot of pop out of our young kids," Regier said. "Older players that we all believed in when we signed them aren't performing at the levels that they're capable of, or maybe we misjudged it. In some part, I think we could be selling veterans if we can sell them because we like what we see in our youth. I think it's going to be really interesting."

What to watch for Thursday night

January, 20, 2011
1/20/11
4:26
PM ET

Pittsburgh Penguins (29-14-4) at New Jersey Devils (13-29-3), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-0 Pittsburgh
Starting goaltenders: Brent Johnson (8-3-2, 2.04 GAA) vs. Martin Brodeur (8-18-2, 2.97 GAA)
Preview: The Penguins take the ice without both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the first time since Malkin came into the league, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Reports out of Pittsburgh indicate Malkin is day to day with a sore knee, while Crosby is still recovering from a concussion. Pens coach Dan Bylsma will put Dustin Jeffrey on the top line with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. With a win tonight, Bylsma will tie Scotty Bowman for third place on the Penguins' all-time coaching wins list with 95.

Anaheim Ducks (26-19-4) at Toronto Maple Leafs (18-22-5), 7 p.m. ET

Starting goaltenders: Jonas Hiller (23-15-3, 2.45 GAA) vs. Jean-Sebastien Giguere (8-7-3, 2.73 GAA)
Preview: Jean-Sebastien Giguere will face his former team for the first time since being traded to Toronto. Giguere helped the Ducks to two Stanley Cup finals appearances, winning it all in 2007. Giguere is also the Ducks franchise leader among goalies for games played (447) and wins (206). The struggling Leafs are coming off a 7-0 loss to the Rangers on Wednesday night. Giguere said Wednesday morning that he would consider waiving his no-trade clause if the team asked.

New York Rangers (27-18-3) at Carolina Hurricanes (22-18-6), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 1-1
Starting goaltenders: Henrik Lundqvist (20-14-3, 2.21 GAA) vs. Cam Ward (19-14-5, 2.72 GAA)
Preview: The Rangers are coming off a 7-0 win on Wednesday night, but they are an impressive 10-2-0 this season when playing the second game of back-to-back games and haven't allowed more than three goals in the second games. The Hurricanes are sitting in ninth place in the East and trying to fight into the playoff picture, but have lost three of their past four.

Washington Capitals (25-14-8) at New York Islanders (14-23-7), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 1-0 Washington
Starting goaltenders: Braden Holtby (2-2-1, 3.84 GAA) vs. Rick DiPietro (7-6-4, 3.43 GAA)
Preview: Looking the beat the Islanders for the ninth time in their past 10 meetings, the Capitals turn to Braden Holtby in net. Recalled from the Hershey Bears on Wednesday with both of Washington's two top goalies injured, Holtby will be making his fifth NHL start of the season. The Capitals have been held to three goals or fewer in 11 straight games and have one win in their past five games.

Ottawa Senators (17-23-7) at Philadelphia Flyers (30-11-5), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 1-0 Philadelphia
Starting goaltenders: Brian Elliott (12-16-6, 2.01 GAA) vs. Sergei Bobrovsky (18-6-3, 2.50 GAA)
Preview: Already leading the Eastern Conference, the Flyers now get to add top defenseman Chris Pronger back to the lineup. Pronger missed 13 games with a broken foot, but the Flyers went 9-4-0 in his absence and had the highest offensive production in the NHL at 3.46 goals per game. While Philadelphia is vying for the best record in the league, the Senators are tied with the Maple Leafs at the bottom of the Northeast due to a 1-6-3 stretch.

Tampa Bay Lightning (27-15-5) at Atlanta Thrashers (23-18-7), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 4-0 Tampa Bay
Starting goaltenders: Dwayne Roloson (4-3-0, 2.92 GAA) vs. Ondrej Pavelec (16-11-5, 2.49 GAA)
Preview: With the Capitals struggling this season, the Southeast Division is wide open and the Lightning are taking advantage. Steven Stamkos has reclaimed the league goal-scoring lead with 35 goals after scoring in his past three games. Also, Stamkos has a point in seven of eight career games against the Thrashers with six goals and six assists.

Detroit Red Wings (28-12-6) at St. Louis Blues (22-17-6), 8 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-1 Detroit
Starting goaltenders: Jimmy Howard (22-7-4, 2.83 GAA) vs. Jaroslav Halak (17-14-4, 2.50 GAA)
Preview: The injury-riddled Red Wings will welcome back Jimmy Howard as they try to avoid a season-worst fourth consecutive road loss. Howard missed two games after bruising his right knee. And with Chris Osgood sidelined by a hernia, the Wings are in talks to sign goalie Evgeni Nabokov, a source confirmed to ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun on Thursday.

San Jose Sharks (23-19-5) at Vancouver Canucks (29-10-7), 10 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-0 Vancouver
Starting goaltenders: Antti Niemi (11-13-2, 2.79 GAA) vs. Roberto Luongo (21-8-5, 2.38 GAA)
Preview: After earning at least one point in a 17 straight games, the Canucks are just 1-2-1 in their past four games. The Canucks now return home from a five-game road trip with a three-point advantage for the Western Conference lead. Vancouver has outscored San Jose 10-4 in two meetings this season, but the Sharks come into the game on a two-game winning streak.

Burnside: More senseless on-ice acts

January, 20, 2011
1/20/11
11:12
AM ET

Another night, another series of potentially devastating plays by players who apparently aren't able to lace up their skates without disengaging their brains.

One can only assume NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell will again be talking to the Calgary Flames after Curtis Glencross drove Minnesota Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner head-first into the boards while forechecking during Wednesday's 6-0 loss to the Wild.

The Flames are already without Tom Kostopoulos, who was suspended six games for his cheap shot that broke Detroit defenseman Brad Stuart's jaw. The only difference between the two reckless plays is Stoner wasn't seriously injured -- not that it should have any bearing on potential supplemental discipline.

We're guessing six games would be appropriate, although clearly no lesson was learned from the Kostopoulos penalty, so maybe it should be more. Glencross was given a major for boarding early in the second period with the Flames already trailing 2-0 in a game they desperately needed to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive. Can you say selfish?

Here's hoping Campbell & Co. will take a good look at Toronto forward Colton Orr's chop on New York Rangers defenseman Steve Eminger's hand/wrist late in the Rangers' 7-0 rout of the Maple Leafs.

Like Glencross, Orr is fortunate Eminger wasn't seriously injured, but a mindless play from a marginal player like Orr, who was assessed a major for slashing and a 10-minute misconduct, should also face some time in the press box given the potential for serious injury. Not that the Leafs would miss his services.

Watch Glencross' hit here (courtesy: NHL.com):

Video: Matthew Barnaby on Leafs-Rangers

January, 19, 2011
1/19/11
10:16
PM ET

Matthew Barnaby says if the Rangers are going to go anywhere they need more performances from Marian Gaborik like he had against Toronto in New York's 7-0 win.


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.

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate the playoff potential of the Blues, Ducks and Avs and the recent surge by the Maple Leafs.

Burnside: Good day, my friend. I watched with interest a couple of Western Conference games last night, and it looks like injury and maybe inexperience are catching up with a couple of young teams looking to take a big step forward this year. The St. Louis Blues were pounded by a surprising Anaheim Ducks team, 7-4, and the Colorado Avalanche were blanked 4-0 by a Chicago Blackhawks team that is suddenly looking a lot more championship-like of late. The Blues have gone five games without a win (0-4-1) and have slipped to 12th in the Western Conference, while the Avs have won just three times in their last 11 outings. Although they still hang onto the eighth spot in the West as of Thursday morning, a second straight postseason appearance is more than a little iffy at this point. Thoughts?

[+] EnlargeCraig Anderson
Michael Martin/Getty ImagesOne of the Avs' biggest concerns this season has been the goaltending of Craig Anderson.
LeBrun: The Avs showed so much resiliency for most of the season dealing with their injuries. But it looks like they've run out of steam right now. Hopefully the return of Chris Stewart sometime next week will give them wind in their sails. Stewart, for my money, was having an MVP-type season before going down Nov. 27 with a hand injury suffered in a fight. But let's be honest, of great concern this season has been the goaltending of Craig Anderson. The Vezina Trophy nominee last season has fallen back down to earth this year, so much that the Avs rank 29th in the NHL in goals against. Pretty hard to make the playoffs with those numbers. The Blues, meanwhile, continue to try to survive without two thirds of their top line in David Perron and T.J. Oshie. Not sure how many teams in the league could do so without struggling, but I want to stress on the positive today and mention the Ducks. They've won six of seven games to stay in a playoff spot in that crazy Western race. The most impressive part is that they began that streak Dec. 28 in a game in which they lost captain and star center Ryan Getzlaf to a facial injury, which will keep him out at least a month. Kudos to GM Bob Murray. Not all signings in July get a lot of fanfare. Toni Lydman? Second in the NHL with a plus-26 rating.

Burnside: I must admit I didn't think the Ducks were capable of hanging around this long, but Cam Fowler deserves Calder Trophy consideration (he was my midpoint pick), and as you wrote recently Jonas Hiller is having a Vezina-worthy season in goal. That's the issue for the Blues, who have to crawl back into the top eight and hope to catch a team on the way down. Anaheim is holding tough. Nashville is on a tear. In the end, it might be the Avs or Blues. Wouldn't it be a shame if Stewart's loss in a meaningless fight was the tipping point in not making the playoffs for an Avs team that has done so much right. (How about that Tomas Fleischmann trade?) The Blues are hoping to bring former Canucks and Leafs player Kyle Wellwood on board to bolster an offense that is ranked 19th in the league and a power play that is 25th. Wonder if they can sneak him through waivers or will another team -- Predators perhaps -- try to foil that plan? Speaking of teams on the rise, I was wondering if you'd seen an upsurge in the number of cars with Maple Leafs flags racing around Toronto now that the Leafs look like world-beaters, having won four in a row heading into Phoenix tonight?

LeBrun: Toronto definitely is playing its best hockey since that 4-0-0 start had everyone in my town going ga-ga. The Leafs are full value for their current win streak, which includes impressive wins in L.A. and San Jose.

"Our team has picked up a lot of confidence with the last few games," Leafs GM Brian Burke told me this morning on the phone from Phoenix. "When we started the season 4-0, the biggest factor was how much we had the puck. And the last few games, we've had the puck a lot. It's hard for the other team to score when you have the puck. We have some chemistry going on a few or our forward lines and we have great puck support. And the goaltending has been solid with [James] Reimer. The kid's been real solid.''

Veteran Jean Sebastien Giguere is close to returning, which will lead to a tough decision for head coach Ron Wilson with Jonas Gustavsson also in the fold. Meanwhile, Burke and right-hand man Dave Nonis have been working the phones hard the last few weeks trying to see if there's a trade out there that makes sense. A four-game win streak has chased away the vultures for now. Suddenly, some players on your roster look a bit more appealing to other teams when they're playing well.

"It improves the quality of your offers," Burke said. "When you're struggling, you get a lot of calls and get offers that don't make a lot of sense. But we're looking to add; we’re not looking to dump."

In other words, he's not looking for draft picks in any trade he makes before Feb. 28. The Leafs want good, young players in return.

Burnside: The good thing, optically, for the Leafs is that their strong play of late has separated them from the teams that will be involved in the draft lottery. They are just one point out of 10th place, and so the possibility that the Bruins could take a second lottery pick from the Leafs as part of the Phil Kessel deal seems remote at this point. On another point, a league source confirmed to you this morning that the Leafs would indeed be fined after head coach Ron Wilson put a cash "bonus" on the board prior to the Leafs win in San Jose (where Wilson used to coach). Seems like a small, petty thing but rules are rules. Since the bounty, which was reportedly to have gone to a team dinner (Wouldn't a team charity have been a better idea? Just asking.), is technically a contravention of the collective bargaining agreement; the Leafs will get a slap on the wrist. Could have been worse. They could have tried to sign Ilya Kovalchuk. But seriously, it will be interesting to see how Burke handles his roster moving forward. Do guys such as Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, who rank second and first in team scoring respectively, represent the kind of assets that could yield building blocks moving forward, or do they represent the building blocks themselves? Not sure even Burke knows the answers right now.

LeBrun: One would think the league had better things to do than to worry about Wilson's money on the board for his 600th coaching victory, but on the other hand an NHL team executive told me this morning he figures the league is trying to make an example out of the Leafs so that other coaches don't do this again. Brent Sutter did it this last March in Calgary against his old team, New Jersey, and I don't think he and Wilson have been the only coaches to do it.

As for the Leafs' possible trades, other names to keep in mind are Kris Versteeg and Francois Beauchemin. Really, there aren't too many untouchables on the roster.

I understand you're going on vacation, my friend; well-deserved. We'll talk next week when you return.

Los Angeles Kings fans need some good news these days, so I'm here to deliver some.

I'm told the team is on the verge of signing blueliner Jack Johnson to a multiyear extension, a deal that could be announced as early as Sunday or Monday. Look for the deal to be six or seven years in length and worth between $4 million and $4.5 million per year.

[UPDATE: Later on Saturday night, the Kings announced they signed Johnson to a seven-year deal that will carry into the 2017-18 season. The team did not officially disclose financial terms.]

Meanwhile, Kings fans keep wondering what their team will do on the trade front. I mentioned before this season that Patrik Elias is a player they've coveted; but I'm told the veteran, skilled winger will not waive his no-movement clause at this point, so he appears to be off the list.

Calgary Flames interim GM Jay Feaster has also said he will not trade Jarome Iginla. Check another name off Los Angeles' list. Brad Richards? I can't see the Dallas Stars moving him (see more on him below); the acquisition of Jamie Langenbrunner sends a message they're going for it this season. Check another one off L.A.'s list.

But there is still time before the Feb. 28 trade deadline, and the key is to watch which teams believe they're no longer in the playoff race seven weeks from now and which players they're willing to introduce to the market. But it may just be that the big-name, top-line winger the Kings yearn for just isn't available before Feb. 28.

Panthers and Vokoun

It's been assumed for so long the Florida Panthers would auction off star goalie Tomas Vokoun by the trade deadline. While that is still a possibility, you might be surprised to know GM Dale Tallon has also reached out to the Czech native's agent to talk about a contract extension.

"It's preliminary at this point, just trying to get a feel for it. We'd like to sign him at the right number," Tallon told ESPN.com on Saturday.

"We've had some discussions with Florida, they're ongoing, and we'll see what happens," Vokoun's agent Michael Deutsch told us Saturday.

Vokoun is earning $6.3 million this season (a $5.7 million cap number), and I suspect the Panthers would like to get him at a cheaper price. If contract talks fail to produce an extension, he could be moved before Feb. 28.

Stars and Richards

So, what now for the Dallas Stars? Well, the Brad Richards situation looms large. The team has not yet made a contract offer to their leading scorer and pending unrestricted free agent, but I'm told they will approach his veteran agent, Pat Morris of Newport Sports, at some point in the near future and begin the feeling-out process.

Next to leave New Jersey?

Jason Arnott is the next big name to possibly move out of New Jersey because he's the only real UFA of note left on the roster (Andy Greene is the team's other UFA). Arnott is in total charge of his situation thanks to a no-movement clause. Arnott is a competitive player who wants to win badly, so a move to a contender will likely be welcomed on his part.

W-NHL?

The NHL has retained the services for former WNBA president Val Ackerman as a consultant. She's had a few meetings with the NHL so far as the league continues to explore the merits of possibly launching a women's pro league at some point. I love the idea. Girls hockey has exploded over the past decade, especially in Canada. Let's give girls something to aspire to in terms of a pro career. There are a couple of pro leagues out there, but a new league under the NHL umbrella would legitimize the women's game like never before. Will it happen? Too early to tell.

More updates ...

• Several teams have kicked the tires on Maple Leafs defenseman Francois Beauchemin, but Toronto has not received any concrete trade offers. Beauchemin's limited no-trade clause called for him to hand the Leafs a preseason list of 12 teams he'd be willing to go to, which he did.

• I had a rival team executive tell me Saturday he believed winger Mason Raymond might be on the market in order for Vancouver to alleviate its cap issues, but a Canucks source said that was totally false and Raymond wasn't going anywhere.

• Despite all the injuries in Detroit (top-four defenseman Brad Stuart being the latest, out 6-8 weeks with broken jaw), Wings GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com on Saturday that Detroit wasn't planning on shopping for help and hoped the answer would come from within.

• Contracts talks between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Steven Stamkos' agent Don Meehan are slated to resume at the end of the month.

• Defenseman Mike Commodore, who requested a trade and then cleared NHL waivers, left the Blue Jackets from their road trip Saturday and returned to Columbus to await his fate.

"We are trying to work out a trade for Mike over the next few days," Jackets GM Scott Howson told ESPN.com via text Saturday. "Failing that, he will be assigned to the AHL."

Commodore is signed through 2012-13 with a $3.75 million cap hit.

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