Cross Checks: Washington Capitals

AT A GLANCE: The Rangers, who won Game 3 on Monday, have a chance to even their first-round series against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

With Marc Staal adding a big boost to their back end, the Rangers were able to keep Alex Ovechkin off the score sheet in Game 3. But the dynamic No. 8 will likely have a better chance to get involved Wednesday, assuming the Caps stay out of the penalty box. The Rangers took advantage of six power plays Monday night, converting on one and cashing in right at the expiration of another to edge the Caps 4-3.

The game starts at 7:30 p.m. Here is what to watch for:

FRESH LEGS: While the Rangers practiced Tuesday, Capitals coach Adam Oates opted to give his team a day off to rest, recover and regroup before Game 4. The result? A pretty business-like morning skate at MSG on Wednesday. "Guys were feeling pretty focused," said Caps defenseman Karl Alzner.

CLOWE POSSIBLE: Yet to make his postseason debut with the Rangers, gritty forward Ryane Clowe said Wednesday there is a "good chance" he will return for Game 4. Clowe, who has been sidelined since suffering an apparent head injury in the final week of the regular season, has been skating with the team since last week. The 30-year-old winger, who was acquired from San Jose before the trade deadline in April, adds size and experience to the team's roster. Clowe, who played for the Sharks from 2006-13, has 68 playoff games under his belt.

PENALTY PARADE: You can guarantee that discipline will be a main point of the Capitals' emphasis heading into Game 4. Washington took six penalties within the first 27 minutes of Game 3, essentially negating any and all momentum. Alzner said the Caps will try to stay out of the box while trying to get a gauge on the officiating as the game progresses.

"If they're gonna call it tight, we have to be careful," he said. "If they're gonna let us play, we have to take advantage of that."

POWE OUT: Rangers forward Darroll Powe is not expected to play Wednesday after leaving Game 3 with an injury that appeared to be a possible concussion. Powe laid a hard hit on Washington's Joel Ward but caught an elbow to the head upon contact, leaving him woozy as he left the ice. He did not return to the game and did not practice with the team Tuesday.

NOT QUITE YET: Veteran Capitals forward Brooks Laich skated with the team for the first time since undergoing sports-hernia surgery before the playoffs began. Oates said Laich is still "a ways away" from returning, however.

Considering Laich was hampered with a nagging groin injury that limited him to just nine games this season, the Caps want to exercise caution with him. "Obviously, we've set ourselves back a couple of times," Oates said. "We don't want that to happen again, so we're conscious of that."

WASHINGTON -- With the playoffs underway and the subterfuge already in full swing, injured Rangers forward Brian Boyle revealed very little after skating with the team Thursday for the first time since suffering a lower-body injury April 16.

Boyle seemed encouraged by the morning's skate but didn't offer up much more regarding his potential return to the lineup.

"I felt good," he said.

Any idea of a timeline?

"I felt good," he answered. "It was positive."

Boyle did concede, sort of, that he is hopeful to return to the lineup at some point during this series vs. Washington.

"Playoffs. I want to be out there as quick as I can. It felt good, so that's all I really know," he said. "I don't have any idea how it's supposed to work. I'm trying to feel as good as I can as fast as I can."

Boyle was similarly noncommittal when asked whether he would require medical clearance before he can resume playing.

"We've got a whole staff of medical guys," Boyle said. "Again, I'm not a doctor."

Boyle also declined to answer whether he has skated prior to Thursday on his own.

• • •

Injured defenseman Marc Staal was a bit more forthcoming about his progress; Staal has not played since being struck in the eye with a puck on March 5.

The 26-year-old said he doesn't want to risk coming back until he is confident he can make a positive impact, especially considering the heightened pressure this time of year.

"When I feel like I'm going to be able to help the team win and be successful, I'll get back on the ice," Staal said. "Hopefully that's sooner rather than later."

How will he know?

"As soon as I'm not second-guessing myself or hesitating, or [once] I do things I normally do becomes automatic again is when I can jump into a playoff-type game," Staal said.

Staal praised the work of the Rangers' defensive corps in his absence and said he doesn't want to "compromise" that by returning prematurely. He admitted that the situation might be different if this was a regular-season scenario, but that it makes no sense to take the risk with critical playoff games on the line.

"If it were Game 10 maybe I'd jump out there for a few shifts," he said. "But right now the stakes are too high."

• • •
Derek Dorsett (collarbone) skated with the team in a white non-contact jersey. Ryane Clowe (believed to be concussion) made the trip to D.C. with the team but did not skate.

Derek Stepan at top of his game

April, 30, 2013

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- There were times during the first half of this season that Rangers coach John Tortorella wondered if Derek Stepan was fit to handle the responsibilities of the team's second-line center.


The 22-year-old pivot is the unequivocal choice to center the team's top line between speedy winger Carl Hagelin and captain Ryan Callahan.

"He's a 22-year-old guy that I use in every freaking situation," Tortorella said of Stepan. "He has proven to all of us that he has taken a huge step this year."

[+] EnlargeDerek Stepan
Icon/SMIDerek Stepan delivered eight goals and 11 assists during a big April.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was voted the team's MVP of the regular season, but among forwards, Stepan has been the team's most dynamic and consistent performer.

The Rangers, and Stepan, hope that continues once the playoffs begin with a first-round matchup against the Capitals on Thursday.

"That's what we'd like to do, obviously," Stepan said. "The way we're playing as a team, we'd like to carry that over. As a team, we've gotten better. You can just see it. We control games more."

In his third year as a pro, Stepan finished the regular season strong with eight goals (including three game-winners), 19 points and a plus-14 rating in the month of April, good enough to earn him accolades as the NHL's third star.

The Rangers will need him to sustain a high level of production if they are to contend with a supremely talented cast of offensive players for the Capitals in Round 1 of the playoffs.

"I am totally confident that he's going to be able to handle the things going into this playoff series," Tortorella said.

Stepan finished with one goal and nine points in 20 playoff games for the Rangers last spring. He recorded four assists in the team's second-round series against the Capitals.

But this year he plays a decidedly more important role as the catalyst to the team's offense, which heads into the postseason with an improved 2.62 goals per game (15th, NHL) following a stretch in which the Rangers were ranked dead last.

Beyond his versatility -- Stepan kills penalties and plays up front on the team's first power-play unit -- his greatest asset may be that he makes those around him better.

Linemate Ryan Callahan is riding a seven-game points streak (five goals, six assists) heading into the playoffs, while Rick Nash (now on a line with Mats Zuccarello and Brad Richards) played some of his best hockey to date while flanking Stepan on the right.

"I definitely had a good month. I felt good going into games. I was playing with a good confidence level," Stepan said. "Whoever I was playing with, I seem to develop chemistry with quick and those guys seemed to help quite a bit wherever I was. When you build chemistry like that it, helps your game."

Despite his youth, Stepan is practically a grizzled vet in the sense that he is preparing to face the Capitals for the third consecutive postseason.

He'll draw upon that experience but he knows that, once playoffs come, it's hard to know what to expect.

"You've been through it now and you get that aspect of it, but every playoffs is gonna be new and it's gonna be exciting," Stepan said. "It's gonna have a different feel to it."

Nyet on the NHL in Russia next fall.

The NHL is no longer planning to have regular-season games in Russia as part of the Premiere Games, the league's deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, confirmed to

Yahoo! Sports reported Wednesday that plans to have the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers open the 2010-11 regular season in Russia have fallen through after failed negotiations between the KHL and NHL.

"We explored the possibility of bringing games to Russia next fall, but ultimately were unable to agree on the terms pursuant to which we could make that work," Daly told via email.

We first reported in our Cross Checks blog in January that the NHL had asked the Capitals, Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres to consider opening next season overseas as part of the Premiere Games, including the possibility of games in Russia for the first time. A source told on Thursday that not all of those six teams remain in the mix at this point, but the league still plans on having the Premiere Games in other parts of Europe. Details are still to being worked out.

The NHL has opened overseas with regular-season games dating back to the Kings and Duck playing in London, England, in the fall of 2007.

Caps-Pens rematch? One can only hope

February, 21, 2011

PITTSBURGH -- To bemoan the loss of Sidney Crosby when it comes to watching the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals is understandable, yet it underestimates the fierceness of the rivalry that exists between two of the NHL's marquee teams.

For the second time since David Steckel's controversial Winter Classic hit either caused or was a contributing factor in Crosby's concussion, the two teams met. And for the second time, the game was both intense and dynamic.

Different without Crosby? That goes without saying, just as it goes without saying the game in general is diminished by his continued and prolonged absence.

That said, Monday's 1-0 Washington victory was compelling nonetheless.

When we watched Alex Ovechkin stymied by a deft blocker move by Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury on a first-period breakaway, we couldn't help but think of Game 7 during the first playoff clash between these two rivals in 2009.

Ovechkin was denied on a similar breakaway early in Game 7 and the Pens went on to rout the home team and eventually won their first Stanley Cup championship since 1992.

That series might have been the high-water mark since the lockout both in terms of buzz surrounding the series and the actual competition on the ice.

And the moment the Penguins skated off the ice with a 6-2 win in Game 7, was there anyone in the game who did not wonder when it would happen again?

[+] EnlargeMichal Neuvirth, Jordan Staal
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesMichal Neuvirth made 39 saves on Monday to shut out Jordan Staal and the Penguins.

Well, we know there's a lot of hockey yet to be played this season, but not so much that you can't look at the standings and predict the likelihood of a first-round Pittsburgh/Washington matchup.

The Capitals trail Tampa for first place in the Southeast Division by a point, but the Bolts have two games in hand.

Pittsburgh is pretty much locked into second place in the Atlantic Division behind Philadelphia, which would suggest either the fourth or fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

"That could be a playoff matchup," Washington's Mike Knuble offered after Monday's game. "It's always competitive. They're fun hockey games."

Standing nearby was center Nicklas Backstrom, his left hand still smarting from a Kris Letang slash.

"I think everybody wants that matchup," he said. "There's so much emotion."

If the past two games played by these two teams are any indication, Crosby or no Crosby, a Part Deux this April would be dynamite.

Both teams are trying to put last season's disappointing playoff turns behind them.

The Caps, of course, were humbled by eighth seed Montreal in the first round, while the Penguins, wearied from two straight trips to the Cup finals, were shocked by the Canadiens in the second round.

Of course, the Capitals would relish a chance to avenge the 2009 playoff loss, but there would also be the added dynamic of the dramatic shift in how both teams approach the game.

A season ago, the Caps were running away with the Eastern Conference by outscoring teams by wide margins. Now, they grind out games and their defense, once the object of ridicule, ranks sixth in the NHL in goals allowed. Their penalty-killing unit is ranked fifth.

The Pens, meanwhile, have peeled back their flashy outer skin in the absence of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, gone with a knee injury for the balance of the season, to reveal a dedicated, hard-working team that ranks fifth in goals allowed per game and has the top-ranked penalty-killing unit in the NHL.

Bemoan the absence of offensive fireworks a new playoff matchup might represent, especially if Crosby is unable to return, but relish the chance to watch these two remade teams tangle in what we can only imagine would be another long series.

With both teams coming off road games Sunday afternoon, they combined for 63 shots but just one goal Monday night.

Ovechkin, after missing the early breakaway, ripped a high shot from the point on a power play to provide the only goal the Caps would need.

It was just Ovechkin's fifth power-play goal of the season, but Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said his star forward is starting to shoot the puck in a way he hadn't for the first half of the regular season. He was also blocking shots and bumping into Penguins bodies all night.

"He's been playing like that for the last two weeks and being a real leader," Boudreau said.

Both netminders, Fleury and Michal Neuvirth, were outstanding in the final regular-season meeting between these two rivals.

Brett Sterling, the AHL call-up who has moved into a top-line role because of the Pens' lengthy injury list, hit a goalpost early in the third period.

Jordan Staal, who played after taking a big Letang slap shot to the head late in Sunday's shootout loss to Chicago, was denied on a short-handed breakaway.

Washington's Matt Bradley delivered a big hit on Matt Cooke and ended up fighting Ryan Craig.

Washington defenseman John Carlson made a terrific defensive play to break up a Max Talbot breakaway.

On it went.

"Two tired teams," Knuble noted after.

But not too tired to put on a terrific show.

Just as we might imagine come mid-April.

"There might be only 12 guys for each team ready to play the next series," Boudreau mused about the possibility.

He might be right. And here's hoping we find out.

Watch: Alex Ovechkin's hit on P.K. Subban

February, 2, 2011

Check out Alex Ovechkin's hit on P.K. Subban from the Canadiens' 3-2 shootout win over the Capitals on Tuesday night (courtesy of

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 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.

What to watch for Tuesday night

February, 1, 2011

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.

Contender/Pretender: Capitals, Hawks, more

February, 1, 2011
As the season heads into the final stretch tonight, our experts (Scott Burnside, E.J. Hradek and Pierre LeBrun) separate a few of the contenders from the pretenders:

Atlantic Division: New York Rangers

Burnside: Pretender
The Rangers will be looking to find more consistency through the final third of the season. They are just 5-5-0 in their past 10 games and will need to string some wins together if they're going to fend off Carolina (or perhaps Buffalo) down the stretch. That said, coach John Tortorella has somehow managed to keep his team afloat through injuries to top personnel such as Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Erik Christensen, Ruslan Fedotenko and Vaclav Prospal.

The Rangers can expect to get Callahan back this week; Prospal, who has yet to play a game this season while recovering from a knee injury, may return, as well. Tortorella will have to hope it helps jump-start the enigmatic Marian Gaborik, whose production is well off last season's pace. In the end, we don't see the Rangers falling much further than seventh (they were sixth as of Monday). Come playoff time, this is the kind of team that could give a higher seed such as Boston all kinds of problems. Still, without a top center and an inexperienced blue line, we don't see this Rangers squad as a contender. Not yet, anyway.

Hradek: Pretender
I think the Rangers are moving in the right direction. They are a young, hard-working group that competes hard in all three zones. Plus, they have a top stopper, Henrik Lundqvist, who will keep them in just about every game. At this point, I see them more as a sleeper that will give an opponent a tough time. I just don't think they have enough to be considered a true contender ... yet. But they're getting there.

LeBrun: Pretender
Contenders for a playoff spot, but pretenders for the Stanley Cup. Ranked fifth in the NHL in goals against per game, the Rangers' work ethic and commitment to defense suggests a team that won't slip-slide away in the home stretch. But a Stanley Cup championship is out of reach this season because goals are too hard to come by without a bona fide No. 1 center.

Northeast Division: Montreal Canadiens

Burnside: Pretender
The Canadiens hit the post-All-Star run in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. We don't see them challenging for the top spot in the Northeast, as they have for most of the season (they are four points back of Boston), but we also don't see them falling completely out of the playoff picture.

Terrific team defense (they rank sixth in goals allowed per game and on the penalty kill) should keep them in the top eight. The Habs play six of eight at home coming out of the break and are dynamite at the Bell Centre. On the road, though, they will have to play better (their 11 road wins are tied for the fewest among the current East playoff teams). As for the postseason, we don't think this team has another Cinderella run in it. Look for the Habs to be cannon fodder for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

Hradek: Pretender
After their surprising playoff run last spring, it's tough to slap the pretender label on them. They are a well-coached, veteran group. Still, I'm just not sold the Habs will have the same kind of good fortune this time around.

LeBrun: Pretender
Like the Rangers, the Habs are contenders for a playoff spot, but pretenders for the Cup. Carey Price has been a rock in goal, but the losses of Josh Gorges and Andrei Markov on defense have been harmful. If the Canadiens want to have any chance of repeating last spring's magical run, GM Pierre Gauthier needs to get on the horn to try to land Chris Phillips or Tomas Kaberle. We don't see a long playoff run this season.

Southeast Division: Washington Capitals

Burnside: Contender
A lot of discussion about the Caps' lack of scoring punch. Alex Ovechkin has only two power-play goals (he had 13, 19 and 22 power-play goals the past three seasons, respectively) and Alexander Semin disappeared from the score sheet before being knocked out with a groin muscle injury. The streaky Semin should return with his brand-new contract in hand, and his production will be key down the stretch and into the playoffs if the Caps are going to erase last season's disappointing first-round exit against Montreal.

Still, this is a very different Caps team than a year ago. It is harder to play against, ranking seventh in goals allowed per game and second on the penalty kill. It is on pace for one of its best defensive seasons, and we think it will overtake Tampa Bay for the Southeast Division crown, which will be key in avoiding Philadelphia or Pittsburgh in the first round.

Hradek: Contender
There's a lot of talent in D.C. I think we all know that. I get the sense the Caps are stalled right now; something seems to be missing. I'll be interested to see if GM George McPhee makes a move or two before the Feb. 28 trade deadline. While they're still seeking just the right mix, I see them as a contender.

LeBrun: Contender
Well, of course they are. But they've got their fans more than worried. Last season's top-scoring team is 17th in goals per game. Shocking, quite frankly. Yes, it has improved defensively, but this team was built to score goals. A playoff berth is a given, but can the Caps finally break through? The hope is their new-found defensive game will pay dividends come playoff time.

Central Division: Chicago Blackhawks

Burnside: Contender
At the beginning of the season, we picked the Blackhawks to return to the Stanley Cup finals. Yes, there has been a dramatic lineup overhaul since June's magical Cup run. Don't care. Look for Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to return to dominant form down the stretch. Corey Crawford has inspired confidence, as he has usurped veteran Marty Turco as the go-to guy in the Hawks' net. Marian Hossa has been hampered by injury but should be back to elite status by the playoffs.

Critics suggest the loss of players such as Dustin Byfuglien, who is having a Norris-worthy season in Atlanta, and Andrew Ladd will be felt keenly in the playoffs, and that may be true. But we think players such as Dave Bolland, who was so dynamic during the playoffs last season; rookie Bryan Bickell; and Troy Brouwer will answer the challenge. The Hawks may not enjoy home-ice advantage to start the playoffs, but we don't think many teams will relish facing the defending Cup champs come mid-April.

Hradek: Contender
The problem is simple for the defending champs: You can't defend your title if you don't make the playoffs. With 20 of their final 32 games on the road, the Hawks aren't a cinch to earn a spot. If they get there, however, I don't think anyone will be eager to face them in the first round. That means they're still a contender.

LeBrun: Contender
We just can't bring ourselves to believe the Cup champs will miss the playoffs. Yes, half the team is gone from last season, but the core remains strong. If GM Stan Bowman can add a piece on defense before the trade deadline, the Hawks will be a scary lower seed come playoff time. One note of concern: They're relying on rookie goalie Crawford. Then again, Antti Niemi was wet behind the ears last season and that seemed to work out just fine.

Northwest Division: Vancouver Canucks

Burnside: Pretender
The Canucks are the sexy pick to advance to the Stanley Cup finals, and there are many who think the Cup will come home to Canada for the first time since 1993. We're not those folks. Yes, goalie Roberto Luongo has been very good for the most part and the offense is intimidating, especially with Ryan Kesler having a breakout season with 27 goals, but the loss of Alexander Edler on the blue line is a big loss. Suddenly, a team that had a glut of defensemen is now looking more vulnerable.

Sami Salo should return from injury, but he is injury-prone, to say the least. The Canucks should get out of the first round (unless they face arch-nemesis Chicago), but we're still not sure Luongo has the internal fortitude to get the Canucks much farther.

Hradek: Contender
Coach Alain Vigneault's team clearly is a contender. They are well-stocked up the middle with centers Henrik Sedin, Kesler and Manny Malhotra, respectively. Can they get it done in the spring? Can Luongo take the Canucks where they want to go? Those are the big questions. We'll see if they have the answers.

LeBrun: Contender
Big-time contenders for the Cup. This is their time; their window is now. Sedin and Kesler are a strong 1-2 punch at center. Luongo is looking dynamite so far this season, but he won't silence his critics without a long playoff run. The injury to Edler is significant because he played a ton of minutes in all situations and is not replaceable.

Pacific Division: San Jose Sharks

Burnside: Pretender
After supposedly getting the playoff monkey off their backs last spring by advancing to the Western Conference finals, the Sharks have struggled through an up-and-down season that has seen them flirt with the idea of missing the playoffs altogether. We don't think that's going to happen, but we don't see the Sharks being the kind of team that can simply turn on the playoff switch and take its game to another level.

Yes, Niemi won a Cup with the Hawks last season, but he doesn't inspire much confidence for us. Then, there is the annual question of whether players such as Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley can elevate their games when it matters. History suggests they can't, and in the end it wouldn't surprise us one bit if the Sharks were one-and-done come April. That's assuming they don't fall out of the playoff picture altogether.

Hradek: Pretender
After terrific puck-mover Dan Boyle, the Sharks aren't mobile on defense. That means they get stuck in their own zone too often. That's not good. I think this group might have hit its peak by going to the conference finals last spring.

LeBrun: Pretender
The Sharks need help on defense. Rob Blake retired and was never replaced. Having said that, one interesting dynamic for the Sharks this season is they're not in first place and will go into the playoffs (if they make it) under the radar. Having the spotlight removed might make them a dangerous opponent. Cup contenders? That's a stretch at this point, but not totally out of the question.

Pacific Division: Los Angeles Kings

Burnside: Pretender
After making the playoffs last spring and challenging the Canucks in the first round (they lost in six entertaining games), the Kings seemed positioned to join the big boys at the top of the conference standings. Hasn't happened. The Kings have gone through long stretches of dispirited play and hit the All-Star break outside the playoff bubble in 11th place, one point out of eighth.

GM Dean Lombardi has had to publicly defend coach Terry Murray and shelled out $50,000 after complaining about NHL replay officials. The Kings have all kinds of cap room and assets, but we don't know if there's an impact player that will be available to move the Kings forward. We must admit, this lineup looks like it has it all -- gritty veterans, Stanley Cup experience, dynamic young players along the blue line and up front -- and yet, something seems to be missing.

Hradek: Contender. Murray's team is riding a roller coaster this season. The highs have been high and the lows have been low. I can't label it a pretender, though. The Kings have a legit No. 1 center, nice balance on defense and a pair of good young goalies. Right now, it's hard to predict which way they'll go this season. If they get into the playoffs, they could make a long run. They're contenders because they have the right mix. Lombardi is also positioned to add a significant piece if one becomes available before the trade deadline.

LeBrun: Pretender
They began the season as Cup contenders, but right now I don't think they are. Contender for a playoff spot? You bet. Los Angeles is missing a high-end piece up front. Not enough creativity offensively. Let's see what Lombardi does before Feb. 28 to help his team. The Kings entered the break on a five-game winning streak and seemingly have turned their season around. But Cup contender? Not so sure anymore.

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. -- Zdeno Chara once again proved his domination, setting a record with the hardest slap shot (105.9 mph) at Saturday's SuperSkills competition. It was the fourth straight time Chara has won the event.

Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang just shook his head at the feat.

"Scary," he said. "Scary because I'm going to play against him a few more games this year."

The highlight for Letang, who ended up shooting on teammate Marc-Andre Fleury?

"Just being here," he said. "It's fun, it's an experience. Obviously, it's not a competition anyone wants to get hurt here, so just to be here having fun with the guys."

[+] EnlargeZdeno Chara
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesZdeno Chara set a SuperSkills record in the hardest shot competition, clocking in at 105.9 mph.

Was he disappointed at the lopsided Skills competition score?

"Honestly, I just want to have fun," said Letang, whose Team Staal squad pounded Team Lidstrom 33-22.

Shea Weber wasn't able to dethrone Chara, finishing second with a good showing nonetheless.

"We were having a blast," said Weber. "We're both competitors out there and he's got a great shot. He holds the record for a reason; he's a big man and he can really let it rip."

Weber hit triple digits and the crowd loved it.

"You surprise yourself," said Weber, who shot a puck through the net at the 2010 Olympics. "A couple of years ago in Montreal [at the 2009 All-Star Game] was the first time I timed my shot since I was a little kid. Just to see it go up there and see how hard it is was pretty crazy."

Weber hadn't checked his cell phone yet after the event, but he knew what would be waiting for him.

"I'm sure my teammates will be ripping me," said Weber. "There will be a few positives after the first round, but they were probably ripping me after the final."

No All-Star texts for Alex

Although Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin won the breakaway challenge, he admitted he liked Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban's effort, but would have voted for Anaheim's Corey Perry if he had a chance to vote.

When it was suggested the players should have been given phones, so they could text their votes, Ovechkin explained he could have since he never parts with his cell.

Said Ovechkin: "Well I have my cell phone all the time with me, but I don't want to spend the 50 cents, you know what I mean?"

Subban's jersey swap

It's been interesting to watch just how big a deal Carolina rookie Jeff Skinner is in Raleigh. Subban wore a Skinner jersey in the breakaway competition, much to the crowd's delight.

Subban said the idea for his jersey switch came from San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle.

"Dan Boyle was just like, 'Hey man, you need an idea,"' said Subban. "I was just like, 'That's a pretty good idea. I think the crowd would like that.' So I threw it on and they liked it -- that's what it's all about."

Skinner wasn't sure what to make of the old switcheroo.

"I didn't know [what he was doing]," Skinner said. "Five seconds before he shot, he just came up to me and said 'I need your jersey.' I just took it off. He put on a good show."

Fans in Montreal might have taken a dim view of Subban's move, but he's not in any hurry to trade in the fabled Montreal colors.

"To be honest with you, I'm more comfortable in my jersey," said Subban. "That jersey was snug and there was a little too much black in it. I prefer the bleu, blanc et rouge, you know what I mean?"

Among Skinner's Team Staal teammates was San Jose's Logan Couture, who looks to be in a neck-and-neck race with the Carolina rookie for this season's Calder Trophy.

"If this was in San Jose, I'm sure it would be the same for me, but I love how they support him. He's a great player, very gifted," Couture said. "Eighteen years old to be doing what he's doing this year is spectacular. He's a great kid, too. This is my first time of really getting to know him and be around him. He doesn't say much, but he's a great kid. He's always got a big smile on his face."

Couture said a number of players complimented him on his strong first NHL season.

"A lot of these guys have come up to me and said. 'You're having a great year, you're playing really well,' and it means a lot to me to hear it from these guys. These guys do it year in and year out," Couture said. "A couple of coaches tonight said that to me as well, so it's a great honor to hear that, it definitely means a lot to me."

Fleury on fire

Fleury was dynamite in the shootout event. We asked him if he was swearing at his shooters like he did with his teammates during shootout drills in HBO's "24/7".

"I'm not as comfortable with the guys here like I am back home in Pittsburgh,'' said Fleury. "I gave it a bit to Tanger [Letang] when I stopped him, but I was mad against myself for Perry on the last goal. I moved too fast. I said a few bad words after that."

Why the success in the shootout?

"I have some good teammates shooting on me at home," said Fleury. "I guess practicing against them helped me out."

Stammer versus Marty

Lightning linemates Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis faced off in the fastest skater competition and the kid beat the veteran.

"I didn't even know what I was doing when I got to the dressing room today, so we didn't have time to have a side bet," said Stamkos. "He let me know that I beat him and that I have 15 years on him and that he said he had a bad start. We might have to have a rematch back home."

Stamkos also took honors for hardest shot among forwards.

"I'll take pride in that," said Stamkos, the NHL goals leader. "I was a little nervous after the first one, only 95 [mph], but I beared down. It was nice getting over 100."

Watch: Alex Ovechkin's bizarre turn in hardest shot

January, 29, 2011

A few quick clips from Saturday night's SuperSkills competition (source:

Alex Ovechkin's turn in the hardest shot competition takes a bizarro turn:

The newest edition to the skills event ... the Skills Challenge Relay!

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Patrick Kane's face reddened when he realized the cat was out of the bag.

"The flight was at 8:45 [a.m.] and I woke up at like 8:50," Kane said when asked by "I was just thinking 'Is there any way I can make this flight?' I was pretty pissed. I chucked my phone against the wall. It was on silent."

Blackhawks teammate Patrick Sharp didn't miss a beat when asked about it Friday night.

"We'll have to address that when we get back to Chicago," Sharp said with a chuckle. "But it doesn't surprise me. Everyone else is out of town and he was all by himself. I wasn't there to babysit him."

[+] EnlargeAlex Ovechkin
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDoh! Alex Ovechkin and Caps teammate Mike Green missed their initial flight to Raleigh, but made it in time for the festivities.


"He would throw me under the bus like that," Kane said of Sharp's comment. "Well, I've got some power on him tonight. Since you told me that, he won't be hearing his name called. I'm going to make sure we don't draft him."

Kane didn't pick his teammate before Team Staal nabbed Sharp with the 15th overall pick in Friday's All-Star draft. Kane, working as an associate captain with Team Lidstrom, helped select other mates Duncan Keith (fourth overall) and Jonathan Toews (16th).

To be fair, Kane got on a flight and was not late for any All-Star events.

"Hey, I'm here, I'm on my time," said Kane. "So you can't really hold anything against me."

He may be late, but Kane was pumped about the All-Star weekend.

"It's going to be a blast, just the whole weekend," Kane said. "It's a fun event. I know some players get away from the game during the All-Star break, just kind of do some different things, but there's nowhere you'd rather be than here."

Kane wasn't the only NHLer to miss their flights to Raleigh. You can add Washington stars Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green to the list.

"We were in a bar [at the airport]," Ovechkin said during the draft telecast.

Oh my!

Ovechkin was nonetheless happy to return to Raleigh.

"I think Carolina [is] a good city for me," said Ovechkin. "I was drafted here, No. 1."

While most star players in the NHL these days are opting for as much term as possible, Alexander Semin again bucked the trend Thursday by signing a one-year deal for the second year in a row.

In December 2009, he signed a one-year, $6 million extension for this season. This time, it was a one-year, $6.7 million deal for 2011-12.

Alexander Semin
AP Photo/Nick WassAlexander Semin hasn't played since Jan. 8 because of a groin injury.

What gives with the one-year deals?

"We prefer to see how business is going to be conducted going forward in the new CBA," Semin's agent, Todd Diamond, told on Thursday. "To sign a long-term deal without knowing what's in store long-term with the CBA didn't make sense to us."

Here's one reason I think the move has some merit: What if the next CBA comes with a salary rollback, like the last one? I'm not saying there will be a rollback (last time, it was 24 percent), but if there is, Semin will be able to sign his next deal without a rollback. Just saying.

Either way, the one-year deal is fine with the Caps.

"It's what the player wanted," Caps GM George McPhee told us Thursday. "He's comfortable doing one-year deals. That's fine with me. I don't mind not doing a long-term deal. There's obviously risk in doing a long-term deal and we have a couple. I sure don't mind doing a one-year deal. He can do a one-year deal for the next 10 years if he wants."

Perhaps just as notable is the deal again does not include a no-trade or no-movement clause. Only Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were given those by McPhee. My Twitter feed was filled with Caps fans wondering whether the absence of a NTC or NMC was a sign that McPhee would look to trade Semin.

"That's not the intent," McPhee said. "We just don't have a lot [of NTCs or NMCs] on our team. We did two with Ovechkin and Backstrom. We haven't done them historically and we're not about to start doing them."

And finally, I wonder how much the fact the NHL has asked the Caps to open the regular season in Russia next season played in Semin's decision. He'd certainly hate to miss the trip if it actually happens. He and Ovechkin would love the chance to play a regular-season NHL game at home.

"Obviously, they both spend the majority of their summers back in Russia and always play for the national team when they can," Diamond said. "I think it would be exciting for everyone in Russia."

What to watch for Wednesday night

January, 26, 2011

Florida Panthers (22-21-5) at Boston Bruins (27-15-7), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 3-0 Boston
Starting goaltenders: Scott Clemmensen 5-5-2, 2.43 GAA) vs. Tim Thomas (23-5-6, 1.84 GAA)
Preview: Tim Thomas has dominated the Southeast Division, going 10-1-1 with a 1.72 GAA and .949 save percentage in 13 starts against the Southeast this season. The Bruins are looking to complete a sweep of the Panthers after being shut out by the Kings on Monday.

Carolina Hurricanes (24-19-6) at New York Islanders (15-26-7), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 1-0 Carolina
Starting goaltenders: Cam Ward (21-15-5, 2.71 GAA) vs. Rick DiPietro (7-8-4, 3.39 GAA)
Preview: The Hurricanes are hoping for another happy trip to Long Island. Over the last five seasons, Carolina has the second-best record of any team on the road against the Islanders of teams that have played at least five games there. Look for Jeff Skinner to lead the Canes as the rookie has more goals in January than any other NHL player.

Washington Capitals (27-14-9) at Atlanta Thrashers (23-19-9), 7 p.m. ET

Season series: 3-2 Atlanta
Starting goaltenders: Semyon Varlamov (8-6-3, 2.22 GAA) vs. Ondrej Pavelec (16-12-7, 2.51 GAA)
Preview: The Capitals have scored more than three goals in a game just once since Dec. 22. And, the Thrashers have allowed more than three goals in a game seven times over that stretch, so a trip to Atlanta could be just what heals Washington's power play ails. Alex Ovechkin has scored 30 career goals against the Thrashers, tied for the most by any player against Atlanta.

New Jersey Devils (16-29-3) at Detroit Red Wings (29-13-6), 7:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 1-0 Detroit
Starting goaltenders: Martin Brodeur (10-18-2, 2.84 GAA) vs. Jimmy Howard (23-8-3, 2.86 GAA)
Preview: The Devils may have the worst record in the NHL, but they are playing their best hockey of late. They have won four straight and have earned a point in seven straight (6-0-1), giving them the NHL’s best points percentage since Jan. 9. Unfortunately, they have not enjoyed much success at Joe Louis Arena recently. Since they swept the Wings in the 1995 Cup finals, the Devils are 1-8-1 in their last 10 games at Detroit.

Nashville Predators (27-16-6) at Vancouver Canucks (30-10-9), 10 p.m. ET

Starting goaltenders: Pekka Rinne (17-12-4, 2.11 GAA) vs. Roberto Luongo (22-8-7, 2.31 GAA)
Preview: The Canucks lead the Western Conference thanks to a strong home record. They will be looking to earn at least one point in a 13th consecutive home game when they face the Predators for the first time this season. Nashville ended its three-game winning streak when it went 0 for 5 on the power play in a loss at Calgary on Monday night.

San Jose Sharks (25-19-5) at Los Angeles Kings (26-22-1), 10:30 p.m. ET

Season series: 2-1 San Jose
Starting goaltenders: Antti Niemi (13-13-2, 2.72 GAA) vs. Jonathan Quick (21-14-1, 2.16 GAA)
Preview: The Sharks attempt to win five in a row for the first time in more than a year, but the last time they won four straight, they followed it with a 4-0 loss to the Kings. The Kings will be playing their last game at home before beginning a 10-game road trip after the All-Star break.