We'll get to the readers' reactions from the last Between Periods column on Todd Bertuzzi in the Barnstorming section of the column. And did anyone catch Game 2 of Saturday's Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader with Nashville and Calgary? Krzysztof Oliwa of Poland starts a game-ending brawl highlighted by two goalies, Mikka Kiprusoff of Finland and Czech goalie Tomas Vokoun, scrapping at center ice. What are these goon Europeans doing to our game?
By the way, that was tongue in cheek...
Did anyone out there honestly suspect that we would be winding down March talking about Martin St. Louis as the likely Art Ross Trophy winner and a good bet for the Hart Trophy?
St. Louis won't likely win the offensive player of the month award for March, but he did win the award in both January and February, making him the first back-to-back winner since Wayne Gretzky in 1986-87. He has become the most productive player in the NHL, with 35 goals and 51 assists for 86 points through 76 games. He is fourth in goals, third in assists, third in plus-minus rating with a plus-30, 12th in power play points with 29, and he leads the league with seven shorthanded goals and 10 shorthanded points.
But most refreshing is that a smaller, highly skilled player who relies on speed and finesse can become the most dangerous player in a game often criticized for trapping, clutching and grabbing. Don Cherry often points out that part of St. Louis' success is due to the fact that he uses a long stick. Many players like to have shorter sticks for puck control, but he controls the puck well with a longer stick, giving him a much longer reach. In other words, he is a 6-footer instead of a 5-9 forward.
He also found the right combination at the right time. We often talk about how switching lines can have ripple effects throughout players' fantasy hockey performances, and St. Louis is a good example of that. When the Lightning juggled lines in January and St. Louis was partnered with Vincent Lecavalier, he began tearing up the league. He scored his only two hat tricks of the season in a span of less than two weeks. The move also gave the Lightning two dangerous lines, giving the firepower that the Avalanche and Senators have had all year.
"I switched to Vinny's line in early January because we felt that we needed to have two lines going down the stretch," said St. Louis last week. "It was a successful change. Both lines have been going, and that's key on the stretch drive and in the playoff. It's tough to key on one line. It's tough to check two lines. For us, we definitely help each other out by having two lines that can score goals."
St. Louis is quick to credit Lecavalier for his strong second half. The Lightning captain has been in and out of the doghouse this year, but with 29 goals and 31 assists for 60 points, along with a plus-19 and five power play goals, Lecavalier has been solid and consistent. St. Louis says he is the type of center who can make his wingers better players.
"He's definitely stepped up his game, and he's playing really well. Obviously, when he plays the way he has, it just makes us a better team. When everybody steps up, it makes us a better team. Vinny has such talent and abilities that he does things that not many guys can do.
"I played with Brad Richards for the last two years. I was leaving a very good centerman, Brad Richards, going to a very good centerman, too, Vinny Lecavalier. I think it took a little while to adjust - not just for me, but for Vinny as well. I think now we understand our game a little better, each other, and that helps creating offense and finding each other. Obviously, Vinny's playing really well right now. When that happens, it makes it a lot easier."
St. Louis and Lecavalier are not the only players on Tampa who have shown some great statistical strides this year. Cory Stillman has 71 points, including 11 power play goals. Brad Richards, the club's No. 2 center, also has 71 points. Fredrik Modin is playing the best hockey of his career and has 26 goals this season and has a plus-25 rating. Dave Andreychuk has 18 goals and Ruslan Fedotenko and Pavel Kubina both have 16. If those three players go on a late tear over the next two weeks, the Lightning could possibly have eight 20-goal scorers.
Kubina is an interesting story as he has been one of the most solid fantasy hockey defensemen all season, and it happened in a year when all eyes were on Dan Boyle. Kubina has 16 goals, but even more impressive is his work on the power play unit, where he has eight goals. He has 79 penalty minutes - second among Tampa D-men, and a plus-10 rating. He has 34 points, just one behind Boyle with 35.
In goal, John Grahame has consistently put up better numbers than Nikolai Khabibulin this year, but Khabibulin is going to be their guy down the stretch and into the playoffs until he has back-to-back off nights. Grahame is 16-9-1 with a 2.03 GAA and a .912 save percentage and it would be hard to argue that he is the best backup goalie in hockey right now. Khabibulin is 26-17-7 with a 2.34 GAA and a .910 save percentage. His numbers aren't quite as good as Grahame's, but Khabibulin has an ability to get into a zone and ride a hot streak for a couple weeks similar to what J-S Giguere did in Anaheim's playoff run last year.
But not all news in Tampa is good these days.
Regardless of how well they played in January and February, St. Louis and the Lightning are slumping right now. St. Louis has scored in only two of the team's last 11 games, and the Lightning are sliding.
The Lightning have speed, depth, a solid goaltending tandem, and their exciting, wide open style of play makes them fun to watch. But in March they have been all but shut down.
So why are they struggling?
The answer is simple - they got dealt one of the nastiest schedules down the stretch the NHL has ever dished out.
The Lightning have a 17-game stretch in a little more than a month that has the team flaming out quickly. The forwards look a split second slower, the entire team seems to have Jell-o legs, and their goaltending is struggling despite the fact that Khabibulin and Grahame have both been exceptional this year. They will continue to struggle also, as so many games packed into so few days for this stretch will cut into the team's practice schedule. Look for timing on the power play unit to take a hit, and look for continued fatigue, especially from the defence.
This is still a great hockey team, but if John Tortorella wants to win the Coach of the Year award that many feel he deserves, his big test will be guiding his team past this stretch and into the playoffs. If he can't, the Lightning will have a disappointing finish, and all that Martin St. Louis has done all year will mean nothing if they get bounced in the first round by a Montreal or a New York Islanders club - two teams that have matched up well against Tampa Bay this year.
Barnstorming: Here's an interesting one - watch for Sami Kapanen in Philadelphia to start playing defense. This presents some interesting fantasy hockey options, as Kapanen, one of the best skaters in the league, looks like he will switch positions for the injury-depleted Flyers down the stretch ... and speaking of the Flyers, too bad you can't pick coaches in your league and get suspension points. Darryl Sutter is out now for his part in Saturday's EuroScrap. But the main event will be April 2 when Ken Hitchcock and Jacques Martin face each other for the first time in what could be a Captain Kangaroo vs. Feivel Claymation Pay Per View. I'd pay 10 bucks for that ... even 10 bucks American.
Having said that, let's get to the responses on the Bertuzzi column. I got over 200 e-mails from readers - probably more e-mails than I've gotten combined over the last three years on the column. It was evenly divided - 103 think I'm insane and an idiot, 97 think I should win a Pulitzer. Everyone in Denver hates me. Lots of love from Canada. Some of the comments range from, "You should be in prison with Bertuzzi and be his (same gender partner in the female role)", or "the only thing worse than the smirk on Marc Crawford's face was your idiotic take" or "You are ignorant for supporting violence in hockey ... I wouldn't feel sorry for you if someone broke your neck some day." That one actually made me laugh out loud, as the anti-violence people, well, you figure it out. Some were good, like "You are the only columnist out of the 30 or 40 I have read that has broken this down and made any sense," and "Tony Granato mishandled the situation and should have known not to hang his guy out to dry like that." The most interesting comment was, "If Naslund wasn't a chicken Swede he could have fought his own battle and we wouldn't be dealing with this."
Regardless of how you reacted to it, there is one point that was grossly misread, and I wanted to reemphasize the point. Todd Bertuzzi does not deserve any less blame than what he is getting. He deserves the punishment, whatever the NHL decides it should be into next year and beyond. I did not justify his hit as I was accused by so many of doing. All I was saying is that people beyond Bertuzzi also deserve blame for their irresponsible actions leading up to the incident - Crawford, Brad May, the Canucks, the NHL for not putting out the fire before the forest went down, and Granato for leaving his guy out there in an ugly and out of control game. Many are mad at me for calling Moore's hit on Naslund a cheap shot. I thought it was. If you don't think it was, hey, that's fine. But either way, I'm not calling for retaliation, just saying why it was retaliated. And if I think a hit was cheap or you think it was not doesn't really matter, because the Vancouver Canucks sure thought it was.
So if you hate me, and you want more reasons to hate me, here it goes. I applaud Yoko Ono for breaking up the Beatles, the most overrated band in history. They aren't even the best band from Liverpool, let alone the world. Liverpool bands go Frankie Goes to Hollywood, then Flock of Seagulls, then Echo and the Bunnymen, then the Beatles tied with OMD ... I like to drink red wine chilled, as gauche as that is ... I have no problem with gays wanting to get married. I have a problem with terrorists that want to blow up their ceremony ... I think the NHL does not protect its players and if they cared about their players they would eliminate the touch icing rule ... I think Lost in Translation is the worst movie I've ever seen ... and I don't see how stuffing yourself full of sausage and bacon and avoiding fruit and rice in the name of carb free anything can possibly by healthy - unless you want to lose 20 pounds so you'll feel better before your heart explodes.
So there it is.
And if you're going to be in Nashville this weekend, come and check us out at the Pacific Hockey Card show all day Saturday at the GEC before the Preds-Blue jackets game. Come by and say hi, unless you wrote one of those negative e-mails I mentioned.
Until next time, I'll be locked into the 80s, when goal scoring was up and there was no trap, listening to my Soup Dragons CDs.
Prescott, Ont. native Jeffrey Morris is a former NHL beat writer who is the V.P. of Marketing at Pacific Trading Cards in Lynnwood, Wash. He can also be heard breaking down hockey regularly as "Ice Rink" on the Tony Bruno Morning Extravaganza. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.