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Tuesday, March 30, 2004
Still plenty to play for

By Jim Kelley
ESPN.com

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Ed Olczyk was walking the hallways of the HSBC Arena last Friday morning, thinking of yet more ways to motivate his young team.

Not finishing last was an option, but he can't go hard at that for reasons we will address below. He could drag out the playing for jobs chestnut, but his players had been hearing that virtually all season long.

Ah, but pride, being the best team they can be and playing the role of spoiler, that one always has merit. So too does the fact that his club had confidence playing the Sabres, one of the few teams the ferociously young Penguins had beaten more than once this season.

In the end, they didn't win, but the effort was there. It was also there the following night in Pittsburgh when they came from two goals down to gain a tie and take one point from the home-and-home series.

"We're just trying to be the best team we can be," the first-year coach said of what has been a difficult season. "I've told our players that we will continue to put them in different positions, positions they haven't been used before -- parts of the game, whether it's penalty killing, power play, guys taking faceoffs, maybe giving some other players a little bit more of an opportunity in certain areas. We're going to have some tough decisions this summer on individual players, and we want to make sure we give everybody an opportunity to play in a lot of those different circumstances."

That kind of "opportunity" has paid dividends for the current crop of Penguins, most of whom are just starting to make their way in the NHL, but Olczyk is playing a delicate game.

There are three kinds of races going on in the NHL right now, the race for the Presidents' Trophy, awarded to the team with the most points (which brings home ice throughout the playoffs along with it). Then there's the race for positioning in the playoffs -- an extraordinary battle in the West and nearly as good in the East.

Last, but not least in the eyes of several hockey front offices, there's the race to finish in the bottom five, the not-so-elite, but every bit as interesting contest to see which teams qualify for the lottery for the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft. Assuming everything goes to plan -- and the Russian Hockey Federation doesn't balk at participating in the International Ice Hockey Federation's next agreement with the NHL -- the prize is Alexander Ovechkin. Ovechkin is said to be franchise-player material, the kind of talent a team can build around.

"He's one of the best prospects I've seen in all my years in hockey," said Florida Panthers general manager Rick Dudley, usually a player in either drafting near the top or making moves to position his team to do so. "He's a remarkable athlete."

While the 14 non-playoff teams qualify for the weighted lottery, teams can't move up more than four spots. Pittsburgh had the top seed virtually sewn up at the All-Star break, but an impressive run of late, including a 10-3-2 stretch, has opened the race up a bit. Though the Penguins are still last overall, they led (or trailed as the case may be) the Washington Capitals by just one point going into their matchup Tuesday night.

The Chicago Blackhawks, who declared their candidacy by firing general manager Mike Smith and trading away many of their best players, definitely are on board. The same can be said of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Phoenix Coyotes, both of whom fired their coaches and made trade-deadline moves with an eye toward the long term rather than acquiring immediate help.

On the outside but charging hard are the New York Rangers, who gutted their lineup at the trade deadline and have gone into a near-freefall that could see them crack the bottom five by season's end -- not an easy task while trying to convince your players that you're not doing exactly that.

Rick Bowness, whose Coyotes recently ended a 15-game winless streak that began the night he took over for the fired Bob Francis, has been on a stump similar to Olczyk's. He knows what he can't say, but in the interim, he tries to win using the prospect of the future to motivate for the present.

"We're all under evaluation," he said in one of the truer statements you'll read from an interim coach. "I've tried to communicate that to the players. What we do here in the time we have will go a long way toward determining who is with the team next season."

That can be a tough sell at a time when there's no certainty of there even being a season next fall. With a possible work stoppage looming, Bowness, Olczyk and several other coaches also have used the upcoming World Cup of Hockey as motivation.

To be sure, most of the spots on rosters from Canada, the U.S. and European teams will go to the elite players from those countries, most of whom are on playoff-bound clubs. Still, every team needs checkers, stay-at-home defensemen and exceptional goaltenders, and that can be motivation enough for players being scouted by their homeland.

Along with the chance of winning the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie, being selected for Team Canada is an unspoken motivation for Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo. An All-Star, Luongo reportedly is near the breaking point because of the numerous breakdowns that result in him seeing 40 and often 50 shots a game. Still, he soldiers on with the idea that doing his best may be enough to earn a World Cup invite.

"He's a true competitor," coach John Torchetti said of Luongo. "Until we turn it around, he's going to compete until the end here -- the bitter end."

"I don't even know how he's doing it," teammate Lyle Odelein said. "It's embarrassing. The guy's an absolute hero."

Even if a player isn't selected for the World Cup in late August, there's still the chance of playing for national pride in the World Championships that get under way April 24.

Players who don't reach the Stanley Cup playoffs are usually of two minds about the World Championships. They either want to go because they can't stand the thought of sitting home while other teams are still competing, or they go out of their way to avoid the tournament because they simply want their vacation to start immediately.

Joel Quenneville, the deposed coach of the St. Louis Blues, is heading up the Canadian contingent and already has been looking at players.

"I don't like talking about players yet, but a guy such as Rick Nash would be a good fit, and there's a goalie [Luongo] having an MVP season," Quenneville told reporters during a recent scouting trip through Toronto.

Of course, the view is different at the top.

The Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning are neck and neck for the top spot overall, but the question of wanting it is always balanced by needing it.

Sure, first overall gets you a certain amount of satisfaction as being the best team over a difficult 82-game regular season. It also gets you home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. But veteran coaches and general managers know that how you finish is just as important as how high. In that regard, it's not unusual to see coaches near the top of the standings forgoing the Presidents' race in an attempt to concentrate on preparing their team for the postseason grind that lies ahead.

New Jersey coach Pat Burns, as savvy a postseason competitor as they come, seemed to have given a couple of regulars the day off Sunday when his team played the New York Islanders. Other coaches do the same.

"It's no secret," said a coach who asked not to be identified. "Lots of guys are banged up and hurting this time of year. If you're close enough [to first overall] to get it done, you want to go for it because home ice is important and you've been telling your players that since the start of training camp. But I've seen teams burn themselves out going for it and then when the playoffs start, if they can't ratchet it up a notch or two, it can be over almost before it starts.

"Not all that many Presidents' Trophy winners go on to win the Cup, and no coach wants to endure an offseason of questions about 'what went wrong,' so you do your best to have your team ready for the playoffs. First is nice, but the Stanley Cup is what everyone is after."

Selective sittings can lead to "issues" among the top teams, especially ones trying to qualify for the playoffs or jockeying for position. In the West, the race is so tight that a team can go to bed in fifth place and wake up in ninth. It makes for some raised eyebrows whenever an opponent makes a move to rest a player or players against one team but not another.

League policy states that a team is obligated to put its best team on the ice every night. That's for the benefit of the fans who pay to see the best players and for the competitive balance in the games themselves, but there is no real way to enforce the dictum. The NHL might send out a warning to a coach or general manager who is too obvious, but for the most part, it's going to happen.

Though frowned upon, it's not uncommon for injuries, especially injuries that are difficult to document and prove (sprains are popular choices) to mysteriously appear at this time of the year.

The NHL has become increasingly insistent on clubs providing medical documentation regarding these kinds of hurts, but even with stringent enforcement, it's still possible to give a player a night off.

Sure, players such as Red Wings goalie Curtis Joseph or Senators goalie Patrick Lalime could have an ankle or knee that requires rest. They also could have injuries elsewhere that need rest. Or management may want to give their backups some work so they're ready for the playoffs and would like to avoid a goaltender controversy that would come with having their No. 1 netminder sitting on the bench. The same goes for forwards and defensemen.

It's all part of the game within the game, and everyone plays it.

"Every coach has to do what's best for his team given the circumstances," says our anonymous one. "It all depends where you are [in the standings] and what you're trying to accomplish."

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.