Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NHL [Print without images]

Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Updated: December 31, 9:32 AM ET
Panthers, Blues, Caps show some life

ESPN.com

OPENING FACEOFF
Jozef Stumpel
Florida, St. Louis and Washington, teams that earlier in the season had cornered the market on revolting play, suddenly are displaying hitherto unseen life. Should they maintain a similar level of play, they will throw a whole new wrinkle into what already promises to be a wild ride to the end of the regular season.

The Panthers, preseason picks by many to challenge for a playoff berth, endured a ghastly stretch in which they lost 12 straight games between Oct. 27 and Nov. 23.

But the team has come suddenly to life, led -- improbably -- by Jozef Stumpel, whose play was so tepid earlier in the season that head coach Jacques Martin first limited his ice time, then made the veteran sniper a healthy scratch.

Stumpel has rebounded, scoring 16 points in December. including two markers in a surprise 4-1 victory over the molten-hot Buffalo Sabres on Friday night. The win was the fourth in the past five for Florida, its sixth in its last eight at home.

The Panthers began the week tied with Boston for 12th in the Eastern Conference, nine points out of a playoff spot. Their play in the near future will determine whether GM Mike Keenan tries to unload some salary or bulk up for a push to the postseason.

In Washington, many -- including this writer -- made sport of the Capitals for a threadbare lineup that appeared ill-matched against many AHL opponents let alone NHL competition. But led by Alexander Ovechkin, who would be rookie of the year if voting took place today, and the stellar netminding of veteran Olaf Kolzig, the Capitals have shown a delightful never-say-die mentality. Last week, they defeated the Thrashers in a shootout and knocked off the Habs in Montreal the next night. They have won three of their past five games.

The Caps, 12-19-2 and 14th in the Eastern Conference, might not challenge for a playoff berth, but coach Glen Hanlon's squad has served notice that those teams that consider themselves playoff material should not take them lightly.

As a sidebar, Kolzig's strong play also will heat up potential trade talk as the March 9 trade deadline approaches. Kolzig will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, but he likes the idea of finishing his long, distinguished career with the only NHL team for which he has played. Still, with goaltending at a premium this season, Kolzig will be one of the most coveted rent-a-players come deadline time, and the potential to go to a contender no doubt will play into Kolzig's thought process. The temptation for GM George McPhee to find some talent to help support Ovechkin in the future also will be a factor. Either way, it's a win-win for the hardworking Caps and their hardworking goalie.

As for the Blues, their revolt has been more subtle, with the team winning two of three on a Western swing before the Christmas break. Still, knocking playoff-hopeful Phoenix 5-4, then besting the surging San Jose Sharks 2-1 in a shootout, all without U.S. Olympian Keith Tkachuk, was a sign of a pulse from one of the NHL's worst teams.

Trade talks will continue to swirl around Doug Weight and Tkachuk, as will speculation surrounding attempts to sell the team. But St. Louis' recent play might help lift the cloud of doom that has settled over the team from the start of the season.

-- Scott Burnside



CAUGHT IN THE NETS
ILL WIND BLOWING
Blackhawks forward Martin Lapointe blasted his teammates for their effort shortly before Christmas, a tirade that yielded a desultory 6-1 loss to the Nashville Predators. A few days later, GM Dale Tallon told Chicago writers that he was so disappointed by the team's play that he would entertain trade offers for essentially any player. More hot air to be sure.

The problem facing Tallon is that in luring free agents to the moribund franchise in the offseason, he had to overpay to get them on board. Now, in the new NHL, it's no longer an option simply to trade your mistakes to a team with lots of money. In most cases, a team willing to take on salary will want to dump some back.

Who, for instance, is going to be interested in Nikolai Khabibulin, the NHL's highest paid netminder, when he carries an .879 save percentage and three more seasons of a $27 million deal? Or captain Adrian Aucoin, who signed a four-year, $16 million deal, but has been plagued by injury and has but one goal in 22 games?

No one. Go down the list. Matthew Barnaby. Curtis Brown. Lapointe. Three "character" forwards brought in to lead the Hawks to the playoffs, three who have combined for 13 goals and will be all but impossible to deal. Instead, most potential trading partners will be interested in young players such as Mark Bell, Pavel Vorobiev, Rene Bourque, Brent Seabrook or Duncan Keith, players Tallon will be loath to part with.

THE FIVE HOLE

Barry Melrose
I'll be looking to see how Vancouver responds to this latest stretch. The Canucks have lost five straight games, including back-to-back games against Calgary. After a home tilt vs. Nashville, Vancouver hits the road for four straight games. It is crucial for the Canucks to get back on track.
Scott Burnside
Montreal vs. Tampa Bay on Wednesday: The once high-flying Canadiens are in free fall, having lost nine straight road games. A loss against the Lightning, which are coming off an emotional win over Southeast Division-leading Carolina, would tie the franchise record for consecutive road losses set in 1926. The Habs, who once challenged for the top spot in the East, have plummeted to the eighth and final playoff spot, just three points ahead of Atlanta. The Canadiens were without captain Saku Koivu (groin) and netminder Jose Theodore (sore knee) on Monday, but both could be back for Wednesday's tilt.
FANTASY ISLAND
Who to pick up: With the Sabres losing just one game in their last 10, one player who will help any fantasy team is winger Thomas Vanek, who has had three goals and an assist in the last three games. With games against Toronto and Atlanta to come, those numbers could go up.
Who to drop: Sharks center Alyn McCauley has slumped along with San Jose. The Sharks have lost four out of five, and McCauley has been pointless over that stretch.
IN THE BOX
Our favorite New Year's song is "New Year's Day" by U2. All won't be quiet on this New Year's weekend with a combined 13 games Saturday and Sunday.
THEY SAID IT
"As human beings and in life and in this country, I think a big part of being Canadian is being able to forgive."
-- Hockey Canada assistant executive director Kevin Lowe on the team's reasoning behind the selection of Todd Bertuzzi