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Tuesday, January 3, 2006
Best U.S. goalie might be watching Games at home

ESPN.com

OPENING FACEOFF
Ryan Miller
Barring an unfortunate turn of events, the best U.S.-born goaltender in the NHL will get no closer to Olympic ice than his television clicker or a Turin cafe.

With the start of the Olympic tournament just six weeks off and the U.S. goaltending picture getting uglier by the day, Buffalo Sabres rookie netminder Ryan Miller continues to be a painful reminder of an opportunity lost.

Team USA general manager Don Waddell and the rest of the management team thought the broken thumb that cost Miller six weeks of his first NHL season and his relative inexperience were enough to push him down the U.S. depth chart and off the 23-man roster announced on Dec. 19.

And who could blame them, really?

Former first overall draft pick Rick DiPietro had established himself as the No. 1 netminder thanks to his fine play at last year's World Championships and strong play with the Islanders, while Philly's Robert Esche and Tampa Bay's John Grahame fell nicely into place behind him. It didn't hurt that Grahame was in the midst of a nine-game winning streak for the defending Stanley Cup champions at the time the final decisions were being made.

But since the team was named, things have gotten progressively worse.

Beginning with a game that night, DiPietro has been torched for 26 goals on his past 151 shots as the Islanders are free-falling out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

DiPietro, who is day-to-day with a knee sprain suffered in the Isles' last game against Ottawa, has been victimized by a shoddy defense, but he's also looked uncharacteristically uncertain.

Esche, the projected No. 2 goalie who impressed during Philadelphia's run to the 2004 Eastern Conference finals, remains sidelined with an injured right groin. He should be back well before the Olympics, but his durability is a question mark. Esche, 11-4-2 with a 3.14 goals-against average and .890 save percentage, has given way to Antero Niittymaki, who has played well enough for some to suggest he should be the Flyers' starter.

Grahame, meanwhile, was recently flayed by Tampa coach John Tortorella after the goalie gave up a weak goal late in a 4-3 loss to Montreal. Tortorella apologized the next day for his outburst, but Sean Burke started the next game (a 2-1 loss to Boston) and Tortorella said that as long as Burke plays well, he'll start.

As for Miller, all he's done since returning to action is go 4-1, including a dominating performance against Waddell's Thrashers in a 4-1 Sabres victory. Miller given up more than two goals in only one of those games.

The native of East Lansing, Mich., could be named to a reserve squad that will travel to Italy in case of injury, but those players can't stay in the athletes' village. He could also be named earlier if any of the other three netminders has a long-term injury that would keep them out of the Olympics.

Those who know Miller credit his strong lateral movement and focus as prime factors in his strong play this season. They also think those qualities would have been assets to the U.S. Olympic team. Hard to argue that now.

-- Scott Burnside

THE HAT TRICK
ELIAS READY? CANUCKS SLIDE THE PUNCH LINE
Patrik Elias is set to return to the ice Tuesday night, his first game since contracting Hepatitis A in March while playing in the Russian league during the NHL lockout. Anything would be a boost for the Devils at this point, as the team has lost five of their last six games. Elias had led New Jersey in scoring for the last five seasons, including 38 goals and 43 assists over 82 games of the 2003-04 season. A recent loss to the lowly St. Louis Blues seems to mark the state of the Canucks, a loss that captain Markus Naslund dubbed the "low point" of the season. The team has lost seven of their last eight games and is without Ed Jovanovski (groin) and Sami Salo (hurt Monday after getting cut underneath his eye). Vancouver, which continues to lose ground in the competitive Northwest, faces Dallas on Wednesday. This will be an interesting week for the New York Rangers, who are 2-4-1 in their last seven games and sit at sixth in the Eastern Conference (49 points). According to local reports, coach Tom Renney will end his experiment and reunite Ortmeyer-Hollweg-Moore on Tuesday vs. the Lightning. The trio have played together in only two games since Dec. 1 and have just a combined three points over that span.



CAUGHT IN THE NETS
COMING OR GOING?
Less than a month ago, there was rampant speculation that Florida GM Mike Keenan would start to dismantle his sad-sack Panthers. Captain Olli Jokinen and netminder Roberto Luongo were both said to be trade fodder as the Panthers won just once in the month of November. But following a 6-2-1 stretch that includes Sunday's 2-1 win in Buffalo, the Panthers have pulled to within four points of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The team finally seems to have jelled under new coach Jacques Martin, while Luongo has rediscovered his focus after an uncharacteristic period of lackluster play. Veterans Joe Nieuwendyk (pictured), Jozef Stumpel and Gary Roberts, dormant or injured for most of the year, have come alive. Roberts has been matched with Jokinen and Chris Gratton to form a potent offensive unit. Even with Sunday's win in Buffalo, the Panthers remain one of the worst road teams in the league (4-14-3). But if they can emerge from stops in New Jersey, Long Island, New York and Washington, there will be a new set of questions popping up around South Florida, like who Keenan will bring into the fold for a surprise playoff push. Stay tuned.

THE FIVE HOLE

Scott Burnside
Detroit at Nashville, Friday: So much for anyone who thought the Predators might fade away. When play began this week, the Predators trailed the Red Wings by four points, with a game in hand, for top spot in the Central Division. The Predators' 51 points ranked third in the West (Los Angeles began the week with 52, but had played four more games than Nashville) and they began the week with the best home record in the conference (16-3). Just to add some drama to Friday's tilt, the Wings began the week with the best road record in the league (13-4-2).
FANTASY ISLAND
Who to pick up: After a minislump, Thrashers LW Slava Kozlov had a possible breakout game against the Sens on Monday. He scored a hat trick, ending a five-game scoring slump. It might be time to put him back in your starting rotation.
Who to drop: Senators goalie Dominik Hasek is day-to-day after he pulled a back muscle during a pregame warm up Monday in Atlanta. For this week, it might be safe to bench the Dominator while he recovers.
IN THE BOX
Billie Joe Armstrong and Green Day have received a lot of attention over the past few years, but we're going old school this week. Remember "Welcome to Paradise"? It must have been played during pregame warm ups at every NHL rink after the album "Dookie" came out in 1994. That's why it's one of our hockey classics.
THEY SAID IT
"Oh, them. They were no good at all."
-- Sens coach Bryan Murray on the Heatley-Spezza-Smolinski line after an 8-3 loss to Atlanta on Monday.