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Friday, January 27, 2006
Updated: January 30, 12:42 PM ET
More fuel to rumor fires for Sullivan, Quinn

ESPN.com

OPENING FACEOFF
Pat Quinn
Let's review, shall we?

The New York Islanders fired Steve Stirling and responded with a tepid 4-3-1 mark in their first eight games under interim coach Brad Shaw, leaving them 13th in the Eastern Conference and a long shot to make the playoffs.

The Pittsburgh Penguins responded to the firing of coach Ed Olczyk with a freefall that would have seen them crash right through the bottom of the NHL standings into the AHL, or worse, if league rules allowed. The Penguins' embarrassing play prompted new coach Michel Therrien to suggest his players should give back half their salaries.

So much for a breath of fresh air.

Which brings us to Mike Sullivan and Pat Quinn.

Sullivan, of course, was on everyone's list of "next off the ledge" as his Boston Bruins struggled through the first half of the season. Whether ownership held fast in its belief that Sullivan was a quality coach, or merely dawdled, is up for debate. Regardless, behind the sensational netminding of career minor leaguer Tim Thomas and timely contributions from maligned newcomers Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau, who came over in the Joe Thornton deal, the Bruins are suddenly back in the playoff hunt.

Thomas is making the league minimum $450,000 and would have been available to any team for half his remaining salary with the Bruins on the hook for the other half when they called him up from Providence. Thomas had played there since being signed by the Bruins on the eve of training camp. Wonder if the Canucks, Oilers or Tampa Bay Lightning, all looking to shore up goaltending for a playoff run, wouldn't mind having Thomas in the fold given his terrific play? Yes, he's a little bit older than your average goaltending phenom, but the 31-year-old absolutely lit it up last season playing for Jokerit of the Swedish Elite League, posting 15 shutouts and a 1.58 GAA.

In spite of Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Islanders, the Bruins have lost only once in regulation in the past eight games and enter play this week in 11th in the Eastern Conference, two points out of the last playoff berth.

Talk of Sullivan being dumped has suddenly gone silent. Did the thoughtful coach suddenly remember how to do his job? Like players, did Sullivan simply go through a coaching slump?

In Toronto, meanwhile, the sharp knives are once again out for coach Pat Quinn. The veteran has seen his team fall through the Eastern Conference standings, thanks to a combination of dreadful goaltending by Ed Belfour, shoddy defense, a lack of production from captain Mats Sundin and a host of injuries to key players, including team MVP Bryan McCabe and leading goal scorer Darcy Tucker. The Leafs' 4-3 overtime loss to Montreal at home on Saturday night was their eighth in a row, the longest in Quinn's tenure in Toronto.

With talented young coach Paul Maurice waiting in the wings a few miles from the Air Canada Centre behind the bench of the Leafs' AHL affiliate, speculation is rampant that GM John Ferguson Jr. will dump Quinn.

Not that this is the first time that Quinn has faced such speculation.

During the 2003-04 season, the Leafs struggled early in the season, and thanks to carping to media by veterans who are no longer with the team, there were stories that Quinn had lost the dressing room and was on the verge of being fired. He wasn't, and the Leafs went on to finish with 103 points. They beat Ottawa in seven games before losing in six games to Philadelphia.

In Quinn's six years in Toronto, the Leafs have made the playoffs every year, won at least one playoff round in all but one year, and twice gone to the Eastern Conference final. They have topped the 100-point mark three times and had more than 90 in all six campaigns. On top of that, Quinn has solidified his reputation as one of the game's finest coaches with a gold medal win and a World Cup of Hockey championship on his résumé, as well.

But the Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967, the second-longest championship drought behind the moribund Chicago Blackhawks (1961). So whatever successes Quinn has enjoyed in Toronto, it will always pale relative to his failure to erase the Stanley Cup stain. In three weeks, he will return to the Canadian bench for the Torino Olympics. How ironic if Quinn arrives without a job.
-- Scott Burnside

THE HAT TRICK
KINGS NO MORE? KEITH'S RETURN 'ONE-IN-A MILLION'
The injury bug has hurt the Kings as of late. The team has won just three of its last 10 games and can't afford to lose more ground before the Olympic break begins on Feb. 13. The Stars are pulling away with a seven-point lead in the Pacific race, while L.A. is fifth overall in the West. Eric Belanger and Pavol Demitra coming back to the lineup over the weekend is a step in the right direction. When exactly will Keith Tkachuk return to the lineup? The Blues star originally set tonight for his return, but Tkachuk decided to hold off. The forward has missed 21 games since breaking the middle knuckle in his right hand in mid-December. While coach Mike Kitchen said he thought Tkachuk "looked good" at practice over the weekend, he said he will leave the return date up to Tkachuk to decide. Chris Pronger helped give the Edmonton Oilers a big win Sunday night, scoring with three-tenths of a second left that forced overtime and the eventual shootout win over the Coyotes. Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky called a timeout just before Pronger's goal (2.2 seconds left), trying to take some wind out of the Oilers' sails, but it backfired. Said Oilers coach Craig MacTavish: "It's a one-in-a-million play."



CAUGHT IN THE NETS
ROPE A DOPE
Every day there isn't a report of a player failing the NHL's drug testing protocol is a victory for the NHL. Testing began Jan. 15 and every player will be tested at least twice before the end of the season. There's about a 10-day turnaround on the tests and all positive tests will be released to the public with any guilty player facing a 20-game suspension for a first positive test, 60 games for a second and a lifetime ban for a third strike.

Negative tests won't be reported, so no news is good news for those keeping score. That said, the NHL and its players could do themselves a world of good in the court of public opinion by closing the one glaring loophole in the new drug policy, the first of its kind for the league. Because players aren't tested during the offseason, critics like Dick Pound (pictured) of the World Anti-Doping Association have been quick to savage the league and the NHL Players Association as soft on performance-enhancing drugs, suggesting that the offseason is the most likely time when players will be juicing as they prepare for the coming season.

The dearth of positive tests at international competitions over the past decade suggests the NHL's problem, if it has one, is minor compared to baseball and football, but surely it wouldn't take much to get the NHL and the NHLPA to come up with a plan to include at least some random testing in the offseason. If there isn't a problem, the additional testing won't be anything more than an inconvenience to players' golf games and sun tanning. If there is a problem, offseason testing will help weed out the problem players. If nothing else, such a move would shut down attention seekers like Pound, who asserted, without providing a shred of empirical evidence, that as many as one-third of NHL players were using some form of performance-enhancing drug. -- S.B.

THE FIVE HOLE

Barry Melrose
I'd like to see how the New York Rangers fare this week. They have a full schedule through Saturday with two games against the Flyers and one game apiece vs. the Islanders and Penguins. No matter where the teams are in the standings, the Rangers and Islanders are up for all of their games against one another. The Penguins will be looking to avenge their poor 7-1 showing from Saturday. Most important is Philly. The Rangers are three points behind the Atlantic-leading Flyers and fifth overall in the East. The Rangers need at least one win vs. Philly.
E.J. Hradek
It should be an interesting Friday night at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey. The Devils are honoring longtime defenseman Scott Stevens, who'll have his No. 4 raised to the rafters. It will be the first number retired by the Devils. After the ceremony, the Devils will try to quiet the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes. The Devils have turned their season around with a strong January. By the end of the week, GM/interim head coach Lou Lamoriello will get a good idea where his team stands after tilts with the Sens on Wednesday and the Canes on Friday.
Scott Burnside
Nashville at Dallas, Wednesday: Two of the top clubs in the Western Conference tangle as the Predators currently hold the fourth seed, two points back of Dallas and three back of Central Division-leading Detroit. Dallas is tied for the most road wins in the NHL (17) and is equally dangerous at home with 17 wins at American Airlines Center. Nashville starts the week still smarting from back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Columbus.
FANTASY ISLAND
Who to pick up: If you don't already have this rookie defenseman, pick him up now if he's available. Andrej Meszaros leads the league with a plus-33, a fine byproduct of having one of the top offenses in the league.
Who to drop: Peter Forsberg will not see any action this week as the Flyers' center deals with a nagging groin injury. He's going to be out at least the next week, so cash in on fantasy points elsewhere.
IN THE BOX
Clearlake. If you haven't heard of this Brit band yet, you will over the months to come. We feature the first track off of their new album "Amber," titled "No Kind of Life." Frontman Jason Pegg sings that "you rely on someone else to make you feel alive … " Sounds a bit like watching hockey, eh?
THEY SAID IT
"I think I'm embarrassed to get a shutout like that."
-- Goalie Dominik Hasek after the Sens outshot Montreal 40-12 in a 3-0 win Thursday.