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Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Even if it's Sid, running up score not worth risk

By E.J. Hradek
ESPN The Magazine

In light of the late-game brawl between the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, I was reminded about the downside of running up the score (or creating that perception in the mind of your opponents).

Believe me, that downside is considerable.

In such a case, the offending team puts a lot at risk for very little. After all, who really cares if you win by 20 or 22 points, or five or six goals? The margin of victory only counts if you're playing for a BCS bid.

Clubs who choose to run up the score also risk unnecessary injury. Does any team want to lose a key player to a serious injury in garbage time? No. Does any coach want to explain to the GM/president/owner why he placed such a star player at risk? I don't think so. I can't imagine that it would be a very pleasant conversation.

With Saturday's brawl, the risk extends beyond injury. You get a push, then a shove, and eventually a full-blown brawl. Oddly enough, we seem to get more of that stuff in the NBA as opposed to the NHL these days. I guess they're going to have to change that old joke. It'll have to go something like, "I went to a boxing match and an NBA game broke out."

All this brings me back to the NHL.

Last week, some of my well-intentioned media peers publicly wondered why Penguins coach Michel Therrien didn't put star Sidney Crosby on the ice more often during the club's 8-4 home-ice win over the Flyers. Crosby piled up a career-best six points in the game. Those critics figured Sid the Kid might have done something "special" if he'd received a little more ice time. By special, they mean he might have racked up eight or nine points. They reasoned, in a league starved for attention, that kind of night would have drawn some significant coverage, especially in the United States. In making their case, they pointed out the fact that Pittsburgh forwards Mark Recchi (20:11) and Ryan Malone (20:23) both received more ice time than Master Crosby (18:36).

This kind of chatter is well-intentioned, but I don't think it takes into account the aforementioned risk/reward aspect of such a decision. Therrien apparently did take it into account. When asked about his allocation of ice time, he reportedly explained that he wanted to manage his young star's minutes while not humiliating the Atlantic Division-rival Flyers.

That sounds pretty smart to me. It's particularly smart when you consider oversized defenseman Derian Hatcher still roams the Flyers' blue line. You remember big Hatch. Several moons ago, while skating for the Stars, he broke Jeremy Roenick's jaw with one nasty hit. I don't think you need to go out of your way to irritate the big guy.

A smart coach understands the big picture. He understands who he's playing against and all the history those players bring to the rink. With more than half the season still to be played, Therrien knows he's nowhere without his 19-year-old whiz kid. He also knows that losing coaches don't keep their jobs.

All those things considered, the coach made a very wise decision.

Someday, Crosby just might run up an eight-, nine- or 10-point night. The kid is that good. For now, he (and the rest of us) will have to settle for the six-point game. It's still pretty special.

Power trip

For the past several seasons, the Red Wings have been killing opponents with their highly potent power play. Last season, for example, the Wings converted on a league-best 22.1 percent of their man-advantage chances.

That's why it was so strange to see the Wings' power-play unit continue to struggle this season. In October, they connected on just six of 57 chances. In November, playing one more game, they compiled the same numbers. Through two months, they were just 12 for 114.

Despite the struggles, Detroit coach Mike Babcock didn't panic. Although they weren't scoring at their usual rate, and he couldn't pinpoint one particular thing that was going wrong, he noticed continued progress. Babcock thought his group was moving the puck and doing the things necessary for power-play success. Basically, he thought the unit, led by four-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom, would find its way.

And, it seems, they have.

In their first nine December games, the Wings have converted 13 of 53 power-play chances. In other words, they've scored one more power-play goal in their last nine games (entering Wednesday's tilt vs. Columbus) than they did in their first 23.

Babcock thinks confidence has a lot to do with the turnaround.

"When you have success, I think you get energy from it," Babcock said. "Because of that energy, I think we're winning a few more puck battles and shooting the puck a little more."

Still, the Wings' recent surge hasn't moved them very far up the league's power-play ranking. Through 32 games, Detroit is 24th in the league with a 15 percent success rate, well behind leaders Montreal (23.1), Anaheim (23.0) and San Jose (22.9).

"We dug ourselves quite a hole," Babcock said. "When you do that, it usually takes time to get out of it."

The Wings, currently five points behind the Central-leading Predators, seem to be doing just that. Don't be all that surprised if Detroit's power-play unit finds its way into the top 10 by season's end.

Random thoughts …

• I loved seeing Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier and Steve Yzerman (that could have been some line, huh?) at Madison Square Garden for a pregame ceremony before Tuesday's Rangers-Islanders tilt.

The three hockey legends were on hand to present silver sticks to Rangers stars Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan, who both passed the 600-goal mark earlier this season. The Rangers asked Lemieux, Jagr's former teammate with the Pens, and Yzerman, Shanahan's longtime Red Wings sidekick, to come to town for the presentation.

Hockey is a game that is rich in history. Credit the Rangers' brass for realizing that and taking advantage of it. More teams should do it, and the league should do more to encourage it. If that means paying former greats for their time, so be it. It's well worth it.

• This week, commissioner Gary Bettman reportedly met with representatives of both Steve Moore and Todd Bertuzzi to discuss the possibility of an out-of-court settlement in the multimillion-dollar civil suit filed by Moore. I don't know what Bettman can do to facilitate such a settlement, but he deserves credit for meeting with the parties. This suit won't be solved overnight and it eventually might end up in court, but it never hurts to seek common ground.

• Have you noticed just how goofy things are in the Northwest Division? After Tuesday's action, the entire division was separated by just two points. The first-place Flames, who've played the fewest games out of the five teams, have a one-point edge on the Oilers, Wild and Avs and a "comfortable" two-point cushion over the Canucks.

I don't know who's going to skate away with the Northwest crown (and probably the No. 3 seed in the West), but I like Minnesota's closing schedule. The Wild, who are currently 13-3-1 at home, play eight of their last nine at the Xcel Center, including a pair of home ice tilts against both the Flames and Oilers. Coach Jacques Lemaire's team also has a pair of home dates with the bottom-feeding Blues, as well as single games against the Coyotes and Kings. Minnesota's one road trip takes them to Denver for a showdown with the Avs. If the Wild can stay close, they'll have an excellent chance to win the division.

On the flip side, the Oilers, Avs and Flames face tougher closing schedules. Edmonton finishes the season with a six-game road trip, playing 16 of their final 26 games away from the friendly confines of Rexall Place. Colorado finishes with 14 of 20 games on the road, while Calgary closes with 10 of 17 away from home. The Avs are the only ones with a decent (8-8-1) road record out of the three.

• For what it's worth, I'm not sure we've seen the last of BlackBerry guru Jim Balsillie. In fact, I think there's still a reasonable chance he'll end up owning the Penguins. Stay tuned.

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.