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Saturday, January 3, 2009
Kovalchuk ready to break out

The holidays are finally behind us, we're nearing the NHL regular season's midway point, and it's high time some experienced stars get their respective acts together. Those who have been in the league for a while understand and appreciate the value of scoring, and winning, in those winter months leading up to the playoffs. It's not that they haven't been trying up to this point, but some unidentifiable element within, more mental than anything, kicks into another gear. That's when the points really start adding up and fantasy owners can reap the benefits.

One of the biggest challenges of fantasy sports is the art of anticipation. If you can figure out who's going to do what, next, you'll sit atop any league indefinitely. This is why Ilya Kovalchuk could be a great asset at the moment. Sure, he's had a fairly dismal season when it comes to scoring, by his standards, and he's not playing with the supporting talent he's benefited from in the past; but the former first pick overall is still one of the best forwards in the league. Never mind the measly 13 goals -- Kovalchuk appears angry, frustrated and ready to explode; and that explosion could easily transcribe itself onto the scoreboard. Once he gets on a roll, the goals will start coming in bunches. Look for Kovalchuk to build on the goal and assist he tallied in the Thrashers' 4-3 shootout win over Vancouver on Friday night. This guy is worth trading for now, if you can swing it. Plus, there's a good possibility he could be dealt to another (better) team before the season is out, and that only adds to his value.

One of last season's nicest surprises, Alexei Kovalev hasn't had the follow-up season most expected. With only nine goals and 28 points thus far, it's a disappointment, to be sure. But there's still a lot of games left, and Kovalev's numbers have improved, month by month. He's still playing hard, so the desire appears to be there, and it seems to be only a matter of time before he really gets rolling. The Canadiens are missing several key players to injury (Alex Tanguay, Saku Koivu, Christopher Higgins etc.), so Kovalev has little choice but to lead this team in its surge toward a playoff berth. There's no way this guy, if healthy, finishes the season with less than 70 points. So, mathematically, he has some work to do.

Another skater in Montreal who needs to jack it up a notch is Robert Lang. The lone veteran presence on the Habs' second line with young lads Sergei Kostitsyn and Matt D'Agostini, it's up to Lang to provide the team with more balanced scoring. Kovalev can't be responsible for winning all on his own. Yes, Lang may be 38 years old, but he's been a point-per-game player in the past and still gets a good chunk of ice time and opportunities on the power play. And playing alongside a couple of excitable youngsters with something to prove could also boost his production. Lang may be slumping now (zero points in his past four games), but that won't last. Not if the Canadiens are going to win games, anyway.

Ice Chips

However unfair, there will be no payout for those fantasy owners who showed great patience with Marian Gaborik's injury woes this year. The former all-star is opting for hip surgery and will miss most, if not all, of the remainder of the regular season. … Steve Mason's three-game shutout streak ended in the most pleasant way possible, with a 6-1 victory over Colorado. After allowing Darcy Tucker to score in the first period, Mason settled in and shut the door on the Avalanche for the rest of the game. Others would have become rattled and the maturity shown by this 20-year old has been unbelievable. … As for Columbus' offense, Manny Malhotra notched his first two assists since being recently promoted to the top line alongside Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius. Nash registered four points (he has eight in his past four games) and Huselius scored twice for his first multi-goal game of the season. … With Simon Gagne out for a spell, young Claude Giroux is getting quite the opportunity in Philadelphia. The 20-year-old earned his second assist in as many games, skating with Mike Knuble and Mike Richards on the second line. He's also getting chances on the power play. This kid is being given the chance to make his mark, at least until Gagne or Daniel Briere returns, and no one seems entirely sure when that will happen. … Rick DiPietro managed to stay healthy enough for 60 minutes to allow five goals on 33 shots in the Islanders' 5-4 loss to Phoenix. This simply isn't DiPietro's year and recent history dictates it's only a matter of time before he pulls or strains something else. Leave him be. … For the Coyotes, Mikael Tellqvist won his second game in a row and played quite well, despite the four goals allowed. The Coyotes' No. 1, Ilya Bryzgalov, will reportedly start Sunday (his sore back is better), but Tellqvist is slated to start Wednesday. … Ales Hemsky's broken nose has morphed into a mild concussion and he's listed as day-to-day. Hemsky is the Oilers' runaway leader in scoring with 35 points.