Brodeur's back, but are the Pens?

Stock Up, Stock Down

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Toronto Maple Leafs: Here we go again. The annual late-season, gutsy yet ultimately fruitless charge by the Toronto Maple Leafs after all hope has been lost. Still, it's interesting to see what the Leafs have managed to accomplish in recent days, winning four straight games and gaining points in nine of their past 11 contests. Leaf Nation has its calculators out and is debating the permutations that would see the Leafs sneak into the postseason for the first time since the lockout. The team begins the week in 11th place, just seven points out of the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

Stock Down

Darcy Tucker, Colorado Avalanche: The onetime popular Toronto Maple Leaf has managed just one goal in his past 23 games as the Colorado Avalanche have free-fallen to the bottom of the Western Conference standings. The Avs, by the way, are in the midst of their third four-game losing streak since Jan. 31 and may well be the worst team in the NHL at this juncture of the season.

-- Scott Burnside

1. Too bad Martin Brodeur collected all that rust resting up from his elbow injury, huh?

Yes, he's a shadow of his former self. Or not.

Since returning to action Thursday night, all Brodeur has done is go 3-0-0 with two shutouts and allow just two goals on 68 shots, including wins on back-to-back days this past weekend. In short order, Brodeur, who now has 100 career shutouts (three short of Terry Sawchuk's NHL-record 103), has written another chapter to his glorious story.

After Brodeur missed four months of play while recovering from elbow surgery, the first serious injury of his career, one might have imagined he would be eased back into the Devils' lineup and would be somewhat rusty. Neither of those things has happened, and it's entirely within the realm of possibility that Brodeur will run the table and pass Patrick Roy's record for consecutive wins with eight straight victories.

For those keeping count at home, if Brodeur were to continue to play every game and win them all, he would establish a record in his hometown of Montreal on Saturday, March 14. Might be too much to expect given all the variables, but given Brodeur's shocking return from injury, maybe we should just pencil in that date as history in the making.

Bigger picture: Brodeur's return also has seen the Devils jump into second place in the Eastern Conference standings as New Jersey positions itself for what could be a long postseason run, with an obviously well-rested Brodeur leading the way.

2. Are the Pittsburgh Penguins really back?

Well, our eagle eyes have ascertained that, yes, the Penguins are back in the playoff bracket. Barely, but back. The acquisition of Chris Kunitz from Anaheim on Thursday has paid immediate dividends, as the Penguins have won both games since he has joined the lineup and squirmed their way into eighth place in the East as the week begins.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Penguins' return to a playoff position is the continued emergence of Evgeni Malkin as the NHL's best player. Oh, we know every one loves Alex Ovechkin, and there is no disputing his greatness, but Malkin is virtually carrying the Penguins on his back as they try to crawl back into the playoff picture despite significant personnel changes and injuries since last season.

Malkin had a goal and two assists as the Penguins defeated the Stars 4-1 on Sunday in Dallas. The Pens have won three straight games, all of which have come without the services of captain Sidney Crosby (groin injury). Malkin has 12 points in his past eight games and continues to lead all NHLers with 92 points (10 more than Ovechkin). We concede that Ovechkin, who leads the league with 46 goals, gets more highlight-reel time. But when it comes time to pick a league MVP, if the Pens are in the playoffs, our vote will go to Malkin.

3. What will happen in Minnesota?

Things don't look good on a number of fronts for the team in the state of hockey (more like a state of uncertainty as the Wild stagger into the final quarter of the NHL season).

After watching free agents Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston depart during the summer, there is word out of Minnesota that GM Doug Risebrough might have trouble bringing netminder Niklas Backstrom under contract and will at least test the market for the team's No. 1 netminder before the NHL trade deadline on Wednesday.

The problem for the Wild is that Backstrom, who could be an unrestricted free agent July 1, is the main reason Minnesota isn't buried in the Western Conference standings. The underappreciated Finn is tied for fourth in the NHL in goals-against average (2.24) and is fourth outright in save percentage (.925). He has played the seventh-most minutes of any goaltender in the league for a team that ranks 26th in goals scored per game. The Wild, losers of three straight, are in 10th place in the West, just outside the playoff bubble and two points out of eighth place.

One has to wonder when the honeymoon will run out for GM Doug Risebrough and coach Jacques Lemaire, who have just one successful playoff season to their credit since the franchise came into existence in 2000. The Wild have not won a playoff round since reaching the Western Conference finals in 2003, and their chances of making the playoffs at all this season, let alone winning a round, are growing dimmer by the moment.

It appears the team's best hope for immediate salvation lies with the return of erstwhile sniper Marian Gaborik, who has missed all but six games with a hip injury. The rub here is it appears Gaborik also will walk away July 1 as a free agent. If Backstrom also goes, it's hard to imagine there won't be a call for change in Minnesota, which has long held itself up as a model of consistency.

4. Has Steve Mason in Columbus wrapped up the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year?

Uh, not so fast, voters. Although Mason remains a top candidate for top rookie honors and may in fact garner some consideration for both the Vezina and Hart Trophies if the Blue Jackets (currently in sixth place in the Western Conference) hang on for their first playoff berth, do not discount Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators.

The first-year netminder, who looked to spend most of the season watching last year's playoff hero Dan Ellis in net, has been instrumental in Nashville's surge back into the playoff picture in the West. Surprisingly, Rinne's numbers are not all that dissimilar to those posted by Mason, who has been getting all the headlines in recent weeks. After shutting out the Red Wings 8-0 on Saturday, Rinne had compiled an impressive 9-2-1 record in February. His six shutouts are two fewer than Mason's league-best eight.

The 26-year-old Rinne ranks third in the league with a .926 save percentage and second with a 2.15 goals-against average, just ahead of Mason, who dropped to third in GAA after Sunday's 3-1 loss to Vancouver. In short, the 6-foot-5 Rinne, selected with the 258th pick in the 2004 draft, is every bit as deserving of hardware consideration as Mason, especially if the Preds manage to sneak into the playoffs, possibly at the expense of Mason and the Blue Jackets.

5. What happens in the league offices on trade-deadline day to make sure everything is on the up and up?

Thanks to our friends in the NHL's communications office, here's what will happen Wednesday when things get crazy.

When two teams agree on a deal, they have to inform the league either by phone or fax of the terms of the deal. The league then schedules a conference call between the two teams to go over the details and finalize the trade. Before the call, the league examines the deal to make sure the teams in question have the salary-cap room to make the deal. When draft picks are involved, league officials check to make sure the team has those picks it is trying to trade.

One of five league officials -- Julie Grand, Jessica Berman, Daniel Ages, Brandon Pridham and Sean McLeod -- then makes the call from the NHL's New York offices. The officials ensure both sides are aware of the contractual obligations to their new assets and that if a player has a no-trade or no-movement clause, he has duly waived it. The league requires written confirmation from the player that he has waived the clause before it will confirm a trade. That confirmation must include a list of teams to which he has agreed to be traded to, if applicable, as it would be in the case of Toronto's Tomas Kaberle.

The trade becomes official after the call, which usually takes between 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the complexity of the deal.

As you know, the deadline is Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET.

Given the potential for the backup of calls as the deadline nears, a deal can be consummated even if the call hasn't taken place before 3 p.m. However, the league must be informed of the specific details of any and all transactions by phone or fax before 3 p.m., else they won't be approved.

To ensure there are no problems (we recall a trade once being nixed between Boston and Toronto when a fax machine jammed in the Maple Leafs' offices and the deal never reached the league offices until after the deadline passed), the league synchronizes all of its clocks and faxes with the Eastern Time Zone clock at www.time.gov. Teams are aware of this and are suggested to likewise synchronize their own clocks to ensure there are no problems.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.