Stock Up, Stock Down
Patrick Sharp, Chicago Blackhawks: Sharp returned to the Blackhawks' lineup after missing 16 games with a knee injury and had two goals and an assist in Chicago's 4-1 win over Los Angeles on Sunday. The win snapped a five-game losing streak for the Hawks (0-3-2) and vaulted them back into fourth place in the Western Conference and what would be home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Mikko Koivu, Minnesota: The Wild's top scorer went down with a knee injury during Sunday's 3-0 victory over Edmonton and his availability against the New York Rangers on Tuesday is doubtful. Through Sunday's games, the Wild, who are in a life-and-death struggle to qualify for the playoffs, are tied for ninth place, one point out of the last playoff berth in the Western Conference.
-- Scott Burnside
1. When will you join the ranks of those caterwauling about the Detroit Red Wings' goaltending?
OK, here's the deal. I can't in all good conscience suggest the Wings are as good between the pipes as everyone else in the Western Conference, but I also refuse to suggest a team that is going to be among the top three teams in the NHL, a team that is the defending Stanley Cup champion, is anything but an elite squad capable of doing it all again. And the more you talk to Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin, the goalies whom many will question in the coming days, the more we think the Wings are in for the long haul once again.
"We've got a good team," Osgood told ESPN.com this week. "Even last year, everything wasn't going perfect. We were struggling to score some games last year, like February we barely scored.
"This year, our goals came so easy and we scored so much, I think all of a sudden we forgot that we had to play defense too and it kind of caught up to us in a few games, which it's better now than later. We really were hit-and-miss. We'd be good in our own end for two games, then terrible for two. Probably the worst I've seen us since I've been here. Lately, we've been a lot more patient and we've figured out that we've got to get back to how we played last year."
In fact, the Red Wings are 7-1-1 in their past nine games and have given up three or fewer goals in all but two of those contests. They also established an NHL record last week when they hit the 100-point mark for the ninth straight season.
On a personal note, Osgood had a mini leave of absence a few weeks back and has returned with renewed focus, winning four straight starts and allowing three or fewer goals in all of them.
"I feel good," he said. "That was the longest struggle ever, that whole first half of the season more or less. Since Christmas, I've felt pretty good. I've got to work with [goaltending coach] Jimmy Bedard for three days, which was really good, just on my foot speed and just doing subtle movements in my crease. I came back and my mind was clear and I felt real good.
"At the start of the year, we weren't playing good defense, but I wasn't playing good either or I wasn't making the saves when I had to. Then, when you start letting in goals, I don't care who you are, you start to overthink it or thinking a little bit too much, probably more than I should have, instead of just playing and enjoying it.
"I was kind of expecting to pick up where I left off last year against Pittsburgh," Osgood added. "In reality, that's just not going to happen because that was like a two-month zone. In that aspect, I put too much pressure on thinking I've got to be that guy throughout the whole year instead of just playing game by game and being me."
As for who will get the nod in the playoffs, look to Osgood, who carried the Wings to their fourth Cup since 1997 last spring with a 14-4 record.
"I know our guys look forward to it," Osgood said. "I mean, at the start of the year, we looked and it's like we're at the bottom of this mountain and we've got to go all the way to the top to get back to the playoffs again, and I think now you're really seeing us playing the way we're capable of playing. I'm noticing way more focus than we ever have been all year long, so that's a good thing."
2. Do the Ottawa Senators have a chance at sneaking into the playoffs?
Well, technically, yes. Realistically, no. Still, the resurgent Sens have put the lie to the notion that teams not in the playoff mix will tank to gain a better draft position. Clubs like Atlanta and the New York Islanders refute the notion the NHL should revamp its draft lottery system given the way they've played down the stretch.
But back to the Senators. After beating the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, the Sens began the week seven points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference. In Ottawa's favor is the fact the Canadiens are continuing their nuclear meltdown and their hold on the last playoff berth is tenuous at best. The two teams between Ottawa and Montreal -- Florida and Buffalo -- are both struggling and the Sens have both Florida and Montreal on their schedule. The problem is both those games, along five others remaining on their schedule, are on the road. That's not good for a team that will likely have to go 8-2-0 in its final 10 to get into the postseason. It's a lot to ask.
3. What about the Anaheim Ducks? Too little, too late, or realistic playoff team?
Like a lot of teams in the bottom half of the Western Conference, the Ducks are like that character in Monty Python's "Holy Grail" flick: "But I'm not dead yet!"
The Ducks are fascinating because they still have a strong core of players left over from their 2007 Stanley Cup win, including future Hall of Famers Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Chris Pronger, not to mention one of the top money goalies of this generation, Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
They began the week on a three-game winning streak and have won four of five. They were tied with Minnesota in ninth, one point out of eighth with 10 games to go. They play in Nashville on Tuesday in a huge game and have two more dates with Edmonton, another team on the playoff bubble. One thing is for sure: Teams like Detroit and San Jose are hoping the Ducks falter, because Anaheim is a team that could provide more than a stern test in the first round.
4. So, could you identify Bryan Little if you saw him on the street?
Funny you should ask that. After sitting down with him the other day at the Atlanta Thrashers' practice facility, the answer is, yes we can. The other way to identify Little is to start at the top of the NHL's goal-scoring leaders and go down a smidgen until you get to 14th. Little has 31 goals, tying him with Jarome Iginla and putting him ahead of players with more familiar names like Patrik Elias, Henrik Zetterberg, Sidney Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier, Pavel Datsyuk and Jonathan Toews.
So, has he been following his exploits in the standings? Not really, he told ESPN.com recently.
"I looked at it at the start of the season when I was even doing better and that's when it seemed like a couple of games later I went on kind of a 10-game slump," said the 21-year-old Little, who was the 12th overall pick in the 2006 draft.
Little, a natural center, was moved to the wing at the start of the season by rookie coach John Anderson. It's a move that has paid huge dividends.
"I think the biggest difference for me this year is I'm more confident handling the puck and I'm more confident and patient when I do get it in front of the net instead of last year, when I'd kind of just grip my stick tight and just try and get a shot on net," Little said. "I just feel more comfortable this year."
Anderson had Little for part of last season in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves, for whom Little managed just nine goals in 34 games. Is the Thrashers' coach surprised by the blossoming young forward?
"I believed that he could do that. This quickly? No. I wouldn't have thought that," Anderson said. "It just goes to show you how quickly it can turn around for a guy. And I'll tell you, conversely, it can turn the other way, too. Next year, we have to make sure he comes in the same shape and with the same thought process.
"Knowing Bryan as I do, I'm not totally inside his head yet, but I think that he's not that type of person," Anderson added. "He's got there because he works hard and he's one of those guys that wants to score … so I don't think I'll have to get in his kitchen too much, hopefully."
Former NHL goalie and current national analyst Darren Eliot said Little's 30-plus goals may be the quietest in the NHL, but it bodes well for a team that historically hasn't drafted and/or developed players well. "He's completely remade himself," Eliot said of Little. "You can see him doing this every year for the foreseeable future."
Little is tied for seventh among all Canadian goal-scorers this season; only Dany Heatley (34) has more goals among those players who aren't likely to make the playoffs. It explains why Little is on Canada's short list for a spot on its World Championship team this spring in Switzerland.
"All of a sudden, it's a young core that gets to grow together," Eliot said.
And maybe the emergence of players like Little may even convince captain Ilya Kovalchuk to hang around.
5. Who do you think will end up coaching the United States and Canada at the World Championships this spring in Switzerland?
Interesting issues for Doug Armstrong and Pierre Gauthier (Canada) and Brian Burke (United States) as they put together teams that in many ways will serve as warm-ups for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
The Americans will hold a conference call Tuesday to discuss their coaching staffs and may make an announcement later this week, ESPN.com has learned.
The obvious choice would seem to be Peter Laviolette, the former coach of the Carolina Hurricanes and the U.S. entry at the 2006 Torino Games. Ron Wilson, Burke's bench boss in Toronto, will also be available, as will Mike Sullivan, an assistant with Tampa Bay.
The Canadian picture is far murkier and a decision may not come until close to the end of the regular season. Expect former New York Rangers coach Tom Renney to get a look, but there are top coaches in the Western Conference who will also be on the Canadian radar depending on how the ultra-tight playoff race finishes up. Dave Tippett in Dallas and Andy Murray in St. Louis are both hoping to be unavailable, but both would be stellar choices if their teams falter. Craig MacTavish in Edmonton and Barry Trotz in Nashville would also be nice additions if their teams stumble down the stretch.
"We're going to allow it to play itself out for another 10 days or so," GM Armstrong told ESPN.com on Monday.
Although Hockey Canada officials will reach out to Wayne Gretzky to gauge his interest, don't look for the Phoenix Coyotes coach to be in the mix, given his desire to take a step back from international hockey.
On the player front, one thing to watch for with the Canadians: Armstrong et al may bring players to Switzerland and ask them to play out of position, specifically centers. Why? Armstrong said top centers will likely have to play the wing in Vancouver given the terrific depth at that position among Canadian players.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.