1. It's not always sunny in Philadelphia
The great thing about the Philadelphia Flyers is they are only a heartbeat away from angst and controversy. We've heard some ominous words from defenseman Chris Pronger as the Flyers have lurched into the second third of the regular season outside the playoff bubble. It's hard to imagine given the talent and experience on this team, but sitting in ninth place (as of Monday morning) is a sobering reminder of how quickly feast can turn to famine in the NHL.
We're Not Done Yet ...
What to watch for this week
1. The New York Rangers, having fallen out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference thanks to a 3-6-0 run, will play host to the defending Stanley Cup champs Monday in the second of a home-and-home series with the Pens. The 10th-place Rangers better hope things go better in the second half of this duet after being bombed 8-3 in Pittsburgh on Saturday night. Steve Valiquette was in net after Henrik Lundqvist had absorbed a 5-1 loss against Tampa on Friday night and allowed a hat trick to suddenly hot Sidney Crosby, who had five points on the night. Look for Lundqvist to return Monday. But lately, it hasn't seemed to matter who has been between the pipes for the Blueshirts, prompting calls for a change in personnel. The problem for Rangers GM Glen Sather is he has boxed himself in with unwieldy contracts; unless he sends NHLers to the minors, he has little in the way of wiggle room.
2. Once upon a time, the New Jersey Devils couldn't win anywhere but the road. Now, the injury-plagued team is unbeatable at The Rock in Newark, where it has won six in a row. Go figure. Still, you wonder whether we won't see coach Jacques Lemaire pencil himself into the lineup if the injuries keep mounting. David Clarkson, off to a terrific start, is gone for up to six weeks with a fractured right ankle. Clarkson joins Rob Niedermayer, Johnny Oduya, Jay Pandolfo, Paul Martin and Dainius Zubrus on the shelf, although Oduya, Pandolfo and Niedermayer are expected to practice this week.
3. How wacky is this? The Columbus Blue Jackets rank first in power-play efficiency yet have sunk to 28th in the league in goals-against. The Atlanta Thrashers, historically one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL, are 12th in goals-against and second in the league in penalty killing. The Detroit Red Wings, the poster boys for sustained success, rank 28th on the penalty kill, while St. Louis, a team most believed would be an offensive force, ranks 30th on the power play. Boston, another offensive force last season, isn't much better, sitting at 26th with the man advantage and 29th in goals per game.
Do such anomalies herald a change in structure in the NHL, or are they mere blips on the radar through the first one-third of the season? What kind of changes will we see by the midpoint of the season or the trade deadline? We're guessing these numbers more closely reflect a new reality than an aberration. Check back with us at the Olympic break.
4. It won't have the same effect as when Dany Heatley first travels back to Ottawa, but it still should be an interesting moment when the Senators visit the Sharks on Tuesday in the first reunion of Heatley and the team he spurned in the offseason. Lots of baggage, including Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk's reported grieving of the loss of Heatley. As for the trade itself, Heatley has thrived, as expected, playing with NHL scoring leader Joe Thornton. Heatley has collected 18 goals, tied for second in the NHL, and the Sharks have surged to the top of the West standings. The Senators, meanwhile, have been a pleasant surprise, sitting in the middle of the East playoff pack, just a point out of the Northeast Division lead as of Monday morning. Milan Michalek, the centerpiece in the deal for the Sens, leads the team with 13 goals. Jonathan Cheechoo? The hoped-for renaissance in Ottawa hasn't happened; he has just two goals and is minus-6.
5. Tuesday marks the first home game for Chicago Blackhawks prize offseason acquisition Marian Hossa. The gifted winger joined the Hawks on their just-completed West Coast road trip and scored twice in his first game before being blanked in the next two. Still, it's a chance for the hometown fans to get a good gander at a guy who could be the tipping point for the Cup hopefuls this spring.
Take this to the bank
We often have taken the NHL's head disciplinarian, Colin Campbell, to task for what we (and a number of GMs) refer to as the Star Chamber method of meting out punishment for on-ice infractions. But we must acknowledge what appears to be a concerted effort to put a stop to dangerous hits and reckless play.
Matt Cooke of Pittsburgh and Patrick Kaleta of Buffalo both were suspended for a pair of games for dangerous hits on the New York Rangers' Artem Anisimov and Philadelphia's Jared Ross, respectively. Last week, the league suspended Montreal's Georges Laraque for a knee-on-knee hit that will keep Detroit's Niklas Kronwall out of action for up to two months.
This is the only way to send a message to the league's players that such play will not be tolerated. The more players who are suspended, the more likely change will be effected. Simple as that.
It wasn't that long ago that the Flyers won seven of eight and looked to take a run at the top of the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference. Now, they've lost five of six, and the offense has gone south as they've been outscored 21-11 over that span.
"I think at the end of the day, you look at our record, you look at the season to date for us, it's probably been a little more up and down than you'd like," Pronger told ESPN.com. "We thought we were kind of turning a corner there and kind of took a couple of steps backward.
"The first 20 games are done," added Pronger, who was acquired by the Flyers from Anaheim at this past June's draft in the hopes he would make them a Stanley Cup contender. "We've got to start looking at ourselves in the mirror and understanding that we've got to play for one another in this locker room or there are going to be changes. At the end of the day, it's a results-oriented business and we've got to play better."
Coach John Stevens points to a couple of issues that might explain the team's recent woes, including injuries to heart-and-soul forwards Blair Betts and Darroll Powe, and the uncertain status of oft-injured center Daniel Briere.
"We've moved some kids up and asked a lot of them, [Claude] Giroux and [James] van Riemsdyk," Stevens said. "If there's an area of concern through the last probably six games, it's special teams. We give up too many goals when the other team's on the power play, and our power play has not been consistent enough. And when it is, we usually win games."
The Flyers' wacky schedule continues this week; they play just twice, at home against Vancouver and Washington.
2. Trade deadline compression
Things always get a little crazy around trade deadline time, but imagine the bind GMs will be in this season when they are faced with a roster freeze that extends over the Olympic break. The freeze begins at 3 p.m. ET Feb. 12 and ends Feb. 28, just days before the 3 p.m. ET March 3 deadline.
A number of GMs told ESPN.com that it will make for a frenzy once the roster freeze is lifted after the gold-medal game that Sunday in Vancouver. GMs who like to do their shopping early, like Peter Chiarelli of Boston, will find life a little more difficult this time around.
"For me, if I can do a deal before the deadline, I try and do it," he said. "Now I've got a two-week gap where I can't do it."
GMs can talk over that period of time when rosters are frozen, but it will make for some interesting back-and-forth once players actually can be moved after the Olympics. The alternative will be to try to make a move before the Olympic break, but, as Chiarelli points out, teams often wait until the last days to see how they're playing at the deadline. Teams will play just once after the break before the deadline.
The other issue will be taking on salary before the Olympic break. Because contracts are pro-rated, the earlier a player is acquired, the more it costs his new team against the cap. For teams like Chicago and the New York Rangers, those extra two weeks might be crucial and force them to wait until after the Olympic break to make a deal even if they have one to be made.
3. Don't cry for me, Miikka
People have been ripping Calgary Flames netminder Miikka Kiprusoff for saying he isn't interested in going to the Olympics unless he's the No. 1 guy. Fair enough. We're pretty sure the Sutter boys, Brent and Darryl, would be happier if Kiprusoff, who is tied for fourth in the NHL with 14 wins, took a couple of weeks off in the middle of the season.
Kiprusoff is sure within his rights to voice his opinions. We like that. But it sure isn't very Olympic-like, is it? And it's put Finnish GM Jari Kurri and the rest of the country's Olympic brain trust in a bind.
Kiprusoff is the best Finnish goalie in the world right now. No question. But if management comes out and names him the starter, does it look to everyone, including the rest of the Finns who will share a dressing room with Kiprusoff in Vancouver, like they've conceded to demands? Or do they refuse to budge on naming a starter and accept they might have to go with Niklas Backstrom (not a bad second choice, obviously) and/or Pekka Rinne or Antero Niittymaki, who was judged the best goalie in Torino four years ago when the Finns won a surprise silver medal?
A difficult position thanks to Kiprusoff's candidness. Us? We'd bite the bullet. Of course, we don't have to worry about a gang of angry Finns waylaying us on the way home from work if the team finishes out of the medals in February.
4. Here's to you, Tuukka
Speaking of Finnish goaltenders ...
After a disappointing start to the regular season, the Boston Bruins have resurfaced and taken over, at least temporarily, the top spot in the Northeast Division. The interesting thing is their renaissance, especially defensively, has come mostly with youngster Tuukka Rask manning the twine, not defending Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas.
Controversy in Beantown? Hardly. In fact, if you talk to Chiarelli, this all has been part of the plan. Well, not winning just six of the first 15 games, but having a goaltending tandem that now ranks among the best in the NHL.
Thomas has been bothered of late by a lower-body injury. He has been able to dress, as Rask started six straight games before Thomas got the nod in Saturday's shootout win over Ottawa. During that time, Rask allowed more than three goals just once and turned in a 4-1-1 record, including a shootout loss against New Jersey in which he allowed just one goal through the first 65 minutes of regulation and overtime play.
"It's on merit, and he deserves the games," Chiarelli told ESPN.com of Rask's recent starts, the most in his young NHL career.
The team made it clear to Rask that he would have to spend time in the minors to learn his craft before he got a shot at the NHL. Although Manny Fernandez provided more than adequate support for Thomas last season, Rask was given a chance to handle those duties this season and has responded with a sparkling 2.02 GAA, second in the NHL, and .929 save percentage, fourth in the league.
"He's more mature mentally, for certain, and he's more mature physically," Chiarelli said.
As for the possibility of Chiarelli dealing one of his goaltenders, don't look for that to happen; he likes the look of his goaltending now and down the road.
"It just shows the solidification of our goaltending situation for now and the future," he said.
5. Leafland angst
Funny how things go in Toronto. For years, the frequent lament was that super center and captain Mats Sundin never had anyone to play with on the wings. Now, the Leafs have a legitimate sniper in Phil Kessel, who has eight goals in 12 games since joining the Toronto lineup after his acquisition from Boston. Now, folks are wondering why there isn't a bonafide NHL center to get Kessel the puck. Some people are never satisfied. Guess that's what a 43-year Cup drought will get you.
Stock up, stock down
Brad Richards, Dallas Stars: Richards has 10 points in his past five games, including a four-point outing against New Jersey. The former playoff MVP and Canadian Olympian is fourth in NHL scoring, and making Steve Yzerman and the Canadian Olympic folks take notice.
Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks: Yes, we know, we didn't have the NHL's leading scorer on our Canadian Olympic roster. And it's going to be hard to keep Thornton out of Vancouver, especially given that he's riding an eight-game points streak during which he's collected 15 points.
Jason Demers, San Jose Sharks: The rookie defenseman was an early-season luminary, collecting 10 points in his first 15 NHL games for the Sharks. But his production slowed, and Sharks GM Doug Wilson sent Demers back to the team's AHL affiliate. Wilson told the San Jose Mercury News that fellow rookie Derek Joslin had earned the right to stay with the team with veteran Rob Blake coming off injured reserve.
Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers: The King seems to have lost his crown in Gotham as Lundqvist is 5-9-1 in his past 15 appearances for the sliding Rangers. The record might be a reflection of poor team defense, but the bottom line is the Rangers need to get better production from one of the game's elite goaltenders or they can forget about the playoffs.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.