1. Stars on schedule
It's been a strange year for the Dallas Stars.
They turned a page in the offseason, hiring neophyte GM Joe Nieuwendyk and veteran coach Marc Crawford. The team has yet to win more than two games in a row at any point this season, and yet the Stars were hanging on to the last playoff spot in the Western Conference as of Monday morning.
We're Not Done Yet ...
What to watch for this week
1. The Great Eight comes back Monday night from his Terrible Two for kneeing Tim Gleason last week, and it will be interesting to see if Alex Ovechkin modifies his play in the wake of his first NHL suspension.
There's been a lot of debate, including in this space, about whether Ovechkin has crossed the line between dynamic and dirty (he has) and whether his recent brushes with the NHL law suggest a blip on the radar or a personality defect that will require behavior modification.
The post-suspension diagnosis begins Monday night in Tampa and continues in Buffalo on Wednesday before what will surely be a warm homecoming Friday against Carolina, where this whole thing started. The Caps, for the record, were 2-0-0 and outscored Florida and Philadelphia 14-4 in Ovechkin's absence.
2. Somewhere John Stevens must have let slip at least one rueful chuckle as his former team, the Philadelphia Flyers, provided a glimpse of the team's significant ills in an 8-2 home loss to Washington on Saturday, a day after Stevens was fired. His replacement, Peter Laviolette, is a good coach and will get the Flyers turned around. They are the kind of team no one will want to face come playoff time, especially if the Flyers enter the postseason as a seventh or eighth seed (they started the week in 12th place in the East, three points out of eighth with two games in hand).
But Stevens was a good coach, too, and the problem is going to be in getting more out of a talented, youthful team. Laviolette won't get much time to do any teaching this week as the Flyers are in Montreal on Monday, host the Islanders on Tuesday and Ottawa on Thursday, and travel to New Jersey on Saturday. Talk about trial by fire.
3. Poor Carolina. The Canes haven't won a single game on the road this season (0-10-3), and this week suggests they will strengthen their grip on last place in the NHL as they travel to Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Washington and Ottawa. Interestingly, those four teams could be in the market for what will be a significant crop of potential free agents Carolina GM Jim Rutherford will be looking to unload before the March 3 trade deadline (the group includes Matt Cullen, Ray Whitney, Scott Walker and Niclas Wallin).
4.Thanks to the NHL schedule-makers, Phil Kessel won't have to wait long to try to again perfect the homecoming routine. Kessel and his Toronto Maple Leafs were crushed 7-2 in Boston on Saturday night. But the Leafs, who had won four of five before the debacle in Beantown, will be back in Boston on Thursday to try to make things right.
5. The San Jose Sharks have hit one of those little obstacles in their schedule that all good teams have, losing back-to-back home games against St. Louis and Calgary. The Blues scored a short-handed goal in the waning seconds to tie it in regulation before winning in a shootout, while the Flames came back to win 2-1 in a battle of two Western Conference powers Saturday night. Netminder Evgeni Nabokov had some choice words for defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic after the St. Louis loss. Home games this week against Los Angeles on Wednesday and Dallas on Friday will suggest whether the Sharks are back on track or moving sideways, a direction Sharks fans are more than a little familiar with come playoff time.
Take this to the bank
The Pittsburgh Penguins will entertain Carolina on Monday night in a rematch of last season's Eastern Conference finals, not that the Canes much resemble that overachieving squad (see above). The Penguins will likely see Sidney Crosby back in the lineup after he missed one game to rest a persistent groin problem.
Crosby has been on fire. He was tied for third in the NHL with 36 points and tied for second with 19 goals as of Monday morning, yet did not play in Saturday's highly anticipated 2-1 overtime loss to Chicago.
Look for coach Dan Bylsma to be extra cautious with his prize asset when the Pens are in Montreal on Thursday and host Florida on Saturday. Crosby has put aside questions about his production this season with 11 points in his last three games, but has acknowledged the groin has been an occasional concern. It's time to make sure it's not going to create bigger problems down the road when the games really matter.
One interesting change under the Nieuwendyk/Crawford regime was to establish a goaltending schedule from the start of the season, one that builds in days off and practice time for veteran netminder Marty Turco.
The former Canadian Olympian (he was the third man at the 2006 Torino Olympics) has lost four of five, but those losses are as much a function of lack of run support as goaltending acumen. He told ESPN.com he likes the idea of knowing when he's going to play.
"I've certainly got no problem with it if it's for the good of the team," Turco told us this week.
Despite his recent wobbles, Turco has turned in fine numbers, and there seems to be a direct relationship between his workload and his success historically. Turco has a 2.42 goals-against average and .916 save percentage so far. Through the first 28 games of this season, Turco has played six fewer games than last season, when he played 26 of 28 and got off to a difficult start, as did the entire Stars team.
During 2007-08, he had played 19 games through the first 28 as the Stars rolled into the playoffs through the Western Conference finals with Mike Smith as Turco's backup through the trade deadline.
Part of the success in the set schedule is that Turco's current backup, Alex Auld, has been very good and the two have a good relationship. Turco noted his most successful playoff years have been when he's played in the 60-game range, and he is on pace for something in that neighborhood this season.
"There's no need to play all those games," Turco said. "It just takes away from your practice time and your rest time."
There appear to be no plans to move away from extended scheduling of the Stars' netminders. The only thing that may impact that system will be Turco's future with the club. He is slated to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. Nieuwendyk will have to decide if Turco is going to fit into the team's plans moving forward, or if he will be further ahead to deal him by the trade deadline.
Turco said his feelings are well-known and he'd like to stay in Dallas indefinitely.
"That's not in my job description, to talk contracts," Turco said. "It's Joe's first year, he's got a lot on his plate. We'll deal with it when the time is right."
2. Hard lessons for Mason
It was interesting to listen to Columbus Blue Jackets goaltending coach Dave Rook describe what he thought was ailing his longtime charge, Steve Mason, who is enduring a prolonged case of the sophomore yips.
Mason, of course, made the significant leap from junior hockey to NHL rookie of the year last season. He led the NHL with 10 shutouts, finished second in Vezina Trophy voting with a 2.29 GAA and .916 save percentage and almost single-handedly led the Blue Jackets to their first playoff berth.
This season, though, it seems as if Mason might have let some of that rookie success go to his head.
"Basically, he had trouble handling the success he had last year," Rook told ESPN.com after Mason was lit up for four goals on 14 shots in a loss to Toronto last week and before he gave up three goals on 19 shots in a 3-2 loss to Colorado on Saturday. "Maybe it's not as easy as he thought it was."
He needs to make sure "he doesn't forget where he is and how much of a privilege it is to be here," said Rook, who worked with Mason when the goalie was a junior star in London of the OHL and joined the Blue Jackets staff this season.
Rook said Mason doesn't lack for confidence and continues to work hard, but the 21-year-old is still learning on the job. He pointed to another talented sophomore netminder, Pekka Rinne of Nashville, who spent time in the AHL before becoming the Preds' No. 1 goalie.
Mason, who is 1-7-0 in his last eight decisions and sports a bloated 3.44 GAA and .886 save percentage, is learning those lessons under the bright NHL lights.
"It's on-the-job training," Rook said. "Steve is learning this year what he should have learned last year. I don't think there's going to be any question Steve is going to be a heck of a goalie in the NHL for a long time."
3. Is it over already?
We were all set to give the Habs a not-so-gentle shot for their ability to drag their centennial celebration on for what seemed like, well, 100 years. But then we talked to colleague Pierre LeBrun, who got positively weepy discussing the Habs' pregame ceremony Friday that marked the 100th anniversary of their first game.
Given that, we will give the Habs a pass and just say this: Thank goodness centennials don't come around any more frequently. The Habs do ceremony better than just about anyone we've seen at any level in any sport. Their sense of history is indeed spectacular. And good for the current Habs lineup, one that is most charitably described as ordinary, for putting on a show and whipping the Bruins on Friday night to mark the occasion.
One interesting sideline of Friday's celebration, which included legends like Ken Dryden and Henri Richard taking the pregame skate, was the smattering of boos that greeted GM Bob Gainey, one of the most beloved of all Canadiens players. Juxtapose that against the rousing cheers for Patrick Roy, and you can almost see history unfolding. Roy will, at some point, return to the Habs in some sort of management/coaching position. And it won't take 100 years.
4. No investigations here
Until the NHL's deputy commissioner Bill Daly sends out the press release saying a team has been stripped of draft picks and fined $1 million for inking a dirty, long-term contract with a player, we vow never to mention the league's "investigations" into these deals.
Might as well investigate the Fountain of Youth or Cortez's gold. The league will have about as much success in turning up evidence in those matters as it will in finding a smoking gun in front-loaded contracts that peter out to almost nothing at the end of their terms, giving teams a break on the yearly cap hit.
It's simply good business, as Stan Bowman in Chicago, Paul Holmgren in Philadelphia, Peter Chiarelli in Boston or any other GM worth his salt will tell you. Do GMs and agents talk about the likelihood of say Marc Savard playing out the entire seven-year deal which he signed last week? Maybe. Who wouldn't wonder what a player's plans are vis a vis the future and possible retirement? It doesn't mean it's written in stone. If he plays out the entire seven-year deal, Savard will make peanuts ($525,000) in the final two years. Maybe he'll play to the end, maybe he won't.
Now, unless an agent or GM is stupid enough to put in writing something like this -- "Just so we're clear, Bill, Joey The Hammer will definitely retire after the first four years of this 13-year deal, right?" -- the NHL is going to come up empty in its "investigations." This is a matter that will be dealt with in the next collective bargaining agreement; but as for efforts to "chill" GMs with these investigations, the NHL has come up embarrassingly short.
5. The "hang around" factor
The "hang around" factor sure is impressive in both Denver and Phoenix. Both teams were expected to be battling it out for the top pick in the June draft, yet both remain firmly ensconced in the middle of the Western Conference playoff pack at the start of this week.
Joe Sacco's Avs have won only three of their past 10 outings, but have collected points in six of those games to keep themselves afloat. Perhaps even more impressive is the work done by Dave Tippett in Phoenix, where the Coyotes have won four in a row, including victories over conference foes Dallas, Anaheim, Calgary and Eastern-visiting Ottawa. The Coyotes got Ed Jovanovski back in the lineup Saturday and he scored against Ottawa.
Meanwhile, netminder Ilya Bryzgalov continues to be a rock for the Coyotes, who are tied for 26th in goals per game. The quirky Russian netminder will push Evgeni Nabokov for Olympic playing time in Vancouver if he keeps up this level of play (2.07 GAA and .922 save percentage, both top 10 in the league).
Stock up, stock down
Wayne Simmonds, Los Angeles Kings: The sophomore forward is tied for second on the Kings with nine goals, equaling his goal total over 82 games last season. Interestingly enough, the Scarborough, Ontario, native has yet to score a goal on the power play and is a plus-12, suggesting his five-on-five play has been exemplary. Simmonds has eight points in his past six games as the Kings continue to hold down a highly coveted playoff spot in the West.
Mike Green, Washington Capitals: Funny, for a defenseman who is on pace to put up 70-plus points for the second season in a row, Mike Green doesn't get much respect. After a four-point effort against Philadelphia on Saturday, including a game-winning goal, Green has 30 points in 28 games to lead all NHL defensemen (again) and is a plus-10. Still, no one gives him a shot to make the 2010 Canadian Olympic team. Go figure.
Ray Emery, Philadelphia Flyers: The former Ottawa netminder started the season on fire and looked like the comeback story of the season before losing five straight and six of seven. He was yanked in Saturday's blowout loss to Washington after giving up five goals on 17 shots and has given up 21 goals in his past five appearances. Not a particularly stellar way to impress your new boss, Peter Laviolette, by the way.
Ruslan Fedotenko, Pittsburgh Penguins: The streaky Russian has just one goal in 17 games and only one lonely assist through his last 10 games. How does that happen on a team with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby dishing the puck to wingers?
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.