Updated: March 22, 2010, 5:00 PM ET

Sharks falling; Miller focused on playoff run

Burnside By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com
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1. A predictable fall?

OK, hands up for anyone who thinks the San Jose Sharks could beat anyone in the Western Conference playoff bracket right now? Joe Thornton, put your hand down. You too, Evgeni Nabokov. Your votes don't count, especially after losing 5-1 to the worst team in the NHL (Edmonton) on Sunday.

The Sharks have lost five straight in regulation, are winless in six and have fallen out of first place in the Pacific Division, relinquishing the top spot to surging Phoenix. If the playoffs began Monday, the Sharks would face the Nashville Predators, a team they have beaten twice in the playoffs since the lockout.

Maybe they'll get their act together in their final 10 games and produce the kind of inspired playoff performance their talent has been foretelling for years. Maybe. But don't bet on it.

[+] EnlargeDany Heatley
Don Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesDany Heatley has just one goal in his past six games for the Sharks.

Last season, the Sharks won the Presidents' Trophy as the top team after the regular season. They were on cruise control for most of the last half before stutter-stepping into the playoffs, losing three of their final six and then being handled with surprising ease by the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round.

Watching the Sharks stumble through the last quarter of this season, especially after Thornton, Dany Heatley, Dan Boyle and Patrick Marleau should have been energized by Canada's gold-medal turn at the Olympics, we are reminded of that old playoff adage: There is no switch that conveniently gets turned on come playoff time. If any team should know about that fruitless search for said switch, it's the Sharks. Or not.

2. Sabres' Miller striving for Cup run

We were joking with Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller the other day about the Olympic quote provided by Russian netminder Ilya Bryzgalov -- one of the only quotes provided by the reluctant Russians in Vancouver -- after their loss in the quarterfinals when Bryzgalov suggested Canada had come at them "like gorillas let out of a cage."

We suggested to Miller he was going to have to up the ante on quotes, but he said he wouldn't be providing that kind of gem, at least not until the playoffs.

Which brings us to an interesting question about Miller, who looks to have an inside track on the Vezina Trophy and will likely get some consideration for the Hart Trophy as league MVP: What kind of emotional toll did the Olympics and his stellar silver-medal performance take on him and can he replicate that level of play come April?

"Our goals certainly are not to simply mosey into the playoffs, it's to be a championship team," Miller said. "It just got to the point in the last two seasons where it was just like, 'OK, let's try and make the playoffs.' You can't do that one. It's nice to think of it as a goal, but really, you should be striving to be playing for championship hockey."

Miller said there is a chance to learn something from the U.S. experience at the Olympics.

"We went in with an attitude where we weren't expected to win, but we thought we could and we were hungry and we were motivated, and it should be how this locker room feels in Buffalo," Miller said. "We're not expected to win, but we can and we expect to."

Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, an assistant on the Canadian team that punctured the Americans' hopes in overtime in the gold-medal game, said he's talked to Miller and hopes he embraces that experience and uses it moving forward this spring in the playoffs.

"I really think it's helpful, but I understand the emotions he went through and the way the tournament went for him," Ruff said. "A guy like Ryan's so competitive, it should be used the other way. Now we've got one other goal, you've got one more chance to accomplish something else, and I've seen that focus, I've heard it from him personally.

"I know it's not easy. He knows it's not easy. He's one of the more focused and more determined individuals you'll ever talk to," Ruff added. "I think he's done a good job of putting most of it behind him. In his case, he's got to embrace what happened. That part-time job is done, and now it's working together for really what we started the year for, and that was to try and be a championship team."

So far, so good. Miller has piled up an impressive 6-2-0 record, including three straight wins, after losing his first post-Olympic start.

3. Canes keep fighting

We have said this before, but it bears repeating: It's pretty much a given Carolina coach Paul Maurice won't draw a single vote for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. That's what happens when you've got a guy like Dave Tippett pulling rabbits out of his coaching hat every night in Phoenix. And let's be honest, there's rarely much voting traction for a coach whose team at one point went 14 games without a win and managed to win just three times in 23 games before the season was two months old.

Still, the Hurricanes remain a shining example of a team that never says die even when faced with wholesale personnel turnover. Since Jan. 1, the Canes have reeled off winning streaks of three games, four games and seven games. They have lost three in a row in regulation only once over that period. Even with Sunday's 5-3 loss to Buffalo, Carolina woke up Monday with a 20-11-1 record since January and was still talking about an outside shot at the playoffs.

That likely won't happen (the Canes were in 12th as of Monday morning, eight points out with 10 games to go), but you have to love the job Maurice has done in keeping his squad on task. The Canes' quiet revolution is also a testament to the faith GM Jim Rutherford has in his young players, guys like Brandon Sutter, who has 18 goals in 62 games and has become the team's undisputed second-line center behind Eric Staal. Or rookie defenseman Jamie McBain, who recently scored an overtime winner against Pittsburgh, or Justin Peters, who has filled in admirably with starting netminder Cam Ward on the shelf.

The team has managed to improve its penalty-killing efficiency, is lights-out at home and, perhaps more importantly, has started an evolutionary process months ahead of schedule.

Maurice said there wasn't a secret formula for the turnaround; players were just simply sick of being embarrassed.

"Guys felt responsible and terrible for where we were at," Maurice told ESPN.com. "I think the guys just got sick of feeling bad."

Even when Rutherford and Maurice decided to start introducing young players like Sutter into the mix, veteran players didn't grumble although their ice time dwindled.

"They weren't happy about it, but they didn't tear it apart," Maurice said.

Eventually, players like Scott Walker, Matt Cullen, Niclas Wallin, Aaron Ward and Joe Corvo were all dealt for draft picks or prospects, and the Canes have continued to surprise.

"As painful as this has been, it's the best thing that could happen to our development," Maurice said. "We ended up answering a lot of questions."

If there is a downside, it's that the Canes, who looked early on to be a draft lottery team lock, have won themselves out of contention for the top pick. Still, we figure Maurice et al wouldn't have it any other way.

4. Oh, Joel

Gotta love Joel Quenneville (us Windsor, Ontario, guys have to stick together after all), but he does have a way with hyperbole.

After James Wisniewski crushed Brent Seabrook against the end glass last week, immobilizing the Chicago defenseman and drawing an eight-game suspension, the Blackhawks coach suggested it was the kind of hit that could "kill a guy."

"It's the most dangerous hit in the history of the game. He tried to hurt him," Quenneville told reporters after the game. "If that's not intent, that's as bad a hit as you can ever have in the game."

It made us think of Quenneville's reaction to a roughing penalty handed out to Matt Walker during the Western Conference finals last spring against Detroit. After that Game 4, Quenneville said, "I think we witnessed probably the worst call in the history of sports there."

That bon mot earned Quenneville a $10,000 fine.

If Quenneville keeps this up, he'll be in line to become a sports columnist.

For the record, Anaheim GM Bob Murray was quick to suggest that maybe Quenneville ought to stick to coaching instead of analysis after the Wisniewski hit.

"I played in Chicago for a long time, I lived in the city of Chicago, it used to be a black-and-blue town, it didn't have whiners," Murray said during a conference call after the suspension was handed down. "I strongly suggest Joel worries about his goaltending and stops trying to run the National Hockey League. He should worry about coaching."

Now if only we could get the Ducks and the Hawks to meet in the playoffs. Wouldn't that be a show?

5. Another curious moment

One of the more curious moments for a team defined by the curious and downright bizarre was the decision by Tampa Bay Lightning GM Brian Lawton to summarily dispatch assistant coach Wes Walz during the Olympic break and replace him with his buddy Jim Johnson.

Walz was offered the head-coaching job with the Lightning's AHL affiliate in Norfolk, Va., but declined. Lawton, curiously (did we mention the Lightning are a curious outfit?) did not bother to tell Bolts coach Rick Tocchet he was going to make the move until he'd made the decision. Lawton explained it was designed ostensibly to help the team's struggling penalty-killing unit.

Lawton defiantly insisted to local reporters he would take full responsibility for the move when it came out that Tocchet wasn't particularly pleased with how the staffing change was handled. Well, we hope Lawton has a parachute close at hand, as this move is yet another indication new owner Jeff Vinik needs a new management team.

The Lightning have no hope of making the playoffs now after winning just two of their first 11 games after the Olympics. They have allowed at least one power-play goal in six of those 11 games and are currently the worst team in the NHL.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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