Shots on Goal: Full Service
By Peter Maingot, RotoWire Writer
In the spirit of the season we will address each and every team. We've made a list and we've checked it twice.
Jonas Hiller owners had to be extremely frustrated in the last week as the Ducks went scoreless for 147 minutes straight, including consecutive losses to Detroit and Phoenix. Top center Ryan Getzlaf has been struggling mightily. Perhaps naming him captain was a mistake, as he does not seem to be playing with the edge that we've grown accustomed to seeing him play. If he's not playing physical hockey and punishing people with his size he's just not the same player.
Entering the season Ondrej Pavelec was held in similar regard to his predecessor in Atlanta - Kari Lehtonen - very talented but extremely injury prone. Pavelec, knock on wood, has shed that tag and shown what he is truly capable of. On a go forward basis we see Ondrej Pavelec having an 80 percent share of the goalie starts over veteran Chris Mason.
Tim Thomas reigns supreme in his job battle with Tuukka Rask. Thomas is proving that his early season form was no fluke and the off-season hip surgery has been a huge success. Of greater concern to Thomas owners these days has to be the state of the Bruins' defense. The team traded Matt Hunwick to Colorado to clear cap space so that they could activate Marc Savard. Then Mark Stuart gets injured in Tuesday's tilt with Buffalo and suddenly the B's are thin on the blueline. While Sheldon Souray or Kevin Bieksa would look good in a Boston uniform, the team doesn't have enough cap room to absorb either of their salaries. Marco Sturm and another player would likely have to be part of any deal for either top-four D-man. Colorado's Kyle Quincey would be a more affordable option and has a solid two-way game. Moreover with a name like Quincey he'd fit right in the surroundings.
The Sabres have survived the early season injuries to Ryan Miller and now they're trying to climb the Eastern Conference ladder. It's time for the youth movement at forward to press forward, pardon the pun. The injury to Tim Connolly has created opportunity. Youngsters like Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe, promising power forward Luke Adam, and even the recently promoted Mike Mancari all need top-nine minutes as well as some power-play time to see what they can do. It wouldn't hurt either if Jason Pominville could wake up from his season-long slumber and/or if Drew Stafford could stay healthy.
Notwithstanding the impressive contribution of rookie Jeff Skinner, who figures prominently in any Rookie-of-the-Year discussion, it seems that as the Finns go so go the Hurricanes. The Finns in question being second-line forwards Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu. The Hurricanes have earned points in nine of the 12 games that each forward has registered at least a point in. One could also include their third Finn - No. 1 defenseman Joni Pitkanen. The three Finns comprise three of the top five scorers on the Hurricanes.
Corey Crawford is making his move and starting to see more starts than Marty Turco. Crawford has started six of the last 10 games and won them all with a 1.98 GAA while Turco is 1-3 in his last four starts with a 3.50 GAA. Owners of either goalie have to be worried about where the goals will come from now that both Patrick Kane (leg/three weeks) and Marian Hossa (lower-body injury/10-14 days) are out of the lineup. It is time for the Chicago B's - Troy Brouwer and David Bolland - to step up offensively.
Craig Anderson's injury-plagued season started up again last week and he lost both starts in overtime. Peter Budaj will revert to his start once every-other-week mode now. Budaj fared better during Anderson's first injury but the second time around wasn't as positive, as Budaj has started four games since Nov. 24 and is 1-2-1 with a 4.00 GAA in those contests. Budaj's 16 starts so far this season already surpass last season's 15 appearances and 11 starts.
Steve Mason has 17 starts to Mathieu Garon's 9. While Mason is 8-8-1 with a 3.08 GAA and .910 SV % and Garon is 7-2 with a 1.94 GAA and 0.930 SV %, we still expect this to be a time-share for the foreseeable future.
Kari Lehtonen has started 23 of the Stars' first 27 games and he's won four of his last five. The Stars don't seem to miss either Mike Modano or Marty Turco. The team is younger and faster, with increased roles for players like Steve Ott and Jamie Benn. It's unfortunate that due to uncertainty over the ownership No. 1 center Brad Richards may not be back after this season. This team still needs a power-play quarterback to at least bolster the second unit, as after Stephane Robidas it's slim pickings among the Stars' D-men. Philip Larsen is likely a year away from making an impact in that capacity.
What to say about hockey's best team? At the start of the season we would have listed toughness and a lack of quality of power forwards as their main weakness with a further caveat that Jimmy Howard could fall prey to the dreaded sophomore slump. Howard's been great. The bigger surprise has been the play of power forwards Todd Bertuzzi and Dan Cleary. While Chicago helped kill the Hossa curse last spring when they won the Stanley Cup (Hossa had lost in each of the two previous Stanley Cup Finals), it will be interesting to see if Detroit can do the same thing next spring to the Bertuzzi curse. Bertuzzi's teams have not fared well since his attack on then Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore while he was a member of the Vancouver Canucks, though he does have 18 points in 28 playoff games for Detroit since the incident that occurred in March of 2004.
Just as it seemed that the Oilers had turned a corner on their season after a 3-0 run through Eastern Canada, they lose top-six forward Shawn Horcoff in their first game home after the trip to an MCL injury that could see him out of action for eight weeks. This comes just days after it was announced that top sniper Ales Hemsky could miss up to a month with a groin injury. The Oilers will be hard pressed to create offense missing two of their top six forwards. Gilbert Brule and Andrew Cogliano will have to assume a larger offensive responsibility while the Oilers may want to also call up YouTube sensation Linus Omark to see if his game can succeed at the NHL level.
It was interesting to read what Panthers D-man Dennis Wideman, who leads the team in ice time, had to say after a loss last week to Anaheim. Wideman questioned his team's offensive strategy and proposed that the team should adopt a similar style to Anaheim and make better use of their speed. "Take a look at how they played tonight, how they dump the puck to their speed. We're a fast team, too. We should take a look at how they played tonight and try to play like that." While we're not sure coach Pete DeBoer changed his strategy the team is 2-1 since the loss at Anahiem, including a one-goal defeat the following night in Los Angeles. That's a long-winded way of saying that they've won two games in a row. Wideman's comments make sense, though, as the team is young and has speed - why not make the best use of it? Speed and tenacity can create turnovers and scoring chances thereby helping offset a lack of proven offensive talent. Cats fans have to hope that Stephen Weiss' two-goal outburst Tuesday will start him on a scoring streak, as the team's few true bona fide top-six NHL forwards (Weiss, David Booth, Michael Frolik) have been snake-bit for most of the season.
The Kings are another team having trouble scoring lately. They've lit the lamp just eight times over their past five games. The biggest issue has been the revolving door at first-line left wing. There has been some speculation that Alexei Ponikarovsky, who's been out a month but is expected to be activated later this week, could be given a chance to skate on a scoring line. One wonders if Pony has the requisite foot speed to keep up with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Of course, were Pony given a shot at playing with the aforementioned duo we'd be awfully tempted to pick him up in our experts' league.
It is great to see Pierre-Marc Bouchard back playing after such a long layoff due to concussion symptoms. Bouchard has missed 112 of the Wild's last 113 games. That's why it's so encouraging to see him rack up a couple of assists in his first three games back in the lineup. Minnesota needs all the help it can get and the team is hoping that the return of both Bouchard and three-time 20-goal scorer Chuck Kobasew will jumpstart a moribund offense and provide the necessary depth to mount a more consistent attack.
Carey Price and the rest of the Habs have been a revelation. Having traded playoff hero Jaroslav Halak in the offseason no one figured the Canadiens to be this strong. In fact their play is proof that last season's final four playoff run wasn't just about Halak. This team has totally bought into coach Jacques Martin's defensive system and D-men like Roman Hamrlik and Josh Gorges have played far better than anticipated. Another reason for the team's success is their bottom two lines. On many NHL teams there is little talent after the top two lines. Often the bottom two lines are made up of a combination of semi-washed up veterans, unproven youngsters, and the occasional goon. Montreal's third and fourth lines are predominantly made up of rugged two-way players that can also contribute offensively. Guys like Jeff Halpern, Maxim Lapierre, Travis Moen and Benoit Pouliot have made their presence felt at both ends of the rink, as has late-bloomer Mathieu Darche. The 34-year-old Darche is one of the rare NHLers to come out of Canadian college hockey and he'd only played 101 games in the NHL in his career before last season. Those five forwards have scored a combined 23 goals already this season. The sixth man on the bottom two lines is the main piece that came back to Montreal in the Halak deal with St. Louis - Lars Eller. This is a perfect place to break in a Danish rookie forward into the NHL. Eller has no pressure skating with this motley crew and he even gets a little power play time.
Injury begets opportunity and Anders Lindback has played well in place of Pekke Rinne. Not only has Lindback not lost in regulation time yet as an NHL goalie, he's only allowed more than three goals against in a game once thus far in his early career. The Preds work hard nightly but they dearly miss No. 1 center Matthew Lombardi. In addition their offense has been a disappointment, especially top winger Patrick Hornqvist and top D-man Shea Weber.
Martin Brodeur should be back by the weekend and could start as soon as Friday in Ottawa. The Devils will probably miss the playoffs this season and this stat will give you an indication of why: nine different players have played their first NHL game this season for New Jersey. This team has either really old/really overpaid players or really young/really inexperienced players. The exceptions being that Brodeur is worth every dime and Ilya Kovalchuk is all of these things: young, overpaid and unproductive.
We can only offer this positive news for long suffering Islanders fans that have been forced to watch their team go 1-14-3 over their last 18 games: promising young forward Kyle Okposo, out since shoulder surgery on Sept. 28, skated with equipment for the first time last Saturday and could be back on Jonathan Tavares' wing by late December.
The Blueshirts have been a hard team to get a handle on this season. Just when you think they're about to go on a protracted winning streak they play a stinker. Case in point: last week after a home-and-home sweep of the Islanders they allow Senators third-line pivot Chris Kelly to score three third-period goals and lose 3-1 at home on Sunday to Ottawa. The Rangers can avenge the defeat on Thursday in Ottawa. Meanwhile Chris Drury (index finger) is back skating with the team but is still two weeks away from returning to the lineup. Of more interest is the fact that Vinny Prospal is now skating and should be back by month's end. With the Rangers continuing to rotate centers on Marian Gaborik's line, Vinny has a chance to re-stake his claim to the No. 1 center gig upon his return.
Brian Elliott (shoulder) is banged up right now, which is bad news for an Ottawa squad that is really struggling. After a rare 0-0 home shootout loss to the Sabres on Saturday, the Sens got a much-needed 3-1 win at the Rangers on Sunday. Any hopes of an extended win streak were dashed Tuesday when Montreal scored three times in the third period to blow open what had been a tight 1-1 affair. Pascal Leclaire will likely start Thursday's match with the Rangers. How Leclaire fares on Thursday will likely decide who starts Friday against the Devils, assuming Elliott is good to go by then. Ottawa has five goals in their last five games, making any Sens goalie a high-risk play with such little support.
Sergei Bobrovsky owners need not worry about Michael Leighton right now. Leighton played poorly last weekend in two rehab starts in the AHL for the Adirondack Phantoms and he'll play two more games for them this coming weekend. Of greater distress to Leighton owners hoping for a return to 2009-10 glory is the fact that he is still experiencing numbness in his left foot as a result of back surgery performed in October. Doctors have told him that the problem may not go away. Either the numbness goes away or he learns to deal with it and compensate for it. Failing both scenarios, his career could be over. Leighton owners will have an answer soon enough, for if Leighton can't find his form by late January or sooner the team will likely find a better backup plan in order to be prepared should Bobrovsky falter come playoff time.
Ilya Bryzgalov and the Coyotes have turned their season around after a dismal start. Sitting just two points out of first place in their division they're 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. This team is all about hard work, balanced scoring and great goaltending. Some 11 players have at least 10 points and the Breezer is 7-2-1 in his last 10 starts with a 2.30 GAA and two shutouts. With Shane Doan back in the lineup after a lengthy absence the team is now rolling three lines that can score. The third line, Upshall-Belanger-Doan, is not fun to play against as each one of them plays a physical brand of hockey in addition to having the ability to put the puck in the net.
Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pens are playing great hockey these days, as they go for their 11th straight win on Wednesday against Brian Burke's failed experiment otherwise known as the Maple Leafs. While Fleury has turned it on since a horrid October, Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby has been great all season. Crosby's play may finally be enough to shut his detractors up but maybe not. There will always be idiots who don't appreciate greatness. Even Wayne Gretzky was criticized and underappreciated by some and he too, like Crosby, rode the refs hard (just like Michael Jordan did in the NBA). Crosby has outplayed even Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos and the debate about who's better between Crosby and Ovechkin seems moot right about now with Crosby's 24 goals in 29 games doubling Ovechkin's 12-goal output thus far in the same amount of games played. That is amazing, by the way. Add a Stanley Cup ring and a golden-goal in the 2010 Winter Olympics and it's a slam dunk for the modest superstar.
Antti Niemi has overtaken Anterro Niittymaki of late as the Sharks principal goaltender though the situation remains very fluid. Niittymaki has the arduous task of trying to defeat the Flyers on Wednesday. This time-share will likely remain in effect for the season.
Jaroslav Halak is in no danger of losing his No. 1 spot but the Blues are facing some serious adversity now with top-six forward Andy McDonald out indefinitely with a concussion. That's in addition to top-six forward T.J. Oshie (broken ankle) being out until February.
Dan Ellis has started 15 games while Mike Smith has started 13 games. That's about as even as any NHL time share these days. Neither goalie is helping his owners in goals-against average (Ellis 3.22, Smith 3.57) or in save percentage (Ellis .880, Smith .870), though both have winning records (Ellis 7-5-3, Smith 8-5). The difference is that Ellis has delivered two shutouts. The loss of two top-six forwards in Vincent Lecavalier and Steve Downie for several weeks has been partially offset by the return of Simon Gagne and the recent inspired play of both Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell. When Lecavalier and Downie return to the lineup by the New Year the Bolts should be that much tougher to play against.
The Leafs are 2-1 in December after notable wins over Boston and Washington. Moreover, they've scored three goals or more in three of their last four games. That's even more impressive when you consider that they had scored three goals or more in a game just seven times over their previous 20 games played. Still we wouldn't get too excited, even with top-pairing defenseman Dion Phaneuf's imminent return to the lineup.
While Roberto Luongo has won four of his last five games, injuries have started to plague their forwards corps. Mikael Samuelsson is out at least a week after suffering a concussion Sunday against St. Louis. Meanwhile, 2005 first-round pick Jeff Tambellini has played well on the second line with Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond and is seeing regular minutes on the second power-play unit. With Sami Salo (Achilles tendon) progressing ahead of schedule with a December return date now a realistic goal, one has to wonder how long until the Canucks seriously consider moving D-man Kevin Bieksa for either an inexpensive forward and/or a decent draft pick.
Michal Neuvirth took the loss on Monday as the Capitals blew a 4-1 lead to the Maple Leafs. While this game won't help Neuvirth's cause as he battles Semyon Varlamov for starts in net, the bigger issue is the team's defense. It was thought that the addition of D-man Scott Hannan from Colorado would provide the missing link. However the team lost Jeff Schultz to a broken thumb Monday and he's expected to miss four-to-six weeks. Spotty defense remains a pressing concern and the Caps may have to add another defenseman sooner than they'd anticipated. Meanwhile the Caps have now lost three in a row and they have allowed 10 goals in that span. They are only playing .500 hockey over their last 10 games (4-4-2). This is not how Stanley Cup contenders should be performing some 30 games into the season.