Neutral Zone Wrap
by Evan Berofsky, RotoWire Writer
If you reside in the upper regions of this continent, then you're fully aware how these months can fill up your schedule. The extra layers, the shoveling, the complaining as to when the next season will arrive. Winter can sure take a bite out of you. Now it's time to bite back.
You may be thinking: "How can I achieve this in my daily life?" Simple: By treating the cold as your friend. Heck, if NHLers have to hang around ice for hours a day, then surely you can withstand the hour-or-so commute Ė even if you're lodged between two people aboard public transit. So why worry about the windchill when you'll just be ragging on the humidex come July?
Take a load of your mind. Since you've already blown your holiday vacation dough, how about coming on a virtual tour to the following hockey destinations:
The Flames have to prove their worth by going out and winning one for the Kipper. Sadly, Miikka Kiprusoff hasn't received a lot of defensive help, but that shouldn't obscure his latest shaky efforts (including the fresh 6-0 shellacking against Minnesota). But don't anoint Henrik Karlsson (2.52 GAA, .907 SV% in 11 appearances) as the #1 goalie just yet, as his stats aren't exactly outstanding. What a difference a month makes, since Olli Jokinen (nine points in 11 games) has claimed top dog at center while Matt Stajan (two in 14) is struggling to make ends meet. Anton Babchuk had a rough go initially (nothing in the first nine after arriving from Carolina), but has really turned it on (nine in 12, including two power-play goals). Not so much for either Alex Tanguay (two in eight, minus-8) or Ales Kotalik (two in nine), although very little was expected from the latter.
A little shakeup could go a long way for the Rangers. Just ask Sean Avery (three assists Wednesday) and Artem Anisimov (four assists the same day), who became the newest beneficiaries of the Marian Gaborik Trust Fund (you know, the one that yields the odd five-point return). Without Brandon Dubinsky (stress fracture in leg) and Ruslan Fedotenko (tweaked shoulder), others such as Wojtek Wolski (five in five since the trade) and Mats Zuccarello (eight in 13 after 25 in 33 AHL contests) have been able to increase their production. Marc Staal may catch a spark, but that alone isn't worth investing in a standard league format.
Remember when LA were considered the next serious Cup contender? Well, times are difficult with only two wins in January, thanks to an anemic offense (21 goals in 10). Just don't blame Marco Sturm (eight in 16), who has served as a valuable asset, up until his latest problem (knee tendinitis). It may be sad when a defenseman like Jack Johnson (13 in 17) is carrying the load, although this claim would prove more believable if the leader was in fact Drew Doughty (four in 10). Wayne Simmonds (swollen leg) is back, but not at full strength. Cue Andrei Loktionov, who comes in after a sizzling stint in the minors (31 in 31). Alexei Ponikarovsky's poor performance (nothing in nine) has landed him in the press box; Kyle Clifford (two in 13) isn't very far behind.
If Florida can build on their momentum (unbeaten in five), then there's a chance everyone from the Southeast Division will reach the playoffs. Scott Clemmensen (two victories and a shootout loss) did a fine job deputizing for Tomas Vokoun, but it's back to the bench for him. The blueline corps currently resembles an emergency ward, as Bryan McCabe (broken jaw) is out long-term with both Dmitry Kulikov (bruised ribs) and Jason Garrison (pulled groin) nursing minor maladies. This should open a few opportunities for 2007 first-rounder Keaton Ellerby (four in 19), especially on the Panthers' horrendous power play (dead last in the league at 12%). Beyond the obvious forwards, Mike Santorelli (an amazing 11 in 12) is keeping his spot centering the second unit. Cory Stillman (six in five) isn't doing too badly for an old-timer (at 37), especially when it comes to the man-advantage (three PPAs).
Are injuries and old age finally catching up to Detroit? Playoff legend Chris Osgood (hernia surgery) has gone down for the count, while young'un Jimmy Howard (bruised knee) just returned from the trainer's room. Even if Evgeni Nabokov signs, don't expect him to clear waivers and land in Motown. A few forwards are MIA, so guys like Patrick Eaves (seven in eight alongside Henrik Zetterberg) and Drew Miller (six in eight, plus-5) are stepping it up. And there's no sneezing at what Jiri Hudler (11 in 11, with four on the PP) or Todd Bertuzzi (eight in 12) have accomplished. With no Brad Stuart (broken jaw) for a minimum of six weeks, Jakub Kindl (first NHL point on Thursday) has been reinserted in the lineup to mixed reviews (not much of a scorer but improving in his own zone).
<Evan Berofsky enjoys writing. Seriously. When he's not trying to shove hockey miscellany down your throat, he gets his kicks playing tournament Scrabble. If you have anything to say about Evan's work (or need any hot word tips), feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter (@evanberofsky).