Today in From the Pressbox:
The Buffalo Sabres are finally playing up to preseason expectations and appear destined for the postseason after all. Florida Panthers are on their way to snapping a post-season drought. Detroit has qualified for their 21st straight playoff appearance. Alexander Ovechkin is back in top form. The Bruins will be without Nathan Horton to begin the playoffs. Five teams contend for last playoff spot in the West. Philadelphia offense has an unexpected goal-scoring leader at the head of their impressive depth. We wind up with some player notes worth considering, with respect to Eric Staal, Jarome Iginla and Pascal Dupuis and Taylor Hall.
In Buffalo, their were plenty of high expectations to begin this season when the new ownership, led by Terry Pegula, spent to the brink of the salary cap and improved the depth of talent on this roster. However, the on-ice product didn't look too impressive through December 31, when the club had a 17-17-4 record and were mired in the bottom third of the Eastern Conference and had issues with internal team strife.
Since then the Sabres' record is 21-12-6 and their most recent win, a key decision against their primary playoff-chasing rival in Washington clearly illustrated the way they need to play to achieve these positive results. The 5-1 win was paced by Ryan Miller's 44-save effort that frustrated the Capitals at every turn. Miller has turned his season around and has posted five straight wins, allowing a total of only six goals against in that streak.
It should be pointed out that the shot total in that last game was an anomaly as the Sabres' defensive play has tightened up considerably of late. The other big difference is that the Sabre offensive leaders, Tomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford are firing on all cylinders. It's that combination of top-shelf goalkeeping, along with the club's best offensive and defensive players performing at near-optimal levels (finally) that has the Sabres in the hunt, making them a tough out for a much higher-ranking playoff opponent, if they can hang on to the final playoff spot.
The Florida Panthers still have two possible paths to the post-season, one as the Southeast Division winner with a rewarding #3 seeding (they lead the Division by five points with only six games remaining, or possibly, by finishing second in their division and still good enough to secure a seventh or eighth seed position. Either scenario would vault them into their first playoff appearance since the lockout season. The Panthers recent 6-1-3 streak has been a critical pivot point in stretching out their current Division lead as has them poised for post-season entry.
Unquestionably, the Panthers' have relied heavily on the stellar goaltending of Jose Theodore who has posted a 2.00 goals against in his last 17 appearances, taking a great deal of pressure away from an offensively-challenged roster. Much of the rest of the credit for the club's success is being assigned to GM Dale Tallon, who combed through rival team rosters to pluck a key assortment of new talent to spark the turnaround in this team. First year Panthers, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann, have been elevated to first line status, for the first time in their respective careers and have flourished along with mainstay Stephen Weiss to anchor the offense.
In addition, Tallon brought in top-scoring blueliner Brian Campbell, despite an onerous cap hit. He was very familiar with how important the veteran blueliner could be, since they were similarly related in Chicago during their recent Cup-winning campaign. Campbell has 49 points, good for a second place tie among top-scoring blueliners. More importantly, he has formed a dynamic partnership with sharp-shooting James Garrison (16 goals and 14 assists), to become one of the league's most imposing threats at the point of their power play.
If you are looking for a model franchise in the modern NHL, look no further than the Detroit Red Wings, who have qualified for their 21st straight playoff appearance. GM Ken Holland and his staff of scouts have received many plaudits for their work in discovering talent late in many drafts over the years, but he readily admits that his best pick was the selection of Nicklas Lidstrom with a third round (53rd overall) in the 1989 Draft. The remarkable career of this Swedish-born blueliner has given the Wings a cornerstone on which they built their success.
The by-product of his success was a subsequent infusion of more European talent which include the likes of Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, none of whom were drafted higher than the fourth round of their draft years.. Also consider that they parlayed the last pick of the 2002 Draft into Jonathan Ericsson, a depth defenseman who has been a regular on their blueline for the past four seasons.
They have proven to be the best assessors of European talent, giving them a huge edge on most other teams in terms of their draft successes, despite drafting in the lower half of each round in most of the last 20 years. Oddly, they no longer employ any players whose primary role is to protect their teammates and they have ranked at the bottom of the league when it comes to fighting majors.
The Wings are squeezing another great year out of their veteran core, though anyone who thinks their consistency over the last 20 years is nearing an end, has not paid enough attention to their blueprint of draft consistency. The smart money says theirs more to come from the Motown Wings.
Alexander Ovechkin has caught fire, scoring nine goals in the last eight games, to lead a recent charge by the Capitals into serious playoff contention. This is big news for the league as well because prior to this recent streak, one of the league's marquee players had lost some of that profile. He has done so without his regular center (Nicklas Backstrom), having to cope with a shift to a defensive posture by his team and getting used to a new coach and his new systems.
That single development makes the Caps a playoff threat despite the fact that the club has floundered through much of the season. Added reason for optimism despite the precarious nature of their current standings are the increased workload that primary defensive weapon Mike Green has been able to take on as he is getting close to peak form once again. He hasn't produced much offense since his return from his injury troubles and a recent suspension (he's only played 27 games this season) but he remains one of the most talented offensive blueliners in the NHL. Furthermore, Backstrom has cleared all his baseline tests and will soon be returning to active duty. This series of events makes another potential low playoff seed look like a greater threat in the post-season—if the Caps make it that far.
The Boston Bruins will likely begin the postseason without the services of winger Nathan Horton, who continues to suffer from concussion symptoms. Horton is an important top-six piece in the Boston offense and provided the B's with 17 points in their successful Cup run and will be sorely missed. That loss will have a trickle-down on the Bruins roster and they have had to get used to that already, with the result that the club has not played as well as they did in the first half, coincidently while Horton was healthy.
Just as is the case in the East, the last two Western playoff spots are being hotly contested. No fewer than five clubs who are within two points of one another. And you can throw San Jose into that mix because of their flimsy lead in the Pacific Division. This race has the potential benefit of a hot team or two entering the playoffs on the heels of already having played several high-pressure games to reach the post-season tournament. This could give them an early edge against the likes of St. Louis and Vancouver - two clubs that have already clinched the top two seeds and will undoubtedly gear down, resting key players, before the serious shooting starts up again.
Here are a few individual player notes for you to consider as the season winds down.
Scott Hartnell - He's formed a great partnership with Claude Giroux and has expanded his profile in becoming the Flyers' top goal-scorer (36), with career highs in plus/minus (+21) and points, while accumulating 130 penalty minutes to rank as the top power forward in the NHL.
Eric Staal and Jarome Iginla - Both players are respected team leaders of their respective teams and both were the focus of much concern when they struggled with poor offensive output through the early part of this season. However, they have both turned it up a notch to approach their usual standard of productivity. That serves as a reminder for poolies to not give up on blue chip players.
Pascal Dupuis - Amid the challenges to the Penguin roster due to injuries an "old reliable" has enjoyed a career-best campaign. Known as a defensive specialist through his previous four seasons in Pittsburgh, Dupuis has thrived with an increased workload, posting career best scoring totals (23g. 28,a) along with usual solid defensive play (+15) to establish himself as a top-six forward. That means he will play with either Malkin or Crosby most nights going forward. That's also good useful information for poolies, don't you think?
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