Getting ready for mad rush into playoffs

Updated: March 23, 2006, 10:27 AM ET
By John Buccigross | Special to ESPN.com

It's time to clean out the hockey brain before I head to Las Vegas for four days to recharge the batteries for the end of the regular season and the long playoffs.

• Only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr have had 100 assists in a single NHL season. Others came close -- Adam Oates had 97, and Doug Gilmour and Pat LaFontaine had 95-assist seasons. Will Joe Thornton join them? I wrote this back in July: "If the Boston Bruins don't offer Joe Thornton a four-year, $28 million extension, they are nuts. Thornton is ready to take off. He will win the scoring title this season." As I write this, Thornton needs 30 assists in 19 games to get 100 assists. Difficult, but possible. Thornton will win his first Art Ross Trophy. He and Peter Forsberg are the two best playmakers in the NHL, and they have something else in common, they make their linemates rich.

SHOT OF THE WEEK
Every week, we will present an NHL photo and I'll provide a caption. E-mail me your suggestions (include your name and hometown/state) and next week we will use the best ones and provide a new photo.

LAST WEEK:
"Here in the dirty south, we are five-hole haters!"

Your submissions:
"I'd like to give a shout out to Kyle McLaren for that vicious hit that knocked all my teeth out. Without him, I wouldn't be able to sport these fly gold fronts!"
-- Heath Johnson, Fort Bragg

"I'm flashin' my grill, chillin' at the Phil, waitin' on Kovy, to give the house a thrill."
-- Mad Mark, Atlanta

"I'm only here for the ice, yeeeaaaahhhh!"
Rich Munkacsi, Welland, Ontario

"Let's hear it for my man, Willie Plett! Yeeeeeeeah!"
Greg Rolnick, Chicago

"Two more beers, please."
-- Jason Moore, Scottsdale, Ariz.

THIS WEEK:

"Guys! Really! I can play! I'm good! GOOD TIMES!"

• Nicklas Lidstrom is running away with the Norris Trophy. He will lead all defensemen in scoring, will have double-digit power-play goals, plays 28:28 a night and is the best breakout passer in the league. Sergei Zubov and Wade Redden are the other two finalists.

• Landon Ferraro, son of our boy "Chicken Parm" Ray Ferraro, turns 15 in August and could be the top pick of this year's WHL Bantam Draft. He is bigger than Ray at 5-foot-11 and has lots of skill and "battle." Unlike his dad, Landon is likable and kind off the ice.

• Looks as though we will have four or five 50-goal scorers and no 60-goal scorers. Three players reached the 50-goals plateau during the 2000-01 season.

• Looks as though we will have about nine teams with 100-plus points. We had 10 in 2003-2004.

• Did you realize that Cory Stillman tied for seventh in scoring during the 2003-04 season? And anyone could have had him after the Lightning won the Stanley Cup.

• Look for about nine U.S.-born players to be selected in the first round of the 2006 NHL draft.

• I've received a few television network questions in terms of the playoffs. OLN and NBC have exclusive coverage of conference finals and Stanley Cup finals. If you don't have OLN, you won't be able to see the conference finals or Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup finals. NBC covers the rest of the Cup finals. I would think if a city doesn't have OLN on its cable package and the city's team reaches the conference finals or Cup finals, those games will be made available somehow. Playoff games are generally on the Center Ice package until the conference finals.

• The Toronto Maple Leafs need a major upgrade in team speed.

• The Boston Bruins are still searching for their first shootout win of the season. The Bruins have won one playoff series in 10 years. Their cupboard is now bare. They will be a marginal team for a long time. They have reached the point where a complete overhaul is the only option. They have played to 88 percent capacity and that number will only go down next season.

• I don't see Brian Leetch playing next season unless he's on a really good team.

• The 2006 Hobey Baker Award will be presented April 7 at the NCAA Frozen Four in Milwaukee. The presentation will be televised on ESPNU (7 p.m. ET) as part of the college skills competition. The Hobey Baker Committee also gives out high school character awards in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It is the first year for Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The high school award is a "best kid" award. Again, we are rewarding character. The committee hopes to add more states in the coming years.

The Mother of All Mailbags

John,

Being a die-hard Buffalo sports fan has been a rough ride in recent years. Being in the Marine Corps and out of the Buffalo area for six years has made it even harder to watch games on a regular basis. I just recently got sent to Iraq and have been religiously following the Sabres games online. I don't remember them playing this well in quite a few years (1998-99 season being the last time I was this excited). Do you think the depth of the team and their momentum down the stretch will be enough to carry them to a Cup?

You Can Quote Me
"A lot of people suggested we could never have come out of missing a season, that fans would never come back. We're on pace to set an attendance record, all-time. Our fans understood what we were doing, knew why we were doing it and wanted it fixed. We came back with the belief we did the right things."

-- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said preliminary figures show that of 30 teams, the number making money this season will be somewhere in the low- to mid-20s. He also said NHL arenas are filled to 91 percent capacity, adding that, overall, the league will make money.

Sgt. Christopher Kline
U.S.M.C.
Al Asad, Iraq

What a year it has been in Buffalo. This will be the first season the franchise wins 50 games. I understand that the shootout can skew some records, but the Sabres have only four shootout wins. Take those four wins away and they still have a realistic chance at 50 wins. They have a solid chance at surpassing the franchise record of 113 points set in 1974-75. They will break the record of 23 road wins set in 1983-84. They aren't explosive offensively, but they score enough. Their power play is good because they have so many players with great hands. They are good on the penalty kill because they have lots of speed, Chris Drury and a good goalie. They are deep and fast, and as long as the rule book doesn't change in the postseason, the Sabres will be fine. If more is allowed, Buffalo could be in trouble because it relies on speed and quickness.

I have no doubt in my mind that the Sabres could win any seven-game series against 13 of the other 14 Eastern Conference teams. My question is, can they beat the Ottawa Senators four out of seven times? That could be very difficult. But it's difficult for every other team in the NHL, as well. Still, I don't see how anyone could say they aren't as good as recent Cup finalists like Carolina, Anaheim, even Calgary. All the best in Iraq, Chris. Be safe. We are all behind you. I hope the Sabres win it all for your sake.


John,

What does it say to the Tampa Bay Lightning fans that GM Jay Feaster failed to acquire a new goaltender at the deadline? Obviously, the Lightning has had scoring problems, as well, but no team can be expected to win when they allow 4-plus goals every game. How can the defending Stanley Cup champs let the trading deadline pass with no effort to improve their underachieving team? Have they thrown in the towel on this season?

Thanks,
Bob

We said here in our season preview that the downgrade in goaltending would make it very tough for the Lightning to repeat. Also, big contracts take away the edge of most professional athletes. Even if it's a 5 percent edge, it affects 95 percent of the athletes. Gretzky, Woods, Bird, Lidstrom, Yzerman, it doesn't matter. I don't know what Feaster tried to do. I'm surprised he didn't get Curtis Joseph. I would have paid a decent price. His core is young. There is no need to worry about giving up a prospect or draft pick. He should have overpaid for an upgrade in goal.


Bucci,

Last fall (Nov. 3), after the horrible first month my beloved Penguins had, I e-mailed you and told you that I would bet you a Donnie Iris CD on the fact that they would turn it around and grab a playoff spot. I hereby stand corrected, beaten and downtrodden. I will happily supply you with the best Donnie CD ever, "Live at Nick's Fat City," upon your direction of where to send it to.

Dana Blair
Wooster, Ohio

John Buccigross
ESPN
Bristol, CT 06010
Send a case of Iron, too.


John,

The wife and I are due for our first baby on Aug 16. Any suggestions for names? We want a name that would live up to a grinding winger or rugby forward if it's a boy, and something that screams goal-scoring dynamo if it's a girl.

Thanks
Chad Sooley
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

Your first?! Sweet. Here's what you have to look forward to. My son, Jackson, was sleeping in mom and dad's bed the other day because he wasn't feeling well. Well, Jack talks in his sleep on occasion. Usually, it's gibberish, sometimes he actually forms a sentence. Well, the other day, he yelled in his sleep, "How many Stanley Cups have the Flyers won?!"

Boy: Bryce Ulysses Sooley
Girl: Rachel Lynn Sooley
Hockey Fact: Most points in Toronto Maple Leafs playoff history? Doug Gilmour (77 points).


Bucci,

Never written to you before, but I want to get your thoughts on some things. How do you like the Stars' chances to win the Cup?

Signed,
JD Benage, enlisted
Fort Drum, N.Y.
United States Army

Hey JD. Thanks for writing. I like the Stars a lot. I like their players, their announcers and their female fan base. I really like the girls who shovel the snow during TV timeouts. But, if they don't improve on their power play, they will not get far. Twenty percent of their wins are courtesy of the shootout. Goals are harder to come by in the postseason. They need the power play to step up. A good power play and Marty Turco's A-plus game is what they need to get to the Cup finals.


John,

I enjoyed the farewell letter from Shjon Podein posted in your most recent column. In Colorado, we identified with his grinder mentality and passion for the game. As a working-man's third- and fourth-liner, he was a key to the Cup run in 2001. To prove his love for the game (both on and off the ice), after winning Lord Stanley's Cup, it was rumored that he didn't take off his equipment for the postgame celebration at a local Denver restaurant. Podes' partying at an upscale steakhouse in his sweat- and champagne-soaked uniform, complete with skates, is what "living the dream" is all about!

Drew G.
Denver

Hey John,

You need to mention the time that Podein was awarded the King Clancy Trophy and, as he took the stage, they showed his wife in the stands. All of the guys in the crowd had an audible reaction to seeing his lovely wife on TV and, as Shjon was about to start talking, he paused for a second and said, "Yeah isn't she hot? I'd whistle, too!" Best awards show moment ever.

Mike
London, Ontario

Speaking of award shows, Vancouver has added another prestigious NHL event to its June calendar as it will host the 2006 NHL Awards show on Thursday the 22nd. Vancouver and the Canucks organization also will host the NHL entry draft on June 24.


John,

I have a question, but first let me say that I watch ESPN much less without the NHL coverage. Jaromir Jagr has been tagged a few times this season with illegal stick penalties. What's the point of this rule in today's NHL? The league is supposed to be giving the advantage back to the offense, the shooter, the scorer. I believe the rule originally was for safety reasons, as hockey culture adjusted to the slap shot, the rising shot from the curved stick. This seems like an antiquated rule today, with goalie masks, visors, etc. The unfortunate accidental injury will always occur regardless of stick curve, unless full cages come into the equation. Why is the NHL limiting the shooters' stick preference? Jagr, and everyone else, should have the ability to control, shoot and shelf the puck as best they can, with whatever tools (within reason of course).

Cheers.
Let's Go Rangers.

My concern on the illegal stick debate is twofold. (1) What about defensemen and forwards in front of the net? Their faces aren't covered, and some don't wear visors. Would we see more facial injures from high and hard shots that might increase with illegal sticks? (2) We don't need it to be easy to do great things with the puck. It's like golf. One reason the depth of playing fields is usually strong is because golf equipment is much more forgiving than it was 30 years ago. You had to be really good 30 years ago in golf. Hitting the ball in the center of the club face was vital. It is still important, obviously, but not vital. We see plenty of college baseball hitters who are good hitters because of the aluminum bat. When they try wooden bats, they drop off significantly. We want the truly gifted to stand out.


John,

Let's talk about youth hockey. Specifically, where do I start? I live in metro Detroit, in case that wasn't evident by my unabashed homer-ness, and I know there's a strong program in this area. Now, my son is only 2, so I have some time, but I want to know what sorts of things you did to cultivate your sons' interest in hockey. Obviously, if he decides he prefers other sports (we have already taken him skiing -- he loved it), or prefers non-athletic activities, that's cool. But I want to expose him to hockey and give him the chance to be interested in it. So, aside from buying him Red Wings apparel and teaching him to say, "Let's Go Red Wings," what do I do? How old were your boys when you first took them skating (bear in mind that my yard is too small for a rink)? And how old were they when you signed them up for their first team?

Hoping to be a hockey mom,
Laura
Ferndale, Mich.

Every child is different. My oldest, Brett, didn't begin in-house skating until he was 7 and played his first year of travel Mite at 8. He did Rollerblade at a young age, so when he started in-house, he could skate right away. He liked it right away. When he was 11, intimidated, he didn't want to play anymore. I said, "Sorry, you are playing." I look at my kids playing hockey as primarily physical fitness. They will be well-read, they will learn a musical instrument, they will study a second language, they will go to church and they will be physically active. Until they are 18, they have no choice in the matter. They will live a balanced life. It's demanding, but it's rewarding. Oh, and they have to be funny.

My second son, Jackson, first stepped on the backyard rink at 1. We signed him up for learn to skate at 4. He did in-house at 5. And this year, at 6, he is a travel Mite. He's a little young, but he has an older brother, and those kids are always ahead of the game. Most of the 6-year-olds on the team have older brothers who are good players.

My advice is pretty consistent. Start your kids on Rollerblades at about age 4, unless they mention it earlier. I'd have them do that for a summer. Then, make the call to see whether they are ready for a learn-to-skate program. I wouldn't hesitate signing them up for in-house at 5 years old because they are protected so well with all of the hockey equipment. Jack was still crying on the ice at 5 -- a little scared, a little unsure. But he had excellent, patient coaches, and I never demeaned him or made him feel guilty. Just gentle encouragement. Now, his confidence is high and his dreams are big at 6. Just the other day, he asked me whether he will be good enough to play at Boston College. I said, "Why not? But are your grades going to be good enough?" Oh, Daaaad.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.

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