Commentary

Hawks turning up heat at right time

Updated: April 6, 2009, 11:17 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

1. A week ago, you would have said a Vancouver/Chicago first-round matchup would be a mismatch in favor of the Canucks. What would you say now?

A week ago, it looked like Vancouver was going to overhaul slumping Calgary and take over the Northwest Division lead and the third seed in the Western Conference. Instead, the Canucks have hit a minor wobble, including an embarrassing 4-1 loss to lowly Colorado on Sunday night.

The Blackhawks, meanwhile, seem to have found a nice groove heading into the last week of the regular season. Unable to stop teams from scoring at will during much of February and early March, the Blackhawks are 6-2-2 in their past 10. They've also won three in a row to open up a three-point lead over Vancouver for fourth place in the conference in what would mean home-ice advantage in the first round. Nikolai Khabibulin, bothered by injury, looks like he's in playoff shape and will undoubtedly be the starter next week when the playoffs begin. He was ultra-sharp in Sunday's exciting 1-0 overtime win over Columbus and has won six of seven. Maybe this isn't the mismatch we imagined.

2. You've got to hand it to the plucky Florida Panthers, staying in the hunt with a big win at home Sunday against Pittsburgh, no?

Yes. Too bad they're like that old philosophical gambit -- if a team makes a run for the playoffs in South Florida, will a falling tree come within a mile of a Panthers fan (or something like that)? The Panthers announced 18,232 in attendance Sunday, still about 1,000 shy of a sellout, according to the NHL's official guide and record book. On Friday night, in another must-win game against Atlanta, the Panthers' announced crowd was 15,945; the game before that, 15,247.

This is a team scrambling to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000 and this is the support it gets? What a joke. It makes you feel bad for guys like rookie coach Peter DeBoer, who has coached his brains out with a team whose leading scorer, Stephen Weiss, ranks 63rd in NHL scoring; for guys like defenseman Keith Ballard, who bring it and grind it out every night but play before hundreds (sometimes thousands) of empty seats. What an embarrassment it will be if the Panthers squeak in and they still can't sell out the BankAtlantic Center.

3. The past couple of seasons, the Edmonton Oilers have been hurt by injuries. Is that a valid excuse this time around?

Well, the Oilers always seem to have to fight through their fair share of injuries, but this season isn't as bad as the previous two. As of April 2, the Oilers had lost 213 man games to injury this season. That's well off the record pace set last season, when they lost 346 man games and finished three points shy of the postseason with a gallant late-season push.

The season before, when they also missed the playoffs, the Oilers lost 286 man games. In short, if you're looking for a reason this Oilers team is poised to miss the playoffs for a third straight season after advancing to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006, don't blame injuries. Just another element to consider when discussing the future of coach Craig MacTavish, whose tenure in Edmonton appears to be ready to wind down if the Oil can't make a miracle charge in the next week.

4. You must be really excited the Hockey Hall of Fame has now set aside a maximum of two places every year for women to be inducted.

Um, not really. Here's to continued growth in women's hockey and acknowledging women's hockey in the Hall in some fashion. But after years of being knocked as the "Hall of Pretty Good" or the "Hall of Simply Hanging Around The NHL For A Long Time," the Hockey Hall of Fame has, in recent years, finally established the rigorous standards it should.

Now, they want to take a giant step backward by honoring women who will almost certainly come either from the U.S. or Canada, and they will honor women who play in only one meaningful tournament a year (the World Championships, currently going on in Finland; check out the scores, by the way, real nail-biters), and one tournament that generates any kind of interest or attention every four years: the Olympics.

And for that they should go in the Hall of Fame? The fact is, at any one time, there are maybe 30 elite women playing in the world, and the vast majority play for Canada or the United States, which explains why they thrash every other nation at every tournament. In fact, it's surprising there isn't more debate about the future of women's hockey as an Olympic sport given the disparity between the top two teams and the rest of the world. And still, folks are jumping for joy at the chance to put women in the Hall of Fame as honored members alongside Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy and Wayne Gretzky.

I would ask this question: Of all the people nodding their heads and encouraging this move, including members of the selection committee, who among them has seen a women's hockey game in the past year? No, didn't think so. The last two years? No again? Many have to go back to the 2006 Torino Olympics, and that's assuming they've ever seen any at all. And still, there is a rush to have them on a plaque in the great Hall. Might as well call it the Hall of Let's Not Make Anyone Mad.

5. What do you make of Al Montoya's first taste of NHL action in Phoenix?

Interesting developments in the desert as Al Montoya, the former New York Rangers top draft pick (selected sixth overall in 2004), became the first goalie in Phoenix Coyotes history to record a shutout in his first game by blanking Colorado last week. He followed that up with a solid effort in a win over Los Angeles, but got shelled Saturday by the Kings, giving up six goals on 32 shots.

Oh, yeah, Montoya also broke new ground this past week by becoming the first Cuban-American to play in the NHL (and, of course, the first to win a game as a goaltender). Many believe Montoya has been slow to develop, but Phoenix GM Don Maloney told ESPN.com the 24-year-old netminder is still learning the game, not unlike many goalies his age.

That said, Montoya struggled earlier this season while playing in San Antonio, the Coyotes' AHL farm team, and was playing behind Josh Tordjman before getting better in the second half and during his recent call-up to the NHL.

"I think he's just hitting his stride," said Maloney, who has watched Montoya's development closely, first as assistant GM in New York and now in Phoenix.

Maloney said it's obvious there is one area the athletic 6-foot-2 netminder needs to work on to push for a job as an NHL netminder. "I think it's right between his ears," Maloney said.

The ability to stay focused, especially after a bad goal, is crucial for Montoya, Maloney said.

Montoya told ESPN.com he is having a blast in his first go-round as an NHL netminder, but acknowledged focus is a huge issue, especially with the pace of the game. Maloney said he hopes Montoya's taste of NHL life will reinforce how much work and preparation goes into being an NHL netminder.

As for future plans, Maloney said after trading backup Mikael Tellqvist to Buffalo at the trade deadline, he thought he'd have to find a veteran backup to work behind Ilya Bryzgalov next season; but having seen Montoya for a brief stretch, he may open up the backup job and let his young netminders have at it in training camp next fall.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.