New York, Philly need a jump-start
The Rangers and Flyers each need to overcome injuries, while mental strain will be greater than the physical struggles for Dany Heatley.
Both the Rangers and Flyers are beat up.
Philadelphia is without defenseman Eric Desjardins for two months thanks to a broken forearm, defenseman Marcus Ragnarsson is out with a shoulder injury and goalie Jeff Hackett is being treated for vertigo. Captain Keith Primeau recently returned to the lineup after missing two weeks with a broken thumb.
New York, meanwhile, lost defenseman Darius Kasparaitis for 10-12 weeks thanks to a knee-to-knee collision with Boston's Dan McGillis and forward Petr Nedved was also banged up in the home-and-home series with the Bruins. Defenseman Greg deVries and his nearly 19 minutes of ice time are also missing from the lineup right now.
So it should come as no surprise that both teams are struggling right now. The Flyers played solidly in back-to-back wins over Toronto, Primeau's first games back, but they didn't look good in a loss to Montreal on Tuesday. Tuesday's trade of Justin Williams for defenseman Danny Markov and Thursday's acquisition of defenseman Mattias Timander from the Islanders are good ones. It shores up the holes in their defense while Desjardins and Ragnarsson heal up and allows them to continue competing for home ice in the East.
The Rangers, who are coming off losing two straight to Boston, need to start beating teams in their division. They should be motivated by the fact that they are basically playing playoff hockey for the rest of the season. They're out of the playoff picture right now and need wins every night. This should be a tough, intense game between division rivals.
Nikolai Khabibulin and John Grahame, Tampa Bay Lightning: Khabibulin has struggled the last couple times out, but he and Grahame have been solid in leading the Lightning to the top of the Southeast Division. And as an added bonus, the depth in net might allow Tampa to trade one or the other for some help at the deadline.
Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche: He's quitely moved up the scoring ranks and is fifth in the NHL with 51 points. Sakic hasn't received a lot of fanfare but continues to do the job each and every night.
Turner Stevenson, New Jersey Devils: I'm going with a former player here. Stevenson played for me as a 16-year-old in junior hockey and got two goals and an assist in a big win over Pittsburgh the other night.
Plus: Martin St. Louis, St. Louis Blues
St. Louis has eight goals in January, showing why he was voted into the All-Star Game by the Tampa fans. He's tied for 10th among NHL goal scorers and is a big part of Tampa Bay's success so far this season.
Plus: San Jose Sharks
The Sharks have won five of their last six games, including consecutive wins over Vancouver, Colorado and Detroit, and they currently lead the Pacific Division. No one thought they would be here at this point, but it now looks like there may be another player on the scene out west.
For the second straight week serious injuries have impacted the game in a very negative way. The injury to L.A.'s Martin Straka now appears to be worse than first thought, Kasparaitis is out 12 weeks, Boston's Joe Thornton fractured his face in a fight with Eric Lindros and Scott Stevens is out with concussion-like symptoms in New Jersey. The game is just so physical and the players are so big that playing the game is taking its toll. Let's just hope things turn around before playoff time.
The NHL is considering widening the blue lines and the red line to two feet to improve play, reducing the number of two-line passes and creating a larger neutral zone and fewer offside calls. My questions are these: Why paint a couple of two-foot wide blue lines when the current blue lines could just be moved two feet toward the net instead? Also, instead of changing the way the rink looks to eliminate two-line passes, why not just eliminate the two-line pass rule? And since when do real hockey fans think the greatest team sport in the world should settle its games by giving the best shooters free shots on goal?
-- Joe Clark, St. Louis
Moving the blue lines would mean less room in the offensive zones, but widening the lines gives more room in both zones. When they tried it in the American Hockey League, they found that the defensemen didn't quite use it to their advantage. Instead of using the far edge of the blue lines, they kept the puck in front of the blue line and didn't utilize that extra space. I think it could work but it would take some time to get used to. As for two-line passes, I'm in favor of scrapping them. It hasn't worked as well as many would like in college hockey, but I'm certainly in favor of giving it a try. The thing to watch, though, is that teams will set up their defensive trap at the far blue line, making neutral zone congestion even worse than it is now. If that could be controlled, I think it could work with the skill of NHL passers.
And I'm a big-time proponent of settling tie games with a shootout. I coached in the AHL when shootouts were used and it was awesome. The fans love it. Can you imagine Lindros against Roenick with the game on the line? No one is going to leave the building during a shootout and, more importantly, it would do away with ties. There will be teams with as many as 20 ties this year and that's just ridiculous. I say go with a 4-on-4 overtime and then decide it with a shootout.
Since Dany Heatley is starting to practice, how much of an affect will he have when he starts playing and how much of his ability will be back compared to before his accident? Keep up the good work.
-- Tyler MacMurphy, Regina, Sascatchewan
Heatley definitely won't be 100 percent when he first returns, but his knee injury was not as serious as some might think and he will come back from that just fine. His physical recovery isn't much of an issue; if he comes back in February he'll have plenty of time to get his body back in shape by the time the playoffs roll around. His mental and emotional recovery is what worries me. Dany has been through a traumatic event and is still dealing with the legal ramifications of that car accident, and he will be reminded of Dan Snyder every time he walks into the Atlanta dressing room. But if he can have some early success on the ice it will give him an all-around boost.
Hockey will also give him a sanctuary, someplace he can forget about all the other stuff going on around him. That's why the rink can be the best place in the world. When I needed to think or get away from whatever was bothering me, I went to the arena. I'm sure it will be a good place for Dany Heatley to spend a few hours a day.
Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He'll answer selected questions submitted to his e-mail bag each week. Also, click here to send Barry a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.
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