Big finish in Northwest; bad ending for Andreychuk

Updated: January 12, 2006, 2:10 PM ET
By Barry Melrose | Special to ESPN.com

Well fans, we continue to see some good hockey out there at the midway point of the season.

It was good to see Patrik Elias return to the Devils' lineup last week after a long layoff due to illness. Elias is playing well, too, something that has automatically given New Jersey a boost.

The Good

The Atlanta Thrashers and Toronto Maple Leafs continue to play well.

Jarome Iginla
APJarome Iginla and the Flames barely lead the competitive Northwest Division.

People are not talking enough about Marc Savard. The Thrashers center has scored everywhere he's played (Rangers, Flames), but this season is something special. He already has 19 goals and 42 assists in 44 games. Marian Hossa is playing great, Ilya Kovalchuk is on fire. Most important, Atlanta has its goaltending back and is in playoff position. No team can win over the long haul without great goaltending (just look at Chicago and Pittsburgh), and the Thrashers could have that this season.

Another good thing right now is the race within the Northwest Division. Realistically, you could have all five teams -- Calgary, Colorado, Vancouver, Edmonton and Minnesota -- make the playoffs. Vancouver has struggled as of late, but I think they'll straighten things out before April, they're too talented not to. Calgary hasn't peaked yet, while Edmonton is on a roll. Colorado and Minnesota are picking things up. Again, solid goaltending will be key for all five teams. It will be quite the race to the finish.

The Bad

The Penguins continue to be one of the biggest disappointments of the season. From Day 1, they have been brutal. Sidney Crosby has had a good debut season, but he is taking a lot of heat for the team's failures. Some of it is unfair.

Crosby doesn't have control over the team's salary cap. With the trade deadline looming, what deals can Pittsburgh make with players like Sergei Gonchar and Zigmund Palffy? Who would take on those kinds of salaries? But somehow, the Penguins have to try to find a way to build around Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin. Haven't you noticed that when the team goes on a tear, it's because the younger guys are taking control? Look at how hard their AHL players play when they are called up.

Coach Michel Therrien has had the team about a month now, and there hasn't been much change. He tried to call out his team to the media, and then they went out and were beaten badly by the Blue Jackets, 6-1. GM Craig Patrick won't be fired because if you get rid of him, you should get rid of 10 other GMs in the league. Let's not forget how many of us were saying, "Look at these signings, they're going to make the playoffs!" before the season started. There weren't many who thought Patrick made bad offseason moves.

Still, I don't think the Penguins are going to become a team that cares, they can't count on that this season. Find young guys that can play and realize that the best days are ahead of you.

Another low point was the injury to Chicago's Tuomo Ruutu, who is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery Monday to repair a partially severed tendon in his right ankle. Ruutu was to be the great player of the Blackhawks' future. It was just another black cloud over a rough season for Chicago.

The Ugly

Like everyone in Boston, I was so disappointed by Joe Thornton's ejection from his return-to-Boston game Tuesday. All of these Boston fans come out to see Joe return to Beantown, everyone is excited, and then he's thrown out and the Bruins still lose the game!

Hockey Night

I thought the call on Thornton was questionable; I don't think he should have been ejected for it. Thornton and Hal Gill are big guys, and I think Gill knew the hit was coming.

Another ugly moment for me was the retirement of Dave Andreychuk. Honestly, Andreychuk should have retired before the season began. Every athlete dreams of going out on top, carrying that Cup or winning that Super Bowl. Coming back was a mistake.

The Lightning have struggled to be consistent throughout the season. We all thought that if the new rules would benefit anyone, it would benefit Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. But it's teams like Ottawa and Atlanta that are truly benefiting.

Our last image of Dave Andreychuk should have been him carrying the Stanley Cup. Now, it's the greatest power-play scorer ever being waived by his team.

Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.

Barry Melrose

NHL studio analyst
Former NHL player and coach Barry Melrose is an NHL studio analyst for ESPN.

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