- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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I think we can all agree that the 82-game regular season is a grind. It's a tough road for even the best teams. The Sabres and Ducks, for example, who've been at the top of their respective conferences since early October, have hit thin ice in the first month of 2007.
The schedule tests every team, player and coach. (Heck, I think it even does a number on you fans.) They go through highs and lows over the course of the six-month campaign. With that in mind, I decided it was time to take a peek at the teams and players that are smokin' hot and those that find themselves in the freezer.
Hot: Wayne Gretzky and Andy Murray
Gretzky and Murray have gotten their respective teams on the right track in recent weeks. Despite dropping three of their last four games, the Coyotes are 9-3-1 in their last 13 as Gretzky is getting better (and tougher) behind the bench. His decision to scratch top forward Ladislav Nagy in late November and deal underachieving pivot Mike Comrie has sent a message to the team. Murray, meanwhile, has forged a dramatic turnaround in St. Louis. The Blues are 10-2-2 in their last 14 games. The former Kings coach has done a nice job of building confidence in the Blues' dressing room. He has reminded his veteran players, such as Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin, that they're still good at their jobs. Manny Legace's improved play in net hasn't hurt things, either.
Cold: Denis Savard
The Blackhawks' coach got off to a great start, going 9-3-3 after replacing Trent Yawney on Nov. 27. However, Savard's guys have stumbled into 2007 with a 0-5-2 record over their last seven games. Things could get worse as Chicago has a tough pre-All-Star schedule with a tilt against Minnesota and a pair of games versus Nashville.
Hot: Pavel Datsyuk
After a dreadfully slow start, the shifty Datsyuk has found his game. In his last nine contests, the Red Wings center has piled up 20 points, including a pair of four-assist performances. His red-hot run has pushed him to the top of the Wings' scoring list. Perhaps bothered by his contract status (he can become a free agent July 1), Datsyuk wasn't himself for most of the first half of the season. In his first 35 games, he managed just 25 points. With his scoring woes behind him, Datsyuk seems poised for a strong finish.
Cold: Alexei Yashin
The Islanders' captain got off to a good start before being sidelined by a knee injury. Since his return, he's still bothered by the injury and isn't the same player. Yashin has just one goal and one assist and is a minus-8 in his last 10 games. If the Isles want to make a playoff push, Yashin must play better.
Hot: Roberto Luongo
The former Panthers goalie has made a nice transition to crease life in Vancouver. He's been particularly tough of late, winning nine of his last 10. In that span, Luongo has a 2.16 goals-against average, a sensational .935 save percentage and one shutout. Can he keep up the stellar play? Canucks fans hope so. If he does, the Canucks just might grab a playoff spot in the West.
Cold: Todd Bertuzzi
Well, actually, he remains in cold storage after back surgery in early November. He has been skating and hopes to return to action sometime in February. His contract expires at the end of the season. If the Panthers don't re-sign him, they would not have received much in return for former franchise stopper Luongo.
Hot: Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis
These two Lightning stars have been lighting up the sky in Tampa in recent weeks. In the last eight games, Lecavalier has posted eight goals and six assists, while St. Louis has four goals and nine helpers. St. Louis carries a 12-game point-scoring streak into Thursday's game at New Jersey.
Cold: Brad Richards
The 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner has been off his game this season after signing a monster five-year contract extension last summer. If he continues on his current pace, he'll finish the season with 68 points, his lowest total since 2001-02. That number would be significantly less than the career-best 91 points he put up last season. Perhaps Richards will get his groove back. After going pointless in four of five games, the slick center has four points in his last three games. If he isn't more productive down the stretch, the 2004 Cup champs might be headed for the links in April.
Hot: San Jose Sharks' power play
Among the best special-teams units in the league, the Sharks' power players have been particularly lethal of late. In its last seven games, San Jose has scored in 19 of 37 man-advantage situations. That's a shade better than 50 percent! For the season, the Sharks click at a league-best 26.5 percent. The message here is simple: Don't take penalties against the Sharks.
Cold: Calgary Flames' penalty killers
Despite the fine work of stellar goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary is allowing too many power-play goals. In fact, the Flames have allowed at least one PPG in 13 of their last 15 games. That's not good. It's especially not good if you're fighting to earn a playoff spot in the competitive Western Conference. Overall, the Flames are 26th in the league, killing just 79 percent of their penalties. By comparison, Northwest Division-rival Vancouver is leading the league with a 87.9 percent success rate.