Around The Rink: No lead is safe

Updated: November 2, 2005, 12:26 PM ET
ESPN.com

OPENING FACEOFF
Blue Jackets
Is it possible the new NHL has managed an almost impossible sporting double-double: improving its product exponentially while maintaining parity? The view from Columbus, Carolina, New York, Edmonton and other long-suffering NHL centers would suggest it is so.

The Blue Jackets began the week staggering toward early oblivion with a 2-7 record but stunned Nashville, handing the Predators their first loss of the season with a dramatic overtime victory Wednesday courtesy of a clutch shorthanded goal by Adam Foote.

Two nights later, the Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild combined for an exciting tilt as the Blue Jackets went on to record their first shootout win on their eighth shootout shot -- the NHL's longest tiebreaker this season.

Not so long ago, a matchup of these two teams would have been prescribed medication for insomniacs. Now, it is a shining example of the league's renaissance. Across the NHL, it's the same story. Longtime patsies are rising up against perennial powers. Teams struggle and then right themselves. Teams are invincible for a matter of days (with the exception of Detroit), while others go off the rails and back on in the same time span.

On the same night the Wild and Blue Jackets were disproving the notion that the score is everything, the Carolina Hurricanes were upending the Stanley Cup wannabes from Philadelphia by an 8-6 count, erasing Flyer leads of 2-0, 3-2 and 5-3.

No lead is safe. In the Eastern Conference, seven points separate first place and 12th place. In the West, there is but a 10-point gap between second and 13th.

"That's exactly what you're talking about," Tampa Bay GM Jay Feaster said. "Everybody's right there. Every game you play is an important game. It makes it so that the intensity is almost playoff intensity because it's end to end."

For years, the NFL has made hay out of its "on any given Sunday" mantra, the notion that fans everywhere share the same expectations, the same potential for that rush of adrenaline that comes with a victory. The NFL has managed to create such a dynamic even while the product has become stodgy and boring, carried more often than not on the shoulders of a nonstop progression of faceless, mediocre quarterbacks.

The NHL has championed its close playoff races in recent years, but it belied a game that was often unwatchable. That the NHL has managed, at least in the early going, to improve its product without sacrificing that parity is a significant achievement.

-- Scott Burnside

THE HAT TRICK
GETTING FREAKY LA LA LA ... NO LAME DUCKS
The Atlanta Thrashers' goaltending woes are well-known. It appears that, like a bad horror movie, the curse extends even to the NHL innocents. How else to explain Tampa Bay Lightning backup Sean Burke, who stepped on a puck during an optional skate Saturday morning and is out with a groin injury. Cue "The Twilight Zone" theme song. Like Dan Cloutier before him, Jason Labarbera is making a name for himself after leaving the Rangers' organization. The rookie has leaped out of the starting gate for the Pacific-leading Kings with a 6-1 record and 1.70 GAA. Looks like Andy Murray's original plan to rotate between Labarbera and Mathieu Garon might be toast. Despite injuries to Sergei Fedorov, Sandis Ozolinsh and rookies Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, the Mighty Ducks have remained in the hunt in the Western Conference. They've also been solid at home, winning five of their last six games at the Pond. A big test will come Tuesday, when Anaheim hosts the Predators.

HOW 'BOUT THEM 'CANES?
Is there a more exciting team in the NHL right now than the Carolina Hurricanes? We think not. Is there a better player in the league right now than Eric Staal? Uh, we think not. And one can only imagine the Senators, Penguins, Flyers and Bruins have a similar impression.

He helped lead the 'Canes to comeback victories against all four conference foes this week, tallying four goals and six assists, including his first NHL hat trick. Staal leads the league in scoring with 22 points. And oh yeah, he turned 21 on Saturday. If he continues to produce these efforts, an invitation to join the Canadian Olympic team is as certain as a Carolina playoff berth.

TIME TO REALLY MOVE ON?
Now that he's got his first two appearances in Denver out of the way, one wonders whether the Canucks' Todd Bertuzzi will finally get back to being the belligerent power forward who was the scourge of defenders and goaltenders alike three seasons ago. Not surprisingly, Bertuzzi was booed lustily throughout both games this week, both won by the Avalanche.

Vancouver coach Marc Crawford thought Bertuzzi was better, more comfortable, in the second game. Perhaps now that he's revisited the scene of the attack on Steve Moore, he'll be able to focus more fully on making life miserable for opponents. The Canucks sure hope so.

THE FIVE HOLE

Barry Melrose
I'll be keeping an eye out for the young guns in the NHL. Will they keep this up? Outside of Peter Forsberg and Jaromir Jagr, the scoring list is dominated by young players such as Carolina's Eric Staal and Ottawa's Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza. Those three alone are all under the age 25. I think what we're seeing now is a changing of the guard, and that's only going to help the league.
E.J. Hradek
It's been a surprisingly tough start for the defending Western champion Flames, who sit at the bottom of the Northwest with a 4-7-2 record. They currently stand eight points behind the division-leading Canucks. This week, the Flames start an important stretch, playing 10 of their next 12 games at home. They open a four-game home stand Tuesday vs. the Wild. If Calgary wants to start moving back up the standings, it better make some hay at the Saddledome.
Scott Burnside
Watch on Friday when Chris Pronger returns to St. Louis for the first time since his offseason trade to Edmonton. The Blues appear on a one-way street to oblivion, while the Oilers have been pinballing from solid to sordid on an almost nightly basis. Pronger has zero goals and four assists on the season.
FANTASY ISLAND
Who to pick up: If for some reason you don't already have him, pick up the Kings' Alexander Frolov, who after a shaky start now has six goals and five assists in 11 games.
Who to drop: At this point, Chris Gratton hasn't been lighting it up for the Florida Panthers, with just one goal and no assists in eight games. Might not be worth keeping.
IN THE BOX
It's pretty much a given that most playlists during pregame skates have at least one Foo Fighters song. Our pick is a toss-up between "I'll Stick Around" and "Everlong." A slight edge goes to "Everlong" because of the long buildup through the song, leading up to the classic Dave Grohl growl, "WHEN I SING ALONG WITH YOU!"
THEY SAID IT
"It is what it is."
-- Todd Bertuzzi's repeated mantra to reporters after facing the Avs in Colorado for the first time since the Steve Moore incident.

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