Some favor NHL's new schedule format

Updated: December 5, 2005, 1:53 PM ET
ESPN.com

OPENING FACEOFF
Paul Kariya
The debate over the unbalanced schedule introduced by the National Hockey League this season will rage on long into the offseason. Many think eight games against each division opponent are too many. And when schedule-makers see fit to have Vancouver and Colorado play each other four times in 20 days, there's no question the schedule can mean overkill for both players and fans.

Then, of course, there's the fact the two conferences are essentially unknown to each other -- fans in the West will rarely have the opportunity to see Sidney Crosby and Peter Forsberg, while fans in the East won't see Paul Kariya (above) and Markus Naslund, except on rare occasions. It also creates a sense of the unknown for coaches and players.

"It's like the National League and the American League. It really is," said Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky.

When Gretzky was asked about the Carolina Hurricanes prior to their one and only meeting of the season, he shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't know anything about them except to watch on TV," Gretzky said. "Obviously, we've watched a lot of their games on TV and particularly we've had a great deal of interest ourselves in watching [Eric] Staal play because he's played so exceptionally well he's obviously making a case for the Olympic team."

But if it sounds like Gretzky would like to see a change, he wouldn't. He loves the unbalanced schedule for a number of reasons.

"It's really been good. We're seeing a lot of teams we've got to beat to move up, so from that point of view, it's fun to keep playing them when you know what you've got to do to get better," he said.

Then, there's the huge break for players with reduced travel, not to mention the savings for owners on travel costs. It is a break that might be helping teams better prepare and, hence, put a better product on the ice.

"I was telling somebody the other day the greatest thing about the schedule now is that, especially the Western teams, the travel is so minimized now," Gretzky said. "It's so much easier on the players. We have very few missed practice days because of travel, whereas you used to miss a lot of days in the [Western Conference] because going East Coast to West Coast."

The other benefit of having to make only one or two transcontinental flights during the season is that the travel can act as a welcome break as opposed to a grind.

Carolina coach Peter Laviolette was looking forward to his team's Western swing that began with a shootout loss in Dallas and an 8-4 thumping at the hands of the Coyotes. The 'Canes have cooled off after a red-hot start and Laviolette liked the idea of the trip as a five-game, nine-day team-building exercise.

"This comes at the perfect time for us," he said prior to the trip.

At least that was the theory.

-- Scott Burnside

THE HAT TRICK
NASH RETURN IN SIGHT? FLYERS HURTIN' NO POWER IN PLAY
According to a report in the Columbus Post-Dispatch, Rick Nash has been skating for four days and is targeting a Dec. 20 return. The Blue Jackets know his return can't come soon enough. The Jackets sit second-to-last (ahead of St. Louis) in the Central Division and have gone 2-7 in their last nine games. Before the start of the season, hockey pundits said the Flyers would be a success if Peter Forsberg was healthy. Well, the Philadelphia star is still out with a right groin pull and local reports say there is no change in his condition, meaning he'll miss more games. The Maple Leafs' matchup against the Joe Thornton-plus Sharks on Saturday night was pretty painful to watch. After giving up a 3-1 first-period lead, Toronto played catchup the rest of the way before losing 5-4. An area for concern for the Leafs is the power play -- they've gone 4-for-22 in their last three.



CAUGHT IN THE NETS
DID BOLTS FANS GET JIPPED?
OK, let's get this straight. Chicago coach Trent Yawney decided not to start former Lightning netminder Nikolai Khabibulin in his first and only trip back to Tampa on Friday night because he didn't want to start him in back-to-back games? He employed backup Craig Anderson and saved Khabibulin for the next night's performance against the worst team in the Eastern Conference, the Florida Panthers?

We understand not wanting to use Khabibulin back-to-back (although a case might be made to use the game's highest-paid goalie as much as possible, but we digress). Still, coaches generally use their top goalie against the best team and use their backup against the weaker opponent. Was Yawney afraid Khabibulin would be overcome with emotion at the homecoming and unable to perform? It doesn't say much for Khabibulin's focus if that's the case, and given that he's played better of late, it hardly seems a likely rationale.

Or was Yawney simply exerting his power as a coach in a meaningless gesture? Well done. Yawney really showed those 20,000 paying fans that lost the only opportunity this season to see their former hero play. Oh well, they're only fans. Apparently, Yawney, whose underachieving Blackhawks remain in 13th in the West and nine points out of a playoff spot, didn't get the memo that this is entertainment. For the record, Chicago lost to Tampa in a shootout after Anderson allowed Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards to score and lost to the Panthers, 5-4, with the "rested" Khabibulin in net.

THE FIVE HOLE

Barry Melrose
There has been a lot of talk surrounding some of the goaltenders in the league, but none have impressed me more than Phoenix' Curtis Joseph. He is playing at his best, the best I've seen him in the last four or five seasons. He is fifth in the league with a 2.22 goals-against average and third with a .928 save percentage. CuJo is a big reason why this overachieving Coyotes club is already one point out of a playoff spot in the West.
E.J. Hradek
The Ottawa Senators will be covering a lot of ground this week, starting with a rescheduled game at Florida on Monday. Then, they'll head to Western Canada for weekend tilts with the Canucks (Friday) and Flames (Saturday). Those games will be particularly interesting as the Canucks and Flames have the weapons to stop Dany Heatley and his pals. The Sens have been near perfect so far, earning 40 of a possible 48 points in 24 games. On the season, the club has scored the most goals (109), while surrendering the fewest (49).
Scott Burnside
I'll be watching the Senators, as well, particularly Saturday's game vs. the Flames. Is it too early to believe this could be a potential Stanley Cup final matchup? The Senators have owned the Eastern Conference and this will be a good test against a Flames team that has really hit its stride after a sluggish start. Through Saturday, the Flames are 8-1-1 at home in the past 10 games and lead the Northwest Division, while the Senators start the week with a sterling 8-2 road record.
FANTASY ISLAND
Who to pick up: While many were talking about the affects of the Thornton on fantasy, Calgary's pickup of winger Kristian Huselius from Florida had immediate dividends (three assists in debut). Add him now before the honeymoon wears off.
Who to drop: Radek Bonk still hasn't scored a goal this season; his drought dates back to Feb. 3, 2004. He has six assists for the Canadiens, but it is not enough to warrant a spot on your fantasy team.
IN THE BOX
The new album from The Strokes is less than a month away, so why not celebrate with an oldie, but goodie, "The Modern Age." But if you want the song to live up to its hockey justice, listen to the less-produced version from "The Modern Age EP," not the "This Is It" album version. "It seems this game is simply never-ending" -- we hope so!
THEY SAID IT
"I was blindsided. I came back [to Boston] to win, and we haven't been winning. Whose fault is that? I'm not sure, but I'm out of here, so it must be mine."
-- Joe Thornton after learning the Bruins traded him to the San Jose Sharks

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