As playoff races heat up, so will pressure in net
Given the tightness of playoff races that figure to stay that way through the final days of the regular season (six points separated seventh through 14th in the East and nine separated seventh and 12th in the West), goaltending depth is likely to be one of the most crucial issues facing teams as the NHL schedule enters its second quarter.
It's no longer adequate for a backup netminder simply to give the starter a rest he has to produce points. Those who don't will falter.
Even a team like Anaheim, which has a plethora of goaltending depth with Ilya Bryzgalov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, was in recent days forced to use untested Michael Wall, who earned his first NHL victory while Giguere and Bryzgalov were injured.
In Nashville, GM David Poile is thanking his stars that he re-signed backup Chris Mason, who was an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. Mason, of course, relieved Tomas Vokoun late last season and acquitted himself well in a first-round playoff loss to San Jose. Now, Mason is once again "the man" as Vokoun is out for at least a couple of weeks (maybe longer) with a thumb ligament injury. Mason was 5-1-2 with a .927 save percentage before Thursday's game against St. Louis. Still, the longer Vokoun is out, the more likely it's going to be that Michael Leighton, picked up on waivers Nov. 27, will have to shoulder some of the load in Nashville.
That element of depth will factor into the Predators' continued hold on the Central Division lead. Not that Detroit, the team in pursuit of the Predators, is much better off. Undrafted Joey MacDonald, who is 0-1-1 with an .825 save percentage, stands to see some regular ice time as Chris Osgood will be out of action for up to a month with a hand injury. Coach Mike Babcock is reluctant to overload starter Dominik Hasek, so MacDonald will have to earn his keep in the coming days if the Wings are to keep the Predators in sight.
If some teams' depth is being tested by circumstance, others are leaning on depth out of necessity.
Some teams live by the philosophy that depth is meaningless if you don't need it. Like the New Jersey Devils, whose incomparable Martin Brodeur has played in 22 of the Devils' first 23 games, while Scott Clemmensen has played in just two and has an 0-0-1 record.
But is that a philosophy that is ultimately doomed to fail? Brodeur is 34 years old and has lost four in a row as the Devils have dropped below the playoff Mendoza line into ninth place in the East. Part of GM Lou Lamoriello's problem is that he simply can't afford to upgrade at the backup position, even though it's clear he has little or no confidence in Clemmensen's ability to shoulder even a modest amount of the workload.
The same can be said in Calgary, where defending Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff has appeared in 21 of 23 Flames games. Luckily for the Flames, Kiprusoff just seems to get better the harder he works.
When Tellqvist first arrived in Toronto, a third-round draft pick in 2000, he was seen as the heir apparent to Joseph. After stellar international play, Tellqvist was also seen as the future of Sweden's national team. Neither turned out to be the case as Tellqvist could never seem to seize the moment when the moment was presented to him. In Toronto, he became stalled behind Joseph and then Ed Belfour and more recently Andrew Raycroft and J.S. Aubin. On the Swedish national team, he was buried by Henrik Lundqvist, who won a gold medal for the Swedes last winter in Torino.
In Phoenix, Tellqvist, 27, will be asked to help give Joseph much-needed rest, but he'll also be auditioning for the starting role that may open up in the coming months as Joseph's services will almost certainly be in great demand in advance of the trade deadline.
In the not-too-distant past, the Western Conference was considered the domain of the run 'n' gun style of hockey as the Colorado Avalanche, Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks, among others, lit it up while the Eastern Conference was the home of bruising, defense-first hockey with the tight-checking Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers.
Fifteen of the top 16 NHL scorers reside in the Eastern Conference, as do five of the NHL's most prolific offensive teams. In short, if you can't light it up in the East, you're in trouble. Meanwhile, six of the top seven defensive teams are denizens of the Western Conference.
What does it mean? For the last two playoff years, the Cup has gone to the flash-and-dash teams of the East.
Hradek and Melrose wonder what future holds for John LeClair.
|LESS 'DOOM' IN NHL|
|Rookie GM Ray Shero continues to clear out the dead wood from the old Pittsburgh Penguins regime. After sending tough-guy Andre Roy to the team's AHL franchise, Shero put veteran John LeClair on waivers. If the team recalls him, another franchise can claim him and pay only half his $1.5 million salary, while the Penguins would be obliged to pick up the other half. But $750,000 is likely more than most teams will want to spend on a player who has limited mobility and can do little more than add a modest power-play presence. If this is the end of LeClair's career, Eric Lindros will be the only remaining member of the "Legion of Doom" line left in the NHL, a line that made the Flyers a Cup contender through the late 1990s. Mikael Renberg, the third member, last played for Toronto during the 2003-04 season. -- S.B.|
|With All-Star voting in full swing, NHL fans across the continent are sending in their votes for the Jan. 24 game. The unlimited ballot system has some fearing a big-market showing in Dallas, but some fans are taking matters into their own hands. A group has launched a "Vote for Rory Fitzpatrick" online campaign, asking fans to vote in the Canucks defenseman because he "probably works harder than 90 percent of the big-name guys." The group behind the campaign has crossed multiple platforms, creating a Web site and posting videos on YouTube. The campaign is apparently having an impact; the NHL listed Fitzpatrick on its most recent tally list. As of Nov. 28, Fitzpatrick has 31,310 votes, 12th overall in West defensemen voting. --Joy Russo|
|ARE THEY WATCHING IN CANADA?|
|The NHL will never be a top ratings-getter in the United States, that seems to be a given at this point. But what about in Canada? Well, reports came out this week that ratings have dropped for national rights-holders CBC and TSN. According to reports, "Hockey Night In Canada" viewership is down 19 percent for the early game and 33 percent for the late game compared to last season. Ratings for TSN have dropped 18 percent compared to the 2005-06 campaign. While TV execs said they were puzzled by the large decline, many expect ratings to spike in the new year as playoff races are factored in. But if the NHL's ratings continue to struggle, it would put the league in a precarious spot when rights fees are up for renewal after the 2007-08 season. --J.R.|
Melrose says the Ducks are for real.
Games on our radar the next few days:
• Friday: Pens at Devils, 7:30 p.m. ET: The Devils look to avoid a rare five-game losing skid against one of their Atlantic Division rivals. The Penguins, meanwhile, have gone 1-1-2 in their last four games, but hope Sidney Crosby gets stronger in what will be his second game since returning from a groin injury.
• Saturday: Wild at Stars, 8 p.m. ET: Two teams that have stumbled after terrific starts try to keep their stumbles from becoming death spirals. Through Thursday, the Stars had lost three in a row, including losses to lesser lights Chicago and Washington. The Wild, reeling from injuries to top players Pavol Demitra and Marian Gaborik, had lost nine of 12 with eight of those losses coming in regulation time.
• Sunday: Islanders at Rangers, 5 p.m. ET: This afternoon tilt will feature the top two teams in the Atlantic. The Rangers have had trouble with consistency, while the Islanders are hoping the loss of Alexei Yashin will not derail a surprising start to the season (they have lost twice without Yashin's services).
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