Friday March 14th, 2008

Colin Campbell has had plenty of video to look at lately . . . not because he's upgraded his Netflix package.

Thanks to the on-ice antics of Chris Pronger, Georges Laraque, Steve Ott, Andrew Peters and James Wisniewski, the NHL's dean of don't-do-that-again has been busy with his thankless job. It's one that's forces him to defend almost every decision he makes, so let's give him credit when he gets a tough call right even if many in the public disagree.

Unfortunately, we're parting paths on the three-game vacation handed to Steve Ott of the Stars for a hit on Jordan Leopold on Sunday that left the Colorado defenseman crumpled on the ice.

The NHL has made it clear time and again that they're going to hit back hard against anyone who takes aim at an opponents head, and Ott came to the league's attention as attempting a borderline head shot. But that's it -- borderline. Leopold, who had just dished the puck up the boards, was aware of Ott's impending arrival and was in position for contact. The hit was hard, but Ott led with his the shoulder. If Leopold's head was impacted, it didn't appear to be the focal point of the blow.

To this observer, it looked like the kind of hit that's not only a regular feature of the game, but one of its better elements. Hard and right on the edge. The kind that makes the player on the receiving end think twice before he makes his next move, and creates an advantage for the administrating team.

Ott's certainly no saint. He treats the rules as though they have a considerable degree of elasticity, and has the penalty totals to prove it. He's even developed a Gordie Howe-like penchant for protecting himself and the puck with a pre-emptive elbow on occasion, including one delivered to the chops of Ruslan Salei earlier in that very game. But he's also an honest player, one of the few pests in this league who is willing to account for his actions. He's nasty, but he's not cheap.

Maybe Ott's reputation played a part. Certainly, the result of his hit did. And that's where the real problem in Campbell's decision lies. Chances are that if Leopold had bounced up afterwards, this hit would never have been given a moment's consideration. There are nastier blows than this almost every night of the schedule that go unpunished because the player on the receiving end has more jam. And that's why the league should be more concerned with intent or irresponsibility than the aftermath.

One game would have been understandable in this case, a sort of general reminder from the league to play nice. Three games? That sounds more like a stern message. One that, in this case, anyway, didn't need to be sent.

When it comes to the Pacific Division, and I'm paraphrasing the great Ricky Bobby here, if you ain't first, you're screwed.

As it stands today, the Pacific boasts three teams that rank second, third and fifth in the NHL points race. And while the standings undoubtedly will change between now and April 6, it's not a stretch to suggest that the Sharks, Stars and Ducks are three of the best five teams in the league.

And that's why it should be noted, with no apologies to the fans in Colorado, Vancouver, Nashville, Toronto, Boston or Philadelphia, that the only playoff race that matters is the battle for top spot in the Pacific. Because of the NHL's divisional seeding rule, the two teams left in the dust are headed for a must-see first round battle royale that's going to eliminate a worthy Cup contender in the opening days of the postseason.

If the Stars fall short -- and that's looking more likely by the day they'll reflect in horror on the 25 seconds of mental meltdowns on Thursday night in Detroit that cost them a third-period lead and a chance to wrest first place back from the Sharks.

Joe Louis Arena has been a recurring nightmare for the Stars -- goalie Marty Turco now is 0-7-2 for his career there -- but coughing up a 3-1 lead on the way to a 5-3 loss is particularly galling. As usual, Turco was an agent of his own misfortune, victimized by a hard, but stoppable shot by Pavel Datsyuk that tied the game early in the third. He then watched helplessly as his teammates played Keystone Kops in front of him before Stephane Robidas flipped the puck behind his own goalie for the go-ahead tally seconds later.

Third period meltdowns have been an issue with the Stars during their current 2-4-0 slide that's seen them give ground in the race. To complicate matters, the loss came on a Sharks off-night, leaving intact San Jose's one-point lead and three games in hand with which to extend it. The Sharks, a perfect 10-0 since Feb. 21, may not need home ice if they slip out of the top spot. They've captured eight in a row away from the Shark Tank to solidify their standing as the league's most dangerous road team, and they look almost unbeatable since adding the missing link -- slick puck-mover Brian Campbell -- at the deadline. Tthe way things are going, does anyone really think he's signing anywhere other than San Jose this summer?).

The Ducks, meanwhile, are without their leading goal scorer, Corey Perry, for the next six weeks, but they've been rolling since they reunited the band with the returns of Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer, setting a franchise record with eight straight wins at the Honda Center and going 7-2-1 in their last 10 games to pull within one point of Dallas. The defending champs are getting great goaltending from J-S Giguere (tops in the league since Jan. 1) and playing with the cocky demeanor of a group that's been there before. Like the Stars, they have just nine games remaining, but each of the three teams has a home-and-home opportunity against the others to state their case. Wouldn't be surprising to see it all come down to the season finale on April 6 when the Stars host the Sharks. At this point, that looks like advantage San Jose.

The more you watch Ryan Miller limp to the end of this frustrating season, the more you have to think he's already dreaming of an escape from Buffalo when he becomes eligible for free agency in July 2009.

After watching three key teammates -- Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Campbell -- depart due to management's penny-pinching in less than a year, and suffering through extended bouts of non-support from his defense, you couldn't blame Miller for setting his sights elsewhere, perhaps Detroit where the Wings will be looking to move beyond the Dominik Hasek era..

At the same time, don't be surprised if GM Darcy Regier moves to cover his bases. With only Jonas Ehnroth in the system, and no bargaining power to speak of with Miller, it makes sense for the Sabres to hook up with a free agent netminder this summer and then consider moving Miller during the season to a team that might want first crack at inking him to a deal that's expected to be somewhere north of six years, $42 million.

Miller's been downplaying his interest in negotiating any time soon, and has expressed very little enthusiasm that suggests he's committed to the Sabres. Regier has the cap space, but with the franchise in transition, it's doubtful that cash alone with sway Miller's eventual decision.

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