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Pushing the big boys

A quick glance at the Western Conference standings reveals a team that brings to mind a classic Sesame Street ditty that we all know and love.

One of these things is not like the others ne of these things just doesn't belong an you tell which thing is not like the others y the time I finish my song?

While the usual suspects like Vancouver, Detroit, Colorado and St. Louis occupy the top four spots in the West, the upstart Nashville Predators are fifth with 29 points after beating Columbus 4-2 on Thursday to extend their franchise-best win streak to six games. The Preds stick out like a sore thumb among the rest of the teams in the high-rent district, but their defensive leanings and superb goaltending make it likely they will hang around the playoff race for awhile.

Nashville had a brief taste of the playoff hunt last year with a 26-19-9-1 stretch in the middle of the season. Unfortunately that was sandwiched around a 1-6-1-4 start and an 0-10-3-2 finish that spoiled postseason talk for Predators fans.

"It's fulfilling that we've done something special as a group," head coach Barry Trotz said. "But we haven't done anything yet. We can be all excited about winning, but you've got to keep everything in perspective.

"We'll exhale after game No. 82 and then we'll see where we are."

The biggest reason for the Predators to have hope is goaltender Tomas Vokoun. After posting a 25-31-11 record with a 2.20 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage in 2002-03, I compared Vokoun to Jean-Sebastien Giguere in our 2003 Nashville Predators team preview in mid-September. Giguere posted solid numbers for a bad team in 2001-02, but then led the Ducks to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003, and I felt that the Preds could be this year's version of the Ducks or Wild.

So it's not really a surprise to me to see Vokoun turn some of those close losses from a year ago into wins this season, as his 2.29 GAA and .921 save percentage are strikingly similar to his secondary numbers from last year. It's just that the guys around him are playing better, which is why his record (14-8-1) is now on the good side of .500.

"It's nice to be a part of some history," Vokoun said Wednesday after beating the Hurricanes 2-1 in overtime. "Our team is a young team and we don't have a lot of records set. That's a lot of wins to put together in this league. It's a great momentum builder."

Vokoun could play himself into contention for the Vezina Trophy, something that would've been considered a huge longshot before the season. I ranked him sixth at the end of last season for the Vezina, but Vokoun has been even better this year and has outperformed many of the more heralded netminders. Officially, Vokoun finished 10th in Vezina voting with one third-place vote in the only NHL award voted on by the general managers.

Vokoun gave up 30 goals in his first 12 starts of the season, posting a 4-7-1 mark. But he has buckled down since, surrendering just 22 goals in the past 11 games, during which time his record is 10-1. Vokoun's 4-0 record with a 1.50 GAA last week earned him the NHL's Defensive Player of the Week award.

The Preds are in the middle of the pack in nearly all team statistical categories, but their solid defensive play and offense-by-committee approach have been enough to make them among the most surprising teams in the first 1/3 of the season.

And there's no reason to think that the boys of Music City can't keep the sweet tunes rolling on into the springtime.

Since the Washington Capitals are going nowhere fast, will Ted Leonsis pull a Florida Marlins and gut the whole team? Or will he do the right thing and get rid of the biggest Loafer since Wimpy and trade Jaromir Jagr to turn his team around. -- Kevin O'Neill , Vancouver, British Columbia

The Capitals will certainly begin dealing their assets to trim payroll, but there is one big difference between the Caps and Marlins that apparently eluded you, Kevin. Florida's 1997 fire sale came after the Fish won a World Series title, while Washington is going to have to rebuild because of foolish decisions by management to award excessive contracts to underachieving players. Jagr will almost certainly be among the players leaving D.C., and his long-rumored deal to the Rangers is still a strong possibility to happen soon.

Do you think that the race for the Northwest Division will come down to the wire? Or will the Avs win it outright? -- Ray, Vancouver, British Columbia

Last year's race between the Canucks and Avalanche in the Northwest Division was the most exciting division race in recent memory. Colorado tracked down Vancouver on the final day of the regular season to win its ninth straight division title. I expect it to go down to the wire again this season, and at this point it's too close to call between the Canucks and Avs.

Steve Thomas never seems to go away quietly. He shows up on a team and provides an instant spark. I think he was a great pickup for Detroit. How would you classify Thomas in the big picture of hockey players, comparing him to players of his own generation? -- Robert Kain, Vancouver, British Columbia

Thomas is a hard player to characterize, because although he has pretty decent career numbers, it is in large part due to his longevity. Stumpy only reached 30 goals five times, but he did score 20 or more goals 10 times, the last coming with Toronto in 1999-2000. But his role on the Red Wings is that of a veteran leader who will chip in with an occasional timely goal, much like he did with the Mighty Ducks last season.

Stumpy's experience and great demeanor make him a valuable asset to any locker room, but especially one that has been fractured like Detroit's has this season by the presence of both Dominik Hasek and Curtis Joseph. So while Thomas can't be considered a Hall of Famer, he is clearly in the second tier of power forwards over the past two decades.

With only one forward who's even as big as the NHL's average player (Peter Forsberg), are Colorado's forwards strong enough to stay healthy? Or are we going to see these nagging injuries ruin their dream season? -- Cam Atkins, Peterborough, Ontario

Colorado will have a lot of competition challenging it for the culmination of a dream season. It would've been thrilling for fans to see Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, Alex Tanguay, Joe Sakic, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne all in the lineup together for 82 games, but several of those players have battled injuries throughout their career.

Basically the presence of six top-notch forwards was a smart move by Pierre Lacroix to guard against injury, because he knew that four or five of them would be healthy and performing at any given time, which still gives the Avs a leg up on most teams. Forsberg's rough style in particular directly leads to his frequent injuries, but perhaps his time off will keep him more fresh down the stretch and into the postseason than he would've been if he had taken 82 games of punishment in the regular season.

I totally agree with you that players that can only fight and can't contribute offensively or defensively have no place in the game. That said, sometimes a player starts off as a five-minute-or-less bruiser to prove himself before becoming a real contributor to the team. Chris Simon and Tie Domi are great examples. But Krzysztof Oliwa has had plenty of time to show he can play, and hasn't. Andrew Peters has not really been around that long, so do you think there is any chance he can develop into something more than a chump goon? -- Shane, Tallahassee, Fla.

It's not the goons who give fighting a bad name. It's the general managers and coaches that give a roster spot to these goons. In addition to not producing on offense or defense, Andrew Peters also can't fight. If I'm judging, he is 0-9-1 on the season. Lindy Ruff has Eric Boulton back in the lineup. It's time to demote Peters and bring up some potential talent from Rochester. -- Jon Kidder, Buffalo, N.Y.

Peters will never be anything more than a goon, and his irregular place in the Sabres' lineup means that he could be a guy who shuttles between the NHL and AHL for most of his career. Most players who reach the NHL dominated in juniors, and even many tough guys put up some decent offensive numbers when they were young. But Peters' career high was 24 points in 57 games with the Oshawa Generals in 1998-99, pedestrian numbers for the OHL.

When Annika Sorenstam played on the PGA Tour, it was something special that had us all captivated. The PGA, however, could not leave it be and before long every other woman golfer was trying to make the PGA cut and ruined what was something special. Do you feel the NHL will follow suit and diminish what was an incredible weekend of hockey by repeating the outdoor hockey game in various cities? -- Greg Jorssen, Langley, British Columbia

It all comes down to the bottom line, Greg, and the financially sluggish Oilers stand to reap a profit of approximately $2 million from the Heritage Classic. That alone will be enough to get any city which can support an outdoor game from a stadium and weather standpoint to consider holding one. It's clear that having multiple outdoor games each year would tarnish the special nature of this fun event, but I believe the NHL would limit it to one or two per season, so as not to kill the Golden Goose.

I've been a fan of the New Jersey Devils for quite some time now and am well aware of their penalty killing expertise of both John Madden and Jay Pandolfo. Also, both players have a knack for offence as well. What are the chances of both players being picked to assume the same role on their respective World Cup teams that they have with the Devils? -- Roy Zuccarello, Niagara Falls, Ontario

Madden has a much better chance than Pandolfo, because Madden can contribute more in other aspects of the game than just defensively. Yes, Pandolfo has six goals to Madden's four this season, but Pandolfo has just one season of double-digit goals (14 in '98-99) while Madden has averaged 18.3 goals per season in his four years in the NHL.

Pandolfo has a knack for scoring an occasional big goal, but on international All-Star teams he would be nothing more than a defensive specialist who kills penalties. Team Canada had Shayne Corson and Rob Zamuner on its 1998 Olympic roster in such roles, and the results were disappointing when the team failed to medal. Madden has much better offensive instincts than either Corson or Zamuner, and Madden's speed would be a huge asset for Canada's third or fourth line. So Madden will garner some serious consideration, but Pandolfo faces much longer odds to make Team USA.

Do you think the Coyotes will start looking at bringing some big names into the lineup once they move into their new arena? The young lineup is fun to watch, but when you're not winning, the fun can only last so long. -- Steve Lopez, Phoenix

The Coyotes will benefit from the increased revenue and attendance that their new arena in suburban Glendale will deliver. But don't expect the team to open up its wallet immediately after the debut of the new arena on Dec. 27. The Coyotes' young nucleus of Shane Doan, Ladislav Nagy, Paul Mara and David Tanabe is impressive, but the money won't be there this season to bring in veterans to help that quartet. Phoenix likely will deal away Sean Burke before the trade deadline, but once the coffers are lined a bit from the new arena, the Coyotes will be able to afford more expensive players like Burke in the near future.

What is your opinion on the possibility of a lockout after this season? Do you ever see the NHL expanding? I am a Hartford Whalers fan and am still waiting for Bettman to give Hartford another chance. -- Chris Formica, Silver Spring, Md.

The NHL expanding? Oh, that's a good one. The NHL's current financial situation is due in part to the league's overly aggressive expansion in the 1990s. The league should probably contract a few teams judging by attendance and fiscal losses in several markets. Hartford will continue to be a marquee city for the AHL, but the NHL will never return to Hartford.

I have been reading reports about how Lou Lamoriello is interested in a trade involving Scott Gomez and Jarome Iginla. To me, it can't be true, because Lou would never take on that kind of salary. What I am curious about is if Phoenix falls out of playoff contention, what would be the chances of Shane Doan being on the block? His makeup is perfectly tailored for New Jersey Hockey. -- Doug, Melville, N.Y.

I think the trade rumors involving the Devils' interest in Iginla is wishful thinking as much as anything else. Iggy's presence would make New Jersey tougher up front and would close Philadelphia's advantage in physical toughness over the Devils. Doan is the type of player who would make nearly any team better. But considering that he is just 27 years old, makes an affordable salary (by today's NHL standards) of $2.8 million and is the Coyotes' team captain, I don't expect Phoenix will be dealing him.

If the Los Angeles Kings were to ever get completely healthy could they make a run at the cup? -- Joshua Evans, Laguna Hills, Calif.

The Kings' acquisition of Martin Straka would seem to be an admission on their behalf that Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh might not return to action this season, if at all. Straka will help boost the always injury-plagued Kings' offensive abilities. If Los Angeles is lucky enough to get Allison and/or Deadmarsh back in the lineup, they would definitely be a threat in the West. Certainly their special teams could still use some work and they need Roman Cechmanek to be more consistent, but a healthy Kings team could make for a scary opponent when the postseason rolls around.

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