Got a lot on my mind grapes this morning. Grab a spoon and dig in. . .
You want to credit Ottawa's current eight-game winning streak on the decision to fire goaltending coach Eli Wilson back on Jan. 13? Be my guest. But there wasn't one convenient event that triggered the hot stretch that vaulted the Senators into fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Here are three key differences to watch for as they attempt to set their franchise record with a win in Saturday's matinee against Montreal.
1. When stars like Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza were sidelined for extended periods, players like Nick Foligno, Chris Kelly and Mike Fisher began setting the tone with their workmanlike approach. That simplified game -- more north/south with an emphasis on getting pucks to the net -- has carried over as the big guns returned to the lineup. Best example? Just watch Spezza, a player who never passed on a chance to blindly drop the puck the minute he crossed the offensive blueline.
Maybe it took an extended viewing of the game from up in the press box, but he finally seems to grasp the value of using his fizzy wrist shot on occasion. Spezza has a goal in each of his three games since returning from IR and has taken 14 shots -- not bad for a guy who didn't take many more than that in the entire month of October. There's also more jump in his legs and he's displayed a willingness to assert himself physically around the net. He'll still turn the puck over now and then, but he looks like a more dynamic player.
2. The penalty kill is thriving, thwarting 23 straight power plays during the streak and 37 of its last 38 it has faced. It's aggressive on the puck carrier and doing a magnificent job clearing the debris from Brian Elliott's crease.
3. Elliott himself has been solid during the streak, allowing just six goals in his six starts, making the stops he has to make, and eliminating the softies that sucked the wind out of this team earlier in the season. He's controlling his rebounds -- something that's been a problem in the past- -- and the confidence he's exuding is impacting his teammates. But the real difference-makers have been the guys in front of him. The defense has been dominating the play in Ottawa's zone, especially below the hash marks. Elliott's putting up the numbers, but the blueline is making his life easy.
If the season-ending suspension handed last week to Rouyn-Noranda forward Patrice Cormier for his devastating head shot on Quebec's Mikael Tam didn't catch the attention of players of Canada's junior hockey leagues, then the words of CHL president Dave Branch should.
Asked by the Toronto Star about the possibility of Cormier facing charges in the wake of his assault, Branch offered a chilling reply. "I do not necessarily support it," he said. "But ... it's a real interesting area and one that deserves ongoing discussion."
Of course, Branch doesn't want it to come that, but by cracking open the window to accepting, if not openly welcoming, the possibility of criminal prosecution, he's enhancing the message that the CHL is about done trying to make its point about head shots. If players won't be deterred by these devastating suspensions, then perhaps the threat of dealing with the justice system will do the trick.
It's worth mentioning -- but not much else -- that the Huskies exercised their option to appeal Cormier's suspension. Expect the original decision of QMHL president Gilles Courteau to stand.
No sport's followers expend more energy trying to re-write the rulebook than hockey's die-hards. Shoot, there's probably a graduate-level paper waiting to written on the psychology of our nearly universal drive to "fix" something we love so much. Ask any fan to name the one thing he'd change and chances are he'd have a hard time narrowing it down from a dozen. I got into one of those conversations on a radio program the other day when the conversation veered into the legislation of fisticuffs.
Now, as a card-carrying member of the Flat Earth Society (as my esteemed colleague Jim Kelley refers to we fight-lovin' neanderthals), I'm generally opposed to any rule that's crafted to impede the practice of bare-knuckle message delivery. That said, I'm seeing something creep into the occasional board meeting that needs to be eliminated asap: the UFC-style takedown.
If you haven't seen one of these violations of the spirit of honorable combat, here's a particularly egregious example perpetrated by Vancouver's Ryan Kesler on Chicago's Andrew Ladd.
The two obviously agreed to drop gloves and helmets before the puck fell, but they exchanged just a single blow before clinching. At that point, they could have worked to free a hand or stayed tied up and allowed the linesmen to move in. Either option would have been fine. Instead, Kesler bent down, grabbed Ladd behind the knee and flipped him onto his back. That move may earn a fighter points in some MMA competition, but in hockey it creates an unnecessary risk of severe head trauma.
Look, there's no way you can stop players from falling to the ice, especially in close combat, but you can nip this situation in the bud by creating a major to penalize slewfooting or the use of hands below an opponent's waist with the clear intent of knocking him off his feet.
One change I wish I'd thought of was offered up by a long-time press box denizen in the wake of Dallas' 4-3 shootout win over the Flames on Wednesday night. In the final minute of overtime, Calgary netminder Miikka Kiprusoff was whistled twice for slashing, giving the Stars a four-on-three advantage for 31 seconds, then a five-on-three for the final 20. Even though it made for an exciting finish, the situation reeked of missed opportunity. So how about this option: if there's penalty time on the clock at the end of the five-minute OT, the game continues until it expires. Adds to the drama, holds players accountable in the final minute and might even make the small-but-vocal anti-shootout crowd happy by ending a few games before the skills contest. Probably almost no chance of gaining traction, but I like it. Whaddya think?
The Hicks Sports Group finally divested itself of baseball's Texas Rangers earlier this week. Does that mean Tom Hicks' other holdings, including the struggling Dallas Stars, can expect an infusion of much needed cash? Don't count on it. The proceeds from the $500 million-plus deal will be headed directly to a list of more than 40 creditors, so it's what-you-see-is-what-you-get with the Stars for the rest of this season and likely into the next. That means unless they figure out a way to beat someone other than Edmonton on the road, the Stars are likely to emerge as sellers at the deadline. Marty Turco might want to keep an extra suitcase packed and at the ready.
Speaking of the Stars, the revelation that a torn ACL would sideline Tom Wandell was barely worthy of agate type outside of Dallas, but the loss of the rookie pivot is devastating to a team that needs all hands on deck for its unlikely playoff push. Prior to his injury, I'd been focusing on the rookie center for a column about quietly effective players whose games deserved a closer look. His limited offensive input ensured that you never heard the 23-year-old Swede mentioned as a Calder candidate, but his maturity, smarts and compete level made him someone who caught your eye on nearly every shift.
It was rarely about the dazzling play with Wandell, but almost always about the right one, which was why his ice time had surpassed that of veteran Mike Modano. Tough timing for the injury, too. Wandell had never played more than 53 games in a season, so it would have been interesting to see if he could keep up his energy down the stretch.
Every time you hear Gary Bettman hem and haw about NHL participation in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, understand that he's simply establishing a position counter to the Players Association's in order to gain leverage in the next round of CBA talks. He can yammer about how difficult it would be "to shut down for two weeks with the attendant loss of attention and everything that flows from it," but the commish understands the obvious. The league would lose attention from the casual sports fan during the Olympics regardless (hmm....snowboard cross gold medal or Thrashers-Blue Jackets?) and North American hockey fans would still focus on the tournament if Canada was represented by the Allen Cup champs and the U.S. sent a plucky group of unheralded college kids. The NHL knows this is something the players want badly, and so they're setting it up as a major concession.
Sochi will feature NHL players. Count on it.
I keep waiting to be proven wrong about Joe Colborne, Boston's talented but, ahem, intensity-challenged 2008 first-rounder. There's a lot to like about the forward, who'll be 20 on Saturday, including his size (6-5, 195), puck skills and a tremendous release. But there's a good reason he was left off the Canadian entry at the World Juniors and that's his seeming lack of desire.
Colborne will have the occasional shift where he tantalizes with a burst of speed and a creative finish, but like another jumbo-sized Joe who once wore black and gold, he leaves you with a sense that he's happy to settle. Of course, that other Joe turned out alright eventually, and that has Boston's fans worried that Colborne will be included if the B's make a strong pitch for Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk. It says here that the Bruins would be crazy to go after Kovalchuk, but that's because he won't make them a contender this season and will be nearly impossible to re-sign this summer, not because Colborne would be an unbearable loss. American readers can judge Colborne for themselves on Friday night when his Denver Pioneers take on North Dakota on the NHL Network.
Expect to hear the name of St. Louis assistant Brad Shaw surface over the summer as a possible head coaching option. "The guy's a leader," a team executive recently told SI.com. "He's smart, well respected, he's been in the trenches. He probably deserves a look [soon]." Shaw was bypassed in favor of Davis Payne when the Blues fired Andy Murray earlier this month, primarily because of the belief that the team needed a fresh voice in the room.
Wish I could offer more than a hopeful thought to all the emailers looking for an update on the DirecTV/Versus dispute, but with both sides having blown by so many pressure points, I'm not holding my breath that an accord will be reached in time for the playoffs. With that in mind, here's a promise from me: if there's no agreement in place by April 1, this long-time DirecTV customer is switching to a provider that can give me the programming I want. With Versus owning a stranglehold on the best postseason match-ups, I don't imagine I'll be alone.