Wednesday February 2nd, 2011

After Tampa Bay's performance against high-flying Philadelphia, you would be wise to take Dwayne Roloson and the much improved Lightning seriously during the run to the playoffs. (AP Photos)

By Stu Hackel

It seemed like an eternity since the NHL's last regular season game -- it was only five days -- but if what happened on Tuesday night was a glimpse of how things will go over the next 10 weeks, be ready to expect the unexpected.

Three teams blew two-goal leads and lost, six games went past regulation and one had no goals at all, requiring the postgame skills competition to award the bonus point. Four others went beyond overtime as well. And due to the immense nationwide storm, one game didn't get played.

What was, perhaps, the most surprising game revealed that the race for supremacy in the Eastern Conference is more wide open than imagined. With Chris Pronger back and healthy, the formidable Flyers were thought to be on their way to stampeding through the rest of the schedule and into playoff glory, on what Sam Carchidi of The Philadelphia Inquirer calls their "Unfinished Business Tour."  In their first game in seven days, they had a chance to make a statement against the team that's right on their tail for top spot in the East: the upstart Lightning. But the fans in Tampa Bay didn't even have a chance to chew their first nachos when...

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... Vinny Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell broke in 2-on-1 and put the Lightning on top. A minute later, Purcell scored again (video) and the Flyers were never in it, as goalie Dwayne Roloson stopped all 38 shots for his fourth shutout and his eighth victory in 11 games for the Lightning. Tampa Bay has won six straight, beaten Philly all three times they've played this season, and are now just two points behind the Flyers for the conference lead. Anyone who is not taking this team seriously, should seriously reconsider.

Two of the top Western Conference teams also squared off, and in this one, the first place Canucks did make a statement by beating back the Stars, 4-1.  Vancouver scored two power play goals and a shorthanded tally by Ryan Kesler (video), most recently of Team Staal, that resulted after Loui Eriksson, most recently of Team Lidstrom, had a pass from Brenden Morrow bounce off his stick. Kesler broke the game open in the second period and it certainly was of little consolation to Eriksson that he scored the lone goal for his side. The Stars haven't beaten Vancouver yet this season.

(While the Avalanche-Blues game was postponed in St. Louis, the weather kept the crowd down in Dallas. Mike Heika in The Dallas Morning News said the Stars estimated the crowd at just under 5,000; Gordon McIntyre of The Vancouver Province wrote, "To say there were 2,500 people in the stands would be generous. Cars from a morning snow storm littered ditches all over Dallas, freeways were rutted nightmares of ice, polished to a sheen by winds that gusted up to 75 kilometres an hour at the Dallas-Forth Worth airport. With the wind chill it was minus-21C." Don't know which crowd number is correct; on TV there were huge swaths of vacant seats.)

The most impressive team performance, however, might have been the Penguins' effort against the Rangers. Missing their top two centers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they swallowed hard when Mark Letestu, who was filling in for Crosby on the top line, hurt his knee at the morning skate when his skate caught a rut in the Madison Square Garden ice. So AHL call-up Dustin Jeffrey was slotted between Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. After Pittsburgh had fallen behind 2-0, Jeffrey got the Pens back in the game with his third goal of the season. The Pens fought their way back to take the lead in the second period, when Jordan Staal (who wasn't on Team Staal or Team Lidstrom) received a match penalty for delivering a solid left cross to the jaw of New York's Brandon Prust...

... (a match penalty is the correct call for punching an unsuspecting player, although Prust escaped what should have been at least an interference penalty for crashing into Tyler Kennedy just prior to the altercation). Staal's departure robbed the Penguins of yet another center, but this team is proving to be very resilient. The Rangers tied the score and went to the postgame skills competition where Pittsburgh got the bonus point on a goal scored by none other than Dustin Jeffrey.

Meanwhile, the Capitals honored Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli before the game (video) and wore their white home throwback sweaters. In Dino's day, the Caps were an intelligent defensive machine. The current Caps sometimes look like they've figured out how to play a responsible game, but certainly not yet with any consistency.

The Canadiens' Brian Gionta was the recipient of some questionable decisions by Capitals defensemen as Washington coughed up a 2-0 lead after Montreal looked to be barely hanging on in the early going. Carey Price (late of Team Staal) surrendered a rare bad goal to Mathieu Perreault two-and-a-half minutes in (video), but Gionta first narrowed the gap by finishing a 2-on-1 caused by a truly bad pinch by another Team Staaler, the Caps' Mike Green (video). Gionta beat Semyon Varlamov with a slapper low to the stick side, then tied the score, again beating Varlamov low to the stick side, by converting a great feed from Tomas Plekanec...

...courtesy of an overzealous backpass from the Caps' John Carlson. In the shootout, Gionta secured the bonus point for Montreal by beating Varlamov on a backhander, once again low to the stick side (video).

The night's other ceremony and big comeback were out west where, in fact, the Coyotes didn't blow a two-goal lead but a 3-0 advantage after the Patrick Marleau, who holds most of San Jose's career scoring records, was saluted for having played 1,000 NHL games (video).

After the third Phoenix goal, Sharks coach Todd McLellan -- quite unhappy that, as Mark Emmons put it in The San Jose Mercury News noted, "his team extended their All-Star break vacation by nearly two periods as the Coyotes dominated to the point that fans were booing the home team" -- pulled goalie Antti Niemi and inserted minor league call-up Alex Stalock for his first-ever NHL action.

Joe Pavelski's power play goal with time nearly expired in the second period (video) gave the Sharks life. Pavelski has been one of San Jose's big underachievers this season, but he went hard to the net early in the third period to pick up a rebound and score his second goal (video). About four minutes later, Kyle Wellwood tied it for the Sharks with his first goal while wearing teal (video).

When Ben Eager took a holding penalty with seven-and-a-half minutes left, the Coyotes had a chance to reverse the game's momentum. But Pavelski had awoken his club and he wasn't about to stop. He challenged Team Lidstrom alum Keith Yandle at the point, poking the puck loose...

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...and Marleau, showing a strong sense of occasion, picked it up and raced in alone to beat Ilya Bryzgalov for the game-winner.

"It was a nice little story line, I guess," said Marleau, who also had an assist on Joe Thornton's empty net goal. "But I think the important thing is just winning. We proved that we can come back, but we don't want to do that every night."

Coach McLellan obviously agreed. "If we leave here patting ourselves on the back, we've got huge problems," he said. "I was really disappointed in our group. The lack of drive and passion to come out and play was the last thing I expected. We need to find a way to start bringing it. And if we don't, we'll be digging our own grave."

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