stuhackel
Friday March 4th, 2011

If the NHL had only hit Islanders brawler Trevor Gillies with a tougher suspension the first time, he might not be staring at his current 10-game ban for retaliatory boarding. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

Let's take a skate around the NHL and see what's new, follow up on some stuff and venture a few scattered thoughts heading into the weekend.

The NHL has suspended the Islanders' Trevor Gillies 10 games for his hit on Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck (video) for which he was penalized with a five-minute major and a game misconduct for thrusting his forearm into the back of Clutterbuck's head and driving it into the glass. Gillies had just returned from a nine-game suspension he earned on February 11 for attacking Pittsburgh's Eric Tangradi from behind, knocking him out, hitting him while he was down and, after being ejected, taunting him from the runway as Tangradi lay on the ice. Tangradi was concussed and has still not returned to play.

"By targeting his opponent's head, three shifts into his first game back from a suspension for a very similar action, Mr. Gillies has forfeited his privilege of playing in the League for 10 games," NHL Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell said in a statement about Gillies' hit on Clutterbuck. "While it is fortunate there was no injury on the play, there can be no justification for a player delivering a dangerous check to an opponent in this manner."

As mentioned in yesterday's post, the NHL is generally too lenient in its supplemental discipline, and had Gillies been sufficiently punished for the first incident, he likely wouldn't have rushed to commit a new infraction just a few shifts into his return from suspension. Hopefully, another 10 games will send him a message about how NHL players should conduct themselves, but it shouldn't have come to that.

Richards' Return Delayed: Brad Richards, the star of the Stars who was also a star of trade deadline day even though he didn't move, skated on Thursday with his teammates in Phoenix for the first time since he was concussed by an unpenalized hit to the jaw delivered by Columbus’s Sami Pahlsson on Feb. 13.

There was a chance that Richards would be good to go tonight in Anaheim, but with concussions, you never know. Gone are the days when players take a couple of aspirin and play with a headache and cloudiness. Now a complete recovery is mandatory before they can return and that period of time varies depending on the player.

After traveling with the team, and assessing his status, Richards is still not ready. He didn't skate today after nearly an hour on the ice on Thursday and told Mike Heika of The Dallas Morning News, “It was a step forward, but I really don’t know yet. This was the first time with people on the ice and contact, and it was a little different than skating on my own. I'll have to see how I react. It was not as easy as just going out on my own to skate.”

Apparently, he didn't react as well as he had hoped.

Leafs Rising: The days of waffle tossing have been forgotten. You would have been called insane had you said at the beginning of the calendar year that the Maple Leafs would be in the playoff picture by early March. They were 13th in the Eastern Conference, 14 points out of eighth place, and the math whizzes who keep track of such things put their chances of making the postseason at less than one percent. Today the Leafs sit in 10th, three points out of eighth, and are playing with more confidence and verve than they've shown in a few seasons.

The first major difference between now and earlier in the season is they're getting excellent goaltending. Rookie James Reimer, an afterthought on the depth chart last fall, has played exceptionally, as he did again on Thursday night in defeating the Flyers 3-2 in Philly. This thrilling stop in the dying seconds preserved the victory...

...and it wasn't just his deflecting the original shot above the net that was exceptional, but snaring the puck that was batted back into the crease from behind him, too. The Leafs are playing with a great spirit and determination that surprises even Coach Ron Wilson (“I was kind of shocked we had that much energy,” he said after the game), and no play better typified Toronto's effort than the game-winner by another rookie, Darryl Boyce....

...who won the battle for the puck in the corner against Sean O'Donnell, then beat him to the net and stuffed it behind Sergei Bobrovski. But the emerging folk hero might be a third rookie, defenseman Keith Aulie. He may have committed the giveaway that forced Reimer to make the big save at the end, but he also dropped rugged Flyers forward Scott Hartnell in a second-period fight (video). Members of Leafs Nation have dubbed him "Muhammed Aulie" on Twitter and message boards.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqMk-AuTDZE&w=480&h=390]

Caps Click: The second late game-winner was by the newest Capital, Jason Arnott, who notched his first goal for the club.

Playing on a line with Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin, Arnott is trying to get the trio to jell. They certainly looked pretty good on that one. "We're creating a little chemistry, getting to know each other," said Arnott (video, about 5:40 in). "We were talking a lot on the bench and even with Sash [the usually quiet Semin], we're talking to him and he's talking to us. It's important to communicate to find out how guys are. If we keep that up hopefully our chemistry will keep going."

Arnott also got an assist in his Caps debut on Monday, the day he was traded, setting up Laich for the tying goal with a perfect pass against the Islanders in the last minute of regulation. Washington's Matt Bradley observes in the same clip how much older the Caps have gotten in the past week, adding Arnott, Marco Sturm and Dennis Wideman and how Arnott never panics at the big moments. Perhaps his veteran presence is what Washington has been missing.

Bruins Stay Hot: There were a couple of late third period game winners on Thursday night. One was by the Bruins' Milan Lucic...

...who somehow found the net from a sharp angle through a tangle of bodies with under four minutes left in regulation to dump the Lightning, 2-1, at home and give the B's their seventh straight win. The last five W's for Boston have all been one-goal games (although two of them had empty-netters to make the final margin two goals). Lucic also got the game-winner with under five minutes left last Saturday in Vancouver and had two assists in that game as well (video).

The Bruins certainly look very strong at the moment, with depth throughout their lineup. The only question might be their team speed, but they excel in every other area of the game.

Sharks Sharp: As hot as the Bruins are, the Sharks are hotter, having won their eighth straight by defeating the Red Wings 3-1 on Thursday night on the strength of two goals by Dany Heatley, who had scored only twice since Jan. 20, a stretch of 17 games. Heatley also had a strong backcheck that broke up a Detroit shorthanded attempt. It was a good game, and this one, too, was in doubt until near the end of regulation when Wings goalie Joey MacDonald won a race for the puck but shot it into the onrushing Patrick Marleau. It bounced off Marleau, over MacDonald and behind him into the net (video).

The two coaches, San Jose's Todd McLellan and his former boss in Detroit, Mike Babcock, juggled their lines to try to gain an edge all night it seemed, but as far as McLellan is concerned, the credit goes to his players who have finally bought into his system. “They have figured it out," he said after the game (video). "Now the tough part starts -- do they want to continue with it or are they going to stray a little bit and try to do it the easy way? We’ve proven it doesn’t work that way.”

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