Goaltender Brian Elliott has been a surprising part of the Blues' turnaround under coach Ken Hitchcock. (Jimmy Simmons/ZUMAPRESS.com)
By Stu Hackel
Some thoughts from around the NHL:..
The Blues defeated the Panthers Thursday tonight in a matchup of two of the NHL's more interesting clubs -- and who would have thought they'd describe them that way a couple of weeks ago? The Blues are improved since Ken Hitchcock took over as coach, winning four of five and in the fifth getting a point after losing the postgame skills competition to the Maple Leafs.
The Blues' wins have all come at home, but now they play five of their next seven games are on the road. Their special teams play is better. Hitchcock has simplified the game for the players (Bernie Miklasz's column today in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has more on that) and, probably most importantly, the Blues are getting very good goaltending, especially from Brian Elliott, who was not even guaranteed a roster spot in training camp.
One more thing: After his introductory press conference last week, Hitchcock told a local TV reporter that he's asked all the Blues players to phone deposed coach Davis Payne. Having been fired himself, Hitchcock said it would mean a lot to Payne to hear from his players. What went unsaid was that those calls also would make them confront their own responsibility for the team's performance. Payne isn't a bad coach, just an inexperienced one, and while he may not have known how to get the best out of the Blues, they didn't consistently bring their best themselves. Those phone calls probably weren't fun, but they may prove necessary to the Blues' collective growth.
Chara not charged: Montreal police have finallyclosed their investigation into whether Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara committed a crime when he propelled Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty into a Bell Centre stanchion last March. They've decided that they won't bring any charges against him.
I don't know if Montreal is facing the same sort of fiscal crisis that many U.S. municipalities are, but regardless, there had to be many better uses of taxpayers' money than whatever the cops spent pursuing this matter.
Vlad the Painter: This is a great story. Former Red Wings defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov -- whose career abruptly ended when he was critically injured in a limo accident while his teammates were celebrating their 1997 Stanley Cup championship -- debuted his paintings on Thursday night in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak.
For a guy whose neurological injuries were so devastating that he still has some difficulty speaking and cannot walk without a cane, these paintings reveal that his indomitable spirit has remained intact. Learning how to paint has been part of Konstantinov's rehabilitation and he's gotten quite good at it.
"He is very talented," Susan Miller of Gallery U in Royal Oak told The Detroit News. "He is very good, actually, as an artist, in making the life of the characters come right through, on the pieces. When the character in the pieces is sad, you see the sadness on the face, and feel it. When the character is happy, you can see that in the animal's face, too. It comes right up, out of his painting."
Konstantinov, now 44, frequently creates animal portraits, and is partial to birds. Some of his work can be seen in that Detroit News link above. More is available in a photo gallery accompanying this story by Dana Wakiji on the Fox Sports Detroit website, and from the Royal Oak Patch. Here's an interesting story by Diana Wing of the local Observer and Eccentric newspapers on how Konstantinov learned to paint and the people who have been working with him in rehab.
Ashley Cook, Universal Institute and Gallery U's vocational rehabilitation specialist, told Wakiji, "It's not about him as a hockey player; it's about him as an artist."
Hurrican'ts: The Carolina Hurricanes have lost six of their last seven and were really poor on Wednesday night while falling 4-0 to Montreal, especially in their own zone where they allowed the Canadiens free reign for long stretches. It doesn't help that Carolina's best defenseman, Joni Pitkanen, is out with a lower-body injury and not expected back for a week.
"That was a very bad game," GM Jim Rutherford told Chip Alexander of The Raleigh News-Observer. But Rutherford is not making any major moves with his personnel or coach Paul Maurice, at least not yet. "I am looking at everything (but) no decisions have been made. I have a lot of ideas in my head but I have not come to any conclusions yet."
It doesn't help that Eric Staal is experiencing an awful start to the season (four goals, four assists and -- for him -- an amazing league-worst minus-18).
Rutherford indicated he might form some conclusions after this weekend. He did say that he's explored some trades, but, "There's not anyone out there right now who's available. There might be some who become available. We'll see what we can do."
We've said at other points this season that it's too early to make any definitive assessments about teams, but that "too early" status is about to expire. The rule of thumb in the NHL is that teams know what they have around the 20-game mark and that's when they take remedial action. The 'Canes have dropped to 14th in the East and play Game 20, against the Sabres, on Friday and then the Maple Leafs on Sunday, both at home. Stay tuned.
Goalie wanted: With James Reimer's status unclear because of his concussion-like symptoms (apparently, it's actually not a concussion, just the symptoms), the Maple Leafs are going with rookie Ben Scrivens for the time being. Jonas Gustavsson is again relegated to backup. But GM Brian Burke said Wednesday that he'll be in the market for a goalie if Reimer's condition doesn't' improve soon.
“We are exploring those options for sure,” Burke told The Toronto Star. “I met with James (Reimer) last week and told him, you have to understand that if this doesn’t resolve itself in short order, we’re going to have to sniff around and see what’s there. I’m not sure what the price tags are or if any of it makes sense.
“He’s been day-to-day, but he’s been day-to-day for three weeks now. He has persistent concussion-like symptoms as we divulged from the get go. He was not concussed but he has headaches that persist. We don’t know if it’s whiplash. It could be attributed to something completely different.
“We don’t know. What we do know is that until he is asymptomatic, he can not do off-ice workouts. And until he completes off-ice workouts, he can not go on the ice. The protocol for concussion-like symptoms is the same for a concussion.”
There are a couple of candidates, notably Evgeni Nabokov of the Islanders, who was rumored to be Columbus-bound last week. But if Burke and Isles GM Garth Snow have spoken, nothing has yet come of it.
A mild controversy has erupted in Toronto over Reimer's diagnosis. The Star's Dave Feschuk contacted Reimer's mother to discuss her son's injury and reported that she feared it was a concussion and that he has a history of them. The Leafs didn't like the fact that Feschuk phoned Ma Reimer and have stated so. Damien Cox in The Star came to Feschuk's defense today in a column, taking on the Leafs and TV commentators Don Cherry and Mike Milbury who sided with the team. "That the paranoid Leafs want to hide injury information at all costs is their preferred strategy," Cox wrote, "But all it does is motivate good journalists and reporters to find information in other ways."