By Stu Hackel
The Western Conference continues to be a marvelously cluttered game of chutes and ladders, and in the last few weeks, the two southern California clubs have been headed in opposite directions. The Kings have won only two of their last 10 games and sit in the 12th spot. Rumors are flying and being denied that coach Terry Murray is in trouble.
The Ducks, on the other hand, have won eight of 10, sit in the fifth spot,and are currently traveling through the soft underbelly of the Northeast Division. They stole two points from the Senators on Tuesday by winning the postgame skills competition and are waiting to ambush the awful Maple Leafs tonight. Then it's on to Montreal to face the injury decimated Canadiens on Saturday (a game notable for Saku Koivu's emotional return to the city where he was captain for nine seasons).
Of course, the gap between the Ducks and Kings is still only seven points, but there are six teams between them.
Just how good the Ducks really are is unclear. They've been hot and cold all season. They are almost always excellent in goal, however, and Jonas Hiller was the reason they even got to overtime on Tuesday.
No team allows more shots on goal than Anaheim; their 1,677 against comes out to an average of 34 per game. And no goalie has made more saves this season than Hiller, whose 1,250 stops are 108 more than Cam Ward's total. Hiller, who was selected to play in the All-Star Game, made 39 more on Tuesday, 28 in the first two periods, and has allowed only 19 goals in his last 11 starts.
“You guys in the East probably don’t see that, but we’re quite used to that kind of performance,” Ducks forward Bobby Ryan told reporters after the Ottawa game (quoted in The Ottawa Citizen. “That’s why he’s an all-star. That’s a pretty special goalie, there. He won the game. We were outplayed in a lot of aspects tonight. He’s a stalwart back there, he has an overwhelming sense of calm.”
When they are on their game, the Ducks are pretty good at allowing the opposition to only get shots from odd angles, and Hiller is excellent at sealing off the path to the net, getting down quickly and efficiently into the butterfly, and letting little get through him. Rebounds are a rarity...
...and when they do happen, coach Randy Carlyle's defenseman have improved from earlier this season at discouraging second shots.
The Bruins' Tim Thomas gets all the accolades, with justification, but the way he's been going, the black-masked Hiller will probably deserve serious consideration along with Thomas for the Vezina Trophy, and maybe a few Hart Trophy votes as well.
NHL close-up: Want a unique view of NHL action? Click on this link for NHL in 360 and watch about nine minutes in of terrific video that really takes you inside a game. Do it in full screen mode. The footage was part of an exhibition in Buffalo celebrating 40 years of Sabres hockey at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery that recently closed following a highly acclaimed run. (We reviewed the companion book from the exhibit last week.) There's more about this video, which really makes you feel as if you are part of the game, on The New York Times Slapshot blog.
Heady Observations: The Thrashers' Evander Kane, whose head was checked by Florida's Rostislav Olesz on Monday (video), has been scratched for tonight's game against the Lightning, and while Chris Vivlamore blogging for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution doesn't specifically report that Kane is suffering concussion symptoms, he does point out that the Thrashers wing was taken off the ice during practice on Wednesday after only 10 minutes and did not skate today.
Besides Sidney Crosby, another All-Star Game selection, the Oilers' Ales Hemsky, is also now out indefinitely with concussion symptoms. Terry Jones of The Edmonton Sun reports that Hemsky told his coaches that he was good to go for the Oilers' last game, on Tuesday, but only skated one shift in the second period before the team's medical staff pulled him out. Hemsky has had a number of small head knocks this season, including being hit by a puck and there is some suspicion that the cumulative effect may be the cause.
In Wednesday's Globe and Mail, Sean Gordon and Anne McIlroy spoke with concussion experts who mulled over Crosby's injury and the insidious nature of concussion symptoms. Part of the story deals with team medical personnel assessing concussions and whether possibly concussed players are allowed return to action.
And the discussion about hits to the head in the NHL continues as Jeff Blair of The Globe and Mail spoke with well-known concussion victim, Eric Lindros, who believes that Crosby will be targeted by head hunters now that he's suffered one.
“What happens is you get tagged as being concussion prone, and there’s a huge decline in the respect you get because of it,” Lindros told Blair. “It’s people trying to make their name, you know? It’s little things that occur after the play, like when it switches out of the corner and the play goes up the ice and you’re spinning around heading back up to back check and – bam! You know … where they kind of catch you.”
On Versus' NHL Overtime show last night, a three-writer panel -- The New York Times' Jeff Z. Klein, The Bergen Record's Tom Gulitti, and The Boston Globe's Kevin Paul Dupont -- discussed where head checking rules may go from here...
...and they concur that while zero tolerance is likely not the direction that the NHL will take, there will be more discussion aimed at clarifying the rule and some GM's would like a stronger one. Klein discusses what he learned for his Times story that quotes NHL GM's Jim Rutherford and Ray Shero on improving player protection.
Dupont referenced an earlier discussion in which Ed Olczyk mentioned that the position of a player's hands when he delivers a hit might become a factor in determining whether it is considered legal or not, and that point was reviewed in the discussion that followed featuring Olczyk, Bill Jaffe and Mike Milbury...
...in which a bellicose Milbury maintained his general stance, which has been to minimize the significance of this discussion.
More on the issue: Randy Starkman blogging in The Toronto Star, looks back on that paper's 2007 series on concussions and recalls statements that are rather chilling in retrospect, including some by Colin Campbell that are dismissive of the severity of the problem, and one by "the head of the NHL's neuropsychological testing program (who) said at the time the general medical consensus is that players should be kept out of the lineup until they're symptom free -- unless it's the playoffs." Starkman also links to the entire series in his post.