Mike Richter's strong return in goal boosts U.S. chances at the
Salt Lake City Games
Mike Richter's quick recovery from reconstructive right-knee
surgery last February has enabled the Rangers to overcome their
defensive failings and put together an 11-7-1-0 record through
Sunday, a development that bodes well for the U.S. Olympic team.
Richter was one of five goaltenders invited to the U.S. Olympic
camp in early September, a less-than-inspiring group that also
included the Predators' Mike Dunham, the Coyotes' Robert Esche,
the Blues' Brent Johnson and the Thrashers' Damian Rhodes. "Back
then Richter was about 70 percent in terms of mobility," says
Team USA goalie coach Warren Strelow. "We didn't know what to
expect from him this year."
At week's end the 35-year-old Richter had a .916 save percentage
even though the porous New York defense had yielded the most
shots in the NHL. Richter's acrobatic play, along with the fact
that he was MVP of the gold medal team at the 1996 World Cup,
virtually ensures that he will be one of three goalies chosen for
the Olympic squad, which must be named by Dec. 22. Dunham has
already been selected, and the third U.S. goalie could be another
comeback story: Flyers third-year netminder Brian Boucher, who
struggled last season but has regained the confidence that helped
him lead Philadelphia to the Eastern Conference finals in May
As of Sunday, Boucher sported the league's best save percentage
(.940) and had recently completed a 184:30 shutout streak. He's
the top candidate to unseat Johnson, who was the front-runner for
the third position entering the season.
America's corps in net isn't as impressive as that of Canada,
which includes the Avalanche's Patrick Roy, the Devils' Martin
Brodeur and the Maple Leafs' Curtis Joseph; or the Czech
Republic, which has the Red Wings' Dominik Hasek and the Flames'
Roman Turek; or even Sweden, which has the Oilers' Tommy Salo.
Yet while the U.S. goaltending can't match the depth and quality
of other countries', there's no doubt the overall netminding
picture looks much better than it did in September.
Golden Boy Hits A Rough Patch
Shortly after Tampa Bay's 3-0 loss to the Islanders on Nov. 6,
Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier stood at his locker knotting
his navy necktie, slipped into his navy blazer and tried not to
look blue. Although he had been active in the offensive zone,
drawing a penalty and taking four shots on goal, Lecavalier had
been indecisive with the puck, and his shots were weak and poorly
located. With a fifth of the season gone, the 21-year-old
Lecavalier, one of the most promising offensive players in the
game, had two goals. "It's not coming for me--I'm not putting the
puck where I want it," he said. "This has been a hard year, but I
feel positive. Things will get better."
In three-plus seasons with Tampa Bay, Lecavalier has been dubbed
the Phenom, the Savior and, most conspicuous, the Captain. Now
he'd like to add another title: the Stoic. He's had a difficult
time staying upbeat since signing a four-year, $10.2 million deal
on Oct. 5. Lecavalier missed the preseason because of the
squabbling over that contract, and the day after he signed, coach
John Tortorella stripped him of the captaincy he'd held since
March 2000. "We're trying to take pressure off Vinny," Tortorella
"That hurt," says Lecavalier. "I didn't see it coming."
He should have. Former Tampa Bay coach Steve Ludzik had named him
captain--the youngest in NHL history--permitted him to help pick
his linemates and turned him loose on the ice, but the favored
treatment ended when Tortorella took over last January.
Tortorella rescinded Lecavalier's freedom and demanded that he be
more responsible on defense. Lecavalier responded with uneven
play, and late last season, as he battled from injuries en route
to a disappointing 51-point output, Tortorella briefly benched
him. "Vinny's been on a pedestal since he was 15, but John wants
him on the same level as everyone else," says general manager
Rick Dudley. "It can't be easy for Vinny."
The difficulty was underscored on Oct. 23 when Tortorella and
Lecavalier argued about the center's role in a botched play
against the Capitals. (The blowup led to rumors that Lecavalier
had demanded a trade, which he and the Lightning deny.) While it
seems almost certain that Lecavalier will regain his scoring
touch--he had a goal last Saturday in a 3-2 win over the Penguins
that improved Tampa Bay to 5-9-1-1--it's also clear his NHL
honeymoon, which began when he was selected first in the 1998
draft, has ended. As Dudley says, "Now comes the hard part."
From Worst To First
Wild Power Play
One of this season's most unlikely developments has been the
improved power play of the Wild. Through Sunday, Minnesota had
scored on an NHL-leading 24.3% of its power-play opportunities, a
huge leap from its league-worst 9.6% last year. In the off-season
the Wild made unheralded moves that brought it scoring wing
Andrew Brunette (as a free agent) and smooth-passing center
Sergei Zholtok (in a trade with the Oilers). Both of those
journeymen have excelled on the power play, on which coach
Jacques Lemaire deploys four forwards and defenseman Filip Kuba,
who mans the point with his 100-mph shot.
The success is especially striking in contrast with the Wild's
anemic output at even strength. At week's end Minnesota (6-6-3-1)
had scored a remarkable 42% of its total goals on the power play
but had been outscored 40-19 in even-man situations. "We're
moving the puck with such confidence on the power play that we
don't even talk about it," says center Jim Dowd, who along with
dynamic forward Marian Gaborik rounds out the Wild's top
power-play unit. "It's coming naturally. Now, if we could only
get going at five-on-five."
Whom Would You Rather Have?
RW Shane Doan
Winnipeg's first-round selection in the 1995 entry draft, the
6'2", 228- pound power forward recently signed a multiyear
contract. He averaged .33 goals per game over the past two
seasons and had scored three goals this season through Sunday.
RW Brad Isbister
Winnipeg's third-round selection in the 1995 entry draft, the
6'4", 230-pound power forward was dealt to the Islanders in March
1999. He averaged .35 goals per game over the past two seasons
and had scored two goals this year through Sunday.
THE VERDICT: Isbister has a harder edge to his game, but Doan is
more durable and disciplined, and therefore is our choice.