Inside The NHL

March 11, 2002

Head Case
Edmonton's playoff fate may depend on how fast Tommy Salo gets
over his Olympic gaffe

It looked like an eight-day-old replay: Tommy Salo was standing
awkwardly in the crease as a slap shot, whipped from outside the
blue line, hit his body and wobbled into the net--a play
stunningly similar to the 70-footer on which Salo was beaten for
a game-winning goal by Belarus's Vladimir Kopat with 2:24
remaining in heavily favored Sweden's 4-3 Olympic quarterfinal
loss.

Last Thursday the shooter was the Predators' Vitali Yachmenev,
who whistled a long and stoppable shot past Salo, now in goal for
the Oilers. That score tied the game at 2-2 just 25 seconds into
the third period, set up a 3-2 Nashville win and prompted
questions of whether Salo could shake off the embarrassment of
his Salt Lake City gaffe and do his part to get Edmonton into the
playoffs.

The spin in the Oilers' dressing room after the loss to the
Predators was dizzying--"That was a difficult shot to stop, an
absolute howitzer," rationalized coach Craig MacTavish--and
signaled a team circling its wagons around its workhorse. While
playing 3,178 minutes through Sunday (third in the NHL among
goalies), Salo had an excellent 2.34 goals-against average and a
.908 save percentage and had been the most consistent player on
up-and-down Edmonton (26-24-11-2, ninth in the Western
Conference).

The taciturn Salo publicly downplayed the aftereffects of the
Olympic loss, saying that Yachmenev's goal was "not even close"
to Kopat's and that he had "no time to talk about the Olympics. I
have a gold medal [he backstopped Sweden to victory in 1994], and
I've had good games."

Several Oilers said that the Olympics weren't a taboo subject
around Salo, who joined a dozen teammates at an Edmonton bar to
watch the U.S.-Canada gold medal match on Feb. 24. Salo,
however, has been hammered at home. The Swedish tabloid
Aftonbladet called the Belarus loss "a day of shame," and
Expressen published the Swedish NHL players' pictures and
salaries under the headline GUILTY: THEY BETRAYED THEIR COUNTRY.
Salo's parents, who live in Surahammar, Sweden, and other
members of his family have even been verbally harassed. "He can
take criticism of himself," Edmonton left wing Josh Green says,
"but when it starts affecting his family, that's not right."

"It's understandable," Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, an
Olympic teammate, says of the firestorm surrounding Salo. "That's
what happens when you lose a game you should win. Expectations
were high."

Through Sunday the Oilers had 19 games remaining in the regular
season and trailed the Stars by two points for the conference's
final playoff spot. To qualify for the postseason Edmonton knows
Salo will have to carry the club. Says center Mike Comrie, "He's
the guy who gives us a chance to win every night."

Injuries to Top Players
Calling All Doctors

The NHL's back-from-the-Olympics week was marred by a string of
injuries to high-profile players, including Rangers center Mark
Messier (shoulder surgery, out indefinitely) and Avalanche
defenseman Rob Blake (bruised knee, out indefinitely), but three
teams were hit especially hard:

--Penguins. Their already slim playoff hopes--entering the break
for the Games, Pittsburgh was seven points behind the Rangers
for the final playoff spot in the East--virtually vanished when
Mario Lemieux announced that tendinitis in his hip would force
him to miss the remainder of the season. Also, elite center
Martin Straka, who had been sidelined since Oct. 28 with a
fractured right leg, had the orbital bone above his left eye
broken two shifts into his return on Feb. 26. He is out
indefinitely. It shouldn't be long before two free-agents-to-be,
defenseman Darius Kasparaitis and center Robert Lang, are traded.

--Maple Leafs. They were dealt a crushing blow in their battle
for a high playoff seeding in the East when workhorse goalie
Curtis Joseph broke his left hand and was lost for the rest of
the regular season. Backup Corey Schwab (a poor .879 save
percentage through Sunday) will be the man until coach-general
manager Pat Quinn lands one of the several available netminders.
The Lightning's capable No. 2, Kevin Weekes, would be a good fit.

--Blues. With the West's fourth-best record coming out of the
Olympic break, St. Louis was resuming play without winger Keith
Tkachuk, who sustained a deep thigh bruise during the Games and
is listed as day-to-day. Then, last Thursday, center Doug Weight
sprained a right knee ligament and strained his pelvis, injuries
that will keep him out indefinitely. Where will reinforcements
come from? Perhaps from Pittsburgh, in the person of Lang.

Defenseman Adrian Aucoin
Iron Man Of the Islanders

During a family vacation in Montego Bay, Jamaica, over the
Olympic break, Islanders defenseman Adrian Aucoin couldn't help
being pegged as a puckhead. "I broke my nose in our last game [a
1-0 win at Philadelphia on Feb. 12], and I had two black eyes,"
Aucoin says with a laugh. "People kept asking me, 'Are you a
hockey player?' I guess I was hard to miss."

The 28-year-old Aucoin's high profile of late has had more to do
with his on-ice ubiquity than with that injury. In his eighth NHL
season he has become New York's iron man, averaging 28:34 of ice
time per game through Sunday, third in the league behind the
Blues' Chris Pronger (29:01) and the Red Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom
(28:50). Aucoin, who had 11 goals and 16 assists, has been at his
best on special teams. He has excellent defensive range, and he
has been a vocal mainstay of New York's fifth-ranked
penalty-killing unit, calling out directions to teammates before
face-offs and on the backcheck. With his booming shot, he has
also thrived at the point on the Islanders' top power-play unit.

Lately Aucoin had been even more effective and hardworking--10
goals and five assists in his last 17 games, while averaging
33:24 of ice time. "The jump from 24 to 25 minutes a night is
tough, but once you're up around 30 as a regular occurrence, it's
easier," he says. "Being on the ice half of every game, your play
becomes much more instinctive."

COLOR PHOTO: SHAUN BEST/REUTERS Since allowing that soft goal to Belarus (left), Salo's family in Sweden has been harassed. COLOR PHOTO: BILL SMITH COLOR PHOTO: J. MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS

Whom Would You Rather Have as Coach?

Brian Sutter
BLACKHAWKS
The 45-year-old former NHL left wing had led Chicago to the
league's third-most points (77) through Sunday. In 10 previous
seasons behind the bench for three teams, he had a .526 winning
percentage and had been to the playoffs seven times.

Darryl Sutter
SHARKS
The 43-year-old former NHL left wing had led San Jose to the
league's sixth-most points (74) through Sunday. In seven previous
seasons behind the bench for two teams, he had a .529 winning
percentage and had been to the playoffs seven times.

THE VERDICT: Both brothers are winners, but Darryl's teams have
overachieved in the postseason more often. That makes him our
pick. --Mark Beech

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)