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Southeast: Forward-thinking while backward skating

Sunday, 11.09.2008 / 1:00 AM / Division Notebooks

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

For a split second, Steven Stamkos must have had an out-of-body experience.

There was Tampa Bay Lightning teammate Martin St. Louis, skating in backward toward the opposing goalie during his shootout attempt before shifting sideways to his backhand, moving across the crease and lofting the puck over the outstretched pad of Ottawa's Alex Auld. The goal would help lead the Lightning to a thrilling 3-2 shootout triumph Nov. 1.

Stamkos, of course, was a hot topic of discussion last season when his nifty behind-the-legs shootout goal with the Sarnia Sting during the 2007 Ontario Hockey League's skills competition was captured on YouTube and made him the talk of the Internet world.

WHAT FANS ARE SAYING

"The good news: Tampa Bay broke their losing streak..."

CASSIE
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"Let's make it clear: this is a great pick-up for the Bolts..."

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"Other bright spots of the season include the MVP line...."

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"I've seen (St. Louis) do that once before (against Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury), but that was definitely a great move and it just goes to show the ability he has skating backwards and still knowing where the goalie is," Stamkos told NHL.com. "To be able to pull off a move like that was pretty impressive."

Maybe it'll even make the 5-foot-9, 177-pound St. Louis an Internet icon.

"I've gone backwards 2 times in my career during the shootout," St. Louis said. "Against Fleury I went 5-hole while going backwards. It's just a way to kind of surprise them since they really don't expect it. Obviously when you're skating backwards the goalie doesn't really know your intentions so I guess it gives you more options as a shooter.

"Goalies are good right now and really hard to deke," St. Louis said. "They play so deep and cover a lot of net so I just feel like it's one way to be creative. I've worked on that before and it's just a matter of bringing it out every now and then to surprise somebody."

It certainly surprised teammate Matt Carle.

"People have seen him do that turnaround move before, and if we don’t know what he's going to do, I highly doubt the goalie will know," Carle said. "I don't think I've ever seen him do that in practice. That's the beauty of the game and why they added the shootout -- to see how creative guys could get, and Marty's goal was a prime example of that."

Russian bear
-- In an effort to quickly atone for the 8-hour time difference during his 6-day visit to Russia with his ailing grandfather, Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin made it a point to be physically and mentally prepared.

"When in Russia, at night I don’t sleep and in the day, I sleep," Ovechkin said. "I was so happy to see my family, see my grandfather. I really appreciate what the Caps did for me and I returned home (to Washington) Sunday at 7 p.m."

Ovechkin missed consecutive games for the first time in his 3-plus seasons in the NHL. He returned to the lineup Tuesday in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators. He took 23 shifts totaling 21:12 of ice time and finished with a minus-1 rating.

"I thought early on he had lots of good little opportunities," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said of Ovechkin. "At the end of the game, maybe his wind was ... I don't know, he didn't have as many chances. I thought it was closer checking, even though their shot total was much greater than ours (44-27)."

In an effort to jump-start his offense, Boudreau had Sergei Fedorov centering for Ovechkin and Alexander Semin on Thursday against Carolina. The tinkering worked as the trio accounted for the team's 3 goals and totaled 6 points with a combined plus-7 rating in a 3-2 victory. Fedorov left the game with an injury in the third period but was seen watching the contest from the runway to the locker room late in the game. Semin, the game's first star, scored twice in the final 3 minutes, including the game-winner with 10.9 seconds left. Ovechkin, the game's second star, had 3 assists and Fedorov connected for his fourth goal of the season.

"I don't like juggling lines around but something has to click eventually," Boudreau said. "We have to move the lines around until I find the chemistry that works.''

Ovechkin and Semin had played on the same line for gold medal-winning Team Russia during the 2008 World Championships.

"It's good when new lines are created," Ovechkin said. "We played together that whole tournament in the World Championships and I think what worked was the fact we played for each other."

Slow starters
-- October has never been too kind to the Florida Panthers.

The last time the club finished above .500 during the opening month of the season was 2005-06, when it fashioned a 6-5-1 mark. This season, the club jumped out of the gate under first-year coach Peter DeBoer with a 4-5 record in October.

"We've got a lot of new faces," DeBoer told the Panthers' Web site. "I don't buy into the fact we've always started slow and we're going to start slow. We've had some turnover in the room, a lot of new guys, and I believe you can talk yourself into that. The guys that have a problem with that have to get past it.

"Let's be honest -- in order for us to compete, we need everyone's 'A' game every night."

The Panthers, winless in their last 5 prior to Saturday's clash in Phoenix, close out a 5-game road trip Sunday when they visit the Honda Center to battle the surging Anaheim Ducks.

"What's disappointing for me is the effort and not being ready to play," DeBoer said. "I can live with playing a lot of 1-0, 2-1 games if that's what we have to do to win, but there's no excuse for not showing up ready to go to work."

"I don't buy into the fact we've always started slow and we're going to start slow. We've had some turnover in the room, a lot of new guys, and I believe you can talk yourself into that. The guys that have a problem with that have to get past it." -- Florida Panthers coach Peter DeBoer
Canes come together -- Despite the number of injuries the Carolina Hurricanes have endured this season, coach Peter Laviolette has his charges in the right frame of mind.

On the shelf for the Hurricanes are forwards Matt Cullen (leg, day-to-day), Brandon Sutter (concussion, out indefinitely) and Justin Williams (Achilles' tendon, 4-6 months) and defensemen Frantisek Kaberle (leg, 2-4 weeks) and Joni Pitkanen (knee, 3-4 weeks).

One reason for the fine start to the season has been the play of defensemen Niclas Wallin and Dennis Seidenberg. Wallin, 33, leads the team with a plus-8 rating and Seidenberg, 27, is tied for third in the League with 38 blocked shots while averaging a team-best 24:22 of ice time per game.

"(Seidenberg's) a guy that does everything, and once you do everything your minutes go up," Laviolette told The (Raleigh) News and Observer. "He can skate. He's strong. He reads the play well. I think with his skating and his strength, he's able to play against those big players. He's able to get himself out of trouble and skilled enough to make plays when he needs to."

Additionally, the line of Chad LaRose, Dwight Helminen and Tuomo Ruutu has offered a tremendous boost to a depleted offensive corps.

And even better, the Hurricanes' Web site reported Friday that rookie center Sutter was back on the ice for the first time since suffering a concussion Oct. 25 against the New York Islanders.

"(Skating) felt pretty good," Sutter told Paul Branecky of Hurricanes.com. "Hopefully I can up the workout the next couple of days, keep going harder, and hopefully I’ll be back before you know it. I couldn't even watch TV the first couple of days. I've just kind of been laying in my place for a week.  It's been pretty boring so it's kind of killing me. It's been nice to at least be back around here and see the guys and stuff."

Statement time -- Now is as good a time as any for the Atlanta Thrashers to begin their ascent up the ladder, with a scheduled home-and-home set against the Southeast Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes this week.

The Thrashers, who entered the weekend 13th in the Eastern Conference, visit the RBC Center on Sunday before returning home to Philips Arena for a rematch with the Hurricanes on Friday. Thrashers defenseman Mathieu Schneider sat out the 4-3 victory against the New York Islanders on Thursday with a hip flexor injury. General Manager Don Waddell said Schneider was injured during the team's morning practice and isn't expected to join the team until the club's next home game, against the Hurricanes on Friday.

Center Todd White leads the Thrashers in scoring with 3 goals and 14 points in 13 games. Slava Kozlov and Bryan Little are tied for second with 11 points apiece.

Kozlov has been an offensive force for head coach John Anderson, who has the 36-year-old forward playing alongside White and Little. His 8 goals, in fact, are tops on the team.

 
 
"It's strictly positioning," Anderson told Mike Knobler of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He's in the right spot. He's a pretty smart player. I don't think he has the wheels that he used to have probably 6 or 7 years ago, but if you're in the right position and know where to go, you don't have to do as much skating."

"He has great hands," White said of Kozlov. "He's very patient, and he takes very accurate shots. He's got great moves (on breakaways), and he makes the goalie make the first move."

Kozlov knows there's always room for improvement, even as he closes in on 40.

"I know I can play better," he said. "I don't want to watch statistics. It's a team game, and I appreciate the team winning more than my personal statistics. We're way behind the playoff contenders, and that's what we need to focus on right now."

WHAT FANS ARE SAYING

"This inconsistant play is driving me crazy!..."

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Southeast spotlight -- Carolina Hurricanes center Tuomo Ruutu is having fun again.

Chalk it up to good health and exceptional linemates.

The 6-foot, 200-pound Finn, never one to shy away from heavy contact, has racked up 28 hits in 10 games with the Hurricanes. On top of that, he's playing a major offensive role on a line with Chad LaRose and Dwight Helminen at a time when coach Peter Laviolette desperately needs it.

"All three of us have been working extremely hard, especially during our 5-on-5 play,'' Ruutu said. "So that's been the biggest thing. Once we start working, that's when we're rewarded."

LaRose agreed.

"When we're skating well and getting in on the forecheck, that's when we've been most effective," he said.

The 25-year-old Ruutu, who was traded to Carolina by Chicago for left wing Andrew Ladd on Feb. 26, had registered a point (4 goals, 3 assists) in 5 consecutive games, and goals in 3 straight prior to Friday's match with the Ottawa Senators.

"Obviously when the trade happened, I was shocked at first since I had been in Chicago for 5 seasons," Ruutu said. "But it's been a good start for me in Carolina. The last couple of years I wasn't really proving myself in Chicago, and sometimes change is good for you. It was tough to leave friends, but the guys here in Carolina have been great.

"I'll always play a physical brand of hockey since that's the kind of hockey I enjoy most. That's my game and I like to hit hard and play hard. When I'm active and doing that, I'm able to transfer in other parts like passing and shooting. I need to be involved in every way to become an effective player, so that's how I play."

Ruutu, who Chicago made the ninth pick of the 2001 Entry Draft, has 5 goals and 9 points through 10 games this season with Carolina. He had 4 goals and 7 assists in 17 games with Carolina last season. He finished second on the team with 171 hits and was tied for third among Hurricanes forwards with a plus-4 rating.

"It's been a good start for me in Carolina. The last couple of years I wasn't really proving myself in Chicago, and sometimes change is good for you. It was tough to leave friends, but the guys here in Carolina have been great" -- Tuomo Ruutu
His best season was his first, 2003-04, when he posted 23 goals, including 10 on the power-play, and 44 points in 82 games with Chicago.

His international resume is impeccable. Ruutu has represented Finland in 8 major tournaments and served as an assistant captain while leading his team in scoring during Finland's gold medal-winning performance at the 2000 Under-18 World Championships. He also garnered a silver medal at the 2001 World Junior Championships and a bronze in the 2002 WJC. Ruutu, who speaks English, Finnish, Swedish and some German, also played soccer and was a distance runner growing up in Vantaa, Finland.

WHAT FANS ARE SAYING

"The Capitals may have found a new No.1 goalie..."

STRAST
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"I hope the fans are respectful of former favorite players..."

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Capital awards -- Washington Capitals left wing Alexander Semin was named the NHL's First Star of the Month for October after posting 8 goals and 16 points in 9 games.
 
In addition, Washington prospect Keith Aucoin of the Hershey Bears was named the American Hockey League's Player of the Month for October, giving the Capitals an organizational sweep of October stars in North America’s top professional hockey leagues.
 
Semin matched Dale Hunter (1 goal, 15 assists in 1991-92) for the most points by a Capital in the first 9 games of a season and became the sixth Capital to be named the NHL’s Player of the Month or First Star of the Month since the awards were first presented in 1980-81. Alex Ovechkin has won the awards three times.

Quote of the Week -- "(Sunday night), for me, was like winning a playoff game." -- Thrashers coach John Anderson, after Atlanta snapped a 6-game losing streak with a 5-3 win against Florida on Nov. 2.
 
Ice chips -- The facial injuries Carolina Hurricanes left wing Cory Stillman (5 goals, 9 points) sustained in Sunday’s loss at Atlanta are more serious than first thought and he'll likely miss his third straight game Sunday in Anaheim. ... Capitals center Viktor Kozlov entered Saturday's contest against the Rangers 1 point shy of 500 for his career. ... With the addition of defensemen Lukas Krajicek and Marek Malik and the return of Paul Ranger, the Lightning re-assigned 27-year-old defender Janne Niskala to the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League on Thursday. ... Thrashers players met with soldiers on a Tuesday trip to Fort Benning, a United States Army post located in Georgia, to partake in some team-building combat exercises. ... Thrashers wing Ilya Kovalchuk, who had 2 goals and an assist in a victory against Florida last Sunday, missed the first half of the opening period with what Kovalchuk labeled a skate problem. Coach John Anderson said it was a muscle pull. ... Hurricanes center Eric Staal has scored 129 career goals, tying him with former teammate Erik Cole for third on the team's career list since the franchise moved to North Carolina. ... In Thursday's 3-2 victory against Carolina, Washington goalie Brent Johnson earned his 15th start and 17th appearance since Bruce Boudreau took over as Caps head coach last Nov. 22. The 31-year-old goalie now is 8-5-3 with a 2.37 GAA and a .919 save percentage during that span. ... Entering Saturday's game against the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers, Alex Ovechkin had gone without a goal in 8 straight games -- the longest drought of his NHL career. ... The Thrashers called up 6-foot-7 defenseman Boris Valabik from Chicago of the AHL to take Mathieu Schneider’s place in the lineup. Valabik, 22, had a goal, 2 assists and a plus-8 rating in 11 games for the Wolves.


Quote of the Day

The groove of being behind a bench is going to be interesting at first, but thank God we have a few exhibition games to get rid of those cobwebs. Overall the excitement of it all and the freshness and coming back refreshed, all those things are going to be assets. If [the players] come ready to give their best effort in practice and games, good things are going to happen. I'm always looking for results. It's not always on the scoreboard. It's winning and building something.

— Bryan Trottier on making his return to coaching as an assistant with the Sabres