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Northeast: Numminen's heart still in the game

Thursday, 03.26.2009 / 10:21 AM / Division Notebooks

By John McGourty - NHL.com Staff Writer

The Buffalo Sabres did themselves a world of good by beating the Florida Panthers Wednesday night, 5-3, but they still have a Herculean task over the next nine games if they hope to secure a Stanley Cup Playoff berth.

The Sabres are 10th in the Eastern Conference, and while they climbed to within three points of ninth-place Florida, they still trail the eighth-place Montreal Canadiens, who host the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight, by five points.

A slew of injuries to important players severely has compromised the Sabres' season and dashed Buffalo defenseman Teppo Numminen's hopes for a successful campaign after he sat out all but one game last season following heart surgery.

Numminen, 40, isn't flashy, but has been one of the NHL's best defensemen over the past two decades. So good, in fact, that he is the all-time NHL leader in games played (1,370), among European-trained players. And he is the only player from the 1986 Entry Draft still playing. He's also one of the last players who suited up for the Winnipeg Jets.

Although the designation of greatest Finnish player in the NHL probably belongs to Teemu Selanne, Numminen's former Winnipeg teammate, Numminen certainly is the most accomplished Finnish defenseman. He has 117 goals and 519 assists for 636 points and is plus-56.

One of the best Finnish defensemen ever, Kimmo Timonen of the Philadelphia Flyers, concurs.

"He's been a great leader for our country and a great player over here, too," Timonen said. "I think all the Finnish guys should be proud of what he's done for our country and for hockey."

While Numminen never has won a Stanley Cup, that's due more to the quality of his former teams than his own efforts. Numminen is "the book" for strong positional play, great outlet passes and getting pucks on net from the point. He's a great skater, can take a hit -- though he rarely throws them -- and his on-ice awareness ranks with the best who ever played the game. How else do you get to play 20 years in the NHL?

Numminen watched in frustration this season as teammate after teammate fell victim to injuries, and then it happened to him. Numminen took a puck in the mouth Jan. 17 against Carolina and missed six games. He came back for eight games, but has played only two of the past 13 games. It appeared he was a healthy scratch, a player declining because of age, but recently coach Lindy Ruff explained Numminen's absence as "more of an infection than an injury," and he's been listed as having an ankle problem in the past three games.

This is not the way Numminen wanted his career to end and he's not sure that it will be.

"Well, I don't know if this will be my last season," Numminen said. "For the past five years, my thinking has been to play the season and see how I feel afterward. That's how it was last summer. I considered my health and my mental health. I have to take a month off before I start planning for the next season. That's how I've been going through the years -- take a month, do nothing, rest my body and see how I feel."

Shame the Devil -- If you were among those predicting the Boston Bruins would break out of their slump Sunday and defeat the seemingly unstoppable Martin Brodeur and his New Jersey Devils, go stand in the short line.

The Bruins were 6-9-4 in their previous 19 games while the Devils had won nine of their previous 12 games to move within three points of the Bruins' Eastern Conference lead.

On Sunday, though, it wasn't even close as the Bruins jumped on the Devils early -- on the scoreboard and physically -- and came away with a convincing 4-1 home victory. It isn't a stretch to say it was the most important victory of their season. The Bruins were the best Eastern team in the first half of the season, while the Devils have been the best in the second half.

Brodeur, returning from surgery to repair a torn biceps tendon, never has been better. He went into the Bruins game with a 9-1-0 record in his comeback.

"I think especially now, coming close to the playoffs, everybody's picking up that physical play," said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. "I think it's just natural that every team is playing with more of an edge. It's very competitive right now; everybody's battling for standing, where they're going to end up."

"It was a big win and a lot of fun out there, back to the way it was earlier in the season," Shawn Thornton said. "Guys were chirping, guys were skating, guys were banging and playing with a lot of confidence."

The Bruins lamented the almost week-long layoff between the Devils game and Saturday's game in Toronto. Their thinking was that they'd like to capitalize on their success and sustain it. But they have looked like a tired team for a month now and the guess here is they can use the rest.

Everyone in the NHL is playing with some kind of nagging injury at this point in the season, bruises and strains mostly, and those are the kinds of injuries that lessen with rest.

News and Notes -- Montreal Canadiens left wing Alex Tanguay has 10 points in his eight games since returning after a 28-game absence due to a shoulder injury. He had 5 points in Tuesday's 6-3 win against the Atlanta Thrashers. GM/coach Bob Gainey reunited the line of Tanguay, captain Saku Koivu and Alexei Kovalev for that game, and they combined for 5 goals and 11 points. The Canadiens will need that kind of production from their top line to maintain their Stanley Cup Playoff bid. ... Former Ottawa Senators goalie Ray Emery went 22-8 for Atlant Mytishchi in the top Russian league this season, and his coach, Fedor Kanareikin, said he'd welcome back the "fiery, impulsive" goalie who punched the team doctor after getting pulled in a game and walked out when his team missed a salary payment. We'll find out this summer if an NHL team wants to give Emery another chance. ... The Senators are 15-6-3 under Cory Clouston and goalie Brian Elliott is 15-4-3 in 26 games with a 2.67 goals-against average and .905 save percentage. ... Not much was expected from the Maple Leafs this season, but their second half has been exhilarating. Toronto has won four of their last five games and six of eight. They've got a big weekend coming up, going to Buffalo Friday night and returning Saturday to host Boston. ... Graeme Townshend, Joe Juneau's and Tony Hejna's former R.P.I. teammate, now is the Leafs' skating instructor. Townshend certainly had the wheels, but had trouble scoring at the NHL level. A class act, he was named Man of the Year in two different minor leagues and went into coaching following his playing days. He made an NHL skater out of San Jose's Doug Murray and now is working with Leafs defenseman Phil Oreskovic.


Quote of the Day

You don't see many. The [Drew] Doughtys, the [P.K.] Subbans, those are guys that create offense from the back and then on top of that ability, the size that he has. In the West you play against some pretty big players, and being able to clear the crease and contain the [Ryan] Getzlafs and the [Corey] Perrys and [Anze] Kopitars and players like that, we're excited about him going back there.

— Sharks general manager Doug Wilson on Brent Burns returning back to defense