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Luongo's energized to play down the stretch

Friday, 04.03.2009 / 10:00 PM / Columns

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

When San Jose Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson hired Todd McLellan away from the Detroit Red Wings, he clearly wanted something like the success of the defending champion Wings.

Earlier this season, Wilson spelled out several things he wanted from his team under McLellan:

* A style that makes the other team have to try and defend the Sharks.

* A team that is encouraged to go to the net and shoot, shoot, shoot.

* A team that draws a lot of penalties that San Jose's power play with convert.

* And, most important, a lot of different components, within a system that can also be very strong defensively.

"I look at them as the Detroit Red Wings — except super-sized," Nashville's Barry Trotz said.

After the Sharks beat Calgary, 2-1, March 30, McLellan became only the fourth coach to win 50 games in his first NHL season, joining Tom Johnson with the 1970-71 Boston Bruins who has the record at 57 wins, followed by Pat Burns with the 1988-89 Montreal Canadiens and Mike Keenan with the 1984-85 Philadelphia Flyers, both at 53.

-- Larry Wigge At this point, when teams are jockeying into and out of playoff spots daily, you know there's going to be a game somewhere when a team settled in its spot decides to rest a key player or two for what it hopes will be a two-month playoff run to the Stanley Cup Final. You know the bubble team will cry foul, scream bloody murder.

And that's understandable.

I found it interesting the other day when I went back to Vancouver Canucks star goaltender Roberto Luongo for a follow-up question after the morning skate, a question I figured I knew the answer to, but I had to ask it anyway.

It went something like this: "Roberto, do you look at the time off you had when you were out for a month with groin problems a while back as a good thing? Now, you will be fresh and the playoffs, for the most part, look more like a sprint than a marathon."

At a time when we constantly read about how a team is looking to get its top players a rest, Luongo threw me a curveball.

"Not at all," Luongo said. "When you're winning, you stay energized. You don't look at the number of games you've played or getting a breather here or there. You want to be in there every night.

"Two years ago, I played a ton in the regular season ... and I was more than ready to go in the playoffs. You play all your career to perform in the playoffs, so there's no way you feel tired when the playoffs begin."

What? Worry about being tired? No way, according to Luongo.

That's the kind of refreshing frame of mind I think you'd hear from most players who live for hockey ... and live for the playoffs -- even if we in the media have built these myths that a player has to be ultra-fresh for the potential two-month run in the playoffs.

"I dreamed as a kid of playing in the NHL, playing in the playoffs and playing in an overtime game in the playoffs," Luongo continued, smiling from ear-to-ear. "And my first playoff game two years ago went four overtimes. What a rush! Extra pressure makes you want to thrive even more.

"I know one thing: I couldn't imagine losing that one."

You can feel the fire in his voice, can't you? The fight of a champion. The hunger to win. After playing in 76 regular-season games in 2006-07, including 17 of the last 18 games, Luongo was more than ready for his first taste of playoffs in the NHL. And now, he's ready for more.

Hey, I'm fresh. I know you're ready for the playoffs. And so too are the game's best players, who should never surprise us with the passion and competitive nature they bring to the rink with them every day.

Going Green -- Mike Green scored his 29th and 30th goals of the season -- both coming in the third period on power plays -- to lead Washington to a 5-3 victory against the New York Islanders on April 1 -- to become just the eighth defenseman in NHL history to score 30-or-more goals in one season and the first to do so since another Capitals player, Kevin Hatcher, scored 34 goals in 1992-93. The other 30-goal defensemen are Bobby Orr (five times), Paul Coffey (four), Denis Potvin (three), Doug Wilson, Phil Housley and Ray Bourque.

Green's 18 power-play goals this season broke a franchise record for a defenseman, shattering the mark of 16 set by Scott Stevens in 1984-85.

"You don't get to this kind of mark without having the confidence of your coach to play an aggressive offensive system like we have," Green said.

What is more impressive about Green is that he's still a youngster (in his fourth NHL season) and there's no problem giving him the green light to jump into the offense because he's so accountable defensively as his plus-24 indicates.

Timely Tim -- It was early in the second period of a game in Philadelphia. The Bruins held a 3-1 lead, but the Flyers had been buzzing around the Boston net all day as their 48 shots attest. The Flyers had a two-man advantage for 1:52 and the puck was on the stick of 27-goal scorer Scott Hartnell to the left side of the goal crease with B's netminder Tim Thomas at the right side of the crease.

Thomas flung his body to his left, losing his face mask and stick in the process, but smothered Hartnell's shot.

"One thing about Tim Thomas, he never gives up on a save," said an astonished Hartnell. "I shot right where he was Superman-ing across."

No panic -- Before this season, the Carolina Hurricanes, including their years as the Hartford Whalers, had never won a game in regulation time in which they were being shut out in the last 10 minutes of the game.

For more than 53 minutes on March 28, the Canes couldn't get a puck past all-world New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur. Then something special happened. Sergei Samsonov tied the game, 1-1, with 6:55 left, converting a Joe Corvo rebound. And Tuomo Ruutu put another rebound behind Brodeur with just 3:34 to play to give Carolina a 2-1 victory, ending the Devils' 11-game winning streak at Prudential Center in Newark.

"It's kind of the story of this team since I got here," Erik Cole said of his return to Carolina from Edmonton in a deal at the trading deadline March 4. "We just keep plugging away."

Cole's speed and leadership has just been a part of finding the missing piece and spirit that has led the Hurricanes to a 9-1-2 record since the deadline.

The Devils, you say? This is even more impressive when you consider it came in a playoff pressure situation and it was only the second time in New Jersey Devils history that they got no points from a game in which they were leading and shutting out their opponent in the last 10 minutes of the third period.

Not Finn-ished yet -- When Teemu Selanne broke Mike Bossy's rookie record for goals, he threw his glove in the air and made like he was shooting it down back in the early 1990s. When he broke Bossy's 573 mark to move into 18th spot on the all-time scoring list, he was dumbfounded.

"If someone had told me that would happen when I was a little boy, I would say they should get checked by a doctor," Selanne joked.

It's clear that Selanne's greatest thrill was his Stanley Cup victory in 2007. He'd love nothing better than to help get the Ducks into another playoff run. But playing in his 17th NHL season is a thrill in itself, especially since he thought his career was over a few years ago before he had a career-saving knee surgery during the 2005 lockout season.

"Everything starts with passion, if you don't have it, you shouldn't be playing," Selanne explained.

Price fixing -- It wasn't long ago that there was a lot of angst in Montreal over the fragile mindset of No. 1 goaltender Carey Price. GM-coach Bob Gainey prefers to think that the worst is over in his goal crease, that Price is looking more confident during a recent stretch in which he went 3-0-1, giving up just nine goals in that span, and having not lost in regulation since March 6 (going 5-0-3).

"He doesn't look like a player who is guilty anymore," Gainey said. "I like his body language now. He doesn't look like he's gambling. And he's tracking the puck better."

Marching on -- Yes, there's more information on goalies in this notes package than usual. But that's just because of the importance of stopping the puck at this time of the year and into the playoffs.

Last year, there were those who wondered how far along Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury was. All he did was take the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final and kept them alive with a remarkable three-overtime, 4-3 victory in Game 5 against Detroit.

Now 24, Fleury can point to a record in March that would be enviable to any goalie -- going 11-1-1 with a 1.57 goals-against average this to run his March record over the last three seasons 28-3-5 with a 2.03 GAA.

Still young? Yes. Inconsistent? Not so much.

Explained Fleury, "When you are young you don't realize it, but you start learning that goalie is a fun position -- you're the last guy to stop the puck from going in and the first guy that gets blamed when it does, and that's just how it goes."

That playoff focus -- For the Columbus Blue Jackets, it would be their first trip to the playoffs since the team began playing in the NHL in September of 2000.

Said coach Ken Hitchcock, "The one thing you find out at this time of the year is that the rest of the world stops. All of the things that people do in everyday life, for us, stops. You spend little or no time with it. You exist. It's like you sleep, you come to the rink, you work at preparing your team, you go home and you rest."

And you think about what a remarkable feeling it would be to finally realize your dream of making the playoffs.

Why first-round upsets happen -- Every year at this time, we fix our attention on the standings and see No. 1 seeds vs. No. 8 and often wonder why certain successful teams in the regular season stumble out of the gate in the playoffs. Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has one very real answer.

"I always tell the story that when I was in Anaheim and we were the seventh seed, we played Detroit in the first round and they were the heavy favorite," Babcock explained. "But we had won 33 games since December or something like that and they had won maybe 34. Sometimes people don't look at that."

That was 2003, when the Ducks surprised everyone and made it to the Stanley Cup Final on the shoulders of some amazing goaltending by J.S. Giguere, before they lost to New Jersey in the finals.

"When we go into the playoffs this year, we're going to play a team that's been in the playoffs for a month and a half -- engaging physically every night for a while now with their heart and soul in it," Babcock said. "We've had another good season. But the reality is that we'll have to be as ready as they are when we drop the puck. We'll have to be ready to battle for every inch of the ice."

Swede home in the playoffs -- Let's see now. We've seen Taylor Pyatt, Steve Bernier, Kyle Wellwood, Pavol Demitra and maybe someone else I've forgotten on left wing with Henrik and Daniel Sedin this season. But the magic is better than it was a few years ago when Anson Carter looked so good with the twins, now that hard-charging, abrasive, formerly defensive specialist Alex Burrows has joined them.

In the most recent 10-game stretch, the trio had 18 goals and 39 points. And Henrik Sedin capped off a great month -- 7 goals and 12 assists in 15 games in March -- with an overtime winner in a 2-1 triumph in Minnesota on March 31.

"That line has been dominating for us," coach Alain Vigneault said after a 4-0 victory in Chicago on March 29. "Offensively, they've made some unbelievable plays. They've been our best players. You can't just watch one or two of them. Each one of them has been a threat."

"I dreamed as a kid of playing in the NHL, playing in the playoffs and playing in an overtime game in the playoffs. And my first playoff game two years ago went four overtimes. What a rush! Extra pressure makes you want to thrive even more."
-- Roberto Luongo

No. 1 with a bullet -- Being picked first overall in the Entry Draft isn't a guarantee to immediate success. But when Steven Stamkos scored his 20th goal in a 3-1 loss at Boston on March 31, there was no surprise in the minds of the management of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Stamkos became the third No. 1 pick in four years to score 20 goals immediately after being drafted -- following Sidney Crosby with 39 goals in 2005-06 and Patrick Kane with 21 goals last season. By comparison, over the 15 seasons prior to Crosby, only two No. 1 picks scored 20 goals immediately after being drafted: Alexandre Daigle had 20 goals in 1993-94 and Ilya Kovalchuk had 29 goals in 2001-02.

Rebuilding quickly -- A month or so ago, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke talked about using all avenues available to him to help rebuild his new team. One he mentioned was undrafted college seniors like Denver University Tyler Bozak, Boston University defenseman Matt Gilroy and University of Notre Dame center Christian Hanson.

Burke reacted quickly after Notre Dame was upset in the NCAA playoffs by Bemidji State last weekend, signing Hanson, son of Dave Hanson of "Slap Shot" fame to a two-year, $1.65 million contract. Hanson, a 23-year-old 6-foot-4, 228-pound power forward who had 16 goals and 15 assists in 37 games, helped Notre Dame to a 31-6-3 record and a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

While Hanson was preparing to play in his first NHL game in Philadelphia on April 3, the Maple Leafs were announcing the second of what they hoped to be a hat trick of free-agent signings. Bozak, who had 8 goals and 15 assists in 19 games at DU, announced he had also agreed to terms with the Leafs. Bozak's stats for the 2008-09 season may seem low, but that's just because he missed several months of action with a left knee injury. He was leading the Pioneers in scoring when he was injured.

It was also being reported that BU's Gilroy was also leaning toward signing with Toronto.

Things that make you go hmmmmmm -- It was nearly five years ago that Al Montoya was the top-rated goaltender in the 2004 Entry Draft and went sixth to the New York Rangers. But it wasn't the following season, nor was it with the Rangers where Montoya finally got his first NHL chance. On April 4, Montoya played in his first NHL game and made it a memorable one as he stopped 23 of 23 shots to post a 3-0 shutout for Phoenix against the Colorado Avalanche. In the process, he became only the sixth goaltender in the last 23 years to record a shutout in his first NHL game, joining Mike Fountain, Jussi Markkanen, Michael Leighton, Yann Danis and Mike Smith, who was the last to do it (for Dallas at Phoenix on Oct. 21, 2006). And now you could say that with Ilya Bryzgalov and Montoya, the Coyotes will go into next season with arguably the best young pair of goaltenders in the NHL. ... Has everyone noticed that under new Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma that Sidney Crosby is no longer playing essentially on the half wall? He's now down below the goal line making plays in and around the net. Evgeni Malkin moves from the point to those half boards. And with power forwards like Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz and Petr Sykora moving around in the slot, the Pens' power play has become more and more effective. Crosby has obviously enjoyed the variety to his game, since he's on a season-high 12-game points streak. ... Calgary Flames coach Mike Keenan says he does not intend to break up the combination of Olli Jokinen and Jarome Iginla, even though Jokinen had just one assist in five games through the end of March after getting 8 goals and 4 assists in his first eight games after being obtained from Phoenix at the trade deadline March 4. ... Center strength? Yes, the Chicago Blackhawks finally have it. Even without productive center Dave Bolland, the Hawks got strength down the middle offensively and defensively in a 3-1 victory against St. Louis on April 1. Jonathan Toews scored his career-high 31st goal and Sammy Pahlsson got his first goal for Chicago since being obtained from Anaheim on March 4. ... Blue Jackets rookie Steve Mason posted his League-leading 10th shutout of the season with a 5-0 win against Calgary on March 26 to become just the fourth rookie goaltender to record 10-or-more shutouts in one season in the NHL's "modern era" (i.e., since 1943-44, when the center-ice red line was introduced), joining Chicago's Tony Esposito (15 in 1969-70), and Detroit's Glenn Hall (12 in 1955-56) and Terry Sawchuk (11 in 1950-51). ... Florida Panthers goaltender Craig Anderson obviously believes in the more is better theory -- stopping 40 of 42 Flyers shots on goal in his 4-2 win in Philadelphia March 26. At that point in the season, Anderson had faced at least 40 shots on goal in 10 of his 21 wins over the last two seasons (4 of 8 in 2007-08, 6 of 13 in 2008-09). Anderson's six 40-shot wins this season are the most by any NHL goaltender. ... Since he returned from missing nearly four months with an elbow injury, Marty Brodeur started with an impressive 9-1-0 with a 1.75 goals-against average and three shutouts in the first 10 games. Oddly, that led him into a tailspin of weird proportions -- going 0-5-1 with a 3.65 GAA in six games since then that matches the longest previous winless streaks of Brodeur's NHL career. He also had six-game droughts in October/November 1995 (0-5-1), February 2001 (0-3-3) and November 2001 (0-4-2). ... For all of you who were ready to trade Ilya Kovalchuk a couple months ago before Atlanta gave him a vote of confidence and the captain's "C," look at him now. Kovalchuk's 20th goal (in 21 games) since Feb. 8, the highest total over that span by any NHL player, gave the Thrashers a 3-2 overtime victory against Buffalo on April 1. Just one game earlier, he topped the 40-goal mark for the fifth consecutive season -- becoming the first player in nine years to score 40-plus goals in five straight seasons by joining John LeClair, who had a five-season streak from 1995-96 to 1999-2000. ... Buffalo's Thomas Vanek tied Alex Ovechkin for the most multiple-goal games this season with six. Vanek has had 23 multiple-goal games in his four NHL seasons. The most recent one in Atlanta on April 1 was just his sixth such game on the road. ... Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, another leader and power player, recently set a career-high with 83 points this season. ... Andrei Markov has become the first Montreal defenseman with 50-or-more assists in one season since 1988-89, when Chris Chelios had 58. ... In case you haven't noticed, Columbus' Raffi Torres, with just 12 goals for the season, now has more game-winning goals than Rick Nash (36 goals through March) by a 6-5 count. Brandon Dubinsky of the New York Rangers (7 of 11) is the only other NHL player with 10-or-more goals this season and had at least half of his goals turn out to be game-winning goals. ... Blake Wheeler scored his 20th goal of the season on March 31. Over the last 10 years, the only other Boston rookie to score 20-or-more goals in one season was Brad Boyes in 2005-06 (26 goals). ... Patrik Berglund had 1 goal and 2 assists for St. Louis in a 5-2 win at Columbus on March 29. It was Berglund's 12th multiple-point game this season (two three-point games, 10 two-pointers), keeping pace with Anaheim's Bobby Ryan (who also had his 12th multi-point game of the season on the same date) for second-most among NHL rookies, behind Kris Versteeg's 13. ... Trying to replace the production of captain Jason Arnott and David Legwand with a center who had never played a game in the NHL in the stretch run can be scary. But Cal O'Reilly, a fifth-round pick in the 2005 Entry Draft, hasn't failed under the pressure, getting two goals and two assists in his first games with the Nashville Predators.


Quote of the Day

Because of the way they play and their skill set I don't think they're fourth-line players, so in my mind I'm looking at one of those guys I'll have to move over to the wing.

— Capitals coach Barry Trotz on his four-player battle for second-line center