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Everyone feeling the heat in season's final days

Friday, 04.03.2009 / 9:58 PM / Ice Age

By Phil Coffey - NHL.com Sr. Editorial Director

As the regular season enters its final days, precious few teams feel safe about their lot in the playoff picture. Perhaps the Bruins and Capitals in the East and the Sharks and Red Wings in the West.

But aside from that small group, the remainder of the playoff race is a roiling ball of confusion with teams in the Western Conference jumping in and out of the eighth spot on a seemingly hourly basis and Eastern Conference teams still jockeying for the best possible seed.

"We've got 91 points and we're still biting our nails," Carolina Hurricanes associate head coach Ron Francis told Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News and Observer prior to Thursday's win against the Rangers.

The 'Canes could end up as high as fourth, or tumble out of the playoffs, so it isn't exaggerating to say the postseason already is under way for a lot of teams. But according to Carolina coach Paul Maurice, that can be a good thing.

"It's makes it tough on coaches and fans and [general managers] and the players, too, but because it's so difficult to make the playoffs and there are so many teams battling, that means when you get in you have a chance," he said. "The fact it is so tough means you have a chance."

The New Jersey Devils have clinched a playoff berth, but their situation is far from secure as a losing skid hit six games after a 6-1 loss in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night.

"It's been tough, both offensively and defensively," goalie Martin Brodeur said. "Not a question of goals, but the chances we allow and the chances we get. We started by making mistakes to lose games. The last game we just played bad to lose the game. We have to get back to the basics.

"We should go out and play the way we can with our heads on our shoulders and not just go through the motions at this time of year. You can get away with not playing well in the middle of the season and still win. Right now, especially against the teams we're playing, you need to play really well."

The Hurricanes were one of the teams adding to New Jersey's misery, coming back from a 1-0 deficit to post a 2-1 win in New Jersey last Saturday.

"Overall, we're showing enough desperation to win," Erik Cole told Alexander. Cole has been a catalyst for Carolina since being reacquired from Edmonton. He has scored 2 goals and 8 assists in 12 games. "I think that in the 'game within the game' there's a little bit more we can get to. There's another level we can reach as a group and take control of games when the chance is there and not sit and wait and see what happens."

If we have learned anything from the last six weeks or so it is just that, teams that aren't proactive are being left behind.

Winds of change -- The Stanley Cup Playoffs will not include the Toronto Maple Leafs, so you can expect General Manager Brian Burke to be a busy man this summer. In fact, Burke already has targeted specific areas for change.

"Today is a somber day here," Burke said Tuesday when the Leafs were mathematically eliminated. "We were eliminated from the playoffs. This is a day that represents failure. I'm not happy. My teams have been in the playoffs for seven straight years. ... It burns my butt. If I don't seem like I'm in a great mood, I'm not.

"Any day you have to stand in front of the media and talk about not qualifying for the playoffs should be a kick right in the groin to everybody in the organization. It's a kick to me. I take it personally and professionally."

As for specific issues, Burke said Toronto needs better goaltending from Vesa Toskala, more durable defensemen, and bigger forwards.

"I'm tired of watching teams come in here and push us around," he said. "I'm tired of seeing our trainers on the ice."

Among the defensemen, Mike Van Ryn, Tomas Kaberle, Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogren all missed considerable time with injuries.

In Burke's mind, the goal for 2009-10 already is set.

"We want to be in the playoffs next year," Burke said. "It's that simple. That's the yardstick. That's the first measure of success in our League. The ultimate measure, the last man standing, is the Stanley Cup winner. There are all kinds of gradations between that, but the first step if you want to be reckoned with is to be a playoff team.

"We're going to make changes to do it."

He's already started, signing college free agents Christian Hanson and Tyler Bozak.

A most worthy candidate -- Each season, the list of nominees for the Masterton Trophy is chock full of worthy candidates, players who live the criteria of "perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey."

This season is no exception with names like Brian Pothier, Richard Zednik, Scott Clemmensen, Patrice Bergeron and Teppo Numminen in the mix.

And don't forget Nashville's Steve Sullivan, 34, who has made a remarkable return from career-threatening back injuries and nearly two years away from the game to score 10 goals and 17 assists in 36 games this season. Heading into play Thursday, the Predators were 20-11-5 with Sullivan in the lineup.

Sullivan initially suffered a fragmented disc in his back in a February 2007 game against the Canadiens. He came back Jan. 10, 2009.

"I was very tentative and guarded," Sullivan told John Glennon of The Tennessean. "I wanted to make sure I didn't get hit. I wasn't going to take a hit to make a play, in order to guard the back."

As you might expect, he got off to a slow start, lot of rust and all, with 5 assists in his first 16 games, but he is rolling now.

"It's totally different now," Sullivan said. "When I first came back, I was reacting, not anticipating the play. I could see things happen, but I wasn't able to make quick decisions and make plays that I could see. I'm more able to make the plays I want to make now. So probably the first 15 games were a huge feel-out period and then after that, I think I'm getting better and better every game."
While continuing to amaze.

"He gives you inspiration," Preds coach Barry Trotz said. "He's come back and played at a high level and to me, that is almost astounding."

Saluting the scratches -- Often times, the players who don't play a lot actually play important roles in why a team succeeds. That's why St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray singled out Cam Janssen and Tyson Strachan for praise, despite the fact the two are frequent scratches.

According to Jeremy Rutherford in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, heading into play Thursday, Janssen has sat out five straight games and 10 of the last 13. Strachan also missed his fifth in a row, and he has not been used in 16 of the last 19.

"I thanked those guys on behalf of the team for how hard they're working in practice," Murray said. "I watched the tape of our last game in Chicago and Cam and 'Strachs' were real good players in that game. I said, 'Everybody appreciates what you've done for us this year.' We're not in this position if not for Cam ... and without Strachs stepping in on the blue line, we wouldn't be here. I wanted to stress that to the team."

Janssen said he appreciated the gesture.

"Yeah, but what makes you feel better is when the guys come up and say, 'Hey, Cam, we could have used you out there,'" Janssen said. "When you hear it from the boys, that's what keeps you going."

Black and blue badge of courage -- This isn't a scoop. Sheldon Souray has one of the hardest shots in the League. So, blocking one of his shots is a pretty impressive display of courage or grounds for a psychological evaluation.

In Anaheim, they are touting Todd Marchant's courage after he laid it on the line, but we're still not so sure a good talking to isn't the best solution.

As Dan Wood reported in the Orange County Register after Anaheim's 5-3 win in Edmonton on Tuesday night, the Oilers were pressing on a 4-on-3 power play late in the second period when Marchant took a Souray slapper in the bread basket.

Marchant, 35, somehow shook off the pain, stayed on his skates and cleared the puck. Only then did he fall to the ice.

"That's courage," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "That's what separates people at this time of the year. If everybody has that kind of commitment, it's amazing what kind of strength your group can develop."

Earlier in the game, another Souray shot caught Marchant in the right ankle.

"The thing with Marchant, and I've told him before, if he's not cut up, bruised and black and blue, he's not involved in the game," Carlyle said. "Look at his face. Look at him limping around. He has various bumps and bruises, but that's what he has to do to be successful."

"It's so difficult to make the playoffs and there are so many teams battling, that means when you get in you have a chance. The fact it is so tough means you have a chance."
-- Paul Maurice

"He caught me right up in the ribcage," Marchant said of Souray's shot. "Yeah, it hurt pretty bad. I couldn't catch my breath. I had a sharp pain up in my ribcage, so then I just kind of gathered myself. I made my way back to the front of the net and, sure enough, the puck came right to me and I was able to get it out.

"You have to sacrifice yourself. Everybody's doing it, and that's what's making us successful."

Keenan backs Phaneuf -- The idea of Dion Phaneuf needing protection is sort of amusing, but the big Calagry Flames defenseman has needed some help with the criticism he has received for a "bad" 2009-10 season.

Mike Keenan has heard just about enough of it. No shrinking violet when it comes to being hard on players, Keenan has rallied around Phaneuf.

"I think he's had a year of growth," Keenan told Vicki Hall of the Calgary Herald. "Again, he's 23-years-old. People forget that. He's learning. He's learning more about his game. He's learning more about the defensive aspect of his game. He's learning more about the offensive aspect of his game."

Through 76 games, Phaneuf has 11 goals, 45 points and a minus-13 rating. Certainly not awful stats, but so much more was expected from Phaneuf. But Keenan says Phaneuf is still young enough that there will be ups and downs.

"He will have fluctuations for a while yet, because of his age and his inexperience," Keenan said. "He's had some very strong games. For example, I told him he was a force in the Pittsburgh game. He was probably the best player on the ice, because (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin were nondescript. They didn't want anything to do with them. They certainly knew he was on the ice. They were looking for him. And he was a force in our game against Minnesota, and he was very much a part of the game (Monday) night (a 2-1 loss to San Jose). "
"Any day you have to stand in front of the media and talk about not qualifying for the playoffs should be a kick right in the groin to everybody in the organization. It's a kick to me. I take it personally and professionally." -- Brian Burke
Moving on up -- Raffi Torres was the fifth pick in the 2000 Entry Draft by the Islanders. He made his NHL debut in 2001-02 and a trade to Edmonton seemed to put him on the fast track to being an NHL regular.

But the past two seasons have held their share of frustration for Torres, who played in only 32 games with the Oilers in 2007-08 and just 46 games heading into play Saturday. But his diligence in rehabbing from shoulder and knee injuries resulted in being Columbus' nominee for the Masterton Trophy and given him a fresh perspective on life in the NHL.

Torres, 27, missed the first 10 games of the season because of a shoulder injury, then missed 19 games from early December to mid-January after having a second knee surgery in the span of nine months.

"It's amazing how far south things can go on you," Torres told Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch. "One day you're in the game, playing well, and then all of a sudden, your body and the doctors tell you that you can't play anymore.

"It grounds you. It was a kick to my ego because I've always felt like nothing could stop me. I had a lot of sleepless nights wondering if I was ever going to get back to the level I was before I got hurt."

Torres is one of those guys who may not be a big-time scorer, but is a winner. In the 34 games since Torres' returned, Columbus is 19-11-4, with six of his 12 goals game-winners.

"I still feel like I can do more," Torres said. "I didn't get to train as hard as I wanted to last summer because of my knee. There's still a lot of room for me to get better."

Scary thought for the Blue Jackets' foes.

My bad -- Brent Sutter is putting the responsibility for the New Jersey Devils' recent struggles squarely on his shoulders. Heading into Friday night's home game against Tampa Bay, the Devils had dropped six straight.

"I take full responsibility on it," Sutter told The Bergen Record's Tom Gulitti. "That's part of being a head coach. That's just the way it is. I understand it. I've been coaching for nine years now and you understand how it works and how it is and yet you're responsible for your play.

You're responsible for your team and that's the way it is.

"All you keep doing is keep your head to the grindstone and keep making sure the guys are doing things right and, hopefully, through the games we'll get through it. And when we do, we'll be on our way again. It's something we have to get rectified and we will."

Sutter stressed the need for the team staying together -- both the players and coaching staff -- through this adversity.

"It's a good challenge for us," Sutter said. "I've been in those guys as a player. I've been in some Islander teams, where you sit and you lose games and you're going, 'Whoa'. Yet, the second-winningest coach in NHL history (Al Arbour) was coaching our team. Yet, there're things that you get away from. The big thing I learned as a player is that you have to stay unified as a group. The coaching staff has to stay unified and there has to be strong communication between the players and the coaches and sometimes the players don't like it, but it has to be that way.

"This is where it's so much about honesty and trust. It's really important for the group inside to feel that way about each other and it's very important for the staff to be very honest with the players and going through it and working through it. And that's my responsibility as a head coach.

"That's why I say I take responsibility. It's my responsibility to make sure I'm there to help them and the staff make sure that they're there to help them through. That's why I say I'm putting the heat on myself on this to get us through this and we will.

"We've got a very good coaching staff here and we've got very good players. We just have to all be unified through it and we will."


Quote of the Day

We want to make sure that whoever makes our team really makes our team by earning it and not putting them in situations where they get preference because of their status as a first-round pick or whatever it might be. That's not going to happen. Everybody has to earn their way on our team.

— Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen on the team's prospects at development camp