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After long layoff, Claude Lemieux returns to NHL

by Brian Compton
A few thoughts while I bid on Aretha Franklin's hat on eBay:

Welcome back -- It was more than 25 years since Claude Lemieux stepped on the ice for his first NHL game, and nearly six since he played his last one.

That changed Tuesday night, when the gritty forward returned to action with the San Jose Sharks. It was his first game in NHL since 2003, when he played for the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Now 43, Lemieux, a four-time Stanley Cup winner, is back. He took three shots in 7:08 of ice time as the Sharks beat the Vancouver Canucks, 2-1 in overtime, at HP Pavilion.

Afterward, Lemieux admitted he felt like a rookie all over again.

"I was obviously very excited," Lemieux said. "I haven't had much sleep in the past few days. It really felt like my first game in the NHL, 20-some years ago. I had the shakes in the warm-up, which you would think, there's no way (that would happen). My hands were shaking.

"As I got through warm-ups I felt better. I just wanted that first shift. I kept praying that I didn't have to wait 10 minutes -- coach (Todd McLellan) got us out there in the first five minutes. I had a good, quick shift, it got physical. It was a great ovation from the fans and a very special night."

McLellan -- who plans to use Lemieux in a fourth-line role -- was pleased with the veteran's performance.

"Claude did a really good job," McLellan said. "He played 7, 7 1/2 minutes; fourth-line minutes, like we talked about. He finished his checks and he wasn't a liability on the ice. He skated well, which was something we were looking for. I think he's got to feel good about himself after one game. We do. We'll get through the (All-Star) break and see what happens after that."

Unfortunately, that break will last a full seven days. San Jose does not return to the ice until next Tuesday, when it will visit one of Lemieux's former teams -- the Colorado Avalanche. For Lemieux, that game can't come fast enough.

"I'm actually not very happy we have to wait seven days before the next game, but I'm excited," Lemieux said. "We're going to Colorado, where I played before. Living this dream again is an amazing opportunity.

"A few days off is going to help me. I've been on the road for three months (with Worcester in the American Hockey League), living in hotels. It will be nice to get home, get rid of some of these sweaters I wore on the East Coast. It will be nice to spend some time with my family."

Crowning achievement -- As they head into the All-Star break, only eight points separate the Los Angeles Kings from a Western Conference playoff spot.

It's going to take a lot for the young squad to reach the postseason, but after watching them in a 5-2 win against the Wild in Minnesota -- the same team that won at Chicago just 24 hours earlier -- it would be foolish to count the Kings out just yet.

''This is crunch time for a lot of teams,'' said forward Dustin Brown, who scored his 16th goal and was a plus-3. ''This is when teams start getting separated.''

Tuesday's win snapped a four-game skid for the Kings, who went 0-for-26 on the power play during that span. Anze Kopitar ended that slump when he beat Niklas Backstrom 7:18 into the second period.

''We've got to get some momentum going and get on a roll,'' defenseman Matt Greene said. ''Everybody else is winning, and we've just got to get some points and stay in the hunt.''

Zach attack -- The Atlanta Thrashers grabbed defenseman Zach Bogosian with the No. 3 selection at the 2008 Entry Draft with hopes that the 18-year-old would blossom into an offensive threat from the blue line.

Bogosian gave the club a sign of good things to come Tuesday night. He had a goal and an assist as the Thrashers won their third straight with a 4-2 victory against the Montreal Canadiens at Philips Arena. Bogosian recorded three shots on goal and received 19:13 of ice time.

''I am an offensive defenseman,'' Bogosian said. ''I try to jump up in the rush and help things out, but I've got to make sure I take care of defense first.''

Bogosian missed 28 games with a broken shin and returned to the Thrashers' lineup Dec. 31 at Carolina. He then spent four games with Chicago in the American Hockey League to improve his conditioning.

The move paid off. Bogosian returned to Atlanta last Friday and has 4 points in two games.

''We have worked hard the last couple of games,'' Bogosian said. ''We need to not get a big head and keep things simple. Play every shift like it's 0-0.''

Expecting more -- Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau doesn't normally tear into his team after a game, but this time he couldn't help himself.

After watching Alexander Semin trip Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson in a 2-2 game late in the third period, Boudreau was more steamed than a crab in Baltimore. Brendan Bell scored on the ensuing power play as the Caps lost in regulation, 3-2.

"We're stupid. We deserved to lose," Boudreau said. "We didn't come to play in the first and third period. When you don't come to play in two of the three periods, you're not going to win the hockey game."

Especially when you get called for tripping with 3:17 left in a tie game.

"We're stupid. We deserved to lose.  We didn't come to play in the first and third period. When you don't come to play in two of the three periods, you're not going to win the hockey game." -- Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau on his team's performance Tuesday night
''It's a question of stupid, dumb, selfish -- it's just not winning hockey,'' Boudreau said. ''The bottom line is with three minutes to go, you don't go cross-ice pass in the zone. You get it at the net.

''When you're on the road you play for the tie and then you win it in overtime. That's what we did last night and that's what you have to do today. I mean, that's what winning is all about and you've got to learn how to win. Right now, there are some guys that know how to play, they just don't know how to win.''

Get on my back, boys -- With one game left before the All-Star break, Edmonton Oilers forward Ales Hemsky was not about to allow his teammates to go home feeling blue.

So he won a game for them.

Hemsky scored twice -- including the game-winner with 34.9 seconds left -- as the Oilers skated away with a 4-3 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Rexall Place. Hemsky factored into all four of Edmonton's tallies as he also contributed 2 assists.

Not bad for a player who missed 10 games with a concussion before returning Sunday.

''That was unreal; I haven't seen anything like that in a while,'' Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said. ''Two goals and 2 assists. We've seen that before, but not where all four are world-class plays.

''It couldn't have come at a better time. He single-handedly willed the win for us. It was a great effort from Ales.''

While the performance even left Hemsky impressed, the 25-year-old was more concerned with making sure his team left the rink with two points in the standings.

''When you have 4 points or something like that you are always asked if it is the best game in your career,'' Hemsky said. ''For me, every game we win is what I feel good about. I just want to go out there and do my part. It felt great to win the game. It's a great feeling in this room right now.''

He can fly
-- Enver Lisin's speed still takes Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky by surprise, so you can imagine how the Detroit Red Wings must have felt.

Lisin scored two of the Coyotes' three third-period goals in an impressive 6-3 win at Arena. Phoenix hadn't beaten the defending champs on home ice in nearly five years.

''He's a special athlete,'' Gretzky said of Lisin. ''Here was a guy who came over and we knew he had incredible talent. I know there are a lot of fast skaters, but I don't know if there is any faster than he is.''

One of Lisin's tallies was of the highlight-reel variety, as he made a gorgeous move around Detroit forward Jiri Hudler before beating Ty Conklin while falling down with 13:11 left in the game.

"He's a special athlete.  Here was a guy who came over and we knew he had incredible talent. I know there are a lot of fast skaters, but I don't know if there is any faster than he is." Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky on Enver Lisin

''I try to do that move in practice,'' said Lisin, who now has 8 goals this season. ''I like that move and wanted to do it in a game and it worked.''

Because it worked, the Coyotes are going into the All-Star break fifth in the Western Conference.

''It's almost a bad time for a break because we're playing as well as we have in a long time,'' Gretzky said. ''I think a year ago we would have found a way to lose that game, but maturity and want and will to win -- we've really come a long way here.''

Betts at his best
— As a fourth-line center, Blair Betts of the New York Rangers usually is one of the guys tapping his stick in honor of a teammate who's been named the game's first star. On Tuesday night, it was his turn to be saluted.

Betts had a shorthanded, empty-net goal, blocked three shots and generally did all he could to make life miserable for Anaheim's forwards in the Rangers' 4-2 victory at Madison Square Garden. His highlight sequence came midway through the third period with the score tied -- he broke his stick during a power play but still managed to block a pair of shots before the Rangers cleared the puck out of the zone.

"There's not too many times when I see myself skating on the ice with a star. It's pretty special," the 28-year-old said. "An empty-net goal, a No. 1 star -- I think there were a few other guys who were deserving as well, but I definitely appreciate it."

Betts has just 5 goals and 7 points in 47 games, but he's one of the reasons the Rangers have been among the NHL's top penalty-killing units all season.

"We're a confident group on the penalty kill," he said. "Those are pressure situations -- you like to play, you want to do well."

One person who especially was glad to see Betts' efforts recognized was his coach, Tom Renney.

"I think he's had a heck of a season," Renney said. "I think he's a terrific hockey player. He's not one of those guys who's going to bury a whole bunch of pucks, but he's going to give you yeoman service every night. He's going to play the game as close to the letter as you'd want it executed. He's a great teammate, so it's nice (to see him get the first star) -- no question about it."

Contact Brian Compton at

Material from wire services and broadcast media was used in this report.

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