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Atlantic's Masterton nominees have special qualities

by Adam Kimelman
The Bill Masterton Trophy is awarded to the player "who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey." How to define those qualities, though, is what leads to a wide array of nominees. This season's candidates from the Atlantic Division are Islanders defenseman Mark Streit, Flyers forward Mike Knuble, Devils goalie Scott Clemmensen, Rangers forward Blair Betts and Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton.

Streit has shown his perseverance by continuing to raise his play as the Islanders have faltered in the standings. In his first season as a full-time, top-pairing defenseman, Streit is fourth among NHL defensemen with 16 goals and 55 points. And on a team that's allowed 53 more goals than it has scored, he's a plus-9.

Streit didn't get to the NHL until he was 27, and then played fourth-line forward and defense for the Canadiens, but found a niche as a power-play specialist. He signed with the Islanders this past summer, and went from a fringe player to a 25-minute-per-night defenseman and an All-Star.

"For me, a big step was leaving Montreal and making the step to the Islanders, and they gave me the opportunity to play as a full-time defenseman and to take a lot of responsibility, playing power play, (penalty kill) and facing the good lines from the other teams," Streit told Newsday. "I think I improved my overall game. It's a different story when you play 13 or 14 minutes in Montreal and play on the power play and the fourth line as a wing or you play 26 minutes as a defenseman and face good teams and good lines. That's a big challenge. I absolutely loved it."

Knuble also persevered from a slow start to his NHL career to become a top player. The Flyers' forward bounced from the Red Wings to the Rangers to the Bruins before finally getting a chance in Boston during the 2002-03 season. He had 30 goals that season, the first of what now has become six straight 20-goal seasons. At age 36, his 26 goals this season leads all players 35 and over, and his 46 points is tied for ninth, and he plays in all situations.

He's also a tireless worker off the ice. He's very active in raising money for breast cancer awareness -- his mother is a survivor of the disease -- as well as other charities in the Philadelphia area as well as his native Michigan.

"I think as you get older, you realize the position you're in," Knuble told the Courier-Post. "We're probably looked at a little bit differently than a lot of people. If you understand that you realize you have some resources you can use to help other people out, help your community out."

Like Knuble and Streit, Clemmensen persevered before receiving his big break with the Devils. A career backup, Clemmensen stepped into the crease when future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur was lost with a torn biceps tendon in November. Not only did Clemmensen keep the Devils afloat, he won 25 games and helped New Jersey build a commanding lead atop the Atlantic Division. And when Brodeur returned in February, Clemmensen took his return to the American Hockey League with class.

"A lot of it has to do with off-ice issues, the business side of hockey and I respect their decision-making process in that manner and I also respect the way it was handled," Clemmensen told The (Bergen) Record then. "It doesn't change anything as far as the amount of respect or the personal relationship that I have with (GM Lou) Lamoriello or with anyone else with the Devils for that matter."

Clemmensen's teammates certainly appreciated his contribution, voting him the team's "Unsung Hero" award.

Unsung could also be used to describe Betts, the Rangers' Masterton nominee. Betts has just 9 points in 75 games, but he's a huge reason the Rangers have the best penalty killing in the League. Betts averages 3:01 of shorthanded ice time per game, the most on the team, and his 47 blocked shots is second among the team's forwards, and he's won 49.5 percent of his faceoffs.

Betts is a consummate team-first player, which was reflected in his comments to Newsday when told of his honor: "It's flattering, but I try not to read too much into it. It's a really important time of year ... I don't know what to say, really. I'm doing the same things over my career. I've done what's asked of me by coaches. It's flattering, but at the same time there are 20-something other guys who easily deserve the nomination. I don't think it's the main focus right now."

Betts is a valued presence in the Ranger dressing room, much like Eaton is in Pittsburgh. The defenseman won't set any scoring records, but his return to health after two injury-plagued seasons have been a huge help to the Pens this season.

"A healthy Mark Eaton is a very good player; a team with Mark Eaton has itself a great person," said Penguins GM Ray Shero.

After playing just 71 games combined the previous two seasons due to serious wrist and knee injuries, Eaton has played 63 this season, and is third on the team with 138 blocked shots.

"Sometimes, you have to take a chance," Shero said when asked why he signed a player with 19 goals in nine NHL seasons to a two-year contract. "We knew the character, and we knew the player. When we signed him, we were optimistic he would bounce back and give us a couple good years."

Eaton's perseverance and dedication to hockey is something he has in common with his other Atlantic Division Masterton nominees.

Foppa redux in Philly? -- Simon Gagne and Claude Giroux have spent some quality time playing together, so when Gagne was asked if the rookie reminded him of anyone else he's played with, he responded, "Peter."

The "Peter" in question is five-time All-Star and Hart Trophy winner Peter Forsberg, who spent two seasons as Gagne's center in Philadelphia.

As preposterous as it might seem to compare a 21-year-old rookie with 37 NHL games to his credit to a sure-fire Hall of Famer like Forsberg, Flyers coach John Stevens sees some merit in the comparison.

"In terms of hockey sense, yes," Stevens told the Courier-Post. "I think it's a little premature to start comparing him to a guy like Forsberg, but in terms of vision with the puck, he passes the puck sooner than people are ready and you have to be ready all the time."

Happy homecoming -- Joey MacDonald got his NHL start with the Red Wings, but in six seasons with the organization, he played just eight NHL games and was waived in February 2007.

Now with the Islanders, MacDonald gave a glimpse as to why one of the top organizations in all sports gave him a chance in the first place. In his first game as a visiting player in Detroit, he stopped 42 shots Friday in a 2-0 victory that gave him his first NHL shutout.

"No better thing than to get your first shutout in the building of the team you used to play for," said MacDonald.

"Joey was solid," Islanders coach Scott Gordon told Newsday. "He made the big saves. For the most part, he controlled his rebounds, and when he was off, the posts saved him. But he played well and didn't give up a lot of second opportunities, especially on the power play."

It also was a homecoming of sorts for rookie center Josh Bailey. He played his last two Ontario Hockey League seasons with the Windsor Spitfires, which is 10 minutes from Detroit, so he had a few friends on hand for the event. They saw him score his sixth goal of the season when he lost a faceoff but stayed in the play, got to the right post and knocked in a Tim Jackman pass.

"It's something we work on in practice, giving second efforts," Bailey said. "Faceoffs are one-on-one battles and you want to win your battles. I think it's just been stuck in my head that you've got to get in there and get the puck no matter where it goes. ... You just try to get to those soft scoring areas, and you hope for those bounces. (Jackman) whipped it around the net, and it's nice when they kind of sit there for you."

News and notes -- The Devils' game in Chicago Friday marked coach Brent Sutter's first time in the city since he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen there in 1999. Sutter spent the last seven seasons of his career with the Blackhawks. ... The Flyers signed Swedish goaltender Johan Backlund to a one-year contract last week. Backlund, 27, posted a 2.56 goals-against average, .907 save percentage and four shutouts with Timra in the Swedish Elite League. "Johan is a player who we have watched over the last couple of years and we really like," said Flyers GM Paul Holmgren. "He will bring depth to our organization at the goaltender position." ... With their original home, the Spectrum, set to be razed in September, the Flyers are selling a commemorative book, "God Bless the Spectrum," a history of the arena. The book was put together by the Philadelphia Daily News and Comcast-Spectacor, which owns the Flyers. ... Bruins goalie Tim Thomas lost his stick and mask, but still managed to dive across the crease to deny Flyers forward Scott Hartnell on Sunday during a Flyers two-man advantage. "He was pretty unorthodox," Hartnell told reporters of Thomas' lunging heroics. "He's pretty athletic. He never gives up on a save, and I shot right where he was Superman-ing across." ... Doug Weight didn't wait long to make an impact on his return to the Islanders after missing six weeks with a knee injury. In his second game back, Saturday against the Flyers, he jumped Philadelphia's Darroll Powe just 4:08 into the game and received an instigator penalty, a fighting major and a 10-minute misconduct. In his first two games back, Weight has no points, two shots and 21 penalty minutes; in his 44 games, he had 29 penalty minutes. ... One of the odder sights of the season came Saturday when Islanders coach Scott Gordon selected shot-blocking defenseman Brendan Witt to lead off the shootout against the Flyers. When asked why he opted for a player who hasn't scored a goal in 72 games -- Jan. 22, 2008, to be exact -- Gordon said, "Why not? The last time we practiced it, our (defensemen) were pretty successful. (Martin) Biron had to make a heck of a save." Biron reached up to snatch Witt's wrist shot which looked headed over the crossbar. The Flyers won the shootout. ... Rangers coach John Tortorella didn't mince words when talking about his team's effort -- or lack thereof -- following Thursday's 5-4 shootout loss to the Thrashers. "I thought we sucked right on through the game," Tortorella said. "I think we're fortunate to get a point, very fortunate to get that." The postgame interview lasted about 30 seconds before the coach stormed off.

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