Anyone who checks the NHL standings on a daily basis knows what is meant by the term “fluid.” On Monday a club can be in first place and drop to sixth by Tuesday.
So with the caveat in mind, it is far too early to hand the Washington Capitals the Southeast Division title, but it isn’t premature to toss the Caps a hearty well done for making their way up the standings.
The Caps took over first place in the Southeast on Wednesday night. Now, you might scoff and say that any team boasting a singular talent like Alex Ovechkin should be in the hunt. But Washington’s turnabout is a pretty impressive achievement for a team that looked dead in the water earlier this season.
The Capitals declared the rebuilding over heading into the 2007-08 season after buttressing its young core with veterans like Michael Nylander, Tom Poti and Viktor Kozlov. But a 3-0 start to the season soon gave way to so many problems that Glen Hanlon was replaced by Bruce Boudreau as coach on Nov. 22. A 4-2 win against the Flyers on Wednesday night propelled the Caps into first place and gave Boudreau a 20-10-4 record in his first tenure as an NHL coach.
“We love the fact that, for a day, the guys have fought all the way back and put themselves in good contention,” Boudreau told reporters. “But it’s one thing being there and it’s another thing staying there. Staying there is usually the hardest part.”
After coaching in the minor leagues for years, Boudreau is a total realist, a factor that has helped the Caps. A perfect illustration occurred during his rookie season with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
| Phil Coffey is NHL.com's editorial director. He has covered the NHL since 1981.
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"I actually had 25 points in the first 24 games and they called up a player and put him on the second line and moved me back to the fourth line, a checking line," Boudreau told NHL.com’s John McGourty earlier this season. "Even though I had better numbers, he had a one-way contract."
That’s a realist!
“A lot has changed,” goalie Olaf Kolzig said. “We were here on Thanksgiving and a lot of people were writing us off. But there is still a lot of work to do.”
“We’ve changed in that we believe a little bit,” Boudreau said. “We believe that we’re a real good team now.”
And so do a lot of other folks now.
Better days are coming -- The Ottawa Senators may be able to get back to their winning ways sooner rather than later with the news that the top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza is back on the ice.
Heatley has been sidelined since prior to the All-Star break with a separated shoulder. Alfredsson has been dealing with a balky hip, and Spezza has been left without two of the top talents in the NHL.
"(The shoulder) felt really good right away after the first couple of days and we were able to do a lot of treatment and a lot of exercise on it early and get it strong," Heatley said of his return.
The returns couldn’t come at a better time. Not only have the Senators struggled after a great start to the season, but the Montreal Canadiens have roared up the standings to challenge for the Northeast Division's top spot.
"It's good to have a little extra jump in the step," Spezza said. "We're talking about guys coming back, not talking about guys out of the lineup. . . . anytime you're struggling, a little bit of positivity doesn't hurt."
Different strokes for different folks -- Flyers executive Bob Clarke had some interesting opinions on what flies and what doesn’t in certain cities.
"In Montreal, they like a fast, passing team - like the team they have,” Clarke told reporters at the Rogers Conn Smythe Sports Celebrities Dinner and Auction in Toronto this week. "That's a great, great team for Montreal. I'm not so sure it would be that popular in Philadelphia."
As you might expect, the captain of the Flyers’ two-time Stanley Cup championship teams prefers a more physical game.
"I think it's what hockey is and also what the fans in Philadelphia want to see. Flyers fans like that, and always have," he said.
Pieces are in place – Some would argue, quite strenuously I would imagine, that scoring four or five players for almost half your salary cap space would be lunacy.
Unless those players are named Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Robyn Regehr, Alex Tanguay and now Dion Phaneuf.
The Calgary Flames signed Phaneuf to a six-year deal this week worth a reported $39 million. Combined with the other players, the Flames have approximately $28 million committed to the core players for next season. But in GM Darryl Sutter’s estimation, it is money well spent.
|The Calgary Flames locked up their all-star defenseman Dion Phaneuf this week for the next six seasons at the cost of $39 million.
“Good teams have big cores,” Sutter said after announcing the Phaneuf deal. “I think we have one, and that’s why we’ve been successful for, other than the lockout year, four years. I think we’re in good shape. As an ownership and as a management team, you’re trying to secure top players for as long as you can, which -- if they are in fact top players -- keeps your team competitive for a long time, which this does.”
Sutter said the Flames also will have the ability to re-sign potential unrestricted free agents like Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius.
“We have the ability to keep all our unrestricted players if we want, and if they want,” Sutter told reporters. “The unrestricted players, who we keep and who we don’t keep, will be based on team performance and individual performance.”
As for Phaneuf, he couldn’t be happier to be staying put.
“I’m excited about the prospect of playing another six years in Calgary,” Phaneuf said. “In fact, I never thought I would be playing anywhere else. I am proud to be a member of this organization and will continue to concentrate on the job at hand - making and advancing in the playoffs this year and for years to come.”
Vote for Lidstrom -- One of these days, I promise to break down the top contenders for the Hart Trophy as the regular season’s MVP. This week, let’s allow Red Wings coach Mike Babcock to voice his opinion.
“When Schneids (Mathieu Schneider) came here, you play with Nick ... you have the best year of your career,” Babcock said. “When (Andreas) Lilja came here, you have a career year. When (Danny) Markov came here, you have a career year. When (Brian) Rafalski comes here, you have a career year.”
Guess who Babcock is talking about?
Yeah, no mystery, Nicklas Lidstrom.
“This team wins all the time. ... And to me, the best player, what he does (is) he makes people around him better,” Babcock said. “I don’t know how you can be the best player in the league if your team doesn’t win. That for me is what the best player does, and so I think he’s the best player in the league because he does it right. He’s the most consistent. You look at the top scoring (defensemen) in the league. I don’t know how he cannot be.”
So how come “only” Norris Trophies for Lidstrom so far in his distinguished career?
“They’re looking for the glitz,” Red Wings GM Ken Holland said as he jumped on the bandwagon. “Go for the substance. He’s not going to wow you. Just look at his minutes. Look at who he’s playing against. Look at the stats and look at the standings.”
Crunch time for Holik -- Years ago, Bobby Holik centered “The Crash Line” in New Jersey when the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995. He and Randy McKay remained big-time contributors in 2000 too.
Holik always knew the stakes back then and that ability has followed him.
Goalie Kari Lehtonen says it’s like the changing of the seasons.
”Bobby’s been awesome,” Lehtonen said. “Scoring goals, hitting people, getting all the faceoffs. This is his third year he’s here, and every year it’s the same thing. He steps his game up so much after the New Year.”
That’s good writing, Dickie -- During the course of the average week, yours truly reads about a million words. After reading this particular paragraph from the Denver Post’s Adrian Dater about the Avalanche’s Joe Sakic, Ice Age had to bring it to you.
”I’ve covered Sakic when his salary was a little more than $1 million and when it was almost $11 million, and he absolutely has never changed one bit as a person. There are two things I’ve never seen in my life: anything higher than a C in math and Joe Sakic big-timing anybody - not a fan, not a reporter, not the guy pushing the buttons on the elevator - nobody.”
I certainly concur with Adrian’s take on Sakic, but even more so with not rising above a “C” in math.
The value of good people -- Why are the Red Wings the top team in the NHL this season and a Stanley Cup contender nearly all the time?
To Dan Cleary, it’s people. Not great players necessarily, but great people.
“The whole mindset that I have learned in Detroit is team-first, work ethic and humility,” Cleary said. “Everyone here is so humble and hard-working. If you don’t follow, you’re not going to be around. I worked hard at it from the start and now I’ve got even more opportunity to reach my potential. This team is simply surrounded with good people.”
The Last Word -- What was going through Paul Maurice’s mind earlier this week when the Maple Leafs were routed by the Florida Panthers, 8-0?
Material from personal interviews, wire services, newspaper, and league and team sources was used in this report.