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Gerber grabs spotlight in return to NHL

by Brian Hunter /
A few thoughts while we work on getting used to all the new faces in new places:

Unlikely star -- Desperate for points every night in order to keep their fading playoff hopes alive, the Toronto Maple Leafs were dealt a blow following Tuesday's overtime loss to New Jersey when the club announced goalie Vesa Toskala would undergo hip and groin surgery and miss the rest of the season. Toskala had the Leafs on a 4-0-3 run and had made 49 saves to steal a point against the Devils.

If that wasn't enough of a blow, they also lost Tomas Kaberle to a hand injury in that game, and then traded away two of their top five scorers in Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore prior to Wednesday afternoon's deadline. All that could have decimated the team heading into a tough road game Thursday night against the Washington Capitals.

Except the Leafs got third-period goals from Lee Stempniak and Pavel Kubina and a near-shutout performance from Martin Gerber in a 2-1 win at Verizon Center that kept them within nine points of a postseason berth.

Wait a second -- Martin Gerber? Wasn't he languishing in the minor leagues after losing his job early in the season?

Yes, that would be the same player the Leafs claimed on waivers amid the frenzied activity Deadline Day. Gerber was back in the NHL and seized the opportunity by making 37 saves in his Toronto debut, blanking the Caps until Alexander Semin scored with 39 seconds left.

"They were surprising and emotional," Gerber said of the previous 24 hours. "We talk about it with my family -- it might be it for us over here. And then finding out that a team wants you to play. It's a great feeling."

Gerber, who had been playing for Binghamton of the AHL, last started for the Senators on Jan. 8 and hadn't won an NHL game since a Dec. 30 start against Edmonton. His biggest save came early in the third with the game still scoreless -- while down in the crease, he still got his stick out to knock away a point-blank shot by David Steckel.

The Leafs are 11th in the Eastern Conference and a longshot to climb back into the top eight, but thanks to Gerber they can still believe they have a chance.

"It's just fun to be back on the ice and actually win a game," Gerber said. "You're so pumped to be back and get another shot."

Fresh blood -- In a free-fall since the All-Star break, the Phoenix Coyotes made a few deals Wednesday and got some life from their new players one day later.

Scottie Upshall tied the game in the first period and Nigel Dawes set up Steven Reinprecht's game-winner in the second as the Coyotes edged the Boston Bruins, 2-1, at TD Banknorth Garden. Upshall was acquired from Philadelphia for rugged winger Daniel Carcillo, while Dawes was part of the package from the Rangers for defenseman Derek Morris.

Phoenix made a total of four trades that brought back five new players, then snapped a three-game losing streak by winning in Boston for the first time since Oct. 7, 1996.

"Quiet room this morning," coach Wayne Gretzky said. "Obviously everybody's a little bit nervous, and yet they're all very excited to be here. I think that as a group they really wanted to win this game badly and they're all excited to be playing in Phoenix. Their effort tonight was really strong, and I'm very proud of how they played."

Boston's key pick-up, veteran forward Mark Recchi, didn't factor into the scoring. The Bruins have an all-but-insurmountable 18-point lead on Montreal in the Northeast Division, but their advantage in the Eastern Conference is down to just six points on New Jersey.

"We're a team that's looking ahead, not looking back," said Bruins defenseman Steve Montador, who joined the team in a trade from Anaheim. "This is a team that's got the next five weeks ... to gain some momentum back. The good thing about a setback is it enables a comeback."

A-very positive start -- There wasn't anything too notable about Sean Avery's return to the New York Rangers -- good or bad. That probably suits Avery's new/old club just fine as he settles in for his second tour of duty in the Big Apple.

Avery was scoreless and took a cross-checking penalty in the third period but wasn't involved in any major altercations or other distractions as the Rangers doubled up the New York Islanders, 4-2, at the Nassau Coliseum. It was the agitating forward's first NHL game since Nov. 30 with Dallas.

"That felt good to get that out of the way," Avery said. "If there was any nerves coming in, I certainly got rid of them quick. It felt good to be playing for this team again and getting the win. That's what I came here to do, try to win some games."

He was quite successful doing that in his first stint for the Blueshirts -- they posted a 50-23-13 record over parts of two seasons with Avery in the lineup. He signed with the Stars this past summer, but things there soured quickly and he was out of the League for three months -- a time period which featured a six-game suspension followed by counseling, then a stint with the Rangers' AHL affiliate in Hartford.

Avery finds a Rangers team much different from the one he left less than a year ago, starting with a new coach in John Tortorella. He and the Rangers' brass hope Avery can provide the type of spark that will lift the team out of a prolonged slump that has it teetering on the edge of the playoffs following a torrid start. So far, so good.

"He didn't get carried away," Tortorella said. "He is going to talk. That is part of his personality and part of what happens in the game. I don't want him to lose that.

"We allowed him to play. He did a good job in just maintaining his discipline. That's a step in the right direction. He can't get involved in what people try to get him to do."

Unchartered territory -- Olli Jokinen holds the dubious mark of having played the most NHL games without ever making the playoffs. Thanks to Wednesday's trade from Phoenix to the Calgary Flames, it appears that dishonor is about six weeks from becoming someone else's problem.

Jokinen played his 781st NHL game Thursday night -- and the first with his new team. He made an immediate impact, scoring twice in the first period of a 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wachovia Center.

"Playing with great players, I just wanted to keep it simple and fit in," Jokinen said. "It's easy to play with them. It was a lot of fun. They were talking a lot, letting me know where they are."

Jokinen's linemates were nobody special -- just captain Jarome Iginla, now the franchise's all-time leading scorer, and Mike Cammalleri, whose 34 goals are tops on the team this season and tied for fifth in the League.

Calgary has a 10-point lead in the Northwest Division. First place at this point in the season is something new for Jokinen, who also played for the Kings, Islanders and Panthers before being traded to the Coyotes last summer.

"It was easy to come here," Jokinen said. "I'm just trying to fit in and help this team win games."


A bounce in their favor -- There hasn't been much of a home-ice advantage this season for the Ottawa Senators, who feel the lively boards at Scotiabank Place have benefitted visiting teams more than they've helped them.

For once, though, that wasn't the case, as Jason Spezza scored off a fortuitous play 12 seconds into the game and sparked the Senators to a 4-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers.

"I just lost the opening draw and they tried to go D-to-D, it took a bounce off our boards that we've been complaining about all year and this time it worked to our advantage," Spezza said. "I saw that he bobbled it so I just kind of jumped by him and got in pretty clean."

The early score broke captain Daniel Alfredsson's record for fastest goal to start a game by one second. Mike Comrie and Chris Campoli, acquired last month from the Islanders, followed with goals. For Campoli, it was his first with his new team.

"It felt great to get that monkey off my back," Campoli said. "Mike pretty much put it right on my stick and then I just had to put it on the ice. We played really well tonight. We played a complete game, we took care of the puck when we needed to, we made smart decisions and we skated, and when we do those things we're a tough team to play against."

What's his name is back -- It wasn't surprising to see the Pittsburgh Penguins finally get on a roll -- after all, this was the team that won the Atlantic Division and went to the Stanley Cup Final a season ago. The shocker is their recent four-game win streak came without captain Sidney Crosby, who was ready to return from a groin injury for their game against the Florida Panthers -- that is, if his teammates would have him.

"We were 4-0 without him, so we were going to tell him to stay home," joked Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. "No, he's an important player, he's our captain, a good leader, a good worker. It's good to have him back."

Crosby scored in his first game back to start a run of four straight goals by the Penguins in a 4-1 win at BankAtlantic Center. Radek Dvorak had given the Panthers a 1-0 lead with 2:11 left in the second period, but Crosby responded just 24 seconds later off an assist from newcomer Bill Guerin.

"Both (Guerin) and (Chris) Kunitz did a great job tonight and we're still learning from each other," Crosby said. "We can still create more. We'll figure some chemistry there."

The Pens improved to 7-1-1 since Dan Bylsma took behind the Pittsburgh bench, and the Penguins have jumped from 10th in the Eastern Conference into a three-way tie for sixth with the Panthers and Rangers.

"Every game we're working hard and giving ourselves a chance," Crosby said. "There's some games where you work hard and you don't always get the breaks and things like that. We're working hard and we're getting rewarded, so we want to keep going."

On the upswing -- Every team in the middle of that crazy pack fighting for a Western Conference playoff spot dreams of stringing together a bunch of wins in a row to create some separation. The Nashville Predators are doing just that.

Steve Sullivan's breakaway goal late in the second period broke a tie and led the Predators to a 4-2 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Sommet Center. It was Nashville's sixth straight win, the longest current streak in the League, and it tied the Predators with the Jackets for sixth in the West, just four points behind fifth-place Vancouver.

"This is exactly what we needed, and hopefully we can keep riding it," Sullivan said. "With 17 games left in the season, this is when you want to get hot down the stretch. We're in a dogfight to make the playoffs, and we want to make sure we keep going hard."

Nashville had dropped as low as 14th in the conference a little over a month ago, but fortunes can turn quickly -- just ask Phoenix, which now is 14th after hitting the All-Star break in fifth place.

Rookie goalie Pekka Rinne, who stopped 31 Columbus shots, said the Predators just want to keep their good fortunes rolling.

"Every point is huge, and now we have new goals all the time when we win games and you get more hungry and more hungry after every win," Rinne said. "Now you want to catch Vancouver and those guys, too."

Watch and learn -- Travis Moen spent his first night as a San Jose Shark watching, rather than playing, in the Sharks' 4-3 loss to Minnesota. But with a Stanley Cup ring on his resume, he's looking at the big picture.

"I'm excited to be coming to a great team like San Jose and make another run and maybe win the Cup again," said Moen, a checking forward on Anaheim's 2007 championship team who was dealt to the Sharks on Wednesday.

One drawback to the deal for Moen is having to be away from home. His wife gave birth to a son nine days ago.

"It's tough with a newborn baby at home, and leaving a wife," he said. "But the pros definitely outweigh the cons."

Since last summer, Sharks GM Doug Wilson has brought in a number of players with one thing in common -- Cup rings. Moen fits right in.

"I think it teaches you how fun it was," Moen said of the benefits of having won a championship. "You win it once and you want to win it again. You kind of develop a hunger for it, and you push yourself to win it again. There's no better feeling in the world."

The Sharks have been hit hard by injuries to their third and fourth line. Moen, one of the NHL's best checkers, said he expects to play the same type of role he did in Anaheim. When he'll get to do it, though, remains a question.

"I hope so," Moen said when asked if he expects to play Saturday, when San Jose visits Vancouver. "I'm practicing tomorrow. It will be nice to get in the lineup."

Two minutes too many -- Killing penalties had been a forte of the Dallas Stars lately, but the team pushed the envelope a few times too many and ended up paying for it by losing what could be a costly point.

Michal Handzus scored a pair of power-play goals for the Los Angeles Kings, the second of which triggered a late rally that tied the game and sent it to overtime. That's where Handzus completed the hat trick with a goal at 1:31, sending the Stars to a frustrating 5-4 defeat at Staples Center.

Dallas led 4-2 midway through the third period before forward Mark Parrish, defenseman Stephane Robidas and goalie Marty Turco all took minor penalties in a span of 63 seconds, setting up an extended five-on-three power play for Los Angeles, on which Handzus eventually scored. Anze Kopitar's fluke goal that deflected in off the skate of Robidas with 14 seconds remaining forced the extra period.

"It's hard to overcome all those penalties," Robidas said. "We need more discipline and to stay out of the box. Every game is a battle. We are a team where we need discipline and everyone chipping in. It's not going to stop or get any easier."

Instead of taking over sole possession of eighth in the Western Conference, which they would have accomplished with a win, the Stars had to settle for one point. They're have 68 points, the same as No. 8 Edmonton, but sit ninth today because of tiebreakers.

"It's frustrating with the position we are in," Turco said. "It feels like every single point matters, and we will have a chance to redeem ourselves (Friday at Anaheim). Teams are all hard to play against, and we didn't play as well as we would've liked."

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

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