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Hitchcock hits 500 wins

by Brian Hunter
A few thoughts as we congratulate Claude Lemieux on adding to his comeback story by registering his first NHL point in almost six years:

Great timing -- Reaching 500 NHL coaching victories is a rare and special milestone. What made it even better for Ken Hitchcock was it came as his Columbus Blue Jackets put together their hottest stretch of the season as they drive to secure the franchise's first-ever playoff berth.

Rick Nash scored the decisive shootout goal after scoring his 25th goal of the season and adding an assist in regulation, and the Blue Jackets beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 Thursday night at Air Canada Centre, making Hitchcock the 13th coach to join the exclusive 500-win club.

"To help him get his 500th win tonight was definitely a good pat on the back for ourselves," said rookie goalie Steve Mason, who made 32 saves. "It was a good effort down the stretch."

Columbus is on a 6-0-1 tear, pushing itself from right on the playoff bubble into sixth place. Of course, they're still only five points ahead of ninth-place Anaheim, but making the most out of every game played recently has given them a leg up in an extremely tight race.

"When you get points like you do tonight, these are valuable points that are going to make a difference at the end because this was a game where we probably didn't play our best but we still won," Hitchcock said after his weary team completed five games in seven days with a 4-0-1 record. "It was one of those nights where we had no legs -- yet we found a way to get two points."

The Jackets trailed 3-2 entering the third, but quickly drew even when Nash set up Kristian Huselius. Nash had forced an earlier tie with a goal in the final second of the first period. A noted Civil War buff, Hitchcock was quick with a comparison for his team's play.

"There's an analogy in war fighting, that you fight and you march," Hitchcock said. "That's what we've had to do, we fight and we march."

Now or never -- In order to climb back into a playoff spot, the Carolina Hurricanes are going to need to play much better down the stretch and catch a few breaks involving the teams ahead of them in the standings. That's exactly what happened on Long Island.

Eric Staal scored to cap a three-goal first period and added another goal in the second as the Hurricanes cruised to a 6-2 win against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. They drew to within three points of Buffalo and Florida, which are tied for the final two Eastern Conference playoff berths. Both lost Thursday.

"We have to focus on our game and the way we need to play, and everything else will take care of itself," Staal said. "We know if we play the type of hockey that we did tonight ... we're going to get our fair share of wins and we'll be fine."

While the Hurricanes have struggled mightily at home, losing their last three at the RBC Center, they've now taken four straight on the road. It's their best run on enemy ice since the 2005-06 season, when they last made the playoffs and ended up taking home the Stanley Cup.

"We were good enough," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said of the victory over the League-worst Islanders. "I don't think it was an ESPN Classic, but at the same time we needed this game clearly more than they did."

The go-to guys -- Scoring goals rarely has been a problem this season for the Philadelphia Flyers, and a huge reason for that has been the constant production of their top line of Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble.

That trio was at it again in a 6-3 defeat of the Buffalo Sabres at the Wachovia Center. Richards scored a pair of goals, including his League-leading sixth shorthanded, and the first of two empty-net goals the Flyers scored in the game's final minute. He added 3 assists for a five-point night. Knuble was credited with the game-winning goal on a third-period power play, and Gagne had a pair of assists.

"It's always nice to have that chemistry," Richards said. "I pretty much know where Gagne is going to be, and I think everyone in the building knows where Knuble is going to be."

Knuble is fond of setting up in front of the net, where he puts home close-in shots and cleans up on rebounds and tips. His goal with 6:09 left against the Sabres came when he took Gagne's pass from behind the net and poked the puck past goaltender Ryan Miller. Richards also assisted on the play.

"He's our puck-thrower and distributor of the puck," Knuble said of Richards. "We want to make sure the puck is in his hands as much as we can. He has great vision all over the ice. He is so responsible defensively and at the same time so good offensively."

Leaving no doubt -- It's been a good stretch lately for the Ottawa Senators, who played in front of their fans at Scotiabank Place on Thursday after a five-game trip, but the Vancouver Canucks never let them get established on home ice.

Henrik Sedin had a goal and 2 assists in the first period alone en route to a four-point night, and the Canucks took a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes before rolling to a 5-2 win.

"We knew coming in here our start was going to be important," Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo said. "We know these guys like to come out strong at home so we talked about that before the game and I think we did a pretty good job. We got a good lead and then we played a good system game the rest of the way."

The Senators had been making up some ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race with a 5-0-2 stretch under new coach Cory Clouston, but lost their first regulation game since his debut, Feb. 3 against Los Angeles.

"We did a good job once we got down, but we just can't afford to start the game like that," Senators center Jason Spezza said. "Obviously it was a good sign to see the guys battling and try to chip away at it."

A good recovery -- At this time of year a lot of people probably would enjoy a vacation through Florida, but the New Jersey Devils weren't enjoying their trip much as the first period of Thursday night's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning drew to a close. Goaltender Kevin Weekes gave up a soft goal and they were down 2-0, on the heels of a 4-0 loss in Florida on Tuesday.

Everything turned around after that, however. Weekes was brilliant the rest of the way, shutting down the Lightning, and the Devils scored twice to force overtime before eventually winning 3-2 in a shootout on goals by Zach Parise and Patrik Elias.

"It was a little bit of a wake-up call," said Brian Rolston, who got New Jersey going with a power-play goal early in the second. "They get two quick ones on us and I don't think we were playing horrible in the first period. It was just one of those things, they got up on us real quick. We just turned around and thought we took it to them pretty well."
"When you get points like you do tonight, these are valuable points that are going to make a difference at the end because this was a game where we probably didn't play our best but we still won." -- Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock
Parise scored early in the third on another power play and Weekes finished with 39 saves. He denied two of the three Tampa shooters in the penalty-shot tiebreaker for his fifth consecutive win.

"I thought especially the last two periods we really started creating some things offensively," Devils coach Brent Sutter said. "And after the second goal, Weeksey played extremely well."

Starting fresh -- While they probably wish they could start the season all over, the Pittsburgh Penguins will have to settle for having a new coach with his own message as they try to fight their way out of what has been a season-long malaise to get back to the playoffs.

On a team featuring a pair of all-world players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins seem like they should have a high-powered attack. They certainly had that in a 5-4 win at Mellon Arena over another struggling team, the Montreal Canadiens.

"Our guys were energized, focused and ready to go," Pens interim coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think they had a real clear understanding of what was at stake and the way we wanted to play. While it wasn't perfect, I think they sent a message loud and clear."

Malkin had a goal and an assist and Ruslan Fedotenko set up a pair of goals, including the winner by defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who played only his third game of the season after hurting his shoulder in the first preseason game. Pittsburgh let leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 4-2 slip away, but eventually held off Montreal, which has just three wins in its last 15 games.

"We were playing aggressive and took advantage of some good chances. It was a pretty high tempo, and that's the way we want to play," said Crosby, whose quick pass across the slot set up Malkin's 26th goal. "We were reacting out there pretty well, but at the same time we still have a few kinks to work out."

Turning the tables -- Since the 2009 portion of the schedule started, there haven't been many off nights for the Florida Panthers. They went 13-4-3 in their first 20 games of 2009, culminating in a dominant 4-0 win against New Jersey on Tuesday. But something had to give when the road-tested Chicago Blackhawks arrived at BankAtlantic Center.

Andrew Ladd scored 3:07 in for the only goal Cristobal Huet would need and Ben Eager added a pair of goals in the third as the Blackhawks recorded their own 4-0 victory. Chicago is thriving during a stretch where 10 of 11 games have been on the road, and its 18 road wins are one more than all of last season.


GOALS: 1 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 1
SOG: 2 | +/-: +1

"We knew it was going to be a rough month," Ladd said. "It made this road trip a lot better when you're winning. I think we're a pretty confident group right now. We've just got to make sure we take care of ourselves."

Florida has had little luck against Huet over the course of his career. The goalie stopped all 31 shots he faced and recorded his fourth shutout in only 10 starts against the Panthers.

"It's nice to have a little bit of a roll," Huet said. "I've got no complaints. It's nice to get some games under your belt and build on and correct what you did last game."

Two teams, one goal -- Both teams know they will need a very strong run over the final seven weeks of the season in order to make up ground and get into the playoffs. Playing against each other in a game that went to overtime, the second point sitting there looked vital.

Keith Tkachuk made sure the St. Louis Blues claimed it, scoring 2:52 into overtime for a 2-1 defeat of the Nashville Predators at Sommet Center. His goal capped a furious effort by the road team in the extra period, as the Blues took all seven shots before finally beating Pekka Rinne.

"Both teams are battling for the same thing," Tkachuk said. "There are serious comparisons between our teams. We both have the same coaching philosophy. It was a little bit of a chess match. There was tight checking and two goalies making great saves."

Chris Mason matched up with Rinne and continued his stellar run since taking over as the No. 1 goalie by making 28 saves through regulation. He basically was a spectator once overtime started, and he saw his teammates put on a great show.

"You know goals are going to get scored most games," Mason said. "The game was back and forth. Penalties kind of went back and forth. Both teams played a good game and smart game.

"We are fighting with the Predators to get the final playoff spot. It is great hockey to watch. It was a fun game to be part of. I wasn't surprised to see it go into overtime."

If at first -- It looked as though Adrian Aucoin wasn't answering the call when opportunity knocked early in overtime. The Calgary Flames defenseman had a breakaway and a chance to win the game against the Minnesota Wild, but his shot drew iron.

It ended up being Aucoin's night, though, and when he got a second try, he beat Niklas Backstrom on a wrist shot with 1:10 left in the extra period to bring the Flames off the bench to celebrate a 3-2 win that sent those in attendance at Xcel Energy Center home in disappointment.

"We've been saying on this team about guys getting justice around here. That's pretty much what it was," Aucoin said. "I don't get too many breakaways. I beat (Backstrom) but obviously not the post."

While the Flames currently lead the Northwest Division and hold the third seed in the Western Conference, the Wild are 10th and reeling after losing another game at home. They held a 3-0 lead against Ottawa on Saturday only to give up the final five goals.

"There's no time to have a bad night. We had a bad night the night before," Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said. "You can't have a bad night every night."

"We have to focus on our game and the way we need to play, and everything else will take care of itself. We know if we play the type of hockey that we did tonight ... we're going to get our fair share of wins and we'll be fine." -- Carolina center Eric Staal
Another one bites the dust -- Already down a pair of stalwarts in captain Brenden Morrow and Sergei Zubov, the Dallas Stars lost another vital cog when Brad Richards went down Monday against Columbus with a fractured wrist. Richards could be lost for up to eight weeks, but the Stars have spent most of the season batting back from adversity so they don't intend to quit now.

Raymond Sawada scored his first NHL goal on his 24th birthday and fellow rookie Fabian Brunnstrom had the go-ahead score on a power play 3:08 into the second period as Dallas doubled up the Edmonton Oilers, 4-2, on at the American Airlines Center, and held onto seventh place in the Western Conference, just a point behind Vancouver and Columbus.

"Everyone knows that we have big names out of the lineup, big pieces of the puzzle," Stars center Mike Ribeiro said. "I think guys were ready for Edmonton. To lose Brad is big, but hopefully it will keep us together and keep us pushing forward."

Sawada made his NHL debut after being recalled from the minors earlier in the day, and provided some early returns.

"Coming here, first and foremost, was a great birthday present," he said. "Getting that goal and the win was even better."

The last laugh -- They might have been laughing with him instead of at him, but that didn't make a difference to Phoenix Coyotes tough guy Daniel Carcillo. When a shootout against the Atlanta Thrashers reached the eighth round and coach Wayne Gretzky called his name, Carcillo was determined to show the opposing bench he can be as effective with his gloves on as when he drops them.

Carcillo put an end to the marathon by beating Keri Lehtonen to give the Coyotes a 4-3 win at Arena. Mikael Tellqvist stopped seven of eight attempts by the Thrashers, who had forced overtime on Ilya Kovalchuk's goal with 52.5 seconds to play in regulation.

"I know a bunch of guys on their bench and they were laughing when I went out there," Carcillo said. "I was laughing, too. It's a little bit of pressure but I tried to have fun with it."

That's pretty much what Phoenix has to do the rest of the way. A major slump since the All-Star break had dropped them to the bottom of the Western Conference entering play Thursday, but with the two points they now are just five out of a playoff spot.

"We've got to win every night," Gretzky said. "If we're going to get in this race again we have to win four, five or six in a row."

His heart will go on
-- San Jose defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic was excited to get the winning goal in the Sharks' 4-2 victory against the Los Angeles Kings -- after all, he's not the big source of offense from a blue line corps that features Dan Boyle and Rob Blake.

Vlasic teed up a power-play slapper and beat Erik Ersberg from the top of the slot at 10:51 of the second period to break a 2-2 tie.

"I had a great opportunity," he said. "With five shots tonight, you hope one goes in."

But as excited as Vlasic was to have scored his fifth of the season, he's even more excited about his plans for Friday night.

The Shark Tank will stow the boards and glass for a night and turn the arena over to Canadian singer Celine Dion, who can count a certain French-Canadian defenseman among her fan base.

"I have a big concert tomorrow night," he said. "I hope I get to meet her."

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