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Ice Age: NHL elite suffering from 'senioritis'

by Phil Coffey
Remember back to your senior year in high school? Yes, for some of us that was a long time ago, but try. Remember just being so done with the whole thing and ready to move on to the next challenge, be it college, a job or the military?

That may be akin to what we are seeing in the NHL these days. Call it a case of "senioritis." A number of elite teams -- Washington, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, San Jose and Chicago -- haven't been living up to their reputations of late, and that can cause quite a case of the willies for fans in those respective towns, like Pittsburgh, where the Pens' 2-0 loss to the Lightning on Wednesday night had Sidney Crosby firing a warning shot across the bow of the Good Ship Penguin.

"It was pretty bad," Crosby said. "There's no real sugar-coating it or trying to make something positive out of it. We didn't do anything that was positive. That's about it. We weren't ready to play. That's what it comes down to. We thought we were going to play a team that (had) laid down and was out of the playoffs - we were just going to show up, and it didn't happen. Clearly, it didn't happen. We basically got what we deserved.

"If everyone accepts that or is OK with the way things went, that's not good. I don't think anybody is. I don't think anybody believes that we did things right or that we worked hard or that there was effort. I think we can all agree there wasn't, and we know what we have to do here moving forward."

In San Jose, the Sharks' lackluster 5-1 loss to Dallas on Wednesday also elicited warnings.

"Very uninspired," coach Todd McLellan told David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News. "Anybody watching any games at this time of the year knows the team that competes the hardest has the best chance of winning. It doesn't always win, but it has the best chance. And we didn't compete very hard."

Rob Blake was even more blunt in discussing it with Pollak.

"We didn't have any will to compete out there at all," Blake said, "right from the drop of the puck on through."

"You go through ruts every season, but we probably got in a bigger rut than we ever should considering our talent level," Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray said. "I won't say it's good, but it made us fine-tune our game. Hopefully we can use that rut we were in to our advantage and realize that wins don't come easy in the playoffs."

"The difference between last year and this year is last year we were playing teams that were out of the playoffs, so our level of play came way down," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said after Sunday's 5-3 loss to Calgary. "I think the teams we're playing are fighting for something. That was a hard-fought game. That wasn't a go-through-the-motions-type game. You had two teams wanting it. I don't think our level of play will be dropping, like it was last year."

"It's crunch time," Montreal goalie Carey Price told reporters. "This is what makes it fun. It's almost more fun to be in the race than sitting in Washington's position."

There might be something to that. The Detroit Red Wings have been marching up the standings in recent weeks because they had to. Trying to secure a playoff berth has helped sharpen their game.

"I'm just worried about playing better," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "I tell you the same boring stuff every year at this time: We've got to get our game ready for the playoffs. It looks like we're going to have a shot if we continue to play good at getting in, and then we want to be a real good team. We're at 93 (points), and San Jose at 104, so I mean, it's real tight in the West. The separation between teams over an 82-game schedule isn't very much."

And it could get closer if the elite don't start playing better. Now you may poo-poo the notion that a team like the Penguins or Capitals is going to take some late-season doldrums into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but as NHL players and coaches have said for time and memorial, you can't flip a switch and instantly play well. It's like trying to turn the Queen Mary on a dime.

"The players, they know," New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire told Rich Chere of the Newark Star-Ledger. "They're trying, too, to get ready and play. Some nights, for some reason, something will hit to disturb the whole thing and change their minds. I don't know if they don't fight through this or sometimes it's just a bad night, which you'll get. Other times it's preparation.

"You have to push," Lemaire said. "Sometimes you don't feel good and you have to push to do it. You know you have to do this, but you have to push. You have to kick yourself in the butt. Because some nights it's tougher than others."

"There are certain points in the season where you need to be doing certain things to be successful and we haven't done that in the last two games," captain Jamie Langenbrunner agreed. "There isn't time to let it snowball here. We need to fix that now. We have to get our mindset changed."

Well Said I -- "I really think the franchise is screaming for the Stanley Cup. I really don't think individual awards mean too much." -- Vancouver's Henrik Sedin on what's more important, winning the Stanley Cup or the scoring title

Osgood hangs tough -- Jimmy Howard has been a huge reason why the Red Wings are scaring the bejeezus out of everyone in the Western Conference. He was 12-2-1 in March and earned NHL Rookie of the Month honors.

And Howard says he couldn't have done it without Chris Osgood. Sure, you remember Osgood, won the 2008 Stanley Cup and came within a whisker of the 2009 trophy. He has been reduced to the role of backup and mentor to Howard, a role he has filled admirably considering his pedigree.

"For me to be mad or moping around, what good is that?" Osgood told reporters. "I have nothing to complain about. Everybody says Babs (coach Mike Babcock) and I don't get along so well. But that's wrong. If not for Babs, I wouldn't have played (and won) in the playoffs.

"You never enjoy not playing," Osgood said. "You're still competitive, but I'm enjoying this phase in my career where I can help other guys. I'd like to think I have a pretty good attitude."

Waiting for the movies to come out -- Scott Gomez has learned to deal with the media pressure of Montreal by ignoring it.

"You guys probably all write great stuff," he told a big scrum the other day. "But I remember (former Devils teammate) Joe Nieuwendyk telling me: 'No matter how good or bad it's going, don't pick up a paper.' One moment you're the world's greatest player. The next ..."

Surprising? Not really -- The Phoenix Coyotes have carried the tag of the NHL's surprise team nearly all season, but Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo said the term "surprise" isn't applicable if you have played coach Dave Tippett's crew.

"Obviously, nobody thought they would be over 100 points at this time of the year," Luongo said. "But we have played them a few times lately and just watching them play with their coach and their system, it's no surprise they are getting the wins."

Well Said II -- "It might sound stupid to someone from the outside looking in to say that we're a confident group, but we are despite what's been the results the last couple of games. We're going to keep battling, and we'll get in the win column here pretty soon." -- Chicago's Patrick Sharp

Mutual admiration society -- It's a good thing most of us won't be behind Teemu Selanne and Jari Kurri as they enter a building because the chorus of "After you," "No, after you," might never stop.

The two biggest NHL goal scorers among the Finns, tied at 601 as we typed this, also are fans of one another.

Kurri, who was Selanne's teammate for one season in Anaheim, was on hand to honor Selanne earlier in the week when the Ducks saluted their 600-goal scorer.

"Six hundred was by far the bigger goal -- 601 or 606 doesn't really matter -- but if you can pass your idol, that would be very special," Selanne told Robyn Norwood of the Los Angeles Times.

"I'm so happy for him," Kurri said. "Why wouldn't I be happy for him? It's great."

Kurri and Selanne met when a young Teemu attended Kurri's offseason hockey camp.
"He came to my hockey school," Kurri told's Josh Brewster. "We had a (mutual friend) who put us together. I had heard of him before, but I had never met him. We started to spend some time together, do some training together, during the offseason. We became good friends."
And Selanne learned plenty by watching Kurri's game.
"Following guys like Jari and other great players, how are they going to handle different situations and how are they going to find the open (areas) and be the right guy in the right place," Selanne said. "Those are the things you can learn from the great players, and I learned that at an early age. Follow that and good things usually happen."
Kurri said a key decision by Selanne was to come to the NHL later in his career. Selanne had been drafted by Winnipeg in 1988, but remained in Finland to play and fulfill his Finnish military commitment. When he came to the NHL, he blew the doors off with a 76-goal rookie season.
"He was a complete player when he came here," Kurri said. "That 76 goals in (his) first year shocked everybody. If (those are) the kind of numbers you put up in your first year, that's amazing. Nobody's broken it. Nobody's gonna (break) it as a rookie."
Well Said III -- "There's no room for panic. We have to regroup. The quick fix is remembering how we got here, remembering how we've had success in the season. It's true for every team — when you give turnovers in the middle of the ice when you're forcing plays, that's when you're going to get into trouble. That's where we need to be more patient." -- Colorado's Adam Foote

Call Byfuglien versatile -- When the Chicago Blackhawks suffered losses on defense, Dustin Byfuglien dropped back and played a little "D." And he has appeared equally comfortable playing wing with Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg.

Now, that's what's called versatility.

"They just wanted some skill to come up and play with them and get them going," Byfuglien told Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune. "So I had to come back to forward and do some work."

Talk about deadpanning at its very best! And his play on the ice has been worth talking about too. But seriously folks ...
"The (coaches) want some more traffic in front of the goalies and just try to change things up a little bit," Byfuglien said. "Crash and bang, get them the puck and go stand in front of the net and let them do the rest."

"(Byfuglien) is actually very skilled for a big guy," Kane said. "He gets in the corners and does a lot of work down there. I'm hoping the line just takes off, and hopefully it can be one of our go-to lines."

Well Said IV -- "After a fairly miserable season, a .500 record is fairly respectable." -- Columbus defenseman Mike Commodore

Time to get dirty -- The seasons change several times per year and so does the way you have to play in the NHL. At present, players need to be willing to get dirty and go into places their mothers wouldn't like them to go.

Nashville's Steve Sullivan reminded his teammates of this fact the other day.

"You go through some stretches where it comes easy and then you just get away from some slight fundamentals," Sullivan said. "If you're just going to shoot from 60 feet out, goaltenders in the NHL are going to make those saves. We have to find ways to create some traffic in front of the net, take (the goalie's) eyes away from him and just take better shots."

No silver lining -- Edmonton Oilers fans may be looking forward to seeing who the team will select in the 2010 Entry Draft based on the team's struggles this season. But having the chance to select Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin is of little consolation to the players finishing the season.

"As players, we're not thinking of the draft ... we've had an injury-filled season," Mike Comrie told reporters. "We lose our starting goalie (Nikolai Khabibulin), one of our top offensive players (Ales Hemsky), and a guy (Sheldon Souray) who runs our power play. That's tough.

"But you have to look in the mirror and still try to win. We can't worry about where we're picking in the draft."

Playing for pride -- One of the good signs for the Carolina Hurricanes this season has been the return of goalie Cam Ward from injury. The hope for next season is a healthy Ward will help the Hurricanes avoid the problems that plagued them this season.

As for Ward, he is looking forward to a fresh start, but will continue to compete until the final whistle is sounded on Carolina's 2009-10 season.

"You never can say never and obviously the standings don't look like they're in our favor, but mathematically we're not out of it and you've got to come to the rink and compete," Ward said. "At the end of the day this is what we get paid to do and you've got to wear that jersey with some pride and compete."

Well Said V -- "We didn't start well and I don't think we finished well, either." -- Devils coach Jacques Lemaire after a 5-1 loss to Philadelphia last Sunday.

One more time -- Anaheim defenseman Aaron Ward has won three Stanley Cups and played in more than 800 regular-season games. After kicking around between Boston and Carolina and now Southern California the last few seasons, you might think the 37-year-old Ward might be entertaining thoughts of hanging up his skates.

Not so.
"When you get to this stage of your career, you let the season end and then you let everything settle and you go from there," Ward said. "First off you have to generate interest and then you have to determine whether or not you're ready to play. At this point I'm ready to play. I'm looking forward to next season."

Well Said VI -- "They are a picture of dedication to work ethic. They've got really good professionals in there who have pushed themselves to high standards in how they work every night. They're a team that you can try to emulate in a lot of ways." -- Edmonton Oilers coach Pat Quinn on the Detroit Red Wings.

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