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Kessel does it again for Bruins

by Brian Compton and Brian Hunter /
A few thoughts before the Capitals ask Brett Leonhardt to start in Hershey:

A breakout player -- In 2007-08, his second season in the NHL, Boston Bruins forward Phil Kessel scored 19 goals in 82 games. As the team has taken off this season, Kessel has led the way on offense. By scoring Saturday night in a 4-2 win over the Atlanta Thrashers to complete a home-and-home sweep, Kessel scored his 19th goal in just 30 games.

"He's been hot with the stick, and it's something we've been looking for for a long time -- someone that can be a threat every night," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "He's always been comfortable in the offensive zone."

The Bruins have made themselves quite cozy playing at TD Banknorth Garden, where they won their 11th straight by beating the Thrashers. Any doubt Boston has come together as a team should have been erased when Zdeno Chara came to Kessel's defense after he was involved in a late second-period altercation with Atlanta defenseman Boris Valabik.

"Obviously, he was doing his job trying to play hard against Phil and I'm not going to let him do that," said Chara, who picked up 17 minutes in penalties in taking on Valabik. "And we both did what was necessary."

Needless to say, Kessel appreciated the gesture. "It says a lot about him that he would come to my defense," Kessel said. "It shows what kind of character he is."

The walking wounded -- Losing players to injury has become second nature to the Washington Capitals -- but one thing it hasn't done is stop them from winning.

Simeon Varlamov won his NHL debut, and it's one he'll always remember. Varlamov made 32 saves before a rabid Hockey Night In Canada crowd at Bell Centre as the Capitals edged the Montreal Canadiens, 2-1, thanks to a Michael Nylander goal with 2:32 remaining.

Varlamov was recalled from Hershey of the AHL after Jose Theodore injured himself during Friday's morning skate. The Capitals got Mike Green and Sergei Fedorov back after long absences and beat Ottawa that night, but Fedorov was lost again Saturday along with defenseman Tyler Sloan.

"We only dropped two or three guys, so we were OK, it was an easy night," joked Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, who has had to juggle his lineups throughout the season and had no updates on the team's latest injuries. "I haven't heard. I'm afraid to go into that room any time."

Montreal finished a franchise-record seven-game homestand that began in grand fashion with a 4-0-1 mark. But the Canadiens dropped the last two games to Tampa Bay and Washington, going 0-for-8 on the power play against the Caps.

"Our power play is non-existent because we get outworked by the opposition," Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau said. "We have an advantage and we don't take advantage of that. That's the bottom line."


Unstoppable -- You can't stop the San Jose Sharks; you can only hope to contain them.

For a while there, it appeared as if the St. Louis Blues figured out a way to do that, but Sharks captain Patrick Marleau helped his team rally for a wild 5-4 victory at HP Pavilion.

''We feel like we're never out of it,'' said Marleau, who scored twice. ''When we find ourselves down a couple of goals, we remind ourselves to stick with the game plan.''

Afterwards, San Jose coach Todd McLellan raved about not only Marleau, but all of the veterans on his club who have helped the Sharks get off to a 16-0-2 start at the Shark Tank.

''The leadership on this club right now is tremendous,'' McLellan said. ''No one was letting anybody off the hook. They held themselves responsible. The coaches didn't say anything.''
That was then, this is now -- An awful start to the season for the Philadelphia Flyers suddenly seems like a very long time ago. These days, all they seem to do is win, and that's been reflected in their rise in the Atlantic Division standings.

Mike Knuble tallied twice and four other Flyers scored goals in a 6-3 matinee win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at Wachovia Center. The two points vaulted them over the Penguins into sole possession of second place in the Atlantic, four back of the Rangers.

"It's fun to come in and pick up the paper and see us climbing in the standings," Knuble said. "It's two points that they can't have and two more that we were able to get."

Beating the Penguins is even more enjoyable for the Flyers since they were eliminated by their Pennsylvania rivals in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Philadelphia began this season with an 0-3-3 record, but currently finds itself on a 12-1-3 run, securing 27 of a possible 32 points in that stretch.

"We didn't expect to put this kind of a run together, but then again we didn't think that we deserved to start the season the way we did," said Joffrey Lupul, who scored his ninth of the season.

The Penguins concluded their week by losing division games to the Devils and Flyers, sandwiched around a 9-2 rout of the Islanders.

"We obviously wanted a better effort," captain Sidney Crosby said. "It's a big game in the standings. These are always intense games. We should always be ready for these games."

Taming the Wild -- A near-flawless third period by goalie Erik Ersberg lifted the Los Angeles Kings to a 3-1 win at Staples Center while ensuring the Minnesota Wild a fourth straight regulation loss for the first time since their inaugural season.

Ersberg made 16 of his 33 saves during the final 20 minutes, coming within 1:53 of a shutout before Brent Burns got the Wild on the board with a power-play goal.

"Ersberg was great. He was focused and he killed a lot of plays," Kings coach Terry Murray said. "The plays they had at the net were quick plays, hard plays, stuff coming from around the back of the net. Then they end up with a player driving to the net looking for a re-direct, and it goes in."

It wasn't enough to save Minnesota, however, as Alexander Frolov responded with an empty-net goal in the final half minute to seal things. It was an uncharacteristic game for the normally defensive-minded Wild, who gave up 43 shots and had to rely on an above-average effort from their own netminder, Niklas Backstrom, to stay close.

"I wouldn't say we weren't ready, but we definitely need to be better to start the game -- especially on the road," Minnesota left wing Stephane Veilleux said. "We've been down two goals the last couple of games and we feel under pressure and we play desperate hockey when we shouldn't. We need to find a way to start the games on the right foot. We can't play desperate hockey in this league. Every individual has to give a little more and that's how we're going to get out of that slump as a team."

Speaking of scoring ... -- The League's top goal scorer was busy adding to his total, as Thomas Vanek collected his 23rd and 24th of the season to lead the Buffalo Sabres to a 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center.

Vanek needed just 70 seconds to open the scoring and beat Kevin Weekes, giving the Sabres a 1-0 lead. After the Devils responded with a pair of goals 4:11 apart in the second, the Sabres scored three unanswered for the victory. Vanek had the insurance tally with 7:06 remaining.

"When they scored two, it crushed a little bit of our energy," Vanek said. "We slowly worked our way back into it, and dominated the last 20 minutes."

Said backup goalie Patrick Lalime, who made 20 saves for the win: "From the first to last second, I think we played a really good road game. We didn't give them much, especially in the second period when we turned it around."

The Devils were coming off a hard-fought, emotional 8-5 win over the Rangers the previous night and lost for only the second time in their last 11 games.

"It was a game for us to win and we didn't," said Bobby Holik, who had the first goal of his second stint with New Jersey. "I think we played right into their hands. I think we had a great opportunity to continue our streak but we didn't play smart enough."

Almost automatic -- They say you shouldn't count your chickens before they're hatched, but it would be hard to blame the Madison Square Garden faithful if they were counting that additional point in the standings as soon as the New York Rangers went to a shootout against the Carolina Hurricanes.

That's because the Rangers were 7-1 in penalty-shot competition entering the night, and they didn't disappoint. Henrik Lundqvist and Chris Drury used the shootout to gain measures of personal redemption as well as help their team claim a 3-2 victory.

Drury had come up empty on a shorthanded breakaway that could have given the Rangers the win in regulation, but he wasn't surprised when coach Tom Renney tapped him in the fifth round. Drury ended up scoring the lone goal by beating Cam Ward.

"He knew I was frustrated, knew I had missed one in the third," Drury said. "For some reason, I thought he would come to me. As I was watching the shootout, I had an idea what I was going to do and I just had a feeling he was going to call me."

Lundqvist, meanwhile, got the start one night after getting shelled by New Jersey and responded with 29 saves through regulation and overtime before stopping all five Carolina attempts in the shootout.

"I'm happy that Tom gave me the opportunity to play right away," Lundqvist said. "I didn't have a couple days to think too much, just get back there right away and play a game."

One goal in mind -- There's still almost four months of regular-season hockey to be played, but the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have never made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in their brief history in the League, are already approaching each game as the two points that could ultimately make the difference come spring.

"Until we're in the playoffs, nothing's good enough," goaltender Steve Mason said after leading the Jackets to a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders. "This team, we have to make the playoffs. Right now, we're not in that playoff picture, so every game is important to us."

Mason wasn't around for past seasons when Columbus made playoff pushes that fell short, but he's made a statement by going 8-4-1 since being brought up in November. He made 24 saves against New York but didn't have to work overly hard.

"The guys made it really easy tonight," Mason said. "There really weren't any second opportunities. (They were) making sure that I could see the shots from the point. Everybody did a great job in front of me."

Columbus improved to 7-2-1 against the Islanders since entering the League for the 2000-01 season, including 5-0-1 at Nationwide Arena.

The forgotten man -- Martin Gerber went from the Ottawa Senators' starting goaltender coming out of training camp to a fixture at the end of the bench for most of the past two months, as Alex Auld grabbed the No. 1 job and started 19 of the last 22 games heading into Saturday night.

Gerber was ready when called upon, though, and stopped all 24 shots he faced as the Senators blanked the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 at Scotiabank Place. In his rare action Gerber was accustomed to little offensive support -- he allowed just three goals in previous losses to Carolina and Chicago.

"I think he's played really well and kept us in games when he's been in there," forward Dany Heatley said. "The last two nights he's played exceptionally well. The night he played in Chicago, he deserved a better fate. Tonight he made some big saves down the stretch for the win."

Alexandre Picard scored a power-play goal 5:04 into the third and Gerber made sure it held up. That was the only goal he would have to work with until Daniel Alfredsson put the puck into an empty net in the final minute. Afterward, the goalie was low-key about getting back into the lineup.

"I try to use the ice time I can get and give myself a chance to go back in there and that's pretty much all I can control," Gerber said.

Best of both worlds -- Entering Saturday's action, Nashville goalie Dan Ellis had been putting up solid numbers in nearly every category -- except wins.

But the Predators' No. 1 goalie took care of that against the Dallas Stars, as he stopped all 27 shots he faced in a 3-0 victory at the Sommet Center. With the victory, he improved to 9-11-3.

''My win-loss record stinks,'' said Ellis, who now has eight career shutouts. ''The last few games have been frustrating for our team because we were playing strong and we didn't get anything out of it or we only got one point.

''I have to find ways to help the team and contribute a little bit more. I might have had some decent games, but I wasn't helping in terms of the standings. It's nice to be able to get two points, especially on home ice."

After some early-season struggles, Predators coach Barry Trotz is pleased to see Ellis on top of his game.

''Dan has had some games where he has played well and didn't get the win,'' said Trotz. ''Plus, he got dinged up and Pekka Rinne came in and was goaltender of the week. You always get nervous when that happens.

''But Dan has played very solid since he has come back, and the same can be said of Pekka. From our standpoint, we have both goaltenders going in the right direction and where we want them to be.''

Making his case -- After watching Ty Conklin start the last three games for the Detroit Red Wings, Chris Osgood was ready to show coach Mike Babcock that he deserved more playing time.

The future Hall of Fame goaltender made 24 saves through overtime, then stopped three shots in the shootout as the Stanley Cup champs rallied for a 5-4 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes at Arena.

The win was the 375th of Osgood's brilliant career.

''The type of competitor he is, he hasn't been happy to see the other goalie out there the last three nights,'' Babcock said. ''We're always trying to get his competitive juices flowing. He's a competitor. He's a pro and he's one of the best of all time.''

With the victory, Osgood moved past John Vanbiesbrouck into 12th place on the career wins list. At 36, there's little doubt that No. 30 will have well over 400 wins before it's all said and done.

''The way it's going I'm just trying to push onward and play better and better,'' Osgood said. ''I'm close to where I want to be but I'm not over that hump yet.''

Speaking of pushing onward, 46-year-old defenseman Chris Chelios made his season debut. Chelios -- who turns 47 next month -- missed Detroit's first 28 games after suffering a fractured tibia during the preseason.

"Coming into the season was going to be tough as it was," said Chelios, who is old enough to be the father of some of his teammates. "With the injury, I put myself behind the eight-ball. It's been a long nine or 10 weeks. The best thing is we've been winning. We're in a good situation here. If I get my opportunity, I want to make the best of it and help the team win."
Everyone contributes -- Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish didn't need to search far for an explanation when it came to his team's 2-0 win against the Vancouver Canucks at Rexall Place.

''It was the first game all year where I can say that everybody played well,'' MacTavish said. ''It was the first real complete 60-minute game we have played all year. Normally, there have been patches of the game where there are some poor performances, but everybody did their job tonight. That was the first sign of a complete game by everyone this year. It was an important game for us.''

The victory was the fourth in five tries for the Oilers, who improved to 14-12-2. Dwayne Roloson stopped all 23 shots he faced for his 23rd career shutout.

''It was important to get a win like this, especially in our own building where we haven't played our best hockey,'' Roloson said. ''Tonight was probably one of our best games of the year. We played unbelievable.''

Canucks coach Alain Vigneault couldn't say the same for his club. Saturday concluded a seven-game road trip for Vancouver, which finished 2-4-1.

Vigneault was so angry, he actually made up a word during his postgame press conference.

''I really don't have one positive thing to say about this game,'' Vigneault said. ''We got outplayed. We got out-everythinged in all areas. They deserved to win hands down and they did. We had two chances after 40 minutes. That's quite impressive. That tells you a lot about our game tonight.''

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

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