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Kovalchuk, Varlamov emerging as shootout stars

by John Kreiser
It's too bad the Colorado Avalanche opted to play Jean-Sebastien Giguere instead of Semyon Varlamov in goal at New Jersey on Thursday -- the fans at Prudential Center would have been treated to perhaps the best shootout matchup since the tiebreaker was adopted in 2005.

New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk has turned into the NHL's deadliest shootout sniper and Varlamov has become a brick wall in the tiebreaker. It's an amazing turnaround for both players, neither of whom had been very successful in shootouts before this season.

Kovalchuk, one of the NHL's most dangerous scorers during the past decade, entered 2011-12 with 11 shootout goals in 42 attempts, a 26.2-percent success rate that's well below the League average of about 32 percent -- and far below what you'd expect from a player with nine straight 30-goal seasons. But with some advice from goaltender Martin Brodeur, Kovalchuk has become a terror in the tiebreaker. He scored for the 10th time in 12 tries against Giguere on Thursday, becoming the fourth player to score 10 shootout goals in one season -- and breaking the single-season mark with his seventh game-deciding goal.

Ilya Kovalchuk
Left Wing - NJD
GOALS: 30 | ASST: 41 | PTS: 71
SOG: 271 | +/-: -5
Kovalchuk seemed to have no trouble beating Giguere. Getting a shot past Varlamov might have been another matter -- although the Avs had no reason to suspect when they acquired the 23-year-old from Washington last summer that he'd turn into a shootout star. Varlamov was 4-6 in 10 tiebreakers with the Caps, allowing 12 goals on 41 attempts, a .707 save percentage that was just slightly better than the League average in the shootout's first six seasons.

But Varlamov has been virtually unbeatable in shootouts while wearing an Avs uniform. He improved to 8-0 this season by stopping all three Buffalo shots on Wednesday to give Colorado a 5-4 victory. More impressive is that he's allowed just two goals on 24 attempts, a .917 save percentage that would be the second-best ever by a goaltender in a full season when facing 20 or more attempts -- only Mathieu Garon (.938 with Edmonton in 2007-08) has done better.

Varlamov is the fourth goaltender to win his first eight shootouts in a season since the NHL began using the tiebreaker in 2005. The others are Dallas' Marty Turco, who won the first eight he took part in before losing one in 2005-06; Garon (10-0 in 2007-08) and L.A.'s Jonathan Quick, who went 10-0 last season.

Can't finish -- The New York Islanders are all but assured of their fifth straight non-playoff season -- and once again, the inability to close out opponents is a major reason why.


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{13319075147623}and wound up losing 5-4 in a shootout. It marked the League-high eighth time this season the Islanders led a game by more than one goal and didn't come home with two points; two of the eight have been games in which New York led by three goals.

The Isles also lead the NHL in games lost when leading after two periods. They've taken a lead into the third period 24 times this season -- but while they've lost just once in regulation, they've won only 15 of those games while losing eight times in overtime or a shootout. That's the most in the NHL this season and ties the 2008-09 Toronto Maple Leafs for the most OT/shootout losses when leading after 40 minutes since the League adopted the shootout in 2005.

It's not that the Islanders rarely lead after two periods -- the 24 games in which they've taken a lead into the third period this season are just two fewer than Pittsburgh, one of the NHL's elite teams. But the Penguins, who along with the Isles are the only teams with two 30-goal scorers, have been a lot better at closing the deal -- they are 24-0-2 when leading through two periods.

New York's .625 winning percentage when leading after two periods this season is the lowest in the NHL. But it's a reflection of a problem that has plagued the Islanders since Ted Nolan's departure as coach in 2008. In the four seasons since then, the Isles' winning percentage when leading after two periods has ranked 28th, 25th and 29th before dropping to 30th thus far in 2011-12.

Under Jack Capuano, who replaced Scott Gordon in November 2010, the Isles are 32-4-13 when they lead after two periods. The 17 games not won when taking a lead into the third period are the most in the NHL in that span, and the Isles' .653 winning percentage is the lowest.

Matinee mishaps -- The Boston Bruins play more afternoon games than anyone in the NHL -- Saturday's home game against Philadelphia will be the 15th of 18 this season -- but matinees haven't been kind to them.

Boston enters its game against the Flyers on St. Patrick's Day with a 4-8-2 record in afternoon games, during which they've been outscored 39-36 (not including shootouts). The Bruins have been especially poor at home in the afternoon -- they are 1-5-2 in matinees at TD Garden (but 19-8-0 at night), while
Semyon Varlamov
Goalie - COL
RECORD: 23-20-2
GAA: 2.65 | SVP: 0.910
going 3-3-0 in early games away from home. So maybe it's good news that the next three afternoon games on their schedule are on the road before they finish the season by hosting Buffalo on the afternoon of April 7, the final day of the regular season.

Who knew? -- Of all the deals at the trade deadline, few attracted less attention than the one that sent forward Jamie McGinn from San Jose to Colorado for Daniel Winnik and T.J. Galiardi. McGinn was deemed expendable by the Sharks despite career highs of 12 goals and 24 points in 61 games. Little did either team know what would result from the trade.

For the Avs, McGinn has been a shot in the arm. He scored seven times in his first eight games with Colorado, including the tying goal with two seconds left Wednesday in a game that became a 5-4 shootout win in Buffalo. The Avs are 6-2-1 since his arrival.

Meanwhile, the Sharks' offense has almost disappeared since the deal. San Jose has scored just 13  non-shootout goals in nine games since McGinn's departure while going 3-3-3 and falling from first place in the Pacific Division to outside the top eight in the West. Winnik and Galiardi have combined for 1 assist since the trade.

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