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Leonhardt just one of the guys

by Mike G. Morreale
Not until Washington Capitals Web site producer Brett Leonhardt strolled into the dressing room for the opportunity of a lifetime as the backup goalie to Brent Johnson on Dec. 12 did he really feel like part of the team.

That's when Alex Ovechkin officially welcomed the 26-year-old former NCAA Division III goalie to the big house.

"As soon as I walked into the room, Ovie stood up and wrote my jersey number (80) on the board and scribbled '$1,000 fine' beside it," Leonhardt told "Usually that money goes toward a kitty at the end of the year for a party, but it's only for guys under contract. I looked at him and told him I'd need a couple more paychecks in order to make the payment."

Leonhardt and his new teammates got a good laugh. But this certainly was no laughing matter for the Waterloo, Ont., native.

The 6-foot-7 Leonhardt, who has worked as the team's Web producer for nearly a year, dressed as the Caps' backup goalie for their game against the Ottawa Senators after Jose Theodore went down with a hip flexor injury during the morning skate.

After signing an amateur tryout contract that morning, he was in uniform for the pregame warm-up and the first half of the first period. Simeon Varlamov, who was recalled from the minors, couldn't get to the Verizon Center before the game. When he arrived, he replaced Leonhardt on the bench.

"Our graphic designer (Andy Mattice) overheard (Capitals GM) George McPhee come over to me at my cubicle during the day and inform me that he needed me to suit up," Leonhardt said. "We looked at one another and I took a deep breath. Here I was, putting up post-practice comments by coach Bruce Boudreau on our Web site one second and then, the next, I'm learning I'll be in an NHL game."

Leonhardt's 10 minutes of fame is something he'll never forget.

"What I'll take most from the experience is knowing all the hard work over my entire life finally paid off," he said. "The sacrifices that were made in giving up school things, missing parties and devoting so much practice time. … It was kind of a reward for all the hard work put in.

"It's funny, they usually say the fastest way to the NHL is taking the major-junior hockey route. I guess I took the long way."

Alaskan Crabb -- What Atlanta first-year forward Joey Crabb brings to the team as a fourth-line forward doesn't show up on the score sheet on most nights.

Crabb, a native of Anchorage, Alaska, has 1 goal, 2 assists, a plus-1 rating, 19 hits and 24 penalty minutes through 10 games this season. It's his enthusiasm on every shift, however, that has impressed teammates and coaches.

"He certainly adds a lot of energy out there," Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell told "He came into camp in great shape and certainly deserved an opportunity. He responded well in Chicago the last two seasons and, since his call-up (Nov. 21), has been a great contributor."

Atlanta Director of Amateur Scouting Dan Marr agreed.

"He kind of followed his collegiate career to a tee," Marr said. "You really saw things start to come together for him his junior season (at Colorado College), and after two years in the American Hockey League, things are coming together for him now as well. He's earned everything he's got. He's a player who really puts his nose to the grindstone and he always seems to find a way to get under the skin of the opposition."

Czech mate -- It appears Florida Panthers rookie Michael Frolik is here to stay.

Not only did Florida coach Peter DeBoer feel confident enough to place the Czech Republic native alongside Stephen Weiss on his top line recently, but the 20-year-old forward has proven to be quite the offensive force. Frolik has recorded a point in seven of his team's last nine games while producing 3 goals and 11 points in 28 games overall.

Once cellar-dwellers in the Eastern Conference, the Panthers are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and have moved up the charts. They entered the weekend three points out of a playoff spot.

"(Frolik's) been getting better every single day," Weiss told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "He's not shy to go into the corners now and bump some guys and he's winning battles. He's going to be a really, really dynamic player in this League. I love playing with him."

Frolik knows now is not the time to feel satisfied with his performance.

"Right now I feel good out there," he said. "But I can't just be satisfied. I have to keep going and going."

That's the attitude DeBoer wants.

"He started the year as our 13th, 14th forward and just worked and worked," DeBoer said. "As he got his opportunity, he gained the coach's trust and the other guys on the team's trust. His ice time is growing. And now he's a front-line guy. The sky's the limit for him."

Heating up -- It appears Hurricanes center Eric Staal is snapping out of his early funk.

Staal, who had just 8 goals in his first 27 games, has 5 goals in his last five games while the Hurricanes continue to find some measure of consistency.

"We need to start stringing together wins," Hurricanes defenseman Joe Corvo said. "We need four, five or six wins in a row now if we want to make any headway."

"There was a lot of tension in this locker room early in the season, and obviously I've known Peter (Laviolette) for a lot of years and have a ton of respect for him. He was in a tough situation and not only did he feel it, but everyone on the team felt it. It was unfortunate that the coach had to take the fall, but it happened and everyone needed to take a breath. We've done that and now it's about working hard and getting back to earning first in our division."
-- Eric Staal

Staal scored his 12th and 13th goals of the season in a 3-2 victory against the Canadiens on Tuesday. He has 5 goals in six games under new coach Paul Maurice, compared with eight in 25 games this season under former coach Peter Laviolette.

Staal points to the success he and linemates Sergei Samsonov and Tuomo Ruutu have had in recent weeks as one reason for his improved play.

"As a line we're getting better and skating well, and when you're skating well you're controlling the puck," said Staal. "We've created opportunities and have cashed in. For me, it was about getting that confidence back. There was a lot of tension in this locker room early in the season, and obviously I've known Peter (Laviolette) for a lot of years and have a ton of respect for him. He was in a tough situation and not only did he feel it, but everyone on the team felt it. It was unfortunate that the coach had to take the fall, but it happened and everyone needed to take a breath. We've done that and now it's about working hard and getting back to earning first in our division."

Heart to heart -- Tampa Bay Lightning coach Rick Tocchet and team captain Vincent Lecavalier met for almost an hour following last Tuesday's practice at the St. Pete Times Forum to discuss ways of improving team chemistry on and off the ice.

Tocchet used his team's four-day break between games last week to run a few two-session practices -- morning and afternoon.

"(Lecavalier) cares. He's a great kid," Tocchet told the St. Petersburg Times. "He's learning what it takes. It's not only about him playing; it's about what his team should be all about. We can't be sloppy with sticks on the ice, taking stupid penalties, little trivial things, late for the bus. When things are sloppy it has to come from the room. The coach has to mandate it, but it has to come from the room."

"We need to get everybody on the same page and you only have so many breaks in the schedule to do so," Martin St. Louis told the Tampa Tribune. "And to be honest, they are teaching us the system well enough. I don't know if some of us just don't read the manual or skip a few pages or what. Sometimes we don't look to be on the same page and it only takes one guy to not be on the same page and your system is worth nothing."

Lecavalier agreed.

"All the drills we did (last week) are all things that we can do better during games," he said. "And when we say everybody has to be on the same page, everybody has to be on the same page. If one guy goes the other way from where he is supposed be it throws everything off."

Ice chips -- Washington entered Friday 22-1-1 in the previous 24 games when Alex Ovechkin has scored a goal (12-1-1 this season). … Left wing Cory Stillman returned to the Florida lineup in a 5-3 loss to Vancouver last Sunday after missing 13 games with post-concussion symptoms. Stillman, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent over the summer, totaled 18:34 of ice time on 22 shifts. … The loss to the Canucks snapped Florida's franchise-record five-game road winning streak. The Panthers haven't won in Vancouver since its expansion season of 1993-94. … Capitals forward Michael Nylander scored his first goal since Oct. 16 when he connected with 3:32 left in the third to give his team a 2-1 victory against the Canadiens on Dec. 13. … Hurricanes center Rod Brind’Amour notched the 700th assist of his splendid career Thursday in a 2-1 overtime decision against the Florida Panthers. … Entering Saturday's game in Atlanta, Tampa Bay had failed to score a power-play goal in 27 straight attempts. … Bruce Boudreau has compiled a 57-27-10 record and earned 124 points since taking over the Caps on Nov. 22, 2007. Washington's 4-2 victory against St. Louis on Thursday marked the first time Boudreau faced the Blues as Caps coach. … The Florida Panthers have won just four of the 27 previous contests against Carolina at the RBC Center. … Lightning forward Gary Roberts, who has been sidelined with an elbow injury, admitted Thursday he'll probably retire after the season.

Contact Mike Morreale at
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