A few thoughts as we gear up for what figures to be a very busy trading deadline.
Sidney Who? — The Pittsburgh Penguins are doing just fine without Sidney Crosby, thank you.
The Pens improved to 9-4-2 since their captain went down on Jan. 18 with a 5-4 victory in Montreal Thursday night. The win moved them back into a first-place tie with New Jersey in the Atlantic Division, and both teams tied with Montreal for second in the East, one point behind Ottawa.
So how are they doing it? Two words: Evgeni Malkin.
The second-year Russian star the tying goal midway through the third period and set up Sergei Gonchar’s game-winner 36 seconds later. He finished with a goal and two assists and now leads the NHL with 82 points.
Malkin has 30 points in the 15 games since Crosby went down, including 24 in the last 10.
"I'm not surprised," Gonchar said of Malkin. "He's getting the ice time and he's playing up to his potential."
Malkin’s English still isn’t very good — he uses a translator. His play speaks for itself.
Breathing room — The Penguins aren’t the only team playing well without its captain. Carolina improved to 4-1-1 since Rod Brind’Amour went down with a season-ending knee injury by beating Atlanta 5-3 at home, giving the first-place Hurricanes what amounts to a big lead in the Southeast Division — four points over Washington and five over the Thrashers.
“This time of your year, you've got to look within your own stall and say; 'I've got to bring what I've got tonight to help out,"' Carolina's Scott Walker said. "That's what everybody's been doing. I think everyone's been doing a great job.”
So does coach Peter Laviolette, whose team is 5-0-1 in its last six games at the RBC Center.
"That's five out of six games where I've really liked the way we've played," Laviolette said.
Not so warm welcome — Chris Simon of the New York Islanders got a cool reception from his home fans Thursday night when he returned from a record 30-game suspension.
There were few cheers and more boos when Simon took his first shift 2½ minutes into the opening period, playing with rookies Blake Comeau and Frans Nielsen on the Islanders' fourth line.
Simon, who sat out the longest suspension in NHL history for stomping the skate of Pittsburgh’s Jarkko Ruutu, was more concerned with the outcome — a 1-0 Isles’ victory — than the fans’ reaction to him.
"The most important thing is that we won," he said. "My teammates have been so supportive and have been great to me. I can't control what other people think and how they react. I respect that they have their opinion, and I'm just going to keep working hard in gaining them back."
Simon skated five shifts in the first period and had 2:55 of ice time. Over the final 40 minutes he went out for four more shifts and another 3:22.
"I didn't want to give him too much ice time too early, but I thought he did a great job for us," said Isles coach Ted Nolan, one of Simon’s biggest backers. "Chris is a big boy and we're all professional athletes here. You take the good with the bad — and unfortunately our fans chose to (boo)."
Hitting bottom — The Philadelphia Flyers will wake up this morning on the outside looking in at the playoffs. That’s what happens when you lose nine consecutive games — including a 3-1 home loss to the road-weary San Jose Sharks Thursday night.
"It's pretty much rock bottom now," captain Jason Smith said after the Flyers were booed by their home crowd. "We better turn things around quickly now or we're not going to be in a good spot."
They’re not in one now. The Flyers have gone from battling for the Atlantic Division lead and first overall in the East to fighting for their playoff lives. They’ve dropped to 10th in the East, though they’re just two points behind Buffalo, Boston and the New York Rangers, who share the last three playoff spots.
The Philly faithful booed their team for much of the night, especially when they were outhustled to the puck by a team that had lost five in a row and was playing its fourth road game in five days.
"We're not playing with a lot of confidence right now and it's affecting our work ethic and our concentration level," Smith said.
Given the scramble in the East, the Flyers’ had better right the ship quickly — or else they can expect to hear more boos. Philadelphia’s play over the first two-thirds of the season left Flyers’ fans expecting nothing less than a playoff berth.
Heading north — Columbus forward Rick Nash wants more games in Ottawa — and not just because he had a goal in regulation and another in the shootout as the Blue Jackets beat the Senators 3-2 in their first visit to Scotiabank Place in more than four years.
The Blue Jackets have played in Ottawa just four times. Thursday's visit was their first since Nov. 13, 2003. Overall, the teams have met just seven times.
”I'm looking forward to that new schedule that they're talking about playing a home-and-home with everybody,” said Nash, who scored his 32nd goal in the second period. “I think that's important for all the fans and for all the teams to see each other once (at home).
”For Canadian kids, it's always fun coming to cities like these.”
Different paths — A month ago, the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs were battling to avoid the Eastern Conference cellar. The Leafs are still trying to stay out of the basement, but the Sabres have the playoffs in sight after their 5-1 victory at Toronto moved them into a three-way tie with the Rangers and Bruins for the last three playoff spots in the East.
The Sabres are 10-2-2 in their last 14 games, enabling them to bounce back after a 10-game losing streak.
Goaltender Ryan Miller and his teammates gave themselves a shake after some embarrassing losses during the streak.
"It was a put-up or shut-up situation, and we stepped up and rose to the occasion," Miller said. "It doesn't mean we're in the playoffs yet — but it means we're in position to make it now.
"We're happy with our efforts and the way the guys are competing. The guys are paying attention to details. That's a telltale sign that you want to win. It's going to take that mentality for the rest of the season, so we might as well own up to it."
That attention to detail and willingness to give extra effort showed itself in one stat — Buffalo blocked 20 shots; Toronto had six blocks.
Can’t finish — The Florida Panthers have no trouble getting leads. Keeping them is another matter.
For the third time in less than a week, the Panthers wasted a two-goal lead in the third period. This time, they led 4-2 with less than seven minutes to play, but allowed goals by Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Phil Kessel, then lost a shootout when Marco Sturm scored to give the Bruins a 5-4 victory.
The Panthers squandered two-goal leads in the third period of their previous two losses, at Carolina last Saturday and Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
"It can't be a coincidence when it happens three games in a row," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "You've just got to get it in your head that you can't sit back and wait for bad things to happen."
Don’t think that the Bruins weren’t aware that Florida has struggled to hold leads.
“Coming into the third we knew this team had blown two-goal leads the last couple of games," coach Claude Julien said. "You start doubting yourself and get fragile. We concentrated on getting that next goal and knew they'd probably tighten up after that."
All hail Roberto — The crowd at Nashville’s Sommet Center got a firsthand look at why Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo is one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders.
Their Predators outplayed the Canucks for 65 minutes, out-shooting them 51-30 and getting scoring chance after scoring chance. All it got them was one point — because Luongo made 49 saves and stopped three shootout attempts to give the Canucks a 3-2 victory.
“This game was all Roberto," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said, "and we're not going to apologize for it because so many times this year we outplayed the opposition and got on the wrong side of it."
Losing coaches almost always find something wrong with their team’s play. But Nashville’s Barry Trotz wasn’t unhappy.
"He's one of the better goalies in the League, and it was a good point we earned being able to come back in the third period and put up 51 shots on them,” he said. “We did a lot of good things tonight but we just ran into a goaltender that was on his game today."
Don’t call us spoilers — The Los Angeles Kings won’t be going to the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean they’ll roll over.
The Kings looked like anything but the worst team in the NHL on Thursday, scoring four times in the second period on the way to a 5-1 victory over St. Louis, a loss that hurt the Blues’ postseason hopes.
“We don’t want to be known as a spoiler or anything like that,” said center Patrick O’Sullivan, who led the way with a goal and four assists. “We want to play hard these last 19 games — that’s what we talked about before tonight.”
The Kings have assembled a nice core of young talent, and O’Sullivan said a strong finish will be important for the team’s development.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys,” he said. “Every game is important for us. It’s a learning process. It’s a chance to get better every time we go our on the ice. By no means is it time to relax or just play out the rest of the year. That’s not what we’re trying to do.”
You can e-mail John Kreiser at email@example.com.