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Northeast has Red Wings' number

by John McGourty /
Heading into play Thursday, the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings have lost only four games in regulation this season, and three of those losses have come against Northeast Division teams.

The Maple Leafs beat the Wings, 3-2, on opening night at Joe Louis Arena. The Bruins beat Detroit, 4-1, Saturday night in Boston, getting balanced scoring from rookie Blake Wheeler, Phil Kessel, Chuck Kobasew and David Krejci. Goalie Manny Fernandez made 29 saves in his sixth-straight win. He is 7-1-1 with a 2.32 goals-against average, 13th in the NHL, and a .918 save percentage, 15th in the League.

The Canadiens beat the Red Wings, 3-1, Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena in a battle between two of the best strategic coaches in the NHL, Detroit's Mike Babcock and Montreal's Guy Carbonneau.

"They're a team that likes to control the puck," Carbonneau said. "Just tried to play as tough as we can in the neutral zone and make them dump it in."

The tactic drew a compliment from the NHL's best on-ice strategist.

"I thought they played their system real well," Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said of the Habs. "I think we saw their first play was right at the red line and they were backing off and not giving us any speed through the neutral zone. Once we got the puck in, we lost a lot of 1-on-1 battles in the corners, couldn't sustain that pressure that we wanted to."

Like fine Ales -- Ales Kotalik returned to the Buffalo Sabres lineup Tuesday night after missing nine games since pulling a thigh muscle Nov. 14 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Kotalik was hurt hurdling a fallen player. Surprisingly, it wasn't on the landing that he got hurt, but on the launch.

"I never experienced any muscle injury in my career so it was an unusual rehab for me," Kotalik told Erin Pollina of "I was working through all the pain and you have to do all the exercises for that particular part of the muscle, which hurts. It wasn't easy but two weeks isn't that much to miss and it could have been way worse."

Kotalik, the Sabres' second-line right wing, has 5 goals and 5 assists and is minus-5 with 10 penalty minutes.

The Sabres fared poorly in his absence, going 2-7-0, getting outscored 35-18, and falling from three points behind the Boston Bruins to 11 back. Oddly, Buffalo's wins were against the Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first- and fourth-place teams in the Eastern Conference.

Also oddly, Mark Mancari came up from AHL Portland and played very well in Kotalik's absence, showing he's ready for the NHL. So second-line right wing wasn't the problem in the Sabres' skid.

Mancari, a seventh-round pick in 2004, was leading the Pirates with 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points in 14 AHL games. Mancari is a rugged 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds and dangerous around an opposing net.

Coaching changes ... everything -- The Ottawa Senators were not good defensively last season. Neither were the Tampa Bay Lightning, Los Angeles Kings and the Maple Leafs. As a result, there were coaching changes for all four teams.

Craig Hartsburg has improved the Senators from the seventh-worst defensive team to sixth-best. Before he was fired after 14 games, Barry Melrose noted that the Lightning, the worst defensive team in the NHL last season, was one of the NHL's best defensive teams in first periods and then lost its way later in games. Terry Murray in Los Angeles has improved the Kings from third-worst to eighth-best.

Toronto hasn't moved much under Ron Wilson, but the focus there has been on building a new team culture and giving young players a chance. The Maple Leafs were fourth-worst defensively last season and are again this season. Wilson has gotten more scoring, 3.04 goals per game this year compared to 2.78 a year ago.

Hartsburg's problem is that the Senators can't score. Their 54 goals is the NHL low. They had 71 goals after 22 games a year ago, almost a goal a game more.

Little Booties -- Senators captain Chris Phillips has taken to wearing an old pair of yellow ankle guards after blocking a shot a few weeks ago, the Ottawa Citizen's Wayne Scanlan reports. Phillips blocked a shot that caused his foot to bleed. The ankle guards soften the impact. Phillips implied more players would wear them if there wasn't a "macho" resistance to them, such as with visors.

"Today's skates are so stiff, there's no give in them," retiring defenseman Luke Richardson told Scanlan. "If you take a shot directly on the side, the impact is absorbed completely by the bone."

Around the Northeast -- The Maple Leafs' 3-1 victory Monday against the Kings was their first victory in Los Angeles since March 12, 1998, at the Inglewood Forum, when Felix Potvin shut down the Kings in a 2-1 victory. ... The Bruins have won nine straight home games for the first time in 25 years. ... Montreal's Alex Kovalev hasn't scored in 13 games after posting 35 goals and 84 points a year ago. ... Chris Higgins has one goal in 10 games. ... Montreal captain Saku Koivu has one goal in nine games. ... Alex Tanguay had one goal in 10 games before his neck injury. ... Toronto's Jamal Mayers is expected to miss four weeks with his broken hand. ... Aaron Ward's leg injury created an opportunity for Johnny Boychuk who was leading AHL defensemen with 19 assists and 23 points. ... The Bruins 23 points off their 11-1-1 November record is the best since they racked up 24 points in December 1978, according to the Boston Globe. ... Ottawa's Antoine Vermette has two goals after scoring 24 a year ago.

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