A few thoughts as we salute the teams that know they're not going to the playoffs but continue to play hard:
-- Some losses are tougher than others. For Martin Brodeur
, New Jersey's 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers
on Thursday night was as tough as they come.
Not only was it the Devils' seventh loss in as many games with the Rangers this season, but the Devils blew a 2-1 lead after two periods and saw the winning goal scored with 3:06 remaining in regulation when New York's Nigel Dawes
slid into the net on his back after being knocked down by Travis Zajac
-- with Dawes pushing the puck into the net with his shoulder.
''This is probably one of the toughest ones,'' Brodeur said. ''We played extremely well for the first two periods. We were on the ball and we finally scored some goals. We had the momentum. They played better than we did in the third.
''The ones in the shootout are one thing. When you lose in regulation, on a lucky goal like that, it's tough to digest.''
To Rangers coach Tom Renney, Dawes' goal was a thing of beauty.
''As ugly as it was, it was pretty,'' he said.
-- Who needs Sidney Crosby
when you have Jarkko Ruutu
Crosby returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins
' lineup Thursday night after missing the last seven games and 28 of the last 31 with a high ankle sprain. But he was upstaged by Ruutu, who had a game-winning shorthanded goal and set up Pittsburgh's other two goals in a 3-1 victory against the New York Islanders
''Some nights it's someone you don't expect,'' Ruutu said after the biggest offensive night of his NHL career. ''Tonight I was the guy. You play 400-some games and get three points for the first time.''
Ruutu makes his living as one of the NHL's best agitators, so getting offense from him is a bonus. But he's been hot recently, with four goals and six points in his last six games after getting just 10 points all season before that.
As for Crosby, he had three shots but no points in 20 minutes of ice time and said the ankle ''feels a lot better. My timing's still not there, but as far as the ankle goes it feels OK.”
Playing For Pride
-- The Atlanta Thrashers
are among those teams that know their season ends next weekend. But don't tell Mark Recchi
the rest of the schedule doesn't mean anything.
The 40-year-old's first goal since Feb. 23 proved to be the game-winner in Atlanta's 3-2 victory at Florida, a win that ended the Thrashers' five-game losing streak -- and all but finished the Panthers' playoff hopes.
''If you're out of it, at least you go out there and play with pride,'' said Recchi, who won Stanley Cup rings with Pittsburgh in 1991 and Carolina in 2006. ''They had to run the board; we knew that. It's a good feeling. I only know a couple guys over there. I feel bad for them but not for the team.''
The Thrashers will have some interesting decisions to make. Among them is whether to bring back Recchi, who has 11 goals and 38 points since joining Atlanta on waivers early in the season.
Wait 'til Next Year
-- It's time to look toward 2008-09 in Toronto. The Leafs' playoff hopes officially ended Thursday night in Boston, where the Bruins completed a home-and-home sweep with a 4-2 victory.
'We are determined to bring this team to the next level. Nothing happens quickly; there are no quick fixes or miracle cures.'' - Cliff Fletcher
With 80 points, the Leafs will miss the playoffs for the third straight season -- something that hasn't happened since 1926-28. Even the return of their top two scorers, Mats Sundin
and Nik Antropov
, couldn't help the Leafs, who made a late run for a playoff berth before the back-to-back losses to the Bruins, the team they were trying to catch.
Cliff Fletcher, hired as interim GM when John Ferguson Jr. was fired earlier in the season, is optimistic things are going to get better in Toronto.
''I see a lot of things I like that we can build on moving forward,'' Fletcher said. ''We are determined to bring this team to the next level. Nothing happens quickly; there are no quick fixes or miracle cures.''
But for now, there's nothing but pain for the Leafs and their fans.
“Obviously, it's real disappointing,” said Antropov. “We really battled over a month to keep this race going. You can say there is always next year, but three years in a row ... it's getting on your nerves and it's not a fun feeling.''
Stayin' Alive, Part I
-- In contrast to the Leafs, the Washington Capitals
-- 14th in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break -- refuse to go away. Though Tampa Bay held NHL scoring leader Alex Ovechkin
without a point, the Caps rallied to tie the game with less than five minutes to play in regulation, and won 4-3 on Tomas Fleischmann
's goal 2:27 into overtime.
The Caps were last in the NHL when Bruce Boudreau
replaced Glen Hanlon
as coach Nov. 22. He has his team believing they can make the playoffs despite their slow start.
''The sense of urgency is an amazing thing,'' Boudreau said. ''The season is on the line. We don't even know at this stage if we can afford one loss the way everybody else is winning.''
Washington is two points behind Boston and Philadelphia, who share the last two playoff spots in the East. The Caps also trail Carolina by two points in the race for the Southeast Division title.
''We're in a dogfight here,'' said forward Brooks Laich
, who scored the Caps' first goal. ''We're desperate, we're hungry. It's a great time to play right now.''
Stayin' Alive, Part II
-- Like the Caps, the Buffalo Sabres
were looking into the abyss of an early summer before a late-game comeback Thursday.
Buffalo trailed 3-2 at Ottawa before Paul Gaustad
scored with 1:26 remaining in regulation to force overtime. After five scoreless minutes in OT, Jason Pominville
and Derek Roy
scored in the shootout to give the Sabres a 4-3 win, keeping Buffalo within five points of a playoff spot.
Buffalo carried the play for most of the night but needed the late heroics to get the points it needed.
"I thought we deserved to win it from start to finish," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff
said. "We didn't give up a lot, we did a pretty good job against their top line, and I think when you work that hard and put the work in -- we got rewarded."
Now all the Sabres have to do is beat the Montreal Canadiens
at home Friday night. The Canadiens whipped the Sabres 6-2 in Buffalo four weeks ago. A loss to the Habs will all but end Buffalo's playoff hopes.
He Can Shoot, Too
-- With 65 assists, Joe Thornton
is the NHL's best setup man. But the San Jose center is turning into a sniper, too.
Thornton had three goals in Phoenix on Tuesday, and then scored the tying and winning goals in a 3-2 overtime victory against Dallas on Thursday.
“They always say, 'Shoot the puck, shoot the puck,' ” Thornton said after scoring goals No. 25 and No. 26. “That's what I've been doing. They've just been going in.”
The win assured the Sharks of having a home-ice edge in the first round of the playoffs; they can clinch the Pacific Division title and second place in the West with a win Friday night in Anaheim.
“Tomorrow is a big one,” Thornton said. “We'll enjoy this one for about 10 minutes and then focus on Anaheim.”
Putting On A Show
-- Like other hockey parents, Erik Ersberg
's mom and dad like to watch their son play -- even if it means flying from Sweden to Southern California, where their son is a rookie goaltender for the Los Angeles Kings
Ersberg is putting on a good show for his folks. He stopped 39 shots in a 2-1 shootout loss at Anaheim on Wednesday, and then made 38 saves Thursday in the Kings' 4-0 victory against Phoenix.
“They came a couple of days ago, and it's great to have them here,” Ersberg said after his second NHL shutout. “They've always supported me. I owe them a lot.”
Ersberg's parents are scheduled to return to Sweden on Sunday. Since he's played so well in front of them, might he try to get them to stay?
“Who knows?” he said with a smile. “Things have gone pretty well since they got here. Maybe they'll stick around.”
Contact John Kreiser at email@example.com.