The Stanley Cup Playoffs are arriving early for the Anaheim Ducks and Phoenix Coyotes, say their coaches.
Due to a scheduling quirk resulting from building issues and other factors involved in the compressed 48-game NHL season, the Ducks and Coyotes will play each other three times in five days, starting Saturday in Glendale, Ariz. They also play Monday in Glendale and finish the three-game set Wednesday in Anaheim.
The teams won't play again until the final day of the regular season, April 27.
"I don't think the first game is treated any differently, but after the first game, depending on the result, you figure out how you treat it," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau told NHL.com. "But I always liken [home-and-home series] to doubleheaders in baseball, and what you want to do is win the first game of the doubleheader, because if you don't, it makes it more paramount to win the second game. This is a tripleheader and the other team is right in your division. You can have an eight-point lead on them and that could be dwindled to two in a matter of five days."
"The good news is a lot of people call us because they like our players. We take that as a compliment. If the phone wasn't ringing, I'd be more concerned." -- San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson on trade talk
"I can look at the history of great players in any league and there is always a year in there that they just aren't as good as the other years. [Ryan Getzlaf] would be the first one to tell you that he had a down year last year, but that didn't mean he lost any of his talent, skill, drive or desire, because he's leading the way this year by example, not by talking." -- Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau on the improved production and play by Ryan Getzlaf this season
That's exactly the opportunity Coyotes coach Dave Tippett sees in this three-game set against the Ducks, who went 11-2-0 in February to open a seven-point lead in the Pacific Division before playing Friday against the Minnesota Wild.
"Everybody talks about the games within your conference [in a shortened season], but the games within your division are magnified," Tippett told NHL.com. "There are two ways to make the playoffs, top eight [in the conference] or win your division. They got off to a great start and it's an opportunity for us to close some of that gap.
"Like I said, it goes back to two ways to get in the playoffs and you might as well keep yourself in the game in both."
Saying it and doing it are two vastly different things for the Coyotes right now. They are ravaged by injuries. Tippett said Radim Vrbata (lower body) and Martin Hanzal (upper body) will remain out of the lineup Saturday and possibly beyond. Defenseman David Schlemko also is out and, without naming names, Tippett said another defenseman could be questionable for Saturday.
"For us, losing Hanzal and Vrbata is huge," Tippett said. "People don't recognize that it would be like Pittsburgh losing [Evgeni] Malkin and [James] Neal at the same time. I'm not saying Hanzal and Vrbata are Malkin and Neal, but on our team they are. Our margin for error is very slim. We're just trying to hang in with the pack and survive."
Boudreau's main concern is the potential of facing Coyotes goalie Mike Smith three times in five days. With no back-to-backs built into this three-game set, it's conceivable Smith will start all of them.
Smith was 2-1-0 with a shutout, a 1.95 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage in three games in Phoenix against Anaheim last season. Tippett wouldn't confirm if Smith is scheduled to start all three games -- "We'll play it by ear," he said.
"If Mike Smith gets on a hot streak you don't want to play (against) him," Boudreau said. "I remember telling [Coyotes assistant coach] John Anderson last year after we lost [4-0 on March 31] to them that I thought we thoroughly outplayed them. I said, 'If you get goaltending like that you can win the Stanley Cup.'
"Well, he took them to the Western Conference Finals. He was that good last year and when I watch him this year very rarely does he make a mistake."
Boudreau also is worried about having a tired team to start this three-game set. Saturday's game will be Anaheim's fifth in seven days and it begins a stretch of 20 games in 37 days.
That stretch, coincidentally, includes another three-game set against the same opponent during a five-day period. The Ducks face the Dallas Stars on April 1, 3 and 5.
"When we do this against Dallas it'll be easy to say, 'Well this is what happened, so we have to do this now,' " Boudreau said. "There will be no guessing."
GMs poll: Offer sheets not worth the hassle
In the wake of the news regarding center Ryan O'Reilly returning to the Colorado Avalanche through an offer sheet he signed from the Calgary Flames on Thursday, it was interesting to get the opinions of some general managers regarding their feelings about the offer-sheet process and its usefulness as a player-acquisition tool.
CENTER - COL
GOALS: 39 | ASST: 68 | PTS: 107
The prevailing opinion from those who responded to NHL.com is that, more often than not, the offer sheet does more harm than good, which is probably why it is rarely used and has a staggeringly low success rate.
Eight offer sheets have been signed since 2006; one player (Dustin Penner) has ended up changing teams. The Avalanche gave up the chance to receive a first- and a third-round draft pick from Calgary by matching the two-year, $10 million offer sheet for O'Reilly.
"I don't believe in the offer-sheet process," Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "Unless you do something completely outrageous, teams will always match."
It could be argued that the Philadelphia Flyers tried something outrageous this summer by signing defenseman Shea Weber to a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet, but the Nashville Predators matched it despite the fact they would have received four first-round picks from the Flyers as compensation.
"I don't like it at all," an Eastern Conference GM said of the offer-sheet process. "It only raises salaries."
A different Eastern Conference GM said, "I think that it is a tool that can still be used, but more so in a cap situation, where a team is up against a hard ceiling. When it comes to a situation where a team is holding the line based on comparables in the marketplace or [team-imposed] budget it is tough to see a team walk away from a player for draft-pick compensation.
"In any regard, it is an inflationary tool for everyone."
Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson signed a four-year, $14 million offer sheet with the San Jose Sharks on July 9, 2010. The Blackhawks matched it, but then, due to the salary-cap hardships that followed, were forced to make some hard roster decisions, including losing Stanley Cup-winning goalie Antti Niemi, who signed with the Sharks.
"It has been proven time and time again, all NHL clubs will protect their young, proven players," a Western Conference GM said. "The draft-pick compensation does not make up for losing a proven, young NHL player. Although we all have the offer-sheet option available to us, only the player and the agent end up happy. It is a useless tool that does more harm than good."
Why the Capitals may actually turn out OK
The Washington Capitals' effort in their 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday was bad -- maybe as bad as it gets -- but if you're a Capitals fan, here's why you should try to forget about it:
The Washington Capitals look to be back on track, thanks, in large part, to the comfort level the team has found with first-year coach Adam Oates. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Capitals are showing signs of life after a rough 2-8-1 start because, according to people inside and outside the dressing room, their overall physical shape as a team finally is up to snuff and they're playing more instinctively due to the comfort level they've gained with the system of coach Adam Oates.
Washington had won five of seven before not showing up in Philadelphia.
"I think we're in better shape than we were at the start and that's a big factor," Oates told NHL.com.
Defenseman Karl Alzner said improved physical condition has helped the team play with a swagger again.
"I think one of the things if you asked the opposing teams what they thought of us, they probably thought we were a little arrogant, and I think we're starting to get a little of that swagger back, which is what this team needs to be successful," Alzner told NHL.com. "The first few games we were playing like we were big underdogs. In the past it was, 'We are going to step on you even if we're not supposed to.' That can go a long way."
They clearly didn't have that swagger against the Flyers, who took a 1-0 lead 23 seconds into the game.
However, it'll be interesting to see how Washington responds Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets, who have won three in a row and five of their past six. Alzner and forward Jason Chimera talked about the attention to detail the team has now, something they were fighting earlier in the season.
"Now instinct is taking over," Chimera said.
It's likely a result of all the video work the Capitals do with Oates and his staff.
"Every detail counts and we're trying to stress them out," Oates said. "We want to make sure they know what to do at the correct time and that allows the reads to come. Before you know it, if you're in the right spot the puck bounces in front of you. If you're in the wrong spot the puck bounces behind you. It's funny how those things add up."
Rangers ready to break out?
Prior to the New York Rangers' 4-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning, defenseman Ryan McDonagh was telling NHL.com that lately he's been heading into games thinking this is the one that will turn things around, this is the one that will begin a stretch of consistent and sustained success for a team that should be much better than its 9-8-2 record.
McDonagh and the Rangers won't know until they play the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday at Madison Square Garden if their dominating effort against the limping Lightning was indeed that game -- but if it is, it won't take long for the rest of the Eastern Conference to notice.
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 7
SOG: 28 | +/-: 1
So far, all anyone has noticed is how inconsistent the Rangers have been.
"This is what I'm saying to myself now: You can't dwell on the past and you almost have to think of this as a new start and you want to bring a whole new energy level," McDonagh said. "I think everybody is finding a different energy level than what we have had. We know how we want to play. We want to play a hard game. You just have to find it within."
When healthy -- the Rangers are now with McDonagh, a determined Rick Nash (two points, 12 shots on goal, 16 attempts at the net against Tampa Bay) and Michael Del Zotto all back in the lineup -- there is little doubt they are one of the top contenders in the conference.
However, as McDonagh pointed out, the one or two breakdowns per game that didn't hurt the Rangers last season have been biting them as much as the injury bug this season.
They didn't have those breakdowns Thursday, or at least they were masked by persistent and opportunistic pressure that left the Lightning looking clumsy for the first 40 minutes of what turned into a blowout.
Now the Rangers have to do it again and again if they want to begin to live up to their high expectations.
"Everybody tells themselves you want to be better and we feel like we should, but we also have to make it happen," McDonagh said. "We had high expectations for our team at the beginning of the year and so far we haven't lived up to them. I think we just have to throw that out the door. There's not enough games left to dwell on what's wrong or why we started the way we have."
Wilson: Sharks need to stick with the system
After starting the season 7-0-0 with 27 goals for, the San Jose Sharks have scored 15 goals in their past 12 games (2-6-4). As concerned as Sharks general manager Doug Wilson may be about the consistent lack of scoring, he isn't panicking.
Wilson, who typically doesn't indulge in potential trade questions, told NHL.com the Sharks are exploring the trade market, but he likes his team's depth and believes their high-end forwards, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture, will snap out of the funk.
"We know what works," Wilson said. "Sometimes your heart gets in the way of your head as you try to go outside the system and do things you think will help. We need players to play the way we need them to play, not the way they want to play, which is just go coast-to-coast and beat everybody because maybe that will help.
"You've got to stay within the parameters of the system. We play quick when we play the right way. When you're not playing the way we want to play systemically, it breaks your game down a little bit."
The good news is the other parts of the Sharks' game are just fine. They've given up two or fewer goals in eight of their past 12 games, and they've killed off 39 of 44 opposing power plays in that same stretch.
"Our penalty killing is top-five in the League. Our defensive-zone coverage is good. Goaltending has been outstanding," Wilson said. "We just are not scoring goals. When you score (27) in the first seven and go dry, guys that are capable of scoring a lot of goals start gripping their sticks a little tight and other players try to do more or too much to make up for that. We just got out of sync … but we are a team that is capable of scoring a lot."
Ward: Leddy so important to Blackhawks' success
TSN analyst and former NHL defenseman Aaron Ward told NHL.com he believes Chicago Blackhawks defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are having strong seasons in part because 21-year-old blueliner Nick Leddy has proven to be one of the most improved players in the NHL.
Defense - CHI
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 8
SOG: 27 | +/-: 9
"Leddy takes some pressure off the big two horses," Ward said. "Your key going in against Chicago is always the same: Focus on [Patrick] Kane, [Marian] Hossa, [Patrick] Sharp and [Jonathan] Toews, handle the physicality, and you always know you have to be aware of where Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are. It was almost like the there was a focus on the top two defensemen and the following four you just dealt with.
"Now, Leddy is starting to present more of a threat. He's up in the play, playing with a high level of maturity, and he makes teams have to adapt differently to the Blackhawks."
Entering play Friday, Leddy was sixth among Chicago's regular defenseman in ice time per game (15:50), but he's been dangerous, with two goals and six assists and a plus-9 rating. His improvement has allowed coach Joel Quenneville to pull back on the amount of minutes he's giving Keith and Seabrook.
"That pays dividends later on," Ward said. "Forty-eight games, you hop a flight, play a game, hop a flight -- you barely have time to physically regroup. There is no reset anymore. In 48 games, if you wear out the key components of your team, there is no time to recover before playoffs. You have to look beyond the umbrella of the top players to see where you're going to get your production from and they're getting it."
Odds and ends
Washington forward Brooks Laich, who has been sidelined all season with a groin injury, told NHL.com he is starting to feel better. Laich started skating again in early February but hasn't been on the ice since Feb. 16. He has been working out off the ice and trying to manage his frustration with an injury that is not healing the way he hoped it would.
Chicago forward Marian Hossa is scheduled to play in his 1,000th career game Sunday against Detroit.
If the Stanley Cup Playoffs were to start today, half of the teams that made it in the Eastern Conference last season would be left out, and all four Canadian Eastern Conference teams would be in.
Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos are tied atop the leaderboard with 31 points through 20 games, putting each on pace for 74 points in 48 games. Eric Lindros and Jaromir Jagr shared the scoring title in the lockout-shortened 48-game season in 1994-95 with 70 points each.
Jagr needs four more assists to reach 1,000 for his career; 11 players have hit that milestone.
Marleau's next goal will be his 400th.