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Smith picks his spot well for Senators

by Brian Hunter /
A few thoughts while we welcome in the "official" start of winter:

Nice timing -- Jason Smith wasn't signed by the Ottawa Senators for his goal-scoring prowess, but the defenseman picked a clutch moment to get on the board with his new team.

Smith tallied at 3:30 of overtime Saturday night to end a back-and-forth game with the Dallas Stars and give the Senators an important 5-4 victory. One night after a 5-1 loss in New Jersey and about to embark on an eight-game road trip, the team needed to take care of business at Scotiabank Place.

"It was a real good game by our team," Ottawa coach Craig Hartsburg said. "I'm really proud of them. They played like a team, they battled, they worked, paid a big price and kind of fitting that Jason Smith scores the winning goal for us in a game like that. That's a huge win for our team."

Smith hadn't scored in his previous 103 games, dating back to the lone goal he scored last season while playing for Philadelphia. He had 40 goals in 975 career games coming in, and didn't even have a point yet this season.   

"I don't score very many, but it's obviously nice to score a goal and help the team get a big win," Smith said.

While the Senators came away elated, the Stars watched an opportunity to grab two points on the road slip away. Dallas coach Dave Tippett wasn't shy about expressing his disappointment, including with the play of his goaltender, Marty Turco.

"We gave that point away," Tippett said. "I don't think our goaltending was that great. I think (Turco) could have stopped a couple."

No chance for celebration -- Their longest home winning streak in 32 years. Nine victories in their last 10 games, and an 18-2-1 record since the start of the November. It would appear everything is coming up roses for the Boston Bruins.

But even the team with the Eastern Conference's best record has its causes for concern. The Bruins put Marco Sturm on long-term injured reserve Saturday because of a knee injury, then got another scare during their 4-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes when Patrice Bergeron was forced to leave with a possible head or neck injury.

"The doctors have been looking at it," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "They haven't given us any indication as far as the severity of it. Obviously, he went down a little dazed. We're not able to give you a verdict. That's all I can tell you about that situation."

Of course, the reason Bergeron's departure drew extra attention was because he missed all but 10 games last season after a hit from behind by Philadelphia defenseman Randy Jones left him with a severe concussion. On this occasion, Bergeron was involved on a hit with the Hurricanes' Dennis Seidenberg and ended up face-down on the ice at TD Banknorth Garden. He was unsteady on his feet once getting back up and did not return.

"He got dinged pretty good," Julien said, adding that Seidenberg was in no way to blame on the play. "It was not a cheap shot by any means. It was a collision."

An early lift -- While the 7-1 final score suggested the Philadelphia Flyers cruised to a victory Saturday afternoon at the Wachovia Center, the end result could have been much different if not for the spectacular first period enjoyed by goaltender Antero Niittymaki.

The Washington Capitals tested him with 25 shots and Niittymaki was up to the challenge each time, allowing the Flyers to escape the opening 20 minutes with a 1-0 lead. The Capitals tied a franchise record for shots in a period, and the total also tied for the most allowed by the Flyers in a period at home.

"Niitty won us that game," said Jeff Carter, who scored twice to reach 24 goals, tying him with Thomas Vanek for the NHL lead. "They could have had four or five or six goals in the first period. Niitty stood tall and gave us the momentum."

Carter scored both goals in the second to extend the Flyers' lead to 3-0 and Scott Hartnell had a third-period hat trick as they pulled away. It was Hartnell's second three-goal effort in five games and the fifth of his career.

"It's been a good couple of weeks," said Hartnell, who scored three goals in a 6-5 win over Carolina on Dec. 11. "I just want to keep going, stay positive, and stay confident."

Back on his game -- A veteran with the goal-scoring resume of Alex Kovalev isn't going to stay down forever. Despite a recent drought that saw him go 19 straight games without finding the net, Guy Carbonneau saw positive signs in his game. The coach and the Montreal Canadiens were rewarded in overtime Saturday night.

Kovalev scored with 24.3 seconds left in the extra period, lighting the lamp for the third game in a row since ending his slump, and the Canadiens escaped Bell Centre with a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres despite falling behind on three separate occasions during regulation.

"Since the start of the year he's the guy who has created the most scoring chances, but he seemed to be hitting a crossbar, or hitting a defenseman or something like that," Carbonneau said. "We knew that once he got a goal he'd start to feel a little more relaxed, and that's what happened."

Kovalev, who led the Canadiens last season with 34 goals and 85 points, scored his eighth goal on the power play, using a wrist shot to beat Sabres goalie Ryan Miller.

"Lately I've been more aggressive towards the net," Kovalev said, "instead of looking for the pass or looking for the perfect play because sometimes it's definitely tough when you're not scoring as much and you kind of look for that perfect play because you almost want to score into an empty net. But sometimes you just have to let it go, get in a comfortable spot and let it go."

A potent offense -- Two nights after putting five goals on the board and still losing by three in Boston, the Toronto Maple Leafs were clicking on all cylinders again offensively. This time they made life a little more pleasant for goaltender Vesa Toskala in a 7-3 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Mellon Arena.

"I think this was one of the easiest games I've had with the Leafs," said Toskala, who made 20 saves after allowing four goals on 11 shots in the loss to the Bruins. "It was lots of fun to play."

The Maple Leafs got goals from seven different players, including the first NHL score for Jonas Frogren, in winning for the fourth time in five games.

"We just worked hard," said Nik Antropov, who recorded a goal for the third straight game and has six points in that stretch. "We wanted to bounce back from what happened in Boston, and we did it. I thought everybody played excellent tonight, and we got two points."

Toronto improved to 13-13-6 and drew praise from coach Ron Wilson for the effort.

"I thought overall this was easily our best game of the season," Wilson said. "We dominated in all areas of the game."

Slow start, fast finish
-- Kari Lehtonen is back, and Saturday night he gave the Atlanta Thrashers hope they might be able to turn a difficult season around, although it didn't exactly start out that way.

Playing for the first time after being sidelined for seven weeks with a sore back, Lehtonen yielded goals on the first two shots he faced, but was brilliant after that in a 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Philips Arena. The Thrashers were outshot 24-6 in the third period, but Lehtonen allowed just one to get past him in finishing with 36 saves.

"It ended up being a good game," Lehtonen said. "The start wasn't the way I wanted it. The first two shots went in. I didn't give up. ... It was great to see the guys respond. Hopefully, I can help this team win games."

"He sure picked it up in the third period," said Atlanta coach John Anderson, who winced when he saw the disparity in shots on goal in the final period and could manage just a one-word response: "Yikes."

The Thrashers moved three points ahead of the Lightning in what shaped up as the battle for the basement in the Southeast Division. Tampa Bay has lost 17 of 19 and goalie Mike Smith didn't mince words when describing how the stretch has made him feel.

"I don't score very many, but it's obviously nice to score a goal and help the team get a big win." -- Senators defenseman Jason Smith
"This is an all-time low," Smith said. "It's embarrassing. It makes me sick to my stomach."

Down to the wire
-- Few teams -- if any -- are more aware than the Detroit Red Wings that it takes at least 60 minutes to win an NHL game. The Los Angeles Kings took a one-goal lead into the latter stages of the third period Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena, but an undaunted squad of Wings rallied for three goals in the final 3:43 to claim a 6-4 victory.

"I think we play way better when we're down a goal. When the chips are down we find a way to tie it or win it," said Dan Cleary, who scored the go-ahead goal with 1:34 remaining. "We just have to get that urgency and mindset early in games when we're ahead or even."

Dustin Brown put the Kings ahead 2:25 into the third, but Jiri Hudler evened the score and Kris Draper added an empty-netter after Cleary's goal.

"I thought we showed a lot of character," said captain Nicklas Lidstrom, who contributed three assists. "Especially in the third period, when we were down."

Rookie goalie Jonathan Quick learned a valuable lesson in his second NHL game and first start this season, coming within four minutes of a win before the rapid-fire strike by Detroit left him on the wrong end of the final score.

"We had the win with three, three-and-a-half minutes left ... they got two goals at the end," Quick said. "It was disappointing."

Nothing doing -- One way to take the pressure off a team having difficulties scoring is for the goaltender to pitch a shutout. That's exactly what the Nashville Predators have gotten in five of their last 12 games.

It was Pekka Rinne's turn to do the honors Saturday night, as he turned aside 23 shots and made Vernon Fiddler's early goal stand up in a 1-0 win over the New York Islanders at Sommet Center.

"I try to focus on my own game," Rinne said. "Personally, I like holding a lead like that. When you lead after the first period, the other team has to chase you all of the time and play a high-risk game. It is good for us."

Rinne has three shutouts this month and Dan Ellis has also contributed to the cause for Nashville, which is 2-2-1 despite scoring more than one goal only once during that stretch.

"It was a real solid performance against the Islanders," coach Barry Trotz said. "We are not scoring a whole lot right now, but we are winning hockey games. We are going to have to win them close to the vest until some guys get hot."

Those are the breaks -- One night after putting an end to a franchise-record six-game losing streak, the Minnesota Wild couldn't build on that mild success and fell 4-2 to the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center.

Only 30 seconds after Pierre-Marc Bouchard tied the game early in the third period, the Blues grabbed the lead back. Not only that, but the player who came up with the game-winning goal was defenseman Roman Polak, who had never had an NHL goal in 56 previous games with the team.

"That's the way it seems to be going for us now," said goalie Niklas Backstrom, who made 20 saves. "The bounces are not going our way. We have to find a way to turn that around, and it has to happen now."

The Blues, on the other hand, were in a much more jovial mood. Coach Andy Murray joked about Polak, who also had an assist, "I'll have to put him back in his place and remind him he's a defensive defenseman."

"Niitty won us that game. They could have had four or five or six goals in the first period. Niitty stood tall and gave us the momentum." -- Flyers forward Jeff Carter
Polak, meanwhile, got to take center stage and describe to reporters the play on which he tapped in a feed from Brad Boyes.

"It was exciting. It was my first one so I was standing on the ice screaming with the guys," Polak said. "It was on the rush. It was a great play and (Boyes) is trying to shoot it. He missed it at first and then passed it to me, and it was a wide open net. It was pretty easy for a first one. I'll take it every night."

From the bench to the elite -- There was a point earlier this season when Ilya Bryzgalov might have wondered if his starting job was in jeopardy, as Mikael Tellqvist turned in several strong efforts in a row in the middle of some Bryzgalov struggles.

Lately, though, the goalie the Phoenix Coyotes acquired early last season from Anaheim has been playing like the No. 1 he was acquired to be, and coach Wayne Gretzky had high praise for him after Saturday night's 31-save effort in a 2-0 shutout of the Columbus Blue Jackets at Arena.

"He has the ability to be a special player, and no question, he was the difference in this hockey game," Gretzky said. "He seems to be seeing the puck very well, and this is as solid as I've seen him play."

Bryzgalov's shutout was his fourth with the Coyotes and his first this season. He entered Saturday's game with an 11-11-3 record and a 2.81 goals-against average, as well as the knowledge that he can play much better than those statistics indicate.

"I feel pretty good physically," said Bryzgalov, after making goals by Steven Reinprecht and Mikkel Boedker stand up. "The most important thing is that I helped the team. They have trust in me, and we have a pretty good chemistry."

One for the history books
-- Granted, the Chicago Blackhawks are a fairly-young team, but the fact 15 of their players hadn't even been born when the franchise last won seven consecutive games tells you it had been quite some time.
Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews scored in a 3-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night, extending the team's streak to the longest since Jan. 4-21, 1981, when the Blackhawks also won seven in a row. Even Sharp, long in the tooth at the ripe old age of 26, wasn't around back then.
"We aren't getting too far ahead of ourselves, but we are having fun with this," Sharp said. "This is new territory for a lot of the guys in here. The playoffs are our goal but we are learning how to win games right now. It's very exciting, guys are bouncing off the walls."

As the team draws nearer to its Jan. 1 home game at Wrigley Field in the Winter Classic, Sharp, whose 18 goals lead the Blackhawks and are among the top in the League, said the reason for their success has a lot to do with the way their youngsters learn from every game.

"There are certain players who have come into their own in the roles they have been asked to play, and that has helped us win a lot of hockey games," Sharp said. "Often now we are rolling four lines, which is key in the NHL these days, and we are getting great goaltending every night. Hopefully we can stay healthy and keep this thing going."

"We just worked hard. We wanted to bounce back from what happened in Boston, and we did it. I thought everybody played excellent tonight, and we got two points." -- Maple Leafs forward Nik Antropov
Enough left in the tank -- In their first game back at HP Pavilion following a trip east that saw them lose twice, the San Jose Sharks weren't at their sharpest and yet still managed to hold off the New York Rangers for a 3-2 victory.

"We were probably not as fresh as we've been, but we battled," said goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who stopped 32 shots to match Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff and Rangers counterpart Henrik Lundqvist for the League lead with 18 victories. "That's the way it should be."

Nabokov had to turn aside 17 shots during a scoreless third period when New York did everything it could to overcome a one-goal deficit and build off wins earlier this week in Anaheim and Los Angeles.
"We were a pretty determined team, and I say that including the last 15 or 18 minutes there when we had nothing left," San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. "We found a way, and that's the sign of a good team, so I'll take that."

Looking not only to make the playoffs but advance to its first Stanley Cup Final, winger Ryan Clowe said the Sharks have to embrace the challenges inherent in what has been a tough early-season travel schedule.

"Any time you have a disadvantage, you can't use it as an excuse," Clowe said. "That's a good lesson for the playoffs or for later in the season when things don't go how you want it. We all know it's not going to be easy to get to where we want to be in a few months."

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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