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Southeast: Are scoring marks in range for Ovi?

by Mike G. Morreale
Maybe it's time to get serious. Not since Brett Hull did it nearly 20 years ago has a player scored 50 goals in his team's first 50 games, but Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin is in the hunt, having notched 7 goals in seven games this season.

Ovechkin scored 2 goals on 13 shots in a 4-1 victory against San Jose Thursday after being held without a goal the previous three games. His pair against the Sharks, coming 28 seconds apart in the second period, was the fastest back-to-back goals of his career, and now No. 8 has scored a goal against every team in the League. The Caps, in fact, are 24-0-2 in Ovechkin's last 26 multiple-goal games.

After leading the League with 528 shots in 2008-09, Ovechkin is atop the charts once again, with 55 shots this season.

Hull connected for 50 goals in his team's 49th game as a member of the St. Louis Blues in 1990-91 to become only the fifth player in NHL history to hit the 50 in 50 mark -- an achievement matched only by Wayne Gretzky, Maurice Richard, Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux.

And what about the possibility of hitting the 70-goal mark? That's been done 14 times by eight different players in League history, but no one has touched that number since Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny did it in 1992-93, finishing in a tie for the League lead with 76 goals.

Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau would prefer to temper the talk of 50 in 50 or 70 goals in a season.

"It's not a realistic goal," Boudreau told the media. "It's too much pressure to put on someone who just goes out there and plays -- the goals will come. Maybe you can talk about something else to shoot for, like maybe having a plus-50 rating. The fact of the matter is people just don't get tired of hearing about just how special a player Alex is."

For the record, Ovechkin is a plus-9 this season. One former player predicted Ovechkin would knock in 70 this season.

"This coming season Ovechkin is going to get probably 70 goals," Jaromir Jagr told Russian journalist Pavel Lysenkov of SovSport last month. "How can you keep up with that? I just wonder where this guy gets all his energy. It can't all be from training. You have to be born with it. They broke his nose, and Ovechkin out of rage hammers in 4 goals against Montreal. How do you repeat that? He is a one of a kind."

Gritty Nitty -- A goaltending controversy may be brewing in Tampa Bay following Ottawa's seven-spot on starter Mike Smith Thursday. Perhaps coach Rick Tocchet has discovered his man between the pipes for each of the remaining Southeast Division foes on the schedule.

That would be offseason acquisition Antero Niittymaki, who has owned the Southeast over his career.
After giving Smith the nod in net for the team's opening three games (0-1-2) in 2009-10, Tocchet opted for Niittymaki against Carolina and Florida last week. He had to be aware of Niittymaki's success against those opponents.

Not only has Niittymaki won 14 straight games against Southeast Division foes, but he sports a winning career record against each of them. The irony in all this is the fact that of the five teams in the Southeast, the five-year veteran owns a losing record (1-4) against only one team -- the Lightning.

Here are Niittymaki's numbers against Southeast Division opponents: Atlanta -- 13-0-0-0, 1.78 GAA; Carolina -- 6-2-0-2, 2.81 GAA; Florida -- 5-2-0-1, 2.03 GAA; Washington -- 5-2-0-1, 2.30 GAA.

While it wouldn't be too far-fetched to see Niittymaki in net for each of those divisional games this season, Smith, whose team struggled against the Senators in a 7-1 loss Thursday, needs a win in the worst way right now after missing much of the 2008-09 season with a concussion. Against the Senators, the Lightning yielded two shorthanded goals, went 0-for-6 on the power-play and was outshot, 35-17.

"Two shorthanded goals-against, it's embarrassing," Tocchet said. "It's an alarming thing right now. I know it's only Game 6, but when you give up three shorthanded goals in two games, there's going to be some video, some talking, and there might be some changes."

Whatever Tocchet decides, it appears Niittymaki (2-0-0, 2.00 GAA, .932 save percentage) and Smith (0-2-2, 4.08 GAA, .864 save percentage) will be sharing the load this season.

After stopping 24 of 26 shots last Saturday in a 5-2 victory against Carolina, Niittymaki turned aside 31 of 33 shots Monday against Florida, including a stop on a David Booth breakaway that his team converted into the winning score when Steven Stamkos skated the length of the ice and Ryan Malone connected on the rebound.

Thrashers stockpiling vets -- The Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League might be the perfect fit for veteran players looking to resurrect their careers.

Not only did goalie Manny Legace sign a professional tryout contract with the Atlanta Thrashers' AHL affiliate Monday, but defenseman Chris Chelios also reached a verbal agreement.

The 47-year-old Chelios, a 25-year NHL veteran and three-time Stanley Cup winner, practiced with the Wolves on Monday. Chelios played 28 regular-season games and six playoff games with the Red Wings last season. In Chicago, Chelios also will have an opportunity to spend more time with his son, Jake, who plays for the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League.

"I'm playing because I love playing," Chelios told the Chicago Tribune. "I have to see if I can still play. It's a challenge."

"I'm playing because I love playing. I have to see if I can still play. It's a challenge."
-- Chris Chelios on playing with the AHL's Chicago Wolves

Legace, a 10-year NHL vet and Stanley Cup winner with the Red Wings in 2002, will share time with two other goaltenders in Chicago -- Drew MacIntyre and Peter Mannino. Legace, 36, went 13-9-2 with a 3.18 goals-against average and .885 save percentage in 29 NHL games with the St. Louis Blues last season. He also went 14-7-1 record with a 2.00 GAA and .935 save percentage in 23 AHL games with the Peoria Rivermen.

Staying or going? -- The future of Florida Panthers rookie defenseman Dmitry Kulikov won't be realized until later this month.

A decision on Kulikov, who turns 19 on Oct. 29, doesn't have to be made until after the team's Oct. 24 game in Philadelphia which would mark his ninth game -- the cutoff for either returning him back to his junior team, the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the QMJHL or keeping him with the big club. If he plays a tenth game, it will count as a full season on his entry-level contract.

Panthers coach Peter DeBoer has liked what he's seen from Kulikov, who has been paired with veteran Bryan McCabe. He'd just like to see the Russian-born defenseman generate more shots on net -- he's taken just two this season.

"He's playing 18 minutes a night, which is a great number for a young guy, and contributing," DeBoer said. "If that continues, I don't know how we can send him anywhere. He has to keep doing what he's been doing."

Kulikov, who had 2 assists and a minus-2 rating through five games, is glad he's making it hard on the coaching staff.

"I want to stay here," Kulikov said. "There's no question about it. It's just a matter of time, and these nine games will prove everything. Every game is an opportunity for me to show (DeBoer) what I've got."

Moral victory -- It may have been only the sixth game of the season, but when the Carolina Hurricanes met the Pittsburgh Penguins at RBC Center in Raleigh on Wednesday, pride was at stake.

The Hurricanes entered the 2009-10 campaign with a chip on their shoulder following their four-game ouster from the Eastern Conference Finals by the Penguins last May. And while one regular-season meeting certainly wouldn't atone for the disappointment of getting swept out of the playoffs, it was Carolina's opportunity to prove that series was an aberration against the eventual Stanley Cup champion.

The Hurricanes dropped a 3-2 shootout decision to the Penguins, but coach Paul Maurice's decision to promote Ray Whitney to the top line alongside Eric Staal and Tuomo Ruutu in the third proved prophetic as Whitney scored a pair of goals to help send the game into overtime. Additionally, goalie Cam Ward was spectacular in defeat, making a season-high 36 saves.

"I've been here five years now and played with just about everybody on our team and I think it's a luxury our coaching staff has that they can mix players in and out and try to get a spark," Whitney said. "I don't think it had anything to do negatively toward anybody else; sometimes you just need a change of pace or something to give the guys a little kick and that was what worked for us."

The Hurricanes (2-3-1), who play at the Devils on Saturday, scored a shootout victory against the Lightning and a 7-2 decision against the Florida Panthers this season.

"The two games we won, I don't think we felt very comfortable coming off the bench after the win thinking we were playing our game," Maurice said. "(Against Pittsburgh), I thought, was really our first game where we got back to looking like the team that plays the style of game we want to play.

"What we've been lacking is a feeling that we can play in the other team's end a little bit. We hadn't generated much in the offensive zone at all. Our cycle game wasn't there, our forecheck game wasn't there. That really is our identity, the game that we need to get to. It was a start."

Don't forget, Carolina added defensemen Aaron Ward and Andrew Alberts and forwards Tom Kostopoulos and Stephane Yelle in the offseason in an effort to counter Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Ward and Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason might have kept Crosby off the score sheet in regulation, but Malkin, the game's second star, still produced a goal and an assist.

"It's a game to build on," Whitney said. "Having to come from behind like we did against the defending Stanley Cup champions is a tribute to our hockey club. We didn't change the way we played and it finally paid off in the third period. Again, I have to tip my hat to Cam Ward. His efforts are the real reason we got a point tonight."

Despite the loss, Carolina is 10-5-1-1 against the Penguins since the start of 2005-06 season.

Contact Mike Morreale at
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