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Southeast: Enstrom working to shake sophomore slump

by Mike G. Morreale /
Following a stellar rookie campaign with the Atlanta Thrashers in which Tobias Enstrom led all first-year players in average ice time, there have been signs of the proverbial sophomore slump this season.

Enstrom, who finished 2007-08 with 5 goals and 33 assists in 82 games, has 1 goal and 6 assists through 18 games this season. It appeared as though Enstrom, 24, was in the process of snapping out of the doldrums with a goal and 3 assists in back-to-back victories over the Islanders and Buffalo earlier this month.

"I want to keep going the same way I went last year and I had a good year and I just want to keep it up," Enstrom told "I felt like I had a good summer, worked hard and came back prepared for the season. It hasn't been a difficult season. I came in here wanting to do all the things I did last year. It's just a matter of working hard and sticking with it."

Thrashers coach John Anderson said Enstrom isn't in a slump; rather, he just needs to play his game.

"I think after we brought in defensemen (Ron) Hainsey and (Mathieu) Schneider, he began to stand back and watch them play instead of adding to what they were doing," Anderson said. "He was letting them be the show and I talked to him about that. I told him that he is such a good player with the puck, but that if he didn't have it or didn't want to skate with it, he was just like anybody else out there.

"I'm hopeful he can take control of the reigns here and we'll see him play a little better. I want him to carry the puck. He's worried about creating two-on-ones against, and I told him not to worry about that. We're a professional hockey team and should be able to cover up when he goes up ice."

Enstrom enjoys Anderson's offensive approach to the game.

"He puts a little more offense into the system and that's what I really like, but you have to play defense, too," Enstrom said. "I really like the way he thinks."

Making the grade -- If coach Peter DeBoer were a schoolteacher, he'd slap a "C" on the first-quarter report card of his Florida Panthers. For a team looking to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in eight seasons, that passing grade isn't good enough.

"We've done some things and made some improvements, but we're not where we need to be," DeBoer told "The nice thing is we're starting to get a handle on how we want and need to play.
"We've had a tough schedule playing 12 games on the road so far and we've faced some key injuries to some key people (Cory Stillman, Bryan McCabe, Stephen Weiss), and for a team that's offensively challenged, that has hurt. We've got to be better, especially when our goal is to get into the playoffs. We're not near that point right now."

Following Florida's 3-2 loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings on Nov. 14, Detroit coach Mike Babcock praised his opponent.

"They've got a lot of pieces here," Babcock said of the Panthers. "(Jay) Bouwmeester skates just like (Scott) Niedermayer. Both goaltenders are solid. Down the middle, (David) Booth, (Stephen) Weiss ... it's a pretty nice set-up there. The (Gregory) Campbell kid looks like he's going to provide energy. I think (Keith) Ballard is a real good player. I think the future here is going to be real good."

The Panthers had won three of the past five games prior to closing out a three-game road trip Friday in Boston. The club will begin a stretch of three straight at BankAtlantic Center in Florida on Monday against the Carolina Hurricanes.

"If we bring our 'A' game, we have shown we can compete with anyone," DeBoer said. "We also know, if we don't show up, we bring games like we did in (Los Angeles, a 3-2 loss) and Atlanta (5-3 loss)."

Faceoff fanatic -- Carolina Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour saw his five-game point streak come to an end Tuesday night in a gutsy 2-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens at the RBC Center in Carolina.

The 38-year-old center remained his usual dominant self within the faceoff circle, however, winning a game-high 15 draws in 24 attempts (63 percent). He currently is second in the League with a 62.3 winning percentage. Pittsburgh center Michael Zigomanis, who has taken 236 fewer draws, leads the League at 64.9 percent.

Brind'Amour, who missed the final 22 games of 2007-08 with a torn knee ligament, currently leads the team with 7 goals and ranks second with 13 points. He moved past Mike Bossy and Joe Nieuwendyk into sole possession of 50th on the NHL's all-time scoring list with a goal against Tampa Bay last Sunday -- the 1,127th point of his NHL career. That point was also his 416th with the Hurricanes, tying him with Jeff O'Neill for third place on the franchise's all-time scoring list, behind only Ron Francis (1,175) and Kevin Dineen (554).

Melrose fallout
-- Barry Melrose, who was fired as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lighting on Nov. 14 after just 16 games, said his dismissal was, in part, sparked by players voicing disappointment to management.

"Obviously, a lot of guys didn't like to be held accountable with this team and they went to (owners) Oren (Koules) and Len (Barrie) and said they don't like this style of coaching and would you get rid of him,' " Melrose said during an interview on Hockey Night in Canada the day after his release. "I don't think there was any secret about that."

In a text message to the St. Petersburg Times last Sunday, Koules said, "It's absolutely not true."

Tampa General Manager Brian Lawton said Nov. 14 that no player approached him on the issue. Melrose said "the players have the power" on the Lightning, "and they exercised that power" in his firing.

Lawton replaced Melrose with associate coach Rick Tocchet, an 18-year NHL veteran who coached on Phoenix's staff last season.

"He's definitely an intense guy," Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky told Sporting News Today this week. "Rick is very intense and he's a no-nonsense guy. If you play hard you're going to play. If you don't play hard you're not going to get on the ice. That's pretty cut and dry with Rick Tocchet."

In his first game as interim coach Nov. 16 -- a 3-2 shootout setback at Carolina -- Tocchet reunited the line of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Vaclav Prospal. Lecavalier, who leads the Lightning with 7 goals, and St. Louis responded by scoring goals in the same game for the first time this season. Entering Friday's contest with the Predators, Tocchet was 0-0-2 as coach of the Lightning.

"The energy level is there," Lecavalier told the Tampa Tribune. "The practices are shorter but a lot more intense. Guys understand the drills and go 100 percent on the ice and it shows in the game. We've tied two games and lost in the shootout, but I think we are looking a lot better and doing a lot of good things out there."

Said Tocchet: "This is a good leadership group and we just have to stay on top of Vinny (Lecavalier) and Marty (St. Louis) to make sure these guys keep their heads up. We can't get down, it's a long year. I'm finding that there are times when guys are staying out on their shift too long, so it's a mindset. You have to stay mentally strong. I want this team to play fast, I want this team to play with confidence and I want us to play a swarming style."

Back to form -- Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom, who posted just 4 assists in his team's first 12 games, has re-discovered his offensive flair.

Backstrom, who led the NHL with 11 points (2 goals, 9 assists) in four games last week -- along with a plus-10 rating -- matched a personal best of 4 assists in a game while setting a personal record with 5 points in a 6-5 shootout loss at New Jersey. Backstrom has 4 goals and 18 points for the season.

"It's good sometimes to score some points for your confidence," the 21-year-old Backstrom told the Washington Post. "I was struggling a little bit at the beginning. I wasn't good."

A sprained ankle suffered during a Sept. 11 scrimmage played a part in Backstrom's early-season struggles, as it forced him to miss the start of training camp.

"I was a little bit afraid (because) of my foot at the beginning," said Backstrom, "but now I feel that I'm playing better, winning more battles on the boards and I've been working harder. That's the key for my game -- I have to work hard."

Hard work enabled Backstrom and linemate Alexander Ovechkin to be named the League’s First and Second Stars of the Week, respectively.
"I don't know what happened (early in the season), but whatever clicked, I hope he finds that button and keeps it on," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Quotable -- "I think the players didn't want to play for me. I'm not a guy who sings Kumbaya around the fire. I'll let you know if I'm not happy with you." -- Former Tampa Bay Lightning coach Barry Melrose in an interview with Hockey Night in Canada on Nov. 15, a day after he was fired as coach.

Ice chips -- The Thrashers suffered their 12th consecutive loss to the Flyers last Sunday. Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki improved to 11-0-0 against Atlanta. … In a 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday, Thrashers forward Slava Kozlov scored his team-leading 11th goal of the season and defenseman Mathieu Schneider returned to the lineup after missing five games with a hip flexor strain. … Entering Friday's game with Phoenix, Hurricanes center Eric Staal hadn't scored in eight games and had just 1 goal in his last 12. … Florida Panthers defenseman Bryan McCabe connected for his first two-goal game of the season Tuesday in a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. … The inaugural Florida Blue Cup, presented by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, will be awarded to the season-series winner between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Blue Cup is designed to heighten awareness for the annual series between Florida's two NHL teams and honor the team with the best record in the three games played at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. The Panthers scored a 4-3 shootout decision Tuesday and need to win just one of the next two meetings -- Dec. 27 or Jan. 17 -- to earn the Cup. … Florida rookie Michael Frolik scored his first NHL goal Thursday against New Jersey goalie Scott Clemmensen in a 3-1 loss. … The Lightning on Thursday claimed feisty left wing David Koci off waivers from the St. Louis Blues. Koci didn't register a point and had 13 penalty minutes in five games with the Blues. Koci started the season in Tampa but was waived after just one game. … Tampa Bay has converted four of 19 shots in shootouts; Jussi Jokinen and Vincent Lecavalier are a combined 2-for-10.

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