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Tuesday 10: Praising Phaneuf, Ottawa's PP and more

by EJ Hradek
On Sunday night, the suddenly surging Senators did something that hasn't been easy to accomplish -- they kept Leafs' sizzling sniper Phil Kessel off the score sheet. That was among the biggest reasons why the Senators scored their sixth-straight win, a 3-2 decision against the visiting Leafs.
How difficult has it been to shut down Kessel? The answer: Pretty difficult. The Sens did it for just the second time in Kessel's past 21 games, dating to last season. In that span, he's totaled 29 points. He currently leads all scorers with 18 points this season.
Kessel will be looking to get back on his high-scoring track Wednesday when the Leafs face the Devils in Newark.
That's tomorrow. For today, we have the Tuesday 10.

EJ's Instant Analysis

Every Tuesday and Friday, analyst EJ Hradek shares his take on all the offseason news.

1. While Kessel rightfully has gotten a lot of attention during the club's fast start, Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf has impressed me with his play and more mature approach.
Through his first 11 games, the rugged defender has 9 assists and 11 points. That places him in a tie for second in scoring (with Joffrey Lupul) on his team and a tie for third (with Kris Letang and Brian Campbell) among all League defensemen. At that pace, he'd easily surpass his previous career-best 60 points, compiled during the 2007-08 season as a member of the Flames.
Phaneuf also carries a team-best plus-7 rating, placing him tied for third in the League.
More than the numbers, however, he seems ready to grasp his leadership role in Toronto. You can see it in something as simple as in-between period interviews. He's saying the right things and delivering his message with the right tone. Three-time Cup winning defenseman Ken Daneyko noticed the same things. Daneyko thinks Phaneuf is making better decisions on the ice, not chasing the big hit, playing a smarter game.
Phaneuf's evolving play is making the 2010 trade that brought him to Toronto from Calgary look more and more one-sided with each passing game.
2. Full marks to first-year coach Paul MacLean for getting his young Senators back on track after a dreadful 1-5 start in which they were outscored 30-15.
MacLean arrived in Canada's capital with his eyes wide open. After spending years assisting Mike Babcock with the perennially strong Red Wings, MacLean knew he needed to take a patient approach in Ottawa. Now, it seems, his team is responding.
Ottawa carries a six-game winning streak into Boston for Tuesday's game with the Bruins. In this second six-game span, the Sens have outscored their opponents 21-15, cutting their goals-against in half.
Starting goalie Craig Anderson certainly has turned his game around. And Sunday night, rookie goalie Robin Lehner was strong in the win against the Leafs. Young teams that give up scoring chances need solid goaltending. Heck, every team needs that.
The Senators particularly have been dangerous on the power play, converting 13 of 42 chances for a League-best 31.0 percent. Ottawa's power play success really shouldn't be a surprise. They've got some skill guys, starting with defensemen Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar. The kid and the vet really can work the points.
Erik Karlsson
Defense - OTT
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 13
SOG: 36 | +/-: -3
When you add talented forwards like Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek to the mix, you've got a dangerous unit.
We should learn more about the Senators in November. After a completing a three-game run at Scotiabank Place against the Rangers on Nov. 9, the Senators will play nine of their next 10 games on the road. If MacLean's team can survive that run, they just might be in the Stanley Cup Playoff chase for the long haul.
3. Perhaps the Senators' potent power play will scare the Bruins into taking a more disciplined approach Tuesday night. The Bruins have been unnerved easily this season en route to a dismal 3-7-0 start -- the worst opening 10-game record of a defending champ since 1994, when the current playoff format was adopted. Too often, the Bruins have taken unnecessary stick fouls and retaliatory penalties that have stymied their momentum.
Entering Tuesday night's action, the Bruins find themselves in the Eastern Conference basement after losing their past three games. To make matters worse, most of their difficult start has taken place at home. With six of the next seven at TD Garden, they'd better turn that around -- immediately!
4. While the Bruins have gone from first to almost worst (the Blue Jackets have one fewer point), the Oilers have turned things in the other direction.
Last season's 30th-place team, Edmonton has jumped to a 7-2-2 start behind the rejuvenated goaltending of Cup-winning veteran Nikolai Khabibulin, who was named the League's Second Star of the Week after going 3-0-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .951 save percentage.
Khabibulin feels the team's overall commitment to better team defense has helped him. He points to the fact that club is blocking more shots. In fact, they've been credited with 184 blocks in 11 games, tying them with the Leafs and Predators for third in the League. On average, they're blocking two more shots per game than last season. And thus far, they're allowing two fewer shots, on average, per game. Those aren't monster differences, but clearly the young Oilers are paying more attention to defense.
Nikolai Khabibulin
Goalie - EDM
RECORD: 5-0-2
GAA: 1.12 | SVP: 0.960
Khabibulin & Co. will have some tougher challenges in November. They begin a six-game road swing in Los Angeles on Thursday and they'll play 10 of their next 12 on the road. Khabibulin and fellow goalie Devan Dubnyk will be tested to continue to deliver the same timely goaltending they provided in October.
5. You just knew the Jets were going to come back to earth rather quickly after their wild 9-8 win in Philly last Thursday. And they did just that.
After hanging a 9-spot on the Flyers, the Jets were blanked 1-0 by the Lightning in Tampa. To be fair, Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson was sharp.
That kind of game-to-game offensive drop-off isn't unprecedented. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Rangers were the last team to score nine or more goals in one game and then get shut out in the next. That was nearly 20 years ago -- on Dec. 13, 1992, the Blueshirts routed the Habs 10-5, and just two days later the Rangers lost 3-0 to the Flames.
6. The Stars have jumped out to an 8-3-0 start under rookie coach Glen Gulutzan. Without a doubt, the biggest reason for the early-season success has been goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who is 8-1-0 with a 1.75 GAA and a .947 save percentage. Those are some silly-good numbers.
At this point, the Stars are leaning pretty heavily on their goaltender. They're surrendering 32.6 shots per game; the Predators are the only team leaving their goaltender more exposed.
Can Lehtonen keep up his sensational play? I figure it will be real tough for him to continue to play at that near-perfect level. If Dallas can't tighten things around him, the Stars might be headed for the same fate as last season's team -- a disappointing finish.
Jaroslav Halak
Goalie - STL
RECORD: 1-5-0
GAA: 3.58 | SVP: 0.843
7. On the other end of that category, the Blues are allowing just 25.9 shots per game, but they haven't benefited in the standings because of the inconsistent work of starting goalie Jaroslav Halak.
Halak stumbled out of the gate, going 1-5-0 in six games, with a woeful 3.58 GAA and an unacceptable .843 save percentage. Halak's rough start opened the door for backup Brian Elliott, who has been surprisingly sensational.
Elliott, who split last season between the Senators and Avalanche before landing with the Blues as a free agent during the summer, is 4-1-0 with a 1.67 GAA and a .942 save percentage. You don't have to be a math wiz to note the difference between his numbers and Halak's.
It is Halak, however, who has the long-term contract in St. Louis. If he can't rediscover the magic that made him a playoff hero in Montreal two springs ago, the Blues are going to have to seriously re-think their goaltending situation.
8. There seems to be a power (play) outage in the Central Division. Through Monday night's action, the Blues, Blackhawks and Blue Jackets owned the League's three least-productive power-play units.
The Blues, clicking on just 8.3 percent of their chances, currently reside in the basement. The Hawks are just a shade better, connecting on just 8.9 percent of their extra-man opportunities.
After an abysmal start on the power play, the Jackets have moved up the No. 28 in the League rankings with a 10.2-percent success rate. Columbus' extra-man unit got a boost from defenseman James Wisniewski's return from suspension.

The division's other two teams -- the Predators and Red Wings -- aren't exactly lighting it up, either. Nashville owns the Central's best power play, converting 17.1 percent of its chances. Detroit, meanwhile, has a 15.4-percent success rate.
9. The Jackets took another small step forward Sunday when they were able to earn consecutive home-ice victories for the first time since Feb. 22 and 25.
The key to the home wins against Detroit and Anaheim: Goalie Steve Mason. In the two victories, he played to a .961 save percentage. Obviously, he has to be a difference-maker.
10. When Panthers GM Dale Tallon went about dramatically re-making his roster in the offseason, he probably didn't figure holdover Jason Garrison would be much of a factor.
As things have turned out, though, the former University of Minnesota-Duluth defender has been a pretty big factor in the first month, netting 5 goals in 11 games to lead all defensemen. Garrison has scored a goal in each of the club's past three games.
Not a bad start for a guy who scored 5 goals all of last season, eh?
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