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Welcoming Tony O back to Chicago

by Phil Coffey

Former Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Tony Esposito was honored before the Hawks' game against the Capitals on Wednesday night.
Blackhawks-Capitals game highlights
How cool was it to see Tony Esposito drop the ceremonial faceoff before Wednesday night’s game between the Hawks and Caps between goalies Olaf Kolzig and Nikolai Khabibulin, instead of forwards?

How cool was it to see “Tony O” back in Chicago?

Maybe I’m in the minority here, but you can’t have a promising present or fantastic future if you forget your past. That’s why you have to be bullish on the Blackhawks these days.

Sure, the club has some of the League’s brightest, young stars in Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews, among others, but now that “Tony O” is back in the fold along with the great Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, the package is becoming complete.

More than a few hearty kudos to Hawks chairman Rocky Wirtz for seeing the future via the proud past.

As for “Tony O,” he told reporters being invited back was “the highlight of my life.” Pretty profound stuff.

“It’s a great feeling to be on this ice again -- I really miss it,” said Esposito, who also pulled on his familiar mask to the delight of the sellout crowd. “It’s a pleasure and an honor to be back with the Hawks and Rocky Wirtz (with) what he’s doing (to turn) things around. It’s an honor to be here with these new, young, vibrant Hawks.

“I just loved playing here. I had opportunities to leave ... and I wouldn’t even think about it. I’m a Blackhawk and I always will be.”

Phil Coffey
Phil Coffey is's editorial director. He has covered the NHL since 1981.
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For those needing a Tony O refresher, here goes:

* Won the 1970 Calder Trophy
* Won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie three times -- 1970, 1972 and 1974
* Had 74 shutouts
* Won 418 games, all with the Hawks
* Hockey Hall of Famer since 1988
* His No. 35 is retired by the Hawks

We’re not kidding – In this weekend’s edition of Well Said, there are a number of comments from NHL players about how the stretch drive of the regular season has become an extension of the playoffs. Call it further affirmation of this item.

Yes, the stretch drive is an extension of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“This is the playoffs, it really is,” Flames center Craig Conroy told Randy Sportak of the Calgary Sun. “You talk about it with all the cliches, ‘Oh yeah, this is the playoffs. This is a playoff game.’
“These nine games really are the playoffs. We’re all close, all right there. I think it’s great for leading into the playoffs, because it’s gonna be crazy, gonna be exciting.”

“Does somebody get to play 83 games?” Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock agreed. “It’s unbelievable.”

We’d update you on all the numbers and possibilities, but things change so rapidly, your best bet is to watch the standings here at to see who’s in, who’s out and what the matchups may be  come the start of the playoffs.

“You could look at the schedule before the year, halfway through, and say it’s probably a good chance these nine games are going to be pretty important,” Flames captain Jarome Iginla told Sportak about Calgary’s last batch of games. “As a team, you look at it as a great challenge and a fun thing. They’re going to be packed buildings. The energy is gonna be huge. Each game is going to have some huge implications.”

 “Your own fate is in your hands,” Conroy said. “We have an opportunity to do something, and you don’t have to worry about anybody else winning or losing, you have to win your games.”

Disappointing start – Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Boris Valabik will have better days in the NHL. But the sting of a poor NHL debut game will linger.

The big defenseman made his NHL debut Wednesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes and was on ice for all five Carolina goals in a 5-3 loss.

“At the warm-up,” he told Craig Custance of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I started feeling a little tight and nervous. That wasn’t a good thing.”

At the end, he was only a minus-2, having been on the ice for two Atlanta goals. But he also had three turnovers, one that led directly to a goal by Sergei Samsonov.

“I was hoping I was going to enjoy it a little more,” Valabik said. “I was pretty nervous out there; obviously I didn’t play my best game. I was hoping for a better-case scenario, but hopefully if I get a chance to play, next time I’ll lose the nervousness and show what I can do.”

Thrashers GM/coach Don Waddell is evaluating players for next season, and Valabik is regarded as a future Thrasher, so he will see the ice again very soon.

“These aren’t easy games,” Waddell said. “Teams we’re playing are playing for something big time. They’re hard-fought games, you want your young players to get that kind of ice time.”

Quite the wakeup call –
As the Buffalo Sabres left the ice trailing Tampa Bay after the second period Wednesday night, the home folks were more than a little upset to be trailing the last-place Lightning in such an important game.

“I think the fans woke us up leaving the ice,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “You get what you deserve and we deserved it. We haven’t heard it that often here, but we deserved it. I thought the boos were a little shallow, as a matter of fact.”

But they worked, as the Sabres roared out for six third-period goals for an important – no, make that vital -- win.

So the boos became cheers as the Sabres went wild. Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht scored 16 seconds apart to get Buffalo back in the game, then Thomas Vanek took over, scoring three straight goals before Hecht scored an empty-netter.

Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens is trying out a similar
approach to Devils' coach Brent Sutter in the team locker room
that he hopes will get his players more integrated as a group.

Changing it up – When all else fails, change the room around.

New Jersey Devils coach Brent Sutter did it earlier this season, when he changed up the seating arrangements in his team’s dressing room. Now with the Philadelphia Flyers needing to get their game back on track in a hurry, coach John Stevens has made a similar off-ice change after the on-ice changes failed to produce the desired results.

“I did it just to make it different when they came in,” Stevens told the Philadelphia Daily News. “Instead of coming in and sitting where you sit, you’re sitting beside somebody and you might have a different conversation than you might normally have had. Just to change it up a little bit.

“We have a quiet group and we try to get them to talk a little bit. We got them huddled and asked what was their most memorable goal they ever scored. Those kinds of things, for me, are good. It’s good fun, you learn a little bit more about each other. And it forces you to interact and communicate a little better. Change the atmosphere a little bit.”

“I think as players, we need to be held accountable for things that we do on the ice,” captain Jason Smith said. “Our preparation, our game plans have been good. We just need to be better as players. When we struggle, we struggle for stretches of time.

“We know as players we need to take it upon ourselves and be better. As a group we know that there’re guys in this room that can play better than we have. We’re gonna get into the playoffs and we’re gonna be a hard team to play against.”

All true. Now the question is whether a new seating arrangement will pay off.

“He can only do so much,” Sami Kapanen said of Stevens’ move. “I think he’s trying to lead by example by showing up today and having a good attitude.”

Ticklish question – The question of who is the NHL’s most valuable player this season will make for an interesting debate in the coming weeks.

One of the fundamental questions will be whether a player from a team that doesn’t make the playoffs can be his team’s MVP.

Kevin Allen of USA Today is the president of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association and he said the possibility exists, especially in the case of a player like Washington’s Alex Ovechkin.

“It is possible for an MVP to be with a non-playoff team, provided he’s been so dominant that it’s clear he’s been the top player in the League,” Allen said. “Back when (Mario) Lemieux won, I think the feeling was he was so overwhelming in his performance level, it didn’t matter that the team didn’t make it. The same could be true this year. Ovechkin’s performance level is so overwhelming that it doesn’t make a difference if his team doesn’t make the playoffs.”

Material from personal interviews, wire services, newspaper, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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