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Around the NHL

Sunday, 02.11.2008 / 12:42 PM / Features
By Larry Wigge
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Around the NHL
Lecavalier wants more minutes, but his numbers are better with less
Don't know about you, but I've always thought there's nothing more breathtaking than one of those graceful power moves -- you know, one of those Jean Beliveau, Gilbert Perrault-like moves at full flight -- the kind that Vincent Lecavalier has mastered.

We saw 3 of them by Vinny in a recent Tampa Bay game at Toronto -- 2 of them resulting in goals.

Some in our business are trying to take a little part of Lecavalier's recent comments about his reduced minutes this season and blow them out of proportion.

"It's definitely a change," Lecavalier said of playing 16, 17 and 18 minutes in recent games, compared to his average of 22:36 two years ago and 22:57 last season. Those big minutes helped him amass 52 goals and 56 assists in 2006-07, and 40 goals and 52 assists last season. "I admit I've always felt the more you play, the more you're in the game. I'm used to going back out there -- when you play 16, 17 minutes being in the game is a little tougher to do."

End quote? Not by a long shot. No controversy. Sound bite's not over.

"A lot of people say we played too much last year," he continued. "I understand that 24 minutes is a lot of minutes. Let's split the difference -- 20, 21 minutes, I think would be a good number."

Lecavalier isn't cooling his jets. He's adapting to what new coach Barry Melrose is asking. And "Melrose Place" in this case is putting Lecavalier in the right place at the right time.

That's a simple thought, isn't it? But at a time where more still is considered better, Melrose is trying to catch Lightning in a bottle in Tampa Bay with his quality over quantity theory when it comes to double shifting his best players.

Hey, I'm the first to say I want more of my favorite players. But honestly, I saw a stronger, more powerful and effective Lecavalier in 2 games last week, when he played 18:25 and netted the game-winning goal in Tampa Bay's 3-2 overtime victory over Atlanta and in a 3-2 triumph in Toronto a few nights later when he produced 2 goals, including another game-winner, in just 17:49.

"When our talented guys, like Vinny and Marty St. Louis, try and beat their guys, they're either going to beat them or draw a penalty," Melrose said. "It's as simple as that. They're that good. We've got all that skill and all that speed. Let's use it the right way at the right time."

Melrose left his job as an ESPN analyst for one reason -- because he wanted to coach again. And the Tampa Bay job was open because the Lightning finished last in the League with 71 points (31-42-9).

It's a slippery slope in this business, when you consider that we are not that far removed from that spectacular 2004 Stanley Cup championship, with Lecavalier, St. Louis and Brad Richards leading the way over Jarome Iginla and the Calgary Flames in 7 games.

Melrose wants that back in Tampa Bay. He wants speed all the time, not dumping the puck into the opposing zone because his star players are gassed or at less than 100 percent because of too many shifts.

A few more big wins might just put more focus on where the Lightning are headed as a team instead of where they've been individually.

Oh, and for the record, when Lecavalier was in the right place at the right time, fighting for first place and rolling through the playoffs to the Stanley Cup in 2004, it should be pointed out he played 18:03 per game in the regular season and 19:38 in the playoffs.

Lucic is straight-up energy
Whether he's hitting, crashing or banging, Boston Bruins power forward Milan Lucic creates nothing but energy. One night he's crashing Toronto defenseman Mike Van Ryn into the glass, which shatters into a million pieces. The next, he's contributing his first NHL hat trick to spark a 5-4 comeback win against the Thrashers.

The sturdy winger is an even better story, when you consider he was diagnosed with Scheuermann's disease when he was 15 -- a condition that, while painless, causes the upper back to curve. While it doesn't affect Lucic's play, the disease causes him to stoop and round his shoulders.

This season, Lucic clearly is showing us a rising cult hero who has gone from 13 fighting majors and just 8 goals and 19 assists last season to a rising power forward with 4 goals and 3 assists in his first 10 games.

Dividends coming soon -- We all know how great the Sedin twins have been in Vancouver the last few years. Now, Henrik and Daniel are slumping, but ...

"For me, the twins are a little bit like the stock market right now," said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. "They're plunging. But history says that the stock market, sooner or later, comes back up -- and I have to believe the twins are the same way."

King of the crease -- He doesn't take up as much space in goal, but Kings goaltender Jason LaBarbera is covering more of the net than in the past.

While recovering from sports hernia surgery in Calgary last summer, the 28-year-old netminder hired a nutritionist to prepare 7 smaller meals each day for the 6-foot-3 goalie. And now ...

"There might not be as much of me to cover the net, but I'm quicker and leaner and that has made me more confident in my ability and hungrier to stop the puck," LaBarbera said after pitching a 4-0 shutout over the Blues in St. Louis on Oct. 25.

"I never ate that bad, but you know how it is. I just ate too much sometimes. That's just the way it was when you were growing up. You just ate until you were full."

But 7 meals a day?

He laughed, and then said, "Small portions, every 2 hours or so. One might be a dish of cottage cheese or a yogurt or a piece of fruit."

When he arrived in Los Angeles for training camp, people around the Kings couldn't get over how great he looked (10 pounds lighter and 7 percent less body fat). They quickly found him a company that prepares meals for him.

"I wake up in the morning and there's the food at my front door," he said, smiling. "I've never felt better -- on the ice and off."

Senator staying in office -- Taking care of their own, Ottawa may not have done it with Zdeno Chara, Martin Havlat or Marian Hossa, but captain Daniel Alfredsson is a different story -- and his new four-year contract is proof the Senators want to remain Stanley Cup contenders. ... The early bird department: Milan Hejduk is jumping into holes now the way he did earlier in his career, when he scored 36, 41, 50 and 35 goals in 4 of his first 6 seasons. Hejduk, 32, said its familiarity with linemates Paul Stastny and Ryan Smyth, each of whom missed large parts of last season. "I showed up a littler earlier than I normally do for camp and we practiced a lot together. Now we're just going out there, and good things seem to be happening." ... Kings center Michal Handzus was a free-agent bust last season, primarily because of a knee injury that bothered him all season and limited his production to just 7 goals and 14 assists. Last May, Handzus turned down a chance to play for Slovakia in the World Championships to rest and recuperate. In his first 8 games this season he had 2 goals and 4 assists (he didn't have 6 points last season until well into December), and was a key factor in the Kings' great penalty-killing unit. ... Some butterfly goalies have struggled early this season -- see Roberto Luongo, Miikka Kiprusoff, Martin Gerber, Jose Theodore, Rick DiPietro and J-S Giguere -- while breaking in new goalie pads after the NHL changed the size of the flaps many goalies had to help close the 5-hole on saves when they went to the ice. But Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom is back to the puck-stopping brilliance he showed us a couple years ago. With a 3-2 decision over Chicago on Oct. 27, he ran his record to 13-0-5 in his last 18 regular-season performances dating back to March. Here's a better number -- Backstrom is 40-0-3 when taking a lead into the third period. Said Wild coach Jacques Lemaire, an expert on good defense: "He's solid, he's in control. He doesn't give bad goals."

Markov still working hard -- Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov definitely is not resting on his laurels -- NHL All-Star Game last season, career-highs in goals (16) and points (58). Now in his eighth NHL season, Markov is beginning to get noticed more often. Said Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau: "It's not luck. He has a vision, a sixth sense about who is on the ice and where they are like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux had." ... Just call them the Killer B's. If you've seen the Florida Panthers lately, you'll know what I mean -- new defensemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton, obtained from Phoenix for center Olli Jokinen in June. They've been Florida's best players this season. ... Lifeless. That's how Devils coach Brent Sutter described his team after Wednesday's 6-5 shootout loss to Toronto. Zach Parise's not lifeless. His 7 goals should have the rest of the New Jersey players pumped, in fact. ... Niklas Hagman? Toronto just got a look at his dazzling shootout game-winning goal against the Devils. His 27-goal breakout season in Dallas in 2007-08 was no fluke. ... Don't look now, but defenseman Francois Beauchemin is outplaying -- his 4 goals this season already have doubled last season's output -- Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim. ... Talking trash? Well, sort of. Buffalo's leading scorer, Derek Roy, was getting impatient before he scored his first goal Oct. 23, some 44 seconds into overtime for a 4-3 Sabres victory. Earlier in the day, he tossed a couple sticks into the trash. He thought twice about it and said with a wink, "Maybe I can get a garbage goal to get me going." Roy had been 0-for-20 on shots in his first 6 games this season before retrieving those twigs from the trash.

Changes and more -- It's all about chemistry in Detroit -- and the chemistry between Pavel Datsyuk and Marian Hossa clearly began to pick up after their first 4 regular-season games together. In their next 6 games together, Hossa had 5 goals and 6 assists. ... In just his first this season with his new Toronto club, Jeff Finger was paired with rookie Luke Schenn -- and coach Ron Wilson put that pair in all of the tough situations instead of his usual shut-down duo of Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina. Some folks in Leafdom still wonder what the team was doing giving the 28-year-old unheralded defender (selected No. 240 in the 1999 Entry Draft) who had just one full season in the NHL, with Colorado last season, a 4-year contract. "I'm not BS-ing," said Wilson, who saw plenty of Finger last season from behind the San Jose Sharks' bench. "He was the most improved defenseman in the Western Conference at the end of the season. In the first 30 games he didn't play more than 10 minutes a game, but he was averaging well over 20 minutes a game for the rest of the season."

No doubting Thomas ... anymore -- Boston's Tim Thomas was an All-America goalie at the University of Vermont more than 10 years ago. He put up good numbers wherever he played -- from Birmingham to Houston to Providence to Finland to Sweden and back. But there always have been detractors, pointing fingers at his all-over-the-goal-crease style of scrambling. But you can't argue with 34-year-old netminder's journey to his first All-Star Game last January, or his back-to-back 1-0 shutouts in Edmonton on Oct. 27 and in Vancouver one night later. It's the first time in 72 years Boston has won back-to-back 1-0 games (the Bruins won three straight 1-0 games in March 1936).

Showing a thin skin and a good sense of humor, Thomas said, "It was just a couple of years ago that, in my first week of camp in which we primarily play intra-squad scrimmages, I was about the only goalie being scored on. In fact, one day during that week, they brought in the winners of a 'Be a Bruin' contest. There was a goalie, a forward and a defenseman who got to play in the scrimmages with us. It was so bad for me the goalie contest winner allowed fewer goals than I did."

Who's old? -- Critics have argued that 33-year-old Calgary goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff's reflexes weren't what they used to be when the Flames got off to a 1-4 start, in which they were outscored 22-11. Just as quickly, though, he recovered for 2-1, 5-3, 4-1 and 3-0 wins. "I'm kind of used to it," Kiprusoff said. "That's how it is to be a player, a goalie in the NHL. First you're young and not experienced. Then you're old. It's always something." ... In All-Star defenseman Sergei Zubov's absence at the start of this season with a hip injury, the Dallas Stars allowed 40 goals in their first 10 games. The return of the All-Star defenseman could be just what the doctor ordered for the Dallas Stars. Zubov is back on the ice and due to return none-to-soon for the Stars. ... Remember how the young line of Corey Perry, Dustin Penner and Ryan Getzlaf energized Anaheim's run to the 2007 Stanley Cup? Penner left for Edmonton before last season and Perry missed a large chunk of the season with injuries. After the Ducks' 1-5 start this season, the Perry-Getzlaf-Chris Kunitz line sparked a quacking good turnaround -- contributing 2 assists and a shootout goal by Perry in Toronto, a goal and 2 assists in Ottawa, 3 goals and 4 assists in Montreal, and 2 goals and 3 assists in Columbus as Anaheim rolled to a perfect 4-game road trip. Add to that a 5-assist performance by Getzlaf, plus an assist by Perry in a 5-4 overtime win at home against Detroit on Oct. 29. ... One of those under-the-radar stats that helps explain the New York Rangers' fast start this season is takeaways. Last season, Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk ran away with this category. Going into this weekend, he was tied for second with Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi and center Scott Gomez with 13. The leader: Ranger winger Markus Naslund with 14. ... Another hidden statistic in a season where there are more offensive-zone faceoffs: San Jose's Patrick Marleau was winning faceoffs at a 63.1-percent clip, Joe Thornton at 62.4 and Marcel Goc 61.7. ... Injured Vancouver center Pavol Demitra said Mason Raymond has Marian Gaborik-like speed. His 3 early-season goals make him a cinch to surpass his career-high of 9 goals set last season. ... Ever heard of Hot Yoga? True Hot Yoga requires a room temperature as high as 105 degrees, so muscles warm up quickly and stretch more easily. Tampa Bay winger Mark Recchi, 40 years young, said of Hot Yoga, "It improved my quickness and stamina. I've got more dash to my game. I feel as good now as I did when I was my 20s." ... Everyone's asking about the improvement of the Blues' power play, which has skyrocketed from last in the League last season to first this season. The key? With Erik Johnson out for the season with a knee injury, coach Andy Murray utilizes Brad Boyes, Andy McDonald and Keith Tkachuk up front, with Paul Kariya and Lee Stempniak on the points. Yes, that right -- five forwards. "There's plenty of creativity that we didn't have last season," Boyes said, "but I'm still scared of getting caught without a defenseman for a shorthanded goal." Coming into this weekend, that's only happened one time.

Boucher back on the bench -- Wouldn't you say that Brian Boucher's first 2 games for the Sharks this season have earned him another start soon? While coming in to give starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov a rest, Boucher posted shutouts over Los Angeles on Oct. 12 and against Tampa Bay on Oct. 25. Boucher is the fifth goaltender in the last 7 seasons to record shutouts in each of his first 2 games of a season. The others were Roman Turek (2001-02 Flames), Jeff Hackett (2003-04 Flyers), Roberto Luongo (2005-06 Panthers) and Pascal Leclaire (2007-08 Blue Jackets). Before Turek, no NHL goaltender had done it since the Flyers' Bernie Parent in 1973-74. ... John Madden is an annual finalist for the Selke Trophy as the League's best defensive forward. Nothing's changed, not even now that he's 35. He's still an impact player -- and that's rare to say about a defense-first guy. Scouts are coming to see Madden now that he's in the final season of a four-year contract. Re-signing him has to be a priority for Devils GM Lou Lamoriello. ... Even after they signed offensive defenseman Brian Campbell in the offseason, the Chicago Blackhawks are searching for more of an offensive presence on their blue line. That's why they dipped down to Rockford of the American Hockey League for Cam Barker, who had 3 goals and 2 assists in 7 games with the IceHogs. ... Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock gave up on trying to find a center for forward Rick Nash and moved Nash to center. Nash said the last time he played center was 1993, when he was 9. ... Those two unsportsmanlike penalties Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk took in a 7-0 loss to Philadelphia on Oct. 28 are not the sign of a star who wants to lead a team to the playoffs and get a new deal after his contract ends after next season. Do we have another Marian Hossa situation brewing with the Thrashers? ... Last season was anything but fun for Carolina defenseman Niclas Wallin, who was a minus-18 and was the target of a lot of boos in Raleigh. He still uses the team's attempt to trade him in June 2007 as motivation to be better -- he exercised his no-trade option to veto the potential deal. This season he's healthy, in better shape and he's been coach Peter Laviolette's best defender of late. Another deal that was better off not being made, eh? ... Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens is going to start calling center Mike Richards Mr. Fix-it. After getting Simon Gagne going to start the season, Richards was put on a line between struggling forwards Scott Hartnell and Joffrey Lupul. The result: Lupul erupted for 5 goals and an assist and Hartnell 3 goals and 3 assists in 4 games. ... Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist won a gold medal playing behind Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom for Sweden at the 2006 Olympics, so it's a unique compliment for him to compare defenseman Marc Staal to the six-time Norris Trophy winner -- if just at the same age. Said Lundqvist: "Marc's going to be one of the best. When I look at him I see a lot of Nick. He's smart, he doesn't have to be super fast. He makes it look pretty easy."