Buffalo soldiers on
Sabres are knocking on the door for eighth in the East
If it wasn't already obvious that Buffalo and Atlanta are headed in opposite directions, the Sabres' 7-2 rout of the Thrashers on Monday afternoon confirmed it.
Buffalo is four points behind the New York Islanders for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, while Atlanta has faded to 12th, 12 points out of the race.
It's been a sudden turnaround for the Sabres, who have scored 21 goals in their past three games, and 39 goals over the past nine games, during which they are 8-1. Buffalo is also 10-2-2 in their past 14 games at home.
"I think we've all seen that we've scored a lot of goals lately, and that hasn't been the case for a long time here," Miroslav Satan said after Monday's four-goal outburst. "I think many players have confidence to make plays and shoot the puck and other players feed off that. And that raises the confidence in the dressing room."
Satan has had several ugly goal droughts, but then he busts out with a multigoal game as he did Monday to remind you that he's among the game's most skilled forwards.
Flashy Russian winger Maxim Afinogenov has turned it up offensively, too, helping give the Sabres two solid scoring lines, with Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Ales Kotalik and J.P. Dumont also pitching in. Even the third line of Jochen Hecht, Curtis Brown and Taylor Pyatt can chip in with some scoring (24 combined goals).
Buffalo has been doing damage on the power play, going 13 of 40 (32.5 percent) in the past eight games. And when the Sabres take advantage on the man advantage, they do well, with a 21-7-2 record when they score a power-play goal.
If the Sabres can keep it up and sneak in the playoffs, they could potentially be a dangerous team to face in the first round, a la the 2002 Canadiens, which knocked off the top-seeded Bruins.
Other quick thoughts from around the league:
The Predators' trade for Steve Sullivan on Monday was a savvy move that will beef up their power play and help make their top two lines a bit more intimidating offensively. As for Sullivan, it was an impressive career turnaround for him during his nearly five seasons in Chicago, since he was a waiver-wire pickup from Toronto early in the 1999-2000 season.
Brett Hull never has been one to hide his true feelings, and he let rip on his thoughts on the proposed rule that would limit goalies handling the puck behind the net during his appearance on Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada. "Half the goalies in the league can't handle the puck anyway, so it will do their team a service to keep those guys in there," Hull said. You know, the Golden Brett makes a pretty good point.
One of the greatest days of the season will take place on Saturday, when CBC presents its fifth annual Hockey Day In Canada. The 13-plus hours of coverage will be anchored from Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, with the Flames-Senators at 2 p.m. ET, the Canadiens-Maple Leafs at 7 p.m. and the Canucks-Oilers at 10 p.m. being the pillars of the day-long coverage. An online auction to benefit Shaunavon's efforts to raise money for a new ice rink will take place through the end of the month, with several autographed jerseys and sticks from big-name players available.
The Red Wings are understandably furious with Dominik Hasek for bolting the team in midseason and may seek to gain some contract relief. Hasek's return from retirement was a little questionable, but we should all be thankful that The Dominator got what he really wanted: He came back to Hockeytown to cash one final season of fat paychecks, and now he can return to the Czech Republic and resume his erstwhile career as a goon winger in his roller hockey league. Curtis Joseph, on the other hand, has been a gentleman about the situation for most of the season and could generate Lady Byng votes as a result, which would be rare for a netminder.
And now on to your questions...
How dare you leave Ed Jovanovski off the first team considering that he was arguably our best defenseman in the Olympics and he skates circles around the likes of Sheldon Souray, Adrian Aucoin and Wade Redden? Rick Nash ahead of Todd Bertuzzi? What, are you crazy? Finally, a healthy Dany Heatley off the team in favor of Shane Doan? I really think you should rethink this team and give Wayne Gretzky some credit because he would never make such errors in picking his Canadian team. -- Riley Hogan, Vancouver
Jovanovski is currently hurt, and there is no way to know how he will perform once he returns. With Aucoin, Redden and Souray all enjoying excellent seasons, and Jovo being outperformed by Mattias Ohlund on his own team, I think there is a realistic possibility he could be left off Canada's roster. If he comes back in early March, as is hoped, and plays well down the stretch and in the first few rounds of the postseason, then Gretzky's tendency toward loyalty for the members of the 2002 team probably will win out.
But if Jovo continues to be as inconsistent as he was for the first half of the regular season, then Canada will opt for the players that give it the best chance of winning now. You can't just reward someone blindly for what they did two years ago -- they have to still be playing at that high level today to receive consideration.
I never said Nash was ahead of Bertuzzi, I was just trying to pick line combinations. People get too caught up on which line is labeled as No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4. With national All-Star teams like we'll see in a tournament like the World Cup, the lines will be very close in talent, and any one of them could be designated for a different role depending upon the opponent or the situation within a game.
How can you possibly leave Martin St. Louis off the Team Canada first team? The guy should be MVP and you leave him out of the first Team Canada. -- Zack Markham, Scarborough, Ontario
Mighty Marty was the toughest omission from my first team, but unless he jumps ahead of Paul Kariya, I don't see him beating out any of the other seven wingers. He certainly could be a Hart Trophy finalist this season, and will gain strong consideration for the squad. A great finish to the regular season and playoffs would help him state his case.
With the resent resurgence of the Flames and Iginla, it makes me wonder how much better they could have been if they were able to hold on to guys like Marc Savard, St. Louis and Cory Stillman. All these players were on their roster just a few years ago. -- James Zeigler, Portland, Ore.
It's true that the Flames have given up on a lot of talent prematurely -- you forgot to mention Jean-Sebastien Giguere, too -- but it's not fair to play the "What if?" game with pro sports franchises. If we did that, the early-'90s Expos teams would be the best example in pro sports history, since Moises Alou, Delino DeShields, Cliff Floyd, Marquis Grissom, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Kirk Rueter, Larry Walker and John Wetteland went on to great careers after leaving Montreal.
Darryl Sutter has done an amazing job of bringing the Flames back to the upper half of the Western Conference in a short period of time, so there's no sense dreaming of what could be in Calgary if St. Louis, Savard and Stillman were still part of the Flames' forward rotation.
How can you pick Mario Lemieux over Brendan Shanahan? Even Mark Messier would be a better choice than Lemieux. Wouldn't you agree? You can't play by name alone. -- Bruce May, Moncton, New Brunswick
No, I wouldn't agree, or I would've picked Messier or Shanahan for my team. I realize that you can't play by name alone, but a healthy Lemieux is a lock to not only be on Team Canada, but also to captain it. Wayne Gretzky has said as much, and he will honor his promise to Super Mario if he's healthy enough to play.
I e-mailed you earlier in the year about Marc-Andre Fleury. Since he is back here now with Cape Breton, I was just wondering what you think of his personal situation and long-term playing for Pittsburgh? -- Brent Duff, Sydney, Nova Scotia
The Penguins probably wish that they didn't rush Fleury to the NHL this season, though he did provide some spectacular moments, such as the 48-save effort against the Kings in his NHL debut on Oct. 10. It's been proven that 18-year-olds aren't ready to play goalie in the NHL, so I think Pittsburgh made the right decision to send him back to the QMJHL where he will try to lead the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles to the Memorial Cup.
With another few months of junior hockey under his belt to help him shake off his disappointing performance at the World Junior Championships, Fleury then will likely be ready to again battle for a roster spot next season. His roller-coaster rookie year aside, Fleury remains a top-notch prospect for the long haul, and should battle Thrashers prospect Kari Lehtonen for the title of best young goalie in the NHL over the next several seasons.
My Sharkies seem to be in the perfect position to take the Pacific Division. However, I'm getting a little upset over Doug Wilson not pulling a deal to bring in a good defenseman who can play the point on the power play. Brad Stuart has shown some flashes of brilliance but has otherwise been an average power-play pointman. Christian Erhoff is still too young and doesn't quiet grasp the NHL quiet yet and is splitting time with big hitter Rob Davison. Who out there, besides Sergei Gonchar, would be a good pointman for the Sharks to get? -- Dan Petri, Lafayette, Calif.
There really isn't much of a market after Gonchar, unfortunately. With Darryl Sydor and Eric Weinrich already having been snatched up by defense-needy teams Tampa Bay and St. Louis, respectively, the market for blueliners could be pretty thin. The prevailing wisdom at this time is that the Avalanche are the favorites to acquire Gonchar and perhaps Olaf Kolzig, with Phil Sauve and Derek Morris likely being the bait. But it seems as if teams are waiting for Gonchar to get dealt to determine the rest of the trade market for defensemen.
I've heard it suggested on a few U.S sports shows that get shown over here that if there is a work stoppage, the NHL may return with less teams. Do you think that is likely? How many less teams and which ones would be most under threat? -- Andy Ball, Newcastle, England
I don't think it's likely that any teams will have to fold after the potential lockout, because the whole reason for the lockout is to make the playing field more competitive for these small market teams. So franchises such as the Penguins, Hurricanes, Panthers, Oilers and Predators that have struggled financially all could be better off once the lockout is over because the salary structure may be radically different. If the lockout stretches into two or more seasons and teams believe that they may have trouble winning fans back in their market once it's over, then you may see a small number of teams suspend their operations or relocate once the lockout is over.
Do you think the new WHA will get off the ground and do you see it really competing with the NHL like the original one did back in the 1970's? -- Bill Sallis, St. Paul, Minn.
There is no chance that the WHA will compete with the NHL, and I'm skeptical as to whether they will be ready to play games this fall. If the NHL settles its collective bargaining agreement squabble before then, the WHA is likely dead on arrival anyway. But the new version of the WHA remains hopeful that it will get a 12-team league off the ground for the 2004-05 season.
The cities currently listed as having teams are Birmingham, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Hamilton, Minneapolis, Portland, Quebec City, St. Louis and Toronto, which would leave one city yet to be determined. So the Sallis family will be able to relive the glory years of the St. Paul Fighting Saints if you are willing to drive across town to the Target Center, which will be the Minneapolis team's likely home.
The WHA's plans appear to be coming together rather slowly, and their organization and infrastructure looks to be surprisingly poor for an endeavor which claims to be just seven months away from icing teams for an inaugural season.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.