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Cat scratch fever

Predators showing some fight in tough Western race

Posted: Sunday March 02, 2003 4:24 PM

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By Jon A. Dolezar,

The Dixie Chicks may be No. 1 on the Billboard country albums chart, but the Predators are the hottest thing going in Nashville these days.

Emily, Martie and Natalie made their dash up the charts with as much style as substance, but Barry Trotz's team doesn't win with much panache at all. Grit and hustle are the Preds' preferred two step, and they have danced their way up the Western Conference standings as a result.

Nashville's 5-4 overtime win against Chicago on Saturday pushed the Predators over the .500 mark for the first time since early in their second season. Nashville is ninth in the West, trailing Edmonton by three points for the eighth spot and Anaheim by seven points for the seventh position. But even ninth place is an amazing achievement after the awful start the Preds had.

They got out of the gate with a 2-10-4-4 record and rumors started circling that Trotz was on the hot seat. Patient general manager David Poile shot down those rumors repeatedly and convincingly by sticking with his original coach through the tough times.

Poile's patience is a big reason the team is where it is. Trotz broke Predators color commentator Terry Crisp's longevity record for games with an expansion team on Saturday by coaching his 392nd game with Nashville. The conscientious Poile has never strayed far from the team's original plan to build slowly through the draft, and the franchise is finally reaping the benefits of its excellent scouting work.

The Preds made a clever marketing move before the season by issuing a playoff pledge to their season-ticket holders wherein they would refund the offseason price increase for their ducats if the team didn't qualify for the postseason this year. In October and November, it looked laughable, appearing as if team owner Craig Leipold would be shelling out some big bucks. But with his team's impressive run over the past two months, Leipold not only might save his cash, but also could stand to earn a few million extra if Nashville gets to host its first playoff games.

"It's hard to describe it all," Leipold told The Tennessean on Saturday. "My voice is gone, and my hands are still shaking. It's just a wonderful, wonderful feeling."

Nashville is blessed with one of the best coaches in the business, the woefully underrated Trotz. Sure to be a Jack Adams finalist if the Predators can hang around the playoff race for the last five weeks, Trotz has remained unshakable despite the seemingly unrealistic expectations of playing in the postseason.

"I'm reading all the so-called experts, and they have us way at the bottom all the time," Trotz said in September, as his team prepared to open training camp. "And I hope they are wrong. I know we have a better team than we did last year."

With 18 games remaining, Nashville is only four points behind last season's total of 69 and could best the franchise's top mark of 80 points, which it put up in 2000-01. The Preds are on pace to both score and allow 205 goals this season after tallying 196 but surrendering 230 a season ago.

"We've got a lot of proud guys, and we are going to try our best to do it," Trotz said in January, when his team was 12-18-7-4 and still hovering near the bottom of the Western Conference. "But the playoffs are our goal until we are mathematically out of it. I'm pretty sure this group is pretty determined to stay in it and keep their focus on trying to get there."

Trotz has kept his team focused despite the slow start and a major trade earlier in the season. Tomas Vokoun is 20-10-5 since the team dealt Mike Dunham to the Rangers on Dec. 12. Nashville has been dominating at home, winning 12 of its past 14 at the Gaylord Entertainment Center. And the Predators have been spectacular in the second half, going 9-2-1 since the All-Star break.

"I'm telling our guys not to look up," Trotz told The Tennessean on Saturday. "After game 82, we can all look up and see where we are. But I'm asking them not to get too full of themselves, and to remember what got us here -- good defense, good goaltending and getting contributions from a lot of people."

With leading scorer David Legwand sidelined for the rest of the regular season with a broken collarbone and top goal scorer Andreas Johansson still out with a bruised hip and strained groin, the Predators need to get points from all four lines. Denis Arkhipov, Adam Hall, Scott Hartnell, Vladimir Orszagh, Scott Walker and Vitali Yachmenev all need to pick up some of the scoring slack.

Nashville should have a better idea at the end of this week if the wonderful feeling Leipold described is likely to last past April 6. The Predators will face stiff challenges against some playoff teams this week, with games at Central co-leading St. Louis on Tuesday, against sixth-place Minnesota on Thursday, and at West-leading Dallas on Friday. With seven home games and 11 on the road down the stretch, the Preds need points. And if Nashville can pull at least three points out of those three games, there could be sounds of postseason hockey to compete with the honky tonk tunes of the Grand Ole Opry come April in Music City.

Rangers' playoff push
While the Predators are making the West a little wacky, the resurgent Rangers are on an equally surprising run in the East. New York has won four of its past six, and six of 10, to improve to 6-5-2-1 since Glen Sather took over for Bryan Trottier on Jan. 30. The Rangers' hopes are hindered by the fact that they have played more games than the other teams they are battling for the eighth spot -- the Habs have played two fewer games, while the Bruins have four games in hand. The Blueshirts have home games against two of their fiercest rivals this week, playing host to the Islanders on Monday and the Flyers on Friday. If they can keep scoring nearly four goals per game, as they have over the past six games, the Rangers could make the race for the No. 8 seed very entertaining.

Open your wallets, fakers
The NHL has decided to fine divers $1,000 per incident, even if it isn't whistled as a penalty during the course of the game. From the league office in Toronto, every game's videotape is reviewed to assess the officiating and look for missed infractions. As part of that regular review process, the league is going to call out chronic divers and publish a list in an apparent attempt to shame them into stopping. Chris Chelios lit into divers this week in the Detroit Free Press. "Once the word gets out, let the guys dive, just don't call it," Chelios said. "They want to dive and make fools of themselves and get fined, let them."

Cleaning out the supply closet
Despite the fact that he was traded to the New York Rangers on Feb. 10, the Pittsburgh Penguins plan to give away Alexei Kovalev bobblehead dolls at Thursday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Pens gave away a Martin Straka doll on Dec. 23, but their other two bobblehead giveaways of the year show that they are really stuck in the past. They gave away Ulf Samuelsson dolls on Nov. 23 and Joe Mullen dolls on Feb. 12. Well, I suppose when the current roster doesn't have much worth celebrating, you might as well hold on to the past.

Toronto @ Ottawa -- Tuesday, 7 p.m. EST
The Senators have posted a 2-1 record in the Battle of Ontario this season, and all three games have been low-scoring affairs, with the winner netting only two goals each time. Ottawa has been knocked out of the playoffs by Toronto in each of the past three years, so the hatred in this matchup is peaking as the postseason nears. With the Sens fighting for the top spot in the East and the Leafs likely to finish fourth or fifth, a second-round meeting is a strong possibility for the second straight year.
Vancouver @ Philadelphia -- Tuesday, 7 p.m. EST
Western flash meets Eastern brawn in the City of Brotherly Love in this game. The Flyers have won three in a row, while the Canucks are winless in two after a franchise-best 14-game unbeaten streak. This is the only meeting between these two teams this season, so it's the only chance we'll have to see rugged 6-foot-3, 245-pound Canucks winger Todd Bertuzzi and bruising 6-foot-5, 235-pound Flyers defenseman Chris Therien go at it. Vancouver won 4-1 in Philadelphia last season, though the Flyers earned a split by winning out West later in the year.
New Jersey @ Minnesota -- Tuesday, 8 p.m. EST
If ever a game was destined to end 1-0, this is it. Jacques Lemaire coached the trapping Devils to the most boring Stanley Cup win ever in 1995, and now Lemaire's trap-happy Wild are surprising everyone by being in the Western Conference playoff hunt. The goal judges could petition for a night off in St. Paul, Minn., since Martin Brodeur and the Dwayne Roloson/Manny Fernandez tandem aren't likely to let too many, if any, get past them.
St. Louis @ Detroit -- Friday, 7:30 p.m. EST
The Red Wings made a mockery of the Central Division last season, finishing 18 points ahead of the second-place Blues. But no Dominik Hasek and no Steve Yzerman until last week has hampered Detroit's efforts to repeat, and St. Louis has hung in the race. The Wings have won both meetings this season, but the teams meet twice more before the end of the season to settle their neck-and-neck division duel.
Vancouver @ Toronto -- Saturday, 7 p.m. EST
The Canucks will be wrapping up their five-game road trip in Toronto against one of the best home teams in the league. The Leafs are 21-11-2-0 at the Air Canada Centre overall but just 4-4-1 against Western teams. Toronto beat Vancouver 5-3 at GM Place on New Year's Eve, so the Canucks hope to gain some revenge against their Canadian rivals.

Plus: Milan Hejduk
Maybe we should just reserve the top spot in the Plus-Minus section of the Glance for Hejduk until further notice. The Duke has a 10-game points streak to follow up the 13-game streak he posted earlier in the season. Hejduk is tied with Marian Hossa for second with 38 goals and needs just four more goals, two more assists and five more points to set career highs in all three categories.
Minus: Theo Fleury
We may be seeing the sad end to Fleury's always interesting NHL career. The troubled Fleury has just nine goals and 12 assists in 38 games with Chicago this season, and the sinking Blackhawks sat him down for two games last week. Despite having two assists since returning to the lineup on Thursday, Fleury knows he is on shaky ground with the club and that he might not see the second year of his two-year, $8.5 million deal.
Plus: Nikolai Khabibulin
The Lightning needed their No. 1 netminder to get back on track after a run in which he went 0-6-3 with a 3.82 goals-against average and a .864 save percentage. The Bulin Wall has gone 5-0-1 in his past six games with a 1.15 GAA and a .957 save pct. Khabibulin hasn't let in more than two goals in one game since falling to the Isles 6-2 on Feb. 11, and he has given up only seven goals during his six-game unbeaten streak.
Minus: Bill Guerin
Maybe $9 million doesn't go as far as it used to, but Guerin has just 25 goals and 25 assists in 64 games this season, and he could miss the remainder of the regular season after having emergency surgery Saturday on a severe thigh contusion. If he doesn't play again in the regular season, Guerin will have cost the Stars $174,657.81 per point based on his 50 points and a 2002-03 salary of $8,732,890.63. Is a point per game too much to ask from a guy making 5.73 times the U.S. per capita income of $30,472 for each point he scores?
Plus: Bryan Smolinski
Among the great mysteries in life are "Why do women like Pam Anderson fall for guys like Kid Rock?", "How did Hilary Swank win an Academy Award?" and "How the heck did Bryan Smolinski score just 13 goals last season?" Smolinski has netted six goals in the past five games, giving him 18 in 54 games this season. After posting no multigoal games in the first four months, Smoke has four in the past 12 and has been carrying the injury-riddled Kings (along with Zigmund Palffy) in the absence of Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh.
Minus: Keith Tkachuk
Another entrant from the "Overrated power forward who hails from Massachusetts" department. Tkachuk should've gotten more than a four-game suspension for his brutal cross-Tkachuk to Wes Walz's throat last Sunday. He will lose $487,804.84, based on a prorated portion of his $10 million salary. Tkachuk will sit out games on Tuesday and Thursday against Nashville and Phoenix, respectively, before returning to the lineup on Friday at Detroit.
Plus: Curtis Sanford
Who needs Sean Burke? Sanford went 2-0 with a .980 save percentage in two starts for St. Louis last week against Edmonton and Minnesota. Including parts of three games that he played in an October call-up, the 23-year-old Sanford is 3-0 with a 1.44 goals-against average and a .940 save pct. in the NHL to go along with his 14-13-5 record with a 2.46 GAA and .916 save pct. with AHL Worcester.

"In the third period, you just have to keep the game simple and not give any life to the other team. When the other team scores four goals like that, it's embarrassing."

-- Sharks right wing Teemu Selanne after his team allowed four goals to the Flames in the third period of a 4-3 loss on Saturday.

"Things went pretty good tonight. I know what I can do. I've played in All-Star Games and the 1991 Canada Cup. And I've never felt better physically."

-- Maple Leafs right wing Shayne Corson after returning to the lineup Saturday and scoring a goal in his first game back after being a healthy scratch in seven straight games.

"It's the worst tie you can imagine."

-- Oilers defenseman Janne Niinimaa after Edmonton let Columbus come back from a 3-0 deficit to earn a 3-3 tie on Saturday.

"I wouldn't be surprised if in the next 10 days that we could have something really resolved here. The league saw to it just recently in the last couple days that we have all the documents necessary. We'll be reviewing them this weekend and the early part of next week."

-- Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano updating reporters Friday on his bid to purchase the Buffalo Sabres.

Steve Yzerman may be a great leader in the Red Wings' locker room, but that doesn't mean that his aging body will put up big numbers the rest of the way after his return last week. SportsTicker's Craig Rondinone says Yzerman's inspirational return to the ice probably won't have much impact from a fantasy perspective. Find out who has done what this season on our stats pages.

Also, click here to join an Fantasy Hockey league or to sign up your league with the Hockey Commissioner service.

Jamie Lundmark, C, Rangers
The 22-year-old Edmonton native has seven goals and nine assists with the big club this season after putting up nine goals and nine assists in 22 games with AHL Hartford.

The Rangers have lowered their expectations slightly for Lundmark since they made him the ninth overall pick in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. Originally thought to be a sure-fire second-line player, Lundmark hasn't shown the offensive flair he exhibited in juniors (96 goals in three years with WHL teams Moose Jaw and Seattle) and is now realistically more of a third-line, two-way player. Getting to play with an excellent checking forward like Bobby Holik will only help his defensive development, and Lundmark could eventually contend for a Selke Award.

Lundmark has been playing about 13 minutes per game, and he was recently switched from the Petr Nedved line to the Holik line. Though the veteran-laden, high-priced Rangers will rely heavily on superstars Pavel Bure, Brian Leetch, Eric Lindros, Alexei Kovalev and Mark Messier down the stretch as they try to make the postseason, it will be role players like Lundmark who have a big say in whether the Blueshirts can end their postseason drought.

Number of players from teams other than the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings who are among the top nine in the league in plus-minus.
Power-play goals by Markus Naslund (21) and Todd Bertuzzi (17), who rank 1-2 in the league.
Percentage of goals (seven of 17) by Flyers center Michal Handzus that have been game-winning goals.
Power-play percentage by the Detroit Red Wings since the All-Star break.

Our latest best guess at what the postseason seeding will look like.
Eastern Conference Western Conference
Ottawa Senators Dallas Stars
New Jersey Devils Vancouver Canucks
Washington Capitals Detroit Red Wings
Philadelphia Flyers Colorado Avalanche
Toronto Maple Leafs St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning Minnesota Wild
New York Islanders Anaheim Mighty Ducks
New York Rangers Nashville Predators

Each week during the season, this space will be devoted to your comments on a particular issue.

Last week's topic: Which team likely to finish in the top four in its conference is a candidate to be upset in the first round?

Easy choice here. The winner of the Southeast Division, be it the Capitals or the Lightning. The sixth seed will be, in all likelihood, the Islanders or the Maple Leafs, two teams that are built for the playoffs. Tampa Bay is a very young team that has little playoff experience. Washington is the most streaky team in the league -- the talent is there, but not always their hearts. The goalies, Nikolai Khabibulin and Olaf Kolzig, would make me nervous if I was betting on them.
Kevin, Montreal, Quebec

Without a doubt, it's Ottawa. Ottawa is not a playoff team. The only time the Senators have had home-ice advantage in the playoffs was two years ago and they got swept by the Leafs. Whoever finishes in eighth will beat them because they will have been playing a hard, gritty game for a least a month and a half, and Ottawa can't play that game, Ottawa's a mechanical team when the game is on the line, and you need guys to go in the corners and dig it out or take punishment in front of the net. We saw it last year in the East, and we'll see it again this year -- No. 1 loses to No. 8.
Ottavio Esposito, Location unlisted

Detroit has a completely new makeup this year, and I don't think it has aged well. With no late-season rest for mystery injuries and no Scotty Bowman, it seems to me that the Red Wings are made out of glass and are just ready to break.
John Trottier, Vancouver, British Columbia

Although it would depend on the opponent and any trades before the deadline, I think the Vancouver Canucks are primed for a first-round upset. Despite their fantastic year, this is still a one-line team. Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison will see the top defensive pair and checking line of any team. While it's not easy, if you can shut that line down four out of seven games, the Canucks are toast.
Chris Boyd, Las Vegas, Nev.

Take your pick out of the Eastern Conference. Any of the top four could go and recent history has proved it. The likely top four out west (Dallas, Vancouver, Detroit and Colorado) will march on and be one heckuva final four. How about forgetting the Eastern Conference this year and just watching these four Western teams play a round robin? I would pay for those tickets.
Dean Yearous, Kansas City, Mo.

The best choice to lose in round one is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Like the Chicago Cubs in baseball, these guys melt down in the stretch.
Leonard Lapatnick, Manalapan, N.J.

I think its fairly obvious that whoever manages to come out of the Southeast Division will be "upset." If the rule stating that the first-place team automatically gets a top-three seed wasn't in place, the entire division would miss the playoffs. In fact, the co-leaders of that division, Washington and Tampa Bay, have fewer points than the eighth place team in the West, and would be fighting for their playoff lives in the West.
Eric Wagman, Toronto

I'm going to say that it's the Detroit Red Wings. The chances of those Hall of Famers keeping the glue truck out of the dressing room is slim. Yzerman may come back but for how long? And besides, when has Curtis Joseph ever played up to his Stanley Cup billing?
Tim Scollick, Detroit

This is a no-brainer. It will be my Flyers, just like every other year. They're killing me, as usual. So is that really an upset? Hmmm ...
Tim Simmons, Virginia Beach, Va.

Ottawa will be out in the first round. Just mention the word "playoffs" around this team, and they are avoiding corners and anyone wearing blue and white. There are only two things you can count on coming from Ottawa: 1. No one can understand what our Prime Minister is saying. 2. The Senators will have an early summer. See you on the golf course, guys.
Michael Oksiutik, Toronto, Ontario

Washington: Because somehow, someway, God and his sick sense of humor will grant the Penguins the No. 6 seed. Déjà vu all over again in the East.
Brad Brooks, Arlington, Va.

In the West, anyone could beat anyone. You have to be a good quality team in the West just to make the playoffs. The top four teams in the West could be had in the first round. The East is a mish-mash of mediocrity after Ottawa and New Jersey. So teams Nos. 3 and 4 in the East, whoever they are, could easily go down, and it would be hard to even call it an upset.
Bill Hunt, St. Paul, Minn.

Ever see that old episode of The Simpsons where they run a trailer for The Itchy and Scratchy Movie and at the end use the disclaimer "57 percent new footage"? The Flyers should use the same disclaimer. They will go out in the first round this season for the same reasons they have been bounced early the past few years: lack of offense, lack of confidence in their goaltending and their inability to adjust. This has happened under several coaches. Yet the one constant that remains is Bobby Clarke. Of course, he'll whine about injuries since he can't fire the coach this time. And this will continue to happen until Clarke is gone.
Brian Grayson, Tempe, Ariz.

I don't see how Ottawa will make it to the second round, no matter how well it plays the season. You'd think that the Sens would be a mentally strong team after all those playoff losses to Toronto, but they just don't seem to learn. God be with them if they face the Leafs.
William Pullinen, Helsinki, Finland

This week's topic: Who will win the Art Ross Trophy (NHL's leading scorer)?

Click here to send us your choice, with a short (75 words or less) explanation. Brevity and humor are good; naughty words and personal attacks are not so good. And don't forget to include your name, hometown and home state/province.

Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for "Week at a Glance" appears each Sunday during the regular season.

Got a comment, question or scoop for Jon? Click here.

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