Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun debate the Kings, Sharks and the rest of the Pacific Division:
Custance: Good morning, Pierre. Hope you didn't stay up too late watching the Sharks play the Kings, but I know you never miss a San Jose game. So let's start there. I don't think it's a stretch at all to call that the biggest win of the season so far for the Kings. Until last night, they struggled against some of the Western Conference elite. They were already 0-1-0 against their rival Sharks. They have losses to Vancouver, Detroit and Chicago this season and scored a total of seven goals in those four games leading up to last night. So they needed this one.
Jonathan Quick outplayed Antti Niemi, who probably would like Ethan Moreau's bad-angle goal back, one that gave the Kings an early 1-0 lead. Sharks coach Todd McLellan didn't think his team tested Quick nearly enough, especially early in the game, and that's a credit to the Kings' team defense, not to mention a penalty kill that was perfect against five Sharks power plays. Had Dustin Brown's goal been allowed, it would have been a three-goal night for the Kings' struggling offense, and that's plenty for Quick. The statement win by the Kings takes them from outside the top eight to No. 6 in the West, passing San Jose. Suddenly, the Kings are just one point behind the Stars in the Pacific.
LeBrun: I did stay up and watch because Pacific Division hockey is tough to beat in this league. It was a big victory in many ways for the Kings; I agree with you there, Craig. The Kings entered that game only 6-6-1 at home this season, and I know that concerned management. The cream of the crop in this league excels at home. That has to happen in Los Angeles for the Kings to remain with the big boys for the rest of the season.
For the Sharks, it's the first time they've lost two in a row since dropping three straight in the second week of the season. I don't see any real reason to worry. They deserved a better fate Saturday night against Vancouver but got stoned by Cory Schneider and outdueled by Quick on Monday. One concern I do have is with one of my favorite players in the league, Dan Boyle. The veteran defenseman has gone seven games without earning a point. It's not often you see that from the dependable Boyle.
Custance: I thought Sharks beat writer David Pollak did a fantastic job analyzing Boyle's struggles this season in a Sunday story in the San Jose Mercury News. Boyle, as always, was very candid and talked about how the game has changed, and that has forced him to adapt. He said he can no longer generate offense in the neutral zone, which has long been a part of his game, because of the way teams play now. It was interesting to read about a 35-year-old accomplished veteran admitting to struggles with confidence and probably overanalyzing his own game.
Now, let's overanalyze the game of someone else. The Wild won last night in an impressive bounce-back victory against the Lightning. They won despite another underwhelming effort from Dany Heatley. The official box score had him down for two giveaways, but that total was much kinder than my unofficial scoring at home. One Heatley turnover led directly to a Steven Stamkos goal. Late in the game, Heatley had trouble scoring on an open net, a moment that highlighted his offensive struggles. If Heatley maintains his current pace, he'll finish with just 21 goals. The bright side is the Wild keep winning, but can you imagine how they would perform if he could return to All-Star form?
LeBrun: If Heatley was the same All-Star scorer of the past, the Sharks wouldn't have traded him. The thing is, the Wild had to get Martin Havlat out of Minnesota, plain and simple. He wanted out, and a few Wild players wanted him out, so it was a trade that pleased everyone. It's important to remember that from GM Chuck Fletcher's perspective. Still, the Wild are 28th in the NHL in goals per game. At some point, that's going to drag this team back down the standings. When I spoke with Fletcher earlier this month, his belief was that once Heatley grew more comfortable in his new settings, he would take off. But so far, there's no evidence of that.
Speaking of teams that can't score, how about the reeling Anaheim Ducks? They're 29th in the league in goals and just a point out of the basement in the overall standings. From what I have been hearing in the past 24 hours, big changes could be coming, whether that's in the form of a trade or coaching change. One way or another, I think GM Bob Murray is poised to try to do something significant as early as this week.
Custance: Interesting to hear Bobby Ryan's name appear in the trade rumors. Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe floated the idea of a trade between the Ducks and Bruins that would send David Krejci to Anaheim in return for Ryan. You have to assume Toronto GM Brian Burke, who knows Ryan well, would at least kick the tires. Not sure trading Ryan is a good solution to boost scoring, but it's fascinating to hear that one of Anaheim's big three could be in play.
Let's not forget, it was Murray who got a huge return for Chris Pronger, so no one is untouchable. It'll be interesting to see whether Murray goes the trade route rather than a coaching change to shake things up. Washington and Carolina made big moves behind the bench Monday, and we get to see new coaches Dale Hunter and Kirk Muller in action tonight for the first time. Hunter takes on the Blues, where Ken Hitchcock is proving that a new voice can make a big difference.
I asked Florida coach Kevin Dineen what has impressed him the most about Hitch's Blues after they played the Panthers, and he said it was the consistency from line to line.
"There's not a whole lot of deception out there. He has them playing the way that team has to play," Dineen said. "I would describe it as straightened and very team-oriented, meaning that they come at you and if there's one guy on the puck, there's always someone else in that area code to try and help him out. It's very reliant on players helping each other more than the individual."
Washington and Carolina could use some of that.
LeBrun: Also of interest to me tonight is Vancouver hosting Columbus with Schneider making his sixth straight start in goal for the Canucks. Coach Alain Vigneault insisted Monday that Roberto Luongo remains the No. 1 goalie, but he's just riding the hot hand right now as his team needs wins. It's a fascinating tale, to be sure, given how Luongo's season ended against Boston in June. It also continues to boost Schneider's trade value if the Canucks decide to move him. That's no sure thing, either.