Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun go around the league to discuss some of the hot topics around the league with some cold, hard truth. Have at it, boys.
BURNSIDE: Good day, my friend. Hope you are feeling better after being laid low by the end of the Winter Classic weekend. Let’s start with the red-hot Washington Capitals, who won their fourth straight Tuesday night, beating Calgary 3-1 and moving into seventh in the Eastern Conference. Alex Ovechkin is rounding into form, with a goal and an assist, and he now has 17. Tomas Vokoun was solid again and Nicklas Backstrom had a three-assist night and is now tied for eighth in NHL scoring, with 42 points. But the story of the night -- indeed the story of the NHL the last couple of years -- was instead the cowardly elbow to Backstrom’s head delivered by repeat offender Rene Bourque. You watch the replay and Backstrom is cruising through the neutral zone, nowhere near the puck, and Bourque raises his elbow and clips Backstrom in the head. Bourque had a hearing with NHL disciplinarians as a result. Backstrom was going to be held out of practice Wednesday and continue to be monitored. Earlier this season, Bourque was suspended for two games for a dirty hit on Chicago’s Brent Seabrook. Remember the chat we had with Brendan Shanahan earlier this season about how his mandate was to hammer the repeat offenders, the guys who can’t get it through their thick skulls to stop trying to take opponents’ heads off? Well, in my books this is a good place to make good on that mandate. Why not 10 games? Why not 15? Thoughts?
LEBRUN: Bourque’s hearing was scheduled to be via phone, not an in-person hearing, so as per the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, the suspension wasn’t going to be more than five games. But like you, I hated the hit. You had a defenseless player not even looking Bourque’s way, with ,no puck around him, and he gets clipped in the head. This is just the kind of hit the league is trying to eliminate. Backstrom played two shifts after the incident but then was taken out for precautionary reasons. It annoys me that he even played two shifts. I give the Caps credit for taking him out eventually but on plays like that players should be taken out immediately. Backstrom is slated to be re-evaluated late Wednesday. The incident marred the bigger-picture story for the Caps, who finally have their mojo back and are playing their best hockey under Dale Hunter. What really jumps out at me is the puck possession they have right now. This is the kind of hockey that this lineup should be playing.
BURNSIDE: You knew that the Caps couldn’t be as bad as their record suggested through most of the first third of the season. With Tuesday night’s win, they pulled to within three points of Southeast Division-leading Florida, and the Caps have a game in hand. It’s going to get very interesting for the Panthers, who are struggling with injuries and have to be more than a little nervous seeing the Caps charging up in their rearview mirror. But let’s touch on a little post-Winter Classic news: an update provided Tuesday by Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren on Jaromir Jagr. Seems the calf injury the winger spoke about at length following the Flyers' 3-2 loss Monday was really a groin strain (you called it in the press box as Jagr was walking to the dressing room late in the first period). He'll be out a week to 10 days and the injury is cause for some concern for the five-time scoring champ, who will turn 40 in a little over a month. But for me the interesting thing will be to see if this opportunity jump-starts James van Riemsdyk, who is expected to be given a shot playing with NHL scoring leader Claude Giroux (he’s tied with Henrik Sedin) and Scott Hartnell. Van Riemsdyk, of course, signed a big six-year contract extension in the offseason with a hefty $4.25 million annual cap hit. But after being expected to step into a leadership role offensively with the departure of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, van Riemsdyk has found himself in a holding pattern, with just nine goals in 32 games. Maybe Jagr’s absence will see the 22-year-old seize the moment.
LEBRUN: The onus on the Flyers is to be careful with Jagr. It’s in the playoffs that they need him most, not in January. They must ensure he’s 100 percent healed from his latest groin injury before they let him back into a game. Otherwise this will be a recurring nightmare for Jagr and the Flyers. As for JVR, I mean, if playing with Giroux doesn’t jump-start him, what will? Any winger who gets a chance to skate alongside the magical Giroux should get an automatic boost. Just look at Hartnell this season. In fact, it’s with Giroux that I think JVR played his best hockey last season. So this is indeed a golden opportunity for him. At the very least, Jagr’s injury news took the focus off the goaltending drama for a day.
BURNSIDE: So, let’s close with a look at the big game of Wednesday night (at least in my books) in which Minnesota visits Vancouver. It has to be complete coincidence that after pumping the Wild’s tires early in December and actually placing them first in the ESPN.com Power Rankings, they have managed to fall almost completely off the map. The Wild have managed just one win in their last 10 games and have been supplanted atop the Northwest by a Vancouver team that is looking very much like the team that ran rampant during the regular season a year ago. If there was ever a statement game for the Wild (think Monty Python and the classic "But I’m not dead yet" line), this is it. A regulation win in what marks the exact midpoint of their season and the Wild are back within a point of the Canucks, and maybe their confidence returns. A loss and they’re five points behind the Canucks and you can legitimately start asking whether they’re playoff-caliber.
LEBRUN: To be fair, the Wild were hit hard by injuries in December, and that was a major contributing factor in their collapse. Having said that, what team hasn’t been hammered by the injury bug this season? Not only would the Wild fall five points back of the Canucks with a regulation loss Wednesday, but the they’re only three points ahead of the hard-charging Colorado Avalanche (8-2-0 in their last 10 games) in the Northwest. They’re also just four points above ninth in the Western Conference. It just shows you how fast things can change in a league in which parity has never before been more evident.