Scott Burnside and Craig Custance discuss the race for the No. 1 spot in the Southeast Division and what the Canucks should do at the trade deadline.
Burnside: Good day, my friend. Hope you are well-rested after the All-Star festival. I know I’ve been banging the Florida Panthers’ drum all season, but just when you want to count them out, they seem to find a way to stay in the picture, which is so unlike Panthers teams from the past decade. Wednesday night was a case in point. No Jose Theodore (knee), no Kris Versteeg (illness), no Scottie Upshall (sports hernia), no Jack Skille (shoulder), no problem as the Panthers downed Washington 4-2 to jump all the way from ninth place in the Eastern Conference to third as they regained sole possession of the Southeast Division lead.
True, the Capitals were playing the second of back-to-back games in Florida, having lost in overtime the previous night to Tampa. And Caps netminder Michal Neuvirth did allow a couple of long bombs to Mikael Samuelsson to give the Panthers the win. Still, it was a big win for the Panthers, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2000. It also illustrated the very real possibility that this will be one of those rare (and ugly) situations where one of these teams will win the division and enjoy home ice in the first round and the other will go golfing come mid-April.
The Capitals played their third straight game without Alex Ovechkin, who was suspended three games for his reckless hit on Zbynek Michalek. They were 1-1-1 over that period and looked pretty ordinary. But then again, they’ve looked pretty ordinary all season. So the battle for the Southeast Division title may end up being a turtle race, but a compelling turtle race nonetheless.
Custance: I know the situation well. I had the pleasure of covering the mighty Thrash's one and only playoff appearance, when they won the Southeast and earned the No. 3 seed only to get steamrolled in the first round of the playoffs by the New York Rangers. You can't help but wonder if we're seeing the same thing here. Although if the playoffs started today, Florida would be playing Ottawa in a series that I think would be pretty even. And just like we all predicted in the preseason. Right?
But it was a heck of a win for the banged-up Panthers. If you're counting, that's now three goals in the past two games for Samuelsson, who could end up being a useful veteran player down the stretch for the Panthers now that he's healthy. I saw that trade with Vancouver more as a way for GM Dale Tallon to get out of David Booth's contract, but it could end up being more than that. For the record, Booth showed signs of regaining his scoring touch before the All-Star break with goals in three consecutive games.
But it looks like the Capitals are going to have their hands full with the resilient Panthers heading down the stretch. Especially if the Caps can't win on the road. Maybe the return of Ovechkin can spark a Washington win streak. You optimistic?
Burnside: Honestly, I'm not sure what to make of the Capitals. The Ovechkin issue is secondary in my mind compared to the continuing absence of Nicklas Backstrom, who remains sidelined thanks to Rene Bourque’s cowardly elbow to the head of the Caps’ most important player; Bourque drew a paltry five-game suspension for the incident. Backstrom is the straw that stirs the team’s drink offensively, and without him they are just one in a group of flawed teams near the bottom of the playoff bracket.
The goaltending, too, remains an issue as the Capitals are tied for 21st in goals allowed per game. It's funny how a year ago the Caps, under former coach Bruce Boudreau, were one of the toughest teams to play against. But that isn’t the case this season, and while coach Dale Hunter likes to find a hot goalie and ride him -- Tomas Vokoun has been the guy in 13 of the past 16 contests -- is there anything that suggests he’s the guy to lead them to the playoffs, let alone the promised land? I think not. But Neuvirth, the goalie of record a season ago, also seems to have taken a step back, perhaps because he hasn’t played much. Either way, the Caps are in a much different place than we’re used to seeing them at as we head toward the trade deadline.
You mentioned David Booth and the Canucks. I’m looking forward to Detroit’s visit to Vancouver tonight; the Canucks could pull to within a point of the Red Wings and the overall lead in the Western Conference with a regulation win. I was a bit surprised to see goaltender Cory Schneider get the start in the Canucks’ first game back after the break, an exciting overtime win over Chicago. His play -- he’s 11-5-0 with a .928 save percentage -- and the approaching trade deadline have ramped up the debate over whether GM Mike Gillis should shop him for a big, talented winger to bulk up what is once again a Cup-contending lineup. Thoughts?
Custance: Here's the camp I'm in when it comes to Schneider. The Vancouver Canucks have this window right now to win a Stanley Cup. It's not time for Gillis to be conservative. If he can get a huge return for Schneider, whose value has to be at an all-time high based on how he's playing right now (and I've never heard a scout say a bad thing about him), I say he has to do it. I thought good friend Mark Spector nailed it in his column on the issue. The Canucks are married to Roberto Luongo and, if it's postseason goalie insurance you want, go get Evgeni Nabokov or someone like that after you trade Schneider. Vancouver could use another big body up front, and as Brian Burke is finding out in Toronto, those aren't easy to come by. Schneider, a restricted free agent after this season, is only going to get more expensive this summer, and it wouldn't be wise to tie up a bunch of money in goal. That money needs to be allocated elsewhere on the roster.
Wouldn't GM Steve Yzerman love a goalie like Schneider to build around in Tampa? Wouldn't Ryan Malone be a great fit for Vancouver's needs? There aren't many contending teams that have an asset as valuable as Schneider who is expendable. They need to take advantage. Agree?
Burnside: I would agree with you, my friend, if I thought for a second that Luongo is "the guy" to take that next step and win a Stanley Cup. I agree entirely that GMs who are hesitant or conservative rarely win the big prize. Look at the work Peter Chiarelli did in building the Bruins by trading star Phil Kessel, etc., or Ray Shero did in Pittsburgh adding Marian Hossa, Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz. But given how well Schneider has played and how confident the Canucks are with him behind them, I’m not entirely sure they can win a Cup without him. How about that? Do you really think Luongo has the mental fortitude to carry the Canucks four rounds? Has there been anything about his play in recent years to suggest he is that guy? Maybe you can learn to be that guy. Maybe being humiliated on the national stage in last year's Cup, as Luongo was, will galvanize him and allow Gillis the luxury of turning Schneider into a Ryan Malone or something even more valuable.
My take is this: If the Canucks win the Cup this June, it’s because Schneider has a hand, maybe a significant hand, in the Cup journey. If Schneider is dealt, the Canucks don’t get there in part because they won’t have the depth between the pipes that Luongo and his mental tics suggest they will need.
Custance: I disagree, Scotty. If they get a significant piece for Schneider, Luongo is more than enough of a goalie to win the Stanley Cup. I saw what you saw in Boston during the finals when he imploded. I understand that sentiment. But he also had moments when he showed he can be a big-game goalie, including Game 7 against the Blackhawks. Alex Burrows doesn't score the game-winner if Luongo doesn't make that save against Patrick Sharp in overtime. I really believe that the Canucks would have won the Stanley Cup with Luongo if Ryan Kesler hadn't been injured, and that takes nothing away from a great Bruins team. We know there's going to be attrition over the course of a playoff run, and I think it's more important for the Canucks to address their forward depth and acquire a physical presence up front than it is to hedge their bet with Luongo.
It's been fun, Scott. Have a great one.