Daily Debate: Who will win the Pacific?

BURNSIDE: Greetings, my friend. Another week is almost in the books and the playoffs are that much closer. A handful of compelling games Thursday night, but the one that caught my eye was the Dallas Stars upending San Jose in a shootout to strengthen their grip on the Pacific Division lead. The Sharks blew 2-1 and 3-2 leads, allowing the Stars to tie the game with less than two minutes to go in regulation; San Jose continues to be a team that seems to find ways not to get the job done. The Sharks still hang on to eighth place in the conference, but that’s only because Los Angeles and Colorado both lost on the road Thursday night (in Columbus and Nashville, respectively).

For me, though, the Stars remain an interesting team to watch down the stretch and into the playoffs, because I have no doubt they’re going to be a playoff team, something few of us thought likely in September. I remember spending some time with Michael Ryder last year during the playoffs when Ryder was with the Bruins. Coach Claude Julien told some pretty funny tales about trying to get the easygoing Newfoundlander to dig in as a junior and later in the American Hockey League and the NHL. Ryder’s nickname was Easy, as in Easy Rider. But he chipped in some timely goals for the Bruins, and here he is, having signed as a free agent with Dallas, leading the way for the surprising Stars with 29 goals (he scored the first goal Thursday night). He is second on the team with five game winners.

The other guy who really stood out for me was Stars netminder Kari Lehtonen. I saw a lot of Lehtonen in Atlanta, and for a long time it looked like he would never be able to live up to his billing as a first-round draft pick (second overall in 2002), but he seems pretty comfortable carrying the freight for the surprising Stars right now.

LEBRUN: Despite a busy NHL night, I focused mostly on watching the Sharks-Stars game, and San Jose, for my money, played its best game in nearly a month. Sometimes before a good streak, a terrific effort in a losing cause is what can turn things around, and that was the feeling I got from Thursday night. The Sharks launched 48 shots at Lehtonen, and his masterful display of netminding was the only reason the Sharks didn’t get two points instead of one. As Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was saying the other day, the shootout proves nothing. It’s a roll of the dice. It was important for San Jose to show there is still a heart beating in there after what has been a miserable few weeks. But let’s see if that was just a blip as opposed to a new direction for the final four weeks of the regular season.

I’m glad you brought up Ryder. Amazing that he was a free agent in our media fantasy league about six weeks ago. I have to admit I scooped him up only because I had some injuries. Boy, am I ever happy I did. He’s been en fuego. Try 10 goals in his past 15 games. Heck of a signing by GM Joe Nieuwendyk, indeed, and a bargain at $3.5 million for the kind of offense Ryder is bringing this season. And for the Stars, this was a statement win as they look to prove they’re legitimate threats for the Pacific Division title. It was nice to hear the crowd roar in that rink Thursday night after what has been a disappointing season for attendance on most nights for the Stars.

BURNSIDE: Only four games are on tap Friday, but all four have significant playoff implications, and you have to wonder what the Los Angeles Kings' mindset will be as they head to Joe Louis Arena after being nipped 3-1 in Columbus on Thursday night. That’s four straight wins for the mighty Blue Jackets and, to add insult to injury, former Kings defenseman Jack Johnson scored the winner with nine seconds left in the first period.

The Red Wings have hit a bit of a wobble since their record-breaking home winning streak came to an end, but they remain an elite team, and the Kings’ heavy road schedule is one of the reasons I don’t think they will be able to crack the top eight in the Western Conference. The Wings have fallen four points off the pace in the Central Division as St. Louis continues to roll along at the top of the division, the conference and the league standings. So you know the Wings will be a bit ornery Friday. The Wings have won just twice in their past seven outings and are still without Jimmy Howard, although Joey MacDonald has certainly proven he’s a more-than-capable backup in recent weeks. I figure the Kings take another one on the chin Friday. You?

LEBRUN: Well, you would be wobbling, too, if you had both Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk out of the lineup at the same time. Of the two superstars, Lidstrom should be back sooner, although Wings GM Ken Holland told me this morning via text that the seven-time Norris Trophy winner is out through the weekend. Call me crazy, especially with the Kings in a back-to-back situation and the Wings so mighty at home, but I have this gut feeling L.A. is going to squeeze one out at Joe Louis. The playoffs start now for the Kings.

Speaking of the playoffs, the bottom bracket of the East (and the Southeast Division title race) continues to be a turtle affair. Florida, Winnipeg, Tampa Bay and Buffalo all lost Thursday night, with only Washington taking home two points with a comeback, overtime victory over the Lightning at home. The Sabres actually played a decent road game in Boston but, playing on back-to-back nights, ran out of steam in the third period against the Cup champs. The Sabres remain two points out of the eighth and final playoff spot now held by Washington. The Caps are tied with the Jets at 72 points, while the Panthers hang on to the third seed in the East with 74 points. It doesn’t get any easier for the Cats with a game in Pittsburgh on Friday.

BURNSIDE: If the Kings are going to steal a couple of points in Detroit, Friday would be a good night to do it given the Wings’ injury issues. The Panthers, meanwhile, have shown an incredible ability to pull out of slides that could potentially wreck what has been an impressive season. Can they do it now? What’s troubling is that when they go sideways, they go all the way. The Panthers were waxed 5-0 by Philadelphia on Thursday (I guess all is right in Ilya Bryzgalov's universe at the present moment). A week earlier Winnipeg toasted them 7-0. Kris Versteeg didn’t join the Panthers on this current road trip, and his absence has been problematic to an offense that isn’t all that deep to start with. And now they’re headed into Pittsburgh, where I expect they’ll face netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. Pittsburgh has won seven straight and actually has pulled to within six points of division and conference-leading New York. Like you and your hunch on the Kings, I’ll go with the Cats to pull out a surprise victory in Pittsburgh.

The Panthers are of course perpetually looking over their shoulder, and the Washington Capitals are closest in the rearview mirror thanks to Alex Ovechkin's overtime winner against Tampa. The up-and-down Caps are in Boston for a matinee affair on Saturday, but will they have Mike Green at their disposal? I know you didn’t think much of Green’s hit Thursday on Tampa rookie Brett Connolly.

LEBRUN: I did not like that hit on Connolly whatsoever. There was no penalty on the call, but Green has a hearing with Brendan Shanahan on Friday, and my guess is Green is facing anywhere from three to five games. For starters, Connolly had no chance to see Green coming since Dmitry Orlov was draped all over Connolly, but what makes the hit illegal is targeting and elbowing the head. Secondly, you’d think Green would know better than to deliver that kind of hit given his own history with concussions. Not smart.

Well, Scotty, have a great weekend.