Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun take on the hot topics, without the use of oven mitts.
CUSTANCE: Good morning, Pierre. Sadly, this is my final day in beautiful Florida, where I'm headed to BankAtlantic Center to chat with some Bruins and Panthers during the morning skate. But you've already left Florida to take in the biggest game of the night: Rangers versus Penguins. Sidney Crosby is back and that means the Penguins are back as the Eastern Conference favorite as long as they stay healthy. They might just be the league's best team. But before getting into Thursday night's game, I did want to touch on a big win by the Avalanche on Wednesday night. They beat the Sabres in a shootout, giving them three consecutive wins as they continue to cling to the final playoff spot. I think the work of GM Greg Sherman and coach Joe Sacco has been a bit underappreciated this year. Jamie McGinn had another big night and is turning into the best trade deadline addition in the league. Colorado doesn't have many players under contract beyond this season, but that didn't seem to concern Sherman when we chatted Wednesday.
"We'll address that at the end of the season," he said. "It's the blueprint from years ago. We have a plan in place and we're continuing with that plan."
At this point, it's safe to say the plan is working in Colorado.
LEBRUN: Honestly, I had buried the Avs about a month ago. Hats off to a young team that found resolve and resiliency when many people thought they had packed it in. The best part for Colorado is that Semyon Varlamov has been terrific, and the fact the Avs won’t be a lottery team has to make Sherman breathe easier, given the first-round pick he gave up to Washington to get him. Colorado has played three more games than San Jose -- the Sharks are two points behind the eighth-place Avs -- so the odds remain stacked against them making it, but they sure are making it interesting. So are the Winnipeg Jets. They won a must-win game Wednesday night against Dallas and continue to be a different team in the loudest NHL arena. They’re now 22-10-4 at home, the only reason they’ve been able to hang in the playoff race. They’re four points back of eighth and still have a chance, although it’s a long shot. But back to the Bruins, who you will see tonight in Sunrise. What the heck is happening with these guys?
CUSTANCE: Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli didn't hide the frustration with his team after the GM meetings wrapped up on Wednesday. The sting of losing 6-1 to the Lightning was evident, but he said it went beyond that. "When you look at our stretch since the new year, it hasn't been very good. We always look for a big sample size to judge our team. Right now, I have a pretty big sample size," he said. "We're going through a real challenging time right now." He thought fatigue played a part in the Bruins' struggle, but his bigger concern is that the Bruins aren't winning battles, he doesn't like how they're pursuing pucks and he sees too many guys cheating offensively and defensively. "We have to get our heads on straight as to how we approach game to game," he said. "Then it's a mentality you get going into the playoffs. We have to get that back. That's going to take some work." That's an experienced team, and ultimately Chiarelli said he still has faith his team will figure it out. Do you?
LEBRUN: There are some red flags with this Bruins team. Tim Thomas needs to find his A-game. The team's defensive game, which is the bedrock of its success, is porous at best right now. Nathan Horton's absence created a more negative impact in the top-six group than I would have expected. Elite teams should be able to survive those injuries. The Bruins have stumbled more than a team of their level should. Time to look in the mirror and take ownership if you're a core player on that team. This is unacceptable. Someone needs to remind these guys the kind of buy-in and commitment it takes to get back to being the Cup champion squad they are. I might be a little harsh here, but they were way better than this -- injuries or no injuries.
CUSTANCE: Your Sharks are another elite team that has had its struggles and is still looking to regain its swagger before the playoffs begin. Sharks GM Doug Wilson, as is usually the case, had a much more measured response to his team's current position than Chiarelli. He acknowledged that his team hasn't been great lately but preferred to look at the positive -- there's still time to turn things around. "People forget that last year, late January, we were 12th in the Western Conference. We've been through this before and Todd [McLellan] has led our team and the players have led our team to play the right way and go to the final four the last couple years," Wilson told ESPN the Magazine. "The good news is we have a bunch of games left and have our guys back healthy. It's in our own hands, which is the way it should be." The Sharks host the Predators on Thursday night in a big one between two potential Western Conference powers, but San Jose doesn't want to wait too long to string together wins. Nearly every team around them in the standings has superior goaltending, which could be the difference in a tight race. Wilson is optimistic that getting Martin Havlat back in the lineup will provide a boost. "The key to this game is being healthy and playing well at the end of the year. That's the most important thing," he said.
LEBRUN: The Sharks are a mystifying bunch, that's for sure. I was chatting with a GM on Wednesday when out of the blue he turned to me and said, "What's with the Sharks?" He saw the same thing I did last fall, a team that should again contend for the Cup. Like a lot of teams, injuries have hurt. Netminder Antti Niemi has been inconsistent. But overall, I wonder sometimes if they have enough team speed to compete with the elite clubs in the West. Getting Havlat back will certainly help in that department. If he can channel the Martin Havlat circa 2009 playoffs with Chicago, then the Sharks will be an improved team. And know this, you have to think St. Louis and Vancouver -- the top two seeds in the West -- are hoping they're not getting the Sharks in the first round. Bad season or not, the Sharks have been to back-to-back conference finals and they might just use the second season to turn on the engine.
We'll see. Right now they don't look like that team.
Well, I'm off to Madison Square Garden for the morning skates. Apparently there's a big game there tonight.