1. B's looking for consistency -- of the good kind
The Boston Bruins carry a three-game losing streak into their game against the Florida Panthers on Thursday night and have not won more than two in a row since late December. The slump has jeopardized what was once a stranglehold on the Northeast Division lead and a shot at the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Not only that, but a regulation loss would move the Panthers to within two points of the second seed in the East.
“We’re win one, we lose one and I’m not happy with that. We’re in the midst of injuries right now, maybe a little fatigue. I’m confident in our group but we’ve got to get through these struggles. It’s not very pretty right now. It is what it is, to use the oft-used phrase,” GM Peter Chiarelli told ESPN.com at the GMs meetings that wrapped up Wednesday in Boca Raton, Fla.
Chiarelli said the Bruins had roughly the same number of points a year ago at this time, but the team’s inconsistency is worrisome.
“You’ve got to grind your way through it. You still have to pay attention to detail. You can’t take for granted that, 'Hey, we’re good, we’re going to be fine.' You’ve got to take those intermediate steps and they’re hard to do when you’re not playing well. And that’s where we are right now,” he said.
Maybe it’s the curse of the meetings themselves. Last year, the Bruins were in the middle of a controversy over the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty, two years ago it was the Marc Savard hit by Matt Cooke and this year it’s a losing streak.
“I don’t know if history repeats itself that way. I’ve never been happy coming here. We’re always either losing or losing players,” Chiarelli said.
2. Blues finding clues
We had an interesting chat with St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong a few weeks ago, when the Central Division was a grab bag of top teams with Chicago, Nashville, Detroit and the Blues all vying for the lead. At the time, Armstrong said he was curious to see how his team responded to being considered a contender, that they were going to have to learn to play with the big boys, teams that have been down the long playoff road and had consistent success. So far, so good, as the Blues have opened up a seven-point lead on Detroit for the race to the top of the Central and lead Vancouver by six points at the top of the Western Conference. Heading into their home game Thursday against Carolina, the Blues also enjoy the top spot in the NHL with a three-point lead over the New York Rangers. Armstrong pointed to a recent six-game road trip, one that began after a disappointing home loss to Boston, as a real marker for him.
The Blues went 5-1 on the trip.
“The game that impressed me with our group was in Winnipeg, where we didn’t play well but we found a way to win in a game that we didn’t play well in. To me that’s the sign of a good team. You expect to win when you play well but the good teams win when they’re not at 100 percent, and we found a way to do that. I think we gained a lot of confidence doing that on the road and we hadn’t done that in the past,” Armstrong told a small group of reporters.
There has been little in the way of complacency for a team that hasn’t won a playoff round since 2002.
“I’ve only been in St. Louis for a finite amount of time, so I haven’t been through the agony and pain that the fans and a lot of the players have been through,” Armstrong said.
“We’re not surprised that we’re in the position that we’re in, and we’re not accepting that this is far enough. This isn’t far enough.”
3. Hart debate
Quite a dilemma shaping up for Hart Trophy voters as Tampa’s Steven Stamkos has, as of Thursday morning, moved into a tie for the NHL scoring lead with Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin. Stamkos, of course, continues to run away with the goal-scoring lead as he is the only player to reach the magical 50-goal plateau, 12 more than Malkin, who is second.
But the Lightning have fallen back in the playoff race and it’s unlikely they can cover the ground needed to get into the postseason, something that will definitely blunt Stamkos’s Hart Trophy chances.
But is there a case to be made for Stamkos, with 13 goals in his past 13 games, to be the first Hart Trophy winner whose team didn’t make the playoffs since Mario Lemieux did it in 1988? Maybe. Regardless, the recently turned 22-year-old has certainly seen his already impressive stock rise dramatically this season.
“I think it’s just a continued evolution. He’s really motivated to get better in all areas, not just scoring. He really works at his game. He works hard in practice. He’s just evolving, the more he plays. The playoffs helped him last year,” GM Steve Yzerman told ESPN.com.
“He’s just going to get better in the next four or five years,” Yzerman said.
There’s no doubt in Yzerman’s mind that Stamkos deserves consideration for the Hart, even if the team has wobbled.
“He should be. He should be," Yzerman said. "The two guys that come to mind are Malkin and Stamkos for me. We lost a couple in a row here but Stammer’s scoring and playing well in all aspects of the game, he should be considered in that. Now we’ve slipped a little bit in the standings and that will hurt but he should be considered.”
What is impressive to Yzerman is that Stamkos’ focus remains finely tuned.
“That’s him. He’s driven. He’s won at every level he’s played at and he’s committed,” the Hall of Fame Red Wing said. “He wants to be better, he wants to be better in all areas of the game. He’s extremely competitive for such a humble, polite, respectful guy, he’s very, very competitive.”
4. Holy role reversal in Philadelphia, Batman.
After weeks of nonstop angst about the play and mental faculties of franchise netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, the enigmatic Bryzgalov has gone into a complete zone for the Flyers. Heading into Thursday’s game against the Islanders, Bryzgalov is riding a six-game winning streak. Incredibly, he has earned a shutout in four of those games. In the last six games, Bryzgalov (Mr. Universe to some after the HBO "24/7" reality show earlier this season) has allowed just five goals on the last 151 shots he’s faced. Not bad for a guy who looked devoid of confidence around the new year, and there were rumblings that perhaps Sergei Bobrovsky might end being the team’s playoff starter.
GM Paul Holmgren said this transformation is more mental than technical.
“I think more than anything he’s just becoming more comfortable with playing goal in Philadelphia," Holmgren said. "I don’t think it’s any different than any other player going to a new team. There’s an adjustment period. I think Ilya started the year good for us and then had a little bit of a rough patch, kind of like the team did, and obviously his play of late, he’s picked it up at a critical time for us and that’s good. But I don’t think there’s any one thing I can point out. I do think just being comfortable in the confines of playing goal in Philadelphia, whatever that means."
5. West is a test
As of Thursday morning, three points separated seventh through 11th places in the Western Conference standings. Compelling? You bet. But maybe not so much so for the GMs of those teams whose playoff hopes wax and wane from day to day.
“I guess if you’re a fan, it's exciting. Maybe for the media, it’s exciting. For those teams that are in that position, it’s a battle every night,” Calgary GM Jay Feaster said.
“The unfortunate thing is that you put yourself in the spot. It’s great the way we’ve been able to respond of late but you wish you weren’t in that position. I wish that we had taken advantage earlier in the season and we weren’t in this spot,” he said.
“Certainly this is a great time of year and it’s exciting for our fans. It’s exciting for our market. Every night it’s a meaningful game, it’s a battle, dogfight, the Western Conference, both conferences quite frankly, the competitive balance has been outstanding,” Colorado Avalanche GM Greg Sherman told ESPN.com. “It’s good to be part of it."
Washington GM George McPhee, whose team is in a battle for the Southeast Division lead but could also just as easily miss the playoffs entirely, chooses not to watch the games when he can’t be in the arena with them and simply gets the score after it’s all said and done.
Hence the other night he did not know until after the fact his squad had gone down to the New York Islanders 4-1 and then bounced back to win in a shootout.
“It’s almost too long a game for a manager. I get the score and then watch it,” he told a small group of reporters. “I prefer to be at the games and watch them live because then you can see everything that’s going on. Obviously, when we’re at the meetings, I can’t be there. I don’t like to watch it in a bar full of other GMs or people.”
McPhee is hoping history will repeat itself given the Caps’ strong play down the stretch in recent years.
“It’s been a tough year for us but it doesn’t mean it can’t end up being a great one. We’re not focused on the playoffs so much as just trying to have a good run here. We’ve had real good runs the last four or five years after the deadline and can only hope we’re going to have another big one,” he said.