We're another week closer to the playoffs and teams are still fighting to separate themselves from the pack.
Teams like Montreal and Anaheim are hitting their stride, while Buffalo and Nashville are looking like they're backing into the playoffs.
One of the biggest stories of the second half of the season is the play of Montreal goaltender Cristobal Huet. This guy is unbelievable. He is winning games, and winning them impressively. He is winning games at a stressful time of the season, when every game means so much. And he's going all of this under the pressures that only come with playing in storied Montreal. A lot of players can't handle that pressure. Huet is making it look so easy.
The Canadiens have won seven straight games. During that stretch, Huet is 6-0 with a 1.32 goals-against average and two shutouts. Oh, and he has seven shutouts this season!
It seems like Huet has come out of nowhere, but the Canadiens have a knack for finding goalies, drafting them and developing them into solid NHL starters. Look at Jose Theodore (maybe not this season), Mathieu Garon and Jocelyn Thibault, and all-time greats like Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden and Jacques Plante.
Now, with Huet, Montreal hasn't had a bad game of goaltending in about 25 games. I've said it before: Theodore's injury put the Canadiens into the playoffs. If he was still in Montreal, I don't think he would have kept his team in the playoff race.
Another goaltender who will lead his team is Martin Brodeur. New Jersey has been playing very well, playing "Devils-type" hockey. Timely goals, good defense and great goaltending. You're not going to have consistent scoring from throughout the roster; Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez are your big scorers. Then there's Brodeur. With him in net, anything goes for the Devils, and every opponent fears facing him in the playoffs.
Detroit is another solid team right now. The Red Wings are such a professional team, year in and year out. What I like most about them is that there's never any controversy with them. You never hear a player publicly bad-mouthing his teammates or coaches. It's a tribute to the veteran players like Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman. They all have a tight hold on that dressing room. The result? The team is 7-0-3 in its last 10 games.
Ovechkin is closing in on the 50-goal, 100-point plateau (as of Thursday, he was two goals and two points away), and what impresses me is that he's doing it without a supporting cast. At least Sidney Crosby had talent around him in Pittsburgh (Mario Lemieux at the beginning, Zigmund Palffy, Sergei Gonchar and John LeClair). Who has Ovechkin had? Dainius Zubrus!
I know some, including his coach, have gotten on Ovechkin for taking longer shifts, but that's why he's a rookie. Rookies make mistakes. He knows he's the Caps' best player and they know he knows it. The Capitals will have to teach him to be a pro, so when he does have more of a team around him, he won't wreck the team. But I don't have a problem with a player being cocky -- it's not bragging if you back it up, and Ovechkin is backing it up. He never takes a night off, he plays hard and in your face, and he lets people know he loves to score goals. We need more players like him in the NHL.
Phaneuf is also a great story. If he was playing in a bigger market, like New York or Los Angeles, he would be a star. He gets no credit. He's a rookie defenseman playing in Calgary -- a double whammy for the lack of notoriety here in the States! He's the best young defenseman to come into the NHL in years. He's the league's biggest hitter, he runs the Flames' power play and he's going to score 20 goals this season. If you have yet to watch this kid play, do it soon. He's so much fun to watch.
Two teams that have stalled as of late are the Sharks and Thrashers. Atlanta's case is a bit more desperate.
Two weeks ago, Atlanta was in the playoffs and ahead of a couple of teams. Since then, the Thrashers are under .500 at a time where a team needs to stay hot to reach the playoffs. Now, Atlanta is stale and New Jersey and Montreal are red-hot. The Thrashers still have a chance, but will likely have to win every game to keep those chances alive. It's not like they've been behind all year -- the Thrashers were in it, but couldn't stay in the top eight in the East.
There have been rumors that goalie Kari Lehtonen had been playing with a broken finger the past few weeks. If that turns out to be true, that could be what does Atlanta in. The Thrashers need great goaltending because they aren't a good defensive team.
The Sharks, meanwhile, are still knocking on the door in the West. If they do miss the playoffs, you can point to three losses in the last week: back-to-back vs. Phoenix and another vs. Columbus. Those are the games you need to win. The Sharks took those teams too lightly and that's a cardinal sin at this point of the season. San Jose outplayed Dallas earlier in the week to win in overtime. That's how they need to play every game. If they miss out on the postseason, the Sharks will have only themselves to blame.
It was the third knee-to-knee hit I've seen in the past week or so. Tucker-Hecht, Brendan Witt-David Vyborny and Michael Ryder-Andrew Alberts. There were also no penalties called after any of those hits. I saw all three of the hits and I thought the Witt hit was the worst one -- he later received a one-game suspension.
Knee-to-knee hits are a problem. I think if one is delivered in a game, the player needs to be severely penalized when it happens. Not a two-minute call, but a four-minute call. If the player does it again, suspend him. To take the point further, I think the hip check that Darius Kasparaitis uses should be banned. The hip check is an old-time kind of hit. Any time a hip check is delivered, there is a strong chance for a knee injury. I don't think we should keep a hit in the game that isn't officially in the playbook, but can still hurt a player.
Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.