Important week for playoff hopefuls, Coyotes
1. Make or break week in PhoenixWhile the news on the ice continues to be spectacular for the Phoenix Coyotes -- they woke up Monday morning in fourth place in the Western Conference and riding a five-game winning streak -- the team's future in Phoenix is entering a crucial phase this week.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly will be in Phoenix starting Tuesday in the hopes of helping smooth the path to a new lease between the city of Glendale and Ice Edge Holdings, the group of businessmen who hope to buy the beleaguered team from the NHL.
The visit comes on the heels of reports the group's financing has fallen through and the deal to buy the team from the league, which has been controlling the franchise for the past year, is off the rails.
But CEO Anthony LeBlanc told ESPN.com financing remains set, and the main and virtually only obstacle to the deal being closed is the lease with the city of Glendale. He said legal language for a new lease that would help improve revenue streams for the owners is being discussed and he believes they will assume ownership of the team by the end of the current season.
"It isn't a question of financing," LeBlanc said. "We continue to be as optimistic as ever."
The group has incurred $1 million in expenses thus far and is committed to moving forward with plans to buy the team, LeBlanc said. There have been no changes to its financing plans and no plans to alter its original proposal to honor the remaining 26 years with the city of Glendale -- provided the two sides can agree on changes that will improve revenue streams for the owners, he added.
It's believed the presence of Bettman and Daly in Phoenix may help spur closure on the lease deal.
"We feel very confident that we will get there in very short order," LeBlanc said.
This week looms large, as rumors of other potential owners and the future of the team in Phoenix continue to dog the Coyotes even as the buzz continues to grow in the city with the team's solid performance this season.
Coyotes executive vice president Jeff Holbrook noted that for a Tuesday night game last week against Vancouver, the Coyotes drew a walk-up crowd of 1,701, the largest the team has had since the lockout. Playoff tickets are already being offered to season-ticket holders with a full-scale playoff ticket blitz planned for later this month.
The bottom line: unless the city of Glendale is prepared to rework the lease, it doesn't matter whether it's Ice Edge or Joe Dog -- no one is going to get financing to buy the Coyotes and keep them in Phoenix. Come up with a plan for a new lease and do it quickly, or the league will move quickly to find a new owner in a new city.
2. Beginning of the end?It had all the makings of a great tale: ageless Chris Chelios gets called up from the American Hockey League by the reeling Atlanta Thrashers to bring much-needed leadership and savvy to a team desperate to make the playoffs.
Chelios, 48, was directly involved in both Thrashers goals in a Thursday's 2-1 loss to woeful Columbus, his first game back in the NHL this season. In his second game, Chelios played 14:26 in a 5-2 loss to the New York Rangers. He had no shots, no penalty minutes and was an even rating for the night. On Sunday, he played 13:20 and had one shot on goal as the Thrashers rallied to tie Phoenix before losing 3-2 in a shootout.
The Thrashers have now gone six games without a win and their chances of making the playoffs are all but extinguished. One might suggest Chelios' career as an NHLer is likewise flickering toward its end.
3. Samuelsson pays off for CanucksWe have to hand it to Vancouver GM Mike Gillis, who has taken some heat for how he's gone about building his Vancouver Canucks.
Gillis looks somewhat the genius for his offseason acquisition of forward Mikael Samuelsson, whom he signed to a three-year deal worth $2.5 million annually. Samuelsson, named one of the NHL's stars of the week Monday, looked like one of those risky free agents GMs often end up overpaying to land. He'd enjoyed success with Detroit, where he won a Cup in 2008, but was that success inflated by the team around him?
Samuelsson has proved to be a solid citizen in Vancouver and was recently promoted to the team's top line with the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel. Still, Samuelsson isn't simply riding the twins' coattails. He's already established career highs in goals (30) and points (53), and playing with the Sedins for the foreseeable future looks to pad those stats even more.
4. An illustration of the Olympic debateOne of the treats of covering the Olympics was getting a chance to chat with Ruslan Salei, the captain of the Belarus team. Eloquent and passionate about the game and the importance of the tournament to his home country, Salei nonetheless illustrates one of the reasons some, if not most NHL owners, hate the NHL's involvement in the Olympics.
The Colorado Avalanche are paying the veteran defenseman $3.275 million this season. He played one game, on Oct. 8, and sustained a back injury that required surgery and did not play again until the final NHL game before the Olympics. Salei then logged big minutes for Belarus, which lost in a shootout to Switzerland in a qualification game. Post-Olympics, Salei played three full games, then reinjured himself after playing just 4:01 in the Avs' fourth game. When he might return to the lineup is unknown.
Now, would Salei, officially designated as having a "torso" injury, have been injured even if he hadn't taken part in the Olympics? Perhaps. But it's a fair suggestion had Salei not rushed back into action for the Games, he may have been more durable for the Avs, who are headed to the playoffs after a surprising season.
If Salei cannot return to action for the postseason, what will his loss mean to a Colorado team that has little in the way of playoff experience? Time will tell, but those are the kinds of questions that, when posed to owners, lead to a reluctance to commit to the Olympics going forward.
5. Anderson has HartSpeaking of the Avs, it's funny how Colorado netminder Craig Anderson's name never pops up in conversation about the Hart Trophy, yet is there a player who has been more important to his team's success?
The journeyman netminder, who finally landed a full-time starting gig with Colorado this season, leads the league in shots against by a considerable margin. He has started 60 of the Avs' 68 games and has them firmly entrenched in a playoff spot after many picked them to finish at or near the bottom of the West standings. His .924 save percentage is fifth in the league and his 35 wins put him sixth among all netminders. On Sunday, as though to emphasize his importance to the team, Anderson made 48 saves in a 5-3 win in Dallas.
Food for thought come voting time.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
What To Watch This Week
1. Not much of a surprise the one game we will be watching with great interest is the Penguins' visit to Boston on Thursday. It has the potential to be a bloodbath in the wake of what looks to be a season-ending hit on Marc Savard by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke. There is much discussion about retribution and the fact the Bruins were slow to leap to Savard's defense when he was decked by Cooke on March 7. The fact the league did not suspend Cooke adds another layer of intrigue to the situation. Our guess is Cooke answers the bell and fights Shawn Thornton early on and that will be it. At least let's hope it doesn't get any uglier than that.
2. Speaking of the Pittsburgh Penguins, before battling (maybe) the Bruins on Thursday, they will be in New Jersey on Wednesday for the fourth of a five-game road trip and the final meeting of the season between the two Atlantic Division foes. To put it mildly, the Devils have eaten the Pens' lunch all season, winning the first five games of the series, including three in a row at Mellon Arena. The Devils can complete the sweep Wednesday and take a large step to jumping back into the top spot in the Atlantic. How important is that spot? The winner will almost certainly finish with the second seed in the East and face a much weaker opponent than if they finish fourth or fifth, which will be the consolation prize for the team that doesn't win the division. The Atlantic winner would also own home-ice advantage if the two teams meet in the playoffs.
3. What a weekend for the Chicago Blackhawks. First, they allowed the Philadelphia Flyers to beat them 3-2 on Saturday with less than three seconds on the clock. Then, they blew a 3-0 lead against Washington on Sunday and lost in overtime 4-3. And then, they found out defenseman Brian Campbell could be lost for the season after being pushed into the boards by Alex Ovechkin. One wonders if this lost weekend won't act as a galvanizing moment for the talented young team, or signal some kind of character flaw that may doom it come playoff time. We'll find out soon as it plays four of its next five on the road, starting with dates in Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
4. The Anaheim Ducks posted their first win in six games since the Olympic break on Sunday (beating San Jose 4-2), but the slide has likely cost the Ducks a shot at a playoff berth. They begin the week in 13th place in the Western Conference, eight points out of the final spot. Among the players who have struggled since the Olympics are gold-medal winner Ryan Getzlaf, who has just one goal and four assists since Canada's big moment in Vancouver and has taken a number of questionable penalties that have contributed to the Ducks' woes. And now, he's day-to-day with an ankle injury. The Ducks close out a seven-game homestand by entertaining Chicago, the New York Islanders and Colorado this week. Going 3-0-0 would seem imperative if there is any playoff life left in the Ducks.
5. Is there a streakier team in the NHL than the Ottawa Senators? Let's review: four-game winning streak in mid-November, five-game losing streak in early January followed immediately by a franchise-record 11-game winning streak; a post-Olympic stretch in which they have won just once in six tries. That's good for the nerves. The Sens entertain Toronto on Tuesday and then hit the road for three against Atlanta, Dallas and Montreal. Ottawa began the week fifth in the Eastern Conference, but where they end up is anyone's guess.
Take This To The Bank
But if voters needed any further evidence as to Tippett's coaching acumen, they need look no further than his decision to employ veteran defenseman Adrian Aucoin as his shootout closer.
No player in the league has more game-deciding shootout goals than Aucoin's four. He simply doesn't miss. Only one other defenseman, Jack Johnson of Los Angeles, has as many shootout goals. Go figure.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Chris Stewart, Colorado Avalanche: Another of the Avs' young bucks to light it up, Stewart has seven goals and 13 points in his past seven games as Colorado continues to chase Vancouver for the Northwest Division crown.
Lee Stempniak, Phoenix Coyotes: The quiet forward who couldn't seem to get on track in Toronto has six goals and seven points in the five games since the Coyotes acquired him at the trade deadline. As both GM Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett predicted, all Stempniak needed was a little change in scenery.
Daniel Cleary, Detroit Red Wings: One of our favorite players, Cleary has struggled with injury this season and has just one assist since the Olympic break and one goal in his past 12 outings. He'll need to get back on track if the Wings want to maintain their tenuous grasp on a playoff spot in the West.
Alex Tanguay, Tampa Bay Lightning: It's been a disastrous season for the former sniper, as Tanguay has just nine goals. Worse for the offense-starved Lightning is that Tanguay has gone 12 straight without a goal and has just one in his past 19 games.