Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ducks Start the Slow Death of the Season?

Ducks traded veteran Chris Kunitz today to Pittsburgh for Ryan Whitney. Kunitz is rumored to be joining the highly touted line of Crosby and Malkin for the Penguins playoff push.

Whitney, 26, (6'4 230) had 2 goals and 11 assists in 28 games last year, and has been slowed a bit by injuries. The young defender fills a gap the Ducks have beyond this season, in their defensive corps that stands to lose a large number of players to free-agency this off-season.

Kunitz was by far one of my Favorite Ducks, so thanks for the great years, Chris. Hope life w/ Crosby treats you well, you were a class act, and a great member of the Ducks in both the team and community.

Looks like the GM believes this is time to blow it up.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sharks Can Take Control on Road Trip

The San Jose Sharks embark on a four-game road trip to end February that is the second longest of the season and longest remaining trip in both length and distance. It starts in Dallas Monday at 5pm PST and ends Saturday at 4pm PST in Montreal.

What a difference a week makes.

A week ago, this looked like an especially difficult trip. The Stars were surging toward what looked to be a certain fifth or sixth seed in the West, Detroit looked like it would challenge the Sharks for the top seed, Ottawa had won five straight through February 16, and Montreal had added Matthieu Schneider to their defence.

Now, the Stars have lost their best remaining skater, the Sharks lead over the Wings has grown to three games (three points plus three games in hand), and Ottawa has dropped three. Montreal's problems are the stuff of a bad movie: Alexei Kovalev being sent home for a couple games and the Kostitsyn brothers and Roman Hamrlik being linked to organized crime. (Maybe Hamrlik should have used that connection to sabotage Alex Ovechkin's skates before he made him look so bad.)

Perhaps more significantly, San Jose has four of its six injured players back for this trip. Defenceman Brad Lukowich has yet to play, but has been activated and took part in the pre-game skate before Saturday's game before the coaching staff decided to scratch him. Forwards Jody Shelley, Tomas Plihal, and Jeremy Roenick returned to play in that game.

Even an overtime/shootout loss Monday to Dallas would ensure a victory in that season series and keep the Sharks 12 games up on the second-place Stars, who would have just 23 games left to catch San Jose. You can see my preview of that game on The Hockey Writers.

The Sharks have a chance to mathematically ensure a playoff spot before the trade deadline if they win all four games on the trip and the first game back home against Dallas. While that is not likely, what looked like a trip in which the Sharks would be lucky to get three points now seems like one in which anything less than four would be a disappointment.

Look for San Jose to come away with five, beating Dallas and Ottawa and taking Montreal to a shootout. They will go into March still holding a two-point and two-game lead on the Red Wings and as many points as the Bruins, who they will have a game in hand on.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Memo to Big Dave London

"In regards to your challenge, I'll go 1,000 words with you that the Kings WIN the season series with the Sharks.

If the Kings and Sharks happen to meet in the playoffs...the playoff series winner trumps the regular season it?"

Those were your words in taking my Pacific Division Challenge, and disappearing from this site doesn't get you off the hook. Now that you cannot win the season series, when—er, if, your Kings don't make the playoffs, you owe me that post if you are a real man. If by some chance y'all DO make it in (in which case you are likely to play us, since it looks like we'll be the top seed or at least second, and you're unlikely to make it higher than eighth or maybe seventh), when—er, if, you lose, be ready with that 1000 words on our superiority.

As for the rest of you, none of you even had Dave's courage to take the challenge...
Hey' it's s'posed to be a trash-talking rivalry blog, so whaddya 'spect?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

San Jose Sharks Wish List

This is a list of what one thing I would instruct the general manager and coaching staff as well as each of the team’s likely 23 active players in the playoffs to focus on to get better. It starts with those I think is most responsible/indispensible to the team’s success and works its way down to the one I think is least important. Some of them require me to really nitpick.

Note: salary and expectations are not a factor in this determination, and thus does not measure over/under-achievement, but it does factor in how much they have to work with, which explains why Setoguchi is ranked below Pavelski and Clowe.

1. Doug Wilson: If this team does not start playing with more consistent urgency, don’t be afraid to make a change in personnel—we need the Cup this year because who knows what the chances will be in the future.
2. Todd McLellan and staff: Light a fire under these guys’ butts, because they are not focused enough! I hate to recommend techniques used by Ron Wilson, but occasionally calling someone out publicly might work if doing it in the locker room so far has not.
3. Patrick Marleau: Be more physical. You are big, play like it.
4. Joe Thornton: Shoot the puck more! People would give you more passing lanes if they had to respect the shot.
5. Dan Boyle: Don’t take so long to wind up on those great slapshots—it’s giving the opposition too much time to clog the shooting lanes.
6. Rob Blake: Your offence and leadership have been great, but you are in the penalty box too much.
7. Joe Pavelski: Your shootout efficiency has dropped, and with it the team’s last four competitions—we need you to be money again.
8. Ryane Clowe: You are my favourite player, but it is ridiculous that your linemate is more effective in traffic in front of the net when he is over 50 pounds lighter than you are.
9. Devin Setoguchi: You still need to keep working on attending to your defensive responsibilities more—don’t make the second-year mistake of cheating for offensive opportunities.
10. Marc-Eduoard Vlasic: Ron Wilson is not coaching this team anymore—you don’t have to be afraid of mistakes so much that you don’t get as involved as you could on the offensive end.
11. Milan Michalek: In your case, a well-placed roughing penalty might send a message on the league to stop picking on you.
12. Christian Ehrhoff: Remember to take something off that slapshot so you can put it somewhere that helps us. When your production disappeared mid-season, you were missing everything from the point. (Or stop whining about every penalty like you’ve never committed one—I’ll take either.)
13. Douglas Murray: Keep the hits coming, but you need to work on that shot!
14. Mike Grier: Stop putting useless shots right into the goalie—aim for a corner or the five-hole on some of those, or bounce one in front of him he needs to fight off.
15. Torrey Mitchell: Just get healthy already, and no more rushing your recovery, causing set-backs!
16. Jonathan Cheechoo: We need the guy that scores back, and you need to work on that until it is as casual as it was in 2006, ‘cause your in a real funk.
17. Brad Lukowich: I’d like to see you more involved in the offence when you finally return.
18. Tomas Plihal: Go to the net, young man, and you will get more points.
19. Marcel Goc: Make sure more of your shots are on net—you’ve blown a few big chances you worked hard to create by missing high and/or wide.
20. Jeremy Roenick: Can’t you bring the fire in the locker room or practice rink? ‘Cause this team lacks it, and Scott Parker used to motivate when he didn’t play.
21. Evgeni Nabokov: What the heck are you doing behind a bunch of people who have missed a bunch of games? Because you are not playing consistently, and if you can’t handle the workload, it is your responsibility to own up to that.
22. Jody Shelley: Too many teams are taking too many liberties with your teammates, and it’s time for you to make them more afraid to do so.
23. Alexei Semenov: See above, and work on your fighting—at your size, you should never lose.
24. Brian Boucher: You have been the team’s best netminder since coming over at last year’s trade deadline. Do whatever it takes to get a coach to put you in net, even if it means kissing butt!
25. Claude Lemieux: Get a point already, or at least do more enforcing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sharks in Need of Transfusion From Jeremy Roenick

Since beating the Boston Bruins on the road last week, prompting me to declare the San Jose Sharks ready to win the Stanley Cup, they have once again given way to the team that I am always nervous about going into the playoffs.

That win has been the only one in a seven game stretch in which the Sharks are 1-2-4. And do not tell me about them getting a point in four of five road games; remember, the goal is winning the Stanley Cup, and overtime losses are just losses after Easter.

They have surrendered the first goal in six of those seven games. They have squandered a third period lead in three of those seven games. They have committed more penalties than their opponents in four straight games.

The one in particular that bothers me is showing up late. How can you not be ready when the puck drops? You have the best team in the NHL, and are the odds-on favourite to win Lord Stanley's Cup playing teams that may be playoff bound—how can that NOT have you jazzed as soon as the puck drops?

Jeremy Roenick is what this team needs. He may not score anymore, but he could always be counted on to light the fire. Claude Lemieux has been unable to get his passion to spread through the team, perhaps because he has yet to get a single point in 10 games. JR might not score much, but this team has seen him score big goals for them and may get behind him and respond to him more readily.

If Roenick does not return soon by next week's road trip, the Sharks need to make a trade to get things going. They play three home games against two bubble teams and one of the worst teams in hockey this week. If they do not win them all, there is a huge problem.

But after that, they close the month with four road games against three playoff teams in six days. Just 1-1-4 so far this month, they will be lucky to finish February .500 and they will be lucky to still be in first in the conference, as one of those road games is against Detroit who is now just one point back (but two games behind in baseball terms, as they have played three more).

If I could suggest a trade, it would be great if we could get someone to take solid but overpaid Kyle McLaren off our hands along with a draft pick, but we would have to clear cap space to do pay the player we get in return. Any trade with McLaren would have to involve another player if it would bring San Jose help right now.

The next most logical trade candidate is Jonathan Cheechoo. It seems clear that Cheech is not going to return to his goal scoring form. He has been one of the league's three best goal scorers after the All Star break in the post-lockout era, but most of that came in his Richard Trophy season. He did finally score against New Jersey, but he is young enough and with a small enough contract ($3 million per year) to make him desirable enough for others.

I like Cheechoo. He always plays hard, and he is good defensively. But he is clearly not the scorer we paid him to be and we need someone on that third line who will put the puck in the net, because right now we only have two lines that can do that.

In return, we need a player with some fire. Even if he is old, since our goal is to win now. Someone like Sean Avery, but a little more evolved. I will be looking at candidates whose teams may be willing to move them in the coming two weeks leading up to the trade deadline.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sharks Answer the Bell, Win Big in Big Game

Yesterday, I wrote an open letter to the Sharks. I have been very concerned with their play since the Detroit game, and some legitimate concerns were addressed. I even suggested that it might be time to tweak things a bit.

That was exactly what they did for the game in Boston. In an interview after the game, Joe Thornton literally said, "We tweaked our game a bit" because of the previous struggles.

Thanks for listening, guys! It's nice to know you listen to me. I mean, a lot of fans wear shirts that say things like "San Jose Sharks Assistant Coach" because that's what they fancy themselves. But I guess being a community leader for the team brings real results!

(To show you the extent and limit of my ego, I don't really believe that, but I also don't think it's beyond the realm of possibility. Athletes and coaches read and write blogs, too.)

I have written a recap of the game for The Hockey Writers (I also have written a preview for the Penguins game; please hit the link and subscribe to my articles!), but I want to stress the five most significant accomplishments in Tuesday's victory in Boston:

1. The fact that the Sharks were able to take control of a game on the road in the third period
2. Bouncing back from the only three-game losing streak all season
3. Getting multi-point scoring performances from multiple sources
4. Taming a hot team
5. Winning against a quality opponent on the road with much of the hockey world watching

What is clear to me from this response is that the Sharks were indeed overlooking Columbus, and did indeed suffer a letdown following the match-up against Detroit. While this is disturbing, it does not suggest a team not ready for the playoffs.

It may in fact suggest a team more ready. Teams cannot play at full instensity for the 100-plus games it takes to win a Stanley Cup. Vancouver, Chicago, Carolina, and Columbus whom the Sharks struggled against after playing Detroit are all potential playoff opponents, but they are not likely to be overlooked in a playoff match-up.

It is much more important you win the big games than the little ones. Not only do you get the two points yourself, but you hurt the teams you beat in their quest to catch you. The Sharks have now won both "Games of the Year;" one in Boston and one at home versus Detroit.

I cannot wait for April!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Sharks Open Letter

Dear San Jose Sharks,

Did you peak too early? Because the play of this team is far from inspired, and I am concerned.

Winning the Stanley Cup is the only thing that matters to me, and I what am I seeing tells me you are not ready to win the Cup. For instance:

1. You are not beating the teams that you are supposed to. Columbus came into Saturday's game with more losses than wins (an overtime/shootout loss is a loss), having played and traveled the night before, and with half the team sick or hurt, including its top three goalies. You were rested and had three players out, two of whom play on checking lines.
2. You do not consistently win the games you really need. You needed this one because you had two previous losses and were staring at four more games against teams either currently in the playoffs or who won the Eastern Conference last season; that one is on the second of back-to-back nights, to boot.
3. You have to avoid a long letdown after big games. Since beating Detroit January 17, you have been flat, particularly on offence. You have gotten only 13 shots past goalies in six games, losing three of them even though four of the six were at home.
4. You cannot have any one player indispensable, and it could be argued that some of the above trouble was because Dan Boyle was hurt for three games, during which only six shots beat a goalie.
5. You have gotten fat off the highest percentage of home games in the league, while playing the fewest number of games overall. This means you will have the most grueling travel schedule in the league over the remaining nine weeks.

Should you be hitting the panic button? Heck, no! There are 32 games left.

But there are concerns, and I think low expectations from fans lead to low expectations by teams. Ask players if letting down their guard is allowed in places like Montreal, where Stanley Cups are the only acceptable goal and regular season success is meaningless.

We all need to raise our expectations. We are sick of hearing about playoff chokes, whether justified or not. We must expect a level of performance that we know means you are ready for post-season success so those comments will not be heard again.

I bring these expectations to you because I expect you to play better. I expect you to play better because I know how good you are. Here is why I still believe in you:

1. You are top five in offence, defence, power play, and penalty kill. No other team can say that.
2. You have twice won games in the same week in which one required six-plus goals and the other was 2-1.
3. You win a lot of close games, going 15-2-7 in one-goal games.
4. You have overcome injuries to key players, including a stretch without two of your top four defencemen and another without your top goalie.
5. You have balanced scoring. Eight players have 30-plus goals and two more have at least two dozen; four of them are defencemen. An astounding 18 players have scored a game-winner, with only six doing so more than once.

Time for Gretzky to Step Down

Wayne Gretzky will never be fired as the head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. That is why the only way to make a change is for him is to step down. There is no better time than now with the Coyotes losing six straight games in regulation, the longest such streak since the 1993-94 season, while they were still in Winnipeg.

When Gretzky announced that he was going to go behind the bench for the 2005-06 season, I, like most other Coyotes fans', was ecstatic. Here you have the greatest player to ever play the game behind the bench of my favorite team. There was just so much potential for greatness. Four years later, and the team has been mediocre at best.

Now that I think about it, there were a few reasons why “The Great One” was destined to fail behind the bench of the Phoenix Coyotes.

One reason is because Gretzky, being the all-time leader in points, would be always in the spotlight. He has had pressure from everyone in the media and in the fans alike. He‘s the greatest player of all-time, so why can’t he be at the least a good coach who is capable of taking a team to the playoffs? Like in many other cases were Hall of Fame hockey players go behind the bench, it just doesn’t work out.

One recent example was with the Chicago Blackhawks' Denis Savard, who was fired only four games into the current NHL season. I think this happens because there is a lack of coaching experience.

This is especially the case with Gretzky. He had no previous coaching experience. It’s hard enough to coach a young team like the Coyotes with coaching experience, never mind without.

The last reason his run as coach was meant to fail is because he took over a team that wasn’t very good to begin with. I could probably see him having more success on a better team, but then again there aren’t a lot of times when good teams are looking for coaches.

It’s not like Gretzky had a choice which team he coached, anyways, with him being part owner and head of hockey operations for the team.

The bottom line is Gretzky had his chance and he should be smart enough to know when enough is enough. There are so many good coaches out there with plenty of NHL coaching experience that Gretzky can get to replace himself.

Then just maybe they can get what is turning out to be another disappointing season and turn it into a playoff season. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Phoenix Coyotes Struggling to Put the Puck in the Net

In the past few seasons the Phoenix Coyotes have always lacked offense. They have recently taken that lack of offense to a whole other level.

In the four games since the all-star break the Coyotes have scored a combined total of four goals. It is safe to say they lost all of those games. There are a few reasons why there is a lack of offense on the Coyotes behalf.

The first reason is their absolutely dreadful powerplay. Their powerplay currently ranks second last in the league with dismal 13.1% success rate. The Coyotes are currently on a 0-19 run on the powerplay. That is simply unacceptable.

Head Coach Wayne Gretzky had the team recently in practice work mainly on their weak powerplay, so far none of that work is showing.

One of the reasons their powerplay isn’t working like it should be is their lack of puck control. One of the best ways to gain puck control is by winning faceoff’s.

The Coyotes are the leagues worse faceoff team. They have a dismal 43.6% faceoff winning percentage. To put it in perspective the second worse face off team, the Dallas Stars have a full 5% higher faceoff winning percentage.

The Coyotes lack any real good faceoff men. It’s too bad they don’t have Yanic Perrault anymore because he could sure teach the Coyotes a thing or two on how to win a faceoff.

Another reason they are struggling to score goals is because they recently have had injuries to a couple of key offensive contributors. Both Peter Mueller and Steven Reinprecht are out with injuries.

They are currently third and fourth respectively on the Coyotes in points. The Coyotes sure do miss both of these key players.

Lastly the Coyotes are just not getting enough production of their star off season acquisition in Olli Jokinen. He is currently on pace for a 54 point season, his worst point total since the 2001-02 season.

That is just way too low for a guy who has the potential and has shown he can score 90+ points. He is not helping on the powerplay or at the faceoff dot either.

The NHL Western Conference is very tight especially from the fifth to the eighth position. If the Coyotes can’t start scoring more goals they can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Sharks Drop Second in Last Five Home Games

There were a few streaks on the line Saturday night in the matchup between two of the Western Conference's top four teams.

Evgeni Nabokov had a 170-minute, 10-second shutout streak. It took only 48 seconds for the first to fall, as on a delayed penalty in the San Jose offensive zone, the Sharks failed to get possession of the puck.

Former Shark Brian Campbell skated into the attacking zone, dumped a pass to Andrew Ladd and attacked the net. Nabby saved his one-timer, but the rebound came to Shark-hunter Jonathan Toews (6 goals, 2 assists in 5 career games against the Sharks, including the first goal of his career) for the easy put-back.

A strange sequence followed in which it appeared Dave Bolland scored to give Chicago a two-goal lead just 10:59 into the game. But an obscure rule allowed for the referees to reverse the fourth penalty they failed to call on Chicago (they also let one go from the Sharks), and the goal was taken off the board.

Apparently, linesmen can only call majors and double-minors, but they can actually reverse the action that takes place after a non-call if there is any such penalty. Seeing that Jonathan Cheechoo had been bloodied, they reviewed video and assessed a penalty to Kris Versteeg.

Only trouble is, the penalty was commited by Toews, and the officials did not put the extra four or five seconds on the clock, either. Since they were already looking at video, why couldn't they see those two things?

And there are more questions:

1. With no explanation given over the microphone, we are forced to speculate on the nature of the decision. But since the review of video took a few minutes and the call was not made until it was completed, we can only assume it was video that brought the penalty. Why have I never seen this before, when many timesthere is this evidence?
2. How could Cheechoo coming back out of the tunnel with a cut be enough to make them get the call? Couldn't someone simply go cut themselves in the tunnel to get a call at a key time?
3. What difference does it make whether the high-sticking draws blood in deciding a penalty should be a double-minor? Is it not the action that is the infraction, not the result? And wouldn't it be worse if a slash broke my wrist than gave me a bloody nose, even though it would draw no blood? But then that is how the league issues discipline, too: if no one is hurt, you can do anything.
4. Why not allow the linesmen to call any penalties just like the referees? I understand they might not be watching for penalties as much as off-sides, but if they can make some calls, why not others? Wouldn't it make officiating better to have a another couple pairs of eyes in some situations?

In the resulting double-minor, the Sharks capitalized. About half-way through the first of the two minors, Joe Pavelski passed the puck from the point to Ryan Clowe on the half-boards, and he moved it to Chrstian Ehrhoff on the blue line right in the centre of the ice.

Ehrhoff's slapshot found its way through two Chicago defenders and two Sharks teammates screening Nicholai Khabibulin to tie the game. It was his second straight game with a power play goal, both with the Sharks primary man advantage weapon, Dan Boyle, out with an injury.

The power play has clearly suffered without Boyle. The Sharks are 3-14 (21.4 percent) in those three games, and while that is just two percent worse than the season overall, they also gave up a short-handed goal in this game.

Bolland got his point after all, picking up a shot that Ehrhoff heeled and racing in all alone. Ehrhoff tripped him in trying to dive and kick the puck away, making Nabby's save easy. But no one picked up Versteeg who put the rebound home uncontested.

Later saw another of the Sharks' streaks come to an end: three games without having given up a power play goal. That came with 3:45 left in the second and the Sharks having a man without a stick. Cam Barker passed the puck from the point to Patrick Kane, who got it to Toews on the doorstep to Nabby's glove side. Toews roofed a quick shot past Nabby as soon as he went down into the butterfly.

The Sharks gave up another power play goal to Duncan Keith (assists by Brent Seabrook and Versteeg) in the third period, but needed only ten seconds to respond. Pavelski won a faceoff to Blake, who passed the puck from the boards to the blue line, where a streaking Milan Michalek picked it up, split the defence, and skated in for the backhand breakaway goal.

Unfortunately five minutes later, it was clear the Sharks would have a couple other streaks end.

For one, they had a 13-game winning streak over Chicago dating back to 2005. They also were on a four-game winning streak—modest by their standards, but a streak nonetheless. That had helped them to an eight-point lead over the Detroit Red Wings, who are now mired in a five-game losing streak.

San Jose also had earned a point in 25 of 26 home games, with 23 of those coming in victories. And Chicago was playing its third game in four nights half-way across the country from their home.

This should definitely have been a win for San Jose. I am not saying it should have been easy—in fact, I told my wife before the game I expected Nabby to give up four or five goals to the powerful Chicago offence.

What I am saying is that you have to be able to beat a tired team when things are in your favour—you are playing well with a hot goalie, home ice, and a looming dominance over your opponent. Especially when you do not beat many contending teams on the road.

So far this season, of the Sharks' hosts who are currently in the top eight in their conferences in point percentage, only Chicago, Edmonton, Dallas, and Philadelphia lost to San Jose on their home ice. But of those four, only Chicago was playing well enough to be eligible for the playoffs at the time; Philadelphia and Dallas, in fact, were in the basement of their conferences.

With Edmonton's overtime victory of the Sharks, two of those four teams have also beaten San Jose at HP Pavilion, as have the Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators. Since overtime losses are still losses in the playoffs, that means four quality road wins and four home losses, one of which is to a non-playoff team (they would have qualified at the time, however).

Thus, perhaps no team needs home ice as much as San Jose. If San Jose expects to avoid every playoff series going to seven games (no one has ever won a Cup with four seven-game series), they better show they can acquire quality road wins this month, and they will have plenty of chances.

After Thursday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Sharks embark on a five-game road trip. Following that, the Sharks have three at home before going on a four-game road trip to close February. After all that, they will still have one more road game than home game left this season.

February is the month for them to prove they can win on the road and therefore win the Cup. They are expecting to get Boyle back Thursday, and there is a good chance that the Sharks other three injured players—Jeremy Roenick, Brad Lukowich, and Torrey Mitchell—may all return before the month is out, as well.

But at this time of the year, you can neither count on getting nor staying healthy.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Injury Bug Taking Bite Out of the Coyotes

Last season the Coyotes were fortunate enough to have little to no injuries. This year however has been a different story. The Coyotes currently have four players on the injured list. These players are Viktor Tikhonov (Hand), Peter Mueller (Concussion), Steve Reinprecht (Shoulder), and Kurt Sauer (Lower Body).

Viktor Tikhonov suffered a hand injury on January 8th and hasn’t played since. He is expected to be back in the lineup within a week. Tikhonov has been a great suprise defensively for the Coyotes this season.

When he was in the lineup he was one of the Coyotes top penalty killers. Since he has been out the lineup the Coyotes penalty kill has started to fall off a bit. They currently have the 20th ranked penalty kill in the league. Expect that to rise with the return of Viktor Tikhonov.

Peter Mueller suffered his first notable injury in the NHL when he was forced to leave a game on January 27th against the Anaheim Ducks with a minor concussion.

He is expected to be back very soon. The Coyotes hope he can come back as soon as possible as his presence can only help the league's second worst powerplay.

The first diagnosis of Steven Reinprecht’s injured shoulder had him out for 4 -12 weeks. His status has since been updated to two weeks on the injured list. The two weeks that he will be out are still going to be a tough couple weeks for the Coyotes.

Reinprecht has been one of the Coyotes' best player’s this season. He currently ranks fourth on the Coyotes with 28 points. Not to mention Reinprecht is one of a few veteran leaders the Coyotes have in the locker room.

The most significant injury to the Coyotes so far this season is to that of defenseman Kurt Sauer. Sauer has been out since January 10th but is expected to be back in the lineup in the next couple weeks. When Sauer was in the Coyotes lineup he played huge minutes and was responsible for shutting down some of the league’s top players.

In replacement of Sauer, both David Hale and Keith Yandle were given permanent spots on the Coyotes blue line. While Yandle has stepped up his game both offensively and defensively, Hale has been prone to making some costly defensive mistakes.

The Coyotes defensive group isn’t very deep to begin with so getting a healthy Kurt Sauer back will give much more depth to the Coyotes blue line.

The Coyotes have been patient throughout all of the injuries this season and that’s what they will continue to do. Players like Joel Perrault and Alexander Nikulin have come into the lineup and contributed what they can. The Coyotes should have all their players back in time for the stretch run. At the end of that run could be their first playoff appearance in seven years.

Dallas Leaves Mason And Columbus Seeing Stars

The Stars may be 12 or so games back, but we all remember who generally beats who in the playoffs. As long as the Stars make the playoffs (which they likely will) I have more than enough confidence the Sharks will again swim home with fin between legs over a failed attempt to buy a Stanley Cup.

The right motivation can make anything easier, and since their season began with a terrible slump, the Dallas Stars are living proof. Since dumping disgraced agitator Sean Avery, the Stars have seen a surge on the ice, a resurgence to the style that made the team so dangerous last season.

The Columbus Blue Jackets learned this lesson all too well on Saturday night.

Dallas, battling to steal points from a playoff spot adversary in the Jackets, seized control and pace early. The Stars controlled every aspect of the first period, especially after taking a 3-0 early lead which caused rookie goalie sensation, Steve Mason, of the Blue Jackets to be yanked.

James Neal played the hero for the night for Dallas, and set the tone early with his 14th goal of the season at 5:58. Matt Niskanen and Mike Modano both assisted. Neal has been a great addition to the Stars this season, even as a rookie.

At 8:22 Loui Eriksson netted his 24th goal of the season unassisted to put the Stars up 2-0, and left Mason shaking his head. Former Anaheim Duck Brian Sutherby added salt to Columbus' wound at 10:43 on a wrist shot goal from Loui Eriksson and Brad Richards.

At 17:32 the Jackets finally knocked the Stars off their dominant streak with a backhand goal by Kristian Huselius. Assists came from Jan Hejda and Marc Methot.

Columbus began the second period with a bang, scoring on the power play at 1:38. Fedor Tyutin scored it on a slap shot from Kristian Huselius and Rick Nash. With the Stars clinging to a one goal lead, the battle on the ice turned into something reminisent of a Civil War battle. Neither side gave up ground without a fight.

The Stars yet again looked for leadership to seize control, and James Neal yet again stepped up to the challenge. Neal's wrist shot beat Dubielewicz- who had replaced Mason after the Stars third goal- at 13:29 with assists from Mike Modano and Chris Conner.

The two goal lead didn't prove to be comfortable enough for Dallas. The Stars kept up pressure on the Columbus back-up goaltender and defense, and at 18:58, Steve Ott scored with helpers from Jere Lehtinen and Mike Ribeiro.

Down 5-2, the Blue Jackets looked to be about to bounce back when Jared Boll scored at 4:34 of the third period, but the Stars ensured a win with smothering play and added pressure. The stifling and focused play by Dallas yielded two more goals.

Stars defenseman Trevor Daley scored at 7:10 on a slap shot. Toby Petersen and Darryl Sydor were credited with assists. Andrew Hutchinson scored his first goal of the season at 18:02, inevitably more than securing the Stars victory. Niklas Grossman and James Neal were credited with assists on the final goal.

With the win Dallas climbs to 7th in the Western Conference, the first time the Stars have been truly in a playoff picture all season. The good news ends there I'm afraid. Dallas is in this spot tied with three other teams having 53 points. Dallas only finds itself where it is due to having played less games.

The main focus for Dallas is winning key games, and closing the gap on Anaheim while being sure to stay above the Coyotes. With the right motivation and hard work, Dallas could find itself second in the division come the end of the season.

Dallas will now face the Calgary Flames, one of the most dangerous teams in the Northwest Division on Feb. 3rd at the American Airlines Center.