AROUND THE BOARDS: Kelley's look at the NHL

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Jim Kelley

AROUND THE BOARDS: Jim Kelley's look at the NHL

striking down opponents

We're not saying the Washington will beat the Tampa Bay Friday night, ending the only unbeaten run from the start of the season still going on in the National Hockey League. All we're saying is that even if the Caps do end it, so what? For one thing, since expansion became a regular occurrence in the NHL, 36 teams have started a season unbeaten in six. Thirty-two of those teams have made the playoffs and nine of them have won the Stanley Cup. Now we don't expect Tampa to win the Stanley Cup this season, but the numbers are still great news for one of hockey's least impressive franchises. The , though Thursday night's games, were 4-0-2, the league's only unbeaten team and the first team to garner 10 points. This from a team that last season was one of the absolute worst in the NHL, had only made the playoffs once in its now 10-season history and had scored a paltry 178 goals last season, the third-worst total in the league. During the current up-tick, the have been keeping pace with the offense generated by the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit (each had 26 goals), have been playing decent defense and have been getting good goaltending. Pretty impressive, considering Tampa Bay last season tied with Calgary for most consecutive seasons without an appearance in the playoffs (six) and is the franchise that has lost 50 or more games in each of the last four seasons. Enough with the negatives already. Here's what's going on. For one thing, the crackdown on obstruction has benefited the . With few exceptions, the team has good speed and the absence of obstruction fouls has allowed some of those players to get to the net unimpeded. For another, the coaching duo of John Tortorella and Craig Ramsay has designed a system to take advantage of the crackdown and utilize their team speed. Tampa defensemen now often join the rush (rather than holding back waiting for miscues from teammates up front). They also pinch in a lot more, cutting off loose pucks while they are still in the opponent's end of the ice. It's a risky strategy if played poorly, but it can be an aid to the offense when it's done well. Tortorella promised to open things up a bit in deference to his offensive-minded players, especially center , with whom he spent much of last season feuding, but some of the credit has to go to Ramsay. The veteran coach has long preached that the game is better played in the other team's end, even when you don't have the puck. He had the doing that in the brief time he was a head coach in Philadelphia and it was one of the few times in recent seasons that team has had playoff success. Ramsay is helping Tortorella make it happen in Tampa. Don't underestimate the change. Tortorella is cautious and conservative by nature, but it's the mark of a good coach when he changes to take advantage of his environment. The have some young offensive-minded players. They have a power-play specialist in veteran and they have a few players on the blueline who can move the puck. In the past, the plan was to support goaltender and wait for offense chances that might come off the other team's mistakes. Now the are making their own chances and it shows in the record. By the way, Khabibulin is still great, one of the absolute best in the league, but his save percentage is down (around .845). The coaches can live with that because they know the goalie is capable of making the big save when called upon. Taking more chances gives opponents more opportunities, but Khabibulin still keeps his team in the game with the big stop.

Is this a trend?

Carolina goaltender continues to struggle, and the coaching staff continues to turn to in his place. Weekes was obtained last season in a trade that was designed to, eventually, make him Irbe's replacement as the No. 1 goalie, but with Irbe struggling, that transition appears to be happening sooner rather than later. In a four-game stretch, Weekes put up a 1.48 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage. Weekes, however is cautious about a change: "I never second-guess whatever decision the coaches make," he said. "And if I did, I wouldn't ever let on that I did. It's an 82-game schedule and has been here for a long time."

It's show-up time

The Florida noticed that 19-year-old Atlanta forward skated by their bench in a recent game and wiped the blade of his stick in front of them after scoring a goal. Kovalchuk, in a previous game against the , had been caught using an illegal stick and the perceived message to the was that he could score with any stick. It wasn't well received. "Excellent players in the league, such as , , and , they don't do that," coach Mike Keenan said. "They have a lot more respect for the game and for the people they're playing with and against." That's true, but showmanship is on the rise in the NHL, and though it hasn't reached Terrell Owens proportions, not everyone thinks it's a bad thing. "I didn't think it was that bad," said Atlanta GM Don Waddell. "Showmanship in Russia is very big. That's part of the way Ilya has always played." There's a school of thought that says the NHL suffers from a somewhat severe case of lackluster-itius. It would appear there are kids in the game today looking to change that.

Pucks and politics

The Buffalo remain a team without an owner, and a political hockey puck as well. New York gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisano is said to have submitted a request for more information about the Adelphia Communications Co. bankruptcy before submitting a formal bid, but that has yet to be verified. Adelphia's former owners, the Rigas family, also owned the before turning the franchise over to the league last summer. There have been persistent reports that prospective bidders would prefer to see the team go into bankruptcy with Adelphia, thereby making a takeover a tad easier. The off-the-record argument is that prospective buyers could pick the franchise up for a song in bankruptcy court, but that the league is trying to keep it out so that it can determine the final selling price, not a judge. The NHL is currently operating the franchise and keeping the value of the franchise up would certainly benefit the league's other 29 teams. No one is certain as to whether or not Golisano is a serious bidder or just using the as a political tool in his race for the governor's mansion.

One final thought

Florida defenseman is 18 years old. Not only has New York center been playing in the NHL longer than Bouwmeester has been alive (some six years longer), but Bouwmeester's father, an elementary teacher in Edmonton, Alberta, had a young Mr. Messier in one of his classes. Wonder of Mr. Messier will be taking Mr. Bouwmeester's son to a little school of his own when the two next meet.
Who's he?
Bet you didn't have in your fantasy hockey pool. St. Louis, through Thursday, is averaging a goal a game for the Tampa Bay , the most surprising team in the NHL this season. The fact that he could score has always been known. His problem, at least in the past, was his size. A listed 5-9, 185, St. Louis is one of those players benefiting from the crackdown on hooking, holding and the obstruction fouls that before kept smallish players from getting into the league let alone getting to the net. St. Louis appeared in 53 games for the last season and made an impact last season until a broken leg took him out of the fray in January, February and March. Since the almost never make the playoffs, his return to action came with limited success. This season, however, he's flying, leading the team in goals (six), points (10) and ice time (23.8 minutes per game). He's also sound defensively with a plus-7 on the team's plus-minus charts. A right winger who shoots left, St. Louis has speed and surprises a lot of team's by coming in on the right but shooting left.
Five things you should know
1. The St. Louis have reached a tentative deal with free-agent goaltender because, a) they need a healthy goaltender and b) they don't like the numbers for free-agent goalie . Dafoe is looking for a long-term deal for multi-millions. The , who are watching some of their owner's dollars this season, are looking for a goalie who can hold the goal line until returns from a high-ankle sprain. 2. The Montreal won the battle and lost the war against Philadelphia Thursday night. Former Habs forward had scored 28 goals in 29 games against his former team and the Habs were intent on not allowing LeClair or anyone else to be able to say he had 30 in 30 since he left. It worked. They blanked LeClair, but lost the game and gave up six goals in the process. 3. For the record, the Toronto are off to their worst start in five years (2-5-1), flirting with last place in the Eastern Conference. And they're denying that the loss of goalie (free agent, signed with Detroit) has made a difference. Most recently, coach and general manger Pat Quinn has hinted the problem might be too many games at home. The Leafs are in the midst of a seven-game home stand. Actually, it's goaltending and poor defense that are hurting the team. 4. The deal that trumped the and sent to the St. Louis calls for the forward to get a one-year pact with a club option for a second year. The package is worth $1.7 million for each season, but it could rise to $2.2 million should he reach mostly goal-based incentives. 5. Atlanta coach Curt Fraser and Nashville coach Barry Trotz both got votes of confidence from their respective GMs as they continue to be the NHL's two winless teams. Bet on Trotz's holding up. He's tight with GM David Poile and his team is playing well, just not well enough to erase a series of one-goal losses. Fraser can hardly say the same, though it would help if general manger Don Wadell would open the purse strings for a goaltender. Anyone got a phone number for ?
Thug Watch
If it was intended, no one said so at the start of the season, but fighting is down in the NHL in the early going. Some are pointing to the hurry-up faceoffs as the reason. Through the first 81 games, fighting is down from 1.7 majors per-game to 1.3. Look, it will make a comeback. But for now, players don't always have enough time to start something because the puck is being dropped before they can do all that post-whistle pushing and shoving and face washing that usually leads to a fight.
In the next 48 hours
  • Look for the St.Louis to put goalie Fred Brathwaithe on waivers.
  • Tampa Bay tough guy comes off a 13-game suspension he got late last season. He sat out the last seven of last season and the first six of this one. He's eligible to play tonight against Washington.
  • Expect Dallas goalie to get back into the lineup this weekend. He was benched in favor of after losing his cool and taking a penalty in a game the lost to St. Louis, 5-2. Tugnutt got two straight starts after that and played well (he's 2-0-1 on the season), but coach Dave Tippett doesn't want to start a goalie controversy just yet.
  • Look for Chicago forward to resume skating Monday. He just needs doctor clearance after undergoing back surgery in September. He's not close to playing yet, but skating is the first step.
  • F.Y.I.
  • The Chicago have benched and are likely shopping veteran defenseman . He's been a healthy scratch from time to time this season, mostly for lackluster play. He also makes $3.3 million per season. Rumor has it that the 'Hawks would eat some of that salary in that they would rather spend timing improving their young defensemen rather than put up with Mironov any longer.
  • Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
    Tagged: Bruins, Sabres, Blackhawks, Red Wings, Hurricanes, Stars, Canadiens, Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Avalanche, Blues, Lightning, Maple Leafs, Capitals, Panthers, Jets, Steve Yzerman, Marty Turco, Andre Roy, John LeClair, Joe Sakic, Kevin Weekes, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Nikolai Khabibulin, Dave Andreychuk, Curtis Joseph, Peter Forsberg, Brent Johnson

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