Penalty Minutes: Kessel, Maple Leafs surging; twilight of a legend

The Maple Leafs have moved up to fifth in the East largely behind Phil Kessel, who has nine goals in his past 10 games.

Tom Szczerbowski/Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

A team capable of prolonged stretches of good and bad play, the Toronto Maple Leafs are riding one of their better streaks over the past three and a half weeks.

With a 9-2-1 mark in their past 12 games, the Leafs have surged back up to fifth place in the Eastern Conference after falling out of playoff position in early January.

The Leafs’ secret of late has been an offensive surge. Eight times in their past 12 games they have scored at least four goals in regulation.

Giving lift to American Olympic hopes, Phil Kessel has helped to power that, with nine goals in his past 10 games. Kessel’s 30 goals rank second in the NHL, putting him on pace for a career high in that category and marking the fifth straight 82-game season that he has hit the 30-goal plateau. (Kessel will not be the only member of his family competing in the Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi; his sister Amanda will play for the women’s team.)

Kessel could become the first Toronto player to reach the 40-goal mark since beloved Swede Mats Sundin did it in 2001-02. (If you’re wondering the last time a Canadian player scored at least 40 goals while playing in the Center of the Hockey Universe, it was back in 1993-94 when both Dave Andreychuk and the even-more-beloved Wendel Clark did it, with 53 and 46, respectively.)

"It’s hard to really put a limit on him," Kessel’s linemate Tyler Bozak told reporters after Kessel netted a hat trick on Saturday in a 6-3 win against Ottawa. "He can get so streaky. Three goals tonight … who knows next game?"

Who knows? Maybe even Olympic gold awaits.

While the Pacific Division has been the NHL’s gold standard for much of the season, looking as if it were going to put five teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a couple of its stronger teams have begun to falter.

Vancouver and Los Angeles, who continue to occupy the Western Conference’s seventh and eighth spots, have floundered for weeks now and finally find themselves on the verge of falling out of playoff position.

Even before the meltdown that resulted in a six-game, 15-day suspension for coach John Tortorella, the Canucks had begun to sputter. Presently, they have lost five straight. One might even trace the Canucks’ woes to those consecutive games on Jan. 13 and 15 when they allowed seven-minute power plays in each game, both losses. The Canucks are 3-9 since then and went 2-4 without Tortorella.

Since Tortorella returned, the Canucks have lost two straight.

"I tell you, it’s very frustrating to see the same looks," Tortorella was quoted on following a 2-0 loss at Detroit on Monday. "It worries me. I’ll leave it at that. It really worries me."

Presently, the Canucks’ problems are numerous. Top-pair defenseman Kevin Bieksa is out indefinitely with a sore foot and forward Mike Santorelli, who provided depth scoring, is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Daniel Sedin, the league scoring champion as recently as 2010-11, has not scored a goal in 17 games — which began before the start of his calendar year — and his brother Henrik, the team’s captain, missed six games with a rib injury, returning for the first time on Monday. The former Hart Trophy (MVP) has yet to notch a point since returning. Over the past 12 games, the Canucks have scored three goals or more in a game just three times.

In Los Angeles, the Kings’ run of poor play began even longer ago. They are 5-14-2 in their past 21 games despite having the best goaltending in the NHL this season. Los Angeles’ problems also revolve around putting the puck in the net.

The Kings rank next to last in the league in goals per game at 2.26, fueling speculation that they might make New York Islanders’ wing Thomas Vanek a potential trade target.

While the Kings’ top-six forwards have scored their share of goals, they have gotten little in the way of depth scoring from their third and fourth lines or their defense. Center Jarret Stoll, who scored 20 goals for the Kings in 2010-11, has six. Defenseman Slava Voynov, who totaled six goals in 18 playoff games last season, has only three in 58 games, about 2.5 times less than the pace he scored at last season.

All of it has opened a playoff path for other potential challengers out West, namely Phoenix, Dallas, resurgent Winnipeg and Nashville, all of which are within four points or fewer of Vancouver and its 63 points. With 66 points, Los Angeles has a bit more of a cushion but somehow it has to reverse the trend.

"It’s easy to be good when things are going good," Kings captain Dustin Brown told the Los Angeles Times. "It’s times like this that we have to come together and find a way to do it."

1. Anaheim

Following their 4-2 loss to Columbus on Monday, the Ducks have lost three of four at home after starting the season 21-1-2 at the Honda Center.

2. St. Louis

Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk rank in the top eight in the NHL in points by a defenseman.

3. Chicago

Ever get the feeling the Blackhawks get bored? They are 2-2-3 in their past seven games with three shootout losses.

4. Pittsburgh

At 23-4, the Penguins own the top home record in the NHL.

5. Colorado

With 42 points, tops among rookies, Nathan MacKinnon might start running away with the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) race.

Could the Panthers move center Marcel Goc, who is in the final year of his contract?

26. Florida

The Panthers’ reliable two-way center Marcel Goc, with 10 goals, is rumored to be available come the trade deadline.

27. New York Islanders

The Islanders snapped a five-game streak (0-4-1) without a win by defeating Washington 1-0 on Tuesday.

28. Calgary

A 2-0 loss to Montreal on Tuesday snapped a five-game winning streak for the Flames.

29. Edmonton

The acquisition on Friday of defenseman Mark Fraser from Toronto continues the drip-drip rebuild of the Oilers into a bigger, more physical team.

30. Buffalo

The Sabres have won only two of their past 10 games.

If Detroit can move up a few points and a few places — four and two, respectively — in the Atlantic Division, these two teams very well could end up meeting in the first round of the playoffs. If that were the case, the biggest subplot would be off the ice: Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman going against the organization with which he is so associated for playing all 22 of his Hall of Fame seasons. Yzerman came up as an executive with Detroit but had to go elsewhere to become a GM, as he was not going to supplant four-time Cup winner Kenny Holland. Now that the Red Wings are in the same conference and division as the Lightning, the comparisons are more facile. On the final day before the Olympic break, the biggest subplot on the ice will be in goal. Detroit’s Jimmy Howard needs to show that he is more deserving than Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop in terms of the spot Howard won over Bishop on the U.S. Olympic team. Bishop has 27 wins (fourth in the NHL) while Howard, who has battled injuries this season, has 11 to go against 12 losses.

In a 5-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday, Callahan scored the first two goals of the game amid rumors in recent days that the Rangers could trade their captain prior to the Olympic break because of their inability to sign him to a contract extension. The dispute between the Rangers and Callahan is that reportedly Callahan wants a seven-year deal and the Rangers are only willing to go as far as five right now. The 28-year-old right wing, named to the U.S. Olympic team, averaged 23 goals for four straight seasons between 2008-09 and 2011-12, the last full 82-game season. If he is truly available, teams could be falling over each other to land him, although St. Louis is said to be the most likely destination at this point. On Tuesday, Callahan added an assist, six shots, seven hits, one blocked shot and two giveaways in 17:05 and went plus-3.

The 24-year-old right wing recorded his first career hat trick on Sunday in a 6-5 overtime loss to Washington. Nyquist added an assist and was plus-1 with two penalty minutes, five shots and two takeaways in 19:03. Nyquist, who has 13 goals (tied for third on the team) in 31 games, was named on Monday to the Swedish Olympic team as a replacement for injured Red Wings teammate Johan Franzen. Nyquist did not play his first game this season with Detroit until Nov. 21, as the Red Wings were working through salary cap issues that had kept Nyquist with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League during the start of the season.

In a 7-1 loss on Friday to Colorado, the defenseman posted a team-worst minus-4 rating in 21:37. The 2010 Calder Trophy winner is minus-26 this season, 819th in the league. Only two players have a worse rating. Myers also had four hits and one giveaway on Friday against the Avalanche.

Martin Brodeur, 41, has played his entire 21-year career with the Devils, but could he end it in a different sweater?

Is it possible that after 21 seasons in a New Jersey Devils’ uniform that the Stadium Series game at Yankee Stadium could prove the final one of 41-year-old goalie Martin Brodeur’s legendary career?

If so, it would be a rough way to go out. Brodeur allowed six goals in 40 minutes and was pulled before the start of the third period and complained about the state of the ice after the game.

Even if that game does not mark the end for Brodeur in New Jersey, it could represent the beginning of the end.

Fellow Devils goalie Cory Schneider has lost only once in regulation in the last 10 games he has started for the Devils, posting a 5-1-4 record, and Brodeur, the NHL’s all-time leader in games played, wins and shutouts, is finding it increasingly difficult to earn playing time. He has not played since recording that outdoor loss in which he made 15 saves against the Devils’ archrival New York Rangers on Jan. 26. Since Jan. 9, he has started only three of the Devils’ last 13 games.

With the Devils’ acquisition of Schneider over the summer from Vancouver, it became clear that eventually Schneider would take over the No. 1 job once Brodeur was gone. That timetable appears to have accelerated in recent weeks with the Devils in a desperate race to land a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They sit three points out of the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference but have played one more game than Detroit, which holds that eighth spot — not to mention that the Devils are stuck in a logjam of seven teams within three points of each other in the East.

Like Bobby Orr finishing his career in a Chicago Blackhawks sweater or Chris Chelios playing his final NHL game in an Atlanta Thrashers uniform, it would be incongruous to see Brodeur wearing the sweater of any other team. At the same time, when legends don’t end their careers on their own terms, they become subject to the same forces that buffet much more ordinary players.

While remaining diplomatic about the situation, Brodeur is clearly having a tougher time accepting it. On Nov. 5, he made it public that he would not ask for a trade but would be open to one if general manager Lou Lamoriello could arrange one. In early January, he reiterated that. Brodeur wants to play more.

Lately, the goalie has been inching closer to asking for a trade — or at least, he seems to have begun pondering the idea. Asked by the Record last Thursday if he would ask for a trade, Brodeur responded to the newspaper, "I don’t think so, unless in the next three weeks it goes worse than (it is)," Brodeur said. "We’ll see. But I don’t think I will ask."

Last Friday in Nashville the situation took another step towards the uncomfortable. The Devils had played the night before in Dallas but Schneider only faced 16 shots in a 3-2 overtime win. Coach Pete DeBoer elected to start Schneider again the next day.

If a goalie — back-up or otherwise — does not earn one of the starts in back-to-back situations, it becomes pretty clear to him that his opportunities are going to be few and far between. This for a goalie who has played 77 or 78 games in a season at least four times in his career.

Coming off the ice following an optional morning skate at Bridgestone Arena on Saturday, Brodeur had worked up a good sweat, the kind a goalie only does if he is not going to play. To the surprise of the few media members in the dressing room, Brodeur answered that he would not start that night.

"I’ve been in that situation," Brodeur said of Schneider’s run. "I mean, he is playing really, really well. Coach has confidence in him and that’s the way it rolls. That’s the way it works, usually."

He was asked if he thought DeBoer had confidence in him.

"I would hope so," Brodeur said, which is not exactly the same as saying yes.

DeBoer explained that the low shot total the night before factored in to his decision to start Schneider again.

"(Schneider’s) workload wasn’t heavy, heavy. He felt good, he felt energized. He is a young guy. We haven’t overplayed him this year," DeBoer said with a slight chuckle, an allusion to the fact that Brodeur had played the majority of the Devils’ games as recently as Jan. 27. "I think he was excited about the opportunity to play again."

The Devils only have two games left before the Olympic break, at home against Edmonton on Friday — the same day that a roster freeze goes into effect — and on Saturday in Washington. The game against the Capitals is particularly meaningful as the two teams entered Wednesday tied in the standings and had played the same number of games.

If Brodeur does not start one of those, it does seem that push could come to shove sooner than later with this situation.