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February 10, 2011
On The Beat
Headed in Opposite Directions

by John Perrotto

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The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last spring. Their sights for this season are considerably lower now.

"We've got to find a way to get in the top eight," winger Patrick Kane said. "That has to be our focus."

The Blackhawks were 11th in the Western Conference entering Wednesday night's game against the Oilers in Edmonton. They were three points behind the eighth-place Flames with 58.

One of the Blackhawks' biggest problems this season has been inconsistency. They had an 8-3 stretch in November and early December then lost three in a row. Since winning five out of six games at one point in January, they have gone 1-4.

"We have to do a lot of right things over the course of each and every game to build that roll ourselves," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We have to look at the shorter and tighter picture, winning a shift, winning a period and then maybe [we will go] on something like that."

The Blackhawks' frustration has been showing in recent games. During a 3-1 loss to the Flames on Monday night at Calgary, defenseman Brent Seabrook was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with 1:14 remaining.

"I think we're better off with anger," Quenneville said. "Frustration, if you channel it properly, has got to be part of it. It was an undisciplined penalty at the end we can't take. It's making sure you lay it all on the line, but you've got to have a purpose. I don't mind having an attitude when you're upset with what's going on."

Meanwhile, the Flames are on a roll as a 13-3-4 run has lifted them from 14th place and nine points out of a playoff berth to eighth. The Flames set a goal in late December of earning four points in every three games and say they will not veer from that.

"This isn't going to change the way we have to play and the way we have to approach every game," coach Brent Sutter. "Our whole mindset has been, since right before Christmas, to go after short-term goals and play a certain way to do that. The players took the responsibility and the accountability to do it and are being rewarded for their efforts. Guys are staying very level-headed, even-keel, and that's the way you want them to be, but we're also excited in the fact we've been able to put ourselves in this situation, and have to continue to move on."

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The Sabres' power play is trending upward while the Lightning's power play is trending downward.

The Sabres were 8-for-74 for a miserable 10.8 percent success rate while starting the season 3-9-2 in their first 14 games. However, the Sabres have been successful 25.5 percent of the time that they've had a man advantage since Dec. 1, including 32.6 percent at home. That has vaulted them to 10th in the league in power-play efficiency at 19.3 percent.

"A lot of it is about simplifying things and we finally started doing it," said winger Thomas Vanek, who leads the Sabres with nine power-play goals. "Making a few quick passes, getting pucks to the net, getting the rebounds and getting not just ugly goals but shooting goals. That's important to us."

"We've really progressed slowly but surely since the start of the year," defenseman Jordan Leopold said. "We've been able to take advantage of our opportunities. We're clicking. We've had injuries and different personnel on units all year long. The mixing and matching sometimes hurts you but sometimes it can help you, too, getting everybody involved."

Meanwhile, the Lightning have converted just 15 percent of their power plays in the last month, though they still stand sixth in the league at 20.7 percent. Coach Guy Boucher has been tinkering with his power-play units in recent games but the Lightning are still struggling to win faceoffs or gain entry in the offensive zone.

"You always think you have one more [player] so you're more relaxed at everything-at bringing the puck in, at stick handling, at taking your shot-and to me that's a disease," Boucher said. "The guys on the penalty kill, there's just four of them so they're fighting for their lives and they're working even harder than they do five-on-five so you have to find away to equal that out."

Boucher no longer has a first or second power-play unit. Instead, he has split his top forwards into two equal groups, one featuring Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, with Vinny Lecavalier and Simon Gagne on the other.

"If you don't do the job after 30 seconds or so, you're not No.1 or No.2 anymore, you're just off," Boucher said.

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The Rangers were hoping to tread water until they got through a rash of injuries to their forwards. Instead, the return of Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Vinny Prospal and Erik Christensen in recent games seems to be sinking the Rangers as they are 0-4-1 in their last five games.

"It's an adjustment, but it's no excuse," goaltender Martin Biron told the New York Post. "We never looked at all the injuries as an excuse and we're not looking at this as an excuse. Everything isn't always perfect in a season, but we just have to keep focused on our goal and keep working together. It's not like we're playing so poorly that we go, 'Oh my goodness, our game needs to be overhauled.'"

Coach John Tortorella, though, says he has no plans to reduce the playing time of any the aforementioned four.

"I'm going to play the hell out of them until they get going," Tortorella said. "We need Dubi now. We need Vinny now. I don't think the team should be down. We need to make a big play at a big time, or maybe a couple, but right now we're not getting that. I'm not going to manufacture something going wrong with our team. We have to rely on our structure. We can't have the group try to do something else and break away from our game, and it certainly can't be to break away from our play without the puck and our defensive game."

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The Kings are on such a long road trip that they took a detour back to Los Angeles this week for three days of practice and then will return home a second time before completing the 10-game journey.

The Kings flew Los Angeles last Saturday night after a victory over the Flames and spent three days practicing. They then left for Pittsburgh on Wednesday night and will play the Penguins on Thursday night in the resumption of their journey.

The trip really gets difficult for the Kings now. They plays the Flyers in Philadelphia on Saturday and the Capitals in Washington on Sunday then have another stretch of three games in four days next week when they meet the Blue Jackets in Columbus and the Rangers and Islanders in New York.

The Kings will return home once again before finishing the trip Feb. 23 with a bus ride down the freeway to Anaheim to face the Ducks.

"When you have a long road trip, it's important to break it down into small segments," Kings coach Terry Murray said. "I think that when it gets a little bit long, at certain times in the year, like this one here, it's very important to have a near focus, a short-term focus, for the players, and you get through it."

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<< Previous Article
From Daigle To Datsyuk (02/10)
<< Previous Column
On The Beat (01/26)
Next Column >>
On The Beat (03/08)
Next Article >>
Howe and Why (02/11)

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