Chicago and Washington: Rising to the top

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Chicago Blackhawks vs. Washington Capitals
12:30 p.m. EST – Sunday, March 14, 2010
Live on NBC

It’s just a normal, regular season game between two teams that meet
just once a year – but today’s game between the Chicago Blackhawks and
Washington Capitals is so much more than that. It’s a game between two
potential Stanley Cup finalists and two teams who have mirrored the
other in a rise to tops of each conference.

We always love to make the most of the storylines each game and
perhaps make them out to be a bit more than they really are. Yet today’s
game is such an interesting matchup that I can’t help but look ahead at
what these two teams could bring in what would be perhaps the most
exciting playoff series the NHL has even known. The skill on display by
each, the amount of goals scored due to goaltending ineptitude? It’d be
like an all-star game, but much more physical and the stakes are just a
bit higher.

From mediocrity to potential greatness.

The Blackhawks and Capitals have each risen from the ashes that lie
in the dredges of each conference to become the two most exciting teams
in the NHL. The San Jose Sharks lead the Western Conference,
technically, but their style is so methodical – and perhaps boring —
that the Blackhawks have certainly taking the lead in scariest team in
the West.

Just a few years ago both of these teams were either out of the
playoffs or just lucky to get there. For the Blackhawks it was much
worse; the team had just one postseason appearance in 10 seasons. Yet
when a team is that bad for that long, there are some positives that
come from all of the frustration: high picks in the draft.

It’s all about the draft, baby.

While Chicago’s rise has been a bit swifter than Washington’s, each
team boasts a nucleus of great players taken in the draft. Sure, not
every team with a number one draft pick becomes great just a few years
later – but it sure doesn’t hurt when trying to rebuild. The Capitals
and Blackhawks both built a team predicated on speed and skill, and they
drafted players that fit into that mold.

Of course, getting Alex Ovechkin in 2004 certainly helped speed up
the process for Washington but it’s still taken them a number of years
of building around him to get where they are now. Plus, the combination
of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane could be considered an ever greater
threat than the Great Ovechkin alone.

Who’s greater? Let’s find out.

Are the Capitals really as good as their record says they are? I know
they score a lot of goals, but they can’t be just heads and shoulders
above every other team like it seems they are on paper. And despite my
constant harping on Chicago’s goaltending situation, there’s no doubt
its defense is miles ahead of Washington’s.

Perhaps Washington’s bloated points lead is the result of playing in
perhaps the worst division in the NHL. Well, maybe not the worst – but
having just one team in the top eight in the conference doesn’t help the
argument. And while we all fawn over Chicago’s exciting style and their
great defense, our lamenting of the goaltending is perhaps a bit
overplayed.

So who is better? Which team’s offense can overcome the other’s the
most? These are the two most exciting teams in hockey to watch and
they’ll be taking on one another in a one-game playoff to determine
which team really has risen higher in such a short time. I know that
it’s just one game but these are two teams that are at the peak of their
skill level after years of re-tooling and rebuilding. They’ve been
raised side by side, their styles mirroring each other and now we get to
see them faceoff for the only time this season.

Hopefully it won’t be the last.

Join us for a live chat of today’s game at 11:30 a.m. EST, only on
Pro Hockey Talk!

Video: AHL goalie Jonas Gustavsson scores his first career goal

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He didn’t shoot, but Jonas Gustavsson still scored.

The former NHL netminder, now with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL, scored his first career goal Friday, as part of his team’s victory over the San Diego Gulls.

From the AHL:

With San Diego goaltender Dustin Tokarski on the bench for an extra attacker and the Gulls working on a power play, Gustavsson made a save before an errant San Diego pass slid down the length of the ice and into the vacated net at 16:56 of the third period.

Gustavsson is the fifth AHL goaltender to be credited with a goal without actually shooting the puck into the opposition net. In addition to his goal, Gustavsson stopped 30 of 31 shots in the Condors victory.

Bolts and Islanders both win, which is bad news for Bruins

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The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning each had to work overtime to decide their separate games, but when they ended, both clubs were victorious.

And that makes things even more interesting in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

With their shootout win in Pittsburgh, the Islanders tie the Bruins in points but take over the final playoff spot for now with fewer games played. The Lightning, despite an abundance of injuries all season, are just a point back of Boston and New York.

Nikita Kucherov scored the winner for Tampa Bay against the Red Wings. He’s up to 38 goals, which is second most in the league behind Sidney Crosby, currently at 42 goals.

Sellers leading up to the trade deadline, and without Steven Stamkos since the middle of November, the Lightning are in the thick of this race, even if others may have counted them out.

“Once again, people counted us out,” defenseman Victor Hedman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But we showed a lot of character. And we’re right back in it.”

The Bolts don’t play again until Monday, when they host the Chicago Blackhawks — only one of the hottest teams in the league.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s busy slate of games includes a showdown between the Bruins and Islanders. For Boston, it’s a chance for redemption after a particularly costly third period against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

The Ducks defeated the Jets on Friday, moving into a tie with the Sharks at 91 points.

San Jose’s struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.