World Junior Championships force Buffalo Sabres to deal with tough ‘boomerang’ schedule

Last season, I thought Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks would probably not be able to win the Northwest Division thanks to an NHL record 12-game road trip before and after the 2010 Olympic games. Instead, the Sedin twins played the kind of hockey that would help earn Henrik Sedin an unexpected Hart Trophy while the team managed to win their division despite that challenge.

Of course, the Canucks were (and are) the kind of Stanley Cup contending team that stands well above their division mates. The Buffalo Sabres will deal with a similar – though nowhere near as long – bit of turmoil thanks to the 2011 World Junior Championships being held at HSBC Arena. (And the city won’t even receive the benefit of uniform good press, judging by the fact that Emerson Etem called Buffalo a “ghost town” on Twitter today.)

Stu Hackel of Sports Illustrated thinks that the Sabres are getting “screwed” by the schedule makers during this upcoming stretch. Here is how it breaks down for Buffalo:

  • A back-to-back out in Western Canada, as they lost a road game against the Calgary Flames tonight and will play the Oilers in Edmonton on Tuesday.
  • Then the Sabres get the one home game that Hackel said they requested during the WJC tournament’s “off-day,” a contest against the Boston Bruins on New Year’s day.
  • After that, they “boomerang” right back to the Western Conference, with road contests against the Avalanche on Tuesday, Sharks on Thursday and Coyotes on Saturday.

Hackel explains how the league handled a similar situation differently with the Ottawa Senators before and how these types of tough road trips hurt – and will continue to hinder – even some of the league’s best teams. (Let alone a struggling bunch like the Sabres.)

Now, when the Ottawa Senators hosted the WJC in 2008-09, they went west for three games, then came back to play in Toronto and New Jersey. That’s a reasonable schedule, but, for some reason, it was no template for this year. The Sabres are eight points south of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and 1-4-2 in their past seven road games while being outscored 22-11.

To make matters worse, the Sabres will begin their boomerang trip and what could be the defining portion of their schedule by adjusting to the loss of their top offensive player, Derek Roy. Roy tore his left quadricep tendon on Thursday after being checked by Florida’s Dmitry Kulikov and falling into the boards. Roy is scheduled for surgery this week.

The road has also been treacherous this season for other clubs. The Kings, for example, were on top of the Western Conference earlier this season, went on an extended trip and lost five of six. The Canadiens have dropped three of the first four games on their current seven-game voyage (including Sunday night to the Islanders who — gasp! — have now grabbed nine of a possible 10 points in their last five games, led by NHL First Star of the Week, goalie Dwayne Roloson). The Flyers are about to embark on their biggest road trip of the season and will play nine of their next 10 away from Philly. Without Chris Pronger, it should be a very telling stretch.

Hackel points to quotes from Sabres GM Darcy Regier, who rightly points out that every team has to deal with its share of road challenges. Yet, when you consider Buffalo’s tenuous position as a playoff hopeful team – and the potential destructive effect of Derek Roy’s injury – this could be the end of the road for the Sabres’ shaky postseason dreams.

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.