Hartnell Gets Last Laugh As Flyers Statement Win Ends Penguins' 11-Game Streak

Written by Mike Salerno on .

Man, the Flyers and Penguins really hate each other, don't they?

With two huge points at stake on a Sunday afternoon affair in Philadelphia that was played with the fervor of a Stanley Cup playoffs matchup, the two teams traded blows on the scoreboard and after the whistle for 65 minutes. Well, alright. Not quite 65 minutes.

With four minutes to go in regulation, the teams engaged in some extracurricular activities that resulted in Scott Hartnell and Chris Kunitz wrestling around the neutral zone. While the referees tried to restrain the pair, Kunitz pressed his forearm into the side of Hartnell's head, wedging the hairy Flyer's head between his elbow pad and the ice surface.

But it was Hartnell, still sporting quite a raspberry on his face, who was all smiles in the end after he rifled a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury with .9 seconds remaining in overtime, giving the Flyers a dramatic 3-2 win over their hated in-state rivals.

The goal was Hartnell's second of the game and 35th of the season. He tied the game with a dazzling sharp-angle shot from just in front of the goal line that sailed above Fleury's shoulder to knot the game at 2 roughly five minutes into the third period.

The Flyers, who obviously have a storied history of intimidating opponents, erased a 2-0 deficit and sent a definitive message to the Penguins, winners of their previous 11 and flying high since the return of Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang, that they aren't afraid of anyone.

The two points earned by the Flyers allowed them to climb within three points of the Rangers for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference lead and within two points of the Penguins. If the season ended today, these two teams would play a minimum of four times in the first round of the playoffs. But you can probably pencil them in for a few more than that.

Ilya Bryzgalov and Marc-Andre Fleury put on a goaltending clinic all afternoon, constantly challenging the other to top their last big save. Bryzgalov, who has come on of late and is one of the NHL's hottest netminders, made 38 saves, including 16 in the first period as the Penguins totally controlled the play early on.

While it would be quite a treat for hockey fans to see these two teams faceoff in the opening round of the playoffs, the inevitability of their meeting far from a foregone conclusion. The teams will square off twice in April, including the last game of the regular season.

With both in such close proximity to the Rangers for the top spot in the East--and the Devils who sit in sixth place, just five points behind Philadelphia-- a lot can happen in the final weeks of the year. So don't make reservations for these combatants just yet.

But boy, would it be fun to see Hartnell and Kunitz Crosby and Claude Giroux battle it out for much more than in-state bragging rights, but a chance to move one step closer to Lord Stanley.

Stamkos Scores 50, Heading to the VIP

Written by Frank Castaldi on .

In the months leading up to my 23rd birthday, the only exclusive club I had my sights set on was the those who earned their Bachelor's degree on time, club.

I was denied admittance.

Steven Stamkos, at the ripe age of 22, on the other hand, just etched his name onto a very prestigious VIP list: He now has forever access to The multiple 50-goal seasons before turning 23-years old club. Yeah, I think that's the official name of it.

Tuesday night, in a 6-1 romping of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, Stamkos netted no. 49 and 50, adding him to the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Alexander Ovechkin, Joe Nieuwendyk, Pavel Bure and Mr. Statue, Mario Lemieux:

Stamkos, who has quickly become the most dangerous and dynamic goal scorer of the League, has found the back of the net 30 times in his past 35 games. It seems like ages ago, when the former first-overall selection wasn't "physically strong enough" to make it in the NHL.

Since struggling in his rookie season, Stamkos has done nothing but dominate those around him in the scoring department. Over the past three seasons, Stamkos has scored 146 goals, giving him 35 more goals than his closest competitors, Corey Perry and Ovechkin, who each have 111 tallies over that span.

With 13 games remaining on Tampa's schedule, there's no reason to believe that Stamkos shouldn't shatter his previous career highs in goals (51), and eclipse the 100-point mark for the first time in his career.

What separates Stamkos' scoring from year's past, however, is his effectiveness in all areas of the ice. 40 of his 50 goals (80 percent) have been scored at even strength, up considerably from 62 percent last year, and just over 50 percent during his last 50-goal campaign.

In addition to his 5-on-5 prowess, Stamkos has also made his lethal shot even deadlier, as he is experiencing his highest shooting percentage (20.7 percent) of his career.

It's not like he's just picking his spots, either. Stamkos is still in the top-15 as far as shots are concerned.

Whether it's a blistering shot from the high slot, a silky-smooth deke making opposing defensemen and goalies alike looking plain silly, or channeling his inner Phil Esposito with a garbage goal; Stamkos is going to beat you, and he's going to beat you often. Deal with it.

Bryzgalov's Humaangoos Beeg Shutout Streak Now At Three Games

Written by Mike Salerno on .

Well, that headline kinda wrote itself, didn't it?

More than enough has been said about Ilya Bryzgalov's struggles in his first season in Philadelphia, which seemed to curiously coincide with his Stephen Hawking-like insight into how big the universe is in comparison to everyone's problems. The undisputed star of HBO's "24/7: Road to the Winter Classic" series has had a rough start to his tenue with the Flyers. Bryzgalov, who signed a nine-year, $51 million contract with the team in June, even briefly lost his spot as the starting goaltender for a stretch which included the Winter Classic.

But Bryzgalov, a seasoned professional, didn't stop working. Following a relief appearance in a 6-4 loss to Pittsburgh on February 18, the quirky Russian netminder not only took his job back, but began performing at other-wordly levels.

Since then, the Flyers have gone 8-2 with Bryzgalov between the pipes thanks in large part to his own play. He's allowed more than two goals just twice in the last 10 games, and after blanking the red-hot Devils last night at the Wells Fargo Center, has increased his current shutout streak to 196:13, or just shy of 10 straight periods, to the layperson.

For the first time in roughly two weeks, New Jersey's top unit of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Adam Henrique looked like mere mortals in Phialdelphia. The Devils managed to fire only 17 shots at Bryzgalov, who was up to the task each time.

Bryzgalov, who had been the target of Philadelphia's unique form of brotherly love until recently, has helped the Flyers keep pace with the Penguins and Devils in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race. His third shutout in as many games broke a tie with New Jersey and brought Philadelphia to within two points of the Penguins, who have won nine in a row and are expected to continue their strong play by adding some Crosby guy to their lineup tomorrow night.

Now the question turns from who will be in net for the Flyers come April, but just how far a streaky Bryzgalov can take them. He's proven his ability to show up in the playoffs in Anaheim and Phoenix, so don't count Philadelphia out of duplicating their improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010 just yet.

With that said, at this point of the season it's safe to say they'll almost certainly be faced with the task of taking on an Atlantic Division rival in the opening round of the playoffs. Regardless of whether it's the Penguins, Devils or Rangers, Bryzgalov's torrid pace in the past month is a reminder that he is just as capable of carrying a team deep into the postseason as he is of being responsible for their collapse.

For Flyers fans, the idea of pinning their hopes on their high-priced goaltender is both exciting and terrifying, much like exploring the infinite frontier. But as the end of the regular season draws near, remember this Philadelphia: in space, no one can hear you scream.

Crosby To Return For Thursday Showdown of East's Best

Written by Brian McCormack on .

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The Pittsburgh Penguins waited nearly a calendar year for the brightest talent in the world to return to their lineup, from January 5th to November 21st, 2011. In that stretch, the Penguins had a record of 34-19-8. Not bad at all.

After getting Sidney Crosby back from his concussion on for a game against the Islanders just before Thanksgiving, the Penguins went 5-2-1 over the next eight games, in which Crosby recorded 12 points and made it look like he never left.

Except that in that eighth game against the Bruins, Pittsburgh's worst nightmare came true. Crosby's concussion symptoms were back.

Later that week, a spinal specialist in Los Angeles discovered that Crosby actually suffered an injury to his vertebrae, leaving the Pens without a timetable for his return.

The Penguins played the next 40 games in the absence of their captain, and in that stretch they have done more than keep their heads above water. In fact, they've gone 26-13-1 since then, and are winners of nine straight which has brought themselves within four points of the first-place Rangers in the Eastern Conference.

On Thursday, the surging Penguins will take the ice at Madison Square Garden in one of two late-season matchups with the Rangers, a pair of gmaes that will go a long way to deciding who truly is the East's best.

And no. 87 will be there to make his case.

Could Radulov Make Predators Favorites Out West?

Written by Brian McCormack on .

David Poile was among the NHL's most active general managers at this year's trade deadline, acquiring shut-down defenseman Hal Gil, penalty-killing specialist Paul Gaustad, and scorer Andrei Kostitsyn to bolster his roster, and at a considerable price. Word out of Nashville this week indicates that even now, he might not be finished.

Consider Alexander Radulov, Nashville's prodigal son.

The Predators and Radulov parted ways following the 2008 season, when he put up 26 goals and 58 points in only his second full NHL season. The contract dispute saw Radulov leaving the Music City with one year at $980,000 still remaining on his entry-level contract, a term he still owes to Nashville.

The dynamic Russian winger may be a chance to return and fulfill his committment to the Predators, who could use his offensive prowess as much as ever. But will he jump at the chance?

Defensive-Minded Blues Find Themselves Atop NHL Standings

Written by Mike Salerno on .

On November 6, the St. Louis Blues were off to a 6-7-0 start and fans began preparing themselves for another frustrating winter resulting in a third consecutive season without playoff hockey.

Jaroslav Halak, in the second year of a four-year extension signed in the summer of 2010, was performing miserably and the skaters in front of them weren't faring much better.

General manager Doug Armstrong had to act quickly before their season spun completely out of control, and in doing so, he fired head coach Davis Payne in his second season with the team. In his place, Armstrong brought in defensive mastermind Ken Hitchcock.

Since then, the Blues have taken off, going 37-11-7 under Hitchcock and wake up this morning with their 93 points good enough for the lead in the Presidents' Trophy race.

This can't be real, can it? The Blues? Tops in the National Hockey League?

Believe it.

Halak has reemerged as the number-one goaltender Armstrong acquired from Montreal, while all-star Brian Elliott has spelled Halak brilliantly to form arguably the league's most formidable duo in net.

Upon arriving, Hitchcock, who seems to be running away with the Jack Adams award, instilled wholesale changes and a committment to defensive zone play that has yielded the fewest goals and shots against per game of all 30 NHL teams this season.

While they still aren't scoring at a very high clip--David Backes is the team's only 20-goal scorer thus far--the St. Louis blue line has improved tremendously. Kevin Shattenkirk is third in the league among defensemen for plus/minus with a +26.

Alex Pietrangelo's emergence as a prolific offensive defenseman, which allowed Armstrong to trade former number-one overall pick Erik Johnson to Colorado last year in exchange for Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart, has been a perfect compliment to the stay-at-home style of Carlo Colaiacovo and Barrett Jackman. Pietrangelo ranks third on the Blues in points (10-31-41) and has become the power play field general they'd hoped he would be when they drafted him fourth overall in 2008.

Halak has been given much praise for backstopping the Blues to their rise up the Western Conference standings. Does he deserve some? Absolutely. After all, he and Elliott are sporting sub-2 goals against averages that are good for third and first in the league, respectively.

But his team's improved play in their own zone has made it easy on the Slovak star to climb out of his early-season funk.

Consider that on average, Halak faces 25.9 shots per game, many of which from the perimeter or low-percentage areas. While the Blues have surrendered a fairly average 33 goals while shorthanded, they've only been scored on 82 times at even strength. The New York Rangers, who are the next closest team, are 17 behind.

Make no mistake, Hitchcock, more than anyone else, is the mad scientist behind this run of success.

Perhaps the greatest measure of the Blues' affinity for defensive zone coverage is in their ability to overcome a severe lack of production from their forwards. Chris Stewart, the main piece brought over from Colorado in the Johnson trade at last year's trade deadline has vastly underperformed. After three straight 28-goal seasons, he has chipped in just 14 so far this year to go along with 12 assists. That's far from the production Armstrong was expecting from the power forward.

Patrik Berglund, who some expected to have a breakout campaign in 2011-12 after a 52-point season last year, has shown flashes of brilliance, but also only has 14 goals and 17 assists.

But the defensive zone coverage doesn't end with the rearguards. Stewart and Berglund have adapted well to responsible play in all three zones and have complimented defensive-minded forwards such as Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott to form the league's most impenetrable five-man unit.

In a few short months, the question has turned from if they'll make the playoffs to how far they can go in a brutal Western Conference. While they'll undoubtedly need some timely scoring to make a run at Lord Stanley, they've got the pieces that make them a tough mountain to climb for anyone in the league.

Right now, from heights once thought unreachable, those pieces have them looking down at 29 other teams.

LISTEN LIVE: The Two-Man Advantage Tonight at 6 p.m.

Written by Mike Salerno on .

Listen to "The Two-Man Advantage" featuring Brian and Casey McCormack tonight on WGSU at 6 p.m. For the first time in the show's history, Western New York's hottest hockey talk radio show will be taking your calls live on the air.

Also joining "The Two-Man Advantage" for tonight's show is special guest Maddie Klein.

Interact in realtime with the McCormack brothers as they discuss what a healthy Sidney Crosby means for the rest of the Eastern Conference, the Sabres closing to just two points behind Winnipeg, and the wild, wild Western Conference playoff race among other topics.

Call (585) 245-5586 to talk hockey with Geneseo's most raved-about radio hosts from 6-7 p.m. Also, check back later tonight for a recording of tonight's show and come back every week as the McCormacks break down the latest news from around the NHL.

News & Notes: Crosby Cleared For Contact; Grabovski, Turco Ink Deals

Written by Frank Castaldi on .

  • Crosby has full-participation practice with Penguins

As if the Pittsburgh Penguins weren't the hottest team in the League already, the surging Pens were blessed with even more good news: Sidney Crosby has been cleared for contact.

We assume the news comes as a result of Sid the Kid being bored of just doing this in practice for three months:

Although there's still no timetable on his eventual return, hearing that arguably the greatest player in the world is one step closer to having his presence back in the lineup, is outstanding news. Especially for a team that is currently shooting up the standings, enjoying a nice six-game win streak.

Crosby, who hasn't been in action since Dec. 6, will more than likely bring instant impact to the Penguins' lineup, adding another punch to their offense which already features the red-hot Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz.

When Crosby last returned from his concussion-related setbacks, he simply dominated, scoring 12 points in eight games.

After the jump, more news from around the NHL...

Friars Capture State Title on Wallace's Last-Second Goal

Written by Mike Salerno on .

As time ran down in regulation of the New York state championship game Sunday night, it was almost like someone from above held the clock at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum an extra second.

Oh right, that's probably because she did.

With the game deadlocked at three in the final moments of regulation, Chris Wallace took a pass from Mike Marnell and scored with just one tick left to give St. Anthony's their first catholic state title in school history, 4-3, over St. Francis.

After the passing of Marie Drisco, the program's long-time general manager, earlier this season, Disney couldn't have written a better ending if they tried.

"Ever since she passed, we dedicated our season to her," said Wallace. "Just, how it ended, it’s indescribable."

That sentiment rapidly flowed through the Friar faithful that populated the lower bowl of the arena, as everyone involved with the program, both past and present, was convinced Marie had a hand in the drama that unfolded in the waning seconds.

For the Friars, the waiting had gone on long enough. Since breaking into the Catholic High School Hockey League in 2008, they had suffered the pain of seeing opponents from the Western New York Hockey League celebrate in front of them after consecutive one-goal games in previous years.

St. Anthony's became the first CHSHL team to win the state title in nine tries, finishing with an unblemished 21-0 league record.

It seemed as though that exuberant feeling would have to wait at least past regulation this year as the Red Raiders forced the play deep inside the Friars zone with just 10 seconds to play. But Marnell's gutsy effort to elude the hip check of the St. Francis defenseman and find Wallace on the doorstep in the nick of time proved to be enough as the Friars poured out of the bench to mob their leading goal-scorer at center ice.

"I mean, we just click," Wallace said of Marnell. "Once he gets the puck, he knows where I’m going to be and vice versa. We see the ice well together and we feed each other, and that’s how we score."

St. Anthony's had squandered a 3-1 lead they built on a pair of first-period goals by Wallace followed shortly by a marker from Christian Habberstad. But the Red Raiders clawed their way back into the game.

Tyler McTigue's power play goal with 3:42 remaining knotted the score at three, but on this night Marie, er, the Friars, would not be denied.

After a failed power play of their own, they relied on goaltender Dan Peterson to stifle the Red Raiders on multiple occasions in the final minutes before Wallace netted the winner.

With under 15 seconds to play, Peterson stood tall on a 2-on-1 rush, making a save on Richard Larkin that forced a defensive zone faceoff. Marnell emerged from the ensuing faceoff with the puck and sprinted down the ice, finding Wallace just in the nick of time. Peterson made 19 saves, but none bigger than one that kept the game tied just long enough for the last-second heroics.

"It’s amazing," Wallace said. "To come up short in the past few years, being in my senior year, I can’t even put it into words."

Courtesy of Frank Martino, here's a frame-by-frame look at Marnell's final streak down the ice, as he finds Wallace for the game-winning goal:

Created with flickr slideshow.

 

 

 

Desert Heat: Coyotes Clicking at Right Time

Written by Brian McCormack on .

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Few teams were happier to see the month of January come to a close than the Phoenix Coyotes. The 'Yotes started the new year with three wins in the first month, in addition to falling in overtime on four occasions and dropping contests with the Columbus Blue Jackets, last place in the West, and twice with the Anaheim Ducks, 13th at the time.

On February 1, the Coyotes sat twelfth in the West, fourth in the Pacific, and ten points behind the division's first-place San Jose Sharks.

Looking at the standings today, the Coyotes have made some changes.


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