NHL Betting: The Week's Biggest Stories
by Trevor Whenham - 03/23/2009
Too Little, Too Late
The Ottawa Senators are the hottest team in the NHL over the last 10 games. Unfortunately, by the time they figured out how to play they had already thrown their season away. Ottawa has lost just once in their last 10 games, but still find themselves seven points out of the last playoff spot with 10 games left to play. Their last win even moved them over the .500 mark for the first time since the fourth game of the season. A couple of key things have contributed to the sudden success. First, they finally have some reliable goaltending - rookie Brian Elliott has won his last eight starts, has allowed more than three goals just once in his last nine appearances, and is doing a very good Steve Mason impression. His performance doesn't really do much right now, but it probably ensures that he won't have to head back to Binghamton in the AHL again next year. The other factor has been head coach Cory Clouston. There has been a revolving door installed behind the bench in Ottawa for a couple of years now, but Clouston is finally bringing some stability and has found a way to get through to some players that have become adept at shutting out authority figures. Clouston was hired on Feb. 2, and since then he has gone 15-6-3. He wasn't brought in as an interim, but any doubt about his future has been erased.
Another Hot New Coach
Ottawa's not the only team that looks entirely different since promoting an AHL coach. Pittsburgh suffered a rough loss to key rival Philadelphia on Sunday night, but that does little to tarnish their recent form. Dan Bylsma was hired on Feb. 15 in place of the highly overrated Michel Therrien. Since then, the Pens are an incredible 12-2-3, and have gone from outside of the playoffs looking in, to in the midst of a battle for home ice in the opening round. Pittsburgh has the two leading scorers in the league in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, so Bylsma had a lot to work with. However, as opposed to Therrien he has been able to do something with the embarrassment of riches. Unlike Clouston, Bylsma is still just an interim coach, but he shouldn't have to worry about that for long.
It's not just Bylsma that has helped Pittsburgh play up to their potential and look worthy of a shot at avenging their Stanley Cup Finals loss. They were very active at the trade deadline, and the moves are paying off. Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz are both scoring at a point-a-game pace, and have helped to make Crosby look even better lately - 16 points in the nine games he has played since returning from injury.
Help Is On The Way
Calgary is playing some pretty terrible hockey right now. They were very secure at the top of the Northwest Division a couple of weeks ago, but they have just two wins in their last eight games, and that has allowed Vancouver to close the gap to just three points. There are even rumors floating around the team that coach Mike Keenan could be dismissed before the playoffs and replaced by GM Darryl Sutter. The biggest problem plaguing the team recently has been offense - in five of their last eight games they have scored two goals or less. Injuries have robbed them of scoring depth, but it looks increasingly like they will get some relief on their second and third lines in time for the playoffs. Rene Bourque, in the midst of a career year, has been out of action since spraining his ankle on Feb. 19. The controversial but offensively useful Todd Bertuzzi has been out since March 1 with knee issues. The team is 4-6 without the two players, but both are recovering well, and are both expected to return to action well before the end of the season on April 11. With their return this is a different team, and one in a much better position to compete in the playoffs. They just have to make sure they maintain their best possible playoff position before the two are back.
Looking at how a team does in the second half of the season can be a very good indicator of which teams are in good form and ready for playoff success. That's good news for Pittsburgh, Detroit and Vancouver, but none of those teams can hold a candle to the New Jersey Devils. The Devils have four more wins that any other team in the league since the second half began. Combine that great play with the talent all over their roster, and their embarrassment of goaltending riches, and the Devils are looking very good. I've long felt that the Devils are the team to beat in the East, and they certainly haven't done anything recently to change my mind on that front.
If you don't trust the Devils and are looking for a potential chink in their armor then you'll be interested in a strange story percolating there. Coach Brent Sutter is in just his second year, and he has been phenomenally successful. The team has been better than they were expected to be in both of his years, and he has dealt with adversity this year as well as you possibly can. Despite that, there is rampant speculation that Sutter is not content and that he is considering not returning next season. He's a rancher at heart, and is admittedly homesick for his simpler life and the junior team he owns in Western Canada. Sutter won't directly address questions about his future, but the issue could certainly be an unwelcome distraction if the team starts to falter and lose confidence.