Saturday, December 29, 2007

Avalanche lose captain Joe Sakic for up to 3 months

No player has been the face of the Colorado Avalanche during the 12 years the franchise has been in Denver more than their captain Joe Sakic.

As the key member of their two Stanley Cup championships in 1996 and 2001, the 38-year-old Sakic has always been known to be the opposite of injury prone and would have to be seriously hurt to miss a game. However, according to Rocky Mountain News writer Aaron J. Lopez, Sakic had injured his right groin during Colorado's 4-2 victory over Edmonton on November 28th and has not played since he was in the lineup for his team's 5-2 win in Los Angeles on December 1st.

Some players may be able to play through the pain, but the injury was serious enough for Sakic that he was placed on injured reserve two days later. He had played in 232 straight games dating back to January 6, 2004 before he was sidelined. While the Avalanche have been a playoff contending team this season and especially strong on home ice where they were 15-3 entering today's game against the Kings, hockey observers will see how Sakic's teammates will respond knowing he's out for a significant period of time. The last time he missed a chunk of any season due to injury was during the 2002-2003 campaign when he sat out 24 games due foot and ankle ailments.

In a team press release from Thursday, the Avalanche announced that Sakic will be out of the lineup for the next 8 to 12 weeks and had undergone hernia surgery. The coaching and medical staffs hoped that this wouldn't have resorted to Sakic missing more than the 13 games lost since he last played, but team physician Andy Parker said the captain was not responding well to treatment.

"Joe's rehabilitation has not progressed as anticipated and upon further evaluation the decision has been made to perform surgery in order for him to fully recover," Parker said.

So when will Sakic return? It is most likely not until March as Lopez had given a broad timeframe of either early in the month if the captain's rehabilitation goes well or if it takes the full 12 weeks, the end of that month. Either way, that's a good portion of the second half of this season.

This brings me back to what I had stated a few moments ago. How well will Colorado play in his absence for the next three months? They were 8-5 since Sakic was put on the shelf. One positive about what faces the Avalanche is the presence of another leader in the locker room in former Oilers captain Ryan Smyth. His free agent signing over the summer looks even more significant now than it did when he arrived in Denver. But Smyth knows that regardless, making up for what Sakic continues to bring to the team will be a very difficult task.

"It's a huge loss. He's an inspiration, on and off the ice," Smyth told Denver Post Avalanche beat writer Adrian Dater after Thursday's 4-2 loss to Detroit at the Pepsi Center. "We're just going to have to do the best we can without him, but you don't replace a Joe Sakic."

Dater also mentioned yesterday in his article an interesting scenario that faces the Avalanche from a personnel standpoint. However he was told by Colorado general manager Francois Giguere that he won't be quick to make any knee-jerk trades now that Sakic's out.

"This could give us a chance to some of our younger players to make an impact," Giguere said. "(About a trade), I'll say what I always say: We're always trying to make our team better, in any way."

In other words, Giguere will just see how the team fares as they enter the second half of the season and if there is a situation that presents itself where a trade makes sense, he'll look into making a deal with the right trading partner.

Dater has brought up a very important point on what lies ahead where he says that Sakic is only under contract for this season for $6.75 million. Since the captain is expected to miss more than 10 straight games or 24 straight days, under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams can apply for salary cap relief. Any of the 30 National Hockey League teams are allowed to exceed the cap by up to the amount of the injured player's salary with as many replacement players as it wants. Will Giguere take advantage of that opportunity remains to be seen, but if the Avalanche aren't in a position in the Western Conference standings he feels comfortable with at the time the team qualifies for the extended salary cap room, speculation of any moves will surface.

MSG settles sexual harassment lawsuit with ex-Rangers City Skater

Madison Square Garden management had to pay a price for losing a high profile sexual harassment court case to former New York Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders on October 2nd. Not only was the company ordered to pay $11.6 million in damages, but those named in Sanders' lawsuit would hang their heads in shame. They include MSG chairman James Dolan and Knicks President of Basketball Operations Isiah Thomas, a man who had made Sanders' working environment disgracefully an uncomfortable one. Once Dolan fired Sanders in January 2006 after she took her complaints to the team owner about Thomas' treatment of her that began as far back in time as three years earlier, she filed the lawsuit.

While Dolan had to settle with Sanders, Thomas somehow escaped from financial penalty as he still remains employed by Madison Square Garden. That includes head coaching duties for the Knicks. With that arena tenant having its worst season since the early 1980s, fans recently gathered at the 7th Avenue entrance complete with picket-size signs to demand that Thomas be fired. To this day, Dolan has spared Thomas the pink slip.

While this case had moved into the shadow of the Thomas sexual harassment lawsuit, Dolan likely decided now to settle with another woman that was also treated poorly by company employees. Interesting enough this came just 16 days after doing so with Sanders. Likely in order to avoid another embarassing trial to further damage the Madison Square Garden company reputation, Dolan settled on Wednesday with former Rangers City Skaters cheerleader captain Courtney Prince, a woman that filed her own lawsuit against the company in October 2004. New York Times sports writer Richard Sandomir reported in his article on Thursday that Prince claimed that New York Rangers Vice President of Sports Team Operations Jason Vogel made unwelcomed sexual advances toward Prince at a nearby bar after a Rangers game in December 2003 and tried to pressure her into having three-way sex with him and a former New York Times reporter.

After taking her complaints to company management that they dismissed, Prince was subject to retaliatory sexual harassment. New York Post writer Kati Cornell reported on Thursday that Prince also accused MSG employees of quizzing her of the sex lives of her fellow Rangers City Skaters and ordering her to arrange off-hours meetings with them at local bars. They also demanded her to tell the other cheerleaders to pad their bras, take diet pills and enhance their physical appearance to put it mildly make themselves look sultry. But once Prince warned the other cheerleaders to stay away from certain employees to avoid being sexually harassed, she was then fired.

The lawsuit made the front pages of the tabloids when this scandal became public, but the recent better on-ice performances of the Rangers may have lessened the focus of the Prince case in comparison to what the Knicks faced. New York Daily News writer Tracy Connor reported on Thursday that MSG had rejected an initial $800,000 settlement offer from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at the time Prince's lawsuit was originally filed and their lawyers attempted to vehemently slander Prince. This included gathering statements from ten of her former fellow cheerleaders in claiming she was a nymphomaniac and used graphic sexual language in their conversations.

However, Sandomir reported that Prince's court documents revealed that she showed no unusual psychological symptoms of questionable behavior while two of the Rangers City Skaters were coerced into signing unsworn affidavits.

Settling now obviously avoids significantly more embarassing testimony against the company. Even more damaging for Madison Square Garden would've been the possibility of revealing details of a notebook kept by Rangers executives about what kind of sexual positions they want try with members of the Rangers City Skaters. Sanders was actually aware of this notebook, which its existence helped in their cases against their former employer.

"We resolved this matter with no admission of wrongdoing on any part," Prince's lawyer Kathleen Peratis said after the undisclosed settlement was reached.

The Rangers City Skaters are no longer a part of the game events during Rangers home games at Madison Square Garden.

Even though the two parties came to a confidential settlement, the court of public opinion likely has convicted those that run Madison Square Garden of what Ms. Connor described in her article. That would be that with not one but two sexual harassment cases levied against them, an undetermined number of male executives had treated female employees like sex objects, the kind of reputation that will need to be cleaned up in the coming weeks, months and years ahead.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Red Wings get Nicklas Lidstrom locked up through 2010

The Detroit Red Wings delivered a belated Christmas gift to five-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom on Wednesday. It was only one day after the actual holiday, but I doubt he minded.

Prior to the Red Wings' road game in St. Louis, the team announced they signed Lidstrom to a two-year contract extension through the 2009-2010 season. According to yesterday's edition of The Detroit News, the deal is worth $14.9 million. The 37-year-old Swede has spent his entire National Hockey League career with the Original Six team and was a key member of the Red Wings' three most recent Stanley Cup championship teams in 1997, 1998 and 2002. Lidstrom has shown no signs of slowing down and has been quite productive for Detroit as he leads the NHL in assists (30) and points (34) by a defenseman in 37 games this season. He is second in the league in the plus/minus statistic (+23).

Seriously, you're not convinced? Well, if you are among the ridiculously few on the planet that aren't, you might want to check out an excellent overview of Lidstrom's place in Red Wings history put together by The Detroit News staff prior to the start of this season.

Lidstrom took over the captaincy following the July 3, 2006 retirement of another lifetime Red Wing in future Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman, who was then named the team's Vice President. His career resume goes beyond his impressive tenure in the Motor City as he played for the Swedish national team in the 1991 Canada Cup, the 1996 and 2004 World Cup of Hockey tournaments and was a part of the 2006 Gold Medal-winning Olympic team. He even holds the distinction by being one of only three Swedish-born players to amass 600 assists in his career. That is certainly an achievement no one can fail to take notice as one of the game's most valuable defenseman in the NHL and one of the most durable, too. Entering Wednesday's 5-0 victory over the Blues, he had reached the 900-point plateau while missing just 22 games in his entire career. Truly remarkable, especially for a defenseman. Then again, we could always ask his teammate Chris Chelios about that, who will turn 46 years old on January 25th.

"Nick has been the best defenseman in the world for several years," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said in the team press release. "He's a great captain and role model who does everything right both on and off the ice. We're proud to have him continue as a Red Wing for another two years."

Without any shred of doubt, this man has earned it. What probably made Lidstrom's decision to play another two more seasons beyond this one a bit easier is how the 2007-2008 campaign has fared. That we as hockey fans know has been an outstanding one in the first three months. Detroit has been the clear cut best team in the entire league to date as they've been red hot especially in December with 11 wins. They have won 13 of their last 15 games overall. Following their 4-2 road victory over the Colorado Avalanche just hours ago, the Red Wings improved to 28-10 on the season with 59 points, easily the most in the NHL. Only the East-leading Ottawa Senators (54) have at least 50 entering the final week of the 2007 calendar year. Lidstrom is primed to make his ninth All-Star Game appearance next month in Atlanta.

But what also led to his decision to prolong his potentially Hall of Fame career is his desire to lead the Red Wings to another Stanley Cup title and with them among the elite teams in the NHL right now, who wouldn't want to play on?

"I take a lot of pride in being captain of one of the Original Six teams," Lidstrom told David Goricki and Ted Kulfan of The Detroit News earlier this month. "There's so much tradition here."

Lidstrom's teammates undoubtedly are thrilled their captain will be staying in Detroit for the rest of this decade, especially Kris Draper.

"It's a great move by the organization, not to even let this go any further," Draper said to Detroit Free Press sports writer George Sipple on Wednesday. "To be able to get a guy like Nick Lidstrom sealed up for two more years, it basically puts him in a situation to retire a Red Wing. I think that's great."

As many journalists would do immediate after the team they covered wins a championship and asks if they can repeat, Sipple slipped the "inquiring minds want to know" question to Lidstrom. That would be will he play beyond 2010?

"I don't know," Lidstrom explained. "All I know is I gotta play for another couple years and that's my focus right now. I'll reassess everything when a two-year deal is up. We'll see. But I'm very happy and pleased with the two-year deal that I got."

Either way, in taking a page out of Stevie Wonder's songbook, the Red Wings have him signed, sealed and delivered. And he's theirs. What question remains between now and when he retires is whether or not he'll be raising the Stanley Cup over his head again. This season he has a good chance of all goes well from here on in.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Marian Gaborik's 5-goal night highlights season's first 3 months

Add December 20, 2007 to the list of memorable games in Minnesota Wild history.

Among those memories in the State of Hockey since the team's inception into the National Hockey League, here are those I can easily identify:

1. October 6, 2000 - first game in Wild history

2. October 11, 2000 - first regular season home game at Xcel Energy Center

3. October 18, 2000 - first win in Wild history (6-5 over Tampa Bay Lightning)

4. December 17, 2000 - first home game vs. Dallas Stars (6-0 win over Minnesota's original NHL team)

5. March 23, 2003 - Wild clinch first playoff berth in team history (4-0 win over Detroit Red Wings)

6. April 21, 2003 - Richard Park scores game-winning overtime goal in Game 6 to send 2003 Western Conference Quarterfinals against Colorado Avalanche to deciding Game 7

7. April 22, 2003 - Andrew Brunette scores series-winning overtime goal to defeat the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 of 2003 Western Conference Quarterfinals

8. May 8, 2003 - ousted Vancouver Canucks from playoffs with Game 7 victory in 2003 Western Conference Semifinals

9. February 7, 2004 - hosted the 2004 NHL All-Star Game

and now can I add this to this list (not necessarily the only ones that are memorable)...

10. December 20, 2007 - Marian Gaborik scored career-high and club record 5 goals in 6-3 victory over New York Rangers

Did you see that? Let me run that by you again. Minnesota Wild forward Marian Gaborik lit up the New York Rangers for five goals (yes, that's five!) on Thursday night in a 6-3 win. It was the most goals by any one player in a single game during the 7-year history of the franchise. When the night was over, the hockey world was buzzing.

Already known as one of the great young stars of the National Hockey League, Gaborik may have elevated his stardom to a new level with his record-setting performance. When Gaborik was selected third overall in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, many scouts believed he would be special. Despite various injuries that have slowed Gaborik down, he still managed to scored at least 30 goals in five of his first six seasons. The Wild have made it to the playoffs twice in their history and Gaborik has been a major part of the team's success as the only remaining original player.

However, he had never had that memorable performance that got the whole hockey world talking. You know, where fellow fans would be asking you at the water cooler the next morning after it happened. That was until now.

The New York Rangers made their first visit to Minnesota since October 10, 2003 and maybe they oughta think twice about coming back again anytime soon. Okay, maybe there is no need to go that far with that. Either way, it is always extra special anytime your hometown team visits the State of Hockey and plays the Wild at the Xcel Energy Center on a given night in the 82-game schedule. Since the two teams are in opposite conferences, this matchup might not happen again in St. Paul for another two years regardless of the schedule format change. The Rangers were coming off a 4-0 shutout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, so they had hoped to build on any momentum from that game. But, it didn't work out that way.

It looked good early for the Broadway Blueshirts as they took a 1-0 lead 10:51 into the game on a power play goal from defenseman Michal Rozsival. New York seemed to be in control in which they outshot Minnesota 10-2 in the first period. But it took just a single cough-up of the puck along the sideboards by Jaromir Jagr to lead to a scoring chance in Henrik Lundqvist's direction. Pavol Demitra made a beautiful cross slot feed to Gaborik heading to the right doorstep to bury the one-timer and tie the game at 1-1 through 20 minutes.

Gaborik would then take over early in the second period with a pair of power play goals and boy did his exceptional eye-hand coordination really show on these two plays, too. Demitra would set up Gaborik again, but this time from behind the Rangers net for a perfect centering feed. After Lundqvist stopped him on the initial point blank shot, Gaborik would bat the rebound in midair into the net for the 2-1 Minnesota lead. It was a highlight that ESPN's Barry Melrose would focus on in his analysis of Gaborik's performance. Truly a beauty to watch.

Brent Burns stirred things up in the Wild's favor when he nailed Rangers forward Petr Prucha along the sideboards of the Rangers zone. It got the crowd roaring the instant it happened as emotions rose on the ice. No sooner after Burns had elbowed Prucha in the head during that hard body check, he sent Fedor Tyutin flying backwards as well before a brief scrum ensued. Without a proper penalty called against Burns for his elbowing of Prucha, the Rangers ended up shorthanded as Nigel Dawes was assessed a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his verbal abuse of the on-ice officials for the lack of calls stemming from that incident involving Burns.

On the ensuing power play, Burns would be out there on the ice and set up Gaborik cutting toward the left inside hash marks. After he closed in on Lundqvist, Gaborik lifted a beautiful backhander into the net to complete the hat trick to put the Wild up 3-1 5:38 into the second period. He was pumped up and so were the passionate fans at Xcel Energy Center as they tossed hats onto the ice to serenade Gaborik.

Only 41 seconds after the Rangers cut Minnesota's lead to 4-3, Demitra circled behind the Rangers net to send a long pass out to the point for Nick Schultz for a wide open shot. The puck would hit Aaron Voros atop the crease as he battled with Tyutin for position. With the puck again in midair, Gaborik positioned below the left inside hash marks would bat it into the open left side of the net behind Lundqvist for his fourth goal of the night. That would mark a new single-game high for Gaborik and make it a 5-3 hockey game as the Wild's two-goal lead was restored.

And what better way to mark this historic evening than to see Gaborik score goal #5 on what many think is the most exciting way to score in hockey. Off a Rangers turnover inside the Minnesota blueline, Gaborik stole the puck from Chris Drury and away he went all alone on a breakaway with no one with a chance to catch him with his amazing speed. In Pavel Bure-like fashion, he completed the highlight reel play by burying a wrister past Lundqvist to make it 6-3 Minnesota and lights out. Game, set and match.

Speaking of Bure (who had played for the Rangers before retiring a few years ago), Gaborik made a remarkably coincidential admission. On the same morning of this performance, he actually had for a few minutes sat down to watch some YouTube video clips of Bure's five-goal game for Russia during their 1998 Winter Olympics semifinal game against Finland. One player that played with Bure as a member of the Florida Panthers and is now Gaborik's teammate in Minnesota certainly thought of the comparison.

"Shades of Pavel Bure," Wild forward Mark Parrish told Michael Russo of the Star Tribune. "It was just like watching Bure in the day. I mean, Gabby was banking them in out of the air, scoring on breakaways, skating through everybody, making highlight-film goals. My God, he was doing it every which way tonight."

Fans were even hoping Gaborik would get to score a sixth goal. That's asking a lot, don't you think? Not according to Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire. who two nights earlier coached his 1,000th NHL game.

"It was one of those nights," Lemaire said to KARE-TV reporter Jana Shortal after the game. "He could've gotten two more easily."

Well, when the night is as special as it was for a regular season game, you can only root a player on to equal, set or extend a new record. Here, he was trying to become the first player since Darryl Sittler scored six goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs in that memorable NHL-record 10-point game against the Boston Bruins on February 7, 1976. The 294th consecutive sellout crowd with 18,568 fans on hand at Xcel Energy Center at times chanted "Gabby! Gabby! Gabby!" as you'll hear in this YouTube video clip. Gaborik came close a couple of times. The biggest chance came while parked at the bottom of the right faceoff circle, Lundqvist's replacement Steve Valiquette made a tremendous left pad save to rob Gaborik of that elusive sixth goal. You can tell while watching on television, his teammates were deliberately trying to feed him the puck. Either way, it was quite exciting to watch live in your living room, at a local bar or if you happen to be one of the lucky ones actually in St. Paul to see it in person, that considering they've sold out every home game in the team's existence.

"Every time Gabby touched the puck, it was just electric," Burns told Russo in his postgame interview.

When it was all over, Gaborik was carried off the ice by teammates Sean Hill and Keith Carney and when he was easily named the game's #1 star, he applauded the crowd as they cheered.

"It was a great experience. This kind of game was special," Gaborik told Wild play-by-play announcer Dan Terhaar and color analyst Mike Greenlay after the game. "The most important thing is that we got two points. Five goals? It's unbelievable."

The feat was no easy task. Only 55 times in NHL history five goals were scored by a player in one game and it was nearly 11 years to the day since the last time it was done. Gaborik became the 43rd player to accomplish the feat with the last being Sergei Fedorov's 5th goal lifting the Detroit Red Wings to a 5-4 overtime win over the Washington Capitals on December 26, 1996. What I found interesting is that ESPN put up a graphic page showing how rare scoring five goals in a hockey game is compared to how many quarterbacks throw 450 passing yards (44), how many times a Major League Baseball player hit two home runs in the same inning (52) or how many times an NBA player scored at least 60 points in a game (59).

So in other words, Gaborik was in elite company when comes to such statistical single game feats. Oh, and did I mention that he assisted on Pierre-Marc Bouchard's power play goal, the only one Gaborik didn't score? That means he ended up with six points on the night. According to Minnesota Wild official web site content manager Glen Andresen, Gaborik has recorded 9 of the 13 hat tricks in team history. So far, we know as hockey fans that this probably isn't likely to be the last, especially for this 25-year-old Slovakian phenom.

"It's an honor to be in that kind of company," Gaborik said to St. Paul Pioneer Press writer Bruce Brothers.

Between the pipes for Minnesota, Josh Harding also turned in a solid performance by making 32 saves for his fourth straight win. Even though Lundqvist who has garnered much of the hockey world's attention with his outstanding first two-plus months of the season for the Rangers, he cannot be blamed for the outcome despite allowing all six Minnesota goals on just 18 shots he faced. It may have been only Bouchard's goal that should've been stopped, but Lundqvist really didn't stand much of any chance on all five goals Gaborik put past him. Ironically on this night, the Rangers had allowed the fewest goals in the NHL entering this night, yet for the second time this season allowed six in a game.

"I didn't face that many shots and somehow it didn't matter what I did," Lundqvist told Long Island Newsday Rangers beat writer Steve Zipay. "I'm disappointed in myself for not playing better. It's tough. You make a couple saves and he's there again to score another goal."

Rangers forward Brendan Shanahan believed his team played well enough to have a chance to win the game, but the Wild made the most of their opportunities.

"I don't think the score reflects how we played the game," Shanahan told reporters after the game, including MSG Network's John Giannone. "There were some breakdowns, obviously. We took some penalties in the second period. But for the most part, we said after the game that we really don't think that reflects how we played that game."

Shanahan added, "We thought we came out strong. We as a matter of fact I think stuck with our gameplan throughout and 5-on-5 for the most part I thought we really outplayed this team. Just one of those weird nights where the chances they got were really good. We ran into a world-class hockey player who was having the game of his life."

Sure, the Rangers outshot the Wild 35-22 and won 32 of 52 faceoffs, but what good is that when the opposition doubles your team's goal total on the scoreboard? It's almost a reminder of the Dallas game on November 25th where the Rangers outshot and outplayed the Stars, only that final score was just by a single goal instead of three in this one.

New York Daily News Rangers beat writer John Dellapina felt the Rangers left Gaborik open in front of Lundqvist far too often to get the number of scoring chances he did. No doubt he was right and the Minnesota's leading goal scorer made the Rangers pay and paid dearly.

Gaborik became the third opposing player to score five goals in a game against the Rangers, the last being Pittsburgh Penguins owner and Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux on April 9, 1993. For the Rangers, they hope the next guy doesn't come along anytime soon to duplicate it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Chris Simon suspended 30 games

Chris Simon has yet to learn his lesson from his baseball swing stick incident on New York Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg last season. Now he'll pay another price for his actions.

The New York Islanders forward eclipsed his own NHL-record for the longest suspension handed out by the league as he will miss 30 games without pay for Saturday's incident at the Nassau Coliseum. With an exposed skate blade, Simon deliberately kicked Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jarko Ruutu in the foot while already down on the ice during a scrum near the Islanders bench. Many hockey observers believe this goes beyond an act of thuggery, regardless of the player it was inflicted against is known as an agitator.

Simon finished up the previous record 25-game suspension in the first few weeks of this season after he clocked Hollweg in retaliation for a hard check along the boards back on March 8th. When this new suspension is completed on February 21, 2008, he will have amassed 65 games from suspensions in his career. This one alone will cost him nearly $293,000 in salary.

"Several factors were considered in imposing the longest suspension in NHL history for an on-ice incident," NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell stated in a league press release yesterday. "While it was fortunate there was no serious injury to Mr. Ruutu as a result of Simon's action, the deliberate act of kicking an opponent with an exposed skate blade, especially where the opponent is in a vulnerable position, is and always has been a repugnant and totally unacceptable act in the game of hockey."

The bottom line to all this is that Simon needs to be off the ice for a considerable period of time to get away from the game and if he needs professional help to get his emotions under control, then this is the best time he can rehabilitate his NHL career and his self-image.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes arrive in New York City to face Rangers

This is a game I've personally been looking forward to all season. Unfortunately due to a bad cold I've been battling for at least five days now, I've had to cancel plans to see in person the Phoenix Coyotes here in the metropolitan area for the first time in five years.

That's how long it has been since the Desert Dogs have been in town. With the current unbalanced game schedule format that will end at the conclusion of this season, fans will see this exciting and young hockey team more often in the years to come.

The Coyotes arrived on the East Coast on Wednesday to continue their six-game road trip and have taken two of the first three so far. In their tour through the metropolitan area, they lost 3-2 on Long Island as Bill Guerin scored twice for the New York Islanders. Simply not a pretty game for Phoenix.

Yesterday afternoon was a great 4-1 bounce back victory in New Jersey as the scoring line of Fredrik Sjostrom, Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata have really been clicking of late. Hanzal had big day with 1 goal and 3 assists to his credit. Hanzal put the game out of reach with a sweet breakaway shorthanded goal past future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. Vrbata had 1 goal and 2 assists while Sjostrom scored the other two Phoenix goals. The Coyotes simply took advantage of the Devils poor discipline as they were called for 10 penalties (one being a fighting major), but were only able to capitalize once on nine power plays. Mikael Tellqvist got a rare start in net and stopped 30 of 31 shots for the win.

Now the Phoenix Coyotes head to Madison Square Garden to face the New York Rangers in another afternoon contest, their first visit since October 28, 2002. To me, that's far too long! Plenty has been written by the hockey media in both New York City and Phoenix, primarily because Wayne Gretzky will be making his first appearance at the "World's Most Famous Arena" as an NHL coach and since he retired as a player on April 18, 1999. Phoenix Coyotes official web site writer Heath Price-Khan put together a nice feature story three days ago called "My First Game at MSG" to provide a nice perspective of Gretzky's anticipated return to a place where he spent his final three seasons in a Rangers uniform. Even more good coverage was posted at the team web site with a Coyotes TV feature called "Coyotes visit the Garden", where Gretzky was interviewed and more importantly many of the Coyotes players who will be playing at the Garden for the very first time. And yes, they're very excited, too.

Making me chuckle a bit is what Gretzky said to New York Daily News Rangers beat writer John Dellapina yesterday. It is in reference to how current Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr spoiled his final game by scoring the game-winning overtime goal for a 2-1 Pittsburgh Penguins victory that day.

"Maybe it was fitting that the best young player in the game scored the goal in overtime," Gretzky said of Jagr. "Everyone always talks about passing torches and all that stuff. He caught it. That's what I told him after the game. I said, 'You caught it.' I'm happy for Jaromir."

Okay, maybe that wasn't the part that made me laugh. It was when Gretzky said with a big grin, "Yeah, Jagr's still there" in his off-ice press conference at the Nassau Coliseum on Thursday as noted in Steve Zipay's article in Long Island Newsday. You have to see the video clip for that (it's about halfway through it).

To my pleasant surprise, there were additional articles among the local newspapers in the New York City metropolitan area that not only talked about Gretzky, but acknowledged the ray of hope for the Phoenix Coyotes as a franchise. This would be where their future finally appears bright with some hungry and talented young players they want to build around captain Shane Doan. Sam Weinman of The Journal News (located in White Plains, New York) wrote yesterday that Gretzky is trying to find a winning forumla as the Coyotes head coach. Weinman even put a nice angle on his story about whether #99 ever thought he'd be an NHL coach after he retired as a player.

"I could guarantee you I'd have laughed at you," Gretzky told Weinman in an interview. "But you know what? You never know in life. I love the game, and the next best thing to playing is coaching, and I've got a good young group of players here so it's been a lot of fun."

New York Times writer Lew Serviss even made a trip out to Phoenix earlier in the week before the Coyotes traveled here and put together his own feature story on Gretzky's plans to make his team a high competitive one in the years to come. Gretzky's passion and determination to get through this tough period in the Coyotes franchise by taking his lumps now and seeing things through will pay off.

"Hey listen, when I started, I told my players the very first day three years ago, I don’t know any other way," Gretzky said to Serviss. "To be successful in anything you do, you got to have passion and you got to have emotion. And, yes, when I was a player I was an emotional player, and now as a coach I'm an emotional coach. But through the two years plus that I’ve coached now, I've changed in a lot of ways, and one of those is that my emotions are more in check in a sense that I got a young team now."

In addition to Gretzky, other current members of the Coyotes organization with Rangers connections that will be at the game include general manager Don Maloney (former Rangers assistant GM), associate coach Ulf Samuelsson (former Rangers defenseman) and forward Mike York who began his career with the Rangers. I expect Gretzky to get a standing ovation in the event he is introduced to the Madison Square Garden crowd later today. Maloney offered his thoughts to Arizona Republic writer Jim Gintonio on today's game.

"The Garden is unique. They show up if you're winning or losing. I always thought Ranger fans enjoyed booing as much as cheering, but the fans have been great to that team since the lockout. They're knowledgeable; they know if you're giving an effort and when you're not."

With the opening faceoff approaching, Rangers head coach Tom Renney has had three days off to prepare for the Coyotes, who are 9-8 on the road this season. Coming off a bitter 5-4 overtime loss in Washington on Wednesday night, he talked about what he accomplished with his team while Phoenix played against the other two metropolitan area teams.

"We've worked on some important concepts, and we've worked hard, there's no doubt about that," Renney told Jim Cerny of "We've done a couple real important things on ice that I think will help us moving forward."

At the same time, Rangers starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and forward Marcel Hossa have been suffering from the flu the past few days while Jagr has nursing a bad back. While Jagr is expected to play, Hossa and Lundqvist will be reevaluated before the start of the game to determine if they'll play. It is possible that Steve Valiquette may start if Lundqvist is unable to go. There is no word on whether or not the Rangers will call up goaltender Al Montoya from the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League to back up Valiquette should that scenario unfold. But Renney stated it is likely Lundqvist will still dress even if he doesn't play.

Over the course of this week, I realized that hockey fans in Phoenix will not able to see today's game locally as the Coyotes won't be televising it. They didn't yesterday either with Phoenix's win against the Devils. I find all this outrageous to say the least. One would think that instead of showing daytime infomercials, FSN Arizona would have put at the very least the Rangers game on their television schedule. While it is too late for fans to lobby the team or the networks in Phoenix to put the game on local television, hopefully that will change next season when intriguing matchups such as today's matchup don't get overlooked. For fans here in the New York City metropolitan area, they will get to watch the game on WWOR-TV. It is the second of two Rangers games to appear on the local broadcast station, the first time this is happening since 1989. The good news is if the blackout restrictions are lifted in Phoenix, those with NHL Center Ice subscriptions can access the Rangers TV feed at their local bar, their friend's house or maybe where another member of their family lives. Just say, "hey, it's the Christmas season!" and perhaps they'll have a heart to let you watch.