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Goaltender Niklas Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild has been a big reason behind his team's success this season. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Goaltender Niklas Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild has been a big reason behind his team's success this season. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The Look Ahead

Wild, Panthers give thanks for solid seasons Add to ...

The U.S. Thanksgiving on Thursday is also a traditional date for NHL general managers – a day to examine their team from top to bottom and decide whether to give thanks for a job well done or start making moves to fix serious problems.

Two GMs will be having a pleasant Thanksgiving and both have lots of mea culpas coming from media types like myself who figured neither the Minnesota Wild nor the Florida Panthers would challenge for much. But by Sunday morning, the Wild’s Chuck Fletcher’s team had the best record in the league at 12-5-3 and Dale Tallon’s Panthers were leading the Southeast Division and third in the Eastern Conference at 10-6-3.

The Wild are doing it in their usual manner – goaltender Niklas Backstrom and a strong defence is slamming the door on the opposition. Anonymous youngsters Jared Spurgeon, Justin Falk, Nate Prosser and Kris Fredheim proved Fletcher was not blowing smoke when he spoke of his organization’s depth on defence.

However, when Fletcher is making his assessments this week, he should put some scoring on his wish list. While Mikko Koivu finally broke out recently, the Wild needs more. They’ve played 13 one-goal games so far, with an 8-2-3 record, a precarious way to stay on top of the NHL.

The Panthers can thank a rejuvenated Kris Versteeg up front and a surprisingly good Jose Theodore in goal for their good fortune. But given the tight race in the Southeast and the Eastern Conference, nothing is for sure yet.

The list of those doing a lot of soul-searching and reaching for the eject button is considerably longer.

At the top of that list are Washington Capitals GM George McPhee and counterparts Jim Rutherford of the Carolina Hurricanes, Scott Howson of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Jay Feaster of the Calgary Flames and Bob Murray of the Anaheim Ducks.

McPhee needs to come up with a solution to the Alexander Ovechkin problem. If McPhee and head coach Bruce Boudreau don’t find a way to get their sulking superstar to score more but still play a two-way game – and Ovechkin has to be part of that solution, too – then they can forget about a Stanley Cup.

Sitting on the coaching hot seat this week are Paul Maurice of the Carolina Hurricanes, Jack Capuano of the New York Islanders and, despite a win Saturday, Scott Arniel of Columbus.

Maurice went into Sunday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs seemingly on a day-to-day basis. The Hurricanes play the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday, the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday and Winnipeg Jets on Friday. It would be a good idea if he won all three.

SIDNEY RETURNS

It’s been a long 320 days for Sidney Crosby and the NHL. He has been trying to shake off the effects of a concussion since Jan. 5. Monday marks his return to action for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who now move to the top of the list of Stanley Cup contenders now that both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are healthy.

WILL THEY EVEN THE SCORE?

REVENGE: The Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins play on Wednesday for the first time since Bruins winger Milan Lucic left Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller concussed with a hit to the head on Nov. 12. It still is not known when Miller will return.

The Sabres were angry Lucic was not suspended for the hit, drawing only a minor penalty, but an equally big issue for head coach Lindy Ruff was that none of his players did anything on the ice about it.

Things should be interesting because the Buffalo media is sparing no adjective in reminding the Sabres how timid they were. There was also a suggestion Miller’s mates did not stick up for him because he’s a little too quick to blame them for goals.

REVENGE II: New Jersey Devils head coach Peter DeBoer will face the Florida Panthers on Monday night for the first time since they fired him last summer. “One hundred per cent,” DeBoer told Rich Chere of New Jersey’s Star-Ledger of his desire to beat the Panthers. “I think that's obvious.”

AWKWARD ENCOUNTER: The last time Sean Avery of the New York Rangers and Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers played against each other, Avery accused Simmonds of uttering a homophobic slur against him. They meet again on Saturday.

REVENGE III: Sunday marks new St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock’s first game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team which fired him in Feb., 2010. As of Sunday, Hitchcock was 4-0-2 with the Blues.

FIVE GAMES TO WATCH

Islanders at Penguins

The happiest night for the NHL so far this season will see Sidney Crosby back on the ice. So you just knew a Canadian network would pick up the game. The winner is Hockey Night In Canada. Monday, 7 p.m., CBC.

Maple Leafs at Lightning

Are the Leafs coping well with their injuries You’ll know better after this game as Tampa may be wobbly but still represents tough opposition. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., Sportsnet Ontario.

Bruins at Sabres

The details of this rematch are noted across the page, so you might want to hit a good sports bar to take in this one. Most of the time, these revenge matches fizzle but the Sabres are really unhappy about losing Ryan Miller. Wednesday, 7 p.m., NESN, MSG-B.

Red Wings at Bruins

Need an excuse to play hooky on Friday? It’s the day after U.S. Thanksgiving and still a holiday, so there are six afternoon games plus a full slate at night starting with this game, which should be a dandy and kicks off NBC’s coverage this season. Friday, 1 p.m., NBC.

Penguins at Canadiens

As long as Crosby made it through the week unscathed, this will mark his Hockey Night In Canada debut for the season. And against his favourite team when he was a boy growing up in Cole Harbour, N.S. Saturday, 7 p.m., CBC, RDS.

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