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Ovechkin facing crucial leadership test Add to ...

But Pronger is the primary shutdown defenceman and without him in the lineup there is added pressure on Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timmonen to step up their play. One subtle change from last year is how coach Peter Laviolette has deployed Pronger. Likely in deference to his birth certificate (Pronger turned 36 back in October), Laviolette has kept Pronger's minutes way, way down. Last year, Pronger averaged 25:56 minutes of playing time per night (after five consecutive seasons in the 26-to-28-minute range). This year? Only 22:20 per night, second on the team behind Timmonen (22:27) and far below his usual numbers. The goal presumably was to keep Pronger fresh for what looks as if it could be a long playoff run. It may well be that the time off now will further recharge his batteries - while at the same time testing Philly's blue line depth.

COYOTE DESPERATION: When goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov came down with the flu Thursday afternoon, the Phoenix Coyotes were faced with a dilemma. Who would back up Jason Labarbera for their game that night against the New York Rangers? There wasn't time to get anyone up from the minors. As a result, they signed former college player Tom Fenton to a one-game contract and he sat on the bench for what finished as a 4-3 Ranger victory. The Sarnia, Ont., native hadn't played since his senior year at American International College and, according to an interview he did with MSG network before the game, got the call from the Coyotes as he was getting a haircut and originally thought it was a prank. No, it wasn't. So Fenton had his 15 good-natured minutes of fame and the Coyotes have until Saturday's date with the surging New York Islanders (one win in a row!) to sort out if Bryzgalov is healthy enough to play (or at least dress as a back-up).

GOALIE WOES: The Tampa Bay Lightning have the most conspicuous goalie issues in the NHL right now, with the tandem of Dan Ellis and Mike Smith ranked 29th, ahead of only the Islanders' pair of Rick Dipietro and Dwayne Roloson - (although Smith gave them a good night's work earlier this week in a 2-1 shootout victory over Atlanta).

Equally pressing is the issue in Columbus, where the nominal back-up, Mathieu Garon, has a GAA of 2.02, more than a goal a game better than starter Steve Mason (3.06), who was blasted out of the net again by the Edmonton Oilers' youth brigade Thursday night. Mason won the Calder as the NHL's rookie of the year two seasons ago, and then slumped badly in his sophomore season. It hasn't been any better this year.

Garon's goaltending has kept the Blue Jackets in the thick of the playoff race and the Blue Jackets need to walk a fine line there - between helping Mason get his confidence back and picking up enough wins to keep pace in a conference where four points separates 11 teams. It doesn't take much of a losing streak at this stage to fall back into the Calgary-Minnesota-Edmonton range.

OMARK AGAIN!: Linus Omark, recently called up from the Oilers' farm team, registered his first official NHL goal versus the Blue Jackets - his other tally came on that controversial shootout goal against Tampa last week - and it was another one for the highlight reel. In full stride, charging through the Blue Jackets' defence, Omark kicked the puck with the inside of his right skate, up to his stick, and in one motion, deked Mason. Omark also added two assists as the Oilers' kiddie corps went wild again.

Omark was unhappy with the organization that he didn't crack the NHL lineup out of training camp, but it's hard to argue with the results. By starting in the minors, he had more than a month to adapt to the North American game outside of the spotlight - and now he looks ready for prime time. A short minor-league apprenticeship never hurt anyone - and in Omark's case, it might have been just the thing to smooth the transition from the KHL, where he played last year for Dynamo Moscow.

ETC ETC: Columbus got Kristian Huselius back for the Oilers' game following a 22-game absence with a high ankle sprain, an injury that usually lingers, long after a player officially gets clearance to play again. It didn't seem to bother Huselius at all. In his return, he managed to score three times, doubling his output for the season ... Up-and-down Carolina won back-to-back games this week, with compelling comebacks, and in Thursday's shootout victory over Atlanta, Jussi Jokinen scored the 28th shootout goal of his career, making him the NHL's all-time leader in that category.

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