Tough guys finish first

LANCE HORNBY, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:21 PM ET

When taking out playoff insurance at the trade deadline, a couple of National Hockey League teams shifted their policy preference from goaltending to grit.

Count the Washington Capitals as a team determined to butt in and shove their way to the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1998, picking up Scott Walker and Eric Belanger on Wednesday to give even more latitude to Alex Ovechkin and the big guns up front.

The Caps have played three straight seven-game series with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, etc., but lost two, including one to ’09 Cup champions Pittsburgh. As well as hoping Jose Theodore can shut the door in goal, they’ll need that extra muscle.

The Ottawa Senators intend to get home ice and get the most out of it in the early rounds, by picking up big defenceman Andy Sutton and forward Matt Cullen in the days leading up to the deadline.

“I think now we’re 14 or 15 forwards deep, so if we are in the playoffs and make a run, I think we’re fairly well protected in that area,” general manager Bryan Murray said. “Sutton, a big guy and defensive-type defenceman, provides some depth for us in that area, but more than that, I think he’ll be a real element on our hockey team. He’s big and strong, tougher around the net.”

The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Sutton partially counters big division rival defencemen such as Zdeno Chara in Boston, Hal Gill in Montreal and Chris Pronger in Philadelphia.

The Flyers, cursed by bad luck in goal at crunch time during the years, decided they could get by without the injured Ray Emery, leaving the job in Michael Leighton’s hands and relying on good, old fashioned Broad St. brawn to see them through in April. But they had pursued defenceman Dan Hamhuis of the Predators.

The Islanders, sitting five points out of a playoff spot at the deadline, gave up Sutton, but retained the goalie who could get them the playoff spot they need so badly for revenue. Dwayne Roloson was rumoured to be going several places, but stayed put on the Island, as did Tomas Vokoun in Florida, the Panthers sitting two points back of the Isles.

In the West, the Phoenix Coyotes are not only alive, they seem bent on filling their cavernous arena in April with possible home ice advantage dates.

To that end, they added at least three useful pieces on Wednesday in Wojtek Wolski, Lee Stempniak and defenceman Derek Morris.

But they could also wind up in the first round against another up-and-coming team from the Pacific Division, the Los Angeles Kings, who made one significant move Wednesday, acquiring forward Jeff Halpern for his spade work.

It surprised many people that the San Jose Sharks didn’t make some kind of splash to guard against another first-round flop. Expect more nervous glances at the standings as they watch the Detroit Red Wings get their act together and set up a possible 1-versus-8 match, which would be a huge psychological edge to a team that has been in the past two finals against the so-called best team never to win the Cup in the past decade.

Chicago, not tampering with a long and meticulous plan of building through the draft, will rely on the tandem of Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi to see them through, deciding their top-ranked goals-against average in the West, 2.31, is not a winter illusion.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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