The Maple Leafs should not need extra motivation to hold on to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference but they may have just received some anyway.
Atlanta Thrashers general manager Don Waddell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Saturday he has no doubt his club will compete in the playoffs this spring for the first time in its history.
"We'll be in the playoffs," Waddell told the newspaper. "If you want to write: 'Guarantee,' I have no problem with that."
With 57 points, the Leafs are in eighth place in the conference. One point back are the Montreal Canadiens, two behind are the Boston Bruins and the Thrashers are next with 54 points.
The New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning are five points ahead of Toronto, so one can surmise that if the Thrashers have true designs on a post-season berth, it's the Leafs they're going to have to eliminate from contention.
The Thrashers, featuring Ilya Kovalchuk and his illegal sticks, are at the Air Canada Centre tomorrow night for what has become a four-point game. The Leafs have beaten up the Thrashers this season, going 3-0 in three previous meetings and outscoring Atlanta 18-2.
The Leafs will get the NHL's leading scorer, Jaromir Jagr, and the New York Rangers in their final two pre-Olympic games Friday and Saturday, but will not have to worry about hot Czech rookie Petr Prucha. One of the league's big surprises, Prucha, who has 25 goals, suffered a second-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. Prucha will be out for up to four weeks, meaning he will miss the Olympics.
HEART IN TWO COUNTRIES
Born in South Africa and raised in Canada, Olaf Kolzig proudly will represent Germany in the Olympics for the second time starting next week.
Kolzig's parents, Axel and Renate, were employed in the hotel business and moved often when Olaf was young. After his birth in Johannesburg, he lived across Canada, including stops in Toronto, Halifax, Edmonton and the Northwest Territories.
"Basically I consider myself Canadian other than the passport," the 35-year-old Washington Capitals goaltender said. "But other than my immediate family, my entire family lives in Germany. I have a lot of heritage there and there are a lot of people I am playing for. I feel more and more that I am German. I can't play for Canada, so the next best thing is to play against (the Canadians)."
Kolzig suited up for Germany at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. He won't have to wait long to face Canada, as the two sides square off Feb. 16.
"It will be my final Olympics and I am looking forward to it," Kolzig said. "We have a tough start with the Czech Republic and Canada, but anything is possible. You saw what Belarus did in 2002 (when it beat Sweden). Maybe we can do the same thing."
BUST DAYS OVER?
One of the biggest draft disasters in recent memory is trying to kick-start his NHL career under the watchful eye of Wayne Gretzky.
Pavel Brendl made his Phoenix Coyotes debut Saturday against Minnesota, playing just over 11 minutes. The fourth pick overall by the New York Rangers in 1999, Brendl never played a game for the Rangers. He has been traded three times, with stints in Philadelphia and Carolina, and has just 22 points in 77 NHL games.
"Hopefully I can finally be the player that everyone expects and I expect for myself," Brendl, who was acquired by the Coyotes from the Hurricanes on Dec. 28, said. "My own expectations were probably higher than everybody else's. It just wasn't the right team or the right time. I didn't really feel that much pressure."
In two of his three seasons with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League, Brendl led the league in goals. That never has translated to the NHL, where he has scored 11 times. Among those drafted after Brendl seven years ago were Barret Jackman, Martin Havlat and Henrik Zetterberg.
THE WEEK AHEAD
NHL general managers gather in Henderson, Nev., for their annual winter meeting ... Defenceman Scott Niedermayer of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks will decide whether to skate for Canada in Turin or give his injured knee a rest, with surgery a possibility. Niedermayer played 26 minutes, 50 seconds against the San Jose Sharks on Saturday ... The U.S. will announce its taxi squad today for the Olympics and reportedly it will consist of goalie Ryan Miller, defenceman Paul Martin and forward Matt Cullen. The IIHF has confirmed that contrary to the thought of some, taxi-squad members will not be permitted to stay in the athletes' village ... Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin meet Saturday for the third time as pros. Though Ovechkin is the favourite to win the Calder Trophy, in the previous two games between the rookie sensations, Crosby has a 6-2 points lead.