* The most over-used word among hockey journalists once their team is on the brink of elimination is PANIC.

* This invariably inspires the captain -- whose team is close to elimination -- to utter the deathless quote, "We're not panicking," even though they are; or are close to it.

* Man for man, the Penguins are a better team than Columbus and should knock off the Blue Jackets in six games; worst seven.

* But should Pitt exit in either the first, second or even third round, the time will have come for Dan Bylsma to write another book -- he'll have some time on his hands -- and for Sid Crosby to pick a new coach.

* Why should anyone be surprised about Evgeni Malkin's erratic play? It's been the story of his hockey life ever since he learned to spell P-U-T-I-N.

* With 20-20 hindsight it's clear that the Capitals never should have dumped Bruce Boudreau.

* Let me re-phrase that; Alex Ovechkin never should have dumped Bruce Boudreau.

* Dale Hunter had 20-20 foresight when he decided to emigrate from the Caps bench job, didn't he?

* Ovie was clouding Dale's coaching vision which got astigmatic the more he tried to teach The Big Eight how to back check.

* The time has come for Rick Nash to begin playing like RICK NASH. Starting Sunday at Noon.

* Among the outstanding jobs of pro hockey rookie coaching this year; the best belongs to Travis Green with the AHL Utica Comets. (Linked to the Vancouver Canucks.)

* There's lots of talk about the Blue Jackets as overachievers. Hey, what about those Habs led by soon-to-be-free-agent Brian Gionta.

* My favorite Major Junior team happens to be the Portland Winterhawks. G.M.-coach Mike Johnston has the PWs en route to another Memorial Cup appearance.