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Posted On Tuesday, 02.28.2012 / 2:04 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Aucoin, Cizikas look to capitalize on NHL ice time

WASHINGTON -- After skating alongside Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson at practice yesterday, Capitals forward Mike Knuble was asked if he read anything into his practicing with the No. 1 line.

"No because I imagine Keith [Aucoin] will be back [Tuesday]," said Knuble, a healthy scratch the previous two games while American Hockey League call-up Keith Aucoin donned a Caps sweater both nights. "That's what I assume will happen -- that he'll be back [Tuesday]. So I just got to fill in his spot for a day."

Twenty-four hours later, Knuble's theory was proven correct. Aucoin was recalled from the AHL Hershey Bears this morning and will play tonight as the Caps host the New York Islanders at Verizon Center.

Aucoin will play on a line with Ovechkin and Johansson while Knuble will sit as a healthy scratch for the third straight game and for the sixth time in the last 10 games overall.

"Definitely, he played pretty well last game, so we're giving him the chance to play again," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said.

Aucoin had a goal and an assist in a 4-2 win Saturday in Toronto. Those are Aucoin's only two points in eight NHL games this season, but the 2009-10 AHL Most Valuable Player is second in AHL scoring this season with 70 points in 43 games.

"We all know he's not a big guy," Hunter said of the 5-foot-8 forward. "But he's smart player. That's why he's put numbers up in the American League and wherever he's been he's played well offensively and he's a smart player."

While the 33-year-old Aucoin won't be mistaken for a blue-chip prospect, he is nonetheless making the most of his latest look in the NHL.

At the other end of the spectrum, 21-year-old Casey Cizikas is looking to take advantage of his first look in the NHL.

Cizikas was recalled by the Islanders from AHL Bridgeport last Thursday and will play in his third career NHL game tonight against the Capitals.

Cizikas appeared in the AHL all-star game in January, and was Bridgeport's leading scorer with 45 points in 51 games at the time of his recall.

"If you had told me coming into the season that this is how it would have been, I never would have believed you," said Cizikas, the Islanders' fourth-round pick at the 2009 Entry Draft. 

"It's been a dream year right now for me as a professional rookie. It's something I never imagined but it's definitely been fun, first getting the call for the [AHL] all-star game and now this is just icing on the cake. It's definitely been a year that I'm never going to forget."

With the Islanders trading veteran forward Brian Rolston to Boston ahead of Monday's trade deadline, Cizikas could get an extended look down the stretch.

The 5-foot-11, 192-pound center has primarily seen third-line duty with the Islanders and is expected to skate alongside Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo tonight in Washington.

"I try to be more of an energy guy up here," Cizikas said. "We have so many guys that can put the puck in the net, so if I could chip that would be nice, but I think my role here is to get pucks deep, grind in the corners and finish my checks. So that's what I've been trying to do and everyday I'm getting more comfortable out there."
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Posted On Tuesday, 02.28.2012 / 1:04 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Caps use same personnel as they chase third straight

WASHINGTON -- The Capitals look for their first three-game winning streak since Jan. 11-15 as they begin a five-game homestand tonight against the New York Islanders.

Washington begins the day in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind eighth place Winnipeg and three points behind the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers.

The Islanders have lost three of their last four games to drop to 13th place in the conference, eight points out of a playoff position.

Dale Hunter is expected to use the same lineup that won back-to-back games last weekend against Montreal and Toronto. That means that veterans Mike Knuble, Roman Hamrlik and John Erskine will again be healthy scratches.

"You have to work hard in practice and prepare yourself that when I get in I'm going to play well," Hunter said. "Now if Hammer or Knubes get in and they play well, they'll bump out a guy. That's the way it is."

Hamrlik, who has played no fewer than 75 games in each of the past five seasons, will be a healthy scratch for the fourth straight game, while Knuble will watch from the press box for the third straight game, and for the sixth time in 10 games overall.

Knuble, 39, has 3 goals and 12 points in 57 games this season and has spent much of the season on Washington's fourth line.

"I haven't been healthy scratched in six years," said Caps forward Brooks Laich, "but my second year when I got healthy scratched, you feel like you're forgotten about. The rest of the team is here and you're just a forgotten piece, and for the guys that aren't playing, you want to make sure that as a teammate that you still include them in everything. Talk about the game with them and keep them involved as much as possible, because it would be easy if nobody talks to them for them to go the other way."

Michal Neuvirth (8-9-3) is expected to start a third straight game for the Caps for the first time since Dec. 15-26 when the 23-year-old started five straight games.

Evgeni Nabokov (15-15-0) will start for the Islanders. Nabokov, an unrestricted free agent at season's end, was thought to have been on the trading block prior to yesterday's deadline.

"Nabby has been a huge part of our success," Islanders captain Mark Streit said. "But honestly, I didn't expect [a trade] because we're still in it, we have a shot -- we need a great run here, let's not fool ourselves -- but [general manager] Garth [Snow] didn't want to make any deals because he believes in the team and has a lot of faith in us so we're all looking forward to the next six weeks."

Here are the projected lineups for tonight’s game:

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin - Marcus Johansson - Keith Aucoin
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Jay Beagle - Jeff Halpern - Joel Ward

Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Jeff Schultz - Mike Green
Dmitry Orlov - Dennis Wideman

Michal Neuvirth
Tomas Vokoun

ISLANDERS

Matt Moulson - John Tavares - PA Parenteau
David Ullstrom - Frans Nielsen - Josh Bailey
Michael Grabner - Casey Cizikas - Kyle Okposo
Matt Martin - Marty Reasoner - Jay Pandolfo

Andrew MacDonald - Travis Hamonic
Mark Streit - Milan Jurcina
Mark Eaton - Steve Staios

Evgeni Nabokov
Al Montoya

NOTES: The Capitals have the second best home record in the Eastern Conference at 20-8-2. … Nabokov is 10-1-0 lifetime against the Caps with two shutouts, a 1.98 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. … Nino Niederreiter is expected to be a healthy scratch for the Islanders. Niederreiter has 1 goal in 39 games this season and his minus-19 rating is last among Eastern Conference forwards.
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Posted On Friday, 02.24.2012 / 2:14 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Winning now imperative for Capitals, Canadiens

WASHINGTON -- Two teams in desperate need of a win meet tonight at Verizon Center as the Washington Capitals host the Montreal Canadiens.

The Capitals have lost three straight and six of seven overall; the Canadiens have lost two straight and four of five overall.

Washington has dropped four points behind the Southeast Division leading Winnipeg Jets, while Montreal enters play tonight in the Eastern Conference basement.

"We just have to win," said Caps captain Alex Ovechkin, who is expected to play tonight after missing Wednesday's game in Ottawa with a lower-body injury.

"We have to play better offensively, defensively, and our goaltending has to be better. We can't point to one guy. All guys on the ice and on the bench have to be ready 100 percent, especially in this situation. We can't give up."

The Capitals have hurt themselves of late thanks in part to slow starts. Washington has allowed the first goal in six straight games, fallen behind 2-0 in three straight games, and trailed 4-0 in the past two games.

"It's imperative that we get a win tonight," said Capitals forward Troy Brouwer. "We're just keying in on our start now. That's what's been killing us. On that last [four-game] road trip we got outscored 7-0 in the first period, so that has to change if we want to have success coming down the stretch here."

Not only have the Capitals fallen behind early, but in most cases they have struggled to come back. In the last six games -- covering 360 minutes of hockey -- the Caps have led for just 6 minutes and 33 seconds.

The Canadiens, meanwhile, are coming off a 3-0 loss to the Dallas Stars and have not scored against the Capitals in more than 216 minutes.

Washington has blanked the Canadiens in three straight games dating to last season (oddly enough with three different starting goalies), and in four of their last six meetings overall.

Michal Neuvirth (6-9-3) will start for the Caps while Carey Price (22-22-9) goes for Montreal. Neuvirth made 31 saves in a 3-0 win in Montreal on Jan. 18. He will be making his first start at Verizon Center since Dec. 20.

Here are the projected lineups for tonight's game:

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Marcus Johansson - Mike Knuble
Jay Beagle - Jeff Halpern - Joel Ward

Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Jeff Schultz - Mike Green
Dmitry Orlov - Dennis Wideman

Michal Neuvirth
Tomas Vokoun

CANADIENS

Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Erik Cole
Lars Eller - Tomas Plekanec - Andrei Kostitsyn
Ryan White - Scott Gomez - Rene Bourque
Petteri Nokelainen - Louis Leblanc - Aaron Palushaj

Josh Gorges - P.K. Subban
Raphael Diaz - Alexei Emelin
Tomas Kaberle - Chris Campoli
Yannick Weber

Carey Price
Peter Budaj

Notes: Mathieu Darche remains sidelined with flu. … One of Nokelainen, Leblanc or Palushaj will likely sit as Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth is expected to dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen.
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Posted On Friday, 02.24.2012 / 1:42 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Markov skates, still hopes to play this season

WASHINGTON -- Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov skated with his teammates this morning for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Dec. 5.

Markov has not played since Nov. 13, 2010, but says he hopes to return to the Canadiens lineup before the end of this season.

"That's my goal," said Markov, who has yet to take part in contact drills. "I can't tell you exactly the time and the date [for a return], but I try to push and feel better every day."

Markov's return to practice is a sliver of good news for a Canadiens team that has lost two straight and four of five overall to drop to last place in the Eastern Conference.

This morning's skate came ahead of Montreal's game tonight against the Washington Capitals.

"It feels great. It was a long time that I didn't play or practice with the team, so I feel good and I'm happy to be back with the team," Markov said.

Markov, who signed a three year contract with the Canadiens last summer, has played just seven games since the start of the 2010-11 season. His absence has been most noticeable on Montreal's power play, which ranks 29th in the NHL at 13.8 percent.

With Markov quarterbacking the Canadiens' power play for parts of five seasons from 2005-2010, Montreal finished among the top five in power play efficiency four times.

"It's not easy," Markov said of watching the Canadiens struggle just to stay in playoff contention. "Especially with our team, with the history and our fans and with [the media] putting pressure on us, it's not easy but we have to find a way to be better as a team, as a group and hopefully we're going to play better tonight and the rest of the games."

Markov underwent knee surgery in Dec. 2010 and was close to returning to the Montreal lineup in late November when he accompanied the team to California. The 33-year-old suffered a setback, though, requiring another operation.

With the Canadiens eight points out of a playoff position, both Markov and the organization are taking every precaution to assure that when he does return to the lineup he'll be there to stay.

"It's a tough recovery for me," he said. "I don't want to play just one game and have another injury or another surgery. I want to continue to play all of next season and feel healthy.

"I think that both sides understand. Nobody is pushing me to be back too early. They're giving me time to recover and to be 100 percent. The hockey rule is that if you step on the ice you have to give 100 percent every night so I don’t want to play at 75-percent, I want to give my best every night."

Markov is expected to remain with the Canadiens as they head south for games Monday and Wednesday against Florida and Tampa Bay.

"I think it's a step in the right direction, it's part of the process," Montreal coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "The next thing we can look forward is a little bit of contact -- we don't have a timetable for it -- so we're just going to proceed forward everyday, and as he feels good we're going to get to that point where he can take a little more on and be more physical."


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Posted On Friday, 02.24.2012 / 11:49 AM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Ovechkin says he's a go for Montreal game

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Alex Ovechkin is expected to play Friday night when the Washington Capitals host the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center.

Ovechkin missed Wednesday night's 5-2 loss against the Ottawa Senators due to a lower-body injury and did not practice Thursday.

The Capitals’ captain skated briefly on his own this morning in shorts and a T-shirt before taking part in the first 15 minutes of the team skate.

Shortly after coming off the ice, Ovechkin confirmed that he will be in the lineup against Montreal.
 
"We just tried a couple of days ago skating and I didn't feel well," Ovechkin said. "Last night I didn't feel well but today I feel normal."

The Capitals have lost three straight games and six of seven overall to fall four points behind the Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg Jets.

"It was frustrating, especially in this period of time in the season," Ovechkin said of missing Wednesday's game in Ottawa. "I was in a situation where I couldn't help my teammates and I couldn't help the team to win, so it was kind of bad feelings, but it is what it is and right now I feel normal and I'm ready to go."

Michal Neuvirth is expected to start in goal for the Capitals while John Erskine and Roman Hamrlik will likely be healthy scratches for the second straight game.

Neuvirth earned a 3-0 shutout at the Bell Centre, Jan. 18.
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Posted On Wednesday, 02.15.2012 / 5:11 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Ex-Caps star Kolzig critical of Ovechkin's game

ARLINGTON, Va. – Even before Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin declined his invite to the NHL All-Star Game while serving a three-game suspension, there were whispers that the former Hart Trophy winner wasn’t deserving of a trip to the midseason classic in the first place.

For the second straight season, Ovechkin’s numbers are well below his career averages. The four-time 50-goal scorer is on pace for 34 goals and a career-low 65 points and the team he captains remains on the outside of a playoff position.

“I think a lot is frustration,” said Ovechkin’s former teammate Olaf Kolzig, now the Capitals’ associate goaltending coach. “Obviously he's not scoring at the clip that he's accustomed to. Part of that is not having Nicklas Backstrom (sidelined since Jan.3 with a concussion) in the lineup.”

While Backstrom’s injury may have something to do with Ovechkin’s recent slide, an argument can be made that Ovechkin has played below expectations for the last year-and-a-half.
 
Along the way, Ovechkin’s ice-time has dropped, new systems have been implemented and coaches have come and gone. The once high flying Capitals have been replaced by a team that aims to win low-scoring contests. Still, Kolzig says the onus is on Ovechkin himself to return to his old form.
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Posted On Tuesday, 02.14.2012 / 2:31 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Frustrated Knuble wants to play ... somewhere

ARLINGTON, Va. – Washington Capitals forward Mike Knuble says if he’s not part of the team’s immediate plans, then it might be best to send his talents elsewhere.

Knuble, 39, has been a healthy scratch in three straight games – all Washington losses – after going the previous 11 games without a point.

The eight-time 20-goal-scorer has three goals and 11 points in 53 games this season, having played primarily on Washington’s fourth line. He is also a team-worst minus-14.

“If a player is not going to be used,” Knuble said, “or in the near future you don’t have plans, then that player probably wouldn’t want to be there. That’s how we are in our League – you want to go somewhere where you’re going to play and contribute to your team and if you can’t do it in one place, then you’ve got to go.”

Capitals coach Dale Hunter would not say whether he plans on using Knuble this weekend when the Caps begin a four-game road trip with back-to-back games in Florida and Tampa Bay.

“He’s a leader, he’s a professional,” Hunter said of the Caps alternate captain. “We’re trying for more speed in the lineup and Mike can be professional about it and train hard out here so when [he] gets back in [he’s] ready to go and can show me that I made a mistake. That’s what I want.”

Knuble watched the Capitals fall Monday 5-3 to the San Jose Sharks while American Hockey League call-ups Joel Rechlicz earned a sweater. Rechlicz played just 90 seconds spread over two shifts.

“Everybody in here is a little bit frustrated with the way it’s been going lately,” Knuble said. “Then you throw this on top of things – you watch your team losing and all of that, it’s very frustrating.”

With the NHL trade deadline now 13 days away, Knuble was asked Tuesday if plans on formally requesting a trade.

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. I just kind of got through this weekend with three games in [five] nights – just wanted to get through it and see what [would] happen. Obviously we all saw what happened so it gets you thinking.

“We’re all competitive and we want to play and we all want to contribute. So if it’s not irritating you and you’re not thinking of your options then you may as well stop playing then.”
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Posted On Monday, 02.13.2012 / 12:48 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Neuvirth expects to earn second straight start

WASHINGTON -- Michal Neuvirth is expected to make his second straight start tonight when the Washington Capitals host the San Jose Sharks at Verizon Center (NBC Sports Network at 7:30).

With Tomas Vokoun suffering from the flu, Neuvirth was a last-minute addition to the Caps' starting lineup in yesterday's 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers.

Vokoun did not take part in Washington's optional skate this morning and Neuvirth (6-9-3, 3.07 goals-against average, .894 save percentage) told NHL.com he expects to start against San Jose. Coach Dale Hunter said that Vokoun remains a game-time decision and that there was no immediate plan for any call-ups.

"[Neuvirth] is a young guy," Hunter said, "and he wants to play as many games as he can. If he gets in tonight, he'll be ready to play."

Mike Knuble remained on the ice for extra work following Washington's optional skate and will likely be a healthy scratch for the third straight game.

The Caps enter tonight's game four points behind the Southeast Division leading Florida Panthers and one point behind the eighth place Toronto Maple Leafs.

This will be the Capitals' final home game before embarking on a four-game road trip. Washington is tops in the Eastern Conference with a 19-7-2 record at home, but 14th in the conference on the road at 9-15-3.

The Sharks will be playing their second game in as many nights after falling 3-0 last night in St. Louis. San Jose allowed a pair of 5-on-3 power-play goals and a late goal on an empty net as it fell for the third time in four games.

Last night's loss also ended San Jose's streak of scoring at least one power-play goal in five straight games. The Sharks' power play enters tonight's game ranked fourth in the NHL at 20 percent.

"The message is going to be to stay out of the penalty box," Caps forward Matt Hendricks said. "Don't give these guys opportunities. If you need to take penalties, then you need to take penalties, but let's not be taking lazy penalties 200 feet from our end. I think that's probably going to be the message, and if they do get their opportunities, we have to do everything we can to shut them down -- blocking shots and getting pucks all the way down."

The Pacific Division-leading Sharks visit one point clear of second place Los Angeles, although San Jose has played four fewer games.

Thomas Greiss (7-4-1, 1.98 GAA, .925 save percentage) will make a rare start for the Sharks, who are playing the second game of their season-long nine-game, 16-day road trip.

Here are the Capitals' and Sharks' projected lineups for tonight's nationally televised game at Verizon Center:

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin - Marcus Johansson - Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Alexander Semin
Matt Hendricks - Brooks Laich - Joel Ward
Keith Aucoin - Jeff Halpern - Jay Beagle

Karl Alzner - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Roman Hamrlik
Jeff Schultz - Dennis Wideman

Michal Neuvirth
Tomas Vokoun

SHARKS

Ryan Clowe - Logan Couture - Benn Ferriero
Patrick Marleau - Joe Thornton - Joe Pavelski
Jamie McGinn - Michal Handzus - Torrey Mitchell
Brad Winchester - Andrew Desjardins - John McCarthy

Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Dan Boyle
Douglas Murray - Brent Burns
Colin White - Justin Braun

Thomas Greiss
Antti Niemi
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Posted On Saturday, 02.11.2012 / 1:49 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Caps' Backstrom feels he's improving, but return date unknown

ARLINGTON, Va. – Nicklas Backstrom spoke to local reporters Saturday for the first time since Jan.6, and while the Washington Capitals’ injured center says his condition is improving, there remains no timetable for his return.

Backstrom has been sidelined since Jan.3, when he took an elbow to the head from then-Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque. The 24-year-old will miss his 17th straight game Sunday when the Capitals visit the New York Rangers.

“It’s a long process but I’m getting better,” Backstrom said. “Obviously you want to be out there and playing with the team, but this is the situation now and you’ve got to deal with it.”

Backstrom told a Swedish newspaper last week that he was unsure when he might play again and that he hopes to be ready by the playoffs.

He said Saturday that he is working closely with head athletic trainer Greg Smith and trying to maintain his conditioning by riding a stationary bike. Skating he says, remains a challenge.

“Lately I’ve been doing the bike so I think I’m improving” he said. “The thing is, it takes time – but I’m on a good program now so hopefully I’ll get better soon.”

Backstrom has skated for just five minutes in the past 37 days – an attempt on Jan.23.

“I’m not 100-percent to skate now so we’ll see when it [will be] time to hit the ice [again],” he said. “Right now I’m taking it day-by-day.”

Despite missing the past 16 games, Backstrom is second on the Capitals with 42 points (13 goals; 29 assists), and he is second among Washington forwards averaging 19:10 TOI per game.

The Capitals are 7-6-3 since Backstrom’s injury and his absence has been particularly noteworthy on the Caps’ power play, which went 1-for-25 from Jan. 13-Feb.7.

One encouraging sign for the Capitals is Backstrom’s desire to be around his teammates.

After spending much of January recovering on his own, the past week saw Backstrom host a Super Bowl party for his teammates, attend home games at Verizon Center, and participate in the team’s annual Casino night/gala.  He is also travelling with the Caps for this weekend’s trip to New York.
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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 1:49 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Jets need offense, face Caps in critical division clash

WASHINGTON – The Winnipeg Jets will look to narrow the gap in the Southeast Division on Thursday night when they visit the first-place Washington Capitals at Verizon Center.

The Caps took over first place with a 4-0 win Tuesday against the Florida Panthers. Washington is one point clear of Florida and four points up on Winnipeg.

“It’s actually pretty close to the exact same thing we faced Tuesday,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “This is a team that is just behind us and if they win they’re going to be pretty close, but if we win we can really put some distance.”

Laich’s point is not lost on a Jets team that one year ago today was one point out of a playoff position. The Atlanta Thrashers struggled down the stretch though, winning 10 of their final 26 games before finishing 13 points out of a playoff berth.

“We don’t want to have that same lull that we had last year,” Jets forward Evander Kane said. “I think if you look at this last half of the month for us, it could be a deciding factor for our season and that starts here tonight… It’s a big game and we need the two points real bad.”

 Kane returned to the Jets lineup Tuesday in a 2-1 win over Toronto after missing seven games with a concussion.

The 20-year-old continues to lead Winnipeg with 18 goals despite going 11 straight games without finding the back of the net. Kane’s Winnipeg teammates haven’t done much better of late.

The Jets have scored just eight goals in their last seven games and have gone 0-for-17 on the power play during the stretch. Winnipeg is also last in the Eastern Conference, averaging 2.34 goals-per-game.

“It’s on the offensive side of the puck where our players have to get better,” Jets coach Claude Noel said. “I don’t think it’s so much a team thing, I think it’s an execution thing on the power play and from the standpoint of individual players I think there are a lot of people who would like to get going.”

Noel singled out former Capitals forward Eric Fehr among those he would like to see produce more. Fehr has one goal and one assist in 30 games this season.

“I’m hoping that he has enthusiasm in the game and I’m hoping that he wants some form of maybe redemption [playing against his former team tonight],” Noel said. “I’d like to see him create a little bit more offensively and get his shot off – we haven’t seen too much of that and I think it’s something we need to see more of.”
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Quote of the Day

I'm sure [my father] was going crazy up there. I hope all of my friends were celebrating in the crowd. Coming back here and all of my friends and family are here, getting a goal in front of them is special.

— Blues forward Ryan Reaves on scoring the game-winning goal Sunday against the Jets in his hometown of Winnipeg
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