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Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 5:24 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Bieksa given another 'maintenance day' vs. Stars

VANCOUVER -- Kevin Bieksa's maintenance day is turning into a maintenance week.

The Vancouver Canucks' top-four defenseman will miss a second-straight game Friday night against Dallas and is unlikely to play Saturday against Calgary, but is still expected back before the playoffs start in less than two weeks.

"We all know Kevin is one of the fiercest competitors in the League," associate coach Rick Bowness said after Friday's morning skate. "He battles hard every shift, so to give him a few maintenance days is the proper thing to do."

Asked if the necessary maintenance was upper or lower body-related, Bowness said: "We'll just go with the whole body. And mind. Give him a mental break, too."

There is less uncertainty about what's keeping Daniel Sedin out of the lineup, but even more about when he might return. Vancouver's top goal scorer will miss his fifth straight game since being concussed by an elbow from Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith, and despite a report in the Vancouver Sun in which general manager Mike Gillis said he was "hopeful" Sedin would be back by the start of the playoffs, there was no update from Bowness or teammates Friday.

Without Sedin, who leads the team with 30 goals and is second to twin brother Henrik with 67 points, the Canucks have struggled to score, winning their last two games 1-0 and compiling a 4-0-1 run despite only scoring eight goals. All of which prompted another shakeup of the forward lines going into Friday's game against a Dallas team fighting desperately to stay in the playoff picture.

Here are the rest of the expected lineups as the 47-21-9 Canucks try for their first five-game win streak since late November against a 42-30-5 Stars squad that leads the Pacific Division, but has Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Jose all within a single point after alternating losses and wins for the last six games:

CANUCKS

Alexandre Burrows - Henrik Sedin - Maxim Lapierre
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - David Booth
Chris Higgins - Samuel Pahlsson - Jannik Hansen
Dale Weise - Manny Malhotra - Zack Kassian

Dan Hamhuis - Christopher Tanev
Marc-Andre Gragnani - Alexander Edler
Andrew Alberts - Sami Salo

Roberto Luongo
Cory Schneider

Luongo takes his turn in the Canucks' new back-and-forth goaltending rotation, and will try and build off a 38-save 1-0 shutout of Los Angeles on Monday, while Schneider, who made 43 saves in a 1-0 win over Colorado on Wednesday, is expected to play Saturday night against Calgary.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the second of consecutive 1-0 victories was that they came without regular defensemen Bieksa (maintenance), Aaron Rome (knee) and Keith Ballard (concussion). All but Ballard are expected back for the playoffs, and Ballard has also resumed practicing with the team.

Up front, Lapierre's move from fourth-line agitator to first-line winger with Sedin out is the biggest surprise, with a struggling Kassian going the other way. Lapierre has shown offensive flashes in the past, but knows that's not his main job playing alongside former scoring champion Henrik Sedin.

"Today is a fun day and good opportunity for me, but at the end of the day I know my role is to bring some energy, be physical," Lapierre said. "Try to create some room for these two guys. They have unreal skills and I will be in front of the net. I can make some plays with the puck. But we don't want me ruining every play."

STARS
Loui Eriksson - Mike Ribeiro - Michael Ryder
Steve Ott - Jamie Benn - Tomas Vincour
Brenden Morrow - Vernon Fiddler - Adam Burish
Reilly Smith - Jake Dowell - Ryan Garbutt

Sheldon Souray - Stephane Robidas
Alex Goligoski - Philip Larsen
Adam Pardy - Trevor Daley

Kari Lehtonen
Richard Bachman

The biggest change from the Stars last visit to Vancouver in early March is between the pipes, with the workhorse Lehtonen expected to play in Vancouver on Friday night and again in San Jose on Saturday night. There was some thought of Bachman, who won here 5-2 back on March 6, but with so much on the line Dallas decided to stick with their unquestioned No. 1 despite the fact Lehtonen is 2-6-0 with a .881 career save percentage against the Canucks.

The Stars are still missing significant players in forwards Radek Dvorak (ankle) and Eric Nystrom (skate cut on leg), and defenseman Mark Fistric (abdominal strain). But Dvorak and Fistric are skating at least and could return in San Jose Saturday -- the first part of a crucial home-and-home series with the Sharks.

Fourth line center Tom Wandell goes from being a healthy scratch the last game to being out sick.
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Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 4:36 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Plenty of playoff implication as Canucks host Stars

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars could meet in the first round of the playoffs, but it feels like the postseason already has begun for both teams.

Friday's game (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN) will be the fourth between the Canucks and Stars in just over a month, a rarity this late in the season for teams that don't play in the same division. With the Stars fighting just to make the playoffs, the intensity has been ratcheted up with each meeting, adding a playoff feel to the season series.

"It's been pretty spirited," Canucks forward Chris Higgins said. “They are fighting for their lives and want to get first in their division so they are going to come with a playoff-type game. It's fun playing these guys. They are a competitive group."

The fact Dallas, which comes in atop the Pacific Division but with three teams within a point, could be a first-round opponent, adds to a budding rivalry.

"It helps set the tone, at least," Higgins added. “It's one of a couple teams we're probably going to play in the playoffs, so you want to make sure they know they are going to be in for a difficult series if they play against us."

The Stars won the first two meetings, but the Canucks won the last one, 2-1 in Dallas on March 22, part of a four-game win streak in which Vancouver has given up just three goals while focusing on improved defensive play.

For the Stars, it will be important to fight through the tighter checking without getting frustrated by it, a balance center Vernon Fiddler says they're ready to manage in a season series with a rising level of dislike between the sides.

“We've both got guys that are a little edgy and it brings the best out of everybody and it's great for hockey," said Fiddler, whose impersonation of Vancouver defenseman Kevin Bieksa's “angry face" during a recent game only added to the budding rivalry. “The games that mean the most, there is a lots of emotion in them and both sides are bringing that. When our team is emotionally in the game we play a little bit better, but obviously we don't want a bunch of stupid penalties."

They need two points more than anything, Fiddler added, but if they also can send a message to a potential first-round opponent in the process, all the better.

“They're a great team over there, but we think we match up pretty good against them," Fiddler said. “It could be a potential playoff opponent, so you want to be at your best and I think we've already played them pretty good this year."
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Posted On Wednesday, 03.28.2012 / 4:38 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Schneider starts for Canucks against desperate Avs

Fighting for their playoff lives, the Colorado Avalanche will face a backup goalie when they play a must-win game Wednesday night in Vancouver.

The only problem is Vancouver's No. 2, Cory Schneider, is anything but.

Schneider is second among all NHL goaltenders in save percentage at .934, and fifth with a 2.04 goals-against average. But it is still somewhat surprising that he’s starting Wednesday, just two nights after Roberto Luongo pitched a 38-save, 1-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Kings. It is a sign the Canucks want to have both parts of one of the League’s top tandems on a roll and ready when the playoffs start in two weeks.

“It is very important,” coach Alain Vigneault said of keeping both playing well. “I think we've done a good job of keeping both guys on top of their game throughout the year. It's something we worked into our planning.”

The start against Colorado will be Schneider’s fourth in the last six games, and with back-to-back contests against Dallas Friday and Calgary Saturday, he figures to play at least one of the final five games as well. The sophomore stopper is 10-1-1 in 12 starts since Christmas, while Luongo struggled through early March, giving up 25 goals over eight games before taking a week off to “reset.” Luongo is 2-0-1 with a .965 save percentage since coming back.

“We've got two great goaltenders and we’re using them both,” VIgneault said.

That’s tough news for a Colorado team that needs to win to keep its playoff hopes alive, but has yet to beat the Canucks this season. Vancouver is 5-0 against their Northwest Division rivals, including one shutout each for Luongo and Schneider early in the season, and a 3-2 overtime victory in Colorado four days ago.

The Avalanche, who are only one point behind Phoenix and Dallas for the final playoff spot but only have three games left after Wednesday (both the Coyotes and Stars will have five left), could get one break if top-four defenseman Kevin Bieksa can't play for the Canucks. Already missing Aaron Rome to a knee injury, Bieksa took a maintenance day Tuesday and might have it extended.

“Just playing tough hockey, a couple little maintenance issues we're dealing with right now,” said Vigneault, adding he wasn’t worried about Bieksa for playoffs.

As for the Avalanche, which may need to sweep its final four games after going 0-2-1 in the last three, there will be a couple changes up front.

Captain Milan Hejduk, who hasn’t scored in 21 games, is slated to drop down to the fourth line, while fellow forward Peter Mueller, a surprise healthy scratch the last two games, gets back in at the expense of Chuck Kobasew. On the back end, coach Joe Sacco indicated rookie defenseman Tyson Barrie, who is from B.C., is a game-time decision and may be scratched for a second-straight game after getting knocked off the puck on the play that led to Vancouver’s game-winning goal last week.

Here are the rest of the expected lineups as the Canucks prepare for a 400th straight sellout dating back to November 2002 – the longest active streak in the NHL and third longest in North American pro sports – by launching a “This is Our Home” campaign promoting responsible playoff celebrations from their fans:

CANUCKS

Mason RaymondHenrik SedinZack Kassian
Alexandre BurrowsRyan KeslerDavid Booth
Chris HigginsSamuel PahlssonJannik Hansen
Manny MalhotraMaxim LapierreDale Weise
 
Dan Hamhuis – Chris Tanev
Alexander EdlerKevin Bieksa
Marc-Andre GragnaniSami Salo

If Bieksa can’t play Andrew Alberts will draw in, likely on the left side of a pairing with Gragnani, while Salo moves up to take Bieksa’s spot alongside Edler.
 
Cory Schneider starts in goal ahead of Roberto Luongo
 
AVALANCHE
 
Steve Downie - Ryan O'Reilly - Gabriel Landeskog
Jamie McGinn - Paul Stastny - David Jones
Mark Olver - Matt DuchenePeter Mueller
Cody McLeod - Jay McClement - Milan Hejduk
 
Matt Hunwick - Ryan Wilson
Jan Hejda - Ryan O'Byrne
Shane O'Brien - Erik Johnson 

Semyon Varlamov makes a sixth-straight start ahead of veteran Jean-Sebastian Giguere despite a suspect outing in a 5-1 loss in San Jose.
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Posted On Monday, 03.26.2012 / 4:34 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Vigneault confirms Daniel Sedin has concussion

Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault confirmed what most already suspected Monday, when he said leading goal scorer Daniel Sedin suffered a concussion on an elbow from Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith.

"Daniel obviously, as everyone knows, has got a concussion and we're following the protocol," Vigneault said after his team's morning skate, ignoring the fact no one else from the Canucks said so since Wednesday's hit, which resulted in a five-game suspension for Keith.

As for Sedin's timeline for a possible return, Vigneault didn't sound like he'd have updates anytime soon: "I'm not going to address this every day. He's got a concussion and when we've got something more to say, we'll say it."

While it's anyone's guess when Sedin will return, Vancouver could be getting a couple other players back sooner than expected. Utility forward Andrew Ebbett, who has 4 goals in 14 games this season, is practicing after having his collarbone broken in two places by a big hit in Boston on Jan. 7 and needing surgery to repair the damage. And defenseman Keith Ballard, out since Feb. 7 with a concussion, rejoined the team at Monday morning's skate. Ballard, who has been cleared for light contact after missing 22 games, is hoping to practice Tuesday, but wasn't close to thinking about playing in the final seven games.

"How he'll react next couple of days is anyone's guess," Vigneault said.

The same could be said of an up-and-down Canucks team that has been locked into the second seed in the Western Conference for a while -- they can clinch no worse than second and close within two of St. Louis for first place with a win over a more desperate Los Angeles Kings team fighting for its playoff life.

Vancouver will try to build off two-straight road wins and put a decidedly blasé 3-4-0 homestand in the past against a streaking Kings team that won six straight before losing to Boston on Saturday, dropping to eighth in the West -- tied with San Jose and Colorado, but just one point behind Dallas for the Pacific Division lead.

Here are the expected lineups for their final meeting of the season:

CANUCKS
Mason Raymond - Henrik Sedin - Zack Kassian
Alexandre Burrows - Ryan Kesler - David Booth
Chris Higgins - Samuel Pahlsson - Jannik Hansen
Manny Malhotra - Maxim Lapierre - Dale Weise

Alexander Edler - Kevin Bieksa
Dan Hamhuis - Christopher Tanev
Marc-Andre Gragnani - Sami Salo

Roberto Luongo
Cory Schneider

The only change for the Canucks is Gragnani coming back into the lineup for Aaron Rome, who suffered a minor knee injury Sunday in Colorado and is expected to be out seven to 10 days as a result.

Luongo is back in goal for a second straight game after splitting the four-game road trip with Schneider, and playing his two best game in recent weeks, including 38 saves in the 3-2 overtime win in Colorado Saturday.

KINGS

Dustin Brown - Anze Kopitar - Justin Williams
Dwight King - Mike Richards - Jeff Carter
Dustin Penner - Jarret Stoll - Trevor Lewis
Kyle Clifford - Colin Fraser - Jordan Nolan

Rob Scuderi - Drew Doughty
Willie Mitchell - Slava Voynov
Matt Greene - Alec Martinez

Jonathan Quick
Jonathan Bernier

Coach Darryl Sutter called the 4-2 loss to Boston one of the team's best games despite winning the previous six, so it's no surprise he won't change his lineup as the Kings open a tough four-game road trip that finished with an absurd Edmonton-to-Minnesota trip for games on consecutive nights.

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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 5:48 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Dorsett, Blue Jackets excited for HNIC appearance

Columbus forward Derek Dorsett won’t have any problems finding motivation as the Blue Jackets’ lost season continues Saturday night in Vancouver.

Dorsett is ecstatic just to be back in a locker room instead of the bathroom.

“It's good to be back and not hugging the toilet bowl,” Dorsett said after losing “14 pounds” to a bug that hit late Monday night, and staying home for the first game of a Western Canadian road trip in Edmonton on Wednesday. “I’ve never been sick like that before in my life. I phoned our trainer at 1:30 a.m. and he said try and let it run its course. By 4 a.m. I was getting ready to go to the emergency room.”

Dorsett, who was getting IV treatments by Tuesday, said after practice Friday that he’d gained half the lost weight back after getting back to solid meals, and after missing the Edmonton game – the closest he plays to his hometown of Kindersly, Saskatchewan – was looking forward to taking on the Canucks on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday night, then playing in Calgary on Sunday.

A team that’s last in the NHL by a long shot and winding down a miserable season, the Blue Jackets will take any extra motivation they can find.

“It’s always fun,” said captain Rick Nash, who missed two practices this week to rest a nagging lower-body injury but plans to play the remaining games. “This is what you grow up watching as a kid, every Saturday night basically stuck in front of the TV … so any chance to be a part of this is special.”

That said, Nash, who has spent much of the last two months mired in ongoing trade talk, made it clear a rare appearance on Hockey Night in Canada isn't the only motivating factor for the Blue Jackets. The team set an internal goal for points down the stretch, and Nash credited coach Todd Richards for keeping the group focused, saying it led to four-straight wins after the trade deadline before Columbus lost its last three games, including two to NHL-leading St. Louis.

“It was impressive the coach came out and said ‘you are playing for yourselves, and for contracts and jobs’ and I thought that really hit home to a lot of guys,” said Nash, who is expected to be traded this summer. “We’re trying to win for our fans, for ourselves, for our organization -- and it is kind of fun to play spoiler.”
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 5:41 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

New pads a huge difference for Columbus' Mason

Columbus goalie Steve Mason still has more than 20 stitches in his left hand after a skate cut him all the way to the bone just below the outside of his pinky finger on the blocker side in Los Angeles four games ago.

It won’t keep him out against the Canucks on Saturday night, though.

Mason is eager to get back between the pipes to continue a recent run that’s as good as he’s had in the past three years. So after testing the hand in practice the last two days – and despite having to leave one briefly Friday to have the bandage over the stiches redone – Mason will play in Vancouver.

“There’s no pain right now,” he said after Saturday’s morning skate.

Mason was talking about the hand, but he could have been talking about the rest of his body too. Because if there’s been one key to Mason’s recent turnaround – he is 7-3-1 with a .922 save percentage in the last 10 after going 1-7-1 with a .880 save percentage the previous 10 – it’s a change in his equipment.

After wearing smaller pants and chest/arm protection his first three-and-a-half seasons in the League, Mason got permission from Kay Whitmore and the NHL to don bigger gear more suitable to his 6-foot-4, 217-pound frame. The difference was immediate. Not only did he feel and look bigger, but more importantly he was no longer feeling every shot off his upper body, which he said had actually – and shockingly – left him flinching and turning away from the puck at times.

“It makes a huge difference. If you are getting hit by pucks and it’s hurting, it's human nature to kind of turn away from it and not really square up as much as you can,” Mason said. “You'd almost try and turn to cushion it. That’s not the way to play the game and with the new stuff it's given me the peace of mind to face the shot square on and that’s the way the position is supposed to be played.”

Mason said the models haven’t changed, just the size, and the bigger pants allow him to still tuck in a larger chest protector without pulling it tight to his torso. The air between the gear and his body helps cushion the blow, whereas before it was like a bulletproof vest – it may save your life, but you’re going to feel it. Mason said he often finished practices with bruises all over his ribs and even shoulders.

“You should have seen me some days, my entire rib cage would be black and blue,” Mason said. “For sure it affects your confidence. A lot of times on pucks up (at the shoulder) I would turn away because it hurt and human nature. Now I just face it square on, and if it hits you so be it, the padding will take the force.”

Turning away from shots not only made Mason appear smaller in the net but it also often left him more exposed if the puck was tipped on the way in. Now not only does he looks bigger because he’s staying square, but he feels bigger too, something he noticed right away with the new gear back on Feb. 11.
“My first game in the new gear there was a play where I was down and moving to my right and my arm was out a bit and I was still able to get a piece of the puck, where before I knew for sure that was going in the net,” he said. “But it got a bit of my arm, dropped down in front of my pad and was an easy cover up.”

Mason had won four straight before the skate cut, his longest run in more than a calendar year, and he credits the new equipment for playing a big role.

“It gives you more confidence out there,” he said. “It just seems you look bigger, gives the guys less to look at when they are coming down the wing and any time you can have a competitive advantage like that it definitely helps.”

Especially when it also means you no longer have to flinch.
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 5:03 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Luongo, Canucks slumping so Schneider starts

The slumping Vancouver Canucks are hoping a hot goaltender will help turn around their worst funk of the season. His name isn't Roberto Luongo.

After going four months without losing two straight in regulation, the Canucks have dropped consecutive games twice during a seven-game homestand that wraps up against last-place Columbus on Saturday night. Vancouver is 2-4-2 the last eight, and now six points behind St. Louis for the top spot in the Western Conference.

So they'll turn to impressive backup goalie Cory Schneider, who hasn't lost in regulation since mid-December (8-0-1) and has posted a 3-0-1 record and .951 save percentage during the past three weeks. Luongo has given up 25 goals in eight starts over that same stretch, posting a .888 save percentage and leading to talk again of a controversy in the Canucks crease.

“It’s easy to say when you're winning everything is good and all of sudden you lose a couple of games and it becomes an issue,” Schneider said of only getting one other start over 17 days. “Yeah, [Luongo] hasn’t played as well as he’d like to the last couple of games but we as a team haven’t played that well either, so I’m not sure if I would have been a difference in any of those games opposed to him.”

As Schneider indicated, Luongo hasn’t been to blame exclusively, not with the team loose defensively and giving up countless odd-man rushes of late.

“A lot of the damage against us has been self inflicted,” Schneider said.

Despite sporadic starts, Schneider continues to build on an impressive rookie season, going 15-6-1 with a 2.09 goals-against average and .932 save percentage as a sophomore. Those numbers are all better than his counterpart’s (27-14-1, 2.48, .916) though Schneider is the first to correctly point out Luongo was the team’s best player from December through the end of February.

“A little more comfortable, a little less of the unknown,” Schneider said of his own game. “Every start last year was really exciting. This year I came back with more confidence and really locking my game down and not having too many off nights and games where you don’t know what you're going to get. I’ve tried to work on my consistency and being strong every night. I like where my game is at, where it’s come since the beginning of last season and hopefully I can continue it.”

Some Canucks fans would like to see it continue into the playoffs. Coach Alain Vigneault, who included Luongo among a long list of top players and veteran leaders that need to be better down the stretch, insists he’s not looking past the next game, but if the recent trend continues over the final 11, he may have a tough goaltending decision to make once the postseason starts.
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 4:40 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Canucks shake up defense after breakdowns

The Vancouver Canucks saw enough good things from new-look forward lines in a 5-4 loss to Phoenix on Wednesday to stick with them as they try to bump their worst slump of the season. The defensive pairings are a different story.

After surrendering double-digit odd-man rushes to the Coyotes, Vancouver has again changed things up on the back end, with newcomer Marc-Andre Gragnani out for Aaron Rome, who was a healthy scratch the last three games.

"I'd say 75 per cent of those were caused by bad reads by our defense," coach Alain Vigneault said of all the odd-man chances against. "They're reads you have to make. Is the third-man high? Is he not high? What type of puck control do we have? Do we have good puck control? Am I supposed to be stepping in, or not? A lot of times our guys decided to make decisions without the puck to either stay in or to go in for the outlet pass that were the wrong decisions.”

As for the forwards, Alexndre Burrows moved from the first to the third line, and it became the Canucks’ best, scoring a goal and drawing a couple of power plays that were converted by a new-look, four-forward unit he’s also a part of.

“They spent quality time in the other team’s end and were creating quality chances and wearing the other team down,” said Vigneault. “They were very dependable through the neutral zone and I was very pleased how that worked out. But we’re on a game-to-game basis. Can it work consistently?”

They’ll find out Saturday against the Blue Jackets, though it’s not the only thing being tested. Henrik and Daniel Sedin combined for three points against Phoenix after managing just one assist between them the previous eight games, and were part of a core group of veterans singled out by the coach, who suggested their poor play on the ice made it challenging for them to be leaders off it.

“All their games are a little bit off and makes it a different element to influence a group in a positive way and push buttons in the dressing room,” said Vigneault, who also included Ryan Kesler, Manny Malhotra, Kevin Bieksa and Roberto Luongo, who won’t play Saturday, in that group. "Our core group of players is being challenged. It's a different element when you're depended on to be leaders, to lead a group, to ensure your actions are the right ones to influence.”

Here are the rest of the expected lines as the Canucks try to end a 2-4-2 skid and avoid their first three-game losing skid at home since 2009:

CANUCKS

Daniel SedinHenrik SedinMason Raymond
Chris HigginsRyan KeslerDavid Booth
Alexandre BurrowsSamuel PahlssonJannik Hansen
Dale WeiseMaxim LapierreZack Kassian
 
Manny Malhotra, who missed the last game for personal reasons, is back with the team but won’t play Saturday night.
 
Alexander EdlerKevin Bieksa
Dan HamhuisSami Salo
Aaron Rome – Chris Tanev
 
Cory Schneider, who is 8-0-1 since mid-December, will start in goal ahead of Roberto Luongo, who has given up 25 goals in his last eight starts.
 
The biggest change for the last-place Blue Jackets, who had been playing well up to a 3-0 loss in Edmonton on Wednesday, is in goal, where Steve Mason returns from a deep cut on his blocker hand that kept him out for three games and ended his own recent run of solid play between the pipes. The only other change is Ryan Russell coming in for Dane Byers on the fourth line:

BLUE JACKETS

R.J. UmbergerDerick BrassardRick Nash
Vinny ProspalMark LetestuCam Atkinson
Colton GilliesRyan JohansenDerek Dorsett
Ryan RussellDarryl BoyceJared Boll
 
Jack JohnsonJames Wisniewski
Aaron JohnsonNikita Nikitin
John MooreBrett Lebda

With defensemen Radek Martinek (concussion) and Marc Methot (jaw) out the rest of the season, and fellow blue liner Fedor Tyutin still out indefinitely with a hand injury, the Blue Jackets only have six healthy defenders, and have already checked flights in case they need to add another one from the AHL in time for Sunday’s game in Calgary.

Steve Mason, who has won four straight starts, is back from the skate cut on his right hand to take over from backup Curtis Sanford, who has lost six straight.
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Posted On Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 6:46 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Vrbata a late scratch for Coyotes

VANCOUVER -- Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault has talked recently of experimenting with his lineup heading into the playoffs, tinkering with new options opened up by trade deadline acquisitions of Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani.

That said, the roster shakeup for Wednesday night's game against the Phoenix Coyotes -- which includes a new winger for struggling top-line twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin -- is all about shaking a 2-3-2 slump over the last seven games.

"It's got nothing to do with experimenting, it's got everything to do with getting our top players to play up to their level," Vigneault said after Wednesday's morning skate. "Until they do we're going to keep trying everything we can."

That includes moving struggling speedster Mason Raymond (0 points in six games) up to the top line to try and spark Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who have combined for just one assist the last eight games combined. Henrik, whose eight-game pointless streak is his longest since a November-December funk in 2003 and one game shy of his career worst from 2001, hopes the two days off after Saturday's 4-1 loss to lowly Montreal will rejuvenate a team that has looked tired – both mentally and physically – over the last few weeks.

"We're confident we're going to get out of this," Henrik, the Canucks’ captain, said. "It's just a matter of regrouping and getting ready for the stretch drive."

They've got 13 games left to figure it out, and that includes the defensive pairings, which were also shaken up after giving up way too many odd-man rushes, point-blank chances, and goals during the slide. Kevin Bieksa will play with a struggling Alexander Edler, while Bieksa's long-time partner, Dan Hamhuis, moves onto an apparent shutdown unit with steady youngster Chris Tanev, leaving veteran Sami Salo to play with newcomer Marc-Andre Gragnani against the Coyotes.

"When we analyze the scoring chances for and against and we see our top four defensemen in the minus category, it tells me we have to try something," said Vigneault of a theory that also applies up front. "It's pretty simple. We need our top players to play like top players. We're no different than any of the other 29 teams in the League. We've got a good team when our top players play the way they're supposed to play and, right now, for whatever reason, we've got a couple of guys who are off their game. They need to find it for us to get back on track."

Here are the expected lines -- at least to start -- as the Canucks try to do just that:

Daniel SedinHenrik SedinMason Raymond
Chris HigginsRyan KeslerDavid Booth
Alexandre BurrowsSamuel PahlssonJannik Hansen
Manny MalhotraMaxim LapierreZack Kassian

Dan Hamhuis – Chris Tanev
Alexander EdlerKevin Bieksa
Marc-Andre GragnaniSami Salo

Dale Weise, who hasn't played since Feb. 26, could get back into the lineup, almost certainly on the fourth line, but it wasn’t clear who might come out.
 
 
Roberto Luongo stays in goal despite some recent struggles, with Cory Schneider backing up.
 
Meanwhile, the Coyotes will be without 30-goal scorer Radim Vrabata. who was a late scratch due to illness. There's no word if he'll be ready to play Thursday night, when the Coyotes visit Calgary. The Coyotes say he's day-to-day

The good news for the Coyotes is that some of their injured players are returning or will be back soon.

Steady defenseman David Schlemko, who has missed 28 games following early January foot surgery, is expected to return in Vancouver on Wednesday night. Veteran defender Derek Morris, who recently rejoined the team after missing 14 games to attend to a family illness, isn't far behind, and key forwards Kyle Chipchura (wrist) and Martin Hanzal (upper body) are both with the team on the trip through Wsetern Canada and could return soon.

"When you're in a playoff stretch drive, you need as many bodies as you can, and that depth will be a real asset for our group," said coach Dave Tippett.

Tippett hopes it helps the Coyotes get back to the February form that saw them go 11-0-1, and end a 1-4-2 March funk that included an uncharacteristically wide-open 5-4 shootout loss to Nashville on Monday. That loss dropped them four points behind Dallas atop the Pacific Division, and just one point ahead of a four-way tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Tippett isn't telling his players to avoid NHL scoreboards.

"We always keep our eyes on the standings, it's a pretty tight race," he said. "You do lots of scoreboard watching … it re-enforces the fact we have to take care of ourselves."

Schlemko will likely take the spot of rookie Michael Stone, who was good as an emergency fill in, but minus-2 against the Predators in the last game.

"Poise," Tippett said of what Schlemko adds, "A steady, veteran presence."

Here are the rest of the expected lines as Phoenix tries to win the season series (it's 1-1-1 right now) despite only scoring two goals in the first three meetings:

Ray Whitney - Antoine Vermette - Shane Doan
Raffi Torres - Daymond Langkow - Lauri Lorpikoski
Taylor Pyatt - Boyd Gordon - Gilbert Brule
Mikkel Boedker - Marc-Antoine Pouliot - Paul Bissonnette
 
Keith Yandle - Adrian Aucoin
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Michal Rozsival
Rostislav KleslaDavid Schlemko

Mike Smith will start despite needing a while to shake off a shot off the mask during the morning skate, with Jason LaBarbera, who got the surprise start against his old team the last time the Coyotes visited, backing up.


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Posted On Saturday, 03.10.2012 / 5:15 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Kesler hopes tactical changes help create space

Canucks coach Alain Vigneault figures he can try whatever he wants to try and fix a power play mired in a two-month slump.

Since going 4-for-11 in a big Stanley Cup rematch win against Boston on Jan. 10, the Canucks are just 6-for-68 with the man advantage, falling from first in the League (by a healthy margin) to third heading into a game Saturday against Montreal. It prompted Vigneault to try using four forwards on his top unit.

“If you look at the way our power play has been since the Boston game, I think it's fair to say I can try whatever I want,” Vigneault said.

That included moving Ryan Kesler away from the front of the net, where he managed to score 15 goals for the League’s best power play last season, and back to the point for the first time in his eight-year NHL career.

The new-look power play only got one chance in a 3-2 win against Winnipeg on Thursday, and failed to score. But they did manage six shots, Kesler hit one of his two posts on the night, and looked as good as it has in months.

For Kesler, playing the point gives him a little more time and space to get off a shot he worked tirelessly to improve before scoring a career-high 41 goals last season. It’s something he feels other teams have tried to take away this year.

“They are. Scoring 41 goals last year, teams are going to key in on me more and play me harder and it's harder minutes and they are taking away my time and space to shoot so you gotta find other ways to use the shot,” Kesler said.

One way to do that is to move back to the point, which also reduces the number of hard minutes Kesler, who is also a top penalty killing forward, has to play down the stretch after a long playoff run and offseason hip surgery last season.

“It’s taxing at times,” Kesler said. “It’s a little different playing the point, but at the same time I think I can use my shot more and help the power play that way … I get the puck a little more. My job is to shoot obviously first.”

Kesler is also hoping the long-awaited re-unification of the American Express line with fellow U.S.-born forwards David Booth and Chris Higgins will help him get that shot away more often. The speedy trio, split up because of injuries and illness after a promising December debut, combined for 16 shots against the Jets.

“When we come up the ice with speed it backs off the D, which allows me to shoot the puck more,” said Kesler, who had seven shots and two more off the iron that didn’t count. “We played like a line that wants to stay together."
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Quote of the Day

Your team is going to want to recapture the feeling. What they're going to have to figure out is they're going to have to rewrite the story. Because you're going to rewrite the story doesn't mean you want a different end. It's just that you're going to have to learn that there's different challenges to get there, and if you're going to try and tap the same feeling, it ain't going to happen.

— Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi on maintaining their success from last season