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Posted On Monday, 02.13.2012 / 5:28 PM

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

Higgins skating, eager to return to Canucks' lineup

VANCOUVER -- Chris Higgins rejoined the Canucks for Monday's morning skate -- at least what's left of him.

Higgins has lost more than 10 pounds in his ongoing fight with staph infections, which caused him to twice miss games in December and left him unable to play the last five games because a poor reaction to medication made it hard to keep any food down.

The good news for Higgins, who also missed games while with Florida last season with a staph infection, is the latest absence was more about treating the infections than another return of them. That has him feeling somewhat confident the worst is past.

Higgins, who skated on his own three times before joining teammates, won't play against the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday night, but could return as early as Wednesday against the visiting Colorado Avalanche.

"It was just something that could have happened due to the medication I was taking for the back-to-back staph infections," Higgins said. "It was one of the reactions that was possible from taking medication for such a long time."

Higgins, who was among the Canucks' best forwards early this season, missed two games in early December when his foot swelled up after a three-point night for him and an eight-point outing for the second line. He returned for eight games before missing another three when the infection returned, but struggled with his energy levels after that, failing to score in 11 games in January while battling the draining effects of medication.

Higgins talked about finally getting back to normal before being a surprise late scratch in the last game of a recent home stand, and then missing all four games on the road.

"I'm just glad it's behind me, and looking forward to feeling normal again, like I did before the staph infections in December, and even the month of January was pretty tough for me physically. Hopefully my energy and weight comes back quickly," he said.

Higgins has already regained most of the lost weight -- a relatively enjoyable rehab.

"Going up in weight is more fun that trying to shed it," he said. "I'm enjoying desert after meals and don't have to worry too much about how many calories I'm taking in."

Now he's only focused on shedding his reputation the last two months.

"I don't want to be known as the sick guy, that's kind of sticking with me," said Higgins, who has 10 goals and 26 points in 45 games. "I want to shed that image."

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Posted On Monday, 02.13.2012 / 4:20 PM

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

Coyotes go for sixth straight with LaBarbera in net

VANCOUVER -- Mike Smith is the hottest goaltender in the League and the NHL's First Star of the Week, but the Coyotes will try to continue their sizzling streak without him Monday night, turning instead to backup Jason LaBarbera against the Canucks, who are on a roll of their own.

LaBarbera is 4-1-0 against a Vancouver team he played nine games for in 2008-09, but Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett said the decision was more about getting Smith some time off to work with Coyotes goaltending coach Sean Burke. Smith, who hasn't lost in five February games while posting a 1.19 goals-against average and .962 save percentage, has started 11 straight, and 16 of 17 since returning from injury on Jan. 3.

"It's a combination of a four day break mentally and physically and two days to work with Sean Burke and tune things up," said Tippett, whose Coyotes don't play again until Thursday in Los Angeles. "It's important for any goaltender, and when you are playing so many in a row it's hard to find those times where you can tweak your game."

Phoenix has used its first five-game win streak of the season to move into eighth place in the tight, tough Western Conference, but has little margin for error against a Canucks team that hasn't lost in regulation since mid-January amid a 6-0-3 run of their own.

LaBarbera knows how dangerous their attack can be, but looks forward to facing it.

"I don't know about local knowledge, it's just exciting for me to play here," he said of past success. "I grew up here, got to play here and it's a fun building to play in."

For the Canucks, defenseman Keith Ballard will miss a third straight game with what could either be a concussion of neck injury -- coach Alain Vigneauilt said the team still isn't sure -- and Chris Higgins is skating again but not quite ready to return after an adverse reaction to medication for recurring staph infections caused him to lose more than 10 pounds.

So expect the Canucks to start against the Coyotes the same way they finished in a 3-2 shootout loss in Calgary on Saturday, though the way Vigneault has been playing Yahtzee with his forward lines, they may not finish that way.

Here are the projected lineups:

COYOTES

Ray Whitney - Martin Hanzal - Radim Vrbata
Lauri Korpikoski - Boyd Gordon - Shane Doan
Mikkel Boedker - Daymond Langkow - Taylor Pyatt
Raffi Torres - Kyle Chipchura - Gilbert Brule

Keith Yandle - Adrian Aucoin
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Rostislav Klesla
Michal Rozsival - Derek Morris

Jason LaBarbera
Mike Smith

CANUCKS
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - David Booth
Jannik Hansen - Cody Hodgson - Byron Bitz
Mike Duco - Manny Malhotra - Maxim Lapierre

Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Sami Salo
Andrew Alberts - Aaron Rome

Roberto Luongo
Cory Schneider

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Posted On Wednesday, 02.08.2012 / 7:41 PM

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

Henrik Sedin in walking boot, sits out practice

Canucks coach Alain Vigneault split identical twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin for parts of the last three games, a rare move designed to spark both the brothers and the team. Vigneault may not have that option Thursday night against the Wild in Minnesota.

Henrik Sedin
Center - VAN
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 46 | PTS: 57
SOG: 76 | +/-: 16
Captain Henrik Sedin missed practice Wednesday and was scheduled to have a CT scan after taking a slap shot off the outside of his right ankle early during Tuesday's 4-3 shootout win in Nashville. Multiple media reports said Sedin was seen limping around in a large walking boot at the team's hotel in St. Paul.

"They did an x-ray and couldn't tell from the x-ray and he was just obviously in a lot of pain so just doing a follow up," Vigneault told reporters after practice Wednesday.

Sedin dropped to the ice after blocking the shot and could barely skate off on his own -- but was back after a few minutes in the locker room and had two assists later in the period. Despite not having any extra forwards, they had not called up anyone from their Chicago of the American Hockey League as of yet.

Henrik leads the League with 46 assists and is fifth in NHL scoring with 57 points. He is also second to only Calgary defenseman Jay Bouwmeester with an ironman streak of 552 consecutive games played and hasn't missed a game in more than six seasons.

"It just shows how effective and durable and demanding Hank is on himself and hopefully the streak will continue tomorrow," Vigneault said.

The last time one of the Sedin twins missed an extended period was two seasons ago, when Daniel's left foot was broken by a teammate's shot early in the season. Henrik responded by stepping out of his comfort zone as a pass-first setup center, scoring 10 goals in the 18 games his brother missed en route to an NHL-leading 112 points and the Hart Trophy as League MVP.

Vancouver forward Dale Weise was also having a CT scan Wednesday after blocking a shot and needing stiches the night before, and the Canucks were already missing top-six winger Chris Higgins, who is struggling with the draining effects of medication to help with recurring staph infections.

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Posted On Friday, 02.03.2012 / 4:54 PM

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

Loss of Higgins could leave Canucks' lines scrambled

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks rushed out of the rink after practice Friday morning, eager to get to a charter flight bound for Colorado ahead of a snowstorm that was already causing plenty of flight problems ahead of their early Saturday afternoon game against the Avalanche.

The problem is second-line winger Chris Higgins wasn't with them to kick off a four-game road trip after missing Thursday's 4-3 shootout loss to Detroit with the flu. And according to coach Alain Vigneault, the Canucks may not be able to call up 6-foot-5 winger Byron Bitz from Chicago of the American Hockey League in time because the weather has cancelled commercial flights in and out of Denver.

If Bitz can't make it, Mason Raymond will again move up to the second line -- they were scrambled in the third period Thursday after being badly outplayed, with Daniel and Henrik Sedin split up, but back together at practice. But instead of defenseman Andrew Alberts dressing as a spare part forward on the fourth line again, it appears fellow defender Keith Ballard will move up this time and play third line left wing.

As for Higgins, Vigneault said it was not a return of the staph infection that cost the winger five games over two separate stints in December and six games in Florida last season, but admitted the medication Higgins was taking because of it may have left him more susceptible to the flu. He said Higgins, who struggled with fatigue because of the medication and didn't score in January, could join the team on the road.

Vigneault also said Roberto Luongo would start again in goal.
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Posted On Thursday, 02.02.2012 / 10:05 PM

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

Higgins a late scratch for Canucks

VANCOUVER -- Canucks forward Chris Higgins was a surprise late scratch Thursday against Detroit with what a team official called an “illness.”

There was no word if it was related to the Staph infection that caused Higgins to miss five games over two separate absences earlier this season. The second-line left winger, who has 10 goals and 26 points in 45 games, missed two games in early December after his foot swelled up suddenly overnight, and three more late that month when the symptoms returned.

Higgins, who was one of Vancouver's better forwards in October and November, struggled after returning from the second infection, failing to record a point in his first six games, and going without a goal through all 11 games in January. Both he and head coach Alain Vigneault, who was expected to update Higgins' status after Thursday’s game, said at the time that the gritty winger struggled with his energy levels as a result of medication he was taking. Higgins also missed six games with a Staph infection last season while with the Florida Panthers.

The Canucks are only carrying 12 forwards on the roster, and without enough time to call one up from the American Hockey League, were forced to dress extra defenseman Andrew Alberts, who has skated as a forward a few times already this season.
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Posted On Thursday, 02.02.2012 / 7:15 PM

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

Detroit's Howard gets practice off, but not game

VANCOUVER -- Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard leads the NHL in wins with 31.

Yet his 43 games played ranks only sixth.

Still, with an increasing tendency League-wide to use a goalie tandem – and Howard on pace to play an exhausting 69-game schedule – the Red Wings’ stopper knows the importance of taking time off. So there was little protest when head coach Mike Babcock ordered both Howard and fellow All-Star Pavel Datsyuk to not only miss Wednesday’s practice in Vancouver, but to stay away from the rink entirely.

“Pavel and I just went and walked round Vancouver, it was nice,” Howard, 27, said after Thursday’s morning skate.
“I feel good. I don’t feel tired at all. Mike is really good giving us days off. He realizes it's key sometimes to pull back on the reigns rather than being out there going, going, going. We always get an ample amount of days off.”

Howard is seventh with a .925 save percentage, and fifth with a 2.01 goals-against average, well ahead of veteran backup Ty Conklin, who is just 3-5-0 with a 3.20 and .896. But Conklin has won two of his last three starts, and could see more time down the stretch. If not, Howard is ready to keep taking breaks on off days, then playing the next.

“I’m young,” he said with a smile.
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Posted On Thursday, 02.02.2012 / 7:01 PM

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

Hodgson looks to build on Rookie of Month honor

VANCOUVER -- Canucks center Cody Hodgson said all the right things about being named the NHL Rookie of the Month for January, crediting his linemates – despite the fact both are struggling – and the team, despite an inconsistent month overall.

Hodgson did his best to deflect any praise after a team-high six goals and 10 points in 11 games in January despite averaging less than 13 minutes of ice time. But associate coach Rick Bowness thinks it’s just the start of a long run for the promising 21-year-old.

“I always knew he had the hands, the creativity. Now there is the confidence to use it,” Bowness said before Thursday’s game against Detroit. “He’s holding the puck, looking to make plays and putting the puck in the right spot. That comes with experience and having success. He’s worked very hard on his game, always one of the last guys off the ice, always out there working on his puck skills. He’ll continue to grow and get better.”

Hodgson is fourth in rookie scoring with 30 points despite playing around five minutes less per game than the three guys ahead of him. And he’s second in goals with 14, a total that includes one game- and one shootout-winning goal in the two games prior his appearance at the All-Star Game, and the tying goal against Chicago on Tuesday.

It hasn't seemed to matter that wingers Mason Raymond, with one goal in 12 games, and Jannik Hansen, with none in six, are struggling. Hodgson was quick to point out both are drawing attention and backing down defenses with their speed, but Bowness wants more.

“We’d like to see a little more finishing the chances but it will come,” he said. “The chemistry of the line isn’t quite where we want it to be. Sometimes a line just needs a little time to become a true line and not three individuals playing together.”

If the others are struggling, it hasn’t hurt Hodgson’s confidence.

“I feel more and more comfortable every game and every day, just fitting in with the team and having fun,” said Hodgson, who was picked 10th overall in the 2008 Entry Draft but lost an entire season of development to a back injury two years ago.

“Confidence is a huge part of the game and might be underestimated by a lot of people, but in the hockey community everyone knows if you don’t have confidence in can be tough to play the game,” Hodgson said. “It’s been a good month I’ve had a lot of fun and things are going well with the team. Hopefully I have an even better month in February.”
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Posted On Thursday, 02.02.2012 / 6:10 PM

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

Budding rivalry for Canucks and Red Wings?

VANCOUVER -- The Red Wings and Canucks typically play exceptional, entertaining games.

With two of the League's top teams loaded with skill and eager to control the puck, there has rarely been a shortage in fast-paced hockey full of quality scoring chances and great saves, and Thursday's meeting between No. 1 and 2 in the Western Conference promises more of the same.

“It's always fun to play the good teams,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said.

That was again the case when they last met on Dec. 21, but the tone changed after Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall caught Vancouver center Ryan Kesler with his head down. The thunderous open-ice check -- deemed legal both on the ice and by those in charge of supplementary discipline -- added an edge to the rest of the game, starting with Kesler trying to fight Kronwall right after getting up.

Kesler ended up with the only penalty, but the Canucks scored a crucial insurance goal shorthanded after Jannik Hansen wiped out Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard on a partial breakaway. Howard responded by popping up and chasing down a celebrating Hansen, and perhaps a real rivalry was born.

"It's almost become a little bit of a rivalry, really, a lot of emotions out there," Kronwall said, adding he hadn't thought about potential carry over from his hit. "Any time we play Vancouver we know it's going to be a physical game. A lot of times it's more of a playoff character game really, not a lot of room and hard fought."

That last game finished with a knee-on-knee collision between Kesler and Henrik Zetterberg. Afterwards Kesler called out Kronwall for not backing up his hit with a fight, and Howard sounded off about the lack of protection from crease crashers.

"This game is all about emotion and it got a little bit of the best of me last time," Howard said. "It always is (a great game) whenever we play them. Both teams play similar, both want possession of the puck and both make it hard on the opposing goalie and D. Whenever we play here they are always crashing the net and got guys trying to take my sightlines away but it's on me to try and find it out there and not lose sight of the puck."

Kesler, whose job includes doing just that on the Canucks' power play, didn't have much to say on the Kronwall hit now, and expects a spirited but clean game.

"I completely forgot about it until you brought it up again, so that's how much it's on my mind right now," Kesler said of the hit. "I think you expect a hard-fought game, you expect two teams to battle hard and battle clean, that's what you're going to see."

As for Babcock, he couldn't even figure out what the fuss was about.

"I didn't know the game was chippy last time until some of the guys told me about the articles. There was a hit and the guy reacted, that happens in the NHL a lot -- so what?" he said.

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Posted On Thursday, 02.02.2012 / 4:54 PM

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

Canucks hope to fix power play by imitating Wings

VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Canucks have no problem admitting they emulate the Detroit Red Wings in terms of how they've built their team and want to play.

Coach Alain Vigneault would like them to imitate Detroit in front of the net too.

With his team struggling slightly not only on the power play -- it's relative when you lead the League -- but also just to generate man advantages, Vigneault stressed the need for improved net presence from his Canucks. Not only should it help a power play that hasn't scored in six chances over three games, but it should create more chances after Vancouver failed to get even one advantage during a 3-2 overtime win over rival Chicago on Tuesday.

"I'd like to take a page out of Detroit's book," Vigneault said. "I feel they're the best team in the League as far as net presence and always having somebody there -- square to the puck and making it hard on the goaltender. We need to screen the goalie more than looking to tip pucks. And they have so many big bodies that like to do that and go in those tough areas. They're one of the most physical teams in the League."

Detroit also has one of the NHL's best net-front presences in Tomas Holmstrom, who returns to action against the Canucks after missing a game with swollen knees. He's a player that Vancouver's Ryan Kesler has tried to learn from since taking over that hard role atop opposing creases last season, a job his coach believes will be key to ending the Canucks' 3-for-23 skid over the last eight games.

"I try to get better at that every day, it's still pretty new to me," said Kesler, a center who used to anchor the second unit. "I always try to pick up little things and he's pretty good at it. Tips is one thing, just learning how and when to take the goalie's eyes away."

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Posted On Thursday, 02.02.2012 / 4:16 PM

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

Holmstrom plans on setting up shop like usual

VANCOUVER -- Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Holmstrom will play Thursday night after missing one game with swollen knees, and plans to go straight to his usual spot in front of Vancouver's net. The 39-year-old isn't worried about his health.

The knees are a long way from the heart.

"I play my game, I like the game I play, and it's a good spot to be, the puck is going to be there sooner or later," Holmstrom, who didn't play in Calgary on Tuesday and was hobbling around with ice on his knees, told NHL.com. “I never think about if I take a beating.”

Holmstrom has taken plenty of pounding during 14 NHL seasons establishing himself as the League's best net-front presence. He's a fourth liner now, but remains invaluable on the first power-play unit, screening opposing goalies and scoring on tips and rebounds.

For Holmstrom, it's an easier job now -- even at his age -- then when he first started.

"After the lockout it seems like you can get to the net much easier, you can't do the cross checking before you get to the net, but when the puck comes there, hell still breaks loose," he said with a smile. "But back then you got three cross checks to the neck before you get to the paint, and then you get cross-checked again. So it's a huge difference."

Detroit was 0-for-3 on the power play without Holmstrom against the Flames, though his replacement, Jan Mursak, who will come out of the lineup against the Canucks on Thursday, did set up a goal in just 7:32 of ice time on the fourth line.

Here are the rest of the expected lineups and changes for the Red Wings and Canucks:
 
RED WINGS
Johan Franzen - Pavel Datsyuk - Todd Bertuzzi
Valtteri Filppula - Henrik Zetterberg - Jiri Hudler
Drew Miller - Darren Helm - Danny Cleary
Cory Emmerton - Justin Abdelkader - Tomas Holmstrom

There is one change on defense as well, with Jakub Kindl replacing Mike Commodore on the third pairing, ending a run of four-straight starts for the latter.

Nicklas Lidstrom - Ian White
Niklas Kronwall - Brad Stuart
Jonathan Ericsson - Jakub Kindl

Jimmy Howard, who was given a day off Wednesday and, along with fellow All Star Pavel Datsyuk, ordered to stay away from the rink entirely, makes his sixth-straight start while Ty Conklin backs up.
 
CANUCKS
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Chris Higgins - Ryan Kesler - David Booth
Mason Raymond - Cody Hodgson - Jannik Hansen
Manny Malhotra - Maxim Lapierre - Dale Weise

Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Sami Salo
Keith Ballard - Aaron Rome

As the Canucks wrap up a six-game homestand broken up by the All-Star break, the only change is in goal, where Roberto Luongo returns after watching Cory Schneider's often-spectacular 37-save effort in a 3-2 overtime win over Chicago on Tuesday.

The win included a highlight-reel diving save to take away an empty net after he gave the puck away behind his own net, prompting Luongo to joke about trying to top his partner with a "backhand sauce up the middle and then dive back to see if I can get it."

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