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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.
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.
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.


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."
Posted On Saturday, 03.10.2012 / 4:02 PM

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

Desharnais out, but Markov could return for Habs

Montreal’s miserable season will continued without injured top-line center David Desharnais on Saturday night in Vancouver, but the Canadiens could get their top defenseman, Andrei Markov, back for the first time all season.

Markov, who has only played seven games in the last two seasons as he tries to come back from two major knee surgeries and another arthroscopic procedure, was activated from the injured-reserve list Saturday morning and could play against the Canucks, according to coach Randy Cunneyworth.

“He’s activated and available to us and should everything go as planned he will be in our lineup,” said Cunneyworth, adding the decision will be made after pre-game warm up, which will include 12 forwards and seven defensemen. “If he’s feeling the same way tonight as he is today, then we certainly will (play him).”

Markov averaged 55 points from 2005-2009, including a career-high 64 in 2008-09. But the 33-year-old Russian only played 45 games in 2009-10 and just seven last season before tearing his ACL in a Nov. 13, 2010, game against Carolina.

It’s been a long road back for the puck-moving, power play specialist. He practiced in November, but was shut down after the knee swelled up, and wasn’t cleared again for contact until Monday. He skated alongside Tomas Kaberle on Friday, but won’t speak to the media until after Saturday’s game – if he plays.

“I believe his condition is to a point where he can help out the team and do the work he feels will help our team be successful,” said Cunneyworth, who has indicated he will monitor the Russian defender’s minutes closely. “We’ll figure out best way to manage his ice based on how the game is going and how he is feeling. It's another step in the right direction for a guy we know is a very good player, but we don’t want to throw too much on his plate.”

Fellow Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges knows better than most what Markov is going through after having season ending surgery in January of 2011 and having to wait until the start of this season to make his return. That was an eight-month wait. Markov hasn't played a game in 16 months.

“I don’t expect him to be at his 100 per cent best first game back after this long a break,” Gorges said. “The timing of things has to come back, but mentally he just has to get out there, get a couple shifts early, keep them short, keep them quick, get the feel for the puck, for the timing. Probably the best thing to do would be take a hit, take a big hit, and to know that he can keep going, his knee will be fine and mentally he can overcome that obstacle and he’ll be fine.”

That said, Gorges believes it will be a big morale boost for the Canadiens, who are last in the Eastern Conference, to see Markov finally return.

“It will be a great boost to everyone just to see him playing,” Gorges said.

The news was almost as positive on Desharnais, who suffered a lower-body injury early during a win Thursday in Edmonton and won’t play in Vancouver.

Cunneyworth said the injury to Desharnais, whose 52 points are second in team scoring only to linemate Max Pacioretty (54), isn’t serious, and he could be back as early as Monday in Buffalo. In the meantime, Tomas Plekanec moves up to the top line between Pacioretty, who took the team scoring lead with two goals and an assist against the Oilers, and Erik Cole.

“There’s some chemistry, they've largely stayed together much of the season,” Cunneyworth said of the top line, “But you adapt and others take on the responsibility. It’s a good challenge for our group.”

Louis Leblanc, who was sent down to Hamilton of the American Hockey League on Wednesday, has been called back up and will play on the fourth line against the Canucks.

When it was suggested the Canadiens could have tried recalling top prospect Brendan Gallagher, who plays his junior hockey locally, on an emergency basis, Cunneyworth said it never crossed his mind.

"With Louis Leblanc he comes back with the knowledge of our system and he's able to step right in and not miss a beat," he said.

CANADIENS

Assuming the Canadiens dress 12 forwards, the lines will look like this, with Leblanc most likely to sit should Markov play as one of seven defensemen:

Erik ColeTomas PlekanecMax Pacioretty
Rene BourqueLars EllerRyan White
Aaron PalushajScott GomezBlake Geoffrion
Louis LeblancPetteri NokelainenBrad Staubitz
 
Josh Georges – P.K. Subban
Alexei EmelinTomas Kaberle
Yannik Weber – Chris Campoli
Andrei Markov
 
After a rare night off in Edmonton, Carey Price gets the start – his 59th in 69 games – with an estimated 20-30 family members making the trip from his hometown in Northern B.C. Peter Budaj is back to being the back up.
 
CANUCKS

The only change for the Canucks is the return of Roberto Luongo in goal against the team he grew up cheering after Cory Schneider played Thursday.
 
Daniel SedinHenrik SedinAlexandre Burrows
Chris HigginsRyan KeslerDavid Booth
Mason RaymondSamuel PahlssonJannik Hansen
Manny MalhotraMaxim LapierreZack Kassian
 
Dan HamhuisKevin Bieksa
Alexander EdlerSami Salo
Marc-Andre Gragnani – Chris Tanev
 
Luongo is in goal, with Schneider back to backing up.
Posted On Thursday, 03.08.2012 / 6:24 PM

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

Henrik Sedin puts Canucks' struggles in perspective

VANCOUVER -- Canucks captain Henrik Sedin was doing his best Alfred E. Newman after his team's first consecutive regulation losses in four months: What -- me worry?

Sedin downplayed the losses, a 1-2-2 run, and the ongoing struggles of both the power play and the top line he centers alongside twin brother Daniel.

The rest of Vancouver may be panicked over a man-advantage unit that has one goal in seven games and a success rate below 10 percent the last two months, or seeing the Sedins, who combined for the last two NHL scoring titles, manage just 1 assist between them the last six games, but Henrik isn't.

"It feels like we're the least-worried guys in the city," Henrik said after practice Wednesday before exercising the option to skip Thursday's morning skate.

As several teammates suggested Thursday, there might be panic if it was April 8 instead of March 8. There is still more than a month to prepare for the playoffs, but there are things that need fixing, including a power play that led the League by a wide margin after going 4-for-11 during a big 4-3 win in Boston back on Jan. 10, but is just 8-for-68 in the 25 games since then.

That drought has also played a role in the Sedins' slide. In addition to his first six-game pointless skid since 2003, Henrik is pointless in 10 of the last 13, while twin brother Daniel has been blanked in nine of those same contests over the last month. And while history and head coach Alain Vigneault suggested it was just a blip and nothing to worry about, a lot of fans in Vancouver clearly are.

"We just have to execute a little bit better," said Alexandre Burrows, the Sedins' regular linemate at even strength. "I think teams are desperate, they play five guys in front of their net and we just have to create more and be more assertive with the puck and make sure we get to the net with traffic there."

Beyond the Sedins, there are other areas of concern that pre-date the current two-game skid and 1-2-2 stretch. The Canucks were 13-1-3 before that, but nine wins came in overtime and shootouts, and stellar goaltending often masked the defensive breakdowns that finally came to roost during a 5-3 loss to Buffalo on Saturday and a 5-2 loss to Dallas on Tuesday filled with odd-man rushes.

"We're certainly not as sharp as we need to be," defenseman Dan Hamhuis said. "It's simple things -- bad passes, poor defensive coverage -- that should be more of an automatic thing by now. Some of those are mental mistakes, maybe a little bit of lack of execution out there, and we need to be better at that."

Part of the problem may be simply matching the other team's intensity.

Both the Sabres and Stars -- and the Jets on Thursday -- are fighting for their playoff lives, while the Canucks have a 16-point cushion atop the Northwest Division and are practically guaranteed a top-two seed with a 13-point gap on the top Pacific Division team. The only question is securing the top spot in the West and chasing a second straight Presidents' Trophy.

"It's tough, we've seen it the last five-six games, teams that are working hard for playoff spots," said backup goalie Cory Schneider, who starts against the Jets. "But we should be able to match that, no problem. We're a team that knows how to play our 'A' game and ratchet up the intensity when we have to, and I think these are the type of games we are going to be playing from here on out and into the playoffs, so we better get comfortable playing desperate teams."

Vigneault even spoke publicly this week about experimenting with his lines over the final 15 games to get a better feel for his options come playoff time. The tinkering will continue with a reunited all-American second line and new third pairing against the Jets, but the coaches and players met beforehand to talk about the need to stay focused for each game.

"Sure, we're not in a battle to make the playoffs, but we need to take pride in how we play and do the right things," Hamhuis said. "If we don't, if we get lazy or start making bad habits, that's not the way you want to go into a postseason."

That said, Hamhuis didn't disagree with his captain's assessment from the day before that it might not be a bad thing to lose now instead of a month from now, if only because it forces the team to assess its shortcomings, especially after being able to get away with them, and win despite of them, earlier this season.

"Sometimes losing is a good thing," Hamhuis said. "When you go through adversity and tough times, that's when you get stronger and it certainly highlights some of the areas in our game that aren't where they need to be, execution being one of them and focus being another. Some of our plays that should be routine aren't right now, and you realize that when you start losing games."

Posted On Thursday, 03.08.2012 / 3:58 PM

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

Canucks reunite 'American Express' line

The Canucks continue to tinker with their forward units and defense, re-uniting the American Express line of U.S.-born forwards Chris Higgins, Ryan Kesler and David Booth as they attempt to bump their worst slump in four months.

That it’s a two-game losing streak in regulation -- four of five (1-2-2) if you throw in overtime and shootout losses that sandwiched a win over St. Louis -- says a lot about expectations surrounding a Vancouver team that ran away with the Western Conference last season, but comes into this game second.

Still, there are improvements needed, so the changes continue against the Jets on Thursday night, with newcomer Marc-Andre Gragnani now on a third pairing with youngster Christopher Tanev while the more established Aaron Rome joins fellow veteran Andrew Alberts in the press box as healthy scratches on defense.

Here are the rest of the expected lineups for Thursday night. The Canucks are 41-18-8, while the Jets are 32-27-8 come to Rogers Arena on a 6-1-2 roll, but will have to reverse the trend of being much better at home (21-10-4) than on the road (11-17-4) to hold onto the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

CANUCKS

Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Chris Higgins - Ryan Kesler - David Booth
Mason Raymond - Samuel Pahlsson - Jannik Hansen
Manny Malhotra - Maxim Lapierre - Zack Kassian
 
Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Sami Salo
Marc-Andre Gragnani - Christopher Tanev
 
Cory Schneider, who cut his professional teeth in Winnipeg with the Canucks' AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, is back in goal after watching Roberto Luongo start the last three.
 
In addition to the goaltending change, the re-unification of the American Express second line that showed so much promise earlier in the season also changes up the third and fourth units, with the struggling speedster Raymond now on a checking unit, and big trade addition Kassian moving back to more of a crash-and-bang fourth line after a game-plus experiment on that second line.
 
Gragnani, who came to Vancouver with Kassian in the trade with Buffalo, will continue to get a look on a first power-play unit that still ranks third in the League but has just one goal in the last eight games amid a two-month slump.

JETS

Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Blake Wheeler
Evander Kane - Alexander Burmistrov - Kyle Wellwood
Tanner Glass - Jim Slater - Chris Thorburn
Tim Stapleton - Nik Antropov - Antti Miettinen
 
Tobias Enstrom - Dustin Byfuglien
Ron Hainsey - Grant Clitsome
Randy Jones - Mark Stuart
 
Ondrej Pavelec starts in goal, with Chris Mason backing up.

No lineup changes for a Jets team that built most of its recent 6-1-2 run during a long homestand, but showed some improvement with a 4-3-0 record the last seven road games. That's a notable number considering they have lost 21 of 32 road contests this season.
Posted On Tuesday, 03.06.2012 / 4:52 PM

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

Smarts over size when it comes to Stars' backup

The Dallas Stars will rest their top goaltender against the top team in the Western Conference Tuesday. But the decision to start rookie backup Richard Bachman isn't just about saving workhorse No.1 Kari Lehtonen for an important Pacific Division showdown with San Jose back in Dallas on Thursday.

It's also a reward for the role Bachman played in the Stars' current 6-0-1 run to a playoff position.

Bachman's only other start in the last 16 games was a 26-save, 3-1 win over Chicago 12 days ago -- the second game in the ongoing point streak.

"You look at our schedule, we'll probably rely on Kari quite extensively, and this is maybe a day where we've got travel, and it sets up good to play San Jose," Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said after practice in Calgary on Monday. "And you look at our little run we've been on, the game in Chicago, Richard Bachman was a part of it to get us going, and he's 6-3 with a .916 (save percentage)."

Bachman, who was playing in the ECHL just two seasons ago, won the Stars' backup job from ex-Canuck Andrew Raycroft with an impressive call-up earlier this season. He also has a 2.58 goals-against average despite being matched with Sabres rookie backup Jhonas Enroth as the shortest goaltender in the NHL at just 5-foot-10. That, says Gulutzan, forces him to prepare differently, relying more on developing his smarts because he can't just rely on his size.

"Even practicing with our guys, NHL shooters, he's getting better by virtue of being here," Gulutzan said of the Colorado College grad. "He's a cerebral kid, he's a smart college kid, he's mature and he's a goalie that has to study the game to be good at the game, because he's not a big blocker."

That doesn't mean he can't come up big for Dallas down the stretch.

The Stars are counting on it against the Canucks on Tuesday.

Posted On Tuesday, 03.06.2012 / 4:18 PM

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

Canucks experimenting with lineup down stretch

With just 16 games left in the season and three new players on the roster, the Vancouver Canucks are in the midst of a chemistry experiment, tinkering with their lines, pairings and power play as they prepare for the playoffs.

The biggest change heading into Tuesday night's battle of division leaders with Dallas comes up front, with newcomer Zack Kassian being promoted to the second line.

Kassian's move up comes at the expense of a struggling Mason Raymond, who drops to the fourth line, and could find himself out of the lineup entirely should the Canucks choose size and grit over his speed and go with either Dale Weise or Byron Bitz, who figures to be called back up from the AHL come playoff time.

"I'm trying to figure out where the pieces go," coach Alain Vigneault said. "We have a short focus on the game, but I'm also keeping a big-picture approach with the pieces and how they best help us move forward to get into the playoffs. I've got an idea, but I don't know. The players are going to decide for me."

Kassian is off to a good start since arriving from Buffalo as a key component to a four-player deadline day deal. The big winger started by showing a physical presence on the fourth line, then made the most of a promotion to the second line during the third period of a 5-3 loss to his ex-Sabres team, scoring once and setting up new linemate David Booth for another as they combined with center Ryan Kesler for two goals and several dominant, often physical, shifts.

"They've got speed, size and skill, and two of three have a little edge," Vigneault said. "If it works out, it's a good line. Our scouts felt really highly that Kassian has the potential to be a top-six forward and get there fairly quick. How long that's going to take, I'm not sure. He obviously caught our attention as far as the skill level and physicality that he can bring. Like any young player, can he maintain it and will it continue? Those are the questions we're going to get answered."

Part of the questioning includes what to do with Raymond, who lost an entire offseason and preseason to broken vertebrae from an awkward hit into the boards during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, and hasn't been able to rediscover his 25-goal form of two seasons ago.

Vigneault stressed patience given all Raymond had to overcome -- both physically and mentally -- and has so far ignored calls to drop him from the lineup altogether for failing to use his considerable wheels to take the puck to the net. Raymond, who has 8 goals, 8 assists and a plus-8 rating in 41 games since returning in early December, remains in the lineup to help a second-unit power play that lost its playmaker when Cody Hodgson was dealt to acquire Kassian, and as a top penalty killer.

"I am trying to do what is best for the team, and at the same time also looking at his challenges," Vigneault said. "I know we are going to need him down the road. We are going to need that 25-goal scorer, but at the same time I have to look at the big picture right now. For now, obviously I am looking at some other people in that second-line spot and we'll see how that goes and how it affects our team."

The other tinkering involves the power play. Marc-Andre Gragnani, who was the other player coming to Vancouver in the trade with Buffalo, is getting an extended look -- perhaps in part because he needs 12 more games this season to avoid becoming a Group 6 unrestricted free agent this summer -- on a first-unit power play ranked third in the NHL, but with just one goal in seven games.

That dry spell helps explain why top-line twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin have one assist combined in the last five games and over the last six weeks have fallen well off the pace that saw them combine to win the last two NHL scoring titles.

"I've got a lot of confidence in the people we use in that situation," Vigneault said, pointing out the number of chances has also dropped significantly. "For whatever reason there doesn't seem to be as many power plays as there was before, and considering the fact we've played a lot of games in a short amount of time we haven't been able to spend a lot of time in practice working on it, which keeps our execution and momentum good. We have a pretty good month to practice it."

That includes 11 games in March -- and 13 of the last 18 overall -- at home.

That's plenty of time to practice -- and to tinker – before playoffs.
Posted On Tuesday, 03.06.2012 / 3:58 PM

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

Rookie goalie Bachman in net as Stars play Canucks

The Canucks face the Stars in a battle of division leaders Tuesday night, though it should be noted the Central-leading Stars come in 15 points behind a Canucks squad again running away with the Northwest, and moved into first in the Pacific based on winning percentage only after Phoenix (33-24-9) lost Monday.

Dallas could also drop from the third seed in the Western Conference to seventh by the time Tuesday's game starts -- the Coyotes play earlier -- and all the way down to eighth by the end of a busy and important night in a tight, tough playoff race.

Here are the expected lines as the 41-17-8 Canucks try to bounce back from just their second regulation time loss in 20 games against a 35-26-5 Stars team that is on a 6-0-1 streak and has won four straight on the road:

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

Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Sami Salo
Marc-Andre Gragnani - Aaron Rome

Roberto Luongo
Cory Schneider

Raymond may have lost his second-line spot to Kassian, but figures to get time on a second power-play unit that lost its playmaker when Cody Hodgson was dealt to acquire Kassian, one reason he'll play ahead of healthy scratch Dale Weise.

Gragnani, who was the other player coming to Vancouver in the trade with Buffalo, is also getting an extended look -- perhaps in part because he needs 12 more games this season to avoid becoming a Group 6 unrestricted free agent this summer -- and a point job on a first-unit power play that remains ranked among the League's best but has just one goal in seven games.

STARS
Loui Eriksson - Mike Ribeiro - Michael Ryder
Steve Ott - Jamie Benn - Adam Burish
Eric Nystrom - Vernon Fiddler - Radek Dvorak
Ryan Garbutt - Tom Wandell - Tomas Vincour

Sheldon Souray - Stephane Robidas
Mark Fistric - Trevor Daley
Alex Goligoski - Philip Larsen

Richard Bachman
Kari Lehtonen

The big change for the Stars is in goal, where the rookie Bachman gets his second start in seven games so workhorse No. 1 Lehtonen can rest up for Thursday's big showdown with San Jose back in Dallas.

Nothing else expected to change from a 3-2 shootout win in Calgary, with forward Toby Petersen told to stay in Dallas and spend some time with his family after leaving the team for the birth of his third child, a daughter.
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