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Posted On Monday, 12.26.2011 / 6:42 PM

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

It's home, sweet home for Nugent-Hopkins

VANCOUVER -- The Edmonton Oilers flew into Vancouver just in time for a morning skate on Monday, quickly ending a short Christmas break with an early flight, a rarity on a game day.

The trip was decidedly shorter for top rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, however.

Nugent-Hopkins made the short drive from suburban Burnaby after spending the three-day break with family and friends in his nearby hometown. It was a drive the 18-year-old made before to watch the Canucks team he grew up cheering, but one that felt different as he prepared for his first regular season game against them at Rogers Arena.

"It's pretty cool," said Nugent-Hopkins, who played in Vancouver during the preseason, and has already faced the Canucks twice in Edmonton, scoring a hat trick in the first meeting. "I watched a ton of games on TV here and came to quite a few to actually watch live, so it's going to be pretty exciting to step on in the ice here."

There will be some familiar faces in the stands, as Nugent-Hopkins said he's on the hook for "quite a few" tickets for family and friends. Hopefully they help him feel at home, because while Nugent-Hopkins is second in team scoring with 34 points -- an incredible point-a-game pace -- he has just nine points in 17 road games, where opponents are better able to match up against him and top-line wingers Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle.

The trio has 92 points combined, but just 30 of those have come on the road, which will have to change as the Oilers start a seven-game road trip while Edmonton co-hosts the World Junior Hockey Championships.

For now, though, Nugent-Hopkins was content to just enjoy the rare trip home, and a chance to unwind after a hectic year that included being picked first overall in the summer's draft. Ironically -- perhaps amazingly given how he's playing now – about the only think Nugent-Hopkins didn't do last season, was play World Juniors after getting cut from Team Canada.

"Just seeing the family," he said when asked what the best part of his Christmas was. "I haven't seen them too much, not even last summer because of all the draft stuff, so just seeing them was great. Most of the time, it was down time. They understand I only get a couple of days off, so they just wanted me to rest and hang out."

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Posted On Monday, 12.26.2011 / 6:33 PM

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

Oilers aware of Canucks' potent power play

VANCOUVER -- The Canucks still have the League's best power play by a considerable margin.

After leading the League last season, Vancouver's man advantage is clicking at 25.7 percent this season, but their lead over second place Nashville (22.5) is shrinking, in part because the Canucks aren't getting enough chance to use their power play.

The Canucks didn't get a single chance with the extra attacker in last Wednesday's 4-2 win against Detroit, and the first of two against Calgary on Friday didn't come until late in the second period. Overall, Vancouver has just seven power plays in five games, and more than two just once in that span, when the Canucks went 2-for-3 against Minnesota.

Part of the problem is opposing teams know they can't afford a parade to the penalty box, a point driven home when it was quickly identified by Edmonton coach Tom Renney prior to the Oilers' road game against the Canucks on Monday night.

"We need to be real smart here -- do everything we can to stay out of the penalty box and still be firm and decisive in our own game," Renney said after the morning skate.

That would be nothing new to the Canucks.

"Teams know coming in they are going to have to stay away from the box," said Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin. "And when you have that during a long stretch, you don't get into the rhythm of getting out there and making plays, so that's been tough for us."

The last of chance may also be proof a potent power play is a weapon against opponents taking liberties, something the Canucks claimed when questions about a lack of glove-dropping toughness emerged after a few teams did during a recent road trip.

"I think teams realize that's one of our assets so maybe they are being a little bit more cautious," said Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa, adding the onus was on his team to do more to draw more penalties. "We've learned maybe we have to be a little bit grittier taking pucks to the net, making their defense turn and force teams to take penalties on us. Maybe the last few games we haven't really gone to the net as hard as we're capable of."

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Posted On Monday, 12.26.2011 / 4:38 PM

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

Ballard finds his way back into Canucks' lineup

VANCOUVER -- The Canucks won't make any changes up front when the Edmonton Oilers visit tonight, but defenseman Keith Ballard returns after missing three games with a back injury. Ballard was listed as injured for the first two, but appeared to be a healthy scratch -- a flashback to last season's struggles -- Friday against Calgary after pronouncing himself good enough to return earlier that day.

It turns out both "healthy" and "scratch" were relative terms.

Ballard saw himself as neither.

With fellow defender Alexander Edler, who had back surgery last season, also a question mark for the last pre-Christmas game, Ballard felt good enough to step in if needed. But with eight defensemen, he wasn't in a rush when Edler was able to play.

Edler did and Ballard didn't, prompting some to wonder if the latter was back to being a $4.2-million spare part. Ballard, scratched several times, including Game 7 of the Cup Final, during a miserable first season with the Canucks didn't see it that way.

"I didn't really look at it as anything remotely close to last year," he said Monday. "I felt prior to getting injured I had been playing my best hockey since I came here. I'm pretty comfortable with where my game has been the last month and half."

After spending the last two days up at the Whistler ski village -- a nice family Christmas break for a Minnesota native that played most of his career in Phoenix and Florida -- Ballard said the back feels good and he's ready to get right back to that form.

"It's been going on for a month," he said of the injury. "It's something we wanted to get to the bottom of and make sure it wasn't one step forward, one step back every day."

Tonight's lineup figures to look like this:

Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - Chris Higgins
Manny Malhotra - Cody Hodgson - Jannik Hansen
Dale Weise - Maxim LapierreAndrew Ebbett

Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Sami Salo
Andrew AlbertsKeith Ballard

The only other change is in goal, but it's not who will play, it's what he'll wear. Roberto Luongo, who was the Canucks' best player early against Calgary despite losing in regulation for the first time in nine starts (7-1-1), debuted a new vintage-themed tribute mask that he plans to wear with the Canucks' retro third jerseys, starting Monday.

Painted by FX Allaire, the son of Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending consultant Francois Allaire, who has also worked with Luongo for years, the new mask looks like one Curt Ridley wore in the 1970s, with the original stick-in-rink logo crossing his face.

Cory Schneider, who also wears a Ridley tribute, will back up for a fifth straight game.
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Posted On Monday, 12.26.2011 / 4:08 PM

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

Oilers to rest ailing Whitney against Canucks

VANCOUVER -- Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ryan Whitney won't play against the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night after developing what coach Tom Renney labeled "tendonitis" in the surgically repaired right ankle that cost him most of the last calendar year.

Edmonton will also be without Ales Hemsky, who continues to struggle with an illness that kept him out of the last pre-Christmas game. But already missing veteran defenseman Andy Sutton for two more games of an eight-game suspension, the bigger concern -- both against the offensively loaded Canucks and perhaps in the long term, too -- is Whitney.

"It's sore and it's weak and we're going to do the precautionary thing," Renney said after the Oilers flew into Vancouver just in time for a quick morning skate on Monday. "There's no real structural damage where the surgery was at all, but he's having some difficulty with it so we're going to rest him tonight."

Renney offered no timeline beyond that, seemingly downplaying the significance of the setback by talking only about missing Monday's game against the Canucks, and pointing out it provided "five or six days off" when combined with the Christmas break. But given the amount of time Whitney missed after surgery late last December, and his struggle to rediscover the form he was showing before that, lingering issues may be a bigger concern.

Whitney had 27 points and a plus-13 rating in 35 games while playing a team-high 25 minutes a night when he went under the knife. He didn't return until five games into this season, and would miss another 13 with a knee injury, but has just 3 assists in 17 games, is minus-6, and is averaging just 18:38 of ice time while trying to find his game and health.

"It's been a little bit weak and as he's really tried to push himself to get back to what he wants to be, it's inevitable there's going to be some residual pain," Renney said of Whitney, who has played just 17 games in the last calendar year. "The most important thing is there is no damage. He's just developed some tendonitis having to push it."

The Oilers called up Alex Plante from the AHL to take Whitney's spot. As for Hemsky, who didn't play in Thursday's 4-1 win over Minnesota because of what was labeled the flu, he was out to start the morning skate, but left early and is doubtful against the Canucks.

"Ales still with the sinus issues, he's having some dizziness and as you elevate the heart rate that becomes more clear so it doesn't look like he's going to go," Renney said.

None of which bodes well for a team that has one win in five games against a Canucks team that had a 7-1-1 run halted by a poor effort against Calgary on Friday night.

"Just making sure that we understand we can beat them," Renney said of the keys to beating the Canucks. "We're not coming here with our hat in our hand. We're coming here to win a hockey game."

They'll just have to do it without two of their most experienced defenders and one of their most skilled forwards.

The expected lineup for the Oilers:

Taylor Hall - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Jordan Eberle
Ryan Smyth - Shawn Horcoff - Sam Gagner
Ryan Jones - Eric Belanger - Ben Eager
Darcy Hordichuk - Anton Lander - Lennart Petrell

Ladislav Smid - Tom Gilbert
Jeff Petry - Corey Potter
Theo Peckham - Alex Plante

Based on the morning skate, Nikolai Khabibulin will start after being the first goalie off the ice, with Devan Dubnyk, who was out late getting some extra work, backing up.
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Posted On Friday, 12.23.2011 / 4:38 PM

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

Sedin set to tie Canucks' ironman mark

VANCOUVER -- It's amazing the lengths Henrik Sedin will go to just to one-up brother Daniel.

The Canucks captain will match a franchise record by playing in his 534th consecutive game Friday night against Calgary, a more that seven-year streak that he happily points out to his identical twin.

"It's amazing nowadays with the physicality and the speed and all that stuff, that you could stay healthy for so long -- all just to show off how much tougher he is than his brother," said goaltender Roberto Luongo, joking about Henrik's ironman streak.

Henrik credits luck, preparation and being tougher than his younger-by-minutes sibling for a run of good health that dates back to March 21, 2004.

"Of course," he said with a laugh directed at Daniel. "But you've got to be lucky. You got to be prepared. In the summertime, you've got to prepare for a grind. I've been fortunate to not have the groin injuries or the hip flexors and stuff like that. So it's been good."

It's fitting he'll tie the Canucks' record against the Flames, and not just because Calgary defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is the only player with a longer active NHL streak (by eight games). Former Vancouver teammate Brendan Morrison, now playing for the Flames, set the Canucks' mark from March 16, 2000 through Dec. 10, 2007.

"He was a major part of that core group that (taught) us how to be professional and how to treat the ups and downs through the seasons," Henrik said. "He was always a smile on his face, it didn't matter if he hadn't played well for a few games, he was always positive and really loved the game. He's been a big part of our success that way."

That success includes back-to-back NHL scoring titles for the Sedins. But their durability often gets overlooked by critics. Shots from his brother aside, Daniel missed 18 games with a broken foot two seasons ago but has only missed three other games -- including one eight days ago because of back spasms -- since Henrik's streak started.

"When people talk about the twins not being tough I laugh, because these are two of the toughest guys I've ever played with," defenseman Kevin Bieksa said. "With the punishment they take, you rarely see them in the trainer's room. They couldn't be any closer to Canadian."

It was a sentiment echoed by Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, who has yet to fill out a roster card without Henrik.

"It takes incredible determination and will to be able not just play games, but play at the level he does every night," Vigneault said. "To put your body out there and play hard and efficient, and it takes a very extraordinary person and obviously a little bit of luck too. That's part of the equation, too, but I do believe you make your luck and Hank is a great example of a player that puts in a tremendous amount of time with his conditioning and preparation. … It says a lot about his mental toughness and his overall toughness."
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Posted On Friday, 12.23.2011 / 3:58 PM

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

Irving gets second start, Bourque back for Flames

Here's how the Calgary Flames' lineup could look tonight against the Vancouver Canucks:

Curtis Glencross - Olli Jokinen - Jarome Iginla
Blake Comeau - Mikael Backlund - Lee Stempniak
Rene Bourque - Roman Horak - Paul Byron
Tim Jackman - Brendan Morrison - Tom Kostopoulos

Chris Butler - Jay Bouwmeester
Derek Smith - Scott Hannan
TJ Brodie - Cory Sarich

Leland Irving is expected to make just his second career NHL start while Miikka Kiprusoff gets a rare night off after playing three games in the last five days. Irving wasn't talking to reporters, another sign of his preparation to play.

The Flames held a sparsely attended, coach-free morning skate in Vancouver after a 3-2 win in Detroit the night before, so roster adjustments are somewhat uncertain, including the status of Alex Tanguay, who was a surprise scratch against the Red Wings.

There's no question, though, that they'll find a spot for Rene Bourque, who returns from a two-game suspension for his hit on Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook during a game Sunday.

Bourque, who could return on the third line despite being tied for second on the team with 11 goals this season, is trying not to change anything about his game.

"A little early vacation, but I'm ready," Bourque said. "It's only been a few games, so I am not really worried about losing a step. … I've moved on from it. Obviously it wasn't the cleanest hit, and I still feel bad about it, but what can I do now? I've just got to make sure it doesn't happen again and worry about getting myself ready to play tonight."

Especially against a Canucks team that has won five straight against Calgary, including two straight by 5-1 scores, and is 10-0-2 in the last 12 against the Flames.

"We have to believe before the puck drops we have a chance to win and we've just got to compete," Bourque said. "Everybody has to play with an edge and with emotion."

That shouldn't be a problem for Irving, who was drafted by the Flames with the 26th pick in Vancouver in 2006, and has played the last three seasons for their AHL affiliate down the road in suburban Abbotsford. Even his call-up is because regular backup Henrik Karlsson sprained his knee in a game in Vancouver Dec. 4. No wonder some teammates thought it was a homecoming for their 23-year-old rookie despite being born in Alberta.

"I'm sure he's pretty excited to be playing in his home province, and I think everyone knows how big the game is for him," forward Blake Comeau said of Irving, who played well before losing his first NHL start 3-2 in a shootout in Florida a week earlier.

"He never gives up on pucks," Bourque said. "He made a lot of big saves against Florida off second and third chances. He's really well-positioned in net and he's a competitor, he never gives up and plays hard in practice, and we have confidence in him."



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Posted On Friday, 12.23.2011 / 3:56 PM

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

Status of Edler, Ballard uncertain for Canucks

Here's how the Vancouver Canucks' lineup could look for tonight's game against the Calgary Flames:

Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - Chris Higgins
Manny Malhotra - Cody Hodgson - Jannik Hansen
Dale Weise - Maxim Lapierre - Andrew Ebbett

Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Sami Salo
Andrew Alberts - Alexander Sulzer

Roberto Luongo, 7-0-1 in his six starts since coming back from injury, is in goal for a fourth-straight game, with Cory Schneider backing up.

The Canucks will start the same forward lineup that scored four times -- one from each of the first three lines and another shorthanded -- in a 4-2 win over Detroit on Wednesday, with Ebbett back on the fourth line again after missing the previous six weeks with a broken foot, and temporary fill in Mark Mancari sent back down to the AHL.

The uncertainty comes on the back end, where Edler, who scored the shorthander early in the third period but missed the end of that win over Detroit because of back spasms, said he was ready to return after taking the morning skate -- only to have coach Alain Vigneault declare him a game-time decision. Keith Ballard also skated after missing the last two games with back spasms, and while he declared himself a game-time decision, Vigneault said he was ready to return, but wouldn't say if he will.

"We've got a couple of decisions on our back end," Vigneault said. "Pleasantly surprised how Alex Edler came in today, skated this morning and felt all right. Once we know about Alex then we'll be better suited to tell you who will be in lineup and who won't be."

If Edler can't play, Ballard will take his spot in the top-4 alongside Sami Salo. If Edler plays, the top-four stays intact and the question is who comes out of the bottom pairing to make room for Ballard, who has struggled there with Alberts on the right side and played his best with Aaron Rome, who is out since breaking a thumb Saturday in Toronto.






 



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Posted On Wednesday, 12.21.2011 / 6:40 PM

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

Wings and Canucks psyched for showdown

There's not a lot to choose from between the streaking Canucks and Red Wings right now -- and that has both sides excited to play each other on Wednesday, another in what has traditionally been an entertaining series between two teams with plenty of talent, speed and scoring ability.

"Two teams that play the right way," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said after Wednesday's morning skate. "Detroit plays a high-paced game and they like to play fast. There are a lot of components to our game that are probably similar to theirs."

Detroit is 21-10-1 this season, has scored 107 goals and leads the Western Conference with a plus-36 goal differential. The Red Wings have won five of six. Vancouver is one point behind in the standings at 20-11-2, has scored 110 goals, is second in the West and third in the NHL at plus-30, and is on a 10-2-1 run.

"They've been going good, we've been going good. They've got a real good team, they're organized, I like the way they play," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "It's fun to be in this building. It should be a good game, but we've got to hold up our end of the bargain. We've got to play well."

The similarities continue in the crease, where Jimmy Howard leads the NHL with 20 wins, ranks fifth with a 1.92 goals-against average, and 10th with a .928 save percentage. At the other end, Roberto Luongo has overcome his annual October struggles, and is 6-0-1 with a .949 save percentage in seven starts since coming off injury. Keeping those numbers down Wednesday won't be easy -- Detroit has 30 goals in their last six games, while the Canucks are averaging more than four the last 10 games -- but both sides are up to trying.

"You always get really psyched up for these games," Vigneault said. "Fast-paced, lot of tempo, lot of skill on the ice. It makes for great hockey games for the players and for the fans."

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Posted On Wednesday, 12.21.2011 / 5:05 PM

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

Projected lineups for Canucks, Red Wings

Here are how the lineups could look when the Vancouver Canucks host the Detroit Red Wings tonight at Rogers Arena:

CANUCKS
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - Chris Higgins
Manny Malhotra - Cody Hodgson - Jannik Hansen
Dale Weise - Maxim Lapierre - Andrew Ebbett

Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Sami Salo
Andrew Alberts - Alexander Sulzer

Roberto Luongo, 6-0-1 in his six starts since coming back from injury, is in goal again, with Cory Schneider backing up.

Ballard skated briefly again Wednesday after leaving Monday's game-day session early because of back spasms, but won't play. Add in the broken thumb Aaron Rome suffered Saturday in Toronto and the Canucks will use a new third pairing again:

Ebbett, out since November with a fractured foot suffered in the same game he scored his first goal of the season, returned to the ice last week and took part in his first full practice Tuesday. He'll return to game action Wednesday as the Canucks look to add skill against the Red Wings, replacing the bigger Mark Mancari in the bottom six.

RED WINGS

Johan Franzen - Pavel Datsyuk - Todd Bertuzzi
Valtteri Filppula - Henrik Zetterberg - Jiri Hudler
Danny Cleary - Darren Helm - Drew Miller
Cory Emmerton - Justin Abdelkader - Tomas Holmstrom
 


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


Jimmy Howard starts in goal, with Ty Conklin backing up, an order that could be reversed when the Red Wings return to Alberta to play in Calgary on Thursday night. Detroit has won five of its last six.
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Posted On Monday, 12.19.2011 / 5:08 PM

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

Canucks, Wild both dealing with injuries

Monday night's battle atop the Northwest Division has turned into a war of attrition.

The Canucks announced on Monday defenseman Aaron Rome will be out 3-4 weeks after breaking his thumb blocking a shot during Saturday's win in Toronto to wrap up a five-game road trip, and fellow blueliner Keith Ballard won't play against the Wild after suffering back spasms in the morning skate. Even Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault had to leave the rink early because he wasn't feeling well.

"He has had a tough time," associate coach Rick Bowness, who took Vigneault's place addressing the media, said of Rome's second broken thumb already this season. "We get him back in the lineup, he finds his game and then gets hurt again."

Ballard is expected back in time for Wednesday's game against Detroit, so Bowness said he didn't expect the Canucks, who were already carrying eight defensemen, to recall any more from the AHL -- even if injuries up front forced them to twice play a rearguard up front on the fourth line during the recently completed 3-1-1 road trip.

They shouldn't expect any sympathy from a Minnesota Wild team that led the Canucks by five points atop the Northwest Division, but limped into Vancouver with several key players nursing injuries, and a handful more called up from the AHL to fill in.

The list includes four, arguably five, of their top-six forwards, and is topped by captain Mikko Koivu, who is out with a leg injury suffered Wednesday against Chicago. They are also missing Devin Setoguchi (lower body), Guillaume Latendresse (concussion), and Casey Wellman (wrist), but Pierre-Marc Bouchard returns after missing two games with a broken nose suffered while being checked head first into the boards Tuesday in Winnipeg.

Bouchard will be counted on to replace some of the missing offense for a Minnesota team that has dropped three straight -- the last two in shootouts -- for the first time all season.

"We're missing some skill in the lineup and he brings that," coach Mike Yeo said. "And he was playing so well before he got hurt, so I'm really hoping he can come back at that level and also what he brings to the power play will be a help for us."

Koivu and Bouchard both took part in practice Sunday after missing a 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Islanders the night before, and were back on the ice in Vancouver late Monday morning. While Koivu won't join Bouchard in returning against the Canucks, he did skate hard at the end of Monday's session, and still hopes to play before Christmas, perhaps Tuesday in Calgary or Thursday in Edmonton to wrap up a three-game trip.

"He looks really good out there," Yeo said of Koivu

It would be a welcome return for a team that will use its 34th different player this season when AHL call up Jed Ortmeyer makes his season debut against the Canucks. It could have been 35, but call up Chad Rau, a Minnesota native, isn't expected to play, instead watching as a healthy scratch along with defensemen Greg Zanon and Justin Falk.

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