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Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 4:36 PM

By Kevin Woodley - Correspondent / - 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."
Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 3:19 PM

By Ben Raby - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Caps turn to Neuvirth, Holtby with Vokoun out again

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Shortly after signing free agent goalie Tomas Vokoun last summer, Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said he would have been comfortable moving forward with the goaltending tandem of Michal Neuvirth, 24, and Braden Holtby, 22.

Eight months later, and with four games left to play in the regular season, McPhee may not have a choice.

Vokoun pulled himself from a 3-2 shootout win Thursday night in Boston after aggravating a groin injury which had limited him to just three of Washington’s previous 17 games. Vokoun is officially listed as day-to-day by the team, but Neuvirth and Holtby are preparing to handle the load.

"It's unfortunate what happened the other night with [Vokoun]," Holtby said. "Especially with injuries, you always want to see your teammates back but that's hockey -- that's the way the game goes and now I just have to be ready for whatever."

Holtby has gone 2-1-1 since a March 18 call-up from Hershey of the American Hockey League, but was pulled from a 5-1 loss Tuesday night to the Buffalo Sabres after allowing three goals on 18 shots.

Neuvirth earned the win Thursday night in Boston, turning aside 19 of 21 shots in relief of Vokoun. He is likely to start again Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens.

"Obviously I feel bad for [Vokoun] but it is what it is," Neuvirth said. "But I proved last year that I can be the man and I'm excited. … Every game is a good experience for me. Even last year in the playoffs, that gave me a lot [of confidence] and I feel I grew up a little bit from last year and now I feel that I can do the job."

Neuvirth was the Capitals' undisputed No.1 goalie down the stretch last season, starting 13 of the team's final 14 games including playoffs.

Vokoun had been Washington's primary starter for much of the season, but given that he is working on a one-year contract, it is not out of the question to suggest that he has played his final game as a Capital.

"This is what everyone's goal is -- to be a big part of a team trying to win the Stanley Cup," Holtby said. "But there's also a human aspect to it and we want to make sure that in any way possible that [Vokoun] doesn't feel like he's let the team down by an injury. It's our job to pick up a teammate and carry ourselves into the playoffs."

While Vokoun's health remains a concern, injured Caps forward Nicklas Backstrom could return as early as Saturday against Montreal.

Backstrom has not played since Jan. 3 when he took an elbow to the head from then-Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque, but the Caps No. 1 center was medically cleared this week to return to the lineup after passing a baseline neuropsychological test.

The 24-year-old Swede has missed 40 games, but he accompanied the team on their road trip to Boston and skated Friday for the 17th time in the last 18 days.

"There's no target date," Backstrom said. "It depends how I feel. Everything's possible. It's possible that I could [have played] last game, too. It depends how I feel [Saturday]. I felt good out there today, too, so we'll see."

Backstrom said earlier this week that his conditioning was not yet game-ready, but when asked on Friday about catching his wind and working his lungs, Backstrom said he hasn’t felt better. Physically it sounds as though he is ready to play. Preparing mentally may be the final hurdle.

"I think it's more about that you're worried about hitting the head again and maybe I'm out for longer than three months. That's the biggest problem I see. You just got to be mentally ready to face a hockey game."

Capitals coach Dale Hunter is not concerned about Backstrom suffering a similar injury.

"I think through his career here he’s been one of these players that has great vision on the ice," Hunter said. "I haven't seen through the years, some guys take big hits because of their vision -- they don't see the guys coming as much and identifying where everybody is on the ice.

"For him, he's got great vision through the years he hasn’t had big hits. He has his vision still, he has anticipation of the game and he understands the game so he’ll be fine that way."

Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 2:48 PM

By Aaron Vickers - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

College-style elimination faces Flames, Avalanche

CALGARY -- The Western Conference playoff race has been nothing short of madness in March.
For a few teams, it's starting have the feel of the Frozen Four, too.
With the collective lives of the Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames on the line in Friday's meeting, the game has the feel of the collegiate-style one-and-done tournament format. A win keeps either club alive. A loss buries any hope of an extended season.
The concept is all too familiar to former college players in both locker rooms.
"It's kind of that scenario," said David Moss, who spent four years at the University of Michigan. "Right now we have to win our games and Colorado is in the same situation. It's pretty easy to see that if either of us lose a game here that's the end of it."
Michael Cammalleri, a Michigan teammate of Moss in 2001-02, felt the same.
"For the college guys it was like that," Cammalleri said. "Our NCAA experience is one and done. I guess it makes it more tournament-style that way, for sure."
Though it's Boston College, Minnesota, Union and Ferris State competing in the 2012 Frozen Four in Tampa Bay next week, the Colorado Avalanche feel as though they're a part of it already.
With 86 points and just three games remaining, the Avalanche can ill afford to come away with anything but six points, according to Chuck Kobasew.
"It's do-or-die for us," the Boston College alum said. "Both teams know they're in a tough situation either way and we have no choice but to win out from here."
Flames defenseman Chris Butler is hoping to help Calgary avoid the latter portion of Kobasew's assessment, something he wasn't able to do at the University of Denver.
"We never had a lot of success in college tournaments," he said. "We only made the tournament one year and we lost the first game to Wisconsin. I hope it's not a similar outcome."
The Flames, 11th in the Western Conference, must win all four of their remaining games to have a hope at the playoffs. They've accomplished that feat just twice through 78 games this season -- meaning they'll be facing four consecutive elimination games starting with Friday's contest against Colorado.
"It's more or less a do-or-die situation," Butler said. "We know that realistically we need to win every game, but you can't look at it as you have to string four games together because that's extremely difficult in the League.
"We have four one-game series that we need to win. Our mindset is one at a time."
Any losses along the way for either club will leave both teams out in the cold, on the outside looking in when the Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway.
Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 2:34 PM

By Aaron Vickers - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Avalanche rookie Barrie ready for key role vs. Flames

CALGARY -- Tyson Barrie is getting some serious on-the-job training.
The 20-year-old Colorado Avalanche defenseman will suit up for just his eighth game of the season Friday night against the Calgary Flames in a do-or-die game that will either end or prolong the hopes of making the playoffs in a wild Western Conference race.
"It's pretty crazy," said Barrie, who is still searching for his first NHL point. "It's definitely exciting. I haven't played too many games, but I'm feeling more comfortable as we go. It's exciting stuff."
Avalanche coach Joe Sacco is hoping Barrie can provide some punch to an offense that has produced just eight goals in its last five games. Four of those contests have been losses. He's opted to insert Barrie to jump start production in place of Ryan Wilson.
"He's really played on his toes when he's been in our lineup," Sacco said. "He's been a difference-maker creating a lot of scoring chances for our team, and I'll expect the same thing here tonight. Just give us some good energy and help us offensively from the back end."
In his first professional season after spending four years with the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL, Barrie could be settling in when Colorado needs the rookie the most.
"It's cool, but I'm settling down a little bit," Barrie said. "I know the first few games I couldn't even stickhandle I was so nervous. Now I'm settling in and feel good.
"It is tough, but all the guys are good. They keep me loose in the room. My d-partner Shane O'Brien, he's real good at that stuff. He keeps me loose. He's a great guy and he makes it easy for me out there."
The confines of the Scotiabank Saddledome have been kind to Barrie. As a member of the Rockets, Barrie's work in Calgary's rink helped earn a WHL Championship.
"We played the Calgary Hitmen in the WHL final and we beat them," Barrie said. "I've played here a few times and I have some great memories in this barn."
Barrie is hoping to help the Avalanche build a few more.
Here's tonight's projected lineup:
Gabriel Landeskog - Ryan O'Reilly - Steve Downy
Jamie McGinn - Paul Stastny - David Jones
Peter Mueller - Matt Duchene - Mark Olver
Cody McLeod - Jay McClemment - Milan Hejduk
Matt Hunwick - Erik Johnson
Jan Hejda - Ryan O'Byrne
Shane O'Brien - Tyson Barrie
Semyon Varlamov
Jean-Sebastien Giguere
Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 2:08 PM

By Brian Hedger - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Howard to start after convincing Wings he's ready

DETROIT -- Jimmy Howard was under the impression all along that Friday night's game at home against the Nashville Predators was his targeted return date from a nagging groin injury.

Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, however, seemed like he wasn't 100 percent on board with that plan earlier this week when he told reporters that if Howard wasn't ready to play by Wednesday night's game in Columbus then he wouldn't be facing Nashville.

Howard didn't play in a 4-2 loss to the Blue Jackets, but Babcock decided to give Howard the start against the Predators after consulting with goalie coach Jim Bedard and athletic trainer Piet Van Zant about it.

"I talked to Jimmy B and I talked to Piet and everything seems to be OK," Babcock said after Detroit's morning skate at the United Center. "Jimmy says he's feeling good about himself, so obviously we'd like to get him going. When you look at our last 22 games, he's played in seven of them. We need to get him going. No different than the rest of our team."

Howard said he did know about Babcock's earlier comments regarding his return.

"It was a little discouraging, but at the same time he's the coach and the one who drives the ship here," Howard said. "You know, you've got to respect it."

Howard said he feels good enough to get back in goal and try to regain his sharpness that helped him win more than 30 games and become an NHL All-Star player for the first time in his career. There are only four regular-season games left, but the third-year starter for the Wings thinks that should be enough to get himself ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“Everyone wants to feel great going into the playoffs," Howard said. "What's going to be key for me over the next four games is getting back to where I was before the injuries.''

Howard also missed eight games in February with a broken index finger on his right hand prior to the groin issue flaring up. The injuries have interrupted a season in which he was starting almost every time the Red Wings suited up.

Still, Howard said he's not concerned about regaining his top form in such a short amount of time.

"I know what I'm capable of doing out there," he said. "It's just going out there and doing it again. [It's been] on and off for a month a half and not playing a lot, but I've been able to practice a lot. I think that's key for me, because I always practice the way I play. Going out there and working hard translates into games.''

The Red Wings are hoping that's the case, anyway.

"There's a lot of urgency to get playing at the highest possible level going into the playoffs, and he's the same," Babcock said.
Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 1:50 PM

By Brian Hedger - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Wings, Predators jockey for positioning, home ice

DETROIT -- It might be a preview to a first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series when the Nashville Predators pay their last visit of the regular season to the Motor City to play the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night.

The Predators are currently fifth in the Western Conference at 96 points and trail the fourth-place Red Wings by just a point. A regulation victory would leapfrog Nashville past Detroit and possibly put the Preds in the driver's seat for home-ice advantage in the first round.

Jimmy Howard will make the start in goal for the Red Wings after missing the past four games with a nagging groin injury, while forward Martin Erat will get back into the lineup for Nashville after missing the past two games with an undisclosed upper-body injury.

The last time Nashville was in Detroit, the Red Wings won the 22nd of their 23-game NHL record home winning streak in unlikely fashion. Time was running out in regulation of a 1-1 game when Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg connected on a pair of great passes to set up Pavel Datsyuk with a head of steam coming into the Nashville zone for one last scoring chance.

Datsyuk made a move to get around Ryan Suter in the slot and zipped a wrister into the top left corner of the net past star Preds goalie Pekka Rinne for a stunning victory.

"I'd say that was more like a flukey goal with five seconds left, but [Lidstrom] sees those things right away, even when he has his back turned," Preds forward Patric Hornqvist said after Nashville's morning skate at Joe Louis Arena. "He threw the puck up to [Zetterberg] and he chipped it to Datsyuk in the middle. They have those guys in their locker room who can really make it happen."

Needless to say, Nashville hasn't forgotten the feeling after that game despite beating Detroit once since then at Bridgestone Arena.

"That can't happen again," Hornqvist said. "We can't stop playing, even when there's five seconds left and they have the puck on the far blue line. That's the lesson we learned from that game."

Here's a look at how the Predators and Red Wings might line up on Friday night at Joe Louis Arena:

Sergei Kostitsyn - Mike Fisher - Martin Erat
Alexander Radulov - David Legwand - Patric Hornqvist
Andrei Kostitsyn - Nick Spaling - Matt Halischuk
Gabriel Bourque - Paul Gaustad - Jordin Tootoo

Ryan Suter - Shea Weber
Hal Gill - Roman Josi
Francis Bouillon - Kevin Klein

Pekka Rinne
Anders Lindback

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

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

Jimmy Howard
Ty Conklin
Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 1:49 PM

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer / - At the Rink blog

Lundqvist back in net again vs. Canadiens

NEW YORK -- In terms of workload, Henrik Lundqvist is enjoying his lightest season since he was a rookie in 2005-06.

As the New York Rangers head down the home stretch, that seems to be changing.

Lundqvist will make his season-high eighth-straight start when the Rangers host the Montreal Canadiens (7:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US) at Madison Square Garden on Friday. The Rangers hold a five-point edge on the Pittsburgh Penguins for first place in the Eastern Conference, with each team having five games remaining.

Coach John Tortorella has given varying answers this season about his goaltending situation, saying at times he doesn't have a No. 1 goaltender, that he has two goaltenders who he doesn't mind playing, and that he doesn't chart out a schedule for when his goaltenders are going to start.

If Lundqvist starts the Rangers' final five games, he'll finish the season with 63 starts, the fewest since he became the full-time starter in 2006-07.

But with home-ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs within reach, Lundqvist suddenly has become a very busy man.

"I think it's mentally and physically, you have to adjust a little bit," Lundqvist said about returning to his usual routine. "It's what I'm used to in the past. I play a lot, I feel good. You get a little more relaxed in between games because you're playing all the time, you're in it. Sometimes when you sit out, you might overthink it and come back a little tense. But now I just know I'm going out there to play.

"Right now, it's an exciting time. I love being out there."

As the regular season winds down and the playoffs begin, off-day practices become less frequent, so it's far easier to be at full capacity for a game now than it is earlier in the season, according to Lundqvist.

That perhaps was a problem earlier in the month, when Lundqvist was struggling. He spoke at length about wanting to improve his game and become sharper for the postseason. With fewer chances to work out the problems in practice, he's been doing it in games and said he is starting to feel better about his overall play.

"The last few games, I've played pretty good," said Lundqvist, who is coming off a 3-0-0 road trip and has won five of his last six starts. "I've played the way I want to play. When you're winning, you always feel a lot better. Technically, the last two have been pretty good, so I try to go from that."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 1:44 PM

By Aaron Vickers - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Flames will have Sarich for must-win against Avs

CALGARY -- In what Brent Sutter called the Calgary Flames' most important game of the season to date, the coach will have one of his most veteran defenders back in the lineup Friday night.
Cory Sarich, who missed four games with an upper-body injury after a collision with David Jones of the Colorado Avalanche, will return to the lineup against the same team he last played against.
"I'm feeling really good," Sarich said. "The last three days I've felt like myself. I've felt normal. Skates have been normal. I'm excited to go out there and play."
With the Flames currently sitting 11th in a wild Western Conference race and their season hanging in the balance, Sutter is happy to have Sarich at his disposal.
"It's huge," Sutter said. "The way Cory had been playing, taking a presence like that out of your back end has definitely affected us in certain areas, so it's nice to have him back in our lineup."
The magnitude of the game isn't lost on Sarich, who watched his team win just one game in his absence, pushing Calgary's season to the brink.
"They've all been important here the last who knows how long," he said. "It makes it easy for myself to get up for this game, and you just try to go out there and fit right in."
In order to accommodate Sarich, the club had to return defenseman Clay Wilson to the Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League. Wilson was up on an emergency basis to fill in for Sarich.
Here's the projected lineup tonight for the Flames:

Alex Tanguay - Michael Cammalleri - Jarome Iginla
Curtis Glencross - Olli Jokinen - David Moss
Lee Stempniak - Matt Stajan - Blake Comeau
Tom Kostopoulos - Blair Jones - Tim Jackman
Chris Butler - Jay Bouwmeester
Mark Giordano - Scott Hannan
Anton Babchuk - Cory Sarich
Miikka Kiprusoff
Henrik Karlsson
Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 1:24 PM

By Dave Lozo - Staff Writer / - At the Rink blog

Projected lineups for Canadiens, Rangers

NEW YORK -- Montreal Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth said there will be no lineup changes for their matchup against the New York Rangers on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

Cunneyworth said defenseman Tomas Kaberle still isn't ready to play and that forward Scott Gomez, who skated Wednesday, could get into a game before the end of the season but it won't be against the Rangers.

The Rangers will also ice the same lineup as they did in Winnipeg on Wednesday, with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist making his season-high eighth consecutive start. He will be opposed by Carey Price.

Here are the projected lines for each club:

Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Erik Cole
Rene Bourque - Tomas Plekanec - Louis Leblanc
Ryan White - Lars Eller - Mike Blunden
Aaron Palushaj - Petteri Nokelainen - Brad Staubitz

Josh Gorges - PK Subban
Andrei Markov - Alexei Emelin
Chris Campoli - Frederic St. Denis

Carey Price
Peter Budaj

Carl Hagelin - Brad Richards - Marian Gaborik
Brandon Dubinsky - Brian Boyle - Ryan Callahan
Ruslan Fedotenko - Derek Stepan - Artem Anisimov
Mike Rupp - John Mitchell - Brandon Prust

Ryan McDonagh - Dan Girardi
Marc Staal - Anton Stralman
Michael Del Zotto - Stu Bickel

Henrik Lundqvist
Martin Biron

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

Posted On Friday, 03.30.2012 / 1:22 PM

By Staff -  / - At the Rink blog

Carter sidelined at least one game with ankle injury

The Kings' push to the postseason will have to go on without Jeff Carter for at least one game.

Carter suffered an ankle injury in Wednesday's win at Calgary and likely will not play Friday in Edmonton, according to the L.A. Kings Insider blog on the team's website.

Carter has 6 goals and 3 assists in 16 games since arriving in Los Angeles in the Feb. 24 trade. He has been a regular on the second line with Mike Richards and the Kings are 11-5 with Carter in the lineup.

If Carter can't go, it is possible that Brad Richardson takes his place on the second line with Richards and either Dwight King or Jordan Nolan. Richardson has 3 goals and 2 assists in 54 games this season. He has been a healthy scratch 23 times.

"I haven't decided yet," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "Lots of guys can play different positions. We'll see what the Oilers are doing first."
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