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Posted On Sunday, 12.18.2011 / 3:21 PM

By Brian Hedger -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Chicago's stars carrying Hawks during hot streak

CHICAGO – The scary thing is that Patrick Kane is right about the Chicago Blackhawks, who head into a game on Sunday night against the Calgary Flames just one point back of the NHL's top team, the Minnesota Wild.

Kane thinks that despite a recent hot stretch, which has the Hawks sitting 6-0-1 in December and 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, things could actually be going better overall. There are still a few lapses from time to time, so they do have things to work on despite a torrid offensive stretch by star leaders like captain Jonathan Toews and second-line wingers Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.

"I think everyone was real excited about our team coming into the year and kind of had that feel like (it was) a couple of years ago … the same kind of buildup," said Kane, who has eight goals and 23 assists with a plus-10 rating. "The best part about it is that we probably feel like we haven't even played our best yet. Things can always get better and we know we can get better, too. There's still a lot of season left."

How much better can it get for the likes of Toews, Sharp and Hossa though?

Sharp, who has 17 goals and 17 assists, has a career long eight-game point streak going (7G, 5A) – which is the NHL's longest active streak and tied for the longest in the League this season. He also notched his 10th multi-point game in Friday's win against the visiting Anaheim Ducks, which ranks tied for first on the team with Hossa's 10 and seventh in the League.

He's also among the League leaders in plus/minus rating (+15) and became the first Blackhawks player to ever score back-to-back game-winning goals in overtime.

Hossa, meanwhile, has a four-game point streak going and has tallied five goals and five assists in his last six games. He has scored 14 goals and added 20 assists in 31 games – including his 400th career goal on Dec. 8 against the New York Islanders – and leads Western Conference forwards in plus/minus rating (+17).

Toews hasn't been as hot lately, but went on a 13-game tear from Nov. 10 to Dec. 5 that saw him score 12 goals and tally 11 assists, while continuing to lead the league in faceoff win percentage. Kane has also been kind of cold over the past four games (one assist), but he's capable of breaking out at any time.

"Those three guys are playing great and it's nice to have that balance for sure," Kane said of Toews, Sharp and Hossa. "Sharpie and Hossa have been playing awesome the past couple games, but Toews was on fire there for a while. Hopefully it's my turn soon."
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Posted On Sunday, 12.18.2011 / 2:30 PM

By Brian Hedger -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Blackhawks penalty kill much improved

CHICAGO – They are still ranked a lowly 27th in the League killing penalties, but the Chicago Blackhawks know two things that make that number much more tolerable.

First off, they've killed off 19 straight power plays over a span of the last six games heading into Sunday night's home game against the Calgary Flames – winning five of those contests and losing one in a shootout. Secondly, they wouldn't be ranked so low had it not been for a pair of blowout losses to the Vancouver Canucks at home and Edmonton Oilers on the road.

In those two games combined, the Hawks allowed nine goals in 13 attempts – including five on six chances against the Canucks and four on seven against the Oilers. Otherwise, Chicago's penalty kill has been pretty solid – and downright hot of late. It also helps to be one of the NHL's least penalized teams.

"We're not taking a lot of penalties, first of all, and at key times we're making big kills," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said after Saturday's practice. "We've got the good rotation with the forward groups and the (defensemen) are more aware of those plays around the net. (We're getting) big saves at big times, clears (and) pressuring. There's been more of an emphasis on not letting teams set up and get organized and keeping the heat on."

There has been more cohesion as a group lately, but it's also about a stepped-up effort when down a man or more.

"I think it's a matter of pride more than anything," forward Patrick Sharp said. "The numbers don't reflect the unit as a whole and there's always room for improvement. You see now, every time we try to kill off a penalty, the defensemen and forwards … everybody is working together and we're doing our best to pull it off."
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Posted On Sunday, 12.18.2011 / 2:15 PM

By Louie Korac -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Potential Lineups for Blue Jackets-Blues

ST. LOUIS -- Neither the St. Louis Blues nor Columbus Blue Jackets skated Sunday morning in preparation for today's 7 p.m. (EST) game at Scottrade Center.

Both teams played Saturday night. The Blues (18-9-4) fell 2-1 in a shootout at Nashville, a place in which coach Ken Hitchcock hasn't won since a 2-1 win on Feb. 13, 2001 while coach of the Dallas Stars. He's now 0-10-6-1 in his last 17 games coaching at Bridgestone Arena. He's since been with Philadelphia, Columbus and now St. Louis and hasn't had any success in that building.

The Jackets (9-19-4) just wrapped up a discouraging five-game homestand with a 1-3-1 mark after a 3-2 loss to Tampa Bay.

It'll be the second meeting of the season between the Central Division rivals, with the Blues winning 2-1 on Nov. 27 at Nationwide Arena on a David Backes third-period power play goal. It snapped a 1-1 tie.

The game marks the return of Jackets defenseman Nikita Nikitin to St. Louis for the first time since the Nov. 11 trade that sent Nikitin to Columbus for fellow defenseman Kris Russell.

The Blues could miss Jason Arnott (flu) for a second consecutive game after the veteran center missed Saturday's game.

- - -

No major changes are expected by either team in their respective lineups tonight. The Blues will likely go with Saturday's lineup if Arnott is not ready to go:

Alex Steen - David Backes - T.J. Oshie

David Perron - Patrik Berglund - Chris Stewart

Matt D'Agostini - Jason Arnott - Jamie Langenbrunner

Chris Porter - Scott Nichol - Ryan Reaves

Carlo Colaiacovo - Alex Pietrangelo

Barret Jackman - Kevin Shattenkirk

Kris Russell - Roman Polak

Jaroslav Halak

Brian Elliott

Halak is expected to get the start again after stopping 19 shots in the shootout loss Saturday night. If Arnott returns, Grachev is expected to be a healthy scratch, along with defenseman Ian Cole. If Arnott sits, Evgeny Grachev will slide onto the team's fourth line with Nichol and Reaves; Porter would be elevated to third line with D'Agostini and Langenbrunner. Players on injured reserve for the Blues include winger Andy McDonald (concussion), winger B.J. Crombeen (shoulder), center Vladimir Sobotka (ankle) and defenseman Kent Huskins (ankle).

- - -

The Jackets, who are 1-13-2 when allowing the first goal in a game and have only won 12 of their last 54 games dating back to last season (only seven of them in regulation), are expected to go with the lineup they used Saturday:

Vinny Prospal - Jeff Carter - Rick Nash

Antoine Vermette - Derick Brassard - Mark Letestu

R.J. Umberger - Samuel Pahlsson - Derek Dorsett

Jared Boll - Derek MacKenzie - Ryan Johansen

Marc Methot - James Wisniewski

Fedor Tyutin - Nikita Nikitin

John Moore - Grant Clitsome

Curtis Sanford

Steve Mason

Sanford, a former Blue, is expected to get the start; Steve Mason stopped 25 shots in the loss to the Lightning Saturday.

The Jackets are expected to scratch defenseman Aaron Johnson and left winger Dane Byers. Left winger Kristian Huselius is out indefinitely with a groin injury and defenseman Radek Martinek is out with a concussion.
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Posted On Sunday, 12.18.2011 / 1:40 PM

By Brian Hedger -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Potential Lineups for Flames-Blackhawks

Here's a look at how the lineups might look tonight for the Hawks and Flames:

FLAMES

Curtis Glencross - Olli Jokinen - Jarome Iginla
Alex Tanguay - Brendan Morrison - Rene Bourque
Blake Comeau - Mikael Backlund - Lee Stempniak
Tom Kostopoulos - Matt Stajan - Tim Jackman

Scott Hannan - Derek Smith
Jay Bouwmeester - Chris Butler
T.J. Brodie - Cory Sarich

Miikka Kiprusoff
Leland Irving

BLACKHAWKS

Viktor Stalberg - Jonathan Toews - Patrick Kane
Patrick Sharp - Marcus Kruger - Marian Hossa
Bryan Bickell - Dave Bolland - Michael Frolik
John Scott - Jamal Mayers - Andrew Brunette

Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook
Nick Leddy - Niklas Hjalmarsson
Sean O'Donnell - Steve Montador

Ray Emery
Corey Crawford
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Posted On Sunday, 12.18.2011 / 1:35 PM

By Brian Hedger -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Flames looking to avoid eighth loss at the UC

CHICAGO – The Calgary Flames are back in the Windy City for the second of two trips here this season and they're probably happy to get this one out of the way.

Calgary (14-14-4) will face the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday at the United Center night (7 p.m.), which has been a particularly vexing venue for the Flames of late. They haven't beaten the Chicago Blackhawks (20-8-4) here in a regular-season game since March 16, 2008 -- a span of seven straight losses in this building.

The seventh loss in that stretch came on Nov.11 in a 4-1 defeat in which Chicago scored the game's first two goals and last two goals with goalie Ray Emery stopping 24 of 25 Flames shots. Calgary turned it around a week later at home with a convincing 5-2 win against the Hawks, but now the Flames are back in what's become a personal house of horrors. Emery is also in net again for the Hawks – who've won four straight games, are 8-1-1 in their last 10 and 6-0-1 in the month of December.

"Obviously we haven't played well enough here," Calgary coach Brent Sutter said after the Flames' morning skate on Sunday. "We've had games where we've had a couple of good periods and (then) you have a bad period. When you're playing a team like Chicago, that has the talent level and skill level they have, you can't afford not to be a 60-minute team. We've got to play hard here."

If they don't, the Flames are most likely looking at an eighth straight loss at the Madhouse on Madison Street.

"Our will and our compete level has to be higher than theirs and just go out there and play the game like it needs to be played and give (us) a chance," Sutter said. "That's the thing here. In the past, we just haven't gotten that full 60 minutes here. Tonight we have to have that."

One of the guys in particular who Sutter wants to see it from is 22-year old Swedish center Mikael Backlund – who has scored just two goals and added one assist in 17 games since missing a month with a broken finger. Sutter sent a message to Backlund by making him a healthy scratch on Friday in a shootout loss on the road against the Florida Panthers, so this will be a chance to see if it got through.

"I'm looking for (Backlund) to have more intensity in his game," Sutter said. "He's a young guy that needs to continue to improve and progress and we need that emotion level in his game. That's what makes him a good player. When he has it, he can be a real good player for us. When that drops off, he's not at the level that we need him to be. I took him out for a reason and now he's going back in for a reason."

Backland, who will likely center the third line between Blake Comeau and Lee Stempniak, said he's looking forward to proving his worth.

"I didn't play very good in Tampa (on Thursday) and from the end of last season to this year I haven't been playing as good as I can," he said. "I've got to get back to that and find a way to do it and compete hard. (Sitting out) is nothing you want to do. I'm really excited to get back now and show them I'm good enough."

Physical forward Daniel Carcillo isn't likely to play for Chicago, as he continues to recover from an undisclosed upper body injury that happened on Wednesday against the Minnesota Wild. That means the Hawks will likely go with a very similar lineup to what they used to beat the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night at home.

If so, 6-foot-8, 270-pound defenseman John Scott could make another appearance at left wing on the fourth line with Jamal Mayers at center and Andrew Brunette on the right side. Chicago didn't have a morning skate on Sunday, so it's a bit of a guessing game as to what the Hawks' lines will look like.

However, they did call up highly-rated forward prospect Jeremy Morin from the Rockford IceHogs on Sunday morning and he could draw into the lineup right away -- anywhere from one of the wings on the third line to somewhere on the fourth.

That fourth line came up big against the Ducks in Chicago's last game by creating the game's first goal with some good work in the offensive zone. It was capped by the third marker of the season for Mayers – who is one of the Hawks' free-agent signees brought in last summer to add experience and grit.

That's exactly what he's doing now and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is pleased to see it.

"He's been real good for us," said Quenneville, who also coached Mayers with the St. Louis Blues. "One of the needs we'd talked about was just some abrasiveness (and) some toughness. He gives us that. He's got a good attitude, gives us some experience (and) good leadership skills. He's been a real good fit for us. He's played very well in a lot of ways. (He's) useful at faceoffs, toughness (and) kills penalties. He's been a nice addition."
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Posted On Saturday, 12.17.2011 / 11:01 PM

NHL.com - 2011-2012 Situation Room blog

NYR @ PHX - 19:59 of the Third Period

At 19:59 of the third period in the Rangers/Coyotes game, video review conclusively determined that Brad Richards shot completely crossed the goal line with .1 seconds left on the clock. Good Goal Rangers.
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Posted On Saturday, 12.17.2011 / 9:38 PM

NHL.com - 2011-2012 Situation Room blog

STL @ NSH - 18:55 of the Second Period



At 18:55 of the second period in the Blues/Predators game, video review could not conclusively determine if Jamie Langenbrunner's shot crossed the goal line. The referee's call on the ice stands No Goal St Louis.
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Posted On Saturday, 12.17.2011 / 8:47 PM

NHL.com - 2011-2012 Situation Room blog

ANA @ WPG - 11:56 of the Second Period



At 11:56 of the second period in the Jets/Ducks game, the Toronto situation room and the Winnipeg video room initiated a review to determine if Corey Perry's shot went in the net. Video review did not conclusively show the puck completely crossing the goal line. The referee's call on the ice of No Goal Anaheim stands.
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Posted On Saturday, 12.17.2011 / 5:26 PM

By Eric Gilmore -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Khabibulin back in net for Edmonton

SAN JOSE – After getting a week off to rest, Edmonton Oilers goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin will go back to work Saturday night against the San Jose Sharks.

Oilers coach Tom Renney didn’t make it official, but Khabibulin was the first goaltender off the ice Saturday morning from the Oilers’ optional skate at HP Pavilion, while backup Devan Dubnyk continued working.

“I feel pretty good, I feel rested,” Khabibulin said.

Khabibulin didn’t play in the Oilers’ 3-0 loss last week to Calgary or their 4-2 loss Thursday night to Phoenix. He has also missed a few recent practices. His last start was on Dec. 9, a 4-1 win over Colorado, when he stopped 28 of 29 shots.

“Just a little bit of rest,” Khabibulin said of his time off. “I was ready to play in Phoenix, but it was Tom’s decision not to. I don’t go into that. He decides who’s playing.”

Khabibulin, who turns 39 next month, is having a stellar season. He ranks fifth in the NHL with a 1.95 goals against average, and he has a .933 save percentage to go with a 10-6-3 record. He’ll face a Sharks team that has been struggling but rallied from a 4-2 third period deficit to beat Colorado 5-4 on Thursday night at the Shark Tank.

“They have a lot of firepower, that team,” Khabibulin  said.  “Probably one of the top teams in the conference – it’s going to be a good test for us.”

Sharks coach Todd McLellan has been juggling his lines, trying to find some combinations that will ignite his offense. Against Colorado he dropped Patrick Marleau to the second line with center Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe. Torrey Mitchell jumped from the third line to take Marleau’s spot on the top line with center Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski. Martin Havlat dropped from the second to the third and skated with center Michal Handzus and Jamie McGinn. The fourth line of center Andrew Desjardins and wings Andrew Murray and Brad Winchester remained intact.

Those four lines earned another shot, McLellan said.

“We’ve been flipping cards around for quite a while. Again, you’ve got to go with what you saw in the third period and the effort that certain individuals gave you with others,” McLellan said after his team’s optional skate. “I liked what I saw in that situation. Can they repeat it? Can they get the job done again tonight? If they can, then we’ve found something. If they can’t, then we’ll keep moving pieces around until we do.”

Couture and Clowe each scored a goal against Colorado, and Marleau had an assist.

“We need to score goals,” Couture said. “There’s too much talent in this room to get shut out or score only one or two goals every night. We need to find some chemistry with our linemates. Playing with [Marleau] and [Clowe], Patty’s got the speed, the quickness on the shot. Clowie holds onto pucks, protects them well. All three of us had some chemistry last game. So we need to keep that going.”

The Sharks’ problems go well beyond finding the right line combinations. Their penalty kill ranks 29th in the NHL, and their typically dangerous power play ranks in a tie for 12th.

“Penalty kill and power play are concerns for us right now,” McLellan said. “I think we lost 2-1 to (Minnesota), 1-0 in St. Louis, overtime goal to Chicago and a shootout to Colorado. Your power play or penalty kill in that situation can make a huge, huge difference, and it didn’t in those games. That’s the difference between winning and losing. Penalty kill has a huge, huge factor in our games right now.

“We’ve changed some things systematically and it’s helped a little bit. We’ll rotate players we use in different pairs around a little bit more now to try and change that also, but some of it’s just confidence. When that situation comes you’ve got to believe that you can get the job done from the goaltender though the D men and out to the forwards. We have the proper personnel. It’s a matter of getting it done.”

McLellan said the Sharks regained some but not all of their confidence Thursday night with their third-period comeback.

“For me, confidence is feeling good about yourself first, about the team and the game that you’re playing,” McLellan said. “We don’t have enough players that can honestly say that now. We’re gaining more back. I would say that we’re coming out of it. We’re gaining more back, so as we build on that a little bit more, we should feel better about ourselves and our game should improve.”

The Sharks are 3-5-2 in their past 10 games. After a fast start, the Oilers have hit a slump, too, going 3-6-1 with two straight losses. They were outshot 42-20 by Phoenix on Thursday night, and there’s a decided sense of urgency approaching Saturday night’s game.

“Yeah, definitely,” Edmonton rookie center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. “We definitely need that. We need to get back on track here, so I think we’re going to be intense. Tonight’s a huge game for us.”

The Oilers are expected to shake up their line combinations, too, with Taylor Hall returning to the top line with Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.

“We have some plans to get the young line back together and move some people around so we can actually create a little bit more and also have a physical component that helps with the energy level in general,” Renney told the Edmonton Journal.

Here’s how the lineups could look like Saturday night:

SHARKS

Torrey MitchellJoe ThorntonJoe Pavelski
Ryane CloweLogan CouturePatrick Marleau
Jamie McGinnMichal HandzusMartin Havlat
Brad WinchesterAndrew DesjardinsAndrew Murray

Dan BoyleMarc-Edouard Vlasic
Jason DemersBrent Burns
Colin WhiteJustin Braun

Antti Niemi
Thomas Greiss

OILERS

Taylor HallRyan Nugent-HopkinsJordan Eberle
Ryan SmithSam GagnerAles Hemsky
Eric BelangerShawn HorcoffRyan Jones
Ben EagerAnton LanderDarcy Hordichuk

Ladislav SmidTom Gilbert
Ryan WhitneyJeff Petry
Theo PeckhamCorey Potter

Nikolai Khabibulin
Devan Dubnyk
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Posted On Saturday, 12.17.2011 / 5:08 PM

By Rick Sadowski  -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Varlamov won't face former team because of back injury

DENVER – Semyon Varlamov won’t face his former Washington Capitals teammates Saturday night because of what Colorado Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said is a “minor back injury,” so Jean-Sebastien Giguere will start in goal at Pepsi Center.
   
“It happened last game against San Jose (on Thursday),” Sacco said after the pregame skate. “It flared up during the game.”
   
Varlamov, who allowed three third-period goals in the Avalanche’s 5-4 loss to the Sharks, will dress as the backup.
   
The 23-year-old Russian had dinner Friday night with some former teammates and said he is “a little bit” disappointed not to get the starting nod.

“I will be backup today and I'm always ready to go on ice and play my game,” he said.
   
The Avalanche acquired Varlamov’s rights from Washington on July 1 in exchange for a first-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft and a second-round pick in either 2012 or 2013, after which he signed a three-year, $8.5 million contract.
   
Varlamov has shown flashes of brilliance in an otherwise inconsistent season, posting a 10-13-1 record with a 3.14 goals-against average and .896 save percentage.
   
“I’m sure he would love to play against the Caps,” Giguere said. “But you have to take the season a game at a time. As a coaching staff, you don't really care much who you're playing and what that involves. It's the nature of the business sometimes."
   
Giguere will make his ninth start of the season, his second in Colorado’s past 12 games. He has a 4-4 record with a 1.95 goals-against average and .923 save percentage this year. Giguere owns a 3-4-1 career record against Washington with a 2.29 average, but he’s 0-3 with a 3.90 average in his past three starts against them.
   
Capitals star left wing Alex Ovechkin has scored seven goals against Giguere in five games, while Mike Knuble has six goals in seven games and Alexander Semin three goals in two games.
   
“Good individual skill on that team,” Sacco said. “They really make you pay for mistakes. If you’re not diligent, if you’re not good with the puck, they’ll make you pay.”
   
Making matters more difficult, the Avalanche will be without two regular defensemen, Ryan Wilson and Kyle Quincey. Wilson hasn’t played since suffering a head injury on a hit by Vancouver’s Maxim Lapierre on Dec. 6, and Quincey is nursing a groin injury.
   
“The league obviously looked at it and didn’t think it was worthy of any fine or suspension,” Sacco said of Lapierre’s hit, which sent Wilson face first into the glass. “The unfortunate part is we lose one of our best defensemen and he’s out indefinitely. We don’t know how long it’s going to be. It’s frustrating, of course, to lose one of your top defensemen. There’s always hits around the league where you say, ‘What happened there? Why didn’t he get something?’ But the league does the best they can and we have to live with their decision.”
   
The Capitals have gone 4-4, with four wins in the past six games, since Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau as head coach on Nov. 29. They are coming off a 1-0 win in Winnipeg on Thursday behind 26 saves by goalie Michal Neuvirth and a goal by Ovechkin in the third period. Neuvirth will start against Colorado.
   
“They made a coaching change recently,” Sacco said. “Usually when that happens, the guys tend to have a little more game in them. It’ll be a fun game, a high-energy type of game. They like to skate and we like to skate and push the pace and they like to push the pace. I’m expecting a pretty entertaining game as far as that goes from a fans’ standpoint.”
   
Hunter was a second-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques, the Avalanche’s predecessors, in 1979 and he played seven seasons with the Nordiques. Hunter spent most of the next 12 seasons with Washington until March 23, 1999 when the Avalanche acquired him in a deadline deal while attempting to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
   
He had two goals, four assists and 17 penalty minutes in 12 regular-season games with the Avalanche. He added one goal, three assists and 38 penalty minutes in 19 playoff games. The Avalanche lost a seven-game series to Dallas in the Western Conference finals.
   
Hunter retired following the 1998-99 season, his 19th in the NHL. He finished with 323 goals, 697 assists and 3,565 penalty minutes in 1,407 regular-season games.
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