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Posted On Saturday, 04.07.2012 / 1:40 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Panthers hope to secure first division title

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers accomplished their primary goal of finally ending their long playoff drought just two nights ago, but there’s still a lot at stake in Saturday night in the regular season finale  against the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Panthers need only one point to clinch the first division title in franchise history and secure the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, which would mean a first-round matchup against the New Jersey Devils.

Florida also would clinch the Southeast Division if the Washington Capitals lose against the New York Rangers in a game that will start at 6:30 p.m., one hour before the opening faceoff of the Panthers- Hurricanes matchup.

So the Panthers could find out they’re division winners during the third period of their game, just like they found out they had clinched a playoff berth during the third period of their 4-2 loss at Washington Thursday with the scoreboard announcement that Buffalo had lost at Philadelphia.

The Panthers don’t really care that they have backed into the playoffs, losing their last five games and eight of their last nine, but they also would like to go into the playoffs on a winning note.

“Right now we’re focused on trying to give our fans and our players a good, strong feeling moving into the playoffs,” coach Kevin Dineen said after the morning skate. “A lot of work went into where we are right now, but now we have to take it to the next level and finish strong. That’s the first step. We look at tonight as a beginning of next week.”

If the Panthers lose in regulation against Carolina and Washington wins at Madison Square Garden, Florida would drop to the No. 8 seed and have to face the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

“The division title would be the main thing,” said center Stephen Weiss, who will be playing in his 637th career game Saturday but will be appearing in the postseason for the first time. “It’s accumulation of all the hard work throughout the season and it would be nice to finish it off. Our fans deserve it, I think we deserve it in here, now we’ve got to go out and get it. Home ice is important, too. It’d be nice to start here at home. Anytime you have the ability to play a seventh game at home, it’s huge.”

The Panthers have been on the verge of ending Washington’s four-year run as Southeast Division champion since the Capitals’ 4-2 loss at Tampa Bay on Monday put their magic number at two.

But Florida was unable to hang on to a 3-0 lead against Winnipeg at home Tuesday, losing 5-4 in overtime.

Dineen said that was the one game where his players showed some tightness. But Weiss said the pressure of finally ending the Panthers’ 10-season playoff drought has shown in the team’s play the last few games.

“When you look back on the last couple of weeks, I think it has been weighing on us,” Weiss said. “We wouldn’t say it is, but you just can tell with some of our play at spurts in games. We seemed to tighten up here and there. It’s a lot of pressure having this 10, 12 years of not being in the playoffs riding on everyone’s shoulders. It’s nice to know that we’re in no matter what and now we can relax and hopefully have a crisp game tonight.”

The Panthers last faced Carolina on March 21, and the Hurricanes’ 3-1 victory snapped their season-long five-game winning streak.

It also began the Panthers’ current 1-3-5 slide.

“You wind up the regular season you want to win the last game,” forward Tomas Kopecky said. “We put ourselves in a spot where the last couple of games we needed one point. Obviously everybody is looking at the standings right now and where we can be if we get the one point. It’s very important to us. In the playoffs, it’s very important to start at home. If you have that home-ice advantage, if you go to Game 7, you’ve got that home crowd behind you. That’s something we’ve been looking for since the beginning of the year.”

Scoring has been the biggest problem lately for the Panthers, who have tallied more than two goals in regulation only once in their last 11 games.

But the Panthers’ best efforts in recent weeks have come against playoff-bound teams, including a 2-1 shootout loss Sunday at Detroit and the Washington game Thursday.

“In spurts we’ve been really good,” Weiss said. “Our game in Detroit was really good, I liked our game in Washington even though we didn’t get the result we wanted. But we play that hard, that type of style, we’re going to be all right. We’ll get the results we want. We’ve just got to make sure we do it for 60 minutes of the hockey game.”

For defenseman Brian Campbell, one of five players on the Panthers roster to have played on a Stanley Cup-winning team, a victory Saturday won’t mean much once the playoffs start.

Winning the division and starting the playoffs at home, though, would be big.

“It never hurts to go on a good note, but I don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all of all things,” Campbell said. “Obviously, you want to be playing good, but the playoffs are the playoffs. You’re in and then anything can happen from there. We need to win to get home-ice, and that’s important in that aspect.

“Having home-ice advantage in the first round is huge. That’s the biggest key for us and I expect a big effort.”
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Posted On Saturday, 04.07.2012 / 1:21 PM

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

Sheahan makes NHL debut for Wings

DETROIT -- There was speculation that Riley Sheahan would make his NHL debut this past Thursday for the Detroit Red Wings, but it didn't happen.

Sheahan, however, will indeed make his debut on Sunday afternon at Joe Louis Arena against the rival Chicago Blackhawks (1 p.m. NBC, TSN2). Detroit general manager Ken Holland told Mlive.com's Ansar Khan that Sheahan -- the 21st pick of the 2010 NHL Draft -- will draw into the lineup in place of rookie Jan Mursak.

Sheahan, who just signed his entry-level contract Thursday after playing six games in Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League, will most likely play on the fourth line along with fellow rookies Cory Emmerton and Gustav Nyquist.

Emmerton will probably stay at center of the line with the other two flanking him. Reporters spoke with Sheahan after his first official skate as a Red Wing on Thursday morning and he was understandably exited.

"It’s amazing," said Sheahan, a 6-foot-2, 200 pound forward who played center for three seasons at Notre Dame. "You look around the locker room and there’s so many good hockey players. It’s pretty heartwarming, I guess, and it’s a pretty cool experience."

Sheahan also feels like he can bring something to the table already for the Wings, despite his lack of pro experience.

"I feel like I can bring a big body to the team and maybe a physical presence," Sheahan said. "I’m looking forward to getting the chance and seeing what I can prove. I like to use my big body as an advantage and protect the puck and make things happen in the corners. I have to be responsible in the defensive zone."

Sheahan tallied 64 points (20 goals and 44 assists) in 114 career collegiate games. It's apropos that he makes his NHL debut against the Blackhawks, whose top two legendary players -- Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita -- went to high school and played junior hockey together in Sheahan's hometown of St. Catharines, Ont.
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Posted On Saturday, 04.07.2012 / 12:03 PM

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

Projected lineups for Blackhawks, Red Wings

Here are the projected lineups for the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings when they meet Saturday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena:

BLACKHAWKS

Jimmy Hayes - Patrick Kane - Marian Hossa
Patrick Sharp - Marcus Kruger - Viktor Stalberg
Bryan Bickell - Brendan Morrison - Andrew Shaw
Brandon Bollig - Jamal Mayers - Michael Frolik

Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya - Nick Leddy
Sami Lepisto - Dylan Olsen

Corey Crawford
Ray Emery

RED WINGS

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

Nicklas Lidstrom - Jonathan Ericsson
Niklas Kronwall - Brad Stuart
Kyle Quincey - Ian White

Jimmy Howard
Ty Conklin

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Posted On Saturday, 04.07.2012 / 11:55 AM

By Dan Myers -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Coyotes can claim first division title against Wild

ST. PAUL -- With one game to play, the Phoenix Coyotes control their own destiny when it comes to taking home the Pacific Division title.

It's quite simple: A win Saturday for the Coyotes -- either in regulation, overtime or a shootout -- is enough to win the division and capture the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference for the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The title would be the first-ever division crown for the Coyotes.

Phoenix holds a one point lead over both Los Angeles and San Jose heading into the season's final day. If the Coyotes lose to Minnesota in regulation, Phoenix could tumble all the way from third to eighth in the West. The Kings and Sharks play each other in San Jose in a game that should start around the time Phoenix's game ends.

Los Angeles won the season series with the Coyotes while Phoenix edged San Jose -- meaning the Coyotes will be pulling for the home team Saturday night.

"It's an honor and a privilege to be in the playoffs but our goal is to win the division, which we've never done here in Phoenix," Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle said following a 4-1 win Friday at St. Louis. "It's something that we have to embrace and get those two points."

Of course, beating suddenly-improved Wild will not be easy. Each of Minnesota's last seven opponents are teams that are playoff bound. The Wild's record over that stretch: 4-2-1. Overall, the Wild have won four of five and have generally made life miserable for teams looking to improve or secure its playoff standing.

"It's a different kind of pressure. For a lot of our players, they know they're playing for jobs," said Wild coach Mike Yeo following practice Friday. "When you're playing for your job, you're going to feel some pressure. It's not team oriented, but it's personal pressure guys are putting on themselves."

Each of Minnesota's last four games has gone to the shootout, with the only loss over that stretch coming in Nashville on Tuesday night.

The Wild will dress its 47th different player of the season Saturday as defenseman Nate Prosser was suspended Friday for headbutting Chicago's Jamal Mayers on Thursday night in a 2-1 Wild victory. He will be replaced by former University of North Dakota defenseman Chay Genoway, who will make his NHL debut this evening and become the 15th rookie and 10th player to make his big-league debut for the Wild this season.

Clayton Stoner remains injured and will not play with an upper-body injury, and because the Wild reassigned Tyler Cuma following the win Thursday over the Blackhawks, the team needed to recall another defenseman. This time it will be Kris Fredheim, who played in two games for Minnesota back in November.

Here are the projected lineups for both teams Saturday:

WILD

Dany Heatley - Mikko Koivu - Devin Setoguchi
Cal Clutterbuck - Kyle Brodziak - Darroll Powe
Jason Zucker - Erik Christensen - Nick Johnson
Jed Ortmeyer - Warren Peters - Stephane Veilleux

Tom Gilbert - Marco Scandella
Chay Genoway - Justin Falk
Kurtis Foster - Kris Fredheim

Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding

COYOTES

Ray Whitney - Martin Hanzal - Radim Vrbata
Mikkel Boedker - Antoine Vermette - Shane Doan
Raffi Torres - Daymond Langkow - Gilbert Brule
Taylor Pratt - Boyd Gordon - Lauri Korpikoski
 
Keith Yandle - Derek Morris
Adrian Aucoin - Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Rostslav Klesla - Michel Rozsival
 
Mike Smith
Jason LaBarbera
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Posted On Friday, 04.06.2012 / 2:31 PM

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

Smith's streak helps Coyotes remain in Pacific race

ST. LOUIS -- The Phoenix Coyotes, who are in the same situation as their counterparts Friday in the St. Louis Blues with much at stake, clinched a postseason berth Thursday night without the benefit of being on the ice.

Phoenix (40-27-13) got in when Dallas lost at Nashville, but there's still unfinished business for the Coyotes, who at 93 points trail both Los Angeles and San Jose by one point in the race for the Pacific Division title with a game in hand.

"We certainly have a lot to play for," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "We've got a game in hand on LA and San Jose. The division title is still within our grasp, which means home ice in the playoffs. It's certainly something to play for.

"We recognized at training camp that this is going to come down to a point or two. That's what it did, so the consistency and how our group continually prepares and makes sure that every point available, we try to get. You go through a year and there's some points that get away from you, but ultimately the consistency of which our group plays is probably one of our best assets. That being said, there's always times you want more, too. ... Everybody's striving for one of those eight spots. Now we're in the top eight and we want to get into the top three."

Added captain Shane Doan: "We feel like we've got a little bit left to do. We control our own destiny where we finish and we want to make sure we find a way to take care of that."

It's been the year of the goalie this season in the NHL, and Phoenix's Mike Smith is right at the top in success stories.

Smith, signed to a free agent contract last summer from Tampa Bay, carries a personal best shutout streak of 219:59 into this matchup Friday with the Blues including three shutouts. He's also stopped 155 consecutive shots, which is an NHL high since saves were first kept in 1976-77, per the Elias Sports Bureau.

Smith, who is 36-18-10 with a 2.25 goals-against average and .929 save percentage this season, was reunited with Tippett, who coached Smith in Dallas and has thrived in the desert.

"I had great hopes for him," Tippett said of Smith. "He's a player I had before in Dallas as a young player. He's a great athlete with a great attitude and I think we were just looking for an opportunity. He's taken the opportunity here and ran with it. You've seen what he's done the last three games for us. It's been phenomenal."

When the Coyotes lost Ilya Bryzgalov to free agency, many pundits panned making Smith, the 161st pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, the No. 1 guy, but he has seized the opportunity with Phoenix.

"You talk with the guys in Tampa in [Marty] St. Louis and [Steven] Stamkos, I'm friends with a couple of those guys [including Eric] Brewer, they were saying how great he is and how unbelievable of a team guy he is, a team player, a competitor, a legit No. 1," Doan said of Smith. "Obviously it's been a lot of fun to see him do what he's done."
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Posted On Friday, 04.06.2012 / 2:26 PM

By Adam Kimelman -  NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

No Toews for Hawks' season finale

Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews told reporters Friday he will not play in Saturday's regular-season finale against the Detroit Red Wings (1 p.m. ET, NBC, TSN2).

Toews will miss his 22nd consecutive game Saturday due to a concussion. He last played Feb. 19, and the Hawks are 12-5-4 in his absence.

He did not mention his status for the start of the playoffs.

The Blackhawks go into the season's final day sixth in the Western Conference, but with a regulation win Saturday could move into fifth place by virtue of winning the season series with the Red Wings.

The Hawks also will be without forwards Andrew Brunette and Dave Bolland for Saturday's game.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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Posted On Friday, 04.06.2012 / 1:55 PM

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

Blues back in control of destiny for top spot

ST. LOUIS -- Thursday night couldn't have worked out any better for the St. Louis Blues -- and they didn't even take the ice.

Still in the hunt for the Western Conference's top seed and the Presidents' Trophy, the Blues were vaulted back into position to claim both after the Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers lost their respective games.

The Blues (48-21-11), who play host to the Phoenix Coyotes (40-27-13) Friday at Scottrade Center (7:30 p.m. EST on NBCSN), control their destiny in the West. If they win Friday and against Saturday in Dallas, the Blues will claim the top spot in the conference and not have to worry about when the Canucks play host to Edmonton on Saturday.

If they win out and the Rangers lose at home Saturday to Washington, the Blues will earn the Presidents' Trophy.

"I think our players recognize that," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "As coaches you try not to react one way or the other or overreact, [but] it's nice.

"Winning the division was one goal and then the conference was the other. We're in complete control of it. I think the players recognize that and I think there's lots at stake for both teams. Phoenix has got lots at stake ... home-ice advantage and all the things that matter there. It should be a real good game."

The players had shifted gears earlier in the week. The most important aspect for the Blues is finishing strong and playing well going into the playoffs. But now that there's still more to accomplish, the scope has certainly changed.

"Any accomplishment during the year is cool and something to be proud of," veteran winger Jamie Langenbrunner said. "Winning the Central's obviously a big step for this organization. Whatever we can do here in the next two games could definitely add to that. It's something you look back on when you're done and say, 'Yeah, we did that.' It's definitely something worth noting.

"That should be our focus, is to make sure we're playing well. Obviously we control our future, but the most important aspect is to play well."

Added winger Matt D'Agostini: "We want to be playing our best hockey in the playoffs obviously. ... It's come down to the wire and we wouldn't want to it to be in any other position right now.
"That's definitely something we can be proud of. We know what's at stake and we want it pretty bad, so we'll be fighting hard the next couple games."

The Blues are 3-0-0 against the Coyotes this season. They will be shooting for their first season sweep of Phoenix since 2008-09 and would be the only the second time in franchise history sweeping the Coyotes franchise dating back to their days in Winnipeg.
But Hitchcock is guarded against the success.

"We haven't played their 'A' team," said Hitchcock, whose team has outscored the Coyotes 11-3 in three games this season. "Every time we seem to play them, we get the backup goalie or they've got four or five guys out with injuries. There's reasons. That's why I'm curious to see [this game]. This is their best group, this is our best group. Let's play.

"At the end of the night, I think we're going to get a good read. Phoenix is one of those veteran teams that doesn't beat themselves. They've got a lot of older veteran guys that know how to play. I think they've managed their team really well this year as far as keeping an energy level about them and now it's right in front of them. They see the significance of home-ice advantage and I think we're going to get a real push tonight."
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Posted On Friday, 04.06.2012 / 1:22 PM

By Barry Melrose -  NHL Network Analyst /NHL.com - Melrose Minute

Melrose Mullet of the Week: Mike Smith

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Posted On Friday, 04.06.2012 / 1:21 PM

By Barry Melrose -  NHL Network Analyst /NHL.com - Melrose Minute

Melrose Place: Penguins-Flyers Coaches

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Posted On Friday, 04.06.2012 / 12:48 PM

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

Projected lineups for Blues, Coyotes

ST. LOUIS -- The probable lineups for tonight's crucial Western Conference matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes from Scottrade Center.

BLUES
Alex Steen - David Backes - T.J. Oshie
Andy McDonald - Patrik Berglund - David Perron
Jamie Langenbrunner - Jason Arnott - Chris Stewart
Ryan Reaves - Vladimir Sobotka - Matt D'Agostini

Carlo Colaiacovo - Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman - Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell - Roman Polak

Brian Elliott
Jaroslav Halak

The Blues' scratches include forwards Scott Nichol, B.J. Crombeen, Chris Porter and Jaden Schwartz as well as defensemen Kent Huskins and Ian Cole.

COYOTES

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

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

Mike Smith
Jason LaBarbera

Smith carries a streak of 155 consecutive saves, which is an NHL high since saves were first kept in 1976-77, per the Elias Sports Bureau. He also has a shutout streak of 219:59, which is a personal best.

The Coyotes' scratches include D David Schlemko, LW Paul Bissonnette, D Chris Summers, C Kyle Chipchura, D Michael Stone and RW Scott Arnold.
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