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Posted On Friday, 03.23.2012 / 1:50 PM

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

Lundqvist looks to refine game heading into playoffs

NEW YORK -- Among starting goaltenders in the NHL, Henrik Lundqvist ranks first in goals-against average (1.87), save percentage (.934) and is tied with the Kings' Jonathan Quick for the League lead in shutouts with eight.

Following the Rangers' 2-1 overtime win against the Red Wings on Wednesday in which he made 26 saves for his third win in four starts, Lundqvist said he wanted to sharpen his game and improve in some areas that need work.

Yes, the presumptive favorite for the Vezina Trophy feels like he should be playing better as the Rangers get set to face the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night on Madison Square Garden.

"I need to be more focused and make better decisions," Lundqvist said. "It's tough to play perfect games. Sometimes you make poor decisions and it costs you, and sometimes it doesn't cost you. That's what you're always trying to do. You're trying to play a perfect game where you make good decisions all the time and don't put yourself in trouble by making a bad read. That's what it comes down to. It's not technically how I can change. It's the way I focus. Just the keep the game simple. It's exciting. I feel like getting we're getting closer. Sometimes that helps you not overthink. You just go out and play."

March hasn't been the best month so far for Lundqvist. He allowed 16 goals in five games to start the month before being hit with the flu bug after a 4-3 win against the Islanders on March 19. Since returning, Lundqvist has looked more like himself, going 2-1 with a 1.65 GAA and .927 save percentage.

Exhaustion hasn't been a problem in the past for Lundqvist, and he said it won't be again this year. Even if he starts in all nine remaining games for the Rangers, those 63 starts will be his fewest since taking over the No. 1 goaltending job in 2006-07. To make up for the diminished playing time, Lundqvist said he'll use practices, as rare as they are this time of year, to stay sharp.

"When you're out there you need to go hard, get good habits," Lundqvist said. "You don't want to be out there and cheating because you're tired. I'm not tired, so that's a good thing.

"Going into the last few weeks, you don't really feel tired. When you don't practice that much, you can save a lot of energy for the games. I think biggest difference year was in December and late-November, not playing as much. Maybe I would've been a little tired (in the past at that time). But this time of year, you're never really tired."

Lundqvist started the Rangers' final 26 regular-season games last season due to a broken collarbone suffered by backup goaltender Martin Biron. The Rangers made the playoffs, but were ushered out the door by the Washington Capitals in the first round in five games.

Since it wasn't a problem last year, Lundqvist doesn't see fatigue being a problem this year.

"I felt great. I wasn't tired," Lundqvist said. "Going down the stretch you're so focused. Especially if you're winning and doing well, I think that helps. You're relaxed. But I wasn't tired going into the playoffs. But that was in April. Our goal is to play in June. But right now, I pretty much feel the way I always do this time of the year."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

Posted On Friday, 03.23.2012 / 1:01 PM

By Dan Rosen - Senior Writer / - At the Rink blog

Leafs' Hamilton perserveres, earns NHL opportunity

NEWARK, N.J. -- Ryan Hamilton has been in the American Hockey League since 2006, and with the Toronto Marlies for the last three-and-a-half seasons. He's had to undergo heart ablation surgery and battle through a debilitating knee injury, but he's persevered and his hard work has finally paid off.

Hamilton, 26, will make his NHL debut Friday night at Prudential Center with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He and Nazem Kadri were called up on an emergency basis Thursday night to replace Clarke MacArthur (upper-body injury) and Matt Frattin (ankle injury) in the struggling Leafs' lineup.

"You never want to give up on your dream," Hamilton said after the morning skate Friday. "It was real exciting news when I got the call to join the guys here in New Jersey. It was definitely something that came out of the blue, but real exciting."

Hamilton started his professional career in the Wild organization. He was traded to Toronto in 2009 and has been viewed as a veteran leader on a developing Marlies' squad that is poised for a run in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Hamilton has 46 points on 23 goals and 23 assists in 65 games this season for the Marlies, who are second in the AHL's Western Conference. When Leafs coach Randy Carlyle called Marlies coach Dallas Eakins and asked him who has earned the right to get the call up, Hamilton's name was the first one mentioned.

"I couldn't really stay healthy for the last couple of years," he said. "I had that little heart operation and with that knee injury last year it was frustrating, but I've been healthy all year and been part of a real good team down there. Now I'm real fortunate to get an opportunity up here.

"It's something special, something I've worked hard my whole life for. It's a real good opportunity, a real honor."

Kadri was the second name Eakins gave to Carlyle. Considered one of the Leafs' top prospects, Kadri has had an interesting season to say the least. He was a favorite to make the team out of training camp, but after playing in five preseason games he was assigned to the Marlies. Kadri earned a recall in October and played in three games before going back.

He was back with the Leafs in December and lasted through the month of January, but has been with the Marlies since the beginning of February. He has 32 points in 42 games with the Marlies but only six points in 19 games with the Leafs.

Kadri said he's looking at this latest opportunity as a chance to impress Carlyle, who was not the coach the last time he wore a Leafs' uniform.

"That's exactly what it is, really," he said. "It is a new coaching staff and a new system so you have to go out there, do what you can, and hopefully he likes what he sees."

Carlyle insisted that Kadri will not be pinned to the bench Friday night. While he wasn't locked into his lines yet, he did say he doesn't see a benefit in bringing up a skilled player (Kadri is a skilled player) and playing him on the fourth line.

MacArthur and Frattin were wingers for Mikhail Grabovski, so it's possible that at least Kadri gets to play in the Leafs' top-six against the Devils. Hamilton could have that opportunity as well.

"If you're a scorer and you're supposed to be a scorer, well then we have to find out if you can score in the NHL," Carlyle said.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Posted On Friday, 03.23.2012 / 12:44 PM

By Ben Raby - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Caps have another chance to damage Jets' hopes

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals missed out on an opportunity last Friday at MTS Centre to bury the Winnipeg Jets in the Eastern Conference standings. The Caps will get a second chance Friday night at Verizon Center.

The eighth-place Capitals had a four-point cushion on Winnipeg for the final playoff position a week ago, but a 3-2 win by the Jets narrowed the gap and gave them hope. Seven days later, it's an almost identical situation with the teams meeting for the sixth and final time this regular season and the Caps now five points clear of 10th-place Winnipeg.

"It's a big game -- it's pretty much the game of the year," Jets forward Alexander Burmistrov said. "Everybody has to step up and we have to play how we usually do at home but now on the road."

If the Jets do in fact fall short in their bid for a playoff berth, their play on the road will largely have something to do with it. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets (10-23-4) have fewer points away from home than the Jets (11-20-4) and of Winnipeg's nine remaining games, six will be on the road.

The Capitals return home tonight after a season-long five-game road trip (2-2-1) which ended with a 2-1 shootout loss Thursday night against the Philadelphia Flyers.

"I think we got some points in some real tough buildings," Caps forward Troy Brouwer said. "I think a couple of our games we didn't show up as much as we would have liked to, especially for this time of the season, but five points in five games is all right.

"We're one point ahead of Buffalo in the standings right now, so we are in the playoffs at this point. But we're looking forward to [tonight's] game. It's going to be a very intense, very exciting game."

The Capitals did not hold a morning skate and it is unclear who will start in goal. Tomas Vokoun remains sidelined with a groin injury and is hopeful of a return next week.

Braden Holtby (1-1-1) has started the last two games with Michal Neuvirth (11-12-4) dressing as the backup. Ondrej Pavelec (27-5-7) will start for the 10th straight game for Winnipeg and for the 15th time in the last 16 games overall.

Here are the projected lineups for the Capitals and Jets:

Alex Ovechkin - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Mike Knuble
Keith Aucoin - Jay Beagle - Marcus Johansson
Matt Hendricks - Jeff Halpern - Joel Ward/Cody Eakin

Karl Alzner - Dennis Wideman
Roman Hamrlik - Mike Green
Jeff Schultz - John Carlson

Michal Neuvirth
Braden Holtby

Notes: The Capitals recalled Eakin, a Winnipeg native, from the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League on Friday. Should Eakin draw into the lineup, it could be in place of either Halpern or Ward.

Eakin has four goals and eight points in 29 NHL games this season. The 20-year-old has also recorded 11 goals and 25 points in 41 AHL games.

Alexander Semin missed the final 7:35 of a 5-3 win Monday in Detroit and has not practiced or played since. He is considered day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Blake Wheeler
Patrick Kane - Alexander Burmistrov - Kyle Wellwood
Tanner Glass - Jim Slater - Antti Miettinen
Tim Stapleton - Ben Maxwell - Spencer Machacek

Dustin Byfuglien - Tobias Enstrom
Ron Hainsey - Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart - Randy Jones

Ondrej Pavelec
Chris Mason
Posted On Friday, 03.23.2012 / 12:28 PM

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

Leopold, Sabres focused on winning out, getting in

NEW YORK -- For Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold, Friday night's matchup with the New York Rangers doesn't have any added meaning as a potential 1 vs. 8 matchup in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in a few weeks.

Instead, Leopold is focused on the fact the Sabres have control over their playoff destiny with eight games to play. They are one point behind the Capitals for the eighth spot in the East, but if the Sabres win the rest of their games, which includes one against the Caps, they will be in the playoffs.

"We look at it is as controlling our destiny. We have that opportunity if we win out, so this is just another one of those games coming down the stretch we need to get," Leopold told "We're playing one of the best teams in the League right now and have definitely had our number this year (the Rangers have won all three meetings). We need the two points desperately."

The Sabres are in a similar position to last season, when a 19-20-5 start was followed by a 24-9-5 finish to earn a playoff berth. This year, the Sabres' slow start was more about injuries to key players -- goaltender Ryan Miller, defenseman Tyler Myers and center Jochen Hecht just to name a few -- but their current 15-5-3 run has them knocking on the postseason door once again.

"We had a lot of injuries this year. You don't want to use it as an excuse, but it's a fact," Leopold said. "You look at that, and it's definitely played a role in getting us a little bit behind the 8 ball. We've totally climbed our way out of this when everyone said we couldn't and put ourselves in a good position. With eight games remaining, we have a good opportunity if we get the right amount of points, we can get to the magic number and make the playoffs."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
Posted On Friday, 03.23.2012 / 12:06 PM

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

Struggling Fedotenko will sit a second straight game

NEW YORK -- Ruslan Fedotenko is one of the few veterans with Stanley Cup-winning experience on a young Rangers team poised to make a deep run in this year's playoffs.

Yet for the second game in a row, the 33-year-old will find himself as a healthy scratch when the Rangers close their seven-game homestand against the Buffalo Sabres at Madison Square Garden.

Coach John Tortorella wouldn't use specifics Friday morning in discussing Fedotenko, but knows his value in the postseason.

"I'm not going to broadcast it to you guys," Tortorella said. "I want to make a change in the lineup. I still have a tremendous about of faith in Feds, as far as what he does. He's been there. He's been successful there. He understands the intensity of it, how it ratchets up. I think it's something that's important, especially when you're dealing with some guys who haven't done a lot of this.

"Right now I'm looking at different things. He'll play again, and we'll see where we go with it."

Fedotenko has 8 goals and 8 assists and is minus-10 in 65 games after posting 10 goals and 15 assists and a plus-9 in 66 games last season. In his last 25 games, he has 2 goals and 1 assist, and he knows that's why he's currently watching from the press box.

"I had a little dip there and didn't feel like I was producing enough," Fedotenko said. "Obviously I'm not scoring as much. I feel like maybe I'm focusing too much on defense and not enough on offense. I'm not saying I need to sacrifice defense, but I feel like I just need to put the emphasis more on being creative offensively and trying to score the goals. I think that's the bottom line."

Fedotenko knows it's nice to have a history with Tortorella -- the two were together when Tampa Bay won the Cup in 2004 -- but he also knows that doesn't get him any special treatment when he's not playing well.

"It's nice to have that trust, but it's still, if I don't deliver, I'm not going to play. That's the bottom line," Fedotenko said. "You never want to be sitting. It doesn't matter if you have a history or how many years you've been in the League, you always feel like that news is … you can use your own words.

"It's not pleasant, it's not what I'd like to do, but I'm trying to take this time to evaluate the game and figure out what I can improve to go forward and help the team. The ultimate goal is to win the Cup. That's why I came back here and that's what I want to do."

Here's the rest of the Rangers' lineup for Friday's game against the Sabres:

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

Ryan McDonagh - Dan Girardi
Marc Staal - Michael Del Zotto
Tim Erixon - Stu Bickel

Henrik Lundqvist
Martin Biron

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

Posted On Friday, 03.23.2012 / 11:54 AM

By Dan Rosen - Senior Writer / - At the Rink blog

Zajac still clearing mental hurdles in return to lineup

NEWARK, N.J. -- Travis Zajac is close, but not quite ready to return to the New Jersey Devils lineup.

Zajac said after Friday's morning skate at Prudential Center that he doesn't feel any soreness in his surgically repaired left Achilles tendon, and that there is no swelling at all after he skates. But until he is able to overcome the mental hurdle of making sure he's 100 percent comfortable to get back into the Devils lineup, he will stay on the sidelines, working on his hands, timing and conditioning.

Zajac, who had his surgery in August, already returned once this season and suffered a setback, so this time around he's being ultra-careful.

"I came back and it didn't work out, so now coming back for a second time you really want to make sure," Zajac said after the Devils practiced in advance of Friday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. "It is almost more mental than physical at this point. You just have to put yourself in situations where you're going to get knocked around, banged around. Once you know you're alright and healed, I'm sure I'll get back out there and there will be nothing bothering me mentally."

Zajac initially returned in December, but he played only eight games before soreness in his Achilles forced him out of the lineup. He hasn't played since Jan. 2.

Zajac was even shut down from all hockey-related activities for a period of time this winter and went into a walking boot for three-and-a-half weeks. He has been practicing with the team for the last week and hasn't had any setbacks.

"This time I can compare it to how I felt last time when I came back," Zajac said. "I see a difference now. I really have no soreness or tightness or swelling like I did last time.

"If you don't have any of that, now it's just getting comfortable. That's the main thing, I have to be comfortable on the ice to be able to do things that I was doing before I was injured."

Zajac's ideal scenario is to return to the lineup soon (the Devils next play Sunday at Pittsburgh) so he can get in as many games as possible to get back up to speed before the playoffs begin.

"I think he's in a real good spot health-wise," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "When you come back early and it doesn't go well, you have a setback, your mental state is as important as your physical state. We want to make sure both are in the right spot. The key here obviously is that he's ready day 1 of the playoffs and has his game as close to normal as possible."

The Devils will look to snap a dry spell against the Leafs, who have yielded 13 goals in their last two games. New Jersey has scored only five goals in its last five games, but still managed to win two of them by 1-0 scores, including a shootout win over Colorado.

Ilya Kovalchuk has points in the last three games, but linemates Zach Parise and Adam Henrique are both pointless in the last five. Henrique hasn't scored a goal since Feb. 17, a string of 17 straight games. He has just 2 goals in the last two-plus months.

"I think we've been playing the same way, it's been really close every game, but for whatever reason we have nothing to show for it," Parise said. "It's not an excuse. We have to find a way to produce, but I think we're still doing the same things and playing the same way, it's just that right now it doesn't want to go in for us. Hopefully that changes tonight.

"It's a hard time right now and lines go through it, but we have to make sure we're not cheating in different areas and the goals will come back."

Martin Brodeur will get the start in net for the Devils. Here are the rest of their lines and defense pairs:

Zach Parise - Adam Henrique - Ilya Kovalchuk
Petr Sykora - Patrik Elias - Dainius Zubrus
Alexei Ponikarovsky - Jacob Josefson - David Clarkson
Eric Boulton - Ryan Carter - Steve Bernier

Andy Greene - Mark Fayne
Bryce Salvador - Marek Zidlicky
Anton Volchenkov - Adam Larsson

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Posted On Friday, 03.23.2012 / 11:04 AM

By Staff -  / - At the Rink blog

Predators sign Joonas Rask to entry-level contract

Forward Joonas Rask, the younger brother of Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask, has signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Nashville Predators.

The Savonlinna, Finland native was a seventh-round pick (No. 198) by the Predators in the 2010 NHL Draft.
Rask, 21, recently completed his fourth season with Ilves of the Finnish League (SM-Liiga), posting 4 goals and 15 points in 29 games. In 156 SM-Liiga games since 2008, the 5-foot-10, 176-pound center has 29 goals, 62 points and 70 penalty minutes.

Rask represented Finland at both the 2009 and 2010 World Junior Championship, and captained his homeland's club at the 2008 Under-18 World Championship, being named one of team's three best players.
Posted On Friday, 03.23.2012 / 11:00 AM

By Craig Button -  Special to / - On the Playoff Button blog

Updated playoff projections: March 23rd

NHL Network's Craig Button has been tracking playoff positioning -- using a variety of statistical categories -- for several years now. His formula, while not a true probability exercise, has proven to be very effective at predicting the cutoff number to secure a Stanley Cup Playoffs berth.

In its simplest terms, Button's formula uses a team's current winning percentage, factoring in games remaining, to arrive at the number of wins -- and points -- each team will finish the season with. From that exercise, the formula can extrapolate the magic number for qualification and which teams currently in the race will reach that number. This equation will also determine tiebreakers should they become necessary.

Still not convinced? Check out the full explanation of Button's formula

Wins to
earn 8th
8th 74 81 8 89 5

9th 74 80 8 88 5
10th 73 76 9 84 7
11th 74 75 8 81 8
Wins to
earn 8th
8th 74 85 8 94 5

9th 76 85 6 91 5
10th 74 84 8 92 6
11th 75 83 7 89 6

The skinny:
The end of the work week could see the end of playoff hopes for teams failing to win on Friday night. Beginning with the race for eighth in the Eastern Conference, the Winnipeg Jets must win against Washington on Friday or their playoff dreams will become an end-of-season nightmare. A loss by the Jets will leave them seven points behind the Caps with eight games remaining. Projecting teams to need 90 points at a minimum to qualify, the equation is elementary, two points is the only answer because winning seven of the remaining eight games is highly improbable.

The surging Hurricanes -- we haven't talked about them in a while -- have a faint playoff pulse because of their four consecutive wins. Carolina visits Columbus, and a win there along with losses by the Capitals and the Buffalo Sabres, will have that pulse beating a little stronger.

Carolina needs help but if the Hurricanes can't help themselves, the clock will strike midnight on their playoff hopes. The Sabres are in Manhattan to visit the Rangers and a win, along with a regulation loss by the Caps, would put Buffalo in a playoff position.

We know Washington controls their destiny with a win against the Jets. It will effectively eliminate the Jets, and then they can focus on delivering a similar blow to the Sabres on Tuesday when they play host to Buffalo. Screen-in-screen viewing on NHL GameCenter with Sabres-Rangers and Jets-Capitals is recommended!

Florida plays host to the Oilers and the Panthers need three wins to gain 91 points to feel safe about qualifying for the playoffs, so a win moves them closer to ending their long playoff absence. Don't look now, but Ottawa fans could find their team pulled into the race for eighth. A worst-case scenario sees Ottawa losing to the Canadiens in Montreal while both Washington and Buffalo win, moving them to within one and two points respectively of the seventh-place Senators.

People call this "opening the door" for your opponents. What looked like a race for one playoff spot could become a sprint for two spots if Ottawa fails to beat last-place team in the East. I will have to make room for another game on my screen. Fortunately, NHL GameCenter can accommodate up to four games at one time. Is there another game I should be paying attention to? Perhaps not Friday, but Saturday could be a whole different story!
Posted On Friday, 03.23.2012 / 12:07 AM

By Jerry Brown - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Radim Vrbata back for Coyotes

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Phoenix Coyotes had 30-goal scorer Radim Vrbata back in the lineup for Thursday's showdown with the Colorado Avalanche at Arena.

Vrbata, who hasn't scored a goal in more than a month -- he got No. 30 on Feb. 21 against Los Angeles -- has missed three of the last four games with an undisclosed illness. He will replace Shane Doan, who will begin a three-game NHL suspension tonight for a hit on Dallas' Jamie Benn on Tuesday night.

The ninth-place Coyotes were without forward Taylor Pyatt and defenseman Adrian Aucoin as they attempted to jump over the Avalanche and back into a playoff spot in the jam-packed Western Conference

Posted On Thursday, 03.22.2012 / 10:36 PM - 2011-2012 Situation Room blog

COL @ PHX - 14:38 of the First Period

At 14:38 of the first period in the Avalanche/Coyotes game, video review upheld the referee's call on the ice that Martin Hanzal's shot was stopped by Semyon Varlamov and never crossed the goal line. No Goal Phoenix.
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Quote of the Day

There's standards that this team is going to play to and there are expectations. We're going to hold these guys accountable to high standards.

— Coach Dave Lowry on Canada's junior team, the defending IIHF World Junior champions