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Posted On Thursday, 03.22.2012 / 1:06 PM

By Alan Robinson - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Crosby's return has made Malkin even more lethal

PITTSBURGH -- Evgeni Malkin was leading the NHL in scoring even before Sidney Crosby returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup last week. But Malkin felt he would be an even better player once Crosby returned because No. 87 requires so much attention from opponents, it creates more open ice for his teammates.
Malkin was right. Sidney Crosby has been Sidney Crosby since he returned -- and Malkin has been an even-better Malkin.
Going into Thursday night's attractive interconference matchup between the Penguins and Nashville Predators, Malkin had 5 goals and 4 assists in the four games since Cosby returned against the Rangers on March 15 -- with at least one goal in every game.
Crosby hasn't found the net in his last 11 games overall, including the last seven he played before concussion-like symptoms sidelined him following a Dec. 5 game against Boston. But Crosby has 9 assists in the four games since he returned, giving him 21 points in the 12 games he's played in a season in which he endured injury layoffs of 20 and 40 games.
In those 12 games Crosby has played, Malkin has 9 goals and 19 points. So much for the perception that Malkin acquiesces to Crosby when the captain is in the lineup, willing to accept a less-prominent role.
"I'm not surprised at all," Crosby said of Malkin's production with both superstars in the lineup. "He's a great player; he's got every tool it takes to be consistent and to be as dominant as he is. As for me coming back, I don't think it's changed anything. It (Malkin's production) probably has helped me a bit to be able to come back and ease myself into it. That's something that anybody coming back will tell you, the better the team's playing, the easier the transition is."
The Penguins are 12-0-1 in their last 13 and 24-4-2 in their last 30.
With 93 points, Malkin took a nine-point lead over Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay and Claude Giroux of Philadelphia into Thursday's NHL games. Despite missing seven games earlier this season as he mended from offseason knee surgery, Malkin is in a very strong position to win his second Art Ross Trophy in four seasons.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Malkin is a better player since he returned from that disappointing 2010-11 season in which he had only 15 goals in 43 games before tearing two ligaments in his left knee. During his lengthy rehabilitation, most of it in his native Russia, Malkin took on the look of a focused, determined player intent on returning to the elite level at which he once played.
To do so, Malkin didn't just get into better playing shape, he worked on and polished up some often-overlooked aspects of his game.
"A few things strike me about his game that are real evident," Bylsma said. "When he's playing really well, he's the guy who takes the puck away from other team. He tracks the puck, lifts the stick and takes the puck the other way. In the offensive zone, he wins puck battles and strips people of the puck. … That's when he's at his best."
Bylsma added, "You see the highlights, but you don't often see the highlight of him tracking back, stripping the puck and going the other way."
Malkin also has improved significantly on faceoffs, once a major deficiency in his game. He is winning 47.2 percent of his faceoffs, compared to 38.5 percent a season ago, and is becoming so reliable that Bylsma now uses him for defensive-zone draws.
"What you're seeing this year that you never saw before was Geno in the faceoff circle winning faceoffs -- in the left circle, he's over 65 percent. And that has contributed to us scoring goals. You're talking about a guy who was under 40 percent last year."
A set play in which Malkin slams the puck directly to James Neal's stick on a faceoff has resulted in multiple goals this season.
No doubt Malkin will draw motivation Thursday from the return of fellow Russian star Alexander Radulov, who will play for Nashville for the first time since the 2007-08 season. Radulov played the last four seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.
The Predators and Penguins haven't played in 17 months, or since Pittsburgh won 4-3 in overtime on Oct. 21, 2010, at Bridgestone Arena.
The Penguins' projected lineup for their one and only meeting of the season with Nashville -- unless the two elite teams meet in the Stanley Cup Final:
Chris Kunitz - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal
Steve Sullivan - Jordan Staal - Pascal Dupuis
Matt Cooke - Sidney Crosby - Tyler Kennedy
Eric Tangradi - Craig Adams - Arron Asham
Brooks Orpik - Zbynek Michalek
Kris Letang - Paul Martin
Matt Niskanen - Deryk Engelland
Marc-Andre Fleury
Brad Thiessen
Fleury will be back in net after Thiessen, a rookie with a 3-0 record, beat Winnipeg 8-4 in an up-and-down game Tuesday. Fleury has opposed Nashville only five times, going 2-2-1 with a 2.54 goals-against average.

Posted On Thursday, 03.22.2012 / 12:50 PM

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

Semin to be game-time decision for Capitals

PHILADELPHIA -- Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter said forward Alexander Semin will be a game-time decision for Thursday's game here against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Semin did not practice Wednesday and skipped this morning's skate, which was an optional practice. Team captain Alex Ovechkin and defenseman Dennis Wideman also opted to skip the practice.

"He's still on maintenance right now," Hunter said.

Hunter said Semin would skate in the pre-game warm-ups, after which he'll decide if the forward will play or not.

If Semin does play, it looks like Joel Ward will be a healthy scratch, although Hunter would not reveal what his lineup would look like.

Assuming Semin plays, here is what the Capitals likely will put on the ice tonight:

Alex Ovechkin - Brooks Laich - Troy Brouwer
Marcus Johansson - Keith Aucoin - Alexander Semin
Jason Chimera - Mathieu Perreault - Mike Knuble
Matt Hendricks - Jay Beagle - Jeff Halpern

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

Hunter wouldn't reveal who his starting goaltender would be, but it's likely Braden Holtby will receive his second straight start. He stopped 30 of 33 shots in Monday's 5-3 win in Detroit. Michael Neuvirth will be the backup.

Ward and defensemen John Erskine and Dmitry Orlov likely will be healthy scratches.

Contact Adam Kimelman at Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK

Posted On Thursday, 03.22.2012 / 12:20 PM

By Barry Melrose -  NHL Network Analyst / - Melrose Minute

Melrose Match Up: Predators at Penguins

Posted On Thursday, 03.22.2012 / 10:28 AM

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

Updated playoff projections: March 22nd

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 73 80 9 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 73 84 9 93 5

9th 74 84 8 92 5
10th 73 82 9 91 6
11th 74 82 8 89 6
The skinny: What a Thursday night in the NHL as the drama-filled race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs continues.

Washington takes center stage as it finishes a long road trip with a visit to Philadelphia. The Capitals are trying to hold off the fast-charging Sabres, who won again Wednesday night to enter a dead-heat with the Caps at 80 points, while the Winnipeg Jets await in Washington D.C. for a Friday night date with the Caps. Buffalo, however, has played one more game than both the Capitals and the Jets, who have 76 points.

With back-to-back wins against Philadelphia and the Jets, Washington could go a long way toward solidifying a spot in the postseason, not to mention the fact that taking four points would certainly keep the pressure on Florida for first in the Southeast Division. A Washington win against Philadelphia moves the Caps six points up on the Jets and sets up a potential knockout blow for the Jets on Friday. A loss to the Flyers, though, would give a boost to the playoff hopes of the Jets, who could close the gap to two points with a win against Washington Friday night.

Winnipeg fans, not to mention the team, will be cheering hard for the Flyers.

Turning attention to the wild, wild West, the schedule Thursday has five games with significant playoff implications.

First in the Pacific, Dallas can keep its hold on first in the division with a win against Vancouver, but could fall out of the playoff picture entirely with a loss.

The Stars have 85 points, but could be passed by both Phoenix and Los Angeles, division rivals, with wins in their respective games Thursday night. Phoenix, currently No. 9 Because of tiebreakers, plays No. 7 Colorado, which has 85 points.  Los Angeles, which has 84 points and a game in hand on Phoenix, plays St. Louis, which sits atop the League standings.

Colorado has played more games than all the other Western contenders, so a win against the Coyotes keeps them on pace for the playoffs and leaves them controlling their own destiny. A loss, however, has Colorado moving into that dreaded territory of relying upon the vagaries of hope and luck.

Calgary, which has gone gone 0-1-2 in its past three games, faces the Wild on Thursday night needing to make up three points and climb above three teams to find the safety zone. That process has to begin with a win Thursday night against a Wild time out of the playoff equation. That is unless the Flames want to face the almost impossible task of winning six of their seven remaining games to reach 94 points, which appears will be the demarcation line when the season ends.

While the Blues pose a significant challenge to the Kings, Los Angeles is playing extremely well and is on a five-game winning streak, picking a perfect time to get hot.

Up the coast in San Jose, the Sharks have been hot and cold and can't afford to get into an extended cold streak or they will be on the outside looking in come playoff time. It's best now that they help themselves and that starts by not losing Thursday night against a Boston team showing signs of once again finding its way. A loss puts San Jose in a position where it would have to 12 of 16 points to get to 94 points.

There will be a sense of satisfaction for the teams in the West that win the games Thursday, but they won't be able to relax for long. That's why I love the schedule and the drama of the season's final few weeks.
Posted On Wednesday, 03.21.2012 / 8:27 PM - 2011-2012 Situation Room blog

FLA @ CAR - 10:24 of the Second Period

At 10:24 of the second period in the Panthers/Hurricanes game, video review upheld the referee's call on the ice that Brandon Sutter's shot never crossed the Florida goal line. No goal Carolina.
Posted On Wednesday, 03.21.2012 / 7:04 PM

By Brian Hedger - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Hawks, Toews taking 'wait-and-see' approach

CHICAGO -- Jonathan Toews went through a second straight day of on-ice work at the United Center on Wednesday morning, but the waiting game for the Chicago Blackhawks captain's return from suspected concussion symptoms is still status quo.

It's still a "wait-and-see" process the Hawks are going through with Toews, who will miss his 15th straight game on Wednesday night when Chicago hosts the rival Vancouver Canucks. The good news is that Toews is back on skates after needing a few days off following four-straight days doing on-ice work.

"Kind of the same," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said, when asked to assess Toews' current health status. "Your body tells you what it's able to do. That's all part of the process. Hopefully you get consecutive days and you just keep on pressing – get a little more every day – that's kind of where we're at."

Toews has not been cleared for contact, which is logically the next -- and maybe final -- step that he'll need to take before being cleared to return for game action. Following the game against the Canucks, the Hawks will have just seven games left in the regular season.

Toews' situation is comparable to one that kept center Dave Bolland off the ice a year ago at this time of year. Bolland didn't return until the fourth game of a first-round playoff series against Vancouver that wound up going seven games with the Hawks losing the deciding game in overtime.

"You look at Bolly last year, he got back and was playing Game 4 against Vancouver," Quenneville said. "He was up to speed pretty quick. There's a process when you know you're ready, you're ready. I don't know how long it takes before you’re ready for contact, ready for pace, ready for making a contribution – it's tough to say when and tough to say how long it's going to take."

Quenneville was also asked whether he thought Toews might have pushed himself too hard the first time he returned to the ice with the injury, which spanned four days in a row of hard skating. Toews spoke to reporters after the workouts and even said he was hoping to play in a March 13 home game against the St. Louis Blues.

He needed to halt his on-ice and then off-ice workouts for about 10 days not long after stating that as a potential return date.

"I just think that every day you're trying different things," Quenneville said. "You push your body in different ways, testing it and see what you’re able to handle – on or off the ice."

Chicago defenseman Steve Montador, who will miss his 21st game in a row with what's believed to be a similar injury to Toews, also skated on Wednesday morning and continues to show signs of progress according to Quenneville.

The Hawks got other positive news on the injury front, as well, as defenseman Nick Leddy will play against the Canucks despite not finishing Tuesday night's 5-1 win at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.

Leddy was illegally checked from behind early in the third period by Darryl Boyce, who was assessed a boarding minor, and only played one more shift before sitting out the rest of the game.

Quenneville also said that Corey Crawford will start against the Canucks, which will be his fourth straight start and fifth straight appearance. He's won four games in a row and has allowed just four goals in the four previous appearances.

"Corey at this time last year had the ball and he was running with it and we played him [27] games in a row?" Quenneville said. "And he handled back-to back games ... we don't usually do that during the course of a season. This is a big game. The fact that we're coming back to him is a good sign for him to get some confidence going that we're relying on him at an important time of the year."

Posted On Wednesday, 03.21.2012 / 6:18 PM

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

Anisimov back in the lineup for Rangers

NEW YORK -- Artem Anisimov, who took a hit Thursday against the Pittsburgh Penguins that was so hard he said he couldn't feel his arm afterward, is back in the New York Rangers' lineup Wednesday night after missing two games with an injured right shoulder.

Anisimov will replace Ruslan Fedotenko, who was injured and played just 8:13 against the New Jersey Devils on Monday night.

Meanwhile, the Red Wings will start Ty Conklin in net after the veteran goaltender cleared re-entry waivers. Rookie Jordan Pearce will serve as his backup, with starter Jimmy Howard (groin) and regular backup Joey MacDonald (back) out of commission.

Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom skated at Madison Square Garden this morning, but he will not play against the Rangers. Also out of the lineup for the banged-up Red Wings: center Darren Helm (knee), right wing Johan Franzen (back), defenseman Jonathan Ericsson (wrist) and defenseman Jakub Kindl (upper body).

Henrik Lundqvist will make his third straight start in net for the Rangers.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

Posted On Wednesday, 03.21.2012 / 5:50 PM

By Barry Melrose -  NHL Network Analyst / - Melrose Minute

Melrose Place: Handicapping the West Races

Posted On Wednesday, 03.21.2012 / 5:25 PM

By Jeremy Roenick -  NHL Network Contributor / - World According to JR

Kings have gotten it together while Flames sink

NHL analyst and former All-Star Jeremy Roenick pens a weekly blog for "World According to JR" appears every Wednesday and includes Roenick's sharp, can't-miss opinions on What's Clicking and What's Missing in the National Hockey League.

We're looking at the playoff race out west this week and focusing on two teams trending in opposite directions:

What's clicking?

The Los Angeles Kings are a team that put itself in the position to have to play well late in the season, and to their credit they've won five games in a row.

Darryl Sutter has come in and instilled a positive system to get his team going. Whether it was tough love or just good structure, the Kings are playing more as a team, together, with unity. The players have bought into the system, and that's always so important, especially for a new coach coming into a playoff race.

The Kings have found a way to start scoring goals. They are still one of the lowest-scoring teams in the NHL, but now, in push-comes-to-shove time, down to the last three weeks of the season, they are finding their offense.

It was nice to see Mike Richards get on the board Tuesday night against San Jose. He played a real solid game, and L.A. scored five goals in a win. It's proof that the Kings need Richards a lot.

He can bring it. He's just a solid, solid hockey player. For some reason he has lost his goal-scoring touch, but hopefully the game against the Sharks gives him more confidence because he can be the difference maker for this hockey club. He plays physical, very strong defensively, he's a good teammate, and he can make players around him better. That's why he was the captain in Philadelphia.

I'm also proud of Anze Kopitar, one of my favorite guys in the League. He has picked up his game. He's starting to skate. He's starting to shoot. He's starting to be that dominant forward that everyone expected him to be in the beginning of the season.

Can you say anything more about Jonathan Quick? He's out in L.A., doesn't get as much publicity as he should, and he continues to be one of the best goaltenders in the NHL while playing for a team that just didn't score enough goals for 90 percent of the season.

If you ask me, Quick has to be on the final ballot for the Vezina Trophy along with Henrik Lundqvist and probably one of Pekka Rinne, Marc-Andre Fleury or either of the guys in St. Louis. If Quick is left off the Vezina ballot, shame on the voters.

The Sharks have opened the door. The Coyotes have opened the door. The Flames kept the door open. The Kings are storming right through it.

What's missing?

The title question here, at least as it pertains to the Calgary Flames, is almost impossible to answer. The Flames are one of those teams that you just can't figure out.

Seriously, why can't they win games when it matters? They have talent, a top-end goaltender, one of the best scorers in the history of the game in Jarome Iginla, but for some reason they let up inopportune goals or they don't get enough secondary scoring in order to find ways to win critical hockey games.

The other night in Colorado was a perfect example. There are the Flames in the playoff race, playing a team that is hot, but also a young team that they could have and probably should have beaten. But they only score the one goal and lose in overtime.

You can't help but think that the Flames are going to miss the playoffs for a third straight season. This is one of the reasons why I thought it might be time for Jarome Iginla to move and find a chance to play on a championship-quality team.

It would be a shame if Iginla doesn't win the Stanley Cup with the career that he's had. He has been a model of consistency, the ultimate professional, a great poster boy for the National Hockey League.

There are a lot of people in this game that hope Jarome gets a Cup, but I just don't see it happening with Calgary, at least not with this team. And, worse yet, the Flames didn't make any moves in the offseason to help themselves.

They're paying for it right now.

They have a great coach in Brent Sutter, but Alex Tanguay is not carrying his weight and neither is Olli Jokinen. Even Miikka Kiprusoff, for as good as he is and has been in his NHL career, just hasn't been the same goalie this season. He's letting in some soft goals, and Calgary doesn't have enough goal scorers on its roster to compensate for that.

Look, when you're in a playoff race you can't go into a set of games against the 29th- and 30th-ranked teams in the NHL and get only one point. Playoff teams get three or four.

Calgary is a great city, a hockey-loving city, but it certainly looks like it will be without playoff hockey for a third straight spring.
Posted On Wednesday, 03.21.2012 / 4:38 PM

By Curtis Zupke - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Boudreau still angry at Halak

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau is all too familiar with Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak, who beat Boudreau's Washington team in the first round of the 2010 playoffs when Halak was in Montreal.

Asked if he has seen a better performance than that, Boudreau playfully replied, "Nope, and I’m still pissed at him for that.

"He got in that zone and he was incredible. Even the last game in St. Louis, I thought he was incredible. His leg save on (Saku) Koivu in the first period -- he kept it 0-0 -- had our guys shaking their heads."
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Quote of the Day

I'm a hockey player and that's what I love to do. That is what I am here for. Everything else is just a side note.

— Oilers forward Connor McDavid on moving beyond the anticipation of his long-awaited arrival in the NHL