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Posted On Tuesday, 03.20.2012 / 5:22 PM

By Rick Sadowski  - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Avalanche, Flames relishing the playoff atmosphere

DENVER -- Despite the intense pressure of having to win on a nightly basis as the regular season winds down in the wild, wild Western Conference, coaches and players involved in the tightly-bunched playoff race insist they are enjoying the ride.

"It is fun," Calgary Flames left wing Alex Tanguay said this morning at the Pepsi Center, where his team will face the Colorado Avalanche tonight in a game with significant postseason implications. "As a player, as a competitor, you always want to play in games like this and in a fun atmosphere. That's going to be the case tonight."

The Flames are in 11th place with 81 points in 73 games, just two points behind the Avalanche, who sit in the eighth and final playoff position with 83 points in 74 games. Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Jose are also in the mix for a playoff berth, all with 83 or 82 points, and they all play tonight.

"It sure makes for an interesting finish," Tanguay said. "It almost feels like, with the five or six teams battling, that we've already entered the playoffs, just three weeks early. It's certainly going to be fun, and hopefully we can get some big wins."

Everybody "is scoreboard watching on a nightly basis," he said.

That includes the coaches.

"It's a great time of year," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "I tell the players, this is why you play. You play to be in situations like this. Right now we're in the playoff picture, but every day it changes. This is the biggest game to date, the last game was the biggest game and the one after this one will be the biggest game."

The Flames have beaten the Avalanche nine consecutive times, four times this season with one more meeting in Calgary on March 30 after tonight. The clubs haven't met since a 3-2 Flames win in Calgary on Dec. 8 when both were hovering around .500.

"I'm not even worrying about what's transpired in the past against them," Sacco said. "I feel we're a different team right now. We're certainly playing a lot better."

The Avalanche are coming off a three-game swing through the East in which they posted a 2-0-1 record. Colorado has gone 4-0-1 in the past five games and 10-3-1 since Feb. 22. Goalie Semyon Varlamov has won four in a row, six of seven and gone 9-2 in his past 11 starts while registering a 1.53 goals-against average with two shutouts and a .949 save percentage.

"It's not like we beat them nine times in a row back-to-back-to-back-to-back," Tanguay said. "Every game is different. I don't think it will make any difference in the outcomes of the last two games of our series."

Avalanche forward Peter Mueller was recovering from post-concussion symptoms and didn't play in the previous four games against Calgary, but he knows all about the nine-game streak.

"They've had our number," he said. "Hopefully it doesn't repeat. We're concentrating on this game and we're not looking to the past. We're just trying to figure out what can be successful against this team, and hopefully we'll find it tonight."

The Flames have gone 10-4-7 since Feb. 3 and won five games in a row before stubbing their toes in the past two games, losing 3-1 in Edmonton and dropping a 2-1 shootout decision to Columbus. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff has gone 6-1-3 in his past 10 starts, is tied for third in the NHL with 33 wins, and he owns a 26-14-5 career record against the Avalanche with a 2.50 GAA and four shutouts.

"We've been in playoff mode for a long time," Tanguay said. "We kind of shot ourselves in the foot the last two games. Edmonton and Columbus are at the bottom of the pack, and we came out of those two games with one point. But there's so much parity. We just played those two teams and we didn't play our best game and we didn't win. That's the way it should be."

The Avalanche have played one more game than the Flames, but would move four points ahead of them with a regulation win if they can find a way to solve Kiprusoff and put an end to that nine-game drought.

"We have to do what we've been doing for the past couple of weeks," Mueller said. "It's going to be a dogfight tonight. We've been in playoff mode for the last two months. We're happy coming to the rink and it's an exciting time of the year. It's going to be exciting coming down to the wire."

Posted On Tuesday, 03.20.2012 / 4:48 PM

By Brian Hedger - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Blue Jackets move on without Sanford, Wisniewski

COLUMBUS -- Sunday's 3-2 shootout victory in Calgary didn't come without an injury price to pay for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

A little more than 12 minutes into the game, starting goalie Curtis Sanford had to exit with a lower-body injury and top-pair defenseman James Wisniewski left after getting hit in the face with a puck.

Neither will play on Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena, when the Jackets host the Chicago Blackhawks for the sixth and final time this season, and Sanford is probably finished for the season with a torn leg muscle, according to Columbus coach Todd Richards.

"Sanford is more than likely done for the year," Richards said. "He's got a slight tear of his ... uh, the doctor told me the name of it, but I can't tell you. I don't have any muscle, so I don't know what it is. But it's a leg muscle and he tore it, so he's more than likely done for the year."

As for Wisniewski, who was hit on the right cheek with a shot in the third period and left the game, there's no timetable for a potential return just yet.

"There's no fracture, but flying home he started getting symptomatic with concussion-like symptoms," Richards said. "Today we told him to stay away from the rink. He'll come in today and meet with the doctor and we'll go from there."

Columbus recalled defenseman David Savard to take Wisniewski's spot. He didn't arrive in time to participate in the team's morning skate, but could find himself in the lineup right away.

Sanford, meanwhile, will have the best numbers on the team if his season is indeed over. He's got a 2.60 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. Sanford, who battled nagging injuries on and off this season, left a good impression on Richards with his resiliency.

That's why he felt obliged to say something to Sanford on the team bus in Calgary heading back to the airport.

"He was on crutches, so he sat up at the front of the bus," Richards said. "I just turned to him and said, 'You've had some bad luck this year.' And really, that's what it's been ... [he got] a real opportunity to play and when he has played, he's played really well for us and given us a chance to win games. There were probably two or three games tops where he hasn't been at his best. Other than that, in all of the starts he's given us a chance and kept us in games."

His reward for it is another vexing injury and the chance to come back again next season and try to win himself a spot in the NHL again.

"It's another one of those things where he's fighting for a contract next year, fighting for a spot next year whether it's here or somewhere else," Richards said. "These players want to play and play in these type of games, so it's frustrating for him, disappointing for him and disappointing for us as an organization."

Richards did provide a little more comic relief, however, when a reporter wondered if the muscle he couldn't remember might've been Sanford's quadricep.

"No, a quadricep I would know," Richards said, smiling. "I would remember that one. That's one of those big muscles that ... I do know they exist."
Posted On Tuesday, 03.20.2012 / 4:22 PM

By Brian Hedger - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Sharp has been a major plus for Blackhawks

COLUMBUS -- It was a sore subject for Patrick Sharp most of last season and it didn't end up quite the way he wanted.

Sharp had a minus rating next to his name for most of the 2010-11 season and finished minus-1, as the Chicago Blackhawks tried to defend their Stanley Cup championship with almost half of the title-winning roster scattered across the League after a salary-cap related sell-off.

Sharp also injured his knee in the latter stages of the season, just as he was getting into a groove as the team's top goal scorer. He finished with a minus rating for just the second time in his seven-year NHL career, after posting a plus-24 in the Cup winning season

"Yeah, it bothers you," Sharp told on Tuesday. "I think I was minus-1 last year and it would've been nice to be even, but at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. [Hawks coach Joel Quenneville] trusts me in a lot of different situations, whether I'm minus-10 or plus-20, so that's the main thing and I want to make sure I keep that trust."

He's certainly doing a good job of it.

Heading into Tuesday night's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena  (7 p.m.), Sharp is leading Chicago in the rating category at plus-24 despite yet another extended injury absence for a broken wrist.

"It's just one of those weird stats," Sharp said. "I don't think I'm doing anything different than I was last year. Sometimes you get in a rut where you're out there for goals you can't do anything about, and I don't know if it really reflects too much [on the player]. This year, more than anything, I've been scoring five-on-five and that makes a big difference."

That's because pluses and minuses are not assessed during special teams play and Sharp is a power-play regular.

"Last year, a lot of the offense came from the power play and you don't get the pluses there, so that could be a reason," he said of his minus-rating. "But I like to think of myself as a two-way player and Joel brings the best out of players that way."
Posted On Tuesday, 03.20.2012 / 4:02 PM

By Brian Hedger - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Stalberg's success against Jackets has been uncanny

COLUMBUS -- Maybe it's just one of those happenstance statistical anomalies that happen every so often in professional sports.

Maybe that's the best way to explain why Viktor Stalberg seems to have the Columbus Blue Jackets' number every time he plays them. Stalberg's remarkable run of success against the Jackets this season includes eight of his 18 goals and four straight game-winners among the Chicago Blackhawks' five wins in the season series.

Stalberg now has a chance to extend his game-winning goal streak against Columbus to five straight on Tuesday night, when the Hawks go for the sweep of the season series at Nationwide Arena. Columbus overall has been one of the worst teams in the League pretty much all season, but Stalberg doesn't necessarily think that plays much into his hot hand against the Jackets.

"They're one of the bottom teams, but if you look around, some guys have different teams that they score against more than others and Columbus seems to be one of those teams for me," he said after Tuesday's morning skate. "It's fun playing them. It's usually a pretty fast-paced game and it fits me. It seems like I get a little more confidence when we play these guys, since I've scored a lot against them."

The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, might get the opposite effect when facing Stalberg and the talent-laden Hawks. They're well aware of what the speedy 26-year Swedish forward has done to them, but also know they can't just focus on him with the likes of star forwards Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and a nightmarish two-way third line capable of scoring, too.

"The problem is if you focus on one guy, there's usually somebody else there that will burn you," Columbus coach Todd Richards said. "It's a credit to their team and how they've been able to build this thing. You can't focus on [Stalberg]. I think all the players in the room know what he's done to us this year and there has to be a focus of when he's out on the ice, but you've got to know where Sharp is, you've got to know where Kane is, you've got to know where Hossa is, you've got to know where [Andrew Brunette] is ... they've got lots of weapons over on the other side."

Still, that one guy who's burned them the most has been pretty impressive in his previous five tilts against Columbus. Richards not only took notice, but has started to see Stalberg -- and all that speed -- a little differently this season.

"At times, it's depressing watching him play against us," Richards said. "What's impressive to me is just how he moves up and down the ice. To me, it's really opened my eyes to what kind of player he can be."

Stalberg feels like he's improved, too. It's not just the fact his goals total is nearing the coveted 20 mark either.

"I think I've played a lot more consistent," he said. "Even if I haven't scored, I think I've been a lot more effective in all zones and I'm getting a lot more starch in our own end and little things like that."

Learning when to put on the afterburners and when to lay off is an ongoing process, as well.

"That's something you learn to use more and more," said Stalberg, whose overpowering speed and skating are becoming widely known across the League now. "It's still something I'm learning. I think I'm getting better at using it, slowing down and then accelerating a little better than I have in the past -- instead of just going full speed the whole way. [There's] maybe more confidence [about] when to use it and when not to."

This past Sunday in a 5-2 win against the Washington Capitals was a great example. Stalberg spotted a loose puck in the right circle of the Washington zone and went hard after it despite being several strides behind Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov -- a good skater.

Stalberg reeled him and passed him to scoop the puck and break sharply toward the goal, where he then deked goalie Michal Neuvirth and tucked the puck between the pad and far post for his 18th goal of the season.

"He's got a lot of speed and a lot of guys didn't realize that ... how fast he was," Blue Jackets defenseman Aaron Johnson told "Once he gets that breakaway speed, he's a tough guy to catch. I wouldn't be surprised if he is the fastest guy [in the League]. As soon as he makes that big turn and goes to the middle, it's not fun as a defenseman, that's for sure."

As for Stalberg's goals being the game-deciders in four straight?

"That's quite a stat to have," Johnson said. "Obviously it's a guy we've got to key on and hopefully keep off the scoresheet tonight."
Posted On Tuesday, 03.20.2012 / 3:39 PM

By Curtis Zupke - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Projected lineup for Sharks

Here is the lineup the Sharks likely will put on the ice when they visit the Staples Center to face the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Both teams will start the game on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture, but the winning team will earn its way back in.

We had the Kings' lineup earlier; here's what the Sharks likely will counter with:

Logan Couture - Joe Thornton - Joe Pavelski
Ryane Clowe - Patrick Marleau - Martin Havlat
Daniel Winnik - Dominic Moore - Torrey Mitchell
Brad Winchester - Andrew Desjardins - Benn Ferriero

Dan Boyle - Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Douglas Murray - Brent Burns
Jason Demers - Justin Braun

Antti Niemi will be in goal, with Thomas Greiss the backup.
Posted On Tuesday, 03.20.2012 / 3:36 PM

By Curtis Zupke - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Gagne skating but staying patient, hoping for return

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Simon Gagne has been skating after practice for weeks now, but there remains no update on his status and the window is getting smaller for him to return from a concussion suffered Dec. 26 against Phoenix.

"Our goal is to play a game at the end of the season, but right now time's starting to get away a little bit," Gagne said. "Those types of injuries, sometimes you try to put a time frame on it but you cannot control that. You have to go day-by-day and see how it goes. I'm working with the doctors. As a player, you're always looking at it. On the other side, it's maybe not smart doing that."

Gagne is believed to have suffered three concussions in five months during the 2007-08 season. He says he has talked to players who also have suffered concussions, such as former Philadelphia teammate Keith Primeau, but added that every case is different.

"I know that I have to trust the doctors and be honest with myself," he said. "It's something that maybe I did not really do four years ago when I had it. I was doing pretty much the same thing and coming back and playing and it was not good."
Posted On Tuesday, 03.20.2012 / 3:34 PM

By Curtis Zupke - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Brown, Kopitar key in Kings home improvement

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- One of the mandates coach Darryl Sutter brought with him when he took over as coach of the Los Angeles Kings was to improve the club's home record, and he's largely done so with an 11-4-3 record at Staples Center.

What was the key?

"Get an identity," Sutter said. "Top teams have strong identities at home. In the big picture, if you're just over .500 on the road, you're a good team. But at home you better be a 70- to 80-percent deal."

A difference maker is the improved play of the top line, notably Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar. Brown has 15 points in his past 11 games and Kopitar has 11 points in his past 10 games.

"You have leaders now," Sutter said. "Every day, every game. They're not just offensive princesses. They have to be 200-foot leaders … (in) practice, off ice, on ice. They have to do that for our team to be productive. That's a responsibility they want and a responsibility they need."
Posted On Tuesday, 03.20.2012 / 3:29 PM

By Curtis Zupke - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Kings' Sutter expecting angry Sharks

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter took in some interesting television viewing Monday night.

He watched his favorite movie, "The Shawshank Redemption," for about the 18th time. But of course he tuned into to see the San Jose Sharks blow a golden opportunity to move to third in the Western Conference when they lost to the Anaheim Ducks at home.

Sutter and his players expect a motivated Sharks squad at Staples Center on Tuesday (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in another big Pacific Division matchup.

"We should all be motivated," Sutter said. He then said of San Jose, "They're used to being a dominant home-ice team. I'm sure with their start last night that's how they were going to be. They were getting lots of chances early, then they probably loosed up a little."

Tuesday marks the first of three games between San Jose and Los Angeles over the final 10. The teams play a home-and-home series to end the regular season.

If San Jose is at its grumpiest Tuesday, the Kings won't be surprised.

"I wouldn't expect anything less," Jeff Carter said. "Obviously you look at the standings and it's a pretty big game for both of us. We don't expect anything short of their best effort, so we've got to be ready."

At the beginning of the season most observers pegged the Kings and Sharks to be in the top eight at this point of the season. While both are on the outside looking in going into Tuesday's game, the winner would climb back into the top eight in the West.

"For whatever reason, teams have their ups and downs," Carter said. "It's how you kind of respond to it. I think our team has been playing some good hockey and putting some wins together and given ourselves a pretty good shot here."
Posted On Tuesday, 03.20.2012 / 3:28 PM

By Curtis Zupke - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Quick back at work

El SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Jonathan Quick is expected to return in goal for the Kings on Tuesday after he was given a rare night off Saturday. Quick will have four days of rest between starts.

How much will it pay off?

"We'll find out in the next few hours," said Kings coach Darryl Sutter.

Fatigue was a concern with Quick under former coach Terry Murray, who started Quick 72 games in 2009-10. Quick will make his 61st start tonight.

Sutter, who rode Miikka Kiprusoff in Calgary, said the rest period was planned.

"It was the best time to do it," he said.

Here is what the rest of the Kings' lineup could look like:

Dustin Brown - Anze Kopitar - Justin Williams
Dwight King - Mike Richards - Jeff Carter
Dustin Penner - Jarret Stoll - Trevor Lewis
Kyle Clifford - Colin Fraser - Jordan Nolan

Rob Scuderi - Drew Doughty
Willie Mitchell - Slava Voynov
Matt Greene - Alec Martinez

Jonathan Quick will be in goal, with Jonathan Bernier the backup.
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