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Posted On Tuesday, 03.13.2012 / 3:09 PM

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

Blues' Stewart earned top-line promotion

CHICAGO -- With his play in recent games dictating what his ice time will be like moving forward, the St. Louis Blues have elevated Chris Stewart back to a familiar role.

A scoring role.

Stewart, relegated to the third line and sometimes taking shifts on the fourth line, will move up and play on the Blues' top line Tuesday, with David Backes and T.J. Oshie, against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Although his offensive production doesn't jump out at you, looking at Stewart's game-by-game totals recently, he's become more noticeable and coach Ken Hitchcock said he feels Stewart is ready to go back where he belongs -- at least for now.

"Yeah, a lot," Hitchcock said when asked if he's noticed Stewart more often on the ice. "We've worked hard on his conditioning, he's worked hard on his conditioning. He's quicker, he's quicker to pucks, he's more engaged, he's got his speed back. I think he went through a phase where he didn't have his speed, so he was kind of late going to the net, but he's got his speed back. He's a very attractive player now because of the way he's been playing. It's been good for us."

Stewart, who's averaged 12-14 minutes per game in the last 16 games played (he only played 9:22 Sunday at Columbus because the Blues spent a lot of time killing penalties), he's become more aggressive and his play around the net is earning attention.

"You don't really read too much into that," Stewart said when asked about his ice time. "You just have to accept your role. If I'm going to be on the third line that night, I'm going to play hard, and if I'm going to be on the first line, I'm going to have to bring that offensive production and I'm going to try to contribute that way, too. That's the good thing about this team. We have guys who can fluctuate to those roles to win hockey games. We find a way.

"I've only been only playing 13 minutes or so the last 5-10 games, but I've had some quality opportunities. I got on the power play the last game, too, and got some good looks. I feel good about my game right now."

Stewart played earlier in the season with Backes and Oshie; Hitchcock used him there earlier in the season with the thought that they could get Stewart going.

"We're just going to be the line that pushes the tempo and the physical play," Stewart said. "When we're on our game, we're going to control the puck. We're going to get it down low, have strong cycles and really make it hard on guys like (Duncan) Keith and (Brent) Seabrook, who are going to play their big minutes. We want to give them a lot to handle.

"When you play with guys like that (Backes), you don't want to over-think. You just want to simplify. That's what's going to come easy. We're not going to be a line out there that's going to try to make seam passes and tic-tac-toe plays. Not to say that we can't if an opportunity presents itself, but we're really going to grind down teams and make their big bodies play tough minutes."
Posted On Tuesday, 03.13.2012 / 3:02 PM

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

Blackhawks stick with Emery for sixth straight start

CHICAGO -- Ray Emery will get his sixth start in goal against the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night at the United Center.

It will match Emery's previous season high of six consecutive starts from Dec. 8 through Dec. 20, but could also be a sign of which way Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is leaning as the stretch run of the regular season winds down.

Quenneville isn't tipping his hand, however. Second-year goalie Corey Crawford, who signed a two-year contract extension in the offseason to be the Hawks' starter, hasn't played since allowing three goals on 10 shots Feb. 29 against Toronto and being pulled after just one period.

"Well, we're in the 'win today' mode," Quenneville said, when asked after Tuesday's morning skate if he'd given much thought to his long-term goaltending situation. "We're not looking too far in advance. ... Right now, Ray's playing well and that's where we're at. We've always been confident in both goalies. It's a matter of opportunity, so that's where it's at."

It's just that of late, the opportunity has been all Emery's, with Crawford still working to get his game back together in practices with goaltending coach Stephane Waite. Counting Tuesday night's game against St. Louis, Chicago has just 12 games left in the regular season, so time is ticking faster on Crawford getting another shot to redeem himself.

It wasn't just that Toronto game that led to Emery's recent rise to the starting spot. Crawford has been up and down all season, but was also pulled early in the second period of his previous start before the Toronto game, on Feb. 25 in Los Angeles. In that start, he allowed four goals against 10 shots.

Needless to say, Crawford is not pleased to be sitting out with those two starts still rattling around his head as his last frame of reference to game action. He'd like to get back in net soon, but also realizes the team is 3-1-1 in the five straight games Emery has started.

"We're winning hockey games, so I can't say anything," Crawford told NHL.com last week. "I'd kind of like to say I'd like to be playing, but I've just got to be a good guy on the sidelines and, you know, if ever I get the call again I'll jump back in there. Usually you want to get right back into it. It's tough to sit on the sidelines when your last couple games were probably your worst of the year."

All he can do at this point is wait his turn and hope to get another one of those opportunities that Quenneville often cites when talking about goaltending.

"There's nothing I can do about it," Crawford said. "I just work hard in practice and build off good stuff in practice to be prepared for the next time I go in."

Emery is doing likewise, but said getting the bulk of starts lately helps built his confidence.

In the past five starts, Emery has a 2.55 goals-against average and .911 save percentage, which are only slightly better than his season totals (2.66 GAA and .906 save percentage) -- but it's his consistency that's earned him the top role to this point.

"I think if you play a bit more, you're more comfortable in net," Emery said. "Confidence goes along with that, but each night's a different night and I think you've got to stay sharp."

At home, that's been no problem for the veteran goaltender. Emery is 10-0-2 in 13 appearances at the United Center this season, with a 1.70 GAA and .934 save percentage. On the road, the numbers aren't nearly as sterling.

"I'm a part of the team and there's definitely a boost starting at home in front of your home fans, but I don't know if you can read too much into it," Emery said. "You play more and you're more confident in net. I think it's the same for anyone. It kind of becomes where you don't have to think as much and it becomes more of a reaction. It really helps to play more."

As for possibly wresting control of the starter's job for the rest of the season and into the playoffs, Emery is a lot like his coach -- taking only a narrow focus to the situation.

"Every game is a new challenge," said Emery, who made the team on a tryout contract in training camp. "Good things are going to happen if you do well with those small, short-term goals. There's no need to look ahead of St. Louis tonight."

Crawford, meanwhile, has now had plenty of time to reflect on his turbulent season.

"I'm confident that I can do the job and you know, just the consistency has been a factor this year for me," he told NHL.com. "It's one of the reasons I'm not playing right now. I think when things were going well for me this year, I didn't continue to do the things that got me to that point. Now that I look back, I think I maybe just got complacent or maybe a little bit too comfortable. It's a tough League. Once you let up a little bit, you know ... you see what happens."
Posted On Tuesday, 03.13.2012 / 2:44 PM

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

Maple Leafs seek solutions to scoring woes

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Toronto Maple Leafs are looking to snap out of a funk that has seen them lose 14 of their last 16 games, and the first step would be finding a way to score.

The Leafs will go into Tuesday night's game at Florida coming off back-to-back shutout losses -- 1-0 in a shootout at home against Philadelphia, and 2-0 at Washington.

Toronto has gone 157:24 since its last goal, a deflection by defenseman Carl Gunnarsson that gave the Maple Leafs a 2-0 second-period lead at Pittsburgh in a game they would lose 3-2.

"We've just got to keep getting to the net and keep getting in front of the goalies and getting rebounds and getting some dirty goals," forward Joey Crabb said. "When you're in a slump a little bit, then you've just got to do the dirty things that get you goals and maybe not so much the pretty tic-tac-toe plays."

Randy Carlyle, who replaced Ron Wilson as Leafs coach on March 2, said his team needs more control of the puck in the offensive zone as well as creating more traffic in front of the net.

"The new term in hockey is take the goaltender's eyes away with the middle-net drive, the net presence," he said. "You've got to create more offensive zone time, which in turn usually wears down the opposition, creates more chances and draws penalties. Instead of playing the one-and-out game, if we can play more of an offensive zone control game and move off the puck, cycle the puck, do all of those things, then it should increase the chances to score.

"The offensive zone time that you are able to create gives your team a lift because it's a lot more fun to play in the offensive zone than it is in the defensive zone. That's what we're trying to sell."

Of course, it doesn't help Toronto's cause that wing Joffrey Lupul has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury that's expected to keep him out until the end of the month.

Lupul is second on the team behind Phil Kessel and tied for eighth in the League with Chicago's Marian Hossa with 67 points, and his speed created some space for Kessel.

"Lups' speed has opened up the ice for both (Tyler) Bozak and Kessel," Carlyle said. "I don't think they have that same element with a Tim Connolly, but I think Tim Connolly's playmaking ability when he gets the puck should be able to create time and space for them."

The Leafs have lost four in a row since beating Montreal in Carlyle's debut on March 3, but the four losses have been by a combined five goals.

Their current 2-12-2 skid has dropped the Maple Leafs to 12th in the Eastern Conference standings, and they're eight points behind eighth-place Washington with 13 games left.

If nothing else, Toronto put together respectable performances in its recent losses to the Bruins, Penguins, Flyers and Capitals.

The Maple Leafs are looking to do the same against Florida and hoping to finally find the back of the net.

"We've got to focus on both ends of the ice," Crabb said. "We've had a couple of good defensive games and we can't let that go just because we haven't scored in a couple of games. The goals will come. As long as we stay stingy defensively like we have been, then we'll be set."
Posted On Tuesday, 03.13.2012 / 2:26 PM

By Aaron Vickers -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Sharks can swim back into West's top eight

Less than 24 hours after defeating the Edmonton Oilers to collect a pair of key points, the San Jose Sharks will try for a sweep of Alberta on Tuesday night against the Calgary Flames.
 
The ninth-place Sharks can vault themselves into seventh with a win over the Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome. A win will not come easy with the Flames also battling for their playoff lives. Calgary trails the Sharks by just one point heading into the contest.
 
The Sharks, who are just 3-5-2 in their past 10 games, have a game in hand over the Flames, three more than eighth-place Colorado Avalanche and two over the Phoenix Coyotes, who hold down the seventh spot in the West.
 
Here is the projected lineup for the Sharks:

Patrick MarleauJoe ThorntonJoe Pavelski
Ryane CloweLogan coutureTommy Wingels
Daniel WinnikDominic MooreTorrey Mitchell
Andrew DesjardinsMichal HandzusTJ Galiardi
 
Dan BoyleMarc-Edouard Vlasic
Douglas MurrayBrent Burns
Jason DemersColin White
 
Antti Niemi
Thomas Greiss
Posted On Tuesday, 03.13.2012 / 2:24 PM

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

Probable lineup for Blues

CHICAGO -- Here is the projected lineup for the St. Louis Blues, who will face the Chicago Blackhawks tonight at the United Center:

T.J. Oshie - David Backes - Chris Stewart
Andy McDonald - Patrik Berglund - David Perron
Vladimir Sobotka - Jason Arnott - Jamie Langenbrunner
B.J. Crombeen - Scott Nichol - Chris Porter

Carlo Colaiacovo - Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman - Kevin Shattenkirk
Ian Cole - Roman Polak

Jaroslav Halak will start in goal, with Brian Elliott the backup. Halak will try to extend a personal-best streak of eight straight wins. He has a 1.45 goals-against average and .945 save percentage in this 8-0-0 run.

Blues scratches include newcomer Jaden Schwartz and defensemen Kent Huskins (bruised hand). Defenseman Kris Russell (concussion) and forwards Alex Steen (concussion) and Matt D'Agostini (concussion) remain on injured reserve. Steen and D'Agostini are not on the trip with the team.

In case you missed it earlier, here's the lineup the Blackhawks likely will counter with.


Posted On Tuesday, 03.13.2012 / 2:15 PM

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

Injured Panthers not yet ready to return

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers might have forward Kris Versteeg and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov back in the lineup sometime during their current four-game homestand, but it won't be Tuesday night against Toronto.

Coach Kevin Dineen said both Versteeg, who is tied with Tomas Fleischmann for the team lead in goals (22) and points (49), and Kulikov also were doubtful for Thursday's game against Boston but wouldn't rule out the possibility they’d return for the last game of the homestand, Saturday against Buffalo.

Versteeg has missed the last seven games because of a lower-body injury, while Kulikov has missed 21 after undergoing knee surgery in January.

Forward Jack Skille, meanwhile, definitely won't play during the homestand and there's a possibility he might be done for the season.

Skille sustained an upper-body injury in Friday night’s 2-1 shootout loss at Pittsburgh when he collided with teammate Sean Bergenheim.

Earlier this season, Skille sat out 20 games with a shoulder injury that occurred when he slammed into the boards while attempting to throw a body check.

"I know it's going to be a while, certainly long term," Dineen said. "Until I hear the actual words that he's done for the season, that hasn't been told to me yet, but I would not expect to see him certainly for quite a while."

Dineen didn't indicate who would start in net for the Panthers on Tuesday, but it seems likely Jose Theodore will make his fifth consecutive start.

After allowing five goals on 35 shots during Thursday's 5-0 loss at Philadelphia, Theodore stopped 67 of 68 shots in the last two games -- the shootout loss at Pittsburgh and a 2-0 victory against Carolina on Sunday.

For the Leafs, Jonas Gustavsson has started the last six games, but coach Randy Carlyle also declined to say who would be in the net Tuesday night.

Instead of Gustavsson, Carlyle could choose to go with James Reimer, whose last start came Feb. 28 against those same Florida Panthers when he gave up five goals on 23 shots in a 5-3 loss.

Here are Tuesday's projected lineups for the Maple Leafs and Panthers.

MAPLE LEAFS
Tim Connolly - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel
Clarke MacArthur - Mikhail Grabovski - Nikolai Kulemin
Carter Ashton - David Steckel - Joey Crabb
Colby Armstrong - Matthew Lombardi - Matt Frattin

Carl Gunnarsson - Dion Phaneuf
John-Michael Liles - Mike Komisarek
Jake Gardiner - Luke Schenn

James Reimer
Jonas Gustavsson

PANTHERS
Wojtek Wolski - Stephen Weiss - Tomas Fleischmann
Sean Bergenheim - Marcel Goc - Mikael Samuelsson
Tomas Kopecky - Shawn Matthias - Mike Santorelli
Marco Sturm - John Madden - Jerred Smithson

Jason Garrison - Brian Campbell
Ed Jovanovski - Erik Gudbranson
Keaton Ellerby - Mike Weaver

Jose Theodore
Scott Clemmensen
Posted On Tuesday, 03.13.2012 / 2:08 PM

By Aaron Vickers -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Calgary's Comeau could return for critical contest

CALGARY – Blake Comeau won’t admit to watching the out-of-town scoreboard as the Calgary Flames attempt to chase down a playoff berth.
 
Comeau, who could be back for Calgary's game Tuesday with the San Jose Sharks after missing four with a shoulder injury, would prefer to take care of his own backyard instead.
 
“I don’t know how much we’re paying attention to it,” Comeau said. “We play a lot of the teams we’re in the race with still and I think if we take care of ourselves we’ll be alright.”
 
Trailing the Colorado Avalanche by just two points for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference, Flames coach Brent Sutter gathers everyone is keeping one eye on what other teams are doing around them, whether they’ll admit it or not.
 
“I think they all watch it, they just tell you differently,” Sutter said. “I find it hard to believe that no one isn’t keeping track on what other teams are doing too. Obviously we need to take care of our own business because everything else is irrelevant unless we do.”
 
 With the Sharks in town, Calgary has the opportunity to not only better posture in the playoff picture, but can also hinder San Jose’s chances. Just one point separates the two clubs in the standings.
 
“It seems like the last month we’ve had a lot of those games,” Comeau said. “We know how important this game is. It’s not going to come easy. It’s an important game for them as well. We’re going to have to be ready for a playoff-type atmosphere for this game.”
 
That could make the perfect setting for Comeau’s return.
 
“No one wants to be sitting in the stands watching so I’m excited to get back,” he said. “I feel good. The end decision is with Brent. I’m going to prepare like I’m in tonight but we’ll see what happens.”
 
Here is the projected lineup for the Flames:
 
Curtis GlencrossOlli JokinenDavid Moss
Alex TanguayMatt StajanJarome Iginla
Sven BaertschiTom KostopoulosBlake Comeau
Guillaume Desbiens/Krys KolanosRoman HorakGreg Nemisz
 
Jay BouwmeesterCory Sarich
Mark GiordanoScott Hannan
Anton BabchukDerek Smith
 
Miikka Kiprusoff
Henrik Karlsson
Posted On Tuesday, 03.13.2012 / 2:00 PM

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

Yeo stresses need for more urgency at both ends

ST. PAUL -- For the Minnesota Wild, much has been said and written about the their struggles to score goals lately. Even when things were going well early in the season, Minnesota ranked near the bottom of the League in total offense. Ever since things went bottom-up in mid-December, it's gotten worse.

Prior to the Wild's game Sunday against Calgary, Minnesota had been shut out in consecutive games at home for the first time in a decade.

Through 40 minutes against the Flames, the listless Wild appeared ready to make it a hat trick. Finally, Erik Christensen scored back-to-back goals early in the third period Sunday, breaking a home shutout streak of over 160 minutes.

"We owe our fans a good game here," Wild coach Mike Yeo said afterward. "This is too many games in a row where we've come out flat in our own building."

But the offense has only been a part of Minnesota's struggles. Yeo said his team has given up an inordinate amount of odd-man rushes the other way, including the game-winning tally Sunday night in a 4-3 loss to Calgary.

"The last two weeks, we've given up more 2-on-1s than we have all season," Yeo said. "It's something we used to pride ourselves on: We don't give up odd man rushes. Now, we're giving them up like crazy. It's not good enough."

For Yeo, he says his team can combat that by simply putting forth more effort. Too often, he says, his team has been caught flat-footed, and has paid for it.

"It's two goals in the last three games we've given up the exact same way and it should not happen," Yeo said. "It's a matter of urgency, being ready to back up our defensemen and a little bit of urgency that you're not going to allow the puck into the back of your net."

The 2-on-1s are just one aspect of the Wild's defensive game Yeo has been displeased with. Minnesota has made a habit of falling behind, and falling behind early. And although the Wild lead the League in victories when allowing the first goal, a vast majority of those wins came early in the season.

"For a team that has difficulty scoring goals, it makes it real tough trying to battle back the rest of the way," Yeo said. "We have to have more urgency on the defensive side of things and usually when you do that, over the course of the game, things tend to open up a bit more on the offensive side."

Yeo wasn't pleased with the effort of five or six guys Sunday night, hinting at a potential line-up shake-up this evening. That could come in the form of the return of winger Cal Clutterbuck, who has missed the last several games with an undisclosed illness. He skated at the Wild's practice Monday and this morning's skate and is likely to return this evening.

Forward Nick Johnson will be scratched this evening. Johnson, who represented the Wild in the All-Star Game skills challenge, hasn't played well lately and Yeo decided it's time to sit him down.

"I don't want to say we're making an example of him, but that's what it is right now. I didn't like his game last game," Yeo said.

On the injury front, Wild captain Mikko Koivu has also been skating with the team the last couple of days, although his return this season -- if at all -- is still a ways off.

It would also be surprising to see either Pierre-Marc Bouchard or Guillaume Latendresse again this season, especially in light of the Wild's almost nonexistent playoff hopes at this point.
Posted On Tuesday, 03.13.2012 / 1:59 PM

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

Hawks set to face Blues again without Toews

CHICAGO -- After getting back on the ice for four straight days while recovering from what's believed to be a concussion, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews has taken the last two days off.

The Hawks didn't practice on Monday and Toews didn't skate on his own. He then missed the morning skate Tuesday prior to the Hawks facing the St. Louis Blues at United Center on Tuesday night -- meaning he will not play against the Blues. It will be his 11th straight game out of the lineup.

"He didn't skate today, he's here getting treatments," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said after the skate. "It's part of the process. Some days are better than others, but he knows his body and we'll see how he is."

Toews was unavailable to speak with reporters while getting those treatments, but Quenneville sounded optimistic when asked if he was hopeful that his team's captain and top center could return within the next week or two.

"He's excited about when he was skating here, so he's still looking forward to getting back out there," Quenneville said. "Hopefully it's going to be soon."

Chicago is 5-4-1 in the previous 10 games since Toews left the lineup following a 3-1 win against the Blues on Feb. 19 at the United Center. Toews has missed a total of 11 games this season and the Hawks are 5-5-1 in those contests -- a mark that isn't nearly as bad as many might've thought when Toews first left the lineup.

"You'd probably like to be a little bit better than that, but he's a big part of the lineup ... everyone knows that," said star forward Patrick Kane, who has five goals and seven points in the past seven games filling in at top-line center. "He does so much. He scores goals. He's great on the penalty kill and faceoffs. He just helps in so many ways. When you miss a guy like that, it's a big void but I thought we've done pretty good overall."

The Blues present yet another tall order Tuesday night. Despite the teams splitting the first four games of the season series, St, Louis dominated Chicago 5-1 in the last meeting on March 6 at Scottrade Center. Toews was not in uniform for that game and the Blues seemed to thrive without the two-way center on the ice.

Since that game, however, the Hawks have managed to beat one of the League's best teams in the New York Rangers and then earn a point in a shootout loss to the playoff-hunting Los Angeles Kings -- both in Chicago.

Considering the Hawks have gone 4-1-1 since going 1-3-0 to start this extended stretch without their emotional leader, it could be a lot worse for them.

"The last [six] games we kind of realized that we wanted to put it together and start winning some games without him in the lineup," Kane said. "We've done a better job with that, as of late. Hopefully it's kind of a blessing in disguise, where you miss him for a little bit, you start playing the right way as a team and you know you're only going to get better when he comes back. It's kind of nice to think about it that way ... that you're winning games without a big piece of your lineup and you know he's coming back soon. It's exciting."
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— Oilers forward Connor McDavid on moving beyond the anticipation of his long-awaited arrival in the NHL
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