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Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 2:52 PM

By Alain Poupart - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Panthers have their sights set on No. 2 seed

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers have spent a good part of the season trying to hold off the Washington Capitals and stay atop the Southeast Division to land the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference standings, but they've started thinking about a bigger target.

The Panthers now have their eye on the second seed and the Boston Bruins, tonight's opponents at the BankAtlantic Center.

Boston will come in with a four-point lead (83-79) over Florida, and both teams will have 12 games remaining after Thursday night.

Heading into last Saturday, the Bruins had an eight-point lead over Florida with a game in hand, so the idea of landing the No. 2 seed seemed out of reach for the Panthers.

But Boston has lost its last three and the Panthers have won their last two, making Thursday night's fourth and final meeting between the teams a crucial one.

"We do talk about where our situation is and we do look at this as a four-point game," Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. "I know we're playing -- excuse the pun -- a bit of a wounded bear right now after their game in Tampa. We know we're going to have our hands full. This is the kind of game we are going to play down the stretch, and I don't think the timing could be any better for us. It's going to be a great challenge for us.

"It’s a team well-respected in our locker room and throughout the League, and when a team like that goes through a little bit of a drought right now, you know they're going to come out very hungry and angry. I think that's what we need as a team as well. We need to have ourselves a game that's incredibly competitive, and that's what I would expect tonight."

In the Southeast Division, Florida has only a one-point lead over Washington, but also has a game in hand. Winnipeg is five points behind the Panthers, but also has played one more game. The Capitals and Jets meet Friday night in Winnipeg.

But the Panthers, who haven't made the playoffs since 2000, are trying not to get too caught up in the standings.

"You can't look five games ahead," defenseman Mike Weaver said. "You've just got to concentrate on this game. This is huge. Every single period, every single shift, every single time you touch the puck, it's going to be like a playoff game.

"We've really got to keep this thing going. We've won two games, but I want to say we haven't been up against an opponent like Boston. That's going to be a really huge test. That's why you prepare in the summer, that's why you work hard, this is why you ride the bike, do your long jogs and runs, you prepare for situations like these."
Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 2:36 PM

By Aaron Vickers - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Aucoin, Vrbata are question marks for Coyotes

CALGARY -- The Phoenix Coyotes could be without a pair of important pieces to their playoff puzzle in the second of back-to-back games against the Calgary Flames at the Scotiabank Saddledome Thursday.
Both Adrian Aucoin and Radim Vrbata are questionable for the game, an important contest in the Western Conference playoff picture. The Coyotes are currently seventh in the West and hold a three-point advantage over the Flames at 81.
Vrbata missed the 5-4 victory over Vancouver Wednesday due to illness and is considered day-to-day by the club.
Aucoin did suit up against the Canucks, but did not finish the game, which could pave the way for either Michael Stone or Derek Morris to return to the lineup. Stone was a healthy scratch for the Coyotes, while Morris hasn’t played since Feb. 11 due to personal reasons.
Either could play in front of goaltender Mike Smith, who is expected to start against Calgary. Smith has started 13 of the previous 14 games for the Coyotes.
Here's the projected lineup for the Coyotes:

Ray Whitney - Antoine Vermette - Gilbert Brule
Raffi Torres - Daymond Langkow - Shane Doan
Taylor Pyatt - Boyd Gordon - Lauri Korpikoski
Mikkel Boedker - Marc-Antoine Pouliot - Paul Bissonnette
Keith Yandle - David Schlemko
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Michal Rozsival
Rostislav Klesla - Michael Stone
Mike Smith
Jason LaBarbera
Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 2:28 PM

By Alain Poupart - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Defending champs hit stretch run seeking answers

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Boston Bruins wrap up a three-game road trip Thursday night at Florida looking to avoid being swept. Just as important, the defending Stanley Cup champions are looking for answers.

Boston didn't just lose at Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay in its last two games, the Bruins were embarrassed by scores of 5-2 and 6-1.

The blowout losses have given Thursday night's game against the Panthers added importance beyond the tightening Eastern Conference standings, and center Patrice Bergeron realizes the level of urgency his team is feeling.

"It's high," he said. "We need to find answers. We need to build some ground and get those points. It's a huge game for us right now. We know there's not much time left before the end of the season and we need to get on a roll. We're not happy with the way we're playing right now and we need to find answers."

Boston will enter Thursday's game on an overall three-game losing streak, during which it has been outscored 15-6. The 15 goals represents the most goals the Bruins have allowed over a three-game span all season.

There have been problems lately in all facets.

Over their last six games, the Bruins are 0-for-13 on the power play. In their last five, they've allowed five power-play goals on 16 chances.

And then there's the slow starts. In their last three losses, the Bruins have found themselves down by at least two goals in the first 8:15 every time. Against Tampa Bay on Tuesday, it was 3-0 after only 4:31.

"I wish there was one answer because then it would be easy to address it," center Chris Kelly said. "When you get behind the 8-ball like we have, you put yourself in a tough, tough position, especially at this point in the year. Teams have found their game, especially defensively when they go up by one, let alone two or three or even four. Our starts are key, and we need to be much, much better starting hockey games."

Coach Claude Julien looks at the overall picture and says the Bruins need to go back to playing more of a team game.

"We're not a team that relies on one or two players to bail us out, we've done it by community in the past," Julien said. "We also realize what we have here and what we're all about, and our strength has been as a pack, not as individuals. So we need to play within our strengths, and if we're going to get ourselves out of it, like a lot of players have told you, it's not about one guy. It's about all of us picking up our game and putting us back in the right direction."

Despite the Bruins' recent struggles, don't think for a second the Panthers will be taking them lightly. If nothing else, they remember too well the teams' Dec. 23 meeting in Boston that ended in an 8-0 rout for the home team.

"That's a team that put a pretty good Christmas beating on us on the 23rd, sent us on our break licking our wounds a little bit," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "You know what, every team has their stretches where you go through droughts. Boston's success has come in great quantum bunches. Right now it's not happening that way, but too much respect for that organization and that coaching staff to (think) that they won't be ready and prepared for tonight's game."

As they try to break out of their funk, the Bruins can found some solace in their ability to overcome adversity last year on their way to the Stanley Cup title.

They could even look at their only other three-game losing streak this season, which occurred in late October. After the third consecutive loss, 4-2 at Montreal on Oct. 29, the Bruins reeled off 10 consecutive victories -- the longest winning streak in the NHL this season.

"No one is feeling sorry for us around the League or around the hockey world," Bergeron said. "We're in this together, and that's how we're going to get out of it. We can learn from experiences in the past that we have the character to come out of it. We've just got to go out there and do it."
Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 2:10 PM

By Aaron Vickers - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Flames close to getting Stempniak, Bouma back

CALGARY -- Help is on the way for the Calgary Flames.
The list of eight players on the injured reserve list will soon shrink with the pending returns of Lee Stempniak and Lance Bouma. Unfortunately for the Flames, though, that will not happen Thursday night when they host the Phoenix Coyotes at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
Both Bouma and Stempniak took the game-day skate, but will not play against the Coyotes, who hold a three-point edge on Calgary in the Western Conference playoff chase.
"To be able to get out there and skate, it felt good," said Bouma, who has missed four games with an upper-body injury. "We'll take it day-by-day and see how it feels as it goes on. Today was good; the practice was good. We'll see how it goes."
After missing 19 games with an ankle injury, Stempniak is in a similar situation.
"I'm more day-to-day then week-to-week," Stempniak said. "I feel good. I think at some point I'll do more practice and do more contact and see how it is. At that point it will be coach's decision."
Coach Brent Sutter pegged Stempniak as the next to return from the sick bay.
"Probably Stemps is the closest out of everyone right now, as long as he has no setbacks," Sutter said. "They're both getting real close."
The return of either would spell the end of junior recall Sven Baertschi, up on an emergency basis from the WHL's Portland Winterhawks. He will be forced to return to juniors as soon as either is healthy.
"After the next guy, if things stay as is and the next guy gets healthy enough to return and he's at the level he needs to be to get back in our lineup, then Baertsch will have to go down," Sutter said. "It's just the way the rules work."
Fully aware, the 19-year-old has handled the situation maturely.
"That's the tough part of it," said Baertschi, who has 2 goals in three games since his recall. "Not everyone can do what I did so far here. I just got really lucky. It's an exciting time for me. I just enjoy it day-by-day. When I have to go back, I'll go back and do the same thing in Portland."
Here's the projected lineup for the Flames:

Alex Tanguay - Matt Stajan - Jarome Iginla
Curtis Glencross - Olli Jokinen - David Moss
Tom Kostopoulos - Greg Nemisz - Blake Comeau
Sven Baertschi - Roman Horak - Guillaume Desbiens
Jay Bouwmeester - Cory Sarich
Mark Giordano - Scott Hannan
Derek Smith - Anton Babchuk
Miikka Kiprusoff
Leland Irving
Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 2:08 PM

By Alain Poupart - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Banged-up Bergeron still expects to play for Bruins

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Patrice Bergeron is one of four Boston Bruins to not miss a game this season, and it appears his streak will continue Thursday night against Florida despite two leg injuries in the last two games.

After being the only player on Boston's active roster not to practice Wednesday, one night after he was hit in the back of the leg by a slap shot from teammate Johnny Boychuk, Bergeron skated Thursday morning.

Coach Claude Julien said Bergeron would be a game-time decision, but the Bruins center sounded optimistic he would be ready to go against the Panthers.

"I felt OK," Bergeron said. "I'd like to be 100 percent, but that's part of the game and I'll be alright for tonight, hopefully. I've got to play through it. I'm no different than anyone else. It's part of the game. It shouldn't be an excuse."

Bergeron played only one shift in the third period of Sunday's 5-2 loss at Pittsburgh because of a lower-body injury, but that's unrelated to the injury sustained in the 6-1 loss at Tampa Bay Tuesday.

In that game, Bergeron was able to come back after missing only one shift. The center said there's no danger of aggravating the injury, that it's just a matter of pain tolerance.

Bergeron added he did see the shot from Boychuk.

"I just couldn't get out of the way," Bergeron said. "It's just one of those things where you're there, but you hope it's not going to hit you. But it did. Johnny's got a pretty good shot."

Among the other small group of Bruins players who skated Thursday morning was forward Benoit Pouliot, who has missed the last three games because of a lower-body injury.

He also will be a game-time decision.

Tim Thomas, who was pulled after one period against Pittsburgh in his last start before replacing Marty Turco Tuesday, is expected to start in net.

For the Panthers, Jose Theodore is expected to make his sixth consecutive start. Since a 5-0 loss at Philadelphia last Thursday, Theodore has allowed only three goals on 96 shots in his last three outings.

Up front, veteran Marco Sturm is expected to be back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch four of the last six games. Sturm, who spent four-plus seasons with Boston before being traded to Los Angeles in December 2010, is expected to replace Mike Santorelli on the third line alongside Shawn Matthias and Tomas Kopecky.

Here are the projected lineups for the Bruins and Panthers:

Brad Marchand - Patrice Bergeron - Jordan Caron
Milan Lucic - David Krejci - Tyler Seguin
Daniel Paille - Chris Kelly - Brian Rolston
Trent Whitfield - Gregory Campbell - Shawn Thornton

Zdeno Chara - Dennis Seidenberg
Andrew Ference - Johnny Boychuk
Greg Zanon - Joe Corvo

Tim Thomas
Marty Turco

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

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

Jose Theodore
Scott Clemmensen
Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 1:54 PM

By Lonnie Herman - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Maple Leafs well aware of danger Stamkos presents

TAMPA -- Talk about timing.

One day after Steven Stamkos notched his 50th goal, the Toronto Maple Leafs arrive to play the Lightning Thursday night at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Naturally, Ontario native Stamkos' achievement is the center of attention.

"Special players, you have to pay special attention to," Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said. "You have to recognize when he's on the ice. He has some tendencies on where he likes to go on the ice, but he can make something out of nothing.

"He's very, very confident in what he does out there on the ice. I think he's become an elite athlete. From where he was as an 18-year old draftee to where he is now, how much time and work and effort he's put in personally and the skill-set that he possesses, is all part of him accepting responsibility and developing himself into an elite-level NHL hockey player. You have to give him all the credit in the world because of the approach he has taken and maintains."

For Stamkos, it's more than just scoring goals now, it's about leadership.

"This year we have gone through a lot of adversity, so it was kind of a goal of mine to become more of a leader, whether on the ice or through actions," Stamkos said. "It's a time where I've been here four years now and I've earned trust and respect. It's a great feeling knowing you're part of the leadership group on this team, and I just want to keep learning and helping this team win."

Lightning coach Guy Boucher also praised the 22-year old for his developing leadership skills.

"I've always seen his potential," Boucher said. "He's an extremely respectful individual when it comes to everything, but mainly leadership. His leadership really revolves around how he inspires people around him; his charging, driving attitude, his enthusiasm for the game and wanting to be the guy in the big moments, that's very contagious.

"The mark of every great athlete is to adapt, and that's what he has. His attitude, his work ethic and his discipline have made his actions successful almost every night, and that's impressive for a youngster his age."

Toronto arrives in Tampa carrying plenty of recent adversity. It has been a tough stretch for the Maple Leafs, who are making the third stop on what will ultimately be a five-game road swing, during which they are still seeking their first point. They are 0-4-1 in their last five, 1-4-1 since Carlyle took over the reins on March 2, and are on the verge of becoming the only franchise in hockey to miss the playoffs every year since the lockout if they miss out and the Panthers get in.

"Our job as a coaching staff right now is to get this hockey club in the right frame of mind and win some games to get ourselves feeling better about ourselves," Carlyle said. "It's as simple as that. Right now we're not an emotionally 'up' group. Hopefully, they can bring an effort tonight that is worthy of getting us a couple of points."

Carlyle made the point that reports he ripped his club post-game after Tuesday night's loss to the Panthers are inaccurate.

"I didn't rip the team at all," Carlyle said. "I talked about self-destruction and how we could improve; there was no rant, it was just like I'm talking now, it was matter-of-fact. This is what I felt, this is what had transpired out there, and we are held accountable and responsible for those actions."

The Maple Leafs got some additional bad news as Nikolai Kulemin is out with a broken finger, sustained during the 5-2 loss to Florida.

"It seems like the longer we go on this road trip, there always seems to be subtraction taking place," Carlyle said.

Here are the projected lineups for tonight's game:

Clarke MacArthur - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel
Tim Connolly - David Steckel - Mikhail Grabovski
Carter Ashton - Matt Frattin - Joey Crabb
Colby Armstrong - Matthew Lombardi - Jay Rosehill

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

Jonas Gustavsson
James Reimer


Martin St. Louis - Steven Stamkos - Teddy Purcell
Ryan Malone - Adam Hall - Nate Thompson
JT Wyman - Tom Pyatt - Tim Wallace
Brett Connolly - Ryan Shannon

Eric Brewer - Victor Hedman
Brett Clark - Mike Commodore
Brendan Mikkelson - Brian Lee
Keith Aulie

Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 1:36 PM

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

Projected lineups for Penguins, Rangers

NEW YORK -- The Rangers will be a bit shorthanded while the Penguins will be at full strength for their matchup at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.

Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang are back for the Penguins, while Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan and Michael Del Zotto won't dress for the Rangers.

The Rangers called up goaltender Chad Johnson for the second straight game to serve as Martin Biron's backup. Marc-Andre Fleury will be in net for the Penguins.

Here are the line combinations from this morning's practices.


Chris Kunitz - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal
Steve Sullivan - Jordan Staal - Pascal Dupuis
Matt Cooke - Sidney Crosby - Tyler Kennedy
Craig Adams - Joe Vitale - Arron Asham

Paul Martin - Kris Letang
Brooks Orpik - Zbynek Michalek
Deryk Engelland - Matt Niskanen

Marc-Andre Fleury
Brad Thiessen

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

Ryan McDonagh - Dan Girardi
Marc Staal - Stu Bickel
Anton Stralman - Steve Eminger

Martin Biron
Chad Johnson

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 1:32 PM

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

Magnitude of game still the focus for Pens, Rangers

NEW YORK -- Lost in all the hoopla surrounding the return of Sidney Crosby is the fact there's a pretty big hockey game taking place at Madison Square Garden, too.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will be at full strength -- defenseman Kris Letang is back, too -- as they look for their 10th straight victory when they face the New York Rangers in a battle of the Eastern Conference's top two teams.

The Rangers hold a six-point edge on their Atlantic Division rivals, who hold a game in hand. While the Penguins have been surging, the Rangers have been scuffling -- they have won two straight to start a seven-game homestand, but are just 4-3-1 in March and haven't been playing their best of late.

While the Penguins are getting healthy, the Rangers are going in the opposite direction. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist will miss his second straight game due to the flu; Ryan Callahan is out for a third straight game with a foot ailment, and defenseman Michael Del Zotto will miss his fourth consecutive game with a sore hip.

There are enough storylines in this matchup to keep writers at their keyboards for days, but for both teams, the game is all that matters.

"This game is a lot more than about Sidney Crosby coming back to our game and a comeback game for Sid," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We know that if we want to catch the Rangers and first in our division and hopefully first in the conference, we have to beat them. We're coming in here to win the two points. I don't think we can give them one point and realistically think we have a chance to get them. That's what this game is for us."

Rangers coach John Tortorella doesn't care who is in the lineup for the Penguins.

"We're worried about our club," Tortorella said. "That's all we're concerned about -- the New York Rangers."

Tortorella's players aren't looking at it as just another game, but they aren't concerning themselves with any of the hype surrounding Crosby.

"Doesn't matter," Rangers forward Brian Boyle. "They're a good team that's coming on strong. He's a good player, obviously, but it's a big divisional game. That's the biggest thing. Games get magnified toward the end of the season. That's the biggest thing."

Goaltender Martin Biron will make his second straight start -- the Rangers called up Chad Johnson from Connecticut of the AHL to serve as the backup -- and said it won't be hard to focus on the task at hand.

"We had our morning skate, and we'll leave here this morning game-ready," Biron said. "It's the same as it's always been. When we play Pittsburgh, it's always a very important matchup. It's very exciting, very emotional. With Sidney in the lineup, it adds a different dimension, but I think they've got a lot of weapons on the other side that keeps us on top of our game. It's always a special game when we play them."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 1:00 PM

By Kurt Dusterberg - Correspondent / - At the Rink blog

Blues to rest Arnott; projected Hurricanes lineup

St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock is giving forward Jason Arnott the next two games off to overcome a variety of recent injuries. With 16 goals and 32 points, Arnott is a key figure as the Blues prepare for the playoffs.

"We'll bit the bullet," said Hitchcock. "That allows him to have a full week off before he plays again. Arnie was in a situation where he was trying to play through injuries and it wasn't fair to him. I think he was 50 percent of the player we had before. He was a really good player for us three weeks ago. Then he got banged up and tried to play through it, but it doesn't work that way."

After a lengthy practice in Raleigh on Wednesday, St. Louis had a light turnout for an optional skate Thursday morning.

Brian Elliott, with an NHL-best 1.61 goals against average, will get the start against the Hurricanes.

Meanwhile, this is the projected lineup for the Hurricanes based off their morning skate:

Jeff Skinner - Eric Staal - Tuomo Ruutu
Andreas Nodl - Jussi Jokinen - Chad LaRose
Patrick Dwyer - Brandon Sutter - Drayson Bowman
Derek Joslin - Tim Brent - Anthony Stewart
Bobby Sanguinetti - Bryan Allen
Jay Harrison - Justin Faulk
Tim Gleason - Jamie McBain
Cam Ward
Brian Boucher

Posted On Thursday, 03.15.2012 / 12:45 PM

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

Letang also returning to Penguins' lineup

NEW YORK -- Sidney Crosby isn't the only star returning to the lineup for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.

Defenseman Kris Letang, who was out of the lineup for five games due to headaches stemming from a hit to the head Feb. 29, has been cleared to play against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Letang said he's a little surprised to be back so quickly.

"I was scared a little bit during that game," said Letang, who suffered the injury on a hit by Stars forward Eric Nystrom. "Looking back at it, the symptoms were not that bad. I was able to rehabilitate easier."

Letang was never diagnosed with a concussion this time around, but he missed nearly two months with a concussion suffered in a game against the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 26. In a strange coincidence, Letang also returned from that injury to face the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 19. In that contest, he had an assist and was plus-2 in 24:17.

Coach Dan Bylsma said he doesn't expect to give Letang a full workload, but he said the same thing before that Jan. 19 game as well. Letang hasn't had the same layoff this time around, and said the symptoms from the Nystrom hit weren't as severe as the ones he felt after the hit by Montreal's Max Pacioretty.

"The first time I got dizzy and I got sick," Letang said. "It was just a question of headaches (this time). It wasn't that bad."

Defenseman Zbynek Michalek said the importance of having Letang back can't be underestimated.

"It's huge," Michalek said. "He's been such a great player for us. He's having a good season and playing so many big minutes against other teams' top lines. He might be one of the top d-men in the League. He maybe doesn't get the credit he deserves in the League and it's great to have him back. I'm glad he's healthy again."

The Penguins have won nine straight games and have climbed to within six points of the Rangers in the chase for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins have played most of the season without their big guns, and Thursday's game will be the fifth this season that the Penguins will have Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in the lineup.

The best may have yet to come for the now-healthy Penguins.

"Everybody looks at our lineup right and everyone's healthy, but you never know," Letang said. "The chemistry we had before…I think we have a pretty tight group and I think we can do a lot of great stuff. But we have to get everybody going at the same time."

"We are not worrying about who's in the lineup or who's not, we're just playing our game and we've done a pretty good job of it so far this season," Michalek said. "Obviously it's a great boost for our team to have some of the top players in the world back in our lineup. In the long run, it will definitely be a boost for our team. It's exciting, just the way we are playing right now. Having these guys back, we know we have the potential."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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