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POSTED ON Tuesday, 01.03.2012 / 3:48 PM

By Neil Acharya -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Stamkos back home as Lightning face Maple Leafs

TORONTO -- Steven Stamkos, the NHL's leading goal scorer, is back home for the first time this season as the Tampa Bay Lightning visit the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"I talked about it since day one, it's nice to come back and play in front of friends and family. It's always a special time for me and a big time for our team right now with the position we're in," said Stamkos, who was named the League's first star for the past week.

Currently, the Lightning have won three games in a row and Stamkos is eager for the club to continue to its recent play.

"We obviously wanted to have a better start but I think we have cleaned up our game drastically over the past 10 games," Stamkos said. "We may have not gotten the results we wanted to in a couple of them, but the last three for sure we have really tightened up defensively and we need another big game tonight.”

While the Lightning have gone 6-3-1 in the past 10 and are on the rise in the Eastern Conference, the Maple Leafs have struggled, losing three games in a row, and are 3-5-2 in their past 10 games.

If the Leafs are going to right the ship, taking advantage of home ice will be key. Tonight marks the first of a season-high nine home games this month.

"It's up to us to determine home ice advantage and go out and play well," Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "It seems here in Toronto that you don't get very many teams that come in often and have an off night. Everybody gets fired up to play here in Toronto, so your advantage is taken a away a little bit, but we will try to push the pace and make it a home ice advantage."

Ron Wilson who will give Jonas Gustavsson his first start since December 17th versus Vancouver. 

"It's a tough team," Gustavsson said. "(They have) always been tight games against them and I'm sure it will be another one tonight."

Notes: Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman remains out of the lineup with a concussion and did not make the trip to Toronto.

Toronto made a minor deal this afternoon, dealing forward Luca Caputi to Anaheim for forward Nicolas Deschamps.  Forward Phillipe Dupuis was also assigned to the AHL Toronto Marlies after clearing waivers, while defenseman Korbinian Holzer was recalled.
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POSTED ON Tuesday, 01.03.2012 / 3:12 PM

By NHL.com Staff -  /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Knee surgery sidelines Pitkanen four weeks

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Joni Pitkanen underwent surgery on his left knee on Tuesday and is expected to miss the next four weeks, the club announced.

The procedure was performed by Dr. Marty Isbell of Raleigh Orthopaedic at Rex Hospital.
 
Pitkanen, 28, has totaled 3 goals and 12 points in 21 games this season. The Oulu, Finland, native has earned 54 goals and 268 points in 504 career NHL games with Carolina, Philadelphia and Edmonton.
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POSTED ON Tuesday, 01.03.2012 / 3:08 PM

By NHL.com Staff -  /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Ducks acquire Caputi from Maple Leafs

The Anaheim Ducks acquired left wing Luca Caputi from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday in exchange for left wing Nicolas Deschamps.

Caputi, 23, has appeared in 21 contests for the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League (AHL) this season, collecting 2 goals and 3 points with 10 penalty minutes. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound winger split time with the Maple Leafs and Marlies in 2010-11, appearing in seven NHL contests with the Leafs, going scoreless with four PIM.

A native of Toronto, Ontario, Caputi made his NHL debut with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09 and scored his first career NHL goal Feb. 3, 2009 against Montreal's Carey Price. Caputi appeared in a career-high 23 NHL contests with Pittsburgh and Toronto in 2009-10, registering 2 goals and 8 points. Originally selected by Pittsburgh in the fourth round of the 2007 Entry Draft, Caputi was acquired by Toronto from Pittsburgh with Martin Skoula in exchange for Alexi Ponikarovsky on March 2, 2010.

Deschamps, 21, was a second-round pick by the Ducks in 2008 and appeared in 31 contests with the Syracuse Crunch (AHL) this season, collecting 5 goals and 7 points. The Lasalle, Quebec native has recorded 20 goals and 54 points in 113 career AHL contests.
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POSTED ON Tuesday, 01.03.2012 / 3:00 PM

By Neil Acharya -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Projected lines for Maple Leafs

TORONTO -- Here are the projected lines for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who face the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight at Air Canada Centre:

Joffrey Lupul - Tim Connolly - Phil Kessel
Joey Crabb - Mikhail Grabovski - Nikolai Kulemin
Clarke MacArthur - Matthew Lombardi - Nazem Kadri
Darryl Boyce - David Steckel - Matt Frattin

Keith Aulie - Dion Phaneuf
Carl Gunnarsson - Luke Schenn
Jake Gardiner - Cody Franson
 
Jonas Gustavsson
James Reimer
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POSTED ON Tuesday, 01.03.2012 / 2:36 PM

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

Tippett talks to Torres following suspension

ST. LOUIS -- Not only are the St. Louis Blues dealing with the suspension of defenseman Ian Cole, but the Phoenix Coyotes are dealing with a suspension of their own.

Winger Raffi Torres, considered a repeat offender, was suspended by the NHL for an illegal hit on Minnesota Wild defenseman Nate Prosser in Saturday's 4-2 victory by the Coyotes. Torres received a two-game ban, which begins tonight in St. Louis.

"It's a fine line," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "Raffi has to play the game kind of with an edge. There's two or three games in a row or two or three hits (the NHL) thought were getting close to borderline.

"I talked to Raffi this morning. We need him to play hard, we need him to play determined like that. I guess there's a fine line that he has to walk. He knows when he goes into a game to do the best he can for the group. He's got to be a physical player. ... You have to try not to hit anybody in the head."

As Torres was being suspended for the hit on Saturday, he also received the maximum $2,500 fine for a hit to Colorado's Jan Hejda from a game on Dec. 29.
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POSTED ON Tuesday, 01.03.2012 / 2:16 PM

By Mike G. Morreale -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - 2012 World Junior Championship blog

U.S. jumps out to 4-0 lead on Latvia

CALGARY -- The U.S. National Junior Team has opened a 4-0 lead on Latvia in the opening period of the relegation round at the 2012 World Junior Championship at Scotabank Saddledome.
 
Austin Watson recorded a natural hat trick and Jason Zucker also connected for the U.S. in the first. A victory and the United States will avoid being relegated. U.S. starting goalie Jack Campbell made nine saves in the opening period.
 
This year, the 10th-place team from the WJC will be relegated to Division I in 2013 and will be replaced by Germany, winner of the Division 1 crown earlier last month. Prior to Tuesday's matchup, the U.S. and Latvia had only met once before in WJC play -- a 12-1 victory by the Americans on Dec. 29, 2009, in Saskatoon, Sask.
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POSTED ON Tuesday, 01.03.2012 / 2:12 PM

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

Hitchcock holds seniority in St. Louis sports

ST. LOUIS -- When he was suddenly brought in to become the next coach of the St. Louis Blues, Ken Hitchcock was on the bottom of the depth chart as far as seniority goes in St. Louis pro sports coaches.

Little did he know that 57 days later, Hitchcock would suddenly become the dean.

But after St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa retired days after Hitchcock was hired and the St. Louis Rams firing head coach Steve Spagnuolo on Monday, Hitchcock was suddenly vaulted to the top.

He laughed about it at Tuesday's morning skate prior to the Blues (21-12-5) facing the Phoenix Coyotes (19-16-4).

"I've always said they should change the award to coach for the year rather than of the year," Hitchcock said. "To me, it's the nature of our business. You can't change out all the players. There's different directions going on. There's part of you that understands you're in that business now, but I think the business since I've got here in 1996, it's become even more volatile. It's nothing to see us change out a third of the coaches. We just have to live in that business."

Joked captain David Backes: "I wonder if he's got any of his boxes unpacked yet. Quite the carousel here, but I think all the changes seem to be welcomed and obviously ours has been successful. We wish those other sports teams here nothing but the best."

The Blues are 15-5-5 since Hitchcock's arrival, and it seems that Blues general manager Doug Armstrong's call to replace Davis Payne with Hitchcock at the time has moved the Blues into the right direction, particularly in the standings.

"I'm lucky," Hitchcock said. "I've got a strong relationship with Doug. I've got a strong relationship with J.D. (Blues President John Davidson). That to me is the most important part. When you have a good relationship with people, they'll love you. When the storm hits, they'll help you weather it."

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POSTED ON Tuesday, 01.03.2012 / 2:08 PM

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

Blues look to turn it up a notch during home stretch

ST. LOUIS -- With the Blues in the midst of their first three-game winless streak entering tonight's home game against Phoenix, it begins a stretch of 11 games in the month of January. Nine of them are played in the friendly confines of Scottrade Center.

The Blues have one of the league's best records at home (14-3-2), trailing only Detroit's 15 home victories. And if they want to stay among the NHL's best, Hitchcock wants to see the team get back to doing what was working best for this team previous to this 0-2-1 hiccup.

The Blues entered January a season ago still in the mix for a playoff berth, but a 2-8-2 month buried them and they found themselves playing catch-up with the rest of the conference's best. With the parity in the league nowadays and so many tight games that end up in three-point affairs, the Blues were fighting a losing battle.

"It's the time of year where playoff teams come to play," winger Chris Stewart said. "This is where the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders. If you look last year, you look at the Chicagos, the Detroits, the San Joses ... this is where they built their separation. From here on in, this is where they start their season. Not to say that before didn't count, but they really turn it up a notch here. Now we've got to do it, too. We've got to stick right with them. It's going to be a dogfight to the end here."

The Blues are in sixth place in the West, just two points out of fourth and five back of Chicago for the top spot. But where the team can really gain separation is from those teams on the outside looking in. The Blues are four points clear of ninth place, but to solidify their place among the top eight, going on a tear in January will only enhance their chances. They will become road warriors once they enter February and March.

"It's time to get our game back. We've stumbled in the last few," Backes said. "We're not too far away from righting the ship. We continue to give our home fans good performances and they've reciprocated the fun with giving us some great support."

Added coach Ken Hitchcock, who doesn't want his team looking too far ahead: "The thing for us is it's just one day at a time. You can look at being home for most of January and we get a really long break during the All-Star break. Our thing is just one day at a time and trying to play well."

And by playing well, that means hitting people and pinning them back on their heels.

"How many (home) games we have is not relevant, because it doesn't matter," Hitchcock said. "You can do this forever and win on the road, or you can do this and win forever at home. It doesn't matter. If you have the right mindset, you can win wherever you want. But it's the mindset.

"It's two things: It's get ready to get played hard because you're not sneaking up on anybody anymore, and No. 2, it's get your 'A' game out there from a checking standpoint. You'll end up spending no time in your zone and a lot of time in the other zone."

The Blues only have one-game trips to Montreal and Detroit in January. Otherwise, there won't be any lengthy trips for another six weeks.

"The opportunity is definitely there," Stewart said. "We've definitely got to use that to our advantage. Not to say we don't have tough opponents coming up, but we've got to show them that it's our building and we're going to do anything to get the win."
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POSTED ON Tuesday, 01.03.2012 / 2:06 PM

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

Coyotes realize 'crunch time' has arrived

ST. LOUIS -- The Phoenix Coyotes currently sit in 11th place in the Western Conference and unlike their opponent tonight, the St. Louis Blues, have ground to make up.

Phoenix will split its 12-game schedule for the month of January, with six games at home and six on the road, but those road games will be front-loaded. The team is currently in a stretch of games where eight of 10 are away from Jobing.com Arena.

"January's where everybody realizes this is crunch time," veteran defenseman Derek Morris said. "You've got to crank it up a notch. Games are going to get quicker, they're going to get more important. ... You don't want to get behind and start chasing. Where we're at, we've got to find a way to win games now so when crunch times rolls around, you don't want to have to scrape out the last couple points because they're harder to get."

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POSTED ON Tuesday, 01.03.2012 / 2:04 PM

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

Projected lineups for Blues, Coyotes

ST. LOUIS -- The probable lineups for tonight's game between the Blues and Coyotes from Scottrade Center:

BLUES
David Perron - David Backes - Chris Stewart
Matt D'Agostini - Patrik Berglund - T.J. Oshie
Vladimir Sobotka - Jason Arnott - Jamie Langenbrunner
Chris Porter - Scott Nichol - B.J. Crombeen

Carlo Colaiacovo - Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman - Kevin Shattenkirk
Cade Fairchild - Roman Polak

Jaroslav Halak
Brian Elliott

Halak is 6-2-2 with a 2.08 GAA at the Scottrade Center after making 33 saves in a 2-1 shootout loss to Nashville on Friday.

The Blues will scratch winger Evgeny Grachev tonight. On injured reserve are forward Andy McDonald (concussion), winger Alex Steen (concussion-related symptoms), winger Ryan Reaves (hip), and defenseman Kent Huskins (ankle). Defenseman Ian Cole will begin his three-game suspension tonight. He will also miss games Thursday against Edmonton and Saturday against Colorado.

COYOTES

Ray Whitney - Daymond Langkow - Shane Doan
Lauri Korpikoski - Cal O'Reilly - Radim Vrbata
Taylor Pyatt - Patrick O'Sullivan - Mikkel Boedker
Marc-Antoine Pouliot - Kyle Chipchura - Paul Bissonnette

Keith Yandle - Adrian Aucoin
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Michal Rozsival
Rostislav Klesla - David Schlemko

Jason LaBarbera
Mike Smith

Top goalie Mike Smith (groin) has been skating since Sunday and was activated off injured reserve prior to tonight's game. Curtis McElhinney was reassigned to AHL Portland.

The Coyotes will be without forward Raffi Torres, who was suspended two games without pay Monday for charging Wild defenseman Nate Prosser on Saturday. Also missing because of injuries are center Martin Hanzal (upper body), forward Boyd Gordon (lower body). Defenseman David Rundblad, acquired from Ottawa in the Kyle Turris trade and a former first-round pick of the Blues, will be a healthy scratch.
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Playing for my favorite team growing up, I've probably scored that goal a million times in my driveway. It feels good to actually do it in real life.

— Dale Weise, who grew up a Canadiens fan, on scoring the overtime winner in Montreal's 5-4 victory against Tampa Bay in Game 1