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Posted On Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 8:02 PM

By Alan Robinson -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Letang might return for Penguins vs. Rangers

PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby's comeback might not be the only one worth watching for the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday.
 
Defenseman Kris Letang, the puck-moving defenseman who is a key to the Penguins' power play, practiced for a second consecutive day Wednesday – a sign that he could join Crosby in the lineup against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden.
 
Just like Crosby, this is Letang's second layoff this season with concussion-related issues. But while Letang was out for six weeks after getting hurt in Montreal on Nov. 26, he has been out five games this time.
 
"He's heading towards being in," coach Dan Bylsma said. "He had a good day (Tuesday) with the team, he had another good day today and we're expecting him to come to the rink (Thursday) having a good day and being ready to play."
 
Getting Letang back would put the Penguins at close to full strength, something that hasn't happened nearly all season on a team that has had 14 players miss at least seven games with injuries.
 
"I had a good practice. I stepped on (the ice) earlier and everything went well, so we will go from there," Letang said following an optional practice attended by 11 players. "We will see how I feel after the morning skate (Thursday)."
 
The Penguins weren't certain how long Letang would be out after a hit by the Stars' Eric Nystrom on Feb. 29 forced him from the lineup. It was a worrisome sign after he developed the symptoms; Crosby has been out more than three months with concussion symptoms.
 
Letang reports he is now symptom-free, just as Crosby is.
 
"Obviously I had a few symptoms after the hit. (But) compared to the first one, it's not like I waited after three days and I had bad symptoms and I was sick," Letang said. "So we were just being really careful. We were waiting for those symptoms to go away."
 
Letang's ability to move the puck, find the open man and keep the Penguins' power play rotation going is one of the reasons why the unit ranks sixth in the League, compared to 25th last season. However, the power play failed to convert on its first 14 opportunities without Letang and is 1 for 18 since he left the lineup.
 
That unit is expected to have a different look as soon as Letang returns, with Crosby and Letang on the points. In the past, Crosby has operated along the half-wall, where Evgeni Malkin has been playing this season.
 
Bylsma also experimented with five forwards on the power play in practice Tuesday, with Crosby and Steve Sullivan on the points and Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz down low.
 
Bylsma said Crosby's expert passing adds a previously unseen element to the Penguins' special teams – especially if Letang is at the other point.
 
"I've talked to our power play and Sid that when we go with five forwards, we're not going to go out there with the idea that one mistake is going to hurt us," Bylsma said. "We don't want to give up a chance against, we don't want to give up a puck, but we also think that those five forwards can be very effective on the power play and that's the mindset they should be going over the boards with."
 
Letang doesn't feel the urgency to rush back to a team riding a nine-game winning streak. But with three key games against the Rangers, Devils and Flyers this weekend, he sees no reason not to play if he is symptom-free.
 
When Letang returned Jan. 19 after being out since Nov. 26, it also was against the Rangers; he had an assist. He had a goal and two assists in his first two games back.
 
"Geno (Malkin) went down and we were playing well. Sid went down and we were playing well," Letang said. "I went down and guys were still playing really well. The guys are doing an unbelievable job right now so there's no need to rush it."
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Posted On Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 6:46 PM

By Kevin Woodley -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Vrbata a late scratch for Coyotes

VANCOUVER -- Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault has talked recently of experimenting with his lineup heading into the playoffs, tinkering with new options opened up by trade deadline acquisitions of Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani.

That said, the roster shakeup for Wednesday night's game against the Phoenix Coyotes -- which includes a new winger for struggling top-line twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin -- is all about shaking a 2-3-2 slump over the last seven games.

"It's got nothing to do with experimenting, it's got everything to do with getting our top players to play up to their level," Vigneault said after Wednesday's morning skate. "Until they do we're going to keep trying everything we can."

That includes moving struggling speedster Mason Raymond (0 points in six games) up to the top line to try and spark Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who have combined for just one assist the last eight games combined. Henrik, whose eight-game pointless streak is his longest since a November-December funk in 2003 and one game shy of his career worst from 2001, hopes the two days off after Saturday's 4-1 loss to lowly Montreal will rejuvenate a team that has looked tired – both mentally and physically – over the last few weeks.

"We're confident we're going to get out of this," Henrik, the Canucks’ captain, said. "It's just a matter of regrouping and getting ready for the stretch drive."

They've got 13 games left to figure it out, and that includes the defensive pairings, which were also shaken up after giving up way too many odd-man rushes, point-blank chances, and goals during the slide. Kevin Bieksa will play with a struggling Alexander Edler, while Bieksa's long-time partner, Dan Hamhuis, moves onto an apparent shutdown unit with steady youngster Chris Tanev, leaving veteran Sami Salo to play with newcomer Marc-Andre Gragnani against the Coyotes.

"When we analyze the scoring chances for and against and we see our top four defensemen in the minus category, it tells me we have to try something," said Vigneault of a theory that also applies up front. "It's pretty simple. We need our top players to play like top players. We're no different than any of the other 29 teams in the League. We've got a good team when our top players play the way they're supposed to play and, right now, for whatever reason, we've got a couple of guys who are off their game. They need to find it for us to get back on track."

Here are the expected lines -- at least to start -- as the Canucks try to do just that:

Daniel SedinHenrik SedinMason Raymond
Chris HigginsRyan KeslerDavid Booth
Alexandre BurrowsSamuel PahlssonJannik Hansen
Manny MalhotraMaxim LapierreZack Kassian

Dan Hamhuis – Chris Tanev
Alexander EdlerKevin Bieksa
Marc-Andre GragnaniSami Salo

Dale Weise, who hasn't played since Feb. 26, could get back into the lineup, almost certainly on the fourth line, but it wasn’t clear who might come out.
 
 
Roberto Luongo stays in goal despite some recent struggles, with Cory Schneider backing up.
 
Meanwhile, the Coyotes will be without 30-goal scorer Radim Vrabata. who was a late scratch due to illness. There's no word if he'll be ready to play Thursday night, when the Coyotes visit Calgary. The Coyotes say he's day-to-day

The good news for the Coyotes is that some of their injured players are returning or will be back soon.

Steady defenseman David Schlemko, who has missed 28 games following early January foot surgery, is expected to return in Vancouver on Wednesday night. Veteran defender Derek Morris, who recently rejoined the team after missing 14 games to attend to a family illness, isn't far behind, and key forwards Kyle Chipchura (wrist) and Martin Hanzal (upper body) are both with the team on the trip through Wsetern Canada and could return soon.

"When you're in a playoff stretch drive, you need as many bodies as you can, and that depth will be a real asset for our group," said coach Dave Tippett.

Tippett hopes it helps the Coyotes get back to the February form that saw them go 11-0-1, and end a 1-4-2 March funk that included an uncharacteristically wide-open 5-4 shootout loss to Nashville on Monday. That loss dropped them four points behind Dallas atop the Pacific Division, and just one point ahead of a four-way tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Tippett isn't telling his players to avoid NHL scoreboards.

"We always keep our eyes on the standings, it's a pretty tight race," he said. "You do lots of scoreboard watching … it re-enforces the fact we have to take care of ourselves."

Schlemko will likely take the spot of rookie Michael Stone, who was good as an emergency fill in, but minus-2 against the Predators in the last game.

"Poise," Tippett said of what Schlemko adds, "A steady, veteran presence."

Here are the rest of the expected lines as Phoenix tries to win the season series (it's 1-1-1 right now) despite only scoring two goals in the first three meetings:

Ray Whitney - Antoine Vermette - Shane Doan
Raffi Torres - Daymond Langkow - Lauri Lorpikoski
Taylor Pyatt - Boyd Gordon - Gilbert Brule
Mikkel Boedker - Marc-Antoine Pouliot - Paul Bissonnette
 
Keith Yandle - Adrian Aucoin
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Michal Rozsival
Rostislav KleslaDavid Schlemko

Mike Smith will start despite needing a while to shake off a shot off the mask during the morning skate, with Jason LaBarbera, who got the surprise start against his old team the last time the Coyotes visited, backing up.


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Posted On Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 6:09 PM

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

Roenick: Pens clicking without Sid, B's need to rally

NHL analyst and former All-Star Jeremy Roenick pens a weekly blog for NHL.com. "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.

What's clicking?

It's that time of the season, and the frontrunners are gearing up and the pretenders are fading away. There are few teams establishing themselves as teams to contend with like the Pittsburgh Penguins are nowadays.

I think Pittsburgh is the team to beat in the Eastern Conference without Sidney Crosby, so you can imagine how I feel about them with Crosby and potentially Kris Letang returning to the lineup Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2). Imagine how difficult that team is going to be to beat.

I truly believe that top to bottom, Pittsburgh's core group of players is as solid as there is in the NHL.

Evgeni Malkin
Center - PIT
GOALS: 38 | ASST: 46 | PTS: 84
SOG: 277 | +/-: 12
Evgeni Malkin is the odds-on favorite to win the Hart Trophy. He's carried the team all season and has been a model of consistency. Marc-Andre Fleury has continued a very high level of play, again. Chris Kunitz has played well. James Neal is having a career season. Jordan Staal is one of the most attentive and responsible players in the National Hockey League.

You just continue to go down their lineup and they are just solid, solid players. They play strong and hard every night. And if everybody is healthy in that lineup come the playoffs, I don't know if there is a team that can beat them four out of seven games, especially when you have a world-class coach like Dan Bylsma.

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Posted On Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 4:48 PM

By Curtis Zupke -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Datsyuk improving, could return Saturday

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk continued to skate and strengthen his surgically repaired knee on Wednesday and said it felt "outstanding."  He could return Saturday when the Wings play the San Jose Sharks.

"Two more days," he said. "We'll see … every day (it's) better, better. But it's hard to say."

While Datsyuk improves, defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom will miss an eighth straight game because of a bone bruise in his ankle. It is the most consecutive games Lidstrom has missed during a 20-year career.

"It's quite an amazing accomplishment,” said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau. "I worry more about the fact that (Detroit) lost last night. Good teams very rarely put two bad games together in a row, and they're a really good team, so I expect them to be a lot better with or without him."
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Posted On Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 4:42 PM

NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Hiller again in Ducks' net

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Jonas Hiller will make his 30th straight start in net for the Anaheim Ducks tonight.

Coach Bruce Boudreau said he won't rest Hiller unless Hiller says he needs it.

Asked if he expects Hiller to ask for a day off soon, Boudreau said, "I just try to avoid him so I don't get that question."

Boudreau added that Hiller, who has played in 64 of Anaheim's 70 games, doesn't practice much and that he monitors him closely.

"I ask him all the time," Boudreau said. "I'm very conscientious of what he's done."

Here's the rest of the lineup the Ducks likely will use tonight:

Bobby Ryan - Ryan Getzlaf - Kyle Palmieri
Niklas Hagman - Saku Koivu - Teemu Selanne
Andrew Cogliano - Nick Bonino - Devante Smith-Pelly
Jason Blake - Rod Pelley - Matt Beleskey

Francois Beauchemin - Cam Fowler
Lubomir Visnovsky - Luca Sbisa
Toni Lydman - Sheldon Brookbank

Jonas Hiller will start in goal, with Jeff Deslauriers the backup.

Corey Perry, who sat out Monday's game with a shoulder injury, could replace Palmieri on the top line. Boudreau said Perry's status would be decided prior to puck-drop.

Here is the lineup the Red Wings likely will use tonight.
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Posted On Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 4:38 PM

By Curtis Zupke -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Bertuzzi back in lineup for Red Wings

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Detroit Red Wings forward Todd Bertuzzi confirmed he will return after a four-game absence from a groin injury.

"I feel like it's pretty strong right now," Bertuzzi said. "I just have to get my timing back and all that. But as far as the groin, it feels a lot better than what it was."

As a spectator, Bertuzzi said at least one aspect of the team's has stood out when he's watched his teammates.

"We haven't put the puck in enough and we've made some uncharacteristic mistakes and it has cost us goals," he said. "I think back to basics -- taking care of our zone first and when we get some chances, bury them."

Here's the rest of the lineup the Red Wings likely will use tonight:

Valtteri Filppula - Henrik Zetterberg - Jiri Hudler
Drew Miller - Darren Helm - Johan Franzen
Justin Abdelkader - Danny Cleary - Todd Bertuzzi
Tomas Holmstrom - Cory Emmerton - Jan Mursak

Brad Stuart - Niklas Kronwall
Ian White - Kyle Quincey
Brendan Smith - Doug Janik

Joey MacDonald will start in goal, with Jimmy Howard the backup.
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Posted On Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 4:34 PM

By Curtis Zupke -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Perry, Sbisa game-time decisions

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Corey Perry and Luca Sbisa will be game-time decisions for the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday when they host the Detroit Red Wings.

Sbisa suffered back spasms before Monday's game and had to sit out, the first game this season he's missed. He took part in a very optional morning skate for the Ducks and appears to be closer to returning for Wednesday's game.

Perry left the ice early and might miss a second straight game with a sore shoulder, the result of a hit by Stephane Robidas of Dallas last Saturday. His streak of 272 consecutive games played ended Monday.

"They're both being worked on," Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It's a proverbial game-time decision."

Boudreau said Nick Bonino is ready to play after he suffered a lower-body injury. Ryan O'Marra was re-assigned to Syracuse.
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Posted On Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 2:40 PM

By Patrick Williams -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Stars finish road trip looking to build on Pacific lead

WINNIPEG -- The Dallas Stars made the short Minnesota-to-Winnipeg trip and spent the morning catching up on their sleep.

The Stars (39-26-5) went to sleep having spun off a 10-0-1 run that includes six consecutive wins. A 1-0 win at Minnesota leaves Dallas holding a four-point advantage in the Pacific Division race. Only the ultra-hot Pittsburgh Penguins, who have won nine games in a row, have been able to match the Stars' pace of late, and the team will head home for Texas after tonight's game to play four straight on home ice.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Richard Bachman will start in goal, with Kari Lehtonen backing up.

Here are the projected lines and pairings for the Stars:

Loui Eriksson - Mike Ribeiro - Michael Ryder
Brenden Morrow - Jamie Benn - Steve Ott
Eric Nystrom - Vernon Fiddler - Adam Burish
Ryan Garbutt - Tom Wandell - Tomas Vincour

Alex Goligoski - Stephane Robidas
Mark Fistric - Trevor Daley
Philip Larsen - Adam Pardy

Richard Bachman
Kari Lehtonen

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Posted On Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 2:40 PM

By Arpon Basu -  Managing Editor LNH.com /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Surprising Senators can equal Bruins' point total

The Ottawa Senators have a chance to accomplish something Wednesday few people outside the team itself thought possible coming into training camp -- they can grab a share of the Northeast Division lead in March.

While technically the Senators would still be second to the Boston Bruins if they manage to beat the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre, Ottawa would be level on points with a victory.

"Obviously it would be a nice thing to accomplish and we really want to win this game," said Erik Karlsson, the runaway points leader among NHL defensemen who has 10 goals and 11 assists in his last 13 games. "It's not only to catch Boston, but just to keep winning games."

Ottawa's pace has slowed somewhat since losing goaltender Craig Anderson to a cut on his hand, going 4-3-1 in his absence. While Anderson has gotten back on the ice a couple of times, coach Paul MacLean says there is still no timetable for his return.

Still, the fact that the stretch is considered a dip speaks volumes about the performance of a team many picked to finish near the bottom of the conference standings, which is where their opponents Wednesday currently sit.

"We were in their exact position last year," Karlsson said of the Canadiens. "So we know how it feels and we know how we felt. We didn't want to lose any games."

Captain Daniel Alfredsson said the environment created by MacLean from day one was markedly different from last season under Cory Clouston. A heavy emphasis on skating and conditioning in training camp quickly carried over into the regular season, where the team understood how hard it needed to work in order to play MacLean's system.

"We're skating better than we have the last three or four years," Alfredsson said. "(MacLean) has done a great job of making guys accountable, but doing it in a way that's fun, too."

When told the change in atmosphere in the Senators dressing room is striking from last year, Alfredsson quipped, "Ya think?"

But he also conceded that the lack of expectations allowed this Senators team to find its identity without added pressure, something Alfredsson has experienced before on some of the powerhouse Ottawa teams he's played for over his brilliant career.

"It's a lot easier to live up to no expectations than big expectations," he said. "We just took the attitude that we'll prove everyone wrong."

It's safe to say the Senators have already done that, and should they be able to climb into a tie with Boston tonight it would only be another big accomplishment.

The Senators will be facing a Canadiens team that will be missing Tomas Kaberle and Scott Gomez.

Kaberle's wife Julia was expecting the couple's first child Wednesday and he's been excused from playing as a result. It will be the sixth member of the Canadiens to have a baby during this season after Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri (since traded to the Flames), Hal Gill (traded to Nashville), Travis Moen and Alexei Emelin.

Defenseman Frederic St-Denis was called up from Hamilton and is expected to dress against Ottawa.

Gomez is out with what is widely believed to be a concussion after he was hit from behind Monday by Buffalo's Tyler Myers -- a hit that earned the Sabres defenseman a three-game suspension. Coach Randy Cunneyworth would only concede that Gomez is out with an upper-body injury.

Here are the expected lines for the game:

SENATORS
Colin Greening - Jason Spezza - Milan Michalek
Rob Klinkhammer - Kyle Turris - Daniel Alfredsson
Nick Foligno - Jim O'Brien - Chris Neil
Kaspars Daugavins - Zack Smith - Erik Condra

Filip Kuba - Erik Karlsson
Jared Cowen - Sergei Gonchar
Chris Phillips - Matt Gilroy

Ben Bishop
 
CANADIENS
Max Pacioretty - David Desharnais - Erik Cole
Rene Bourque - Tomas Plekanec - Ryan White
Blake Geoffrion - Lars Eller - Louis Leblanc
Brad Staubitz - Petteri Nokelainen
 
Josh Gorges - P.K. Subban
Andrei Markov - Alexei Emelin
Chris Campoli - Yannick Weber
Frederic St-Denis

Carey Price
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Posted On Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 2:38 PM

By Patrick Williams -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Jets back in action with some ground to make up

WINNIPEG -- A fruitless two-game swing through Vancouver and Calgary followed by a five-day layoff has left the Winnipeg Jets chasing the Eastern Conference pack.

The Jets (32-29-8) last played in Winnipeg on March 5 and finished that night at 72 points, just two points behind the Florida Panthers for the Southeast Division lead. Now the 10th-place Jets trail the Panthers by seven points, and the resurgent Washington Capitals have elbowed their way into eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

Winnipeg begins a three-game homestand this evening with a visit from the Dallas Stars, who have taken six straight wins and have won 11 of the franchises' 13 all-time meetings. Given that the Jets have only 11 road wins this season and have not shown any indication they will be able to correct their road problems, their stay at home this week has taken on even greater urgency for a club trying to stay above water in the playoff race.

But the Jets will do so without defenseman Zach Bogosian, whose injury woes linger, and right wing Chris Thorburn, who exited the Jets' loss in Calgary and will be out for an extended period of time. Going in for Thorburn on the Jets' checking line will be little-used forward Eric Fehr. Coach Claude Noel has not played Fehr since Feb. 21, and Fehr has only 1 goal this season.

Ondrej Pavelec will again start in net for Winnipeg, with Chris Mason backing up.

Here are the projected lines and pairings for the Jets:

Andrew Ladd - Bryan Little - Blake Wheeler
Evander Kane - Alexander Burmistrov - Kyle Wellwood
Tanner Glass - Jim Slater - Eric Fehr
Tim Stapleton - Nik Antropov - Antti Miettinen

Tobias Enstrom - Dustin Byfuglien
Ron Hainsey - Grant Clitsome
Randy Jones - Mark Stuart

Ondrej Pavelec
Chris Mason
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