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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 2:42 PM

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

Wild look to capitalize on favorable home stretch

ST. PAUL -- In mid-December, when the Wild were the best team in the National Hockey League, they led Vancouver in the Northwest Division standings by as many as five points.

Less than two months later, the Canucks lead Minnesota by 13 points, and if the Wild are going to make one final push to narrow that gap, it must begin tonight. Minnesota just wrapped up a brutal portion of its schedule, playing 15 of its last 23 games on the road. Minnesota has won just five games during that stretch, capturing the second fewest points in the NHL in that time.

Tonight's game opens a stretch of four in a row, five of six and 18 of 29 the rest of the way at the friendly confines of Xcel Energy Center, where Minnesota is 13-7-3 this season.

In its quest to get back on track, Minnesota will not have to face nemesis Roberto Luongo, who has shut out the Wild in three consecutive starts. He's the first goalie in the NHL to shut out one team three straight times since Evgeni Nabokov did it to the Coyotes in 2007.

With that kind of recent history against the Wild, one would have thought Luongo a cinch to get the start tonight, but his history in this building is less than stellar. Over his last three starts at the Xcel Energy Center, Luongo's goals against average is 7, he's stopped just 77 percent of shots faced and has not finished a game. For his career, Luongo is 3-9-2 in St. Paul.

Enter Cory Schneider, who started the only game the two teams have played in Minnesota this season back on Nov. 3. Minnesota won that game 5-1.

"Probably the most impressive offensive effort I've seen all season," Schneider said. "But we're a different team right now than we were at the beginning of the year and we know we can beat this team. We have in our building."

Neither Schneider or Canucks coach Alain Vigneault could offer much of any reason why this series has taken on such a home-team edge. It seems neither one of these teams can win in their opponent's barn.

"They've given us real hard battles in this building," Vigneault said. "For some reason, in this building, we haven't been as good as we can be. We're usually a really good road team, but for some reason, this building has been a challenge for us."

If Minnesota is going to continue its hot streak against the Canucks in St. Paul, the Wild will need more from a struggling power play, which scored on less than 10 percent of its chances during the road-heavy stretch. But that won't be an easy task against Vancouver, which has shut out the Wild power play on 12 chances this season. The Wild haven't scored a goal against the Canucks with the man advantage since February of last season, when Cal Clutterbuck potted a power-play goal 359 days ago.

Among the lowest scoring teams in the NHL, the Wild are 12-7-2 when scoring with the extra attacker this season.

The return of Mikko Koivu to the lineup tonight will allow Wild coach Mike Yeo to reshuffle his lines a little bit. Koivu returns to his top-line spot between Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.

"They've played well together all year long," Yeo said.

Newcomer Erik Christensen, making his home debut for the Wild tonight, has been moved to wing on the second line with Matt Cullen and Cal Clutterbuck, giving Minnesota a skilled second line it has been missing of late. Yeo said he was pleased with how Clutterbuck and Cullen played with Pierre-Marc Bouchard earlier in the season, another skilled winger.

"That was a pretty effective line for us," Yeo said. "Obviously Christensen is not Butch, they're both different players. But both have skill, both make plays. Hopefully, they'll find a little bit of that magic again."

In goal for Minnesota will be Niklas Backstrom, who has been stellar for Minnesota over the past three games. Although his record over that stretch is just 1-1-1, the Wild have provided him with only three goals total of support.

On the injury front, the Wild placed defenseman Clayton Stoner on injured reserve with a lower body injury. There is no timetable on his return. Koivu was removed from IR today, so no further roster moves are pending.

For Vancouver, winger Dale Weise's CT scan on his foot was negative. He participated in the morning skate and is a game-time decision.

Here are tonight's projected lineups:

WILD
Dany Heatley - Mikko Koivu - Devin Setoguchi
Cal Clutterbuck - Matt Cullen - Erik Christensen
Nick Johnson - Kyle Brodziak - Carson McMillan
Darroll Powe - Warren Peters - Brad Staubitz

Nick Schultz - Jared Spurgeon
Marek Zidlicky - Greg Zanon
Justin Falk - Nate Prosser

Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding

CANUCKS
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - Byron Bitz
David Booth - Cody Hodgson - Jannik Hansen
Manny Malhotra - Maxim Lapierre - Dale Weise

Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Sami Salo
Aaron Rome - Keith Ballard

Cory Schneider
Roberto Luongo
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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 2:37 PM

By Dan Rosen -  NHL.com Senior Writer /NHL.com - Gretzky Fantasy Camp Blog

Hull chats about Hitchcock, Blues, Stars

LAS VEGAS -- Ex-Blues great Brett Hull swells with pride when he talks about the turnaround in St. Louis this season orchestrated by his former coach, Ken Hitchcock.

Hull, who spoke to NHL.com Thursday morning from the Bellagio, said it was "an absolute no-brainer" for Blues GM Doug Armstrong and President John Davidson to bring Hitchcock on board in early November because he's the exact coach the young team needed.

"They're group of young, talented kids that needed someone to give them direction and a no-nonsense approach to how we're going to play the game," Hull said. "It was just like in Dallas, if you didn't buy in and do it the right way at 100-plus percent, you weren't going to play. That's what those kids in St. Louis needed, and it's obvious that it's true because look at them now."

The Blues are fourth in the Western Conference with 69 points. They have two games in hand on fifth place Nashville and three games in hand on first place Detroit.

"It filters through the whole team," Hull added. "You're accountable to the next guy and he's accountable to the next guy. Then you're all working together, and it just breeds success."

Hull said he thinks the Blues are built to have success for many years to come with young players like T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Alex Pietrangelo, David Backes, David Perron and Chris Stewart leading the way in front of one of the League's most formidable goalie tandems in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott.

"From what I understand Hitch isn't quite as dictatorial as he was, so the players aren't going, 'OK, enough, enough,' " Hull said. "I do think it's built for the long term."

He can see some similarities between the Blues and another of his former teams and employers, the Dallas Stars.

Hull, though, said the Stars right now are a "generic" team that is missing a star.

"Jamie Benn has a chance to be a really good player, but he's still a baby and he hasn't figured it all out yet," Hull said. "Kari Lehtonen is a very good goalie, but other than that it's just a very generic, workmanlike, blue-collar team."

Hull still lives in Dallas and is around the team quite a bit though he has no official title. He is happy to see that Tom Galiardi has stabilized the ownership situation there, but said the only way for the team to win back the fans is to simply win and get in the playoffs.

Dallas is currently 12th in the Western Conference, but only two points shy of eighth.

"You feel bad for the team because you've got a two-time World Series team (Texas Rangers), you've got the World Champion Dallas Mavericks, and the perennial it doesn't matter if they go 0-16 Cowboys selling out a 100,000 seat building," Hull said. "There is only so much sport dollar to go around, but the only way to get 'em back is to win. But, to win you have to have a superstar-type player. There just isn't that right now."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 2:35 PM

By Adam Kimelman -  NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Flyers' Bryzgalov out with the flu

The Philadelphia Flyers will be without goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov for tonight's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, TSN) due to the flu.

In his place, Sergei Bobrovsky will start, and Jason Bacashihua was recalled from AHL Adirondack on an emergency basis to serve as the backup.

In 17 AHL games this season, Bacashihua is 7-6-1 with a 2.98 goals-against average and .902 save percentage.

A 2001 first-round pick of the Dallas Stars, Bacashihua has 38 games of NHL experience, with the Stars and Blues, but none since the 2006-07 season with St. Louis.

It will be Bobrovsky's first game since he allowed six goals in 28 minutes in Saturday's 6-4 loss to the Devils. In his only start against the Leafs this season, he stopped 24 of 26 shots in a 4-2 victory in Philadelphia on Oct. 24.

Bryzgalov is coming off one of his best outings of the season, an 18-save shutout Tuesday against the New York Islanders, and while he allowed two goals in the shootout to suffer the overtime loss, it marked the fifth time in his last seven starts he's allowed one goal or fewer.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 2:04 PM

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

Panthers' goaltenders getting healthy

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers' goaltending situation is getting muddled as players get healthy again.

Jose Theodore and Jacob Markstrom, who both have been out with knee injuries, joined Scott Clemmensen when the Panthers held their morning skate in preparation for Thursday night's game against Los Angeles.

Another positive sign came Wednesday when Brian Foster, who backed up Clemmensen the last four games, was sent back to San Antonio of the AHL.

“We went from a goaltending issue to we’ve got a bit of a glut out there today," coach Kevin Dineen said. "No complaints from the coaching staff for us organizationally. It's nice for us to have a number of options for tonight’s game."

Clemmensen is expected to make a seventh consecutive start against Los Angeles, but Dineen didn't rule out the possibility of Theodore starting.

The former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner hasn't played since Jan. 20 in a 3-1 loss at Chicago. He initially was injured in a 3-2 victory over Montreal on New Year's Eve and returned Jan. 18 to start at Colorado in a game the Panthers lost 4-3 in overtime.

"I'm not going to break him in slowly," Dineen said. "As soon as he deems himself fit, and this morning's skate is a good, positive step for him, then he is a legitimate option to play tonight."

After a tremendous nine-game stretch where he was 5-1-3 with a 2.13 goals-against average and .935 save percentage, Clemmensen struggled in Florida's last two games. He gave up five goals on 32 shots in Saturday's 6-3 loss at Tampa Bay and then gave up four goals on 24 shots Tuesday in a 4-0 loss at Washington.

For the season, Clemmensen is 8-4-5 with a 2.80 GAA and a .908 save percentage, while Theodore is 14-9-5 with a 2.50 GAA and a .916 save percentage.

"He has been good this year and he'll continue to play an important role in our season," Dineen said of Theodore. "You can sit there, you can fiddle around, but goaltending is a key position in our League. A goaltender that comes in and makes that big, timely save is a real difference-maker. He did that on numerous occasions early in the season."

Markstrom, meanwhile, is still recovering from knee surgery, his second over the past year. He likely will be sent to San Antonio once he's ready to play.

"I'm just taking it day by day and trying to get back," Markstrom said. "You want to get back and play. It's never fun to watch your buddies play, so you always want to get back as fast as possible but you don't want a setback and you don't want to rush it. So you take it day by day, and hopefully I’ll be back playing soon."

Here's the Panthers' projected lineup:

Tomas Fleischmann - Stephen Weiss - Kris Versteeg
Sean Bergenheim - Marcel Goc - Mikael Samuelsson
Tomas Kopecky - Shawn Matthias - Mike Santorelli
Krystofer Barch - John Madden - Matt Bradley

Jason Garrison - Mike Weaver
Brian Campbell - Erik Gudbranson
Keaton Ellerby - Tyson Strachan

Scott Clemmensen
Jose Theodore
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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 1:58 PM

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

Koivu's return a huge boost for Wild

ST. PAUL -- While one captain looks as though he will continue his ironman streak tonight at Xcel Energy Center, another looks to start a new one.

Minnesota's Mikko Koivu is expected to return after missing the Wild's last eight games with an upper-body injury. Clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the west, Koivu's return could be a major boon to a Wild squad kicking off a critical four-game homestand against the rival Canucks, who appear likely to have Henrik Sedin in the lineup tonight.

"I feel good, I feel stronger, the last couple of days have been good," Koivu said.

Koivu skated today between wingers Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, reuniting a line that had been split up with Koivu out of the lineup. Koivu's return could also help spark a Minnesota offense that has sputtered of late, scoring just three goals total over the Wild's last three games. To its credit, Minnesota has gone 1-1-1 in that stretch.

"As much as anything else, just his leadership, he's a warrior out there. That's contagious with the rest of the group," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "With what he contributes and the role he has with our team, his play and the situations we put him out in and his effectiveness in those situations."

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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 1:54 PM

By Dan Rosen -  NHL.com Senior Writer /NHL.com - Gretzky Fantasy Camp Blog

Gretzky's annual return to the ice

LAS VEGAS -- Wayne Gretzky's Fantasy Camp, now in its 10th year of existence, still excites the Great One because it allows him to catch up with old friends and make new ones while gabbing about hockey the entire time.

Those two reasons are why he continues to hold the camp, and why it's the one time of year he laces up the skates and gets on the ice.

"One thing about being great players is sometimes I don't think people realize how much guys love the game of hockey," Gretzky told NHL.com Thursday morning from the Bellagio. "We can sit around and talk the game of hockey all day. So, my enjoyment comes in watching the campers come in and get the opportunity to ask questions to guys like Bobby Hull, and listen to stories about what happened in something like Game 7 of the '87 Cup Final. That's what it is all about. Everything about the camp is surrounded by the game of hockey, and that's what makes it enjoyable for me."

But why doesn't Gretzky skate anymore?

"Hockey is the greatest game in the world and playing in the NHL was a thrill and an honor, and I always felt that once I was done playing there and couldn't play anymore, there was no other league like the NHL so it would just not be the same playing in a Sunday night men's pickup league," he said. "So, I just stand on the sidelines and watch."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 1:49 PM

By Ben Raby -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Jets need offense, face Caps in critical division clash

WASHINGTON – The Winnipeg Jets will look to narrow the gap in the Southeast Division on Thursday night when they visit the first-place Washington Capitals at Verizon Center.

The Caps took over first place with a 4-0 win Tuesday against the Florida Panthers. Washington is one point clear of Florida and four points up on Winnipeg.

“It’s actually pretty close to the exact same thing we faced Tuesday,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “This is a team that is just behind us and if they win they’re going to be pretty close, but if we win we can really put some distance.”

Laich’s point is not lost on a Jets team that one year ago today was one point out of a playoff position. The Atlanta Thrashers struggled down the stretch though, winning 10 of their final 26 games before finishing 13 points out of a playoff berth.

“We don’t want to have that same lull that we had last year,” Jets forward Evander Kane said. “I think if you look at this last half of the month for us, it could be a deciding factor for our season and that starts here tonight… It’s a big game and we need the two points real bad.”

 Kane returned to the Jets lineup Tuesday in a 2-1 win over Toronto after missing seven games with a concussion.

The 20-year-old continues to lead Winnipeg with 18 goals despite going 11 straight games without finding the back of the net. Kane’s Winnipeg teammates haven’t done much better of late.

The Jets have scored just eight goals in their last seven games and have gone 0-for-17 on the power play during the stretch. Winnipeg is also last in the Eastern Conference, averaging 2.34 goals-per-game.

“It’s on the offensive side of the puck where our players have to get better,” Jets coach Claude Noel said. “I don’t think it’s so much a team thing, I think it’s an execution thing on the power play and from the standpoint of individual players I think there are a lot of people who would like to get going.”

Noel singled out former Capitals forward Eric Fehr among those he would like to see produce more. Fehr has one goal and one assist in 30 games this season.

“I’m hoping that he has enthusiasm in the game and I’m hoping that he wants some form of maybe redemption [playing against his former team tonight],” Noel said. “I’d like to see him create a little bit more offensively and get his shot off – we haven’t seen too much of that and I think it’s something we need to see more of.”
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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 1:40 PM

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

Henrik Sedin participates in skate, likely to face Wild

ST. PAUL -- Officially, Vancouver's Henrik Sedin is a game-time decision for tonight against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center, but all signs point to the Canucks captain being ready to go.

"It felt OK, better than yesterday, so that's a good sign," Sedin said. "We'll see, we'll see how it feels before the game. I guess it's a game-time decision."

Asked if he felt tonight like he did at this morning's skate, where Sedin was a full participant, he chucked. "We'll see tonight," he said with a smile.

Sedin did walk through the locker room with a slight limp, but the CT scan taken yesterday on his ailing ankle came back negative, meaning no broken bones. Even if Sedin was held from the lineup after pre-game warmups, there is no serious injury present, big news for a team battling for the top spot in the Western Conference. His presence would certainly be a big lift for a Vancouver locker room that wasn't sure of the captain's condition until today.

"I think when you see a guy go through that and he's out there practicing, he leads by example. He has a lot of respect in this room," Canucks forward Ryan Kesler said. "He has a pretty good streak going, so hopefully he can continue it."

Sedin hasn't missed a game since 2004, and should he play tonight, his consecutive game streak will reach 553 -- second-longest in the NHL. But he said continuing that streak will not weigh into his decision on whether to play tonight or not.

"It's one of those things where if you're able to play, you play," Sedin said. "[The streak] has never been on my mind at all."
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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 1:36 PM

By Dave Lozo -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Projected lineups for Lightning, Rangers

NEW YORK -- Martin Biron will be in net for the Rangers on Thursday night when they face the Tampa Bay Lightning at Madison Square Garden. He'll be opposed by Mathieu Garon, who started seven of the last nine games for the Lightning.

Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said he will use seven defensemen and 11 forwards against the Rangers, but he hasn't decided on his lineup following Thursday morning's practice. He said Brett Connolly will be in the lineup, but the injured Ryan Malone will sit out another game and potentially return Saturday in Buffalo.

In Greenburgh, it was reported that rookie defenseman Stu Bickel stayed on the ice after practice, a sign that Steve Eminger will return after missing nearly two months with a separated shoulder. Eminger has been a healthy scratch the past two games.

The Lightning showed these lines at practice Thursday, while the Rangers revealed new ones at their practice Wednesday, but with coach John Tortorella, they could be completely different at 7 p.m. tonight:

LIGHTNING
Ryan Shannon - Vincent Lecavalier - Martin St Louis
Steve Downie - Steven Stamkos - Teddy Purcell
Tom Pyatt - Nate Thompson - Dominic Moore
Brett Connolly - Adam Hall - JT Wyman

Note: Wyman played just 2:35 in the Lightning's previous game, a 3-1 loss to the Kings, so he could be the forward who is removed from the lineup for Connolly, who was a healthy scratch last game.

Eric Brewer - Pavel Kubina
Victor Hedman - Brett Clark
Bruno Gervais - Brendan Mikkelson
Marc-Andre Bergeron

Mathieu Garon
Dwayne Roloson

RANGERS

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

Ryan McDonagh - Dan Girardi
Michael Del Zotto - Anton Stralman
Marc Staal - Steve Eminger

Martin Biron
Henrik Lundqvist

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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Posted On Thursday, 02.09.2012 / 1:30 PM

By Mike G. Morreale -  NHL.com Staff Writer /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Langenbrunner set for first game back in New Jersey

NEWARK, N.J. -- St. Louis Blues forward Jamie Langenbrunner said he has no idea what type of reception he'll receive on Thursday when he makes his first appearance at Prudential Center since being dealt by New Jersey Devils last year.
 
But he does admit to being a tad nervous.
 
"It feels a little weird coming back for the team you played for, and obviously I was here for a lot of years, but it's good to come back," Langenbrunner told the media following his team's practice on Thursday morning. "It's a little weird walking through the [visitor's] door instead of the other one."
 
Not only was the ex-Devils captain a key member of New Jersey's Stanley Cup run in 2003, leading the League with 11 goals and 18 points in 24 playoff games, but Langenbrunner was also a popular member of the team's "ZZ Pop" line alongside current captain Zach Parise and Travis Zajac. He said he went out to dinner with Parise on Wednesday before speaking to a few former teammates on Thursday.
 
Langenbrunner played 564 regular-season games in New Jersey spanning seven-plus seasons from 2001-02 to 2010-11, producing 142 goals, 243 assists and 385 points. Jason Arnott, who spent parts of four-plus seasons in New Jersey and was dealt to the Washington Capitals at the trade deadline last year, will sit out Thursday's game with a sore shoulder.
 
"I think of all of all the good things that happened while I was here," Langenbrunner said. "The friendships you made and successes you had. I really enjoyed my time in New Jersey and am proud to have played for this organization."
 
Langenbrunner was traded to the Dallas Stars last Jan. 6 before signing a one-year deal with the Blues over the summer.
 
"It's been great and I've really enjoyed my time [in St. Louis]," Langenbrunner said. "I didn't know a whole lot about it, to be honest with you. I played in [New Jersey] so long that you don't pay too much attention to the team's out west, but I've really enjoyed it. Obviously, since [Ken Hitchcock] has come in, we've given ourselves a chance.
 
"He's brought experience and calm to the bench. He brings a simplified way of playing the game and everyone has brought into that and has enjoyed playing for him."
 
The feeling is mutual.
 
"Langer and [Jason Arnott] have been valuable pieces for what we need," Hitchcock said. "In those competitive games, Jamie has been a very competitive player. The harder the opposition plays, he recognizes that and his experience and competitiveness just takes over; he dials it up and it drags other people into the fight. I think when you have a young team that suddenly finds the opposition dialing up the checking, they might get overwhelmed, but Jamie and Arnott have helped us plow through it."
 
Forward T.J. Oshie has also benefitted from Langenbrunner's presence.
 
"I think he brings that hard work ethic," he said. "Langer never takes a shift off, he doesn't complain about anything. He doesn't complain about ice time and just goes out there and plays hard when he gets his minutes. I think that's an inspiration to us younger guys to keep playing hard."
 
In other news, Jaroslav Halak will get the start in goal and Brian Elliott will get the nod at home against Colorado on Saturday.
 
Also, the Blues recalled 21-year-old Russian forward Evgeny Grachev from their American Hockey affiliate in Peoria on Wednesday. Grachev has played in 24 games for the Blues this season, notching 1 goal and 4 points. In 13 games for the Rivermen, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Grachev had 2 goals and 5 points.
 
Grachev was acquired by the Blues from the New York Rangers in exchange for a 2011 third-round draft choice (Steven Fogarty) last June.
 
"He was really good when we had him from a checking standpoint, but in Peoria, we wanted him to be more assertive offensively and he was," Hitchcock said. "Rather then being a guy who deferred to other people, we wanted him to kind of put the puck in his hip pocket and drive to the net and he did that. He's a trusted defensive player, but we think there's a lot more he can do offensively if he uses his body to take the puck to the net."
 
Here's the projected lineup for the Blues:
 
Jamie Langenbrunner - David Backes - T.J. Oshie
David Perron - Patrik Berglund - Chris Stewart
Chris Porter - Vladimir Sobotka - Evgeny Grachev
B.J. Crombeen - Scott Nichol - Ryan Reaves
 
Carlo Colaiacovo - Alex Pietrangelo
Kris Russell - Roman Polak
Barret Jackman - Kevin Shattenkirk
 
Jaroslav Halak will get the start in net and Brian Elliott will serve as backup.

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Quote of the Day

I'm hoping Bob [Murray] didn't go out and get Dany Heatley just to get someone. I'm sure he's excited and motivated.

— Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau on general manager Bob Murray's decision to sign Dany Heatley