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POSTED ON Thursday, 12.08.2011 / 3:48 PM

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

Hackett gets first NHL start for Wild

LOS ANGELES -- Matt Hackett will get the call again for the Minnesota Wild.

The rookie will start against the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night in the follow-up to his NHL debut on Tuesday in which he relieved Josh Harding just over a minute into the game and shut out the San Jose Sharks in what became a 2-1 Minnesota victory.

Minnesota does not have its starting goalies speak to the media on game days, but coach Mike Yeo said Hackett "was all smiles" when told he would start again.

"It will be real good for Hacks to get another chance," Yeo said. "He played great last game, so let's throw him back in there."

It was thought that Niklas Backstrom might return but Backstrom will back up tonight and continue to rest his groin.

"I'm feeling pretty good," Backstrom said. "It's nice to be back and I'm getting better everyday."

Harding did not skate Thursday, but Yeo said he's better after he suffered a sort of whiplash from teammate Nick Schultz on Tuesday.

"Yesterday he felt great and he worked out," Yeo said. "We'll meet with him here this afternoon and figure out if he's going to be back with us tomorrow."
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POSTED ON Thursday, 12.08.2011 / 3:36 PM

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

Coyotes thriving in net without Bryzgalov

DETROIT – After the Phoenix Coyotes dealt star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to the Philadelphia Flyers last summer, the focus quickly turned to who would fill the gap left behind.

The answer, by and large, has been Mike Smith – who signed with Phoenix as a free agent last summer. In his sixth NHL season, Smith is playing solid in net for Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, whom he also played for with the Dallas Stars – the franchise that drafted him in the fifth round (161st overall) of the 2001 Entry Draft.

Heading into a Thursday night game against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena, Smith is 13-6-3 in 22 appearances and has a 2.26 goals-against average to go with a .931 save percentage. He’s been a perfect fit for Tippett’s more defense-oriented system.

“He’s been phenomenal … both him and (backup Jason LaBarbera),” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said after Thursday’s morning skate. “We knew that (Bryzgalov) was very important and valuable to us as a team and we needed to get good goaltending to be successful. Our system is conducive to having a good goalie playing well and I think goalies enjoy playing in that system, but they still have to stop the puck.”

In Smith’s case, he’s also adept at playing the puck when out of the crease – which adds another dynamic to what Phoenix does.

“It’s certainly an element that helps,” Tippett said. “We have some situations that we look for him to make a good play and it’s just part of the gameplan now. If you have a goaltender who doesn’t handle the puck well, those things aren’t in there. There’s times when it does help, for sure.”

As for the Stars trading Smith to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tippett said it was more of a preventative move than anything to do with his skill level.

“We didn’t trade him because we didn’t like him,” Tippett said. “We didn’t think we were going to be able to keep him. We had Turco. I thought for sure he was going to be a good No.1 goaltender in this League.”

It didn’t work out that way with the Lightning, so Smith became a free agent last summer. Tippett jumped at the chance to re-connect with him after the Bryzgalov trade.

“When (Smith) was available this summer, I thought he’d be a good fit for our team personality-wise,” Tippett said. “I (also) thought he was a good player and I thought (Coyotes goaltending coach) Sean Burke would be good for him. All three turned out well.”
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POSTED ON Thursday, 12.08.2011 / 3:34 PM

By Matt Kalman -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Sturm makes return to TD Garden to face Bruins

BOSTON -- For the first time since he was traded to Los Angeles last December, Marco Sturm returned to the TD Garden today.

The Panthers winger has played for four teams (including Florida) since he was dealt out of Boston in a salary-cap crunch. In more than 300 regular-season games with the Bruins, Sturm scored 106 goals, including the famous game-winning goal in the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park.

Maybe his biggest goal as a Bruin came in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against Montreal in 2008. The Bruins were in the playoffs for the first time since the lockout and Sturm's goal capped a wild victory that allowed the eighth-seeded Bruins to push top-seeded Montreal to a seventh game.

"It's fun and it's a little bit weird too," said Sturm about his return to Boston after the morning skate in preparation for tonight's game against the Bruins. "It's been a fun time here. I had a lot of good years here, I really liked it here, and now I'm on the other side."

Sturm admits that at first last spring, he wasn't all that interested in what the Bruins were doing. As they moved closer to their Stanley Cup championship, however, Boston earned Sturm's rooting interest.

"After they kept winning and winning, I knew they had a pretty good chance," he said. "I don't know, the happiness took over because I knew this group of guys and they deserve it."

While Sturm wasn't around for Boston's capturing of the ultimate goal, he was a key component in the change of culture for the Bruins. Winger Shawn Thornton lauded Sturm's ability to life everyone's spirits today, and coach Claude Julien was grateful for what Sturm brought his clubs on and off the ice.

"Well, Marco was one of those guys that, his last few years he had some pretty bad injuries and going back to those days, I know that he ... really wanted to feel part of the team and he was doing things from the outside, getting guys ready, bringing in some stuff before playoffs and kind of giving them little things that would kind of make us or solidify what we were as a team," Julien said. "As a player … at that time, we didn't have a ton of speed up front and he certainly brought that and that's what we liked about Marco was his speed and he could come off of the wing and then take that shot."



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POSTED ON Thursday, 12.08.2011 / 3:28 PM

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

Ekman-Larsson draws comparions to "idol" Lidstrom

DETROIT – Mike Babcock isn’t one to liberally offer extraordinary compliments about young players.

So, when the Detroit Red Wings coach used the term “Nick Lidstrom-like thinker” Thursday morning to describe 20-year old Phoenix defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, it raised a few eyebrows among the media contingent talking to Babcock.

The Swedish-born Ekman-Larsson, leads Coyotes defensemen in goals scored with five and has nine points in 27 games coming into the game Thursday against Lidstrom’s Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. Like Lidstrom, he’s a good skater and moves the puck well – but he’s also showing some of the same ability to think a little like his boyhood idol in terms of positioning.

“He’s a heady player,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “He makes some hard plays look simple and that’s the greatest thing about Lidstrom. He makes the game look easy. (Ekman-Larsson) is a young player that obviously has some growth (left), but he makes good plays and decision-making seems simple for him. That’s probably what (Babcock) is referring to.”

Ekman-Larsson also emulates Lidstrom a little bit off the ice, by downplaying his own abilities and talking more about team goals than individual. He does, however, admit that he’s picked up a few things in his own game just by watching Lidstrom closely over the years.

“He was my idol when I grew up, so I mean he’s a really good player and I always watched him when I was a kid,” Ekman-Larsson said after Phoenix’s skate Thursday. “I just tried to learn something about what Nick does.”

He’s still watching, too – whenever he’s not playing against the Red Wings.

“He’s still the best (defenseman) in the League, so I can still (learn),” Ekman-Larsson said. “I tried to play like him when I was younger … but I can’t lose focus watching him out there. I just have to play my game.”

Ekman-Larson made his NHL debut last season and scored one goal to go with 10 assists in 48 games for Phoenix. This season, he’s already more than quadrupled his goal output and is starting to show the same kind of ability as Lidstrom to usually put himself in the right spot and play the best angles.

He learned it from watching the best.

“He’s a good thinker and he reads the ice awesome,” Ekman-Larsson said of Lidstrom, Detroit’s captain. “I like how he handles the puck and makes good plays.”

Tippett likes what’s he’s now seeing out his own Swedish blueliner.

“He’s got poise with the puck to go with it,” the Coyotes coach said. “He’ll grow into being a very good defenseman in this League for a long time.”
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POSTED ON Thursday, 12.08.2011 / 2:54 PM

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

Sore groin won't keep Halak on sidelines

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Blues will go with Jaroslav Halak in goal tonight against the Ducks, days after coach Ken Hitchcock disclosed that Halak had a sore groin.

Halak said that the injury is nothing to be concerned with.

"It's fine. It's nothing serious," Halak said. "I could have played (Tuesday). It's not like I can't play. I can practice, I can play."

The injury occurred in the week leading up to his start Friday against Colorado, where he stopped 33 shots in a 3-2 shootout loss.

"It was fine. I knew it was there, but it didn't affect my game," Halak said. "Obviously I'm looking forward to get back in (tonight) and see game action. We'll see how it goes. I'll try to do my best out there and help the guys win a game."

Halak, who is 4-7-3 with a 2.40 goals-against average and .903 save percentage, has a 1.60 GAA and .944 save percentage in his last eight starts.

"He was sore on Monday, but he's fine now," Hitchcock said. "I could have gone with him (Tuesday). I just made the decision early to set the schedule. I had Halak playing Thursday and then I'd make a decision for which way I'd go for Saturday.

"When he said he was a little bit sore, I said, 'OK, let's just go with the schedule.' Then I saw how mad Brian (Elliott) was, that kind of defined for me to say, 'Let's stay with this.' I want to see how this fella reacts when he's angry. Some guys get angry and they can't get over it. I wanted to see if he could refocus and he did (after Saturday's 5-2 loss to Chicago). Pretty impressive."

Halak and Elliott have the Blues behind only Boston's Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in goalie tandems. Halak and Elliott have a combined 2.08 GAA and .920 save percentage.

"As long as we can get some points and keep winning, that's all you can ask from the team or from your goalies," Halak said. "The team can only ask the goalie to give the team the best chance to win. That's what I'm trying to do.

"When they see that you're making key saves or good saves at key moments, it always helps. It's always about timing, too. They're feeding off it and playing well in front of us."
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POSTED ON Thursday, 12.08.2011 / 2:53 PM

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

Pens impressed by Giroux

PHILADELPHIA -- Claude Giroux's emergence as an NHL star might be traced to the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Giroux, in his first playoff action, led the Flyers in scoring with 5 points in the six-game series won by the Penguins.

Since then, Giroux has blossomed into an All-Star and current League scoring leader, with his 4-point game last night in Buffalo giving him 36 points, one ahead of Toronto's Phil Kessel.

"He's a talented, talented guy," said Pens forward Craig Adams. "We saw a little bit of that two years ago. You're like, 'Who is this guy?' Now everyone knows who he is. I watched the very end of that game last night and he put it away. He looks confident, he's got a lot of skill. We're going to have to do a good job against him tonight."

Pascal Dupuis said Giroux was mentioned prominently in the Pens' scouting report on the Flyers.

"He's another highly skilled player," said Dupuis. "He skates well, he's really good with the puck. He's making the right plays right now, playing some good hockey. We'll try to keep an eye on him all the time.

"Obviously he's a player to watch and we'll be playing him tight."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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POSTED ON Thursday, 12.08.2011 / 2:50 PM

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

Hitch: 'Partnership' important for new coach, players

ST. LOUIS -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau go back together to their days of coaching in the International Hockey League, Hitchcock at Kalamazoo and Boudreau with Fort Wayne. They first crossed paths in 1994, and now both are entrenched with new teams after filling jobs that became open after the Blues and Ducks each fired their coaches that started the season.

The transition has been good for Hitchcock, whose team is 9-2-3 since taking over the Blues Nov. 6. Boudreau, who was fired from his post in Washington Nov. 27 but quickly found a job in Anaheim a few days later, is 1-1-1.

With Boudreau still in the early stages of getting acclimated with his players and staff, Hitchcock offered up words of advice to make the transition smooth.

"The partnership that lead the group is really important," Hitchcock said. "I was lucky. I never knew David Backes from anything. I really relied on (Jason) Arnott and (Jamie) Langenbrunner, but Backes already had a grip on the team and then we forged a partnership to build, and I think that's what you have to do.

"You can't build relationships with players overnight, but if you can build a relationship with your captain and get that comfortable, I think you can see that with (Boudreau) and (Ryan) Getzlaf, (Corey) Perry, (Teemu) Selanne and those guys. He's talking about those guys every day. ... I always say if you can coach five or six and instruct 25, you're going to do good. He's coaching those five or six and that's what we have to do to get it changed quick."

Boudreau said he's following a similar pattern of opening lines of communication with his leaders.

"We've sat down and talked," Boudreau said. "We've had individual meetings with them and collectively. ... Trying to find out where they're at and give them my philosophies and to see if it fits in with what we're going to do.

"I haven't had a chance to talk to everybody individually because it's happened so quick. But I will get that when we get home. There's about eight guys left that I haven't talked to. I'll talk to them just to try and get to know everybody on a personal basis."

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POSTED ON Thursday, 12.08.2011 / 2:48 PM

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

Projected lineups for Blues, Ducks

Here's how the lineups could look tonight when the St. Louis Blues face the Anaheim Ducks at the Scottrade Center:

BLUES
Alex Steen - David Backes - T.J. Oshie
David Perron - Patrik Berglund - Chris Stewart
Matt D'Agostini - Vladimir Sobotka - Jamie Langenbrunner
Chris Porter / Ryan Reaves - Jason Arnott - Scott Nichol

Carlo Colaiacovo - Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman - Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell - Roman Polak

Jaroslav Halak will get the start in goal tonight; Brian Elliott will back up.

Either Porter or Reaves will be a healthy scratch along with defenseman Ian Cole. The Blues are also without injured players Andy McDonald (concussion), B.J. Crombeen (shoulder) and Kent Huskins (ankle).

DUCKS
Matt Beleskey - Ryan Getzlaf - Corey Perry
Bobby Ryan - Saku Koivu - Teemu Selanne
Niklas Hagman - Andrew Cogliano - Devante Smith-Pelly
Jean-Francois Jacques - Maxime Macenauer - George Parros

Cam Fowler - Francois Beauchemin
Toni Lydman - Luca Sbisa
Sheldon Brookbank - Kurtis Foster

Jonas Hiller is the likely starter, although there was an outside chance Dan Ellis, coming off a groin strain injury, could see his first game action since Nov. 25.

Scratches are expected to be winger Andrew Gordon, center Nick Bonino and defenseman Nate Guenin. The team is without injured defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky (finger), forward Jason Blake (wrist) and defenseman Matt Smaby (thumb).
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POSTED ON Thursday, 12.08.2011 / 2:38 PM

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

Kesler has new mates after old line 'disintegrated'

MONTREAL -- Ryan Kesler looked to his left and looked to his right Thursday morning, and was left wondering what happened.

What he saw was Mason Raymond and Jannik Hansen on his wings at the Vancouver Canucks' morning skate, two brand new faces just two games after Kesler's regular line had a breakout game.

Kesler, Chris Higgins and newcomer David Booth had exploded for a combined nine points in a 5-1 win against the Calgary Flames on Sunday. But Higgins missed the next game Tuesday night against Colorado with a staph infection in his foot, leaving Hansen to fill the void.

Then Booth took a knee-on-knee hit from Avalanche defenseman Kevin Porter, spraining the MCL in his knee, an injury that will cost him four to six weeks.

So, for the Canucks' game against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night, Raymond will grab Booth's spot, and Kesler has himself a brand-new line.

"(My line) disintegrated," Kesler joked Thursday morning.

"To lose both my wingers, it's kind of a shock to me," he added later. "One game we put up nine points together, and the next game I don't have my two wingers."

While Higgins is not expected to miss an extended period of time -- coach Alain Vigneault said once the cut on his foot heals enough to allow him to put his skate on, he should play -- Booth's absence is especially sad for a player who looked to be finally finding the form that made him a one-time 30-goal scorer with the Florida Panthers.

His career was derailed Oct. 24, 2009, when he absorbed a monster hit from Mike Richards, then a member of the Philadelphia Flyers. He came back later that season, but struggled to find his game until he was ultimately traded by the Panthers to the Canucks in October.

Since being put on Kesler's line with Higgins on Nov. 25, Booth had 3 goals and 2 assists in five games when he was injured.

"He was playing well for us, David," Kesler said. "He was one of those guys where it was his first time being traded, it was probably a shock for him. He really started to turn it on, playing the hockey he probably wanted to be playing. He was producing, our line was producing."

Moving Jansen and Raymond up to the second line has ripple effects down the rest of the Canucks' lineup, with rookie Bill Sweatt making his NHL debut on a line with Maxim Lapierre and Cody Hodgson while defenseman Andrew Alberts will be playing on left wing on the fourth line with Dale Weise and Manny Malhotra.

"Those are two big parts of our team and two guys who were playing well for us," Kesler said. "So those are two big shoes to fill, but it gives guys opportunities, so hopefully they can seize that."

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POSTED ON Thursday, 12.08.2011 / 2:33 PM

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

Homecoming tonight for Michigan native Connor

DETROIT – It will be a homecoming game of sorts for Chris Conner on Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena, when the forward from Westland, Mich., suits up for the hometown Detroit Red Wings.

Conner, 27, signed with the Wings as an unrestricted free agent this summer and didn’t initially make the team out of training camp. He started the season with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League and got recalled to make his Detroit debut Dec. 2 at Buffalo.

After playing during the Wings’ recent three-game road trip, Conner will now make his home debut against the Phoenix Cotes on Thursday night – though he’s not entirely sure how many friends and family will be in the stands.

“You’re always watching (the Wings) on TV when you’re younger,” Conner said of being a Wings fan as a kid. “Right now, I’m just trying to do whatever I can with my speed to help out on the forecheck and be responsible in my own zone.”

Conner has now played parts of six seasons in the NHL – including 60 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins last year. Overall, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has liked the effort he’s seen out of Conner on the third line since his call up.

“I thought he’s played hard for us,” Babcock said. “I didn’t think our team was as good the last two games since we lost (Valtteri Filppula to a cut shin), so those third and fourth line guys didn’t get to be as important as they should have been and didn’t get the minutes they probably deserved at times. He’s just got to continue to be good, tenacious, hard on the penalty kill and do what he can to help us.”
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Once again, it shows character in this dressing room. Once again, there's no quitting in here. We all wanted this so bad and we worked so hard to get home-ice advantage and we weren't going to let this one slide.

— Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog on his team's OT Game 1 win vs. Minnesota Wild