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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 2:30 PM

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

Panthers try again for elusive fourth straight win

SUNRISE, Fla. — This is where it has gotten tricky for the Florida Panthers.

For the fifth time this season, they’re riding a three-game winning streak as heading into Saturday night’s contest against the Buffalo Sabres at the BankAtlantic Center.

But they’re still looking for that first four-game winning streak. In fact, the Panthers haven’t won four in a row since March of 2008 when they set a franchise record by reeling off seven consecutive victories.

That’s four years without a four-game winning streak.

“Let’s try to have tonight be the night to break that whole image of the Florida Panthers win streak,” said wing Kris Versteeg, who will be back in the lineup after missing the last nine games with a lower-body injury.

The Sabres already stopped one Florida three-game winning streak this season with a 2-1 overtime decision at Buffalo on Dec. 9.

Florida had another three-game streak end with an overtime loss, this time at Tampa Bay on Nov. 25.

But the last two three-game streaks ended with a thud, with a 6-2 home loss to Ottawa on Feb. 15 and with a 7-0 rout at Winnipeg on March 1.

The Panthers got their current streak with home victories over Carolina (2-0), Toronto (5-2) and Boston (6-2).

A victory over Buffalo would conclude a perfect 4-0 homestand. A victory in regulation would give Florida its first four-game streak of regulation victories since all the way back in February of 2001 — two of the victories in the March 2008 came in overtime.

More importantly, though, a victory over Buffalo would get the Panthers closer to a playoff berth, something they haven’t done since 2000.

“We look at this as a key stretch and we’re still right in the middle of it,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “We have to respect our opponent, know that we have a team that’s coming in that’s playing a good stretch of hockey right now and they are surging. It has great implications for us as well as them. It will make for a very exciting game, I think.”
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 2:19 PM

By Lonnie Herman -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

St. Louis prospect Schwartz set for NHL debut

TAMPA -- Sitting conspicuously atop a stack of St. Louis Blues equipment bags stacked outside the visitor’s locker room at Tampa Bay Times Forum is one that looks out of place.

That bag is labeled “Colorado College” and belongs to the newest acquisition of the Blues, Jaden Schwartz. Schwartz, a Blues’ first-round pick (14th overall) in 2010, signed an entry-level contract when his college season ended March 13 and joined the team on the current road trip in Carolina on March 15.

After two team practices, Schwartz will make his professional debut Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I’m definitely nervous,” Schwartz said after the morning skate. “Maybe more excited than anything, but hopefully after a few shifts the nerves will go away a little bit.”

St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock is counting on that, and he’s not too worried that he’ll be wrong, either.

“He’ll take regular shifts tonight and we’ll get a read later on, but our attitude is that the more minutes we get him up to speed, the quicker the transition will be,” Hitchcock said. “We’ll get him lots of five-on-five time and he’s going to play on the power play and we’ll see.”

Hitchcock sounds a lot more assured than 19-year-old Schwartz, who admits that the pace of the action is different in the NHL.

“It’s a big difference from college hockey,” Schwartz said.  “It’s faster. The guys are a lot bigger and stronger, the passing is more tape-to-tape. It’s definitely an adjustment.”

A veteran coach like Hitchcock, who has been behind the bench for 1,041 NHL games, has seen more than his share of rookies and is confident that Schwartz will fit in.

“I thought he was really nervous when he first came here,” Hitchcock said. “I thought going from an emotional letdown to the high and then all of a sudden you’re getting systems slammed down your throat. He looked very comfortable during the practice in Carolina and he looked comfortable on the ice Friday, so that’s a good sign.”

And while the rookie’s nerves might be jumping as game time approaches, he won’t get much special attention or sympathy from his coach.

“Just play. It’s a big enough deal and to me it’s about the emotion and intensity of the moment and you don’t want to build it up more than it is," Hitchcock said. "When we’re with him, if we treat it like it’s another hockey game then we take the pressure off of him. He’s going to have pressure on himself and have enough anxiety going, so just play. Jaden’s not a high-wire act; he’s a very responsible player so if he’s going to err anywhere he’ll err on the side of caution and I think that will give him some good quality minutes tonight.

“I think the biggest adjustment is going to be time and space with the puck. He’s going to have to learn that but I look at all these other guys that have picked up speed and it didn’t take them long, some of these kids that are coming in late; they’re doing fine and Schwartz is as good or better than a lot of those guys.”

So far, Schwartz’s best information has come from observing.

"I’m watching the veterans, how they play and how they handle themselves,” Schwartz said.  “You learn a lot from watching.”

Just now, that’s about the only way the young prospect is learning, since his teammates, like his coach, are keeping mum.
 
“Any advice would just clog things up,” 17-year veteran Jamie Langenbrunner said. “He’s going to be nervous, for sure, playing in his first NHL game. We all remember our first NHL game. The key is to let him have some fun with it. You only play your first game once.”
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 2:09 PM

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

Sekera back for Buffalo's playoff push

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Buffalo Sabres’ playoff push will get a boost Saturday night when defenseman Andrej Sekera returns to the lineup against the Florida Panthers.

Sekera missed the last five games after being diagnosed with pneumonia.

“I’m back healthy again and I’m ready to go,” Sekara said after Buffalo’s morning skate. “Every single time you come back from an injury or whatever, you are excited and you want to win some hockey games here with the guys. That’s our focus.”

Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said Sekera was playing at a high level before he was sidelined.

“Before he got sick, he might have been our top defenseman,” Ruff said. “He was playing against all the top lines. You look at his ability to hang on to the puck and get up ice and defend against the top personnel, I mean, his skating for a defenseman is at an elite level.”

Sekera last played March 5 at Winnipeg. He said he experienced flu-like symptoms, but went for further testing after three days when he wasn’t getting any better.

“I figured it might be something different because I had the bug before but it wasn’t that bad,” Sekera said. “So I called the doctor and did some more tests and they said I had pneumonia. They said it was in the early stage of it and it was in only one of my lungs so far, so I got my antibiotics and as long as the fever is not coming back, I feel pretty good.”

The sixth-year NHL veteran said he wasn’t concerned about stamina in his return to action.

“If I wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t be playing,” said Sekera, who will replace Brayden McNabb in the lineup. “I feel like I’m ready and I’m playing.”

While Sekera will be back, forward Nathan Gerbe will miss a second consecutive game because of an upper-body injury. Ruff said Gerbe, who was injured in a 3-2 overtime victory Monday over Montreal, is day-to-day.

Buffalo also will be without defenseman Tyler Myers, who will be serving the second game of a three-game suspension for boarding Montreal forward Scott Gomez on Monday night.

Here is the Sabres’ projected lineup for Saturday:

Marcus Foligno - Tyler Ennis - Drew Stafford
Corey Tropp - Derek Roy - Jason Pominville
Thomas Vanek - Cody Hodgson - Ville Leino
Cody McCormick - Brad Boyes - Patrick Kaleta

Christian Ehrhoff - Alexander Sulzer
Robyn Regehr - Andrej Sekera
Jordan Leopold - Mike Weber

Ryan Miller
Jhonas Enroth
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 2:00 PM

By Lonnie Herman -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Wounded Lightning brace for League-best Blues

TAMPA -- If the St. Louis Blues hope to avoid matching a season-high with three consecutive losses, they’ve likely come to the right place.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, their opponent Saturday night, are reeling toward the season’s finish line, an unrelenting string of injuries compounding their slide.

The latest to join the walking wounded is Nate Thompson, out Saturday with an undisclosed upper-body injury and likely to miss a few games. He joins five other regulars in the training room, a significant figure although at one point during the season Tampa Bay had nine regulars on the injured list.

“Injuries are part of the game, “Lightning coach Guy Boucher said, “but this year, that’s not part of the game. These are circumstances we’ll probably never see again. I’ve never seen it and probably never will again. It’s made for a long season.”

After an 18 save relief appearance against Toronto on Thursday night, Dwayne Roloson will get the call in the Lightning net, his first start since Feb 25 against Pittsburgh.

The season could seem even longer after the contest Saturday is finished, with St. Louis cruising along atop the League standings, three points ahead of the New York Rangers. And as befits a team with such a lofty status, not much is concerning them.

“We’re a high-wire act,” St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said.  “We’re a junior hockey team or a college team that happens to play professional hockey, that’s what it is. That’s the best way to describe it. We have fun, it’s loose. There is enough time for pressure once the game starts but we try to keep it as loose and active as we can until the game is ready to be played and then we dial it up. For an old guy like me it’s a little bit of chaos that I’m not used to but every day I come here I keep thinking that this is junior hockey again. That’s the way we deal with things; we do a lot of things that are silly and humorous, whether it’s the video or the meetings, we try to lighten the load.”

BLUES

David Perron - David Backes - T.J. Oshie
Chris Porter - Vladimir Sobotka - Chris Stewart
Patrik Berglund - Jamie Langenbruner - Jaden Schwartz
Scott Nichol - Ryan Reaves - B.J. Crombeen

Barret Jackman - Kevin Shattenkirk
Alex Pietrangelo - Carlo Colaiacovo
Ian Cole - Roman Polak

Jaroslav Halak
Brian Elliott

LIGHTNING

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

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

Dwayne Roloson
Dustin Tokarski
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 1:52 PM

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

Ovechkin latest target of MTS Centre faithful

WINNIPEG – Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin is the latest in a long line of NHL stars to feel the wrath of MTS Centre and its hockey faithful.

Winnipeg Jets fans serenaded Ovechkin with comparisons to his long-time rival, Sidney Crosby, during the Jets’ 3-2 win over the Capitals. Ryan Miller and Steven Stamkos have received similar welcomes in Winnipeg over the past month.

“Crosby’s better!” chants poured down from the rafters inside the compact arena. But if Jets fans thought that the serenade would bother Ovechkin, the move seemed to have little impact on a player who has 17 goals over his past 32 games.

“It’s good,” Ovechkin said of being the focus of Winnipeg fans. “It’s always nice when they talk about you and give you attention. I love it. It’s great for the League. It’s great for us. Everybody [debates] who’s better and who’s not. For me, it’s a nice atmosphere, and I love it.”

Jets coach Claude Noel found humor in Winnipeggers’ creativity, as well.

“It's classic,” Noel said. “That’s what you’ve got to like. It’s not the standard [cheers]. They come up with new things. They are just ruthless.”
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 1:49 PM

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

Jets must avoid letdown against Hurricanes

WINNIPEG – Rather than overlooking a visit this weekend from the Carolina Hurricanes, might the Winnipeg Jets still be looking back at their crucial – and highly emotional – 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals?

Beating Washington at MTS Centre moved the Jets to within two points of the eighth-place Capitals in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Florida Panthers, who meet 10th-place Buffalo tonight, sit five points ahead of the Jets for the Southeast Division lead.

Given the Jets’ road woes this season, every point earned at home is all the more crucial. A three-game road trip that winds from Pittsburgh through Washington and on to Nashville awaits the Jets after meeting the Hurricanes. Points squandered against the Hurricanes on home ice would damage the Jets’ playoff aspirations badly.

The Hurricanes took a 2-0 decision from the League-leading St. Louis Blues on Thursday night after Cam Ward’s 40-save effort. Entering a road date Saturday at Minnesota, Ward has put together a .949 save percentage in his past four starts.

“They were very good,” Jets coach Claude Noel said of the Hurricanes and their effort against St. Louis. Ward picked up his 200th NHL win in earning first-star honors against the Blues. Jeff Skinner, who received a two-game suspension on Friday for a kicking incident, hit the 20-goal mark, as well.

“One thing that will be clear is that we will not take them lightly,” Noel said. “That’s a really hard thing to manage, because you can say all the right things, but the emotional level might not be there. But you get to see what your team is about, too.”
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 1:46 PM

NHL.com - 2011-2012 Situation Room blog

PIT @ NJ - 16:57 of the First Period


At 16:57 of the first period in the Devils/Penguins game, video review upheld the referee's call on the ice that Andy Greene's shot crossed the goal line. Good Goal New Jersey.
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 1:44 PM

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

Versteeg, Kulikov return for Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. — After coach Kevin Dineen said all week that Kris Versteeg and Dmitry Kulikov were close to returning to action, the next step finally has come and both players will be in the lineup when   the Florida Panthers face the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.

Versteeg missed the last nine games because of a lower-body injury. He was the team’s leading scorer with 49 points when he went out, but has since dropped to third behind Tomas Fleischmann (51) and Stephen Weiss (50).

The three have played on the same line for most of the season, but Versteeg is expected to skate Saturday night alongside Tomas Kopecky and Shawn Matthias.

“I want to be a help to the team in any way I can,” said Versteeg, who last played during the Panthers’ 4-2 victory over Montreal on Feb. 26. “I guess a couple of weeks ago we had a little bit of a rough run, but the last three games the guys have been clicking. You don’t want to come in and do too much to the chemistry, but you do want to come in and help.”

As for Kulikov, he’ll return after missing 23 games after undergoing knee surgery on Jan. 24.

Kulikov figures to be paired again with veteran Mike Weaver.

“It’s been a long time,” Kulikov said. “I’ve been looking forward to this night. I’ve been looking forward to coming back and helping out the team. Obviously, guys are doing good right now. I just want to get into the rhythm and don’t mess up the thing.”

After undergoing surgery, Kulikov said the knee had been bothering to some degree for about five years. But he says he’s 100 percent now.

“When you’re injured, you’re working even harder than the guys that are playing,” Kulikov said. “That’s what they prepare you for. It’s hard, but that needs to be done, those workouts and preparation for the games. I feel fresh right now. I feel like I have lots of energy.

“You don’t go into the game and get used to the game. You don’t have time for that. You just have to go out there and pick up where you left off or even better. It’s going to be tough, but we’ll see how it 
goes.”

The return of Versteeg and Kulikov made for some tough lineup decisions for Dineen, whose team is riding a three-game winning streak.

“A guy like Marco Sturm that I felt played the best game I’ve seen him play in a Panthers uniform (Thursday against Boston) is making those decisions extremely tough,” Dineen said. “When you get a coveted spot in this lineup, your job is to make sure that the coaches have a tough decision every day in how they’re putting their lineup together every day.

“That’s exactly what you want. You want enthusiasm and some kind of production ... it may not be on the score sheet, but there has to be a positive effect for every player in the lineup for us to be successful. That’s how our sales job right now.”

It is Sturm’s spot on the Matthias line that Versteeg will take against Buffalo, but Sturm is expected to be in the lineup anyway skating with John Madden and Jerred Smithson.

Here is the Panthers’ projected lineup for Saturday night against Buffalo.

PANTHERS

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

Jason Garrison - Brian Campbell
Dmitry Kulikov - Mike Weaver
Ed Jovanovski - Erik Gudbranson

Jose Theodore
Scott Clemmensen
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 1:08 PM

By Erin Nicks -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Projected lineups for Maple Leafs, Senators

KANATA, Ont. – Here are the projected lineups for Saturday night when the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs meet at Scotiabank Place:

SENATORS

Colin GreeningJason SpezzaMilan Michalek
Rob KlinkhammerKyle TurrisDaniel Alfredsson
Nick Foligno – Jim O’Brien – Chris Neil
Bobby ButlerZack SmithErik Condra

Filip KubaErik Karlsson
Jared CowenSergei Gonchar
Chris PhillipsMatt Gilroy

Ben Bishop
Alex Auld

Zenon Konopka, Matt Carkner and Kaspars Daugavins are the healthy scratches.

General manager Bryan Murray told TV reporters that Craig Anderson (hand) requires a full four weeks of recovery, according to the surgeon who repaired the severed tendon in Anderson’s pinkie finger. This means that the earliest the goaltender could return to duty would be Mar. 23 against Montreal.

When asked why he chose not to bring physical players like Carkner and Konopka back into the lineup against the Leafs, coach Paul MacLean deadpanned, “The games (against Toronto) haven’t been that truculent.”

MAPLE LEAFS

After an optional skate Saturday morning, Randy Carlyle would not confirm if the team would once again go with seven defensemen. Here are the projected lines if the Leafs choose to go that route:

Clarke MacArthurTyler BozakPhil Kessel
Carter AshtonMikhail GrabovskiMatt Frattin
Tim ConnollyDavid SteckelJoey Crabb
Matthew Lombardi –Colby Armstrong

Carl GunnarssonDion Phaneuf
John-Michael LilesMike Komisarek
Jake GardinerLuke Schenn
Cody Franson

James Reimer
Jonas Gustavsson

Mike Brown (thigh) remains day-to-day. Nikolai Kulemin (finger) and Joffrey Lupul (shoulder) are still three weeks away from returning. Jay Rosehill is the likely healthy scratch.
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Posted On Saturday, 03.17.2012 / 1:02 PM

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

Lineups for Flyers, Bruins

BOSTON – The Boston Bruins wore green warm-up jerseys Saturday at TD Garden prior to their game with the Philadelphia Flyers.
               
They might need a little luck of the Irish to snap their four-game losing streak. However, they have won two of their previous three meetings with the Flyers.
               
Tim Thomas will make the start in net for Boston – his 12th straight appearance in goal, including two relief appearances. The Flyers counter with Ilya Bryzgalov trying to extend his personal seven-game winning streak.
               
Here are the projected starting lineups for both clubs:

BRUINS

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

Zdeno Chara - Dennis Seidenberg
Andrew Ference - Johnny Boychuk
Greg Zanon - Adam McQuaid

Tim Thomas
Marty Turco

FLYERS

Scott Hartnell - Claude Giroux - Jaromir Jagr
Eric Wellwood - Daniel Briere - Jakub Voracek
Zac Rinaldo - Sean Couturier - Max Talbot
Matt Read - Brayden Schenn - Wayne Simmonds

Nicklas Grossmann - Braydon Coburn
Matt Carle - Kimmo Timonen
Andreas Lilja - Erik Gustafsson

Ilya Bryzgalov
Sergei Bobrovsky
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Quote of the Day

I didn't even know how to celebrate. I threw my hands up, they gave me a hug, so I guess that's all I needed.

— Sabres forward Tim Schaller on scoring his first NHL goal Sunday against the Bruins