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AHL call-ups helping keep Pens in Eastern race

by Dan Rosen
Dustin Jeffrey never will be Sidney Crosby, but he can mimic him for at least a little while. Eric Tangradi can't be Evgeni Malkin on his best day, but at 6-foot-4 and 221 pounds he does have the size to fill a power forward role for the Pittsburgh Penguins for now.

This is how the Penguins are going to have to roll for the next couple of weeks as GM Ray Shero works to find a team willing to trade with him in light of the season-ending knee injury to Malkin and Crosby's concussion. Names like Jason Arnott, Ales Hemsky and ex-Penguin Alexei Kovalev have been associated with rumors involving Pittsburgh, but for now coach Dan Bylsma has Jeffrey and Tangradi, a pair of AHL call-ups, filling major roles.

He's fine with it because what Jeffrey, Tangradi and even Tim Wallace, who played his first game of the season Sunday in Washington and fought David Steckel, lack in experience they more than make up for in energy, desire and knowledge of the Penguins' system.

"There's certainly that burst of adrenaline that a player rides when he gets called up. The challenge for players is maintaining that or a consistency level once the adrenaline goes away and you get into the day to day," Bylsma said. "For our organization, we've had success with players coming up and contributing because they're 100-percent comfortable in what their role is and how they have to play. That gives them the opportunity to go out and show their skill."

Jeffrey, Tangradi and Wallace were quiet just like the rest of their teammates in Sunday's 3-0 loss at Washington, but at least for Jeffrey, that was rare. He has 3 goals and an assist in the seven games he's played since his most recent call-up Jan. 20. He has played 16 or more minutes over the four games since Mark Letestu went down with a knee injury that will keep him out for the next 3-5 weeks.

Bylsma said Jeffrey is out of that adrenaline-push stage, so now he's curious to see how Jeffrey handles the day-to-day grind knowing he's going to be a part of the Penguins' equation for the foreseeable future.

"Maybe there is a realization now that there is a longer-term opportunity with Geno's (Malkin) injury," Bylsma said, "but (assistant coach) Todd Reirden and myself have had the opportunity to coach Dustin for a while now, so we know him as a player and know maybe he needed a jolt two games ago to make sure he didn't slip, and he hasn't slipped."

Tangradi has played in only three games since being recalled last week and Wallace played in his first game Sunday.

"For short periods of time they're just as good as anybody because their adrenaline is going and they're playing better than what they are," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Over time they become who they are, but a lot of times other teams look at the lineup and go, 'Oh wow, they don't have Sidney and they don't have Malkin,' and they take it easy. There's a reason Wilkes-Barre is in first place in the American Hockey League."

Now let's go around the conference to see how the 15 teams have responded since the All-Star break. As always, they're listed in order of where they stand after Monday's action:

 Philadelphia Flyers (35-13-5, 75 points)

Win, win, lose, win, win. The Flyers just keep on winning four out of five, four out of five, four out of five. They've won 12 of their last 15 games dating to the start of 2011. They're currently in the middle of a four-day break that has sliced a four-game homestand in half. The Flyers beat Nashville and Dallas in the first two games, and they'll be back on the Wells Fargo Center ice Thursday to play Carolina and then again Sunday against Los Angeles before playing four road games in six days. The Flyers have allowed more than two goals in only two of their last 10 games.

 Tampa Bay Lightning (33-16-5, 71 points)

The Bolts need to have an eye in the rear-view mirror at the surging Capitals, but they rebounded from a 5-2 loss to Washington on Friday with a 4-3 overtime win against St. Louis on Sunday. Playing three-point games against Western Conference teams doesn't matter to the Lightning, who were happy to get the two points after blowing a pair of one-goal leads against the Blues. Steven Stamkos recorded his League-best fourth four-point game Sunday and now has 40 goals and 72 points to lead the NHL in both of those categories as well.

 Boston Bruins (30-16-7, 67 points)

The Bruins, coming off a 2-0 loss to San Jose on Saturday, have one of their bigger games of the season Wednesday, as Montreal rolls into town and first place in the Northeast Division will be at stake. The game can be seen just about everywhere -- Versus, TSN, NESN and RDS all are televising it. Boston is 0-2-1 against the Canadiens this season. They follow Wednesday's game with a Friday-Sunday home-and-home with Detroit, so it's a big Original Six week for the Bruins.

 Pittsburgh Penguins (34-16-4, 72 points)

By now you know all about their injuries. You probably have even heard that Arron Asham had to go on injured reserve after suffering an upper-body injury last week against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. However, the Penguins still have managed to stay in the race for the Atlantic Division title. They have home games against Columbus and Los Angeles on Tuesday and Thursday before embarking on a four-game road trip that starts with a double-dip in New York, first against the Islanders on Friday and then against the Rangers on Sunday. Nine of their next 13 games are on the road.

 Washington Capitals (29-15-10, 68 points)

Mike Green's status remains in question. The defenseman was struck in the right ear by Brooks Orpik's slap shot in Sunday's 3-0 win against the Penguins and the fear is he might have a concussion, though the Capitals were not saying that as of Monday afternoon. The Capitals instead are talking about their most impressive back-to-back performances of the season -- they beat Tampa Bay on Friday and then shut out the Penguins on Sunday. They'll look to keep their mojo rising Tuesday against San Jose, with or without their All-Star defenseman.

 Montreal Canadiens (30-19-5, 65 points)

The Habs had a chance to jump ahead of the Bruins and into first place in the Northeast Division on Sunday, but they fell to the Devils, 4-1. They have to hope that doesn't ruin the momentum they created in their first three games following the All-Star break, when they allowed only four goals in wins against Washington, Florida and the Rangers. They have lost on three times in regulation since Dec. 30 (10-3-3). First place is on the line again Wednesday when the Habs visit Boston. They haven't lost to the Bruins yet this season.

 New York Rangers (29-23-4, 62 points)

The Rangers are winless in five straight, with four of the losses coming in regulation. They have only three regulation wins in 2011 and are 7-9-2 since the calendar flipped. They're slipping and they need Marian Gaborik to step up and be the offensive force we all know he can be. He had 4 goals on Jan. 19 against Toronto, but has just 1 goal in the last eight games and none in the last five. Gaborik has just has 16 goals and 34 points in 42 games this season. You know it's not good when Martin Biron is making back-to-back starts. Henrik Lundqvist has given up 10 goals on 55 shots in his last three appearances.

 Carolina Hurricanes (26-21-6, 58 points)

The Hurricanes start a five-game road swing Tuesday in New Jersey. The trip will take them from Newark to Philadelphia, then to Tampa and Atlanta and back again to Newark. This is a critical part of the season for the Hurricanes, because if they can pick up some points on the trip they'll remain in the playoff hunt, as 16 of their final 24 games are on home ice. Carolina is 14-9-2 at home this season. The 'Canes picked up a big overtime win against the Thrashers on Saturday, but avoiding those three-point games against teams like the Thrashers, Sabres and Panthers is essential if they want to split off from the pack.

 Atlanta Thrashers (24-22-10, 58 points)

GM Rick Dudley is actively seeking a trade that he hopes will ignite his team, which has fallen on some seriously hard times. The Thrashers are 2-7-4 in their last 13 games. They're actually lucky they've been able to pick up those four loser points because it has helped them stay in the race. That, and the fact that Hurricanes haven't been able to pull away. Nevertheless, Dudley told the team's Website in a recent interview that he's looking for a top-six forward in the trade market. So are so many other teams, but they don't seem to be available right now because so many teams remain in the playoff hunt.

 Buffalo Sabres (24-22-5, 53 points)

The Sabres are hanging in the race. They've won three of their last four and 10 of 15 dating to Dec. 28. It's not must-win time for Buffalo yet, but it's nearing that time considering Carolina, Atlanta and Florida all are thinking the same thing. The Sabres have an important game Tuesday at Tampa Bay (7:30 p.m. ET, Versus, TSN2, RDS). They're 0-2-0 against the Lightning this season. Goalie Ryan Miller has made 28 straight starts. His career-high for consecutive starts is 34.

 Florida Panthers (23-23-6, 52 points)

A critical five-game homestand starts Tuesday against St. Louis. The Panthers have to prove to GM Dale Tallon that they are a serious playoff contender or else he will do his best to trade away pieces in order to get back future gains such as prospects and draft picks. Tallon reportedly has started contract negotiations with the agent for goalie Tomas Vokoun, but Vokoun, a pending unrestricted free agent and possible trade bait, told he knew nothing of it. The Panthers will be a team to watch leading into the Feb. 28 trade deadline.

 Toronto Maple Leafs (22-26-5, 49 points)

The saga involving the relationship between Phil Kessel and coach Ron Wilson, and the comments made by Kessel earlier this week, has created a firestorm in Toronto. Kessel on Sunday told some reporters after practice that things "might not be working out here," and that he and Wilson "don't really talk." With a smile on his face, Kessel said Monday that his comments were taken out of context and he loves being in Toronto. Kessel hasn't scored a goal in 11 games, but GM Brian Burke told reporters Monday night that he needs better linemates, saying, "it's a failure of team personnel." The Leafs, by the way, have won three out of four.

 New Jersey Devils (19-30-4, 42 points)

When Ilya Kovalchuk started to turn his season around early last month, so did the Devils. Or does it go the other way, that when the Devils started to turn their season around, so, too, did Kovalchuk? Does it matter? The Devils are 9-1-2 in their last 12 games and Kovalchuk has 7 goals and 6 assists in that same stretch. He has a team-high 17 goals, which still is far off his usual average of 40, but still is getting to be at least a little bit respectable.

 Ottawa Senators (17-29-8, 42 points)

The Senators haven't won a game in nearly a month, going 0-8-2 since a 6-4 win against the Islanders on Jan. 13. They've lost four in a row in regulation. They even lost a home game in which they scored five goals because Detroit scored seven. The good news is Jason Spezza had a goal and an assist Monday in Vancouver. It was his second game back from a shoulder injury that cost him 15 games. The Senators went 1-10-4 without him.

 New York Islanders (17-28-7, 41 points)

Do they want to finish last again and get a chance at another No. 1 pick in the Entry Draft? The Islanders didn't play that way against Atlanta last Tuesday (a 4-1 win) or Ottawa on Saturday (a 5-3 win). They've got the Maple Leafs coming to Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday. Ty Wishart, acquired in the Dwayne Roloson trade Jan. 1, picked up 2 assists in his first game as an Islander on Saturday. It was Wishart's sixth NHL game and his first since the 2008-09 season. Wishart was the No. 16 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, and the Isles are hoping he turns into a steal.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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