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Halak, Kane, Luongo top NHL Three Stars

by John Kreiser
Jaroslav Halak always has felt he should be a starting NHL goaltender. Now, he's making it hard for the Montreal Canadiens to keep him on the bench.

Halak has been nothing short of phenomenal during the Canadiens' four-game winning streak during their current road trip. He was all but flawless last week, leading the Canadiens to victories in Atlanta, Carolina and Toronto while stopping 140 of 146 shots -- an average of 48.7 shots faced per game. Perhaps his best performance came Saturday night against the Leafs, when he stopped 47 of 49 shots as the Canadiens won 3-2 in overtime at the Air Canada Centre despite being outplayed all night.

Halak has lowered his goals-against average to 2.53 and improved his save percentage to .926 while posting a 10-5-0 record on a team that is 19-18-3 overall. He's making it increasingly difficult for Montreal coach Jacques Martin to keep him on the bench
Second star, Patrick Kane -- The Chicago Blackhawks enter the week on top of the overall NHL standings, and Kane is a major reason why. He scored goals in each of Chicago's four games and went 5-3-8 last week, capping the outburst by scoring the game-winning goal with just 44 seconds remaining to give the Hawks a 5-4 victory over Nashville Sunday night. Kane has climbed into the top 10 in the scoring race with 42 points.

Third star, Roberto Luongo -- Thanks to the sharp play of Luongo, the Vancouver Canucks have faulted into a playoff position in the densely packed Western Conference. Luongo has allowed just three goals in his last three games, all wins, to carry the Canucks. He got the win in a 4-1 decision over the Nashville Predators on Dec. 22, took another win by an identical score against the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 26 and then allowed only a single goal in a 5-1 win over the Calgary Flames Sunday. For the season, Luongo is 19-12-2 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

Five up -- Five players who've been hot:

Tomas Plekanec -- Halak isn't the only Canadien who's on fire. Plekanec scored twice and set up six other goals for eight points in three games. He's 2-8-10 during Montreal's four-game winning streak and is eighth in the scoring race with 44 points.

Dany Heatley -- Heatley continues to put up points for the San Jose Sharks. He had 2 goals and 5 assists for 7 points as the Sharks won all three of their Christmas-week games and is on pace for another 50-goal season with 23 in 38 games.

Alex Ovechkin -- "The Great Eight" was the NHL's most consistent player last week, scoring three points in each of Washington's two games. He has nine points (4 goals, 5 assists) in his last three games and has 25 goals and 22 assists for 47 points in just 30 games. 

Tim Thomas -- Last season's Vezina Trophy winner has been up and down so far this season, but he's definitely on an upswing. Thomas won all three of his starts for Boston last week, allowing five goals and posting a shutout.

Five down --
Five players who are struggling:

David Moss --
Calgary has struggled to score, and Moss' lack of production is a big reason why. He's gone 10 games without a point, while going minus-3 in that span and averaging less than two shots a night.

Matt Moulson -- Moulson was a big surprise with 15 goals in the first two months of the season for the New York Islanders. But he and his team have both cooled off. The 26-year-old Moulson has no points and is minus-6 in his last six games for the struggling Isles.

Phil Kessel -- Kessel got off to a fast start with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he's gone cold over the last couple weeks. Kessel hasn't had a point in the Leafs' last six games and is minus-6 during that span despite averaging nearly 20 minutes of ice time a night.

Erik Johnson --
Johnson, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, was off to an excellent start offensively for St. Louis with 21 points in 30 games. But the 21-year-old defenseman has not had a point in his last eight games and hasn't scored a goal this month.

Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers --
The rookie goaltender has been getting a baptism of fire while Edmonton starter Nikolai Khabibulin is out with back problems. He's lost his last five decisions, including both games last week.

Injuries, news and notes -- Talk about an unwelcome Christmas present: Ottawa lost captain Daniel Alfredsson in its last pre-Christmas game. Alfredsson will miss 4-6 weeks with a separated left shoulder, joining No. 1 center Jason Spezza (knee) on the injured list.

Out -- Los Angeles lost forward Justin Williams with a broken right leg early in Saturday's game at Phoenix. ... Capitals defenseman Tom Poti sat out Saturday's game with what coach Bruce Boudreau called a "body injury." ... Anaheim center Ryan Getzlaf left Saturday's game with a lacerated left leg. ... Ryan Johnson missed Vancouver's games Saturday and Sunday with a foot injury. ... Toronto's Viktor Stahlberg missed the Leafs' games Wednesday, Friday and Sunday with an upper-body injury. ... Tampa Bay placed center Jeff Halpern (lower body) and Todd Fedoruk (lower body) on injured reserve after both were injured on Wednesday. ... Columbus' Marc Methot is projected to miss a week or two with an upper-body injury sustained on Wednesday. He was placed on IR. ... Minnesota forward Chuck Kobasew left Saturday's game with a knee injury that coach Todd Richards said is likely to be serious. ... Pittsburgh defenseman Mark Eaton has missed the Penguins' last three games with an undisclosed injury. ... Philadelphia defenseman Ryan Parent missed both of the Flyers' weekend games with back problems. ... Phoenix forward Daniel Winnik left Saturday's game with an arm injury; he was seen leaving the arena with his right arm in a sling. Center Vernon Fiddler missed the Coyotes' last three games with a lower-body injury. ... Buffalo center Derek Roy (upper body) missed Sunday's game, the first time this season he hasn't suited up. ... St. Louis forward Paul Kariya left Sunday's game with an upper-body injury and didn't return.

Returning -- Detroit got forward Valtteri Filppula (broken wrist) back Saturday after he missed nearly two months with a broken wrist. The Wings are still without a half-dozen regulars. ... Islanders forward Tim Jackman returned Saturday after missing eight games with a hip pointer. ... Los Angeles forwards Wayne Simmonds played Saturday after missing two weeks with a knee injury. Ryan Smyth (upper body) also returned after missing more than a month. ... Buffalo forward Thomas Vanek returned Saturday after missing three games with an abdominal injury. ... Washington goaltender Semyon Varlamov, plagued by a groin problem, could be back this week. ... Ottawa goaltender Pascal Leclaire returned Wednesday after missing a month with a broken cheekbone. Forwards Chris Neil (knee) and Shane Donovan also returned on Wednesday. ... Montreal forward Brian Gionta, out since Nov. 12 with a broken foot, should return this week. ... Florida's Nick Tarnasky made his season debut Sunday; he hadn't played since fracturing an orbital bone in his face during the preseason. ... New Jersey forward David Clarkson, sidelined with a broken ankle, is expected to return by midweek. He was injured on Nov. 27.


G-A-P: 10-15-25
+/-: 9 | PIM: 22 | PP: 3

Still out -- Los Angeles placed center Jarret Stoll on IR due to a groin injury that has sidelined him since Dec. 14. ... Vancouver defenseman Mathieu Schneider is still missing from the Canucks' lineup due to "personal reasons." He hasn't been on the ice since Dec. 18. ... Detroit forward Daniel Cleary (shoulder) won't be back before the New Year but could return in early January. ... Toronto center John Mitchell, out since Nov. 23 with a knee injury, reportedly is close to being able to resume practicing. ... New Jersey defenseman Paul Martin's broken arm isn't healing as well as expected; he won't be back for at least another three weeks. ... Tampa Bay placed forward Matt Walker (lower body) on the injury reserve list. He hasn't played since Dec. 18.

The week ahead -- As 2009 melts into 2010, all eyes will turn toward Boston, where the Bruins and Flyers will meet in the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic in Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET. But it's a full week for almost everyone, with 14 of the League's 30 teams playing four times in the next seven days.

(Other) Games to watch

Detroit at Columbus (Dec. 28) -- Versus will be on hand as the struggling Central Division rivals get together at Nationwide Arena for the back end of a home-and-home series. Detroit won the front end on Saturday.

Pittsburgh at New Jersey (Dec. 30) --
The Penguins hope to fare better against the Prudential Center than they did at Mellon Arena -- New Jersey won all three visits this season, including Martin Brodeur's record-setting 104th career shutout on Dec. 22.

Washington at San Jose (Dec. 30) --
The Caps head to the West Coast for a visit to San Jose, where they are 0-8-1 in their last nine visits and haven't won since Oct. 30, 1993.

Edmonton at Calgary (Dec. 31) -- The Alberta rivals meet in the final game in 2009; it's also a return match following the Flames' trip to Rexall Place three nights earlier.

Carolina at New York Rangers (Jan. 2) -- The 'Canes come to Madison Square Garden to complete a home-and-home series that began Dec. 31. It's the teams' third meeting in 12 days.

Tough week ahead:

Atlanta Thrashers -- Atlanta has about as tough a week as anyone could ask for. The Thrashers play four times in six nights and don't even get New Year's Day off -- they'll be in Buffalo on Friday night, then head to Long Island for a game the next night.

Pittsburgh Penguins -- The Penguins end the old year and start the new one the same way -- on the road. They travel to Buffalo and New Jersey before visiting the two Florida teams.

Vancouver Canucks -- The Canucks spent most of December enjoying an eight-game homestand. But they'll spend this week on the road, starting in Phoenix on Tuesday and going to St. Louis for New Year's Eve and Dallas on Jan. 2 to cap a four-game trip that began Sunday in Calgary.

Easy week ahead:

Dallas Stars -- The Stars are at home for the final week of the old year and the start of the new one. They host Chicago on Tuesday after two days off, then have Anaheim on New Year's Eve and Vancouver two nights later.

Florida Panthers --
The Panthers get a chance to take a post-Christmas breather this week. They have three days off before the Montreal Canadiens come to town on New Year's Eve, then get two more days off before Pittsburgh arrives for a 5 p.m. ET game on Sunday.

Tampa Bay Lightning -- Like their Sunshine State rivals, the Lightning also spend the week at home, though they'll be a little busier with games against Boston, Montreal and Pittsburgh.
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