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Rinne playing way into full-time job

by John Kreiser
Pekka Rinne hardly is a household name around the NHL. But if he keeps playing the way he has recently, he might be soon.

The 26-year-old Finn was almost flawless in goal for the Nashville Predators last week, winning all three of his starts, pitching shutouts in two of them. Rinne blanked the Sabres 2-0 in Buffalo on Monday, then stopped all 32 Minnesota shots he faced in a 1-0 home victory Saturday -- a game he played only because starter Dan Ellis hurt his knee in the morning.

Rinne has won his first six decisions, matching the franchise record held by Ellis. He's played (and won) four of the Preds' last five games, and with a 2.24 goals-against average and .917 save percentage, he's going to make it hard for coach Barry Trotz to avoid giving him more playing time.
Five up -- Five players who've been hot:

Phil Kessel -- Kessel is one of the main reasons the Boston Bruins have climbed into first place in the Eastern Conference. He scored for the fifth consecutive game in Saturday's 4-0 win at Florida and has an 11-game point streak.

David Krejci -- Kessel isn't the only Bruin who's been hot. Krejci has 14 points during an eight-game scoring streak, including the winning goal at Tampa Bay on Thursday and 3 assists at Florida two nights later. He's also plus-8 in his last four games.

Sidney Crosby -- Pittsburgh's captain spent the past week setting up goals -- six of them in three games, including four against Carolina on Thursday. He has 15 points during a six-game point streak that has moved him into second place in the NHL scoring race, behind only linemate Evgeni Malkin.

Jonathan Toews -- Toews got off to a slow start offensively, but he's found his scoring touch over the last few weeks. Chicago's captain had 2 points in each of the Blackhawks' three games last week and is a big reason the team is on track for a playoff berth.

Jiri Hudler -- Just what Detroit's opponents need -- another offensive weapon to worry about. Hudler has 5 goals in his last five games and nine in his last 10 despite averaging less than 15 minutes of ice time.

Five down -- Five players who are struggling:

Brandon Dubinsky -- Dubinsky's struggles have mirrored those of the New York Rangers -- both have cooled off after hot starts. Dubinsky was 4-8-12 at the end of October, but has just 1 goal and 4 points since then. He's gone without a point in his last six games.

Rod Brind'Amour --
Brind'Amour's struggles are at least part of the reason Peter Laviolette now is Carolina's former coach. His assist Sunday night was only his second point in eight games, and he's minus-7 in that span -- dropping him to a League-worst minus-20 for the season.

Ryan Kesler --
Vancouver's No. 2 center has gone cold. Kesler had 13 points in his first 19 games, but has 1 point in his last nine games while going minus-2 in that span.

Maxime Talbot -- At some point, the Penguins are going to need scoring from someone other than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Talbot has gone pointless with a minus-6 rating in his last 10 games, putting a lot of pressure on Pittsburgh's big two.

Mike Smith -- Smith hasn't benefitted much from Tampa Bay's recent coaching change. He's 0-4-2 in his last six decisions and has allowed 10 goals in his last three games.  

Injuries, news and notes -- At 46, Chris Chelios made his American Hockey League debut Friday when he dressed for the Grand Rapids Griffins. The Detroit defenseman broke his right leg during training camp and hasn't played this season. He went to the Wings' top affiliate for a conditioning assignment.

Out -- Did Daniel Briere come back too early? The Philadelphia Flyers' center will miss at least a month with a groin problem. He already has missed 15 games due to an abdominal muscle injury that required surgery and an earlier groin strain that kept him out for three weeks. He returned Tuesday but didn't make it through the game before being injured again. ... Another player who's back on the shelf is Islanders defenseman Radek Martinek, who will miss at least two more weeks after re-injuring his right shoulder -- a problem that sidelined him for the first few weeks of the season. ... San Jose defenseman Brad Lukowich left Thursday's game against Columbus with a groin injury and didn't play Saturday. ... Columbus forward Raffi Torres will undergo arthroscopic knee surgery and is expected to miss 2-4 weeks. ... Buffalo put forward Patrick Kaleta on injured reserve with head and neck injuries. ... Pittsburgh forward Tyler Kennedy will miss 4-6 weeks, with a sprained knee sustained Wednesday. He's on IR. ... Carolina goaltender Cam Ward didn't play all week due to a groin injury and was placed on the injured list Sunday. Carolina also lost defenseman Niclas Wallin who left Saturday's game with a lower-body injury and didn't play Sunday; another defenseman, Anton Babchuk, injured his right arm Sunday and didn't return.... Toronto forward Jamal Mayers will miss about six weeks after breaking his hand Monday night in Los Angeles. Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn, one of the NHL's best rookies, will miss at least two weeks after leaving Saturday's game with a lower-body injury. Also, Leafs forward Niklas Hagman left the game feeling groggy after being hit in the head. ... Lightning forward Ryan Malone sat out Saturday night's game with an upper-body injury. ... Nashville goalie Dan Ellis didn't play Saturday after taking a shot off the inside of his knee at practice earlier in the day. The Predators hope he can dress as the backup Monday and play Tuesday. ... Detroit forward Kirk Maltby sat out Saturday's game with a bruised left ankle. ... Colorado forward Brian Willsie injured his left knee Thursday and is out indefinitely. ... Rangers defenseman Wade Redden didn’t play Sunday after injuring his right leg three nights earlier. ... Vancouver defenseman Sami Salo left Sunday's game in the first period due to a groin injury.

Returning -- Carolina forward Jason Williams returned Thursday night, weeks ahead of schedule, after tearing his Achilles tendon in September. ... St. Louis rookie T.J. Oshie was back in the Blues' lineup Friday after missing nearly five weeks with a high ankle sprain. ... New Jersey got two centers back Thursday, as Brian Rolston and John Madden played against Philadelphia. Rolston missed 18 games with a high ankle sprain, while Madden sat out four with a bruised ankle. Another center, Bobby Holik, returned Saturday night after missing more than a month with a broken right pinky finger ... Detroit welcomed back forward Tomas Holmstrom on Saturday after he missed eight games with back spasms. ... Ottawa forward Chris Neil was back in the lineup Saturday, just two weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. ... Dallas hopes to get defenseman Sergei Zubov back this week. He's missed four games with a lower-body injury. ... Islanders center Mike Sillinger, out since February with a hip injury that required surgery, played his first NHL game since then when he dressed for Thursday's 5-2 loss at Washington. ... Phoenix center Olli Jokinen could be back within a few days. He's ahead of schedule as he recovers from a shoulder injury sustained Nov. 26. ... Atlanta hopes defenseman Mathieu Schneider, sidelined with a shoulder injury, can return this week.

Still out --
Colorado captain Joe Sakic won't be back for another six weeks due to a herniated disc in his back. He missed much of last season with a groin injury. Another forward, Darcy Tucker (knee), is still a week or two away from returning. ... Washington's parade of injuries marches on. Mike Green (bruised shoulder), Tom Poti (groin), Sergei Fedorov (sprained ankle) and Alexander Semin (upper torso strain) all skated Friday but sat out Saturday night in Toronto. Defenseman John Erskine, sidelined with a concussion, also sat. In all, the Caps have been without seven regulars for six games in a row. ... Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo, sidelined Nov. 22 with a groin injury, is back on the ice and says he's ahead of schedule, but there's no date set for his return. ... Minnesota forward Marian Gaborik (lower-body injury) was on the ice Wednesday as he skated for 45 minutes, though he's still nowhere near ready to return to the lineup. ... Boston forward Marco Sturm has missed eight games with concussion-like symptoms and neck pains, with no timetable set for his return. Defenseman Aaron Ward isn't likely to return from an injured left ankle for a few more days. ... There's still no timetable for the return of St. Louis forward Paul Kariya, who's been sidelined since Nov. 5 with a hip flexor injury. They had hoped he'd be back before Thanksgiving, but the problem won't go away. ... The Islanders now say forward Kyle Okposo has a sprained wrist and will miss at least another four weeks -- after originally missing eight games. Isles goaltender Rick DiPietro has started skating again but isn't likely to return from knee surgery until after the new year. ... Pittsburgh downgraded defenseman Philippe Boucher from day-to-day to week-to-week with an undisclosed injury. ... Dallas forward Jere Lehtinen, who's played just three games all season due to an upper-body injury and a groin problem, is skating again and might be back this week. ... Tampa Bay center Jeff Halpern, recovering from knee surgery, has been was cleared for contact and hopes to return to action around Dec. 18.

The week ahead -- It's a mixed bag, with eight teams playing four times and six clubs having only two games. New Jersey, which plays all three of its games at home, hosts Pittsburgh on Wednesday in its first game at the Prudential Center in 18 days, the longest non-Olympic break in franchise history.

Games to watch:

New York Islanders at Philadelphia (Dec. 9; 7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN2) --
The Flyers will try to continue the dominance they've enjoyed over the Isles the past couple of years. That includes a 3-2 overtime win in New York's last visit earlier this season.

Pittsburgh at New Jersey (Dec. 10; 7 p.m. ET, RIS) --
The Devils will try to avenge a 4-1 loss in Pittsburgh during their just-concluded road trip when they return to the Prudential Center for the start of three home games in four nights.

Boston at Washington (Dec. 10) -- Two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference meet for the first time this season. Washington has lost just once in regulation at the Verizon Center this season

Detroit at Dallas (Dec. 12) --
Last spring's Western Conference finalists meet for the first time this season. The last time the Wings visited the American Airlines Center, they left with the Clarence Campbell Trophy and a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.

St. Louis at San Jose (Dec. 13) -- The NHL's best home team finishes a five-game stretch at the Shark Tank. The Blues actually got a point in their previous visit, losing in a shootout Nov. 6.

Tough week ahead:
Florida Panthers -- There will be no warm December weather for the Panthers, who spend the week playing four games in Canada. They begin in Ottawa on Monday and work their way west before ending in Vancouver on Sunday.

New York Islanders -- The Isles will spend the week getting into and out of airplanes and hotels. They play four games in six nights, all on the road, beginning Monday in Toronto.

Tampa Bay Lightning --
Like their Sunshine State rivals, the Bolts will forego the warmth of Florida to spend the week playing four games in six nights in the Northeast and Eastern Canada, ending with a visit to Ottawa on Saturday.

Easy week ahead:

Colorado Avalanche -- The Avs get a breather this week after playing four games in seven days. Colorado's only games are at home, against Los Angeles on Tuesday and Chicago on Friday.

Edmonton Oilers -- The NHL's road warriors finally get some down time at home. The Oilers plays just twice this week, hosting Florida on Thursday (after a four-day break) and Vancouver two nights later.

San Jose Sharks -- Like the Oilers, the Sharks get to take it a little easier this week, with a four-day break before home games against Anaheim on Thursday and St. Louis on Saturday to complete a five-game stretch at the Shark Tank.
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