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Rinne's big week has Predators on a roll

by John Kreiser
It has taken Pekka Rinne most of the season to become the unquestioned No. 1 goaltender in Nashville. Now that he is, he's carrying the Predators to the playoffs.

Rinne has been in goal for each of Nashville's last six games -- all victories. He was especially brilliant last week, putting up back-to-back shutouts against Minnesota and Columbus, and stopping 115 of the 120 shots he faced. That effort earned him the honor of being named NHL First Star of the Week.

He has allowed just seven goals in the six wins, three of them shutouts. The hot streak has improved his record to 28-13-4, and propelled the Predators into fifth place in the Western Conference with three weeks left in the season.

Second Star: John Tavares -- The No. 1 pick of the 2009 Entry Draft enjoyed the most productive week of his young NHL career with 3 goals and 7 points in three games -- including a 5-point night as the New York Islanders stunned Vancouver on March 16.

Third Star: Teemu Selanne -- The Finnish Flash joined the NHL's 600-goal club Sunday when he beat Craig Anderson to become the 18th player to reach the milestone. He also had an assist, and has 4 points in Anaheim's last two games.

Four more -- Four other players who've been hot:

Brad Richards -- As the Dallas Stars struggle, Richards is doing everything he can to keep their playoff hopes alive. Richards had 3 goals and 7 points as the Stars split four games last week, and with 80 points is on pace to match his career-best of 91, set four years ago.

Johan Hedberg -- The Atlanta Thrashers are within one point of a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference after winning four in a row, and a chunk of the credit has to go to Hedberg, who taken over the starting job in goal. He won all three of his starts last week while allowing just eight goals on 98 shots.

Nik Antropov -- As the Thrashers have gotten hot, Antropov has risen with them. He had 4 goals and 6 points in four games last week, including three straight multi-point games. He's already established a new career-high with 63 points, and his 22 goals are just four shy of his previous-best of 26.

Ilya Bryzgalov -- Bryzgalov and the Phoenix Coyotes are the best story of the season in the NHL. The Coyotes now lead the Pacific Division and are second in the Western Conference thanks to a nine-game winning streak, and Bryzgalov has been in goal for seven of those games. He went 3-0-0 last week and won a pair of shootouts. 

Five down -- Five players who are struggling:

Evgeni Nabokov -- This might have been the worst week of Nabokov's career. He took the loss in all four games as the San Jose Sharks saw their winless streak extended to six games (0-5-1). He was knocked out early in an 8-2 loss at Dallas and surrendered 12 goals in losses at Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.

Daniel Paille -- It's not that Paille hasn't had chances to score -- he even had a nationally televised penalty shot against the Rangers on Sunday. But he's now gone 11 games without so much as a point and 12 in a row without a goal.

Ales Kotalik -- The big forward didn't do much after signing with the Rangers last summer, and he hasn't put up much offense since being dealt to Calgary on Feb. 1. He's gone eight games without a point and 14 without a goal.

Antero Niittymaki -- It was a tough week for Niittymaki, who has been getting the majority of the playing time in goal for Tampa Bay. He went 0-3-0 last week while allowing 10 goals. He's dropped his last four decisions as the Bolts have fallen out of the playoff race.

Pascal Leclaire -- Injuries and poor play have turned Leclaire into a backup in Ottawa, but he's not playing well when he does get on the ice. He allowed five goals on 19 shots before being lifted in Saturday's 5-4 loss at Dallas, and is winless in his last seven decisions since Dec. 31.
Injuries, news and notes -- Don't be surprised if you see your favorite team signing a kid or two of whom you've never heard. It's open season on undrafted college free agents, and the pace figures to pick up even more as teams see their seasons end. NHL clubs also are signing junior and college players they have drafted whose seasons are done.

Out -- Chicago lost defenseman Brian Campbell for another 6-7 weeks with a broken collarbone and broken ribs from a hit by Alex Ovechkin on March 14. Another defenseman, Brent Seabrook, sat out Thursday and Saturday after a hit to the head by Anaheim's James Wisniewski on Wednesday -- a hit that earned Wisniewski an eight-game suspension. ... The Philadelphia Flyers took a big hit when goaltender Michael Leighton, who had taken over the No. 1 job, went down with a high ankle sprain last Tuesday. He won't be back in the regular season and probably will miss the first round of the playoffs. ... Mikael Samuelsson, the NHL First Star of the Week for March 8-14, injured his shoulder March 16 and will miss another week or two. ... Calgary center Daymond Langkow was taken off the ice on a stretcher Sunday after taking a puck in the back of the neck. ... Colorado center Stephane Yelle (leg) didn't make the trip with the Avs for games at Anaheim on Sunday and Los Angeles on Monday. ... Carolina says defenseman Alexandre Picard is "week-to-week" with an upper-body injury sustained Thursday. Another defenseman, Tim Gleason, will miss 2-3 weeks with a broken foot. He was injured March 13 but played three days later before the fracture was discovered. ... Columbus defenseman Jan Hejda went down with a sprained knee Tuesday and may miss the rest of the season. ... Ottawa forward Milan Michalek left Thursday's game with a leg injury and didn't play Saturday. ... Oilers defenseman Theo Peckham could be out for the rest of the season after suffering a separated shoulder late in the third period Sunday. ... Nashville captain Jason Arnott missed Sunday's game against St. Louis after taking a blow to the head Saturday; Blues defenseman Roman Polak also sat after injuring his shoulder Saturday against New Jersey. ... Florida center Gregory Campbell missed Sunday's game with a bruised foot.

Returning -- New Jersey defenseman Paul Martin, who missed 59 games with a broken left forearm that cost him a U.S. Olympic spot, returned Wednesday and needed less than a period to score a goal. ... Michael Cammalleri is skating again at practice for Montreal and could be ready to return from his knee injury before the end of the week. Defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron (knee) could be back Monday. ... Columbus captain Rick Nash returned Friday after missing four games with an upper-body injury. ... Ottawa defenseman Filip Kuba returned Thursday after missing 15 days with a lower-body injury. ... Florida got center Nathan Horton back Thursday after he missed 17 games due to a broken tibia. ... Boston defenseman Andrew Ference, out with a groin injury since March 2, returned Thursday, ahead of schedule. ... Pittsburgh forward Eric Godard, idle since Jan. 25 with a groin problem, returned Thursday. ... Toronto forward Fredrik Sjostrom returned Thursday after missing six games with an upper-body injury. ... Ottawa forward Nick Foligno, out since Jan. 28 with a broken leg, was back in the lineup Tuesday. Defenseman Chris Campoli, out since before the Olympic break with a knee injury, also returned Tuesday. ... Islanders forward Trent Hunter returned Tuesday after missing two weeks with an upper-body injury. ... Tampa Bay's Zenon Konopka returned Saturday after missing seven games due to back spasms. ... Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic returned Sunday after missing 17 games with a lower-body injury. ... Minnesota defenseman Brett Burns returned Sunday from a hip injury that had sidelined him for six games.

Still out -- Montreal defenseman Paul Mara, who hasn't played since Jan. 22, will undergo shoulder surgery this week. ... Edmonton's Patrick O'Sullivan has missed the last six games with a lost fingernail, an injury that makes it impossible for him to hold a stick. ... Colorado forward David Jones, out since Nov. 28 with a left knee injury that required surgery, began skating last week. He could be back at some point during the playoffs. .... Columbus defenseman Rostislav Klesla, out for most of the season, probably won't be back before next season due to a partially torn hip labrum. He may need surgery. ... Islanders centers Doug Weight (shoulder) and Rob Schremp (knee) had surgery last week and won't play again this season. ... Dallas center Mike Modano had an appendectomy March 16; he missed all four games last week, but the Stars say he'll play before the end of the season.

The week ahead -- There's another deluge of hockey this week, as every team plays at least three games and a dozen clubs play four.

Games to watch:

Pittsburgh at Detroit (March 22, 7 p.m., VERSUS, TSN) -- The Penguins pay their first visit to Joe Louis Arena since that fateful night last June when they beat the Wings to win the Stanley Cup.

Phoenix at Chicago (March 23) -- The Blackhawks come home after a 1-1-1 Western trip to face the Coyotes for the second time in as many games (it's not a back-to-back for Phoenix, which won 3-2 at Dallas on Sunday).

Boston at Atlanta (March 23) -- The Thrashers, written off as a playoff contender after dealing Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey, have won four in a row and can pass Boston for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with a victory at Philips Arena.

Pittsburgh at Washington (March 24, 7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US) -- That's some two-game stretch for the Penguins, who go from a Stanley Cup Final rematch to a visit to Verizon Center for Round 3 of this season's Crosby-Ovechkin battle. So far, it's Ovi 2, Sid 0.

Vancouver at San Jose (March 27, 10 p.m. ET, CBC) -- Hard as it may be to believe, this is the Canucks' first trip to the Shark Tank this season. San Jose will be looking to avenge a 3-2 loss at GM Place nine days earlier.

Tough week ahead:

Anaheim Ducks -- All good things come to an end, and so it is with Anaheim's seven-game homestand. They spend the week in Western Canada, playing three games in four days.

Calgary Flames -- It's a busy week for the Flames, who start with a home game against Anaheim and then head East for three games in four days against the Islanders, Bruins and Capitals.

Dallas Stars -- Like the Ducks, the Stars ended a long homestand Sunday and hit the road this week. In Dallas' case, that means a trip to Nashville followed by stops in San Jose and Los Angeles -- not good news for a team that's struggled away from home this season (11-17-7).

Easy week ahead:

Atlanta Thrashers -- The surging Thrashers don't get to spend the whole week at home, but they do have two of their three games (Boston and Toronto) at Philips Arena and the third just a short flight away at Carolina.

Buffalo Sabres -- With the NCAA basketball tournament done, the Sabres come home for the week, hosting Montreal, Ottawa and Tampa Bay in a stretch that could determine whether they win the Northeast Division.

Nashville Predators -- The Preds' quest to get back into the playoffs will be helped by spending the week at Bridgestone Arena, where they'll host Dallas, Phoenix and Detroit.

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