Sidney Crosby takes points lead, gives Pittsburgh sixth straight win with hat trick performance

All of a sudden, the Pittsburgh Penguins are only two points – both overtime or shootout loss related – behind the Atlantic Division leading Philadelphia Flyers (more on them later).

If you can attribute the six game winning streak to two players, it would be Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury, the latter player getting this afternoon’s game off in favor of efficient backup Brent Johnson. Crosby scored a hat trick in today’s game against the Calgary Flames, which moves his 2010-11 goal total to 18 and gives him the league lead in points with 40. (Steve Stamkos is now in second with 38, but he plays tonight against the Florida Panthers and also has two games in hand.)

Pittsburgh 4, Calgary 1

Crosby is currently on one of the best runs of his already impressive six year career. He scored at least a single point in the last 12 games, scoring 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) in that amazing span.

Fleury and Crosby aren’t the only stars who are shining in Pittsburgh, though. Kris Letang ranks among the highest scoring defenseman in the league as he added three assists to bring his season total to 22 points (four goals, 18 assists). That’s nearly identical to Evgeni Malkin’s season so far (eight goals, 14 assists).

Johnson also had a nice game in relief of Fleury. He stopped 30 out of 31 shots for his seventh win in 10 games played. He’s only allowed 20 goals in 10 appearances this season.

Meanwhile, the best player on the ice for the Flames was probably Miikka Kiprusoff. He didn’t get to sweep his Pennsylvania opponents this weekend, but he did stop 39 out of 42 shots against the Penguins.

Rene Bourque is another strong performer this season for Calgary, as he scored the lone Flames goal to push his season total to 11.

So the Penguins find themselves only two points behind the Flyers in the Atlantic while the Flames are the second worst team in the West, only in front of the lowly Edmonton Oilers.

With Lehtonen’s strong finish, is Niemi done in Dallas?

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The Stars have spent the last two years working with their oft-criticized two goalie setup.

Could the experiment soon be over?

Over the last month, the club has played Kari Lehtonen almost exclusively — he’s been the goalie of record in 10 of 12 games, including six straight — and has performed well. On Monday, he was named the NHL’s second star of the week, and has a .926 save percentage in March.

According to the Morning-News’ Mike Heika, this might be foreshadowing Antti Niemi‘s departure.

I think they have lost all faith in Antti Niemi and they want to see if Lehtonen is worth keeping next year.

I’m still not sure if this is proving they should keep him, but it makes the decision to get two new goalies more difficult.

A lot will depend on whether or not they acquire a goalie in trade before the NHL buyout window (which opens June 15) closes June 30. If they make a trade or two, that will possibly push them to buy out Lehtonen and Niemi.

I think it would be tough to buy out both and have no goalies in house on July 1.

The guess here is Niemi will be bought out for sure.

Niemi is in the second of a three-year, $13.5 million deal, one that carries a $4.5 million cap hit. Per CapFriendly, a buyout would cost Dallas $1.5 million against the cap through 2019.

This season has been a struggle for the 33-year-old. He’s posted an 11-11-4 record with a 3.35 GAA and .892 save percentage, and that came after a fairly mediocre first year in Dallas. Though he won 25 games and appeared in five playoff contests, Niemi never posted a save percentage above .905.

If the plan is to keep Lehtonen and move on from Niemi, it’s fairly safe to assume GM Jim Nill will acquire a goalie to work in tandem with the former.

And this is where things could get interesting.

This summer’s UFA goalie market will be flush. Ryan Miller, Ben Bishop, Jonathan Bernier, Steve Mason, Brian Elliott, Mike Condon, Scott Darling and Chad Johnson are all currently without contracts for next season, and the prospect of joining the Stars has to be enticing. There is playing time to be had, and Lehtonen — who turns 34 next season — only has a year left on his deal.

Report: U.S. women to vote on deal to avoid worlds boycott

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USA Today, citing a person with knowledge of the situation, is reporting that USA Hockey has struck a tentative four-year deal with members of the U.S. women’s national team that would avert a boycott of the upcoming world championship in Plymouth, Michigan.

The players are expected to vote on the deal today. No financial details were reported. The players have been seeking a living wage.

The U.S. is scheduled to play Canada on Friday at USA Hockey Arena.

Read more:

USA Hockey says it will not offer living wage

U.S. women say they’ll boycott worlds

Selanne: Ducks want Kariya back in fold, but he’s ‘very bitter about hockey’

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Paul Kariya hasn’t played hockey in over seven years, since a series of concussions forced him into retirement.

He’s been out of the limelight, too.

After sharply criticizing the league during his retirement announcement — he said every hit that ever knocked him out was an illegal one — Kariya has virtually disconnected from the hockey world, save the occasional report alluding to his bitterness towards the NHL.

But there have been efforts to connect with him.

Including those from the team he rose to prominence with.

In a recent interview on Ray Ferraro’s Pulp Hockey podcast, Teemu Selanne — Kariya’s longtime running mate in Anaheim — shed some light on how the Ducks would welcome Kariya back… and how Kariya’s consistently rebuffed the idea.

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“It was kind of a shame how his career ended. He’s very bitter about that. He always thought that the NHL was not looking after the players the way they should. So that’s why he doesn’t want to be involved with hockey at all, and he almost kind of like disappeared from the hockey world, which is very sad.

“What he has done for hockey, and especially here in Anaheim and California, it’s unbelievable. He was an unbelievable hockey player, and I had a great time with him. It hurts me that he doesn’t want to be part of hockey, because I think he has a lot to offer and give. Hopefully one day he will come back, for some reason. I know the Ducks have really tried hard to get him back and into the program.

“But he’s very bitter about hockey, which is very sad.”

Drafted fourth overall by the Ducks in ’93, Kariya was the franchise’s first true superstar. He scored 50 goals and 108 points in his sophomore campaign and, the year following, finished second in Hart Trophy voting for league MVP.

In 2003, he led Anaheim to its first-ever Stanley Cup Final appearance. That series, of course, is perhaps best remembered for the lethal hit Kariya took from Devils d-man Scott Stevens.

The Stevens hit was just one in a series that derailed Kariya’s career. There was the infamous Gary Suter crosscheck to the head in ’98 — Suter received a two-game suspension — and the last one, an elbow to the head from Patrick Kaleta.

Kaleta avoided suspension entirely.

Many have wondered where Kariya would’ve ranked among the greats had he stayed healthy. He finished with 989 points in 989 career games, and was still a really productive player at the end — despite the concussion problems, Kariya, then 35 years old, scored 18 goals and 43 points in 75 games during his final season in St. Louis.

With the annual Hall of Fame debates and the recent NHL 100 list, Kariya’s name has come up quite a bit. Which again circles back to Anaheim.

Selanne’s number is already in the rafters (Kariya wasn’t in attendance for the ceremony), and the organization has close ties with alumni, as both Scott Niedermayer and Todd Marchant both have front-office gigs. So one would think Kariya, who served as team captain for five years, would be embraced with open arms.

PHT reached out to the Ducks for comment on Selanne’s remarks. They replied that Kariya is always welcome in Anaheim, and he’s aware of that.

Keller debut garners praise from coach Tippett

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Clayton Keller didn’t score — in fact, he didn’t even register a shot — but his NHL debut last night in St. Louis garnered high praise from Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett.

“He looks like a good player,” Tippett said, per the Arizona Republic. “He’s got good skill. He’s certainly not worried about getting into any confrontations. He plays hard along the wall. He’s not a big guy, but he competes hard. He looks like a hockey player. He’s got great hockey sense. You watch how he manages a game between line changes, just managing the puck, it was a good start for him.”

The Coyotes lost the game, 4-1, but Keller finished with an even rating in 12:21 of even-strength action. The 18-year-old also logged 1:48 on the power play.

Keller grew up in suburban St. Louis, so debuting against the Blues at Scottrade Center was doubly special.

“It’s pretty cool growing up coming to games here,” he said. “It was really special to have the first one here.”

Related: Coyotes ready for prized prospect Keller to go pro