Around the rink – Saturday, December 4th

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Know how I can ruin your Saturday? You’ve only got three weeks until Christmas and I know you’re not done shopping yet.  Know how I can make your Saturday better? I can tell you that there are 12 games on the schedule today and that the first one drops the puck at 1:00 this afternoon. A full day of hockey? You bet your gingerbread house there is. All times are Eastern.

1:00 pm

New Jersey @ Philadelphia

Philly is going to be looking for a bit of redemption in this one after dropping their last meeting against the Devils in a shootout. The Devils, meanwhile, are still trying to get things right and coming off a 5-1 loss to Montreal the other night, getting that kind of sting to heal could be made worse by having to deal with the Flyers. Martin Brodeur is still out for New Jersey and Ilya Kovalchuk is still not scoring. The Flyers, meanwhile, are looking to snap a three-game skid of their own. Something’s got to give.

2:00 pm

San Jose @ Montreal

Hockey Day in Canada? You got it. An afternoon tilt between the strong Habs and the on-again, off-again Sharks. San Jose comes into the game after thumping Ottawa 4-0 the other night. Montreal is riding high after delivering a sound beating to the Devils. If both teams are on top of their games, it should make for a great matinee in Montreal.

7:00 pm

Boston @ Toronto

If the Maple Leafs want to do their part to save head coach Ron Wilson’s job, beating Boston at home would be a good way to do it. The Leafs have struggled with Boston and Phil Kessel has been a non-factor in virtually every meeting between the two teams since he was acquired from Boston. With Toronto having lost four straight, dealing with the Bruins who have won two in a row including an 8-1 thrashing of Tampa Bay doesn’t sound like a good mix. Things could get ugly here.

Buffalo @ Ottawa

Buffalo gets a big win over Columbus last night after having nearly a week off. Their reward is getting to play back-to-back nights with the second coming against a team they struggle mightily with in Ottawa. If Buffalo is back, beating the Sens in Ottawa would make for a heck of a sign. Ottawa, meanwhile, needs to get things going especially after their brutal no-show against Dany Heatley and the Sharks on Thursday.

Atlanta @ Washington

The team in charge of the Southeast Division gets to deal with the upstart youngsters once again. The Thrashers and Caps have already met four times. The Caps are 2-2-0 against the Thrashers this year, but in their last meeting Atlanta mopped the floor with them 5-0 with Ondrej Pavelec getting the shutout. These teams play just six times this year and the schedule makers being funny like that are making sure they get all their games out of the way now. Their final meeting will come just before the All-Star break in late January. Look for the Caps to be angry after getting a bit hosed by the referees in their previous game in Dallas.

Pittsburgh @ Columbus

What’s Columbus’ reward for getting thumped by Buffalo?  A home game against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. Worse yet, the game will be a virtually home game for the Penguins as fans from western Pennsylvania have no qualms about making the trip to Ohio to take over Nationwide Arena. It’s bad timing for the Jackets as they’ve dropped three straight. Meanwhile, the Penguins are winners of eight in a row. Some might say it’s a recipe for disaster for Columbus, but this has all the makings of a trap game for the Pens. This one could be a lot more interesting than it seems at first glance.

7:30 pm

Colorado @ Tampa Bay

Colorado got off to a bad start on their road trip dropping a game in overtime to Carolina last night. They’ll get to deal with a Lightning team looking to redeem themselves after an 8-1 beat down by Boston on Thursday night. Tampa has lost three of their last four games and the reason for them falling off has been goaltending. The Lightning are 29th in goals allowed this year. Colorado being one of the better scoring teams in the league will look to get back on track after only getting one goal last night.

8:00 pm

Carolina @ Nashville

Life without Pekka Rinne for the next 2-4 weeks starts for Nashville and it couldn’t come at a worse time for the Preds as Rinne had been playing great. Now it’ll be up to Anders Lindback to try and keep the Hurricanes at bay. The Canes will prove to be a tough opponent as while the wins have been inconsistent for Carolina, their games have been close. Expect a tight-knit affair here.

Minnesota @ Dallas

Minnesota comes in after losing a tough one against Calgary last night and they’ll look to turn around their fortune in Dallas. The Wild have a miserable record in Dallas as the Stars are 14-2-2 against the Wild in Texas. Yikes. Dallas will want to keep their eyes focused on Martin Havlat who has been carrying the bulk of the Wild offense of late notching 16 points in his last 11 games.

Florida @ Phoenix

The Panthers come into this one losers of five of their last six games and the Coyotes will be looking to pick up after their last game, a 4-2 win over Minnesota. Florida over that span of six games have allowed 20 goals, an average better than three per game. Tomas Vokoun and the Panthers defense will have to tighten things up if they want to have a shot to win. For what it’s worth, their offense hasn’t been bad, it just hasn’t been consistent at all.

10:00 pm

St. Louis @ Edmonton

Can the Oilers keep it going? They went 3-0-0 on their tour of eastern Canada and now they return home with renewed confidence. Getting to face off with the slumping Blues could help them keep rolling. The Blues are losers of four in a row but the rest they’ve had the last few days could be the thing they needed. The Blues looked a bit gassed in their 4-1 loss to Washington on Wednesday night. If the Blues are going to compete though, they’ll need goals. During their four game skid, the Blues have scored nine goals, five of which came in a 7-5 loss to Chicago.

10:30 pm

Detroit @ Los Angeles

The slumping Kings get to deal with a Wings team that is just on a roll. The Kings are 2-7-0 in their last nine games while Detroit has won four straight. Potentially working in the Kings favor in this one is who they’ll face in goal. Chris Osgood is back from injury and will make the start. Osgood has gone back to being inconsistent this year and if the Kings are looking for a means to shake off the cobwebs, perhaps getting a shaky and rusty Osgood will help matters.

Check, mates: NHL top lines are expected to do it all

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Tyler Seguin doesn’t consider it a challenge. He sees it as an opportunity.

Every time Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock sends Seguin and his linemates over the boards against an opponent’s top line, he knows he has a job to do.

”Out-check the other line and let the skill kind of take over,” Seguin said. ”It’s fun.”

Fun? Sure. It’s also increasingly common in the NHL as coaches seek to put their top lines on the ice against the other team’s best forwards to create matchup problems that often lead to goals.

Goodbye to the likes of Bob Gainey and hello to Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom. All can help keep the puck out of the net almost as well as they can put it in.

”We’re seeing less of the old Don Luce, Craig Ramsey, Brent Peterson lines,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, referring to defensive-minded forwards of yesteryear. ”We have guys like Bergeron; Sid goes up against top guys. So I think you’re seeing more of the power against power than we have in the past.”

Power against power is the name of the game in hockey today as players such as Bergeron, Crosby, Backstrom and Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews embody the kind of top-line stars who can double as shutdown centers. Crosby was so good in that dual role at the 2014 Sochi Olympics that Canada won a gold medal – and he was so dominant offensively the past two seasons that the Penguins won consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

Crosby is well aware of the modern duties of a top-flight center.

”You have more responsibility defensively,” he said. ”You’re covering a lot of space, so it’s just something you’ve got to be aware of.”

Before the season, reigning MVP Connor McDavid of Edmonton cited defense and faceoffs as areas he wanted to improve. He already has the dynamic offensive capabilities and sees that as the next step in his evolution.

”It’s more rounding out your game,” McDavid said. ”Being a defensive guy, being able to be put out there in the last two minutes to defend a lead, just to be able to be trusted by your coach out there.”

Coaches have to be able to trust their top players in all situations, particularly since the days of strict shutdown lines are dwindling.

”The systems are about defense, and everyone needs to play it,” Backstrom said. ”That’s what the mindset is – to be good defensively and offensively.”

The best defense is good puck possession because often the most productive players aren’t as sound in their own end. Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella considers it essential to make elite offensive players spend time in their defensive zone, figuring they’re more apt to try to do too much in the neutral zone and turn the puck over.

Good two-way players also have that mindset when they’re matched up against top skill guys.

”They’re so good offensively that sometimes they can forget about their defense, and that’s when you can take advantage of them,” Philadelphia Flyers No. 1 center Sean Couturier said. ”They’re thinking so much offense that once they turn the puck over they’re going to try plays to get turnovers. That’s when you can take advantage of them most of the time.”

That’s the danger of going skill on skill. Few see Calgary Flames stars Johnny Gaudreauand Sean Monahan as defensive stalwarts, but coach Glen Gulutzan continues to put them on the ice against other top lines.

Gaudreau said ”sometimes the best offense comes from playing against other top lines.” And the strategy has multiple benefits.

”It makes sure that your top guys, they’re aware that they’re out there against the other sharks, so to speak, in the league,” Gulutzan said. ”Now they’re a little more conscious defensively. And what you hope is that, through a course of a season, you’re making your guys more defensively aware and come playoff time those things will come in handy.”

Seguin said he thinks the playoffs lead to concerted defensive efforts to shut down certain players, though that largely comes from coaches leaning on their top defensemen. Hitchcock and other coaches said putting their best defensemen against opponents’ top forwards is the most important matchup no matter the situation.

Of course, it helps to have forwards who thrive on tough matchups and understand balancing priorities.

”A lot of times you’re getting matched up with better players, so I think playing offense the whole game isn’t realistic,” Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said. ”Most of the time it’s just being in the right places and knowing where you are on the ice as opposed to chasing everybody around and that whole ‘shadow’ thing. You’ve just got to be in right areas and right zones.”

Playing responsible defense is one piece of the transition to offense, whether it’s winning board battles or faceoffs or taking the puck away. But top players are counted on and paid to score, so keeping others off the board simply isn’t good enough.

”If it’s 0-0, we’re still kind of mad as a line,” Backstrom said. ”We want to win that match. It would be nice if we could score against them.”

Russia aims for Olympic hockey gold despite turmoil

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia can’t win Olympic hockey gold in Pyeongchang, but the ”Olympic Athletes from Russia” will have a great shot at the title.

OAR is the moniker imposed by the International Olympic Committee as part of Russia’s punishment across all sports for doping at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

That’s likely to mean neutral-colored jerseys – though Team Russia executives are battling to keep the traditional red – but still a roster boasting some of the best players outside the NHL.

Asked if the Russians consider themselves gold medal favorites in South Korea, captain Ilya Kovalchuk said: ”We always are.”

The OAR name is no big deal for Kovalchuk. ”Everyone knows where we’re from. It doesn’t matter. The flag is in our heart.”

Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings are among the stars available to Russia ahead of the first Olympics since 1994 without NHL players.

The commercial power of the Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League – fueled by Russia’s state-run oil and gas companies – has allowed it to compete financially with NHL teams for Russian talent.

Along with Kovalchuk and Datsyuk, the Russian team has forward Vadim Shipachyov, who walked out on the Las Vegas Golden Knights last month, and two-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Slava Voynov, who is banned from the NHL indefinitely after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence.

Russia showed its potential Thursday with a 3-1 win over Sweden – a key Olympic rival – on two goals from Sergei Kalinin in a Moscow exhibition tournament game.

Russia recorded 34 shots against 22 for Sweden in front of a passionate home crowd, many in red shirts hailing the team as ”Red Machine Reloaded” in honor of the legendary Soviet rosters. Datsyuk sat out the tournament for fitness reasons.

”We just tried to play simple and hard,” defenseman Sergei Andronov said. ”We’re trying to play every game for a victory.”

The Russians haven’t won Olympic hockey gold since 1992, when an almost entirely Russian lineup of players from the recently collapsed Soviet Union competed as the Unified Team.

Under the Team Russia name, its best result is silver in 1998. The last Olympics on home ice in Sochi were a disappointment, as Finland beat Russia 3-1 in the quarterfinals.

The Sochi Games have come back to haunt Russia, with 31 athletes across six sports banned for doping and other sanctions from the IOC.

There’s no allegation of doping by the men’s hockey team, though six women’s team players were suspended.

The key Russian whistleblower, former laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov, has stated in an affidavit that men’s hockey players were not included in a doping program as they would have been harder to keep track of across multiple clubs, and could have given the game away if they failed tests outside Russia.

Not everything has been smoothed out just yet though for Russia ahead of Pyeongchang.

The KHL leadership has yet to confirm it will release players, though any obstruction by the Russia-based league would face fierce opposition from the players and the Russian Hockey Federation leadership, which includes wealthy businessmen close to the Kremlin.

Months of uncertainty over whether Russia would be allowed to compete at all in Pyeongchang haven’t worn team morale down, coach Oleg Znarok insists.

”We’re feeling great and it’s always been great,” he said Wednesday. ”We’ve been working and getting ready. We had no doubts.”

U.S. women’s hockey team to play NWHL team in Olympic tune-up

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NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. women’s national team will play two exhibitions against some familiar faces from the National Women’s Hockey League next month in a final tune-up for the Olympics.

The games are set for Jan. 13 and Jan. 15 at Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, Florida, where the national team has been training.

Eleven players currently on the U.S. roster competed in the NWHL during the 2016-17 season, USA Hockey said Thursday. The pro league enters its third season with teams in New York, Boston, Buffalo and Stamford, Connecticut.

”(The NWHL) continues to play at an elite level and does a great job of exposing the game in different markets,” USA Hockey women’s director Reagan Carey said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

Megan Bozek and Emily Pfalzer helped the Buffalo Beauts win the NWHL championship last March.

”The NWHL is honored to be welcomed by USA Hockey and to participate in this pair of important exhibition games,” NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan said. ”Our players, coaches and staff are excited to have this opportunity.”

U.S. national team captain Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Gigi Marvin, Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy, Alex Carpenter and Amanda Pelkey played for the Boston Pride.

Amanda Kessel (New York Riveters) and Haley Skarupa (Connecticut Whale) also played in the pro league.

Many of the players on both rosters are either ex-teammates or completed against each other in college and the pros.

”The NWHL will do its best to give the players some strong competition so they’re ready to bring home the gold in February,” Rylan said.

The U.S. team won gold at the first women’s hockey event, at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Since then, the team has earned three silvers and a bronze in losses to Canada.

”We want to make sure the ’98 team has some company with the gold medal,” Carey said.

The Americans and Canadians will finish their six-game exhibition series with two games this weekend. The U.S. has a 1-3 record so far, but beat its rivals twice at The Four Nations Cup and won the title.

The teams have drawn good crowds in Canada and U.S. stops in Boston and St. Paul, Minnesota. They drew 9,000 flag-waving fans on Dec. 3 in a 2-1 overtime loss at the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild.

”It’s been great to see so many young girls and hockey teams,” Carey said. ”You can really see the growing landscape for young girls.”

The U.S. plays Canada on Friday night in San Jose, California. The Americans wrap up the series on Sunday night at Rogers Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers, in a game televised on NHL Network.

Oilers need healthy Talbot to give them a spark during upcoming crucial stretch

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At the start of the season, the Edmonton Oilers were one of the favorites to win or at least make it to the Stanley Cup Final. But through 32 games, their season has looked more like a train-wreck than a victory parade in-waiting.

Only the Arizona Coyotes are below the Oilers in the Western Conference standings right now, which is still kind of surprising.

One of the biggest reasons they’ve struggled in the first third of the season is because of goalie Cam Talbot. First, he wasn’t very good at the start of the season. Talbot wasn’t providing his team with the solid goaltending he had given them last year.

Second, just as he was rounding into form, he suffered a upper-body injury that’s kept him out of the lineup since the end of November.

Prior to getting hurt, the 30-year-old had won three games in a row while allowing two goals in each of those outings. During his absence, Laurent Brossoit went 3-4-0. The Oilers backup netminder gave up three goals or more in four of those seven games.

On Friday, the Oilers (finally) got some positive news, as they activated their starting netminder from the injured list. According to head coach Todd McLellan, he’ll be between the pipes for Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Wild. Now, they just have to hope that he can pick up where he left off before landing on IR.

Earlier this season, Canadiens goaltender Carey Price was in a similar situation to Talbot’s. Price was awful out of the gate and the Canadiens were struggling. Nothing was going right for them. But after missing roughly three weeks with an injury, Price returned in tip-top shape. Even though Montreal is still outside of a playoff spot right now, they play of their goaltender has allowed them to get back into the race.

McLellan has to hope that Talbot’s “break” allowed him to get better and re-focus on the task at hand. Connor McDavid is still the face of the franchise, but he clearly can’t get the job done by himself.

Edmonton is about to jump into a crucial stretch of their season. After tomorrow’s game in Minnesota, they’ll play seven of their next eight games on home ice, where they have an ugly 5-10-0 record. If they want to get back in the playoff hunt, they’ll need to start racking up the wins at Rogers Place.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.