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Around the Rink – Monday, December 20th

Let’s take a look at today’s seven games, with start times at Eastern Standard Time (ET) as usual.

7:00 pm

Phoenix @ Pittsburgh

While the day-to-day upheaval in the Western Conference provides great evidence too, the top of the East provides a great sense of the “What have you done for me lately?” nature of this hockey season. The Flyers ended the Penguins’ 12-game winning streak and after two Pittsburgh losses, Philadelphia now has a five point divisional lead.

Meanwhile, the Coyotes are hanging tough in the playoff race in the West, as they’re tied with the Kings for ninth place at the moment.

Florida @ Philadelphia

Speaking of the Flyers, they host the perennially just-short-of-decent Panthers tonight. While Tomas Vokoun & Co. have been stingy enough to tie their club for the least goals allowed with Pittsburgh (albeit in three less games), their goal differential is only +2. In other words, the Flyers will kick themselves if they lose this one.

Atlanta @ Toronto

The Leafs are still a questionable team, but they’re almost playoff-caliber at home with an 8-6-3 record. The Thrashers are scrappy on the road, though, with an 8-5-3 record. In other words, this one could go either way.

Could this game be more exciting than a shouting match between the two boisterous general managers (Brian Burke vs. Rick Dudley), though?

7:30 pm

Carolina @ Tampa Bay

There’s a significant difference between the top eight teams in the East (Lightning included) and the teams on the outside looking in, but the Hurricanes are one of three teams that might have a chance to make up the difference. Tampa Bay has played six more games on the road than at home so far this season, though, so my guess is that Carolina will have to pass someone else.

(Naturally, you never know.)

Anaheim @ Boston

Hey, look at that: the eight best team in the West vs. the eight best team in the East. Well, for once, the East team should be better, theoretically at least. The Bruins and Ducks both have 38 points, but Boston took five less games to get there. Of course, Claude Julien’s bunch doesn’t have to deal with the brutally competitive Pacific Division, so this game could go either way.

8:00 pm

Calgary @ Minnesota

I’m not going to lie, this is a paring of two of the NHL’s least optimistic franchises. The Wild’s glass might be closer to half full, as they can boast young talent like the underrated Miikko Koivu and slightly younger goalie Niklas Backstrom. The Flames seem like an older, clumsier version of Minnesota (only with more angst).

Then again, the Wild (-15 goal differential) have been losing much uglier than the Flames (-6 goal differential) this season, so perhaps they’re both equally down in the dumps.

Vancouver @ St. Louis

The Canucks are hot right now (8-1-1) and can re-claim the Northwest Division lead from the Avalanche with a win. The Blues find themselves in the just-out-of-the-playoffs muck, but are a tough out at home (10-3-2 in St. Louis; 5-8-3 on the road). In other words, these are two teams in their element right now, so this should be another good one.

Khudobin delivered an encouraging performance for the Bruins

Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak (88) and left wing Brad Marchand (63) celebrate with goalie Anton Khudobin after he blocked a shot by Carolina Hurricanes left wing Jeff Skinner to win the game, 2-1, in a shootout during an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
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Anton Khudobin gave the Boston Bruins a much-needed win last night.

He also gave Tuukka Rask a much-welcomed night off.

The Bruins beat the Hurricanes, 2-1, in a shootout at TD Garden. Khudobin made 29 saves, plus two more in the shootout, including the game-decider on Jeff Skinner.

It was an encouraging performance by Khudobin, who returned to the Bruins net after a conditioning stint in the AHL. It was the first time this season that a Boston goalie other than Rask was credited with a win.

“Very good,” head coach Claude Julien said of Khudobin’s play. “He deserves a lot of accolades tonight, for the way he played, the way he responded after being out such a long time. I think the fact that he went to Providence and played some games there really helped him get back on track. Tonight, he showed that he was ready to play.”

Julien added, “No doubt, there’s a lot of confidence that grew in that dressing room by watching his play and knowing that we’ve got two goaltenders that can play extremely well for us.”

The Bruins did not feel they had good enough backup goaltending the past two seasons, both of which ended outside the playoff picture. And so they bid adieu to Niklas Svedberg and Jonas Gustavsson, bringing Khudobin back into the fold on a two-year contract.

Granted, one win isn’t enough to conclude that Khudobin will be fine. He’s now 1-3-0 with a .902 save percentage, and those numbers could still be much better.

But he’ll be back in there soon enough. The Bruins have 15 more games in December, and Rask isn’t going to play them all.

Blues ‘need more’ from Lehtera, who could be healthy scratched

Jori Lehtera
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Jori Lehtera received one of his lowest ice times of the season in Thursday’s win over Tampa Bay — just 11:21 — and was demoted to the fourth line at Friday’s practice.

If that didn’t send a message, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock delivered it shortly thereafter.

“We’re going to need more from him,” Hitchcock said, per NHL.com’s Lou Korac. “The position we have him in, we need more from that position.”

Lehtera was signed to a three-year, $14.1 million extension after a solid ’14-15 campaign, in which he scored 14 goals and 44 points in 75 games. His offensive production sagged a bit last year (nine goals, 34 points in 79 games) and he’s gone through some difficult stretches this year.

The 28-year-old Finn had just three points through his first 15 games of the year, but did look as though he’d turned the corner recently. Prior to the Bolts game he had four points in four contests, including his first multi-goal effort of the season (potting a pair in a 4-2 win over Boston).

Clearly, though, Hitchcock thinks there’s more to give.

Per the Post-Dispatch, Hitch said he’s unsure if Lehtera will play on Saturday, when the Blues host the Jets. Nail Yakupov and Ty Rattie both sat out against Tampa Bay, and either one could draw into the lineup.

The Lehtera development comes with the Blues playing some of their best hockey of the year. They’ve won seven of their last eight, and are just four points back of Chicago for top spot in the Western Conference.

Pre-game reading: Some advice for Nolan Patrick

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— Up top, Mike Milbury and Keith Jones discuss the Penguins’ two-goalie situation, which GM Jim Rutherford recently admitted was not working as well as he’d hoped.

Nolan Patrick, the likely first overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft, is currently out with an injury. Tyler Benson, a top draft prospect last year who battled injuries, has some advice for Patrick: “I don’t think he should be worrying about the draft. People know what kind of player he can be. He’s played two years in this league already and he’s dominated. I think he should worry about making sure he’s 100 per cent when he comes back.” Benson was eventually selected 32nd overall by the Oilers. (The Province)

— A couple of weeks ago, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk got mad at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper after an editorial called on him to push for an outdoor game at TD Place. Yada, yada, yada, Melynk is now pushing for an outdoor game at TD Place. (Ottawa Sun)

Hampus Lindholm has been good defensively in his return to the Anaheim Ducks, but with only two assists in his first 11 games, you have to think he’ll want to start contributing more to the offense soon. Lindholm is now the highest-paid defenseman on his team, with a cap hit just over $5 million. And if the Ducks have to trade Cam Fowler at any point, they’ll need Lindholm’s offense even more. That’s just the pressure that comes with a big contract. We’ll see how he fares. (OC Register)

— In 2015-16, no Canadian teams made the NHL playoffs for the first time since 1969-70. So, how are things looking this season? Long story short, quite a bit better. Three of the seven Canadian teams are currently in a playoff spot, and the other four aren’t out of it yet. (TSN)

— What a surprise, the Winnipeg Jets hurt themselves with too many penalties last night against Edmonton. “Those early penalties and how much time we spent in the box early on killed us,” said Bryan Little. “Our PK couldn’t get it done.” This has been a problem for way too long now. Over the last three seasons combined, the Jets have gone shorthanded 686 times, the most in the NHL. Clearly, they aren’t good enough to play with such poor discipline, so perhaps they should figure it out. (Winnipeg Sun)

Enjoy the games!

Goalie nods: It’s Chad Johnson’s net in Calgary

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Chad Johnson #31 of the Calgary Flames in action against the Buffalo Sabres during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Chad Johnson, the Flames’ goalie of record in eight of their last 10 games, will once again be in goal when Calgary hosts Minnesota on Friday night.

Johnson, as we’ve written about on numerous occasions, was terrific for the Flames in November, going 7-3-0 with a 1.80 GAA and .939 save percentage. He essentially wrestled the No. 1 gig away from Brian Elliott, and closed out the month in style by posting a 39-save shutout against Toronto on Wednesday.

As a result, Calgary has clawed back from a disappointing start to draw within one point of Nashville for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference (granted, the Flames have played four more games than the Preds).

For the Wild, Devan Dubnyk‘s in goal.

Elsewhere…

— Just one other game this evening, as Montreal takes on the Sharks in San Jose. It promises to be a quality matchup as both teams are rolling with their No. 1s: Carey Price for the Habs, Martin Jones for the Sharks.