Around the rink – Thursday, December 23rd

With the league taking Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, tonight sees 13 games hit us square in the face. The featured event will be in Washington where a Winter Classic preview will take place between the Penguins and Capitals. With HBO in the house for 24/7 and it being the first time the two have faced off, the drama level should be off the charts.

All times listed are Eastern because that’s where Santa Claus visits America first.

7:00 pm

Pittsburgh @ Washington

You couldn’t ask for a better Christmas gift. Both teams come in riding two-game win streaks with the Pens playing outstanding hockey and the Caps seemingly having shaken off their eight game slump. The differences here come from the Pens dominating teams with their biggest stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin carrying the weight offensively while the Caps have won with the young upstarts doing the job. This would be a heck of a time to see Alex Ovechkin have a breakout game wouldn’t it?

NY Islanders @ New Jersey

The battle to see who stays out of absolute dead last in the NHL gets a higher profile thanks to the firing of John MacLean and the Lazarus-like return of Jacques Lemaire behind the Devils bench. The Devils are coming off back-to-back thumpings from Atlanta and Washington. The Isles are coming off a big win over Tampa Bay. Big in that it was any win at all. If it weren’t for today’s firing, this game wouldn’t even be on our radar.

Atlanta @ Boston

The slumping Bruins have people wondering aloud if Claude Julien should still be the man in charge there. Atlanta rolls into town with former Julien assistant Craig Ramsay as their head man and the Thrashers are thriving because of it. Well how about that. Julien getting his team to rally and get one over on Ramsay would go over pretty well for the B’s. Another loss and the whispers about wanting Julien out might start to turn into shouts. Truth here is that Boston has a hard time scoring goals even with great play from Tim Thomas. Atlanta’s tough brand of hockey and knack for scoring goals provides quite the gut check for the Bruins.

Tampa Bay @ NY Rangers

No Marian Gaborik for the Rangers in this one so Mats Zuccarello, the Norwegian Olympic hero, gets to make his first appearance with the Rangers. The 5’7″ forward came over from Europe after a successful year there and a spectacular showing in the Olympics. Seeing how he adjusts to the NHL could be fun to watch. The Lightning, meanwhile, would like to forget last night’s embarrassing loss to the Islanders.

Florida @ Buffalo

The NHL schedule makers gift to the Panthers was to play three games in four nights, the last of which coming in Buffalo tonight. Merry Christmas, indeed. The Panthers got worked over by the Penguins last night after shutting out the Flyers on Monday. Buffalo would like to redeem themselves against the Panthers after getting drubbed by them in Florida last week.

Montreal @ Carolina

Believe it or not, Habs fans are still upset at the Hurricanes for knocking them out of the playoffs years ago. Perhaps that’s their way of getting worked up for an opponent. One person Habs fans are getting discouraged with is coach Jacques Martin as he’ll be sitting down P.K. Subban and Benoit Pouliot tonight as healthy scratches. The Habs have lost two in a row and five of their last six. Carolina looks to rebound after getting beat down by Tampa on Monday and hope to reignite the win streak they were on before that when they won five straight.

Vancouver @ Columbus

Vancouver could sure use a pick-me-up after dropping last night’s game to Detroit in particularly chokey fashion. Dealing with the Blue Jackets you never know for sure which team you’ll get. It’s either the team that gets great goaltending and has Rick Nash show up in a big way or the team that gets six or seven goals put up on them and they’re run out of the building. If the Wings didn’t take too much out of Vancouver, this could be a long night for Columbus.

8:00 pm

Detroit @ St. Louis

It’ll be the first game for Detroit without Pavel Datsyuk who’s out four weeks with a broken hand. If the Wings get Henrik Zetterberg to step up and play big the way he did last night, the Wings will be just fine without Datsyuk in the mean time. The Blues are hoping their win over Atlanta the other night was the signal of a turnaround for them after going through a stretch of a few weeks where the goaltending and goal scoring disappeared.

Ottawa @ Nashville

The slumping Senators roll into Music City looking for something to spark them. Losing Pascal Leclaire from their starting lineup has been a sign of the times lately. The losses come in bunches while wins are scattered here and there. For Nashville, their strong play of late has vaulted them up the standings in the Western Conference and they’ve done it while soldiering through injuries to key players throughout the lineup. The Preds are hoping the offense can make a comeback after scoring just one goal in each of their last two games, both losses to the Kings and Blackhawks.

8:30 pm

Calgary @ Dallas

A desperate Flames team rolls into Dallas to face a Stars team that’s won three in a row. The Stars have to be careful to avoid the trap game here as the Flames have the ability to get hot at a moments notice and with Miikka Kiprusoff in goal it can spell trouble at any time. The Flames will be looking to snap a three game skid. Yeah, this totally reeks of being a trap game.

9:00 pm

Minnesota @ Colorado

While the Avs have been playing well of late, their last game aside, Minnesota is a team that gives the Avs fits for one reason or another. The Wild are on a two game win streak thanks to beating the Flames in back-to-back games. Whether or not the Wild defense can keep up with the Avs speed is the big question here. The Avs could stand to use a solid game out of Craig Anderson as his last few starts haven’t looked quite so hot.

10:30 pm

Edmonton @ Los Angeles

The Kings are hoping to get some consistent play as they’ve alternated wins and losses over the last few games. Doing so against an Oilers team that’s showing some guts but some typically youthful and inexperienced play would be an ideal place to begin. The Oilers have dropped three of their last four and did so with scoring just one goal in each of those losses. Which Oilers team comes out to play tonight and what the Kings allow them to do are two interesting turns in this one.

Phoenix @ San Jose

The Logan Couture traveling road show comes back home as the Sharks look to continue ascending the standings in the Pacific Division. They’re just four points behind Dallas and after winning three in a row they’ve gotten the fans to relax and have fun again and Couture is the main reason for it. As for Phoenix, they’ve struggled without Ilya Bryzgalov in goal and suffered an embarrassing loss to Pittsburgh on Monday night. Now would make for a good time for a rebound.

Hagelin making ‘significant steps’ in returning to Pens lineup

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It’s been nearly six weeks since Carl Hagelin last suited up for the Penguins.

His return sounds like it’s on the horizon.

Hagelin, out since Mar. 10 with a lower-body injury, was deemed “close” to coming back by Pens head coach Mike Sullivan, just ahead of tonight’s Game 1 against Washington.

“[Hagelin] is a day-to-day decision at this point,” Sullivan said. “He took limited contact this morning. The next step, obviously, will be the full contact approach.

“He is certainly making significant steps in the right direction here.”

The speedy Swede missed the final 16 games of the regular season with his ailment, and all five games in Pittsburgh’s opening-round win against the Blue Jackets. The end result was just six goals and 22 points in 61 games played, down from the impressive stretch he had last season after being acquired from Anaheim.

Pittsburgh is hopeful the 28-year-old can rejoin the team, and provide similar production as last year’s playoff run. Hagelin had six goals and 16 points in 24 games en route to hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Hagelin isn’t the only veteran forward that could make his return this season. Earlier this week, the Pens announced winger Chris Kunitz had been cleared for contact, and is available for the Washington series.

Sweeney shares offseason plans for Bruins

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The Boston Bruins had a relatively successful season, getting back to the playoffs after narrowly missing them the past two years.

But another interesting summer awaits GM Don Sweeney, who has a number of areas he’d like to improve.

From CSN New England:

Sweeney listed the “middle of the [forward] lineup, transition-minded defensemen and the backup goaltender position” as places he had in mind for offseason upgrades. Those were glaring areas of need throughout the regular season and postseason. 

More specifically on Sweeney’s to-do list: a left wing to be paired with David Krejci, a revamping of a third line that underachieved far too often and another top-four defenseman capable of moving the puck to go along with a more dependable backup goaltender situation than the Jekyll and Hyde performance from Anton Khudobin last season.

Boston’s pending unrestricted free agents include Drew Stafford, Dominic Moore, and John-Michael Liles, the latter of whom turns 37 in November.

At some point, the Bruins will need to find a replacement for 40-year-old Zdeno Chara. But the NHL’s oldest defenseman still has one year left on his contract, and he says he’d like to play beyond that.

To start next season, the Bruins could go with a top four of Chara, Torey Krug, Brandon Carlo, and Charlie McAvoy, two lefties and two righties. Assuming they don’t re-sign Liles, adding another left shot for the bottom pairing seems an attainable goal for Sweeney. Adding another top-four d-man could be tough, though.

Another situation to watch is the one with Ryan Spooner, the 25-year-old forward who found his way into Bruce Cassidy’s doghouse in the playoffs. Spooner is a pending RFA and arbitration eligible. He can be good offensively, but without the puck he’s still tough to trust.

Sweeney did not share his plan for Spooner with reporters, but it’s safe to say the player’s future with the Bruins is uncertain.

Panthers looking for ‘modern day guy’ as next head coach

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There are just two coaching vacancies left — in Buffalo and Florida, respectively — and on Thursday, Panthers GM Dale Tallon outlined what the club is looking for in its next bench boss.

“We’re looking for a modern day guy, a good communicator and a good teacher,” Tallon said, per WQAM radio. “Someone who is firm, but fair and can think outside the box a little bit, because creativity is important too as far as how you differentiate yourself from other teams playing a similar system.”

To that end, the Panthers have already interviewed one candidate — University of Denver’s Jim Montgomery. Sportsnet reported Florida spoke with him on Monday.

Montgomery, 47, has spent the last three years at Denver, building one of college hockey’s most elite programs. This year’s squad was anchored by Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher, U.S. junior shootout hero Troy Terry and, perhaps most interestingly, freshman scoring sensation Henrik Borgstrom — Florida’s first-round pick at last year’s draft.

Montgomery aside, Tallon and the Panthers sound like they’re casting a wide net to find Tom Rowe’s replacement.

The club reportedly reached out to Vancouver with interest in former bench boss Willie Desjardins. The Miami Herald floated the possibility of bringing in ex-Habs coach Michel Therrien, who resides in South Florida. Montreal radio station 91.9 Sports also connected Therrien to the gig.

Put it all together, and the coaching decision doesn’t appear to be a rush job. Tallon all but cemented that last month, when he said there “are some candidates that are in the playoffs that we can’t talk to,” adding he might wait “until at least mid-June” to make a hire.

Stars re-sign Janmark, who they ‘missed as much as anyone last season’

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Mattias Janmark, the Stars forward that missed all of this season with a major knee injury, has been given a one-year, $700,000 extension, the club announced on Thursday.

“Mattias is a played that we missed as much as anyone last season with the unfortunate injury he suffered,” Dallas GM Jim Nill said in a release. “We look forward to him returning to our group and getting him back for training camp.”

Losing Janmark’s services this year was, as mentioned, a fairly big blow. After surprising onlookers by making the Stars out of camp in ’15-16 — a “great story,” according to Nill — Janmark had a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

Today’s news all but alleviates concerns the 24-year-old’s knee problems might extend into next season, something former head coach Lindy Ruff alluded to last month.

“I think there’s a question mark (about next season), but we don’t know to what degree yet,” Ruff said, per the Dallas Morning-News. “He’s progressing nicely. He still has a ways to go, but I think the fact he is practicing now and has gone this far always gives a guy like that a better chance for next year.”

Janmark’s original injury occurred during the preseason, when he knee locked up in a game against Colorado.

“He had a small segment, approximately 21 millimeters by 11 millimeters, that became displaced and is locked in his knee,” Nill said at the time. “It’s the bone and the cartilage, they both came off together.”

Janmark underwent surgery to correct the issue, but his recovery was plagued by a preexisting congenital condition called osteochondritis dissecans. Nill said the likelihood of a full recovery was 80 percent.