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Around the Rink – Sunday, December 26th

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Now that you’ve opened your presents and/or completed your feats of strength, it’s time for the NHL to get back to business. Look no further than Sunday’s slate of games, with 11 contests on tap. As always, start times are according to Eastern Standard Time (ET).

7:00 pm

Nashville @ St. Louis

The Blues began their five-game homestand by beating the Detroit Red Wings 4-3, so now they host another Central Division foe in the form of the Predators. Nashville is on a three game losing streak and only hold a one-point lead over St. Louis, so Jaroslav Halak & Co. could leapfrog them with a win in this game.

Washington @ Carolina

The Capitals played well against the Penguins on Thursday, but ultimately left the contest with only one point. Chances are solid that they’ll go into tonight’s skirmish with the Hurricanes with a chip on their collective shoulders, so Cam Ward better prepare for a barrage.

Columbus @ Chicago

With a three-game winning streak and a fairly hot goalie in Corey Crawford, Chicago is getting its act together despite injuries to Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa. They’ll greet a collapsing Columbus club that coach Scott Arniel referred to “pee wees” late last week. While that should be a sign that the Blackhawks should win, they better not take the Blue Jackets (and their bruised egos) lightly in this one.

Montreal @ NY Islanders

The Canadiens are slipping a bit and with the Bruins are rapidly approaching in their rear-view mirrors, they need to win games like this one. The Islanders are showing a little spunk as of late, though, with two wins in a row. If nothing else, Garth Snow’s embattled gang clearly stands above the sad-sack Devils right now.

Detroit @ Minnesota

The Wild might not enjoy the trap talk, but all that matters right now is that Niklas Backstrom is playing absolutely lights-out hockey. Not coincidentally, the Wild are on a three game winning streak and seem intent to make the Western Conference playoff picture even more muddled. Visiting them is the (relatively) stumbling Red Wings, who are 4-5-1 in their last 10 and must face the sobering reality of Pavel Datsyuk’s month-long (or so) absence.

Toronto @ New Jersey

Misery loves company, right? If that’s true, then these teams need to get together more often.

Tampa Bay @ Atlanta

This game features a matchup between two teams that are graduating from the Southeast Division Kiddie Table to the Eastern Conference’s elite. The Thrashers briefly stole the Lightning’s thunder with a big winning streak, but Tampa Bay now holds a games-in-hand based divisional lead over Washington. Beating Dustin Byfuglien & Co. would allow them to retain that margin even if the Capitals crush Carolina.

7:30 pm

Pittsburgh @ Ottawa

He might not get much camera time on 24/7 (despite having the kind of hair that would draw in a few fans from the  Twilight demographic), but Kris Letang has been an underrated motor in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ great recent run. Yet he might not be in such a position of power if the team hadn’t made the difficult choice to let former power play QB (and big minutes eater) Sergei Gonchar flee to the Senators. It’s hard to argue with that decision now, especially considering Gonchar’s ugly -19 rating.

8:00 pm

Phoenix @ Dallas

What a difference a year makes, eh? Not too long ago, the story was former Stars coach Dave Tippett working miracles with a seemingly hopeless Coyotes team while Marc Crawford coached another lost season in Dallas. While Tippett really isn’t doing an awful job now, my guess is that Stars fans (at least the scant amounts paying attention right now) aren’t missing him as much right now. The Stars currently hold the lead in the Pacific Division – however slim – while the ‘Yotes are stalling out in fifth.

Could it be that Joe Nieuwendyk dismissed the 2009-10 coach of the year to hire the 2010-11 Jack Adams winner?

9:00 pm

Edmonton @ Vancouver

Last time these two teams played, the Oilers only managed 12 shots on goal. Hey, at least it cannot get much worse. Right?

Right?

Anaheim @ Los Angeles

If you only looked at standings point, it would seem like the Kings are barely better than the Ducks so far. Yet they’ve earned one more point in five less games played. so don’t sleep on Los Angeles as the new year approaches.

Rangers lose Raanta, but get Zibanejad back from broken leg

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 19: Mika Zibanejad #93 of the New York Rangers celebrates his first period goal against the Detroit Red Wings and is joined by Chris Kreider #20 at Madison Square Garden on October 19, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Busy little Monday for the Rangers.

First, the club announced forward Marek Hrivik cleared waivers and was sent to AHL Hartford — paving the way for Mika Zibanejad to return from his broken leg — then announced goalie Antti Raanta would miss the next 7-10 days with the lower-body injury suffered against Montreal over the weekend.

Plenty to unpack here.

Let’s begin with Zibanejad, acquired this offseason in the Derick Brassard trade. The 23-year-old suffered his broken leg back on Nov. 20 and has missed the last 26 games as a result — so, needless to say, New York is glad to have him back. He’d been producing very well at the time of his injury, with five goals and 15 points in his first 19 games as a Blueshirt.

But for all the excitement about his return, enthusiasm has to be dampened a bit by the Raanta injury.

Arguably the best backup in the NHL this season, Raanta’s gone 10-4-0 with a 2.23 GAA and .923 save percentage. He’s done a terrific job of spelling Henrik Lundqvist when called upon, and even had a brief stint of starts in late December before King Henrik resumed No. 1 duties.

With Raanta sidelined until the All-Star break, the Rangers have recalled Magnus Hellberg from the AHL.

Staal-Lindholm-McGinn line doing the business in Carolina

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 21:  Brock McGinn #23 of the Carolina Hurricanes awaits a face off against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on October 21, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Hurricanes defeated the Avalanche 1-0 in overtime.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Bill Peters has found something in the Jordan Staal, Elias Lindholm and Brock McGinn trio.

The line, formed just a short while ago, erupted for 10 points in Saturday’s 7-4 win over the Isles. McGinn went on to capture third star of the week honors and, together, the unit has been a major reason Carolina’s knocking on the door of a playoff spot.

“They’re doing it playing against everybody’s best at home,” Peters said of the Staal-Lindholm-McGinn line, per the New York Daily News. “They’re taking on tough matchups each and every shift and more often than not, they win it.”

Given that Staal, the club’s top defensive center, anchors the line, Peters often uses it against the opposition’s top group. So full credit has to go to Lindholm and McGinn, especially given their relative inexperience — both are just 22 years old and, coming into this season, McGinn had all of 21 games of NHL experience.

He’s a pretty good story, to say the least. The youngest of the McGinn brothers — Jamie currently plays for Arizona, Tye is with the Lightning organization — Brock was the 47th overall pick in 2012, and has steadily progressed from a good scorer in junior, to a good scorer at the AHL level, to a good scorer at the NHL level.

McGinn now has 12 points in 27 games with the ‘Canes this season.

“Our scouts stepped up and took [McGinn] in the second round. He’s a little under-sized and he’s maybe not the fastest guy, but he’s got a lot of hockey player in him,” Peters explained, per the ‘Canes website. “He’s a very courageous kid, a very intelligent player, a lot of old school in him. He’s starting to play with way more pace now, which is a huge credit to him.”

As mentioned above, the ‘Canes are in a great spot right now. They head into today’s action just one point back of Philly for the final wild card spot in the East, but with three games in hand.

Carolina could vault the Flyers with a result against Columbus on Tuesday. It would be another big step in trying to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2009.

More good times in Washington, as Backstrom named first star of the week

Nicklas Backstrom
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The Caps have won nine in a row and catapulted to top spot in the NHL with 63 points, one ahead of second-place Columbus.

Suffice to say, folks are feelin’ fine in D.C.

Those good vibes continued on Monday, as center Nicklas Backstrom was named the NHL’s first star of the week.

More:

Backstrom led the League in assists and points with 3-7—10 in four contests as the Capitals won all four games to extend their overall winning streak to nine contests and propel Washington to the top of the NHL standings (29-9-5, 63 points).

Backstrom registered multiple points in all four games starting with one goal and one assist in a 4-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 9. On Jan. 11, he recorded one goal and three assists in a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, followed by one goal and one assist in a 6-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 13. Backstrom finished the week by notching two assists in a 5-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 15.

In his 10th season, all with the Capitals, the 29-year-old Galve, Sweden native leads the Capitals and is tied for 10th in League scoring with 42 points (12-30—42 in 43 GP).

Backstrom, of course, wasn’t the only big story in Washington last week. Captain Alex Ovechkin scored his 1,000th career point on Wednesday, becoming the first player in franchise history to hit that mark.

The only negative thing coming out of D.C. is that John Carlson, who leads all Caps d-men in scoring, is out for today’s game versus Pittsburgh. Carlson’s absence will be brief, though, as head coach Barry Trotz expects him back in the lineup later this week.

Panthers recall McIlrath from AHL — but will they play him?

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03:  Ryan Reaves #75 of the St. Louis Blues and Dylan McIlrath #42 of the New York Rangers fight during the first period at Madison Square Garden on November 3, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers have recalled defenseman Dylan McIlrath from a conditioning stint in the AHL.

The question now is whether they’ll play him.

McIlrath has only appeared in four games for the Panthers since getting traded by the Rangers in November — and in three of those games, he logged less than 10 minutes of ice time.

On his conditioning assignment, the 24-year-old played six games for the Springfield Thunderbirds, scoring once with an assist and 13 PIM.

It seems unlikely that the Panthers would make any changes to their lineup after knocking off Columbus, 4-3, on Saturday. They start a four-game road trip tomorrow in Calgary.

McIlrath’s chances of playing may be limited due to the fact he’s a right shot and the Panthers’ back end already has three healthy right shots in Aaron Ekblad, Jason Demers, and Mark Pysyk.

Ekblad, Demers, and Pysyk have each played all 45 games this season. The leading candidate to be scratched is probably Jakub Kindl, a left shot.

So barring an injury, McIlrath may have to sit and wait some more. The Panthers have won four of their last six, and they’re not in a position to mess with success.

Alex Petrovic (ankle) is Florida’s only injured defenseman. Also a right shot, he could be ready to return in early February.