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Riding the Zamboni – Thursday, January 6th

Buffalo 3 – San Jose 0

Some nights we’re reminded why Ryan Miller is one of the best goalies in the NHL. Tonight he stopped all 36 shots he faced en route to a 3-0 Sabres win over the Sharks. The Sharks have been decidedly average so far this year, but tonight they pulled out all the stops to try and beat the Sabres only to be turned away at every turn. Luke Adam, Jochen Hecht, and Thomas Vanek each scored for Buffalo to make the lead insurmountable. The win gives Buffalo victories in three of their last four games. For San Jose, it’s their second loss in a row.

Montreal 2 – Pittsburgh 1 (F/SO)

On a night where the big news turns out to be Sidney Crosby being diagnosed with a concussion, the Canadiens were able to take advantage of a Pens lineup that was without Crosby, Matt Cooke, and had Brent Johnson in goal. Johnson did well enough to keep his team in the game but he couldn’t stop Benoit Pouliot. Pouliot had Montreal’s lone goal in regulation and scored their game-winner in the shootout on a rather Peter Forsberg-like move. Arron Asham had Pittsburgh’s lone goal in regulation as Carey Price saved 31 shots in the win. Johnson stopped 22 in the tough loss. The Pens have now dropped four of their last six games.

Philadelphia 4 – New Jersey 2

It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s Johan Hedberg or Martin Brodeur in goal for New Jersey these days and tonight it was Hedberg taking the loss once again. Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell each had two goals in leading the Flyers over New Jersey. New Jersey went into tonight’s game having dropped a drama bomb having captain Jamie Langenbrunner out of the lineup as a healthy scratch and speculation about him being traded dominating the evening. The mess in New Jersey is out of hand and the Flyers were more than happy to take advantage of the aimless Devils.

Nashville 5 – Los Angeles 2

The suddenly sliding Kings keep on falling back in the standings dropping their fifth straight game. Making tonight a bit more painful was the fact the Kings jumped out to a 2-0 lead before folding things up. Patric Hornqvist scored two goals, Marek Svatos scored his first goal since returning from Russia while Colin Wilson and Sergei Kostitsyn each had a goal and two assists each. Jonathan Bernier wasn’t able to contain the Predators attack tonight to the tune of 23 saves. Anders Lindback stopped 28 shots for Nashville in the win.

Minnesota 3 – Boston 1

While the Bruins won’t admit to it, a bad call against Shawn Thornton that turned into a Martin Havlat power play goal got in their heads early in this one. Steven Kampfer was able to tie the game up at 1-1 minutes after that, but the Bruins played a bit off all night. In the third period, the Wild capitalized getting a go-ahead goal from Cal Clutterbuck and an empty netter from Mikko Koivu to ice the game. Tuukka Rask played strong for Boston but was out-dueled by Jose Theodore. Theodore stopped 35 shots compared to Rask’s 31 on the way to the victory. For Boston, it’s their first non-shootout loss since December 20th, but third loss in four games. Meanwhile, the Wild have quietly won three in a row much in thanks to Theodore’s solid play.

Phoenix 2 – Colorado 0

It wasn’t supposed to be Jason LaBarbera’s start tonight, but he made the most of his emergency start in goal pitching a 24-save shutout over the high-scoring Avalanche. Taylor Pyatt made it stick with two goals including an empty netter as the Coyotes got out of last place in the Pacific Division thanks to the win and the Kings loss. For Colorado, it was a sloppy loss and one they’ll need to forget about if they’re looking to get back on the winning side. Losses are becoming a bit too common lately for the Avs as they’ve lost six of their last eight games with their wins coming in overtime and a shootout.

Toronto 6 – St. Louis 5 (F/SO)

The Leafs looked strong tonight getting out to a 5-2 lead at one point and chasing Jaroslav Halak from the game.  But as things go with Toronto of late, they allowed the Blues to score three in a row from Brad Winchester, Eric Brewer, and Matt D’Agostini to send the game into overtime. As the teams went to the shootout, it was Mikhail Grabovsky dazzling the fans with his shootout goal and Tyler Bozak sealing the deal with his shootout winner to get Jonas Gustavsson the win.

Edmonton 2 – NY Islanders 1

It certainly wasn’t the highlight game of the night by any means for Isles starter Nate Lawson giving up two goals on the first three shots he saw, but fellow rookie goalie Kevin Poulin relieved him and at least kept the Isles in the game. As it turned out, Gilbert Brule and Dustin Penner’s goals would be all the Oilers would need to give Devan Dubnyk the win for Edmonton. Dubnyk, unlike Lawson, was able to stop 30 shots on his way to the win. Poulin stopped all 19 shots he saw in relief. Blake Comeau’s second period goal was all the offense the Isles would muster against fellow cellar dwellers in the NHL.

Penguins believe Kessel, others can heal up by start of next season

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Going deep enough into the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup often comes with the cost of stacking up injuries, and the Pittsburgh Penguins paid the price.

As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and others report, Phil Kessel (wrist) and others aren’t guaranteed to be healthy to start the 2016-17 regular season.

“All the injured guys are tracking in the right direction,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “Until they all get here, we won’t know 100 percent where they’re at, but it sounds like all the guys should be ready for camp.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review runs down a significant list of players who likely accrued bumps and bruises that may carry over:

Defenseman Trevor Daley, for instance, suffered a broken ankle on May 20. Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Bryan Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow), among others, dealt with physical problems of varying severity at times.

If recent history is any indication, Kessel will probably fight hard not to miss time.

For all the weird criticisms he receives, he’s been remarkably durable, playing in every game during the past six seasons.

That’s impressive stuff, but the Penguins would be wise to keep an eye on the big picture. If it comes down to making Kessel and others swallow a little pride to limit the odds of aggravating injuries, they need to do it.

Even if it means a bumpy start to their title defense.

Win now, worry later: Why the Lightning should go all-in

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08:  Ben Bishop #30 celebrates with Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in Game Three of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 8, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

The Chicago Blackhawks employed some great teams in winning three championships so far during the Jonathan ToewsPatrick Kane era, but there was something special about that first group.

For one thing, Toews and Kane were playing out the final years of their entry-level contracts. Those CBA-powered savings gave the Blackhawks a surplus of players who would eventually be too expensive to retain, most notably Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brian Campbell.

That fantastic group never faced elimination during an overpowering run to the 2010 Stanley Cup.

Thanks to deft maneuvering by GM Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks were able to reload and put together other strong supporting casts even after big losses, and that could be a profound lesson for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It might be tempting for the Bolts to merely keep their window open as long as possible. Instead, they should take a big swing in 2016-17 and then trust management to recover from any fallout.

Bishop’s expiring contract

The safe move would be to trade away some of the expiring contracts on Tampa Bay’s roster instead of risking getting nothing when they leave.

Many believe that Ben Bishop is on his way out. With one year left on a contract that carries about a $6 million cap hit and Andrei Vasilevskiy getting the Jake Allen-style “you’re the man” extension, it seems like a matter of time.

Keeping Bishop around for one more season might just pay off, though.

For one thing, Vasilevskiy’s shown signs of brilliance, yet his current NHL numbers aren’t overwhelmingly strong. Bishop, meanwhile, kept the Bolts afloat during some tough times in 2015-16.

Even if the Lightning feel like Vasy is the guy, what if he gets hurt? They’ve already seen goalies get injured at inopportune times, and the reigning champion Penguins provide another reminder.

(For more on the Bishop situation, click here.)

Win low, worry later

GM Steve Yzerman deserves ample credit for signing Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to relative bargain deals, but those are still expensive contracts. The squeeze is coming.

That said, the Lightning may want to identify their own Byfugliens and Ladds and go for broke in 2016-17. Let’s not forget how close they were to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance even with Stamkos on the shelf.

It’s tough to imagine the Bolts managing to keep all of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine many opponents managing to contain an attack that features Stamkos, Johnson, Palat, Drouin and other dangerous attackers.

(Plus, another year of evaluation would give Yzerman time to determine who is truly a core member.)

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It’s a challenging situation, but the Lightning easily rank alongside the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and maybe a few other select teams as the cream of the East crop.

They’re positioned to jostle with the elites for some time, but why not take their best shot in 2016-17 and then make the best of things later on?

Sometimes the difference between really good and truly great comes down to having the courage to make these tough calls.

Under Pressure: Tyler Johnson

TAMPA, FL - MAY 18:  Tyler Johnson #9 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 18, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

What a difference a year makes.

Last summer, Tyler Johnson was such a huge part of the Tampa Bay Lightning, more than a few people believed that he could ease the pain of possibly losing Steven Stamkos to free agency. He tied Stamkos for the team lead in scoring (72 points) and topped all Lightning players with 23 playoff points during their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

The 2015-16 regular season was a bumpy one for Johnson … in some ways literally.

Painful year

Health was a major obstacle for Johnson, starting with the hangover from a wrist injury he suffered during Tampa Bay’s magic run.

Even afterward, there were moments of pain. Sometimes it came down to flat-out bad luck:

Other times, there were questionable hits:

It wasn’t until late in the regular season that Johnson seemed to feel himself, as he noted to the Tampa Bay Tribune.

“I feel I’ve got the speed back, got everything I can do,” Johnson said. “I’m actually mentally there, not worried about other things …”

Big commitments

He’ll have some things to worry about in 2016-17.

The Lightning handed out a ton of money this off-season, locking up Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn and Andrei Vasilevskiy to lengthy deals. They still need to sort out a contract for Nikita Kucherov, a talented forward who rose while Johnson stumbled.

Fair or not, Johnson must prove that he’s a core member of the Lightning

He made a strong argument in his own favor once he was healthy, generating 17 points in 17 playoff games as the Lightning made it to within one game of another Stanley Cup Final appearance despite missing Stamkos.

Still, Johnson faces a fork in the road. Ben Bishop either needs a new deal or (most likely) a trade to a team that will make him “the guy.” Ondrej Palat likely won’t be the easiest player for Tampa Bay to re-sign, either.

Few players could gain or lose more money with one season of play than Tyler Johnson. He can prove that 2015-16 was derailed by bad luck or allow injury concerns to linger.

Millions are on the line, and those personal goals may very well help Johnson drive the Lightning to another deep run.

For all we know, he could also find himself driving out of town.

Bovada gives Canada best odds at 2016 World Cup of Hockey

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 23:  (l-R) Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and P.K. Subban #76 of Canada pose with the gold medals won during the Men's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match against Sweden on Day 16 of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 23, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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It’s no secret that Canada’s been on a strong run at the international level, and it’s no surprise that they’re considered the favorites heading into the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Seriously, just look at the B Team put together by The Hockey News’ Mike Brophy; even with the strange hook of having to go around the under-23 North American team, that group would be one of the top contenders if it existed.

The real fun is judging how Bovada’s odds fall with the other leading nations. Is Russia given too great a chance considering some recent struggles when facing the best of the best? Did that odd little under-23 team not get enough love?

Here are the odds Bovada released on Monday:

World Cup of Hockey 2016 Champion

Canada                         10/11

Russia                          9/2

Sweden                        5/1

USA                             13/2

Finland                         14/1

North America U23        16/1

Czech Republic             22/1

Team Europe                33/1

Interesting stuff.