Anaheim Ducks v Montreal Canadiens

Around the rink – Tuesday, January 25th

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With the All-Star break approaching and the schedule lightening up a bit before then, teams are sort of playing out the string. Think of it like that last week of school before the break for the holidays in December. You should be taking some tests and still studying but you see vacation on the horizon and can’t help but think about that. All right so maybe it’s not exactly like that but we’re trying to keep it real around here. Here’s tonight’s schedule with all times being Eastern.

7:00 p.m.

Florida @ NY Rangers

The Rangers might want to avoid the shootout tonight but as long as Mats Zuccarello is around they’ll feel better about their chances if the game goes that far. Zuccarello is 4-4 on shootout attempts this year and given that their last two games have reached the skills competition and they’ve won them, they’re doing OK. Florida is looking to snap a four-game losing streak. The streaky Panthers are in the second game of a six-game road trip. Overtime and shootouts haven’t been kind to Florida recently though losing three of the last four games that have gone that far.

NY Islanders @ Pittsburgh

No Sidney Crosby in this one for the Penguins but that hasn’t mattered much lately as the Pens are winners of four of their last five games. Evgeni Malkin is also unlikely to play as well meaning that Jordan Staal will have to again take the reins as the top centerman and player up front. The Islanders have lost three of their last four games but are showing signs of improvement in that they’re at least scoring goals. It helps having Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen back in the lineup that’s for sure. Pittsburgh is looking to keep pace with Philadelphia in the division as they’ve fallen behind by five points.

Anaheim @ Columbus

The Ducks are looking to wrap up their four game road trip with their third win. Their two wins have come in the shootout but when you’re playing away from home a win is a win. The Ducks have been riding the great play of Jonas Hiller and Bobby Ryan to success and frankly they’re OK with that. Columbus, meanwhile, is on a two-game win streak of their own and protecting home ice against the Ducks would give them a lot of confidence. Getting solid consistent goaltending of late has helped Columbus get their act together as they’ve allowed two goals in each of their wins.

7:30 p.m.

Montreal @ Philadelphia

While the Flyers want to keep ahead of the Penguins and extend their lead in the Eastern Conference, the Habs can tie things up with Boston again in the Northeast Division with a win. Montreal’s skating wounded did well enough to get a big win two games ago over Ottawa but couldn’t get a shootout win against Anaheim on Saturday. The beat up Habs could be in a tough spot against the physical Flyers who haven’t exactly played nice with each other so far this season.

Buffalo @ Ottawa

This always used to be a great rivalry as these two teams hated each other something fierce. Now, the Sens are floundering and the Sabres are still searching for consistency before they fall too far back in the hunt for the playoffs in the East. While the Sens are busy with nostalgia, the Sabres can get back on track with a small win streak with a win here. They’ve won three of their last four as it is but a loss to Ottawa would be a real morale killer.

Toronto @ Tampa Bay

Toronto’s southern swing isn’t going so hot with a loss to Carolina last night. Dealing with the Southeast Division leading Lightning on the second night of a back-to-back sounds less-than optimal, especially with the chance of going up against Dwayne Roloson who has owned the Leafs of late in his career. Roloson is 4-1-0 in his last five starts against the Leafs dating back to 2008-2009 and that includes a 29-save effort to win in overtime earlier this year.

8:30 p.m.

Minnesota @ Chicago

The Wild roll into town as a team of streaks but playing better of late winners of three out of their last four games. Chicago is coming off of a poor performance against the Flyers on Sunday afternoon and looking to regain some composure in the Western Conference playoff race. If you didn’t look too closely, you’d see that the Wild are just three points behind Chicago in the West standings. While Chicago’s doing relatively well the Wild have rebounded well after a poor start to vault themselves into the race for the playoffs. Consider this a good test for both teams to see where they’re at.

9:00 p.m.

Edmonton @ Phoenix

After Dallas getting humbled last night, the door is open for Phoenix to make up some ground on the Pacific Division leaders. Having to deal with an Oilers team that has been just brutal lately. Phoenix has lost three of their last four but a win would pull them to within four points of the Stars. Every little bit does count and for the Coyotes that can be a big deal to make the end of the season potentially less stressful. Edmonton’s losing ways have resulted in a five-game losing streak and a stretch of games over the last month and a half that’s just brutal. The Oilers weren’t really a factor for the playoffs as it was, but seeing them doing this poorly is disheartening for a team that showed flashes of brilliant fun early on. Here’s to hoping Taylor Hall doesn’t get too frustrated being counted on to do too much for a bad team.

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.)

***

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.