Around the rink – February 15; Philly and Tampa face off in East showdown

7:00 p.m.

Toronto @ Boston

Phil Kessel has been playing better of late without the stats to show for it, but facing off with the Bruins in Boston might be the exact wrong thing for him to deal with at the moment. The fans in Boston hate him and now the Leafs begin life without Kris Versteeg after dealing him to Philadelphia yesterday. The Bruins will be happy to not be facing the Red Wings who beat them in back-to-back games over the weekend. Given how poorly Toronto’s done against Boston of late, this game isn’t shaping up to be any good for the Leafs.

7:30 p.m.

Philadelphia @ Tampa Bay

It’s the top two teams in the Eastern Conference and while the Lightning handled them easily the last time they met, the Flyers will be likely bringing Kris Versteeg into action for the first time. Tampa Bay is in the midst of their 12-game home stand and they’ve gone 5-2-0 so far on it. Being able to put one over on the Flyers in this game means they could, if they win in regulation, get within two points of the Flyers for the top spot in the East.

Buffalo @ Montreal

Different things on the line here for both teams. Buffalo would like to put their awful loss to the Islanders behind them and catch Atlanta for ninth in the East standings and move within two points of Carolina for eighth. The Canadiens would like to get the shot at passing the Bruins for the lead in the Northeast Division. The Habs are just one point behind Boston and while the Bruins are also playing tonight, at the very least keeping pace with them should be the key. If the Habs bring the same intensity they brought in their 3-0 win over Toronto, the Sabres are going to have a rough night. The big wonder for the Sabres is whether or not Ryan Miller will get a rest after getting shelled for seven goals against the Isles in his last start.

NY Islanders @ Ottawa

Well, someone’s got to watch this game, don’t they? Ottawa is hoping their win over Edmonton in their last game will help them permanently snap out of their funk. Going up against a game and gutsy Isles team doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. What to look for here: Whether or not Michael Grabner can keep his tremendous play going for New York as the rookie has 24 goals now to lead the team. John Tavares and P.A. Parenteau trail him with 21 each. Who’d have thought the Isles would have three 20-goal scorers at this point in the season?

8:00 p.m.

San Jose @ Nashville

The Sharks look to get back on the good side of things against a team they know all too well by now. After dropping two in a row against the Devils and Panthers, heading into Nashville to deal with the always tough Predators sounds like a rude awakening for the Sharks. Nashville has won two in a row and three of their last four. They’re hoping that the Sharks will be busy looking ahead as it’s their last game of a seven game road trip. The Sharks have gone 4-2-0 on this road swing as it is helping them fight their way into the mix for the Pacific Division lead.

Vancouver @ Minnesota

After such a tough loss to St. Louis last night and losing defenseman Andrew Alberts to a broken wrist the Canucks will call on Yann Sauve to join their vastly depleted defensive corps for the time being. With the Canucks having to deal with their kryptonite-like nemesis in the for of the Wild, it shapes up to be another rough ride for the Canucks. The Wild seem to play their best games against Vancouver and with the team playing even better of late, expect life to be rough on Vancouver in St. Paul. The Wild roll into this game winners of three straight and seeking to keep up with the joneses in the wild Western playoff races.

9:00 p.m.

Dallas @ Edmonton

Could the Oilers be the slump buster the Stars have been hoping for? Dallas had better hope so, but it won’t be easy for them. Top scorer Brad Richards is out with an injury. For Dallas it could be a view of what life would be like without their top playmaker if he was to depart the team as a free agent during the summer. Losing to Edmonton would hammer home how important Richards is to their success. Beating the Oilers would make for a tremendous confidence boost given how the team has struggled lately. For Edmonton, they’d like to get some pride back after losing to Ottawa over the weekend.

WATCH LIVE: Chicago Blackhawks at Tampa Bay Lightning

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The Tampa Bay Lightning almost certainly haven’t faced the Chicago Blackhawks in a game this important since the two teams were vying for a Stanley Cup.

While the Blackhawks have already punched their ticket to the postseason and are merely trying to pad their lead in the Central Division, the Bolts are fighting for their playoff lives. At the moment, they rank three points behind the Boston Bruins for the final spot in the East. With a game in hand, they can make up a lot of ground tonight.

With all of that in mind, it should be an entertaining contest. You can check it out on NBCSN, watch online or via the NBC Sports App.

Click here for the livestream.

NHL looks to China to ‘expand the sport’

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When Andong Song started playing hockey in China at age 6, he wore figure skates on his feet and had to use the straight parts of short-track speedskating rinks for practice.

His father brought back equipment from his travels one piece at a time, and his family moved to Canada a few years later so he could pursue a career in the sport. Song, the first Chinese player selected in the NHL draft, envisions a day when that sort of cross-global exodus is no longer necessary for kids growing up in China.

That could be coming soon with the NHL looking at China as hockey’s next great frontier. With the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China is eager to step up its game and the league is intrigued by the potential of a new nontraditional market with 1.4 billion people that might take to hockey like it did basketball.

“It’s a place that hasn’t had that much of an opportunity to be introduced to what everybody acknowledges is a great game,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Because of the size of the market and the fact that lots of sports haven’t been developed there, it’s a good opportunity to expand the sport even further.”

This week, Bettman is expected to announce NHL preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, along with grassroots programs to build a hockey foundation where the NBA has laid one for decades. It’s the first big step toward the NHL making inroads in China, whether or not players participate in the 2018 Olympics in neighboring South Korea.

NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said showcasing the NHL, running clinics and getting more broadcast coverage all figure into the long-term strategy. Even though Russia’s expansive Kontinental Hockey League now has a team based in Beijing, NHL exhibition games – and potentially regular-season games as early as fall 2018 – will have a bigger impact.

“Even with the KHL there, they know it’s not the best league,” said Song, a Beijing native and sixth-round pick of the New York Islanders in 2015 who now plays for the Madison Capitols of the United States Hockey League. “They know it’s not the NHL.”

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China only has 1,101 registered players and 154 indoor rinks. Despite having a quarter of China’s population, the U.S. has 543,239 players and 1,800 indoor rinks.

By October, 14 different NBA teams will have played 24 preseason games in greater China since 2004, so the NHL has some catching up to do. The Boston Bruins sent an envoy on a Chinese tour last summer that included players Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak, and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis recently said his team could be next after hosting youth players from China in January.

“There will be about 200 new rinks being built in China and we would expect China being a very, very formidable force in the Olympics,” said Leonsis, who called China the next great hockey market. “And also we’ll see that China will be producing players and I would expect that we’ll have NHL players that were born and trained, just like we’ve seen in the NBA, and China will be able to bring players here.”

The NBA gained popularity in China in part due to Yao Ming, the first pick in the 2002 draft. The NHL is going into China hoping to develop homegrown stars. Chinese broadcaster and producer Longmou Li, who has worked the Stanley Cup Final and helped families move to North America for hockey, said 500 to 600 new families are joining the Beijing Hockey Association each year, which could mean churning out an NHL first-round pick every five to six years.

Song said because the sport is still in its infancy in China and centralized in the northeast and in big cities, keeping the best players there instead of seeing them leave for North America is the biggest challenge.

About 200 Chinese hockey families currently live in North America, Li said, and the return of those players, coupled with the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star’s presence and a commitment to skill development, will help the national team grow in preparation for the 2022 Olympics. With a broadcasting deal already in place to air four NHL games on state-owned China Central TV and 10-12 online through Tencent each week, his keys to the growth of Chinese hockey are players reaching the NHL and the national team competing at the top level of the world championships.

Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan was recently tapped to take over Kunlun and oversee the men’s and women’s national teams, so the process is underway.

“If NHL can help China to get that, I think we can at least get 100 million fans from China,” Li said. “Because hockey is just so passionate a game, is so fast a game, it’s so easy to get people to get involved. But they will need to attract them to watch.”

Although being awarded the Olympics was impetus for the Chinese government to pour resources into hockey, it’s getting some help from the private sector in the form of Zhou Yunjie, the chairman of of metal can manufacturing company ORG Packaging. The goaltender-turned-billionaire is at the forefront of hockey’s growth in China through NHL partnerships and sponsorships.

“As long as (TV networks) in China broadcast many more games in China, it will attract more people to notice the NHL, especially the youth hockey player,” Zhou said through an interpreter. “Because there are many Chinese kids that have started learning hockey there, and there is a good population of the people that will develop hockey in China.”

When Chris Pronger famously plastered Justin Bieber into the boards during a celebrity game at NHL All-Star Weekend in January, not only was Zhou playing goal but an ORG Packaging patch was on players’ jerseys. Talking about spreading the “gospel” of hockey, Leonsis called Zhou “the greatest evangelist.”

Zhou can’t do it alone, and NHL integration in China is also connected to the 2022 Olympics. After NHL players participated in the past six Olympics, there’s pessimism about the league going to Pyeongchang next year. Discussions about Beijing will happen later.

By then, the league should know if the experiment is working.

“If we can get in on the ground floor, help them with that (and) bring our expertise,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “You can’t argue with the population or the economy, so if we’re able to do that it could be a great opportunity for us.”

 

Pre-game reading: A warning from Donald Fehr, about the NHL and the Olympics

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— Up top, even Patrick Kane seemed amused that he got into a little scrap with Jussi Jokinen on Saturday. The refs only gave them two minutes each for roughing. No rematch is planned.

— NHLPA chief Donald Fehr warns that if the NHL stops sending players to the Olympics, “the reaction from the players’ side — across the board — is not going to be a good one. And my guess is it’s going to last for a very long time.” Which certainly wouldn’t bode well for the next CBA negotiation. Fehr has vowed that players won’t bargain for the right to participate in the Games. (National Post)

— The Anaheim Ducks, after surging past San Jose into first place in the Pacific Division, are hoping to make some noise in the postseason. Said d-man Cam Fowler: “When you make a run in the playoffs, things have to line up for you, you have to be healthy, and a lot of things have to go right. We’re just hoping that it’s our time.” (ESPN)

— Florida forward Nick Bjugstad has just six goals in 46 games this season, and his ice time is way down. That’s not what the Panthers were expecting when they signed him to a six-year deal, and the 24-year-old is committed to turning things around. “Trust me, no one is more disappointed with this than I am. I’ll do my best to change things this summer.” (Miami Herald)

— Another young forward who’s endured a frustrating season is Vancouver’s Jake Virtanen. The sixth overall draft pick in 2014, Virtanen is currently in the AHL, where he only has seven goals in 56 games for the Utica Comets. “It hasn’t been all roses for Jake down in the AHL,” said coach Travis Green. “We’ve been very honest with him. Are we hard on him? Sometimes. But with that, there’s good dialogue. He understands that and is confident his game is going in the right direction, even though it’s hard sometimes.” (The Province)

— An interview with former All-Star Game MVP John Scott, who seems to be keeping busy in his post-NHL career. One of his hobbies? Making his own sausages. (The Athletic)

Enjoy the games!

Goalie nods: After blowout loss, ‘Hawks start Darling against desperate Bolts

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It wasn’t a good performance from Corey Crawford in Saturday’s 7-0 loss in Florida — the Chicago starter was hooked after allowing four goals on 25 shots.

Of course, it wasn’t a good night for the guy that replaced Crawford, either.

Scott Darling was torched for three goals on six shots against the Panthers, but now gets the first crack at redemption — Darling will start tonight when Chicago gets back into action in Tampa Bay.

The Lightning are hopeful they’ll have as much success against Darling — and maybe even Crawford — as the Panthers did on the weekend. Tampa Bay is desperate for points, and heads into tonight’s action sitting three points back of Boston for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins are idle tonight, but the Isles — who have 82 points, to Tampa Bay’s 81 — are in action, hosting Nashville.

So it’s a big night for Tampa, to say the least. Appropriately, Andrei Vasilevskiy will get the start, after stopping 29 of 30 shots in a big OT win over Detroit on Friday.

Elsewhere…

Eddie Lack is 5-1-1 in March with a .931 save percentage, so he gets the call as the ‘Canes host the Red Wings. Petr Mrazek goes for Detroit.

Roberto Luongo is still out, meaning James Reimer gets yet another start for the Panthers (he scored the shutout against Chicago over the weekend). Robin Lehner is in goal for Buffalo.

— We mentioned the Isles-Preds game above, and it’ll be Thomas Greiss in goal for the host team. It’s his second straight start, having played in Saturday’s loss to Boston, and it comes ahead of the recently recalled Jaroslav Halak. No word yet on a Preds starter.

Jake Allen‘s ridiculous month (7-1-1, .951 save percentage) continues with a start against the Coyotes. Mike Smith will be in goal for the visitors, looking to snap a five-game personal losing streak.

— The Flames will stick with Brian Elliott when they host the Avs tonight. No word yet on a Colorado starter.