Hockey Day Preview: Top 5 Americans who will play in Sunday’s games

The 2011 Hockey Day in America special will cover four hockey games that spotlight the growth of the sport in the United States. As February 20th approaches, we’ll share some of the most interesting (and sometimes unexpected) stories heading into the great event.

To kick things off, we thought: what better way to begin our coverage than to discuss the best American hockey players who will compete in the four games? Here are the top five U.S.-born players who will appear in Hockey Day in America’s contests.

(Note: players were chosen from a pool of eight teams: Washington, Buffalo, Philadelphia, NY Rangers, Detroit, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Chicago. All stats were compiled before Thursday night’s games.)

1. Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres goalie)

How could it be anyone other than the goalie who almost won a gold medal for Team USA? Sure, it seems like his 2010-11 season is observing the laws of gravity after an otherworldly 09-10 campaign and Olympic run, but he’s still the heart and backbone of the Buffalo Sabres. If the Sabres manage to put together a sprint into the top eight in the Eastern Conference, it will be in large part due to the work of last season’s Vezina Trophy winner.

2. Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks right wing)

If there’s any other American player who can compete with Miller’s clout, it would be this captivating Chicago Blackhawks forward. Kane was the first overall pick of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft thanks to his phenomenal puck skills and elite playmaking ability. Kane became the cover star for NHL ’10, starred as one of the most dangerous U.S. forwards in the Vancouver Olympics and scored that wacky Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime.

That’s not bad for a 22-year-old guy from Buffalo, New York.

3. Brian Rafalski (Detroit Red Wings defenseman)

If you wanted to find the Scottie Pippen of NHL defensemen, it might just be Rafalski. Despite producing great hockey as a key member of championship teams in New Jersey and Detroit, the offensive defenseman has been overshadowed by Hall of Famers (or soon to be HoFers) such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer.

It wasn’t until the Vancouver Olympics that Rafalski received the opportunity to prove that he could be the go-to guy at the highest level of competition. He might be 37 years old, but Rafalski remains an outstanding blueliner for the Red Wings. He produced 36 points and a +15 rating in 45 games this season.

4. Brandon Dubinsky (New York Rangers center)

Consider this pick a (slight) leap of faith, as the two-way center seems to be making a leap toward near-elite status this season. He’s consistently been an asset in his own zone for the Rangers during his young career, but his 19 goals and 42 points in 53 games this season indicate that he’s primed to become an all-around threat. Some might even call him the Rangers’ version of another outstanding two-way American center: Ryan Kesler.

5. Jimmy Howard (Detroit Red Wings goalie)

Things have been a little rocky for the Syracuse, New York native this season, but in many ways Howard saved Detroit’s season in 09-10. It also must be said that the Red Wings’ defense has been a bit lacking lately, so it’s far too early to write-off Howard.

Howard has 28 wins so far this season. If he regains the confidence that helped him go 37-15-10 with a 92.4 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average last season, he might be the Red Wings’ goalie of the present and future.

Honorable mentions: Drew Stafford (Buffalo Sabres winger), Paul Martin (Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman) and Tim Connolly (Buffalo Sabres center).

Red Wings are ‘excited’ about Michael Rasmussen’s offensive upside

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The Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, but there appears to be something good that came from that.

Instead of drafting in the back half of the first round, the Wings were able to get a top 10 selection in last June’s NHL Entry Draft. With the ninth overall pick, they chose power forward Michael Rasmussen.

Rasmussen is listed at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. NHLers of that size are a rare breed. Add the fact that he’s gifted offensively, and it looks like the Red Wings may have a gem coming through the pipeline.

In his first three career preseason games, the 18-year-old has already picked up two goals. His play hasn’t gone unnoticed by the organization.

“I’m excited about him as a prospect,” head coach Jeff Blashill said, per MLive.com. “He’s big, he’s smooth, he’s got good hands, he’s got good offensive sense.”

With all big forwards, a lot of their success will be determined by their skating ability. In today’s NHL, it’s pretty clear that you need to be able to move if you’re going to have a long and productive career. But according to Blashill, skating isn’t a big issue with Rasmussen.

“I think he skates well. People have questioned that, but I don’t see that at all. I think he covers lots of ground in a hurry. I think he needs to move his feet a little bit more at times in the D-zone, but overall I’ve been happy with his play.”

No matter what he does between now and the end of training camp, it sounds like Rasmussen will be heading back to the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, where he’ll look to improve his numbers from last year (32 goals, 55 points in 50 games).

Luongo pushes through ‘mental, physical grind’ in comeback from hip injury

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Roberto Luongo is back, taking part in the preseason for the Florida Panthers, in preparation for when the games begin to count in the standings.

However, his latest comments suggest he didn’t know if that would indeed be the case, after suffering a hip injury that resulted in surgery following the 2015-16 season and then shut him down in March last season.

“For a good two- to three-month period it was a battle mentally to just figure out if I could be able to ever come back,” Luongo told NHL.com. “I didn’t feel like I was getting better and it was constantly bothering me, so it was as much a mental grind as a physical grind from March until almost June if I could ever fully recover and feel good on the ice.”

Luongo is now 38 years old and the rigorous demands of playing that position for more than 960 career regular season games — not to mention playoffs or international duty — can surely take a toll on the body. The Panthers have a good tandem in net with Luongo and James Reimer, but what will be intriguing as the season progresses is how head coach Bob Boughner divvies up playing time between the two, with Luongo appearing to be healthier and as Florida looks to get back into the postseason.

The past several weeks, though, have been encouraging for Luongo. He returned to the ice well ahead of training camp and gave an optimistic report, saying there weren’t “any issues.” That was just over a month ago. He stopped all eight shots he faced during 31:26 of ice time in his preseason debut last week, which was a good start.

Auston Matthews puts on a show in preseason tilt vs. Habs

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Auston Matthews and William Nylander are showing no signs of any sophomore slump so far through the pre-season.

Matthews had a hat trick and an assist and Nylander had a goal and two assists as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-1 in an NHL preseason game on Monday night.

Matthews scored his first goal of the game 47 seconds into the first period. His wrist shot from just inside the blue line went over the right shoulder of Canadiens goaltender Al Montoya.

Matthews made it 2-0 at 4:56. Nylander’s initial shot went high, and Matthews batted down the rebound and into an open side of the net.

He scored his third goal in the third period. While on a breakaway, Matthews shot the puck between the legs of Montoya at 3:46.

Matthews has four goals and two assists in three preseason games.

Jeff Petry scored for Montreal while on the power play at 11:37 of the second period.

Nylander scored at 6:03 of the third period to give Toronto a 5-1 lead.

Patrick Marleau also had a goal for Toronto while Frederik Andersen made 20 saves.

 

Video: Trouba receives match penalty for hit on Flames’ Hrivik

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Tempers flared during the third period of Monday’s preseason game between the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets.

Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba received a match penalty for a hit at the blue line on Flames forward Marek Hrivik, leading to a melee along the boards.

Garnet Hathaway took exception to the hit, immediately jumping in and dropping the gloves with Trouba. Hathaway was also assessed an instigator penalty.

The hit occurred just after Hrivik dumped the puck into the Jets zone. Trouba stepped up at the line and delivered the hit, sending Hrivik hard to the ice.

Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice commented on the hit after the game:

The league’s Department of Player Safety has been busy over the past few days, handing out preseason suspensions to Capitals forward Tom Wilson and, on Monday, Rangers forward Andrew Desjardins.