Eric Staal, Erik Cole, Jussi Jokinen

Are Hurricanes set to make a move in Eastern Conference playoff race?

Tonight’s trip to Chicago marks the second game in an important back-to-back as the Carolina Hurricanes battle for one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. Only one night after a thrilling overtime victory against the Sabres, a proverbial 4-point game, the Canes will face the surging Chicago Blackhawks in a game that both teams need to keep pace in their respective playoff races. Carolina will look to avoid a letdown as they try to chase down the Canadiens for the 6th spot.

Only a few weeks ago, the rumors around the league were that Carolina was going to be a seller at the deadline. Fast-forward to today and see that not only did the Hurricanes add a couple of players to the mix, but both Erik Cole and Joni Pitkanen are still members of their club. Just as we saw all over the league, parity will make teams switch roles quicker than we’ve ever seen.

Let’s take a look at what GM Jim Rutherford was able to do over the last few weeks. He jettisoned both Ian White and Sergei Samsonov who were treading water for the Canes and replaced them with players who are expected to contribute in Bryan Allen and Cory Stillman. Everyone knows the games down the stretch are harder fought with battles for every inch of ice. Allen and Stillman are exactly the type of players who thrive when the game gets more physical.

Clearly, the Canes aren’t the type of team that is going to strike fear into the hearts of fans around the league. But as Rutherford says, they’re a better team than they get credit for:

“I know there are better teams out there on paper than we are, but there might’ve been better teams on paper than we were in ’06, too,” Rutherford said in reference to Carolina’s championship season. “If you get the right breaks and play the right teams and all the things that you need to do come through in the playoffs, we have a structure here that would give us a chance to have a much more successful season than I think people would have thought we would have.”

The Hurricanes recent success in the playoffs speaks to the way Rutherford builds teams. Since the lockout, they’ve made it to the Eastern Conference Finals twice and won the Cup in 2006. Then again, the other three seasons Carolina didn’t even make the playoffs. The moral of the story? Opponents better hope they don’t make the playoffs because they’ll probably make noise if they do.

The secret that Rutherford seems to have figured out is the way he builds his teams. Down the middle, they have three centers who are extremely tough to play against. Brandon Sutter’s game looks like it was created specifically to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Their top line with Eric Staal, Erik Cole, and Cory Stillman has proven it can survive the rigors of the playoffs, wear down the other team, and emerge victorious in a 7-game series. Stay-at-home defensemen Bryan Allen and Tim Gleason are great compliments to Joni Pitkanen, rookie Jaime McBain, and Joe Corvo. The team is built to spread the responsibility around and not rely too heavily on a player or two.

There’s not doubt that Carolina has been a picture of mediocrity with their 6-6-3 record since the All-Star break. So why are we talking about the Canes as a team that could make a move down the stretch? Jim Rutherford. That’s why. With two mid-level deals he completely changed the face of his squad. The return of Stillman gives the Canes a formidable top-line and should help their struggling power play. He has 3 points in his 4 games since arriving in Raleigh and has helped create a few more goals for the team. Bryan Allen can play the tough minutes on the PK and instantly gives Carolina the depth on their blueline that they’ll need. The guys over at the Hurricanes blog Canes Country agree:

“It can’t be overstated how important it is to keep your defense fresh down the stretch. With a night of travel and a game Friday on tap for the Canes, having their defenders evenly sharing the workload should do a world of good compared to running Pitkanen and Corvo into the ground with ice times creeping toward 30 minutes. Throw in the fact they were able to do it in the biggest game of the year [vs. Buffalo], and GM Jim Rutherford has to be thrilled with how his changes on D have morphed the way Carolina approaches its game management.”

It’s hard not to like their top two lines and their defensive corps depth. Calder Trophy candidate Jeff Skinner is leading the NHL in rookie scoring with 22 goals and 26 assists. Tuomo Ruutu has 45 points while being a complete pain to play against and Chad LaRose has always had the knack of scoring big goals in his career.

On the occasion that the 18 guys on the ice aren’t getting it done, an all-star and Conn Smythe winning goaltender is always there to pick up the team. Even though he’s facing over 32 shots per game, Cam Ward still owns a .920 save percentage.

Exactly the kind of guy a team would want if they were looking to make a run towards the playoffs. Correction: exactly the kind of team to make a run towards the playoffs.

Stars put Spezza on injured reserve, recall Faksa from AHL Texas

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Sitting three points out of top spot in the Central Division and on the eve of an important divisional clash on home ice with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Dallas Stars have placed center Jason Spezza on injured reserve retroactive to Thursday, the club announced on Friday.

Spezza, 32, was injured during Thursday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche. The Stars can move back to within a point of Chicago for the division lead with a regulation win on Saturday.

In 52 games this season, Spezza has 18 goals and 40 points, which ties him with Patrick Sharp for fourth on the team in total points.

With Spezza out, the Stars recalled 22-year-old forward Radek Faksa from the Texas Stars in the AHL.

Faksa has 15 goals and 26 points in 28 games this season with Texas. In 18 games with the NHL Stars, he has one goal and three points.

Hitch’s recipe for more goals is a pretty simple one

Ken Hitchcock, David Backes, Dmitrij Jaskin, Paul Stastny, Patrik Berglund
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Ken Hitchcock wants the Blues to spend more time attacking and less time defending.

Because hockey isn’t rocket science, that’s why.

“To score and win games in the National Hockey League…you have to spend as much time in the offensive zone as you can,” Hitchcock told the Post-Dispatch.

“When you’re occupying the offensive zone more, you’re forechecking more. When you’re occupying the offensive zone more, the goalie has to make saves. They’re having to defend more. And the opposing team takes penalties on you. So they’re all connected. … What I want to see from us is staying on the puck for longer stretches.”

According to the stats, the Blues have not been spending as much time in the offensive zone as we’re used to seeing from them. In fact, in their last 20 games, they rank in the bottom third of the league in score-adjusted Corsi. That compares to their first 20 games when they were in the top third.

The result is fewer shots, and more importantly, fewer goals. The Blues have fallen all the way to 25th in offense, averaging just 2.37 goals per game. Last year, they finished fifth (2.91).

Yes, some of that may be due to the absence of Jaden Schwartz, and he should be back soon. But there’s a reason people are watching GM Doug Armstrong as the Feb. 29 trade deadline approaches. This team could probably use another piece up front.

The Blues host Minnesota Saturday.

St. Louis has scored just five goals in its last five games.

Goalie nods: Lindback ‘really excited’ for first start in almost three weeks

Anders Lindback
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Tonight in Anaheim, Anders Lindback will make his first start for the Arizona Coyotes since Jan. 16.

The Coyotes have been riding rookie Louis Domingue since just before Christmas, but Domingue has allowed five goals in each of his last three starts, including last night’s 5-4 loss to Chicago.

Lindback’s last appearance came Tuesday in relief, when he allowed one goal on 10 shots in a 6-2 loss to the Kings.

Lindback was in goal for one of Arizona’s three victories this season over Anaheim, stopping 33 of 36 shots in a 4-3 overtime win on Nov. 9. However, his .896 save percentage ranks among the lowest in the league.

Frederik Andersen is expected to start for the Ducks.

Elsewhere…

— No word yet on a Penguins starter in Tampa, but Ben Bishop will go for the Bolts.

Cam Ward will start for the Hurricanes in Winnipeg, where Connor Hellebuyck is expected for the increasingly desperate Jets.

— Joonas Korpisalo was solid last night in Vancouver, but the Blue Jackets have not announced their starter for tonight’s game in Calgary. Karri Ramo will be in goal for the Flames.

A ‘pretty solid two-way player,’ Sundqvist to make NHL debut for Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins' Oskar Sundqvist (49) collides with Minnesota Wild's Jason Zucker (16) in the first period of a NHL preseason hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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The latest Penguins injuries, these ones to Evgeni Malkin and Eric Fehr, have led to an opportunity for Oskar Sundqvist.

Sundqvist will make his NHL debut for the Penguins tonight in Tampa. The 21-year-old center has five goals and 11 assists in 39 AHL games this season.

“Sunny’s a pretty solid two-way player,” coach Mike Sullivan said, per the Tribune-Review.

“I don’t think he’s going to dazzle you with flashy plays, but I think he’s a guy who plays the game the right way. He’s hard to play against because of his size. He’s got a long reach, and he’s got a good stick.”

Sundqvist was selected 81st overall by the Pens in 2012. He’ll become the fourth player out of that Pittsburgh draft class to make his NHL debut, after Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, and Matt Murray.

Veteran Matt Cullen will replace Malkin on the second line, skating with wingers Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel.

Related: Nick Bonino out ‘at least a month’ with hand injury