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.

Shane Doan wasn’t pleased with the Martin Hanzal trade

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Shane Doan has in the past been critical about some of the trades the Arizona Coyotes have made.

He did so again on Sunday, seemingly in disbelief that the Coyotes traded Martin Hanzal to the Minnesota Wild.

In March of 2015, the now 40-year-old forward, who has played his entire career with this franchise despite all its financial and arena turmoil, voiced his displeasure when Arizona dealt defenseman Keith Yandle.

“It was not my idea, not my ideal situation,” he said at the time. “There’s no one that’s 38 years old that thinks it’s a good idea, ‘Let’s rebuild.’”

The Coyotes entered Sunday with 49 points and well out of a wild card spot. They are selling, in a rebuilding phase and Hanzal’s name had been tied to trade speculation for months.

The Coyotes were in action versus the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday. Standing in the dressing room and still trying to capture his breath, Doan addressed the Hanzal deal with Todd Walsh of Fox Sports Arizona.

“It’s really hard. Obviously he’s a huge part of our team and someone that you get to play with for 10 years, you appreciate and understand how valuable and how you can’t really replace him,” said Doan, before the frustration really began to appear.

“The fact we just continue to seem to go — I don’t know, it’s hard to understand exactly. I mean, you understand people’s hands are tied and you just don’t get it.”

Meanwhile, Doan is on a one-year contract and his future with the club has also been talked about recently.

However, Coyotes GM John Chayka reiterated to reporters that Doan has not asked for a trade.

Blackhawks continue red-hot streak with win over Blues

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It’s been quite a month for the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks on Sunday concluded their schedule for the month of February with a 4-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues, and their recent surge over the last few weeks has put them right into the thick of the fight for first place in the Central Division.

They now trail Minnesota by only a single point, although the Wild — they were busy Sunday, acquiring Martin Hanzal from Arizona — still have three games in hand.

Still, the Blackhawks are heating up ahead of Wednesday’s trade deadline. They have now won nine times in their last 10 games and that includes a pair of victories against Minnesota. The fight for this division is basically now solely between these two teams.

Meanwhile, the Blues had enjoyed instant success after making their coaching change at the beginning of this month. But they have now lost three straight and on Tuesday will play Connor McDavid and an Edmonton Oilers team that is looking to remain in contention for the Pacific Division lead.

The Blues, who fell behind early and then fought back to tie the game before the deciding Artem Anisimov goal, still hold a wild card spot, but they sit only three points above the L.A. Kings for that final spot.

Anisimov scored the winner for Chicago. He buried a beautiful cross-ice pass from Artemi Panarin late in the third period to give the Blackhawks the lead. Patrick Kane had a two-point night while logging more than 21 minutes of ice time — more than any other Chicago forward.

Big win in the Big Apple for Blue Jackets

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 20:  Cam Atkinson #13 of the Columbus Blue Jackets celebrates after scoring a goal during the second period of the game against the Los Angeles Kings on December 20, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) Cam Atkinson and Alexander Wennberg each scored twice to lead the Columbus Blue Jackets to a 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers on Sunday.

Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 28 shots to tie his career high with his 32nd win. Josh Anderson also scored and Oliver Bjorkstrand had two assists to help the Blue Jackets win for the fourth time in five games.

Columbus won for the second time in two days after its bye week and moved past the Rangers into third place in the Metropolitan Division.

The Blue Jackets won three of five in the season series – including both games at Madison Square Garden – after losing seven straight meetings coming in.

Rick Nash scored a tying goal for the Rangers early in the first period. Jesper Fast scored in the final second, and Henrik Lundqvist finished with 26 saves.

New York lost for just the third time this month (9-2-1) and had its four-game point streak snapped (3-0-1). The Rangers, who came in 5-0-1 in their last six at home, were playing for the fifth time in six days – with the previous three games going beyond regulation.

With Columbus leading 2-1 after one period, Lundqvist made a nice stop on a breakaway by Atkinson to keep it a one-goal game just past the 9-minute mark of the second.

However, seconds after Nick Holden made a sliding save of Zach Werenski‘s shot at an open net with Lundqvist out of position, Wennberg scored off a rebound of a shot by Bjorkstrand for his second of the game and 12th of the season to make it 3-1 at 9:47.

Atkinson got his second of the game and career-high 29th at 4:12 of the third. He took a pass from Brandon Dubinsky, skated in and beat Lundqvist on the stick side. Atkinson also tied his career high of 53 points set last season.

Anderson scored from in front in the final minute for his 14th, and Fast scored just before the final buzzer.

Wennberg got the Blue Jackets on the board 1:02 into the game when he deflected David Savard‘s shot down out of the air and past Lundqvist for his 11th.

The Rangers tied it when Nash received a no-look pass from Jimmy Vesey and fired it from the right circle over Bobrovsky’s glove at 4:07. Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella challenged for offside, but the goal stood after a review.

Columbus went ahead 2-1 with its second power-play goal in 14 games. With the Rangers’ Adam Clendening off for roughing, Atkinson wristed a shot from the center point past Lundqvist at 6:47.

Nick Foligno was sent off for holding with 2:47 left in the first, putting the Blue Jackets short-handed for the first time in three games. Bobrovsky stopped great power-play chances for Brandon Pirri and Mats Zuccarello.

Columbus’ Brandon Saad was awarded a penalty shot when he was held before he could get a shot off during a short-handed breakaway in the final minute, but Lundqvist deflected his attempt away.

A ‘number of concerns’ about Jonathan Quick led Kings to pursue Bishop

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Dean Lombardi revealed that he and Steve Yzerman had been working on a deal for Ben Bishop for about two or three weeks.

On Sunday, a deal between the Kings and Lightning was finally completed and it had basically everything to do with Jonathan Quick. Speaking in a conference call, Lombardi, the Kings general manager, noted a “number of concerns” for Quick coming back from a 59-game absence because of a groin injury before finally returning to game action Saturday.

Quick, 31, was impressive in a win over the Anaheim Ducks, but Lombardi and the Kings just could not be sure about how he would fare in the stretch drive after coming back from such a lengthy time away, and were therefore set on acquiring another No. 1 goalie.

“You’re never sure how well a guy who’s been out this long — is he going to have his ‘A’ game, so to speak, or not? These type of injuries, which are fairly serious, the history of comebacks can go either way,” said Lombardi.

“On the other hand, we all know Jon’s a tremendous athlete. He’s one of the top goaltenders in the game and most importantly he’s one of the game’s top competitors. So you certainly don’t worry about Jon … once he passes the mental part that ‘I’m capable of doing athletically what I have in the past’ that he’s going to be able to give it his all.”

The Kings, currently three points out of a playoff spot in the West, are in a stretch of three games in four nights.

Bishop is expected to join the team for the morning skate tomorrow. Lombardi even mentioned that coach Darryl Sutter had actually planned on playing the newly acquired netminder Monday versus the Wild. That is still to be determined but it’s likely Bishop plays one of the Kings’ next two games. They’re in Calgary on Tuesday.

The condensed schedule over the next few weeks was another factor in making the trade for the Kings. They just simply don’t want to wear Quick down.

“This is not an insurance policy,” said Lombardi. “There’s not a lot of room here for error. We just want to take that out of the equation by making sure that we have a No. 1 goalie in there every night.”

Bishop is a pending unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. The Kings have Quick under contract until 2023 at a cap hit of $5.8 million.

While Lombardi didn’t completely rule out the chance of re-signing Bishop — “You never say ‘never,'” he said — bringing in a player on an expiring contract was something the Kings were willing to do in this case.

“If not, we’re comfortable with what we had to pay to give ourselves a chance here to get in. After that, as we know, anything can happen,” he said. “The focus was on getting the best goalie available.”

The Kings face other issues. You could argue more pressing issues.

Sure, they made a move they believe will strengthen the goaltending position. But they’re also 25th in scoring, averaging just 2.44 goals-for per game. They had a nice third-period outburst Saturday, but for the most part, goals have been hard to come by for L.A.

“There’s players that will freely admit right to you that they’re capable of producing more. We don’t want to lose our defensive identity. We’ve got two of the best goalies in the league there now,” said Lombardi.

“Now when we get into the other team’s end … we’ve got to bear down.”