Around the rink – March 4; Devils and Blackhawks look to stay hot

7:00 p.m. ET

Pittsburgh @ New Jersey

The Devils are on a crazy run and they’re coming off a big win over Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. The Penguins are losers of five of their last six games and hurting for goals. The Devils during their run have been reminiscent of Devils teams from the past playing stifling defensive hockey. I think you can see where I’m going with this one and it doesn’t bode well for Pittsburgh. The Pens are five points behind Philly for the lead in the Atlantic and the Eastern Conference. A win would help them keep the Caps off their heels for fourth and help them narrow the gap on the Flyers. The Devils, meanwhile, can’t afford to lose any games making virtually every game from here out like Game 7 for them.

7:30 p.m. ET

NY Rangers @ Ottawa

Things are getting awkward for the Rangers now. They’re in eighth in the East now and sit just two points ahead of Buffalo and three ahead of a hot and streaking Toronto. The Rangers can’t seem to score on anyone and facing Craig Anderson and the Senators tonight doesn’t help their prospects there. Anderson has allowed just seven goals in six games with the Sens and has a .966 save percentage over those games. The Rangers have lost three in a row and have just four goals in those three games. With Ottawa in full on spoiler mode (both for other teams and their own shot at the #1 pick) this isn’t shaping up to be a good night for New York.

8:30 p.m. ET

Carolina @ Chicago

The good news for Carolina is they’re not in eighth place anymore jumping to seventh in the East. The bad news is that they’ve got to face Jonathan Toews and the streaking Blackhawks tonight. Chicago has won six in a row and have vaulted themselves heavily into the mix for the playoffs in the West. As things go there, wins and other teams winning move you up and down the standings wildly, but Chicago is in that position now thanks to Toews. Just a couple weeks ago, they were on the outside looking in and feeling desperate. This season’s been funny like that for a lot of teams out West. Well, funny if you make the playoffs, infuriating if you miss them.

9:00 p.m. ET

Columbus @ Calgary

Remember three games ago when Columbus looked poised to join the fray fighting for a spot in the playoffs? Those were fun times. The Jackets have, instead, lost three in a row and returned to their regular place in the “also ran” category. Steve Mason’s play has returned to earth and with it so have the hopes of Columbus fans. Hockey life is cruel. Calgary comes in 5-2-1 in their last eight and looking to bounce back after a 6-4 loss to Chicago on Wednesday. Outside of that game, Miikka Kiprusoff has been outstanding for Calgary in goal of late. The Flames may be without Brendan Morrison in this one.

10:00 p.m. ET

Dallas @ Anaheim

A pair of teams looking to stay hot as Dallas goes into Anaheim on a three-game win streak while the the Ducks have won two in a row. We can’t stress enough how important it is to keep the good times rolling in the Western Conference. Surprising development for Anaheim? The great play of Dan Ellis in goal. Ellis is 2-0-1 with Anaheim with a 1.93 goals against and a .929 save percentage. With Jonas Hiller out getting solid play like this from Ellis is huge for the Ducks in their efforts to get into the playoffs. Dallas, meanwhile, seems to have settled down after avoiding the Brad Richards trade drama. After a prolonged dry spell, they’ve got three wins in a row and back into the fray for the playoffs.

Maple Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco leads Windsor Spitfires to Memorial Cup title

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Just over two months after signing his entry level deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, 20-year-old forward Jeremy Bracco left his mark on the Memorial Cup championship game.

Selected by the Maple Leafs in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft, Bracco had a dominant finale on Sunday, with a goal and two assists as the Windsor Spitfires defeated the Erie Otters by a final score of 4-3.

To cap it off, Bracco assisted on the winning goal from Aaron Luchuk early in the third period.

That ends a great season for Bracco, who is listed at five-foot-nine-inches tall, but has produced impressive offensive numbers since coming to the Ontario Hockey League. He had 83 points in 57 games split between the Spitfires and Kitchener Rangers, the team he began this season with.

The Memorial Cup is always a great showcase for NHL prospects. Logan Brown, the towering center and 2016 first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, also had a pair of assists.

A pair of draft eligible players also had a big day for Windsor.

Gabriel Vilardi, the No. 4-ranked North American skater heading into next month’s draft and a potential top-five pick, had a pair of assists. Michael DiPietro, the No. 4-ranked North American goalie in Central Scouting’s final rankings, made 32 saves. He also had some luck, courtesy his goal posts, which denied Blackhawks high-scoring prospect Alex DeBrincat, among others from Erie’s talented team.

The Spitfires were defeated in the opening round of the OHL playoffs, but made it to the Memorial Cup tournament as the host team.

Laviolette: Early struggles, injuries made Predators ‘stronger as a team’

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After a second-round playoff appearance and trading for P.K. Subban several weeks later last offseason, expectations for the Nashville Predators were perhaps the highest they’ve ever been entering a new season.

And then they went out and started with an underwhelming 2-5-1 record through October.

When you think of those players that have been so critical to Nashville’s success in this run to the Stanley Cup Final versus the Penguins, most of them struggled mightily in that first month.

From PHT on Oct. 31:

Ryan Johansen isn’t helping much either. The 24-year-old center had three assists in the Preds’ first game, but just one in the next seven. He has no goals and has yet to register a point at even strength. In fact, he hasn’t even been on the ice for a Nashville goal at five-on-five!

Filip Forsberg doesn’t have a goal either, and James Neal has but one.

Meanwhile, the top pairing of P.K. Subban and Roman Josi are minus-7 and minus-6, respectively, with the possession stats to match.

And then there’s Pekka Rinne, who’s 1-4-1 with a .906 save percentage. Not helping.

Sounds bad.

But, looking back on that first month, head coach Peter Laviolette preached patience as the Predators worked to get out of that early hole.

“There was a lot of talk coming out of October about what was wrong and that we weren’t right,” said Laviolette on Sunday. “I kept saying internally, ‘That’s OK, it’s OK to struggle a little bit, to have to work to figure out who we are as a team, who we are as a group, who is driving the bus, where the seats are, and to have to figure a way out of something.’”

In November, the Predators turned around and went 9-3-2 that month.

“We were building something at that point,” said Laviolette.

“Even though December and some of January we were struggling a little bit, we were dealing with a lot of injuries. Not that that is an excuse, because every team has to deal with them. We were trying to move through that.”

For all their early problems, the Predators finished the season among the better puck possession teams in the league and qualified for a wild card spot in the West.

All of those aforementioned players that struggled in October eventually saw their fortunes turn around. Johansen had 61 points as their No. 1 center, Forsberg had another 30-plus goal season and Viktor Arvidsson (he wasn’t mentioned) emerged on that top line with his own 31-goal, 61-point season.

A pending restricted free agent, Arvidsson is surely in line for a substantial raise from the $650,000 average annual value attached to his current deal.

Oh, and the Predators’ defense, with Subban and Josi, has become arguably the best blue line group in the league. Rinne? He has a .941 save percentage in these playoffs, as Nashville rolled over the Blackhawks, Blues and Ducks to get into the championship series.

From sitting 29th in the standings at the end of October, the Predators are now four wins away from a Stanley Cup. The challenge only gets more difficult, especially against a talented and deep Penguins team.

The Predators won’t have Ryan Johansen. But it looks like Mike Fisher could return for Game 1 on Monday. In the absence of both players last round against Anaheim, the Predators were lifted in part by the performance of Colton Sissons, who had a hat trick in the series clincher.

“I think when we got to the last third of the season, our guys had been through a lot,” said Laviolette. “Things had moved around a little bit. We became stronger as a team internally.

“More than anything, I think we were built in order to get to this point.”

Predators’ Fisher, Penguins’ Hornqvist could return for Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

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The Nashville Predators won’t have Ryan Johansen for the Stanley Cup Final, but it appears they will likely get another center back into their lineup for the beginning of this series.

Mike Fisher hasn’t played since Game 4 of the Western Conference Final because of an undisclosed injury.

But he did take part in Sunday’s practice ahead of Game 1 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, and provided an optimistic outlook for his status heading into Monday, telling reporters he was “ready to rock.”

The Predators could also get Craig Smith back, as well. He hasn’t played since May 7 because of a lower-body injury, but also practiced Sunday. All players currently on the trip will be available, said Predators coach Peter Laviolette.

Even with Fisher nearing a return, the Predators are still in tough at center without Johansen, especially given Pittsburgh’s talent up the middle, beginning of course with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“Certainly you’re talking about a couple good centermen that we have to face,” said Predators general manager David Poile. “We had a couple good centermen (Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler) last round that we had to face.”

For the Penguins, who have dealt with a long list of injuries, particularly on defense, in this postseason, there was promising news about the status of forward Patric Hornqvist, who has missed the last six games.

Hornqvist, who on seven occasions has scored 20 or more goals in a single season, took the warm-up skate prior to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final versus Ottawa, but didn’t play.

“We obviously chose to hold him out for reasons that we’ll keep amongst ourselves,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan.

“But his status is he’s obviously been cleared for practice today. He practiced today. He’ll be a game-time decision. But based on the way that he practiced today, we’re certainly encouraged.”

Trevor Daley eager to play in first Stanley Cup Final, after missing last year’s series due to injury

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Forced to watch last year’s championship series as a spectator, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley will now get his chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final.

Last spring, Daley suffered a broken ankle in the Eastern Conference Final, ending his postseason.

He didn’t play in the final, which Pittsburgh captured in six games, but did lift the Stanley Cup, the first player after Sidney Crosby to do so — a gesture from the Penguins captain to Daley, whose mother was battling cancer and wanted to see her son with hockey’s coveted silver chalice.

A week later, Daley’s mother passed away.

Despite missing time late in the second round and early in the third round because of injury, Daley returned to the Penguins lineup and played the final five games versus the Ottawa Senators. That’s a boost to Pittsburgh’s blue line, which has battled through injuries to key figures during the playoffs and even before with the loss of Kris Letang.

Daley’s wait for this opportunity will soon be over. Game 1 against the Nashville Predators goes Monday.

“It feels like we were just here. To get back here this soon is pretty cool,” said Daley on Sunday.  “It sucks to watch. I don’t know how you guys do it.”

It’s a rare feat in the salary cap era for a Stanley Cup-winning team to even make it back to the final the following year. The Detroit Red Wings were the last team to do that, back in 2008 and 2009.

“I think he understands how difficult it is to win the Stanley Cup,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “So I think he’s one of those guys that doesn’t take it for granted.”

Since his return during the last round, Daley has played 21:39 per game, with a two-point performance in that Game 5 blowout win versus the Senators. What makes Pittsburgh’s run back to the final more impressive is the fact they’ve made it — and that includes a second-round victory against Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington — without a true No. 1 defenseman, a distinction that usually belongs to Letang, except his season came to an end before the playoffs began.

Daley has been hurt during this postseason. So, too, has Justin Schultz. All of the injuries on defense meant greater responsibility for Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, Ron Hainsey and Ian Cole.

Daley has been back for a while now. Schultz returned for Game 7 versus Ottawa and played more than 24 minutes, with a goal and an assist. But with the injuries on defense, the Penguins have redefined the phrase ‘defense by committee.’

Depth on the blue line was an issue general manager Jim Rutherford addressed at the deadline, acquiring the 36-year-old Hainsey.

Despite his age and more than 900 games of regular season experience, Hainsey had never played a Stanley Cup playoff game in his career. At least, not until this spring. He has one goal and five points in 19 playoff games this year. He’s never been known for eye-popping offensive production, but what he has done for the Penguins is provide a reliable presence on defense and quality ice time, averaging more than 21 minutes per game.

It’s been a long time coming, but now, he too will play in the final.

“We all know about it. This is his first time in the playoffs. I was telling him the other day, ‘You’re undefeated. You’ve never lost a series,'” said Daley. “So that’s a pretty good record so far.”