Jay Harrison,Jay Beagle

Around the Rink – Friday, March 11th

The horrifying earthquake in Japan is yet another reminder that calling any sports game “important” is a matter of semantics. Obviously, there are much bigger thing in life than how the East and West playoff bubbles play out. We wish anyone affected by that scary seismic situation the absolute best. Hopefully they’ve already braved the worst parts of that disaster.

OK, let’s get back to the escapism and joy of hockey, shall we? All start times are according to Eastern Standard Time (ET).

7:00 pm

Boston @ NY Islanders

If the Bruins win this game, they’ll take the league lead in road wins so far this season with 23. Even if they end up taking the Northeast Division title, that’s still the kind of stat that must make them feel good about their playoff hopes.

(What, were you expecting more Zdeno Chara discussion? Take a break.)

Los Angeles @ Columbus

There was a time when these two teams were separated by a point or two (probably a few times, actually), but now there is a considerable distance. Eight points to be exact, as the Kings are in eighth place while the Blue Jackets are sprawling out of contention with six straight losses. They should be a hungry group, but Los Angeles has plenty to play for too, so this should be interesting to follow.

Carolina @ Washington

The Capitals have been red-hot lately, which doesn’t exactly bode well for the desperate Hurricanes. Carolina could capitalize on a struggling Rangers team if they win this game as the East playoff race intensifies. Washington is on a six game winning streak, so it won’t come easily.

7:30 pm

Ottawa @ Tampa Bay

On its face, this seems like a great situation for the Lightning to tie up the top spot in the Southeast. The Capitals play against a higher ranked and desperate team in the Hurricanes while the Lightning host the seemingly lowly Senators. The problem is that Washington is on that aforementioned tear while Ottawa is tougher than their record right now. We’ll see how it works out.

Edmonton @ Detroit

The Red Wings’ hopes of catching the Canucks for the top spot in the West have more or less been neutralized thanks to a four-game losing streak, but they shouldn’t need to worry about the surging Blackhawks unless they really fall flat. Beating up on soft teams such as the Oilers would help that avoid that fate.

New Jersey @ Atlanta

It seems a bit much to say that every game between the Devils and a bubble team like the Thrashers is “big.” Especially because both squads could go irrelevant with just a few more losses. Still, one side will feel much better about their odds after this match than the other. New Jersey is trending up while Atlanta is sliding, but the Thrashers are still above them right now, which just says how different their starts were.

8:30 pm

Minnesota @ Dallas

When you consider how fluid professional sports rosters can be, it’s tough to imagine that the Wild players are particularly aware of the fact that they are playing the ex-North Stars. Maybe they know, but it’s hard to fathom that this game means as much to them as it might to some Wild fans.

On the bright side, both teams need this for playoff reasons, so each side will play with plenty of gusto anyway.

9:00 pm

Anaheim @ Colorado

Amazingly, the Avalanche have fallen so far that they’re now the third worst team in the NHL from a standings perspective. The Ducks really need to take advantage of this wounded Colorado gang.

Columbus giving prized rookie Werenski ‘every opportunity to run the power play’

2015 NHL Draft - Portraits
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The Blue Jackets aren’t easing Zach Werenski into his freshman campaign.

Werenski, the highly touted blueline prospect, has been tasked with running the Columbus power play during the exhibition campaign — often as the lone defenseman with four forwards — and it looks like a role he might reprise throughout the regular season.

Even though he’s yet to play an NHL game.

“I want to give him every opportunity to run the power play,” head coach John Tortorella said after an OT win over Nashville, per the Blue Jackets website. “He certainly did a good job of that tonight. We’ll keep on giving him opportunities and we’ll see where we go.”

More: Looking to make the leap: Zach Werenski

The Werenski hype train has been full steam for just over a year now. The eighth overall pick in 2015, Werenski spent two highly decorated years at the University of Michigan before turning pro at the end of last season.

Dispatched to Columbus’ AHL affiliate in Lake Erie, the 19-year-old had a fantastic professional debut. He was a major catalyst on the Monsters’ defense, scoring 14 points in 17 playoff games en route to the Calder Cup championship.

“The skill set he has — his size, strength and poise with the puck, he’s a complete player,” said Monsters coach Jared Bednar (now the head coach in Colorado). “To be able to step into our lineup in intense games and get the job done, it’s impressive especially for his age and that’s why everyone’s so excited about him.”

All signs point to a very talented — and young — Columbus defense this year. It was already assumed 21-year-old Seth Jones and 23-year-old Ryan Murray were going to play major roles, and now it sounds like Werenski will be leaned on just as heavily.

Which means it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the vets.

Jack Johnson averaged over 24 minutes per game last year, a figure that will undoubtedly decrease. It’ll also be curious to see what happens to David Savard, who was playing more than 23 minutes a night — do remember that, at the start of last season, the Jackets gave Savard a hefty five-year, $21.25 million extension.

The playoff race in the West could be ‘tighter than ever’

ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 9:  Goalie Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Dallas Stars makes a save against Kyle Brodziak #28 of the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scottrade Center on May 9, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The NHL’s Western Conference should be wild all season, perhaps as much as ever as parity reigns and points are tough to come by on any given night.

A slew of teams have a shot at advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.

The defending Conference champion San Jose Sharks, who had five players in the World Cup of Hockey finals , certainly appear to have a chance to be among the final two still skating in mid-June. That alone would be a feat because no team from the conference has pulled it off since the Detroit Red Wings, now an Eastern Conference team, won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and came within a win of repeating.

Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim and St. Louis will likely be among the contenders. Dallas, too.

The Blackhawks and Kings, who alternated as champions from 2012 to 2015 and won five Cups in a six-season span, failed to even make it out of the first round last in 2016.

Both teams certainly have a chance to bounce back this season.

“This is my sixth season in the Central Division and this looks like the most challenging year yet,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “The crunching between the top and bottom started last year, and it’s going to be closer this year.”

Hitchcock and Stars general manager Jim Nill both believe the teams that were at the bottom of the conference last season on moving up.

“The Winnipegs and the Colorados are going to be better teams,” Nill told the AP. “I think it’s going to be tighter than ever.”

How tight?

“Everyone has a shot,” San Jose’s Logan Couture said.

 

Related: There’s only one ‘vision’ in Vancouver this season, and that’s winning

 

Tough blow for Blues: Schwartz out ‘at least four weeks’ with elbow injury

ST. LOUIS, MO - FEBRUARY 23: Jaden Schwartz #9 of the St. Louis Blues shoots the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Scottrade Center on February 23, 2013 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The St. Louis Blues will have to start the season without one of their most dangerous forwards, Jaden Schwartz.

Schwartz “will miss at least four weeks after injuring his left elbow during a training camp practice on Sept. 29,” the club announced today.

It’s another frustration for the 25-year-old winger. Schwartz was limited to just 33 games last season, after fracturing his ankle in October.

As for this latest injury, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock originally predicted that Schwartz would only need a “couple of days off.”

St. Louis opens its regular season Oct. 12 in Chicago. If Schwartz is out until the end of October, he’ll miss nine games.

Related: Schwartz signs five-year extension

More bad news in Dallas: Janmark (knee surgery) out 5-6 months

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 22: Mattias Janmark #13 of the Dallas Stars looks on against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on October 22, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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Earlier this week, we passed along word that Stars forward Mattias Janmark was spotted on crutches at the team’s practice facility.

Now we know why.

Janmark suffered a knee injury that requires surgery, GM Jim Nill said on Thursday. The procedure is expected to sideline the Swedish forward for 5-6 months, putting his return in the neighborhood of February-March of next year.

It’s a big blow for the Stars.

After surprising onlookers by making the team out of camp last year — a “great story,” according to GM Jim Nill — Janmark, 23, went on to have a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

Today’s news compounds what’s been a lousy September in Dallas. The club previously lost Tyler Seguin (heel), Cody Eakin (knee) and Ales Hemsky (groin) to injuries, and saw Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin sign in the KHL.

Looking at the schedule, Janmark projects to miss anywhere between 60-70 games this season, assuming the 5-6 month timeline is accurate. That’s a big chunk of man power to replace.