Tomas Kaberle’s return to Toronto to be an awkward one

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When Toronto traded Tomas Kaberle to Boston for Joe Colborne, a first round pick, and a conditional pick all future matchups between the Bruins and Leafs were circled on the calendar by fans of both teams. Leafs fans had tonight picked out in particular because it would be Kaberle’s first game back in Toronto. What many Leafs fans may not have thought at the time was that the Leafs would be hanging onto the possibility of making the playoffs with just ten games left to play.

With Kaberle making his return to Toronto tonight and the Leafs just four points behind Buffalo for the eighth spot in the East, tonight’s game is huge for the Leafs and their chance at the playoffs. For Tomas Kaberle, his first time back in front of the fans that cheered him on his entire career (for the most part anyhow) brings a lot of mixed emotions for him as CSN New England’s Joe Haggerty shares.

“Its mixed feelings,” said Kaberle. “Being here for so long and being in that position that [the Leafs] are in right now is difficult. Obviously everybody has done it before and been traded, so hopefully it’s going to be a fit [in Boston].

“Tonight I’ll do my best for Boston and hopefully we’ll get the two points,” said Kaberle. “We’re just focusing on the game, and not looking at the long run of what we do or what [Toronto] will do. We just want to win a hockey game and play smart. We have 12 games left and we want to play a good hockey going into the playoffs.”

Claude Julien understood that returning to Toronto would be a big deal for a lifelong Leafs player like Kaberle, and also revealed that the B’s are beginning to see some of the defensemen’s personality behind the scenes.

“I think he’s excited to be back here. I haven’t heard him say anything bad about the organization. He was treated well by Toronto, has a lot of respect for the organization and I think he’s excited,” said Julien. “We feel our transition game has improved [with Kaberle] and we feel like he’s made the players around him better. The one thing about Tomas is that he spent close to a dozen years [in Toronto] and it’s his first time with another organization. He’s trying to fit in. He wants to fit in, and we’re going to give him time to do that.

“When you see him playing you can tell that he wants to be part of the solution. I like his attitude and I like his approach. I have a feeling that he’ll only get better as we move on here.”

The fact that Kaberle hasn’t done so hot since joining Boston could be wearing on his mind (just three assists and a +5 rating in 12 games with Boston) but the motivation of playing in front of the old fans with the added juice of potentially being able to deliver the playoff-dream-killing shot to the Leafs has to serve as motivation.

Working against the Bruins is how well the Leafs played against them the last time they faced off in Boston. Phil Kessel scored twice while Mikhail Grabovski scored the game winner with just over a minute to play. If those two can bring the same kind of intensity again while James Reimer stands tall in goal, Leafs hopes live strong for another day. If not, the sadness that sweeps over Toronto seeing one of their favorites go on to help them deliver the punch to the gut will make it sting a little more.

Chris Neil retires an Ottawa Senators lifer

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Chris Neil announced his retirement from the NHL on Thursday after 1,206 games, all with the Ottawa Senators franchise.

“Chris Neil exemplifies the best qualities of both our city and the Senators franchise,” said Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. “His career personified grit, drive and resilience; there was never a day that he was not there for his teammates. Chris earned everything he achieved in the league through his hard work and dedication to the game and he will go down in history as one of the great character players to ever wear the Senators jersey.”

It won’t be long before the 38-year-old Neil, a 1998 sixth-round pick, gets to put on a Senators jersey again. He’ll participate in this weekend’s Senators alumni game as the city celebrates the NHL 100 Classic at Lansdowne Park against the Montreal Canadiens.

While Neil had his offensive moments — he finished with 112 career goals and reached double digits in that category five times — he was known as an agitator and one not afraid to drop the gloves. HockeyFights.com has him at over 150 career regular season fights and he leaves the game as the franchise’s all-time leader in penalty minutes with 2,522.

Neil’s role diminished last season under Guy Boucher and the Senators decided against re-signing him over the summer. After seeking a new gig and turning down a reported PTO offer from the Montreal Canadiens, he chose to hang them up.

“I miss playing the games. Those are the fun times and that’s what you put all the hard work in for,” Neil said. “For me, I don’t miss the grind of the day-to-day that goes on behind the scenes, but I truly do miss being there with the guys. That’s the fun part. That’s something I’ll always have to look back on.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Prior’s knack with goalies put to test in Vegas

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Dave Prior has a knack for fast-tracking goalies to the NHL.

The analytical and strategic mind that helped draft and develop 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby in Washington was brought to Vegas with hopes he would not only work with veteran Marc-Andre Fleury but also develop the fledgling franchise’s younger netminders.

Little did Prior know his expertise would be so thoroughly put to the test during the first two months of the season.

After Fleury went down with a concussion Oct. 13 and missed the next 25 games, the expansion Golden Knights have enjoyed a historic start thanks in part to four goalies who had seen action in two combined NHL games before this season.

Malcolm Subban, Maxime Lagace and Oscar Dansk saw most of the action, while Dylan Ferguson spent just over nine minutes between the pipes.

And though Fleury lost in his 696th career start Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes in his long-anticipated return, Vegas is still in second place in the Pacific Division with 40 points, three behind the Los Angeles Kings.

”It’s been a fascinating story for me as a coach because I haven’t been challenged in this way before,” Prior said. ”I don’t think I’ve approached it any different than I have tasks in the past. You’re not usually confronted with replacing one guy after another after another. I had a lot of input into the goaltenders that we signed here and took in the expansion draft.

”The goalies didn’t let me down. I steered them in the direction, but they’ve done all the work.”

The five goalies have a combined .905 save percentage, led by Subban, whose .924 save percentage ranks eighth among all goaltenders with a minimum 10 games played. Among goalies who have played at least four games, Dansk leads the league with a .946 save percentage and Fleury is ninth at .930.

Prior said the development of his goaltending prospects began with a philosophical approach in training camp. He knew the chemistry was far from what he wanted, but he was also pleased they had bought into the system and that he had earned their trust.

”When these opportunities came, it sort of was an opportunity to accelerate the process,” Prior said. ”You don’t usually get to train guys in this environment that are in the minors. I believed they had the upside to become NHL goaltenders. I was just hoping the step they were going to be good enough to make it to No. 1 in the American (Hockey) League first, let alone be thrown into being the guy who had to play in the NHL. They worked really hard and bought in and we managed to survive the loss of Marc-Andre.”

Without Fleury, the Golden Knights were 16-8-1, including a stellar 7-1-0 against Pacific Division opponents.

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said he’s left the goaltenders alone, avoiding interfering with what Prior instilled during training camp.

”I don’t know how he does it. He spends a lot of time in video with these guys, more than I’ve seen in the past,” Gallant said. ”He’s just focused on them doing the right things and playing the right way. … He wants to get the best from every goaltender and he gets the best confidence of every goaltender.”

Prior acknowledged Gallant’s hands-off approach and said it’s made it easier to work with Fleury, develop Subban and teach the younger players.

”I still have always gone about my job with the fact that I am the person sort of establishing how we’re going to play,” Prior said. ”When you’re having someone second-guess your approach, it makes it more difficult. I appreciate his hands off. I think if we were failing he may be a little more involved, but the goaltenders have done a good job.”

PHT Morning Skate: Melnyk denies Senators sale; Kopitar has Hart

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Eugene Melnyk denied rumors that he was selling the Ottawa Senators. “Let me set the record straight. I have no idea how a reporter fabricated a fiction about my selling the team. These stories pop up out of nowhere probably from someone ‘hearing something’.” [Ottawa Sun]

• A fascinating oral history of the inaugural season of these Senators. [Sportsnet]

• The KHL initially announced they would be allowing its players to participate in the PyeongChang Olympics, then retracted it. So for now, we still wait to see what will happen. [NBC Olympics]

• Will the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” hockey team wear new jerseys? That’s still a question that lingers. “There’s a discussion around the [Russia] uniform,” said Roman Rotenberg, the Russian federation’s senior vice president. “It’s been produced already and there are certain technical questions.” [NBC Olympics]

Anze Kopitar, now healthy, is playing his way into the Hart Trophy discussion. [FanRag Sports]

Marc-Andre Fleury on facing his old team tonight: “The Cup champs, it’s a good challenge for our team. I’d like to do my part to beat them.” [Post-Gazette]

• The board game that NHL players love to play on the road? Risk, just like Kramer and Newman. Ukraine not weak! [Sports Illustrated]

• Read this important story on former NHLer Matt Johnson, who is now homeless and missing. [TSN]

• How a young girl from Barbados became a huge Florida Panthers fan. [Miami Herald]

• A really cool graphical look at the history of Indianapolis hockey jerseys. [The Sin Bin]

• How the PyeongChang Olympics will affect NCAA hockey. [College Hockey News]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Senators win, Subban from center, Lehtonen notches 300th win

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Players of the Night: 

Bobby Ryan, Ottawa Senators: It’s been a struggle for Ryan this season. He came into the game with just as single goal in 21 games but left with two in 22 while also adding an assist to help the Senators avoid a six-game losing streak.

Tyler Pitlick, Dallas Stars: Pitlick scored twice, bookending Dallas’s five goals in a 5-2 win against the New York Islanders.

P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators: If you continue reading (and you should) you will see Subban’s goal that came from quite a distance. The defenseman notched two in a ___ win against the Vancouver Canucks, powering the Preds to their ninth win in their past 12 games.

Highlights of the Night: 

Brad Marchand fought off Mike Green, and then did this to win in overtime:

Dylan Larkin. Breakway. Shorthanded. Backhand.

Blunder of the Night: 

Yikes, Anders Nilsson. Bravo, P.K.

Factoids of the Night: 

Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen killed two birds with one stone on Wednesday:

Filip Forsberg accomplished an impressive feat for the second time in his career.

MISC: 

Scores: 

Senators 3, Rangers 2

Stars 5, Islanders 2

Bruins 3, Red Wings 2 (OT)

Predators 7, Canucks 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck