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Jonas Hiller struggles in return to the net, Preds top Ducks 5-4

Jonas Hiller gave up 3 goals on the 9 shots he saw before he was pulled 11:37 into his first game back, as the Nashville Predators defeated the Anaheim Ducks by a 5-4 score. The Predators did what a team is supposed to do when they’re facing a goaltender who could be dealing with rust: they shot the puck. They shot it early and often—and Hiller did not react well. Dan Ellis came in and was serviceable in his 45 minutes, but the damage was already done.

Tonight’s game vs. the Nashville Predators was a huge matchup for the Ducks, only 24 hours after their shocking come-from-behind OT victory against the Dallas Stars. Not only was last night’s win noteworthy for the two points the Ducks posted in the standings, but it was the return to the bench for all-star netminder Jonas Hiller. He backed up Ray Emery for last night’s game, but truly returned when he got the starting nod tonight in Nashville. The game was Hiller’s first start since a February 13th shutout against the Oilers—and only his second game since the all-star break. Maybe he should have waited a few more days.

The Ducks had won four straight games before the Predators handed them the 5-4 loss. The loss keeps Anaheim in the final playoff spot with 87 points while Nashville jumped up to the 5th spot with the win (could be tied with LA by the end of the night). Every point matters at this point of the year, but the bigger story was the way Hiller would react to his return to action. With the early precincts reporting, the answer is “not well.”

Anaheim’s recent run has been good for a team that was left for dead when Hiller went down with his mysterious injury. As a stop-gap measure, GM Bob Murray went out and traded for Dan Ellis and signed unrestricted free agent Ray Emery. Almost immediately, there were a ton of jokes surrounding the Ducks as they picked up Ellis (and his problems) and Emery to support Hiller—but the joke has been on the competition. The mid-season acquisitions are a combined 9-2-1 with the Ducks. Here are the three goaltenders’ boxcar stats this season for the Ducks:

Jonas Hiller: 26-16-3 with a .925 save percentage and 2.50 GAA
Dan Ellis: 6-2-1 with a .902 save percentage and 2.70 GAA
Ray Emery: 3-0 with a .949 save percentage and 1.51 GAA

The Ducks struggled mightily in the games immediately following Hiller’s absence. They were 0-4-1 in the five games after his departure, but they’ve turned things around in the 11 games since. Ellis and Emery had combined to go 9-2 enabling the Ducks to be a little more cautious with their $18 million man. But let’s be real: the Ducks are ecstatic with Emery’s play as of late, but they were equally excited to see Hiller return to the net. Yet after tonight’s performance, the doubters have plenty of ammunition to second-guess the decision to press Hiller into action.

With tonight’s game in the rearview mirror, where will the Ducks go from here? Jonas Hiller looked awful before he was pulled, but he still only played 11 minutes tonight. Will Randy Carlyle give him another start on Saturday when Anaheim travels to Chicago? Will the coach go back to the hot hand with Ray Emery? Does he give Dan Ellis another chance to show he should stick around before he’s relegated to street clothes and the role of Third Goaltender?

We’ll find out this weekend—but with the standings as tight as they are, Carlyle and the Ducks can’t afford to miss on this decision. The right call and they’ll most likely grab a playoff spot. But the wrong call and they’ll have the entire summer to think about what they did wrong.

Sharks defeat Hurricanes, but Vlasic exits game with lower-body injury

Marc-Edouard Vlasic
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Talk about the ideal start.

Patrick Marleau scored just 12 seconds into the first period and the San Jose Sharks had a 2-1 lead before Saturday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes was even four minutes old.

The Sharks held on for a 4-3 win over the Hurricanes, Kevin Labanc‘s goal late in the second period standing as the winner, as the two teams traded three goals in the span of just over three minutes.

It remains awfully crowded in the Pacific Division. The Flames lead with 34 points, while the Sharks, Ducks and Oilers are all one point back.

The victory came with bad news for the Sharks.

Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game in the second period and didn’t return. He’s now day-to-day with a lower-body injury, according to coach Pete DeBoer following the win.

Flames dominate the Jets to take over top spot in the Pacific Division

CALGARY, AB - DECEMBER 10: Dougie Hamilton #27 of the Calgary Flames celebrates after scoring his team's third goal against the Winnipeg Jets during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on December 10, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Is there a changing of the guard in the Pacific Division?

It’s the middle of December and the Calgary Flames, now with six straight wins, lead the same division dominated last season by the California powers in Anaheim, San Jose and L.A. The Edmonton Oilers have been inconsistent at times this season but they are right there, too, one point back. Same goes for the Ducks. The Sharks and Kings are definitely in contention.

There is plenty of hockey remaining in the season. Plenty of chances for change in the NHL’s division standings, including in the Pacific. But there’s no denying the Flames are on an impressive run.

Late last month, they had a particularly frustrating loss to Philadelphia and coach Glen Gulutzan voiced his displeasure about it. They followed that up the next day with an overtime loss to the Islanders. Prior to that weekend, there had been rumblings about the future of Gulutzan with the club, despite being only a few months into his tenure.

But since then, the Flames have yet to lose. They continued their winning streak with a convincing 6-2 victory over the visiting Jets on Saturday.

Dougie Hamilton — remember all that trade speculation surrounding the Flames defenseman and Brian Burke’s classic response? — had two goals for Calgary. Chad Johnson was solid in net again. It was a pretty dominant performance all around.

Frustrating night for the Jets and it showed when Dustin Byfuglien dropped the gloves with Garnet Hathaway late in the third period.

There are more difficult tests ahead for Calgary.

The Flames face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday and then the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday.

In previous seasons, a Friday night game between the Flames and Blue Jackets in the middle of December might not garner much interest. But they are both among the hottest teams in the league right now and it’s likely not many would’ve predicted that a short time ago.

Video: Perlini’s first NHL goal helps lift Coyotes over Predators

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 10:  Brendan Perlini #29 of the Arizona Coyotes reacts alongside Calle Jarnkrok #19 of the Nashville Predators after Perlini scored his first career goal during the second period of the NHL game at Gila River Arena on December 10, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Arizona Coyotes have moved out of last place in the NHL’s overall standings, courtesy a 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Minus forward Max Domi, placed on IR and expected to be out on a week-to-week basis, the Coyotes got a 44-save performance from goalie Mike Smith and recently recalled forward Brendan Perlini pitched in with his first career NHL goal.

That goal gave Arizona a 3-1 lead. Thanks to the play of Smith, the Coyotes wouldn’t relinquish the lead, snapping a six-game losing skid.

It wasn’t all good news for the Coyotes.

Defenseman Connor Murphy played only 4:12. He left the game with an upper-body injury and didn’t return. Per reports, Murphy is considered day-to-day at this point.

The Blue Jackets just keep on winning

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 15:  Zach Werenski #8 of the Columbus Blue Jackets is congratulated by Cam Atkinson #13 of the Columbus Blue Jackets after scoring his first career NHL goal during the third period of the game against the San Jose Sharks on October 15, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. San Jose defeated Columbus 3-2. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Jack Johnson, Cam Atkinson and Seth Jones each had a goal and an assist as the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the New York Islanders 6-2 on Saturday night for their sixth straight win.

Josh Anderson, Brandon Saad and Lukas Sedlak also scored for Columbus and Sergei Bobrovsky had 25 saves.

Josh Bailey and John Tavares scored for New York, which had earned a point in a season-high five straight games (4-0-1). Jaroslav Halak made 32 saves until he was pulled after the Blue Jackets scored four consecutive goals in the third period.

Anderson put Columbus ahead 3-2 at 2:19 when he picked off a defensive pass and banged it in from the slot seconds after coming onto the ice for his shift.

Saad, Sedlak and Jones scored in a 5-minute span to make it 6-2 with 5:37 to go.

New York’s third-string goalie Jean-Francois Berube then replaced Halak and stopped the one shot he faced in his season debut.

The Islanders came out quick and it took Columbus a while to get going. New York took a 1-0 lead 5:59 in when a defensive pass by the Blue Jackets’ Sam Gagner at the boards was deflected by Bailey, and the popup was bobbled by Bobrovsky into the net. Bailey was given credit for an unassisted goal.

The Blue Jackets tied it up on a power play with 6:01 left in the first when Johnson wound up from just inside the neutral zone and fired a bullet past Halak. It was Johnson’s first goal of the season.

Columbus’ Brandon Dubinsky and New York’s Travis Harmonic went to the penalty box for 5 minutes each when both threw down the gloves and threw punches near the end of the first quarter.

Columbus took a 2-1 lead when a speeding Atkinson took a pass from Johnson in the neutral zone and beat Halak on the breakaway 10:16 into the second. New York tied with 7:28 left in the period when Tavares lifted the puck over Bobrovsky’s pad from in front of the net.

The Blue Jackets took off in the third period.

After Anderson gave Columbus the lead for good, Saad made it 4-2 on a wrister from the high slot at 9:23.

Sedlak, who scored his first NHL goal on Friday night, scored another when he tapped in a loose puck with 7:21 to go. Jones capped it with just over 5 1/2 minutes remaining.