Semyon Varlamov

More Lokomotiv tributes: Philip McRae gives up 38 in ode to former Blues, Avalanche players react

Moments ago, we passed along Pavel Datsyuk’s moving tribute to his former Detroit Red Wings teammate Ruslan Salei. While Datsyuk will wear number 24 for the duration of training camp and the preseason in honor of Salei, other NHL players are providing their own odes to those lost.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that St. Louis Blues forward Philip McRae will give up number 38 in honor of two former Blues who died in that tragic plane crash: Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev.

McRae will instead don number 39, which might invite some good natured ribbing from at least one former Blue.

“I just wanted to switch my number just out of respect for both families,” said McRae, who grew up in St. Louis but didn’t know either player on a personal level. “I felt like it was the right thing to do. Obviously, I feel I shouldn’t be wearing it any more after that.”

McRae will wear No. 39, which has been worn by Kelly Chase and Doug Weight among others in St. Louis. “I’m sure once ‘Chaser’ finds out, he’s going to be giving me a hard time,” McRae joked.

That’s a great gesture from McRae, who made his debut with the Blues last season by scoring one goal and two assists for three points with a -10 rating in 15 regular season games. If his early results are any indication, McRae might have a shot at making an impact as number 38. Jeremy Rutherford reports that McRae topped all players at the Traverse City tournament with seven points and also aced the team’s fitness tests.

(H/T to Rotoworld.)

***

Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov ranks among the many who felt a direct connection to that awful accident. The Russian goalie was a product of the team’s system.

“That was my old team,” Varlamov said softly Friday after undergoing a battery of medical and physical tests at the Pepsi Center in preparation for the first official training camp sessions Saturday.

“I played there for eight years,” he said. “When it happened, I felt I had to go to Yaroslavl and see the fans and the families and everybody. It was a tough time for everybody in Yaroslavl and in Russia. And I’m so sad.”

Sadly, Varlamov isn’t the only Avalanche player who must grapple with the losses of former friends. Winger Milan Hejduk told NHL.com that he knew seven or eight players who died in the crash. Center Paul Stastny shared his memories of Demitra, whom he knew for most of his life because his father Peter played with Demitra in St. Louis and was also a scout for the Blues.

“I was closest to Demitra,” Paul Stastny said. “As a family friend, we’ve known him for 20-plus years. He was one of my role models growing up. ‘Scratch’ (Skrastins) was my roommate my first two years and Rusty (Salei) was my teammate for two years. I think the hardest part is I know their wives and I know their kids. For those kids to grow up without their fathers, who died at such a young age, it’s such a fragile thing. It’s tough to think about.

“I knew Demitra’s wife really well. They lost one kid a couple months after birth and now they’ve lost him. Hopefully they get as much help as possible and get through it, all the families. You realize how important life is. There’s a lot more to life than sports. It’s more about family and friends, and enjoying every second of it.”

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.