St. Cloud State and Western Michigan invited to join new college hockey conference

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When the National Collegiate Hockey Conference was formed this summer, it was viewed as a brutal blow to the setup of college hockey. With teams from the WCHA and CCHA getting the call to join the new start-up conference beginning in 2013-2014, those two long-standing conferences were left scrambling to make plans with the formation of the NCHC and the Big Ten Conference.

With teams looking for new homes all over the college hockey landscape, the NCHC is trying to fill up their own ranks again. The NCHC has extended invitations to St. Cloud State (WCHA) and Western Michigan University (CCHA) to join their new alliance.

The NCHC explained why they’re giving out invitations to these two schools.

“After a thorough and deliberate evaluation process, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference is delighted to extend invitations to St. Cloud State and Western Michigan to become members of what we believe will be the premier college hockey conference in the United States,” said Brian Faison, director of athletics at North Dakota and spokesperson for The National’s Athletic Directors Committee.

“Both universities fit perfectly with the established goals of our conference membership,” said Faison. “Their programs are highly competitive and produce quality student-athletes. Each institution has made significant commitments to the continued success of their hockey programs and they are both located in tradition-rich hockey states. St. Cloud State and Western Michigan, with their passionate fans, will add a great deal to The National and we look forward to welcoming them.”

“With the launch of the inaugural season for The National just two years away, and with greaterclarity regarding membership, we are confident the strength of our schedules and the success of our teams will produce outstanding hockey with regional and national appeal, and strong contenders for the national championship on an annual basis,” Faison added.

St. Cloud and WMU would join North Dakota, Denver University, Colorado College, Miami University, Minnesota-Duluth, and Nebraska-Omaha in the new conference. St. Cloud State said they will announce tomorrow afternoon what their intentions are. Both schools are expected to say “yes” to the NCHC. St. Cloud comes with a history of success in the WCHA while WMU is on the rebound after making the NCAA tournament last year and now have former NHL bench boss Andy Murray as head coach.

With St. Cloud and WMU expected to join the new conference, it leaves the WCHA and CCHA left to scramble even more to find a way to make things work out once the 2013-2014 season rolls around. One possibility is that the teams left over after everyone goes their separate ways will team up together to form a new WCHA. One way or another, change is coming and the college hockey landscape is going to be vastly different because of it.

Bruins recall McIntyre from AHL on emergency basis

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Tuukka Rask was supposed to be back in goal for the Boston Bruins tonight.

But then, just a couple of hours before their game with the Nashville Predators, the B’s announced they’d recalled goalie Zane McIntyre from the AHL on an emergency basis.

It’s not yet clear why McIntyre was recalled. Rask missed Saturday’s game in Brooklyn with a lower-body injury, but coach Bruce Cassidy said earlier today that Rask was healthy and ready to go.

“Tuukka is healthy,” said Cassidy. “That’s what he indicated to me and that’s all I needed to hear. He’ll be our starter tonight.”

If Rask is unable to play, expect Anton Khudobin to get the nod.

Khudobin backstopped the B’s to a 2-1 victory over the Isles on Saturday.

Nestrasil blasts Carolina, says he’s finished with organization

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Andrej Nestrasil, the Czech forward who scored a career-high 23 points for Carolina last year, ripped the team in a recent interview and said he’s all but done playing for the organization.

SB Nation site ‘Canes Country has the details, including translation of the original Nestrasil piece from Czech news outlet Blesk. In it, the 26-year-old — currently playing with Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Charlotte — said he was “done here, 100 percent,” adding “I don’t way to stay here.”

Nestrasil’s frustration stems from the aftermath of a fractured vertebra, an injury that prematurely ended his ’15-16 campaign. He recovered in time to start this season, but only dressed 16 times (compared to 24 healthy scratches) before he was waived in early January. In speaking with Blesk, he said the ‘Canes “didn’t give me much of a chance after the injury.”

“When I first got hurt, they wanted to help and were promising me things all over the place,” he said. “But when it came down to it, they weren’t willing to actually do anything.”

Nestrasil cleared waivers, and joined the Checkers. He’s since appeared in 28 AHL contests, scoring four goals and 10 points.

This falling out happened pretty quickly. It was less than two years ago when Carolina inked Nestrasil to a $1.825 million extension, calling him a “a big body and a good fit for our team and what we’re trying to do.”

‘Canes County did note “the word choice may be more harsh in translation than Nestrail intended.”

PHT reached out to the ‘Canes regarding Nestrasil’s remarks. The club said it was aware of them, and declined to comment further.

Pre-game reading: On Kopitar’s challenging first season as Kings captain

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— Up top, Drew Doughty talks about the Edmonton Oilers, who can clinch a playoff spot with a win tonight over Doughty’s Kings. “Their top guys and their forwards want to play defense now,” said Doughty, “whereas in the past I feel like their top guys just kinda worried about getting points and weren’t worried about playing defense.”

— It’s been a frustrating season for Kings captain Anze Kopitar, who tells the L.A. Times it’s been an adjustment taking over the team’s top leadership role. “I wouldn’t say a burden,” said Kopitar. It was definitely a change. It’s definitely some adjustments that I needed to make. I’m still learning. I don’t know if you can learn that overnight. It’s been, not a burden, but a new challenge that I think I’m in the process of getting the handle of it and I’ll get there.” (Los Angeles Times)

— NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly insists that the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas won’t be a problem for the expansion Golden Knights. “No, there’s not widespread panic,” said Daly. “I do think that while fanbases overlap to a certain extent, I think the products of an eight-game NFL home schedule versus a 41-game home schedule in hockey make the products a little bit different.” (Sportsnet)

— A Q&A with Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, who talks about the changes he’s tried to implement on offense since taking over from Claude Julien. “I think it’s a lot to do with we’ve kept pucks going toward the net down low, more half-wall attacks, more plays down low. We’ve emphasized more of that than always going low to high with it. We’re trying to get the guys to use more of their skill set, separate down low, especially with man-to-man coverages. So I think our quality of chances, if you look at that stat-wise, has gone up quite a bit in the last 20 games.” (NHL.com)

— Another Q&A, this one with Steven Stamkos, who talks about all the exciting, young players in the NHL today. “Yeah, 30 is the new 40 in this league. I’m closing in on 30 here, so it’s crazy to really think about it. … I’m 27 now, and next year will be 10 years [since joining the league]. It’s crazy how time flies. Now I’m one of the old guys on the team. You just never take it for granted. It’s such an honor to play in this league, and like I said, 30 is the new 40 now. So you’ve just got to cherish it.” (ESPN)

— Hockey Canada is making young kids play on reduced-size ice surfaces. “We know statistically when you’re in a smaller playing area it increases the number of puck touches, it increases the number of battles for loose pucks, it increases the number of shots on goal, it increases the number of passes and pass receptions.” Hey, it worked for Auston Matthews in that hockey hotbed of Arizona! (Canadian Press)

Enjoy the games!

Goalie nods: McElhinney ready for biggest start of his career

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Toronto has a massive game tonight as the Eastern Conference playoff battle tightens, but won’t have workhorse No. 1 netminder Frederik Andersen available.

Instead, it’ll be backup Curtis McElhinney who faces the visiting Panthers, while Andersen deals with an upper-body injury.

Calling it the biggest start of his career, McElhinney can keep the Leafs locked into the No. 3 spot in the Atlantic Division with a win, on a night when Boston — just one point back of the Leafs — is also in action, hosting Nashville.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been in this situation, in terms of being in a playoff race,” McElhinney said. “For me it’ll be business as usual.”

There’s a significant amount of pressure on McElhinney, who hasn’t been good in March. He’s allowed 13 goals on 113 shots — a .885 save percentage — which included three on 22 in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to Buffalo, the game in which he replaced the injured Andersen.

Though Andersen’s injury isn’t believed to be serious — the Danish ‘tender hasn’t ruled out a return on Thursday in Nashville — the Leafs still must be concerned with the present. They need to get points over their next four games, lest they leave it to the end of the season.

Yes, the Leafs will play their four contests at the ACC. But those come against extremely difficult opponents: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Columbus.

For Florida, James Reimer gets the start in goal. How perfect.

Elsewhere…

— As mentioned above, the other big game tonight is Nashville taking on Boston at TD Garden. Tuukka Rask starts for the B’s (more on that here), while Pekka Rinne is likely after Juuse Saros beat the Isles last night.

Connor Hellebuyck returns to the starter’s crease for Winnipeg, after Michael Hutchinson played the last two. Cory Schneider also returns to the starter’s crease, for New Jersey, after Keith Kinkaid played on Sunday.

— No word from Columbus on who’ll start for the Sabres or Jackets. Robin Lehner won last night in Florida (so it could be Anders Nilsson), and Sergei Bobrovsky played on Saturday in Philly.

Cam Ward gets the start for Carolina after Eddie Lack‘s scary injury in last night’s OT loss to Detroit. Speaking of Detroit, no word on a starter yet, but Jimmy Howard seems likely after Petr Mrazek played last night.

— It’s Craig Anderson versus Steve Mason when the Sens take on the Flyers in Philly.

Al Montoya was expected to start tonight, but suffered a lower-body injury during the morning skate. As such, Carey Price will go as the Habs host the Stars. Dallas has yet to announce its starter.

— Marquee matchup in Minnesota tonight, as Devan Dubnyk and the Wild host Braden Holtby and the Caps.

— The Oilers can clinch their first playoff berth since 2006 tonight and, unsurprisingly, they’ll go with Cam Talbot in goal. The host Kings will counter with Jonathan Quick.

John Gibson is inching closer to a return, but the Ducks feel no need to rush him back. That’s because Jonathan Bernier is playing extremely well, and will get the call tonight in Vancouver. The Canucks are going with Ryan Miller.

— The Sharks will go with Martin Jones when they host the Rangers. No word yet on a New York starter.