Tonight on Versus: Blues and Red Wings look to get back to winning

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Seeing the turnaround the St. Louis Blues have made since firing Davis Payne and bringing Ken Hitchcock on board is proof that sometimes a coaching change is just what a team needs to get fixed. Tonight when they face off against the Red Wings in St. Louis (7:30 p.m. ET) it’ll be a match-up of tacticians between Hitchcock and Mike Babcock.

The Blues have gotten better as a team defensively and their starting goalie tonight, Brian Elliott, is a prime example why that’s been great for the team. Elliott is in the middle of the best season of his career and getting to square off against Jimmy Howard for Detroit presents an unexpected face-off between top goalies in the league.

Of course, there’s still a ton of scoring talent between these two teams as well, it’ll just be hard to see them punching through and making it all count against these goalies and defenses. You already know what Detroit brings to the table in Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, and Henrik Zetterberg. They will be without Valtteri Filppula, however, as he suffered a cut to his leg against Colorado on Sunday.

St. Louis brings their own version of thunder with Dan Carcillo’s new best friend in David Backes as well as T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen, and Kevin Shattenkirk. The Blues aren’t big on scoring, but they’ll beat you best by keeping you off the board – just the way Ken Hitchcock likes it.

An impressive run, but end of Red Wings’ playoff streak still ‘hurts’

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DETROIT (AP) Ken Holland swiveled away from a visitor in his office at Joe Louis Arena, picked up a thick book and plopped it onto his desk.

“This collective bargaining agreement was put in place for parity and competitive balance,” the Detroit Red Wings general manager said. “The CBA gave us the salary cap, and that has made it even harder to win and get into the playoffs.”

The NHL’s salary cap was established following the lockout in 2005 and designed to bring powerful teams like Detroit back to the pack. It took a while to slow the storied franchise, but it has happened.

For the first time since the 1989-90 season, the Red Wings can make tee times in mid-April instead of growing beards and chasing a Stanley Cup.

Detroit was officially eliminated from postseason contention late Tuesday night, signaling the end of a remarkable run that started when nine of the league’s current 30 teams didn’t exist.

The Red Wings rallied in the final days of recent seasons to grab spots and extend their playoff streak to 25 years, tying the third-longest run in league history. They simply didn’t have enough standouts this season, and injuries took away a small margin of error in their first season without Russian superstar Pavel Datsyuk in more than a decade.

“It hurts,” said Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg, who is missing the playoffs for the first time in his 14-season career. “We’ve been a part of something so great for so long here, making it to the postseason. The last couple of years, it’s been a struggle to get in, but we found a way to do it.

“It’s going to be tough when it actually sinks in and you’re going to be part of that team that didn’t continue. But after that, you’re probably going to be proud of it.”

Read more: It’s going to be a very different draft for the Red Wings

The Red Wings, and their fans, will have a lot of great memories of a spectacular stretch of seasons that included four Stanley Cup championships.

Back when the run started in the 1990-91 season, 21-year-old Russian rookie Sergei Fedorov was proving he was worth the risk it took to whisk him away from the Soviet national team — a former Red Wings executive picked him up in Portland, Oregon, in a limousine and put him on a private plane. He teamed up with another future Hall of Famer, Steve Yzerman, who was arguably in the prime of his career when the run started.

In the fifth year of the postseason streak, Detroit lost to the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Final. The Red Wings hoisted hockey’s coveted trophy in 1997 to end a 42-year title drought and repeated the next year as champions. Since then, no team has pulled off that feat.

“This team was a legitimate competitor for the Stanley Cup for a lot of years,” said Yzerman, general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. “It wasn’t just a four- or five-year span, it’s been a 20-year span they’ve been legitimate contenders for the Cup. Kenny’s done a tremendous job of managing the team and keeping it competitive on a yearly basis.”

Boasting a bunch of future Hall of Famers, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2002 under coach Scotty Bowman. Perhaps most impressively, they did it again in 2008 under coach Mike Babcock in the third season of the salary cap era after having to drastically cut back on their New York Yankees-like spending sprees.

“When you look back at how good the team has been in the 90’s, to the salary cap era after the lockout in 04/05 which made it so much harder to keep the streak going and still being a team that was competing for the Cup,” former defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom wrote in an email Wednesday. “The league is celebrating 100 years and the Wings made the playoffs the last 25 years, that’s an amazing streak!”

Holland, though, and his staff were unable to find late-round gems such as Zetterberg and Datsyuk, drafted in the seventh and sixth round, respectively, to keep the talent coming. He also couldn’t afford to keep players he wanted, including Marian Hossa, who left Detroit to cash in on free agency and help the Chicago Blackhawks win Stanley Cups.

And now that the run is over, even competitors aren’t celebrating.

“I feel remorseful that this is happening, especially in the last season at Joe Louis Arena,” said Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, who helped Pittsburgh hoist a cup on Detroit’s home ice in 2009. “When I was a young kid, growing up in Michigan as a fan of this team, it was known as Dead Wings era. The Red Wings didn’t make the playoffs back then and then they got great players like Yzerman, Zetterberg, Datsyuk and the franchise has been a remarkable example of consistent excellence for many years.”

 

UMass-Lowell junior Smith leaves school, signs with Buffalo

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C.J. Smith, the UMass-Lowell forward that finished eighth in the country in goalscoring (23) this year, has signed a two-year, entry-level deal with the Sabres, the club announced on Thursday.

Smith, 22, is coming off an impressive 51-point junior campaign for the River Hawks, which he punctuated with MVP honors in the Hockey East tournament.

According to the Buffalo News, Smith will get a crack at some NHL action this year and suit up in the Sabres’ final five games of the season.

It’s been a busy 48 hours of departures for UMass-Lowell. Walter Brown Award winner Joseph Gambardella, a senior that served as alternate captain this year, inked with Edmonton yesterday while defenseman Michael Kapla signed with the Devils.

NHL on NBCSN: Bruins continue push for playoff spot against Stars

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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Boston Bruins host the Dallas Stars at 7:30 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

With six games to go, the Bruins are in a decent spot when it comes to making the playoffs, but they’re far from a lock.

They currently sit three points ahead of Tampa Bay in the chase for the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, but the Bolts have a game in hand.

Boston got off to a great start when they named Bruce Cassidy as Claude Julien’s replacement. They cooled off considerably (they lost four in a row) in the last couple of weeks. Now, they head into tonight’s action having won each of their last two games.

“I don’t have the reason why it wasn’t there for maybe a three-game stretch there,” said David Backes, per the Boston Globe. “But the fact that it’s back, and we’ve got our legs under us and we found that winning way again . . . hopefully, lesson learned.”

The good news for them, is that they can still move up the standings too. The Bruins are one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are third in the Atlantic Division. Finishing in the second Wild Card spot means likely playing Washington in the first round, while finishing third in the Atlantic would mean possibly playing Ottawa.

After tonight’s game against the Stars, the Bruins will play four of their last five games (Florida, Tampa, Ottawa, Washington) at the TD Garden. Their only road game will be in Chicago. So they’ll face some pretty good teams, but at least they’ll do so on home ice.

Last week, the Stars were officially eliminated from the playoff picture, which wasn’t exactly surprising.

Dallas was hit hard by the injury bug, as they lost Mattias Janmark, Ales Hemsky early on, while Valeri Nichushkin bolted for the KHL.

So with the playoffs out of sight and out of mind, the Stars can focus on getting their young players some more ice time over the last two weeks of the regular season.

Players like Julius Honka, Curtis McKenzie, Remi Elie and Jason Dickinson should all get an extended look.

“We’re in a place where we need them to play important roles,” coach Lindy Ruff said of his young players, per the Dallas Morning News. “and we need them to play well.

“We need to finish hard and play hard. I think we’re all focused on being professional and giving our best effort.”

 We’ll find out if they can play spoiler in Boston tonight.

PHT Morning Skate: Zdeno Chara shot catches emergency goalie in a sensitive spot

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–Sean McIndoe looks at five players who became the unlikeliest first 50-goal scorers in their franchise’s history. McIndoe chose Rick MacLeish (Flyers), Rick Vaive (Maple Leafs), Vic Hadfield (Rangers), Guy Chouinard (Flames) and Mickey Redmond (Red Wings). (The Hockey News)

–A lot of people think hockey players are the toughest athletes, but Islanders forward Anders Lee is here to tell you that they aren’t tough at all. In his story for The Players’ Tribune, Lee writes about a tough, young friend, who is battling cancer. “In the seven years since he has been diagnosed, he has gone through multiple surgeries. He’s had countless radiation treatments. He’s gone through chemotherapy, immunotherapy and stem cell transplants. And he does it all with a smile on his face. So when I hear people refer to me as tough because I play hockey, I think of Fenov and kids like him.” (The Players’ Tribune)

–The Boston Bruins needed an emergency goalie for their practice yesterday, and they settled on Massachusetts state trooper Kevin Segee. Surely, it was the experience of a lifetime for him, but it didn’t come without pain. Segee was clearly shaken up after getting a Zdeno Chara in the…well, you know. (CSN New England)

–Blackhawks forwards Artemi Panarin, Patrick Kane and Tanner Kero each had multi-point games in Wednesday’s 5-1 thumping of the Pittsburgh Penguins. You can watch the highlights from the game by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–What was the world like the last time the Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs? Thanks to Sports Illustrated, we don’t have to wonder. In 1990, J.K. Rowling had just started writing the Harry Potter series, Donald Trump walked out of an interview with CNN because they were asking tough questions about his casino, the first known webpage was written and much, much more. (Sports Illustrated)

–Edmonton Oilers players and their significant others came together to make 400-500 bowls of homemade soup for charity. It’s pretty cool to see most of the team be involved in such a nice event, even though the onion chopping station gave some of the guys a hard time. (Edmonton Oilers on Twitter)

–Sportsnet has assembled the top hits of the week for your viewing pleasure. Hits from that Toronto, Columbus game made the video a couple of times: