Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin

It’s simple: Fans will be back if the game deserves it

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We got an email the other day asking us to write about NHL Center Ice and how the league should give it away free as an inducement to win fans back.

It wasn’t the first time we’d heard that suggested. Fans have other ideas, too. Like cheaper tickets and concessions.

And we’re fully on board with all of it. It would be a nice gesture. Who doesn’t like free or, at the very least, cheaper?

But so far as winning fans back – if fans are actually considering leaving – none of those things are nearly as important as this:

The game.

If the NHL wants to help fans forgive and forget, making the product better is what will do it. That’s what worked in 2005 when the league cut down on obstruction; it wasn’t dollar hot dogs or 50 percent off jerseys.

Luck will be a factor, too. If this year’s playoffs are compelling, the lockout will be a distant memory. If not, the league’s previous momentum won’t be so easy to regain.

A better Stanley Cup finals would go a long way for the NHL. Let’s face it, Kings-Devils was an absolute snoozer compared to Bruins-Canucks the year before.

Not that the Kings (or their fans) care, but not a single one of their series was a classic. Los Angeles only lost four games in the entire postseason. Where’s the adversity in that? Remember that Boston had to win three Game 7’s in 2011, including one against its biggest rival, Montreal. And Vancouver nearly blew a 3-0 lead in the first round against Chicago, the team that had eliminated the Canucks the previous two seasons.

The NBA got lucky last year after its lockout when Miami won it all. Love him or hate him, LeBron James is a compelling athlete and, after the Big Three were assembled, the Heat were a compelling team to follow. Having Kevin Durant in the finals was a bonus.

Baseball’s home-run chase in 1998 helped bring fans back to the ballparks after the 1994 World Series was canceled. Sure, it turned out to be steroid-fueled, but it was still great to watch.

In the long-run, it’s the game that matters. All the other stuff is just temporary.

Though free Center Ice would be nice.

Devils unveil ‘The Salute’ statue in honor of Martin Brodeur

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The New Jersey Devils on Monday unveiled ‘The Salute’ — a statue paying homage to one of the greatest goalies in NHL history, Martin Brodeur, who will have his No. 30 uniform retired Tuesday at Prudential Center.

“Looking at the pictures of my career and some of the events that meant a lot to me, I always saluted the fans,” Brodeur, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Devils, told the Fire and Ice blog.

“That picture, at different times, in different jerseys, actually, like with Team Canada, it all came to that same pose.”

More on the statue from the Devils:

The 900-pound bronze statue was created by renowned sculpture and artist Jon Krawczyk, who worked with Brodeur on the design. Krawczyk, a Boonton Township, N.J. native and lifelong Devils fan, who also created the hockey statue on Championship Plaza outside of Prudential Center, personally drove “The Salute” from his Malibu, Cali. studio to the arena late last week.

Video: Panthers furious after Abdelkader ‘cheap shot’ hit on Barkov

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The Florida Panthers are fuming after their skilled 20-year-old forward Aleksander Barkov left Monday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings following a hit from Justin Abdelkader.

Abdelkader caught Barkov with a hard hit near the goal line as the Panthers player tried to move the puck up ice early in the second period.

The only call on the play was to Panthers’ blue liner Alex Petrovic for the retaliatory cross check on Abdelkader. Barkov left the game and didn’t return with an upper-body injury.

Members of the Panthers irate with the hit, and the fact there was no call.

“It was a cheap hit, I don’t know how the ref didn’t call it,” Nick Bjugstad told the Miami Herald. “It was frustrating, the whole bench felt that way. We’re not happy with it. It turned the game around. Barkov has tough shoes to fill. It looked pretty serious. We’ll see how the league handles it and I think they will. I just don’t know how it wasn’t handled on the ice.”

“You hate to lose your top player, but that’s part of the game,” added Panthers’ head coach Gerard Gallant.

“We’re disappointed to lose him. I thought it was a cheap shot but the referees didn’t see it that way and explained to me it was a clean check. It’s tough. It happens quick and we get to see the replay. I think it’ll be looked at. [Abdelkader] left his feet a little and got him in the jaw.”

The Panthers gave up three goals in the third period in a 3-0 loss to the Red Wings.

Penguins thump the Ducks as Crosby’s hot streak continues

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In a meeting between two clubs enjoying hot streaks and their own subsequent climbs through the standings, the Pittsburgh Penguins bested the Anaheim Ducks courtesy another dominant Sidney Crosby performance on Monday.

After that slow start, Crosby has put together a growing number of dominant performances of late.

The latest, a four-point night, helped the Penguins to a 6-2 final over the Ducks, stopping Anaheim’s winning streak at six games.

— He extended his scoring streak to a career best seven games, and did so with two beauty goals versus the Ducks.

— From Dec. 18 to Feb. 8, he’s appeared in 21 games. In that span, he’s recorded 34 points.

— Crosby is now into the top five among NHL players in points, with 53 in 51 games this season.

He wasn’t the only Pittsburgh player to have a big night. Keep in mind, Evgeni Malkin wasn’t even in the lineup due to a lower-body injury.

Ten different Penguins players recorded points. In addition to Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang had multi-point efforts, and four players — Kunitz, Crosby, Olli Maatta and Patric Hornqvist — were plus-four.

The Penguins now move into third in the Metropolitan Division, while the New York Islanders slip into the first Wild Card spot in the East. Pittsburgh’s lead over the Islanders, however, is only one point.

The Islanders also have a game in hand.

Panthers’ Barkov (upper-body injury) leaves game versus Red Wings

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The Florida Panthers will be without Aleksander Barkov for the remainder of their game versus the Detroit Red Wings on Monday.

As per multiple reports, Barkov will not return due to an upper-body injury suffered after a hit from Justin Abdelkader early in the second period.

Abdelkader wasn’t given a penalty on the play. Barkov didn’t play another shift after that hit.

In 42 games this season, the 20-year-old Barkov has 16 goals and 35 points.