Jaroslav Halak

TGIF: Five NHL games to watch this weekend


Saturday: Chicago at St. Louis (8 p.m. ET)

We can all agree that these are two very good teams. A possible Western Conference Final preview even. That said, it’s interesting that neither has received very good goaltending this season. The Blackhawks have a team save percentage of .902, the sixth lowest in the NHL. The Blues are a bit better at .911, but Jaroslav Halak has been downright pedestrian in December, registering a .893 save percentage in seven appearances. If Halak doesn’t show a marked improvement by the March 5 trade deadline, we’d be surprised if general manager Doug Armstrong doesn’t do something about it. What’s the price to get Ryan Miller out of Buffalo? That’s the question everyone should be asking. (We already asked it in TGIF all the way back on Nov. 1.)

Saturday: Los Angeles at Nashville (8 p.m. ET)

Interesting that Elliotte Friedman was feeding the Shea Weber-to-Edmonton speculation in his latest 30 Thoughts column. Wrote Friedman: “The Predators had no choice but to match the Philadelphia Flyers’ offer sheet for Shea Weber. They needed control of the asset and credibility among the fan base after losing Ryan Suter. But things are changing in Tennessee.” Quite a few PHT commenters thought we were crazy to be banging that drum over a month ago, but we stand by what we wrote then. We’re not saying Weber-to-Edmonton is definitely going to happen, but it would make a lot of sense if it did.

Saturday: Phoenix at Anaheim (8 p.m. ET)

The Ducks have won nine straight. In terms of points in the standings, they were the NHL’s best team heading into the Christmas break. Yet there remain skeptics that they’re an elite squad. That’s because, in terms of a possession stat like Corsi, they’re middle of the pack. One key to their success this season? Timely sharp-shooting. With the score close five on five, Anaheim is converting on a league-high 11.1 percent of its shots. The Ducks do have their share of snipers — which probably accounts for part of that particular statistic — but in a game like hockey, as hard as it can be to maintain an attitude of equanimity, you have to wonder about the role of good luck. (And yes, we just used the word equanimity.)

Sunday: Pittsburgh at Columbus (6 p.m. ET)

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Blue Jackets are 6-3-1 in December despite missing their Vezina Trophy-winning goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, and sniper Marian Gaborik. They’ve also been without winger Nathan Horton all season. Lately, a couple of youngsters, 21-year-old forward Ryan Johansen and 20-year-old d-man Ryan Murray, have really raised their games, and that bodes well for the present and future in Columbus. We wrote about Johansen here. As for Murray, the second overall pick in the 2012 draft has played in the neighborhood of 23 minutes in recent outings — not bad for a rookie.

Sunday: NY Rangers at Tampa Bay (7 p.m. ET)

Thumbs up for the job Jon Cooper has done coaching the Lightning, winners of five straight, in the absence of Steven Stamkos. Sure, it helps Tampa Bay has received good goaltending from Ben Bishop, and Cooper fully admits that. But it’s not like the Lightning are just sitting back and letting Bishop lock it down for them. Take Saturday’s 3-2 overtime win versus Carolina in which the Lightning outshot the Hurricanes, 50-27. In that case, it was Justin Peters who “stole a point,” according to ‘Canes coach Kirk Muller. If the Lightning are healthy for the playoffs, they could do some serious damage.

Fabbri primed to make Blues in significant role

Jason Demers, Robby Fabbri
AP Photo
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With the start of the regular season just around the corner, it looks like Robby Fabbri will not only make his NHL debut on Thursday, but also get meaningful minutes.

During Sunday’s practice the 19-year-old forward played alongside Jori Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz. Nothing is set in stone, but that combination did gel.

“I think we want to look at what the combinations look like now rather than do it at the start of the season,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We’re looking at a hard match line and we’re also looking at taking advantage of speed and skill off the rush.

“I really liked what I saw today. I really liked Lehtera’s line, they looked very dynamic off the rush.”

The top line of Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny, and Vladimir Tarasenko seems like a good bet to play together for the time being. Jori Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz will stick together on the second line while Dmitrij Jaskin and David Backes can expect to be regular partners on the third unit. The X-factors will be Fabbri and Troy Brouwer as Hitchcock has left the door open to alternating between the two of them on the second and third line depending on the opponent.

Fabbri was taken with the 21st overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and is looking to make the leap after a brief stint in the AHL last season. At the OHL level, he’s been a dominate force with the Guelph Storm, scoring 25 goals and 51 points in 30 games in 2014-15.

Panarin impresses ‘Hawks with his preseason debut

Artemi Panarin
AP Photo

Will Artem Panarin‘s overwhelming success in the KHL translate to North America? The 23-year-old forward has a lot to prove, but his first big test was a success.

Playing on a line with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov, Panarin made his preseason debut in Chicago’s finale on Saturday. He registered two assists while giving his teammates reason to be optimistic about him.

“For not being on the ice he looks really relaxed. He’s great with the puck, has nice moves and I think we’ll see a lot of this,” Marian Hossa told CSN Chicago. “He has unbelievable skill. People here in Chicago are going to have a good time watching this guy dangling.”

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was impressed by Panarin as well and liked that line as a whole.

The fact that the trio seemed to hit it off quickly has to come as a relief after an upper-body injury prevented Panarin from getting the most out of this year’s training camp. At the end of the day though, the fact that he was able to at least get in one preseason contest is a big silver lining. How smoothly his adjustment goes from here is still a big X-factor, but at least now he’s going into the regular season with a better idea of what to expect.

Panarin is attempting to establish himself in the NHL after leading the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg to a championship last year. He was the team’s scoring leader, topping ex-NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk.