Jaroslav Halak

TGIF: Five NHL games to watch this weekend

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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.

‘I’ve got to be more aware’ on the ice, says Ekblad after recent injury

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 17: Aaron Ekblad #5  of the Florida Panthers leaves the ice following warmups prior to Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Islanders during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center on April 17, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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As per multiple reports, Aaron Ekblad practiced with his Florida Panthers teammates Thursday.

Good news. That marks another step in the progress he’s made from a neck injury — initially reported to be a concussion — suffered on a hit from Leo Komarov that ultimately ended the defenseman’s experience for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey.

On Thursday, Ekblad told reporters the injury was actually whiplash.

The 20-year-old Ekblad has had a history of concussions, including one from a Hockey Canada camp in August, 2014 — almost two full months after the Panthers selected him first overall.

He was injured again in January of last season when Matt Hendricks caught him with a dangerous hit against the end boards, resulting in a suspension for Hendricks.

Despite supplemental discipline from the league on that specific incident involving Hendricks, Ekblad, a valuable part of a young Panthers team that has increased expectations surrounding it, put the onus on himself to be more aware on the ice.

“When I think about it in the Edmonton game last year, there were a couple of big hits on their guys. I should have expected to someone was going to come after me,” Ekblad told NHL.com.

“Obviously you don’t think that. You think there’s a little bit more respect among players out there. I turned, I saw him. I didn’t think he was going to drive my head into the glass. The Komarov hit there, he got me on the shoulder, not much on the head or anything like that. It was more of the whiplash effect. Again, I’ve got to be more aware. You train your body, you train your brain to do that kind of thing. I do a lot of eye exercises and stuff like that. We’re working on that right now and just trying to be a better hockey player that way.”

The Panthers have a preseason game with the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight. Ekblad is not in the lineup.

Stars sign WHL d-man Vala to entry-level deal

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The Dallas Stars have added another defenseman to their group of prospects.

On Thursday, the club signed 18-year-old Czech blue liner Ondrej Vala to a three-year entry-level contract. Vala is currently playing for the Kamloops Blazers in the Western Hockey League. He had four goals and 21 points in 72 games last season — his first with the Blazers.

Having represented the Czech Republic at U-17 and U-18 international events and played for the Stars prospects team at the Traverse City Tournament, Vala is also listed at six-foot-four-inches tall and 209 pounds.

He certainly brings size on the blue line, which is a quality the Stars appear to value in him.

“Ondrej has shown a combination of size and physicality along with the ability to play a defensively responsible game at the junior hockey level,” said Stars GM Jim Nill in a statement.

Related:

Another — yes, another — blow for Dallas as Janmark spotted on crutches

Capitals send first-round pick Johansen back to junior

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24:  Lucas Johansen poses for a portrait after being selected 28th overall by the Washington Capitals in round one during the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images)
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The Washington Capitals have sent prospect defenseman Lucas Johansen, selected 28th overall in this year’s NHL Draft, back to the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League.

From the Kelowna Capital News:

The Kelowna Rockets have yet to play a regular season game with a full lineup.

That will change this weekend in Prince George when defenceman Lucas Johansen and forward Calvin Thurkauf rejoin their WHL club for a two-game set against the Cougars.

Johansen, a first-round NHL draft pick this summer, is back from the camp of the Washington Capitals, while Thurkauf returns from the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Capitals confirmed the news via Twitter.

Johansen, the younger brother of NHL center Ryan Johansen, appeared in Monday’s exhibition game for the Capitals, apparently leaving a positive impression on the coaching staff.

Still, Johansen doesn’t turn 19 years old until the middle of November. He also has some growing left to do at six-foot-one-inch tall and just 174 pounds, so sending him back to junior is the logical step.

“For a first game, to have that kind of poise playing defense, you don’t see it very often,” Capitals’ associate coach Todd Reirden told the Washington Post.

“So, it’s fun to watch, how he goes about the game. Certainly, I think it’s helped growing up in the family that he has and being around some of the players he’s practiced with. I think he has some special tools, in terms of his ability to slow down the play and see some things that other players don’t. He’s looking like an outstanding draft pick for us and a real great prospect moving forward.”

Shaw suspended three preseason games for boarding Connor Hobbs

TAMPA, FL - JUNE 02:  Andrew Shaw #65 of the Chicago Blackhawks speaks during Media Day for the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on June 2, 2015 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The National Hockey League has suspended Montreal Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw for three preseason games for boarding defenseman Connor Hobbs of the Washington Capitals in an exhibition game Tuesday.

The Habs have five more exhibition games remaining before the regular season begins Oct. 13.

Shaw was given a major penalty and a game misconduct on the play, as he slammed Hobbs “through the numbers, with speed” from behind into the end glass, as per Thursday’s video from the NHL outlining the suspension.

From the video: “It is important to note that Hobbs is never eligible to be checked by Shaw on this play. From the moment Shaw arrives at the faceoff dot, he sees nothing but Hobbs’ numbers. Hobbs makes no sudden movement just prior to contact that turns this hit from a legal hit into an illegal one.

“The onus is on Shaw to ensure that he can deliver this hit in a legal fashion, minimize the force, or avoid this hit completely. Instead, he hits forcefully through Hobbs from behind, driving him dangerously into the glass.”

In a bid to land a gritty forward to their lineup, the Habs acquired Shaw from the Blackhawks, who had been dealing with a cap crunch, during the NHL Draft. He later signed a six-year contract extension with Montreal.