Report: Stars will scratch Ray Whitney tonight

With Dallas on the brink of elimination going into Game 6 against Anaheim Ducks, the Stars will scratch 41-year-old Ray Whitney for the first time in this series, according to TSN’s Aaron Ward.

Whitney is a veteran of 108 playoff games and won the Stanley Cup with Carolina back in 2006, but his role in this series has been limited. He has no points, a minus-one rating, and has averaged just 11:26 minutes per contest.

In his place, it looks like Erik Cole will draw back into the lineup. He skated alongside Chris Mueller and Valeri Nichushkin this morning, per Stars.nhl.com’s Mark Stepneski.

Based on the morning skate, Dallas is also projected to start Kari Lehtonen tonight. He allowed five goals on 21 shots in Game 5 before he was pulled.

That being said, Stars coach Lindy Ruff wasn’t willing to confirm that there would be any lineup changes.

Roberto Luongo could return to practice soon

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The mandatory off week for the Florida Panthers appears to have done wonders for injured goaltender Roberto Luongo.

The Panthers No. 1 netminder has “turned a corner” as he continues to rehab a lower-body injury, Panthers head coach Bob Boughner said on Thursday.

The Panthers practiced for the first time since their mandatory break on Thursday, and although Luongo is still on pace for a return early next month, the news was good to hear for a team nine points adrift of the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.

“I think he’s turned a corner a little bit,” Boughner told reporters after the team’s practice. “He’s showing some good improvement here in the last few days. We’re excited to hopefully get him back out on the ice during a practice at some upcoming point.”

Luongo hasn’t played since Dec. 4, when he was injured in a 5-4 shootout loss to the New York Islanders.

The news of Luongo’s pending return was probably a little music to the ears of James Reimer.

Reimer has started Florida’s past 16 games, posting an 8-6-2 record with .924 save percentage during that span, but ran into the break losing four of his previous five starts.

Still, Reimer has performed admirably in Luongo’s absence, as he bounced back from an unfavorable start to the season that saw Luongo regain the starter’s reins.

The Panthers will have five games in-hand on Pittsburgh Penguins, who entered Thursday occupying the final spot. They play the Los Angeles Kings live on NBCSN at 10 p.m. ET.

The Panthers return to action on Friday when they host the visiting Vegas Golden Knights.

Reimer is expected to start No. 17.

WATCH LIVE: Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Buffalo Sabres

Benoit PouliotJack EichelKyle Okposo

Evander KaneRyan O'ReillyJason Pominville

Zemgus GirgensonsEvan RodriguesSam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJordan Nolan

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabeJustin Falk

Josh Gorges — Casey Nelson

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Rangers; Penguins vs. Kings]

New York Rangers

Rick NashMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich

Mats ZuccarelloJ.T. Miller — Vinni Lettieri

Jimmy VeseyDavid DesharnaisPaul Carey

Michael Grabner — Peter Holland — Jesper Fast

Ryan McDonaghNick Holden

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk

Brendan SmithSteven Kampfer

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Is Babcock holding the Maple Leafs back?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs might not be a perfect team, but on paper, you wouldn’t expect them to go through many scoring droughts.

It’s not just Auston Matthews, and really, it’s not just sophomores Mitch Marner and William Nylander that makes this seem so dangerous. Toronto also has solid supporting scorers in the likes of James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri. They added some veteran savvy to the mix with Patrick Marleau, too.

Even so, frustration is building. In the last six games, they’ve only managed 12 goals (not counting shootouts). The Maple Leafs have lost six of their last eight games and haven’t won in regulation since Dec. 28.

Dry spells are going to come, but the heat is starting to rise on Mike Babcock’s lineup decisions.

Not that he’s flustered by such criticisms, as TSN’s Kristen Shilton reports.

“This is how I kind of look at it: I think they hired me to decide,” Babcock said on Wednesday. “So that’s kind of how I approach it … I’m just going to keep on keeping on. In your lifetime, you get to decide what you react to.”

This video has more from Babcock, including the veteran coach calling for the Maple Leafs to shoot more rather than trying to make the perfect play. It’s a nice supplement to more granular studies, like TSN’s Travis Yost’s deep dive on the Maple Leafs and icing (the unsavory infraction, not delicious frosting).

In the grand scheme of things, Babs should be commended for how he’s embraced this team’s young core, particularly in quickly acknowledging that Auston Matthews can do heavy lifting as far as deployment goes.

Still, people are getting frustrated with certain usage situations.

ESPN’s split stats allow you an opportunity to see who’s being used most often in January, this stretch in which Toronto’s scoring is really drying up.

Maybe you’d want Babcock to lean even more on Matthews (averaging 18:54 TOI this month, 18:38 on the season), but that’s a smaller quibble. People are most bothered by the reemergence of Roman Polak (17:02 per game in January) and Leo Komarov‘s frequent use (about a shift fewer than Matthews per game at 18:24 per night in January).

Komarov is getting two more minutes per game lately than Mitch Marner (16:16) and JVR (16:01). Combine that with low scoring, and yes, people are going to get frustrated.

With these developments in mind, the irritation is rising, as you can see in Ryan Fancey of Leafs Nation’s column: “The Leafs aren’t just boring, they’re mediocre.”

Toronto has stopped scoring, and their overall attack has been neutered for weeks. And what’s worse, it seems intentional. Every Babcock quote over the last couple months seems to be about “playing tight” and being more defensive, which apparently means sitting back and being fed in your own zone before ripping the puck up ice for a stretch pass (a.k.a Carlyle hockey) or getting it to the red and going for a dump-and-chase. The Leafs can’t seem to get any flow to their play when it comes to breaking out or using the neutral zone to create offense, and it’s concerning because it seems like a step back from last year. What’s even worse is that it’s so, so boring.

It’s that “intentional” part that’s interesting.

This ultimately comes down to a fascinating conundrum. The Leafs have some nice defensemen, but could use help in that area and probably lack a truly elite one, though Morgan Rielly is coming along nicely. There are some forwards with two-way ability, but no one demanding Selke bids, either.

Babcock’s goal is to get the most out of that group, so does that mean going for a high-stakes style like that of, say, the Penguins or Devils? Maybe that was the leaning for a bit, yet the charge now is that the Maple Leafs are trying to lower the number of events in their own end, which means playing a more conservative style overall.

With a reasonably comfortable grip on third place in the Atlantic Division, maybe Babcock is merely using this window to experiment? The ideal scenario could be to find the right mix of careful play and daring offense.

At least, that’s what would happen if things fall the right way.

Can Babcock figure this out – as he’s figured out many different alignments during his impressive career – or is this a case of ego and/or stubbornness lowering a team’s ceiling? There’s still time to figure this out, but it’s an interesting story to watch.

Even if the team itself isn’t always as fun as it once was.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Looking at goals, Maurice Richard race from fantasy perspective

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During many seasons, the Maurice Richard race wasn’t very interesting. In a lot of cases, it boiled down to Alex Ovechkin leaving everyone else to battle for second place.

That’s not the case as of today, although it’s refreshing to see Ovechkin back in contention after people wondered if he’d start to fade as an elite sniper.

Ovechkin is neck-and-neck with Nikita Kucherov, Anders Lee, Sean Couturier, and John Tavares. William Karlsson is joined by Tyler Seguin and Brock Boeser, while there are some dark horse candidates at 20 goals in Patrik Laine, Evgeni Malkin, and Nathan MacKinnon.

Fourteen different players are at 20 or more, and seven more are at 19, including Vladimir Tarasenko.

With such a rich field of snipers in mind, it’s been a nice volume year for fantasy hockey. Let’s ponder snipers from a variety of perspectives in hopes that some of this advice might help you make better add/drops, trades, and lineup decisions.

Shooting machines

Ovechkin is no longer miles ahead of everyone else when it comes to shooting volume.

As of today, he’s actually tied with Vladimir Tarasenko for the NHL lead in shots on goal with 193. Now, Tarasenko’s gotten there in two more games, so Ovechkin’s still firing more often than him, but the gap is closing.

There are some other interesting names among the SOG leaders. Tyler Seguin comes in third with 187 SOG in 46 games, on his way to 22 goals. Last season, Seguin scored 26 goals versus 46 assists, suffering from mediocre puck luck (8.6 shooting percentage). If he continues to generate about four per game, his 22-goal pace isn’t that outrageous, and he is in a strong spot to beat his career-best of 37 goals, set twice.

Tarasenko seems like he’ll be in line for a bump, as his 9.8 shooting percentage would be a career-worst (easily) if it stands, and is short of his career average of 13.2 percent.

Two volume shooters who are experiencing better times lately: Brent Burns and Max Pacioretty. Burns now has seven goals on 183 SOG, with those coming after a goalless October. Patches, meanwhile, finally saw a four-game goal streak end on Wednesday; that was quite a refreshing run after he scored zero goals in 12 December games (and heard plenty about it).

Well isn’t that special

Sometimes, when leaning toward “fancy stats,” players get dinged a bit if they’re too reliant on the power play for scoring. In fantasy, power play production can be an added bonus, as a goal can often cover power-play points (or PPG) and even game-winning goals depending upon the context. (Ah, those sweet, sweet, overtime four-on-three situations …)

From a prognosticating standpoint, it’s a mixed bag; even-strength scoring might mean more reliable scoring from certain perspectives, but specializing doesn’t hurt either.

Ovechkin is still lethal from “his office” on the left faceoff dot, yet he hasn’t been as dependent upon special teams as in recent seasons. Eight of his 28 goals have come on the PP so far this season; compare that to 17 of 33 last season and you’ll see that he’s diversified his threat.

When it comes to the Lightning’s power play, Kucherov may actually be more of a facilitator. Only three of his 27 goals have come on the power play, while Steven Stamkos leads the NHL with 12 PPG (a huge chunk of his 17 goals total). Patrik Laine (11 of 20), Evgeni Malkin (10 of 20), and Filip Forsberg (9 of 15) are all scoring a ton on the man advantage through the first half-and-change, too.

In case you’re wondering, Aleksander Barkov leads the NHL with four shorthanded goals, representing all of his shorthanded points so far.

High percentages

Glancing at the top scorers, you’ll see a red flag or two. This doesn’t mean these guys won’t snipe for the rest of 2017-18, just beware that they also may be at risk of cooling off or tricking you into expecting too much.

Anders Lee is third in the NHL with 26 goals, and he figures to be dangerous all season alongside John Tavares and Josh Bailey. Still, his 23.4 shooting percentage is a bit high, even compared to last season’s 17.8 percent (career average: 14.6). He should improve on last season’s career-high of 34 as long as he sticks with those high-end linemates, just don’t overreact if you’re trading for him.

William Karlsson is the other name who stands out among the top 50 in goals. He’s currently ranked sixth with 23 goals, getting there on just 92 SOG (a whopping 25 percent success rate). Karlsson already has more goals (23) than he scored points in 81 games in 2015-16 (9 goals, 21 points) and is almost there versus 81 games in 2016-17 (six goals, 25 points). Of course, he didn’t have opportunities like these in Columbus, so there’s balance both ways. Still, he’s basically doubled his career shooting percentage average of 12.6 percent.

On the flipside, while Duncan Keith isn’t a guaranteed goal machine as a defenseman, he’s at zero goals on 105 SOG. Guys like Keith should get at least a bit more puck luck through the rest of 2017-18, so keep an eye on his ilk.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.