NHL on NBCSN: Blackhawks, Wild fight for first place in Central

NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Chicago Blackhawks host the Minnesota Wild at 7:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

The game of the night in the NHL on Sunday is in Chicago where divisional foes the Blackhawks and Wild meet for the first time this season.

It just so happens to be for the top spot in the Central.

For the Wild, they come into the game as one of the hottest teams in the NHL thanks to their current run dating back to the start of December that has seen then go 16-1-2 in their past 19 games. When the month of December started the Wild were in third place in the division and eight points back of Chicago. Since then they have completely eliminated that gap and raced to the top of the standings even though they enter Sunday’s game having played four fewer games than the Blackhawks on the season.

They are doing it with a balanced scoring attack that has been led by an offensive resurgence from Eric Staal, who has turned out to be one of the best offseason pickups in the entire league this year, and the continued dominance of Devan Dubnyk in net as he plays his way to the front of the pack in the Vezina Trophy discussion.

It has also been a tremendous debut season for first-year coach Bruce Boudreau who has his eyes set on yet another division title.

Say what you want about his postseason record, especially when it comes to Game 7’s, but no matter where Boudreau goes you can pretty much guarantee that his team is going to be in the running for a division crown after winning one in eight of his first nine seasons as an NHL head coach with two different teams (Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks). The only year he did not win a division was the 2011-12 season that he split with the Capitals and Ducks. Given where the Wild are in the standings at this point, thanks in large part to this 19 game run where they have collected 34 out of a possible 39 points, they are in the driver’s seat to give him another one with a third team.

That is part of what makes games like Sunday’s game so big for both teams. If they remain on their current point paces the rest of the season, the Wild would finish the season with 117 points, while the Blackhawks would only get to 107. The x-factor in that is that they have all four of their head-to-head meetings in the second half. What happens in those games could play a big role in determining who ends up on top.

From the Blackhawks side, it is going to be interesting to see how they respond on Sunday after what was perhaps their worst game of the season on Friday night in Washington where they were blown out, 6-0, by a Capitals team that is running over everybody at the moment.

After the game Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was, in the words of Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun Times, “fuming” after the game. Even though the Blackhawks have continued to win this season it has been a tough year for Toews after missing some time due to injury and having what is currently the worst offensive season of his career. With 21 points in 36 games he is currently on pace for 43 points in 72 games this season.

But while his scoring has experienced a drop, other forwards on the team are picking up the slack, especially when it comes to Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin. Both players enter play on Sunday among the top-10 in the league in scoring, while both have been on a roll over the past few weeks. Panarin has 19 points in his past 16 games, while Kane has 18 over the same stretch.

Ekblad out again, this time with a sore neck

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It’s not concussion-related, Panthers interim coach Tom Rowe told reporters today — but defenseman Aaron Ekblad woke up this morning with a sore neck and will miss tonight’s game against Arizona.

Ekblad had only just returned to the lineup after missing four games with a concussion. He logged 18:14 in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to Carolina.

And now he’s out again.

Certainly, the timing of Ekblad’s latest injury, not to mention the fact it’s a sore neck, will lead many to doubt Rowe’s assertion that it’s not concussion-related.

But Rowe said before the Hurricanes game that the club was being cautious with its 21-year-old star defenseman.

“We didn’t want to rush him back because he’s such a young guy,” said Rowe, per the Miami Herald. “With a concussion, we didn’t want to rush him back.”

Stars’ Janmark won’t play this season, and there’s a ‘question mark’ about next year

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In a season filled with injuries, one of the biggest Dallas suffered this season was Mattias Janmark‘s knee issue.

The 24-year-old Swede has missed the entire season thus far, but recently resumed skating and practicing with the club. That said, Janmark confirmed he won’t play this year — meaning he’ll miss the entire 82-game campaign.

And what’s more, he might miss games next season as well.

“I think there’s a question mark (about next season), but we don’t know to what degree yet,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff, per the Dallas Morning-News. “He’s progressing nicely. He still has a ways to go, but I think the fact he is practicing now and has gone this far always gives a guy like that a better chance for next year.”

Janmark’s original injury occurred during the preseason, when he knee locked up in a game against Colorado.

“He had a small segment, approximately 21 millimeters by 11 millimeters, that became displaced and is locked in his knee,” GM Jim Nill said at the time. “It’s the bone and the cartilage, they both came off together.”

Janmark underwent surgery to correct the issue, but his recovery was plagued by a preexisting congenital condition called osteochondritis dissecans. Nill said the likelihood of a full recovery was 80 percent.

Losing his services was a big blow for Dallas. After surprising onlookers by making the team out of camp in ’15-16 — a “great story,” according to Nill — Janmark had a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

Janmark’s contract situation complicates things. He’s a pending RFA, currently in the last of a two-year, $1.6 million deal with an $733,750 cap hit. The Stars would (presumably) like to keep him, but the uncertainty regarding his health might made negotiations difficult.

Fehr injures hand, spotted in cast following Leafs debut

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Eric Fehr finally played his first game as a Maple Leaf on Wednesday night, suiting up for the first time since being acquired from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline.

It didn’t go especially well.

Fehr, who logged 10:44 TOI in a 5-2 win over Columbus, suffered a hand injury while blocking a shot in the third period and was seen afterward wearing a cast, per TSN.

According to the Toronto Sun, the 31-year-old forward confirmed he spent the night in hospital.

While a break or fracture might rule him out for the remainder of the season, it’s worth noting Fehr won’t be done entirely in Toronto. He’s in the second of a three-year, $6 million deal with a $2M cap hit. Prior to joining the Leafs he appeared in 52 games for the Pens, scoring six goals and 11 points while averaging just under 11 minutes a night.

He was also a regular in last year’s Stanley Cup run, scoring three times in 23 games.

Though his role decreased, Fehr was still frequently used by head coach Mike Sullivan — albeit in a more limited capacity. He is a good PK contributor, and can play both center and wing. Those were some of the attributes the Leafs were hoping Fehr could bring down the stretch and, should they make it, into the postseason.

He’s back: With 10 games left, Isles recall Halak

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The Isles are in full playoff push mode, and on Thursday made a move to bolster their chances.

Jaroslav Halak, the veteran netminder that’s been in AHL Bridgeport since early January, has been recalled ahead of New York’s crucial three-games-in-four-days stretch, the club announced.

It’s the latest in what’s been a tumultuous move for the 31-year-old. Halak opened the year as part of an uncomfortable three-goalie rotation — along with Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube — and was soon on the trading block after agent Allan Walsh criticized the setup on Twitter.

With no takers — and after then-head coach Jack Capuano called him out for his poor play — Halak was placed on waivers, and sent to the minors.

Halak has been really good in Bridgeport. He’s posted a 17-7-1 record with a 2.15 GAA and .925 save percentage, and a pair of shutouts. And given how spotty Berube’s play has been as Greiss’ backup, there’s a shot Halak could be making a start for the Isles soon.

As mentioned above, the club is in the midst of a compacted part of the schedule. Greiss was excellent in last night’s win over the Rangers — stopping 34 of 36 shots in a 3-2 victory — but he was also busy.

The Isles head to Pittsburgh on Friday, then host the Bruins on Saturday, then host the Preds on Monday. The Boston game looms large because, after last night, New York found itself just two points back of the B’s for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Per Newsday, there’s a real chance Halak will face the Pens on Friday, which would open the door for Greiss to take on the Bruins the following day.