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NHL on NBCSN: Clash against Wild is ‘the biggest game of the year’ for ‘Hawks

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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Minnesota Wild host the Chicago Blackhawks at 8:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

The Minnesota Wild have been the most consistent team in the NHL this season. They’ve been able to maintain their great start for the most part and it doesn’t look like they’re on the verge of slowing down.

They seem to have the perfect balance of scoring forwards, puck-moving defensemen and arguably the best goalie in 2016-17, Devan Dubnyk.

Heading into tonight’s game, the Wild have a six point lead on Chicago for top spot in the Central Division. And, oh yeah, Minnesota also has two games in hand. A win could really put some distance between the two teams.

Even though they’re at home, the Wild will have a slight disadvantage because they played in Winnipeg last night, while the ‘Hawks were sitting in Minnesota waiting for their opponent to arrive into town.

The 4-2 win over the Jets was a prime example of how depth scoring has propelled Minnesota to the top of the Western Conference standings. Even though the likes of Eric Staal, Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu didn’t register a point, the line of Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Jason Pominville combined to score nine points in the victory.

“Nothing with this team surprises me right now,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau, per the Minneapolis StarTribune. “It seems like there’s a different hero every night. Charlie’s a good player. He doesn’t get a lot of notice. Maybe it’s because we’re in Minnesota, or whatever the reason. But he’s a good player. And tonight he came to play. So did Niederreiter and so did Pominville. He got four points. Those guys held us down.”

The Blackhawks will need to figure out which line will be “rolling” for the Wild tonight and they need to do their best to neutralize them.

Whatever the strategy is, they know they can’t afford to drop this game if they want to have a legitimate chance of regaining the division crown.

‘Hawks forward Patrick Kane called tonight’s clash “the biggest game of the year,” per the Chicago Sun-Times, and he isn’t kidding. Not only do they need the four-point swing to go in their favor, but they also have to put an end to Minnesota’s eight-game (regular season) winning streak against them.

“They have balance, a back end and are strong in the net. We’re having trouble beating them in the regular season,” coach Joel Quenneville said, per CSN Chicago. “It’s a huge game for us, probably at this stage, for sure, our most important game. You want to finish first, you want to win as often as possible, you want to push the team ahead of you if you’re not there. but certainly there’s a gap there we’re looking to close.”

Trouble for Ducks: Lindholm and Vatanen need major shoulder surgeries, will miss months

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Not a great week for the Anaheim Ducks.

After being eliminated in Game 6 of the Western Conference final — the toughest loss of Ryan Kesler’s career, apparently — the Ducks broke more bad news on Friday as GM Bob Murray announced d-men Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen both require torn labrum surgery, and will be out an awfully long time.

The timeline on Lindholm is 4-5 months, while Vatanen’s recovery will extend beyond that because his injury was more serious.

Looking at the calendar, four months would run Lindholm up to the end of September, meaning he’d miss a good chunk of the preseason. If it’s five months, he could miss the first three weeks of the regular season.

Murray didn’t even put a timetable on Vatanen, only saying it would be longer.

This adds to what was already going to be a pretty stressful summer in Anaheim. As we wrote earlier, Murray has some big decisions on his hands.

Vatanen and Lindholm are huge parts of the team. Both averaged over 21 minutes per night this season, and both broke the 20-point plateau. They’re also locked in long term — Lindholm at $5.2 million annually through 2022, Vatanen at $4.8M through 2020.

If the Ducks decide to protect seven forwards and three defensemen for the expansion draft, the defense will definitely be worth watching. Lindholm will be protected for sure, and Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour are each exempt. But that only leaves two spots for Vatanen, Kevin Bieksa, Cam Fowler, and Josh Manson.

Bieksa, 35, has a no-movement clause, so unless the Ducks find a way to get around that, they’ll need to protect him. (Chances are, they’ll seek a way around it, either via trade or buyout or just convincing him to waive.)

Fowler, meanwhile, only has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent. There are already reports that extension negotiations are going well but, after the season he just had, with 39 points in 80 games, the 25-year-old won’t be cheap to re-sign.

Yes, there is the option to protect four defensemen and four forwards. But Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler all have NMCs, and the Ducks won’t want to expose Rickard Rakell or Jakob Silfverberg.

Add it all up, and the Ducks will certainly be worth watching this offseason.

In a surprise, Blues name Steve Ott assistant coach

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Pretty wild last few days for St. Louis on the coaching front.

After gutting Mike Yeo’s staff of four assistants, then hiring hiring Darryl Sydor, the Blues went totally off the grid on Friday by announcing longtime NHLer Steve Ott would become Yeo’s new assistant.

“Steve was a competitor on the ice as a player and I expect him to bring that energy in this role,” Yeo said in a release. “He was highly respected as a player and a person among his teammates and I believe he will be a huge asset to our staff.”

The decision caught many off guard given Ott, 34, has no prior coaching experience and was playing as recently as last month, suiting up for Montreal in its opening-round playoff loss to the Rangers.

Ott is familiar with the Blues organization, having played there for three seasons.

“I am very proud of my playing career and will devote the same work ethic to my coaching career,” said Ott. “The Blues organization is very special to me and my family and I’m excited to take the next step in my hockey career with this franchise.”

Blues GM Doug Armstrong signed Ott to a three-year deal. It’s fitting that Armstrong was the one to engineer this move, as he’s been behind unorthodox coaching moves in the past. Last summer, he defied convention by hiring Yeo as Ken Hitchcock’s assistant, with the understanding that Yeo would inherit the head man position next season.

It didn’t go exactly to plan. Armstrong fired Hitchcock in February, accelerating Yeo’s ascension.

Kesler calls Game 6 loss to Nashville the ‘toughest’ of his career

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Ryan Kesler has lost some big games in his career.

He was on the United States team that lost to Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

He was on the Vancouver Canucks team that lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

But apparently neither of those losses were as bad as the one his Anaheim Ducks experienced on Monday.

“This was the toughest loss of my career,” Kesler said of losing Game 6 of the Western Conference Final to Nashville. “This stings. It still stings. We left everything out there.”

Kesler had a particularly tough game, finishing minus-4 in the 6-3 loss. In the series, he only had one assist, failing to score on any of his 19 shots.

At 32 years old, Kesler is running out of time to win his first Stanley Cup.

And perhaps that’s why this latest loss was especially tough for him. The Ducks had a great chance to eliminate the Predators once Ryan Johansen was lost for the series, and then they would’ve faced either Pittsburgh minus Kris Letang or the underdog Ottawa Senators.

That’s gonna sting every time.

Related: Johansen wishes he was there to shake Kesler’s hand after Predators won

Fisher returns to Preds practice, but still not cleared

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Given the injuries Nashville’s sustained at center this postseason, Mike Fisher‘s presence at today’s practice was a welcome sight — regardless of his availability for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

“I feel pretty good,” Fisher told NHL.com after practicing for the first time since May 18. “I skated a few days here. Still not cleared, but it felt good to get out there with the guys.”

Fisher was knocked out of the Western Conference Final in Game 4, after taking a Josh Manson knee to the head. That, combined with the loss of Ryan Johansen to season-ending thigh surgery, whittled Nashville’s center depth down to Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissions, Vern Fiddler and Frederick Gaudreau.

Even though Fisher is pointless through 14 playoff games, his return would still be massive. In addition to serving as team captain, he was averaging just under 17 minutes per night prior to getting hurt, while winning 52 percent of his faceoffs.

He said his undisclosed injury feels “a lot better than it was a few days ago,” adding that his goal is to return for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday.

Fisher took minimal contact at today’s skate, and worked on a line with James Neal and Harry Zolnierczyk.