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Blackhawks getting Hjalmarsson back for stretch run

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CHICAGO (AP) Niklas Hjalmarsson loves playing for the Chicago Blackhawks. He doesn’t like watching their games very much.

The 29-year-old Hjalmarsson is skating again and is expected to return Thursday night against Anaheim, giving Chicago a boost as it tries to chase down Minnesota for the Central Division title and top spot in the Western Conference. The durable defenseman has been sidelined for four straight games with an upper-body injury after missing a total of two games in the previous three seasons. He was activated by the team Wednesday.

“It was a long time ago I missed this many games in a row,” he said. “I don’t like watching the games. When you’re not playing you kind of feel like you should be out there.”

Hjalmarsson is one of several NHL players coming back from injuries who could affect the playoff races down the stretch. Washington forward Andre Burakovsky could return this month after being sidelined by a right hand injury. Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos, who had knee surgery in mid-November, is skating and doing hockey drills, but the team hasn’t said whether he’ll attempt to play again this season.

Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Quick, New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic and Philadelphia forward Travis Konecny recently returned to the ice, giving their respective teams a lift as they fight for playoff positioning.

“It’s going to take some time and I’m not going to be frustrated right away when I’m not getting things going my way,” said Konecny, who had a goal and an assist in Tuesday night’s 6-3 win at Buffalo in his second game back after being sidelined by a leg injury. “But I need to slowly get back into things. It’s going to take a little bit, but it’s just good to be back on the ice.”

Overshadowed by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook among Chicago’s defensemen, Hjalmarsson remains a key part of the team’s chances for a fourth Stanley Cup title since 2010. He has a career-high five goals in 60 games and ranks among the league leaders with 156 blocked shots.

Chicago (42-18-5) has won seven straight and 12 of 13, prompting Hjalmarsson to wonder aloud if there would be room for him against the Ducks. But it’s clear coach Joel Quenneville is looking forward to his return, and the rest just might help Hjalmarsson with the Blackhawks facing a busy schedule for the last part of the regular season.

“He gets beat up a little bit, but you never see him or hear him complain, and he finds a way to fight through it all,” Quenneville said. “This one kept him off the ice for a little bit, but let’s make sure that he’s more than ready to come back. But you know you always got his competitiveness down the stretch.”

Chicago also could get another Swedish defenseman back against the Ducks, with Johnny Oduya on track for a reunion with Hjalmarsson after they played together in the Blackhawks’ run to the 2015 NHL title. Oduya, who was reacquired in a trade with Dallas on Feb. 28, has been resting an ankle injury.

“The guys that played with him here when he was here the last time, I think all of us got super excited,” Hjalmarsson said of the Oduya trade. “We know what kind of guy he is and we know what type of game he brings the team.”

PHT Morning Skate: Terrell Owens owns Kris Letang during training session

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–Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau is now the owner of a junior hockey team. “This may sound corny, but I feel I was put on this Earth to promote hockey. So the idea of being involved in a junior team that is the middle void between high school hockey and college was very exciting to me.” (Minneapolis StarTribune)

–The Chicago Blackhawks traded Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes this offseason. The ‘Hawks were the only team Hjalmarsson has ever played for, and changing teams has been emotional for him. He showed exactly how difficult it is for him to play in a different city in a heartfelt Instagram post. (CSN Chicago)

Phil Kessel conducted a “I Will & I Won’t” interview. Will he bring the Stanley Cup to Toronto for the second offseason in a row? Uhhhh not exactly. Also, he’ll be rooting for one of Mayweather or McGregor, but he just doesn’t know who yet. (BarDown)

–Despite the fact that the Rangers and Mika Zibanejad agreed to a long-term contract on Tuesday, The Score believes the Senators still won the trade that saw them ship Zibanejad to New York for Derick Brassard. (The Score)

–The Hockey News continues their “2020 Vision” series on each NHL team. Their most recent piece focuses on the Chicago Blackhawks and what the team will look like in three years. Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith will likely still be around, but youngsters like Nick Schmaltz and Alex Debrincat will take on bigger roles. (The Hockey News)

–Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was working out with former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens in Montreal. For a guy in his 40s, Owens can still move pretty well:

EA Sports rolls out NHL 18 closed beta, with a lot of 3-on-3 focus

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EA Sports released a closed beta for “NHL 18” today, which gives players on Xbox One and Playstation 4 the chance to test three modes out from July 25 – Aug. 1.*

It sure seems like the beta – if not the full game – will focus on 3-on-3 overtime, and extending that experience beyond the confines of normal NHL action.

For one thing, the established EA Sports Hockey League mode will apparently include 3-on-3 overtime in the beta, and maybe more interestingly, also through full games. EA Sports explains as much:

Bringing authentic NHL 3-on-3 overtime to EA SPORTS Hockey League, you can now choose to play 3-on-3 full matches, opening up more ice for you and your teammates to get creative, pull off big plays, and showcase brand new skill moves. With more space to attack – and to make mistakes – 3-on-3 EASHL is higher stakes with more competition and skills.

Fans of the ailing sub-genre of arcade-style sports video games should take note that “NHL 18” introduces “NHL Threes.” The format hearkens back to the 16-bit days by turning off offside and icing calls, while a penalty will give a player a chance at penalty shot. Interesting. EA provided a little more information about the mode here, and it sure sounds like it could be fully featured upon release. The beta at least provides a taste of that.

(It wouldn’t be surprising if “NHL Threes” apes the previous generations “3 on 3 NHL Arcade,” which became something of a cult classic for some hockey game fans.)

Along with EA Sports Hockey League (note: a mode where you control a single player rather than a full team) and “NHL Threes,” the beta also includes the more vanilla Online Versus Play mode.

While the beta appears to be closed, EA’s NHL account is tweeting out ways to get codes on Tuesday, so it might not be too late if you’re lucky.

Without taking the beta for a test run personally just yet, this sounds like a nice opportunity for people to give the near-complete “NHL 18” a trial before the full game comes out on Sept. 15.

* – Or, as Kotaku’s Jason Schreier recently noted, maybe for a longer period of time.

Streit on Canadiens return: ‘Montreal always had a special place in my heart’

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Whether he’s Andrei Markov‘s replacement or a depth addition, the bottom line is that Mark Streit is slated for his second run with the Montreal Canadiens.

Streit, 39, would be justified in feeling like this signing could really tie his career in a nice bow.

MORE: Canadiens sign Streit

(Amusingly for everyone beyond his accountant, with a reported $700K cap hit for 2017-18, Streit is drawing almost the exact same salary as he did from the start; Streit received $600K in 2006-07 and 2007-08, according to Cap Friendly/Cap Geek.)

Back in 2004, the Canadiens drafted him … barely. He was a ninth-round pick, going 262nd overall in 2004.*

All things considered, Streit jumped to the NHL remarkably quickly, playing more than half a season in 2005-06. He would bounce from the Canadiens to the Islanders, Flyers, Penguins, and now back to Montreal. Despite him pretty well-traveled, the Swiss-born blueliner feels most at home with the Habs, as he told the team website.

“Montreal always had a special place in my heart because I started there,” Streit said. “One thing I really always missed was playing at the Bell Centre. It’s a unique rink with unique fans and a unique atmosphere. If you get the chance to play in front of them every night – with the atmosphere and the life in the city – I think it’s very motivating.”

Streit acknowledged the pressure that comes with playing there, and he’d certainly feel some if Canadiens fans are expecting a player who struggled to even crack the Pittsburgh Penguins’ postseason lineup to replace Markov.

Considering his $700K cap hit, Canadiens fans should keep expectations reasonable, especially since Streit tends to really blossom when people don’t expect much from him.

* – In case you’re wondering, that was a respectable ninth round. Danniel Winnik (717 games played, 265th overall), Grant Clitsome (205 GP, 271), Adam Cracknell (203, 279), and Jannik Hansen (580 GP, 287) all made solid careers for themselves. Not bad for guys who were drafted in rounds that wouldn’t even take place today.

Canada would consider Doan, Iginla for 2018 Winter Olympics

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When discussing the construction of Canada’s possible roster heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, Sean Burke can be almost frustratingly coy. Still, in leaving virtually every available avenue at least conceivably open, he leaves room for some fascinating scenarios.

It might be tough to top this one discussed on TSN’s Overdrive 1050: if NHL teams pass on signing Jarome Iginla and Shane Doan, perhaps the Olympics could be their swan song?

Yes, there are quite a few “ifs” involved, but it’s an intriguing thought during the dog days of the hockey summer.

Burke likely presented more realistic possibilities in acknowledging that professional players plying their trade in Europe, particularly the KHL, might be the greatest source for talent.

“Most of our players will be guys that come from Europe playing in the KHL,” Burke said to TSN’s Overdrive 1050.

When pondering possible entries, recent international tournaments could be helpful.

Looking at Canada’s 2016 Deutschland Cup roster and who they’re sending to the 2017 Sochi Open, NHL castoffs such as Derek Roy, Gilbert Brule, Nigel Dawes, Andrew Ebbett, Chris Lee, and Mason Raymond all seem likely logical choices. College players such as Cale Makar make things more complicated – both for Canada and the U.S. – as well.

In a separate interview with TSN, Burke noted that he would rather not supply specific names himself. Even in being vague, he provided an additional interesting detail: upcoming tournaments may illuminate what Canada lacks on its roster as much as who could have a leg-up on making the team.

And, if nothing else, they’ll get a good look at some players through a rigorous process.

Wow.

That notion makes you wonder if AHL players will be at a significant disadvantage to make both Team Canada and the United States rosters. As the Associated Press notes, AHL teams look poised to loan certain players, but only for a window of Feb. 5-26.

Burke notes that he’ll want a significant chunk of his roster more or less settled around December, and he already pointed to a preference for those who are playing in Europe.

Now, that doesn’t mean Canada or the U.S. will ignore an obvious AHL talent – if available – yet it sounds like those players would face an uphill battle to making the 2018 Winter Olympics.

That said, a lot can change, especially considering how often injuries can throw a wrench in things.

As much as we’d all love to watch a “best-on-best” tournament featuring NHL players, the alternative is also intriguing: seeing how different teams construct rosters from a variety of other leagues/resources.

And, hey, it could be awfully fun to see the likes of Iginla and/or Doan leading a motley crew of young players and former NHLers. Such a thought might even get Doan to admit that he was out of bounds in blaspheming “Miracle.”