NHL On NBC: Blackhawks host Wild in huge Central Division showdown

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NBC’s coverage of the 2016-17 NHL season continues on Sunday afternoon when the Chicago Blackhawks host the Minnesota Wild in a massive game when it comes to ultimately deciding the top spot in the Central Division.

The Blackhawks enter the game three points back of the Wild for the top spot in the division, while this is the final head-to-head meeting of the season between the two teams.

It is the classic four-point game on the NHL schedule because of how much things can change depending on the outcome. A regulation win by the Blackhawks would close the gap to just a single point in the standings and help create what would surely be a frantic stretch run. But a Minnesota win in regulation would push the gap to five points while the Wild would still have one game in hand.  The Blackhawks have won two of the previous three meetings this season.

Obviously, Sunday is a massive game.

Even though the Blackhawks enter the game having lost back-to-back games, 1-0 loss to Anaheim that they probably deserved a better fate in, and a 4-2 loss to Detroit, they are still in the middle of a 27-game stretch that has seen them win 19 games. Before these past two losses they had won seven in a row and 12 out of 13. They have been doing it with an offense that has been lighting up every defense and goaltender that has crossed their path, averaging more than 3.6 goals per game since Feb. 1.

On Sunday they are going to have to do it against the best goaltender in the NHL this season when they up against Devan Dubnyk.

Dubnyk enters the game with a league-best .932 save percentage and has established himself as one of the front runners for the Vezina Trophy. He has been the backbone for the Wild’s success this season as they have climbed to the top of the Western Conference standings and look to give coach Bruce Boudreau yet another division title to add to his resume.

But it’s not just about Dubnyk and his success this season. The Wild boast one of the NHL’s best, most balanced offenses, bringing seven forwards with at least 40 points on the season into Sunday’s game. That includes Mikael Granlund who is in the middle of a breakout season, leading the team with 62 points in 66 games, having already shattered his previous career highs in goals and total points with still 16 games to play on the season.

Puck drop on Sunday is 12:30 p.m. ET, and you can catch all of the action on NBC or on our live stream.

Into the fire: Halak, recalled yesterday, starts for Isles in Pittsburgh

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A little scene setting for you.

New York heads into tonight’s massive game in Pittsburgh sitting two points back of Boston for the final wild card in the Eastern Conference. The Isles have two games in hand on the B’s — who are idle tonight — so a win could move them into a playoff spot.

As such, the Isles will start a goalie that hasn’t played in the NHL in 85 days.

Against the league’s highest-scoring offense.

The goalie in question is Jaroslav Halak, who’s spent the last three months playing for the Isles’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport. Recalled yesterday, Halak will now face big league competition for the first time since Dec. 29, when he allowed four goals on 24 shots in a loss to Minnesota.

(Afterward, then-head coach Jack Capuano ripped Halak, saying he gave up “some soft goals to start” and “wasn’t sharp at all.”)

But Halak’s 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, the Isles really had no other choice than to recall Halak.

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

The Isles are in Pittsburgh tonight, then host the Bruins on Saturday — another massive game — then host the Preds on Monday. It’s a compact part of the schedule, and Berube’s struggles have rendered him virtually unplayable, given how meaningful the games are (and, to borrow a timeless cliche, how vital points are at this time of the year.)

So it’s Halak tonight, and possibly more down the stretch.

For Tuukka Rask and the Bruins, a ‘bad goal’ at the worst possible time

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The growing ranks of Tuukka Rask detractors gained some serious ammunition during last night’s loss to Tampa Bay.

The deciding goal in the 6-3 defeat was a “bad one,” according to Rask and most anyone else who was watching.

It may have been a hard shot by Jonathan Drouin, unleashed at the top of the circle, but it still should’ve been stopped.

After the game, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy told reporters that Rask “needed to be better tonight.”

In fact, Rask hasn’t been very good the past few months. Since Jan. 1, his save percentage is just .888. But with nobody trustworthy behind him, he’s had to just play through his struggles.

It’s impossible to say if Rask’s numbers would be better if the Bruins had a more capable backup. He’d be more rested, though. And when he was struggling, the coach would at least have another option to consider. With an .897 save percentage on the season, Anton Khudobin simply hasn’t been reliable enough to garner that consideration.

Don’t expect Rask to get the next game off. Saturday in Brooklyn, the Bruins — losers of four straight in regulation, and suddenly on the verge of falling out of the playoff picture — face the Islanders in arguably the biggest game of both teams’ seasons.

Bolts recall Koekkoek, putting Garrison’s status into doubt

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The Tampa Bay Lightning, after earning a big win last night in Boston, may not have defenseman Jason Garrison tonight in Detroit.

The Bolts recalled d-man Slater Koekkoek from AHL Syracuse this morning — a move that would seem to put Garrison’s status into doubt against the Red Wings.

Garrison was forced to leave the Bruins game in the second period with a lower-body injury.

Koekkoek has played 29 games for the Lightning this season, recording no goals and four assists.

Melnyk blasts ‘whiner’ Crosby, who won’t face hearing for Methot slash


Sidney Crosby won’t face a disciplinary hearing for his slash on Ottawa d-man Marc Methot, an NHL spokesman confirmed — news that won’t be welcomed by Sens owner Eugene Melnyk.

The incident occurred during Ottawa’s 2-1 win on Thursday night, and forced Methot from the game with a bloodied, lacerated finger. The club later announced that Methot would be “out for weeks” with the injury.

Crosby’s slash came two nights after he speared Sabres forward Ryan O’Reilly below the belt. It should be noted that neither the O’Reilly spear or Methot slash resulted in penalty calls, and neither was subjected to supplementary discipline.

One individual that’s guaranteed to be upset with today’s news is Melynk. He appeared on TSN 1200 radio this morning and seemed to suggest the league was looking into the Crosby-Methot incident.

He also had a few choice words for No. 87: