James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

Welcome back Niklas (Kronwall, Backstrom)

It looks like the NHL will get a steep* increase in Niklas(es?) this weekend.

Probably most importantly, the Detroit Red Wings are getting Niklas Kronwall back from a knee injury as they face the Florida Panthers in an important game. There was some back-and-forth about how long he might be out, with some wondering if he’d barely play at all, so getting him in the lineup tonight is a nice bonus for a Red Wings team that needs every point right now.

The other Niklas is a fascinating one: the Calgary Flames are playing Niklas Backstrom in net on Sunday. It will be the former Minnesota Wild goalie’s first start in more than a year.

Maybe it’s a stretch to call this a theme, but either way, the Red Wings in particular have to be happy that they’re getting their Niklas back.

* – OK, just two guys.

Jack Eichel misses first Sabres game because of flu


During a season of firsts for Jack Eichel, Saturday presents an unpleasant one: first missed game.

In today’s case, Eichel isn’t playing for the Buffalo Sabres against the Toronto Maple Leafs because he has the flu.

The Sabres recalled Daniel Catenacci in his place.

All things considered, it’s not such a bad thing for Eichel to miss tonight’s game, especially since a loss to the Maple Leafs could help Buffalo improve its odds in a certain lottery that helped them land their curly haired rookie sensation last time around …

(Granted, the Sabres aren’t likely to “catch” the Maple Leafs, specifically.)


‘A good response’ – Wild grab important points in shootout win


With four losses in their last five games and a highly paid forward glued to the bench, things were looking a little tense for the Minnesota Wild going into Saturday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes.

They can relax their shoulders at least a bit after grabbing a 3-2 shootout win, however.

While the Wild still trail the Colorado Avalanche by a standings point for the West’s final wild card spot, just about every reaction to this win reeked of relief.

From a fist bump:

To a good response:

To outright saying “that felt good.”

The Wild are a little banged up as they pivot to a huge challenge against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, on the same day that the Avalanche also play.

At this point, it’s all about “finding ways to win,” and the Wild did so at least on Saturday.

Hitchcock accuses Blues of ‘looking at opponent’ in ugly upset losses


The St. Louis Blues had to have looked at this week-or-so as a great opportunity to strengthen their position in the Central Division races.

While the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars face some challenging situations, the Blues took on two teams that seemed like layups on paper.

/cuts to Chris Berman trotting out the old “That’s why you play the game” line …

Instead of lapping up some points against the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, the Blues instead gave up buckets of goals while losing each game in regulation.

After Wednesday’s 6-4 loss to the Oilers, the Blues reportedly held a closed-door meeting.

The message? Maybe it was “Let’s not fall victim to trap games,” only one would assume with a lot of bad words …

The thing that makes this sting is also the silver lining: at least the Blues didn’t fall behind the other top Central teams. The Dallas Stars are on a two-game losing streak, much like St. Louis. The Blackhawks are having even more trouble, as tonight’s defeat to the Philadelphia Flyers marks four straight failures.

Yes, the Blues are likely to kick themselves for throwing away allegedly “easy” points, but it will be interesting to see if this stands as a “harsh lesson” or a letdown that costs them seeding when we look back at the situation in about a month.

Your move: Avs climb over Wild after beating Canucks


For at least tonight, the Colorado Avalanche have the edge on the Minnesota Wild for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.

The Avs did so by beating the Vancouver Canucks 3-1 on Wednesday, scoring the last three goals of the game and enjoying a two-tally performance from “rental” Mikkel Boedker.

Here’s how the race for that last wild card spot looks now, keeping it to the Avs and Wild at the moment:

Avalanche: 76 points in 71 games played (33 ROW)
Wild: 75 points in 70 GP (31 ROW)

As you can see, this is a tenuous lead for the Avalanche. Minnesota can go back ahead if they beat the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, leaving them tied in games played … for at least a moment.

Looking at their schedules, there’s one date that sticks out like a sore thumb:

Saturday, March 26: Minnesota Wild at Colorado Avalanche

That marks the only head-to-head game remaining between the two teams. For all we know, it could all come down to that contest, especially if the Wild or Avalanche can snag a win in regulation.

For now, though, it’s almost like a tennis match, with the Avalanche holding serve tonight.