Jason Brough

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Getting healthier, Panthers send McIlrath and McCann to AHL

Panthers defenseman Dylan McIlrath has cleared waivers and been assigned to Florida’s AHL affiliate in Springfield.

Forward Paul Thompson also cleared waivers, but he remains on the NHL roster for now. Instead, 20-year-old forward Jared McCann has been sent down.

The Panthers beat the Senators, 6-5, last night to move to within two points of a wild-card spot. It was the second game back for d-man Alex Petrovic, whose return knocked McIlrath even further down the depth chart.

Florida is still without key forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, though both have been skating and the latter’s return sounds imminent.

“I feel better every day,” Barkov said Monday, per the Sun-Sentinel. “I’m skating with the team and feel happy for that. It’s a lot more fun than skating by my own. I hope I could play soon.”

Florida’s next game is Friday at home to Anaheim.

The challenge for Yeo? Make better use of Blues’ speed

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Let’s face it, no matter what Mike Yeo does as head coach of the St. Louis Blues, no matter what changes he makes after today’s firing of Ken Hitchcock, no matter how well he motivates his players, the team isn’t going anywhere without better goaltending.

More than halfway through the season, Jake Allen and Carter Hutton both have save percentages below .900. Those two are the prime reason the Blues are barely clinging to a playoff spot. They are the epitome of the Harry Neale quote: “Goaltending is 75 percent of your hockey team. Unless you don’t have it, then it’s 100 percent.”

Now, you could certainly blame the general manager, Doug Armstrong, for not finding Allen a suitable backup after Brian Elliott was traded to Calgary. Hutton, 31, has never put up particularly good NHL numbers. He was decent last season in Nashville, but in a very limited role behind Pekka Rinne.

Allen is the starter, though, and he has to be better, plain and simple. That’s why the Blues also fired goalie coach Jim Corsi today, replacing him with Martin Brodeur and Ty Conklin. The hope is that Brodeur and Conklin can connect with Allen and somehow help him rediscover his form.

At the same time, Yeo will try to get the Blues to play faster and more aggressively — first, in their own end, and then on the attack.

“We want to be a team that’s structured,” Yeo said today, “but we want to defend quickly, we want to defend aggressively, and with that, I think what we’ll see is us having the ability to showcase our speed and our ability to get to the offensive zone and on the attack a bit quicker.”

If we can forget the goaltending for a moment, let’s focus on the phrase “showcase our speed.” Because the past few years, the Blues have been more big and heavy than fast. That was their identity. They were hard to play against. When they hit you, it hurt.

And then David Backes and Troy Brouwer left.

Looking back, there’s no doubt that the departures of those two veteran forwards changed the Blues’ identity.

Just ask Armstrong.

“I think what we’ve seen in the NHL this season is that it’s still a man’s league, and you still have to get to the hard areas to score,” he told the Post-Dispatch a couple of weeks ago. “But I think you have to play to how your roster is built. You don’t replace a Backes and a Brouwer with another Backes and Brouwer at a younger age, or if you do, we didn’t have those guys in our group.

“I don’t think you can ask Robby Fabbri to play the way David Backes did. I just think it’s unrealistic. So our coaches’ responsibility is to use their expertise to find different ways to play. We have to find different ways to get the same results. I think you need a good balance and we’re trying to find that balance.”

That responsibility now falls to Yeo. Perhaps he’ll be a better fit with the current roster than Hitchcock, who had success with the big-and-heavy Blues but didn’t get the same results with a speedier, more skilled group.

Again, though, the Blues first and foremost need better goaltending. They cannot be losing games, 7-3, when they only surrender 18 shots, which is exactly what they did a couple of weeks ago to Washington.

Yeo made clear today that Allen is the Blues’ goalie of the present, and also the future.

So expect Allen to get the start tomorrow against the high-scoring visitors from Toronto.

It won’t get any easier after that. On Saturday, the Blues host the Pittsburgh Penguins, and then it’s on the road for five games.

Related: Armstrong rips into Blues after firing his ‘best friend’

Wild trade minor-league forward to Senators

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The Minnesota Wild announced a minor trade today. They’ve sent forward Marc Hagel to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for future considerations.

Hagel was in his fourth season with the Iowa Wild. The undrafted 28-year-old has never played an NHL game. In 26 AHL contests this season, he has just two goals and five assists.

“Marc was an excellent competitor for us in Des Moines over the last four years,” said Iowa Wild GM Brent Flahr.  “He was a good teammate and an engaged ambassador to the game of hockey in central Iowa. He wanted a chance for a bigger role and we are currently a little crowded upfront to make that happen. He wants to play every night and we did the best we could to accommodate that for him.”

Hagel is a pending unrestricted free agent on a two-way contract. He’ll join a Binghamton team that sits last place in the AHL’s North Division with a record of 18-22-3.

Armstrong rips into Blues after firing his ‘best friend’

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An emotional Doug Armstrong, often fighting back tears, met with the media today in St. Louis after firing head coach Ken Hitchcock.

“It’s really hard,” said Armstrong. “Ken’s probably my best friend.”

But as general manager, Armstrong felt a change was needed to jolt his Blues back into form. Mike Yeo will take over behind the bench, ahead of schedule from the original plan.

This was clearly not a move that Armstrong wanted to make at this point in time, and he did not back away from criticizing himself — “I’m the manager. … It’s my team” — or his players.

“We’ve let our group become independent contractors,” he said. “One of the things I’ve learned about being around St. Louis is the Cardinals. They don’t have independent contractors. When they do, they get rid of them.”

Armstrong continued, “When you see independent contracting going on on the ice, whether you’re a fan or not, it’s easy to see. And what we have to do is, we have to become a team again. We have to take pride in doing things for each other, for the betterment of the team.”

Yeo, meanwhile, said there’s no plan to “reinvent the wheel” so far as the Blues’ system is concerned, and he does not blame all the losing on his goalies, Jake Allen and Carter Hutton.

“We need to start playing together,” said Yeo. “Whether it’s when we have the puck, whether it’s when we don’t have the puck, we have to start playing as a five-man unit on the ice. I think that starts in our own zone. It’s how we defend.

“We want to be a team that’s structured, but we want to defend quickly, we want to defend aggressively, and with that, I think what we’ll see is us having the ability to showcase our speed and our ability to get to the offensive zone and on the attack a bit quicker.”

Of course, there’s no denying that Allen has struggled badly since becoming the Blues’ No. 1 netminder. So, in addition to firing Hitchcock, the Blues also fired goalie coach Jim Corsi. For the rest of the season, Martin Brodeur and Ty Conklin will take over that job together.

Looking ahead, Armstrong expects his team to be playing into the spring.

“I think this is a playoff team,” he said. “I’m expecting this team to make the playoffs, so this change was made because I believe we’re not performing to the capabilities that we should.”

And Hitchcock’s future?

“If he wants to coach, teams would be crazy not to call him,” said Armstrong. “He’s today’s Scotty Bowman. He’s a hell of a hockey mind and a hell of a coach.”

standings

Hertl’s late goal garners ‘big celly’ as Sharks beat Blackhawks

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) Tomas Hertl‘s long wait between goals ended and Patrick Marleau closed in on a major milestone for the San Jose Sharks.

Hertl’s first goal in more than three months broke a tie with 2:03 remaining in regulation after Marleau scored his 499th career goal, helping the Sharks win for the seventh time in eight games, 3-1 over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night.

After missing 32 games with a knee injury, Hertl got his first goal since Oct. 27 in his second game back in the lineup when he knocked in the rebound of Brent Burns‘ shot to give San Jose the win in the first game back from the All-Star break.

“I should have buried a couple goals before,” Hertl said. “But I’m happy I scored because it was a long time, like three months. It was a big celly for me.”

Joe Pavelski added an empty-netter to cap a night that nearly included a milestone for Marleau. He had an apparent goal wiped off by an offside call on replay before scoring No. 499 in the second period. That gave Marleau six goals in the past four games as he surges toward becoming the 45th player to reach 500.

“It always feels good when you score and win, so it’s good,” Marleau said. “Hopefully I won’t have too long.”

Read more: A ‘special player’ — Marleau’s latest goal gives Sharks sixth straight win

Martin Jones made 24 saves as the Sharks matched last season’s home win total of 18 games.

Dennis Rasmussen scored and Corey Crawford made 26 saves for the Blackhawks, who have lost three straight games. Chicago led going into the third period in losses to Tampa Bay and Winnipeg before the break before giving up the late tiebreaking goal to the Sharks.

“We had two minutes to go there, we just wanted to make sure we could get it to overtime and look for the extra point,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Three games in a row we’ve given up some points. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”

After a slow start to the game with few chances for the first 30 minutes, the action picked up in the last half of the second period. It started when Marleau appeared to score when he took the rebound of Logan Couture‘s missed shot off the back boards and tucked it in for a goal. But the Blackhawks challenged the play, believing Mikkel Boedker was offside on the entry, and replay wiped the goal off the board.

Just a few minutes later with Artem Anisimov in the box for holding, Marleau did get No. 499 when he beat Crawford with a shot from the circle for his 18th goal of the season.

“Patty’s been excellent,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “Best hockey I’ve seen him play since I’ve been here. He’s just got to keep going.”

The Sharks had a chance to add on to the lead, but Crawford stopped Timo Meier on a breakaway. Chicago then got the equalizer when Rasmussen beat Jones with a shot off the inside of the post from the top of the circle on a rush.

But that was all the Blackhawks would get.

“I thought it was better than the last two or three games,” defenseman Duncan Keith said. “We did a lot of good things. It’s just a tough way to lose in the last couple of minutes.”