Jason Brough

After 12-game absence, Carlson expected back for Caps tonight

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John Carlson is expected to make his return to the Washington Capitals lineup tonight versus Philadelphia (on NBCSN).

The 26-year-old defenseman hasn’t played since Dec. 26 due to a lower-body injury. The Caps have managed a 9-2-1 record in the 12 games without him, but they’re still glad to have him back.

“He’s a big part of what we do,” coach Barry Trotz told reporters. “The guys that have stepped in have done a fantastic job.”

Carlson is officially a game-time decision tonight.

From CSN Washington:

If Carlson returns to the lineup, Ryan Stanton is likely to be a healthy scratch. Carlson skated with Nate Schmidt on the Caps’ top/second pairing, with Niskanen alongside Karl Alzner (who is expected to set the Caps record with his 423rd consecutive game), and Dmitry Orlov alongside Taylor Chorney.

Carlson has six goals and 21 assists in 34 games.

Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik remains sidelined with a lower-body injury. He’s been skating, but there’s no timeline for his return.

The Carolina Hurricanes are legitimately quite good

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If you haven’t already started to think differently about the Carolina Hurricanes, it’s not too late to begin.

Consider:

— In their last 26 games, the ‘Canes have a record of 15-7-4. Only four teams have gained more points in their last 26 games than Carolina has. The first of the four, the Caps, are a popular pick to win the Stanley Cup. The next two, the Panthers and Blackhawks, each had a 12-game winning streak over that stretch. The fourth, the Kings, have been one of the NHL’s top teams for practically the entire season.

— The ‘Canes started 2015-16 poorly, going 8-13-4 in their first 25 contests. But remember, they were generally satisfied with how they were playing. Said GM Ron Francis back in November: “The frustrating thing for us is that in five of our losses we clearly were the better team but did not win.”

— Goaltending was a weakness early on. It’s been better of late. Cam Ward‘s save percentage in January is .925. Eddie Lack‘s is .924. The latter made some adjustments to his technique. “I’m at a pretty good state with my game right now,” he said earlier this month.

— No team surrenders fewer shots per game than Carolina (26.5), and only three teams have a higher shot differential (+3.6)

— Last night in Raleigh, the Hurricanes dominated the defending Stanley Cup champs from Chicago, outscoring them 5-0 and outshooting them 40-26.

“When we get contributions throughout the lineup, we’re a good team,” coach Bill Peters told reporters. “We’ve been a good team here for a while now.”

The ‘Canes still have some work to do in order to climb into a playoff spot. While they’re only one point back of the final wild-card spot in the East, the team that holds that spot, Pittsburgh, has played three fewer games.

But this next month could be an interesting one for Francis. Not long ago, everyone figured the ‘Canes would be a seller at the Feb. 29 trade deadline.

What if they keep winning?

Related: In case you haven’t noticed, and judging by the attendance you haven’t, the Hurricanes have managed to win a few here and there

Preds can sweep Canadian road trip tonight in Calgary

If they can defeat the Flames tonight in Calgary, the Nasvhille Predators will go four-for-four on their road trip through western Canada

The Preds edged the Canucks, 2-1, last night in Vancouver. They beat Winnipeg and Edmonton by 4-1 scores on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the trip has been the play of Pekka Rinne. The 33-year-old has allowed just three goals on 80 total shots, for a save percentage of .963.

Rinne was named the first star in Vancouver, where the Preds were outshot 24-11 over the first two periods. The Finnish netminder helped keep the game tied, 1-1, heading into the final period, allowing James Neal to score the winner with less than five minutes remaining.

“We’re fighting to play for a Stanley Cup here. And right now with how tight the West is, you have to do anything you can to grab points to get into the playoffs,” Neal told reporters. “That’s where our team is at.”

Nashville has moved to within one point of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference, currently held by Colorado. The Preds have played two fewer games than the Avs.

Related: Rinne can’t narrow struggles down to ‘one thing’

Signing Barkov shows ‘commitment’ to long-suffering Panthers fans

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Back in 2009, the Florida Panthers knew they weren’t going to be able to re-sign Jay Bouwmeester. So instead of letting him walk away for nothing as an unrestricted free agent, they traded his rights to Calgary.

At the time, Bouwmeester was considered one of the best young defensemen in the NHL. The Flames immediately signed him to a five-year, $33 million contract.

For Panthers fans, Bouwmeester’s departure was just one of many departures they’ve been forced to accept over the years. Roberto Luongo. Olli Jokinen. Nathan Horton. Jason Garrison. Whether they simply wanted out or there wasn’t enough money to keep them, it didn’t matter, key players kept leaving.

To say the least, it was not a winning formula.

“In the past this organization has drafted players and developed them and then off they’ve gone,” GM Dale Tallon said today after the Panthers announced that 20-year-old center Aleksander Barkov had signed a six-year contract extension worth a reported $35.4 million.

“It’s just a cycle that wasn’t very effective. The commitment from [owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu] is to build a winning team and win the Stanley Cup is our goal. You can’t do that unless you lock up your core guys for a long time and make a commitment to them so that our fans know that we’re committed as well.”

Added Panthers executive chairman Peter Luukko: “To be committed, you have to sign players and sign people. It’s not just the players. It’s Nick Bjugstad’s long-term contract, Barky’s long-term contract, but it’s also extending Dale Tallon, and bringing Tommy Rowe in here to support the organization, extending Gerard Gallant’s contract.”

Luukko could’ve included his own name there. He was a pretty significant hire himself.

Granted, the Panthers still haven’t won a playoff series since 1996. Much work remains, both on the ice and off.

But with all the young talent they’ve assembled through the draft; and with committed owners; and with a new deal with Broward County; and with the collapse of the Canadian dollar, which isn’t such a bad thing for lower-revenue American teams like Florida, things are definitely looking up for this franchise.

“I just think this is a good spot for me,” said Barkov. “The team is going in the right direction, and I love it here.”

Related: Despite Panthers’ history, Luongo ‘saw a bright future’ in Florida

Blues seek arena upgrades after departure of Rams

ST. LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 21: A general view of the exterior of Scottrade Center prior to the St. Louis Blues playing against the Carolina Hurricanes on October 21, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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ST. LOUIS (AP) The St. Louis Blues want two local governments to renovate their city-owned downtown arena as part of a project that will also upgrade the city’s convention center and former home of its recently departed NFL team.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Blues officials and the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission met with city and St. Louis County leaders last week to discuss a $100 million renovation of the 21-year-old Scottrade Center.

“We have a 21-year-old building that has had some investment over that time period, but we also know it’s at a point where it’s starting to fall behind with other cities who we compete with,” said Blues CEO of business operations Chris Zimmerman.

The proposed project also calls for remodeling the America’s Center convention complex and the adjacent Edward Jones Dome, which was home to the St. Louis Rams before the NFL approved its move back to Los Angeles.

Supporters want to package the three projects together to maximize potential public financing.

Related: After Rams leave, Blues owner sticks up for St. Louis