Jason Brough


Neuvirth gets the call in big game against Leafs

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The Philadelphia Flyers are going back to Michal Neuvirth.

Not because Steve Mason has struggled. In fact, Mason has been excellent of late.

But tonight in Toronto, against one of the teams the Flyers are fighting for the final playoff spot in the East, it’s simply Neuvirth’s turn.

“The schedule dictates it,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said, per CSN Philly. “Mase has been real good. He’s done a great job for us and Neuvy has to do the same thing for us tonight. You look at the schedule right now, one guy is not going to be able to run the table. It’s a good night for Neuvy to go in and do a job for his teammates.”

Neuvirth hasn’t played in almost two weeks. His last start, on Feb. 25, he allowed four goals on 29 shots in a 4-2 loss to Pittsburgh. On the season, he’s 10-9-1 with a lowly .887 save percentage.

The Flyers next game after tonight’s is Saturday in Boston.

Struggling Morgan Rielly goes under the microscope in Toronto


Morgan Rielly is an important part of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ future. The fifth overall pick in 2012, he was drafted to be a top-pairing defenseman, and maybe even that elusive kind of No. 1 d-man that every Stanley Cup-winning team seems to have.

Now 23 years old, and with almost 300 NHL games under his belt, Rielly is indeed on the Leafs’ top pairing. However, with a minus-23 rating, there’s obvious concern about his defensive play.

Rielly has been paired all season with Nikita Zaitsev, a 25-year-old KHL veteran playing his first year in the NHL.

“We had a time early on when we were playing well defensively, playing a two-way game,” Rielly said recently, per the Toronto Star. “Then we got away from it. We got into run-and-gun. Now we have to get back to the style of hockey that’s going to make us win games over a long period of time. That’s playing defense and making sure we play well in our own end and managing the puck. Whether that’s chipping the puck out, or chipping it in rather than make plays, then that’s what it is.”

Rielly was a minus-2 in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Detroit. The Leafs jumped out to a 3-0 lead in that one, before the Red Wings made it an interesting third period.

Afterwards, head coach Mike Babcock suggested the Leafs became too conservative with the lead.

In other words, Babcock would like to see a little more play-making in key situations, not less.

“When you’re loose and driving, you’re flying and on top of the other team and you look fast and you’re playing right,” said Babcock. “Then when you’re tight you look slow. That’s just the reality of being in the league and learning how to win and expecting to win every night and understanding what you’ve got to do to win.”

The Leafs, one point back of the Islanders for the second wild-card spot in the East, host the Flyers tonight.

After practice this morning, Babcock offered Rielly a vote of confidence.

The message?

Stop thinking. Stop worrying. Just go out and play.


Blackhawks getting Hjalmarsson back for stretch run


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.”

Pre-game reading: T.J. Oshie picked a good year for a career year


— Up top, T.J. Oshie leads off the “Goals of the Week” with a beauty backhander against the Stars.

— Speaking of Oshie, he’s on the verge of setting a career high for goals in a season. He has 25 now. Two more and he’ll break the mark he set last season with 26. And did we mention he’s a pending unrestricted free agent? “Some players have career years on those years,” said Caps coach Barry Trotz. “Some players wilt under that pressure. He’s real focused. He’s having an exceptional year.” (CSN Mid-Atlantic)

— The latest news on the NHL and the Olympics is that there’s, well, no news. According to commissioner Gary Bettman, “There’s absolutely nothing new. I think the overwhelming sentiment of the teams is that it’s very disruptive on the season, and there’s somewhere between fatigue and negativity on the subject.” Don’t lose all hope, though. There’s still time to make a deal, and these things usually go right down to the wire. (NHL.com)

— A profile of Gabe Vilardi, who could be the third center drafted this summer after Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier. Vilardi, 17, has 28 goals and 31 assists in 43 games for the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. His 59 points are tops on his team. (The Hockey News)

— The Chicago Blackhawks do a great job staying out of the penalty box. In fact, as noted by Mark Lazerus of the Sun-Times: “With 196 penalties in 65 games, the Hawks are 29th out of 30 teams. In fact, they’ve been 27th, 28th or 29th in the league in penalties for eight consecutive years, dating back to the 2009-10 season, when they won their first Stanley Cup of the modern era.” (Chicago Sun-Times)

— How would changing the NHL’s points system — say, to three points for a regulation win — change the way games are coached? That’s what Postmedia’s Michael Traikos tried to find out this week during the general managers meetings in Florida. Devils GM Ray Shero had some interesting thoughts on the subject. (National Post)

Enjoy the games!

‘Glaring’ mistakes led to latest Panthers loss

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The Florida Panthers are running out of time.

After last night’s 5-2 loss to the Rangers at BB&T Center, the Panthers have just 17 games left to leapfrog the Lightning, Flyers, Maple Leafs, and Islanders and grab the second wild-card spot in the East.

Since sweeping a five-game road trip, it’s been a tremendously disappointing stretch for the Panthers. They have just one win in their last seven, and six of those games were at home.

Last night, they were the rested team, hosting a Rangers side that had played the night before in Tampa. But it was the visitors who struck with two goals in the first period. After that, the Panthers were chasing, and they never could catch up.

“We’re still a young team trying to learn how to win and then play against real good competition,” said interim coach Tom Rowe, per the Sun-Sentinel.

“Our defensive mistakes were glaring and they capitalized on them. We got great chances, which we definitely did, but their goaltender came up with great saves when he had to.”

It’s estimated that the Panthers will need to go around 11-4-2 to give themselves a good shot of making the playoffs.

That’s doable for this group, but it’s not likely.