Jason Brough

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With growth of Schultz, a ‘tough call’ looms for Penguins

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Sunday against Buffalo, Justin Schultz picked up his 11th goal and 33rd assist of the season.

With 44 points, the 26-year-old trails only Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, and Duncan Keith in the scoring race among NHL defensemen.

To say the least, that is some fine company to be keeping.

Schultz has seen his career turn on a dime since being traded to Pittsburgh from Edmonton last season. He won a Stanley Cup in June, and now he’s become a “priority” for the Penguins to re-sign this summer.

“I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t get traded,” Schultz told NHL.com recently. “Maybe I’m still there. My confidence was at an all-time low and I needed a change of scenery. I’ve got nothing against Edmonton at all. I enjoyed my time there. It was tough to get traded. I had a lot of good friends there, met a lot of people. But it was time for a change of scenery and it worked out well.”

Schultz’s play may also have changed the Penguins’ plans for the upcoming expansion draft. Obviously, they’re going to protect Kris Letang. And protecting Brian Dumoulin seems an obvious choice too. That means if Schultz is to be protected as well, they’d either have to trade Olli Maatta, leave Maatta exposed, or protect only four forwards (as opposed to seven).

“That’s a tough call,” GM Jim Rutherford said last month, per the Post-Gazette. “We have a bunch of good players at forward, and a bunch on defense. That’s something we won’t decide until after the year.”

Maatta has not played since Feb. 16 due to a hand injury. The 22-year-old has just one goal and six assists in 54 games this season.

A first-round draft pick in 2012, Maatta has struggled to build on the promise he showed as a rookie in 2013-14. He has a $4.1 million cap hit through 2021-22.

Related: The Penguins are playing Schultz to his strengths

A ‘good chance’ Hjalmarsson and Oduya play Thursday

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The Chicago Blackhawks could have a new defensive pairing Thursday at home to Anaheim.

New for this season at least.

According to head coach Joel Quenneville, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya have a “good chance” of playing against the Ducks.

Hjalmarsson has missed the last four games with an upper-body injury, while Oduya (ankle) has yet to suit up for the ‘Hawks since being traded from Dallas.

The two veteran defensemen formed an effective shutdown pair when the ‘Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 2013 and 2015.

“They work well together, and around the net they’re extremely capable,” Quenneville said, per NHL.com. “They kill penalties well together, and that familiarity should return quickly.”

“Hammer’s probably the top defensive player league. Any chance you get to play with someone like that, I think that’s a good thing,” Oduya said, per CSN Chicago. “You need to produce the results too. I don’t think you want to live in whatever you think you’ve done before. I think all of us want to move forward. You want to get better. I want to know the guys in the room and kind of fuse into the group as much as I can even though I’ve been here before. It’s going to be a little bit of a learning process, but I want it to be as quick as possible.”

If Quenneville does indeed reunite Hjalmarsson and Oduya, expect Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to form the top duo.

The question then becomes about the third pairing, where options include Brian Campbell, Michal Kempny, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Michal Rozsival.

Still too early to peg Stamkos return date

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The Tampa Bay Lightning are going to need a great finish to make the playoffs, but it remains to be seen how much Steven Stamkos will be able to help.

Stamkos again skated with the Bolts this morning, but the captain was not part of line rushes and head coach Jon Cooper said it was too early to estimate his return date.

“We’re not even in a spot to sit here and throw a date on him,” Cooper said, per team beat writer Bryan Burns.

Stamkos (knee) has not played since Nov. 15. He only resumed skating last month.

Lately, the Lightning have been carried by Nikita Kucherov, who was named the NHL’s first star of the week today, and by goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who stopped 31 of 32 shots in Saturday’s 2-1 OT victory in Buffalo.

Three points back of the Islanders for the second wild-card spot, and with Toronto and Florida in between, it’s estimated the Lightning will need to go around 11-5-2 in their remaining 18 games to give themselves a chance at making the playoffs.

Tampa Bay hosts the Rangers tonight, the Wild Thursday, and in a big game Saturday, the Panthers pay a visit to Amalie Arena.

Rangers need ‘more desperation’ down the stretch

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Henrik Lundqvist thinks the Rangers just need to battle harder.

“It’s the mindset to will yourself to win battles all over the ice,” the veteran goalie told reporters after Saturday’s 4-1 loss in Montreal. “I think this game is all about battles, and that’s been the biggest difference in our last four games — winning the battles all over the ice, in front of the net, along the boards. Then I need to come up with the big save when I have to. We need to have more desperation than the other team.”

Saturday’s defeat was the the third in the Rangers’ last four games, and it led to the recalls of Tanner Glass and Steven Kampfer ahead of tonight’s test in Tampa.

“This just gives us a little more flexibility as far as lineup decisions,” explained head coach Alain Vigneault, who also thinks the Rangers need to fight harder.

“You’ve got to compete and you’ve got to battle hard and you’ve got to battle hard for puck battles and you’ve got to win your share,” Vigneault said. “I do think that in the last couple games there in those puck battle situations, we could have been better.”

It remains to be seen if Glass or Kampfer will get into the lineup tonight, but the Rangers can expect to face a desperate opponent. The Lightning are three points back of the Islanders for the second wild-card spot, and with only 18 games remaining, time is quickly running out.

The Rangers, meanwhile, are comfortably in a playoff spot, but they’ll want to head into the postseason feeling good about their game. Last year, the Penguins made quick work of them in the first round.

“I think our focus is just on the process of getting better,” said forward Derek Stepan. “Avoid seeking results and just work as a group to get better each night. The results will come with us getting better as a group and this is a great opportunity.”

Pre-game reading: Like trades? Then you’re gonna love June

— Up top, P.K. Subban looks back at his time with the Canadiens and the significance of playing for such an historic franchise.

— For Subban, it was quite the emotional return to Bell Centre. Writes NHL.com’s Arpon Basu: “Prior to the start of the game Subban made sure to blow a kiss to Elise Beliveau, the widow of Jean Beliveau, sitting in her usual seat behind the Canadiens bench.” Subban then shed a few tears during the Habs’ video tribute to their former star defenseman. (NHL.com)

— After a fairly tepid trade deadline, Pierre LeBrun is looking forward to what could be a crazy June. What will the Ducks do with their blue line ahead of the expansion draft? Will the Avalanche trade Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog? What about all the goalies who could be on the move? (TSN)

— Another interesting history lesson from Sports Illustrated writer Alex Prewitt, who looks back on the 1919 Stanley Cup Final in Seattle, which had to be suspended due to an outbreak of influenza. Montreal Canadiens player Joe Hall would eventually die of pneumonia brought about by the flu. (Sports Illustrated)

— The latest on the Coyotes’ search for a new arena. The team has spoken with the city of Mesa, but the mayor there says it would be “premature” to say whether a Mesa arena is “realistic or serious.” In the meantime, the Coyotes still don’t know if a key piece of legislation will pass. The latest report didn’t sound too promising, and if it doesn’t pass, the money to build a new arena could be tough to find. (Arizona Republic)

Johnny Oduya is happy to be back with the Chicago Blackhawks. “It’s always tough to leave a situation like we had in Dallas. It was a tough year I think for everybody. You feel some of that disappointment. To come back here with a lot of players that I played with, obviously a city I know pretty good, I feel like I got a second chance.” (Chicago Tribune)

Enjoy the games!