Mike Halford

Florida Panthers v Calgary Flames
Getty Images

Panthers captain Mitchell (concussion) ‘has to decide whether he can play’

3 Comments

Heading to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, there’s no denying Florida would love to have its captain in the mix.

But there’s no denying his return is loaded with issues.

Willie Mitchell, who’s again dealing with concussion problems that have occurred throughout his lengthy career, hasn’t played since mid-January — and on Thursday, GM Dale Tallon said Mitchell’s return is up in the air.

“Willie has to decide whether he can play or not,” Talon said, per the Miami Herald. “We want to make sure he doesn’t get hurt, we want to make sure there is no permanent damage.”

Mitchell, who turns 39 in April, has been a fairly key cog for Florida since signing on two years ago. He played 66 games last season while averaging nearly 22 minutes a night, and appeared in 46 this year — with his ice time dipping to under 20 minutes per — before being sidelined.

Among other things, he was instrumental in helping prized d-man Aaron Ekblad adjust to NHL life. Ekblad lived with Mitchell during his rookie campaign, which culminated with Ekblad capturing last year’s Calder Trophy.

With Mitchell out of the lineup, Florida has a lack of experience on the back end — he’s a two-time Stanley Cup champion with nearly 90 postseason games to his credit.

In Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Rangers, the six defensemen that dressed — Ekblad, Steve Kampfer, Alex Petrovic, Dmitry Kulikov, Jakub Kindl and Brian Campbell — have a grand total of 123 playoff games.

Campbell accounts for most of that, with 97. Another injured defenseman, Erik Gudbranson, has seven.

So it’s obvious the Panthers would love to have Mitchell back. But they’re not willing to risk further damage in order to do so.

“This is up to Willie. We want to do what is best for him. That’s the bottom line,” Tallon said. “The doctors have said they’re concerned with his long-term health.”

Auston Matthews first player named to USA’s World Championships roster

United States' Auston Matthews reacts to his team's loss to Russia during semifinal hockey action at the IIHF World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)  MANDATORY CREDIT
Getty Images
3 Comments

Well, here’s one way to make some noise.

In something of an unprecedented move, USA Hockey started its World Hockey Championships roster announcement with a bang, by naming 18-year-old Auston Matthews as the first — and, right now, only — player on the team.

More:

Last year, Matthews skated in an exhibition game with the U.S. Men’s National Team prior to the 2015 IIHF Men’s World Championship, becoming the first player to play at that level before entering their draft-eligible season.

This will be the fifth time Matthews has represented the United States in IIHF competition. A two-time gold medalist with the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Teams (2014, 2015), Matthews most recently, helped the U.S. capture the bronze medal in the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland.

In his first professional season in Zurich, Matthews collected 46 points (24-22) in 36 games to earn the league’s Rising Star Award.

The consensus No. 1 overall pick at this year’s draft, Matthews is following in the footsteps of Buffalo rookie Jack Eichel, who — as an 18-year-old — helped the U.S. capture bronze at last year’s Worlds.

Eichel used the tournament to further cement his draft status, finishing with seven points in 10 games. That led to the Sabres taking him with the No. 2 overall pick, one spot behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid.

The U.S. and Matthews begin this year’s Worlds on May 6, with a date against defending champion Canada.

Related: Agent: ‘No truth’ to rumor Matthews re-signs in Switzerland if he dislikes draft lottery winner

Goalie nods: Special night for Backstrom in return to Minnesota

MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 20:  Niklas Backstrom #32 of the Calgary Flames looks on as he makes his NHL return after fourteen months during the game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on March 20, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Calgary Flames defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-1.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Getty Images
7 Comments

Thursday’s game at Xcel promises to be an emotional one for Niklas Backstrom.

The veteran goalie, who spent the first nine years of his NHL career in Minnesota, will be back to face the Wild for the first time since being dealt to Calgary at the trade deadline.

Backstrom, 38, enjoyed some major success in Minnesota, including the 2008-09 campaign in which he played a career-high 71 games, recorded a career-high 37 wins, finished with a .923 save percentage and was named a Vezina finalist, finishing third in voting.

Though he’s largely been inactive over the last 14 months — he was the third goalie in Minnesota with Devan Dubnyk as the No. 1 and Darcy Kuemper as the backup — Backstrom fared well in his first outing with the Flames, stopping 21 of 22 shots in a win over Montreal earlier this week.

Tonight figures to be a much tougher test than the Habs were, though. Minnesota is fighting for its playoff life, and will likely be scoreboard watching as the team it’s chasing for the final wild card spot, Colorado, is also in action against Philly.

Elsewhere…

— Key Atlantic Division tilt in Boston tonight, when the B’s host the Panthers. Roberto Luongo will go for Florida, but no word yet on a Bruins starter. Tuukka Rask started last night’s loss to the Rangers, but was hooked after 20 minutes.

— Scott Wedgewood makes his second NHL start after beating the Blue Jackets on Sunday. He’ll face off against Marc-Andre Fleury and the Penguins.

Eddie Lack versus Sergei Bobrovsky as the ‘Canes invade Columbus.

— The Anaheim goalie timeshare continues as Frederik Andersen gets back into the net tonight in Toronto. The Leafs are going with Garret Sparks.

Petr Mrazek, who wasn’t terrific in relief of Jimmy Howard in Tuesday’s loss to Tampa Bay, goes for the Red Wings. Ben Scrivens goes for the Habs.

— Winnipeg is starting Ondrej Pavelec, who’s coming off a shutout of Vancouver. The Kings are likely to counter with Jonathan Quick.

Ryan Miller, who made 49 saves against the Blues in his last outing, will start for the Canucks. Nashville looks as though it’ll give Pekka Rinne the nod.

— Two teams in the thick of their respective wild card chases meet in Colorado: Steve Mason goes for the Flyers, Semyon Varlamov for the Avs.

Louis Domingue draws back in for host Arizona, giving Mike Smith the night off. The Stars will likely go with Kari Lehtonen.

— The red-hot James Reimer starts for San Jose. Cam Talbot goes for Edmonton.

Boll suspended four games for ‘excessively late and incredibly forceful’ Bellemare hit

Bellemare
PHT
8 Comments

The NHL has tagged Columbus forward Jared Boll with a four-game suspension for his hit on Philly’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on Tuesday night.

“Boll crashes down and delivers a hit that is both excessively late and incredibly forceful,” the Department of Player Safety said in its video explanation. “What elevates this hit to merit supplemental discipline is its extreme lateness and the predatory nature of the hit.”

Boll was originally given a five-minute interference major and game misconduct on the play, which occurred early in the second period of Columbus’ eventual 3-2 win.

Bellemare appeared shaken up, but did return to finish the contest and log just under 11 minutes of ice time.

With the suspension, Boll will now miss Columbus’ games against Carolina, Nashville, Washington and the New York Islanders, eligible to return on Saturday, Apr. 2 with a game against the ‘Canes.

Boll is a repeat offender, having been suspended three games last March for a headshot on then-Ducks forward Patrick Maroon. Boll will now forfeit $82.926.84 in salary to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

 

Avs mum on plan for prized rookie Rantanen

Mikko Rantanen, Tim Jackman
AP
2 Comments

The Colorado Avalanche will be a team worth watching over the next four days — and not just because they’re in the thick of the Western Conference wild card race.

With injuries sidelining top scorers Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon, the Avs have recalled Mikko Rantanen, the 10th overall pick at the 2015 draft.

To say Rantanen is an exciting prospect would be putting it mildly. Still just 19 years old, he’s been tearing up the American League this year — he has 52 points in 44 games, was named to the league’s annual All-Star Game, leads all AHL rookies in scoring and recently set a new San Antoino franchise record for points and assists by a first-year player.

The catch, of course, is that Rantanen was sent down to the AHL earlier this year after playing six NHL contests.

He participated in his seventh in Sunday’s win over Edmonton, meaning he’s got two more before he hits lucky No. 9 — at which time the Avs have to decide whether he’ll play No. 10, and “burn” the first year of his entry-level deal, or be sent back to San Antonio.

Colorado plays Philly tonight, then has a huge tilt against Minnesota on Saturday.

So, what’s the plan for Rantanen?

“Ask me the question on Sunday, I’ll be very happy to answer the question,” head coach Patrick Roy said, per the Denver Post. “As of right now, the focus is on tonight. He’s been working very hard on his game and let’s see where he is after those two games.”

Guess we’ll find out in 96 hours, then.