Mike Halford

Ryan McDonagh

Rangers get Staal, McDonagh back tonight versus Blues

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After a disappointing 5-2 loss in New Jersey on Tuesday, the Rangers will look to tighten things up defensively on Thursday when blueliners Marc Staal and captain Ryan McDonagh return to the lineup.

Staal missed Tuesday’s game after  “things locked up” in his lower back, per the Rangers’ website. McDonagh had missed the last two contests dealing with the after effects of a Leo Komarov elbow.

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McDonagh–who missed the last two games with a sore jaw and neck–was receiving treatment and unavailable to speak with reporters after the morning skate, but he, like Staal, took part in every drill and seemed without issue out on the ice. He also practiced on one of the power play units alongside Dan Boyle at the point, with J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast up front.

The other power play unit saw Keith Yandle, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.

Head coach Alain Vigneault hoped the return of two of his regular d-men would alleviate some of the mistakes made against the Devils.

Staal did too.

“We gave up a lot of two-on-ones and breakaways (Tuesday), and it was just too wide open for how we like to play,” he said. “We’re going to try and get back on track tonight and play the way we know how to win.”

Goalie nods: Allen gets first start since early January

Jake Allen,
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One goalie down, another goalie up.

That’s sort of been the story in St. Louis this season, and it’ll continue tonight as Jake Allen — activated off IR earlier in the week — will make his first start since Jan. 8 when the Blues take on the Rangers.

Allen will inherit the starting gig from Brian Elliott, who started 18 consecutive games while Allen was out injured. Elliott, of course, will be out for the next month after suffering a lower-body ailment against the Sharks on Monday.

There promises to be more than Ken Hitchcock’s watchful eye on Allen moving forward, as Blues fans and observers will be curious to see how the goaltending pans out. Elliott was nothing short of brilliant during his run as the No. 1 netminder, but Allen — 18-11-3 on the year, with a .923 save percentage and 2.18 GAA — is penciled in as St. Louis’ long-term starter, and likely to be in goal by the time the playoffs begin.

For New York, Henrik Lundqvist is in goal.

Elsewhere…

— Michael Neuvirth will start for the fourth time in five games as the Flyers host the Wild. Devan Dubnyk goes for Minnesota.

— After Curtis McElhinney snapped his run of 12 straight starts on Tuesday, Joonas Korpisalo is back in goal for Columbus. He’ll face Cory Schneider and the visiting Devils.

— It’s Cam Ward versus Jonathan Bernier as the ‘Canes take on the Leafs in Toronto.

Louis Domingue will look to give Arizona its first win of a five-game road swing when the Coyotes play in Florida. The Panthers will start Roberto Luongo.

— Big Central Division clash in Chicago between the Preds and ‘Hawks, with Pekka Rinne and Corey Crawford in goal.

Michael Hutchinson will give Ondrej Pavelec the night off in Dallas. The Stars are going with Antti Niemi.

Jaroslav Halak will go for a third straight win when the Isles take on the Flames in Calgary. He’ll be up against Joni Ortio, who makes his second straight start over Jonas Hiller.

— The red-hot Craig Anderson continues to hold down the net for Ottawa. He’ll be in tonight, when the Sens take on Ryan Miller and the Canucks.

Cam Talbot versus Jonathan Quick as Edmonton plays in L.A.

With four key unsigned RFAs, Ducks GM braces for ‘interesting summer’

2015 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7
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The drama never stops in Anaheim.

The Ducks, who have rebounded from a disastrous start and re-emerged as a Stanley Cup contender, aren’t focused exclusively on a long playoff run this spring.

From a front office perspective, the summer will require as much focus.

If not more.

On Thursday, GM Bob Murray told reporters that, despite trying to sign some of his key restricted free agents in December, nothing’s panned out — leading him to predict it’ll be an “interesting summer” in Anaheim, per the L.A. Times.

Murray, of course, is alluding to what may eventually be dubbed The Big Four: Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Rickard Rakell and Frederik Andersen.

All of them are set to become RFAs.

And all are in line for significant raises.

The biggest priority, it’s assumed, will be Lindholm, the former sixth overall pick that’s become a linchpin of the Anaheim defense. Despite only turning 21 in January, he’s already played over 200 games at the NHL level and is currently averaging a career-high 22 minutes per night, while scoring a career-best eight goals.

Lindholm’s in the last of his entry-level deal. The Ducks could try to bridge him, or buy up some UFA years with a longer-term contract.

But he’s not the only defenseman in need of a new deal.

Vatanen, 24, is in the final year of his second pro contract — a two-year, $2.525 million pact with a $1.26M average annual cap hit. It’s one of the best value contracts in the league, as Vatanen currently leads all Ducks d-men in scoring with 31 points, putting him top-30 among NHL blueliners.

He’s a nice player, but might not be long for the Ducks. The club has the likes of Cam Fowler, Kevin Bieksa and Simon Despres locked in through 2018, and promising prospect Shea Theodore on the horizon.

So that’s the defense. Murray also has questions up front.

Specifically, what he’s prepared to pay Rakell? Another terrific value guy, the 22-year-old is third on the team in points (33) and second in goals (15) while making less than $900,000 annually. A former first-round pick, Rakell has seen his TOI take a huge leap this year — to 16:03 per night — and is wowing people with his skill set, specifically head coach Bruce Boudreau.

“Sometimes he puts on a clinic with the moves,” Boudreau said recently, per the O.C. Register.

Finally, there’s Andersen.

Of the four RFAs, his future is probably the easiest to predict. While he’s shown remarkably well and capable of carrying the No. 1 gig, John Gibson is Anaheim’s goalie of the future — and really, goalie of the present, as evident by his spot at the 2016 All-Star Game in Nashville.

This could be Andersen’s last year in a Ducks uniform. And if it is, it’ll be really interesting to see how Murray orchestrates the exit.

Related: Andersen: ‘Fair question’ to ask if Ducks will trade him

Jets announce Little (fractured vertebrae) out for year after Stralman hit

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The ramifications from Anton Stralman’s big hit on Winnipeg center Bryan Little are severe.

Little, who’s been out of the Jets lineup since getting crunched by Stralman last week, suffered a compression fractured vertebrae and will miss the remainder of the season, the club announced on Thursday.

In a related move, the Jets have recalled Matt Halischuk from AHL Manitoba.

Losing Little is the latest in what’s been a very difficult year for the Jets. The club has underachieved all season long and, barring a remarkable turn of events, will miss the playoffs after making it last year — for the first time since moving to Winnipeg from Atlanta.

Little, who found good chemistry on the club’s top line next to Blake Wheeler and potential outgoing captain Andrew Ladd, had scored 17 goals and 42 points through 57 games this year. Had he stayed healthy, Little was on pace to challenge the career-high 64 points he notched during the ’13-14 campaign.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice was livid with the Stralman hit, so he’s probably more irate having learned his top pivot is done for the year. After the Bolts game, Maurice went off:

Stralman wasn’t penalized on the play, and didn’t receive any supplemental discipline from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

Roundup: ‘Canes waive Malone, Falk clears, Ducks claim Wagner

<> in the first period of an NHL hockey game at Prudential Center on December 23, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.
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Quick glance at Thursday’s waiver-related transactions:

— Carolina has placed gritty forward Brad Malone on waivers. Malone, 26, has five points through 37 games this year but has been a healthy scratch on numerous occasions recently. Prior to getting parked in the press box, he was best known as a physical, hard-hitting presence that drew the ire of Columbus captain Nick Foligno for a big hit back in early January.

Malone is in the second of a two-year deal worth $1.3 million. It carries an average annual cap hit of $650,000.

— Columbus d-man Justin Falk has cleared waivers. Not much to see here.

— The Ducks have claimed forward Chris Wagner off waivers, after losing him to Colorado via waivers earlier this season. Wagner, 24, had no points in 11 games with Anaheim prior to getting picked up, then scored four in 26 contests with the Avs.

Wagner is on a one-year, $600,000 deal that expires in July. The Ducks have since assigned him to their AHL affiliate in San Diego.