Mike Halford

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Bolts begin crucial home stand, knowing margin for error is gone

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With just 17 wins from their first 35 games of the year, the Lightning are aware they’ll be fighting for a playoff spot over the second half of the season.

Which is why this upcoming stretch is massively important.

The Bolts kick off a five-game home stand tonight against Montreal — a team that’s owned them recently — and head coach Jon Cooper admitted the club can’t squander this opportunity to secure points.

“What we need to do now is [pay] attention to detail, especially in this home stand here to kick off the second half or whatever you want to call it,” Cooper said, per the Bolts’ Twitter account. “Because I’ve said this before, our margin for error now is gone. We’ve used that all up.”

Tampa Bay heads into tonight’s action sitting fourth in the Atlantic Division, three points back of Boston for the last playoff spot. In terms of the wild card, they’re even further out — seven points back of Philly — which is why there’s so much importance placed on this upcoming stretch.

Things are trending upward for the Bolts, though.

Firstly, they’ll welcome back Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat to the lineup this evening. Kucherov, the team’s leader in goals, hasn’t played since Dec. 10 and Palat, who has 13 points through 30 games, hasn’t played since Dec. 14.

Those two should be a huge help in trying to finally defeat the Habs. Montreal has won five straight against Tampa Bay, including a 3-1 win in late October at the Bell Centre.

“We owe them a few here, because they’ve taken us out the last few games,” Cooper said, per the Tampa Bay Times. “We’ll be ready for them.”

With Devils in free fall, Schneider vents frustrations

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The Devils beat Cory Schneider‘s old team, the Canucks, on Dec. 6 to move to 12-7-1 on the year.

Things looked pretty good.

What’s transpired since, though, has been anything but.

The Devils lost for the ninth time in 10 games last night, dropping a 5-2 decision at home to the Penguins. And Schneider, who has struggled and been tagged with many of the losses during this recent skid, voiced frustrations in the aftermath.

“I don’t know what happened,” Schneider said, per NorthJersey.com. “Again, a late goal in the second, 3-2, you would have thought the game was over. You would have thought it was 5-1 at that point. We just need to be stronger in the last minutes of periods, myself included, come up with the save, get to the third tied.

“But the last couple of games that’s been an issue. I just don’t know. They get the next one and there’s the game.”

Fortitude — be it mental or physical — has been an issue for the Devils all season long. Head coach John Hynes said the team was too easy to play against, and made a statement earlier this month by healthy scratching P.A. Parenteau and Beau Bennett, and giving tough guy Luke Gazdic his season debut.

Management was even more blunt.

“Play harder,” Hynes said of the message GM Ray Shero and his front office staffers had for the team. “Really. Play [bleeping] harder. That’s what I’m talking about. There’s a will they need. There’s a passion and emotion to our game. How many scrums have we been involved with? No one is mad at us. There’s got to be pushback in your game and pride in your game.

“Someone takes your lunch money, what the [expletive]? It’s not good. That’s something we established last year. It’s a tenacity to your game. Our team last year, we never gave up. That, to me, is what you’re trying to build, and that’s pride.”

Pride is another word that’s been thrown around lately. New Jersey sits 25th in the NHL in goals allowed per game, and Schneider’s numbers are among the worst for full-time starters: 10-12-5, 2.90 GAA, .904 save percentage.

“We’ve got to take some pride in not giving up four or five a night and bearing down and believing we can get back in these games,” he said. “We just have to change that mindset and be better going forward.”

Things don’t get any easier for the Devils moving forward. They’ll close out the year with a home-and-home series against the Caps, who’ve won seven of their last 10.

Panthers ‘need more’ from slumping Bjugstad

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Nick Bjugstad plays a pretty key role in Florida — he scored a team-high 24 goals two years ago, and 15 last season — so it’s fair to suggest his slow start is a big reason for the Panthers’ slow start.

Now, it’s time to shake things up.

Bjugstad, who normally plays center, will be moved to the wing to play alongside Vincent Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen on the Panthers’ second line, in the hopes of getting his game on track. The former first-round pick has just one goal and two points in 16 games this year, missing extensive time with a broken wrist.

“I want to give [Bjugstad] some top-six minutes to get him going,” head coach Tom Rowe said, per the Sun-Sentinel. “We talked about him getting off the schneid a little bit.

“He’s got one but we need more out of him.”

Bjugstad’s utilization is an interesting look into Rowe’s coaching strategy — specifically, how it differs from his predecessor, Gerard Gallant. Rowe leans far more heavily on his top six. Per the Sun-Sentinel, Trocheck’s TOI has jumped from 17:46 last season to 21:20 this year and, conversely, Bjugstad is way down — averaging just 13:22 — because he’s largely been serving as a bottom-two center.

The Panthers head into tonight’s game against the Leafs on 36 points, sitting fifth in the Atlantic Division. So it’s clear they need a spark, and it’s clear they’re hoping Bjugstad’s promotion will do the trick.

Goalie nods: Flames start Elliott for third time in four games

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Just when it looked like Chad Johnson grabbed the No. 1 gig in Calgary, Brian Elliott made his move.

Elliott, who has won each of his last two starts while posting a .927 save percentage, will get his third nod in the last four games as the Flames take on the Avs in Colorado tonight. Elliott’s start comes with Johnson having lost each of his last three starts — allowing 12 goals on just 84 shots, an .857 save percentage.

Interesting times, to say the least.

We’ve been following this goalie battle throughout the season, and for good reason. The Flames acquired Elliott in the hopes he’d solidify their longstanding goalie issues, and came into the campaign as the unquestioned No. 1 (what’s more, he and the club were already in contract extension talks).

The veteran netminder struggled in his first few months with the Flames, though there was always the belief he’d have another crack at the starting gig after Johnson took it over. For as good as Johnson’s been, he’s 30 years old and never had sustained success as a No. 1.

Now could be Elliott’s shot.

Elsewhere…

Marc-Andre Fleury gets another crack at the Devils after a 23-save win against them on Friday. He’ll be up against Cory Schneider, who was on the losing end of the aforementioned tilt.

— The Caps will go right back to Braden Holtby, after he posted a 23-save shutout of the Lightning prior to the break. The Isles will go with Jaroslav Halak.

Antti Raanta gets another start for the Rangers, though this one is due to Henrik Lundqvist falling ill with the flu. Raanta will go up against Mike Condon, who starts for the visiting Sens.

— Great matchup in Columbus, as the Blue Jackets and Sergei Bobrovsky host Tuukka Rask and the Bruins.

— It’s Robin Lehner versus Petr Mrazek as the Sabres take on the Red Wings in Detroit.

— The red-hot Devan Dubnyk, who is 8-0-1 with a 1.41 GAA and .951 save percentage in December, looks to pad those stats with a start in Nashville. The Preds will counter with Pekka Rinne, who hasn’t had as much success this month (.867 save percentage).

Corey Crawford will make his second start since returning from an appendectomy, as the ‘Hawks host the Jets. Winnipeg will go with Connor Hellebuyck.

— No surprises in Arizona, as the Coyotes will continue to ride veteran Mike Smith. For the visiting Stars, Kari Lehtonen looks to make another start after a 29-save win over the Kings last Friday.

— Another good matchup in Anaheim, as Martin Jones and the Sharks take on John Gibson and the Ducks.

Kings still don’t have timetable for Toffoli’s return

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L.A.’s already dealt with lengthy injuries this year — Brayden McNabb, Marian Gaborik and, most notably, Jonathan Quick — and could soon add another to the list in Tyler Toffoli.

Toffoli, currently sidelined with a lower-body injury, hasn’t played since Dec. 20 and hasn’t taken a team-related skate since Dec. 22. He’s already missed two games, won’t travel for an upcoming two-game trip (Vancouver on Dec. 28, Edmonton Dec. 29) and all signs point to him being out until early January.

“We’ll get him looked at again early after the new year,” Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said, per LA Kings Insider. “So it’ll be at least a week before we even look at him again.”

Toffoli had eight goals and 20 points at the time of his injury, sitting second on the team in scoring behind Jeff Carter. He is, quite obviously, a big part of the L.A. offense — in addition to the point total, he leads the team with a plus-14 rating, and averages nearly 18 minutes per night.

The Kings can ill afford to lose Toffoli for an extended period of time. This is a team that sits 20th in the NHL in goals per game, and a large chunk of that total is directly due to Toffoli and Carter. The pair have combined for 27 of L.A.’s 86 goals this season, which is 31 percent of the scoring.