Mike Halford

Caps, Pens excited for ‘playoff atmosphere in October’

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There’s no shortage of storylines heading into tonight’s big Washington-Pittsburgh game at Verizon (NBCSN, 8 p.m. ET).

As always, there’s Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin.

There’s the Pens-turned-Caps — Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik — going up against their old team, and a Cap-turned-Pen, Eric Fehr, itching (but unable) to face his former club.

There’s also tremendous optimism in Washington, thanks to a 6-1-0 start, clashing with concern out of Pittsburgh, where the Penguins are just 4-4-0 and hamstrung by a sputtering offense.

Oh yeah, there’s also the fact both are expected to be in the thick of the Eastern Conference title chase this spring — and could very well face each other come playoff time.

“It’s great for the game,” Jason Chimera said, per CSN Washington. “It almost is like a playoff atmosphere in October.”

“A lot of years, it’s been like this,” Nicklas Backstrom added. “Everybody’s been talking about it around here. There’s a little more excitement, I’d say it was like a playoff game.”

Both teams should be plenty fresh for tonight’s tilt. Pittsburgh hasn’t played since beating the Preds in Nashville on Saturday, and Washington has been off even longer — since Friday, when it beat Edmonton 7-4 at Rexall.

As for the lines for tonight’s game, the Caps will roll with their usual units. Justin Williams missed Tuesday’s practice due to illness, but will skate in his regular spot on the second line with Backstrom and Marcus Johansson.

The rest:

Ovechkin-Evgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Chimera-Jay BeagleTom Wilson
Brooks Laich-Chandler Stephenson-Andre Burakovsky

As for Pittsburgh, here’s what head coach Mike Johnston rolled out on Tuesday:

Pascal Dupuis-Crosby-Patric Hornqvist
David PerronEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Chris KunitzNick BoninoDaniel Sprong
Sergei PlotnikovMatt CullenBeau Bennett

Blues GM: Havlat, Zubrus PTOs are ‘planning for the worst’

Martin Havlat
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There was a fair bit of surprise Tuesday when St. Louis announced it’d signed veteran forwards Martin Havlat and Danius Zubrus to professional tryouts.

On Wednesday, Blues GM Doug Armstrong explained the rationale behind the moves.

“We have 13 forwards here now and three of those don’t combine for 100 games total in the NHL,” Armstrong said, per the Post-Dispatch. “I’m comfortable with our group right now, (but) it’s planning for the best and hoping there are no more injuries.

“But hoping for the best and planning for the worst, it’s the next wave of injuries that we get that could be worrisome.”

The Blues currently have three key forwards out injured: Paul Stastny (broken foot), Jaden Schwartz (fractured ankle) and Patrik Berglund (shoulder surgery).

Dmitrij Jaskin, Ty Rattie and Robby Fabbri are the three youngsters with less than 100 games combined.

So, enter the 34-year-old Havlat and the 37-year-old Zubrus. The veterans, who combined have over 2,000 games of NHL experience, now get 10-day looks from the Blues before their PTO expires.

Once the tryouts are up, both players will either be signed to a contract or released, though they can remain with the club at their own expense. That’s what Scott Gomez did with the Devils for the first few months of last season, before he ultimately scored a contract and went on to a fairly productive season (34 points in 58 games).

Probably not coincidentally, Gomez is now with the Blues, having arrived in training camp on a PTO before securing a one-year deal.

Gomez scored his first goal of the season in Tuesday’s 2-0 win over Tampa Bay.

Goal-starved ‘Hawks recall Kero, top scorer from AHL Rockford

Pierre-Cedric Labrie, Tanner Kero, Daniel Ciampini, Chicago Blackhawks
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With just 10 goals in their last six games — and none in their last 139 minutes of regulation — the Chicago Blackhawks made a move to bolster their offense on Tuesday, recalling Tanner Kero from AHL Rockford.

From the club:

Kero, 23, has seven points (5G, 2A) in five games with the IceHogs this season.

Earlier this week, the centerman was named CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Oct. 25 with three goals, an assist and a plus-5 rating over three tilts.

Kero’s six goals rank third in the AHL and eight points are tied for 10th.

Chicago’s offense, as mentioned above, has sputtered lately and ranks 23rd in the NHL at 2.11 goals per game.

Forwards Marian Hossa, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, Ryan Garbutt, Bryan Bickell, Viktor Tikhonov and Andrew Desjardins have combined to score one goal.

One.

Kero signed with the ‘Hawks in April following a stellar year at Michigan Tech. He was named the WCHA’s player of the year after scoring 20 goals and 46 points in 41 games and was a Hobey Baker Award top-10 finalist, becoming just the third player in school history to earn that distinction.

While he’s fully deserving of this recall, it’s interesting to note he got the promotion ahead of Marko Dano, the ’13 first-rounder acquired in the Brandon Saad trade with Columbus.

Of course, it could be a positional thing — Kero has been playing center in Rockford, while Dano is a winger.

Hurting at forward, Blues bring in Havlat and Zubrus on PTOs

Martin Havlat
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St. Louis had some success bringing in veterans Scott Gomez and Scottie Upshall this season on professional tryouts.

So why not try it again?

On Tuesday, the club announced it had signed Martin Havlat and Danius Zubrus to PTOs. The moves come with three key Blues forwards out injured: Paul Stastny (broken foot), Jaden Schwartz (fractured ankle) and Patrik Berglund (shoulder surgery).

Havlat, 34, was in camp earlier this fall with Florida, but failed to secure a deal. He played last year with the Devils, scoring 14 points in 40 games.

Zubrus, 37, also spent last year with the Devils, scoring 10 points in 74 games before getting bought out this summer. He was a longtime teammate of Blues assistant GM Martin Brodeur in New Jersey.

Some additional context for these PTOs:

While it’s possible one — or, both — could be signed to Brodeur-like contracts (last season he inked a to a one-year contract worth a pro-rated base pay of $700,000) to temporarily fill the void, neither Havlat nor Zubrus seem like they’re long for St. Louis.

That said, nobody expected much from the Gomez and Upshall PTOs, either, and those have turned out reasonably well. Upshall has two goals in five games thus far, while Gomez has an assist through four games.

Wings confirm prized rookie Larkin will stick with team

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Well, it’s official — Dylan Larkin is staying in Detroit.

GM Ken Holland confirmed as much to ESPN on Tuesday, news that doesn’t come as a huge surprise but is still of great significance. Larkin, 19, has been a major factor for the Red Wings this season — seven points through his first eight games — but this isn’t a team that traditionally keeps teenagers at the NHL level.

The last to spend the year in the bigs?

Jiri Fischer, who turned the trick nearly 15 years ago.

Detroit had the option to send Larkin to AHL Grand Rapids prior to the nine-games-played mark, and avoid “burning” the first of his three-year, entry-level deal. But that option never seemed likely, especially with the way Larkin’s producing offensively; it’s also worth noting the Wings can still send him to the American League this year, should he begin to struggle or appear overwhelmed.

For now, though, the University of Michigan product will focus on the task at hand — game No. 9, which is tonight against Carolina. Larkin will center Detroit’s second line, between Tomas Tatar and Teemu Pulkkinen.