Mike Halford

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Blues unite Fabbri-Schwartz-Tarasenko, who are ‘playing some of the best hockey they’ve ever played’

There’s a youth movement at play in St. Louis.

Tonight against the Preds, head coach Ken Hitchcock will unveil his version of the ‘Kid Line,’ putting Jaden Schwartz at center between Robby Fabbri and Vladimir Tarasenko.

Tarasenko is 25, Schwartz is 24, Fabbri is 20. What’s more, they’re the Blues’ three leading scorers this year, combining for 33 goals and 67 points.

“It’s a bunch of young guys that are pretty excited to play together,” Hitchcock explained, per the Blues website. “They’re quite frankly playing some of the best hockey they’ve ever played. But I looked at it from a balance standpoint; we need more participants in our game.

“Too much one and done.”

As Hitch alluded to, St. Louis could use a spark.

The club has been inconsistent lately, alternating wins and losses over a six-game stretch. That includes Sunday’s 3-1 defeat in Minnesota, a game in which the Blues only managed to put 23 shots on goal.

“All these games are right there, but we’re not getting a big enough push back against these teams that really check hard,” Hitcock said afterward, per ESPN. “They checked hard. We really checked them hard, but as the game wore they started to get a little bit control of it.”

Today’s line juggling resulted in a second line centered by Paul Stastny, with Alex Steen and David Perron on his wings. The third line has Patrik Berglund in between the slumping Jori Lehtera and Nail Yakupov, who will dress for just the second time this month.

Scottie Upshall, Kyle Brodziak and Ryan Reaves will make up the fourth line.

Captain’s back: Toews returns for ‘Hawks after nine-game absence

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Jonathan Toews has been out of the Chicago lineup since. Nov. 23 with a back injury. He’s admitted his length of time on the shelf has been frustrating, and is itching to play again.

Tonight, he scratches.

(So to speak.)

Toews will return from his nine-game absence tonight as the ‘Hawks take on the Rangers at MSG, per CSN Chicago. The captain took line rushes on the top unit alongside Marian Hossa and Ryan Hartman at the morning skate.

The return is massive for Chicago, quite obviously. Though the club has fared reasonably well in Toews’ absence, going 5-2-2, the offense has dried up a bit. Chicago has found the back of the net just nine times over the last five games (which includes a shutout loss to the Rangers last week).

Toews was off to a modest start offensively, with 12 points through his first 21 games played.

In other lineup news, Brent Seabrook will also return for Chicago tonight. He’s missed the last two games with an upper-body injury.

 

 

 

Raanta starts again, but says ‘everybody knows who the No. 1 is’ in New York

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Antti Raanta will make his fourth straight start tonight when the Rangers host his former team, the Chicago Blackhawks, at MSG.

This, of course, has become a big story in the Big Apple. The Rangers have had backup netminders play extended periods before — like Cam Talbot, for example — but that occurred while starting netminder Henrik Lundqvist was hurt.

Lundqvist is healthy. He’s just not playing especially well at the moment. Raanta, meanwhile, is on fire, riding a 130-minute shutout streak which includes back-to-back blankings of the ‘Hawks and Devils.

Not that he’s letting this hot streak go to his head.

“[It’s] pretty special if you can rob games from Hank,” Raanta said on Tuesday, per NHL.com. “[But] everybody knows who the No. 1 is here.”

Raanta has been outstanding for New York this year. He’s 8-1 with a 1.65 GAA and .943 save percentage, which has all but forced head coach Alain Vigneault to ride the hot hand.

“Antti is playing real well and deserves to play,” Vigneault said, per the New York Post. “It’s as simple as that.”

Some have been hesitant to call this a goalie controversy, and some haven’t. Looking at the big picture here, it’s probably less a controversy than it is strategic — Lundqvist turns 35 in March and the organization’s plan to manage his playing time is well-documented.

In this light, Raanta’s run of hot play is almost a gift for Vigneault. Rather than seek out opportunities to try and get his backup games, this has been handed to him on a platter — and the result is essentially a week-long break for Lundqvist.

Considering the NHL and NHLPA worked to create a “bye week” this season in the hopes of providing players adequate rest, getting another one probably feels like a win.

‘Canes bolstered by the returns of Staal, Lindholm

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Carolina will have major lineup reinforcements tonight when it hosts Vancouver at PNC.

Jordan Staal, who’s missed the last seven games with a concussion, and Elias Lindholm — out since Dec. 1 with a lower-body injury — will both draw back in this evening, as the ‘Canes begin an important four-game homestand.

The returns will be huge.

Staal has a pretty big role in Carolina, and is the club’s top defensive center. He averages a healthy 18:29 TOI per game, and is one of the club’s best faceoff men, winning draws at a 60 percent clip.

Lindholm, the fifth overall pick in 2013, was off to a bit of a slow start with just seven points through 23 games, but is also a top-six forward coming off back-to-back 39-point campaigns.

The ‘Canes recently wrapped a three-game California trip, and fared reasonably well by securing three points. The highlight was a 3-1 win in Los Angeles last Thursday, in which journeyman Derek Ryan scored a pair of markers.

Based on this morning’s line rushes, Staal and Lindholm were together on the top unit alongside Joakim Nordstrom.

Travis Hamonic has some thoughts on his league-worst minus-17 rating

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Though plus-minus has been discredited as a meaningful stat in recent years — and we’ll just avoid this part of the conversation entirely, thanks — some folks still pay attention to it.

Why? Well, it does remain one of the sortable metrics on NHL.com’s player stats page and, should you go there and sift through, you’ll see that Islanders d-man Travis Hamonic ranks dead last, with a minus-17 rating through 24 games played.

“Do I know it’s there? Sure,” Hamonic said of this plus-minus, per Newsday. “Sometimes things are your fault, but I can’t change it. Fresh slate, play better. It’s a tough question to answer.

“I can’t go online and remove it. You’re stupid if you don’t see it, but like any stat, there’s a lot that goes into it.”

We’ve seen players allude to their ugly ratings before. When Jason Spezza hit minus-17 during the ’13-14 campaign, he admitted it was “frustrating.” That same season, Chicago’s Patrick Kane got off to a slow start with a minus-9 rating, and acknowledged it was “a number that obviously didn’t look good.”

Hamonic has struggled at times this year, but has also been a victim of circumstance. The Isles in general have been lousy, sitting 19th in shots per game (29.3) while surrendering the third-most in the NHL (32.4). Hamonic’s regular d-man partner Nick Leddy hasn’t played especially well either — he had an awful turnover against the Jackets on Saturday, which ended up in the back of the Isles net — and, as a result, the pair has had a tough time.

Advanced metrics confirm as much. Both Leddy and Hamonic are hovering around 43 percent CF for the season. Per Newsday, that ranks both among the bottom 25 players in the league.

If there’s a silver lining for Hamonic, it’s that he may not have the NHL’s worst plus-minus for long. Hot on his heels are a pair of skaters at minus-16: Vancouver’s Brandon Sutter, and Calgary’s T.J. Brodie.