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Devils get Schneider back for tough stretch

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As great as Taylor Hall has been – and those MVP discussions aren’t out of line – the New Jersey Devils have mainly been up-and-down lately. Consider this: since the calendar turned to 2018, the Devils have just an 11-12-1 record.

Such a mark is more impressive when you realize that Cory Schneider has only played five games, with all of them coming in January. They’ve even seen Keith Kinkaid get injured, too, pressing them to bring Eddie Lack into the fold.

Schneider, 31, hasn’t played since Jan. 23, and his work in January was bad enough that you wonder if he had been nursing that injury for some time.

So, really, they haven’t seen true Cory Schneider for a while.

That stinks, but the Devils should be glad they’re getting him back for March, as the road ahead could be bumpy. Take a look at the looming stretch, beginning with Schneider’s return tonight against a hungry Panthers team in Florida:

Thu, Mar 1 @ Florida
Fri, Mar 2 @ Carolina
Sun, Mar 4 vs Vegas
Tue, Mar 6 vs Montreal
Thu, Mar 8 vs Winnipeg
Sat, Mar 10 @ Nashville
Wed, Mar 14 @ Vegas
Sat, Mar 17 @ Los Angeles
Sun, Mar 18 @ Anaheim
Tue, Mar 20 @ San Jose
Fri, Mar 23 @ Pittsburgh

After that, the Devils will close out their regular season with six home games and two road contests, so the above run is where they need to really dig deep.

The Devils began this current three-game road trip by edging the Penguins 3-2 in regulation, but the next two nights should be even more interesting.

The Devils are already in a strong position to grab the first wild-card spot, if not push to make it into the Metro top three. Consider how much they might expand their lead with wins against the Panthers and Hurricanes:

First wild: Devils – 74 points, 63 games played
Second wild: Columbus – 69 points, 63 GP

Hurricanes: 65 points, 63 GP
Islanders: 65 points, 64 GP
Panthers: 64 points, 60 GP

Tonight, they face a Panthers team attempting to take advantage of considerable games in hand advantages over the other bubble squads. Tomorrow, they’ll face a Hurricanes team that has to be feeling pretty desperate amid a six-game losing streak. Not a bad way for the Devils to test themselves, right?

Being thrown into the fire like this could help Schneider get his game back. He’s been fine this season, particularly considering New Jersey’s live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword mentality, but you can bet he’d like to have a better save percentage than his .913 mark in 2017-18.

It’s easy to justify the hype about finally seeing Taylor Hall in a playoff series, yet Schneider must feel like he has something to prove, too. Despite a nice career on paper, he’s only appeared in 10 postseason contests so far.

Schneider gets a chance to gear up for a probable postseason, starting with tonight’s test against the Panthers. The next few weeks should tell us a lot about where Schneider and his team are at.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Oilers, Golden Knights, Cali teams, and more in PHT’s Pacific preview

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Let’s cut to the chase and wrap up these division previews.

Check out these other previews: Atlantic DivisionCentral Division, Metropolitan DivisionPHT’s picks and predictions.

Anaheim Ducks

Poll/looking to make the leap

Arizona Coyotes

Poll/looking to make the leap

Calgary Flames

Poll/looking to make the leap

Edmonton Oilers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Los Angeles Kings

Poll/looking to make the leap

San Jose Sharks

Poll/looking to make the leap

Vancouver Canucks

Poll/looking to make the leap

Vegas Golden Kngihts

Poll/looking to make the leap

Kings hope to find emergency goalie candidates with open tryouts

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This isn’t your typical Hollywood audition.

The L.A. Kings have officially announced that they are holding open goaltending tryouts on Sept. 27. The purpose is to find candidates who could be used for potential emergency goalie duties for all Kings home games this upcoming season.

The requirements?

— You must be 18 years old.

— You must have played a “high level” of amateur hockey.

— Must not have signed a contract with another professional league.

“The NHL requires each home team to have an emergency goalie in the stands for every game and we thought this would be a good opportunity to see who in our area is best qualified for the job,” Kings president Luc Robitaille said in a statement.

“It will be interesting, that is for sure.”

Yeah, no kidding.

But this isn’t a new idea.

In fact, the Minnesota Wild held a contest about five years ago to find emergency goalies. There have been numerous instances in which NHL teams have been forced to sign a goalie not on their roster in cases of sudden illness or injury to their primary two netminders and not enough time to recall someone from the AHL.

The Carolina Hurricanes signed their own equipment manager Jorge Alves to a professional tryout last December when Eddie Lack was ill and didn’t dress for a game. With Carolina trailing in the final seconds of the third period, Alves was put in to the game, making his (brief) NHL debut.

Last December, the Chicago Blackhawks also had to sign an emergency goalie when Corey Crawford couldn’t dress due to illness. The early start time (1 p.m. ET) for the game prevented the Blackhawks from calling a goalie up from the AHL.

Related:

NHL GMs need to address emergency goalie rule after Florida incident

Flames sign Bennett to two-year bridge deal

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Sam Bennett, among the most notable names on the list of remaining restricted free agents, is now under contract.

The Flames announced on Wednesday that they had re-signed the 21-year-old center to a two-year contract with an annual average value of $1.95 million.

That’s certainly an affordable price for a Flames team that had about $7.1 million in cap space before this contract, according to CapFriendly.

The Flames have added to their defense this offseason, building a strong top-four group on the blue line, and looked to upgrade their goaltending by adding Mike Smith and Eddie Lack.

These moves would strongly suggest this organization feels it’s in a window to win now, and it still has about $5.2 million in cap space to perhaps make another addition to their lineup, if they choose.

The fourth overall pick in 2014, Bennett made his NHL at the end of the 2014-15 regular season and then turned heads in the opening round of the playoffs with an impressive showing for such a young player — remember, he was only 18 years old at the time — against the Vancouver Canucks.

But after scoring 18 goals and 36 points during his first full season in 2015-16, Bennett’s numbers dropped off this past campaign with only 13 goals and 26 points.

General manager Brad Treliving stressed to Sportsnet 960 the importance of getting Bennett signed prior to training camp.

“I think history has shown that missing time — or people that don’t get (to training camp) on time — usually it’s not a good thing,” said Treliving, before the deal was announced. “To get ready for an NHL season is difficult. You’ve got to get the reps. You’ve got to get playing at NHL pace. You’ve got to get doing it every day prior to the start of the season.”

This new contract, a bridge deal, puts the onus on the highly touted and talented Bennett to now go out and prove himself over the next two years.

Cam Ward ready for backup role with Hurricanes

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For the better part of the past 12 seasons Cam Ward has been a constant in the Carolina Hurricanes’ net. He is the longest tenured member of the team and a Stanley Cup champion.

This season, however, his hold on the starting job seems to have finally come to an end with the arrival of Scott Darling from the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hurricanes acquired Darling’s free agent rights in a trade, then acted quickly to sign him to a four-year, $16.6 million contract.

That is not a commitment you make to a player that you intend to sit on the bench, and Ward knows this.

In an interview with the News & Observer this week Ward talked about his new role with the team and how he is willing and ready to accept it after being a starter for more than a decade.

From the News & Observer:

“I’m realistic,” Ward said in an interview at Raleigh Center Ice. “I understand the situation. I know he was brought in here to sign a four-year deal for pretty good money not to be a backup.

“I know where I am in my career. … Certainly I’m a competitive guy and I still want to be able to play and I’ll do whatever I can to earn that ice time, but I’m hopeful he can make that next step. He deserves that.”

The unfortunate reality for Ward is that it is a move the Hurricanes had to make.

Goaltending has been one of the single biggest issues plaguing the Hurricanes in recent seasons, and Ward has been the key player at that position. He has not finished a season with a save percentage higher than .910 since the 2011-12 season. In the five years since then his .907 save percentage is 43rd out of 47 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games, ahead of only Ondrej Pavelec, Ben Scrivens and Jacob Markstrom.

The Hurricanes have been assembling a talented, young roster in recent seasons and finally look like a team that is on the verge of becoming a player in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They have an outstanding young defense that has already made them one of the best shot suppression teams in the league, as well as some young high-end forward talent up front. The only ingredient that has been missing has been more consistent play in net.

The Hurricanes have also taken chances on backups Anton Khudobin and Eddie Lack over the years in the hopes they could push Ward and help solidify the position. None of them worked out.

Darling is the latest top backup that they have tabbed to be their solution in net. He has been one of the best backup goalies in the league in recent seasons and will be getting his shot to be a starter this season.