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I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Lundqvist gets early hook as Rangers fall to Blue Jackets

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Maybe the All-Star break made him a little rusty. Perhaps a tough Tuesday night had as much to do with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ attack as anything else.

Whatever the explanation might be, Henrik Lundqvist struggled once again for the New York Rangers, getting replaced by Antti Raanta early in the second period of tonight’s contest. Lundqvist allowed three goals on 16 shots.

There’s a wide range of reactions to Lundqvist getting the hook, from those wondering if age is indeed catching up to him to those placing much of the blame on the Rangers’ team play.

Take a look at the goal in question, Alexander Wennberg‘s ninth of 2016-17:

Lundqvist was showing signs of improvement lately, allowing just six goals over a four-game period from Jan. 19-25. In the grand scheme of things, nights like these have been uncomfortably common for “King Henrik.”

Update: The Blue Jackets built up a 6-0 lead at one point, so things didn’t go a whole lot better for Raanta. The Rangers made a game of it with four unanswered goals in the third period, but Columbus ultimately won 6-4.

Vegas Golden Knights might be able to wheel and deal at trade deadline

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It’s been noted that the fear of losing players to the expansion draft could mean that the Vegas Golden Knights would make an indirect impact on the 2017 trade deadline. TSN’s Frank Seravalli reports that the Golden Knights could make moves in a more direct way, too.

The Golden Knights could start making moves on the condition that owner Bill Foley pays the final installment of a $500 million expansion fee.

If all their ducks are in a row, they can make a variety of moves, with this nugget likely being most pertinent to fans of the NHL’s other 30 teams:

For instance, the Golden Knights may acquire a draft pick, prospect or future considerations from another NHL team in exchange for their agreement to not select a particular exposed player in June’s expansion draft.

(Seravalli notes that the San Jose Sharks made deals to protect Evgeni Nabokov from the 2000 expansion draft, so there’s precedent here.)

The Vegas Knights could sign college free agents and acquire prospects (or even players on loan overseas), but they can’t “stash” active NHL players through 2016-17. Injured players included.

Overall, the Knights gain opportunities to do some work in advance, while other teams can simplify their methods of avoiding losing a crucial piece in the expansion draft. Rather than going through some gymnastics to cycle players from one team to another, they can go straight to Golden Knights GM George McPhee to make sure that a given skater is safe.

When you consider that Bill Foley admitted there’s a chance that the Golden Knights could land their coach before the 2016-17 season is over, it’s remarkable how proactive Vegas management can be if things swing their way.

Seravalli’s full article is absolutely worth reading, especially if you’re the type to daydream about different hypothetical trade possibilities.

The 2017 trade deadline could be quite memorable, and possibly a little chaotic … though these options could also make things more orderly. Or it might be quiet from Vegas’ standpoint.

We’ll just have to see who’s willing to gamble with the expansion draft versus how much they’d ante up for more certainty.

(Honestly, you might as well get used to clumsy gambling references before 2017-18 rolls around.)

Rich get richer: Letang returns for Penguins, Carlson back for Capitals

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Chalk it up to getting a little extra time off thanks to the All-Star break or (most likely) just a coincidence, but two East contenders are getting a key defenseman back apiece on Tuesday.

In the case of the Pittsburgh Penguins, blueliner Kris Letang returns to the lineup as Pittsburgh faces the Nashville Predators. Letang last played on Jan. 14. The Penguins ended up winning 4-2.

The remarkably healthy Washington Capitals get even healthier with John Carlson back in the mix as the Caps visit the suddenly hot New York Islanders in Brooklyn. Similar to Letang, Carlson’s most recent appearance came about two weeks ago (Jan. 15). Washington dropped a 3-2 loss to the Islanders.

As much as each Metropolitan power thrives off of their star forwards, these two defensemen are key motors in their own right, especially in the case of Letang (as there’s a pronounced drop-off between No. 58 and every other Penguins blueliner).

Oh, and speaking of Metro teams, a friendly reminder that Marc Staal is in for the New York Rangers as well:

Success rewarded: Rangers reportedly extend Vigneault through 2019-20

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Heading into the 2016-17 season, people wondered if Alain Vigneault could learn from the New York Rangers’ humbling playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. It sure seems like the answer is “Yes,” something reinforced by the bump in job security (and pay) he reportedly received.

The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports that Vigneault is now signed through 2019-20 and received a hefty $2 million bump in pay per season. Vigneault’s previous deal only ran through 2017-18.

After his successful run with the Vancouver Canucks, Vigneault’s shown a knack for making things work and churning out wins in a way that reminds of Bruce Boudreau.

He’s also managed to take the Rangers deep into the playoffs (after nearly winning a Stanley Cup with the Canucks).

The Rangers fell to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and also made it to Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Rangers are currently 31-17-1 with 63 points, a total that would put New York in the running for a division crown if it weren’t for the ridiculous Metropolitan Division.

Now, it’s no doubt that Vigneault has his critics, much like virtually every coach who’s been long enough for fans to sour on them. The obvious example is his seeming fixation on putting Tanner Glass in the Rangers lineup.

If you look at his results, it’s tough to argue with the logic of keeping him around. If you produce winner after winner, you’re probably doing something right.

With All-Star break over, let’s take a look at playoff races

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were linemates. Connor McDavid scored on a pass from Ryan Kesler. Wayne Simmonds was the shooting star of the show.

The dreamlike quality of the NHL All-Star Game was particularly pronounced on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Hollywood. After all, just about every All-Star got to meet his hockey heroes when most of the game’s greatest living players performed the ceremonial opening faceoff with them.

“I was pretty star-struck,” Montreal goalie Carey Price said.

But when the league revs up again Tuesday night, another dream comes into focus. Only 40 percent of the regular season remains, and there’s a Stanley Cup to chase.

Few teams are out of the postseason race, and nearly every club is about to begin 10 weeks of high-stakes play. Most teams reported back to work on Monday morning, and the league schedule resumes Tuesday with 28 of the 30 teams in action.

Nobody is an overwhelming title favorite yet. The Canadiens’ seven-point lead in the Atlantic is the biggest edge in a division race, and the competition for the Presidents’ Trophy is still wide-open as well: There are 10 teams within nine points of Washington’s league-leading 72 in the chase for home-ice advantage in the postseason.

“The All-Star (weekend) a great time, but we all know what happens when we have to get back to work,” San Jose captain Joe Pavelski said.

Here’s a quick preview of the four divisional races and what’s coming up in the NHL’s home stretch:

PACIFIC

The race out West is particularly enticing: San Jose, Anaheim and upstart Edmonton are separated by one point atop the division.

McDavid and the Oilers have hung in with the division’s three California powers all winter, capped by back-to-back road victories over the Ducks and Sharks to close out the first half.

“We’ve put ourselves in a good position, and we’re happy about that,” McDavid said. “We realize how much work we have left to do, because this is a long season. None of it means very much if you don’t finish out the way you started.”

The Golden State’s trio of contenders isn’t about to give up.

The Ducks have won four straight Pacific titles, and they’re hoping coach Randy Carlyle can inspire postseason success that Bruce Boudreau couldn’t. The Sharks look easily capable of defending their Western Conference title, and the Los Angeles Kings should get star goalie Jonathan Quick back from injury shortly before the postseason.

CENTRAL

The Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks are in tight competition atop the division. Boudreau got the Wild off to their best start to a season in franchise history, and All-Star goalie Devan Dubnyk is having another standout season. This could be the year Minnesota reaches its first Stanley Cup Final, or at least wins two playoff rounds for the first time since 2003.

Of course, the team that beat them in the second round twice in the past three years is right behind them in the Central standings – and it just happens to be the best playoff team of this era.

Chicago returns with three of the 100 greatest players in NHL history in its lineup. Captain Jonathan Toews admits he isn’t having a great season, but he has plenty of time to ramp up for another playoff run with Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.

METROPOLITAN

The best divisional race might be among the stars who won the four-division, 3-on-3 tournament at the All-Star Game. A four-team competition has swung back and forth in the Metropolitan, with Columbus streaking in front on its 16-game winning streak, only to be passed by Washington two weeks ago.

The Capitals’ fretful fans might think they’ve peaked too soon yet again, but nobody gets comfortable with Crosby’s Penguins lurking behind them. The defending Stanley Cup champions begin the second half in third place, just seven points back.

ATLANTIC

The Canadiens have bounced back smartly from last season’s second-half collapse without the injured Price, and Les Habitants’ nearest competitors all have problems: Ottawa’s goal-scoring woes, Boston’s inconsistent play and powerful Tampa Bay’s major injuries have all put a cushion underneath the Canadiens.

But that cushion isn’t as big as it looks. The Senators have three games in hand on Montreal, and the Lightning hope to get Steven Stamkos back for the late playoff push.

And the Toronto Maple Leafs? They’ve got problems, as you’d expect for a team that’s made the postseason once since 2004. They’ve also got All-Star Auston Matthews, fellow high-scoring youngsters Mitchell Marner and William Nylander, and more than enough talent to be dangerous down the stretch.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/gregbeacham