Lindy Ruff

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Sabres fire Housley after brutal finish

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Reminder: in hockey, it’s not three strikes and you’re out. If Sunday’s any indication, sometimes you only get two.

The Buffalo Sabres fired head coach Phil Housley after two seasons, giving him the same rope as the Florida Panthers afforded Bob Boughner, who was also canned after two seasons. The parallels continue from there – both the Sabres and Panthers are Atlantic Division teams with heightened expectations they didn’t reach, but also seem to change directions at the drop of a hat – and Sabres GM Jason Botterill has his work cut out for him in getting through another tough patch.

Housley failed to bring the Sabres to the 2018 and 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Buffalo’s continued struggles has clearly left the mood strained for loyal fans. The Sabres went 58-84-22 under Housley, memorably going from first in the NHL briefly this season, to plummeting to the point that the Sabres have the fifth-best (8.5 percent) chance of winning the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery.

That flat finish improves their chances of landing an impact player like Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, but it also cost Housley his job.

Can someone else right the ship in Buffalo? They haven’t exactly found a lot of answers, as this ship has been rudderless basically since they ended Lindy Ruff’s lengthy reign behind the bench.

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.

Under Pressure: Lindy Ruff

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The Dallas Stars were a fun dark horse candidate for some time, but this summer ensured that they can’t get away with being a “work in progress” any longer. Much of the pressure to advance falls on Lindy Ruff’s shoulders.

Plenty of questions remain on defense

When you look beyond the flashy set of forwards and the gaudy prices on goalies, one cannot help but wonder if Dallas will still struggle to keep pucks out of its net.

Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi should (potentially) at least give them average-to-good goaltending most nights, but will the Stars’ hyped defensive prospects mature in time to patch up a leaky group of blueliners?

For one thing, it’s a little odd that Tyler Seguin wasn’t shaken off of his belief that Stars couldn’t just outscore their opponents in 2014-15.

“We felt we had all these top players, all this firepower that could score a ton of goals. Automatically in training camp we were scoring a ton, but we weren’t focusing on defense,” Seguin told Sportsnet in early August.

“That’s not the on the coaches or GMs at all. That was all on us. We felt we could outscore every team.”

Yes, Seguin lets management off the hook, but it still seems a little strange.

Rising expectations

On the bright side, the Stars were a pretty strong possession team. Defending Big D goes deep on that front.

To some extent, the formula might not be ideal, though; the Stars’ blistering offense (third in the NHL in “SAT For”) in some ways camouflages the fact that Dallas also gave up far more scoring chances than they would have preferred (20th in “SAT Against”).

How much can we reasonably expect the Stars’ defense to improve from there? Again, it’s difficult to say which prospects may make an impact (and when), so the blueline may be largely similar to the shaky one from last season. Johnny Oduya serves as a nice upgrade over Trevor Daley, but only to a certain extent.

Fair or not, Ruff will absorb plenty of blame if the same problems blot out the Stars once more.

Nichushkin expected to return to Stars’ lineup tonight vs. St. Louis

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Valeri Nichushkin, who was recalled from his conditioning assignment on Thursday, is expected to return to the Stars’ lineup tonight when Dallas plays host to the St. Louis Blues.

Nichushkin has missed nearly five months after undergoing hip surgery in November.

Stars coach Lindy Ruff would not confirm Nichushkin’s return to the lineup, but Mike Heika of The Dallas Morning News reports that it’s a safe bet the 20-year-old will appear in his first game since Nov. 6.

“He’s real excited to be back playing, to be back here and have the opportunity to play,” Ruff said.

Nichushkin had 14 goals and 34 points in 79 games during his rookie campaign last season while playing alongside Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

He played in just four games registering a minus-3 rating this season prior to the surgery.

Ruff admits the club has missed the presence of the 6-foot-4, 205-pound forward.

“We’ve missed his size,” Ruff said. “For the most part, Seguin, Benn and Val were a good line. He was a guy who could hang onto the puck down low, physically dominate some teams, and even come off the wall in the offensive zone and make plays. And I really felt by the end of [last] year he was one of our best defenders coming back defending.”

Tonight concludes the five-game season series between the two clubs. Each team has won twice.

Stars’ Nichushkin (hip) nearing return

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When Dallas Stars forward Valeri Nichushkin returns to the lineup is now up to the 20-year-old.

Nichushkin, who has been out of the Stars’ lineup since November recovering from hip surgery, continues to practice with the team, but recently had a minor setback.

“It’s his timetable now…when he feels good enough,” Stars’ coach Lindy Ruff said. “We thought we had him close a few days ago, but with the harder practices, he was starting to feel sore and we kind of backed off a little bit. He’s skating really well. It’s just when it reaches that point when he feels he is going to be good enough to play.”

Nichushkin has appeared in just four games this season.

Last season he registered 14 goals and 34 points in 79 games with the Stars.

Stars’ Seguin is ‘a possibility’ tonight in Tampa

The Dallas Stars could have forward Tyler Seguin in the lineup tonight when they visit the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Seguin has missed 10 games with a knee injury.

“He’s a possibility,” Stars’ coach Lindy Ruff told Mike Heika of The Dallas Morning News. “We’ll have him go for warm-up and make him a game-time decision.”

The 23-year-old has not played since Feb. 13 after taking a low hit from Flordia Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov.

The Stars have gone 3-5-2 in his absence.

Seguin had 29 goals and 59 points in 55 games prior to the injury.

The Lightning won the only other meeting between the two clubs 5-3 in Dallas on Feb. 5.