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NHL 2014 stretch drive games to watch this week (March 3 – April 6)

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Coach Randy Carlyle and the Maple Leafs

Coach Randy Carlyle (center, in tie) must duck an angry fan and stop the Leafs’ free fall. (Nick Turchiaro/Icon SMI)

By Allan Muir

Try as I might, it’s impossible not to make this column about the Maple Leafs. I mean, here’s a team that could have pulled to within a single point of the Canadiens with a win over Montreal on March 22. Instead, Toronto dropped that decision, and the loss has sent the Leafs spiraling into an epic late season collapse. They’ve lost eight in a row and now trail the Habs by 13 points. That leaves Toronto with a 4.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to SportsClubStats.com.

Plus, there’s an an ex-heavyweight champ looking to beat up coach Randy Carlyle, so every Maple Leafs’ game now becomes a death watch in more ways than one.

Toronto is still, of course, in the race in the tightly packed Eastern Conference, but the Leafs need to start winning some games, starting with Tuesday night’s contest against the Flames, a team that’s only too happy to play the spoiler down the stretch as it tries to establish an identity that will carry it into contention a few years down the road.

Here’s a look at that contest, and five other must-watch matches on the schedule this week:

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  • Published On Mar 31, 2014
  • Lindy Ruff making emotional return to Buffalo as coach of Dallas Stars

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    Lindy Ruff went 571-432-78-84 in 15 seasons behind the Buffalo Sabres' bench. Since joining the Dallas Stars in the offseason, he's led the team to a 4-5-1 mark. (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

    Lindy Ruff went 571-432-78-84 in 15 seasons behind the Buffalo Sabres’ bench. (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

    By Michael Blinn

    Lindy Ruff is no stranger to Buffalo, but when he arrives at HSBC Arena on Monday, he’ll certainly be in a new place.

    Ruff was the Sabres’ coach for 15 seasons until he was fired after a 6-10-1 start to lockout-shortened 2013, after which he was brought in to helm the Dallas Stars. His career in Buffalo surely had its highs and lows: Ruff guided the Sabres to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final appearance (a controversial loss to Dallas in 1999), but his teams also finished out of the playoffs from 2001 to ’04, 2007 to ’09, and in 2012 and ’13. At the time of his firing, he was the longest-tenured coach in all of professional sports, and his 571 wins with Buffalo are the second most for a coach with just one team. Ruff is also one of only four coaches who have ever been behind the bench with a single franchise for more than 1,000 games.

    Now, he’ll get a view from the visitor’s side in his first visit to Buffalo since being relieved of his duties.

    “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it,” Ruff said after the Stars’ shootout loss to Winnipeg on Saturday.

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  • Published On Oct 28, 2013
  • Game to watch: Blackhawks host Sharks with NHL record on the line

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    Jonathan Toews and Joe Thornton fought in their last meeting.

    The last time the Hawks met the Sharks, Jonathan Toews and Joe Thornton squared off. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

    By Allan Muir

    Sharks at Blackhawks: 7:30 CST, NHL Network (US), CSN Chicago, CSN California

    The set-up

    The Blackhawks can lay claim to the best start in NHL history against the Sharks tonight. Their shootout win over Vancouver on Wednesday gave Chicago a point in 16 straight games and a share of the current mark set in 2006-07 by the Anaheim Ducks. They’ll face a feckless San Jose side that finally snapped a seven-game losing streak with a 2-1 win over St. Louis on Tuesday. After going unbeaten in their first seven games, the Sharks have seen their offense go cold, but they’re coming off two days of practice time that allowed them to work on the power play and at generating chances five-on-five.

    This will be the third meeting between these two teams in 18 days, so familiarity may breed contempt. It’ll be worth watching to see if any hostilities carry over from their last get-together, when captains Jonathan Toews and Joe Thornton dropped the gloves.

    Keys to the game

    • Blackhawks: Get a lead and stomp down hard on the gas pedal. They allowed the Canucks to dictate the pace early on Wednesday, then coasted through the third period after a thoroughly dominant second, ultimately coughing up a point with sloppy play and lazy penalties as the game wore down. They can’t afford to let the Sharks circle and wait for them to let up.

    • Sharks: Commit to ugly, goalmouth hockey. There’s no offensive flow on this team right now. They’ve scored two goals or less in regulation in nine of their last 10 games and the power play that propelled their hot start has just two goals to show for its last 42 chances. So forget pretty and fight off the instinct to make that one last pass. Get as many pucks on net as possible and follow them to the crease with grim purpose.

    • Probable starting goalies: Ray Emery (6-0-0, 2.27 GAA, .925 save pct.) vs. Antti Niemi (7-2-3, 1.86, .933)

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  • Published On Feb 22, 2013
  • Game to watch: Canucks at Blackhawks

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    Roberto Luongo has had recent success against the Blackhawks in Chicago

    Roberto Luongo has played the Blackhawks tough in Chicago during his last four visits. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

    By Allan Muir

    Canucks at Blackhawks: 7:30 CST, CSN Chicago, Sportsnet Pacific

    The set-up

    The Blackhawks are playing the fourth night of their season-high seven-game homestand. A win or OT loss will make it 16 games from the start of the season with at least one point, tying the NHL record set in 2006-07 by the Anaheim Ducks. For the Canucks, this is the opener of a four-game road trip, and they’re hoping to recover after dropping a pair at home to the Blues and Stars.

    Keys to the game

    • Blackhawks: Put the record out of mind and continue to play the gritty, high intensity game that got them to this point. Getting on the board early would help. They’re 10-0-1 when leading after the first period.

    • Canucks: Finding their footing at five-on-five. They’ve allowed just 17 full-strength goals this season, but seven of them came in the last two games. The Hawks are one of the league’s best at five-on-five, so there’s little room for error here.

    • Probable starting goalies: Ray Emery (5-0-0, 2.17, .929) vs. Roberto Luongo (4-0-3, 1.63, .934)

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  • Published On Feb 19, 2013
  • Game to watch: Blackhawks at Sharks

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    Chicago Blackhawks vs. San Jose Sharks

    The Blackhawks will go up against former teammate Antti Niemi, who has been stellar this season. (Tony Medina/Icon SMI)

    By Allan Muir

    It’s a little early to call tonight’s battle between San Jose and Chicago a playoff preview, but it’s never too soon for a gut check.

    The NHL’s top two teams will face their stiffest test of the season when they meet in San Jose (7:30 PST, NHL Network in Canada, CSN in San Jose and Chicago). The Sharks and Hawks have just one regulation loss between them after 18 games, but both come into the contest on something of a slide.

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  • Published On Feb 05, 2013
  • Beanpot Tournament Preview

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    Johnny Gaudreau of the Boston College Eagles will play in the Beanpot Tournament

    After burning up the World Junior Championship, Calgary Flames prospect Johnny Gaudreau is back with the Boston College Eagles and will be a player well worth watching in the Beanpot Tournament. (Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

    By Allan Muir

    The 61st edition of college hockey’s most storied tournament gets underway tonight in Boston. Here’s a look at the match-ups:

    Boston University (13-10-1) vs. Northeastern (7-13-3), 5 p.m. ET, NESN

    The 11th ranked Terriers stumble into the tournament with a 3-5-1 record since Christmas, including a 5-1 loss to unranked UMass last Friday. The inconsistencies of freshmen goaltenders Sean McGuire (Penguins prospect) and Matt O’Connor (tonight’s starter) are a big part of the problem. On any given night, they can be lights out…or lights off. BU has a clear advantage in scoring talent, though, with greater forward depth and high-end snipers like Wade Megan (Panthers) and Danny O’Regan (Sharks) to lead the charge. Matt Grzelcyk (Bruins) and Garrett Noonan (Predators) provide some pop from the back end.

    Northeastern comes into the tourney having lost four straight (0-2-2) but the Huskies have beaten each of the other three Beanpot teams at least once this season, so they can surprise when they’re clicking. Forwards Kevin Roy (Ducks) and Cody Ferriero (Sharks) are always dangerous, but BU will have to keep a tight leash on former teammate Vinny Saponari (Jets). Now team captain, the winger scored the clincher in Northeastern’s last two wins against the Terriers. The Huntington Hounds will have their choice of seniors Chris Rawlings or Bryan Mountain between the pipes, giving them an edge in experience and stability, but it will be a shocker if they can hold off the Terriers. BU has rung up 15 straight victories against Northeastern at the Beanpot. No reason to think that streak ends tonight.

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  • Published On Feb 04, 2013


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