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Saturday Daily Puck: Miller Time In Missouri

Jason Chen

Jason Chen

Trevor Linden is my hero.

Around the League

There are six more Saturdays before the NHL Playoffs begin on April 16. This time last year, the season was barely getting underway, but through 60 games, six teams have emerged as legitimate Cup contenders for 2014.

In the Eastern Conference, Boston and Pittsburgh remain the two best teams by a significant margin. Both teams will have an easier road to the Stanley Cup Finals than any of the Western Conference teams, with Anaheim, St. Louis, Chicago and San Jose rounding out the six serious contenders. Los Angeles will be part of the conversation, but they haven’t looked dominant at any point this season and continue to have trouble scoring goals. Until Dean Lombardi gets Jonathan Quick a little run support, their chances are relatively slimmer.

Each of the six teams will be featured in this column as the playoffs creep closer. Since the Blues decided to jump the gun and acquire Ryan Miller and Steve Ott ahead of the deadline, they’ll open this mini six-team preview.

Goaltending: Losing Jaroslav Halak is an easy pill to swallow because the Blues landed the best goalie on the market with Miller. Toiling in last-place Buffalo all season, Miller has just 15 wins in 40 appearances, despite posting the best save percentage since his Vezina-winning season. The Blues were already the second-best defensive team in the West prior to the trade, and now boast a motivated Miller, who is playing for his first Cup and a new contract. Of the West’s 14 starting goalies, only Semyon Varlamov has a better save percentage (.925 to Miller’s .923).

Defense: There’s no doubt that the Blues are led by their golden pairing of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, not unlike Chicago with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in their Cup-winning 2009-10 season. The Blues’ top pair ranks among the league’s top 20 in quality of competition faced, yet both have good plus-minus ratings, not to mention Pietrangelo ranks fourth in scoring among defensemen. Fan favorite Barret Jackman and U.S. Olympian Kevin Shattenkirk round out the top four, while Roman Polak, savvy veteran Jordan Leopold, journeyman Carlo Colaiacovo and youngster Ian Cole round of the team’s strong blue line depth.

Offense: It’s not often that a team that defends so well is equally proficient on offense, but that’s been much of the case this season with the Blues, who have the best goal differential in the league. The Blues run their offense by committee, with only two 20-goal scorers so far in Alex Steen (28) and David Backes (20), though that number could swell to five by the end of the season with T.J. Oshie (14), Vladimir Tarasenko (18) and Jaden Schwartz (19) joining the list. In fact, of the forwards who have played at least 50 games none have fewer than eight goals. If there's something to nitpick, it's that the Blues haven't established a go-to guy in the closing moments of the game.

Losing Stewart won’t hurt much. He struggles to score 20 goals every year and his rugged, physical presence is easily replaced by the faster, more skilled and generally more effective Ott. If he plays on the same line as the criminally underrated Vladimir Sobotka, the Blues will have one of the best checking lines in the league. But, in truth, the big upside in unloading Stewart will be the $4.15 million in cap space he frees up, which could be used to re-sign Miller.

The Blues are all-in after bolstering their goaltending with an aggressive move, and should be comfortable heading into the playoffs today. They will lose their 2014 first-round pick if they reach the Conference Finals or if they re-sign Miller, but the costs will seem inconsequential if the Blues win their first ever Stanley Cup.

Outlook: The Blues are odds-on the favorite to emerge as victors of the Western Conference after the trade. There’s little to be concerned about, especially with Ken Hitchcock behind the bench. Even the Kings, who play the same punishing style of hockey and ousted the Blues in the past two playoffs, aren’t as strong as they once were. The key for the Blues is to stay healthy.

Projected Goalie Starters (all times Eastern)
For updates on the projected goalies later in the day, check our Projected Goalies Grid

Washington Capitals (Braden Holtby) at Boston Bruins (Tuukka Rask), 1:00 PM
New Jersey Devils (Martin Brodeur*) at New York Islanders (Evgeni Nabokov), 1:00 PM
New York Rangers (Henrik Lundqvist*) at Philadelphia Flyers (Steve Mason*), 1:00 PM
Florida Panthers (Tim Thomas) at Columbus Blue Jackets (Sergei Bobrovsky), 2:00 PM
Winnipeg Jets (Ondrej Pavelec) at Nashville Predators (Carter Hutton), 3:00 PM
Tampa Bay Lightning (Ben Bishop) at Dallas Stars (Kari Lehtonen), 3:00 PM
Carolina Hurricanes (Anton Khudobin) at Los Angeles Kings (Jonathan Quick), 4:00 PM
Toronto Maple Leafs (Jonathan Bernier*) at Montreal Canadiens (Peter Budaj*), 7:00 PM
Pittsburgh Penguins (Marc-Andre Fleury) at Chicago Blackhawks (Corey Crawford), 8:00 PM
Calgary Flames (Reto Berra*) at Edmonton Oilers (Ilya Bryzgalov*), 10:00 PM

Injury News For Teams Playing Saturday

Washington Capitals
Mikhail Grabovski, C - (ankle) will not play.
Jack Hillen, D – (leg) will not play, considered day-to-day.
Aaron Volpatti, LW - (left shoulder) has yet to practice, will not play.

Boston Bruins
Dennis Seidenberg, D – (torn right ACL/MCL) out for the season.
Adam McQuaid, D – (leg) suffered setback in injury rehab, will not play Saturday or Sunday.

New Jersey Devils
Bryce Salvador, D - (collarbone) likely to play, but considered game-time decision.
Damien Brunner, RW – (cramps) will not play.

New York Islanders
Frans Nielsen, C - (broken hand) practiced Friday, probable for Saturday.
John Tavares, C – (torn MCL) no return date set.
Matt Martin, LW - (lower body) practiced Friday, probabe for Saturday.

New York Rangers
Derek Dorsett, RW - (lower leg) considered game-time decision for Saturday.
Mats Zuccarello, RW – no timetable for return, but likely out another 2-3 weeks.

Philadelphia Flyers
Ray Emery, G – (groin) hurt in practice, game-time decision.

Florida Panthers
Aleksander Barkov, C - (knee) out indefinitely.
Tomas Kopecky, RW – (concussion) out indefinitely.

Columbus Blue Jackets
Fedor Tyutin, D - (ankle) placed on IR on Monday.
Jared Boll, RW - (ankle) practicing, but doubtful for Saturday.

Winnipeg Jets
Matt Halischuk, RW - (forearm) not activated from IR yet.
Grant Clitsome, D – (back surgery) out for the season.

Nashville Predators
Pekka Rinne, G – (hip) played in AHL on Friday in conditioning stint.
Nick Spaling, LW - (lower body) practiced in non-contact jersey, doubtful for Saturday.

Tampa Bay Lightning
Brian Lee, D - (knee) had second surgery in December, out indefinitely.
Valtteri Filppula, C - (ankle) practiced Friday, will most likely play.
Steven Stamkos, C - (leg) the date everyone has circled is March 6.
Anders Lindback, G - (ankle) played in AHL on Friday in conditioning stint.

Dallas Stars
Stephane Robidas, D – (broken leg) shooting for March return.

Carolina Hurricanes
Joni Pitkanen, D - (heel) out for the season.
Alexander Semin, RW – missed Friday’s practice, unlikely to play Saturday.

Toronto Maple Leafs
Colton Orr, RW - (undisclosed) did not play Thursday, doubtful for Saturday.
Dave Bolland, C - (ankle) considered day-to-day, doubtful for Saturday.

Montreal Canadiens
Carey Price, G - (lower body) will not play Saturday.
Ryan White, LW - (illness) did not play Thursday, questionable for Saturday.
Brandon Prust, LW – (upper bod) will not play Saturday.
Davis Drewiske, D - (shoulder) practicing, but no timetable for return.
Michael Bournival, C - (concussion) practiced Friday, but doubtful for Saturday.

Pittsburgh Penguins
Tomas Vokoun, G - (pelvis) skating with the team, but no timetable for return.
Pascal Dupuis, RW – (knee) out for the season.
Paul Martin, D – (broken hand) out 4-6 weeks.
Kris Letang, D – (heart) suffered a stroke, out indefinitely.
Chris Conner, RW – (hand) will begin practice next week.
Beau Bennett, RW – (wrist) injury setback means another 3-4 weeks.

Chicago Blackhawks
Nikolai Khabibulin, G – (torn rotator cuff) out indefinitely.

Calgary Flames
Curtis Glencross, LW - (ankle) practiced in non-contact jersey, doubtful for Saturday.
Karri Ramo, G - (knee) no timetable for return.
Brian McGrattan, RW - (upper body) will not play.
Lee Stempniak, RW - (personal) will re-join team in a few days.
Chris Butler, D - (lower body) doubtful for Saturday.

Edmonton Oilers
Nail Yakupov, RW - (bruised right ankle) doubtful for Saturday.

Hot
Johan Franzen, LW, DET – Not going to the Olympics seems to have afforded “Mule” some much needed rest, as the Swedish power winger returns to NHL action with five points in his past two games, including a hat trick against Ottawa in just 13 minutes of ice-time. Franzen has been a force all season, but has had trouble staying healthy.

Daniel Briere, RW, MTL – The Quebec-native is having an awful season for the Habs, with just 21 points on the season. But over the past two games, even with limited ice-time, Briere has managed to pick up four points, including a three-point effort against Pittsburgh. He’s notoriously streaky when it comes to scoring, so Briere’s hot hand may last a few more games.

Dustin Brown, RW, LA – It’s a Sasquatch sighting! The Kings captain has been derided all season in this writing space for producing just 19 points, but Brown has shown an ability to kick up his game another notch down the stretch, and over his past two games has scored three points. Brown’s production set the world on fire, but this is great news for the former 30-goal scorer whose team is struggling to score goals.

Cold
David Krejci, C, BOS – Krejci has played just one game since returning from Sochi, but it was an atrocious showing as he finished with a minus-3 rating in a loss to Buffalo. Krejci admitted he wasn’t feeling 100 percent since returning from Sochi and felt a little tired. He’ll need to get a few smelling salts to get the B’s back on track.

Jordan Staal, C, CAR – The big blockbuster deal that sent Staal to Pittsburgh hasn’t panned out well for either side. Staal has just three shots on goal in two games since the Olympics, and he’s posted a minus-4 rating in that span. With 11 goals on the year, Staal has found it difficult to score in Carolina, where he’s the target of opposition defenses, unlike in Pittsburgh where he can hide behind Sid and Geno.

Kyle Okposo, RW, NYI – The Islanders played just four games in February due to the Olympic break, and Okposo will finish the month without scoring a single goal. John Tavares is out for the season, which means one of the biggest reasons for Okposo’s success is gone. Okposo didn’t look too good without Tavares, and here’s hoping that’s not a trend.

Recommended Pickup
Steve Ott, C, STL – It was bound to happen, given the way the Sabres’ season was going, but landing on a top team like St. Louis is a bonus. Ott gets a big boost in virtually every single category, except for penalty minutes, which he collects in spades regardless of which team he plays for. His points total will most certainly increase, especially if he plays with Schwartz or Tarasenko, as will his plus-minus, by virtue of being on the team with the league’s best goal differential. He’s still un-owned in the vast majority of leagues.