Staal-Neal permanent?

JOEL COLOMBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:01 PM ET

It was being assumed following the blockbuster Penguins-Stars deal early this week that winger James Neal would finally be that marquee winger Sidney Crosby has been looking for. Or, because Sid the Kid has shown he can flourish with just about anyone on his flanks, Neal and Evgeni Malkin might make a potent duo. Problem, of course, is that with both Crosby and Malkin injured, we’re not going to know for a while yet, perhaps not even until next season. So, Neal wound up with Jordan Staal on Wednesday against San Jose and, should the two click, don’t be surprised if Dan Bylsma keeps them together. In fact, the Pens coach offered a surprisingly strong suggestion that the two big skilled forwards could become a permanent pair. “He is playing with Jordan Staal: Right now … in the future, the near future and the foreseeable future,” he said of Neal prior to that game. Problem is, that comment could have been merely a cryptic clue concerning Crosby’s concussion woes.

-- Alexei Kovalev, acquired a couple of days later, was the third member of the Staal-Neal line when the new-look Pens played Carolina on Friday night. First-line minutes on a playoff-bound team has to be a shot in the arm for his fantasy owners.

-- That game also gave us a second first-look at Cory Stillman on the Hurricanes. Carolina re-acquired the veteran winger from Florida on Thursday and immediately re-united him with Eric Staal and Erik Cole, a trio instrumental in the Canes’ Stanley Cup run in 2006.

-- One traded player taking to his new environs with gusto is winger Chris Stewart, who has six goals in six games since the Blues landed him from Colorado, playing on a line with Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie.

-- Remember that five-goal game by Johan Franzen against Ottawa on Feb. 2? Prior to Saturday night’s game in Buffalo, the Red Wings’ sniper had not scored since — a span covering 11 games.

-- It’s common, in fantasy circles, to equate ice time with production and rightly so. After all, you can’t get points sitting on the bench. But then there is Rick Nash of the Blue Jackets who, according to the Columbus Post-Dispatch has seen his ice time drop from 20:57 last year to 18:37 this season but has actually been more productive — his points per game are up from .88 to .95. The club made a point of bringing in skaters to relieve Nash of his penalty-killing chores and keep him fresh for the playoff drive.

-- The Ducks are looking like Long Island West in goal. When the week began, the inexperienced duo of Curtis McElhinney and Timo Pielmeier shared the job while Jonas Hiller recovered from dizziness and fatigue that has since been diagnosed as a form of vertigo. By Friday’s game against the Wild, it was Dan Ellis, acquired in a trade with Tampa, and veteran Ray Emery, back in the NHL after hip surgery. Ellis can only be an improvement on McElhinney (who had been terrible of late and went to the Bolts in exchange). Though he has been wildly inconsistent this season and lost his starting job to Dwayne Roloson, Ellis’ final three starts with Tampa, along with his Ducks debut on Friday were all solid. “I actually feel it’s the best I’ve been playing all year,” he said.

-- Looks like Blake Wheeler has wound up back on the wing with Atlanta, after all, which is good news for his fantasy owners. After acquiring him from Boston recently, the Thrashers said he likely would become their third-line centre, essentially replacing Rich Peverley, for whom he was traded. But Wheeler has since moved up to first-line right wing with Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd.

GAMES THIS WEEK

4 GAMES

Buffalo, Calgary, Chicago, Detroit, Florida, Minnesota, N.Y. Islanders, N.Y. Rangers, Vancouver

2 GAMES

Colorado

Every other team plays 3 games

HOT AND NOT

(Forwards the past two weeks)

Ales Hemsky EDM

4-6-10 in 8 GP

Andy McDonald STL

4-6-10 in 8 GP

Patrick Berglund STL

4-5-9 in 8 GP

- - - - -

Nikolai Kulemin TOR

0-1-1 in 6 GP

Lee Stempniak PHX

0-1-1 in 7 GP

TRAINER’S ROOM TICKER

Mike Green (concussion) finally returned Friday but took another hit to the head and left again … The Canes are hopeful Eric Staal (upper body) will be okay for Tuesday’s game ... Peter Regin’s shoulder injury a week ago may be season-ending … Marian Gaborik is back on the shelf, this time with concussion symptoms … Dan Boyle was hurt late in Wednesday’s game but might be back for Tuesday … Ville Leino now reveals he’s still not over his off-season hip operation … Nicklas Backstrom is playing through a minor thumb fracture … Saku Koivu and Steve Sullivan are out with sore groins … Brad Richards (concussion) was back skating on Thursday … Nikolai Khabibulin has an eye infection from flying ice chips … Chris Pronger took a shot off his hand Thursday and can’t hold a stick properly.

WAIVER WATCH

With fantasy rating out of 5

Matt Calvert

LW, Blue Jackets

* * *

Called up early last month, slender rookie was given a season-high 14:39 of ice time Friday on the second line with R.J. Umberger and responded with three goals (on seven shots) and an assist. Jackets’ fifth-round pick in ’08 now has seven points in his past three games. He has quick hands and good offensive instincts.

Matt Niskanen

D, Penguins

*

After the club said its newly acquired blueliner would be playing on the first power-play unit, he didn’t see a second of it in either of his first two games. Hold off on picking him up.

Jeff Halpern

F, Canadiens

* * *

Long-time defensive specialist got the call on the top line, moving over to the wing with Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri. Not a bad idea. He’s shown the ability to put up points when given the chance in the past, most recently three years ago when he was 20-22-42 for the Bolts. He also was around-the 20-goal mark three times with the Caps.

Al Montoya

G, Islanders

* *

Yikes, not again! Putting an Islanders goalie in this space is become a weekly ritual. Lawson, Poulin, Nabokov, Toskinen. All we can is say is the former Rangers first-rounder is hot, with a .940 save percentage in six game. So, yeah, take a chance on him. Beyond that, who the heck knows anymore with this team?

A FINAL RANT

Can’t wait for this fantasy hockey season to end. Went into the year with an amazing nucleus of Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin and Zach Parise all on last-year contracts at an average of less than $20 apiece. Fantasy hockey guru Rob Higgins would’ve smiled. Those were four of his top six pre-season picks. But not even Rob can foresee injuries and, man, did I get zapped ... right out of the money. So, mercifully, we divert our focus to baseball beginning next week, though we’ll still keep an eye on late-breaking NHL fantasy news. Play ball!

All stats do not include Saturday’s games.


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