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Alex Ovechkin's projected return to the Washington lineup tomorrow night would come in the rematch of their stunning opening-round playoff victory over the Rangers last spring, when the Capitals roared back from a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate New York in seven games.

The Capitals have held their own during Ovechkin's six-game absence, with Tomas Fleischman picking up the scoring slack (seven goals in eight games since returning from a blood clot that kept him out a month).

Ovechkin's return also permits Slava Bykov, coach of Russia's men's Olympic team, to breathe easier. In a five-day span, all of his top Russian gunners will have returned from the IR, and the first two (Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin) did so with a bang. The Atlanta Thrashers' Ilya Kovalchuk scored seven points in his first two games back from a broken foot, while the Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin produced three points in his return from a shoulder strain.

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Officially, one fourth of the 2009-10 NHL season will be in the books by Friday following the Boston Bruins' date with the Buffalo Sabres, meaning the quarterly reports will be spilling out everywhere next weekend.

A sneak peak at the early-season hardware favourites: Hart (for MVP) to Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles; Norris (for best defenceman) to Chris Pronger, Philadelphia; Vezina (for top goalie) to Ryan Miller, Buffalo; Calder (for top rookie) to John Tavares, New York Islanders; and Jack Adams (for best coach) to Joe Sacco, Colorado.

Pronger's departure, from the Ducks to the Flyers, demonstrates how much of a difference one high-end defenceman can make. Defensively, Anaheim is struggling to keep the puck out of their net without Pronger while Philadelphia came to rely heavily on him in short order. Leaguewide, Pronger is first in ice time (27:15) and second in plus-minus (plus 13). With 17 points in 16 games, he's also second on the Flyers in scoring. The Flyers gave up a small fortune in futures to acquire Pronger, but so far, the risky play by GM Paul Holmgren has paid off in immediate short-term dividends. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly will board an early morning flight from New York to Phoenix today to meet with officials from Glendale and discuss the problematic lease agreement that is helping to bleed the Coyotes franchise dry.

It will be the first face-to-face meeting between the two sides since the NHL purchased the team for $140-million (U.S.) from beleaguered owner Jerry Moyes last month to end a lengthy headline-grabbing bankruptcy process. In an e-mail note, Daly suggested the get-together was scheduled "to compare notes and determine where we go from here." Ideally, the NHL wants to flip the team as soon as possible to a buyer intent on keeping the team in Phoenix, but ongoing attendance woes and tens of millions in annual losses puts the league in a strong bargaining position with the city.

If lease concessions are not forthcoming, the NHL may have to reverse position and explore relocation after all. Kansas City, here they come. Item 5 QuotableGotta love those graphite sticks, eh? Boston Bruins' coach Claude Julien, after Patrice Bergeron's stick shattered in his hands in the final 10 seconds of Saturday's date with the Pittsburgh Penguins, enabling the Penguins to tie the game with under a second to go in regulation and win in overtime. The Bruins' freakish run of bad luck, which includes injuries to Marc Savard and Milan Lucic, sees them just 8-7-3 going into tonight's meeting with the New York Islanders. Until they broke out for five goals against Penguins backup goalie Brent Johnson, Boston had managed just eight goals in six games. Luckily for them, Savard is supposed to start skating this week, one of half-a-dozen star NHL players sidelined with a broken foot.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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