Tonight's games: Uphill battles

Although most of tonight’s games are pretty interesting, Pittsburgh-New Jersey is far and away the biggest one. Let’s took at that battle of the Atlantic as well as the five other matches on the schedule.

Pittsburgh Penguins (40-22-5, 85 pts) at New Jersey Devils (39-23-3, 81 pts) 7:00 PM ET

If you want to get technical about it, the Penguins have only won once more than the Devils in the last 10 games but they’ve taken advantage of the Devils’ slide with charity points anyway. New Jersey is struggling (in a Kovalfunk?) at the moment but they’ve manhandled Pittsburgh all season long. This game has big Atlantic division title implications.

Tampa Bay Lightning (27-27-12, 66 pts) at Washington Capitals (45-13-9, 99 pts) 7:00 PM ET

As Brandon pointed out, Steven Stamkos is turning the Crosby-Ovechkin Richard trophy duel into a three horse race. Meanwhile, the Capitals could be the first team in the NHL to hit 100 points tonight.

Minnesota Wild (31-29-6, 68 pts) at Buffalo Sabres (36-20-9, 81 pts) 7:30 PM ET

The Wild are a horrible mess and are weak on the road while the Sabres are on a three game winning streak and feature budding media darling Ryan Miller in net. Talk about two wildly different teams.

New York Rangers (29-29-9, 67 pts) at Atlanta Thrashers (28-28-10, 66 pts) 7:30 PM ET

Both teams are currently out of the playoffs in the East. Both are on four game losing streaks. Which team will get it together and which one will slip further into Boston’s rear view mirror?

Los Angeles Kings (39-22-5, 83 pts) at Dallas Stars (29-25-12, 70 pts) 8:30 PM ET

While Jon Quick experiences/recovers from/prepares for the horrifying sight of birth gore, the Kings travel to up-and-down Dallas in this one. Los Angeles has been slapping the Stars silly lately, but you never know with Turco (good or bad).

Nashville Predators (36-26-5, 77 pts) at Anaheim Ducks (30-28-8, 68 pts) 10:00 PM ET

Barry Trotz cannot bask in the glow of his 400th coaching win for very long with Calgary and Detroit breathing down his neck. Meanwhile, Anaheim is another member of the “four losses and fading out of the playoffs” club. In fact, could it already be late for the not-so-plucky Ducks?

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    No surgery for Dumoulin, who broke hand during Penguins’ Cup run

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    If you’re feeling jealous of Brian Dumoulin for signing a robust (if fair) contract extension with the Pittsburgh Penguins, take heart: at least he earned it. He even checked the “Hockey players are insanely tough” box during the Penguins’ latest Stanley Cup run.

    MORE: Dumoulin signs for six years, with a $4.1 million cap hit.

    The 25-year-old revealed that a David Savard slapper broke (or “damaged?) his right hand in Game 5 of that first-round matchup. After that, his hand would heal up, only “I’d do a cross-check then it would break again,” as he told Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    Dumoulin seemed to deal with that as the postseason went along, but the good news – at least as he claims – is that it’s all healed and he won’t require surgery.

    “It was tough to play with it, but obviously everybody had injuries,” Dumoulin said, via Mackey. “It’s all healed up now. They were deciding on surgery or not at the end of the season, but doctors saw a little bit of healing. We gave it about three weeks, and I kind of have been testing it out the last week. I’ve skated, and there have been no problems. I’m happy about it.”

    With any “no surgery needed” story, there are us hand-wringers who wonder if that will merely increase the odds of future re-breaks.

    That, not to mention years of taxing schooling, is why doctors are doctors, though, so this seems like a mostly positive bit of information regarding another Penguins player who fought through injuries during the playoffs.

    Considering how many Penguins players were sidelined, especially on defense, it makes Dumoulin’s toughness that much easier to appreciate. For all we know, losing him might have been the last straw for that thinned out group.

    Instead, the Penguins are repeat champions, and Dumoulin enjoys long-term security.

    If his play on the ice didn’t already convince you that he earned that extension, perhaps this detail did.

    Islanders’ D getting crowded with four-year deal for Adam Pelech

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    If nothing else, quantity probably won’t be much of an issue for the New York Islanders’ defense in 2017-18.

    GM Garth Snow locked down another blueliner on Monday, as he signed Adam Pelech to a four-year contract. The deal is worth $1.6 million per season ($6.4M overall), according to Newsday’s Arthur Staple.

    Pelech, 22, played 44 games at the NHL level in 2016-17, collecting 10 points and struggling from an analytics standpoint. He also appeared in nine games with the Islanders in 2015-16.

    Staple notes that this could make for a logjam – or, to put a positive spin on it, make for a lot of competition – particularly if the Isles can strike a deal with Calvin de Haan soon. If that pans out, they’d have eight defensemen who would need to go through waivers.

    On the bright side, the Islanders’ defense looks respectable on paper, and that’s assuming that Pelech doesn’t take a step forward. If he does, this could be another respectable, under-the-radar move by Snow.

    At the moment, it mainly seems like adding depth and flexibility, which isn’t the worst thing, either.

    Plenty of opportunity on revamped Blackhawks defense

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    For almost a decade, Niklas Hjalmarsson was a mainstay on the Blackhawks’ back end, quietly providing some of the most effective defense in the league.

    But with Hjalmarsson in Arizona now, traded to the Coyotes for the younger-though-less-proven Connor Murphy, it remains to be seen how Chicago’s blue line will roll out next season.

    In addition to Hjalmarsson, the ‘Hawks also bid adieu to Brian Campbell, Johnny Oduya, and Trevor van Riemsdyk this offseason.

    Add up all the good-byes, and that’s a lot of minutes to replace.

    “We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we’re going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” head coach Joel Quenneville said, per CSN Chicago. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

    The way it looks right now, the top four will be comprised of Keith, Seabrook, Murphy, and Michal Kempny. That’s two left shots — Keith and Kempny — and two righties — Seabrook and Murphy.

    Read more: After major changes, Bowman thinks Blackhawks are in ‘good spot’

    The bottom pairing, though, is anyone’s guess. Newly signed Czech defenseman Jan Rutta is in the mix. But so too are Jordan Oesterle, Gustav Forsling, Ville Pokka, Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg, and possibly even Luc Snuggerud.

    Once training camp starts, it’ll be up to those young players to prove themselves.

    “Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more,” said Oesterle, whom the ‘Hawks signed July 1. “I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

    Veteran Michal Rozsival is also under contract for next season. However, he turns 39 in September, and with all that youth champing at the bit, the Blackhawks will be hoping they won’t need him much, if at all.

    Chicago’s defense in 2016-17, ranked by total time on ice

    Sheary’s agent — who’s also Dumoulin’s agent — hoping to avoid arbitration

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    Conor Sheary‘s agent is hopeful that an arbitration hearing won’t be needed with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    And that same agent has reason to be optimistic, since he’s also the agent for Brian Dumoulin, who settled at the last minute today.

    “Each (case) is so different,” Andrew Gross told the Post-Gazette this morning. “Ultimately, though, team and player would like to avoid going in that room. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

    Sheary’s hearing isn’t scheduled until Aug. 4. The 25-year-old forward is coming off a 53-point regular season. In his young NHL career, he’s already won two Stanley Cups.

    That said, the Penguins can’t afford to break the bank on an extension. After all, a big reason for their success has been having players like Sheary on affordable deals — a necessity with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang taking up so much cap space.

    Sheary wasn’t all that productive in the 2017 playoffs either, scoring just two goals with five assists in 22 games, while finishing a team-worst minus-5 for the postseason.

    “We’re prepared to go to arbitration,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said last week.

    Of course, Rutherford was also speaking about Dumoulin, and the two sides were able to reach an agreement on him.

    You can probably expect a similar outcome with Sheary.

    Just don’t bet the house on it.