Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malki

Around the rink – Thursday, December 23rd

With the league taking Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, tonight sees 13 games hit us square in the face. The featured event will be in Washington where a Winter Classic preview will take place between the Penguins and Capitals. With HBO in the house for 24/7 and it being the first time the two have faced off, the drama level should be off the charts.

All times listed are Eastern because that’s where Santa Claus visits America first.

7:00 pm

Pittsburgh @ Washington

You couldn’t ask for a better Christmas gift. Both teams come in riding two-game win streaks with the Pens playing outstanding hockey and the Caps seemingly having shaken off their eight game slump. The differences here come from the Pens dominating teams with their biggest stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin carrying the weight offensively while the Caps have won with the young upstarts doing the job. This would be a heck of a time to see Alex Ovechkin have a breakout game wouldn’t it?

NY Islanders @ New Jersey

The battle to see who stays out of absolute dead last in the NHL gets a higher profile thanks to the firing of John MacLean and the Lazarus-like return of Jacques Lemaire behind the Devils bench. The Devils are coming off back-to-back thumpings from Atlanta and Washington. The Isles are coming off a big win over Tampa Bay. Big in that it was any win at all. If it weren’t for today’s firing, this game wouldn’t even be on our radar.

Atlanta @ Boston

The slumping Bruins have people wondering aloud if Claude Julien should still be the man in charge there. Atlanta rolls into town with former Julien assistant Craig Ramsay as their head man and the Thrashers are thriving because of it. Well how about that. Julien getting his team to rally and get one over on Ramsay would go over pretty well for the B’s. Another loss and the whispers about wanting Julien out might start to turn into shouts. Truth here is that Boston has a hard time scoring goals even with great play from Tim Thomas. Atlanta’s tough brand of hockey and knack for scoring goals provides quite the gut check for the Bruins.

Tampa Bay @ NY Rangers

No Marian Gaborik for the Rangers in this one so Mats Zuccarello, the Norwegian Olympic hero, gets to make his first appearance with the Rangers. The 5’7″ forward came over from Europe after a successful year there and a spectacular showing in the Olympics. Seeing how he adjusts to the NHL could be fun to watch. The Lightning, meanwhile, would like to forget last night’s embarrassing loss to the Islanders.

Florida @ Buffalo

The NHL schedule makers gift to the Panthers was to play three games in four nights, the last of which coming in Buffalo tonight. Merry Christmas, indeed. The Panthers got worked over by the Penguins last night after shutting out the Flyers on Monday. Buffalo would like to redeem themselves against the Panthers after getting drubbed by them in Florida last week.

Montreal @ Carolina

Believe it or not, Habs fans are still upset at the Hurricanes for knocking them out of the playoffs years ago. Perhaps that’s their way of getting worked up for an opponent. One person Habs fans are getting discouraged with is coach Jacques Martin as he’ll be sitting down P.K. Subban and Benoit Pouliot tonight as healthy scratches. The Habs have lost two in a row and five of their last six. Carolina looks to rebound after getting beat down by Tampa on Monday and hope to reignite the win streak they were on before that when they won five straight.

Vancouver @ Columbus

Vancouver could sure use a pick-me-up after dropping last night’s game to Detroit in particularly chokey fashion. Dealing with the Blue Jackets you never know for sure which team you’ll get. It’s either the team that gets great goaltending and has Rick Nash show up in a big way or the team that gets six or seven goals put up on them and they’re run out of the building. If the Wings didn’t take too much out of Vancouver, this could be a long night for Columbus.

8:00 pm

Detroit @ St. Louis

It’ll be the first game for Detroit without Pavel Datsyuk who’s out four weeks with a broken hand. If the Wings get Henrik Zetterberg to step up and play big the way he did last night, the Wings will be just fine without Datsyuk in the mean time. The Blues are hoping their win over Atlanta the other night was the signal of a turnaround for them after going through a stretch of a few weeks where the goaltending and goal scoring disappeared.

Ottawa @ Nashville

The slumping Senators roll into Music City looking for something to spark them. Losing Pascal Leclaire from their starting lineup has been a sign of the times lately. The losses come in bunches while wins are scattered here and there. For Nashville, their strong play of late has vaulted them up the standings in the Western Conference and they’ve done it while soldiering through injuries to key players throughout the lineup. The Preds are hoping the offense can make a comeback after scoring just one goal in each of their last two games, both losses to the Kings and Blackhawks.

8:30 pm

Calgary @ Dallas

A desperate Flames team rolls into Dallas to face a Stars team that’s won three in a row. The Stars have to be careful to avoid the trap game here as the Flames have the ability to get hot at a moments notice and with Miikka Kiprusoff in goal it can spell trouble at any time. The Flames will be looking to snap a three game skid. Yeah, this totally reeks of being a trap game.

9:00 pm

Minnesota @ Colorado

While the Avs have been playing well of late, their last game aside, Minnesota is a team that gives the Avs fits for one reason or another. The Wild are on a two game win streak thanks to beating the Flames in back-to-back games. Whether or not the Wild defense can keep up with the Avs speed is the big question here. The Avs could stand to use a solid game out of Craig Anderson as his last few starts haven’t looked quite so hot.

10:30 pm

Edmonton @ Los Angeles

The Kings are hoping to get some consistent play as they’ve alternated wins and losses over the last few games. Doing so against an Oilers team that’s showing some guts but some typically youthful and inexperienced play would be an ideal place to begin. The Oilers have dropped three of their last four and did so with scoring just one goal in each of those losses. Which Oilers team comes out to play tonight and what the Kings allow them to do are two interesting turns in this one.

Phoenix @ San Jose

The Logan Couture traveling road show comes back home as the Sharks look to continue ascending the standings in the Pacific Division. They’re just four points behind Dallas and after winning three in a row they’ve gotten the fans to relax and have fun again and Couture is the main reason for it. As for Phoenix, they’ve struggled without Ilya Bryzgalov in goal and suffered an embarrassing loss to Pittsburgh on Monday night. Now would make for a good time for a rebound.

Beleskey expected to miss six weeks with right knee injury

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 20:  Matt Beleskey #39 of the Boston Bruins takes a shot against New Jersey Devils  during the third period at TD Garden on October 20, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Bruins defeat the Devils 2-1.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Boston Bruins are expected to be without forward Matt Beleskey for the next six weeks because of a right knee injury.

That update came from the Bruins on Monday. Boston was victorious over the Florida Panthers in overtime, but Beleskey wasn’t in the lineup.

The Bruins have now won three in a row and four of their last five games.

Beleskey suffered the injury in a collision in the neutral zone with Taylor Fedun during Saturday’s game. He left the game and didn’t return, after his knee drove into the hip of Fedun as the Sabres defenseman pivoted.

In 24 games with the Bruins this season, Beleskey has two goals and five points.

The Penguins are playing a brand of hockey from another era — and it’s a treat for hockey fans

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 08:  Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal against the Edmonton Oilers at PPG PAINTS Arena on November 8, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins are doing their part this season to single-handedly address the NHL’s ongoing goal scoring shortage.

At both ends of the ice.

After their 8-5 win over the Ottawa Senators on Monday night — an insane game that featured both teams making a goaltending change, a hat trick, a penalty shot, a fluke goal bouncing off the glass, three replay reviews, and a random appearance by actors Steve Carell and Bryan Cranston in the stands — the Penguins find themselves at the top, and bottom, of pretty much every major offensive and defensive category.

Just consider:

  • Their 3.31 goals per game average is the second best in the NHL behind only the New York Rangers.
  • Their 3.04 goals against average is the fourth worst ahead of only Dallas, Arizona, Toronto and Philadelphia.
  • They are averaging 34.7 shots on goal per game, tops in the league and more than a full shot per game better than the No. 2 team (Chicago).
  • They are giving up 32.6 shots on goal per game, the second worst mark in the league ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes.

When it comes to the latter two points they outshot Ottawa by a 46-34 margin on Monday night, making it the fourth time in the NHL this season a team recorded at least 45 shots on goal and surrendered at least 34 in a single game.

The Penguins have played in three of those games (the other was that 60-shot effort by Columbus over the weekend, and that game went to overtime. The Penguins did all of three of theirs in regulation).

An important thing to keep in mind about that stat: There were only seven such games like that all of last season. For the entire NHL. By all 30 teams. Combined. Only one team (Philadelphia) played in more than one, and nobody played in more than two. The Penguins have played in three in their first 26 games.

Monday’s game was already the 13th time this season (in only 26 games) where they have faced a two-goal deficit at some point in the game when they trailed 4-2 midway through the second period. They have now won six of those games, and are 5-6-1 when they have trailed after two periods. In one of those regulation losses they actually overcome a three-goal deficit, tied the game, and then gave up the winner in the closing minute.

A lot of this is the result of having a team that rolls out four lines of forwards every night that possess the ability to score (including three of the most talented forwards in the league in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel), combined with a blue line that is made up almost entirely of puck-movers and offensive-minded defensemen.

On one hand, it is an absolutely thrilling and captivating brand of hockey to watch. It is a throwback to the 1980s and early 1990s when wide open 8-5 games were fairly common. It is showcasing skill during a time when defense, structure and goaltending have dominated the league.

Because of that, is also not a style of play that has resulted in a lot of success in this era.

Over the past 10 years only one team has won the Stanley Cup finishing worse than seventh in the league in goals against (the lowest ranking over that stretch: The 2008-09 Penguins were 17th. Six of the Cup winners were in the top-two, including three that were the best in the league).

Only one other Cup-winning team during that stretch finished worse than 10th on the penalty kill (the 2010-11 Bruins, who were 16th). The Penguins are currently 29th.

These are areas they clearly need to address and correct (and they know it), because you are not always going to be able to rely on erasing a two-goal deficit in the playoffs no matter how great your offense is, and you are not always going to be able to put a five-or six-spot on the scoreboard.

The funny thing about this is the Penguins are returning pretty much the exact same roster from their 2015-16 Stanley Cup winning team. They are still a team built on speed and playing fast, a recipe that drove them to that championship just a few months ago. But that team excelled in a lot of the important defensive areas. They held opponents to less than 30 shots per game. They were sixth in the NHL in goals against and fifth in the league on the penalty kill.

After Monday’s game, coach Mike Sullivan talked about the importance of playing a “speed” game without necessarily turning it into a track meet.

“We certainly want to play a speed game because that is when we are at our best,” Sullivan said. “We try to distinguish between a speed game and a track meet. For me, we want to play a speed game and use our speed to advantage, but also not feed their transition game and allowing a track meet where you are trading chance for chance. Sometimes I think when we get away from our game a little we have a tendency to get into that track meet a little bit.”

He continued:

“For me it starts with out decisions with the puck. When you look at the makeup of our team we are a team that wants to play with the puck, so we want to make plays instinctively, but when we recognize the danger zones and when the plays aren’t there to be made, that is when we force teams to play 200 feet and that is when we become a more difficult team to play against. That is playing a speed game. So we try to distinguish between those two things.”

All of this is what makes this current team and the way it is playing so fascinating.

Almost every game quickly devolves into madness, and their record so far is great. But they are clearly not playing the way they want.

In the meantime, it is an absolute treat for hockey fans that are starving for more speed, skill and goals to take over the league.

‘I’m going to address it harshly,’ says Trotz of Ovechkin’s penalty trouble

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals looks on against New York Islanders during the second period at Verizon Center on October 15, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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There is no question the Washington Capitals are having difficulty through this portion of their season, with losses to the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning to begin the month of December.

They snapped their recent three-game skid with a 3-2 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres on Monday.

Marcus Johansson scored twice, including the tying goal late in the third period and the winner in OT. Jay Beagle had a goal and six shots on net. It’s a step in the right direction for a team Barry Trotz said still needs to be better at five-on-five.

He’s also still unhappy with the penalties taken by Alex Ovechkin, who had another minor for slashing against the Sabres. Trotz has already expressed concern for the time his captain is spending in the penalty box and the coach has once again vowed to deal with the problem.

“Unacceptable,” Trotz told reporters.

“He’s a leader. He can’t take those penalties. He’s got to be on the right side. I’m going to address it harshly with him tomorrow.”

It’s a tough loss for the Sabres, who were just over six minutes away from a win. It could’ve been worse. Jack Eichel, who suffered a high-ankle sprain early in the season, was hurt in the second period.

He got tangled up with Dmitry Orlov along the boards and struggled to the bench. There was a shot of him on the bench in obvious pain, but he did return to the game.

Sam Gagner has been ‘a great story’ for the surprising Blue Jackets

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 28:  Sam Gagner #89 of the Columbus Blue Jackets celebrates his second goal of the game for a 4-0 lead over the Anaheim Ducks during the first period at Honda Center on October 28, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Columbus Blue Jackets just keep on winning, remaining one of the big surprises so far this season — provided their last two performances were against the Arizona Coyotes.

We’ve seen the emergence of Zach Werenski. And Alexander Wennberg continues to impress.

But what about Sam Gagner? At 27 years old, he’s another interesting story on this early-season surprise of a team. Signed by the Blue Jackets at the beginning of August to a one-year contract worth only $650,000, Gagner is off to a very strong start with his new team.

For the Blue Jackets, they have received tremendous bang for their buck with this signing.

Gagner scored twice in Monday’s 4-1 win over the Coyotes, giving him 10 goals this season. He also had two assists. Again, this is against a young, rebuilding Arizona team, but still, Gagner has provided Columbus with additional offense, with 17 points in 23 games.

He has already eclipsed his point total from last season, basically in half the time. He had 16 points with the Flyers — in 53 games.

“He’s applied himself,” coach John Tortorella recently told FanRag Sports Network. “When I had him at center, for some reason, it wasn’t working. When we moved him to wing, things started happening for him. He seems more comfortable on the wing and he can play both sides, too.

“He’s scored some big goals for us and helps us on the power play. He knows that this is probably his last kick at the can, and it’s amazing what it does for athletes [who are] thinking ‘man, this is where I’m at right now.’ I think he has done some soul-searching and to me, right now, it’s a great story.”

He’s part of a Columbus team competing right now for top spot in the Metropolitan Division. In December.

That’s a pretty good story, too.