Five biggest factors for the 2011 Winter Classic

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The Winter Classic is tomorrow night and while it’s still just another regular season game, it’s also a game featuring two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and being played on the biggest stage outside of the Stanley Cup playoffs. We’ve seen how these two teams battle each other already this year with the Pens winning a in a shootout just before Christmas, but what can we look out for in this year’s game? We’ve got a list of the five things we think will be the biggest factors in this year’s game.

1. Washington goaltending

The Caps have one of the youngest goaltending duos in the NHL and this season we’ve seen our fair share of work from Michal Neuvirth who has led the Caps in wins this season. Semyon Varlamov is back and now splitting time with Neuvirth. Varlamov is the guy who was their de facto starter heading into the year, but injury problems have plagued him. Whether coach Bruce Boudreau goes with Varlamov or Neuvirth to start the Winter Classic could give us an idea of who he thinks is the guy that gives them an edge in a big game. How they handle themselves on such a huge stage in this game could be the sort of thing that gives the Caps an idea who their go-to guy could be.

With Varlamov and Neuvirth both being as young as they are things can change at any time. The Caps’ season is riding on either of these young goalies so getting a test like this early on can only help them out along the way. With Pens coach Dan Bylsma having made note of what he thought about Michal Neuvirth’s ability on the last episode of 24/7, you have to wonder if perhaps the Pens have a preferred Caps goalie they’d like to see.

2. The Sidney Crosby factor

You can’t help but wonder what the buzz and hype would’ve been for this game had Crosby’s point streak been able to continue. Instead, Sid the Kid and the Penguins come into this game off a tough and frustrating loss to the Islanders that saw Sid kept off the scoreboard for the first time in 25 games. If you’re looking for the perfect storm to put together to have Crosby get back into the swing of things, this is it. Having him face off with one of his biggest rivals in Washington and having the motivation to get his scoring touch back, you can’t help but think that Crosby will explode for a big game in front of even more home fans at the Winter Classic.

3. The Capitals dark days are over

All right so things weren’t quite as bleak as HBO’s 24/7 made them out to be, but the Caps’ eight game losing streak is behind them and it appears they’ve learned that losing can be the greatest motivator. After getting dumped in the first round of the playoffs as the Presidents Trophy winners and after stumbling through an erratic and miserable losing streak, the Caps renewed dedication to defense might be paying dividends. The Caps aren’t getting involved in shootout-type games anymore and if their big offensive guns can find their stride again, all of a sudden the Caps are a force to be reckoned with. With the Caps having their confidence back, they won’t be shaken very easily.

4. The role of the role player

Sure, it’s easy to pick out Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, or Nicklas Backstrom as the guys who will make a difference in the game, but the Winter Classic has that ability to play out like a playoff game and that means having to look out for the unsung heroes on each team. The Caps and Pens both have guys like that in spades. We’ve seen in the past that Maxime Talbot can turn a game and win a Stanley Cup, so what’s to keep him from stealing the spotlight in the Winter Classic? The same case can be made of guys like Brooks Laich and David Steckel of Washington playing the part of blue collar guys that can turn a game in their favor.

5. The weather

Yeah, we know you’ve heard almost too much about it by now but there’s no doubt that the weather forecast is looming over how things are going to go on New Year’s Day.  It’s looming over things so much so that the game has been re-scheduled to take place at 8 p.m. Saturday night. While the rain should clear out by the late afternoon or early evening, if it causes problems mid-game there are some rules in place that will help figure things out. Of course, if the rain persists though… We could be looking at Sunday for a game.

Jason Zucker takes a puck to the head (video)

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How in the world did he get up?

Too many players have been getting drilled in the head lately by slap shots. It’s an ugly site to behold whenever it happens

Somehow, however, Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild was able to pop right back up and head directly to the dressing room. No passing GO on this one.

The puck hit him so squarely in the helmet that it ricocheted back toward the Thomas Chabot, who uncorked the shot in the first place.

Even more insane is that Zucker was able to return to the game.

Talk about hard-headed.

Who could take Taylor Hall’s place if he has to miss the All-Star Game?

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With Taylor Hall set to miss the next couple of games due to a hand injury, and with that injury putting his All-Star Game prospects in jeopardy, we look at the players who are worthy of replacing the New Jersey Devils forward if he has to miss this weekend’s festivities.

Two names that immediately come to mind are Pittsburgh Penguins forward Phil Kessel and Philadelphia Flyers forward Sean Couturier.

There was already an argument that Kessel deserved to be at the ASG over Sidney Crosby. He was leading the Penguins in points then and two weeks later, he continues to pace Pittsburgh with 21 goals (tied with Evgeni Malkin) and 54 points, three more points than Crosby.

Couturier has already smashed his previous career highs in both goals (26) and points (47). He’s been part of the reason that Claude Giroux is already headed to the ASG and deserves to be there himself.

At third would have to be Sebastian Aho. The talent in the Metropolitan is evident with his snub. He’s clearly the best player on the Carolina Hurricanes this season (no disrespect to Teuvo Teravainen).

Aho is well on his way to eclipsing his rookie-season totals and a big reason why the Hurricanes are three points back of a playoff spot.

Beyond those three guys, there’s a few that certainly deserve the honor:

  • Anders Lee has 27 goals this season, seven off the pace he set last season with half the season to go.
  • Jakub Voracek leads the NHL with 45 assists, four more than teammate Giroux.
  • Evgeni Malkin. Not having a bad year.

It’s important to remember that the at-least-one-player-per-team rule goes out the window when it comes to replacing another All-Star.

There are certainly some very deserving names that didn’t get the first call.

But life’s about second chances.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Tampa Bay Lightning vs Chicago Blackhawks

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Projected Lines

Tampa Bay Lightning

Nikita KucherovBrayden PointTyler Johnson

Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosChris Kunitz

Alex Killorn — Matthew Peca — Yanni Gourde

Michael Bournival — Cedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Jake DotchinAnton Stralman

Mikhail SergachevDan Girardi

Braydon CoburnAndrej Sustr

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

NHL on NBCSN: ‘Out of sync’ Lightning look to end three-game losing skid against ‘Hawks

Chicago Blackhawks

Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsAnthony Duclair

Patrick SharpNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane

Alex DeBrincatArtem AnisimovRyan Hartman

Tomas Jurco — David Kampf — Vinnie Hinostroza

Duncan KeithJordan Oesterle

Erik Gustafsson — Brent Seabrook

Michal KempnyConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Jeff Glass

Are Penguins making the right call with Sprong demotion?

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After being a healthy scratch for two games and seemingly being in the doghouse since at least Jan. 17, Daniel Sprong is headed back to the AHL.

To some degree, the move was made because it seems like Bryan Rust is getting ready to return to the mix after being sidelined since Dec. 27. Still, it’s a frustrating development for those who believe in Sprong’s potential as the 46th pick of the 2015 NHL Draft.

All of the 20-year-old’s points came in one game, as Sprong scored two goals and one assist against the Islanders on Jan. 5. He went without a point in his other seven appearances in the NHL this season, with six coming during his latest stint.

Sprong was in the double digits in ice time each night until the Penguins’ loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 17, when he was glued to the bench from the second period on. Considering his lack of production in general, it’s understandable that head coach Mike Sullivan is more reactive to mistakes.

Certain details make the move more debatable, though.

For those who believe that Ryan Reaves‘ role is antiquated, it must be frustrating to see Sprong get demoted. Reaves has been averaging less than seven minutes per game (6:41) despite taking a spot in the lineup for 49 contests. Pittsburgh is in a life-or-death battle for a playoff spot, and many believe that his presence (and the first rounder they gave up to acquire him) is a waste for the Penguins.

The Pens also seem like they’re taking a questionable all-or-nothing approach with Sprong.

Sprong’s most common even-strength linemates (by far) were Sidney Crosby and Dominik Simon, via Natural Stat Trick. Maybe Sprong isn’t quite the right fit for Crosby at this point in his career, but there has to be at least a chance that he could provide more punch for the Penguins’ lineup than someone like Reaves lower in the lineup?

His possession stats have been solid in a small sample size and he hasn’t been shy, firing just less than three shots on goal per game (22 SOG in eight games). Couldn’t the Penguins find room for Rust and Sprong?

These are questions at least some Penguins media members and fans are asking right now, but the bottom line is that the team clearly believes that Reaves is a difference-maker. If Sprong is going to rank as one as well, it sounds like he’ll need to earn his next chance first.

We’ll see how the Sprong-less Penguins fare against the Carolina Hurricanes in a pretty important game on Tuesday. In other Penguins news, Matt Murray was overwhelmed by the support he received from his team and teammates following his father’s death.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.