Who needs to win the Winter Classic more?

With tonight’s Winter Classic dropping the puck at 8 p.m. we see two teams that are indeed rivals that are sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference. Don’t let their place in the standings fool you though, there are stark differences between the two and how they’re playing leading into tonight’s game.

Washington has put their eight-game losing streak behind them and they’ve won four of their last five games but that one loss in the middle of that is to Pittsburgh. With the teams only meeting four times this season, each game brings a special kind of heat to it and with tonight’s game being the Winter Classic, the pressure is intense to win each game to prove a point.

But who needs to win this game more? For us, the answer is obvious. Washington needs to get a win tonight and if you’ve seen any part of HBO’s 24/7 you know why. The Capitals need a confidence boost.

The Caps’ recent success is good for them because it keeps them from being the quiet and sullen team they appeared to be on 24/7. That said, getting wins over Ottawa, New Jersey, and Carolina aren’t really awe-inspiring. Their 3-0 shutout win over Montreal was a solid psychological boost after their failure against Montreal last year. A win against the Penguins in Pittsburgh today in front of 65,000 fans is the exact kind of win this temperamental Caps team needs to stay focused and to completely put that miserable losing streak in the past for good.

What would be best for Washington would be to beat Pittsburgh and beat them handily with their offensive stars like Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom all finding the score sheet. Ovechkin is having a solid season, but his goal numbers are down compared to previous seasons. The lingering feeling that Ovechkin has a goal eruption coming hangs over the team and once it happens (if it happens) the high-scoring Caps we got accustomed to seeing will be back in a big way.

That’s not to say this game isn’t big for the Penguins. The Pens are getting Jordan Staal back in their lineup tonight and that means for the first time this year, the Pens have their full compliment of great players back on the ice. We’ll get a look at how Staal looks with Evgeni Malkin on his wing and if that’s the thing the Penguins needed to take control of the Eastern Conference races.

As it is, the Pens are four points up on both Washington and Tampa Bay for the overall lead in the East. The Pens getting another win, ideally a regulation win with just two points for them and none for the Caps, would work two-fold. The Pens would extend their lead and they’d also deliver a psychological blow to Washington, something that could linger with them all year long.

Overall though, this game is a must-win for Washington. If it turns into another game where they fall behind early and try to gut it out, it creates unnecessary drama for them. After all, moral victories aren’t counted in the standings and when it comes to Pittsburgh, racking up those kinds of wins doesn’t do anything to help them out in the long run and for Washington, that’s what matters the most.

Video: AHL goalie Jonas Gustavsson scores his first career goal

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He didn’t shoot, but Jonas Gustavsson still scored.

The former NHL netminder, now with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL, scored his first career goal Friday, as part of his team’s victory over the San Diego Gulls.

From the AHL:

With San Diego goaltender Dustin Tokarski on the bench for an extra attacker and the Gulls working on a power play, Gustavsson made a save before an errant San Diego pass slid down the length of the ice and into the vacated net at 16:56 of the third period.

Gustavsson is the fifth AHL goaltender to be credited with a goal without actually shooting the puck into the opposition net. In addition to his goal, Gustavsson stopped 30 of 31 shots in the Condors victory.

Bolts and Islanders both win, which is bad news for Bruins

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The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning each had to work overtime to decide their separate games, but when they ended, both clubs were victorious.

And that makes things even more interesting in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

With their shootout win in Pittsburgh, the Islanders tie the Bruins in points but take over the final playoff spot for now with fewer games played. The Lightning, despite an abundance of injuries all season, are just a point back of Boston and New York.

Nikita Kucherov scored the winner for Tampa Bay against the Red Wings. He’s up to 38 goals, which is second most in the league behind Sidney Crosby, currently at 42 goals.

Sellers leading up to the trade deadline, and without Steven Stamkos since the middle of November, the Lightning are in the thick of this race, even if others may have counted them out.

“Once again, people counted us out,” defenseman Victor Hedman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But we showed a lot of character. And we’re right back in it.”

The Bolts don’t play again until Monday, when they host the Chicago Blackhawks — only one of the hottest teams in the league.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s busy slate of games includes a showdown between the Bruins and Islanders. For Boston, it’s a chance for redemption after a particularly costly third period against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

The Ducks defeated the Jets on Friday, moving into a tie with the Sharks at 91 points.

San Jose’s struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.