Honda NHL SuperSkills

Are the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals headed for a first round series?

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The most accurate and immediate way to describe tomorrow’s Pittsburgh Penguins-Washington Capitals SuperBowl Sunday game is as a rematch of the 2011 Winter Classic. That being said – and forgive us for being dreamers* – but could that early game also be a preview for a captivating first round series?

If the 2011 playoffs began at this moment, the Penguins would host the Capitals in a fourth vs. fifth seed series. There are justifiable reasons why each team might stay in second place in their divisions, too.

Odds are that you know that Pittsburgh will likely be without Evgeni Malkin’s services for the rest of the season while Sidney Crosby’s return is indefinite, two huge losses that may eventually wound them in their neck-and-neck run against the Flyers. Even after finally besting the Southeast-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday, the Capitals also have the deck stacked against them. They play six of their last seven February contests on the road and face a six-game road trip in March while the Lightning still have eight games left in their mammoth homestand.

(Really, the biggest threat to this first round series might be the sixth-ranked Montreal Canadiens, who only have one less point than the Capitals while owning two more wins.)

With this possibility in mind, here are a few thoughts on this hypothetical series.

Would a first round series be a good thing for the league?

A Pens-Caps first round series would be a great “glass half-full vs. half-empty” barometer for league executives. The optimistic side would be obvious: the league would receive a guaranteed pay-off from the 24/7 documentaries and the years of buzz created by this budding feud. On the other hand, a pessimist will point out the fact that the stakes aren’t as high in a first round match as they would be in, say, the Eastern Conference finals. Of course, an even deeper Debbie Downer would say that the playoffs would lose one of its marquee teams after four to seven games.

How would the Capitals handle the pressure of facing an ‘underdog’ Penguins team?

Even if the Penguins hosted the series, Alex Ovechkin & Company would have to deal with the fact that Pittsburgh would probably go in with a “nothing to lose” attitude since they would play without Malkin. Pundits would likely quip that the Caps just have to win this series and would likely call them “gutless” if they lost. Washington would skate with some added weight on their already-burdened shoulders.

Would HBO’s cameras return?

The NHL would have a lot to gain if they permitted a behind the scenes look of such a playoff series. Surely the two sides would be a little more secretive – and the typical two week shelf life of a playoff series would introduce some interesting obstacles – but can you put a price on the kind of buzz a 24/7 sequel would generate? Obviously, this is the purest of speculation, but it’s a fun thing to think about, isn’t it?


Anyway, those are a few things that come to mind while pondering the tantalizing possibility of a Pens-Capitals first round series. Feel free to share your two cents in the comments.

*- Don’t get us wrong, it’s beyond-early to say that the Penguins won’t win the Atlantic Division title and the Capitals are out of the hunt for the Southeast crown in 2010-11. Both teams are only three points behind their respective division leaders, which are far from insurmountable margins. In other words, don’t call HBO to set up 24/7: playoff edition just yet.

Niemi blanks Pens, notches two assists in Stars debut

Antti Niemi, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist
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DALLAS (AP) — Antti Niemi recorded his 33rd career shutout and assisted on two goals in his Dallas debut, as the Stars beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 on Thursday night in the season opener for both.

Ales Hemsky had a power-play goal and an assist.

Rookie Matthias Janmark scored on his first shot on his first shift in an NHL game to make it 1-0. The Stars acquired Niemi and Janmark in trades earlier this year.

Dallas scored on two of five power plays. Jamie Benn, the NHL’s leading scorer last season, had a power-play goal in the third period.

Niemi made 37 saves to improve his career record against the Penguins to 5-1-1. He withstood a flurry in the final minute after Pittsburgh pulled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for an extra skater.

Fleury had 21 saves.

The Stars are 4-0-1 in their last five home games against Pittsburgh, and have won three in a row overall.

Janmark skated down the slot, took a pass from Hemsky and shot between Fleury’s legs at 1:39 of the first.

The Penguins dominated the latter half of the period, but couldn’t score. Niemi’s best stop was a reaching glove save of Rod Scuderi’s drive from the blue line with less than 3 minutes remaining. Pittsburgh outshot the Stars 10-4 in the first.

Hemsky scored at 5:42 of the second on Dallas’ first power play. His shot from the top of the right faceoff circle went in over Fleury’s right shoulder.

The Penguins again had an advantage in shots, 13-11. Pittsburgh had chances in close, but Niemi turned those away. Midway through the second, John Klingberg cleared away a loose puck from in front of the net.

Seven seconds into the Stars’ fourth power play of the third period, Jamie Benn tipped in Jason Spezza‘s shot from the right point.

NOTES: Dallas acquired Janmark as part of a March trade that sent Erik Cole to Detroit. The rookie had been playing in the Swedish Hockey League. . San Jose traded Niemi’s rights to the Stars in June for a seventh-round draft pick. Also making their Dallas debuts were LW Patrick Sharp and D Johnny Oduya, teammates with Chicago’s Stanley Cup champions last season. . In his first game for the Penguins, Phil Kessel played in his 447th straight game. . Pittsburgh was 0 for 3 on the power play.

Fabbri’s first spoils McDavid’s debut as Blues down Oilers

Robby Fabbri, Justin Schultz
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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Rookie Robby Fabbri scored the tiebreaking goal midway through the third period to help the St. Louis Blues beat Edmonton 3-1 Thursday night, spoiling Oilers rookie Connor McDavid‘s NHL debut.

Vladimir Tarasenko had the tying goal for the Blues near the midpoint of the second period, and Troy Brouwer added an empty-netter with 18 seconds remaining in the third. Brian Elliott finished with 23 saves.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored in the first period for Edmonton and Cam Talbot had 28 saves.

McDavid, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, took 22 shifts, played 18:07 and was on the ice for Brouwer’s goal. He had two shots on goal, and struggled on faceoffs – winning only three of 13.

Fabbri, a 19-year-old forward — and McDavid’s childhood friend — was also playing in his first NHL game. The Blues’ first-round pick in 2014 was one of three rookies in the St. Louis lineup, joining defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson.

Nugent-Hopkins gave the Oilers a 1-0 lead late in the first period with a fluke power-play goal. He lost a face-off but when Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo tried to clear the puck it bounced off Alexander Steen and past Brian Elliott. Nugent-Hopkins was credited with the unassisted power-play goal with 2:38 remaining in the period.

Tarasenko tied it a 9:10 of the second after getting loose on a breakaway with a stretch pass from Alex Pietrangelo and beating Talbot through his legs.

Tarasenko, who signed an eight-year, $60 million extension in the offseason, was the last Blues player to score in his debut.

NOTES: McDavid and F Anton Slepyshev made their NHL debuts for the Oilers. … St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina dropped the ceremonial first puck. … The attendance was announced as standing room-only 19,327.