Penguins-Capitals Winter Classic rematch looks a bit different this time around

When we last saw the Penguins and Capitals it was on the ice on Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day for the Winter Classic. At the time, both teams were playing well and the Capitals eventually came away the victors that evening with a 3-1 win. Times have changed in the time just over a month since then and when they meet up at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC, you might have trouble recognizing each team.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are out with injuries as is rookie Mark Letestu and the Pens have adopted a more hard-nosed brand of hockey, a style that’s won them five in a row heading into today’s game. The Penguins offense hasn’t been prolific but is instead proving to be timely while their team defense has stiffened up as the Penguins have had shutouts in two of their last five wins. Even though the Penguins are still rolling out there with Jordan Staal, these aren’t the same Penguins we’re accustomed to seeing with the high-flying talents of Crosby and Malkin.

Instead, the goals are coming from the likes of Chris Kunitz, Max Talbot, Matt Cooke, and rookie Dustin Jeffrey. If you had any of these guys penciled in at the start of the year to be offensive leaders for Pittsburgh, perhaps your time would be better spent picking out lottery numbers. The fact that the Penguins have rallied together without their star centers speaks loudly to the ability of coach Dan Bylsma to keep the team focused on the matter at hand and to the rest of the players for knowing when they need to step up the most. It may not be the pretty and highlight-filled hockey we’re accustomed to seeing from the Penguins, but it’s getting the job done as the Penguins are just behind Philadelphia for the top spot not just in the division but also in the Eastern Conference.

The boat the Capitals find themselves in is a different one. They haven’t been felled by significant injuries (Alex Semin’s absence has been tricky for them though) but instead are still searching for their way through doing things differently on defense as well as trying to find ways to get Alex Ovechkin out of his goal-scoring slump this year.

While the goals aren’t as numerous as they have been in the past, the points are still coming and the Caps dominating win over Tampa Bay the other night was one of their best games of the year. In that game, both Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom each tallied four points (Ovechkin with 1 goal, 3 assists; Backstrom with 2 goals and 2 assists). Ovechkin’s game has changed a bit as he’s not quite playing like the slap-shooting, sniping master from the outside and is turning into a bit of a bull on the ice.

Rather than lurking in the perimeter, Ovechkin is rushing the net more and making defenses and goalies alike uncomfortable with his large, fast presence. By making his own space on the ice, his ability to be held off the score sheet will become more difficult to do once again. By proxy, Backstrom’s numbers are improving as long as Ovechkin continues to do things his way rather than taking what opposing defenses give him. That subtle alteration to Ovechkin’s game will take a toll physically, but he’s also a guy that’s never shied away from anyone ever. Letting him loose like that could unleash the inner power forward in him.

That said, it’s not as if both Ovechkin and Backstrom aren’t producing. Ovechkin has 55 points this year (20 g, 35 a) while Backstrom has 50 (14 g, 36 a) but if they’re going to help out their team that is otherwise producing erratically, they need to be the guys that keep putting the puck in the net.

Living off the secondary production takes its toll after a while and in the case of the Capitals they don’t have any excuses for not getting premiere production from their stars. The Penguins, meanwhile, wish they could just have their guys back. The fact that these two teams are each in second place in their division and on the crash course to face each other in the playoffs makes almost too much sense.

Red Wings are ‘excited’ about Michael Rasmussen’s offensive upside

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The Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, but there appears to be something good that came from that.

Instead of drafting in the back half of the first round, the Wings were able to get a top 10 selection in last June’s NHL Entry Draft. With the ninth overall pick, they chose power forward Michael Rasmussen.

Rasmussen is listed at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. NHLers of that size are a rare breed. Add the fact that he’s gifted offensively, and it looks like the Red Wings may have a gem coming through the pipeline.

In his first three career preseason games, the 18-year-old has already picked up two goals. His play hasn’t gone unnoticed by the organization.

“I’m excited about him as a prospect,” head coach Jeff Blashill said, per MLive.com. “He’s big, he’s smooth, he’s got good hands, he’s got good offensive sense.”

With all big forwards, a lot of their success will be determined by their skating ability. In today’s NHL, it’s pretty clear that you need to be able to move if you’re going to have a long and productive career. But according to Blashill, skating isn’t a big issue with Rasmussen.

“I think he skates well. People have questioned that, but I don’t see that at all. I think he covers lots of ground in a hurry. I think he needs to move his feet a little bit more at times in the D-zone, but overall I’ve been happy with his play.”

No matter what he does between now and the end of training camp, it sounds like Rasmussen will be heading back to the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, where he’ll look to improve his numbers from last year (32 goals, 55 points in 50 games).

Luongo pushes through ‘mental, physical grind’ in comeback from hip injury

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Roberto Luongo is back, taking part in the preseason for the Florida Panthers, in preparation for when the games begin to count in the standings.

However, his latest comments suggest he didn’t know if that would indeed be the case, after suffering a hip injury that resulted in surgery following the 2015-16 season and then shut him down in March last season.

“For a good two- to three-month period it was a battle mentally to just figure out if I could be able to ever come back,” Luongo told NHL.com. “I didn’t feel like I was getting better and it was constantly bothering me, so it was as much a mental grind as a physical grind from March until almost June if I could ever fully recover and feel good on the ice.”

Luongo is now 38 years old and the rigorous demands of playing that position for more than 960 career regular season games — not to mention playoffs or international duty — can surely take a toll on the body. The Panthers have a good tandem in net with Luongo and James Reimer, but what will be intriguing as the season progresses is how head coach Bob Boughner divvies up playing time between the two, with Luongo appearing to be healthier and as Florida looks to get back into the postseason.

The past several weeks, though, have been encouraging for Luongo. He returned to the ice well ahead of training camp and gave an optimistic report, saying there weren’t “any issues.” That was just over a month ago. He stopped all eight shots he faced during 31:26 of ice time in his preseason debut last week, which was a good start.

Auston Matthews puts on a show in preseason tilt vs. Habs

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Auston Matthews and William Nylander are showing no signs of any sophomore slump so far through the pre-season.

Matthews had a hat trick and an assist and Nylander had a goal and two assists as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-1 in an NHL preseason game on Monday night.

Matthews scored his first goal of the game 47 seconds into the first period. His wrist shot from just inside the blue line went over the right shoulder of Canadiens goaltender Al Montoya.

Matthews made it 2-0 at 4:56. Nylander’s initial shot went high, and Matthews batted down the rebound and into an open side of the net.

He scored his third goal in the third period. While on a breakaway, Matthews shot the puck between the legs of Montoya at 3:46.

Matthews has four goals and two assists in three preseason games.

Jeff Petry scored for Montreal while on the power play at 11:37 of the second period.

Nylander scored at 6:03 of the third period to give Toronto a 5-1 lead.

Patrick Marleau also had a goal for Toronto while Frederik Andersen made 20 saves.

 

Video: Trouba receives match penalty for hit on Flames’ Hrivik

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Tempers flared during the third period of Monday’s preseason game between the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets.

Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba received a match penalty for a hit at the blue line on Flames forward Marek Hrivik, leading to a melee along the boards.

Garnet Hathaway took exception to the hit, immediately jumping in and dropping the gloves with Trouba. Hathaway was also assessed an instigator penalty.

The hit occurred just after Hrivik dumped the puck into the Jets zone. Trouba stepped up at the line and delivered the hit, sending Hrivik hard to the ice.

Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice commented on the hit after the game:

The league’s Department of Player Safety has been busy over the past few days, handing out preseason suspensions to Capitals forward Tom Wilson and, on Monday, Rangers forward Andrew Desjardins.