Alex Ovechkin

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.

Canadiens lose in San Jose for 10th straight time

ANAHEIM, CA - NOVEMBER 29:  Carey Price #31 of the Montreal Canadiens looks on during the third period of a game against the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on November 29, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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A bad first period was enough to send the Montreal Canadiens to a 2-1 loss to the Sharks on Friday night, extending the franchise’s losing streak in San Jose to 10 consecutive games going back to the 1999 season.

Brent Burns, scoring his team-leading 10th goal of the season, and Joe Pavelski provided all of the offense the Sharks would need in the win.

The star of the game has to be Sharks goalie Martin Jones for his 31-save effort, including a couple of highlight reel saves throughout the night. One of his best came in the first period when he absolutely robbed Alex Galchenyuk with a fancy glove save.

The Sharks really needed Jones to be on top of his game to get the win.

For as good as they looked in the first period, when they seemed to be on the verge of running the Canadiens out of the building, they were not able to maintain that level of play in the second and third periods and allowed Montreal to turn the tables on them a little bit.

Things really started to get a little tense for them with four minutes to play in the third period when Logan Couture was assessed a double-minor for high-sticking Alexander Radulov, resulting a nasty cut to Radulov’s face that left a trail of blood on the ice as he skated to the bench.

Montreal was able to cut the deficit to one when Artturi Lehkonen scored his third goal of the season but were never able to get the tying goal.

After a 13-2-1 start to the season the Canadiens have hit their first slump of the season and are now 3-5-1 in their past nine games.

The Sharks on the other hand are starting to hit their stride a little bit and have won six of their past seven games to open up a three-point lead over the Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers in the Pacific Division.

Flames, Johnson continue hot streak with win over Wild

CALGARY, AB - NOVEMBER 30: Chad Johnson #31 of the Calgary Flames in action against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on November 30, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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The Calgary Flames’ recent turnaround continued on Friday night with a 3-2 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild.

The win improved the Flames to 7-3-1 in their past 11 games, and featured another strong performance from goaltender Chad Johnson as he continues to make his case to be the team’s No. 1 goaltender.

He stopped 23 of the 25 shots he faced through regulation and overtime, and then two of the three shots he faced in the shootout. Johnson has been on a roll for the Flames since the middle of November, starting nine of the team’s 11 games since Nov. 15.

During that stretch he has a .948 save percentage and a 7-2-0 record. His save percentage for the season remains over .930.

The crazy thing about that number is that it isn’t that far off from what his career numbers look like. Granted, most of that has come in a backup role, but in 40 starts with the Buffalo Sabres a year ago he finished the year with a .920 save percentage. He was at .925 a few years ago in Boston. Really, the only time in his career his performance dipped significantly below that was during a 19-game sample size in 2014-15 with the New York Islanders.

The win moved the Flames into a wild card position in the Western Conference for the time being. It is worth pointing out their 27 games played are more than any other team in the league at the moment, and are five more than the Nashville team they temporarily jumped over in the standings on Friday.

Still, considering where the Flames were just a couple of weeks ago when they were 5-10-1 through the first 16 games.

Sean Monahan scored the winning goal in the shootout for the Flames.

One thing that stood out in the shootout from a Minnesota perspective was the fact coach Bruce Boudreau did not use Zach Parise or Mikko Koivu.

Boudreau said after the game that he had intended to use Koivu if the shootout had been extended to a fourth round, and that his decision to use Charlie Coyle ahead of him came down to something he saw in the way Johnson was defending the first two shooters.

When it came to Parise, who only played 24 seconds in the overtime period, Boudreau said he wanted to talk to the team’s trainers to see if he was fully healthy, adding that he thought Parise looked sluggish and methodical for most of the game.

Video: Martin Jones robs Alex Galchenyuk with fancy glove save

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 15:  Martin Jones #31 of the San Jose Sharks stops a shot by Cam Atkinson #13 of the Columbus Blue Jackets during the third period on October 15, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. San Jose defeated Columbus 3-2. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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Alex Galchenyuk has been one of the Montreal Canadiens best players this season and entered play on Friday night with nine goals in his first 23 games.

In the first period against the San Jose Sharks he had himself in a great position to score goal No. 10 when he had a wide open look right in front of the net.

Sharks goalie Martin Jones, however, had other ideas and absolutely robbed the Canadiens’ star forward.

Have a look.

Jones took over as the Sharks’ starting goaltender a year ago after he was acquired in an offseason trade with the Boston Bruins. He was a key piece in their run to the Stanley Cup Final.

He has been on quite a run for the Sharks over the past couple of weeks and entered play on Friday having allowed just six goals in his past five starts.

Senators will be without Bobby Ryan for at least next two games

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 28: Bobby Ryan #9 of the Ottawa Senators in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 28, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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The Ottawa Senators were without forward Bobby Ryan during their 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday due to a hand injury that he aggravated on Tuesday against Buffalo. That injury resulted in him being placed on injured reserve by the team, which means he will miss at least the next two games, and potentially more.

On Friday, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said the team received some positive news regarding Ryan’s injury and that it is possible he could accompany the team on its upcoming four-game road trip that begins on Monday in Pittsburgh. But he will still not be eligible to return until Wednesday when the team visits the San Jose Sharks.

That means he will be sidelined for Saturday’s home game against Florida as well as Monday’s game against the Penguins.

Dorion said on Friday, via NHL.com, that there is a 50-50 chance he accompanies the team on the upcoming road trip that also includes games against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.

“I’ve got to give Bobby a lot of credit. People don’t know how many injuries he’s played through here, getting his hand frozen and playing through pain,” Dorion said via NHL.com.

Ryan initially injured his finger back on Nov. 17 against Nashville, forcing him to miss the next two games. After returning to the lineup he eventually had to leave Tuesday’s game against Buffalo.

After scoring 24 goals for the Senators a year ago he has just three goals and five assists in 21 games this season.

The Senators are 14-8-2 and in second place in the Atlantic Division, four points behind the Montreal Canadiens.