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.

Malkin on ‘workaholic’ Crosby, Penguins’ chances for three Cups in a row

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Evgeni Malkin shared some interesting observations with Sports-Express’ Igor Eronko this weekend, including that he believes that the Pittsburgh Penguins “have all the tools” to win a third Stanley Cup in a row.

Quite reasonably, Malkin notes that the team kept its core intact.

Of course, Malkin and Sidney Crosby are still the catalysts for the Penguins, so it’s always fun to come across the latest observations from the Russian star.

Good stuff.

It’s not surprising to see Malkin praise Crosby and pump up the Penguins’ chances. Last year, he showed confidence in Pittsburgh’s repeat chances and professed an interest in being on the same team with Crosby for the next “10 years.”

This summer’s been a great one for Geno, with plenty of team honors mixing with some great individual feats. For example:

Habs’ Byron got to skate(board) with Tony Hawk

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Montreal Canadiens forward Paul Byron is so speedy on the ice, his skating can sometimes be intimidating, particularly when he’s on the penalty kill.

Every now and then, we’ll see, say, a floppy-haired snowboarder also show some serious skateboarding acumen, and skateboarding seems to blend well with surfing to boot. So what about ice skating and skateboarding?

Well, Byron apparently got to meet Tony Hawk – along with his kids – and at least made a solid impression, as the Canadiens website notes.

“Paul can hold his own. I bet he’d do better on my board,” Hawk said. “It wouldn’t be so wobbly.”

The only bummer is that it doesn’t seem like footage of Byron skateboarding is available. There is some cute footage of Hawk with Byron’s kids, though:

Little B's turn💙

A post shared by Sarah Byron (@sarahannbyron) on

There’s also Hawk skateboarding in a Canadiens sweater. Fun stuff.

(H/T to Sportsnet.)

Taylor Hall’s remarkable run of bad luck

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This post is a part of Devils day at PHT…

Taylor Hall deserves credit for that great “lottery ball specialist” tweet when the New Jersey Devils landed the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, but you could picture the star winger making such a joke while gritting his teeth.

You see, as much as Hall seems to be a luck rabbit’s foot for a team when it comes to landing the top pick of a draft – just consider his Edmonton Oilers days on top of this last bit – but that good fortune hasn’t always come from an individual standpoint.

In hopes that we may some day see Hall in, say, a playoff game, let’s recount some of his unluckiest moments. Keep in mind that he’s still just 25.

Injuries

He became the first pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, which means he’ll be compared to Tyler Seguin (though that discussion mercifully doesn’t come up that often).

Hall’s rookie season was limited to 65 regular-season games thanks to the ill-advised decision to fight Derek Dorsett. His first NHL bout ended his 2010-11 campaign; Hall received criticism for the choice, which sometimes overshadowed debuting with 22 goals.

It was reckless to fight, especially with someone like Dorsett, but we’ve seen plenty of players get through skirmishes without anything major happening. Jarome Iginla endeared himself to hockey fans, in some ways, by doing just that … but Hall wasn’t so lucky.

Even if you chalk that first bit up to poor decisions, Hall’s injury luck has often been poor. He was limited to 61 games in his sophomore season, 53 in 2014-15 and missed significant pieces of 2013-14 and last season, too.

Some of the injuries were just downright-freakish.

Click here if you want to remember the time he caught a skate in the head during warm-ups, which left him with a disgusting “Frankenstein” wound and … it’s just gross. If you haven’t seen it, you’re lucky.

While his speedy, courageous style might leave him susceptible to issues, it seems like Hall catches an unusually high number of bad breaks.

Terrible team to bad team

Taylor Hall has been a productive player, keeping his head up even as he’s played for some miserably bad teams.

The Oilers have been pretty clueless for virtually the entirety of Hall’s career; this National Post article provides a handy rundown of their mishaps in rarely finding decent defensemen.

Those struggles likely inspired the team to trade Hall for Adam Larsson, a steady Swedish blueliner.

It says a lot that Oilers fans voted massively in favor of the Oilers winning that trade in at least one poll, as most hockey people agree that the Devils ended up with the upper hand.

Team success can skew the views of certain players, something Hall knows too well as a frequent scapegoat in Edmonton. If you want to roll your eyes, peruse some of the “not captain material”-type takes that Hall likely became all-too-familiar with.

He didn’t even get to truly benefit from Connor McDavid‘s presence, as Hall’s bad injury luck seemed to transition to McDavid for a brief spell; as you recall, McDavid’s season was greatly limited by an lucky fall that came from the same sort of driving style you’d expect to see from Hall.

Who could blame Hall for being jealous of the Oilers’ success now that he’s gone?

New Jersey is making some nice strides toward being a more competitive team, and Hall’s a big part of that sunnier outlook. It has to sting to take all those steps back to the painfully familiar rebuilding stages after suffering through all of those with the Oilers.

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Look, Hall is nicely compensated for his play. He also was the top pick of a draft, so it’s not like he’s totally anonymous.

Still, it’s difficult not to root for the guy to soak in the accolades that come with greater team success, as Hall has been a fantastic power forward in some not-so-fantastic situations.

In other words, here’s hoping a little more luck goes his way … on the ice rather than in the carousel.

Poll: Nico Hischier vs. Nolan Patrick

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This post is a part of Devils day at PHT…

To some extent, the New Jersey Devils probably don’t care that much if Nolan Patrick ends up being slightly more effective, overall, than Nico Hischier.

As Taylor Hall can attest, the Devils lucked into the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, so GM Ray Shero was probably delighted that he would be able to pick between the two prospects. Rather than choosing Patrick or finding a trade, he made Hischier the first Swiss-born number one pick in NHL history.

Sports are about competition and comparisons, so it should be fun to measure the two forwards’ accomplishments and development as time goes along.

We might as well take hockey fans’ temperature now, though. Before we do, a quick “tale of the tape” – and an apology to the other prospects in the 2017 NHL Draft. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll be keeping this poll to Hischier vs. Patrick. Feel free to make a case for Miro Heiskanen (pictured, chosen third by Dallas) or any number of other candidates in the comments, though.

Hischier (draft profile): Scored 86 points in 57 games for the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads in 2016-17. Broadly speaking, Hischier seems to rate as the most creative player and has already impressed the Devils with his skating ability.

Apparently his favorite movie is “Happy Gilmore.”

Patrick (draft profile): The Winnipeg native was on the radar a bit longer than Hischier, in part because he managed 102 points in 71 games in the WHL in 2015-16. Last season hurt his stock quite a bit; while he was able to score well over a point-per-game (46 in 33), injuries limited him in 2016-17. Those issues might have limited more than people even realized, as it turns out he needed two hernia surgeries instead of one.

Generally speaking, Patrick is praised for his two-way play, which could help him be a quick fit for Philly. Both forwards are listed as centers.

Oh yeah, and Reid Duke gave him the nickname “Doctor Pat.”

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OK, so with all of that information, let’s get after it: did the Devils make the right call or should they have selected Patrick at No. 1 instead?