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.

Bruins go from Nash trade rumors to loss, Bergeron injury

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There are times when the Boston Bruins have looked downright unstoppable. Saturday serves as a harsh reminder that things can change in a heartbeat, or at least that the threat is basically always hovering.

Consider this: earlier today, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Bruins were becoming frontrunners to trade for Rick Nash. Such a deal is still plausible, although John Shannon (also of Sportsnet) reports that Nash’s $7.8 million cap hit could cause some challenges, even this late in the season.

Either way, the Bruins’ outlook seemed shiny: they’re already a tough team to deal with thanks to an absolutely bear (sorry) of a top line in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. The B’s have been so impressive, they even seem to be a threat to win the Atlantic.

Things went sour in multiple categories hours later.

The Bruins lost to their hated rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 4-3. That game ended in regulation, and the decisive goal brought about everyone’s favorite hockey thing: a goalie interference review. This didn’t go in Boston’s favor, and while some shrugged their shoulders, Tuukka Rask wasn’t thrilled:

With that, the Atlantic Division thing seems far less promising. To start, the Lightning managed a 4-3 shootout win. Even worse, the Maple Leafs took second place in the Atlantic by beating Boston.

If that wasn’t enough, the most integral part of the Bruins’ dominance is in danger. Reporters including NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty noted that Patrice Bergeron was seen in a walking boot:

On the bright side, all three situations could still turn out nicely for the Bruins.

  • The Bruins might actually be more justified in going after Nash if Bergeron’s a little banged up. Granted, a more severe injury might leave them more conservative at the deadline.
  • Games in hand make optimism easier to come by in the Atlantic positioning races. The Lightning have 87 points in 62 games played while the Maple Leafs are at 83 in 64. The Bruins are at 82, yet with only 59 games played, there’s plenty of time for the B’s to either regain home-ice advantage over Toronto or even push for the top spot in the division.
  • As you can see from Haggerty’s tweet, Bergeron’s issue might not be too bad, either.

So, this isn’t a doom and gloom situation for the Bruins, but it still stands to mention how bumpy things became for at least a while there. The B’s have to hope that most of this stuff sorts itself out, Nash or not.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Panthers boost playoff hopes, end Penguins’ streak

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For quite some time, it seemed like the Metropolitan Division would send five teams to the playoffs while the top-heavy Atlantic would only generate three.

The Metro still dominates the wild-card picture, but with all apologies to the scrappy Red Wings, the Florida Panthers stand as the one Atlantic team with a shot at crashing the party. For all of the front office upheaval, the past few nights provide evidence that they could do some damage if they walk in that door.

Maybe it’s fitting for an up-and-down team to see some extreme highs and lows in an eventual 6-5 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Despite some strong work from Evgeni Malkin, the Panthers went into the third period with a 4-2 lead. That wouldn’t end up being enough, as the two teams traded blows during a frantic, five-goal final frame. The Penguins briefly tied the contest up at 5-5, pushing for a seventh straight win, but it was not to be.

Ultimately, Evgenii Dadonov (first career hat trick) trumped Evgeni Malkin (two goals, one assist) in getting the late game-winner. Perhaps the Panthers will try to lift up a community rattled by tragic shootings, as this is the second straight game where they’ve notched decisive goals late in front of home fans.

(Thursday’s win against the Capitals was even more dramatic, as they rallied late after Roberto Luongo‘s stirring speech before the game.)

Now, the Panthers might not seem like much of a threat with 62 points, as the Columbus Blue Jackets currently hold the East’s final wild-card spot with 67. Games played paint a brighter picture, though.

Here’s how the wild-card races look, updated following the Devils’ win against the Islanders, which is a nice boost for Florida overall:

Devils (beat Islanders in regulation): 72 points in 62 games played, first WC
Blue Jackets (won tonight): 67 points in 62 GP, second WC

Islanders (lost to Devils): 65 points in 63GP
Hurricanes (lost tonight): 64 points in 62 GP
Panthers: 62 points in 59 GP
Red Wings (beat Canes): 61 points in 60 GP
Rangers: 59 points in 62 GP

On one hand, the Panthers’ situation isn’t that different from the Red Wings,’ at least if Florida doesn’t get hot. On the other hand, consider that the Panthers have a few games in hand on everyone ahead of them. The margin could close rapidly … or they could fade.

Credit the Panthers for making things interesting, and if things go well, making their competition sweat.

That’s the power of “Dadonov Strength.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Devils retire Patrik Elias’ jersey

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) The New Jersey Devils retired career scoring leader Patrik Elias’ No. 26 jersey in a ceremony before their game against the New York Islanders on Saturday night.

The 41-year-old former Czech forward played his final game in 2016, finishing a 20-year career in New Jersey with two Stanley Cup championships and most of the team’s scoring records.

“For someone growing up in Eastern Europe, in a communist country, there’s no way I could have ever dreamed of this day,” said Elias, whose eyes welled with tears during his speech that was interrupted several times by chants of “Paddy! Paddy!”

Always a fan favorite, Elias walked through a section of the stands at the Prudential Center before taking his place on the ice with his wife, two daughters, former and current teammates and the franchise’s owners and management.

The podium on the ice was shaped as a puck with the No. 26 on it, and it was by surrounded by other super-sized pucks with the same number and two trophies, the Stanley Cup and The Prince of Wales trophy, presented to the Eastern Conference winner.

Elias played on four conference champions, scoring the winning goal in Game 7 against Philadelphia in 2000.

Elias is the first European player to have his number retired by the Devils, and the first forward. Defensemen Scott Stevens (No. 4), Scott Niedermayer (No. 27) and Ken Daneyko (No. 3) and goaltender Martin Brodeur (No. 30) also had their jerseys retired. All four were in attendance with Brodeur, of course, getting the biggest ovation.

It was appropriate that Elias’ No. 26 was raised to the rafters at the Prudential Center against the Islanders, the team he played his most games against, 91, and had his most points, 86.

Elias is the Devils’ leader in points (1025), goals (408), assists (617), points in one season (96), points in a playoff season (23) and game-winning goals (80), .

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Stamkos, Hedman fight for Lightning during same period

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Your results may vary, but from here, novelty carries a lot of weight when it comes to noting an NHL fight.

Two superstar Tampa Bay Lightning players dropped the gloves in the same period against the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday, and while neither showing was especially boisterous or violent, the rarity really drives the point home.

As that tweet spoils, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman were the Bolts players who got a little testy in this one.

First, Stamkos went after Karl Alzner in defense of running mate Nikita Kucherov (see the video above this post’s headline). Some might argue that this was less of a fight and more of an aggressive hugging, but it’s still an unusual sight. According to Hockey Fights’ listings, Stamkos has only fought on two other occasions in the NHL: against Brad Marchand (2014-15) and Nik Zherdev (2008-09).

Hedman, meanwhile, dropped the gloves despite a considerable height advantage over Brendan Gallagher. You can see a portion of that fight in this GIF:

While this might explain the anger:

This would be Hedman’s sixth fight.

Theory: Lightning players are just as anxious as the rest of us to see if they’re going to land Erik Karlsson.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.