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.

Report: Canadiens to sign KHL defenseman Jakub Jerabek

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Just four days after being eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it looks like the Montreal Canadiens’ front office is already hard at work.

The Habs have reportedly agreed to terms with Chekhov Vityaz defenseman Jakub Jerabek, according to KHL reporter Aivis Kalnins.

No official announcement has been made because Jerabek still has four days remaining on his current KHL contract.

The 25-year-old isn’t big (5-foot-10, 180 pounds), but his numbers suggest he’s got a good blend of offensive ability, while playing with an edge.

In his first KHL season, Jerabek scored five goals, 29 assists and accumulated 56 penalty minutes in 59 games.

He had spent the previous eight years with Plzen HC over in the Czech League.

Montreal has plenty of defensemen on their roster, but with the expansion draft and free agency on the horizon, that could change fairly quickly.

Veteran Andrei Markov is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, but it would be shocking to see him go. Alexei Emelin, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Jordie Benn and Brandon Davidson are all signed, while Nathan Beaulieu and Nikita Nesterov are both set to become restricted free agents.

In Beaulieu and Nesterov’s case, there’s a decent chance they won’t be back with the club next year.

Last year’s ninth overall pick, Mikhail Sergachev, will also be looking to make a full-time leap to the NHL in 2017-18, so Jerabek isn’t a slam dunk to become a regular.

PHT Morning Skate: Five under-the-radar coaching candidates

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–We don’t often see franchise players hit the open market, but next summer could be intriguing in that regard. Elliotte Friedman’s “30 Thoughts” blog focuses on the Islanders’ future with or without John Tavares, and what direction the team could be heading in. Friedman also touches on Joel Quenneville’s job security in Chicago and much more. (Sportsnet)

–Some hockey fans have begun questioning the importance of winning faceoffs, but the Anaheim Ducks aren’t among those who doubt the importance of winning draws. “If you start with the puck, you can use it to your advantage on the offensive side of the game. When you’re trying to protect a lead and starting with the puck, you’re killing their momentum that they’re trying to build.” (OC Register)

–Even though it’s been almost 30 years since Wayne Gretzky has suited up for the Edmonton Oilers, he still gets pretty intense during their playoff games. We’ve all gotten to see the footage of a nervous-looking Gretzky watching the Oilers play, and he’s definitely not just putting on a show. “It’s an emotional game and I’ve always been sort of an emotional guy. It’s exciting. Back in Edmonton, the city is on fire. The Oilers are playing with a great deal of passion. You can’t help but get caught up in that passion. That’s what it’s all about. (Edmonton Journal)

–There’s a couple of teams still looking for new head coaches at this point, and Sportsnet’s Ryan Dixon brings up five off-the-board candidates that could step in and get an NHL job very soon. With the success the Capitals have had over the last few seasons, it’s not surprising to see their associate coach Todd Reirden and assistant Lane Lambert get some recognition. (Sportsnet)

–Speaking of people flying under the radar, USA Today looks at eight players that could surprisingly make a huge difference for their teams in the second round. With the injury to Karl Alzner in Washington, Nate Schmidt could eat up some important minutes for the Caps. Pens forward Jake Guentzel, who was terrific in the first round against Columbus, may need to help shoulder the offensive burden. (USA Today)

–Smaller goalie equipment was supposed to make life harder for netminders, but has it had the opposite effect? Since the equipment change became mandatory on Feb. 4, scoring went down by 0.03 goals-per-game. The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell suggests that if the NHL wants to add more scoring, they may be better off making goalies wear bigger equipment. (The Hockey News)

Bruce Cassidy officially named head coach of the Bruins

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Bruce Cassidy wanted it, and now he’s got it.

On Wednesday morning, Cassidy was officially named the 28th head coach of the Boston Bruins.

He really helped turn Boston’s season around after taking over for Claude Julien, who was fired on Feb. 9. Cassidy led the Bruins to an 18-8-1 record in 33 games behind the bench.

Despite being without a number of key players like Torey Krug, Brandon Carlo, David Krejci and others, Cassidy’s Bruins managed to push the Senators before eventually being eliminated in six games in the opening round of the playoffs.

“Obviously we’re talking (the players) about pretty much everything when we’re out shooting the bull, and a lot of guys liked him,” forward David Backes said on Tuesday, per NESN. “He was put into a tough situation — being out of the playoff race, maybe just chasing at the point he takes over to try to take a team and get in … and you figure the way the business works, that he’s probably coaching for his life to make a splash and show that he can be a difference-maker or else who knows what the future holds for him? I think he did a heck of a job, and his results are what a coach should be judged on.”

Cassidy did some impressive work over the final three months of the campaign. Under his watch, the team finished first in goals-per-game (3.37), first in fewest shots allowed (741), tied for second in wins (18), tied for second in power play percentage (27.8), tied for third in goals allowed per game (2.30), and they ranked sixth in takeaways (229).

Prior to joining Julien’s staff as an assistant at the start of the 2016-17 season, Cassidy spent five years as head coach of Boston’s AHL team in Providence.

This is the second head coaching job for the 51-year-old at the NHL level. He previously served as head coach of the Washington Capitals for parts of two seasons (2002-03 to 2003-04).

After surgery, Joe Thornton should be ready for 2017-18 (Wherever he plays)

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On Monday, we found out that Joe Thornton made the “courageous” (or … outrageous?) decision to fight through tears to his ACL and MCL and suit up for the playoffs.

(That still warrants a moment of reflection, because, wow.)

The San Jose Sharks sent out a positive update in that regard: after successful surgery yesterday, Thornton is expected to be ready to play by the start of the 2017-18 season.

So, that answers one big question. It doesn’t settle an even bigger one, though: where will Thornton play next year?

Patrick Marleau indicated that he believes he has “at least five good years” left, a fine thought that becomes trickier when you consider San Jose’s salary structure problems for 2018-19 and on. The impression is that Thornton wants to come back, too, but what if he – justifiably – seeks security in a longer term deal?

That situation is currently unclear, but at least it sounds like he’ll be healthy to start next season, whether he remains a member of the Sharks or joins a different roster.