Nick Leddy, Corey Crawford, Dustin Jeffrey

Hockey Day Preview: Penguins, Blackhawks hope to play like champions today

The two most recent Stanley Cup champions square off during their only game of the season as the Chicago Blackhawks (2010 champs) host the Pittsburgh Penguins (2009 winners) for Hockey Day in America’s closing game at 3:30 pm ET.

Fans can be forgiven if they wonder: are these teams really the Penguins and Blackhawks?

Injuries, trades and exhaustion have beaten down both teams, leaving each squad to wonder when – if ever – they’ll look like their old selves again.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain sidelined with significant injuries for the Penguins, who must lean on an attacking defense and scrappers such as defensive center Jordan Staal to manufacture offense. Pittsburgh’s status as an Eastern Conference playoff team seems relatively safe as they sit in fourth place, but their chances of wrestling the Atlantic Division crown from the Philadelphia Flyers are dim at best.

While this win would be a great boost for the struggling Penguins, the pressure is really on the wobbling Blackhawks. Salary cap-related trades forced Chicago to allow Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd to increase their profiles with the Atlanta Thrashers and also caused GM Stan Bowman to move useful depth winger Kris Versteeg. Of course, the Hawks also parted with their goalie duo of Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet for cap-related reasons too. If that wasn’t enough, Chicago might not have their Cup-winning coach behind the bench either, as Joel Quenneville was just released from the hospital yesterday.

The Hawks are currently locked in an 11th-place tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Western Conference’s convoluted playoff bubble. Their position isn’t as bad as it sounds since they’re only four points out of a spot in the top eight, but the defending champs will need to scratch and claw every week to make it into the postseason after cruising in last season. These are the kind of games they absolutely need to win if they want to accomplish that goal.

While both teams are far from full strength, the bright side for hockey fans is that each team has plenty to play for. There’s also still plenty of talent on the ice, as Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang were all-stars for Pittsburgh while the Blackhawks boast high-end talent such as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith.

Both teams will need their remaining stars to step up if they want to come within a breath of their previous heights.

For more on this game, take a gander at the Associated Press preview.

Islanders shut out Canadiens for huge road win

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 18:  Thomas Greiss #1 of the New York Islanders in action against the New Jersey Devils on February 18, 2017 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Islanders 3-2.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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Overall this season the New York Islanders have really struggled away from the Barclays Center, a point of concern when you consider how many road games they have down the stretch as they try to overcome their miserable start to climb back into the playoffs.

Their current nine-game road trip is off to a promising start with wins in the first two games, including a 3-0 shutout win over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night to improve their record to 12-4-2 under new coach Doug Weight.

The Islanders received goals from Anthony Beauvillier, Anders Lee and John Tavares in the win, while Thomas Greiss stopped all 24 shots he faced to record his third shutout of the season.

With the win the Islanders hold sole possession of the second wild card spot in the East for the time being, two points ahead of Florida and Boston (the Bruins are in action right now) and continue their stunning second half turnaround.

But while things are going great for the Islanders right now, the struggles in Montreal continue.

With their loss on Thursday they failed to put any extra distance between themselves and the rest of the Atlantic Division that has suddenly closed the gap on them. They remain just two points up on Ottawa and only four points ahead of Toronto. The loss also continues what has been a particularly brutal stretch over the past couple of months that has seen the team win just seven of its past 20 games.

It’s probably too early to start fully panicking in Montreal, but given the way the end of last season went this can’t be a promising development for Canadiens fans.

Blackhawks’ Hjalmarsson leaves game against Coyotes

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 22:  Niklas Hjalmarsson #4 of the Chicago Blackhawks looks to pass against the Vancouver Canucks at the United Center on January 22, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Canucks 4-2.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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After taking just four shifts in in the first period of Thursday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson had to leave Thursday’s game with an unspecified injury.

The Blackhawks did not offer any update on what forced Hjalmarsson out of the game, only to say he would be out for the remainder of the evening.

Fortunately for the Blackhawks they dressed seven defensemen for the game when Michal Rozsival drew back into the lineup, so they still have a full lineup of defenders to finish the game. Surprisingly, Rozsival scored his first goal of the season just two minutes into the second period, breaking what had been a 3-3 tie following a wild first period that saw the teams combine for six goals.

In 59 games this season Hjalmarsson had five goals and nine assists while playing more than 20 minutes per night, mostly on a pairing with Duncan Keith.

Blackhawks and Coyotes combine for six goals in wild first period

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 18:  Nick Schmaltz #8 of the Chicago Blackhawks moves against the Edmonton Oilers at the United Center on February 18, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Oilers defeated the Blackhawks 3-1.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The first period of Thursday’s Blackhawks-Coyotes game had just a little bit of excitement as the two teams combined for six goals, including two by the Coyotes in the final three minutes of the period to erase what had been a two-goal deficit.

All of the action started just 37 seconds into the game when Nick Schmaltz, playing on his 21st birthday, scored his sixth goal of the season (shown above) on a feed from a still white hot Jonathan Toews.

Seven minutes later, Coyotes rookie defenseman Jakob Chychrun scored his second goal in his as many games to get things even at one.

That is when the chaos started to break out. The Blackhawks quickly struck for two more goals when Ryan Hartman and Patrick Kane scored six minutes apart to give the Blackhawks what would end up being a very short-lived 3-1 lead. Just one minute after Kane’s goal Ryan White netted his seventh of the season to bring the Coyotes back to within one, a goal that was followed by Radim Vrbata‘s 13th of the season just one minute after that.

Here are the two Coyotes goals that tied it.

Chicago came into the game on Thursday on a goal scoring tear, scoring at least four goals in seven of their past eight games. They are off to a great start when it comes to reaching that mark again on Thursday.

Trouble is, they can not seem to keep the puck out of their net on Thursday.

WATCH LIVE: Arizona Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 07:  Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks skates with the puck against the Oliver Ekman-Larsson #23 of the Phoenix Coyotes in the second period at Jobing.com Arena on February 7, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
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Winners of seven of their past eight, the Chicago Blackhawks are back home on Thursday night to take on the Arizona Coyotes.

The Blackhawks have been on a roll lately, especially offensively, scoring 34 goals in their past eight games. They have scored at least four goals in seven of those games. Captain Jonathan Toews has been doing a lot of the work offensively lately and is having a huge second half after a disappointing start to the season offensively.

On Thursday they host a Coyotes team that has shown a lot of improvement in recent weeks, putting together an 8-4-1 record since Jan. 20.

Puck drop for Thursday is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET and you can catch all off the action on NBCSN or on our Live Stream.

Click here for the Live Stream

Preview: Jonathan Toews looks to stay hot against Coyotes