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.

Niemi blanks Pens, notches two assists in Stars debut

Antti Niemi, Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist

DALLAS (AP) — Antti Niemi recorded his 33rd career shutout and assisted on two goals in his Dallas debut, as the Stars beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 on Thursday night in the season opener for both.

Ales Hemsky had a power-play goal and an assist.

Rookie Matthias Janmark scored on his first shot on his first shift in an NHL game to make it 1-0. The Stars acquired Niemi and Janmark in trades earlier this year.

Dallas scored on two of five power plays. Jamie Benn, the NHL’s leading scorer last season, had a power-play goal in the third period.

Niemi made 37 saves to improve his career record against the Penguins to 5-1-1. He withstood a flurry in the final minute after Pittsburgh pulled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for an extra skater.

Fleury had 21 saves.

The Stars are 4-0-1 in their last five home games against Pittsburgh, and have won three in a row overall.

Janmark skated down the slot, took a pass from Hemsky and shot between Fleury’s legs at 1:39 of the first.

The Penguins dominated the latter half of the period, but couldn’t score. Niemi’s best stop was a reaching glove save of Rod Scuderi’s drive from the blue line with less than 3 minutes remaining. Pittsburgh outshot the Stars 10-4 in the first.

Hemsky scored at 5:42 of the second on Dallas’ first power play. His shot from the top of the right faceoff circle went in over Fleury’s right shoulder.

The Penguins again had an advantage in shots, 13-11. Pittsburgh had chances in close, but Niemi turned those away. Midway through the second, John Klingberg cleared away a loose puck from in front of the net.

Seven seconds into the Stars’ fourth power play of the third period, Jamie Benn tipped in Jason Spezza‘s shot from the right point.

NOTES: Dallas acquired Janmark as part of a March trade that sent Erik Cole to Detroit. The rookie had been playing in the Swedish Hockey League. . San Jose traded Niemi’s rights to the Stars in June for a seventh-round draft pick. Also making their Dallas debuts were LW Patrick Sharp and D Johnny Oduya, teammates with Chicago’s Stanley Cup champions last season. . In his first game for the Penguins, Phil Kessel played in his 447th straight game. . Pittsburgh was 0 for 3 on the power play.

Fabbri’s first spoils McDavid’s debut as Blues down Oilers

Robby Fabbri, Justin Schultz
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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Rookie Robby Fabbri scored the tiebreaking goal midway through the third period to help the St. Louis Blues beat Edmonton 3-1 Thursday night, spoiling Oilers rookie Connor McDavid‘s NHL debut.

Vladimir Tarasenko had the tying goal for the Blues near the midpoint of the second period, and Troy Brouwer added an empty-netter with 18 seconds remaining in the third. Brian Elliott finished with 23 saves.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored in the first period for Edmonton and Cam Talbot had 28 saves.

McDavid, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, took 22 shifts, played 18:07 and was on the ice for Brouwer’s goal. He had two shots on goal, and struggled on faceoffs – winning only three of 13.

Fabbri, a 19-year-old forward — and McDavid’s childhood friend — was also playing in his first NHL game. The Blues’ first-round pick in 2014 was one of three rookies in the St. Louis lineup, joining defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson.

Nugent-Hopkins gave the Oilers a 1-0 lead late in the first period with a fluke power-play goal. He lost a face-off but when Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo tried to clear the puck it bounced off Alexander Steen and past Brian Elliott. Nugent-Hopkins was credited with the unassisted power-play goal with 2:38 remaining in the period.

Tarasenko tied it a 9:10 of the second after getting loose on a breakaway with a stretch pass from Alex Pietrangelo and beating Talbot through his legs.

Tarasenko, who signed an eight-year, $60 million extension in the offseason, was the last Blues player to score in his debut.

NOTES: McDavid and F Anton Slepyshev made their NHL debuts for the Oilers. … St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina dropped the ceremonial first puck. … The attendance was announced as standing room-only 19,327.