Nicklas Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara

Five NHL on NBC weekends we’re already geeked out for this season

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After getting plenty of time to look over the national TV schedule and taking a look at what we’ll have on future weekends on NBC, there’s a few days that stand out for us even before training camp has started. With the host of featured events that will be going on throughout the season, that helps make things easier to narrow down.

That said, we’re going to keep ourselves limited to just five games that we’ve got our interest piqued by the most.

1. November 25 – Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings, 1 p.m. ET

It’s the first of what is going to be an annual game on Black Friday. You spent the morning chasing bargains at the stores the day after Thanksgiving and you’ve still got a fantastic turkey hangover. What’s better to relax after a morning of fighting the crowds than settling in to watch the first NBC game of the year? Making it all the better is that it’s an original six match-up featuring the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins at home against the Detroit Red Wings.

You’ll get anything and everything you could ask for in one game. Great goaltending? Sure, Tim Thomas is the man in Boston. Tremendous offensive firepower? Yup, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg will be hoping to beat Thomas. Added to that, you’ll see two of the league’s best defensemen in Boston’s Zdeno Chara and 41 year-old future Hall Of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom for Detroit. Since you’ll be hurting for great sports to watch on Black Friday, getting this game as your afternoon headliner makes the day even better.

2. January 2 – Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers, 1 p.m. ET

Right now it’s inauspiciously listed as a regular afternoon game in Philadelphia, but at some point in the near future it’ll be announced as the 2012 Winter Classic from Citizens Bank Park in Philly. If you haven’t been thrilled by past Winter Classic games… What’s the matter with you? This time around, the Flyers get to host the event after playing in the 2010 Winter Classic in Boston. They’ll get to show off this summer’s pickups in Ilya Bryzgalov, Jaromir Jagr, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and Brayden Schenn to go along with Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux.

Having the Rangers make their first appearance in the Winter Classic means getting this summer’s top free agent pickup Brad Richards into the mix. Having him paired up with Marian Gaborik as well as Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky with superstar goalie Henrik Lundqvist in goal the Rangers have plenty of star power of their own. Perhaps the only other thing we’re anticipating more than the Winter Classic between these two rivals themselves is HBO’s 24/7 featuring both teams. Bryzgalov and his wild statements in Philly compared to Sean Avery and John Tortorella in New York? Sold.

3. January 22 – Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals or Philadelphia Flyers vs. Boston Bruins, 3 p.m. ET

Which side of drama would you like with your mid-January afternoon tilt? When last we saw the Penguins and Capitals on NBC in January, it was the 2011 Winter Classic from Heinz Field. That’s also the last time we saw Sidney Crosby on the main stage in a nationally televised game. We can only hope that we’ll get to highlight a Crosby-Alex Ovechkin matchup in this one.

If that’s not the sort of story line you’re interested in, how about a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference playoff sweep between the Flyers and Bruins? Two seasons ago the Flyers came back from down 3-0 in their series with the Bruins to win in seven games. The Bruins would use that crushing defeat to motivate them to humiliate the Flyers in a 4-0 sweep last season on their way to winning the Stanley Cup. With the Flyers being differently loaded and the Bruins still running a bruising team with Tim Thomas in goal out there, it’s easy to say it’ll be a rough and tumble game.

4. February 19 – Hockey Day In America

Hockey Day In America is once again going to be a huge day. With a broadcast doubleheader featuring three regional games to kick off the afternoon (San Jose-Detroit, Pittsburgh-Buffalo, St. Louis-Chicago) followed up by a national broadcast featuring the Bruins going to Minnesota to take on Dany Heatley and the Wild it’ll make for a huge day of events.

While the Wild and Bruins get the main game that afternoon, seeing new rivalries like Sharks-Wings and Penguins-Sabres sharing the day along with an old school rivalry like Blues-Blackhawks gives us the kind of warm fuzzies you need on a mid-February day. With that much hockey to be watched in a day there’s no way you can lose.

5. March 18 – Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins or Chicago Blackhawks vs. Washington Capitals, 3 p.m. ET

With this day being a flex schedule, there’s two potential games to make it to NBC that afternoon and either way, we’re going to wind up winners. Either we’ll be showing off Jaromir Jagr suiting up in Flyers orange at home against his first franchise and (hopefully) Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in a battle of Eastern super powers or we’ll see the new and likely improved Washington Capitals with Tomas Vokoun joining Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin against Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the tougher Blackhawks.

While the Pens-Flyers game is sure to be oozing with drama as the teams hate each other and now have offseason heat thanks to Jagr and Maxime Talbot winding up in Philly, Caps-Hawks has enough talent out on the ice to make it look like the second All-Star Game of the year.

Making the choices easier for these two games is the fact that whichever game doesn’t end up on NBC that afternoon winds up on NBC Sports Network (currently Versus) later that night thanks to the flex scheduling arrangement.

James Neal could return to Predators lineup tonight

DENVER, CO - MARCH 05:  James Neal #18 of the Nashville Predators celebrates his goal against the Colorado Avalanche to tie the score 2-2 in the third period at Pepsi Center on March 5, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Predators defeated the Avalanche 5-2.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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The Nashville Predators lineup could be getting a big lift on Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche with the possible return of winger James Neal.

Neal, who has been sidelined since Nov. 25 with an upper body injury, returned to practice on Tuesday for the team’s morning skate and has been activated from injured reserve according to Adam Vingan of the Tennessean.

The original diagnosis for Neal was to be sidelined on a week to week basis, but it appears he is on the verge of making a return to the lineup after just 10 days.

If he returns on Tuesday he is expected to skate on a line with Colin Wilson and Mike Fisher, according to the team.

Prior to the injury Neal had been on quite a scoring tear for the Predators with 10 goals and four assists over a 13-game stretch. It was during that stretch that the Predators had started to turn their season around after a slow start and were quickly climbing the Western Conference standings. They were then hit by a series of injuries that took both Neal and Ryan Ellis out of the lineup. Since Nov. 25 the Predators have now lost three out of their past four and sit in 10th place in the Western Conference, two points behind Winnipeg for the second playoff spot (the Predators, though, still have four games in hand).

Neal’s 10 goals are still tops on the team. Nobody else has scored more than seven.

Scheifele injury not long-term, but he’ll miss his third straight game tonight

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele celebrates after scoring against the Toronto Maple Leafs during first-period NHL hockey game action in Toronto, Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese)
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Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg’s No. 1 center and the NHL’s eighth-leading scorer with 26 points through 26 games, will miss his third contest in a row this evening when the Jets host the Red Wings at the MTS Centre.

But fear not, Jets fans. Scheifele won’t be out much longer.

“He’s getting better,” head coach Paul Maurice said on Tuesday, per the Jets’ Twitter account. “He skated this morning and felt incrementally stronger each day. This is not a long-term injury.”

Scheifele, 23, hasn’t played since a 6-3 loss to Edmonton on Dec. 1. His absence is, quite obviously, a big one — in addition to the offensive production, Scheifele averaged over 20 minutes per night and led the team in faceoffs taken.

He’d also developed terrific chemistry with rookie sniper Patrik Laine, who sits second in the NHL in goals right now with 16.

To their credit, the Jets have done well without Scheifele in the lineup. They beat the Blues 3-2 in OT on Saturday, then followed that up with a 2-1 win in Chicago on Sunday.

Eichel is good to go against McDavid and the Oilers

ANAHEIM, CA - FEBRUARY 24:  Jack Eichel #15 of the Buffalo Sabres looks on during the second period of a game against the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on February 24, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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The Buffalo Sabres played the Washington Capitals close last night, giving themselves a chance to beat one of the best teams in the NHL — on the road to boot.

Though the Caps eventually won in overtime, it was another encouraging performance by the Sabres, who’ve been a much better side since Jack Eichel returned to the lineup.

Buffalo (9-10-6) has gone 2-1-1 in the four games Eichel has played. Tonight, another big test, as Connor McDavid and the Oilers pay a visit to KeyBank Center.

“We have to try and fight our way up the standings,” Sabres winger Kyle Okposo told reporters last night. “You might have some lulls in the season, but we already had ours. We have to make sure we’re pushing forward and doing everything we can to get two points. Getting a point is OK, but we had the lead in the third.”

Eichel will indeed play tonight. He confirmed that this morning, after there was concern he’d tweaked his ankle against the Capitals.

“I’m fine. I’m good,” Eichel said, per the Buffalo News. “Going through an injury like this, you know it’s going to come back and bother you at times, but it’s fine now.”

With Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly, the Sabres have a formidable one-two punch down the middle. When Eichel was out with his ankle injury, it was a serious challenge to fill his spot, and the Sabres just couldn’t manage it very well.

Now, with Eichel back, it’s about finding that belief — a belief that the Sabres are good enough to compete, that they don’t need to go into a shell as soon as they get the lead.

That’s what seemed to happen last night in Washington, where the Caps outshot the Sabres, 16-9, in the third period and Marcus Johansson‘s goal at 13:42 sent the game to sudden death.

“I mean give them credit, they’re a good team, but I think we’re starting to sit back and they have speed, you know?” said goalie Robin Lehner. “I think we see that we can play. We’ve just got to stop changing, changing how we play.”

The Ottawa Senators are getting tested

Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson stands in front of his bench as the hats are cleared off the ice after a hat trick by Pittsburgh Penguins' Bryan Rust in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. The Penguins won 8-5. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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We’ve gotten pretty good at identifying vulnerable hockey teams these past few years as the analytics movement has taken hold. The 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs were due for a regression, and regressed. Ditto for the 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche and 2014-15 Calgary Flames.

Sometimes, teams can survive an entire season while bucking the odds. Which is why the Ottawa Senators will be interesting to watch the rest of the way in 2016-17.

Under new coach Guy Boucher, the Sens are an impressive 15-9-2, good for second place in the Atlantic Division.

But the Sens also have many of the statistical markings of a vulnerable team:

— A score-adjusted Corsi that ranks 27th out of 30
— A 9-0-2 record in one-goal games
— A goal-differential of minus-3

After last night’s 8-5 loss in Pittsburgh, the Sens head to California with just one win in their last four, and without their starting goalie, Craig Anderson, who’s taken another leave to be with his wife.

Anderson has been brilliant this season, going 12-6-1 with a .924 save percentage. He’s been a huge key to their success, twice earning the NHL’s first-star-of-the-week honors.

The starting duties will now fall temporarily on Mike Condon, who’s gone 3-1-1 with a stellar .943 save percentage since coming over from Pittsburgh. The Sens’ No. 3 goalie, Andrew Hammond, has been recalled for the road trip, which starts Wednesday in San Jose, continues Saturday in Los Angeles, and wraps up Sunday in Anaheim.

“It’s a good test to see where our team is at,” forward Derick Brassard told reporters prior to last night’s defeat. “We’re going to play four of the best teams in the league. It’s good for the team to get together and battle through this.”