Top 10 NHL stories to watch…once the All-Star break is over

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The NHL All-Star break, which begins Thursday, is the last deep breath everyone gets to take before the playoff stretch drive. So with that in mind, here are 10 stories we’ll be covering closely in the coming months, once everyone’s filled up their lungs this weekend.

Will Sidney Crosby be back this season?

We’ve covered Crosby’s battle with concussions from time to time on PHT (and by “time to time,” we mean “obsessively”), and don’t expect that to change. He’s the best player in the world, and at just 24 years old, it’s not being overly dramatic to say his career is in jeopardy. Not to mention, if he can return in time for the playoffs, the Penguins go from probable Stanley Cup contenders to definite contenders.

The Feb. 27 trade deadline

This one has the potential to be epic, and we’re not just saying that because the trade deadline is great for the blogging business (though it is). Combine a ton of cap space for a number of Cup contenders (Chicago and Detroit leap to mind) with an unusually high supply of big names that have come up in trade speculation – from Bobby Ryan to Jeff Carter to Ryan Suter – and we could be in store for some blockbuster deals.

Teams that were expected to make the playoffs, but might not

The Washington Capitals, for example. Just imagine for a minute if they don’t make it. Would GM George McPhee have any hope of keeping his job? Would a new GM come in and blow things up? How would Alex Ovechkin handle it? Would Penguins fans ever stop laughing? Another team to watch is Los Angeles. The Kings still have the worst offense in the NHL, though things have gotten slightly better under new coach Darryl Sutter.

Teams that were expected to miss the playoffs, but might not

Ottawa, Florida, Minnesota, Colorado, Dallas, Calgary – all remain in the mix. To address just one of those teams, nobody expected the Senators (27-19-6) to be where they are right now, and that includes their owner. But while the Sens head into the break with a five-point lead over eighth-place New Jersey, we’ve seen already how quickly surprise teams can fall in the standings. (Ahem: Wild.)

The pursuit of a top seed

A quick glance at the standings and some fairly unexceptional teams occupy the seventh and eighth spots in each conference. Unexceptional compared to last year at least, when Vancouver won the Presidents’ Trophy and was rewarded with a first-round matchup against defending champion Chicago. The Blackhawks, who were treading water for most of the regular season, kicked it into gear once they got their hate on and took the Canucks to overtime of Game 7. While still possible, a scenario like that seems less likely this time around, meaning a first or second seed could be a significant advantage. Third and fourth? Not so much.

Will the Leafs finally make the playoffs?

The richest team in the league in the capital of the hockey world (self-anointed, but probably true) hasn’t played a postseason game since 2004. Miss the playoffs again and it would make seven straight seasons. Which when you think about it, is pretty pathetic. GM Brian Burke’s job is likely safe regardless, but coach Ron Wilson, contract extension and all, would have to be out the door. (Right?) Expect Toronto to be active prior to the trade deadline to boost the top six forwards. The Leafs are one of the rare clubs with a surplus of defensemen, a commodity that’s always in heavy demand heading into the playoffs.

A new CBA needs to be negotiated

The current agreement expires in September, with talks between the league and players’ union expected to start after the All-Star break. For certain, the NHL is in better shape financially compared to the 2004-05 lockout that cost an entire season. However, if the owners try to cut the players’ share as we saw recently in the NBA, things could get…tense. New union leader Donald Fehr is no pushover, and by blocking realignment he’s already sent a message to Gary Bettman that the players won’t be bullied.

The race for the Hart Trophy

The league’s leading scorer, Evgeni Malkin, is the current top candidate, having put the Penguins on his back minus Crosby and a host of other key Pittsburgh players that have suffered long-term injuries. But remember what Corey Perry did down the stretch last year. Anything can happen (including an injury to Malkin.) Claude Giroux, Marian Hossa, Pavel Datsyuk, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews are all in the MVP conversation. Shea Weber should be too, but the Hart rarely goes to defensemen.

Supplemental discipline as the games become more important

OK, let’s say the Capitals have five games left, they’re neck and neck with two other teams for the final playoff spot and, uh-oh, Ovechkin leaves his feet again to hit a guy. What does Brendan Shanahan do? Throw the book at Ovi? Go easy on him? Hide under some jackets? Not saying it’ll involve Ovechkin, but something like this is bound to happen in some shape or form.

The final days of the Phoenix Coyotes?

When the deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg was announced in May, the playoffs were still underway. And chances are, that deal didn’t come together overnight. So that gives you an idea of how much time is left for the league to find an owner that will keep the Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena. That is, assuming the NHL isn’t willing to give status quo another season in Arizona, which would likely necessitate the city of Glendale covering millions and millions more of the team’s losses. This really does seem like the last stand for the franchise in its current location. Granted, it’s felt like that before. Many times actually. But this really, really feels like it.

Ducks’ Perry being evaluated at hospital for lower body injury

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The injury woes for the Anaheim Ducks continued on Monday night.

On the same night they got Ryan Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg back in the lineup, they lost forward Corey Perry to some sort of a lower body injury.

Perry exited the game after playing just 3:49 in the first period.

After the game Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said that Perry is being evaluated at a local hospital for the injury and that there was no other update at this time.

According to Ducks beat writer Eric Stephens of the OC Register Perry did not suffer a skate cut.

In 31 games this season Perry has scored six goals to go with 16 assists for the Ducks. The Ducks have been absolutely crushed by injuries this season, a development that has no doubt played a major role in their slow start.

The Ducks were 3-2 winners on Monday against the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Buzzer: Bernier shines for Avs, Rangers waste Pavelec’s great night

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Player Of The Night: Jonathan Bernier, Colorado Avalanche

After losing six out of their past seven games the Colorado Avalanche finally got back into the win column on Saturday night by crushing the Florida Panthers. They followed up that performance by marching into Pittsburgh and stealing two points from the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 2-1 win that was highlighted by a stellar showing from starting goaltender Jonathan Bernier.

Bernier was the Avalanche’s best player on Monday night, turning aside 39 of the 40 shots he faced.

It was not until the final 11 seconds, when the Avalanche were already holding a two-goal lead, that he finally surrendered a goal.

It was probably Bernier’s best performance of the season and just the fifth time in 12 starts that he managed a save percentage higher than .900 in a game.

Wasted Effort Of The Night: The New York Rangers

Maybe “wasted” is too strong of a word considering the Rangers did get a point out of the night in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Dallas Stars, but let’s be honest be here. They did not even deserve that.

The Rangers were thoroughly dominated by the Stars and only managed to get the game to overtime thanks to a stellar performance from goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.

Pavelec stopped 44 of the 45 shots he faced and almost single handedly got the Rangers to overtime.

After the game Rangers coach Alain Vigneault had this to say about the game: “There are two positives, Pavs played unreal and because of his performance we were able to get a point. Other than that….we weren’t good.”

That was it.

Ducks Get Some Help Back In The Lineup

The Anaheim Ducks got some much needed help back in their lineup on Monday night when Ryan Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg both returned to the lineup.

Silfverberg made an immediate impact after missing the past five games. He scored his sixth goal of the season in the Ducks’ 3-2 win.

Getzlaf did not factor into the scoring, but having him back in the lineup was still a huge lift for the Ducks. He played 20 minutes in the win.

Highlight Of The Night

The Winnipeg Jets have an outstanding offense. It was on display here with some nifty tic-tac-toe passing to take the lead against the Vancouver Canucks.

Factoid Of The Night

Brock Boeser scored another goal for the Canucks in their loss to the Winnipeg Jets. He is having a tremendous rookie season.

Scores

New York Islanders 3, Washington Capitals 1

Dallas Stars 2, New York Rangers 1

Colorado Avalanche 2, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

Florida Panthers 2, Detroit Red Wings 1

Winnipeg Jets 5, Vancouver Canucks 1

Anaheim Ducks 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Panthers and Red Wings had a fight night (Videos)

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The Florida Panthers and Detroit Red Wings seemed to be in a fighting mood on Monday night, dropping the gloves three times in the first two periods of their game in the Motor City.

Things started early in the first period when Red Wings tough-guy Luke Witkowski, playing in his first game back since serving a 10-game suspension, dropped the gloves with Michael Haley of the Panthers.

Have a look…

The two would square off once again in the second period.

Not long after the Witkowski-Haley rematch, Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad and Red Wings forward Luke Glendenning took part in a rather vicious fight that left Glendenning bloodied on his way to the penalty box.

Given Ekblad’s history of concussions the Panthers can’t exactly be thrilled to see him taking part in a fight like that.

Ekblad is not much of a fighter, with Monday’s fight being just the third of his NHL career. It is, oddly enough, his second fight of the season with the first one also coming against the Red Wings.

Back in October he fought Justin Abdelkader.

Big centers back: Getzlaf in for Ducks, Panthers regain Barkov

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The Anaheim Ducks would probably qualify as unlucky so far in 2017-18 even beyond an extremely unfortunate bounce of a puck fracturing Ryan Getzlaf‘s cheekbone.

That loss was especially severe with Ryan Kesler already recovering, as Getzlaf missed 19 games, last appearing in a contest on that painful night of Oct. 29. The Ducks get quite the treat, then, as both Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg are slated to return as they host the Carolina Hurricanes.

Check out how much better everything fits together with the returns of Getzlaf and Silfverberg, not to mention the recent addition of Adam Henrique (line combos via the Ducks website):

Rakell-Getzlaf-Perry
Cogliano-Henrique-Silfverberg
Blandisi-Vermette-Kase
Wagner-Grant-Shaw

The Ducks are still without Kesler, and Patrick Eaves is fighting a serious physical battle that puts hockey on the backburner, so there’s still some mystery to how the Ducks might look if they can get anywhere near full-strength this season.

As is, they look a whole lot better going into Monday’s game, something the Florida Panthers could relate to.

While Anaheim’s dealt with bad luck, you could chalk up Florida’s troubles to a mix of unforced errors (jettisoning depth, particularly to Vegas) and tough breaks of their own (Roberto Luongo‘s injury issues). Either way, management will look infinitely smarter when Aleksander Barkov is in the lineup than when he’s not, so the Panthers must be happy to welcome him back tonight.

Interestingly, Left Wing Lock lists Barkov along with Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad, rather than Denis Malgin taking Bjugstad’s spot (Malgin received looks, at least, once Evgenii Dadonov suffered an injury).

That would be quite the top-heavy approach for Florida, even if Malgin can mesh well with Vincent Trocheck.

While the Panthers have floundered at times, the Ducks seemed like they were finally starting to crater under the pressure of all those injury losses, as Anaheim only boasts two wins (2-4-4) in its last 10 games.

It’s true that the return of Barkov and Getzlaf would be important in just about any context for their teams, but each team likely feels especially relieved on Monday, as they can use all the help they can get.

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.