James Neal

Crosby, Malkin and Neal explode in Penguins win

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It was a milestone night for Evgeni Malkin, but ultimately, it was a showing of how powerful this Pittsburgh Penguins team can really be.

The Pens pounded the Winnipeg Jets 8-4 in Sidney Crosby’s first game back in Pittsburgh as part of his second comeback. Crosby racked up four assists – all through the first two periods, but only managed to be the third star of the game because his other teammates were so impressive.

James Neal got the second one with a hat trick, but Geno’s 200 (and 201) goal celebration earned a first star thanks to his ridiculous five-point output.

To review:

  • Malkin’s five-point night gives him 93 on the season, with 43 goals. His Art Ross lead over Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux grew to nine points.
  • Neal is making that $5 million-per-year extension seem perfectly fair as he now has 35 goals and 72 points on the season.
  • Crosby now has nine points (all assists) in his four games back and has two goals and 21 points in 12 contests in 2011-12.

This win bumps the Penguins up to 96 points with a blistering 12-0-1 run. Here are the highlights of the game:

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With the Philadelphia Flyers dropping a 2-1 regulation loss to the Florida Panthers tonight, it looks like it’ll come down to the New York Rangers vs. Penguins for the Atlantic Division title – and the first seed in the East.

Here’s an updated view of that race:

Rangers: 97 points, 42 regulation/OT wins, 10 games left – five at home and on the road
Penguins: 96 points, 36 regulation/OT wins, 10 games left – six at home and four on the road

The Penguins host the Rangers in Pittsburgh on April 5, the penultimate game of their season. You’re not crazy for thinking that the Atlantic Division might be decided in that game.

Then again, with the way Pittsburgh is playing, the Rangers might be lucky to hold them off until then.

Tuukka Rask leaves game for Bruins

SUNRISE, FL - JANUARY 7: Goaltender Tuukka Rask #40 of the Boston Bruins looks up at the video on the scoreboard after making a save against the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center on January 7, 2017 in Sunrise, Florida. The Bruins defeated the Panthers 4-0. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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Times are a little tough for the Boston Bruins right now with losses in three consecutive games and speculation regarding the future of their coach.

What they do not need at this point is any kind of a significant injury to a key player, so it has to be a concern that starting goaltender Tuukka Rask had to leave Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins midway through the second period.

He was replaced in net by backup Zane McIntyre.

The Bruins have yet to offer an update as to why Rask left the game or what his status is. He allowed two goals on 22 shots before exiting.

Even though he has been slumping in recent weeks Rask’s play for most of the season (he entered play on Sunday with a .920 save percentage on the season) has been a big reason the Bruins have climbed back up the goals against rankings after doing little to improve their defense over the summer.

Henrik Lundqvist, J.T. Miller lift Rangers over Red Wings

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This was not the type of game we have been seeing from the New York Rangers in recent weeks.

Entering Sunday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings, the Rangers had been on a 12-game run where they scored 50 goals (4.1 per game) and also allowed 50 goals. Their balanced scoring depth, combined with a shaky defense and slumping Henrik Lundqvist had produced some high-scoring, 1980s style hockey where any team seemed capable of scoring six or seven goals on any given night.

On Sunday, they played a complete shutdown game in a 1-0 overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings that featured only 40 shots on goal between the two teams, few scoring chances, and only a single goal. That goal did not get scored until 1:56 into the 3-on-3 overtime period when the Rangers capitalized on a two-on-none rush between Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller.

As Zuccarello carried the puck into the zone alone, he froze Red Wings goalie Jared Coreau and set up Miller with a perfect pass that allowed him to easily deposit the puck in the net for his 16th goal of the season.

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault blamed the quality of the game on “horrendous” ice at Joe Louis Arena. Whatever the reason, it was a big performance for Henrik Lundqvist in net as he stopped all 21 shots he faced to record his second shutout of the season and his first since November 1.

For the Rangers, the two points brings them up to 61 points on the season and gives them an 11-point cushion in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

The good news for the Red Wings is they at least gained a point in the standings for the fifth consecutive game, a stretch that has seen them early eight out of a possible 10 points. The bad news is they left a second one on the table in a game that was there for the taking, in a game where they also lost their leading scorer, Thomas Vanek, to another injury.

Vanek exited the game after the first period with an undisclosed injury and did not return after playing just six minutes.

Goalie nods: Corey Crawford gets a chance to snap out of slump for Blackhawks

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 13: Goalie Corey Crawford #50 of the Chicago Blackhawks looks on against the Washington Capitals during the second period at Verizon Center on January 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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With starting goaltender Corey Crawford stuck in his worst slump of the season, and Scott Darling coming off of a 30-save shutout on Friday night, it seemed possible that the Chicago Blackhawks would stick with the same goalie arrangement on Sunday evening against the Vancouver Canucks.

If nothing else Darling has at least made an argument that he probably deserves a little more playing time than he is getting, and that is still true today.

He just will not get that opportunity against the Canucks.

Coach Joel Quenneville is going back to his starter, Crawford, for Sunday’s game.

After a great start to the season, Crawford has struggled mightily since returning to the lineup following an appendectomy in December and enters Sunday’s game with only a .902 save percentage in his past 10 appearances. He has allowed at least three goals in seven of those games. Before this most recent he was sitting at .927 on the season and looked like one of the top contenders for the Vezina Trophy.

The Blackhawks are not used to seeing Crawford struggle like this, especially in recent years as he has become one of the league’s top goaltenders, finishing with a save percentage of .924 or better in three of the past four full seasons. He is too good to continue playing the way he has recently. Perhaps Sunday is the day he starts to get back on track against a team that he has a pretty strong track record against.

The Canucks, entering the game one game out of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference, have yet to announce their starter.

Elsewhere…

— Jared Coureau and Henrik Lundqvist went for the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers in their afternoon tilt on NBC, while Matt Murray and Tuukka Rask faced off in Pittsburgh for the Penguins and Boston Bruins.

— After starting 12 consecutive games Mike Condon goes again for the Ottawa Senators on Sunday against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets are expected to go with Joonas Korpisalo.

Thomas Greiss returns to the net for the New York Islanders on Sunday after getting Saturday night off and looks for his third consecutive shutout. He has stopped all 55 shots he has faced in his past two games against the Boston Bruins and Dallas Stars. The Philadelphia Flyers will go with Steve Mason after Michal Neuvirth took the loss against New Jersey on Saturday.

Darcy Kuemper is expected to get the start for the Minnesota Wild when they take on the Nashville Predators. Pekka Rinne goes for the Predators.

Red Wings lose Thomas Vanek against Rangers

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 13:  Thomas Vanek #62 of the Detroit Red Wings gets ready for a face-off against Tampa Bay Lightning during a game at the Amalie Arena on October 13, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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This is not the news the Detroit Red Wings needed on Sunday afternoon.

Forward Thomas Vanek left their game against the New York Rangers following the first period for undisclosed reasons. The team announced that he will not return to the game.

Vanek has been a steal for the Red Wings this season after signing him to a one-year, $2.6 million contract in free agency. When healthy he has been arguably their best, most impactful forward this season and entered play on Sunday tied for the team lead in goals (12) and total points (31) even though he had already missed nine games this season.

He played 6:58 in the first period before exiting the game after being shaken up near the Rangers’ net.

He already missed time this season due to a hip injury.

Given his success this season with the team, as well as the Red Wings’ current spot in the Eastern Conference standings that has them several points out of a playoff spot, he has been a popular name mentioned in trade speculation in advance of the trade deadline, something that he seems well aware of.