NHL on NBCSN: Capitals and Penguins rekindle an old divisional battle

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Throughout the season, NBCSN will feature the NHL’s fiercest rivalries on Wednesday nights. Tonight the Pittsburgh Penguins head to Verizon Center to take on the Washington Capitals at 8 p.m. ET. In addition to NBCSN, you can also watch the game online.

Whatever you might think of seeing the Capitals and Penguins squaring off once again, seeing the captains of those teams go head-to-head is more than worth the price of admission.

Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin is tied for the league lead in goals (with St. Louis’ Alex Steen) with 17. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is tied with Steen for the league lead in points with 26. Two superstar players playing at the height of their abilities going against each other on Rivalry Night. That’ll do just fine.

As Capitals coach Adam Oates tells CSNWashington.com’s Chuck Gormley, there’s nothing wrong with appreciating the best in the game.

“Those guys are more like Gretz vs. Mario,” Oates said, referencing the “Who’s better?” rivalry between Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

“They’re the superstars of the league. I would hope as a fan you appreciate that. You’ve got two of the best guys in the world playing against each other. It makes for an electric game.”

What helps make the game even better? The Caps trail the Penguins by one point for the Metropolitan Division lead.

The Capitals come into the game having won three in a row and seven of their last nine. The Penguins are coming off a 3-1 win over Anaheim on Monday and have won six of their last 10 games.

While it’s all well and good to laud how well Ovechkin has done this season, he’s only tied for the team lead in points with 24. The other player? Nicklas Backstrom.

Backstrom has had one of the stronger starts this season but is going about it quietly racking up 19 assists. Those 24 points are good for a four-way tie for fourth in the league in points. Ovechkin rediscovering his goal-scoring touch last season and into this year has paid off in part due to Backstrom setting him up.

Backstrom isn’t the only player honing his playmaking skills this season. Evgeni Malkin has made up for his lack of goal-scoring by piling up the assists with 17. While he has just three goals this season, his ability to set up his linemates has rounded out the Penguins attack. After all, Jussi Jokinen’s eight goals only trail Crosby and Chris Kunitz on the team.

The least enviable guys on the ice tonight though? Marc-Andre Fleury and Braden Holtby. While both have had strong starts to their season, having to deal with offenses like these won’t make for an easy night. If they can steal the show, that will just add another layer to this modern rivalry.

Stars re-sign Janmark, who they ‘missed as much as anyone last season’

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Mattias Janmark, the Stars forward that missed all of this season with a major knee injury, has been given a one-year, $700,000 extension, the club announced on Thursday.

“Mattias is a played that we missed as much as anyone last season with the unfortunate injury he suffered,” Dallas GM Jim Nill said in a release. “We look forward to him returning to our group and getting him back for training camp.”

Losing Janmark’s services this year was, as mentioned, a fairly big blow. After surprising onlookers by making the Stars out of camp in ’15-16 — a “great story,” according to Nill — Janmark had a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

Today’s news all but alleviates concerns the 24-year-old’s knee problems might extend into next season, something former head coach Lindy Ruff alluded to last month.

“I think there’s a question mark (about next season), but we don’t know to what degree yet,” Ruff said, per the Dallas Morning-News. “He’s progressing nicely. He still has a ways to go, but I think the fact he is practicing now and has gone this far always gives a guy like that a better chance for next year.”

Janmark’s original injury occurred during the preseason, when he knee locked up in a game against Colorado.

“He had a small segment, approximately 21 millimeters by 11 millimeters, that became displaced and is locked in his knee,” Nill said at the time. “It’s the bone and the cartilage, they both came off together.”

Janmark underwent surgery to correct the issue, but his recovery was plagued by a preexisting congenital condition called osteochondritis dissecans. Nill said the likelihood of a full recovery was 80 percent.

Leafs to sign Grundstrom, whose ‘competitive level is through the roof’

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Another talented, young forward is on his way to Toronto.

According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, the Maple Leafs are soon expected to sign winger Carl Grundstrom to a three-year, entry-level contract.

Grundstrom, 19, was the 57th overall pick in the 2016 draft. He impressed at the 2017 World Juniors, scoring three goals and four assists in seven games for Sweden.

“He works hard and his competitive level is through the roof,” Sweden head coach Tomas Monten said, via Postmedia. “I think the Maple Leafs have a guy who in the future will work hard for them. He likes to score goals and go to the net, but he can score off power and skill. I think they have a pretty good prospect.”

Related: Are the Leafs getting into ‘go for it’ territory?

Caps hoping roster improvements can get them past Pittsburgh

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins arrive at their latest showdown looking very much like they did a year ago.

It’s the little things that might matter most this time around.

The Capitals added center Lars Eller and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk as a direct response to losing their second-round series last season, hoping the depth will help against the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Penguins have a different goaltender with Marc-Andre Fleury replacing injured Matt Murray and are without injured defenseman Kris Letang.

Aside from those changes and a few other tweaks, the teams that take the ice Thursday night for Game 1 in Washington are strikingly similar to those who played for six games last spring.

“This is a unique situation — both teams have a lot of guys back,” Penguins center Matt Cullen said. “It’s not often with the salary cap and everything that you bring a similar team back. It makes for an interesting matchup.”

The stars are again aligned for Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and the Capitals to face off against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and the Penguins. Familiarity should breed quick contempt, but Washington’s changes are what players think will flip the script.

“I feel better about our team going into it this year than I did last year, that’s for sure,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “We can attack from different ways, and we can find ways to score throughout the lineup. I just think a lot of guys are playing better than they did last year.”

That’s a shout out to second-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who struggled after March last year but played an essential part of the first-round series this season against the Toronto Maple Leafs by defending Auston Matthews. Defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt are also much improved after being scratched during the 2016 playoffs.

The Penguins are rolling again after eliminating Columbus, but the absence of Letang is significant after he logged 31:36 of ice time per game last year.

“Obviously they lost key player, Letang,” Ovechkin said. “It’s good for us, bad for them … (but) it doesn’t matter who’s in the lineup. We just have to pressure them, and we don’t have to give them any chances to get success.”

Pittsburgh exposed Washington’s lack of speed a year ago and has the potential to do so again even if winger Carl Hagelin isn’t ready to start the series. The Maple Leafs’ up-tempo style challenged the Capitals, something coach Barry Trotz called “a good warmup” for the Penguins, but it remains to be seen how his team will play faster this time.

Who’s better off after a year of no change? Watch and find out.

“I think I guess the series will show that more than anything,” Crosby said.

FLOWER POWER

Fleury went 4-1 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .933 save percentage against the Blue Jackets in the first round after replacing Murray because of a warmup injury prior to Game 1. The Capitals didn’t see him last year because Murray didn’t cede the net, but the Fleury has been so good there has been no drop-off.

OSHIE, PENGUINS KILLER

T.J. Oshie had five goals and an assist in last year’s series and three goals and seven assists in four games against the Penguins this season. Facing Pittsburgh’s top competition seems to get Oshie clicking.

“Typically we’re going against Crosby’s line and that’s a tough task, he’s a great player,” Oshie said. “You can get motivation from that and kind of the game within the game. Last few years, the puck found the net for me and hopefully it will be the same.”

PUT IT IN PENCIL

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan shifted his lines, putting Patric Hornqvist on right wing with Crosby and playoffs leading goal-scorer Jake Guentzel and dropping Conor Sheary down to skate with Nick Bonino and Scott Wilson. Pittsburgh again has four scoring lines with Malkin, Kessel and Bryan Rust together and Cullen centering Chris Kunitz and Tom Kuhnhackl.

“Sometimes when certain line combos have history of success together, we tend to give those lines a little bit more time to work through the challenges,” Sullivan said. “That’s something we have daily discussions about, (a) question I always ask, which combinations are going to give us the best chance to win.”

STOP, ELLER TIME

The Capitals sent two second-round picks to the Montreal Canadiens for Eller specifically for this kind of series. Pittsburgh got five goals at even strength from its third line of Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel and two more from Cullen and his fourth-line mates last year, while Washington’s bottom six combined for two goals.

Enter Eller, who is a good penalty killer and should be an offensive upgrade over Mike Richards.

“I can’t wait for that challenge,” Eller said. “I think a lot of guys in here have pictured that this is a spot we could end up being in, facing this team sometime in the playoffs and now is that time.”

Related: A rebuild third line has been key for Caps

Preds announce Fiala done for year with fractured femur

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Most knew that, based on the visuals and stretchering off, the injury Kevin Fiala suffered during Nashville’s series-opening win over St. Louis last night was pretty bad.

Today, the Preds confirmed it.

Fiala suffered a fractured left femur on the play, one that will sideline him for the remainder of the year. The club went onto explain that the 20-year-old underwent successful surgery last night, and would soon be returned to Nashville.

It’s an incredibly unfortunate end to what was a promising campaign.

The 11th overall pick in 2014, Fiala scored 11 goals in 54 games for the Preds this year, and famously scored the OT winner in Game 3 of the opening round against Chicago.