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.

Eddie Lack expects to be released from hospital on Monday night

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As scary as the situation was for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack, the good news continues to pour in.

First, the Hurricanes provided an update that he had “full feeling in his extremities” while under observation at a hospital. This followed the promising sign that he was able to give a “thumbs up” gesture while being taken off the ice on a stretcher after the Hurricanes’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

The best news came late on Monday night, however, as Lack himself tweeted that he expects to head back home as early as this late evening/early morning:

That’s fantastic news. Video of that scary collision with Andreas Athanasiou can be seen in the video above this post’s headline.

Blues, Flames take care of business (Islanders … do not)

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For a while there, it seemed like the idle Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs would be Monday’s “winners.” That changed when the Carolina Hurricanes salvaged a standings point and the Tampa Bay Lightning stormed back to beat the Blackhawks.

Still, there were some teams who came through (beyond the Lightning) and those who fell flat, so let’s cover some of the results in short.

West teams get it done

Unlike their counterparts out East, West teams jockeying for position avoided “unforced errors” in losing to non-playoff teams.

The St. Louis Blues beat the Arizona Coyotes 4-1 while the Calgary Flames topped the Colorado Avalanche 4-2. Johnny Gaudreau generated his 200th point (and 201st) in Calgary’s win, while Alex Steen generated four assists. (Vladimir Tarasenko also enjoyed a three-point night.)

This keeps the Blues and Flames in position to advance. St. Louis is one point behind the Nashville Predators for third in the Central while the Flames are a point behind both the Sharks and Oilers for second and third in the Pacific (while remaining in shouting distance of the division title).

East teams stumble, some get over it

Again, the Lightning fought through hurdles to win and the Hurricanes managed that “charity point.”

Overall, East teams struggled. The New York Islanders fell to the Predators by a score of 3-1. Your mileage may vary on the Florida Panthers’ chances, especially after they fell 4-2 to the Buffalo Sabres.

Brian Gionta scored in his 1,000th game as Buffalo won, by the way.

Here’s what the race for the final spot in the East looks like after tonight:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Victor Hedman might just force his way into the Norris argument

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For quite some time this season, the Norris Trophy race felt a bit like “Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and [insert token finalist].” As it turns out, Victor Hedman is making it a pretty interesting three-horse race.

With Burns and Karlsson idle on Monday, Hedman continued to go on the best offensive tear of his already-impressive career, contributing three assists to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 5-4 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks.

As much credit as forwards Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin deserve in pushing Tampa Bay in Steven Stamkos‘ absence, Hedman has been an all-world blueliner for a Lightning team with a defense that isn’t really surrounding him with great talent.

He’s serving as a workhorse when his team needs him the most:

Now, when you look at the numbers, it’s probably fair to say that Hedman comes in third among the likely finalists in simple categories:

Brent Burns: 27 goals (!), 72 points in 75 games, +16 rating, 24:52 time-on-ice average

Erik Karlsson: 14 goals, 67 points in 74 games, +7, 26:53 minutes per game (fourth highest average in the NHL)

Victor Hedman: 15 goals, 65 points in 72 games, +2 rating, came into Monday with average of 24:15 minutes per game.

Looking at those breakdowns, you might wonder why someone wouldn’t just flippantly hand Hedman the “bronze medal” and a pat on the back … but things get more interesting if you ponder the all-around impact of those three.

Now, traditional-thinkers who slam risky defensemen for their mistakes often overstate such arguments. Both Burns and Karlsson tilt the ice in their teams’ favors, usually to profound degrees.

Still … Hedman locks opponents down to a truly elite degree and scores at a similar rate. Hedman could very well own the “two-way” argument; you could perhaps see his case most clearly when you compare his “HERO” chart to those of Burns and Karlsson, especially from the perspective of conceding shots.

Again, Burns remains the likely winner, and he would be a deserving one. You could make a solid Hart Trophy argument for Burns, in addition to tabbing him as the Norris frontrunner.

Even so, voters would be wise to take Hedman’s case seriously, especially as the Lightning continue their improbable playoff push.

Lightning storm back against Blackhawks, finish one point out of playoffs

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Who would have thought that the Tampa Bay Lightning would rally back from a 4-1 deficit tonight? Then again, who expected them to be so close to a playoff spot mere weeks ago, when they were sellers at the trade deadline?

The Lightning continue to show that they won’t just roll over and die, scoring four unanswered goals to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime on Monday.

While Jonathan Drouin was a catalyst for the second-period rally, it was an unlikely scorer who clinched the victory, as Yanni Gourde ended a thrilling run of 3-on-3 chances with the overtime-winner.

Really, it might have been fitting. Things looked glum when Tomas Jurco scored his first goal of the season against the Lightning, then the mood was totally flipped when Gourde’s second tally of 2016-17 grabbed a huge win.

With the Islanders losing to the Predators, the Hurricanes only managing a “loser point” against the Red Wings and the Bruins idle, Tampa Bay is a breath away from a playoff berth:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Yes, all of a sudden, a long-shot postseason run seems quite attainable.

Maybe the Lightning would prefer it if we kept counting them out, though?