Rivalry Night on NBCSN: Cruising Crosby, Ovechkin collide

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Throughout the season, NBCSN will feature the NHL’s fiercest rivalries on Wednesday nights. Tonight the Washington Capitals will head to the Consol Energy Center to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins at 8:00 p.m. ET. In addition to NBCSN, you can also watch the game online.

The Penguins have been hit hard by the injury bug this season, but you wouldn’t know it based on their record. They have a 16-point cushion over the Capitals in the battle for the Metropolitan Division title going into tonight’s meeting.

Sidney Crosby deserves a lot of the credit for that. He’s one of just six Penguins players to participate in all 47 of the team’s games and it’s rare for him to be held off the scoresheet. Just like Pittsburgh has been dominating the Metropolitan, Crosby has a comfortable lead in the battle for the Art Ross Trophy with 67 points this season.

Editor’s Note: Pro Hockey Talk’s partner FanDuel is hosting a $1,500 Fantasy Hockey league for Wednesday’s NHL games. It’s just $10 to join and first prize is $350. Starts Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. ET. Here’s the FanDuel link.

He’s not the only one that’s been a force to be reckoned with though. Just as Crosby has dominated the points race, no one is close to Washington’s Alex Ovechkin when it comes to putting the puck in the back of the net. He has 33 markers in 44 contests while three other players, including Crosby, are tied for second with 25 goals.

So once again Washington versus Pittsburgh will be defined by Ovechkin and Crosby, but while that’s certainly been talked about before, that rivalry did go through something of a hiatus due to Crosby’s injury problems and Ovechkin’s struggles a couple years back.

Even last season really didn’t feature a long period where they were both at the top of their game given that Ovechkin didn’t catch fire until the second half of the shortened campaign and Crosby’s regular season was cut short due to a broken jaw. In fact, this might prove to be the first season since 2009-10 where they both manage to stay largely healthy and neither of them goes through any season-defining rough patches.

While they’re the headlines of this contest, they both have impressive supporting casts. Both teams also have big X-Factors, such as James Neal’s (upper body) availability and the Capitals’ goaltending situation. Washington has employed three different goaltenders in its last three games and they all had solid performances. Even still, it’s made for an awkward and uncertain scenario.

On a broader level, the Penguins would seem to have the edge. Even with all their injuries, they have a lot of offensive depth and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been excellent in the regular season. Pittsburgh is also an unreal 19-3-0 at home and earned a crushing 4-0 over Washington earlier this season.

At the same time, Washington has to be hungry for a win. This game should mean more to the Capitals in the heated battle for second place in the division and they have to be frustrated after enduring back-to-back shootout losses. Perhaps that will inspire them tonight.

Blackhawks bolster Central lead, shine harsh light on Penguins’ struggles

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Blame it on injuries if you want, or emphasize the Chicago Blackhawks’ overall hot finish to the season. Either way, Chicago scorched the Pittsburgh Penguins by a score of 5-1, a contest that felt more or less over by the time the first period ended 4-0 in the Blackhawks’ favor.

The Blackhawks scored by committee on Wednesday, with Artemi Panarin (goal, assist) and Patrick Kane (two assists) being the headliners. Meanwhile, former Penguin Marian Hossa has quietly climbed to 25 goals on the season.

Meanwhile, the Penguins limped through this one and have now lost four consecutive games.

With this result, the Blackhawks look like close to a lock to win the Central Division title. Meanwhile, the Metro crown is virtually unthinkable for Pittsburgh, and the Penguins might also need to accept the likelihood that they may not enjoy home-ice advantage in the first round.

They’d probably accept that more easily if they can get healthier and get back on track. Wednesday was a little worrisome in those regards.

Video: An early taste of the Tkachuk-inspired violence in Kings vs. Flames

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BREAKING: the Los Angeles Kings really don’t appreciate Calgary Flames rookie-pest-forward Matthew Tkachuk thanks to that elbow on Drew Doughty (and the fallout from all … that).

Tkachuk responded by critiquing Doughty for “complaining to the media,” so there was testiness from the start.

There was jawing before the game. Then Jake Muzzin rebuked Tkachuk’s kind offer for a fight. Finally, Keith’s son dropped the gloves with Brayden McNabb:

It wasn’t the only bout of the opening frame, and there could be more blood to come beyond this Jarome IginlaDeryk Engelland feud:

Players from both teams better keep their heads up (and on a swivel) tonight. The Flames have to hope that this doesn’t result in injuries, judging from what happened to Johnny Gaudreau.

Avalanche sign Toews-like first-rounder Tyson Jost

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Things have been pretty bleak for the Colorado Avalanche this season, but at least they can look to a high pick in the next draft … and maybe dream about how their top pick from 2016 may pan out.

The Avs signed Tyson Jost, the 10th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, to an entry-level contract on Wednesday. Colorado notes that he’ll jump right into some NHL action to close out this season.

It’s a nice sneak preview, as NHL insider Bob McKenzie noted on an NBCSN appearance (see above) that doing so will not burn the first year of Jost’s entry-level contract. Nice.

Even nicer? McKenzie also compares Jost favorably to … (drum-roll, though the headline spoiled it) Jonathan Toews.

Most obviously, the two both starred at the University of North Dakota. For the sake of fun, here are their numbers in their final years in the NCAA:

Jost: 16 goals, 35 points in 33 games, +17 rating (2016-17)
Toews: 18 goals, 46 points in 34 games (2006-07)

Naturally, Toews enthusiasts in particular will tell you that points aren’t everything … but maybe there are some shades of the two-way Blackhawks center there?

The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy raved that Jost has “man-strength already” back around the 2016 NHL Draft, as you can see in this profile.

“Jost oozes confidence and already looks like NHL captain material for the future.”

Hey, that does sound at least somewhat Toews-like, doesn’t it?

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In other signing news, the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington reports that the Buffalo Sabres signed UMass-Lowell’s CJ Smith. More on that below.

Video: This Kane-to-Panarin goal is all sorts of ridiculous

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When people were arguing against Artemi Panarin‘s Calder case, they often discounted his work because of Patrick Kane‘s brilliance (at least when they weren’t focusing on age questions).

It always felt a little unfair to Panarin.

Do we blame a great wide receiver playing with an adept quarterback? Sure, it’s an interesting discussion to have, but it seems fairly clear that there’s a symbiotic relationship between Panarin and Kane.

One could see that plainly in a 1-0 goal for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Pittsburgh Penguins that … admittedly was driven by Kane’s almost audacious creativity and skill.

But still, Panarin has 26 goals this season because he’s really good, too. This season has been a nice showcase for such thoughts, and a reminder that – like most great combinations – they make each other better.

(Seriously though, Kane was out of his mind there.)