New York Islanders' John Tavares (91) and Thomas Vanek (26) of Austria congratulate Kyle Okposo (21) on his goal in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Dallas Stars, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Dallas. Okposo had two goals in the 4-2 Islanders win. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

NHL on NBCSN: Tavares’ hottest line in hockey faces Penguins

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NBCSN continues its coverage of the 2013-14 campaign tonight when the New York Islanders host the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum at 7:30 p.m. ET. In addition to NBCSN, you can also watch the game online.

The Islanders gave the Penguins a headache in their 2013 first round series, but they didn’t look like the same team for the first half of this season. The Islanders were 9-19-7 by mid-December even after they tried to give themselves a shot in the arm with the acquisition of Thomas Vanek.

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That’s not the team Pittsburgh will face tonight either. The Islanders’ top line of John Tavares, Vanek, and Kyle Okposo has been great all season, but lately that trio has been overpowering their competition. They’ve combined for 17 goals and 43 points in 11 contests this month. That’s better than any other trio has done over that stretch.

Tavares in particular has been phenomenal with seven goals and a league-leading 18 points in January. As a result, he’s one of just two players that has already reached the 60-point mark.

Of course, the other one and the Art Ross Trophy leader will also be featured tonight. It’s rare for Sidney Crosby to be held off the scoresheet, especially against the Islanders. They’re one of the teams he’d play all 82 games against if he could, given that he has 24 goals and 80 points in 44 career contests against the Islanders.

Which is just a part of the larger problem for New York tonight. Pittsburgh isn’t a team that can be easily overwhelm offensively. The Islanders might have the hotter top line, but the Penguins have the edge in star power.

Pittsburgh is coming off of a 5-1 victory over Montreal to improve to 35-13-2 this season. Even though many of the Metropolitan Division teams have heated up in recent weeks, the Penguins still have a 15 point lead on the division title. With 32 games left in their schedule, anything’s still possible, but if finish below first in the Metropolitan, it would have to be seen as a significant collapse.

By contrast, it would be remarkable for the Islanders manage to make the playoffs. Even after going 10-3-0, they are still last in the division. In other words, they can’t afford to slow down now — not with the Olympic break and then trade deadline coming up. The Islanders are running out of time to prove to GM Garth Snow that they are a team worth keeping intact or even adding to.

A win against a team of Pittsburgh’s caliber would certainly help make that case.

Clutter-bucks: Isles sign energy guy to five-year, $17.5 million extension

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 03:  Cal Clutterbuck #15 of the New York Islanders scores his second goal of the game at 9:53 of the third period against the Dallas Stars at the Barclays Center on January 3, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  The Islanders defeated the Stars 6-5. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The New York Islanders made a splash on Friday, signing veteran forward Cal Clutterbuck to a five-year, $17.5 million extension — one that carries a $3.5 million average annual cap hit through 2023.

Clutterbuck, 29, has two goals and nine points through 25 games this year, while averaging 15:26 TOI per night (his highest average since joining the Isles four years ago). As per usual, he leads the club in hits — one of the staples of his game — and serves as one of the club’s alternate captains.

This new contract represents a nice raise for the former Minnesota Wild man. His last contract, set to expire in July, was of the four-year, $11 million variety, and carried a $2.75 million cap hit.

This contract also resembles the one GM Garth Snow gave another of the club’s role forwards. This summer, Casey Cizikas signed a five-year, $16.75 million extension — one with a $3.35 million hit — despite the fact he’d never scored more than 30 points in a season, or averaged more than 14 minutes of ice time.

This style of spending — along with splashes made for free agent disappointments Jason Chimera and Andrew Ladd — is sure to raise some questions. The Isles opted not to spend that money on retaining two of their key players from a season ago, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, and the club has struggled to find its form through the first quarter of this year.

Bettman: Salary cap could stay the same for next season

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 27:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman unveils the League's Centennial celebration plans for 2017 during a press conference at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at Air Canada Centre on September 27, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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Don’t expect a big jump in next season’s salary cap.

“We’re not going to give out any numbers now,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said yesterday, per Yahoo Sports. “The cap could range from where it is now to a couple or so million up, but we’re all going to have to focus on what makes the most sense moving forward.”

The salary cap only went up slightly for the current season, from $71.4 million to $73 million. The only slight increase was due to the lower Canadian dollar, which negatively impacted last season’s league revenues by “$100 or 200 million,” Bettman said earlier this year.

The loonie has been holding relatively steady for around half a year. It’s currently worth $0.76 USD and has been helped by the recent oil rally.

A flat salary cap would be bad news for big spenders like the Chicago Blackhawks, who still need to get Artemi Panarin signed to an extension. The Los Angeles Kings could also be forced to make some tough decisions, as they’ve got Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson in need of new deals. Ditto for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have key RFAs in Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Conor Sheary.

Related: Trades galore? McPhee expecting ‘a massive player redistribution before the expansion draft’

A few ‘bad decisions’ have been costing Lundqvist

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) reacts after giving up a goal to Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016, in New York. The Penguins won 6-1. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
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Henrik Lundqvist has set such a high bar that his 12-8-1 record with a .912 save percentage is cause for great concern these days in New York.

That his backup, Antti Raanta, is 6-1-0 with a .932 save percentage only contributes to that concern, because if Raanta can manage those numbers, what’s Lundqvist’s excuse?

“I feel like I’m tracking the puck well, moving well,” Lundqvist told the Daily News. “It just comes down to some bad decisions at times that cost me.”

Indeed, December has not started well for The King. He’s allowed 10 goals in three starts for a save percentage of .894. In Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Islanders, his decision to poke check a loose puck led to the winning goal by Andrew Ladd.

But while this month has been a struggle, it should be noted that Lundqvist was mostly excellent in November. He finished with a .925 save percentage, including that 40-save victory on Black Friday in Philadelphia.

Which is to say, he has more than earned the benefit of the doubt. Since 2008-09, Lundqvist has not finished a season with a save percentage below .920, and that is a remarkable achievement.

Raanta was solid again last night in Winnipeg, where the Rangers beat the Jets, 2-1. A starting goalie for tonight’s game in Chicago has not yet been announced, but Lundqvist is a good bet.

Top 10 career save percentages among goalies with at least 300 NHL starts

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Jets send talented rookie Connor to AHL

WINNIPEG, MANITOBA - OCTOBER 23:  Goalie Cam Talbot #33 of the Edmonton Oilers pushes Kyle Connor #81 of the Winnipeg Jets  during the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic hockey game on October 23, 2016 at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Jason Halstead /Getty Images)
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Kyle Connor is on his way to the minors.

On Friday, Winnipeg announced that Connor — the former Michigan Wolverines star taken 17th overall in 2015 — has been assigned to the club’s AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose.

Connor, 19, had just one goal and four points through 19 games this year, struggling to adjust to life at the professional level.

He’d been a healthy scratch for each of the Jets’ last six games and, prior to that, missed five games with an upper-body injury after getting nailed into the boards by L.A. forward Kyle Clifford.

The Jets are getting healthy up front, which further explains why Connor is on his way to the Moose. Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault both recently returned from injury.