New Jersey Devils right wing Michael Ryder, left, moves the puck down the ice as Colorado Avalanche center Ryan O'Reilly covers in the third period of the Avalanche's 2-1 shootout victory in an NHL hockey game in Denver on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

NHL on NBCSN: Devils fight to stay in heart of playoff race vs Avs

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NBCSN continues its coverage of the 2013-14 campaign tonight when the New Jersey Devils host the Colorado Avalanche at the Prudential Center at 7:30 p.m. ET. In addition to NBCSN, you can also watch the game online.

Going into the season, not much was expected of the Devils or Avalanche. That’s where the similarities between their seasons end.

The Colorado Avalanche, fresh off making Joe Sakic the team’s executive vice president and Patrick Roy the head coach, became the talk of the league when they kicked off their campaign with a 14-2-0 run. They’ve hit a couple bumps in the road since then, but haven’t dramatically slowed down. They’ve only endured a single three-game losing streak and one four-contest slump on their road to a 35-14-5 record.

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Rookie Nathan MacKinnon has been everything they could have hoped for after being selected with the first overall pick, but their roster isn’t substantial different from the one that finished last in the Western Conference in 2013. Instead, they have succeeded largely by getting more out of the same guys and goaltender Semyon Varlamov in particular.

Varlamov has rebounded from a rough 2013 campaign thanks in part to Roy and goalie coach Francois Allaire’s guidance. Colorado recently rewarded Varlamov for his comeback with a five-year, $29.5 million extension.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Devils’ roster is substantially different from what it was even last season with far more mixed results. To be fair, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello can’t really be blamed for that. From a short-term perspective, the single worst thing to happen to New Jersey over the summer was Ilya Kovalchuk deciding to “retire” to get out of his contract and move to the KHL.

The Devils were forced to scramble to overcome the offensive void he left and while Jaromir Jagr has done a remarkable job, especially at the age of 41, they were struggling to find the back of the net even before Kovalchuk left.

Even a strong season out of goaltender Cory Schneider hasn’t been enough to turn the tide. All he’s been able to do is keep them afloat so that while they’re shy of a Wild Card spot, at least they’re still very much in the race.

In fact, given that only two points separate second and sixth place in the battle for Wild Card spots in the Eastern Conference, every game is still critical for the Devils. At the same time, the Avalanche could use a win as they try to stay in the battle for the Central Division title against the formidable St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.

Sharks flip the script, tie Penguins heading into third period

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30:  Tomas Hertl #48 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates with teammates after scoring a second period goal against Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins (not pictured) in Game One of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Pittsburgh Penguins dominated the San Jose Sharks in the first period of Game 1, no doubt about it.

Even so, the Sharks entered the middle frame down 2-0, and responded rather than shriveling up. They basically switched roles with the Penguins in the second period, ultimately tying things up 2-2.

The first goal was one Matt Murray would probably like back (even more than a goalie would want any goal back, mind you), as Tomas Hertl beat him five-hole for a power-play goal.

Witness the Sharks’ first-ever goal in a Stanley Cup Final:

Fittingly, a grizzled veteran and longtime face of the Sharks’ franchise tied it up, as Patrick Marleau made it 2-2 with a clever wraparound:

Which team will win the third period? Could we see overtime? Find out on NBC.

Report: Blues will bring back Hitchcock with one-year deal

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 21:  Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues walks on the ice in game four of the Western Conference Finals against the San Jose Sharks during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on May 21, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Yes, the St. Louis Blues fell short of the Stanley Cup Final, but they still broke some playoff hexes in 2015-16. Apparently Blues management saw enough to bring back Ken Hitchcock.

That’s the word from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and Nick Kypreos, who report that the Blues are expected to announce a one-year deal with the veteran head coach on Tuesday.

Friedman wonders if these one-year pacts (Hitchcock was on one for 2015-16 as well) may chase away other staffers:

When asked about these scenarios, Hitchcock seemed like he was in favor of experiencing a perpetual “contract year.”

“I scare myself because I think if I take long-term deal, I’m gonna get sloppy,” Hitchcock told Hockey Central at Noon and Sportsnet back in mid-May. “I want to stay on one-year deals.

For plenty of fans, it makes perfect sense to bring Hitchcock back after the Blues took steps forward.

Others wonder if Hitchcock’s style (which leans toward dump-and-chase and “gritty” hockey more than some other teams) may leave the Blues in the dust, however.

That’s a debate for a bar or a message board, yet one can see deeper logic in giving Hitchcock one more shot.

While the Blues have decisions to make – including what to do with free agent captain David Backes – the team is also structured to make another run. Brian Elliott, Jake Allen, Kevin Shattenkirk and Colton Parayko all have deals that will expire after 2016-17, and each contract is a bargain.

If St. Louis believes that Hitchcock is the right fit for that personnel group, then it makes sense to give him another go.

Crosby, Rust and Sheary lead Penguins’ early charge

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30:  Bryan Rust #17 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with Evgeni Malkin #71 after scoring a first period goal against the San Jose Sharks in Game One of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Generally speaking, the strategic talk heading into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final focused on the San Jose Sharks’ deeper defense vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blinding speed.

It’s very early, but so far: advantage Penguins.

Pittsburgh came roaring out of the gate in front of a boisterous Consol Energy Center crowd, but it took them a while to break through.

Once the Penguins did, they raced ahead to a 2-0 lead thanks to goals just 1:02 apart.

First, Bryan Rust kept his red-hot streak going with the 1-0 tally.

Moments later, Sidney Crosby made a beautiful pass to Conor Sheary to put the Penguins up two.

There were a few other moments in which the Sharks looked like they were really struggling with the Penguins’ speed, but Martin Jones made some saves that could be big if San Jose can gather its wits.

Beard breakdown: Burns vs. Thornton (Video)

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Sometimes you need to ask important questions, breaking down positional battles and strategies.

Other times you can’t help but ask “Which guy has the better beard?”

In the case of Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, the San Jose Sharks boast two players with elite beards to match their elite skills. “Jumbo Joe” drew a lot of attention for his wild facial hair, yet Burns may very well have inspired Thornton to go heavy-whisker in the first place.

The video above breaks down those two beards, in case you’re itching for a comparison.

One thing that sparks little debate? Both players’ wives are real troopers.