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Christmas Q&A: Why is it going to be a great finish to the regular season?

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Gretz: The new generation of young talent that is hitting the NHL. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have been at the top of the league for a decade, and now we are starting to see the next wave coming through, and it is an impressive bunch. Will Connor McDavid be able to hold off Crosby in the Art Ross race? Then you get to the rookie class. Last year’s group with McDavid, Jack Eichel, Shayne Gostisbehere, Max Domi, and Dylan Larkin was amazing, but this one almost seems to be even deeper and more impressive. Will Patrik Laine make a serious run at 50 goals as a rookie? Even 40 would be amazing. Seeing Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and that group develop in Toronto. Zach Werenski becoming a cornerstone piece for the Blue Jackets. The young talent entering the league right now is simply incredible and they are making an immediate impact.

Brough: Here’s why — let’s say all five Metropolitan juggernauts keep rolling and make the playoffs. That only leaves three spots for the Atlantic Division, right? Now, we’ll assume Montreal doesn’t collapse again, which leaves just two spots for Ottawa, Boston, Detroit, Florida, Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Buffalo. So basically, whatever happens, some very noteworthy teams are going to miss the playoffs. Would Claude Julien survive a third straight miss with the Bruins? Probably not. If the Red Wings miss for the first time since 1990, might that franchise veer into a full-on rebuild? It’s possible. What if the Lightning or Panthers don’t make the cut? Because those teams had extremely high hopes heading into the season. So it’s going to be fascinating to watch. And, oh yeah, there could be some pretty notable playoff misses in the West as well. Looking at you, Dallas and Nashville.

Alfieri: Have you seen the parity in the league? There are still multiple teams that have a shot to win each division, and the chase for the wild-card spots in each conference are far from over. As the season goes on, we’ll find out just how serious teams like the Blue Jackets, Senators and Oilers are. You also have to believe that some of the teams that are underachieving like the Lightning, Panthers, Kings, Predators and Stars will make a run at some point. In terms of individual races, I’m excited to see if Connor McDavid, who turns 20 in January, will be able to take home the Art Ross Trophy at such a young age, and if Sidney Crosby can score 50 — or heck, even 60 — goals.

Tucker: Sidney Crosby leads the league in goals, with 23, and rookie Patrik Laine is only four goals behind. Can an 18-year-old freshman win the Rocket Richard Trophy? And oh yeah, Auston Matthews and Alex Ovechkin are lurking back there as dark-horse contenders for the goalscoring title as well. Can Connor McDavid take home the Art Ross in his second year? Crosby is nipping at his heels. Bigger picture, it feels like the torch-passing process is underway. And it sure is fun to watch.

O’Brien: The beauty of this season is that “parity” doesn’t mean “a lot of same-y, mediocre teams.” Instead, it feels like watching Michael Jordan and Larry Bird playing H-O-R-S-E. But, beyond that, there’s one factor that makes this home stretch unpredictable and unique: the specter of the expansion draft. Will we experience a wilder trade deadline as teams adjust expectations and try to avoid losing quality players for nothing to Sin City? Hopefully!

Halford: There’s potential for the most exciting trade deadline in a while. Already there are two clear-cut sellers in Arizona and Colorado, each with key UFA chips to play (Jarome Iginla, Martin Hanzal). The Avs might be looking for a bigger shakeup than that, too. And look at the teams that *might* miss! What would Detroit do as a seller? What about the Isles? You know there’ll be fierce competition among buyers, especially given how tight things are in the Metro, which could make for a terrific set of circumstances. Like Brian Burke said, the NHL is more exciting when there are more trades. I’ll take anything to avoid a repeat of last year, when I spent an hour analyzing Mikkel Boedker‘s potential impact on the Avs.

Video: Leafs’ Carrick delivers thunderous hit on Blue Jackets’ Anderson

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Both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Toronto Maple Leafs have motivation to win their Wednesday game, but the Maple Leafs need it more.

So far, it shows, too.

The Maple Leafs have raced off to a 2-0 lead, with Auston Matthews scoring his 33rd goal of the season. If generating such offense didn’t highlight the urgency, Connor Carrick‘s huge hit on Josh Anderson makes a compelling argument. Witness that big impact in the video above.

There was also another high-impact moment when Nick Foligno went crashing into the boards:

Ouch, Blues consider Paul Stastny out week-to-week

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The St. Louis Blues announced that Paul Stastny is out week-to-week with a lower-body injury.

Stastny was limited to less than four minutes of ice time during last night’s 4-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche. Initially, head coach Mike Yeo indicated that the issue wasn’t serious.

There are only about three weeks left in the regular season, so it’s tough to tell if “week-to-week” would mean that the Blues will be without Stastny for any playoff time.

With Stastny out for an expended period of time and other injuries affecting Blues forwards, it sounds like Nail Yakupov gets another chance to prove himself:

Stastny generated 18 goals and 40 points in 66 games so far this season. He has played more of a defensive role this season (46.2 offensive zone start percentage after being closer to 50 earlier in his Blues days) and has been impressive in the dot, winning 53.8 of his faceoffs.

WATCH LIVE: Islanders at Rangers – Wednesday Night Rivalry

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A night after a feisty matcuhup with the Devils, the Rangers host an even bigger rival in the Islanders at Madison Square Garden for Wednesday Night Rivalry on NBCSN.

As nasty as Tuesday’s contest got at times, this one means more.

While the Rangers seem pretty safely seated as the East’s first wild card, the Islanders stand three points behind the Maple Leafs for the final spot in the conference. They’ve seen other bubble teams stumble, so this is their chance to close in on Toronto in what might be a shrinking field of contenders.

Spiting the Islanders might just give the Rangers a little extra life on back-to-back nights … especially since their fans would probably let them have it if they sleepwalk through this one.

It should be a fun, physical and dramatic one on NBCSN. You can also watch online and via the NBC Sports App.

Click here for the livestream.

Pre-game reading: ‘Trying to keep playing at such a high level, it was going to kill me’

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The Pioneer Press caught up with former Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding, who quietly retired from professional hockey two-and-a-half years ago. That decision came after Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and made a stirring comeback with the Wild, capturing the 2013 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy as a result.

In the piece, Harding talks about his final game, one in which he left an AHL game against Charlotte in an ambulance due to severe dehydration. That proved an eye-opener, one that all but cemented the need for him to hang up his skates.

More:

Sara Harding took one look at her gaunt husband on FaceTime [following the game in Charlotte] and immediately bought a one-way plane ticket from Minneapolis, not knowing when she would return — or if she would be coming back alone.

“She was really scared,” Harding recalled Tuesday. “That was the final dagger. It started hitting me that I still have a family and life to live here. People that I love and that love me, I saw how scared they were and how much it affected them. I knew it was time to put up the pads.

 “The doctors all told me if I kept doing this to my body, trying to keep playing at such a high level, it was going to kill me.”

Harding, who has attended a few Wild games since retirement, is currently working as a goalie coach at a local Minnesota high school.

— “I think there’s only three teams left in the NHL that don’t have a downtown arena, and we’re one of them and it’s tragic that we don’t. I bought the team out of bankruptcy and that’s where the arena was, and that’s what I bought. But we need to move things downtown, if it’s Ottawa it’s got to be downtown.”

That’s Sens owner Eugene Melnyk (per the Citizen) talking about Ottawa’s proposed new arena. He’s hopeful negotiations with the National Capital Commission on the development of Lebreton Flats will be completed before the end of the year, at which point construction can begin on what he promises will be a “gorgeous” complex.

— The latest development in the U.S. women’s looming boycott of the 2017 World Hockey Championships: USA Hockey has postponed a pre-tourney training camp, and an exhibition game against Finland. The organization is still hopeful it can hold a camp just prior to the start of the worlds, which will begin on Mar. 31 in Plymouth, MI. (Yahoo)