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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.

Ovechkin limped off the ice during Capitals practice

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There was a scare involving star forward Alex Ovechkin during Washington Capitals practice on Monday.

Per reports, Ovechkin limped off the ice after getting tangled up with a teammate during drills. He left the ice and reportedly didn’t return, which would certainly be cause for concern.

Capitals head coach Barry Trotz seemed to quell that a little bit afterward.

“I think he’s going to be okay,” said Trotz, per NBC Sports Washington. “I got to talk to the trainers here. He got tangled up there; it’s a contact sport.”

The news wasn’t so good for winger Andre Burakovsky, who will miss “a little bit of time,” according to Trotz on Monday.

The Capitals, who have lost five of their last seven games, don’t play again until Thursday, when they visit the Vancouver Canucks to start a three-game road trip that also includes stops in Edmonton and Calgary.

On an individual level, the 32-year-old Ovechkin has enjoyed a great start to the season, with 10 goals, which puts him into a tie atop the league in that category with Nikita Kucherov of the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

Kucherov, Stamkos and the Bolts are lighting it up

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The Tampa Bay Lightning are off to quite a start in the Eastern Conference, and Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are at the middle of it.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that on Monday, the linemates received recognition from the NHL for their efforts, with Kucherov being named the NHL’s second star for last week and Stamkos the first star.

(By the way, remember that column about tempering expectations on Stamkos early in the season? Yeah, about that . . .)

Last week, Kucherov had to endure a brutal one-game scoring slump but did manage to capture five goals and eight points in four games, and is battling with Alex Ovechkin for the league lead in goals with 10. Stamkos, who has most recently had to battle back from knee surgery last season, had 11 points in four games, capped off with a four-point performance and a career milestone against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.

“You can’t overlook the fact that 600 points — that’s a lot of points in this league,” said coach Jon Cooper on Monday. “He’s just shy of 600 games right? So, to play that many games and be above a point-per-game player … it’s one thing to do that in 10 games but to do it in 600 games is pretty impressive.”

The Bolts and Toronto Maple Leafs continue to duke it out for not only the highest scoring team in the league right now, but also top spot in the Atlantic Division. The Lightning currently have a three-point lead.

While Kucherov and Stamkos have been a big part of Tampa Bay’s hot start, this club has received healthy contributions throughout their lineup. Their linemate Vladislav Namestnikov has gone about his business with 10 points, which has him tied in that category with Brayden Point.

Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who is still 19 years old and eligible to return to junior, is on the verge of playing his 10th game, but he’s currently Tampa Bay’s most productive blue liner (eight points in nine games), which makes it virtually a guarantee that he’ll remain in the NHL beyond that mark, using up the first year of his entry-level contract.

“There’s a really good chance you’ll see him tomorrow,” said Cooper of Sergachev.

Oh, and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has been impressive early on with a .933 save percentage through his eight starts.

Kucherov and Stamkos are obviously worthy of this recognition, and it’s probably not the last time they’ll receive such kudos from the league as this season continues. But the danger this team poses to the opposition goes beyond its stars.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

Backup options limited for Penguins after waiving Antti Niemi

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Saturday’s 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning was the last straw for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their need for Antti Niemi as a backup goaltender.

On Monday, the 34-year-old Niemi was waived as general manager Jim Rutherford continues his search to give starter Matt Murray some help in goal. In three starts this season, Niemi has allowed 16 goals on 63 shots and has posted an ugly .828 even strength save percentage. (The only goaltender with a lower ESSV%? His old crease mate Kari Lehtonen, who has an .815 in two appearances.)

While Niemi was dealt a bit of a tough hand in his three starts — all coming on the second night of a back-to-back — those numbers are just plain obscene and a clear sign that the Penguins needed to move on. It’s unsure what the plan is when he clears waivers on Tuesday. Will the team look to terminate the one-year, $700,000 deal he signed in the summer, or will they, as head coach Mike Sullivan mentioned, allow him to use the AHL as a place to find his game?

“That would be a great option, to give him an opportunity to get in some ideal circumstances and give him an opportunity to build his confidence in an environment that’s not as high stakes as the one we’re in here,” Sullivan said on Monday.

When Rutherford signed Niemi in the summer, he said the plan was to give him between 30 and 40 games this season, allowing Murray to not be overworked before the Stanley Cup Playoffs and give Tristan Jarry or Casey DeSmith continued development at their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.

The short-term option here is calling up one of the two kids, but if Niemi clears and they want to rehabilitate him, that’s time taken away from giving Jarry or DeSmith much-needed minutes. DeSmith has shined in three starts this year, winning all three games and only allowing three goals in 184:14 minutes played. It’s not ideal, but unless Rutherford can swing another deal to fill another void in the lineup — like he did on Saturday to get Riley Sheahan as the team’s new No. 3 center — the search could take a while.

The free agent market isn’t flowing with options and teams like Arizona, Boston and Vegas having goaltending issues, it won’t be easy to find someone.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

‘We need more’ — Struggling Habs demote slumping Galchenyuk

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The Montreal Canadiens, as an entire team, have been mired in a brutal scoring slump to begin the season.

The result has been a seven-game losing streak that, believe it or not, took an even uglier turn last week when the Habs were swept in embarrassing fashion on a three-game trip through California.

Among the players continuing to have difficulties producing is Alex Galchenyuk, who has one goal in eight games, produced one shot on goal in more than 18 minutes versus the Anaheim Ducks last week and only 14 shots on the season, and practiced on the fourth line with Michael McCarron and Nikita Scherbak ahead of tomorrow’s home game with the Florida Panthers.

This isn’t the first time this season that head coach Claude Julien has skated Galchenyuk on the fourth line. He offered a rather simple explanation on Monday, after situating a 30-goal scorer from only two years ago — and a player signed to a three-year, $14.7 million contract extension this summer — now situated in the bottom six of a lineup that is dead last in the league in scoring.

“Right now, I don’t think Alex has given us enough to … continue playing on our top line for the time being,” said Julien. “We certainly need more. At the same time, hopefully those guys I put him with are going to make him work and hopefully get better. At one point you’ve got to do something as a coach to get players that maybe deserve to be up, such as (Paul Byron) — he needs to be up there because he’s playing well, he’s scoring goals. You reward people that deserve it and at the same time, other guys have got to give you more.”

The aforementioned Byron, who skated Monday on the top line, Jonathan Drouin and Brendan Gallagher are currently tied for the team lead in goals — with two each. That’s through eight games. Yes, it’s bad. Max Pacioretty, a five-time 30-goal scorer, has just one so far, and he’s been candid about his complete lack of production so far.

“That is the challenge … how am I going to go tell my teammates that we got to be better when I’m the worst one on the ice,” he said last week, per Sportsnet.

There are individual players, specifically Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov each with 10, who have scored almost as many goals as the Habs as an entire team.  And after such a disastrous start, the heat is now on general manager Marc Bergevin for some of his moves in recent years, and for him to try to turn it around by perhaps pulling off a trade to upgrade their offensive attack.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.