Around the rink – Thursday, December 23rd

With the league taking Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, tonight sees 13 games hit us square in the face. The featured event will be in Washington where a Winter Classic preview will take place between the Penguins and Capitals. With HBO in the house for 24/7 and it being the first time the two have faced off, the drama level should be off the charts.

All times listed are Eastern because that’s where Santa Claus visits America first.

7:00 pm

Pittsburgh @ Washington

You couldn’t ask for a better Christmas gift. Both teams come in riding two-game win streaks with the Pens playing outstanding hockey and the Caps seemingly having shaken off their eight game slump. The differences here come from the Pens dominating teams with their biggest stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin carrying the weight offensively while the Caps have won with the young upstarts doing the job. This would be a heck of a time to see Alex Ovechkin have a breakout game wouldn’t it?

NY Islanders @ New Jersey

The battle to see who stays out of absolute dead last in the NHL gets a higher profile thanks to the firing of John MacLean and the Lazarus-like return of Jacques Lemaire behind the Devils bench. The Devils are coming off back-to-back thumpings from Atlanta and Washington. The Isles are coming off a big win over Tampa Bay. Big in that it was any win at all. If it weren’t for today’s firing, this game wouldn’t even be on our radar.

Atlanta @ Boston

The slumping Bruins have people wondering aloud if Claude Julien should still be the man in charge there. Atlanta rolls into town with former Julien assistant Craig Ramsay as their head man and the Thrashers are thriving because of it. Well how about that. Julien getting his team to rally and get one over on Ramsay would go over pretty well for the B’s. Another loss and the whispers about wanting Julien out might start to turn into shouts. Truth here is that Boston has a hard time scoring goals even with great play from Tim Thomas. Atlanta’s tough brand of hockey and knack for scoring goals provides quite the gut check for the Bruins.

Tampa Bay @ NY Rangers

No Marian Gaborik for the Rangers in this one so Mats Zuccarello, the Norwegian Olympic hero, gets to make his first appearance with the Rangers. The 5’7″ forward came over from Europe after a successful year there and a spectacular showing in the Olympics. Seeing how he adjusts to the NHL could be fun to watch. The Lightning, meanwhile, would like to forget last night’s embarrassing loss to the Islanders.

Florida @ Buffalo

The NHL schedule makers gift to the Panthers was to play three games in four nights, the last of which coming in Buffalo tonight. Merry Christmas, indeed. The Panthers got worked over by the Penguins last night after shutting out the Flyers on Monday. Buffalo would like to redeem themselves against the Panthers after getting drubbed by them in Florida last week.

Montreal @ Carolina

Believe it or not, Habs fans are still upset at the Hurricanes for knocking them out of the playoffs years ago. Perhaps that’s their way of getting worked up for an opponent. One person Habs fans are getting discouraged with is coach Jacques Martin as he’ll be sitting down P.K. Subban and Benoit Pouliot tonight as healthy scratches. The Habs have lost two in a row and five of their last six. Carolina looks to rebound after getting beat down by Tampa on Monday and hope to reignite the win streak they were on before that when they won five straight.

Vancouver @ Columbus

Vancouver could sure use a pick-me-up after dropping last night’s game to Detroit in particularly chokey fashion. Dealing with the Blue Jackets you never know for sure which team you’ll get. It’s either the team that gets great goaltending and has Rick Nash show up in a big way or the team that gets six or seven goals put up on them and they’re run out of the building. If the Wings didn’t take too much out of Vancouver, this could be a long night for Columbus.

8:00 pm

Detroit @ St. Louis

It’ll be the first game for Detroit without Pavel Datsyuk who’s out four weeks with a broken hand. If the Wings get Henrik Zetterberg to step up and play big the way he did last night, the Wings will be just fine without Datsyuk in the mean time. The Blues are hoping their win over Atlanta the other night was the signal of a turnaround for them after going through a stretch of a few weeks where the goaltending and goal scoring disappeared.

Ottawa @ Nashville

The slumping Senators roll into Music City looking for something to spark them. Losing Pascal Leclaire from their starting lineup has been a sign of the times lately. The losses come in bunches while wins are scattered here and there. For Nashville, their strong play of late has vaulted them up the standings in the Western Conference and they’ve done it while soldiering through injuries to key players throughout the lineup. The Preds are hoping the offense can make a comeback after scoring just one goal in each of their last two games, both losses to the Kings and Blackhawks.

8:30 pm

Calgary @ Dallas

A desperate Flames team rolls into Dallas to face a Stars team that’s won three in a row. The Stars have to be careful to avoid the trap game here as the Flames have the ability to get hot at a moments notice and with Miikka Kiprusoff in goal it can spell trouble at any time. The Flames will be looking to snap a three game skid. Yeah, this totally reeks of being a trap game.

9:00 pm

Minnesota @ Colorado

While the Avs have been playing well of late, their last game aside, Minnesota is a team that gives the Avs fits for one reason or another. The Wild are on a two game win streak thanks to beating the Flames in back-to-back games. Whether or not the Wild defense can keep up with the Avs speed is the big question here. The Avs could stand to use a solid game out of Craig Anderson as his last few starts haven’t looked quite so hot.

10:30 pm

Edmonton @ Los Angeles

The Kings are hoping to get some consistent play as they’ve alternated wins and losses over the last few games. Doing so against an Oilers team that’s showing some guts but some typically youthful and inexperienced play would be an ideal place to begin. The Oilers have dropped three of their last four and did so with scoring just one goal in each of those losses. Which Oilers team comes out to play tonight and what the Kings allow them to do are two interesting turns in this one.

Phoenix @ San Jose

The Logan Couture traveling road show comes back home as the Sharks look to continue ascending the standings in the Pacific Division. They’re just four points behind Dallas and after winning three in a row they’ve gotten the fans to relax and have fun again and Couture is the main reason for it. As for Phoenix, they’ve struggled without Ilya Bryzgalov in goal and suffered an embarrassing loss to Pittsburgh on Monday night. Now would make for a good time for a rebound.

PHT Morning Skate: Futures of Panarin, Bobrovsky; Kovalchuk’s expectations

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• After several years, Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin finally won his Stanley Cup. So, will Joe Thornton finally get his? (Toronto Sun)

• The Pittsburgh Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups because of their depth. That depth was tested last year, and the Pens ended up getting bounced in the second round. Will they be good enough to raise the cup this season? (Pensburgh)

• The Columbus Blue Jackets have a difficult dilemma with Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. What are their options? (Featurd)

Nathan MacKinnon is one of the more underpaid players in the NHL, but he isn’t too concerned about that right now. (Denver Post)

• TSN’s Frank Seravalli looks at what we can expect from Ilya Kovalchuk after his five-year hiatus from the NHL. (TSN.ca)

• The fathers of Trevor Lewis and Daniel Brickley are longtime friends that will be able to watch their sons play together in an NHL game for the last time. Brickley’s dad, Matt, has been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. (Salt Lake Tribune)

Jesperi Kotkaniemi wasn’t expected to crack the Canadiens’ opening-night roster, but he’s played so well this preseason that he might just stick around once the regular season begins. (Sportsnet)

Zach Bogosian had a tough year in 2017-18. He’s confident that he’ll be able to bounce back on a Sabres team that should be a lot better this year. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Islanders rookie Mathew Barzal has already become the one of the offensive possession kings in the NHL. (The Point Hockey)

• The Ottawa Senators got six assets for Erik Karlsson, but how good are those pieces? The Sporting News breaks it down for you. (Sporting News)

• Puck Junk’s Blake Isaacs explains why having a Seattle franchise would be awesome for the league. (Puck Junk)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL injury roundup: Crawford getting closer; Johnson hurt in practice

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Let’s take a quick look around the NHL at some injury situations that are worth monitoring as training camps and the preseason roll on.

Yes, Corey Crawford is still getting closer … but he is not back yet

The biggest injury situation this preseason still remains in Chicago where starting goalie Corey Crawford has yet to return to practice with the team. He is still skating on his own, including 30 minutes before practice on Sunday. And while that is a step, it still does not seem that he is ready to return to game action. Coach Joel Quenneville said on Sunday that Crawford is getting closer and that he has not yet been ruled out for a return to practice with the team this week (via Scott Powers of The Athletic; subscription required).

Crawford missed the majority of the 2017-18 season due to an upper-body injury that he finally revealed earlier in training camp was a concussion. As recently as 10 days ago Crawford said he was still dealing with some symptoms and until they clear up he will not be able to return.

[Related: Crawford still dealing with concussion symptoms]

Given the Blackhawks’ goaltending situation behind him they desperately need him healthy this season if they are going to make a return to the playoffs.

Tyler Johnson “day-to-day” with upper body injury

Some potentially big news in Tampa Bay where forward Tyler Johnson missed practice on Sunday with what the team is calling an “upper-body injury.”

General manager Julian Brisebois said the injury happened during practice and is going to keep him out of the lineup on a day-to-day basis. While the team does not expect it to be a long-term injury, Brisebois said on Sunday there are no guarantees he will be ready for the season opener.

After missing at least 12 games in each of the past two seasons, Johnson managed to play in 81 games for the Lightning last season, finishing with 50 points (21 goals, 29 assists) to help the team reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning were decimated by injuries during the 2016-17 season, a development that played a large role in them falling just short of the playoffs, but were remarkably lucky a year ago on the injury front. When healthy this is one of the best teams in the league and Johnson is a huge part of that.

Ryan Murray to miss some time after being kicked in the groin

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray was injured in the team’s exhibition game on Tuesday night, and after initially believing that it was just a day-to-day injury, the team revealed over the weekend that it might be a little bit longer.

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen said on Sunday (via Aaron Portzline) that Murray is dealing with a “soft-tissue groin injury” after he was kicked between the legs against the Chicago Blackhawks.

That sounds … awful.

Injuries have been a constant problem for Murray throughout his career and have limited him to just 198 out of a possible 328 games over the past four seasons.

Another injury for Loui Eriksson in Vancouver

With Henrik and Daniel Sedin retiring this summer, Loui Eriksson is now the elder statesman in the Canucks’ locker room.

After struggling through back-to-back injury plagued seasons in his first two years with the Canucks, his third season is not off to a much better start as it was revealed this past week that he is going to be out on a week-to-week basis with a lower-body injury.

After signing a six-year, $36 million contract with the Canucks in free agency prior to the 2016-17 season, Eriksson has managed just 21 goals and 47 total points in 115 games. He still has four years remaining on that contract.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Paul Byron gets four-year, $13.6 million contract from Canadiens

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It’s been a tough couple of years for Canadiens fans when it comes to the team’s roster movement, but they finally got some better news on Sunday morning when the team announced that it has signed speedy forward Paul Byron to a four-year contract extension worth a total of $13.6 million.

That comes out to a salary cap hit of $3.4 million per season.

The 29-year-old Byron would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season had the Canadiens not signed him to a new deal.

He has been one of the better additions made by general manager Marc Bergevin during his tenure in Montreal, as Byron has completely turned his career around carved out a nice role for himself with the Canadiens.

The Canadiens snagged Byron on waivers from the Calgary Flames prior to the 2015-16 season, and in the three years since he has become one of their most consistent — and productive — forwards. He is the only player on the roster to have topped the 20-goal mark in each of the past two seasons, plays on the penalty kill, and has been a positive possession player on a team that tends to get outshot. He has also managed to top the 20-goal mark in each of the past two seasons while getting very little power play time.

He is not a player that is going to significantly alter the course of the Canadiens’ rebuild, or whatever it is they are calling this current phase, but he is a good, solid NHL forward whose contract isn’t going to break the team’s salary cap structure.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Fast-skating Avs center MacKinnon speeds toward success

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DENVER — Mention a topic, just about any topic, and sharp-shooting Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon takes his elusiveness to a whole new level.

Not appearing on the cover of the NHL’s latest video game? ”Don’t care,” he responds. The pressure of becoming one of league’s top stars after a 97-point season? ”Feels normal,” the top pick in the 2013 draft quips. Taking another step in his evolution on the ice? ”Hopefully a few,” he offers.

It’s not like the speedy, 23-year-old shies away from the spotlight he has earned through his electrifying play. Rather, he’s just highly focused on helping Colorado return to the playoffs after a stirring run a year ago behind his hard-to-keep-up speed and hard-to-stop shot.

”He’s a legitimate, bona fide superstar in our league,” said defenseman Ian Cole, who joined the Avs after spending last season with Pittsburgh and Columbus. ”He’s one of the most dangerous players in the league.”

MacKinnon finished with 39 goals and 58 assists last season. He finished second to New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall in voting for the Hart Memorial Trophy, which is given to the player who means the most to their team. That didn’t exactly sit well with MacKinnon’s line mate, captain Gabriel Landeskog.

In Landeskog’s view, seeing is believing in MacKinnon’s skills.

”The hockey world is big in the East and they don’t see Nate as much, or us as much,” Landeskog said. ”We all know how good he is. It’s a matter of time. But he doesn’t need the recognition from anybody else – we just need him to keep doing what he’s doing as far as being a really good offensive player.”

MacKinnon turned in a breakout season in which he posted stats that hadn’t been seen in Colorado in a while, including:

– Most points by an Avalanche player since Joe Sakic had 100 in 2006-07

– Most shots (284) since Sakic during the Stanley Cup championship season in 2000-01

– 12 game-winning goals, matching the Avalanche record set by Sakic in ’00-01

– 13 three-point games, which was the most since Peter Forsberg had 14 in 2002-03.

Quite a list – and one he hopes to top this season. That’s why his summer consisted of working out every day and skating three times a week. Maybe an occasional round of golf , but his world revolved around the rink.

”I’m always thinking about hockey,” MacKinnon said . ”Not stressing over it, but definitely always thinking about it. I worked hard because another 100 points isn’t going to be handed to me. It’s tough to get that many. I don’t know if I will get that many this year. But I’ll try to and see what happens.”

MacKinnon’s prepared to embrace the pressure of being one of the game’s elite players. Then again, expectations have never weighed down MacKinnon, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

”Growing up, I was always a top prospect, and I went first overall. So it just feels normal,” said MacKinnon, who signed a seven-year, $44.1 million deal in July 2016. ”It’s somewhere I expect to be. It’s not like I won the lottery here. I feel like I’ve earned that.”

He wasn’t one of the cover players for EA Sports’ NHL ’19 , which features Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban, Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine, and Toronto center William Nylander on respective editions.

”I really don’t care,” MacKinnon said. ”I just don’t.”

More on his mind is getting the Avalanche back to the postseason. The team earned the No. 8 seed with a win in their last contest of the season before being eliminated in six games by Nashville.

”We’re trying to prove ourselves,” said MacKinnon, who missed eight games in February with a shoulder injury. ”I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing – keep getting better by doing the little things. Be very consistent every night and making sure I’m healthy and feeling good.”

That sort of mentality is music to the ears of Avalanche coach Jared Bednar.

”He’s one of the hungriest guys I’ve ever met. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met,” Bednar said. ”He’s hungry to prove that (last season) wasn’t a one-off – that’s who he is. He expects to be even better this year.”

Maybe even the best in the league.

”I’d like to. I’m working for that,” MacKinnon said. ”I’m trying to be the best me, and hopefully that’s the best player in the NHL.”

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule