Around the Rink – Sunday, December 26th

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Now that you’ve opened your presents and/or completed your feats of strength, it’s time for the NHL to get back to business. Look no further than Sunday’s slate of games, with 11 contests on tap. As always, start times are according to Eastern Standard Time (ET).

7:00 pm

Nashville @ St. Louis

The Blues began their five-game homestand by beating the Detroit Red Wings 4-3, so now they host another Central Division foe in the form of the Predators. Nashville is on a three game losing streak and only hold a one-point lead over St. Louis, so Jaroslav Halak & Co. could leapfrog them with a win in this game.

Washington @ Carolina

The Capitals played well against the Penguins on Thursday, but ultimately left the contest with only one point. Chances are solid that they’ll go into tonight’s skirmish with the Hurricanes with a chip on their collective shoulders, so Cam Ward better prepare for a barrage.

Columbus @ Chicago

With a three-game winning streak and a fairly hot goalie in Corey Crawford, Chicago is getting its act together despite injuries to Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa. They’ll greet a collapsing Columbus club that coach Scott Arniel referred to “pee wees” late last week. While that should be a sign that the Blackhawks should win, they better not take the Blue Jackets (and their bruised egos) lightly in this one.

Montreal @ NY Islanders

The Canadiens are slipping a bit and with the Bruins are rapidly approaching in their rear-view mirrors, they need to win games like this one. The Islanders are showing a little spunk as of late, though, with two wins in a row. If nothing else, Garth Snow’s embattled gang clearly stands above the sad-sack Devils right now.

Detroit @ Minnesota

The Wild might not enjoy the trap talk, but all that matters right now is that Niklas Backstrom is playing absolutely lights-out hockey. Not coincidentally, the Wild are on a three game winning streak and seem intent to make the Western Conference playoff picture even more muddled. Visiting them is the (relatively) stumbling Red Wings, who are 4-5-1 in their last 10 and must face the sobering reality of Pavel Datsyuk’s month-long (or so) absence.

Toronto @ New Jersey

Misery loves company, right? If that’s true, then these teams need to get together more often.

Tampa Bay @ Atlanta

This game features a matchup between two teams that are graduating from the Southeast Division Kiddie Table to the Eastern Conference’s elite. The Thrashers briefly stole the Lightning’s thunder with a big winning streak, but Tampa Bay now holds a games-in-hand based divisional lead over Washington. Beating Dustin Byfuglien & Co. would allow them to retain that margin even if the Capitals crush Carolina.

7:30 pm

Pittsburgh @ Ottawa

He might not get much camera time on 24/7 (despite having the kind of hair that would draw in a few fans from the  Twilight demographic), but Kris Letang has been an underrated motor in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ great recent run. Yet he might not be in such a position of power if the team hadn’t made the difficult choice to let former power play QB (and big minutes eater) Sergei Gonchar flee to the Senators. It’s hard to argue with that decision now, especially considering Gonchar’s ugly -19 rating.

8:00 pm

Phoenix @ Dallas

What a difference a year makes, eh? Not too long ago, the story was former Stars coach Dave Tippett working miracles with a seemingly hopeless Coyotes team while Marc Crawford coached another lost season in Dallas. While Tippett really isn’t doing an awful job now, my guess is that Stars fans (at least the scant amounts paying attention right now) aren’t missing him as much right now. The Stars currently hold the lead in the Pacific Division – however slim – while the ‘Yotes are stalling out in fifth.

Could it be that Joe Nieuwendyk dismissed the 2009-10 coach of the year to hire the 2010-11 Jack Adams winner?

9:00 pm

Edmonton @ Vancouver

Last time these two teams played, the Oilers only managed 12 shots on goal. Hey, at least it cannot get much worse. Right?

Right?

Anaheim @ Los Angeles

If you only looked at standings point, it would seem like the Kings are barely better than the Ducks so far. Yet they’ve earned one more point in five less games played. so don’t sleep on Los Angeles as the new year approaches.

The Buzzer: Tatar’s three-point night; Matthews makes more history

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Three Stars

1. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens. Two big wins in a row for the Canadiens. Two big nights for Tatar, who now has six points in his last two games. During a 7-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings, Tatar scored a goal and assisted on two others. Last season, Tatar had only two multi-point games the entire year.

2. Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs. Kapanen continued his red-hot start with a pair of goals during the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. He now has four goals and eight points through seven games this season, really making most of this opportunity in William Nylander‘s absence.

3. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. A 37-save effort from Anderson helped the Senators dispatch the Dallas Stars 4-1. It was Anderson’s second win in a row and over his last two games he’s stopped 73 of 75 shots faced.

Highlights of the Night

• During their game Monday night, the Senators remembered the late Ray Emery:

• Maxime Lajoie can’t stop scoring. The Senators defensman potted his fourth of the season and now has seven points on the season.

• In his 1,000th NHL game, Tomas Plekanec scored:

• One of Kapanen’s goals was this bank shot:

• Good luck trying to stop this Matt Dumba rocket:

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Maple Leafs 4, Kings 1

Senators 4, Stars 1
Canadiens 7, Red Wings 3
Predators 4, Wild 2

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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.

Panthers’ Matheson suspended two games for slamming Pettersson to ice

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The NHL announced on Monday evening that Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson has been suspended two games for “interference and unsportsmanlike conduct” against Vancouver Canucks rookie forward Elias Pettersson over the weekend.

Petterson has been entered in to the NHL’s concussion protocol and is expected to be sidelined for the next 7-10 days as a result of the play.

The incident took place early in the third period of Saturday’s game in Florida and left the Canucks completely furious. Just after Pettersson had dangled around Matheson in the offensive zone, Matheson again encountered the talented rookie along the boards and after checking him, proceeded to slam him to the ice with the puck nowhere near the two players.

Here is the video as well as the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner tried to defend his play on Monday by saying that Matheson is an honest player and that he was just attempting to finish his check hard, while Matheson’s agent said that his client was “surprised” by how light Pettersson is and that it all happened very quickly.

On Monday, Canucks coach Travis Green was still upset about the play and how it resulted in his team losing a bright young star to injury on a play that was not necessary.

“Am I mad at the play? Extremely mad. I’m really upset, I still am,” Green said. “We lost a bright young player to an injury that I don’t think was necessary. I’m pissed off right now, still talking about it.”

Matheson forfeits $52,419.36 in salary and is eligible to return to the Panthers’ lineup Saturday against Detroit.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Crosby, MacKinnon surprise Kenyan hockey team (Video)

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Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon have teamed up before to promote Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee and donut shop, but their latest venture saw them help spread the gospel of hockey.

Tim Hortons flew 12 members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team to Canada over the summer for a game. The African team, which was formed in 2012 and has set a goal for future Olympic participation, has only been able to play against themselves back home and this would be a new experience playing against an actual opponent.

As the players gathered inside their locker room, which featured brand new equipment and Kenya hockey jerseys, in came the Pittsburgh Penguins captain and Colorado Avalanche star to join their team.

“It is a dream to not only have the chance to play in Canada, but to play – for the first time – in full gear alongside two of the greatest players of the game,” said team captain Benard Azegere. “When we first started playing in Kenya, we didn’t even have full equipment, but now not only do we have that, we can say we’ve played a real game with some All-Star teammates.”

“That’s the best part about the game, just how it reaches so many people in a place like Kenya where you wouldn’t think there’s even ice,” Crosby said on Monday via the Tribune-Review. “To meet people from different places and to share the game that we love to play, I think I had as much fun as any of those guys today.”

The Kenyan Ice Hockey Federation is coming soon, and the men are not alone in their pursuit of a national team. As ESPN.com documented last week, a group of five women make up the Nairobi Ice Lions, who, like the men, see Olympic participation in their future.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Alex DeBrincat is Blackhawks’ next rising star

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Alex DeBrincat spent three seasons between 2014 and 2017 absolutely dominating the Ontario Hockey League. He was one of the most productive and prolific scorers in all of junior hockey during his time with the Erie Otters, and never finished a full season with less than 50 goals or 100 points.

That sort of production, combined with his obvious talent level, should have made him one of the first picks in the 2016 draft class.

It didn’t. Mainly because he was listed at 5-7 and under 170 pounds, making him one of the smallest players in the class and, today, one of the smallest players in the NHL. As he slid out of the first round in 2016 there was always the potential for somebody to get a steal of a player.

That somebody turned out to be the Chicago Blackhawks, who ended up snagging him with the 39th overall pick in the draft.

Today, that pick is looking like one of the steals of that draft.

DeBrincat has been one of the offensive stars for the Blackhawks in the early going this season and already has nine points (including six goals) in the team’s first five games. That comes after a rookie season that saw him finish as the Blackhawks’ leading goal scorer. So far, he is one of the most productive players to come out of his draft class as the only players to outscore him have been Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Mathew Tkachuk, and Clayton Keller, all of whom were among the first seven players taken in the draft.

Only Matthews, Laine, and Keller have been better on a points per game basis.

All of this is a huge development for the Blackhawks.

Given their current salary cap situation they are going to need young players on cheap contracts to fill in around their big-money stars at the top of the lineup. DeBrincat is well on his way to giving them such a player and should be part of the organization’s next wave of young talent. And that next wave seems to have some promising prospects. Along with DeBrincat the Blackhawks are also getting a ton of production out of rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, and they also have Adam Boqvist, the No. 7 overall pick from 2018, waiting in the wings.

The lesson that the rest of the teams in the league should take away from this is to never let a player’s size stand in the way of giving them a chance. Over the past decade teams have been far more willing to take “undersized” players than they used to be, but they are still a little too fearful of that lack of size because there was nothing in DeBrincat’s production or play as a junior player that should have resulted in him being anything other than a first-round pick … and probably a very high one. Obviously if all things are equal with players the bigger, more physical player is preferable. But in cases like DeBrincat (and Johnny Gaudreau, and Nikita Kucherov, and so on and so on before him) all things are not usually equal.

DeBrincat has always been a highly skilled player that produced at an obscene level. There was always the potential for him to be a top-line player. A lot of teams couldn’t get past the lack of size and allowed him to slip all the way down to the second round. The Blackhawks were the team to take the “chance” on him and are being rewarded with an emerging star that could be a potential difference-maker for them for a very, very long time.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.