Tonight on NBCSN: Capitals and Lightning kick off the second half

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Now that the All-Star break is behind us, it’s time to get serious again and the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning will kick it off right tonight in Tampa (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). The Capitals are looking to stay strong in their hunt for the lead in the Southeast Division while the Lightning are looking to keep their win streak rolling along.

For the Capitals they’ll have to continue to make due without Alex Ovechkin who will be sitting out the second game of his three-game suspension. Apparently coach Dale Hunter wanted the Caps to get a little tougher and they’ve signed and called up noted AHL tough guy Joel Rechlicz. Hey, if you can’t score goals you might as well beat up the other team for trying to do the same thing.

The Caps head into tonight’s game losers of three of their last five games as they’ve been plagued by inconsistency. The Caps will hope that they can build off the 5-3 win over Boston they had just before the break. Whether it’s Tomas Vokoun or Michal Neuvirth in goal for Washington, they’ll need to grind it out without Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the ice.

Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has made a slow climb out of the Eastern Conference basement winning four in a row. That win streak coming off a seven-game losing streak is a prime example of why the Lightning are down in the dumps. While Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon have been as bad as gets in goal, Steve Stamkos is as good as it gets.

Stamkos leads the NHL in goals and was winner of the breakaway challenge at the All-Star Skills Competition. As good as Stamkos has been, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier have been just as strong.

Sadly for Tampa, that’s about all they’ve really got going offensively as Teddy Purcell and Ryan Malone have struggled.

NHL on NBCSN: Sabres look to extend win streak against Flyers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Flyers always seem to have the same problem, and that’s goaltending. With Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth both on the shelf, the Flyers will have to roll with Alex Lyon and Calvin Pickard. No disrespect to those players, but that’s not an ideal duo to have between the pipes.

The Flyers overcame a 5-1 deficit against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night, but Pickard allowed six goals on 26 shots in the overtime defeat. As for Lyon, he’s still waiting to make his first appearance for Philadelphia this season.

“We’ll roll with the best that’s out there, whether it’s what we have or something else,” said Flyers GM Ron Hextall. “Same as always. We’re always looking to upgrade our team if we can. We picked Calvin up because we believe in him and we also believe that Alex is pretty close. They’re gonna have a chance here and we’ll see how it goes.”

Hextall’s team has gone through some good and bad stretches already this season. They went 5-0-1 at the start of the month, but they’ve now dropped three home games in a row to Florida, New Jersey and Tampa. Now, they’re heading back on the road to take on a red-hot Sabres team. The one thing the Flyers have going for them, is that they’ve been better on the road (5-3-1) than at home (4-6-1).

Speaking of the Sabres, they’ll look to extend their winning streak to seven games tonight. There’s no denying that Buffalo has turned a corner. The additions of Jeff Skinner (trade) Carter Hutton (free agency) and Rasmus Dahlin (draft) have paid immediate dividends.

Skinner, who is a pending unrestricted free agent, already has 14 goals and 22 points in 21 games in his first season with the Sabres. Hutton has been between the pipes for five of the six consecutive wins. He has a 9-6-1 record with a 2.61 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage. The numbers don’t jump off the page, but he’s brought stability between the pipes. And Dahlin has averaged 18:27 this season while putting up 10 points in 21 games.

The Sabres’ winning streak was on the ropes earlier this week, but overcame a 4-1 deficit to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-4 in overtime on Monday night.

“There’s a bit of confidence now because we’ve (come back) a few times,” said captain Jack Eichel. “I think it’s a trust and a belief in each other; you look around the room, the guys are believing that next line’s going to get the job done and set you up for your shift. We’re a pretty tight bunch right now for how many new guys came to this team, and we’re getting really close right now and we’re doing it for each other and that’s the biggest thing. Everyone goes out there and doesn’t want to let the guy next to them down. … we’re playing for each other right now, and that’s one of the most important things.”

The Sabres are currently sitting in third place in the Atlantic Division. They’re one point behind Tampa for second and two points behind the first-place Maple Leafs.

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.

Penguins trying to stay the course during bumpy start

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By WILL GRAVES (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Sullivan’s regular film sessions with the Pittsburgh Penguins don’t lack for clues on why one of the NHL’s marquee franchises is in the midst of its bumpiest stretch in more than a decade.

The defense can morph into a disjointed mess under sustained pressure, particularly right in front of the net. The crisp breakouts that used to trigger odd-man rushes featuring some of the league’s most skilled players moving at warp speed have largely vanished and been replaced by something significantly sloppier.

Oh, and the NHL at large has caught up to the frenetic tempo Sullivan introduced when he took over nearly three years ago, a hiring that – combined with a roster makeover authored by general manager Jim Rutherford – helped power the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups. In that way, Pittsburgh’s current struggles are a byproduct of its not-so-distant glory.

”For the most part it’s a copycat league and teams tend to try to emulate the teams that have success,” Sullivan said Tuesday. ”When you look at our team over the last handful of seasons, we’ve had pretty good success with a certain style of play.”

A style Sullivan has no plans to abandon even with Pittsburgh mired in a 1-7-2 funk that has dropped his club into a tie for the fewest points in the wide-open Eastern Conference a quarter of the way through the season.

”You look at the core of our players, (Sidney) Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Phil) Kessel, (Kris) Letang, all those guys can skate,” Sullivan said. ”They can still skate.”

The thing now is, so can everyone else.

The proof came to life over the last 30 minutes against Buffalo on Monday night, when the Sabres reeled off the final four goals, including Jake Eichel’s game-winner 45 seconds into overtime at the end of a sequence that began with a Malkin giveaway in the offensive zone.

It was the kind of miscue Pittsburgh used to pounce on with ruthless efficiency. Now it’s the Penguins who are making the crucial mistakes, ones that are ending up in the back of their own net with alarming regularity.

”I think we’ve been doing some really good things the last handful of games but we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit with a few plays,” forward Bryan Rust said. ”We’ve got to be a little bit more mindful of that and just dig down a little bit deeper and the bounces will eventually go our way.”

There is a fair amount of ”puck luck” that’s abandoned Pittsburgh at the moment. The Penguins were up two goals late in the second period against Buffalo when Pittsburgh defenseman Jack Johnson locked up Sabres forward Conor Sheary in front of the net. No matter. Casey Nelson‘s shot from the point deflected off Johnson’s skate and by goaltender Casey DeSmith.

Watching from afar while sitting out a third straight game nursing an upper body injury, Crosby could only scratch his head.

”I think the thing for us that’s probably been a little more difficult is, it’s not necessarily the same thing,” said the two-time MVP, who hopes to play on Wednesday when Pittsburgh hosts Dallas. ”We’ve found different ways to lose games and you know, we’ve probably corrected one thing and something else has been a factor in another game we lost.”

One thread, however, has been a constant: defense. The Penguins – particularly early in the season during the Crosby era – have occasionally been slow to tighten things up because they are so talented offensively that the finer points of playing responsibly in their own end can be lost.

In past years, Pittsburgh has been able to outscore opponents even on nights it didn’t particularly play well. That’s not happening at the moment. The loss to Buffalo marked the eighth time in 19 games the Penguins have allowed at least five goals, something they did 13 times all of last season.

While Sullivan is quick to point to the number of quality chances Pittsburgh created against Buffalo, he’s well aware his team was far too generous in front of DeSmith. Pittsburgh dominated the first period but only had a 1-1 tie to show for it after forward Dominik Simon lost his footing while attempting to help clear a puck. Buffalo kept it in the zone and a cross-ice pass led to a one-timer that Tage Thompson buried to even the game.

”We’ve got to do a better job defending and making sure we stay on the right side of the puck and the right side of people in the critical areas of the rink,” Sullivan said. ”That’s an area we can all improve as a team.”

Pittsburgh hasn’t missed the playoffs since Crosby’s rookie year in 2005-06 and Crosby stressed it is far too early to panic.

”It’s tight but we just have to make sure we eliminate our mistakes and give ourselves the best chance and I thought for the most part (against Buffalo) we were pretty in control of that game,” Crosby said. ”I think if we keep trending that way, we’ll learn from that one and get a lot more wins.”

Three quarters of the season remains. Though the Penguins have been ”meh” at best, the rest Metropolitan Division hasn’t exactly been lights out. Only eight points separate the Penguins from first-place Columbus. One good consistent stretch of hockey and things can change very quickly.

”You can’t control the ones you’ve let slip away,” Crosby said. ”Ten games from now, you don’t know where you’re going to be.”

Full AP NHL coverage: http://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: How to break out of scoring funk; Point’s Hart case

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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.

• Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year? Why not Gritty? (NHL.com)

• Now that Mike Yeo is out in St. Louis, the pressure will fall square on the shoulders of GM Doug Armstrong and his players. (St. Louis Game Time)

• If Craig Berube doesn’t get the interim tag removed from his title, who will be next in line to take over the head coaching reigns in St. Louis? (The Hockey News)

• Sportsnet’s Mark Spector explains why Ken Hitchcock is the perfect fit for the Edmonton Oilers. (Sportsnet)

• How does an NHLer break out of a scoring slump? Some members of the Minnesota Wild weigh in. (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

• The Nashville Predators and the ECHL’s Atlanta Gladiators made a dream come true for this young fan from Northern Ireland. (ESPN)

Matt Duchene and the Ottawa Senators are inching closer toward an extension. (TSN)

• The Pittsburgh Penguins absolutely need to find a way to get Matt Murray back on track, or it could cost them their season. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• Contrary to last season, the Montreal Canadiens are fun, fast, entertaining, and in a playoff spot. (Montreal Gazette)

• The Boston Bruins have iced a few young players on their roster, but what have they looked like through 20 games? (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

Brayden Point deserves to be on your Hart Trophy ballot after the first quarter of the season. (Raw Charge)

• “The Anaheim City Council voted 6-1 this evening to approve a multi-faceted agreement that includes extending the partnership between the National Hockey League’s Anaheim Ducks and the City of Anaheim for at least 25 more years. The deal solidifies the Ducks continued commitment to the city through at least 2048 (five years remaining on initial agreement). As part of the agreement, the team’s name will remain the “Anaheim Ducks” for the duration of the partnership.” (Ducks)

• The Rangers might want to keep Chris Kreider for the foreseeable future. (Blue Shirt Banter)

Nico Hischier will return to the Devils lineup for tonight’s game against the Montreal Canadiens. (NHL.com)

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.

The Buzzer: Oilers give Hitchcock winning start behind the bench

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Three Stars

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: It was the captain’s second assist of the night that helped set up the overtime winner during a 4-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks. It was his goal that started the scoring for Edmonton that was the 100th of his NHL career. With three points, McDavid now has 31 on the season.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers: Along with a pair of helpers, Draisaitl scored his sixth career overtime winner 51 seconds into the extra period. He now has 13 tallies on the year.

3. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers: His goal early in the second period knotted the score at two and gave him three points in his last four games and 20 on the season.

Highlights of the Night

• In his 230th NHL game, McDavid hit the 100-goal mark in his career. Per the NHL, he’s the second-youngest (21 years, 311 days) player to achieve the feat, behind only Wayne Gretzky (20 years, 40 days).

 

Joe Thornton’s assist on Marcus Sorensen’s goal tied him with Mario Lemieux (1,033) for 11th on the all-time NHL list.

Logan Couture notched his seventh on the season, thanks to a sweet dangle around Adam Larsson. He now has 19 goals against the Oilers in his career, the most versus any team.

Factoid of the Night

Per the NHL, “McDavid became the fifth different player in franchise history to reach the 30-point mark in a season in 21 or fewer team games and first since Mark Messier in 1989-90 (19 GP). The franchise record for fewest team games to record 30 points in a season is 10, a mark set by Gretzky in 1984-85.”

Tuesday’s result
Oilers 4, Sharks 3 (OT)

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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.