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Penguins – Maple Leafs is about as fun as it gets

It’s too early to make sweeping observations about the quality of a team in 2018-19 (sorry Canadiens; you’re welcome, Coyotes), but it’s never too early to get excited about a game. You know, if your soul is still attached to your person, and you’re not too cool to get excited about things in general.

Now, sure, circumstances could change matters. Players could be tired or just have an off night. Maybe a coach will bench an exhilarating talent because they hit the snooze button one too many times.

But, at least on paper, it’s really difficult to imagine a more exciting matchup than Penguins – Maple Leafs, a matchup taking place in Toronto tonight.

(Yeah, it doesn’t hurt that the hockey-mad city gets to channel its sometimes over-the-top excitement into this one, either.)

Just consider all of the factors, narratives, and certain statistics that make this game stand out like a sign for “Kenny Rogers’ Roasters.”

[Maybe this is the perfect opportunity for Crosby to shake off a relatively slow start?]

The Ridiculous Wattage of Star Power

No matter how Mike Babcock and Mike Sullivan deploy their lines, you’ll see high-end talent during almost every shift on Thursday.

Most obviously, we’ll get to see a clash between two premium one-two punches at center, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin trade scoring chances with Auston Matthews and John Tavares. That’s the sort of matchup that marketers and hockey fans alike would normally only dream about.

You could manufacture an exciting game if you sent out a bunch of fire hydrants with those guys, but the Penguins and Maple Leafs deploy other dangerous scorers, even with William Nylander‘s contract situation stuck in limbo.

Phil Kessel could easily have the best night of anyone in trying to spite his former team. Jake Guentzel tends to play his best when the spotlight shines brightest. Mitch Marner is a sensational talent who can take over a game in his own right.

Even the defensemen can bring some offense to the table, as Kris Letang and Morgan Rielly have begun 2018-19 on torrid scoring paces, while Jake Gardiner and others can contribute, too.

All the silliness that stems from all that star power

The goofy debates that stem from Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby vs. McDavid, and on and on, ultimately translates to entertainment. That goes for if you take barroom debates seriously, or are simply bemused by people believing that Matthews has reached McDavid after a couple scorching-hot weeks.

It’s not just columnists pumping out hot takes.

As you may remember, Lars Eller dismissed Matthews – Tavares because of the “been there, done that” feeling of facing Crosby – Malkin for all those years. You then have Babcock saying that McDavid vs. Crosby “isn’t even close,” while Mark Scheifele seems to feel the same way about McDavid vs. Matthews.

(You think we could get Edmonton to loan Connor to this game to really hammer home all of these points? Might be good for the fella’s morale.)

Oh yeah, there’s also Brian Burke comparing Rielly to … Nicklas Lidstrom?

Some of this stuff is dopey. Some of it is instructive. Maybe there’s a combination of both at times. But it all adds to the fun, if you ask me.

All offense, no defense?

By winning two consecutive Stanley Cups while playing an attack-first, play-defense later style, the Penguins played a big role in the NHL placing an increased emphasis on skill, scoring, and more exciting hockey.

So far this season, the Maple Leafs feel like the gnarly evolution of that style.

By just about any measure, Toronto’s been playing high-event hockey this season. They’ve been scoring so much that it’s generally allowed them to shrug their shoulders at what’s frequently been a leaky defense.

The Penguins haven’t been as crisp so far this season, failing to walk the high-risk tightrope because their defense has really cratered.

That’s bad news for Pittsburgh’s hopes of, say, winning its division … but it sure opens the door for tonight to be fun.

Big goalies back in net

Barring late-breaking setbacks, the teams’ two starters (Matt Murray and Frederik Andersen) should suit up for their respective teams on Thursday.

If they play well, this showdown could feature at least some slowdown. Perhaps we’ll see a spectacular save or two from both goalies to keep the score reasonable? If they’re rusty, then the floodgates may open even wider.

Either way, the returns of Murray and Andersen add another wrinkle to a game that’s jam-packed with intrigue.

***

Again, it’s possible that this game might not deliver the thrills you’d expect. Sometimes hockey is just that way in 2018, even with some progress made – thanks in part to these two talented teams.

Still, if you had to wager on a game being a ton of fun, Penguins – Maple Leafs is as safe a bet as you can get. You know, unless you’re the coach breaking down defensive lapses or the goalie trying to put out all of those fires.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Schwartz helps Blues keep pace; Rinne, Rask pick up shutouts

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Three stars

1. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues

There’s a real race for the third spot in the Central Division down the stretch here, with the Blues leading the Dallas Stars by two points for the spot.

Both teams won on Tuesday, and Schwartz led the way for the Blues, scoring a hat trick en route to a 7-2 thrashing of the Edmonton Oilers. Schwartz opened the game’s scoring and then scored in the second and a late third-period marker on the power play to complete his fourth career hatty.

Schwartz hasn’t had the season he would have hope after putting up 24 goals and 59 points last season. He’s now up to 10 tallies this year and 34 points after also grabbing an assist for a four-point night.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

The Predators are in tough to try and win another Central Division crown. They’re one point back of the Winnipeg Jets but the Jets have two games in hand. Basically, they need to win out and hope for some help.

Part of that help will come from within, and Rinne was on point in the crease on Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, stopping all 22 shots he saw. It’s the second time this season that Rinne has blanked the Leafs.

The Preds neutered the Maple Leafs high-powered offense in this one as the Predators nursed a one-goal lead for most of the game.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

The Bruins put in a complete effort against the Islanders in this one, and Rask only saw 13 shots come his way. But he stopped all 13 to snap a two-game stretch where he was less than the stellar goaltender that he had been. And sometimes those games where you barely see action can be the hardest.

Rask now has four shutouts on the season and 25 wins. He started the season off horribly and likely would have been in the Vezina conversation if not for that. Still, a focused — and well-rested — Rask is exactly what the Bruins need heading into the playoffs.

Highlights of the night

Hurricanes go duck hunting:

Here’s how to make Seth Jones look silly:

Simmons ends drought, scores first with Predators:

Factoids

Scores

Bruins 5, Islanders 0
Red Wings 3, Rangers 2
Canadiens 3, Flyers 1
Hurricanes 3, Penguins 2 (SO)
Capitals 4, Devils 1
Blues 7, Oilers 2
Predators 3, Maple Leafs 0
Avalanche 3, Wild 1
Stars 4, Panthers 2
Flames 4, Blue Jackets 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Oilers’ Lucic ejected after dangerous cross-check to Blues’ Sundqvist

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Milan Lucic is paid a lot of money for a lot of nothing these days, but he may have some of his $6 million per season salary taken away from him after a nasty cross-check on Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues.

With the Blues holding a 6-2 lead with just over five minutes left in the third period — garbage time, as they say — Lucic made his presence felt as he drilled Oskar Sundvist from behind long after he had shot the puck on Anthony Stolarz.

The needless hit sent Sundqvist flying into the boards, who needed some assistance from the trainers before leaving the game. He did not return after favoring his right arm as he skated off hunched over.

Lucic was assessed a five-minute major for cross-checking and given a game misconduct on the play. The senselessness of the hit is likely to land him in hot water with the NHL, too.

The Oilers still have four more years of this to endure, too.

Meanwhile, it’s not the first time this season (if you count preseason games) that Sundqvist has been on the receiving end of a bone-headed and dirty hit.

Tom Wilson got the book thrown at him for this awful shot.

Earlier in the game, Zack Kassian and Patrick Maroon — good friends — went toe-to-toe in a friendship-testing heavyweight tilt.

There were some haymakers thrown in this one.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Capitals prepare for Lightning test with warm-up win against Devils

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The Washington Capitals didn’t have to expend a lot of energy on Tuesday night, and that’s a good thing.

Washington will play the second half of a back to back against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday (live on NBCSN), so the New Jersey Devils were the warmup, and Washington made quick work of them in a 4-1 win.

Washington led just 2:52 into the first period before giving up a goal with one second left in the frame. The late adversity didn’t phase the defending Stanley Cup winners, however. Brett Connolly regained the lead 5:57 into the second with his 20th (which stood as the eventual game-winner) and Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson scored a 1:12 apart to ice the game with a period to play.

The rest of the game was a cure for insomnia.

Pheonix Copley got the start in this one as the Caps rested Braden Holtby for Wednesday’s big game. Copley made 19 saves for his sixth straight win. He barely looked like he broke a sweat.

With the New York Islanders losing 5-0 to the Boston Bruins, the Capitals moved two points ahead of their Metropolitan Division rivals for first place. The Caps have won nine of their past 11 as they try to win another division title.

Much of the game was centered around Alex Ovechkin and if he’d hit 50 on the night.

He came into the game with 48 career goals and faced a mouthwatering matchup against a poor Devils team. But Ovi was held at bay, collecting just an assist in the game on a nice dish to Wilson.

The Devils have had a rough March thus far.

They’ve won just twice and have been shutout three times as the race for Jack Hughes (or Kaapo Kakko) continues for them. They’re on 63 points, fifth worst in the NHL and entered Tuesday with a 9.5 percent chance of taking down the first pick on April 9’s NHL Draft Lottery.

Kenny Agostino, who scored New Jersey’s lone goal, now has six points in his past six games — in a bright spot in a lot of darkness this season for the Devils.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Fight involving Bruins’ Chara plays out exactly as one might expect

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Ever try to punch a giraffe in the face? Me neither, but New York Islanders forward Matt Martin has a story to tell.

Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is a man few want to fight. He towers over everyone in the NHL and his reach is close enough to double that of his nearest opponent that the best you can often open for is a good shadow boxing practice because the odds of connecting are so terribly low.

Martin got exactly that when he and Chara dropped the glove just four seconds into the second period off the opening faceoff.

The two exchanged rights before Chara threw a nasty, downward-directed bomb that caught Martin flush, knocking him to the ground. To Martin’s credit, he bounced back up and tried in vain to hit Chara. He had no such luck.

Chara ended the scrap by basically stiff-arming Martin to the ground followed by the congratulatory pat on the back from the 6-foot-9 man.

It’s respectable that Martin wanted to try and give his team a boost, although they were only down 1-0 at that point of the game. Ambitious, but respectable.

Chara, meanwhile, just turned 42 on Monday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck