Predators, Stars gearing up for Texas-sized Winter Classic

DALLAS (AP) — Welcome to a Texas-sized NHL Winter Classic.

The annual showcase is going to be one big outdoor game when the Dallas Stars host the Nashville Predators at the historic Cotton Bowl Stadium on Wednesday – even without ”Big Tex” booming out the customary ”Howdy, folks!” that visitors to the State Fair of Texas hear each fall.

More than 84,000 fans are expected for the NHL’s 12th New Year’s Day game, this one at the stadium where the boots belonging to the fair’s iconic 55-foot talking cowboy will be near the rink with an oversized, ranch-style entry arch. It is expected to be the second-largest crowd ever for an NHL game.

Part of the fair’s midway just outside the historic stadium, including a 212-foot high Ferris wheel and other carnival rides, will be open for those with tickets before and after the NHL’s southernmost outdoor game.

”It started as a bit of a pipe dream,” said Stars CEO Jim Lites, whose team hosted its first NHL draft in 2018 at its arena only a few miles from the Cotton Bowl.

Now an NHL game is being played inside the stadium that is home to the annual Red River college football rivalry game between Texas and Oklahoma that has been played during the State Fair for 90 years. The Cotton Bowl game was played there each New Year’s Day until a decade ago, and the Dallas Cowboys called it home for their first 12 seasons, from 1960-71.

”It’ll be a nice venue, have a good feel, and everybody in Texas and this area, they know about the Cotton Bowl,” Stars center Joe Pavelski said. ”I think that’s a big draw as well, come see something different there.”

Pavelski signed with Dallas as a free agent last summer after his first 13 NHL seasons with the San Jose Sharks, who hosted the Los Angeles Kings in a Stadium Series game at the home stadium of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers in 2015.

When the State Fair of Texas was open during its 3 1/2-week run last fall, Pavelski and his family walked around, played games and ”spent a lot of money” to win a big teddy bear.

The ultimate prize Wednesday will be two points for the winner between the two teams that met in a first-round playoff series last April that the Stars won in six games. Both are coming off distinctly different back-to-back games.

Nashville had 5-2 and 6-4 losses to Pittsburgh, with goalie Pekka Rinne pulled from the first game and Juuse Saros yanked from the second. The Predators, after adding free agent forward Matt Duchene last offseason, are 11th in the Western Conference standings.

”It’s a big game just because of the standings, it’s a big game because of playing them in the playoff last year, the first game we lost this year,” Predators defenseman Roman Josi said. ”Big two points, but obviously very special to play in the Winter Classic.”

The Stars won 4-1 on Dec. 14 in Nashville, their only meeting so far this season.

”Just based on the recent history that we’ve had with Dallas, it makes really a game that I think the guys are looking at that we’ve got some work to do,” said Nashville coach Peter Laviolette, though he wanted his team to enjoy the experience Tuesday, which included a family skate for both teams.

Dallas, hitting the halfway point of its regular season that began with a horrendous 1-7-1 start, is third in the conference after consecutive comeback wins (over Colorado and Arizona).

”It shows great character of our team that we are able to come back. This is a tough league and it’s not going to happen every night that you can come back in the third period,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness said. ”We do not want to do this again on Jan. 1. If we have to, we know we can.”

The Stars are 5-3-1 since second-year head coach Jim Montgomery was fired Dec. 10 for unspecified unprofessional conduct.

With the calendar turning to 2020, Bowness moves into his fifth decade as an NHL coach. It will be the first outdoor NHL game for the 64-year-old Canadian, and it brings back memories of his dad building a rink in the backyard for winter games. He did the same for his kids – all grown and in attendance this week – when he landed his first head coaching job with Winnipeg.

”We didn’t have a lot of rinks back then. So if you wanted to play hockey, you skated outside,” Bowness said. ”This is something that my dad would absolutely love.”

The largest crowd to see an NHL game was 105,491 at Michigan Stadium six years ago when Toronto beat Detroit in a shootout at the Winter Classic. A crowd of 76,126 was at Notre Dame Stadium last New Year’s Day when Boston beat Chicago, 4-2.

NHL officials said about 20,000 tickets have been purchased by fans for the visiting Predators, whose jerseys were inspired by the 1960s and 1970s jerseys of the Dixie Flyers, the first minor league hockey team in Nashville.

The Stars will wear green and white jerseys with elements of the 1993-94 Stars, the first season in Dallas, and the 1945-46 USHA Dallas Texans, the first minor league team in Dallas.

Weekend rain and temperatures near 70 created quite a puddle at the Cotton Bowl, forcing crews to redo logos and lines. It has cooled off since then and it could be near freezing overnight into New Year’s Day. Conditions at game time were forecast to be cloudy with temperatures in the low 50s – about average for a January day in North Texas.

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    Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

    Mitch Marner
    USA Today
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    TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

    Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

    Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

    Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

    Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

    Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.