A look at the most compelling storylines and must-watch games on this week’s schedule:
Monday, Dec. 21: Blue Jackets at Penguins (7:00 ET; FS-O, ROOT)
Two clubs have fired their coaches so far this season. Columbus seemed to find its footing after replacing Todd Richards with John Tortorella, a move that forced the Jackets to focus more intently on their defensive structure. They’ve struggled since losing starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, but this team leaves you with a sense that it knows what it needs to do. The same can’t be said for the Penguins, who have dropped four straight to kick off the Mike Sullivan era and enter this contest in full-on desperation mode. Pittsburgh has been outscored 15-4 in that stretch, and have shown none of the spark you’d expect after a mid-season change. Injuries to goaltender Marc-André Fleury and defenseman Kris Letang aren’t helping, but this team has enough talent to find an answer in the room. With further changes looming, this has to be the Pens’ breakout game.
Monday, Dec. 21: Stars at Wild (8:00 ET; TVAS, SNP, FS-SW, FS-N, FS-WI)
The NHL-leading Stars kicked off the show-me portion of their schedule with a dominant 6–2 win over Montreal on Saturday night, but the red-hot Wild pose a much tougher test than the staggering Canadiens. Minnesota is 6-1-3 in its past 10, and thanks to some exceptional goaltending from both Devan Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper has allowed just 13 regulation goals in the process. But with Dallas going 6-2-2, the Wild have barely made a dent in the race for the Central Division lead. Even with two games in hand, they can’t afford to give up more ground, especially at home where they’ve already dropped two OT decisions to the Stars, 3–2 and 4–3. The last one was particularly galling—the Wild blew a three goal, third-period lead.
Tuesday, Dec. 22: Senators at Panthers (7:30 ET; RDS2, TSN5, FS-F)
This might not be a game that pops off the schedule for the average fan, but that’s exactly who needs to tune into this one. The Panthers have quietly emerged as a serious playoff threat in the East, winning four straight and 10 of their past 13 to pull to within three points of first-place Montreal in the Atlantic Division. Defense has been the key to Florida’s hot play—the Panthers have held their opponents to a single goal or less in eight of those 13 games—but they turned on the juice in Sunday’s 5–4 win over the Canucks. Jaromir Jagr scored another milestone goal in that one, the 732nd of his career to move past Marcel Dionne into sole possession of fourth place on the NHL’s all-time list. The way he and Alexander Barkov are clicking, they’re worth a watch all on their own.
Tuesday, Dec. 22: Blackhawks at Stars (8:30 ET; CSN-CH, FS-SW+)
It’s a tough back-to-back for the Stars as they race home from Minnesota to face the defending Stanley Cup champs. This one is highlighted by the head-to-head confrontation of the league’s top-three scorers, Patrick Kane, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, but the real intrigue might be the battle between Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya and their former Chicago teammates. Sharp struggled at times during his final season with the Hawks, but he’s rediscovered his form with the Stars and helped elevate the effectiveness and consistency of Benn and Seguin in the process. His effort in all three zones is the model that this team needs to follow if it’s going to be a serious contender. Dallas went 2-1-1 in its season series against the Hawks last year, hinting at the offensive juggernaut they Stars would become by lighting up the league’s second-best defensive team for 16 goals.
Saturday, Dec. 26: Canada vs. USA (1:00 ET; TSN, NHL Network)
The opener for both teams at the 2016 World Junior Championship could set the tone in their quest for gold. Canada will look to defend a title won on home ice last year with returnees Brayden Point (Tampa Bay), Joe Hicketts (Detroit) and Lawson Crouse (Florida) leading the way. Team USA will challenge with a roster that might be the tournament’s most explosive. Their first line includes three players who are expected to go early in the first round of the NHL draft next June: Auston Matthews, Alex DeBrincat and Matthew Tkachuk.
Saturday, Dec. 26: Red Wings at Predators (8:00 ET; FS-D+, FS-TN)
The rivalry might not burn with the white-hot intensity it did when these two teams were Central Division bunkmates, but their twice-a-year get-togethers can still be raucous affairs. The Red Wings prevailed 5–4 in OT in their first meeting of the season back on Dec. 5 to run their winning streak against Nashville to three games. The Preds will be looking to Shea Weber to help end that skid. The captain counted two assists in Sunday’s 3–2 win over Minnesota, giving him 12 points in December. That total ties him for the league lead over the stretch with Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues and Johnny Gaudreau of the Flames.
Sunday, Dec 27: Oilers at Flames (9:00 ET; SN)
Sure, it might have been more fun if both teams hadn’t seen their recent winning streaks come to a screeching halt, but Edmonton vs. Calgary still sets up as a must-watch rivalry game. The Oilers will be looking to tighten up in their defensive zone after allowing 13 goals in their past three. They’re also hoping that they’ll get something from a line other than their first. The trio of Leon Draisaitl, Taylor Hall and Teddy Purcell produced 17 of their 40 shots in a loss to the Avalanche on Saturday. The pressure’s squarely on the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins line to deliver in this one. The Flames looked out of sorts this past weekend, spending more time chasing than dictating the play. A return to the Saddledome, where they’ve won nine straight heading into Tuesday’s hoster against Winnipeg, might be exactly what they need to rediscover what works.
The numbers game
• The Dallas Stars (24-7-2) are the first NHL team to rack up 50 points this season. They also bagged 50 in 33 games during the 1998-99 campaign (22-5-6) en route to winning the first Stanley Cup in their franchise history.
• Patrick Kane has joined the exclusive ranks of American-born players who have scored 20 or more goals in nine successive seasons in the NHL. Keith Tkachuk achieved the feat in 12 straight (1992-93 through 2003-04) and Tony Amonte reeled off a nine-game run (1995-96 through 2003-04).
• By beating his former team, the Kings, Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier finally got his first win of the season. He also became the fourth ex-Kings netminder to blank them and the first to do it since Boston’s Rogie Vachon doused them with whitewash on March 6, 1982.
• Fluto Shinzawa explains a sly improvement in goalie equipment, what went wrong for Mike Johnston in Pittsburgh and what’s ahead for top prospect Auston Matthews.
• Sportsnet has stitched together an oral history on the career of Jaromir Jagr and it is awesome.
• Team North America assistant Pete DeBoer outlines the challenges of building the bi-national squad for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey.
• Eliminating checking hasn't spared women's hockey from the plague of concussions.