A look at some of the key match-ups of the week ahead as the season steams into its second half:
The Panthers will try to extend their franchise-record winning streak to 13 games as goalie Roberto Lalongo, sorry, Luongo, returns to face his former team. Florida is looking for back-to-back wins after knocking off Edmonton, 2–1, on Sunday night, a trick the Cats have already managed to pull off twice before during their hot stretch. Jacob Markstrom will make his eighth straight start between the pipes for the Canucks. He’s 4-2-1 with a .927 save percentage since taking over for Ryan Miller in Vancouver’s 5–4 loss to the Panthers back on Dec. 20. Keep an eye on Daniel Sedin, who is sitting at 344 goals, two shy of the franchise record currently held by Markus Naslund.
The Panthers may be getting all the press, but the Hawks have quietly strung together a seven-game winning streak of their own. With a victory in this one, they’ll pull to within two points of the Dallas Stars in the battle for top spot in the Central Division. Patrick Kane, who broke a four-game drought with a pair of goals for the Hawks in Sunday’s 6–3 win over Colorado, has already scored twice against the Preds in two previous meetings this season. Jonathan Toews has five points in his past two games. Ryan Johansen will play in just his second game for Nashville, which is on a three-game losing skid that has the Preds clinging to the final wild card berth in the West.
The Hammer and Taz may be long gone, but memories of past battles make any Boston-Philly tilt a must-watch game for fans of old-time hockey. Their first meeting of the season back on Oct. 21 was highlighted by the expulsion of former Flyer Zac Rinaldo, who was sent to the showers for boarding Sean Couturier at the end of the first period. Philly won that one, 5–4 in OT, after staging a two-goal comeback in the third period. The Flyers enter the week having won three straight to pull to within two points of Boston and one of the two wild-card berths in the East.
The two rivals enter the week tied for second spot in the Metropolitan Division, and hoping to find traction after posting just four wins in their past 10 games combined. The Blueshirts, though, are showing signs of righting their game, going 3-2-1 in their past six thanks to a renewed focus on their play without the puck and in their defensive zone. The Isles enter the week having lost three of their last four. All three losses came against Metro rivals and all were by at least three goals. With defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Travis Hamonic on the shelf, the pressure is on an inexperienced blue line corps to hold the fort in this one.
Their last meeting—a 4–2 win for the Pens at the 2015 Kraft Hockeyville exhibition—didn’t count in the standings. The stakes are considerably higher this time. Both teams enter the week just outside the playoffs and within a point of each other. The Pens seem to be finding their game under new coach Mike Sullivan, going 3-1-1 in their past five and limiting their opponents to two regulation goals or fewer in nine of 10. The Bolts, meanwhile, are benefiting from finally having a full roster on hand. Since the return of Ondrej Palat on Jan. 2, they’ve won three of four, including a back-to-back road wins over Edmonton and Vancouver during the weekend.
It’s worth tuning in any time these two teams hook up. The Flames won their first meeting of the season back on Dec. 27, riding a four-goal second period to a 5–3 win. Calgary has played some excellent defense since that victory, allowing just eight goals in their next five games. Karri Ramo seems to have reclaimed the No. 1 spot after clearing waivers earlier this season. The Oilers enter the week having lost six of eight. That protracted slide has them back in familiar territory: last place in the Western Conference and falling out of the playoff picture. If they’re going to get back into the mix, this game against their forever rival could be the turning point.
The Ducks took four of five from their rivals last season, a run that helped knock the Kings out of playoff contention. Los Angeles will be looking to turn the tables this year when the Kings kick off the 2015-16 Freeway Face-off at the Honda Center in Anaheim. They’ve been one of the NHL’s best road teams this season, their 13 wins trailing only Washington. And with last week’s additions of Vincent Lecavalier and Luke Schenn, they’re bigger, strong and deeper heading into this contest against the Ducks, who have gone 5-2-1 in their past eight games to pull themselves up from the depths of the Pacific and back into playoff contention.
The numbers game
• Alex Ovechkin is now the 43rd player in NHL history to score 500 goals. Since his rookie season of 2005-06, Ovechkin (501) has 184 more goals than his closest pursuer (Patrick Marleau of the Sharks: 317). At 934, Ovechkin also has 50 more points than anyone else in that span (Sidney Crosby of the Penguins is next at 884). Also, the Capitals sniper]s average of 0.625 goals per game ranks fourth in NHL history among players who have appeared in a minimum of 300 games, behind Mike Bossy (0.762), Cy Denneny (0.755) and Mario Lemieux (0.754).
• The Panthers were sixth in the Atlantic Division and 11 points out of first place when their current 12-game win streak began on Dec. 15. They are now 13-6-2 (28 points) on the road, second to only the Capitals (16-4-2, 34 points).
• Sam Reinhart is the first Sabres rookie to score a hat trick since Jan. 14, 2006 when Jason Pominville hung one on the Kings. At 20 years 65 days, Reinhart is also the fifth-youngest player in franchise history to accomplish the trick.
• Retired NHL star Joe Juneau will receive an award this week from the NCAA for a post-hockey career spent promoting the game in Canada’s remote north.
• Bruce Garrioch reveals the names of other teams who were in on the bidding for Ryan Johansen and offers the latest on Jonathan Drouin, Patrick Marleau and Steven Stamkos in his Sunday column.
• It’s the 40th anniversary of one of the most memorable moments in international hockey history.
• An outpouring of support could lead to the frozen puddle goalie skating in a real league next season.