NHL week ahead: Top games, storylines to watch
A showdown of conference leaders and the season’s final outdoor game highlight this week’s rundown of the NHL’s must-watch games:
• Monday, Feb. 22: Predators at Canadiens (7:30 ET; FS-TN)
There’s something about Montreal that brings out the best in the Preds. Nashville has claimed at least one point in each of its last eight meetings with the Canadiens (5-0-3) and is 2-0-1 in its last three visits to Montreal. Pekka Rinne has been lights out against the Habs, going 5-0-1 with a 0.99 GAA in his last six starts against them. For a team that has been throwing away points of late, dropping three of their past five contests in overtime, this is one they need to find a way to win. The Canadiens, though, have been playing well at home, winning four straight after Friday’s 3–2 decision over the Flyers. That one quieted the tumult that erupted after their loss in Colorado, but they can’t afford a letdown here.
• Tuesday, Feb. 23: Islanders at Wild (8:00 ET; MSG+ 2, FS-N, FS-WI)
Are the Wild for real? After four straight wins, including a blowout of the Blackhawks in Sunday’s Stadium Series game, Minnesota has pulled to within a single point of a wild-card spot in the West. New coach John Torchetti has rid them of their play-not-to-lose mentality and now the Wild are attacking in waves, making them not just more dangerous but a whole lot more entertaining as well. Their ability to keep up that pace will be tested by an Islanders team that’s feeling real pressure on it’s playoff spot. New York will be playing the second game of a seven-high seven-game road trip. The Isles won the opener, 1–0, in New Jersey on the strength of a solid performance from goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who came into that one having dropped four of five with a 4.66 GAA. He needs to be a factor during this stretch.
• Wednesday, Feb. 24: Penguins at Bruins (7:30 ET; NBCSN)
The Pens are a much different team than the one the Bruins swept in a home-and-home back in December. They’re a more confident, more exciting and more effective group under new coach Mike Sullivan, going 9-3-1 to pull back into a wild card spot and just one point behind the third-place Islanders in the Metropolitan Division. Keep an eye on Scott Wilson. The rookie forward had 22 goals in 34 games this season with Pittsburgh’s American Hockey League team in Wilkes-Barre and enters the week having scored three goals in as many games with the Pens. The B’s are feeling a bit more confident too, coming off a 7–3 thrashing of the Stars and a 4-2 road trip. While they’re a flawed team, Dallas has proved that it can run up the score on anyone when it creates chances with thick neutral zone play. That style has been a problem for the Pens, which hints at a high-scoring match.
• Thursday, Feb. 25: Rangers at Blues (8:00 ET; MSG, FS-MW)
The Blues were perforated for six goals by the Rangers in their first meeting, the most they’ve allowed this season. They’ve tidied up considerably since then, holding their opponents to a single regulation goal or less in six of nine games in February. Goaltender Brian Elliott is playing at a Vezina Trophy level, going 10-2-2 with a 1.70 GAA dating to Jan. 16, but he could give way in this one to Jake Allen, who just returned to the lineup after a lengthy stint on IR. The Rangers have tightened up as well, allowing just two goals in weekend wins over Detroit and Toronto. They enter this week’s three game road trip looking to extend a three-game winning streak away from MSG.
• Friday, Feb. 26: Red Wings at Avalanche Alumni Game (7:00 ET; NHL Network)
There are five solid games on the schedule Friday night, but none as star-studded as this one. Sure, the pace will be a little slower, and the animosity will be ratcheted down a bit, but the chance to watch Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios and Brendan Shanahan skate for the Red Wings against Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Raymond Bourque and Peter Forsberg of the Avalanche is too good to pass up.
• Saturday, Feb. 27: Red Wings at Avalanche (8:00 ET; NBC)
Outdoor game burnout? Not here. This game promises a spectacular setting and a renewal of hostilities between two teams that have hated each other for nearly two decades. Both the Wings and Avs are holding down wild card spots, and with little margin for error the intensity should be high. There are some concerns about the weather affecting the ice (it's expected that Saturday's high will be 67 degrees, one below the all-time record), but it's expected to cool down in the evening, setting the stage for a spirited tilt.
• Sunday, Feb. 28: Capitals at Blackhawks (12:30 ET; NBC)
The Hawks and Caps enter the week as the leaders of their respective conferences and the favorites to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. They’ll both be looking to make a statement in the season’s ultimate measuring stick game. And if the standard star power—Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov—doesn't offer enough intrigue, there's a good chance both teams may augment their lineups ahead of next Monday’s trade deadline. Should be a beauty.
The numbers game
• The Wild are now the 20th NHL team play in an outdoor. This week, the Avalanche will become the 21st. The Blackhawks (1-3-0) have been in four, the most of any club. Still waiting: Blues, Lightning, Panthers, Predators, Coyotes, Blue Jackets, Jets, Stars, and Senators.
• The Ducks have now beaten the Flames in their last 22 meetings in Anaheim, dating back to April 4, 2004, the second-longest such streak against one team in NHL history. The longest: the Flyers' 23-straight over the Penguins in Philadelphia from Feb. 17, 1980 to Jan. 29, 1987.
• Henrik Lundqvist’s 59th career shutout tied Evgeni Nabokov for 17th in NHL history.
• The good folks at Hockey By Design have taken time to rank all of the Stadium Series jerseys.
• Eric Duhatschek looks back at the origins of NHL expansion through the eyes of the men who changed the game forever. Must-read.
• Tom McCarthy was happy to be wearing a North Stars alumni sweater on Stadium Series weekend in Minnesota after spending five years in prison blues.
• Former Oilers captain Andrew Ference talks about what it’s like for an athlete when age takes away his game.
• Is struggling forward Chris Kreider a key part of the Rangers’ foundation or their most compelling trade chip?
• A pair of childhood baseball teammates reunited for the first time in 45 years during the Lightning’s annual fathers trip.
• You could say St. Louis Blues prospect Jake Walman has had his share of ups and downs this season.