Why third place in the NHL's Metropolitan Division may be crucial; Capitals battle Rangers in key showdown on Broadway; more NHL news, notes, highlights.
Off The Draw
The NHL’s integrity police are singling out the league’s worst actors, those players who keel over at a gust of breeze from a passing opponent. So it is that the Predators’ James Neal, a good forward with more highlights than lowlights in his career, became the first player to be publicly docked for diving last week when he was slapped with a $2,000 fine. Humiliating.
Nobody is likely to remember the names of the next 50 guys who will have to fork over some change for the same offense (although Evgeni Malkin is apparently on the brink of having his wallet lightened). Neal will always be first. And he will surely hear about it the next time he lines up across from somebody in the face-off circle. Referees, who keep pretty good mental books on fakes and frauds, will also have Neal in their sights—if he wasn’t in them already. Is he any worse than many others trying to draw an extra minor for their teams? Maybe not. But the NHL does not want to be confused with the MLS, or any other soccer league, in which players who crumple to the turf one moment routinely jump back into the play the next. That isn’t hockey’s style. In hockey, if it ain’t broke, you just tape it up and don’t complain. Divers will not only be chased by the enforcers and pests from the other bench, but they will also now have to pay a flop tax.
For the record, Neal was one of almost two dozen NHL players who were warned for a first offense. The league put him on notice back on Nov. 13. A month later he went down when the Sharks’ Barclay Goodrow took a swipe in the general direction of his left leg. Yes, Goodrow’s stick made contact, but it was more of a slap than a real Paul Bunyan chop. Neal pulled a swan dive anyway, and now his name is forever on the books. The NHL is making an example of him, and the message is clear. Actors who crave the spotlight are going to start getting it for the wrong reasons. — Brian Cazeneuve
What to watch tonight
#http://www.120sports.com/video/v104780266/lundqvists-fantasy-ranksTuesday night, the last night before the NHL breaks for Christmas, boasts a fairly full slate of 11 games. This one isn’t going to be like the Washington–New York matchups from five years ago—all offense versus all defense. Both teams have evolved and changed in fundamental ways. Also, now that the Penguins and the Islanders have separated themselves, the Capitals and the Rangers are locked in a dead heat for third place in the Metropolitan Division. That third spot is coveted. The Atlantic Division race is tight, and if the Bruins turns things around, it’s not unfathomable to think that five teams from the Atlantic will make the postseason, and just three out of the Met.
New York has been hot, winning its last six games, and eight of its last 10. Rick Nash ranks second in the league with 20 goals, and he’s averaging better than a point per game for just the second time in his career. At 30, the No. 1 draft pick of 2002 seems to be settling into his prime. Washington is nearly as hot, going 6-0-2 in its last eight. The Capitals’ big offensive catalyst has been defenseman John Carlson, who has 20 assists, third best in the league among blueliners. He’s helped Washington’s transition game, which is giving the Capitals’ high-powered offensive weapons more looks. — Sarah Kwak
Blues at Avalanche (8 p.m. EST; NBCSN) St. Louis is coming off a heartbreaking OT loss to San Jose, one in which the Blues let in the game-tying goal with 20 seconds left in regulation. St. Louis would love to head into the holiday mini-break on a high note after going 0-1-1 on the road despite leading in both games. Expect the Blues to come out physical—not necessarily one of their strengths—and remain that way even if they build a lead. Lost opportunities cannot be tolerated if this team believes it is a Stanley Cup contender.
Meanwhile, Colorado is fresh off breaking hearts in Detroit, where the Avs won a nine-round shootout on Sunday. It was the fourth time in Colorado's last five matches that the game went beyond regulation, and three times the Avalanche had to come from behind to tie. That is to say, Colorado doesn’t quit. The third period is the only one in which the Avs have a positive goal differential, with 33 goals scored and 29 goals allowed. —Sarah Kwak
Rest of the schedule: Predators at Bruins (7 p.m. EST; FS-TN, NESN); Hurricanes at Devils (7 p.m. EST; FS-CR, MSG+); Canadiens at Islanders (7 p.m. EST; RDS, SNE, MSG+ 2); Flyers at Wild (7 p.m. EST; TCN-PH, FS-N+); Maple Leafs at Stars (7 p.m. EST; SNO, FS-SW); Sabres at Red Wings (7:30 p.m. EST; MSG-B, BELL TV, FS-D); Penguins at Lightning (7:30 p.m. EST; TVA, ROOT, SUN); Coyotes at Oilers (8 p.m. EST; SNW); Jets at Blackhawks (8:30 p.m. EST; TSN3, CSN-CH+)
What you missed last night
The numbers game
• Calgary’s “Johnny Hockey” is now, at 21 years and 131 days, the youngest player in franchise history to score a hat trick since Joe Nieuwendyk did it on Dec. 28, 1987.
• Anaheim is the first team to reach the 50-point mark this season. The Ducks share the NHL lead in wins (23) with the Blackhawks and the Islanders.
• How about those Panthers? At 15-9-8, and with 38 points, Florida is off to its best 32-game start since 2011–12 when the Panthers won their first division title. Goalie Roberto Luongo, who has passed Mike Vernon for 12th place on the NHL's all-time wins list with 386, has had a major hand in Florida’ success.
• With the World Junior Championship set to begin on Friday, the Connor McDavid vs. Jack Eichel “Who's No. 1?” debate rages on. The tournament may help settle the argument.
• The sun continues to set on the age of goons as fighting in the NHL has hit its lowest point since the 1968–69 season.
• Some lucky fans at last night’s Capitals game ended up with the ugly sweaters the team wore in its holiday video. Some real eyesores in this batch.