NHL week ahead: Hot Blackhawks, Lightning in Cup Final rematch
A rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup Final and a trio of the league’s best rivalries highlight the NHL schedule for the week ahead:
Pittsburgh comes into this contest looking to do something it hasn’t managed since 1998-99: win two games against the Blues in one season. The Pens won their first meeting back in November, 4–3, in overtime. The big guns led the way in that one, with Sidney Crosby chipping in a pair of goals and Evgeni Malkin tallying the winner. Crosby comes into this game on a good run, with five points in his past three games including a pair in a 5–0 shellacking of the Hurricanes on Sunday. Kris Letang (5-7-12 in his past seven) is a game-time decision after missing the Carolina tilt with an undisclosed ailment. St. Louis is looking to hold form after winning three of its last four. Goaltender Brian Elliott comes in off a career-high 46 saves in Saturday’s 4–3 victory against Montreal, a run that’s helped pull them to within four points of second-place Dallas in the Central. Elliott is 3-1-1 in his past five starts vs. the Pens.
• Tuesday, Jan. 19: Bruins at Canadiens (7:30 ET; NESN, RDS, SNE)
Some lousy work by the schedule makers means that, barring a playoff matchup, this will be your last chance to catch the league’s best rivalry this season. The B’s and Habs have split their four previous meetings, with the Canadiens easily getting the upper hand just over two weeks ago in the Winter Classic. Since that 5–1 blowout, neither team has draped itself in glory. Montreal is 1-4-1, including a 5–2 loss in Chicago on Sunday night. Overall, the Habs are 4-14-1 since Dec. 3 and have failed to score more than two goals in 13 of those losses. The Bruins managed to win a pair over the weekend, knocking off the Maple Leafs and Sabres, but are just 3-4-1 in January. They could get a big boost if top center David Krejci returns to action. Boston has been limited to just 28 goals over its past 12 games and desperately misses his creative spark up front.
• Wednesday, Jan. 20: Sabres at Avalanche (10:00 ET; MSG-B, BELL TV, ALT)
This one features the highly anticipated return of Ryan O’Reilly to Colorado, a team that decided to trade the veteran center last summer after a series of contract disputes. The deal, which saw the Avs ship the brilliant two-way center to Buffalo, along with winger Jamie McGinn, for forward Mikhail Grigorenko, defenseman Nikita Zadorov, University of Michigan captain J.T. Compher and a 2015 second-round draft pick, has been a massive success from the viewpoint of the Sabres. O'Reilly leads the team in scoring with 17 goals and 38 points and has brought stability to a group that was the league’s least effective last season. Colorado, though, has benefited not just from the influx of potential, but from a bounceback season from forward Matt Duchene. O’Reilly and Duchene had a strained relationship that was negatively impacting the team dynamic, and Duchene has thrived without him. His 21 goals match last season’s total output.
This rematch of last season’s Stanley Cup Final will see both sides playing their best hockey of the season. The Blackhawks come into the week having won a franchise-record 11 straight games after Sunday’s 5–2 thumping of the Canadiens. Goaltender Corey Crawford has won eight consecutive starts, holding the opposition to two goals or fewer in six of those games. Patrick Kane, who is running away from the pack in the NHL scoring race (29-40-69), has four goals and six points in his past two games and has landed 29 shots on net in his past six. Meanwhile, the Bolts have won a season-high five straight, including a big win over the Panthers on Saturday that pulled them to within five points of the Atlantic Division leaders. Having forwards Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Cedric Paquette back in the lineup after lengthy stays on injured reserve has helped the Lightning rediscover the balance that made them the beasts of the East last season.
• Friday, Jan. 22: Blackhawks at Panthers (7:30 ET; CSN-CH, FS-F)
The Central Division leaders take on the top team in the Atlantic in the second game of a tough back-to-back set. The Blackhawks, who won the first meeting between the two sides, 3–2, back in October, will meet up with a Panthers squad that’s looking to hit the reset button after dropping the final three games of a 3-2-1 road trip. Coach Gerard Gallant will use some time off between games to tinker with a power play that has gone ice cold. Florida hasn’t scored with the man advantage since Jan. 2, going scoreless in its past 19 chances including an 0-for-5 performance in a 3–1 loss to the Lightning.
• Saturday, Jan. 23: Canadiens at Maple Leafs (7:00 ET; CBC, NHLN-US, TVAS)
The Forever Rivals. Hockey Night In Canada. Even if both teams are coming into this one cold—and they are—the big stage always brings out the best in them. The Habs claimed their first two meetings this season, 3–1 on Oct. 7 and 5–3 on Oct. 24, as part of their sizzling 9-0 start, but they were severely tested. The Leafs landed 37 shots on Carey Price in the opener, then a season-high 52 in the second contest. Toronto attempted 84 shots to just 49 for the Canadiens in that one, a stat that better reflects the Leafs’ domination of the contest than the final score. Seeing bleu, blanc et rouge at the other end of the rink might be exactly what they need to break out of a five-game skid that’s sent them careening toward the Eastern Conference cellar.
• Sunday, Jan. 24: Penguins at Capitals (12:30 ET; NBC, TVAS, SN360)
Hard not to cast any game featuring these two rivals as a showdown between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, but the players to watch in this one might be the men between the pipes. Braden Holtby stopped 20 of 22 shots to earn his league-leading 29th win of the season in Sunday’s 5–2 triumph over the Rangers, but was pulled from the game after suffering from the effects of dehydration. Philipp Grubauer stopped all 11 shots he faced in relief, extending a solid run for the steady backup. Grubauer has posted a 3-1-0 record with a 1.36 goals-against average and a .955 save percentage in his past six appearances. Marc-André Fleury denied all 22 shots he faced in Sunday’s win 5–0 win over the Hurricanes, his third shutout of the season. It was a strong return to form for Fleury, who had allowed eight goals in dropping his previous two starts.
The numbers game
• The Blackhawks’ 11-game win streak has tied their franchise-record run of Feb. 15 to March 6, 2013 when they went 11-0-0.
• Washington’s current 12-game winning streak at home is the longest such run in the NHL this season, topping Calgary]s 11-gamer from Nov. 5 to Dec. 27, 2015.
• On Saturday, Brian Elliott became the first Blues goaltender to make at least 46 saves at home since April, 11, 1993, when Curtis Joseph made 46 in a 5–1 win over the Minnesota North Stars.
• Here’s another take that suggests the league is responsible for the debacle that led the Pacific All-Star captain to be traded and demoted last week.
• Is this player responsible for the revival of the Pittsburgh Penguins?
• A former No. 1 pick has found a new path to success in hockey.
• Kevin Allen offers five reasons why the Arizona Coyotes will make the playoffs.