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NHL week ahead: Hot Lightning lead charge into second half

The Tampa Bay Lightning, rounding into their Eastern Conference title form of last season, are featured in several of this week's must-see NHL games.

As we come out of the All-Star break, a look ahead to the must-watch games on this week's NHL schedule:

Tuesday, Feb. 2: Panthers at Capitals (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN)

Is it too early to start talking possible Eastern Conference Final preview? The Caps and Cats kick off the second half of the season as two of the hottest teams in the league, but the Panthers might have more at stake in this one. This will be their first nationally televised game this season, and much like the Hurricanes did last week, they’ll want to make a good impression. The Panthers have won 15 straight with All-Star Aaron Ekblad in the lineup but they’ll be up against a Washington team that had won 12 in a row at the Verizon Center before dropping its pre-break finale to the Flyers in OT. Caps coach Barry Trotz already has suggested he’ll give All-Star goalie Braden Holtby the night off, so look for Philipp Grubauer between the pipes for Washington. That’s not much of a break for the Panthers: Grubauer has won three of his past four decisions, posting a .955 save percentage in the process. Washington will also be without Alex Ovechkin, who is sitting out a one-game suspension for missing the All-Star Game.

Wednesday, Feb. 3: Red Wings at Lightning (8:00 p.m. ET; NBCSN)

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This isn’t exactly a classic rivalry just yet, but the seeds have been planted. The two teams met up last spring in a seven-game thriller that eventually was won by the Lightning, and they’re on a collision course to meet again this year. The Wings and the Bolts come out of the break tied for second in the Atlantic with 58 points, but both sides are eyeing top spot. The Lightning are 8-1 in their past nine, playing their best hockey of the season, and own Detroit at Amalie Arena, winning four straight. Detroit, though, has won both meetings this season, 3–1 and 2–1 at Joe Louis Arena. Jimmy Howard was in goal for both of those victories, so he might get the start despite surrendering the No. 1 job to Petr Mrazek.

Thursday, Feb. 4: Ducks at Kings (10:00 p.m. ET; NBCSN)

Their first meeting of the season back on Jan. 17 was every bit the emotional rollercoaster you’d expect when these two teams face off. The Kings took that one, 3–2 in a contest that saw some outstanding goaltending by Pacific All-Star teammates Jonathan Quick and John Gibson, the waving off of a potential game-tying goal, and a pair of fights. This one promises to be equally thrilling, especially if the top line of the Kings maintains its torrid scoring pace. The trio of Anze Kopitar, Milan Lucic and Tyler Toffoli has found some chemistry after being slapped together in the wake of Jeff Carter's injury and combined for 13 goals in their past 13 games. The Ducks meanwhile are finally remembering how to light the lamp. They still rank dead last with their 2.11 goals-per-game average, but have counted 23 in their past six games (3.8 per). The only team that’s held them under three goals during that stretch—Los Angeles back on Jan. 17.

Friday, Feb. 5: Penguins at Lightning (7:30 p.m. ET; ROOT, SUN, NHLN-US)

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Both the Penguins and the Bolts have put disappointing starts behind them and are poised to make some noise in the second half. Pittsburgh has won four of five and finally is embracing its offensive potential. The Pens have scored 18 goals during that stretch (3.6 per) and are getting consistent contributions from Sidney Crosby (5-5-10 in a seven-game scoring streak), Evgeni Malkin (4-4-8 in his past six) and Kris Letang (5-12-17 in his past 11). When the big guns are firing like that, the Penguins are as dangerous, and entertaining, as any team in the league. Meanwhile, the Lightning are finally healthy after suffering through a series of long-term injuries and look ready to defend their Eastern Conference title thanks to strong play at both ends of the ice. Ben Bishop has been the team’s MVP through the first half, allowing two goals or fewer in 27 of his 37 starts and posting a 2.02 GAA that ranks second in the league. Nikita Kucherov has gotten on the board in 16 of his past 18 games (9-15-24) to take over the team’s scoring lead.

Saturday, Feb. 6: Blackhawks at Stars (8:00 ET; WGN, FS-SW+, NHLN-US)

Still wiping the blood from their noses after going 3-6-2 in January, the Stars need to get past the adversity phase of their season and make up some of the ground they’ve lost to the Blackhawks in the Central Division. Dallas has gotten away from the defense-first approach that powered its early-season success and that has had an impact on the Stars at both ends of the ice. They allowed 3.18 goals-per-game over that 11-game stretch, while scoring just 2.18. Taking care of their own zone will be critical against a Chicago team that’s blown past them to take control of the division. The Hawks looked winded in the days leading up to the break, dropping three of four and scoring just three goals in the process. A few days off may have been exactly what they need to get their game back on track. Keep an eye on Patrick Kane, who’ll be looking to extend his NHL scoring lead over his closest pursuers, Dallas’s Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.

Sunday, Feb. 7: Hurricanes at Canadiens (2:30 ET; FS-SE)

Despite heading into the break with nearly identical records, these two teams are steaming in opposite directions. The Habs are just 2-7-1 in their past 10 and in the midst of the worst skid this organization has experienced since the 1939-40 season. Desperate? You bet. The Canes meanwhile are 7-2-1 after closing out the first half with a 5–0 win over the Blackhawks. They’re loose, they’re confident, and while they're not talking playoffs just yet, they know they have it in them. They’ve been a solid defensive team all season, but now they’re getting the goaltending to go with it. Since Cam Ward went on IR with a concussion, backup Eddie Lack has posted a 2.17 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. He’ll have a chance to improve on those numbers against a Canadiens team that has scored just 14 goals in its past eight games.

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