The NHL’s most successful All-Star Weekend festivities in years are now firmly in the rear-view mirror, and with that, the league returns to action on Tuesday with 12 games to kick-start the second half of the season. While there’s a small collection of teams that will be making a run for draft lottery position (Toronto, Buffalo, Columbus, Edmonton), there’s plenty of teams who are either fighting to improve their playoff position or just to stay in the hunt going into February. Four games on this week’s schedule stand out as the ones to watch in the first week after the All-Star Weekend.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2ND
Florida Panthers at Washington Capitals
The two division leaders in the Eastern Conference square off at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. in a nationally televised game on NBC Sports Network. The Capitals have the top record in the NHL at 35-8-4 with 74 points, four ahead of Chicago in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and a cozy 15 ahead of the New York Rangers for first place in the Metropolitan Division. Washington will be without the services of Alex Ovechkin, who will serve a league-mandated one-game suspension for skipping the All-Star Weekend festivities to rest a lower-body injury. Even though the Caps are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games, this will be just their second game in the last two weeks due to a severe snowstorm that hit the East Coast, causing two of their games to be postponed. In their last game before the All-Star break, Washington lost a 4-3 overtime decision to the Flyers in a game in which they trailed 2-0 and 3-2 before tying the game in the 3rd period. Meanwhile, the Florida Panthers lead the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings by five points for first-place in the Atlantic Division, having won their last three games by a combined score of 14-3. That winning streak coincided with the return of All-Star defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Before he returned to the lineup, the Panthers had gone 0-3-1 in his absence. Florida has won their last 15 games when Ekblad has taken the ice, with the last loss on December 12th by a 3-1 score in Boston. They’ll need him in DC, as Florida has lost 10 in a row at the Verizon Center dating back to December 2010. The Miami Herald is reporting that both teams will start their backup goaltenders, as Roberto Luongo and Braden Holtby were in Sunday’s All-Star tournament. The home teams have won the first two meetings, with Washington winning 2-1 in OT on October 31st and Florida prevailing 4-1 on December 10th
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2ND
New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils
These Metropolitan Division foes renew acquaintances for the first time since October 18th in Madison Square Garden when Lee Stempniak scored the winning goal in overtime and Corey Schneider made 26 saves in a 2-1 New Jersey victory. The Rangers and Devils will play three times this month, and their next meeting will take place next Monday. There’s multiple chances for some animosity to get built up as the Rangers look to maintain their position in second place in the Metro Division while the Devils look to remain in the hunt for a playoff spot. Before this season started, many pundits pegged New Jersey as a prime candidate to be a lottery team and in the running for Auston Matthews, who many expect to be the first player selected in the 2016 Draft. That has not been the case, as the Devils are 25-20-5, good for 55 points and in 9th place in the East. Before losing 2-0 to Pittsburgh in their last game before the All-Star break, New Jersey had won four in a row, but for their playoff push to continue, Schneider will need to continue to be on top of his game. The Devils’ lone representative in the All-Star festivities, Schneider has put up outstanding numbers (22-15-5, 2.03 GAA, .929 save percentage) and will have to continue to do so since New Jersey scores an average of 2.24 goals-per-game (29th in the NHL) while averaging the fewest shots-per-game in the league at 24.2. On the other side, the Rangers are 27-17-5 with 59 points, three ahead of the third-place Islanders and four ahead of the Penguins and Devils. Like New Jersey, the Rangers have once again had to rely on Henrik Lundqvist to keep them in their current spot in the standings. Lundqvist is currently 23-13-4 with a 2.41 GAA and a .921 save percentage, although he and the Rangers cooled off after a red-hot start to their season. Despite that, the Rangers have won four of their last six, with their last game being a 6-3 home victory over the Buffalo Sabres on January 25th. Rick Nash has missed the last two games with a bone bruise in his left knee, and the Rangers will need more offense from him over the second half, as he has just 12 goals so far this season. For New York to strengthen their playoff position, their special teams must improve, as they currently rank 20th on the power play (17.5%) and 23rd on the penalty kill (79.5%).
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 4TH
Anaheim Ducks at Los Angeles Kings
Pacific Division rivals tangle at the Staples Center on Thursday night when the Ducks and Kings meet for the second of five meetings this season. Anaheim lost the first meeting on January 17th at the Honda Center, but they haven’t lost many games lately, as they’ve won three in a row and 10 of their last 14. With their recent surge, they’re now two points behind Arizona for third place in the Pacific Division and five points behind Nashville for the last wild card spot, owning a record of 22-18-7 with 51 points. Considering where the Ducks were back in October and November, that’s tremendous progress, but this is a team that would be considered a colossal disappointment if they don’t make the playoffs, seeing as how they were just one win away from the Stanley Cup Final last season. Anaheim has to find a way to score more goals, as they rank dead last in the league in both non-shootout goals (99) and goals-per-game (2.11). On the bright side, John Gibson has seized control of the team’s number-one goaltending job and doesn’t appear to letting it go any time soon. Corey Perry has bounced back after a slow start and leads the team with 20 goals and 33 points. On the other hand, Ryan Getzlaf leads the Ducks with 28 assists, but only has three goals, a shockingly low number for a player of his caliber. Anaheim could be a team to watch out for approaching February 29th’s trade deadline, because if they don’t start scoring more goals, they could be a team that could end up making a deal to bring in more offense. At 30-16-3, the Los Angeles Kings have 63 points and lead the Pacific Division by seven over the San Jose Sharks. A year after surprisingly missing the postseason, the Kings have found themselves back in a familiar spot among the Cup contenders of the Western Conference. Despite going just 5-4-1 in their last 10 games before the All-Star break, L.A. is has consistently been one of the most rock-solid defensive teams in the league, allowing the fourth-fewest goals despite scoring a rather pedestrian rate of 2.59 goals-per-game. Jonathan Quick continues to play at a high level between the pipes for the Kings, Drew Doughty has played at a Norris Trophy-level, while their top line of Milan Lucic, Anze Kopitar, and Tyler Toffoli has given opponents fits with their blend of size and skill. The Kings will travel to Arizona on Tuesday night and the Ducks host San Jose the same evening before this matchup on Thursday.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 6TH
Chicago Blackhawks at Dallas Stars
Two teams that have hit recent slumps meet in Dallas on Saturday night, as the top two teams in the Central Division face off for the second of five meetings. The Stars (31-14-5, 67 points) shut out the Hawks in their first meeting on December 22nd, a 4-0 victory at home. Since the calendar flipped over to 2016, the Stars’ fortunes have taken a downward swing. They went 3-6-2 in January, dropping them to second in the division, where they trail Chicago by three points. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are second and third in league scoring with 58 and 53 points, respectively, but their offense has dried up over the last month. Benn scored 18 goals in his first 24 games, but only nine in his last 25, while Seguin only scored two goals and had one assist in the entire month of January. The Stars are still leading the league in goals scored and ranks second in goals-per-game (3.2), and their defensive play has improved to the tune of allowing 2.62 goals-per-game. Antii Niemi and Kari Lehtonen have shared the goaltending duties, and their play has contributed to Dallas’s defensive improvement. One of them will probably need to take over the number-one job in order for the Stars to make a serious playoff run. On the other end, the Blackhawks followed up a 12-game winning streak by losing three of their last four games, getting shut out in two of them. Despite this, they’re on top of the Central Division yet again with a record of 33-16-4, good for 70 points, which is also the best mark in the Western Conference. Unlike past seasons, the Blackhawks haven’t gotten much offense from their depth players. The line of Patrick Kane, rookie Artemi Panarin, and Artem Anisimov has been incredible this season, with Kane being the leading candidate for the Hart Trophy this season. Kane leads the league in goals (30), assists (43), and points (73), and shows no signs of slowing down. Panarin has been a revelation in his first season, while Anisimov has fit right into Chicago’s lineup since arriving from Columbus in the Brandon Saad trade. Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook have played at their usual high level, while Corey Crawford has been a stalwart in net for the Blackhawks. This will be the last game of a four-game trip for Chicago, who will play in Colorado on Tuesday and Arizona on Thursday before arriving in Dallas. The Stars will embark on a quick two-game trip to Winnipeg on Tuesday and Colorado on Thursday before returning home to host the Hawks.
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