By Ryan Boyd, Featured Writer
Offense was abundant in the NHL Wednesday night.
The Avalanche and Bruins both cruised to victory with six goals each, while Detroit and Anaheim weren’t far behind with four. Even two of the top defensive clubs in the league, Edmonton and Minnesota, combined for five goals in a stellar shootout finish.
So, can this effort be topped Thursday night? Perhaps.
16 teams will take to the ice looking to secure their first victories of December. For some, the change in month is cause for a sign of relief, while others look to carry their success from November.
Game of the Night: Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals
Quite frankly, this is an easy selection for tonight.
There are a number of intriguing reasons to tune into this showdown at the Verizon Center between the Pittsburgh Penguins (14-7-4) and the Washington Capitals (12-10-1).
Reason 1: The Return of Crosby
Let’s return to last season’s winter classic for a moment. A game that was meant to be remembered by brilliant hockey between two of the best young teams in the league was overshadowed by the big hit that would inevitably cost Sidney Crosby the remainder of his campaign. Crosby suffered a serious head injury that kept him out of competitive hockey until November 21st.
Since the injury to Crosby, Washington has dominated this fantastic rivalry. The Capitals have won four consecutive against the Penguins including a 3-2 victory in overtime on October 13th.
However, the Penguins look poised to end this streak as they travel to the nations capital with their superstar. Crosby has only played in five contests but has already posted an impressive 11 points and Pittsburgh has played well at 3-1-1.
It’s a well known fact, when Sid is out there, the Penguins are a fun team to watch.
Reason 2: Ovechkin vs. Crosby
Crosby’s return also allows us to highlight the battle between two of the best players in the world. Alex Ovechkin and Crosby were the top picks in the NHL Draft in 2004 and 2005 respectively and have both proven why they were picked so highly.
In their seven seasons, they have combined for more than 500 goals, 700 assists and 1200 points. It is easily the most dominate duo (when lined up side-by-side) that the league has to offer. So naturally, when they face off on the ice it is worth checking out.
Interestingly, tonight’s matchup has a bit of a twist as Crosby has been overwhelmingly better than his counterpart. Ovechkin has only 18 points this year and a shocking five in his last 10 games. At this rate he would end the season with only 64 points; a total well below his career average.
With that being said, watch these two guys on the ice tonight. The star-filled matchup usually inspires them both to play well.
Reason 3: The Dale Hunter Era Continues
Washington’s lack of winning since its 7-0-0 start has resulted in a coaching change to shake things up.
Bruce Boudreau was fired Monday (already has been hired by Anaheim as its head coach) after his club went on a disappointing 5-9-1 stint that left them out of the playoff picture entering December. During the stint, the Capitals scored only one goal six times, and gave up at least five on five occasions.
Next up, Dale Hunter.
Hunter was a star in Washington during his playing days and has won more than 400 games as a coach in the Ontario Hockey League. He lost his first game with the Capitals on Tuesday against the surging Blues, but should inject some energy into this struggling team down the road.
Therefore, he will be in search of his first victory tonight, once again in front of the home crowd. I expect the team to preform well for him after the improved effort in his first contest.
Other Games to Watch
New York Rangers (13-5-3) at Carolina Hurricanes (8-14-4)
News flash: the Rangers are dangerous. New York has won 10 of its last 12 games including a current three-game winning streak with victories over division foes, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Also, despite playing only 21 games (the lowest total in the NHL), the Rangers are only three points behind the Penguins (who have played 25 games) for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Tonight New York deals with a Carolina team that has struggled immensely. The Hurricanes have lost four straight and are giving up an alarming 3.2 goals per contest. This won’t help their chances as New York arrives with the 11th best offense coupled with a stingy defense, giving up only slightly more than two goals each game. The Rangers should have little trouble in this one, but even if they get ahead early, they are an exciting group to watch.
Nashville Predators (11-9-4) at Vancouver Canucks (14-9-1)
Don’t look know, but the Canucks have jumped to sixth in the Western Conference and just four points behind division leading Minnesota. On November 4th, Vancouver was 6-7-1 and fourth in the Northwest, but have since won eight of 10 including its current string of five straight wins to move right back into contention. During the five-game streak, the Canucks have outscored opponents 17-4 and look mighty tough to defeat. However, Nashville arrives hungry to end their current struggles. The Predators have lost five of their last six contests and are now five points behind Detroit in the Central Division. These two faced off once earlier this season and it was Vancouver that cruised to a 5-1 victory behind five points from the Sedin brothers. If Nashville hopes to reverse this outcome they will need a more reliable output on the offensive end of the ice where they are currently 19th in the league.
Player to Watch
Curtis Sanford, Goalie, Columbus Blue jackets
Goaltending has plagued the Jackets all season long. Original top netminder Steve Mason posted a terrible 3-12-1 record in his 16 starts and gave up an average of 3.63 goals per game. It doesn’t matter who you have on offense at that point, winning just isn’t possible.
However, despite being one of the worst teams in the NHL, the Blue Jackets have high hopes recently in large part because of the play of Curtis Sanford. In his seven starts between the pipes, Columbus is 3-2-2 and he is giving up a remarkable 1.61 goals per outing along with a save percentage of 94.1, which are both amongst the top in the league. Comparing the success of Sanford to Mason is simple. Mason allowed 54 goals in 16 appearances; Sanford has allowed only 12 in eight games.
Tonight is another opportunity for Sanford to continue his dominance. The Calgary Flames are 28th in the NHL in scoring and 25th on the power play. That being said, the Flames have won two straight and put the puck in the back of the net five times in Minnesota on Sunday so this may not be too easy. We will see if he can continue his high level of play for a ninth time.