By Josh Elliott, Brian O’Neill and Gareth Bush
With a light three games on the NHL schedule tonight, our Five Things To Watch focuses on Jonas Hiller, the Toronto Maple Leafs, James Neal, Zac Dalpe and the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin showdown.
It’s a story every time they play against each other, but tonight marks the last time Sidney Crosby will play against Alex Ovechkin before a potential gold medal showdown at the Sochi Olympics. It’s leading goal-scorer up against leading point-getter. Ovechkin has rediscovered his scoring touch over the past two years and is leading the league with 33, while Crosby, not to be outdone, leads the NHL in points with 67. ‘The Kid’ also has 13 points in his past eight games.
The Anaheim Ducks can thank goaltender Jonas Hiller for their current flirtation with the history books. A win tonight against the Vancouver Canucks would tie the Ducks with the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks for third on the league’s all-time home point streak list with 22. Hiller has been nothing short of phenomenal recently, taking home the league’s second star for the week ending Jan. 12 by going 3-0-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. Hiller is third in the league in wins with 28 and recorded his third shutout of the season Sunday in a 1-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings. With 14 straight wins and counting, Hiller has tied Tom Barrasso for the second-longest streak in league history.
The First 48
You heard it a lot last year: if the 2012-13 season hadn’t been shortened to 48 games by the lockout, the Toronto Maple Leafs probably wouldn’t have made the post-season. One playoff series and 48 games later, the Maple Leafs are in a playoff position again – technically. But the question becomes: can they hold on? Last year’s Leafs finished fifth in the East with 57 points. In an 82-game season, that projects to about 95 points. This year’s edition of the Blue and White managed just 51 points in 48 games and projects for only 87 points. And keep in mind the Red Wings, Senators, Blue Jackets and Hurricanes are hot on their heels in the standings and have all played fewer games so far. If the Leafs want to stay ahead of that pack, they’ll need to get hot and win something like 20 of their last 34 games. That stretch needs to begin tonight against a very beatable Buffalo Sabres team.
As per usual, all eyes will be on Crosby and Ovechkin tonight as the Capitals visit the Penguins, but shutting down James Neal might be the key to success for Washington. Coming into the matchup with 33 points in his past 21 games, Neal also has 12 points in 11 career games against the Caps. You may have heard Crosby has recorded a point in his past 16 home games, but Neal’s points-per-game numbers are astounding and he has a good track record against Washington. While the Sid/Ovi spotlight shines bright, try to keep an eye on Neal.
When Canucks coach John Tortorella juggled his team’s lines after a slow first period against the Blues on Friday, even Zac Dalpe couldn’t believe he was paired with the Sedins. He rewarded his coach for the promotion with a goal 1:31 into the period. A player who loves to shoot, Dalpe could be a great fit with the crafty Sedins. The Canucks have been starved for offense lately, scoring two goals or fewer in four of their past six games, most recently being shutout by the Kings on Monday. The Nucks have a task of mountainous proportions tonight as they head into Anaheim to take on a Ducks squad that has gone 19-0-2 at home this season. In a matchup loaded with stars on both sides, keep an eye on the lesser-known Dalpe and how he progresses with the Swedish twins.