NHL Picks for Tuesday, December 18

Tuesday’s NHL schedule includes a rare weekday afternoon game, with the Carolina Hurricanes visiting Toronto to face the Maple Leafs. Plan your activity accordingly.

Viewer warning: NBC Sports Network features a rivalry game with the Boston Bruins at Buffalo. That looked a lot better for TV before the season began. Who expected the Sabres to collapse after Phil Housley took over as coach?

He was one of the league’s all-time great offensive defensemen, yet the Sabres have received just two goals from their defensive corps. That is just one reason why they are staggering toward another lottery pick.

Tuesday also features some interesting Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference matchups. The offensive-minded Washington Capitals head to Dallas to play coach Ken Hitchcock’s smothering Stars and the electric Tampa Bay Lightning will be in Las Vegas to face the surprising Golden Knights.

Here are some suggestions on which teams to pick in our NHL Pick ‘Em Contest action:

Tampa Bay Lightning at Vegas Golden Knights

The hard-working Golden Knights have knocked off several established powers this season, including the Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Vegas coach Gerald Gallant has had these expansion castoffs flying from Game 1. They are 12-2-1 at home this season, so the widely predicted Vegas home-strip advantage has materialized. Also, former Pittsburgh Penguins star Marc-Andre Fleury has settled back in goal after spending much of the season on injured reserve.

The Lightning can’t take this game for granted despite sitting first overall in the NHL with 50 points. And they won’t. The Lightning roll into Las Vegas with a seven-game winning streak, the NHL’s top-ranked power play and the No. 1 scoring offense. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has a .945 save percentage in his past 13 starts.

So another Golden Knights upset seems highly unlikely.

Pick: Lightning

Winnipeg Jets at Nashville Predators

These Central Division rivals reach feature powerful scoring lines. The high-scoring Jets can send out center Mark Scheifele with Blake Wheeler and rookie Kyle Connor and second center Bryan Little out with Nikolai Ehlers and Patrik Laine.

They have six forwards with eight or more goals, including versatile Mathieu Perreault (18 points in 21 games). So which line should opponents focus on?

The Predators took off last season with Ryan Johansen centering Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. This season they acquired center Kyle Turris — who has four goals and 13 assists in 17 games since coming from Ottawa — and flanked him with Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala to create an effective second unit.

Fiala had no goals in his first 15 games, then eight goals and eight assists in his next 16 games after Turris arrived. Smith has nine points in his last eight games, so Nashville can match Winnipeg’s firepower.

The Predators, winners of six of their last seven, get the nod here because of goaltending. Veteran Pekka Rinne (18-4-3, 2.25 goals-against average, .930 save percentage) has turned back the clock and backup Juuse Saros has won his last two starts.

Pick: Predators

Washington Capitals at Dallas Stars

Under the defensive-minded Hitchcock, the Stars are faring well in many fancy stats — such as Expected Goals Against Per 60 Minutes. Only the Blues and Minnesota Wild have rated better this season in that metric.

On the other hand, the frenetic Hitchcock keeps scrambling his forward lines and defensive pairings. He has also given goaltender Kari Lehtonen extended looks ahead of Ben Bishop, a major free-agent addition.

So the Stars, losers of five of their last seven games, are still trying to find their game. That puts them at a huge disadvantage against the visiting Capitals, winners of seven of their last eight games.

Expect the Capitals to fight through the Dallas traffic and extend their roll.

Pick: Capitals

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