Contest General offers you the opportunity to pick head-to-head NHL matchups from some of the league’s top games.
The league returns from its All-Star break with a solid 12-game slate Tuesday night. The NBC Sports Network features a Central Division showdown with the Chicago Blackhawks traveling to Nashville.
Many teams will be looking to gain traction this week, including the San Jose Sharks. They have a tough assignment at Pittsburgh to start their stretch run.
“I’m not looking at the day-to-day whether we’re in, we’re out, above the line. With the games in hand, it’s not a real number,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer told reporters. “But what is real is we’re in the middle of things and it’s going to take a big second half from us to get in the playoffs.”
Below is a guide on which teams to pick.
San Jose Sharks at Pittsburgh Penguins
On one hand, the Sharks are dealing with the loss of top center Joe Thornton, potentially for months after his knee surgery.
“Obviously, he’s a big piece, he means a lot to the guys in here,” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski told reporters after the Sharks lost their first game without Thornton. “We’ve spent a lot of time whether it’s on the power play or on our line together. So, there’s a little adjustment at times.”
On the other hand, the Penguins are flourishing with center Sidney Crosby (19 points in his last nine games) on a roll.
“I feel like I’m usually pretty streaky when it comes to scoring goals, to be honest with you,” Crosby told reporters. “It’s just one of those things where sometimes it’s going in, and sometimes it’s not.”
Both teams are unsettled in goal, but the Sharks have had more trouble at the defensive end. After allowing five or more goals four times in its first 21 games, San Jose has done it eight times in the last 25.
So the Penguins are the clear pick in this game with Crosby on top of his game and the Sharks missing Jumbo Joe.
Chicago Blackhawks at Nashville Predators
Predators head coach Peter Laviolette marveled at how difficult it has been to create any separation in the Central Division this season.
“It’s crazy,” he said during his media session at the All-Star Game. “We went on a big run, I think we went 16-2-2 in 20 games and right now we’re on a little bit of a run, I think we have 11 points in 12 games. We lost a couple games in the middle there and you look at the standings in the Central there and if you have a bad week, you could be out of the playoffs. It’s like seven to nine points.
“The Central Division games are always good games, but any games are good right now. The whole league, you catch any opponent and you know you have your hands full on any given night. But the Central Division is certainly tight, just in regard to the cluster of teams and a certain amount of points percentage.”
The Predators will try to build on their edge over Chicago in an NBC Sports Network matchup. They will face a young Blackhawks team that keeps tinkering with its offense while waiting for goaltender Corey Crawford to return from injury.
Newcomer Anthony Duclair looks good on the Jonathan Toews line and Nick Schmaltz has been prolific (nine goals, 10 assists in 19 games) while mostly playing with Patrick Kane. But the Predators are rolling and they are the obvious pick in this game.
New Jersey Devils at Buffalo Sabres
This is an interesting under-the-radar matchup between a team fighting to make the playoffs and a franchise in the midst of a years-long reboot.
Given the stakes, the Devils seem like the obvious choice. The Sabres are hosting, but they are just 6-12-3 at home this season. And yet they went into the break with a three-game winning streak, with victories at Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver by a combined 11-1 score.
“When we’re on the road, we understand the challenge at hand,” Sabres center Jack Eichel said during his All-Star Game media session. “I think we need to bring that at home, take more pride in our ice and playing in front of our home fans. At home this year, I don’t think we’ve brought the energy and passion that we need to bring. So we’ve got 20 games here, basically at home the entire month. We need to use that to our advantage, start making KeyBank Center a place other teams don’t want to play and a place we take advantage of.”
Meanwhile, the Devils staggered into the break with four straight losses by a combined score of 12-3. This game pits two squads headed in opposite directions.
Perhaps the break will cool down the Sabres and refresh the Devils, but Buffalo looks like the pick in this game.