Eichel return, playoff chases among storylines after NHL holiday break



1. A celebration of the “State of Hockey”

The NHL will celebrate New Year’s Day as it has since 2008, playing hockey in a unique outdoor setting.

Target Field in Minneapolis, the baseball home of the Minnesota Twins, will be turned into a frozen wonderland of hockey for the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; TNT, SN1, TVAS, NHL LIVE).

Rink construction began Dec. 17 with the arrival of the NHL ice truck.

The field layout will feature the main ice sheet for the game surrounded by eight small auxiliary sheets that will simulate mini pond hockey rinks. It will also include Minnesota staples such as a log cabin, fishing holes, lumberjacks and a makeshift dock serving as the entertainment stage.

Video: Target Field Winter Classic rink time lapse


2. An eye on the hottest teams

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators entered the holiday break each riding a seven-game winning streak.

The Penguins (17-8-5) are fourth in the Metropolitan Division, where they stood when their streak began Dec. 4, but they are 10 points ahead of the fifth-place Columbus Blue Jackets. They were one point ahead of Columbus before a 4-1 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Dec. 4.

Pittsburgh has 17 games before the All-Star break, but one is against any of the three teams ahead of them in the standings (Feb. 1 at home against the Washington Capitals).

The Predators (19-10-1) are tied for second in the Central Division with the Blues, one point behind the Wild, three ahead of the fourth-place Colorado Avalanche and six ahead of the fifth-place Winnipeg Jets. They were fifth when they started their streak Dec. 4.

Nashville has 16 games scheduled before the All-Star break.


3. Vegas, Anaheim battling for first in Pacific

The Vegas Golden Knights (20-12-0) won eight of nine games before a 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday. Their hot streak moved them into a tie for first place in the Pacific Division with the Anaheim Ducks (17-9-6); each has 40 points through 32 games.

The Calgary Flames are four points behind in third place but have played four fewer games.

The Ducks are 7-2-3 since Nov. 26, including a 6-5 win against the Golden Knights on Dec. 1. Vegas and Anaheim will close out 2021 together, playing against each other in an afternoon game at T-Mobile Arena on Friday.

The Golden Knights begin 2022 with five straight and seven of nine at home, where they are 10-7-0. The Ducks play six of their first nine games in January at Honda Center, where they are 10-4-3.


4. Key players on the mend

The Penguins hope to keep surging after the break with center Evgeni Malkin returning to their lineup in the coming days.

Malkin has not played this season because he’s been rehabbing from knee surgery he had June 4. He has been practicing with the Penguins and took full contact Monday for the first time.

Golden Knights center Jack Eichel is attempting to work his way back from artificial disk replacement surgery he had Nov. 12, eight days after Vegas acquired him in a trade from the Buffalo Sabres.

Eichel said it was a three-month timetable from the date of the operation, so it might be overly optimistic to think he’ll make his Golden Knights debut before the All-Star break. But he’s been skating and could start practicing with them in the near future.


5. Ovechkin’s next record and more goals

Alex Ovechkin will set an NHL record with his next power-play goal. The Washington Capitals forward has 274, tied for first with Hall of Famer Dave Andreychuk.

Ovechkin is second in the NHL with 22 goals, one behind Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl. Washington has 17 games before All-Star Weekend, so Ovechkin could be north of 30 goals in fewer than 50 games by then.

Ovechkin, who has 752 NHL goals, is 15 away from moving past Jaromir Jagr and into third all-time behind Wayne Gretzky (894) and Gordie Howe (801).

Video: WSH@CHI: Ovechkin scores PPG from circle


6. McDavid, Draisaitl and the scoring race

Draisaitl and Oilers teammate Connor McDavid are tied in the race for the Art Ross Trophy as NHL leading scorer; each has scored 49 points in 29 games.

Draisaitl has scored an NHL-leading 23 goals. McDavid leads the NHL with 32 assists.

They’re linemates a lot of the time and they play on the same power-play unit, so short of an injury it’s unlikely one will pull away from the other in the scoring race. But it certainly is something to watch.

Video: BOS@EDM: Draisaitl nets second PPG to tie game in 3rd


7. They’re baaaaaaack

New York Rangers coach Gerard Gallant will return to Las Vegas and coach against the Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena for the first time Jan. 6.

Gallant, who coached against Vegas in New York on Dec. 17, was named the first Golden Knights coach and led them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018 in their inaugural season. He was fired Jan. 15, 2020, after going 118-75-20.

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Seth Jones will face his former team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, for the first time at United Center in Chicago on Tuesday. He will make his first return to Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Jan. 11.

Jones played 381 games for the Blue Jackets from 2016-21, scoring 223 points (50 goals, 173 assists). He is first in points and assists, and fifth in games played all-time among Blue Jackets defensemen. They traded him to the Blackhawks on July 23.

Jan. 20 at Wells Fargo Center will be a reunion night for Philadelphia Flyers forward Cam Atkinson and Columbus Blue Jackets forward Jakub Voracek after they were traded for each other July 24. Atkinson is second in Blue Jackets history in games played (627), goals (213), assists (189) and points (402). Voracek is fifth all-time for the Flyers in assists (427) and 10th in points (604) and games played (727).

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Frederik Andersen is scheduled to return to Toronto on Jan. 3 to face his former team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, at Scotiabank Arena. But Andersen entered NHL COVID-19 protocol Dec. 22.

Andersen played for the Maple Leafs from 2016-21 before signing with the Hurricanes as a free agent July 28.


8. Canucks rolling along

The Vancouver Canucks are 6-0-0 since Bruce Boudreau replaced Travis Green as coach Dec. 5. They have climbed out of last place in the Pacific Division and are closer to fourth (six points away) than last (seven).

The Canucks are scheduled to play 17 games before the All-Star break, including one against the last-place Seattle Kraken and four against teams ahead of them in the Pacific standings.

If they continue to make up ground, they could be in the playoff mix come February.


9. Rask’s return to Bruins

Tuukka Rask has been practicing with the Boston Bruins since Dec. 6, but the veteran goalie, an unrestricted free agent rehabbing from hip surgery he had in July, has not talked to them about a new contract, Bruins president Cam Neely said Dec. 22.

That could change in January.

Rask has repeatedly said if he signs this season it will be with the Bruins, the only team he has played for in his 14-season NHL career. The 34-year-old could be ready to play in three weeks, coach Bruce Cassidy said Sunday. Rask has been in Boston for his entire rehab.

General manager Don Sweeney said the Bruins have interest in re-signing Rask. Last season, Rask was 15-5-2 with a 2.28 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and two shutouts in 24 games. This season, the Bruins have used Linus Ullmark (7-5-0, 2.52 GAA, .922 save percentage in 12 games) and rookie Jeremy Swayman (7-5-2, 2.29 GAA, .917 save percentage, one shutout in 14 games).

Rask is 306-163-66 in 560 NHL games, is Boston’s leader in wins, starts (540) and minutes played (32,208:34), and is second in shutouts (52) behind Tiny Thompson (74).


10. Milestones

There are a handful of milestones players could reach before the All-Star break, in addition to Ovechkin setting the NHL record for most power-play goals.

— Voracek is four away from playing his 1,000th NHL game. He would become the 12th player born in Czechia to reach that milestone.

— Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty is 14 away from becoming the first player from the 2008 NHL Draft to play 1,000 games.

Sidney Crosby needs 10 goals to reach 500 for his NHL career. The Pittsburgh Penguins center has scored four goals in 18 games this season.

Phil Kessel is four goals away from 400. The Arizona Coyotes forward has scored five goals in 29 games this season.

— Capitals coach Peter Laviolette needs nine wins to become the 10th coach in NHL history with 700 victories.

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