7 Key Storylines to Watch During Busy NHL Weekend
The NHL's truncated regular season has three weeks to go.
The trading deadline has passed and at this point, it's all about improving or establishing playoff position. The home stretch of the 48-game regular season has started.
While the lockout was painful for players, coaches and fans for four-plus months, the shortened season means that each game has added meaning. Games have been intense and hard fought this season.
There are a number of matchups that will capture the hockey world's attention this weekend. In addition to compelling games, there are seven storylines to pay attention to that should have an impact on the standings or answer key questions.
Boston vs. Montreal for Northeast Division Lead
The Canadiens host the Bruins Saturday night with the Northeast Division lead at stake.
The Canadiens have a one-point lead in the division race, so the Bruins will need a win in regulation to leapfrog their ancient rivals.
While the Bruins won the first game of the series in Montreal, the Canadiens have won two games in Boston.
This will be Jaromir Jagr's first exposure to the Boston-Montreal rivalry, but don't expect the veteran to be intimidated. "I'm going to be myself no matter what," Jagr told Boston.com. "I don't like to get too high or too low."
Jagr scored the only goal in his first game wearing a Bruins uniform in Boston's 1-0 victory over New Jersey April 4, and he could be a difference-maker in this game. However, the Bruins will miss Patrice Bergeron, who is out with a moderate concussion (source: Boston.com).
The Canadiens have gotten superb play this year from P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty and former Bruin Michael Ryder.
Can the Oilers Get Back on Track vs. the Los Angeles Kings?
Prior to their 4-0 loss at Vancouver Thursday night, the Oilers had won five games in a row and lifted themselves briefly into eighth place in the Western Conference.
The Oilers are loaded with talent, and the young stars on that team have played much better in the last three weeks than they had previously. Led by the explosive Taylor Hall, the Oilers have shown they can play formidable hockey on a regular basis.
After they humiliated Vancouver on March 30, the Canucks were ready for the rematch and slowed down an Oilers team that was playing its third game in four nights.
The Oilers have the weapons in Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz to give the defending Stanley Cup champions a battle. They are playing for a spot in the playoffs, and they need to find a way to win the game.
Chicago Blackhawks' 3rd-Period Woes
The Chicago Blackhawks have been one of the most compelling stories in the NHL all season.
They captured the attention of the sporting world with their 24-game streak without a regulation loss at the start of the season. The Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins are tied for the league lead in points with three weeks to go.
While this has been a magical season in all ways for Chicago, there have been a few troubling signs for the Blackhawks. One of the most noteworthy has been their play in the third period.
The Blackhawks gave up a lead at the end of two periods April 4 in a home shootout loss to St. Louis. They have been outscored 32-30 in the third period this season.
While that's not a huge difference, they have outscored opponents by 18 goals in the first period and 21 goals in the second period.
While the Blackhawks have often built sizable leads, head coach Joel Quenneville has to be concerned that his team is not as strong in the third period as it is earlier in the game.
Surging New York Islanders
The New York Islanders have become a very competitive team that is exceeding expectations in 2013.
At first, they appeared to be in over their heads once again, as they simply did not have the talent to compete with the Penguins, Flyers, Rangers and Devils in the Atlantic Division.
However, instead of resigning themselves to their fate with another non-playoff season, the Islanders have been steadily improving and are holding down the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.
Head coach Jack Capuano's team is hustling and taking advantage of scoring opportunities. Nobody has done more than John Tavares, who has scored 39 points and has become one of the league's best players.
The Islanders host Tampa Bay Saturday night, and they cannot let a game against a struggling team slip through their grasp if they are going to earn a spot in the playoffs.
The Ovechkin Hot Streak
"What's wrong with Ovechkin?" was the question that was being asked throughout the NHL the first six weeks of the season.
He wasn't hustling. He wasn't playing defense. His skating was a step slow. He wasn't scoring like he did in the past.
Ovechkin was getting criticized throughout the NHL. He looked like he was an albatross around the neck of Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.
Nobody's saying those things any more. Ovechkin is on a roll and so are the Capitals. They have risen to first place in the Southeast Division. If they can hold on to that division lead, they will get the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Ovechkin has scored 20 goals this season and is tied for fourth in the league in goal scoring. He has been on fire in late March and early April, scoring 10 goals in his last 10 games.
Ovechkin will try to keep his hot steak going against the Panthers and the Lightning this weekend.
The Streaking Sharks
The San Jose Sharks have done their part in this "year of the streak."
While the Chicago Blackhawks (24 games without a regulation loss) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (15-game winning streak) have had the most notable streaks this season, the San Jose Sharks have had two seven-game winning streaks.
They started the season winning seven games in a row. They have also won their last seven games, as they have used clutch goal scoring to highlight this current streak.
Joe Pavelski scored the game-winning goal vs. Calgary April 5 late in the third period after the Sharks trailed 1-0 going into the third period.
The Sharks will try to stretch that streak to eight when they host the Dallas Stars Sunday afternoon.
Battle of Southern California
The defending Stanley Cup champions have shown that they are going to be a difficult team to beat once the playoffs get underway. They may have had a slow start, but the Los Angeles Kings have one of the deepest teams in the league.
The combination of Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown can be quite explosive, and the addition of hard-hitting Robyn Regehr puts the Kings in a much better defensive position.
The Ducks have been solid all season, and they are second in the Western Conference behind the Blackhawks. The Ducks are led by Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, while ancient warriors Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu can also score in key situations.
The Ducks have plenty of size and strength and will try to assert themselves physically.
While this series doesn't have the same weight as Montreal-Boston or Chicago-Vancouver, it's a tremendous rivalry that features two of the best and most exciting teams in the league.
This is a can't-miss game when the two teams meet Sunday night in Anaheim.