Welcome to the first edition of Prime Time Preview where we are going to look at the Prime Time games on NBC Sports Network each and every week.
Wednesdays used to be Rivalry Night on NBCSN, and this year it is a lot easier for rivalries as the divisions have been changed up to due to the fact that the Canadian-US border has closed for all but essential services, as well as to limit travel.
Therefore, every night is Rivalry Night as in each of the three American divisions, each team plays the other seven or eight times, while on the Canadian side of the border, since there are only seven teams, each will face each other either nine or ten times. It reminds us of the Original Six when in the 1960s, each of the teams would play each other 14 times.
There are three games on NBCSN tonight, starting with the Battle of Pennsylvania where the Philadelphia Flyers host the Pittsburgh Penguins.
PITTSBURGH at PHILADELPHIA
This is a chance to see one of the top-three players in the 21st century as Sidney Crosby will lead the Penguins into Philadelphia. Crosby’s stats were suppressed last season due to a core muscle injury that required surgery, but he is healthy and looking forward to another big season. He should hit plenty of milestones this season as he is only 37 points away from 1,300 and needs 16 games to hit the magical 1,000 mark.
Despite having Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, another one of the best players over the last 15 years, the Penguins may find it tough to make the playoffs in the stacked Eastern Division. Five of the best 11 teams in the NHL reside in the East, and with only four teams making the playoffs, and the New York Rangers on the rise, there are going to be at least a couple of top teams that fail to get into the Stanley Cup playdowns.
Other players to watch on Pittsburgh include Jake Guentzel, Kris Letang and goaltender Tristan Jarry who is slated to get the start in net for the Penguins. The Penguins have moved on from their two Stanley Cup goaltenders, losing Marc-Andre Fleury in 2017 to Vegas in the expansion draft and Matt Murray in the offseason in a trade with Ottawa. Jarry is currently the undisputed No. 1 goaltender in Pittsburgh after a 20-12-3 record last season with a 2.43 goals-against-average and a .921 save percentage.
The Flyers came on strong at the end of last season but there are no real stars on the roster, save for possibly goaltender Carter Hart, who could be a top-five goaltender in the NHL this season, if not better than that. Hart was 24-13-3 last season, with a 2.42 goals-against-average and a .914 save percentage. While it seems like Jarry had a better season than Hart in 2020-21, don’t be fooled; Hart is the better netminder.
The Flyers are talented up front with the likes of Claude Giroux, Travis Konecny, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier and James van Riemsdyk, but there are two interesting returns on Wednesday, Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick.
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Lindblom did return for the playoffs last season after he was diagnosed in December 2019 with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Lindblom was cancer-free on July 2 and saw some playoff action. It should be interesting to see him this season as he’s slated to be on the top line with Couturier and Konecny.
Patrick, the second-overall pick in 2017, missed the entire 2019-20 season including the playoffs as he was dealing with a migraine disorder. Finally, after being off the ice for over 20 months, he returns tonight centering the third line with Voracek and van Riemsdyk on his wings.
CHICAGO at TAMPA BAY
The reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning will take the first step in retaining their crown as they take on the injury-riddled Chicago Blackhawks in the second game of NBCSN’s tripleheader.
The Lightning were rocked recently with the loss of their top player, Nikita Kucherov, who underwent hip surgery and will be lost for the regular season and perhaps longer. While the loss of a superstar would severely hurt most team’s chances of making the playoffs, the Lightning are so strong throughout their lineup, it may not hinder them, as they are still favored to win the Central Division.
The Lightning are strong up-and-down the lineup, starting in goal where they have the best netminder in the NHL in Andrei Vasilevskiy. He was 35-14-3 last season with a 2.56 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage and then sparkled in the playoffs, winning 18 games with a 1.90 GAA and a .927 save percentage, saving the best for last as he shutout Dallas 2-0 for his only whitewash of the playoffs.
Their defense is led by perennial Norris Trophy contender (Best Defenseman) Victor Hedman, and they still have an explosive offense led by the underrated Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat and defensive wizard Anthony Cirelli.
The Lightning are definitely good enough to win the division and defend the Stanley Cup.
Chicago, on the other hand, seems to be in a bit of a mess. They have lost their top-two centers Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach, as Toews is out with a medical issue that has left him ‘drained and lethargic’ while Dach broke his wrist at the World Junior Under-20 Championships last month and is expected to miss four-five months.
Chicago could also be in trouble in goal with no real experienced netminder in place. They will rely on Malcolm Subban, Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen, and they can only hope one comes out of the pack and solidifies the net.
The Blackhawks still have some talent up front, led by superstar Patrick Kane. Kane is still a top-10 scorer in the NHL (he was eighth last season in scoring with 84 points), while Alex DeBrincat, Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome will provide more scoring. But their defense is also in a state of flux, led by aging veteran Duncan Keith. Watch out for Adam Boqvist who is expected to quarterback the power and is considered the heir apparent to Keith.
ST. LOUIS at COLORADO
The final game of the night should be the best of the bunch as 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis, takes on what many consider the best team in the NHL this season, the Colorado Avalanche.
The Blues have Jordan Binnington in goal. He was a star in leading the Blues to the Cup two seasons ago and played well during the 2019-20 season with 30 wins and a 2.56 GAA but was horrible in the post-season, going 0-5 with a horrendous 4.72 GAA and a .851 save percentage. Hopefully, it was just a blip in his career, and that the bounce-back will start tonight.
The Blues lost a couple of key defensemen with Alex Pietrangelo leaving as an unrestricted free agent and Jay Bouwmeester retiring as he suffered a cardiac episode in February and never returned. The Blues helped out their cause by signing former Bruin Torey Krug to take over Pietrangelo’s duties, quarterbacking the power play.
The Blues have a lot of talent up front, led by Ryan O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, David Perron and the newcomer to the top-six, Robert Thomas. St. Louis will be missing Vladimir Tarasenko who will be re-evaluated in February after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, but eventually he will be an important piece in the Blues quest for the Cup.
The Avalanche had possibly the best line in the NHL last season with Nathan MacKinnon centering Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. Landeskog is starting the season on the second line with Nazem Kadri and newcomer Brandon Saad with Andre Burakovsky taking over Landeskog’s spot on the top unit. The Avalanche’s top-six is outstanding.
MacKinnon is one of the top-three players in the league, and many consider him the best. He is a joy to watch and will garner plenty of Hart Trophy consideration as the NHL’s most valuable player.
The blueline is led by young star Cale Makar who won the Calder Trophy last season as the NHL’s best rookie. He quarterbacks the power play and is a star in the making. The Avs third pairing of Ian Cole and Ryan Graves are under-the-radar studs on the blueline, although they will not get a lot of points.
The Avs’ doom in the playoffs last season was their goaltending, or rather the injuries suffered by starter Philipp Grubauer and backup Pavel Francouz. The Avs were favored in the Western Conference to end up in the Stanley Cup Final but were forced to go with Michael Hutchinson, who played well but was a bit overwhelmed in Game 7 against Dallas. But tonight, Colorado has Grubauer back, and that bodes well for the Avs.