NHL: Thursday Night Hockey

NO LONGER IN THE SHADOWS: Jordan Staal returns to Pittsburgh for the first time since being traded to Carolina in the summer and looks to take centre-stage.

BY JEFF ANGUS

A busy Thursday night of NHL action sees the puck dropped on 11 games across the league. The Maple Leafs will be getting goaltender James Reimer back from the injured reserve. Pittsburgh remains without star center Evgeni Malkin (concussion), but he is making progress towards a return.

The Detroit Red Wings dropped a 2-1 decision in Los Angeles last night, and they travelled north after the game to San Jose, where they will face the Sharks tonight. And in Big D, Kari Lehtonen returns to the Dallas lineup after missing a few weeks with a groin injury. The visiting Oilers will be in tough to put the puck past him, as he was playing lights out before going down with the injury.

Let’s take a closer look at four of the 11 matchups tonight.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS at NY ISLANDERS (-150, 5.5)
The Leafs will be getting their starting goaltender back for this one, and it couldn’t come soon enough after Ben Scrivens laid an egg in Montreal last night. To his credit, Scrivens has given Toronto rock solid goaltending in Reimer’s absence. The Islanders are a league-worst 2-8-0 on home ice this season, and they are barely drawing over 13,000 fans per game to the Coliseum (an old and decrepit building, but one that is apparently great for watching hockey).

Reimer isn’t the confirmed starter as of Thursday morning, but it is very likely that he makes his return tonight. Moulson and Tavares have both been very productive recently (and the rest of the season). Nazem Kadri has four assists in his last three games, and he leads Toronto in even strength assists on the season, too. He has been their most dangerous forward on many nights.

INTERESTING BETS
Leafs to WIN +110

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS at CAROLINA HURRICANES (+110, 5.5)
As mentioned above, the Penguins remain without Malkin for this one. This is also Jordan Staal’s first game against his former club. Without Malkin, the Penguins have bumped up former Hurricane Brandon Sutter to center the second scoring unit. Oh, and some guy named Sidney Crosby is leading the NHL in scoring with 20 points (12 of which have come on the power play).

Eric Staal has only two points in his last five games, and the Hurricanes need their offensive star to get back on track. Before his recent slump, Staal had 17 points in 11 games (eight of them wins for Carolina).

Jordan Staal on facing his old club:
“It is going to be fun. Obviously I was there for a long time and have a lot of memories in that organization,” Staal said. “It is going to be a big matchup for our team as well, playing against a good team. It will be a lot of new challenges and a good challenge for myself.”

INTERESTING BETS
Total Goals Over (5.5) -138

EDMONTON OILERS at DALLAS STARS (-150, 5)
At one time, Edmonton and Dallas was one of the very best rivalries in hockey. The two teams waged war in the postseason on more than one occasion (I still vividly remember Curtis Joseph stoning the likes of Mike Modano and Joe Nieuwendyk).

Dallas is getting its best player, Kari Lehtonen, back tonight. Lehtonen was an early season MVP contender with his strong play for the Stars, and in his absence the team really struggled to keep the puck out of its own net (neither Cristopher Nilstorp nor Richard Bachman stepped up to deliver the kind of goaltending the Stars were hoping for).

Nugent-Hopkins has really struggled this season, and the above chart reflects his lack of offensive production. He started off in late January with some points, but his February has been a month to forget.

Taylor Hall will be back after serving a two game suspension for a hit on Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck, and the Oilers are a much better team with Hall in the lineup. The dynamic winger is tough to contain for opposing defensemen (especially at even strength), and he seems to bring out the best in his linemates (Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle) too.

Dallas will have their new acquisition, Erik Cole, skating on the third line with Cody Eakin and Reilly Smith. Cole will play on the right wing, and there isn’t any room in the top six for him right now, as Loui Eriksson and Jaromir Jagr are the other two right wingers. Dallas will be a tough team to contain with three scoring lines, and they have been generating offense better than most teams recently (28 goals scored in their last seven games).

Jamie Benn is a minus-6 in his last two games, despite being productive offensively. His line needs to shore up their defensive play as they will likely be out against Edmonton’s talented young trio.

INTERESTING BETS
Total Goals Under 5.0 (+120)

DETROIT RED WINGS at SAN JOSE SHARKS (-200, 5.5)
The Red Wings dropped a heartbreaker in Los Angeles last night, squandering a 1-0 lead late in the third period. They leaned heavily on the Nicklas Kronwall-Jonathan Ericsson pairing, and it will be interesting to see how the defensive minutes are managed tonight against the Sharks.

Kronwall has been on fire in his last little while (as you can see from above). Antti Niemi and Jimmy Howard are both playing great hockey right now, and the Sharks need to get some offensive production from their top guys if they want to get back on track. February has been a month to forget for the Sharks. They have won only two of 11 games in regulation, and have scored a measly 15 games in that span.

Ryane Clowe, who is returning from a two game suspension, has yet to find the back of the net this season for San Jose. The Red Wings have lost three straight road games, too. Something has to give tonight between two teams that are underperforming.

INTERESTING BETS
Red Wings to WIN (+150)

Detroit to win 3-1 (+1900)