Each Friday, NHL Network and ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes will provide readers with three games he is looking forward to that weekend:
Tampa Bay Lightning at Calgary Flames (Saturday, 3 pm ET; CBC, SN, TVAS, BSSUN, ESPN+)
The Lightning (29-14-1) are still very much a Stanley Cup contender. You always know what you’re going to get with them; they’re 9-3-0 in their past 12 games. Forward Steven Stamkos scored a hat trick, including his 500th NHL goal, in a 5-2 win at the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday and has showed no signs of slowing down this season, with 53 points (22 goals, 31 assists) in 44 games. Tampa Bay has all the pieces to make another cup run, and I’ve liked the way backup goalie Brian Elliot has performed (9-3-0, 3.07 goals-against average, .903 save percentage) when stepping in for Andrei Vasilevsky (20-11-1, 2.50 GAA, .917 save percentage). Forward Nikita Kucherov is third in the NHL in scoring with 65 points (18 goals, 47 assists).
The Flames (21-16-9) are still trying to figure it out. center Nazem Kadri has been playing well (35 points; 17 goals, 18 assists, in 46 games) but Calgary hasn’t been anything close to the team that won the Pacific Division last season. True, they lost forwards Johnny Gaudreau other Matthew Tkachukbut Kadri and center Jonathan Huberdeau (31 points; eight goals, 23 assists in 43 games) are two All-Star players. goalie Jacob Markstrom was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season but hasn’t played like it this season (13-12-5, 2.82 GAA, .895 save percentage). The Flames play three games at home before five games on the road, a trip that could determine their season.
Washington Capitals at Vegas Golden Knights (Saturday, 10 pm ET; ATTSN-RM, NBCSWA, ESPN+, SN NOW)
The Capitals (25-17-6) got a boost with the returns of center Nicklas Backstrom and forward Tom Wilson last week. Even though Backstrom and Wilson have combined for only six points (two goals, four assists) so far this season, Washington is a better team with them in the lineup. center Dylan Strome has been a great pickup, with 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists) in 47 games. Alex Ovechkin has recorded 30 goals in a season for the 17th time, tying Mike Gartner for the most such seasons in NHL history, and the forward is averaging more than a point per game (52 points; 30 goals, 22 assists in 48 games).
Coach Bruce Cassidy has done a great job in his first season with the Golden Knights (28-16-2). They’re 1-4-0 in their past five, but are tied with the Seattle Kraken for first place in the Pacific Division. goalie Logan Thompson (18-12-1, 2.72 GAA, .913 save percentage, two shutouts) is deservedly an All-Star this season, and center Jack Acorn Has been great in his first full season in Vegas, with 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists) in 33 games. center Chandler Stephenson is one of the most underrated players in the NHL and leads the Golden Knights with 40 points (11 goals, 29 assists) in 46 games.
Pittsburgh Penguins at New Jersey Devils (Sunday, 2 pm ET; NHLN, SN, MSGSN, ATTSN-PT, SN NOW)
The Penguins (23-15-7) can’t be chasing games right now, doing a lot of playing from behind; they’re 1-11-1 when trailing after two periods this season. They were without a goalie Tristan Jarry for seven games and have been missing defenseman Kris Letang for 10, and are 4-6-3 in their past 13 games. The good news is centers Sydney Crosby other Evgeny Malkin and forward Jake Guentzel each is healthy. Pittsburgh has qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 16 straight seasons, and it will be impressive if it can keep that streak intact.
The Devils (29-12-4) are playing exceptionally well right now; they had won five in a row before a 4-3 overtime loss at the Seattle Kraken on Thursday. But four of those wins came on the road, where they are 18-2-2. New Jersey is 11-10-2 at home and had lost eight straight there (0-7-1) prior to a 4-3 overtime comeback win against the New York Rangers on Jan 7. Jack Hughes is one of the best players in the NHL at the moment; the center leads the Devils with 29 goals, including 11 in his past 10 games. defenseman Ryan Graves is playing the way he did when he was with the Colorado Avalanche; he’s tied for third in the NHL with a plus-29 rating. Vitek Vanecek (18-5-2, 2.37 GAA, .914 save percentage, two shutouts) is among the top 10 goalies for me this season. New Jersey plays a really fast, uptempo game, so this promises to be a good matchup.