The next two weeks of hockey will be very busy. The most glaring trend could be 19 of the 30 NHL teams play on back-to-back nights this week. With 12 of the 15 Western Conference teams playing three games this week, we'll move most of this week's focus to the Eastern Conference where there's a bit more action.
Six playing four
On the surface, you might assume Boston (vs. OTT, CAR, PIT, @WAS) has a generous schedule. Outside of their record against Ottawa (2-0) and Pittsburgh (1-0), the Bruins may have their work cut out for them. Boston is a combined 0-4 against Carolina and Washington this season, having been outscored 16-8 by the two teams. General Manager Peter Chiarelli says right-winger Nathan Horton's mild concussion symptoms leave him day-to-day. Rich Peverley replaced Horton on David Krejci line and showed an immediate impact last week. Boston is a combined 3-4 against this week's opponents.
No one expected Montreal (vs. BUF, @NJ, vs. WAS, WPG) to go into the break on the wings of a 7-2 win over Detroit. Helping create this explosion was rookie defenseman Alexei Emeli, scoring his first NHL goal, center David Desharnais (two goals, assist) and Max Pacioretty (goal, assist). With the win, the Canadiens are 3-0-2 over their last five games. Montreal is a combined 3-4-1 against this week's opponents.
Currently eighth in the East, New Jersey (vs. NYR, MON, @PHI, vs. PIT) is tied with Florida and Toronto at 55 points. The Devils are hoping to come out gunning and secure their spot inside the top eight of the East. They start with their red hot river rivals the Rangers, more on this later. After stumbling (three goals in three straight losses) into the AS break, Patrik Elias (26 points in last 23 games) and his Devils look to get things back on track. Adam Henrique, who recently came back from a groin injury, has been demoted off the first line. Henrique had this to say: "I feel good," he said. "It wasn't my best couple of games but I feel good," he said. "I obviously want to have a good second half when we get back." New Jersey is a combined 4-5 against this week's opponents.
After suffering an unforeseeable six-game losing streak Pittsburgh (vs. TOR, @TOR, BOS, NJ) earlier this season, Pittsburgh is now streaking in the right direction, having won seven in a row. Starting with a home-and-home against the Maple Leafs, the Pens will also visit the Bruins and Devils before the week is up. Games on back-to-back nights, twice this week, may prove to be an advantage. Perhaps it's noteworthy, after yielding three goals on eight shots, Brent Johnson (2-5-2) had to be pulled in his last start against Ottawa. Pittsburgh is a combined 1-4 against this week's opponents.
With so much emphasis on Philadelphia's (vs. WPG, NSH, NJ, @NYR) injured reserve right now, eight games over the next two weeks could prove detrimental to their potential playoff seeding. James van Riemsdyk (concussion) Danny Briere (concussion), Zac Rinaldo (upper-body injury) and Jaromir Jagr (groin) are all key players battling injuries. One of the few bright spots of the Breakaway Challenge this past weekend, Sean Couturier (five goals, four assists, plus-3 in 12 January games), has one more game to pad the stats of what has been a break out January. Philly's goalie tandem on Sergei Bobrovsky (3-2, 2.20 GAA in January) and Ilya Bryzgalov (4-2-1, 2.93 GAA in January) will be relied upon to help the team float while they get healthy. Philadelphia is a combined 2-6-1 against this week's opponents.
One of the hottest teams in the NHL, the Capitals (@TB, FLA, MON, vs. BOS) head into the second half 10-2 over their last twelve games. Washington not only plays two division rivals, but will play on back-to-back nights, twice this week as well. With that being said, neither Caps goalie has been overwhelmingly great in January. Tomas Vokoun (5-4, 2.67 GAA, SHO) has taken most of the starts, while Michal Neuvirth (1-0-1, 2.30 GAA, SHO) has been fairly dependable in just three appearances. Mathieu Perreault has almost doubled his season points total (four goals, two assists) in the last four games. Will it last? Deuces are wild for Caps Hockey, which is featured on NBCSports network twice this week. Washington is a combined 5-1 against this week's opponents.
Winnipeg (@PHI, TB, FLA, MON) is another Southeast team spending the first week after the break on the road and in very important divisional games. Center Eric Gagnon (eight goals, 12 assists in 35 games with St. John's IceCaps) made his Jets debut last week. Since Winnipeg is yet another team marred by injuries, he may stick around. Left-wingers Alex Burmistrov (upper body) and Evander Kane (concussion-like symptoms), center Tim Stapleton (lower body) and of course, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (knee) are all still M.I.A. Winnipeg is a combined 5-4-1 against this week's opponents.
A trio of three
After the break, Chicago (@VAN, EDM, CAL) hits the road for nine straight road games to start the second half. Of the nine, only the last game (Columbus) is considered an "easy win". The road trip starts off with three against the Northwest division. Despite anchoring a line with two other rookie forwards, Marian Hossa is currently on a nine-game (three goals, eight assists) point streak. Jonathan Toews (wrist) will travel with the Blackhawks to Vancouver, no word yet as to whether he'll dress. Chicago has acquired veteran center Brendan Morrison (four goals, seven assists) from Calgary for minor league defenseman Brian Connelly. The NHL veteran of 15 seasons has spent time in Illinois with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs. Chicago is a combined 4-4 against this week's opponents.
Dallas (@ANH, SJ, vs. MIN), who has one of the busiest February's in the NHL, will play four games a week, three times next month. Totaling 16 games, the Stars will need Jamie Benn to build on his return to action. Starting off fresh, the Stars visit Anaheim, of whom they enjoy a 3-0 season series lead. From there, Dallas has their hands full, they'll travel to San Jose, who has outscored them 9-3 this season and Minnesota, who took the only game this season 5-2 over the Stars. Even with young gun Jamie Benn coming back, after going just 4-6-1 in January, the Stars are fizzling fast. Speculation has general manager Joe Nieuwendyk considering trades that will make them better beyond the second half of the season. This includes long-time Stars captain, 33-year old Brenden Morrow. Dallas is a combined 3-4 against this week's opponents.
Nine points out of the final playoff spot in the East, Tampa Bay (vs. WAS, WPG, FLA), currently riding a four-game winning streak, enjoys their next three from home. Albeit, against fellow Southeast teams, the Lightning have been bitten by the injury bug to some key role players this year. Good news is Vincent Lecavalier seems to be coming around, going into the second half riding a six-game (three goals, 10 assists) point scoring streak of his own. With nine players on the Lightning IR, sooner or later someone could come back. Both defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron (upper body) and left-winger Ryan Malone (upper body) could possibly see action this week. Tampa Bay is a combined 4-3-2 against this week's opponents.
Three take two
All three teams playing two games this week will bounce back with four next week. For now, you may want to look the other way on players from St. Louis (vs. LA, @NSH), Calgary (vs. DET, CHI) and Phoenix (vs. ANH, SJ). However, let it be known, St. Louis plays both of its games on back-to-back nights.
Game of the week: Devils and Rangers. What better way to start the second half of the season than with a rivalry renewal? In the first two months of the season, many writers and fans alike had given up on the Devils. Lo and behold here come Brodeur's boys, geared up and ready to avenge their 4-1 loss to New York earlier this season.
TV TIME (all games EST/NBCSports Network)
Jan. 31: Capitals at Lightning, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 1: Rangers at Sabres, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 5: Bruins at Capitals, 12:30 p.m.