Southern Californians may not have access to the multitude of hockey broadcasts available to cable subscribers in the northeastern part of the United States on a nightly basis, but with two teams around, Versus and the NHL Network being part of most digital cable sports packages, and the NHL on NBC poised to return with the conclusion of the NFL season, you might be surprised at how many quality games you can take in.
This is a good time of year to watch hockey. The first few months of the season are, and I’m exaggerating a little, a wash. After 15 games, the Kings were near the top of the Western Conference and the Stars were in the cellar. Now, just past the halfway point of the year, the teams have flip-flopped, with the Stars making a heroic rise from the ashes and looking like contenders while the Kings have been playing some ugly hockey for most of the past couple of months.
What’s happened so far in the season is altogether not as important as what will happen over the next month. By the end of February, it’ll be clear which teams are aiming for the playoffs and which teams are looking to cast off spare parts at the trade deadline, which takes place in early March. Right now, there are only five teams out of 30 who don’t have a realistic shot to make the playoffs. For the rest, particularly the bubble teams, it’s crunch time.
Here are five games in the next 30 days that should be available to most of you. All of them have playoff implications and show off some of the league’s top stars:
Philadelphia Flyers v. Chicago Blackhawks
Sunday, Jan. 23 at 9:30 a.m. on NBC
This game is a Stanley Cup Finals rematch featuring the Flyers, who currently lead the league with 30 wins on the season and have looked every bit a contender this year, against the defending-champion Hawks, who started off the year slowly but are just now rounding into championship form.
The Flyers will be getting top defenseman Chris Pronger back within the next few days and the Hawks just regained the services of Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane over the last few weeks.
It should be a high-scoring affair with plenty of end-to-end action and some great hitting. These teams don’t like each other very much and it shows.
San Jose Sharks v. Los Angeles Kings
Wednesday, Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m. on Fox Sports West
Things have been bad in both Los Angeles and San Jose lately. Both teams, rife with talent, have shown flashes of greatness this year, but as a whole have been playing far below their potential.
The Sharks, who entered the season expected to contend for the Stanley Cup, are two wins removed from a six-game losing streak and have been shutout seven times on the season. The Kings, after going 9-4-1 in December, are in the midst of their worst slump of the year. They’re 2-8-0 in their last 10 games and have sunk to 12th in the Western Conference.
Neither of the two underperforming teams is in a playoff spot right now and both are clawing to get back into the race. Expect a spirited matchup with lots of physical play, as it’s a big test for both squads.
New York Rangers v. Detroit Red Wings
Monday, February 7 at 4:30 p.m. on Versus
The Red Wings are the NHL’s model modern franchise. They’ve made the playoffs 19 straight seasons, the longest streak in sports, and have reached the Stanley Cup Finals six times in that stretch, taking home the championship on four occasions.
The New York Rangers have been the Yankees of baseball for the last twenty years, but with only a modicum of success. After winning a Stanley Cup in 1994 and trailing off afterwards, the team tried to buy its way back to the top with big name talent, but has yet to reach the Cup Finals again since.
The Red Wings have kept on doing their thing and sit atop the Western Conference, while a philosophy change in New York has gotten the ball rolling again for them. After a quick rebuild, the team now has some quality young players and is on the rise again.
These two teams have a long history with each other, being two of the “Original Six” teams, and the fans have become accustomed to hating each other’s guts, a mindset that spills onto the ice and really gets the players going. It might be a low scoring game, but it won’t be without fireworks.
Los Angeles Kings v. Pittsburgh Penguins
Thursday, February 10 @ 4:00 p.m. on the NHL Network
Though the Sidney Crosby Show is temporarily off the air in Pittsburgh as he recovers from a concussion sustained during the Winter Classic, there’s hope that he’ll be back by the beginning of February. If that’s the case, it’ll be the first chance for Kings fans to get a look at Sid since November of 2009.
Games against top teams are always benchmarks, and this one is no exception. The Kings stomped the Penguins 5-2 the last time they played them and will be hoping for a similar result this time around, but the Penguins have the benefit of being on home ice this time around. Pittsburgh is battling with Philadelphia for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and every game in the next few months will be a key one for them.
The Penguins are a damn fun team to watch with lots of speed and talent and the Kings bring their A-game against top teams, you don’t want to miss this one.
Washington Capitals v. Anaheim Ducks
Wednesday, February 16 @ 7:00 p.m. on Fox Sports Prime Ticket
The league’s other superstar, Alex Ovechkin, will visit the left coast with the Capitals for a four-game road trip against Pacific Division teams in February. The Ducks and Capitals play a similar game, both depending largely on offensive firepower and speed to win hockey games, which makes for some exciting hockey.
Jonas Hiller has been single-handedly winning plenty of games for the Ducks this year and will have to come up big against Washington’s big guns. Alex Ovechkin has yet to find his groove so far this year but will undoubtedly get better down the stretch as the games start to mean more; he’s a gamer in every sense of the word.
The other thing to watch for is how Washington holds up against the Ducks top forwards in their own zone. It’ll be a challenge for the Capitals’ blueline and goaltending, both of which have been shaky this year overall, to hold off the Ducks talent up front.
This one should be a high scoring contest and don’t be surprised if it gets chippy, there are plenty of guys who aren’t afraid to mix it up on both squads.