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Trending: Present, future stars take center stage

Thursday, 11.24.2011 / 11:26 AM / NHL.Countdown

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Trending: Present, future stars take center stage
The superstar of today and one who is on his way, plus a hot team in a hot town, a goalie that needs an introduction, and a new tradition in the National Hockey League are all trending in this week's column.

#WatchCrosby

Sidney Crosby is back and the Penguins appear to be whole again with Nos. 87, 71 and 11 lining up through the middle of the ice, giving American-born coach Dan Bylsma has a lot to be thankful for on this holiday. No team in the NHL is as deep down the middle as the Penguins, but it's up to Bylsma to find the proper ice time for them all. It won't be easy.

Jordan Staal appears to be the third man here, but he'd be a No. 1 center on many other teams, so he has to get the ice time he rightfully deserves. Crosby works well with Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, and the line of Evgeni Malkin with James Neal and Steve Sullivan has been the Penguins' best through the first quarter of the season.

Bylsma will have to work Staal with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy (a pretty good third line) on a lot of even strength shifts. But, when the game gets tight, like it did Wednesday against St. Louis, look for Malkin to play on the wing with Crosby and Neal, and Staal to play up with Sullivan and Kunitz.

#RealDealRyanN-H

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins just continues to impress in ways that nobody (yeah, even that guy saying "I told you so" right now) could have imagined at this stage of his career. He picked up another two assists in Edmonton's 6-2 win against Nashville on Tuesday, giving him eight points in the last three games and 22 points in his first 21 games in the NHL.

The guy is running away with the Calder Trophy now.

Perhaps Nugent-Hopkins' most impressive number is the plus-17 he is in terms of being on the ice when there is a goal scored. He's been on the ice for 28 of Edmonton's 56 goals for while being a part of only 11 of the Oilers' goals against.

His power-play proficiency is also borderline ridiculous. He has 11 points with the man-advantage. To put that into perspective, Cam Fowler led all rookies last season with 23 power-play points in 76 games. Nugent-Hopkins is on pace to almost double that.

#StartSanford

It's no coincidence that the Columbus Blue Jackets are all of a sudden playing a stronger all-around game, enough go to 2-0-2 in their last four games after going just 3-13-1 in their first 17. It's all a credit to the surprising play of goalie Curtis Sanford, who wasn't even supposed to be on the roster at the beginning of the season but now boasts a 1.33 goals-against average and .949 save percentage this season.

Since coach Scott Arniel turned to Sanford last Thursday in Boston, the Blue Jackets have picked up six out of a possible eight points and have allowed only six goals. They are playing with confidence simply because they finally believe the goalie standing in between their net will stop the puck. That has not been the case with Steve Mason at any point this season.

Sanford hadn't started a game in the National Hockey League since Jan. 10, 2009. He was supposed to play this season in Springfield with the Blue Jackets AHL affiliate. But, now he's the right to be called the clear-cut No. 1 in Columbus.

#PanthersPurring

The job that rookie coach Kevin Dineen is doing in Florida is nothing short of remarkable. The Panthers, a team that is currently in first place in the Southeast Division, were basically cobbled together this summer by GM Dale Tallon through a bunch of acquisitions aimed at getting them closer to respectability and above the salary-cap floor.

Dineen has made it work by leaning on a strong top line of Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss, which has combined for 29 of Florida's 61 goals. Dineen has made it work because Theodore continues to give the Panthers solid goaltending. The guy who may have retired had Tallon not called and offered him a shot to be a No. 1 again has nine wins, a 2.40 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

Mainly, though, Dineen has made it work in Florida because he has these guys believing in the Panthers, something that might not have been so easy for them when the season started. Campbell, Versteeg and Kopecky have all won the Stanley Cup while Theodore, Fleischmann, Bradley, Jovanovski and Sean Bergenheim have vast playoff experience.

Now they're starting to believe it can happen in Florida, too.

#FridayShowdown

When a Boston tradition dating back 21 years gets put on the national stage on the day after Thanksgiving in the United States, it is definitely something worth following.

The Detroit Red Wings are headed to TD Garden to play the Bruins on Friday in the 2011 Discover NHL Thanksgiving Showdown on NBC (1 p.m. ET). This is the earliest regular-season NHL game on U.S. Network television in more than 20 years. It will also be the only meeting of the season between the Red Wings and Bruins.

The Bruins have been playing a home matinee on Black Friday since 1990, when they lost to the Hartford Whalers, 4-3, at Boston Garden. They are 10-7-2 in those games (no game in 1994 or 2004), but they've never faced the Red Wings. Boston has played Hartford/Carolina six times, Vancouver four times, Montreal three times, the Islanders twice, and Florida, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New Jersey once each.

Boston rides a 10-game winning streak into the game while the Red Wings are finding their way back again after a brutal six-game winless streak bridging October into November. The game is especially important to Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, who grew up outside Detroit in Davison, Mich.

Let's look ahead now to a classic rivalry, the inevitable change, a Ranger on the mend, a coach in trouble and the hottest team in hockey. All five topics could be trending by this time next week:

#OviSid

After stops in Montreal and New York, Sidney Crosby's Comeback Tour heads to Washington next Thursday for another showdown against the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin, who has fallen far behind No. 87 in the discussion about the world’s best player.

This might seem like a low blow to Ovechkin and Caps' fans everywhere, but in just two games Crosby (four points) is a quarter of the way to Ovechkin's point total (16) through 20 games. Ovechkin hasn't found his groove yet this season and there might be a rift between him and coach Bruce Boudreau that could be coming to a head soon.

But, what has happened already and what will happen in the future is never what this game is about. When Crosby and Ovechkin are on the same ice, the stage is set for great things to happen. The rivalry they've established through the years had always brought the best out of both players.

Ovechkin has 19 goals and 14 assists (33 points) in 24 career games against the Penguins while Crosby has 13 goals and 22 assists (35 points) in 21 career games against the Capitals. The last time they met was in the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Heinz Field.

#Realignment

By next Thursday people will start to hear more chatter about the upcoming Board of Governors meeting in Pebble Beach, Calif., where the chief executives from around the NHL are expected to shuffle the deck and come out with an approved re-alignment plan that will go into effect for the 2012-13 season.

Between now and the two-day meeting, which spans Dec. 5-6, you're going to hear and see all kinds of proposals for what people think is the right way to re-align the League. There has been talk of making minor changes by moving as few as two teams around to make the League more geographically aligned, but there has also been talk of a complete overhaul into a four-conference set up.

There was some chatter about re-alignment at the General Managers meeting in Toronto last week, but it was pretty tame because this is a Board of Governors issue and the chief item on their agenda for Pebble Beach. The chatter across the hockey world will pick up, and don't be surprised if you start seeing teams like Detroit, Columbus, Dallas and Minnesota make strong public statements regarding their own desires.

#AMarcInProgress

Maybe he just wanted to get out of the cold rain in New York and find some sun in Florida, but concussed Rangers defenseman Marc Staal is on the road with his teammates for the first time this season. He made the trip to Florida with them Tuesday, was at BankAtlantic Center for the game Wednesday, and is making his way up the coast with the Rangers for Friday's game in Washington.

This is a second consecutive positive step in Staal's recovery. First he was cleared for light physical contact last Thursday and now he's traveling with the team. It should be noted that Mike Rupp (knee surgery) and Wojtek Wolski (sports hernia surgery) are also on the trip, so maybe this is just a way for the Rangers to get all of their guys together on the road, but Staal's presence did cause me to raise my eyebrows.

Don't be shocked if by this time next week we are hearing more about Staal, and possibly from Staal, regarding his recovery from his concussion. The next hurdle would likely be getting on the ice, either with our without his teammates, and we don't know when that will be. But, judging by the fact that he's been cleared for light activity and that he's traveling, I can only assume he's getting closer.

#CapuanoNeedsHelp

Islanders GM Garth Snow backed coach Jack Capuano in an exclusive interview with Newsday on Tuesday, saying he has "no intention to replace" the guy he gave the job to when he fired Scott Gordon last season. That the day after the Islanders gave another listless performance, albeit this time in Sidney Crosby's return game in Pittsburgh. However, that 5-0 loss came after a 6-0 loss to Boston over the weekend.

In both games the Islanders showed no speed, no fight, and no structure. They played better on Wednesday, but still blew a two-goal lead and lost to the Flyers in overtime.

The truth is Capuano is guilty of not getting through to this team. And, his decision to give rookie Anders Nilsson his first NHL start on Monday night in Crosby's return game was simply inexcusable, especially when he has a supposedly healthy franchise goalie in Rick DiPietro sitting on the bench. Given the circumstances of the evening in Pittsburgh, the team needed stability in net and Capuano wrongfully took it away from them.

However, there is only so much you can put on the coach. He is getting next to nothing from former top-10 picks Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey. Michael Grabner has not come close to building on the success he had last season as a 30-goal scorer. Frans Nielsen is not the same defensive forward he was last season. Brian Rolston looks like he's done. If Marty Reasoner was just a non-factor he'd be better than he has been.

All of it has had a negative effect on guys like John Tavares, Mark Streit and Matt Moulson, a fact that Snow should be considering in the coming days if the Islanders don't get a win and develop some structure soon.

#PerfectMonth

With a 10-0 record and three games remaining in November, is it so farfetched for the Boston Bruins to be thinking about a perfect November? I say no, it is not. Then again, Bruins fans everywhere will immediately blame me for giving this streaking team the kiss of death.

Quick note: If they lose Friday to Detroit, it's not my fault. The same thing goes for Saturday against Winnipeg and next Wednesday against Toronto.

Remember, not my fault.

But, let's get back to the point here, and that's with three games left the Bruins can have a perfect month. The last team to come close to that was Buffalo in 2006-07. The Sabres reeled off 10 straight wins to start October, but lost in a shootout to Atlanta in their final game of the month.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Quote of the Day

Not only is it a great idea, but if you don't [start using analytics] you're going to fall behind. You have to be on the cutting edge. It was [Arizona Coyotes assistant general manager] Darcy Regier who said, 'If you didn't invent it, you have to be the second- or third-best copier, because if you're fourth or fifth you've got no chance.'

— Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock on his interest in advanced statistical analysis