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'Hockey Night in Canada': 5 Storylines

Revamped Penguins, minus Malkin, visit struggling Maple Leafs; Avalanche host Canucks

by John Kreiser @jkreiser7713 / Managing Editor

Two of the NHL's elite teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs, play for the third and final time this season in the first game of a "Hockey Night in Canada" doubleheader on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, CBC, SN1, SNE, SNO, SNP, ATTSN-PT, NHL.TV). The teams haven't seen each other since splitting two games in the first month of the season, with the road team winning each by shutout.

In the second game, two teams battling for a playoff berth in the Western Conference will play when the Vancouver Canucks visit the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center (10 p.m. ET; CBC, SN, SN1, SN360, CITY, ALT2, NHL.TV). 

Here are 5 storylines to keep an eye on:


Malkin out for Penguins

For the second time in as many nights, the Penguins will be without center Evgeni Malkin because of an upper-body injury. Malkin had two assists, including the 600th of his NHL career, in a 4-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, but he was a late scratch for Pittsburgh's 5-3 win against the Ottawa Senators on Friday. Coach Mike Sullivan said before the game that Malkin is day to day but wouldn't play in either weekend game. He's third on the Penguins in scoring with 55 points (14 goals, 41 assists) in 50 games, including five assists in his past four games. The earliest he could return is Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes.


[RELATED: Penguins trade Brassard, Sheahan to Panthers for Bjugstad, McCann] 


New look for Pittsburgh

The Penguins (28-17-6) completed a major trade a few hours before the win against Ottawa, acquiring forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann from the Florida Panthers for forwards Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan and three draft picks. Bjugstad and McCann arrived in Pittsburgh less than an hour before game time, got a police escort to PPG Paints Arena and made it to the bench just before game time. Bjugstad stepped into Malkin's role as second-line center and had an assist; McCann centered the third line. Their whirlwind day didn't end after the win against the Senators, though. Since Pittsburgh is playing back-to-back games, they jumped right back on an airplane for the flight to Toronto. That's a lot of travel and disruption in a short period of time; it will be interesting to see how much energy they have for their second game in 24 hours.


Maple Leafs hitting some bumps

Toronto is also playing the second of back-to-back games; the Maple Leafs lost 3-2 in overtime at the Detroit Red Wings on Friday and are 2-4-1 in their past seven. It was Toronto's first game after its NHL-mandated five-day break following the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend, and the Maple Leafs (30-17-3) looked a little rusty after the layoff, even with the addition of defenseman Jake Muzzin, who made his debut after being acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings on Monday. Toronto is in a three-way scramble with the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens for second place in the Atlantic Division and the home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. One area where the Maple Leafs need improvement is their play at home; they went 2-5-0 at Scotiabank Arena in January to fall to 14-11-1. Toronto needs to regain its winning touch at home -- soon.

 Video: Where Muzzin fits on Maple Leafs' defense after trade


Canucks happy to be in playoff hunt

One year ago at this time, the Canucks were 11 points out of the final playoff spot before finishing seventh in the Pacific Division, 22 points behind the Avalanche for the second wild card into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference. At 23-22-6 entering their first game after All-Star weekend and their mandated five-day break, the Canucks are just four points ahead of where they were at this time last season, but they're even with the Avalanche (22-20-8) in points for the second wild card. The Canucks face a tough schedule this month, with nine of 14 games on the road. Led by forward Elias Pettersson, who tops NHL rookies with 45 points (23 goals, 22 assists) in 40 games, the Canucks are 12-6-3 since Dec. 4.


Will break help Avalanche bounce back?

The line of center Nathan MacKinnon between forwards Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen was enough to power the Avalanche to an 18-9-6 record by mid-December. But opponents focused more attention on shutting down Colorado's big line, and the rest of the team couldn't pick up the slack. The Avalanche are 4-11-2 since Dec. 16 and 3-7-0 in their past 10 games. They're on top of a group of six teams that are within three points of the second wild card in the West. The top three scorers have 79 goals; the rest of the team has 90, and coach Jared Bednar has tinkered with breaking up the No. 1 line to try to balance the offense. The Avalanche also need better play from goalies Semyon Varlamov (2-5-2 in his past nine decisions) and Philipp Grubauer (2-4-0 with three no-decisions in his past nine starts). Bednar said the break should do his players a lot of good.

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