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Trending: Winter Classic, Gaborik's goal-scoring pace

by Dan Rosen /
The season is getting shorter by the day, the Stanley Cup Playoff races are tightening up, and the importance of each game is growing for so many teams, especially the ones that still believe they're contenders but now fully understand their deficiencies. With all that in mind, it's time to change the format of Trending This Week to focus more of the attention on the here and now and less on the future.
So, instead of looking ahead to what could soon be trending in the NHL as this column did for the first 11 weeks of the season, Trending This Week will now take a closer look at seven current topics in the League.
Weather maps, old rivals, a red-hot Ranger, the return of a talented team, an interesting time in Dallas, concern about a different D.C. star, and a noticeable stat should all be trending this week in the National Hockey League.


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It's that time of the year again, when fans of the NHL Winter Classic bookmark in their favorites and find the nightly weather reports to be can't-miss TV. Will it rain? Will it snow? Will it be too warm? Will they start the game on time? Will they be able to play the game?
The uncertainty and all those questions notwithstanding, poring over the details of the weather reports is actually one of the more fun things to do around the Winter Classic. It also speaks to the interest this game has generated.
The League stumbled onto a gold mine in Buffalo back in 2008, and has managed to make the Winter Classic an annual tradition that is looked forward to by even casual fans. But every year around this time, things get a bit tense as the weather forecast for the big day begins coming into focus.
As of Wednesday afternoon, NHL Senior Vice President of Events Don Renzulli told the reports he is getting are telling him that at game time on Jan. 2 the weather in Philadelphia should be mostly clear with temperatures in the mid-40s.
Renzulli also said there is a chance for rain to hit the area; perhaps at the conclusion of the game or even later. And while he is quick to point out that the twice-daily reports he receives from a Pennsylvania-based weather tracking company, Planalytics, could be different Thursday than they were Wednesday, the League does not have the same concern about weather this year as it did last year when rain in forecast pushed the game's start back several hours.
Adam Graves shook his head in an interview with last week when he was asked if there would be a fight, even if it is staged and just for show, in the Molson Canadian 2012 NHL Winter Classic Alumni game on Dec. 31 at Citizens Bank Park.
"We may be past our prime for that," Graves said while laughing.
OK, so maybe there won't be a fight (nor should they be), but there should be several interesting moments when the old(er) Flyers and Rangers get together on Saturday. Graves, the ex-Ranger whose No. 9 hangs from the Garden ceiling, said everybody he talks to has a certain sense of curiosity as to how this all will unfold. And Ranger fans are asking him how much he's been skating because, to them, winning Saturday is important.
Remember, many of these guys, from both the '70s and the '90s, squared off against each other in fierce rivalry games, including in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The fans haven't forgotten, but now that the players are older and have been away from the rivalry for quite some time you'd expect those feelings of hatred to fade.
Maybe we'll see just a twinge of it return Saturday. We can at least hope for it.
Marian Gaborik
Right Wing - NYR
GOALS: 22 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 33
SOG: 123 | +/-: 10
Marian Gaborik has found his scoring touch after what was a disappointing 2010-11 season. In 34 games Gaborik has 22 goals, the exact total he had in 64 games last season. He is on pace for 51 goals, which would blow away his career-high of 42, a mark he hit with the Wild in 2007-08 and with the Rangers in 2009-10.
What's surprising about Gaborik's production is he's doing it with Derek Stepan, not Brad Richards, as the center on his line. Entering the season, everyone thought the Richards-Gaborik pairing would give the Rangers one of the most formidable top lines in the League, but the styles of those two players have yet to mesh and coach John Tortorella has found a productive line with Gaborik, Stepan and Artem Anisimov.
Stepan has 25 points, including 17 assists, and Anisimov has come on with several strong games of late to give him 22 points for the season. Richards has also found a home in between Carl Hagelin and Ryan Callahan, and is still a major reason why the Rangers could potentially hold the lead in the Eastern Conference by the time they arrive in Philadelphia for the Winter Classic.
The early returns in Los Angeles since coach Darryl Sutter was hired suggest GM Dean Lombardi may get the last laugh before too long.
Lombardi was criticized in some quarters for replacing Terry Murray with a guy that hasn't coached since 2006 and has won less than half of the games he's coached in a long career. But the Kings have responded to what blogger Jeremy Roenick called Sutter's "drill sergeant" ways by going 3-0-1 in his first four games, allowing just six goals while scoring nine.
The Kings appear to be working harder under Sutter, and the results are telling. They've killed off 20 consecutive power plays, including 14 since Sutter took over four games ago. The Kings have also received spectacular goaltending from Jonathan Quick, who made 38 saves for a 2-0 win against the Western Conference-leading Blackhawks on Wednesday. He has won four of five starts since getting pulled in Detroit.
The bottom line with the Kings is they were too talented to be under-performing the way they were under Murray. With the right kick in the pants it was almost a lock that the Kings would turn their season around and become a legit contender again. While it's too soon to say with absolute certainty that that is what we're seeing right now, the response Sutter is getting from this team must be putting a smile on Lombardi's face.
Kari Lehtonen
Goalie - DAL
RECORD: 13-4-1
GAA: 2.34 | SVP: 0.926
Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen is expected to return to the lineup Thursday, and it couldn't come at a better time. The Stars have lost two of their past three games and they've allowed 21 goals in their past five, but they are hanging with the San Jose Sharks in the Pacific Division and there's reason to believe that, if healthy, they can earn a top-three seed in the Western Conference.
Lehtonen is obviously a huge piece to the puzzle. He was one of the best goalies in the League during the first month and a half before he went down with a lower-body injury. The Stars survived without him -- going 7-5 -- largely because 26-year-old rookie goalie Richard Bachman stepped in and was so good that GM Joe Nieuwendyk decided to keep him and waive Andrew Raycroft to make room for Lehtonen on the active roster.
As the season moves into January, the focus will turn to Nieuwendyk to see what else he can do to make this team an even more stable contender.
A year ago the Stars were in this same position in the standings, but Nieuwendyk waited until late February, when the team had dropped into seventh place in the Western Conference, before adding Alex Goligoski. Nieuwendyk then decided to go for it by keeping Brad Richards at the trade deadline, but the team didn't make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The better move for Nieuwendyk this season would be to add to the roster, specifically on defense, as soon as he can. It will benefit the Stars as they move into the crucial playoff push in February and March. The critical question facing Nieuwendyk is can he make a significant upgrade without sacrificing some of the chemistry this team clearly has developed under rookie coach Glen Gulutzan?
Mike Green's value to the Capitals has never been more evident than this season. Washington is 8-0 with the star defenseman in the lineup; it is 10-15-2 without him. Green gives the Caps that speed from the back end to get the puck out of the zone quickly.
Green, though, missed his 21st consecutive game with a groin strain Wednesday. He appears to be getting better as he took part in Washington's 45-minute practice session Tuesday, but said afterward his groin injury could be a career-long problem.
Green has earned the unfortunate rap of being injury prone (he's played in only 57 of the past 117 games), which isn't good for a guy who is in the final year of a four-year, $21-million contract. He'll be a restricted free agent after the season, but unless the Caps medical staff and Green figure out a way to keep him on the ice, he might not get the long-term, life-changing, third NHL contract he was all but guaranteed two years ago
Green's talent suggests he's worth it, but his injuries raise significant red flags.
In scanning some of the pertinent statistics in the NHL it is impossible to miss the plus-57 associated with the Boston Bruins. That would be the Bruins' goal differential, which is simply remarkable for this point in the season. They've scored 118 goals and have allowed only 63 in 34 games, but included in their goal differential is the extra goal awarded for their three shootout wins and the one against for their lone shootout loss.
The Bruins actually have the best goal differential this late in the season since their plus-57 in 2008.
It'll take nothing short of a small miracle for Boston to set a new NHL record for goal differential because the current record is plus-216, which was the mark hit by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. However, what is remarkable about the Bruins plus-57 is the fact that they have reached the positive number despite being a minus-3 in October.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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