A prelude to the big game, the scene leading up to the big game, a star on a tear, three important players on the mend and a Western Conference team that has hit a rough patch are all trending this week in the NHL.
The Flyers and Rangers, with the help of HBO, have made Friday's game at Madison Square Garden and the rematch out in the elements to follow nine days later in the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic mean quite a bit more than just another couple of games between two close rivals.
Not only is "24/7" telling us a story that goes well inside both teams, further than anyone in the media business has, but both the Flyers and Rangers are also among the best in the Eastern Conference with Philadelphia holding a four-point lead in the Atlantic Division.
They met once before this season (New York won 2-0) and it started with a fight between Brandon Prust
and Zac Rinaldo
just four seconds into the match. That was about par for the course for this rivalry, which will only get amped up even more in the coming days, starting with Friday's hyped -- yet all important -- game at the Garden.
Lost in the buzz of the rivalry, the standings, the Winter Classic and "24/7" is the fact that Jaromir Jagr
will be making his return to the Garden for the first time since playing his final game there as captain of the Rangers on May 1, 2008. The last thing Rangers fans want to see is Jagr saluting them.
Dan Craig and his crew work on contructing the 2012 NHL Winter Classic rink at Citizens Park Bank. (Photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI)
If Mother Nature cooperates, Dan Craig and his crew are scheduled to turn on the hose and start spraying water by Thursday night. There's always drama behind the first droplets of water that hit the ice pans. For instance, last year HBO had a special "24/7" camera crew at Heinz Field filming Craig moving the hose from side to side as he walked directly toward the camera.
However, once the cameras are powered down, just a few unheralded members of the crew are left out in the middle of the cold night spraying water. You'd think it would be boring, but to them it is so peaceful, almost magical, and the time flies. To Craig and his crew, spraying water under security lights is about the equivalent of skating alone at night on a frozen pond illuminated only by the headlights of your car.
There's something to be said for the mystique behind it. There's something to be said for the mystique behind the Winter Classic.
had a magical night Wednesday in his return after missing four games with a concussion. He put up a goal and dished out three assists against Dallas to take over the scoring lead in the NHL with 43 points and pace the Flyers to a 4-1 victory.
, who was never diagnosed with a concussion, nevertheless told reporters in L.A. on Wednesday that he passed all the necessary tests and has been cleared to play. He is expected to be in the lineup Thursday against Anaheim for coach Darryl Sutter
There are also reports that Milan Michalek
, who has been out with a concussion, could be back to the Senators' lineup perhaps as early as Friday.
Yes, Sidney Crosby
is still out, Chris Pronger
will not be back this season, and other players also remain sidelined with concussions or concussion-like symptoms. But the returns of Giroux, Richards and Michalek certainly help erase the sting that the entire hockey world felt last week when there was a sudden rash of star players going down with concussions or concussion-like symptoms.
Center - PIT
GOALS: 15 | ASST: 24 | PTS: 39
SOG: 130 | +/-: 5
We're not breaking any ground here by saying the Penguins are getting exactly what they need from Evgeni Malkin
, but it should be noted because the guy is answering the call in a big way. Malkin has put up 15 points in the six games since No. 87 left the lineup.
Malkin was No. 20 in the scoring race last Tuesday with 28 points, but he went to bed Tuesday night tied for the League lead with 39, only to be passed by Giroux again on Wednesday.
Malkin spent the offseason rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee, and he's been mostly sensational despite sitting out seven of eight games in October with soreness in that same knee. He has points in 21 of 27 games, including 13 games with at least two points. He's on pace for 107 points, proving he's back in the category of the top five players on the planet.
The Wild are winless in their past five games because their offense has totally dried up. A big problem has been their power play, which has turned anemic after being good for almost a goal-per-game during their 12-2 run from Nov. 13 through Dec. 10.
Minnesota's power play is just 1-for-11 in the past five games, including 0-for-7 in the past four games. The Wild did not register a shot on goal during three power plays in Tuesday's 2-1 loss to Calgary, and have just two shots on five power plays in the past three games.
The Wild have been good enough this season to withstand a slide, but if it continues they will start hearing questions about being contenders or pretenders. Remember, the Stars led the Western Conference with 45 points exactly one year ago today, and they didn't even make the playoffs.
Minnesota has 45 points right now.
The third installment of a phenomenal show, the World Juniors, Ovi, and a GM that has to be wondering what to do could all be trending by this time next week. Why? Well…
Rangers coach John Tortorella and his relationship with young Liam Trainer stole the show in the second episode of HBO's critically acclaimed series, "24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic." If you didn't appreciate and respect Tortorella before, you better now. If you still don't, well you simply just don't have a pulse.
No one on either side of this series has come across better over the first two episodes than Tortorella, who appears in total control. His locker room address after the first period in St. Louis was exactly who he is -- an emotional, fiery leader who cares about winning and pushes his team to play the game the way he wants it to play, the way he knows it can win.
Without question we'll see more of Tortorella in the third episode next Wednesday night, but there are plenty of other storylines coming up, including Friday's game between the Flyers and Rangers at MSG as well as the build-out going on at Citizens Bank Park.
This show is, once again, must-see TV for sports fans.
Hopefully by this time next week the ice at Citizens Bank Park should be painted white, with lines and logos coming in next. The rink will almost be finished and ready for the scheduled media skate on Dec. 30.
While it is always funny to see media types -- like you know who -- taking twirls around the ice, trying not to fall down or slam into the boards just to stop, Dan Craig is both laughing and keeping a close eye on how the ice is reacting. His first true test will be the alumni game on Dec. 31 and then, of course, the practice day on Jan. 1; but the media skate at least gives Craig a guide.
More importantly, though, is how the ice responds to the weather and potential sun that could beat on it in the afternoon. In fact, Craig's study of the weather patterns started Monday as he took mental notes on the approximate time the sun hit the area where the ice will eventually be, how much of it there was, and where it was brightest compared to where there were shadows.
Getting a gauge on that is as important as making ice because the patterns inside the ballpark tell Craig how hard he may or may not have to push the refrigeration truck.
Full disclosure: Yours truly is not an avid follower of the World Junior Championship or junior hockey in general. Hey, I was told a long time ago that honesty goes a long way, so there's no reason to fake it here. You'd figure it out anyway.
So, to get a read on the upcoming 2012 World Junior Championship, I went straight to NHL.com colleague Mike Morreale, who is an avid follower of both the WJC and junior hockey, and will begin his on-scene coverage from Edmonton on Monday with the U.S.-Denmark game at Rexall Place.
Judging from his input, the favorites along with Canada are the United States and Sweden. Russia is the defending champion, but it came out of nowhere to win it last year. Who knows, maybe it will again this year.
Keep an eye out for Nail Yakupov (Russia), Jaden Schwartz
(Canada), Jason Zucker
(U.S.), Mika Zibanejad
(Sweden) and Michael Granlund (Finland). We're talking about five future stars in the NHL, including the guy (Yakupov) who could be the No. 1 pick in the 2012 Draft. Schwartz (St. Louis), Zucker (Minnesota), Zibanejad (Ottawa) and Granlund (Minnesota) are already a step closer to the NHL.
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 23
SOG: 124 | +/-: -8
Ovechkin scored his 11th goal of the season Tuesday. It was his second goal in the past three games and third in the past six. With that pace, he'd be a 40-goal scorer this season, but then there was also that drought in which he scored just once in 12 games this season, making 40 goals seem almost impossible this season.
However, what if Ovechkin scores again Friday in New Jersey? What if he keeps scoring a goal once every two games? What if -- gasp -- he scores two goals in a game? If he does any or all of that, then we'll finally be able to say he's on a roll.
It's about time he gave everyone that chance.
Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman
knows his team has a defense and goaltending tandem that is soured, but is it worth making changes once the holiday roster freeze lifts next week or should he wait until closer to the trade deadline? If Yzerman waits until February or early March, it's possible that this season could be beyond the point of salvaging.
After watching Wednesday's meltdown at HP Pavilion, a 7-2 loss to the Sharks, Yzerman must have an itchy trigger finger. Yet, he's smart enough to know that he might not find enough value on the trade market to both help turn things around now and keep the Lightning's future intact. But if he wants to try to save this season, can he wait much longer to see if coach Guy Boucher
can turn around a team with a slow defense and 42-year-old goalie looking his age?
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl