Pittsburgh Penguins at Montreal Canadiens (115, 5)
A few more firsts for Sidney Crosby in his comeback week. This will be his first road game, his first game in Canada in nearly a year and, more importantly for bettors, his first back end of back-to-back games.
Score and snarl
It’s been an eventful return for Crosby. In Game 1, it was a night to remember. Two goals, two assists, plus-3 and a victory. In Game 2? Different story, but still active. Six minutes in penalties, no points and a plus-one in an overtime loss.
Perhaps more important, though, Crosby, who took on the Ottawa Senators in Pittsburgh Friday, has shown flash and dash, but at the same time he’s displayed some grit and grind. Keep in mind, the Penguins posted three points in those first two games, so all appears well as Pittsburgh shoots for a division title and beyond.
A Hal of a return
He won’t make much of a difference on the stat sheet, but don’t discount the value of veteran defenseman Hal Gill to the Canadiens. Gill, the towering left-handed shot who crossed the 1,000-game mark earlier this season, missed five games with an infection before returning against Carolina in Raleigh Wednesday.
Gill, all 6-foot-7 of him, was a plus-one with three shots on goal and two blocks as Montreal outlasted the Hurricanes 4-3 in a shootout. Like Crosby, we’ll see where his stamina is, because Montreal also played Friday, at Philadelphia.
Think Dallas might want a re-do on the James Neal trade from last season? The Stars’ former second-round pick has been a force in Pittsburgh as he continues his first full season there.
Through Thursday, he led the Penguins with 13 goals and had at least one point in nine of his previous 11 games. He had a goal and six shots on net as Pittsburgh lost to St. Louis, 3-2 in overtime Wednesday.
And consider this. At some point, he may play alongside Crosby.
Four of the last five meetings in this series have gone under. Montreal has won five of the last seven installments in this rivalry. The teams have played once this season, a 3-1 Penguins victory on Oct. 20.
Vancouver Canucks at San Jose Sharks (-140, 5.5)
Two Western Conference teams synonymous with making the postseason but stumbling once they get there, meet in Northern California, as the Sharks look to improve their first-place standing in the Pacific Division.
San Jose has recovered well from a sluggish start, and it owes a lot to goaltender Antti Niemi.
Often criticized for inconsistency -- some of it warranted -- Niemi has won a Stanley Cup in his career and is equipped to handle the ebbs and flows of the marathon that is the NHL regular season.
On Wednesday, Niemi was at his best. He made 34 saves en route to his first shutout of the season, 1-0 over the Blackhawks, his former team.
Tough sledding for Kesler
Just as Ryan Kesler started to get back in the groove after offseason hip surgery, he suffered a shoulder injury. You can understand why the Vancouver forward’s statistics aren’t great.
But he’s back in action now and perhaps is ready to get on a roll. After a breakout season last year, with 41 goals and 73 points, he has just three and nine this year. But he buried an empty netter, had four shots and recorded 26 shifts in Wednesday’s 3-0 victory over the Avalanche.
Die-hard fans in Vancouver may have their own opinions of Canucks coach Alain Vigneault and whether he can ever take the team to the promised land. Certainly, he is the subject of much criticism.
But he finds ways to get wins, at least in the regular season. In fact, that victory over the Avalanche in Colorado was his 247th behind the Canucks’ bench. In doing so, he surpassed Marc Crawford as the franchise’s winningest coach.
Vancouver has won five of the last six meetings in this series. Four of the last six installments of this rivalry have gone over, but the last three San Jose games have gone under. This is their first meeting this season.