|Before Thursday, Giroux's last goal was against the Blueshirts in the Classic. (Getty Images)|
Let's go back just over a month on the NHL schedule, shall we? The Philadelphia Flyers had just finished losing to the New York Rangers in one hell of a finish in the Winter Classic hosted by the City of Brotherly Love.
The first half of the game was pretty dull, no scoring. But the game made up for it with a great second half, including a penalty shot in the final minute.
Among the two goals that the Flyers potted that cold January day was a beauty from Claude Giroux. It was his 18th of the season. It was a great start to the season that led me to pick him as my midseason Hart Trophy winner.
Would you believe that Giroux went the entire rest of the month without a goal? In the remaining 12 games in January, Giroux had nine assists.
You could look at it as a classic case of regressing to the mean. Giroux can score, but in his previous four seasons with the Flyers he never scored more than 25 (the mark he hit last season). Interestingly, he has exactly twice as many assists in his career as goals at this point. So his 18 goals and 29 assists were a bit out of whack. He's still a play-making center.
The only thing I wasn't sure about if it was a regression to the mean or not is if we were going to see a new way of playing for Giroux. There was obviously a lot more pressure put on him to carry the load after the offseason the Flyers had, jettisoning Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
Well, a Flyer can't change his wings. Or something like that.
Now of course Giroux scored on Thursday night in the Flyers' win over the Nashville Predators and ruined the nice little tie in I was going for here. That being the Flyers visiting Madison Square Garden on Sunday and the Rangers for their first encounter since that day outside in South Philly.
It should be a nice appetizer for the Rangers/New York Giants fans before the Super Bowl.
Little will be all that different from that Jan. 2 meeting either. The teams are still two of the best in the NHL, fighting each other in the Atlantic Division and the Rangers are even expected to be wearing their Winter Classic jerseys. Old-schoolers can rejoice, that would mean the Rangers are wearing white (or at least off-white) at home again. For one day.
Yes, it will be a pretty familiar feel, except for, you know, the game being played indoors on a quality sheet of ice (no disrespect to Dan Craig, the NHL's ice guru). And perhaps a different Giroux from that earlier meeting, but the same Giroux the Flyers have fallen in love with and have come to count on, goals or not.
It seems like every weekend there is a massive matchup from the Central Division. I guess that happens when you have four of the eight teams in the league that have reached the 65-point mark.
Between the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators, that's 36 games against one another throughout the season. So if the schedule were completely balanced, it would actually be more than once a week.
So it's not a rare occurrence to see one of the games. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be missed or not enjoyed to the fullest.
That's why we suggest you don't miss out on the Blues' visit to the Predators on Saturday night. It might help if you like defensively sound hockey, though.
This is their fourth meeting this season and if we throw out the Predators' 4-2 win in the second game of the season seeing that it's pre-Hitchcock, each game has played out the same way, a 2-1 shootout win for the Preds. That's not a lot of scoring but it doesn't mean it's not a lot of good hockey.
Don't underestimate the importance of all these games in the Central. They are what people like to call four-point games because of the potential swings they can cause in the standings. Considering the second and third seeds will go to the Pacific and Northwest, the second spot in the Central by season's end will be crucial, it will give that team home-ice advantage against what will surely be another Central foe.
Battle of Ontario resumes
This season the stakes have been ramped up in the Battle of Ontario already with the success the teams have enjoyed thus far and their battling at the bottom half of the East's playoff picture. But this one is crucial for the Sens.
This will be their second game back on home ice since Jan. 16 (Friday night they host the Islanders) and for the first time this season, the Sens have lost four straight in regulation. For a team that has played more games than anybody in the NHL, that has made their somewhat comfortable position in the playoff picture much more perilous. Considering the Leafs are one of their competitors for one of the East's eight spots, you can see why this is a massive game for Ottawa.
The captain is back
On the other side of that provincial border down in Montreal, Ovechkin will play his first game since his three-game suspension before the All-Star break. Because of the time off it feels like Ovi has been out much longer than three games, his last game coming way back on Jan. 22.
"I'm not used to watching the games from upstairs and staying [on the ice] after the morning skates," Ovechkin told Chuck Gormley of CSN Washington. "I'm pretty excited. I miss hockey a lot. It's a situation where you miss the game and you're tired of watching."
The Caps weren't bad in his absence, playing honestly about the same level they were with him, going 1-1-1 in the three games. But there's no doubt he's welcome back in the lineup for his offensive ability on a team that just isn't doing a whole lot when they have the puck these days.
But they are clearly much more meaningful this season, more than just some interesting nostalgia coming back up to the fore. This is about the playoffs.
The West has six spots pretty much spoken for already and the Kings are making a good case for the seventh. That means there are a lot of teams fighting for one final spot in the playoff picture, currently held by Minnesota. The Stars are right behind them, three points back with a game in hand. So yea, the games are pretty big.
Of course that includes Saturday night's tilt in Dallas. Both teams could stand to get some wins going again as the Wild are just 4-5-1 in their last 10 while the Stars are 3-6-1 in that same span.
Fight for Florida
Are you noticing a little bit of a rivalry sense this weekend?
It's hard to quite believe, but this Saturday's game in Tampa Bay will mark the sixth and final meeting between them this season and there are still 30 or so games to go in the season.
Don't let the importance of the game for the Lightning be lost. Their playoff hopes are slim but not non-existent. A chance to take two points from the Southeast-leading Panthers would help them stay within striking distance. It's pretty close to the clichéd must-win game for the Bolts.
We're going streaking!
Here is a look at the streaks, both good and bad, headed into the weekend across the NHL.
San Jose Sharks: Believe it or not, this is the only team in the league right now that has a winning streak (three games in a row or more). And the Sharks barely qualify with three straight. They visit the Coyotes on Saturday night looking for four straight.
Senators: Already covered above, they have lost four in a row in regulation for the first time this season. They have two home games, against the Isles and Leafs.