Rangers-Marc Staal: After sitting out the last ten games because of a concussion he suffered on December 7th, Marc Staal returns to the Rangers lineup here on New Year's Eve---intriguingly similar to how he returned to the lineup from his major concussion in 2011-12 on New Year's Day in the Winter Classic against the Flyers. Of course missing ten games is much better than missing 36 as he did two years ago, and the hope is that Staal will regain top form pretty quickly. Without Staal the Rangers allowed three goals or more in eight of ten games, and that does not seem like a coincidence because he is a major force on the blueline and helps provide balance among the three defensive pairings. With Staal sliding back in to the second pair, it allows other d-men to return to their usual roles---especially when Anton Stralman returns from his wrist injury to join Staal on that second pair---providing the team depth and balance. Staal has been in great spirits the past few days as his return neared, and the only question is how good his conditioning will be when he actually plays in a game. His return, though, is a big time lift for the Rangers.
Panthers-Aleksander Barkov: The second overall selction in the 2013 NHL Draft is having an impressive rookie season, especially as of late. The 18 year-old Barkov is riding a three-game point-scoring streak, and is coming of an impressive game Sunday against the Canadiens in which he scored his seventh goal of the season, fired four shots on goal, was a plus-three, and logged just under 18 minutes worth of ice time. Barkov ranks ninth among all NHL rookies with 18 points, tied for seventh with 11 assists, and tied for 11th with seven goals. On his own team Barkov ranks as the third-leading scorer, just two points behind veteran Tomas Fleischmann who has 20 points. After a fast start with two goals and five points in his first five games, Barkov slowed down somewhat, but is on fire again with three goals and eight points in his last nine contests. In two games against the Rangers the Finnish rookie has one goal, four shots, and is a minus-one.