Hockey Night in Canada commentator Craig Simpson takes a look at a few players to watch this week in the NHL.
Kris Letang vs Mike Green(Jamie Sabau & Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
While there are no shortage of good storylines for the continuing rivalry between the Caps and the Pens, one of the most interesting matchups for the Winter Classic (Jan. 1, CBC, CBCSports.ca, 1p.m. ET) is on the blue-line.
Washington's Mike Green has been the NHL's top scoring defenceman and runner-up for the Norris Trophy the last two straight years.
Pittsburgh's Kris Letang was a relatively unknown defender playing in the shadows of a host of Penguin superstars, but this season it's Letang who is the headliner on the blue-line heading into this Winter Classic matchup.
Last year Letang had three goals and 27 points in his third full season in the NHL. His career high was set in Pittsburgh's Cup-winning year in 2008-09, but it was still a modest 10 goals and 23 assists.
With the departure of Sergei Gonchar to Ottawa this summer, Letang was given more responsibility and has risen to the challenge in a big way. He and Atlanta's Dustin Byfuglien have been the surprise stories of the season.
With six goals and 31 points in just 37 games, Letang is not only poised to shatter his personal bests, but is third in scoring on the Penguins and for NHL defenceman, behind Byfuglien and Nick Lidstrom. His plus-18 is tied for second in the league.
Mike Green has been the game's best offensive defenceman for the last two years, with seasons of 19 and 31 goals, and 73 and 76 points along with a combined plus-63. This season however, Green has struggled to regain his form.
But with six goals and 10 assists over 31 games, he is well off his offensive pace. Green finds himself in unfamiliar territory this year, not only nowhere near the top of the NHL scoring race, but not even among the top scoring defenceman on his team. Rookie John Carlson has 17 points to lead the Caps.
Considering the heated rivalry between the Caps and Pens, this year's Winter Classic in Pittsburgh should live up to its billing.
For Letang, this is a great opportunity to take centre stage and emerge as a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate. For Green, it's a chance to get his season back on track.
Weather-permitting, it should be fun to watch.Tobias Enstrom(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
While his partner Dustin Byfuglien has grabbed most of the headlines for the upstart Atlanta Thrashers this season, defenceman Tobias Enstrom has been quietly having a career year of his own.
At 26 and in his fourth season in the NHL, Enstrom has taken his game to another level. He has been one of the key performers for a Thrashers team that has had a strong first half.
Byfuglien has made a huge impact offensively for Atlanta, but Enstrom has been a steadying influence at both ends of the ice. With an average of 24 minutes, 11 seconds of ice time per game, nobody plays more, and he is second on the team with 79 blocked shots.
With five goals and 23 assists in 38 games, Enstrom is tied for fifth in scoring among defenceman, and is third overall on the Thrashers.
Enstrom has taken on a real leadership role for Atlanta this year, after a career year last season with six goals and 50 points. With six points in his last five games, he's well on his way to setting new career highs in both goals and points. Matt Duchene(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
If you watch Coach's Corner
, you know Don Cherry has been one of Matt Duchene's biggest supporters since he broke into the NHL as the league's third overall pick in the 2009 draft.
As an 18-year-old, Duchene had an impressive rookie season last year, with 24 goals and 55 points helping the surprising Colorado Avalanche make the playoffs.
In this his second season, Duchene has quickly eliminated any notion that he would suffer the ill effects of the dreaded sophomore jinx. With 15 goals and 21 assists in 36 games, he leads the Avs in scoring and is tied for 15th in the NHL. All this before his 20th birthday.
On Hockey Night in Canada Radio a week ago, Duchene said that he prides himself on being a consistent performer and has always tried to avoid any long streaks without producing.
Prior to that conversation, he had just gone through a seven-game points streak with six goals and six assists, but after that he went into the Christmas break having played three straight games without a point, and was minus-5.
In his first game back on Monday, he had two goals on six shots in 22:37 of ice time. With the Avs rolling through Western Canada on a road trip through Northwest Division rivals Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, Duchene should be a player to watch.Marian Hossa(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Injuries have been something that Marian Hossa has had to battle through in his short time in Chicago. Last year he missed 25 games during the regular season en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
This year, the number of games he's missed due to injury is already at 15. But on Sunday Hossa was back on the ice and looked to be back in top form.
In his first game in a month, Hossa had two assists in a 4-1 Chicago win over the Columbus Blue Jackets to mark his return. The Hawks need Hossa to be a factor now more than ever as the Blackhawks find themselves fighting for their playoff lives.
With 43 points in 37 games, they sit seventh in the West, but have played 2 more games than the eighth and ninth-place teams. From fourth to 12th place, there is a difference of just six points (45-39).
Winning the Central Division for the second year in a row would guarantee Chicago a top-three seed, but the Hawks are seven points back of Detroit and the Wings have a game in hand.
A healthy and productive Hossa should give the Hawks a chance to take a run at the Wings, or at least get them back to the post-season and a chance to defend the Stanley Cup.
Up this week for Hossa and the Hawks are Western Conference rivals St. Louis, San Jose and Anaheim.
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