Just like that, the Winter Classic is in the books, and the second half of the NHL schedule is unofficially underway. Through the first half of the campaign, we’ve seen some brilliant contests, some emotional returns, some heated rivalries write new chapters and some teams go from mere competitors to sworn enemies in one night.
And with 2018 over and the New Year upon us, let's look ahead at what’s to come on the schedule. Here are the 10 games you should be circling on your calendar:
Vancouver Canucks at Ottawa Senators — Jan. 2, 2019
An odd one to crack the list, perhaps, but one that will be must-see not for the two teams taking the ice — neither the Canucks or Senators will enter Wednesday’s game in a playoff position — but for the head-to-head between the league’s top two rookie forwards. On one side is the pure skill and finesse of Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson, who is on pace to hit the 80-point plateau in his freshman campaign. On the other is pesky point producer Brady Tkachuk, whose 10 goals and 20 points in 29 games gives him the second-best points per game of any rookie skater. As an added bonus, too, Colin White, second in rookie scoring, could also make some noise for the Senators.
Buffalo Sabres at Carolina Hurricanes — Jan. 11, 2019
For eight years, Jeff Skinner dutifully went about his business in Carolina as the leader of the Hurricanes offense. From his debut in 2010-11 as a fresh-faced 18-year-old to his departure this past summer as a...well, fresh-faced 25-year-old, Skinner led Carolina’s attack in goals (204), points (379) and worked his way into the franchise’s top 10 in both categories. And on Jan. 11, Skinner, now with the Sabres, returns to his first NHL home. There’s sure to be an emotional tribute, and a good chance some tears are shed.
New York Islanders at Washington Capitals — Jan. 18, 2019
Even without the potential for this to be a big game in the standings for the wild-card contending Islanders, who will need to pile up all the points they can if they’re to earn a post-season berth, it’s going to be one of the most intriguing of the campaign as it sees New York coach Barry Trotz return to Washington as the opposing bench boss for the first time since guiding the Capitals to the Stanley Cup last season. The Islanders have been much-improved under Trotz, while the Capitals haven’t missed a beat, pacing the Metropolitan Division and seemingly on their way to another divisional crown.
San Jose Sharks at Calgary Flames — Feb. 7, 2019
Were it not for the final minutes of the New Year’s Eve tilt between the Sharks and Flames, this game wouldn’t have made the list. But in the last 1:41 of the Dec. 31 clash between the Pacific Division clubs, tempers flared and more than 60 minutes in penalties were handed out, including fighting majors, game misconducts and match penalties. The bad blood that boiled to the surface on Monday night has a chance to boil over the next time these two teams clash. It just so happens they could be fighting for top spot in the Pacific, too, with three points currently separating the first-place Flames from the third-place Sharks.
Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers — Feb. 23, 2019
The Winter Classic is in the books with the Boston Bruins defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 in a dandy, and the NHL will be heading outdoors for the final time this season in late-February when the Penguins and Flyers write a new chapter in their long-standing rivalry. The outdoor tilt at Lincoln Financial Field will surely live up to the hype. The last time the two teams met outdoors, Pittsburgh skated away with a 4-2 victory.
Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets — Feb. 26, 2019
On paper, there isn’t much to this game. Truthfully, it didn’t stand out when the schedule was announced and it wouldn’t be the first choice of many to make this list. But here’s the intrigue: Feb. 26 is trade deadline day, and no team has bigger decisions to make than the Blue Jackets. Free agents-to-be Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky could both walk in the off-season, and if there’s no contracts in place for one or both by deadline day, Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen has to decide whether to get what he can for his star players or go all-in on chasing the Stanley Cup with uncertainty surrounding the futures of both.
Toronto Maple Leafs at New York Islanders — Feb. 28, 2019
Skinner’s return home will be emotional, but you can amp up the expectation for John Tavares’ first trip back to New York. The longtime Islanders captain and superstar broke a lot of hearts when he decided to jet to join his hometown Maple Leafs, and while there will no doubt be a video tribute and more than a few Islanders fans sporting their No. 91 jerseys, there’s a fair chance we’ll see some anger spewed from a fan base that has been vocal about feeling spurned by a player once heralded as their savior.
Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs — March 11, 2019
Much like the late-season clashes between the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets in 2017-18, games which had a playoff feel and appeared to be previews of what was to come between the Central’s top two teams, the mid-March meeting between Tampa Bay and Toronto could be a showcase of a potential Atlantic Division final. Better yet, though, the meeting will take place following the trade deadline, so we’ll see the rosters as they’re rounding into playoff form and after they’ve made their final tweaks and adjustments ahead of their respective pursuits of the Stanley Cup.
Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins — March 12, 2019
Have the Capitals or Penguins given anyone even the slightest reason to believe they won’t be meeting again come the first or second round of the post-season? It’s an annual tradition at this point, and the two sides look primed to finish one-two in the Metropolitan once again. The defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals will almost certainly tinker with their roster ahead of the deadline, as will the always-active Penguins. And when mid-March rolls around, with the teams gearing up for the post-season, they’ll meet one final time in the regular season. Again, there’s a fair chance it’ll serve as the appetizer for the best-of-seven the two teams will engage in come April or May.
Calgary Flames at Winnipeg Jets — March 16, 2019
Speaking of hatred, a meeting between the Western Conference’s two top teams mere days before the end of 2018 has made the March meeting between the Jets and Flames one worth circling on the calendar. One moment in particular, a Dustin Byfuglien slash to Johnny Gaudreau in the dying moments, incensed Flames fans and had Calgary calling for blood. Byfuglien was fined for the whack, but one figures the Flames won’t let that be the last of it. Oh, and though Byfuglien’s injured, it seems safe to suggest he’ll be back in action by the time March rolls around.