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Senators to beat Penguins 

With wins in back-to-back games over the New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes coming out of the All-Star break, the Ottawa Senators are gaining confidence. Now they’ll the Penguins fresh off of a 4-2 win over the Boston Bruins to end a four-game losing streak heading into the All-Star Break.

The Penguins are the superior team on paper, there’s no question about it, but the Senators have been playing with some extra jam of late despite losing Drake Batherson to long-term injury and being without No. 1 center Josh Norris. Pittsburgh will likely be without Evgeni Malkin, who is in COVID-19 protocols, but they’ve still got plenty of scoring.

This game is the rubber match of a three-game series between these two clubs. Both of the previous meetings were high-scoring affairs, the first a 6-3 win for Ottawa, the last a 6-4 win for the Penguins.

This is a total hunch play, but I really like how Ottawa is playing despite the absences of key players. Captain Brady Tkachuk has been on a mission and Matt Murray is playing some of his best hockey since becoming a Senator. I like his chances of getting one over on his former team.

Capitals to beat Canadiens 

Hockey Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis will make his NHL coaching debut Thursday night after being hired as interim coach by Montreal in a surprise announcement Wednesday. The two-time NHL scoring champion and one-time Hart Trophy winner as MVP, has not coached beyond the youth level, but he was a proven winner as a player. The Canadiens were in desperate need of a drastic move to try and get them out of their current tailspin and this fits that bill.

No one is quite sure how it will work, but St. Louis should be able to command respect immediately from a team that had lost its way under rookie head coach Dominique Ducharme. They’ll have a tough opponent to go up against in the new coach’s debut, though.

The Caps had a tough loss to Columbus coming out of the break, one they went into with a tough loss to the Oilers. Washington has not been especially consistent as of late. Their goaltending in particular has been shaky and cause for concern. That said, the Canadiens are coming off of a 7-1 loss and I’m not entirely sure the coaching change is going to pay immediate dividends.

Teams often get a bump initially when they make a change behind the bench, but the gap between Montreal and Washington is too great to expect it in this one.

Flames to beat Maple Leafs 

Back-to-backs are going to be frequent for NHL teams over the course of the season as the league looks to make up for lost time with the COVID-related pause in December. The Flames are coming out of the All-Star Break with a back-to-back right off the hop. Calgary, however, completed the first leg of this back-to-back with an absolutely dominant performance against the Vegas Golden Knights, rolling to a 6-0 win.

They could also be getting a deeper Maple Leafs lineup that expected. After being shaken up in a game Monday, Auston Matthews says he is good to go for Thursday’s matchup against Calgary. Toronto may also be able to get defenseman Jake Muzzin back into the lineup as he has resumed practicing with the team and is getting closer. I like Toronto’s chances even more if Muzzin is back in there.

The Leafs have won six straight including a 4-3 OT win over Carolina in that game Monday. In the only previous meeting with Calgary, Toronto won 2-1 in overtime. This should be a good matchup between two of Canada’s best teams. I don’t love picking teams on the second half of back-to-backs, but I watched Calgary last night and came away believing they’re just getting started. I’ll play the hot hand.

Lightning to beat Avalanche 

This is a heavyweight matchup between the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion and the Western Conference team many believe have a chance to go all the way in 2021-22. Neither team has played any games since the All-Star Break, so both should be rested. Unfortunately, this game will likely be missing one of its brightest stars as Nathan MacKinnon continues to practice without contact, which would suggest he’s not going to be available yet after sustaining a facial fracture and concussion in a game on Jan. 26.

Aside from MacKinnon, the Avs should have all other available regulars. The Lightning are mostly healthy as well, though it is unclear if Erik Cernak will be available to play in the game after missing multiple games before the All-Star Break. If he’s back, the Lightning are almost at full strength.

In a game like this where you’ve got two of the league’s most talented teams, the game will likely be won in the margins. I like the Avs on home ice, but I would like them more if they had one of the game’s best players in action. They can survive without MacKinnon, but the Lightning might just be a hair deeper.

I also give the edge in net to Tampa, with Andrei Vasilevskiy still playing at an elite level. I think this is going to be a tough game, but I’ll go with the champs in this one.

BETWAY BOOST: Senators and Lightning both to win