Which teams are the most likely candidates to 'break through' in 2010-11?

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Thumbnail image for conkblockdrinks.jpgLate last week Mike Chen of From the Rink gave his three picks for possible “breakout” teams for the 2010-11 season. I personally agree that the Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers show some promise, but while it cannot get much worse for the Columbus Blue Jackets, they don’t scream “breakout” to me. (Then again, the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes showed few signs of life aside from adding a new coach last summer, so Chen’s logic might be pretty sound there.)

That post got me thinking about other candidates. I’m going to cheat a bit by taking a look at all the teams who missed the playoffs rather than the most hopeless teams to see who might have the best chance to jump. The one big exception, though, is that I need to think that each team has a genuine chance to make the playoffs.

St. Louis Blues

Why they might make the playoffs: Much like the Blue Jackets, the Blues were a Central division playoff surprise in 08-09 that came plummeting back to earth last season. The difference is that St. Louis boasts (in my opinion at least) a much stronger roster than Columbus. While they lack a top-end star like Rick Nash, I might take their deeper rotation of quality forwards (David Backes, TJ Oshie, David Perron, etc.) instead. Especially when you consider their superior defensive and goaltending groups.

Glass-half-empty points: That being said, the Central division is a beast. Chicago and Detroit are still the cream of the crop and Nashville is scrappy enough to make third place a tough spot to earn. If Chen is right about the Blue Jackets, that means the division won’t have an obvious weak team, unless that might be the Blues after all.

Thumbnail image for ducksthreeforwards.jpgAnaheim Ducks

Why they might make the playoffs: Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Jonas Hiller and (hopefully) Bobby Ryan plus the two old Finns (Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu) gives the Ducks a nice group in the big minute spots. The Pacific division is unpredictable but might be a little bit less wicked next season with the Sharks a little weaker, the Coyotes primed for a possible regression, the Stars in disarray and the Kings missing out on the Kovalchuk sweepstakes.

Glass-half-empty points: Still, the Ducks might be called the “Ucks” since they have no D. (Like what I did there? Took a page out of the “He’s Ason Kidd because he has no J” book of insults.) Seriously, though, their defense is awful.

Calgary Flames

Why they might make the playoffs: They still have some talent, maybe. Obviously, there’s Iginla and Kipper plus Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regehr. I didn’t hate the cheap addition of Alex Tanguay and while I snickered at the Olli Jokinen signing, maybe he can score some filler goals to increase their chances at a playoff berth. Plus, the Sutter brothers are under some serious pressure. Sometimes that brings the best out of people.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ollijokinen3.jpgSometimes.

Glass-half-empty points: Most hockey people see the Flames as a sinking ship. I have to admit I lean in that direction, but I thought the Flames might be worth mentioning even if it’s just because they’re one of the best teams that didn’t make the playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Why they might make the playoffs: Like the Flames, their are a lot of heads that could roll if they don’t make the playoffs. The team will get a training camp to congeal after Brian Burke’s many moves (I’d recommend handing out name tags). While I disagree with many of Burke’s transactions, he did get Kris Versteeg for very little and the team is better on paper. Versteeg, Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and the could-be-better goalie duo of J.S. Giguere and “The Monster”? They won’t rock the world, but this is the Eastern Conference, after all.

Glass-half-empty points: Much like with the Flames, I had to strain to be positive about the Leafs. They’re under a lot of pressure and spending a lot of money to fight for the 7th or 8th spot in the East. The odds are high that the bottom of that conference won’t boast a sleeping giant in the bottom ranks like the Flyers again next summer, but making the playoffs would be quite the change of pace for the moribund Leafs franchise.

So those are my four guesses for teams who might “break through” next season, even if the Ducks and Flames were a bit of a cheat. Did I miss anyone? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The Buzzer: Auston Matthews’ late-game heroics; Pens move into top spot in Metropolitan

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Players of the Night:

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers: Giroux notched a goal and two assists in Sunday’s win over the New York Rangers. The goal was the 200th of his career. He’s been incredible this year. The Flyers forward is up to 69 points in 59 games, which puts him on pace to score 96 points. Giroux now has four multi-point performances in his last six outings.

Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers: Like his teammate Giroux, Konecny also picked up a goal and two assists. He’s now accumulated 18 points in 15 games. Konecny is currently riding a four-game point streak.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: Even though the Oilers are struggling this season, McDavid has found a way to remain productive. His hat trick in Sunday’s tilt against the Avalanche was his third of the season. After scoring 100 points last year, he’s on pace to hit 98 right now.

Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins: Guentzel’s three-point night helped propel the Penguins to victory against the Blue Jackets. Guentzel now has five points in his last four games.

Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks: Pavelski had a three-point night of his own against the Dallas Stars. If you scroll a little lower, you’ll see his spin-o-rama goal. The veteran isn’t having his best season, but he’s managed to pick up nine points in his last six games.

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets: The Jets are an offensive machine that not many teams can stop right now. Connor picked up a pair of goals against the Panthers, which means he’s already scored 19 times in his first full NHL season.

Highlights of the Night:

Taylor Hall comes up clutch against the Hurricanes:

If you like spinning backhanders, Joe Pavelski has you covered:

How about this save from Semyon Varlamov:

The hand-eye coordination from Evgenii Dadonov is pretty ridiculous:

Sometimes it takes two to keep the puck out of the net:

Connor Hellebuyck made a sweet save of his own against the Panthers:

Factoids of the Night:

Auston Matthews‘ late-game heroics against Detroit:

The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions are in top spot in the Metropolitan Division:

Hall is en fuego:

Scores:

Flyers 7, Rangers 4

Oilers 4, Avalanche 2

Devils 3, Hurricanes 2 (OT)

Penguins 5, Blue Jackets 2

Maple Leafs 3, Red Wings 2

Sharks 5, Stars 2

Jets 7, Panthers 2

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Golden Knights don’t want to focus on big picture

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LAS VEGAS (AP) The Vegas Golden Knights have done an excellent job of not looking too far ahead in their inaugural season.

It has served them well during their amazing run as an expansion team, all the way to the top of the NHL standings.

After Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Golden Knights lead the NHL with 82 points.

According to the league, Vegas is the first expansion team in its inaugural season to hold the outright lead in the standings this late into a season – 58 games played – besting the 1967-68 Kings, who led the league through 19 games on Nov. 24, 1967.

But as veteran goalkeeper and three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury said, there is a point in the season every team is either trying to get into the playoffs or stay positioned where they are for the postseason.

“Right now, we’re in good shape,” Fleury said. “We are aware where we are, but we can’t just sit back. We have to keep chasing those points night after night.”

The cliche of “one game at a time” has transitioned into playing with a sense of urgency with seven weeks left in the regular season.

Four games into a seven-game homestand, Vegas has won three straight since losing to Philadelphia on Feb. 11. The Golden Knights responded with wins over Chicago, Edmonton, and the Canadiens, outscoring the three by a combined 15-6.

“We’re in a good spot right now, we’re happy where we are, but we’re a team that’s always going to have something to prove,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said.

“I think everyone probably watches the standings, a little more closer in the West than the East. It’s one thing about having a lot of points early and being in first place in the West.

“It’s a little different with this group, we all have something to prove still. We’re an expansion team, no one ever thought we’d be here, where we are right now.”

Nevertheless, McNabb said coach Gerard Gallant has done a good job of keeping his players focused, ensuring they’re performing their best each game.

“The whole point of taking it day by day is you’re not focused on the big picture and I feel like that’s a good approach for our team to have,” defenseman Shea Theodore said.

“You can’t look too far ahead, it’s just kind of how we’re rolling and we’re doing a good job with that. I feel like we’ve done a good job of showing the league we’re for real.”

Even team owner Bill Foley has gotten in on the act of not looking too far ahead. After Saturday night’s win, Foley expressed concern over Theodore’s recent throat infection that kept him out of the lineup, he spoke about Pierre-Edouard Bellemare getting injured during the game and said while he is happy with his team’s success it’s important not to become complacent.

“But it is fun, it’s great,” Foley said. “One thing we did when we did the expansion draft, it was a lot of hard work, and we put a lot of planning into it. We had five mock draft sessions in the expansion draft. We knew other teams as well or better than they knew themselves. So, we knew what we were getting. And (general manager) George (McPhee) did a phenomenal job in making some key deals. The result is what we have.

“We have guys that have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder and they want to play hard, and they really play hard against their former teams.”

With Saturday’s win over one of the NHL’s Original Six teams, Vegas improved to 22-4-2 at T-Mobile Arena, matching the 1979-80 Hartford Whalers (22-12-6) for the most home wins by a team in its first season.

It doesn’t get any easier for Vegas, which is 14-1-1 against Pacific Division teams, and faces key games this upcoming week against Anaheim on Monday, Calgary on Wednesday and Vancouver on Friday.

“The schedule is going to be tough with a lot of games coming up,” Fleury said. “We gotta find a way to be consistent all those nights and keep fighting. We still gotta focus playing one game at a time. You don’t want to think too far down the road. Every game is important.”

Veteran defenseman Deryk Engelland agreed.

“We’ve been doing a good job all year of taking it one game at a time and treating every game as a must win. It’s a tight division, it’s a tight conference and we just have to take it one game at a time.

“Come April 8, we can maybe gear up from there, but from now `til then it’s one game at time and get ready for the next one.”

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Should Zach Hyman’s goal on Petr Mrazek have counted?

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There may or may not have been a controversial call in Sunday’s game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.

With the score tied at zero in the first period, Zach Hyman appeared to have opened the scoring for the Leafs, but the goal was waved off because Red Wings netminder Petr Mrazek‘s mask came off.

As you can tell from the video below, Auston Matthews‘ shot catches Mrazek in the mask. Right before Hyman buries the buck into the net, Mrazek shakes his mask off because a strap snapped out of place. It’s definitely not an easy call to make in the moment.

Take a look for yourself:

Here’s what rule 9.6 of the NHL rulebook says about these kind of plays:

When a goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask and his team has control of the puck, the play shall be stopped immediately to allow the goalkeeper the opportunity to regain his helmet and/or face mask. When the opposing team has control of the puck, play shall only be stopped if there is no immediate and impending scoring opportunity. This stoppage of play must be made by the Referee. When play is stopped because the goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask, the ensuing face-off shall take place at one of the defending team’s end zone face-off spots.

When a goalkeeper deliberately removes his helmet and/or face mask in order to secure a stoppage of play, the Referee shall stop play as outlined above and in this case assess the goalkeeper a minor penalty for delaying the game. 

It’s clear that Mrazek removed his helmet intentionally, but he only did so because at least one of the straps snapped off. Also, the referee could have blown the play dead because he assumed that one of the two Red Wings in the slot would take control of the puck. Instead, both Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi whiffed on it.

But according to the rule, the play can only be stopped if the opposing team doesn’t have an immediate or impending scoring opportunity. Was Hyman’s chance an immediate or impending scoring opportunity? It sure looks like it, but that’s at the official’s discretion.

There’s a bit of a grey zone with this rule, so it’s hard to say if the referee applied the rule correctly or not.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Connor McDavid spoils Nathan MacKinnon’s return

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Sunday’s game between the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche was supposed to be all about Nathan MacKinnon‘s return to the lineup, but Connor McDavid had other ideas.

The Oilers might be struggling, but McDavid had some individual success this month. On Sunday, the Oilers captain picked up his second hat trick of the month in Edmonton’s 4-2 win over Colorado.

In eight games this month, the 21-year-old has accumulated an impressive 11 goals.

Here’s his first tally of the game:

McDavid finished the game with a plus-3 rating, five shots on goal and a huge save in 19:52 of ice time. That’s right, a huge save. With the Avs leading 1-0 in the first period, McDavid prevented the opposition from going up by two.

His second tally tied the game at two, while his hat-trick goal was scored into an empty-net.

According to NHL Public Relations, He’s the first Oiler to score three hat tricks in a season since Petr Klima in 1990-91.

Meanwhile, MacKinnon returned the lineup after missing eight games with an upper-body injury. He had a minus-2 rating, four shots on goal and one hit in 22:20 of ice time. Only Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen had more ice time among Avalanche forward.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.