Riding the Zamboni – February 8th; Dirty hits dominate nightly discussion

Columbus 4 – Pittsburgh 1

A tough and ugly night for the Penguins in Pittsburgh as the Jackets jumped out quickly in the first with Rick Nash’s 24th goal of the year and only saw things get worse in the second when Samuel Pahlsson and Jakub Voracek tallied to put the Jackets up 3-0. Steve Mason stopped 32 shots to earn the win for Columbus. Tyler Kennedy had a power play goal for the Penguins but it wasn’t close to enough.

Making matters worse was yet another reckless and awful hit by Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke. Cooke boarded defenseman Fedor Tyutin in the first period putting Tyutin down on the ice and sparking a brawl that had Jackets center Derick Brassard squaring off with Cooke for the hit. Cooke was given a five-minute major for charging as well as five for fighting but was not kicked out of the game. This makes two games in a row where Cooke has made a highly questionable and dirty hit on a player. On Sunday, Cooke caught Alex Ovechkin with a knee-on-knee hit that had the Capitals in an uproar. Cooke has a disciplinary meeting with the NHL tomorrow as he’ll be facing some brand of action from the league for the hit.

New Jersey 3 – Carolina 2 (F/OT)

A night filled with rookies scoring saw Mattias Tedenby score twice for New Jersey including the game-winner in overtime as the Devils continued to stay hot. Jeff Skinner scored two power play goals for Carolina while Nick Palmieri also had a goal for New Jersey. Johan Hedberg held strong with 20 saves to get the win in goal while Martin Brodeur is out of action. Cam Ward made 31 stops in the loss.

Anton Volchenkov drew the ire of both the Hurricanes and his own coach. Volchenkov picked up three minor penalties which upset his coach Jacques Lemaire. One of those was an elbow to the head of Zach Boychuk that earned him an elbowing minor. The shot to the head is a virtual textbook violation of Rule 48 and the NHL will be meeting with Volchenkov about it to determine what action to take against him.

Buffalo 7 – Tampa Bay 4

At one point in this game, Tampa Bay was up 3-1 in the second period. Thomas Vanek’s second period goal to cut the lead to 3-2 set the tone for what was to come in the third as the Sabres rattled off five goals in a row to go ahead 7-3 and ultimately win 7-4. Drew Stafford had his third hat trick of the season while Vanek finished the game with two goals.

The wheels came off when Jordan Leopold scored to tie it early in the third. Dwayne Roloson was knocked down when Stafford was bumped into him by Marc-Andre Bergeron. Roloson tumbled to the ice and Leopold fired it over the prone goaltender. The Lightning protested to no avail and the Sabres rolled after that. Bergeron finished the game with a -4 rating by the way. Sean Bergenheim had two goals while Vincent Lecavalier had two goals and an assist for the Lightning in defeat. The Sabres are now four points behind Carolina for eighth in the East.

San Jose 2 – Washington 0

Toronto 5 – NY Islanders 3

The game turned into a must-win one for the Leafs before things even started when Islanders would-be starting goalie Kevin Poulin was injured in warmups leading to Mikko Koskinen making his first NHL start. The Leafs made the rookie’s night an unmemorable one by having five different goal scorers light him up on the way to the win. Colby Armstrong had a goal and two assists while Tomas Kaberle  had a goal and an assist. James Reimer had another outstanding effort in goal for Toronto stopping 31 shots in the win. Koskinen stopped 21 shots in the loss while Michael Grabner scored his 17th goal of the season for New York. Not a bad waiver pick up for the Isles there. Shame they can’t get any goaltending help there.

St. Louis 2 – Florida 1

A great chance for the Panthers to eke closer to the Eastern playoff race was blown as they weren’t able to crack through a healthy and rested Jaroslav Halak. Halak stopped 30 shots to pace the Blues to victory. Matt D’Agostini scored the game-winner with four minutes to play in the third period to give the Blues a sorely needed victory. David Backes also scored for the Blues while Dennis Wideman had Florida’s lone goal. Tomas Vokoun was steady in the loss stopping 26 shots.

Wild fire GM Chuck Fletcher, who leaves behind a mess

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The Chuck Fletcher era is over for the Minnesota Wild. After employing Fletcher as their GM for about nine years, the Wild dismissed him on Monday.

“I feel it is time for a new approach,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said in the team’s official release.

The team added that they are immediately searching for a replacement.

For better or worse, the Wild have been generous when it comes to giving their general managers time to make their new approaches work.

Fletcher was GM since May 2009, while Doug Risebrough served as the first GM for about a decade (1999 to 2009). While some teams employ their top executives for multiple decades (see: David Poile in Nashville, Ken Holland with the Red Wings), there are also plenty of front offices who receive precious few opportunities to get things right. Fletcher received plenty of opportunities to break through, and ultimately, his run with the Wild ends with a whimper … and some problems for the next GM to sort out.

Let’s ponder the biggest decisions of the Fletcher days.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Decisions

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

There’s simply no way to get around it: the dual signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were the defining moves of Fletcher’s tenure with the Wild. On July 4, 2012, Fletcher handed Parise and Suter matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.

Just seeing the total cash and term on those deals is staggering, especially as each contract seems to look scarier every time you consider the implications for the Wild as a franchise. Both players are 33 – and showing their age at times, especially in the case of Parise’s unfortunate health – yet their $7.538M cap hits won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

At the time, Parise and Suter linking up in Minnesota as free agents felt as close to the NHL would get to its version of Lebron James’ “Decision.” The biggest of many differences is that, while the Miami Heat won two titles and made multiple NBA Finals appearances with James & Co., the Wild have settled for modest gains. Sure, they’re riding six straight playoff appearances, but they’ve never gotten beyond the second round and haven’t won a division title since signing Suter and Parise.

Spending $15M in cap space on the two already seems dicey. It may only look worse going forward, and if a new GM gets the Wild out of one or both of the deals, it will come at a cost.

Mixed bag

The bad tends to outweigh the good when you consider how much Minnesota is spending on its team (a final cap hit above $75M this past season for a team that won one playoff game, according to Cap Friendly).

This is an aging group, which is disconcerting when you consider that this team doesn’t appear to have a ceiling as a true championship contender.

Eric Staal stands as one of the best additions of Fletcher’s tenure – and make no mistake about it, Fletcher’s had some nice hits along the way – and he’s already 33. Staal also will need a new contract after next season.

Staal, Parise, and Suter are all 33. Mikko Koivu is 35. Even Devan Dubnyk (another nice Fletcher find, and a guy on a team-friendly contract) is already 31.

Again, it’s not all bad. The Bruce Boudreau addition helped players old and young flourish. Fletcher fleeced Garth Snow in getting Nino Niederreiter. The franchise has done a nice job in certain drafting and developing situations, particularly with the likes of Mikael Granlund.

The whiffs have been pretty epic, though, with Parise and Suter already entering albatross territory.

Questions ahead

The next Wild GM faces a tough haul.

Do you try to move Parise and/or Suter, even if it means sweetening the deal by giving up picks? Should the Wild keep Boudreau or let him move on if the plan is a more concerted “rebuild” effort? Would the Wild be better off making difficult decisions, such as parting ways with underrated Selke-caliber center Koivu while he still has value? How much will useful RFAs Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker cost?

Those are some difficult riddles to answer. Fletcher faced tough calls of his own, and enough went wrong that he’ll no longer be running the show in Minnesota.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs go home facing elimination

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A year after Mike Babcock told arena staffers in Washington he’d see them a few days later for Game 7, John Tortorella claimed his Blue Jackets would be back after winning Game 6 back in Columbus.

Now the trick is doing what Babcock’s Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t last year: stave off elimination from the Capitals.

“It’s about finding a way to win a hockey game right now,” Tortorella said Sunday. “There are so many ways of winning and losing in playoff hockey, so many ebbs and flows. That’s just the way the game is.”

Toronto is in the same spot as Columbus, down 3-2 in its first-round series against the Boston Bruins with Game 6 at home Monday night (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, stream). The Maple Leafs held off a significant surge from the Bruins on Saturday night to avoid being eliminated in five and send the series back across the border.

“You got to look forward — there’s no sense and no good in looking back,” forward Connor Brown said. “We’re going back to (Air Canada Centre) where we love to play. Our fans are going to be excited so right now we’re all just thinking about Game 6.”

Game 6 in the Bruins-Maple Leafs series comes after Boston took a 3-1 lead in the absence of suspended Toronto center Nazem Kadri. Goaltender Frederik Andersen needed to make 42 saves to keep the Maple Leafs alive as they hope to avoid another first-round exit.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Blue Jackets are trying to do the same in their Game 6 Monday (7:30 p.m. ET, CNBC, stream) after losing to the Capitals in overtime Sunday in Game 5. Four of the five games between Columbus and Washington have gone to OT compared to one total in the other seven first-round series.

“It’s been a crazy series,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. “So much is happening. Calls and OT — it’s been fun. I think guys are enjoying it. It’s pretty nerve-wracking, but we’re going to keep pushing forward here. We know we have a good team. They have a good team, as well. It’s not going to be easy.”

It’s rarely easy for the Capitals, who are 2-5 in their past five chances to eliminate an opponent and 6-11 overall in those situations in the Alex Ovechkin era. They’re also 2-5 over that time in Game 7 at home, which they’d like to avoid another incarnation of Wednesday.

This is the same situation Barry Trotz’s team was in last year — an overtime-filled first-round series against Toronto — and it wrapped things up in six.

“If you have a chance to eliminate a team, you have to have that killer instinct,” Trotz said. “You have to have that ability to close out a team. And it’s the toughest game to win because the other team is desperate. Their backs are against the wall. They’re there. They’re going to give their absolute max effort.”

No one doubts max effort from the Blue Jackets or the Maple Leafs staring down elimination. Columbus outshot Washington 16-1 in the third period of Game 5, and while that kind of ice-tilting onslaught is unlikely, the Blue Jackets are going to try to push the pace and ratchet up the pressure on the Metropolitan Division champions after blowing a 2-0 series lead.

“The belief in this room is incredible,” captain Nick Foligno said. “There’s no better motivation than what we’re facing.”

Tactically, the Blue Jackets need to cash in on the power play after going 0 for their past 13. Goaltender Braden Holtby and Washington’s penalty kill have been the difference in the series.

“The penalty kill has been a major factor for us in the last few games,” Trotz said. “I think as a group, they’ve all stepped up. I don’t think I can single out anybody. They’ve all stepped up. The penalty kill is as good as the five guys that you have, your four and your goaltender. They’ve been very committed there.”

WAITING IT OUT

The Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks will meet in the second round of the Pacific Division bracket, while the Winnipeg Jets await the Nashville Predators. In the East, the Atlantic Division-champion Tampa Bay Lightning finished off New Jersey on Saturday and will face Toronto or Boston in the second round.

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AP Sports Writers Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio, and Jimmy Golen in Boston contributed.

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Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Nathan MacKinnon would get P.K. Subban’s MVP vote

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Norris Trophy finalist P.K. Subban just got a good, in-depth look at Nathan MacKinnon, after they went head-to-head during a six-game series in the opening round of the playoffs.

Subban’s Nashville Predators got the better of MacKinnon’s Colorado Avlanche, but that doesn’t take away from how Subban views the Avs forward and his chances of winning the Hart Trophy this year.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

“You guys know I’m biased about [Pekka Rinne], but in my opinion, he was the best player in the league this year,” Subban said of MacKinnon, per Tracey Myers of NHL.com. “That’s not to take away anything from other guys like Taylor Hall who have had great years. But I think for him and what he’s done with this team, a team that’s been up and down…he’s just come into his own and he’s a phenomenal hockey player. He’s so tough to handle, so fast, strong and shifty. My expectations for him as a player as a player is to be a hall of famer by the end of his career. He understands that. Just tremendous respect for him. I just told him I hope he takes home that trophy that he deserves as the MVP. He deserves it.”

MacKinnon’s 97 points during the regular season was the fifth-highest in the league this season. It’s important to note that he played between four and six games less than the four guys who finished ahead of him.

In the postseason, The 22-year-old had three goals and three assists in six games against the Predators.

There’s many reasons for Colorado’s turnaround in 2017-18, but there’s no denying that MacKinnon’s play was the biggest factor. His points-per-game jumped from 0.65 last year to 1.31 this year.  The Avalanche went from being the worst team in the NHL by a mile to finishing in a Wild Card spot.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: McAvoy needs to step up; 2018 mock draft

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Keelan Moxley (the young girl that Brett Connolly had a hard time getting a puck to last week) finally got to meet the Capitals forward. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• Overtimes between the Capitals and Blue Jackets have made this series exciting, but it’s starting to take a toll on players and fans, too. (The Hockey Writers)

• Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy needs to find a way to be more involved in this first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. (WEEI)

• There’s a few reasons why the Winnipeg Jets managed to dispose of the Minnesota Wild in five games. Their play on home ice and Connor Hellebuyck are right at the top of the list. (NHL.com)

• Now that Tomas Hertl is completely healthy, the Sharks are expecting him to take his game up another notch. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Even though the second round is on the verge of beginning, the Vegas Golden Knights are as healthy as they’ve ever been. (SinBin.Vegas)

Andrei Vasilevskiy is a man of few words, but he made quite the statement in Tampa’s first-round series against the New Jersey Devils. (Tampa Bay Times)

• NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke discussed the challenges and next steps his group has to undertake in order to get a team running by 2020-21. (MyNorthWest.com)

• Finding a general manager might not be so easy for the Carolina Hurricanes, but Rod Bring’Amour is definitely willing to serve as a head coach. (Raleigh News & Observer)

• The St. Louis Blues invited their season ticket holders to paint the ice, so one fan took the opportunity to mock a controversial offside decision. (The Sports Daily)

• Blackhawks forward Anthony Duclair reached out to a youth hockey player in Nova Scotia that was the victim of a racial slur. (Chicago Sun-Times)

• The Sporting News came up with a first-round mock draft for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. There’s no surprise at no. 1, as Rasmus Dahlin is the pick, but things get interesting after that. (Sporting News)

• Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper has added the Golden Knights’ logo to the end of his bats. (Sports Logos)

• Ellen DeGeneres paid tribute to the victims of the tragedy in Humboldt at an event in Calgary last week. (CBC)

• Boston University head coach David Quinn will serve as the bench boss for Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championship next December. (College Hockey News)

• One year after leaving the NHL, Andrei Markov took home the KHL’s Gagarin Cup with AK Bars Kazan. (Associated Press)

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.