Early Ride on the Zamboni – Friday, February 25th

It’s a busy Friday in the NHL, with nine games overall. To make the results more digestible, we thought it might be wise to break up the recaps into two time frame-specific chunks. Here are summaries of the first six games, then.

Carolina 4, Pittsburgh 1

In a nostalgia-tinged reunion match between Cory Stillman (back with the Canes) and Alexei Kovalev (returning to the Penguins), Stillman’s team came out well ahead. Erik Cole seemed to benefit from the reunion of the Eric Staal-Stillman-Cole line, as he scored a goal and an assist in the game. Meanwhile Kovalev (zero points and two obstruction-type penalties) and Marc-Andre Fleury (pulled halfway through the game) had nights they’d prefer to forget.

NY Rangers 6, Washington 0

Speaking of nights they would like to forget, the Capitals had yet another against the Rangers. Erik Christensen scored two goals and two assists while Henrik Lundqvist pitched a 35-save shutout to embarrass Washington once again (they also beat the Caps 7-0 in a game documented beautifully by HBO in its 24/7 series).

There was at least one regrettable moment for the Rangers, though, as Derek Stepan elbowed Mike Green in a play that might get some attention from the league’s disciplinarians. We’ll keep you updated on that situation either later tonight or sometime tomorrow.

Columbus 5, Phoenix 3

Maybe that Matt Calvert kid is something to special? He earned a recent Goal of the Night award and took over this game between playoff contenders, scoring a hat trick and an assist to help the Blue Jackets beat the Coyotes. Columbus is absolutely getting hot right now; they’ve won three straight, five of six and earned at least one point in nine of their last 10 games. The Jackets are now at 68 points, two behind the ridiculous logjam for sixth through 11th place in the West.

Buffalo 4, Ottawa 2

The Senators already seem like a more competent team with Craig Anderson in net, but stopping 35 out of 38 shots wasn’t good enough to earn Ottawa a win against desperate Buffalo tonight. Ryan Miller ended up getting the victory (and an assist) in the game, making 29 saves. This win allows the Sabres to stay three points behind the Hurricanes for eighth place in the East.

Tampa Bay 2, New Jersey 1

Tonight was a bad night for the Devils. It’s bad enough that New Jersey lost a tight game with the Lightning, but every other active Eastern bubble team gained at least a point on them (even Atlanta and Florida went to a shootout, twisting the knife a little deeper). Tampa Bay more or less won the game in less than a minute, as Martin St. Louis and Simon Gagne scored rapid fire goals in the beginning of the second period. Mark Fayne scored for the Devils in the third, but it was not meant to be, wasting a 28-for-30 performance by Johan Hedberg.

Florida 2, Atlanta 1 (SO)

It’s hard to imagine the Panthers making a big run for the playoffs (after all, they seem to fall just-short every season), so this seems more like a blow to Atlanta’s fading playoff hopes that a boost to Florida’s flimsy postseason dreams. You really never know the way this season is going, though.

Transactions seemed to dominate this game. Newly acquired Thrashers forward Blake Wheeler scored in regulation and the shootout while trade target Tomas Vokoun made an outstanding 45 out of 46 saves and waived-yet-right-back forward Steve Bernier scored the shootout winner for the Panthers.

Is Alex Ovechkin clutch?

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If you get into a bar argument with a sports fan about Alex Ovechkin, there’s a strong chance that at least one person will argue that the Washington Capitals superstar is “not clutch.”

It’s easy to compile such an argument, whether it’s fair or not. The Capitals won three Presidents’ Trophies in the Ovechkin era, yet they’ve never gotten to a third round with him on their roster. His Olympic struggles are both dramatic and well-documented.

That said, if you extract team successes and failures from the picture – which is difficult for many to do, that’s true – it gets tougher to deny that there’s some “clutchness” there, unless you just start to wrestle with whether “clutch” is even a real thing or not.

(Allow me to not open that pandora’s box.)

Last night, Alex Ovechkin scored his 21st overtime goal, adding to an NHL record he already owned. In the process, he came that much closer to 100 career game-winners in the regular season.

Here’s the goal itself:

As you can see, Ovechkin is one GWG away from joining a club of players who’ve scored at least 100; he’d be the eighth person to do so. It might not take him long to pass Jarome Iginla, and depending upon how his twilight years go, Patrick Marleau.

It’s plausible that Ovechkin may finish his career on the top of that list, though he might fall short of passing kindred spirit/guy he once clobbered in initial play Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr is a kindred spirit because, while he’s currently in the Teemu Selanne phase of his career as an ageless wonder loved by just about any fan interested in the game, number 68 was once a frequent scapegoat in his own right. Plenty of people questioned his character and work ethic, at times to the point of things getting cartoonish. Sometimes stars like these need to go through that period before people embrace them like they always should have.

And the more you look into things, it’s clear that a lot of fans should drop the disdain and enjoy just how special Ovechkin is.

Consider this: Ovechkin is just 32, yet Hockey Reference’s listings show that he’s been in the top-10 in game-winning goals in 10 seasons. Ovechkin led the league in that category three times and was in the top five on seven occasions.

For a guy who takes a beating for not lifting the Stanley Cup (yet?), Ovechkin shows up in the playoffs, too.

During his career, Ovechkin has scored 46 goals and 90 points in 97 career postseason games, close to a point-per-contest. Just about every player sees a dip in regular season versus playoff numbers – it’s the nature of the beast with checking tighter and every goal mattering much more – so being able to generate offense that often sure indicates some “clutchness” to me.

At some point, you just have to tip your cap to a great player, and maybe stop frowning and enjoy his boisterous celebrations and once-in-a-lifetime scoring skills. You might get a chance to do that again soon, as Ovechkin sits at 581 goals. He might just hit the 600 mark in 2017-18, joining 19 other NHL players to cross that barrier.

This post isn’t meant to imply that Ovechkin is totally flawless and it’s unlikely that a mountain of milestones will move his harshest critics.

Then again, if listing some of these resounding accomplishments helps even a few extra hockey fans enjoy a rare talent, it’s well worth it. At 32, Ovechkin could really rack up numbers for a long time, but his window could close as a true goal-scoring phenom.

It wouldn’t be very clutch to come around to Ovechkin once his best days are all behind him, now would it?

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.

Panthers face ghosts of past mistakes in Golden Knights

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The Vegas Golden Knights are one of the great success stories of the 2017-18 season in the NHL so far. The Florida Panthers are not.

Such notions would already make Sunday’s game feel a touch awkward, but in seeing the Golden Knights tonight, many Panthers fans might feel like they’re opening the door to an alternate reality in which the team didn’t revert back to the Dale Tallon era.

As TSN’s John Shannon notes, the Golden Knights feature eight former Panthers employees in some form, including head coach Gerard Gallant plus key scorers Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault.

Now, if you’re expecting the players or coach to stir the pot when it comes to revenge, you’re out of luck. All three gave boilerplate answers about just wanting to get two standings points tonight. No bulletin board material there, folks.

Instead, Panthers executives are providing some drama for us.

In seeing one of the Golden Knights’ many cheeky tweets, in this case trumpeting Smith’s presence on the team, Panthers executive Doug Cifu provided an interesting reply that was eventually deleted. Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt was among those who got a screen grab of it, and it’s a chin-scratcher:

Again, Cifu deleted the physical tweet, and he explained that he was attempting to be nice and that his tweet was “totally misconstrued.”

Even in Twitter form, the Panthers seem like they’re operating under the motto of “One step forward, two steps backward,” and today serves as a cruel example of how things don’t need to work this way.

Now, look, the Golden Knights enjoyed an expansion process that the NHL engineered to generate a more respectable early product than anything we saw in Florida’s era. Beyond that, even Gallant would probably acknowledge that there have been some positive bounces (although you could easily counter with a mention of Vegas’ many goalie injuries).

Still, it’s tough for this not to shine a light on the Golden Knights’ stellar start and the Panthers cellar dwelling.

[Golden Knights get to 20 wins faster than any other expansion team.]

The Panthers chose to fire Gallant during their short-lived “analytics-friendly” period. Then, in reaction to that time, Tallon almost seemed to recklessly expel elements of that regime by handing the Golden Knights two useful forwards in Marchessault and Smith when only one really needed to go (and Florida could have tried to sway Vegas into taking someone less valuable, too).

It all echoes back to Tallon’s much-mocked comment about being back in control, especially since the Panthers’ situation hasn’t dramatically improved since then:

Now, it’s likely that Tallon is merely glad to be running things again, yet it’s tough to avoid a snicker or two considering context.

Ultimately, the Golden Knights have profited off of Florida’s frenzied ways. Win or lose, Vegas is gaining from unforced errors on the Panthers’ part.

No doubt about it, these narratives will only sting more if the Golden Knights add another L to the Panthers’ largely miserable season, though.

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.

Predators still on fire with addition of Kyle Turris

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In hockey, a great idea on paper doesn’t always work out on the ice.

Brett Hull and Wayne Gretzky didn’t set the NHL on fire during their brief run together with the Blues. The days of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne in Colorado are best forgotten (and many people have done just that). Peter Forsberg and the Predators mixed like water and oil.

So, there was always the risk that the Kyle Turris trade wouldn’t work out for Nashville. Instead, it’s been a smash success beyond just about anyone’s expectations. Even GM David Poile would probably admit that he didn’t expect this sort of boost.

As The Tennessean’s Adam Vingan notes, Nashville sports a 13-2-2 record with Turris in the lineup, the best mark in the NHL since Nov. 11.

In one’s mind, you could picture Turris blending well with two forwards who’ve shown promise but hadn’t yet broken through in young forward Kevin Fiala and veteran sniper Craig Smith. Their production really has been a sight to behold.

Turris in 17 games: four goals, 13 assists for 17 points. He’s currently on a seven-game point streak (two goals, eight assists).

Fiala in 17 games: eight goals, eight assists for 16 points. Fiala is on a seven-game point streak, and it’s goal-heavy with six tallies and three helpers.

Smith in 17 games: eight goals, eight assists for 16 points.

It’s a line that’s checking off just about every box you can ask for when it comes to driving play and dominating opponents.

While Fiala’s getting over that hideous leg injury in an inspiring way (note: it doesn’t seem like that derailed the promising forward, a real concern considering his speed), Smith’s evolution might be the most enticing part of this line’s rise.

As The Tennessean’s Joe Rexrode reports, Turris has been impressed with Smith, and not just by his skill.

“One thing I didn’t realize was how strong he is,” Turris said. “Like, he’s a really strong guy. He has a great shot and I knew he was fast, but the way he competes and battles along the walls, he’s a force.”

Smith, 28, showed some great efforts at times during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, including generating nine shots on goal in Games 2 and 3. Still, he was limited to a goal and an assist during that series, another missed opportunity for him to gain more mainstream attention.

It all sets the stage for the Predators to be a frightening matchup.

If you’re coaching the opposing team, do you key on Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson, or Turris’ line? When everything’s running on all cylinders, Nashville could conceivably boast two lines that are first-line-caliber and top four defensemen who could be featured blueliners on most other NHL teams.

Now, it’s still December, and one can almost guarantee that Turris, Smith, and Fiala will see their struggles. There might even be enough cold streaks to break up this trio from time to time.

Generally speaking, Peter Laviolette’s bright enough not to mess with something that works, and so far this trio has passed every test with flying colors.

The Predators currently lead the Central Division and Western Conference considering the games in hand edge they have on the Blues, but it’s all in service of trying to win the Stanley Cup after finishing two wins short last time. The Turris trade clearly puts them in a better position to do just that.

It might just make them a favorite.

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.

Hextall’s patience, Elliott’s goaltending playing big roles in Flyers’ turnaround

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PHILADELPHIA — Step inside the Philadelphia Flyers dressing room, look to your right and you’ll notice above a clock on the wall is a sign that reads, “The Star Of The Team Is The Team Itself.” That message has been the thread through an interesting month for the team as they experienced the dregs of a 10-game losing streak before flipping the script and winning six straight.

That sixth win came Saturday night during a 2-1 overtime victory against the Dallas Stars making the Flyers the third team in NHL history (1967 Toronto Maple Leafs, 2005 San Jose Sharks) to reel off six victories in a row after a 10-game winless streak.

It wasn’t that long ago that fans were chanting for general manager Ron Hextall to fire the head coach and there was talk of shipping bodies out of town to shake things up. Those requests, however, were not in Hextall’s plans. The GM defended his team, defended his coach and was not going to make moves for the sake of change. That show of belief was well-received by his players.

“It means a lot. Obviously, Hexy has faith in us. He’s a very patient man, the coaching staff as well,” said forward Wayne Simmonds.

The front office wasn’t going to tear things apart and the players weren’t going to come unglued, even with the pressure of the losing streak growing with each defeat. They can look back now and see that as a takeaway from that experience.

“The most positive thing [was] we didn’t separate, we stuck together as a team and that’s why we’re winning games right now,” defenseman Ivan Provorov said.

The play of the five skaters on the ice has meshed well with the play of goaltender Brian Elliott, who’s been spectacular during this stretch. During this winning streak, he’s been named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week and has posted a .952 even strength save percentage.

“Our team has confidence in him. That’s a real position of strength for our bench, for the guys that are out on the ice,” Hakstol said. “It’s not just the things that you see on a nightly basis on game nights. He does such a real good job on a daily basis of approaching his day of work and that’s something that guys can feed off. They know he does the work. He’s prepared and I think that gives everyone a level of confidence coming into the game.”

It’s been a two-way effort for the Flyers during the streak. They haven’t allowed more than two goals a game and just grinded out a pair of 2-1 victories.. After averaging only two goals scored per game during that 10-game slide, which included being shutout three times, the offense has pumped in 3.5 goals per night. The power play is also cooking at 27.3 percent and their team shooting percentage is moving in the right direction going from 6.45 percent during their November slide to 9.23.

Adding to Provorov’s positive note about what came from the losing streak was also their standing in the Metropolitan Division. You’d think a team that did as poor as they did in November would see themselves with a major hole to dig out of by Christmas, but picking up five loser points helped keep the Flyers a bit above water. And now after picking up 12 out of a possible 12 points, they currently reside four points out of a wild card spot and six points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for third in the division.

Hakstol doesn’t care if you want to call it confidence or swagger, but the Flyers are carrying themselves in that manor. Winning cures all, right? A 10-game streak could have really done damage to the team’s psyche and affected them going forward, but as Hextall said last month, they believed — despite the losses piling up — they weren’t playing bad hockey. It was just a matter of time before they started digging up again.

“You can be playing really well, but when you’re going good you just have that mentality that you’re not going to take less than finding a way to win a game. I can tell you, when you’re on the other end of close losses, tight losses, it starts to wear at you,” said Hakstol.

“But you have a couple of good things happen, along with working hard, paying attention to detail and really sticking together, you get that little injection of adrenaline that helps push you in the right direction.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.