Around the rink – March 5; Key battles in Philly, Boston, and Phoenix highlight busy day

All times Eastern

1:00 p.m.

Buffalo @ Philadelphia

Two teams in need of a win to get off the schneid and two teams with a long history of disliking each other immensely. I’m not sure it gets better than that for an afternoon game. Philly’s lost four of their last six and two in a row and their grip on the top spot in the East is slipping away. The Sabres are in the midst of a seven game road trip which they’re 1-0-1 on so far after beating the Rangers and losing in overtime to Carolina. Buffalo is three back of Carolina for the eighth spot in the East.

St. Louis @ NY Islanders

Two teams on the wrong side of the ledger when it comes to the playoffs. The Blues have all but slipped away completely out west while the Isles have never really been in it at all in the East. The Isles are playing better hockey of late though, something that should worry the Ben Bishop-led Blues. The Blues are losers of six of their last seven and three in a row and they’ve scored just two goals in their last three games. Not fun. The Isles are hoping to capitalize on their 4-1 win over Minnesota in their last game and get a winning streak going.

4:00 p.m.

Vancouver @ Los Angeles

Not a bad game for a matinée matchup out west. The West leading Canucks pay a visit to old friend Willie Mitchell and the Kings. L.A. are winners of four of their last five games and a win today gets them back up into a tie for fourth with Chicago. The Canucks have been kind of pedestrian lately alternating wins and losses since early February. Not going on the consistent tear they were on earlier in the season is proving to be a bit annoying for them and it’s allowed Detroit to creep up on them for the top spot in the West. If they want to get home ice throughout the playoffs, it wouldn’t hurt to snap out of it.

7:00 p.m.

Pittsburgh @ Boston

As happens all the time when these two get together, fans keep an eye on Matt Cooke but that shouldn’t even be a story in this one so much as it is Pittsburgh stumbling of late and the Bruins rolling looking to extend their winning streak to eight. During the Bruins’ run scoring on them has been very difficult. Unfortunately for the Pens scoring has been an issue for them of late too. Unlike their 2-1 OT loss to New Jersey last night, if the Penguins aren’t careful, Boston can blow them out.

Chicago @ Toronto

A few weeks ago, this would’ve been Kris Versteeg and Viktor Stalberg getting to play against each other and their former teams. Instead, only Stalberg will get a chance to stick it to the Maple Leafs as the red hot Blackhawks take on the shockingly improved Leafs. Chicago’s won seven in a row and they’ve done it by scoring heaps of goals. They’re averaging four goals per game during their win streak and Jonathan Toews has been lights out during that stretch scoring seven goals and adding five assists. That’s how you end up a captain. For Toronto, they’ll be hoping James Reimer can continue his outstanding play in goal to shut down the Hawks. Toronto is just four points behind Carolina for a playoff spot in the East.

Florida @ Atlanta

This is the game of sadness tonight. Florida’s mailed in their season already while Atlanta is in such a tailspin they’re now just one point ahead of the surging Devils for 11th place in the East. After so much hope early on for the Thrashers they’re buried in the East and essentially out of it unless they can start winning now and not stop the rest of the way. Beating a lowly Florida team would be a smart way to start that.

Montreal @ Tampa Bay

A huge game for both teams as Montreal looks to move up towards the fourth spot in the East as they’re five behind Pittsburgh for that. Tampa Bay is just one point ahead of Washington for the lead in the Southeast. For Lightning coach Guy Boucher it’s yet another great opportunity for him to show the Habs organization what they ended up losing out on. Tampa’s lost two in row, however, and their last four games have been decided by 2-1 scores (2-2-0). If you twisted our arm, we’d say we’ll see the same thing again tonight.

8:00 p.m.

Detroit @ Phoenix

Last year’s playoff rivals square off in Glendale and for Phoenix they need a win badly. The Coyotes have dropped five in a row and with a Wings team that’s playing some really good hockey of late, tonight figures to be a struggle again. The Wings are coming off a frustrating loss to Anaheim the other night in which they lost thanks to a Bobby Ryan penalty shot goal in overtime. If the Wings want to avoid frustration tonight, doing better than 1-9 on the power play the way they did against the Ducks would be a good way to do it.

10:00 p.m.

Edmonton @ Colorado

No Taylor Hall to dazzle us in this game as he’s done for the year with a high ankle sprain. So what is there to watch for in this battle between the two bottom teams in the West? Uh, well… How about Matt Duchene for Colorado and Jordan Eberle for Edmonton. These young centers are at least well worth watching to see what they’ll do next. If the game goes to a shootout then you’ll have Linus Omark to thrill you there. That’s about the best we can do for you to keep you interested in this one.

10:30 p.m.

Dallas @ San Jose

After a heartbreaking loss to the Ducks last night, the Stars are rewarded with facing off against the scorching hot Sharks. San Jose is hoping to extend their win streak to nine in a row while helping keep the Stars down just the same. How the Stars respond tonight will be important to see how they bounce back psychologically as well as physically. After all, playing on back-to-back nights hurts as it is but doing so after a gut-punch of a loss provides its own test. Meanwhile, the Sharks have opened up a six point lead in the Pacific Division.

Get excited: Blue Jackets trending up again

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A couple of weeks ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz hit the nail on the head in stating that the Columbus Blue Jackets “are not going away.”

Still, for those of us who’ve been impressed by their play and their war chest of prime-age (and nearing the cusp) talent, it’s been a little frustrating to see Columbus stumble a bit here and there through the baby steps of becoming a contender.

While acknowledging the risk of being the blog that cried wolf on this situation, Monday once again presented evidence that the Blues Jackets might just find their stride.

Now, it wasn’t easy against a struggling Buffalo Sabres team on Monday night,* as the Blue Jackets barely protected a 3-2 lead, with this near-goal making people hold their breath:

The overall trend is way up, however, as the Blue Jackets are now on a four-game winning streak. A lot has gone right for Columbus during that span; Sergei Bobrovsky‘s been brilliant, they haven’t allowed a power-play goal, and Artemi Panarin did this on Monday.

Diverse weapons

Columbus can be a scary opponent because they can send waves of quality forwards at opponents, especially with Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg, and Oliver Bjorkstrand (also perhaps Pierre Luc-Dubois?) emerging as threats. That said, Panarin might rank as their most dangerous “gamebreaker,” so it’s promising to see him score a goalie-had-no-chance brand of goal like that.

Sure, it would have been nice to add even one extra push with, say, Matt Duchene … but there’s a lot to like here, nonetheless.

Actually, I probably should have specified that Panarin is arguably the team’s most dangerous gamebreaker among their forwards.

As Alison Lukan discussed for The Athletic (sub required), the Blue Jackets are allowing their superb defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones to run while as “rovers,” and that’s scary news for opponents. Defensemen given the green light to be aggressive can sometimes be that much tougher to track, and Werenski and Jones have the tools to mix attacking and responsible defense for a potent, frightening mix.

The evolution of Torts

On a similar note, allow me to utter an opinion that isn’t often shared by people who are even mildly interested in “fancy stats” and non-traditional ways of thinking: John Tortorella’s evolution makes me intrigued about this team’s chances.

It’s fair to ding Torts for being stubborn about certain things, yet I wonder if there’s some Mike Babcock to him: the fiery nature of an “old school” coach mixed with the survival instincts and competitiveness needed to actually embrace changes in the league.

Giving Jones and Werenski isn’t the first example of Tortorella going “safe is death” and it’s not the first sign of innovation in Columbus. After all, it took the NHL some time to adapt to the Blue Jackets’ power play last season, which involved using a would-be depth forward (Sam Gagner) in a specialist role that was quite effective and off the beaten path.

Robber Bob

The last reason to be excited about Columbus is fairly straightforward: it sure seems like Sergei Bobrovsky is less streaky and more, perhaps, the best goalie in the world. Or at least the best goalie on enough nights to make this team pretty scary.

Now, does this mean that Columbus won’t stumble again this season? Of course not. Really, we don’t see many teams nearly immune to struggles, and some arguably suffer if they don’t hit much regular-season turmoil (the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Capitals, perhaps?).

Ultimately, it’s difficult not to get excited about The Next Big Thing(s) in the NHL, and the Blue Jackets seem like they have the potential to be just that.

* – Check PHT on Tuesday for more on Jack Eichel and his struggling Sabres.

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.

Coyotes win again, end Maple Leafs’ run at six games

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Break up the Arizona Coyotes.

After a downright depressing start to a season that opened with some hope, the Coyotes are at least gaining some self-respect, if not some respect around the NHL. That continued on Monday as the Coyotes extended their winning streak to three games.

Remarkably, that 4-1 win came against the Toronto Maple Leafs, ending the Buds’ own run at six games.

That 4-1 margin greatly exaggerates the difference between the two teams, however. This one came down to the wire, especially as a would be 2-2 goal was disallowed. The Coyotes added insurance goals late with two empty-netters.

Instead of being lopsided, the game came down to players who were expected to be difference-makers actually making a difference.

[During their darker days, this post explained that they seemed better than their record indicated]

It hasn’t been the easiest start for hidden-gem-star Oliver Ekman-Larsson, so he must have been especially happy to score what eventually stood as the game-winner:

Antti Raanta also had himself quite a game, stopping 27 out of 28 shots as his winning streak is also at three games. Injuries and other issues plagued him to start his debut season with Arizona, but now it looks a lot more like things are going as originally planned.

Heading into a Canadian road trip that began with a 4-1 loss to the Jets in Winnipeg, this sure seemed like it would be a dreadful turn for the already-dreadful ‘Yotes. Instead, they’ve rattled off three straight wins: 5-4 at Montreal, 3-2 in OT at Ottawa, and now tonight’s victory in Toronto. You may note that two of those wins came in regulation, too.

Honestly, you can pull things back and realize that the Coyotes have been scrappy in a month of November that seemed fated to doom them.

(If this team was still the Phoenix Coyotes instead of the Arizona Coyotes, you’d probably see a lot of “rising from the ashes”-type headlines. But alas.)

They began the month winning one and losing one. Starting on Nov. 6, they went on a stretch where they played seven of eight games on the road (a stretch that ended today in Toronto). They lost the first five games of that run, but they managed to get “loser points” in two of those defeats.

Despite a tough schedule on paper, and after going a ludicrous 1-11-1 in October, the Coyotes are now 4-4-2 in November, with seven road games versus three home tilts. Maybe they were inspired by a traveling band of fans?

Now, none of that makes you think that this team is going to set the world on fire. Instead, it indicates that there’s some fight left in this squad, and maybe a nod to Rick Tocchet keeping spirits reasonably high even as things looked especially grim.

With Raanta seemingly healthy, “OEL” back on his game, and Clayton Keller continuing to tear the league up as a rookie (two more assists tonight), the Coyotes might be building some confidence, even if they can’t go too far with that at 5-15-3.

Still, they need only to look at the team they narrowly defeated in Toronto and realize that, with the right players and decision-makers, a quick turnaround is actually quite plausible.

For now, they’ll settle for a resoundingly successful road trip.

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.

Gaudreau, Monahan, Flames too much for Capitals

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When you talk about the best lines in the NHL, don’t sleep on the trio Johnny Gaudreau is leading for the Calgary Flames.

With his 10th goal of the season coming early in a Flames – Washington Capitals game that is ongoing, Gaudreau collected his 30th point of 2017-18. As of this writing, only two other players have hit that mark so far: Steven Stamkos (35 points) and Nikita Kucherov (33), the headliners of a Tampa Bay Lightning trio that’s grabbing a lot of, well, headlines.

Here’s the goal Gaudreau scored against the Caps, keeping in mind that he has plenty of time to add to his lofty totals:

To an extent, it feels like Gaudreau’s fantastic work has been sneaking under the radar, at least compared to the likes of Stamkos – Kucherov. Then again, maybe some of it has to do with the fact that his hot streak is at least somewhat concentrated in the last few weeks?

Gaudreau, no doubt, is the catalyst. His playmaking ability is often spellbinding, and he’s well beyond questions about being a flash in the pan at this point in his career. The 24-year-old came into tonight’s game with 233 points in 251 career regular-season games; he’s scored more than the likes of Joe Pavelski and Evgeni Malkin since becoming a full-time player in 2014-15, according to Hockey Reference. (He ranks 12th overall during that span.)

His linemates deserve some of the spotlight, too.

There remains a debate about how much Sean Monahan can accomplish without Gaudreau, yet the counterpoint would be to wonder if it’s really that wise to mess with such a good thing. Such an argument is especially tough to make on the heels of his first career hat trick:

While Gaudreau has eight goals and 10 assists for a whopping 18 points (and possibly counting) during a 10-game point streak, Monahan collected his 21st point of this season on the primary assist. He added a helper to that hat trick the other night, so even if he’s stopped for the rest of Monday, Monahan has five points in two games. He also generated a six-game point streak (three goals, five assists) from Oct. 27 – Nov. 9.

When people haven’t been discussing Monahan’s dependence upon Gaudreau, they’ve wondered who might be the right winger for that dynamic duo.

Micheal Ferland might spell the end of that debate.

The big 25-year-old currently has 12 points in 18 games, but he’s really been revving up his production as of late. The Flyers snapped his five-game goal streak on Nov. 18, yet he extended his point streak to six contests with an assist (5G, 3A).

Logically, Ferland makes some sense for Gaudreau – Monahan. Neither of those forwards bring a lot of beef to the table, and Ferland has also shown some signs that he possesses the ability to finish the chances they can set up. As fun as it is to watch Jaromir Jagr with those two, Ferland might end up being the best fit for them since Jiri Hudler’s better Flames days.

(Ferland didn’t get an assist on Gaudreau’s goal, so he’ll need to generate some offense as this game goes along to keep his impressive streak going.)

***

Stamkos, Kucherov, and Vladislav Namestnikov probably carry the championship belts as the best scoring line in hockey, at least right now. One of the delightful things about this relatively high-scoring start to the season is that there are plenty of contenders for that imaginary title, and Gaudreau’s group shouldn’t be shortchanged in such debates.

Update: Monahan added a goal of his own (the eventual game-winner, with a primary assist by Gaudreau) as the Flames ran away with this one by a score of 4-1. Matthew Tkachuk made his presence felt as well with two assists.

About the only bummer was that Ferland’s point streak ended.

So, Gaudreau finishes the night with 31 points on the season, including 19 during this 10-game streak. Monahan now has 22 points (with six in the last two contests).

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.

Sebastian Aho has found his scoring touch again

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There was a time just over a week ago that people were hitting the panic button on second-year Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho.

Many of these people fell into two groups:

Group No. 1 consisted of Hurricanes fans desperate for their young budding star to get going and rekindle the scoring touch he possessed last season

Group No. 2 was made up of Aho’s fantasy league owners, thousands across North America, who were growing impatient with the 20-year-old’s unproductive start to the season.

And then there was Aho himself, but he chose to stay positive despite the drought.

“I think I’ve played better and better every day, and I think the goals are coming,” Aho told The News & Observer in Raleigh at the beginning of November. “I just need to stay positive. Just relax my game. Obviously, work hard, but still when I get the chances just relax.”

The above concerns of all parties involved were genuine, of course, Hurricanes management, too, were likely chomping at the bit as they awaited the Finn’s scoring touch around the net.

Perhaps Aho just doesn’t like running with the big pack out of the gate. Slow and steady, as the old saying goes. Despite the lack of pucks behind goalies, Aho has been a strong possession player this season and his expected goal numbers are equally as good.

Aho also has his brief history in pro hockey on his side.

Indeed, Aho’s rookie season didn’t start much different. Last season, it took the Finn 13 games to score his first NHL goal, but he managed to finish the season with 24, an impressive number from a new commodity.

He was only off that pace by two games this season.

It took him 15 games (over four-and-a-half hours of ice time) to register his name and number in the goal section of the scoresheet.

It was just a matter of time, and now, he just can’t help himself.

Aho has been on a tear since that Nov. 13 coming out party where he scored his first marker and added two helpers in a dominant 5-1 win against the Dallas Stars.

After adding another goal and another apple on Sunday, Aho now has 13 of his 17 points this season in his past 10 games. He’s also the proud owner of a four-game goal-scoring run.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck