NHL has awkward decision to make after Zdeno Chara’s wicked hit on Max Pacioretty

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By now you’ve seen and heard about the terrifying incident in last night’s Bruins-Canadiens game that saw Bruins captain Zdeno Chara wipe out Montreal’s Max Pacioretty with a hit along the boards that saw Pacioretty slam his head into the stanchion separating the the benches.

Pacioretty was removed from the ice on a stretcher after lying motionless on the ice for minutes and taken to the hospital for observation. According to the Canadiens, Pacioretty is conscious and moving his arms and legs. Chara was kicked out of the game and given a five-minute major for interference for the hit.

Chara spoke with the media afterward to explain his role in this ugly incident and CSNNE’s Joe Haggerty notes from Chara that he didn’t have any intention of hurting Pacioretty on the play.

“It wasn’t my intention to push him into the post. It’s very unfortunate. In that situation things are moving fast and I’m not planning to do that. It’s not my style to hurt somebody. I always play hard and I play physical. But I never try to hurt anybody. I’m hoping he’s okay.”

Just moments before that, however, in Chara’s efforts to try and explain how he saw the play, Canadiens blog All Habs has audio from Chara in which his explanation of how things went down doesn’t totally jive with how the play appeared on video. Keep in mind this quote comes just before he made the above statement.

“As the puck went by I was riding him out and it was very unfortunate that at the same time I pushed him a little bit he kind of leaned and jumped a little bit and hit the glass extension. So it’s very unfortunate…. I know we were somewhere close to our bench but obviously it wasn’t my intention to put him into the post.”

Chara is wrong about what he thinks Pacioretty did on the play. You can see the video in our post from last night.

In this explanation from Chara and in the repeated viewing of the video is where Mike Murphy’s job in deciding whether or not to hand out punishment for Chara becomes very tricky. Murphy gets the unfortunate job of doing this because Colin Campbell must recuse himself from matters involving the Bruins thanks to his son Greg playing for them.

What Murphy has to decide is if Chara had the intention of hurting Pacioretty. Given how Chara sounds in his explanation and his history of not consistently running afoul of the rules of the game, we’re sure that he’s sorry for how injured Pacioretty was on the play. After all, seeing a fellow player get so graphically injured is tough for anyone that makes a living playing hockey to watch because someday it could be them in that position.

What makes this awkward is that Chara and Pacioretty have a history dating back to their game on January 8 that saw Pacioretty score the game-winning goal in overtime and then get into a scuffle with Chara after that when Chara felt wronged by Pacioretty for a slight shove from behind while celebrating the goal. Chara went ballistic trying to get after Pacioretty before the scene calmed down.

Players remember these sorts of things, and when watching that play from last night’s game unfold again and again on video it sticks out in your mind. Call me a cynic if you wish but when Chara was racing after that puck with Pacioretty and riding him along the boards it’s tough for me to think that Chara didn’t know full well what he wanted to do there.

I’m not saying that Chara intended to have Pacioretty’s head slam into that stanchion in such a horrifying manner, but we’ve seen hits a thousand times where players get hit and rode along the rail like that and get crunched. Nine times out of ten it’s a body blow that knocks the wind out of the guy and they learn a very hard lesson. Last night was that one time where something goes wrong enough and the end result is a player going to the hospital.

Given the location of the play, the familiarity of the surroundings, and that nagging history it’s difficult for me to accept that Chara handled that play completely accidentally. He wanted Pacioretty to take a hard hit but not for a second do I believe he wanted him to end up unconscious on the ice with a horrifying blow to the head.

Does that make the situation better? No, it’s ugly all around no matter what kind of spin you want to put on it. The hit was away from the puck, it was late, and it was most certainly needless. Those kinds of questionable hits happen all over the ice in heated rivalry games like this. This time around, however, everything went wrong.

It’s wrong for Pacioretty because he had his health put in danger during the heat of battle. It’s wrong for Chara because he’s a mostly clean player that plays a very physical game and he’s a team captain that should know better. It’s wrong for the league now because they’re put in the unenviable position of trying to decide whether or not there was evil in the heart of Zdeno Chara.

The league is most certainly going to make someone mad as Bruins fans say it’s just an unlucky play while Habs fans want Chara’s head on a pike to serve as an example to the rest of the league. TSN’s Bob McKenzie says that the league’s best way of handling this is to play the role of King Solomon and split the difference somehow. With the league’s new dedication to protecting players hit in the head, their ruling on this one will be fascinating to see.

Chara’s at fault here for being reckless and whether he meant to get Pacioretty roughed up or not, he’s got a responsibility to adhere to as a player. You can play hard and physical without putting another player in danger like that and that’s something the league has to recognize here.

The NHL has seen a pretty big spike in goal scoring this season

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If it seems like there have been more goals scored in the NHL this season you would be correct.

As the season gets ready to move into its second quarter the league announced that there have been 1,924 goals scored this season, the highest total since the 2005-06 season when the league had 2,008 goals scored through the first quarter.

Third on the list was the 2006-07 season when 1,905 goals were scored.

You might remember the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons as being that brief spike in goal-scoring coming out of the lockout when the league cracked down on obstruction and interference, resulting in far more power plays and power play goals. In the years since the league saw a steady decline in both power plays and goals.

The league has made a point to try and crackdown on slashing and faceoff violations this season. That has not really resulted in a significant increase in the total number of power plays, but teams are converting on more of their power play opportunities.

There has also been a pretty dramatic increase in even-strength scoring (that is up 10.9 percent from a season ago at the same point).

That overall increase in scoring has also trickled down to the individual player level where 30 players (minimum 10 games played) are averaging more than a point per game.

At Thanksgiving a season ago only 11 players were averaging at least a point per game.

Only eight players finished the season (minimum 40 games played) with a point per game average.

For years everyone has had theories as to why goal scoring has decreased and what can be done to change it. Bigger nets? Smaller goalie equipment? More power plays? The reality is that goal scoring did not decrease for any one reason, it was likely a combination of factors, from goalies getting bigger and better, to teams becoming more structured and defensive, to power plays decreasing. The league has made a few small changes along the way to help remedy it and so far this season it seems to be reversing a little.

Whether or not it continues remains to be seen. It is, however, a pretty encouraging start.


Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

How the Oilers became the NHL’s biggest disappointment

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At the start of the 2017-18 season the Edmonton Oilers were one of the top Stanley Cup favorites.

They were one game away from reaching the Western Conference Finals and they have the reigning league MVP and scoring champion (and arguably the game’s best player). All of that seemed to indicate a team that was on the verge of taking another major step and breaking through as one of the league’s elite teams. Their preseason Stanley Cup odds from Bovada were second best in the league to only the back-to-back champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The bandwagon was filling up.

Here we are not just a quarter of the way through the season and there is no debating that the Oilers have not only failed to reach those sky-high expectations, they are clearly the league’s biggest disappointment.

Entering play on Wednesday — and following an 8-3 drubbing at the hands of the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night — the Oilers have the third worst points percentage in the league, ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres. Their minus-19 goal differential is fourth-worst. They have managed to win just four games in regulation with only two of them coming over the past month.

So, how did they get here? Let us try to figure it out.

It starts with the people upstairs

Three years ago the Oilers were given a gift from the hockey draft gods when they won the lottery and the right to select Connor McDavid. It was the fourth time in six years they won the top pick and this time were able to pick a player that would quickly become the best offensive player in the league. Since McDavid entered the league he has more than lived up to the hype with a 1.18 points per game average that is tops among all players (minimum 100 games played) during that stretch.

As great as McDavid has been, he can not do it all on his own. This is not the NBA where one or two great players can carry a team deep into the playoffs (or even into the playoffs at all). There has to be a supporting cast around them, and the Oilers have quickly sabotaged their chances to do that through some brutal roster and asset management.

Let’s just examine some of the moves made by Peter Chiarelli since taking over as the Oilers’ general manager.

His first move was to trade two top-33 picks (No. 16 overall and No. 33 overall) to the New York Islanders for defenseman Griffin Reinhart. The Islanders used that pick to select Matthew Barzal, currently one of the top rookies in the NHL this season. Reinhart played 30 forgettable games with the Oilers before moving on to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights this season.

[On fire vs. fireable: Blues humiliate Oilers]

Then came the one-for-one trades: Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, and then Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome.

Both trades have played a significant role in reducing the team’s scoring depth.

Since being traded Hall’s 26 goals and 74 points would make him the third most productive player on the Oilers. His point total this season alone would make him the team’s second-leading scorer behind McDavid. Eberle’s 14 points would make him the team’s fourth-leading scorer.

The return for the Oilers has not come close to matching that production. Larsson is a solid, if unspectacular defenseman, while Strome’s offense has been non-existent. Even at his best Strome was never quite on par with what Eberle has shown to be capable of on a regular basis. Those trades have devastated the Oilers’ scoring depth and are now left with a team that is 27th in the league in goals scored and seems to be unable to generate any offense when McDavid is not on the ice.

In three years Chiarelli has traded two picks in the top-33 of a draft, a top-line forward and gave Kris Russell, a borderline second-to third-pairing defenseman to help improve the defense and the team is still desperate for defensive help.

That is a lot of bad roster management, and it is wasting what might be some of McDavid’s best years in the league.

Cam Talbot can’t get a break

Literally, he can not get a night off.

The Oilers’ goals against numbers improved dramatically a season ago and a lot of credit for that improvement was directed toward the additions of Larsson and Russel. The reality is that a lot of it had to do with Talbot helping to solidify the goaltending position.

His save percentage wasn’t anything spectacular and at .917 was fairly close to the league average. But Talbot played 72 games and if you can get average to slightly above league average goaltending for 72 games that is going to be a positive value to your team, especially with where the Oilers were coming from in recent seasons. His performance, combined with his durability to play that many games, probably shaved 15 goals off the Oilers’ goals against totals.

Talbot has not been as strong so far this season, and given that he has already played a league-high 19 games you have to wonder if maybe that workload is starting to catch up with him.

Since the start of the 2016-17 season Talbot has played in 93 regular season games. Only three other goalies have played in more than 80 and only one (Frederik Andersen, 85) has played in more than 83. He has faced 2,688 shots.

That does not include the 13 playoff games and 437 shots he faced in the playoffs. That is a ton of work for a goalie over a season-and-a-quarter.

The Oilers have no adequate backup that can give him any sort of a break.

Lucky or unlucky?

There does seem to be an element of some bad luck to the Oilers’ struggles this season. Their possession and shot attempt numbers are among the best in the league, and they do seem to be struggling with some poor percentages on the offensive end.

When it comes to the save percentage numbers and Talbot’s struggles it is worth wondering if that extensive workload over the past two seasons has started to wear him down.

It is also worth wondering if they had a lot of players play over their heads a season ago, specifically when it came to players like Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu. That duo combined for 43 goals a season ago. They have combined for 8 so far this season. That puts them on pace for about 15 over 82 games. Combine that with the offense they are losing going from Eberle to Strome, as well as the absence of Hall and that is a big chunk of offense going away and helps explain how a team with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkings all averaging close to a point-per-game is 26th in the league in goals scored.

You might be reading all of this and thinking to yourself, relax, Gretz, it’s only Thanksgiving. Still a lot of hockey left to be played. Sure, there is a lot of hockey remaining in the season. The problem for teams like the Oilers is NHL history tells us the standings do not tend to change much once the calendar rolls over to December. Currently the Oilers are already seven points out of a wild card spot in the Western Conference and eight points out of one of the three playoff spots in the Pacific Division.

Points are difficult to make up as the season goes on and teams that are already this far out do not tend to make them up.

Perhaps the Stanley Cup for this Oilers team was a little too premature, mainly because they have managed to squander any chance of building a competitive team around the best player in the world through some terrible roster management.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Buffalo Sabres reveal 2018 Winter Classic jersey (Photos)

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Black Friday is two days away, so naturally it’s a great time for the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers to reveal their jerseys for the 2018 Winter Classic which will take place on Jan. 1 at Citi Field in Queens.

[2018 Winter Classic: Buffalo Sabres vs. New York Rangers at Citi Field]

While we await what the Rangers will wear, the Sabres are going with a classic look that will have you thinking of the days of Alex Mogilny, Pat LaFontaine and Donald Audette, as well as the 2008 Winter Classic.

That “NY” at the bottom of the logo? That’s a “marker of the interstate matchup,” according to the Sabres. The royal blue harkens back to their original color scheme from the 1970s and the jersey also features three secondary logos. The buffalo features SABRES on it, a pair of crossed swords on the pants and the Buffalo script wordmark on the helmet.

It’s a real sharp look with a solid color scheme and one of the more memorable logos.

What do you think?

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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.

NHL on NBCSN: Lightning look to keep rolling against Blackhawks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Wednesday night, as the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Chicago Blackhawks at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can stream the game by clicking here

After missing the playoffs last season, the Lightning couldn’t have envisioned getting off to a better start this season. Through 20 games, only the St. Louis Blues (33 points in 22 games) have picked up more points than the Bolts (32 points in 20 games). As you can see from the numbers, Tampa has games in hand on St. Louis and they only trail by one point.

The Lightning are coming off a 5-3 loss to the Islanders on Saturday, but that was their first regulation defeat since Oct. 28 in Anaheim.

There’s many reasons why they’ve been so good this season, but look no further than the line of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Vladislav Namestnikov. That trio has been lights out so far this season, as they’ve combined to score 88 points in 20 games.

Add the stellar play of blue liners Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, and Anton Stralman, as well as Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s dominance between the pipes, and it’s easy to see why they’re playing so well.

After tonight’s game, the Lightning will hit the road to close out the month. They’ll travel to Washington, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Boston over the next week.

Since falling apart in a 7-5 loss to the Devils on Nov. 12, the Blackhawks have won each of their last two games (6-3 over the Rangers, 2-1 against Pittsburgh).

If the playoffs started today, the ‘Hawks wouldn’t be in, but the playoffs don’t start today, so there’s plenty of time for them to figure out what’s gone wrong.

Tonight, they’ll have their hands full with the potent Tampa Bay attack, and they have to play a sound game if they want to come out on top.

“You have to know who’s out there, who can make plays,” goalie Corey Crawford said of the Lightning, per the Chicago Tribune. “Who is more of a drive-to-the-net, gritty player. You have to be patient. Their D-men are in the rush as lot. They’re going to have guys coming through the middle.”

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.