Washington Capitals v Boston Bruins

Braden Holtby makes case for top job while Caps’ goalies are injured

For much of this season, Washington Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth has been the de facto starter in net because Semyon Varlamov has been dealing with a variety of chronic injuries. Despite Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma’s assertion that he is a “shaky” goalie, Neuvirth responded to the opportunity with some nice work (making him a steal in fantasy hockey leagues to boot).

Yet the Capitals emphasized the need for a deep reserve of quality netminders this season, as injuries to both Neuvirth and Varlamov forced the team to turn to the third goalie on their depth chart: Braden Holtby.

Instead of stumbling with another inexperienced starter, Holtby is carrying the torch from Neuvirth, as he earned three consecutive wins to stretch the Capitals’ winning streak to a 2010-11 season-high of seven games. In fact, Holtby has been doing so well lately – only one goal allowed in his last three appearances, one of which came in relief of an injured Neuvirth – that Mark Zuckerman of CSN Washington wonders if the 21-year-old goalie might be pushing for more than just an interim hold on the No.1 job in DC.

In 11 NHL games so far this season, Holtby has allowed a scant 1.84 goals per game (best among any goalie in the league with at least as many appearances) while stopping 93.4 percent of shots fired his way (second only to Boston’s Tim Thomas).

But are 11 games enough to convince the Capitals’ decision-makers Holtby deserves the starting job through the final month of the regular season and into the playoffs?
For now, Holtby gets the nod over Neuvirth (who appears to healthy enough to return) and Varlamov (who has been out since February 20 with a knee injury).

“It’s a chance for him,” winger Mike Knuble said. “That’s the way he looks at it. It’s a chance. He gets a chance to play while the other two guys are down. As a young goalie, you’ve got to relish those moments. You want to take those opportunities when you can.”

Some people might get anxious regarding the idea of a team lacking a clean-cut answer for a starting goalie, but simply looking at last year’s injury-plagued Philadelphia Flyers net situation shows that quality depth can keep playoff runs alive. Besides, internal competition is a great way to spur productive results on the ice.

It’s too early to say that Holtby has a legitimate chance to steal one of the top jobs, but he gives the Capitals a valuable option in case Neuvirth (apparently healthy now) and/or Varlamov get banged up again. Having a third option as steady as Holtby could prove crucial as the Capitals hope to bring a more defensive-minded approach into another postseason.

Islanders shut out Canadiens for huge road win

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 18:  Thomas Greiss #1 of the New York Islanders in action against the New Jersey Devils on February 18, 2017 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Islanders 3-2.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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Overall this season the New York Islanders have really struggled away from the Barclays Center, a point of concern when you consider how many road games they have down the stretch as they try to overcome their miserable start to climb back into the playoffs.

Their current nine-game road trip is off to a promising start with wins in the first two games, including a 3-0 shutout win over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night to improve their record to 12-4-2 under new coach Doug Weight.

The Islanders received goals from Anthony Beauvillier, Anders Lee and John Tavares in the win, while Thomas Greiss stopped all 24 shots he faced to record his third shutout of the season.

With the win the Islanders hold sole possession of the second wild card spot in the East for the time being, two points ahead of Florida and Boston (the Bruins are in action right now) and continue their stunning second half turnaround.

But while things are going great for the Islanders right now, the struggles in Montreal continue.

With their loss on Thursday they failed to put any extra distance between themselves and the rest of the Atlantic Division that has suddenly closed the gap on them. They remain just two points up on Ottawa and only four points ahead of Toronto. The loss also continues what has been a particularly brutal stretch over the past couple of months that has seen the team win just seven of its past 20 games.

It’s probably too early to start fully panicking in Montreal, but given the way the end of last season went this can’t be a promising development for Canadiens fans.

Blackhawks’ Hjalmarsson leaves game against Coyotes

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 22:  Niklas Hjalmarsson #4 of the Chicago Blackhawks looks to pass against the Vancouver Canucks at the United Center on January 22, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Canucks 4-2.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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After taking just four shifts in in the first period of Thursday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson had to leave Thursday’s game with an unspecified injury.

The Blackhawks did not offer any update on what forced Hjalmarsson out of the game, only to say he would be out for the remainder of the evening.

Fortunately for the Blackhawks they dressed seven defensemen for the game when Michal Rozsival drew back into the lineup, so they still have a full lineup of defenders to finish the game. Surprisingly, Rozsival scored his first goal of the season just two minutes into the second period, breaking what had been a 3-3 tie following a wild first period that saw the teams combine for six goals.

In 59 games this season Hjalmarsson had five goals and nine assists while playing more than 20 minutes per night, mostly on a pairing with Duncan Keith.

Blackhawks and Coyotes combine for six goals in wild first period

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 18:  Nick Schmaltz #8 of the Chicago Blackhawks moves against the Edmonton Oilers at the United Center on February 18, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Oilers defeated the Blackhawks 3-1.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The first period of Thursday’s Blackhawks-Coyotes game had just a little bit of excitement as the two teams combined for six goals, including two by the Coyotes in the final three minutes of the period to erase what had been a two-goal deficit.

All of the action started just 37 seconds into the game when Nick Schmaltz, playing on his 21st birthday, scored his sixth goal of the season (shown above) on a feed from a still white hot Jonathan Toews.

Seven minutes later, Coyotes rookie defenseman Jakob Chychrun scored his second goal in his as many games to get things even at one.

That is when the chaos started to break out. The Blackhawks quickly struck for two more goals when Ryan Hartman and Patrick Kane scored six minutes apart to give the Blackhawks what would end up being a very short-lived 3-1 lead. Just one minute after Kane’s goal Ryan White netted his seventh of the season to bring the Coyotes back to within one, a goal that was followed by Radim Vrbata‘s 13th of the season just one minute after that.

Here are the two Coyotes goals that tied it.

Chicago came into the game on Thursday on a goal scoring tear, scoring at least four goals in seven of their past eight games. They are off to a great start when it comes to reaching that mark again on Thursday.

Trouble is, they can not seem to keep the puck out of their net on Thursday.

WATCH LIVE: Arizona Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 07:  Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks skates with the puck against the Oliver Ekman-Larsson #23 of the Phoenix Coyotes in the second period at Jobing.com Arena on February 7, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
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Winners of seven of their past eight, the Chicago Blackhawks are back home on Thursday night to take on the Arizona Coyotes.

The Blackhawks have been on a roll lately, especially offensively, scoring 34 goals in their past eight games. They have scored at least four goals in seven of those games. Captain Jonathan Toews has been doing a lot of the work offensively lately and is having a huge second half after a disappointing start to the season offensively.

On Thursday they host a Coyotes team that has shown a lot of improvement in recent weeks, putting together an 8-4-1 record since Jan. 20.

Puck drop for Thursday is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET and you can catch all off the action on NBCSN or on our Live Stream.

Click here for the Live Stream

Preview: Jonathan Toews looks to stay hot against Coyotes