Blues playoff chances will hinge on Jaroslav Halak

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The Blues have a new captain. They have new veterans to show the young core the way. They have two of the best young offensive blueliners in the league. They have players that were acquired last season who have had an entire offseason to get comfortable in their new city. Everything looks like it’s in order for the Blues to have a bounce back season this year. Yet still, no matter which way you look at the team, their success still comes back to one vitally important player: Jaroslav Halak.

Expectations were sky-high when he was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. He was coming off of a playoff run where he almost single-handedly led the Habs to the Eastern Conference finals. The Habs chose Carey Price, the Blues chose to obtain his services and sign him for a 4-year deal, and the rest is history.

Or is it?

Last season the Blues were supposed to take the next step in their progression as Western Conference contenders. They finished 6th in the West in 2008-09 and had all the makings of a young team on the rise. The 2009-10 season featured a plethora of injuries that caused a predictable slip in the standings. But last year? Last year, a healthy team was supposed to pick up where they left off in 2009. Long-term injuries to TJ Oshie and David Perron didn’t help—but there was more to it than just injuries.

Aside from the injuries, the Blues were supposed to have an elite goaltender who could help steal games and lead them back to the playoffs. His pedestrian numbers explain that he wasn’t an elite goaltender last year—but it was more than just statistics. David Rogers over on Frozen Notes explains that Halak’s second year in St. Louis will need more consistency:

“The four-year, $15 million question. I think most fans are willing to give Halak a pass on his first season in St. Louis as the number one goaltender. They won’t be able to overlook two consecutive mediocre years. We’ve seen him be outstanding and unbeatable at times yet it’s quite difficult to forget the times he has been out of position and beaten repeatedly from similar angles.”

Halak’s going to need to step up if the Blues want to fill all of their potential. The Canadiens traded him because he wanted to be paid like “the man.” Now it’s time for him to start earning it. If he can put together a season like his last year in Montreal, the Blues are a good bet to sneak into the playoffs next season. But if he’s the inconsistent, average goaltender from a year ago, there’s no way the Blues will be able to reach the postseason in the tough Western Conference.

He’s had a year to get used to his new surroundings. He has a great new mask. Now fans in St. Louis hope he’ll have a great new game to go with the new headgear in the not-so-new city.

The Buzzer: Auston Matthews’ late-game heroics; Pens move into top spot in Metropolitan

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Players of the Night:

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers: Giroux notched a goal and two assists in Sunday’s win over the New York Rangers. The goal was the 200th of his career. He’s been incredible this year. The Flyers forward is up to 69 points in 59 games, which puts him on pace to score 96 points. Giroux now has four multi-point performances in his last six outings.

Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers: Like his teammate Giroux, Konecny also picked up a goal and two assists. He’s now accumulated 18 points in 15 games. Konecny is currently riding a four-game point streak.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: Even though the Oilers are struggling this season, McDavid has found a way to remain productive. His hat trick in Sunday’s tilt against the Avalanche was his third of the season. After scoring 100 points last year, he’s on pace to hit 98 right now.

Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins: Guentzel’s three-point night helped propel the Penguins to victory against the Blue Jackets. Guentzel now has five points in his last four games.

Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks: Pavelski had a three-point night of his own against the Dallas Stars. If you scroll a little lower, you’ll see his spin-o-rama goal. The veteran isn’t having his best season, but he’s managed to pick up nine points in his last six games.

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets: The Jets are an offensive machine that not many teams can stop right now. Connor picked up a pair of goals against the Panthers, which means he’s already scored 19 times in his first full NHL season.

Highlights of the Night:

Taylor Hall comes up clutch against the Hurricanes:

If you like spinning backhanders, Joe Pavelski has you covered:

How about this save from Semyon Varlamov:

The hand-eye coordination from Evgenii Dadonov is pretty ridiculous:

Sometimes it takes two to keep the puck out of the net:

Connor Hellebuyck made a sweet save of his own against the Panthers:

Factoids of the Night:

Auston Matthews‘ late-game heroics against Detroit:

The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions are in top spot in the Metropolitan Division:

Hall is en fuego:

Scores:

Flyers 7, Rangers 4

Oilers 4, Avalanche 2

Devils 3, Hurricanes 2 (OT)

Penguins 5, Blue Jackets 2

Maple Leafs 3, Red Wings 2

Sharks 5, Stars 2

Jets 7, Panthers 2

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.

Golden Knights don’t want to focus on big picture

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LAS VEGAS (AP) The Vegas Golden Knights have done an excellent job of not looking too far ahead in their inaugural season.

It has served them well during their amazing run as an expansion team, all the way to the top of the NHL standings.

After Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Golden Knights lead the NHL with 82 points.

According to the league, Vegas is the first expansion team in its inaugural season to hold the outright lead in the standings this late into a season – 58 games played – besting the 1967-68 Kings, who led the league through 19 games on Nov. 24, 1967.

But as veteran goalkeeper and three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury said, there is a point in the season every team is either trying to get into the playoffs or stay positioned where they are for the postseason.

“Right now, we’re in good shape,” Fleury said. “We are aware where we are, but we can’t just sit back. We have to keep chasing those points night after night.”

The cliche of “one game at a time” has transitioned into playing with a sense of urgency with seven weeks left in the regular season.

Four games into a seven-game homestand, Vegas has won three straight since losing to Philadelphia on Feb. 11. The Golden Knights responded with wins over Chicago, Edmonton, and the Canadiens, outscoring the three by a combined 15-6.

“We’re in a good spot right now, we’re happy where we are, but we’re a team that’s always going to have something to prove,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said.

“I think everyone probably watches the standings, a little more closer in the West than the East. It’s one thing about having a lot of points early and being in first place in the West.

“It’s a little different with this group, we all have something to prove still. We’re an expansion team, no one ever thought we’d be here, where we are right now.”

Nevertheless, McNabb said coach Gerard Gallant has done a good job of keeping his players focused, ensuring they’re performing their best each game.

“The whole point of taking it day by day is you’re not focused on the big picture and I feel like that’s a good approach for our team to have,” defenseman Shea Theodore said.

“You can’t look too far ahead, it’s just kind of how we’re rolling and we’re doing a good job with that. I feel like we’ve done a good job of showing the league we’re for real.”

Even team owner Bill Foley has gotten in on the act of not looking too far ahead. After Saturday night’s win, Foley expressed concern over Theodore’s recent throat infection that kept him out of the lineup, he spoke about Pierre-Edouard Bellemare getting injured during the game and said while he is happy with his team’s success it’s important not to become complacent.

“But it is fun, it’s great,” Foley said. “One thing we did when we did the expansion draft, it was a lot of hard work, and we put a lot of planning into it. We had five mock draft sessions in the expansion draft. We knew other teams as well or better than they knew themselves. So, we knew what we were getting. And (general manager) George (McPhee) did a phenomenal job in making some key deals. The result is what we have.

“We have guys that have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder and they want to play hard, and they really play hard against their former teams.”

With Saturday’s win over one of the NHL’s Original Six teams, Vegas improved to 22-4-2 at T-Mobile Arena, matching the 1979-80 Hartford Whalers (22-12-6) for the most home wins by a team in its first season.

It doesn’t get any easier for Vegas, which is 14-1-1 against Pacific Division teams, and faces key games this upcoming week against Anaheim on Monday, Calgary on Wednesday and Vancouver on Friday.

“The schedule is going to be tough with a lot of games coming up,” Fleury said. “We gotta find a way to be consistent all those nights and keep fighting. We still gotta focus playing one game at a time. You don’t want to think too far down the road. Every game is important.”

Veteran defenseman Deryk Engelland agreed.

“We’ve been doing a good job all year of taking it one game at a time and treating every game as a must win. It’s a tight division, it’s a tight conference and we just have to take it one game at a time.

“Come April 8, we can maybe gear up from there, but from now `til then it’s one game at time and get ready for the next one.”

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Should Zach Hyman’s goal on Petr Mrazek have counted?

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There may or may not have been a controversial call in Sunday’s game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.

With the score tied at zero in the first period, Zach Hyman appeared to have opened the scoring for the Leafs, but the goal was waved off because Red Wings netminder Petr Mrazek‘s mask came off.

As you can tell from the video below, Auston Matthews‘ shot catches Mrazek in the mask. Right before Hyman buries the buck into the net, Mrazek shakes his mask off because a strap snapped out of place. It’s definitely not an easy call to make in the moment.

Take a look for yourself:

Here’s what rule 9.6 of the NHL rulebook says about these kind of plays:

When a goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask and his team has control of the puck, the play shall be stopped immediately to allow the goalkeeper the opportunity to regain his helmet and/or face mask. When the opposing team has control of the puck, play shall only be stopped if there is no immediate and impending scoring opportunity. This stoppage of play must be made by the Referee. When play is stopped because the goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask, the ensuing face-off shall take place at one of the defending team’s end zone face-off spots.

When a goalkeeper deliberately removes his helmet and/or face mask in order to secure a stoppage of play, the Referee shall stop play as outlined above and in this case assess the goalkeeper a minor penalty for delaying the game. 

It’s clear that Mrazek removed his helmet intentionally, but he only did so because at least one of the straps snapped off. Also, the referee could have blown the play dead because he assumed that one of the two Red Wings in the slot would take control of the puck. Instead, both Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi whiffed on it.

But according to the rule, the play can only be stopped if the opposing team doesn’t have an immediate or impending scoring opportunity. Was Hyman’s chance an immediate or impending scoring opportunity? It sure looks like it, but that’s at the official’s discretion.

There’s a bit of a grey zone with this rule, so it’s hard to say if the referee applied the rule correctly or not.

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.

Connor McDavid spoils Nathan MacKinnon’s return

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Sunday’s game between the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche was supposed to be all about Nathan MacKinnon‘s return to the lineup, but Connor McDavid had other ideas.

The Oilers might be struggling, but McDavid had some individual success this month. On Sunday, the Oilers captain picked up his second hat trick of the month in Edmonton’s 4-2 win over Colorado.

In eight games this month, the 21-year-old has accumulated an impressive 11 goals.

Here’s his first tally of the game:

McDavid finished the game with a plus-3 rating, five shots on goal and a huge save in 19:52 of ice time. That’s right, a huge save. With the Avs leading 1-0 in the first period, McDavid prevented the opposition from going up by two.

His second tally tied the game at two, while his hat-trick goal was scored into an empty-net.

According to NHL Public Relations, He’s the first Oiler to score three hat tricks in a season since Petr Klima in 1990-91.

Meanwhile, MacKinnon returned the lineup after missing eight games with an upper-body injury. He had a minus-2 rating, four shots on goal and one hit in 22:20 of ice time. Only Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen had more ice time among Avalanche forward.

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.