Ken Hitchcock’s Patrick Kane nightmare will come true tonight

Ken Hitchcock sounds like he’d rather go skydiving with a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck than face the Blackhawks with Patrick Kane playing center. However, that’s exactly what Hitch will experience tonight in St. Louis. (Kane at center, not skydiving with a snake.)

“It’s the worst nightmare for all of us; it’s not good,” the new Blues head coach said today, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. “A player who’s that’s strong and that competitive and that patient with the puck, we’ve all kind of dreaded that day when he was going to move into the middle of the ice. It’s not fun.”

Kane (15 points in 14 games) has been playing the middle with Marian Hossa on one wing and either Patrick Sharp or Dan Carcillo on the other.

While Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has no reason to be unhappy with the Kane-Hossa combo, he’s shaking almost everything else up after Sunday’s 6-2 loss to the Canucks. Tonight’s game in St. Louis will feature new forward trios and defense pairings, the most notable change being Michael Frolik moving up to the top line to play with Jonathan Toews and Sharp.

The Blackhawks also hope to improve their surprisingly bad power play, currently ranked 28th with a 9.4-percent success rate. For starters, Quenneville wants to see more traffic in front of the net with the man advantage, just like the good old days when the ‘Hawks still had Dustin Byfuglien and Troy Brouwer.

“A couple guys that made our power play successful are guys who just stood in front of the net and everything else evolves around that,” Quenneville said, as reported by the Daily Herald. “Otherwise you’re looking for the perfect play, and perfect plays just aren’t going to exist. If you have traffic and our thought process is pucks, off of that a lot of things can happen.”

Looks like Nathan MacKinnon is going from star to superstar

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Look, it’s not like Nathan MacKinnon has ever really been a “bad” player.

The Nova Scotia-born speed demon carried two 20+ goal seasons and three 50+ point campaigns into 2017-18, which in the tough-to-score NHL, is nothing to sneeze at. This is especially true since the Colorado Avalanche have frequently asked him to do a lot; Sportsnet’s Andrew Berkshire notes that he’s faced some of the toughest assignments of any centers in recent years.

Still, there was growing concern that the 22-year-old might not make that extra step from “star” to “superstar.” That’s especially true if his shooting skill really was an issue, as it seemed to be in three straight seasons where he shot under 10 percent (and considering his 8.4 career average).

Well, through the first quarter of this season, it seems like MacKinnon is “finally” making that next step, and making us feel silly for worrying too much about a guy who’s still just 22.

(Heck, he’s not even an old 22. MacKinnon’s birthday came on Sept. 1.)

Much like the Avalanche as a whole, MacKinnon’s gone from discouraging in 2016-17 to encouraging so far, and he’s probably the biggest reason to feel happy in Colorado … beyond Matt Duchene, and depending upon your lifestyle, certain perks.

Wednesday was the latest reminder that the Avalanche aren’t mere pushovers, and that MacKinnon is making that leap we’ve been waiting for to join the best-of-the-best.

The tremendously fast, increasingly versatile center collected assists on every Avalanche goal as they beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Wednesday, improving Colorado’s record to 11-8-1. This actually makes for quite the logjam at “last” in the Central, with four teams at 23 points, and the Avs hold at least a game in hand on the Blackhawks, Stars, and Wild. They’re not far from being a wild card team, either.

Considering the fact that the Avalanche were one of the worst teams of the salary cap era last season with an almost unthinkable 46 points, and MacKinnon languished with 16 goals, this should put a big smile on GM Joe Sakic’s face.

But, again, it’s something fans of the sport as a whole should appreciate.

With tonight’s three assists, MacKinnon now has 25 points in 20 games. This places MacKinnon in a tie for 12th in the NHL in scoring with a pretty illustrious group: John Tavares, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Scheifele.

To me, the number that’s maybe most heartening is MacKinnon’s 13.2 shooting percentage (seven goals on 53 shots on goal through 20 games).

It will be interesting to follow this specific trend over the long haul of the season, as he’s firing the puck just a little bit less often; he averages 3.08 SOG for his career according to Hockey Reference, while his current average is 2.65 this season.

That’s not a massive drop, but it’s actually quite noticeable, and you wonder if MacKinnon is being a little more selective with his shot. Again, it’s a small sample size, so we’ll see if that changes. But if MacKinnon either improves his shooting skill or simply finds a way to inch closer to the 24 goals he scored as a rookie while using his speed and smarts to be a difference-maker in every phase of the game, this could be quite the transformation.

The Avalanche probably weren’t going to complain about “the old” MacKinnon, but they should be delighted if he ends up being a truly complete star, and one who can flirt with 20-goal, 70-point seasons.

And you know what? Fans of exciting hockey should be excited about this development, too. Even if he’s using his scary speed and skill to your own team’s dismay from time to time.

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.

Point gets Lightning extra point against Kane, Blackhawks

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The Tampa Bay Lightning edged the Chicago Blackhawks – barely – on Wednesday to leapfrog back over the St. Louis Blues for the top record in the NHL.

The Bolts capitalized on a power-play opportunity in overtime, with Brayden Point scoring the decisive goal in a 3-2 OT win. It was an exciting overtime period, with Point being stopped all in alone earlier in the OT, and the same happening to Patrick Kane on a breakaway.

Kane had been getting the best of the Lightning earlier in the game, scoring the first two goals of the contest in the first period. Not a lot of players can make plays like this off the rush:

Then again, few teams can score a goal this pretty, especially while shorthanded:

Steven Stamkos and Vladislav Namestnikov collected assists on Wednesday, but the top line (including Nikita Kucherov) failed to score a goal, though they created quite a few chances. The best – at least in regulation – came when Stamkos seized an opportunity against the Blackhawks, but Corey Crawford was game:

Wow.

Again, both goalies made some big stops. Here’s that Kane miss in OT, with Andrei Vasilevskiy depriving number 88 from a hat trick:

So, with that, the Lightning hold a one-point standings edge (34 to 33) over the Blues in the early race for the Presidents’ Trophy, and most importantly, gives them a five-point edge in the Atlantic Division. Tampa Bay’s impressive start to 2017-18 is especially notable since they’ve played one fewer game than St. Louis and two fewer than the Toronto Maple Leafs (the second-ranked team in the up-and-down Atlantic).

Check out the logjam at second-to-last in the competitive Central for Chicago, as of this writing, with these three teams all at 21 games played:

Dallas Stars: 11-9-1, 23 points
Blackhawks: 10-8-3, 23 points
Minnesota Wild: 10-8-3, 23 points

It has to be a little frustrating for the Blackhawks to see a two-goal lead dissolve, but plenty of teams would struggle to secure such an edge against the powerhouse Lightning. Maybe the Blackhawks will gain some confidence in merely sticking with them (and grabbing a point for their troubles).

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.

Much-needed response from Oilers vs. Red Wings

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One win can’t cleanse the palate of a bitter 21-game start, but beggars can’t be choosers, and the Edmonton Oilers really needed a W tonight.

That’s not to say it would be easy, either, as they faced a rested Red Wings team in Detroit to close off a back-to-back after Tuesday’s humiliating loss to the St. Louis Blues. Edmonton got that sorely needed response, chasing Jimmy Howard and beating the Red Wings 6-2.

While Connor McDavid (two assists) and Leon Draisaitl (one helper) made their typical impacts, it’s especially heartening for the Oilers to see less-obvious names show up in the box score. Jesse Puljujarvi, Jujhar Khaira, Mark Letestu, and Drake Caggiula ranked among goalscorers, while Ryan Strome collected a pair of assists.

Any bit of confidence gained, particularly for supporting cast members, could be very important for the fledgling Oilers.

It doesn’t take long to ruin the party; now at 8-12-2, the Oilers’ 18 standings points still leave them at second-worst in the West.

Still, all the Oilers can do right now is gradually, slowly dig themselves out of the troubling hole they’ve created for themselves. This won’t be easy, and even this early on, they might need a few other teams to hit a wall.

But, hey, it’s better than the nothing this team showed last night, right?

Catch up on Edmonton’s struggles

Why they’re the NHL’s most disappointing team

The uncomfortable parallels between McDavid and Jack Eichel

These struggles are the results of some bad moves from Peter Chiarelli

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.

Scott Darling: Latest goalie beaten from center ice (Video)

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Here’s a thought: considering an 82-game regular season and about a two-month-long postseason, it’s almost a little surprising that we don’t see more center-ice goals.

Such a goal can happen in so many ways. A puck can take an odd bounce. A goalie might take his eye off the puck for a second while deciding what to do next, much like an NFL receiver who drops an easy pass while dreaming of those sweet, sweet, yards up ahead.

So, let’s not be too hard on Carolina Hurricanes goalie Scott Darling, who padded Mika Zibanejad‘s already-robust goal totals with the center-ice flub you can see in the video above.

If you prefer a GIF form, this one nails the spirit of the thing:

(Agreed, little emoticon monkey. Agreed.)

Since we’re on the subject of goals netminders would want back even more than usual, we might as well also consider Tyler Ennis beating Chad Johnson here:

Ouch. Hey, we’ve all been there (vaguely speaking).

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.