Top 10 NHL stories to watch…once the All-Star break is over

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The NHL All-Star break, which begins Thursday, is the last deep breath everyone gets to take before the playoff stretch drive. So with that in mind, here are 10 stories we’ll be covering closely in the coming months, once everyone’s filled up their lungs this weekend.

Will Sidney Crosby be back this season?

We’ve covered Crosby’s battle with concussions from time to time on PHT (and by “time to time,” we mean “obsessively”), and don’t expect that to change. He’s the best player in the world, and at just 24 years old, it’s not being overly dramatic to say his career is in jeopardy. Not to mention, if he can return in time for the playoffs, the Penguins go from probable Stanley Cup contenders to definite contenders.

The Feb. 27 trade deadline

This one has the potential to be epic, and we’re not just saying that because the trade deadline is great for the blogging business (though it is). Combine a ton of cap space for a number of Cup contenders (Chicago and Detroit leap to mind) with an unusually high supply of big names that have come up in trade speculation – from Bobby Ryan to Jeff Carter to Ryan Suter – and we could be in store for some blockbuster deals.

Teams that were expected to make the playoffs, but might not

The Washington Capitals, for example. Just imagine for a minute if they don’t make it. Would GM George McPhee have any hope of keeping his job? Would a new GM come in and blow things up? How would Alex Ovechkin handle it? Would Penguins fans ever stop laughing? Another team to watch is Los Angeles. The Kings still have the worst offense in the NHL, though things have gotten slightly better under new coach Darryl Sutter.

Teams that were expected to miss the playoffs, but might not

Ottawa, Florida, Minnesota, Colorado, Dallas, Calgary – all remain in the mix. To address just one of those teams, nobody expected the Senators (27-19-6) to be where they are right now, and that includes their owner. But while the Sens head into the break with a five-point lead over eighth-place New Jersey, we’ve seen already how quickly surprise teams can fall in the standings. (Ahem: Wild.)

The pursuit of a top seed

A quick glance at the standings and some fairly unexceptional teams occupy the seventh and eighth spots in each conference. Unexceptional compared to last year at least, when Vancouver won the Presidents’ Trophy and was rewarded with a first-round matchup against defending champion Chicago. The Blackhawks, who were treading water for most of the regular season, kicked it into gear once they got their hate on and took the Canucks to overtime of Game 7. While still possible, a scenario like that seems less likely this time around, meaning a first or second seed could be a significant advantage. Third and fourth? Not so much.

Will the Leafs finally make the playoffs?

The richest team in the league in the capital of the hockey world (self-anointed, but probably true) hasn’t played a postseason game since 2004. Miss the playoffs again and it would make seven straight seasons. Which when you think about it, is pretty pathetic. GM Brian Burke’s job is likely safe regardless, but coach Ron Wilson, contract extension and all, would have to be out the door. (Right?) Expect Toronto to be active prior to the trade deadline to boost the top six forwards. The Leafs are one of the rare clubs with a surplus of defensemen, a commodity that’s always in heavy demand heading into the playoffs.

A new CBA needs to be negotiated

The current agreement expires in September, with talks between the league and players’ union expected to start after the All-Star break. For certain, the NHL is in better shape financially compared to the 2004-05 lockout that cost an entire season. However, if the owners try to cut the players’ share as we saw recently in the NBA, things could get…tense. New union leader Donald Fehr is no pushover, and by blocking realignment he’s already sent a message to Gary Bettman that the players won’t be bullied.

The race for the Hart Trophy

The league’s leading scorer, Evgeni Malkin, is the current top candidate, having put the Penguins on his back minus Crosby and a host of other key Pittsburgh players that have suffered long-term injuries. But remember what Corey Perry did down the stretch last year. Anything can happen (including an injury to Malkin.) Claude Giroux, Marian Hossa, Pavel Datsyuk, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews are all in the MVP conversation. Shea Weber should be too, but the Hart rarely goes to defensemen.

Supplemental discipline as the games become more important

OK, let’s say the Capitals have five games left, they’re neck and neck with two other teams for the final playoff spot and, uh-oh, Ovechkin leaves his feet again to hit a guy. What does Brendan Shanahan do? Throw the book at Ovi? Go easy on him? Hide under some jackets? Not saying it’ll involve Ovechkin, but something like this is bound to happen in some shape or form.

The final days of the Phoenix Coyotes?

When the deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg was announced in May, the playoffs were still underway. And chances are, that deal didn’t come together overnight. So that gives you an idea of how much time is left for the league to find an owner that will keep the Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena. That is, assuming the NHL isn’t willing to give status quo another season in Arizona, which would likely necessitate the city of Glendale covering millions and millions more of the team’s losses. This really does seem like the last stand for the franchise in its current location. Granted, it’s felt like that before. Many times actually. But this really, really feels like it.

The Buzzer: Gold for Russia (OAR), goalie interference fun

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Russia (O.A.R.) wins gold in overtime against Germany

Germany was an overtime goal away from a huge upset (note: miracle is loosely translated as “wunder” in German). Instead the Olympic Athletes of Russia will take their clunky name to a redemptive gold medal after beating Germany 4-3 in overtime thanks to a power-play goal.

With memorable moments like Ilya Kovalchuk being shut down on a heart-stopping semi-breakaway chance in OT, two Russian forwards were especially deadly.

Kirill Kaprizov scored “the golden goal” on that power play after racking up three assists during regulation. His partner-in-crime was Nikita Gusev, who generated two goals and two assists of his own.

Kovalchuk finally got a taste of Olympic glory, while Pavel Datsyuk joins the “Triple Gold Club.”

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Quite a tournament for Kaprizov, Gusev, and a certain Nashville Predators prospect named Eeli Tolvanen (more on him here).

Players of the Night

  • No Auston Matthews? The Maple Leafs wouldn’t respond “No problem,” but they might note that it gives other players a chance to step up. Lately, Mitch Marner has been on an absolute tear. He played a huge role in Toronto’s 4-3 win against Boston on Saturday, getting involved in all four goals (one goal, three assists).

This burst pushes Marner past Matthews for the team lead in scoring with 51 points. The splendid scorer has 14 points during an eight-game tear.

  • The Washington Capitals took care of business against the Sabres on Saturday, and Evgeny Kuznetsov led the charge with one goal and three assists of his own. He had been quiet before this outburst, only managing a goal in his previous five games. Kuznetsov has 59 points in 62 games this season.

So much goalie interference review fun

The Maple Leafs beat the Bruins after a goalie interference review went their way, which you can read more about here. The Oilers ended up holding off a mad Kings rally because of another really weird one. Ah, the NHL must love all the attention these nightmares are generating.

Highlight of the Night

A patently ridiculous save by Andrei Vasilevskiy:

Factoids

Taylor Hall cannot be stopped, and this time it even translated to a win for the Devils against the Islanders:

The team success hasn’t been there as much lately for Henrik Zetterberg, but he’s climbing some lofty heights from an individual standpoint:

Patrik Laine turns 20 on April 19, by the way.

Scores

Flyers 5, Senators 3
Flames 5, Avalanche 1
Jets 5, Stars 3
Maple Leafs 4, Bruins 3
Lightning 4, Canadiens 3 (SO)
Red Wings 3, Hurricanes 1
Panthers 6, Penguins 5
Capitals 5, Sabres 1
Blue Jackets 3, Blackhawks 2
Devils 2, Islanders 1
Coyotes 2, Ducks 0
Oilers 4, Kings 3

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.

Bruins go from Nash trade rumors to loss, Bergeron injury

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

There are times when the Boston Bruins have looked downright unstoppable. Saturday serves as a harsh reminder that things can change in a heartbeat, or at least that the threat is basically always hovering.

Consider this: earlier today, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Bruins were becoming frontrunners to trade for Rick Nash. Such a deal is still plausible, although John Shannon (also of Sportsnet) reports that Nash’s $7.8 million cap hit could cause some challenges, even this late in the season.

Either way, the Bruins’ outlook seemed shiny: they’re already a tough team to deal with thanks to an absolutely bear (sorry) of a top line in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. The B’s have been so impressive, they even seem to be a threat to win the Atlantic.

Things went sour in multiple categories hours later.

The Bruins lost to their hated rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 4-3. That game ended in regulation, and the decisive goal brought about everyone’s favorite hockey thing: a goalie interference review. This didn’t go in Boston’s favor, and while some shrugged their shoulders, Tuukka Rask wasn’t thrilled:

With that, the Atlantic Division thing seems far less promising. To start, the Lightning managed a 4-3 shootout win. Even worse, the Maple Leafs took second place in the Atlantic by beating Boston.

If that wasn’t enough, the most integral part of the Bruins’ dominance is in danger. Reporters including NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty noted that Patrice Bergeron was seen in a walking boot:

On the bright side, all three situations could still turn out nicely for the Bruins.

  • The Bruins might actually be more justified in going after Nash if Bergeron’s a little banged up. Granted, a more severe injury might leave them more conservative at the deadline.
  • Games in hand make optimism easier to come by in the Atlantic positioning races. The Lightning have 87 points in 62 games played while the Maple Leafs are at 83 in 64. The Bruins are at 82, yet with only 59 games played, there’s plenty of time for the B’s to either regain home-ice advantage over Toronto or even push for the top spot in the division.
  • As you can see from Haggerty’s tweet, Bergeron’s issue might not be too bad, either.

So, this isn’t a doom and gloom situation for the Bruins, but it still stands to mention how bumpy things became for at least a while there. The B’s have to hope that most of this stuff sorts itself out, Nash or not.

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.

Panthers boost playoff hopes, end Penguins’ streak

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

For quite some time, it seemed like the Metropolitan Division would send five teams to the playoffs while the top-heavy Atlantic would only generate three.

The Metro still dominates the wild-card picture, but with all apologies to the scrappy Red Wings, the Florida Panthers stand as the one Atlantic team with a shot at crashing the party. For all of the front office upheaval, the past few nights provide evidence that they could do some damage if they walk in that door.

Maybe it’s fitting for an up-and-down team to see some extreme highs and lows in an eventual 6-5 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Despite some strong work from Evgeni Malkin, the Panthers went into the third period with a 4-2 lead. That wouldn’t end up being enough, as the two teams traded blows during a frantic, five-goal final frame. The Penguins briefly tied the contest up at 5-5, pushing for a seventh straight win, but it was not to be.

Ultimately, Evgenii Dadonov (first career hat trick) trumped Evgeni Malkin (two goals, one assist) in getting the late game-winner. Perhaps the Panthers will try to lift up a community rattled by tragic shootings, as this is the second straight game where they’ve notched decisive goals late in front of home fans.

(Thursday’s win against the Capitals was even more dramatic, as they rallied late after Roberto Luongo‘s stirring speech before the game.)

Now, the Panthers might not seem like much of a threat with 62 points, as the Columbus Blue Jackets currently hold the East’s final wild-card spot with 67. Games played paint a brighter picture, though.

Here’s how the wild-card races look, updated following the Devils’ win against the Islanders, which is a nice boost for Florida overall:

Devils (beat Islanders in regulation): 72 points in 62 games played, first WC
Blue Jackets (won tonight): 67 points in 62 GP, second WC

Islanders (lost to Devils): 65 points in 63GP
Hurricanes (lost tonight): 64 points in 62 GP
Panthers: 62 points in 59 GP
Red Wings (beat Canes): 61 points in 60 GP
Rangers: 59 points in 62 GP

On one hand, the Panthers’ situation isn’t that different from the Red Wings,’ at least if Florida doesn’t get hot. On the other hand, consider that the Panthers have a few games in hand on everyone ahead of them. The margin could close rapidly … or they could fade.

Credit the Panthers for making things interesting, and if things go well, making their competition sweat.

That’s the power of “Dadonov Strength.”

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.

Devils retire Patrik Elias’ jersey

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) The New Jersey Devils retired career scoring leader Patrik Elias’ No. 26 jersey in a ceremony before their game against the New York Islanders on Saturday night.

The 41-year-old former Czech forward played his final game in 2016, finishing a 20-year career in New Jersey with two Stanley Cup championships and most of the team’s scoring records.

“For someone growing up in Eastern Europe, in a communist country, there’s no way I could have ever dreamed of this day,” said Elias, whose eyes welled with tears during his speech that was interrupted several times by chants of “Paddy! Paddy!”

Always a fan favorite, Elias walked through a section of the stands at the Prudential Center before taking his place on the ice with his wife, two daughters, former and current teammates and the franchise’s owners and management.

The podium on the ice was shaped as a puck with the No. 26 on it, and it was by surrounded by other super-sized pucks with the same number and two trophies, the Stanley Cup and The Prince of Wales trophy, presented to the Eastern Conference winner.

Elias played on four conference champions, scoring the winning goal in Game 7 against Philadelphia in 2000.

Elias is the first European player to have his number retired by the Devils, and the first forward. Defensemen Scott Stevens (No. 4), Scott Niedermayer (No. 27) and Ken Daneyko (No. 3) and goaltender Martin Brodeur (No. 30) also had their jerseys retired. All four were in attendance with Brodeur, of course, getting the biggest ovation.

It was appropriate that Elias’ No. 26 was raised to the rafters at the Prudential Center against the Islanders, the team he played his most games against, 91, and had his most points, 86.

Elias is the Devils’ leader in points (1025), goals (408), assists (617), points in one season (96), points in a playoff season (23) and game-winning goals (80), .

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey