Who’s going to win the Stanley Cup? Here are PHT’s picks…

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We didn’t so well with these last season, with not one of us predicting the Chicago Blackhawks would win the Stanley Cup. We’re going to blame the lockout for that and try again for 2013-14. No excuses this time around. Unless there are injuries. Then there are excuses. We may also think up other excuses.

Jason Brough: Los Angeles Kings over Detroit Red Wings

I look for three major things when I pick a Cup winner. First is goaltending. Second is a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman that can log big minutes. Third is at least one, preferably two, top centers. The Kings have all these things. I’m a little concerned about their ability to create offense, but if Willie Mitchell can stay healthy, that may allow Drew Doughty to get a bit more involved in that area. Picking a team out of the East was tough because there’s only one that unequivocally meets my criteria, the Bruins, and it’s really hard to put together back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup Final. Meanwhile, I don’t like the Pens’ goaltending, and the Rangers, Caps, and Flyers don’t have that one great d-man. I ended up taking the Wings, but that back end will have to keep improving, and Stephen Weiss can’t be a free-agent bust.

Mike Halford: Los Angeles Kings over Boston Bruins

After winning it all two years ago and going back to the Western Conference finals last season, the Kings spent the summer tweaking what was already a pretty solid roster. They turned a backup goalie into another backup and arguably their fastest player (Matt Frattin); they added by subtracting Dustin Penner (who was mediocre at best last year) and, perhaps most importantly, got a clean bill of health for Willie Mitchell, the veteran defenseman that was a key cog on the Cup-winning side of ’12. The Kings are talented, deep, experienced and still bitter about getting dumped by Chicago in five games.

Ryan Dadoun: St. Louis Blues over New York Rangers

These are two teams I’ve liked for a couple of years now and it obviously didn’t pan out for me last season. Still, the Blues have what I believe to be the best group of defensemen in the NHL from top to bottom. They also have strong goaltending, especially if Jaroslav Halak can stay healthy during the playoffs. Their offense isn’t comparatively as impressive, but it’s well-rounded. While it includes some rising youngsters like Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, its core has largely matured at this point.

James O’Brien: St. Louis Blues over New York Rangers

With parity reigning supreme in the NHL, depth is increasingly important, and the Blues might be the deepest of them all. Not many teams boast such a variety of scoring options (adding Derek Roy was shrewd), 2-4 top pairing-quality defensemen and 2-3 viable goalies. Each of the Blues and Rangers have the motivation (key contract years, bright coaches) and talent to get it done, but the Blues edge the Rangers. And, no, I’m not just picking them because EA Sports’ supercomputers did, either.

Joe Yerdon: Los Angeles Kings over New York Rangers

The Kings are one of a handful of teams that can hang with Chicago in the West. Their skill, toughness, and goaltending are as good as it gets. The Rangers shake out as a team that seems to have it more put together. If not having Torts in their ears makes the difference, and I think it will, they’ll be right there.

Cam Tucker: Washington Capitals over Chicago Blackhawks

Alex Ovechkin should be extra motivated considering what’s at stake for him personally. I do worry about a potential emotional letdown for No. 8 after the Sochi Olympics, but the Blackhawks didn’t have that problem in 2010 when Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook played for Canada in Vancouver. The Capitals should also enter the season fully adjusted to Adam Oates and his system. At some point, this team has to break through in the playoffs. Washington isn’t perfect, but what team is? Particularly in the East.

So there you have it. PHT has the Kings (thrice), the Blues (twice), and the Caps (once). Sorry about that, those three teams. There’s always next season.

Blues get Alexander Steen back against Blackhawks

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Give the St. Louis Blues a lot of credit. Lesser teams might have buckled after a disturbing run of training camp/summer injuries. Instead, St. Louis won four straight to start the season, with three of those games coming on the road.

Maybe the Blues were starting to buckle under the pressure a bit lately, though, as they dropped two straight games to fall to 4-2-0.

The bad news is that there might not be many reinforcements coming anytime soon. The good news is that one key guy is returning against the Chicago Blackhawks tonight, as Alexander Steen has been activated from IR.

Steen, 33, broke his hand during training camp. It’s been a tough haul lately for the two-way forward in general, really, as he had suffered through a broken foot during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Even if he’s not quite 100 percent yet, the Blues welcome back a 50+ point player who isn’t that far removed from two 60+ point seasons in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

MORE: A preview of tonight’s two NBCSN games, including Blues vs. Blackhawks

At the moment, it sounds like Steen might be part of quite the loaded top line with Paul Stastny and Vladimir Tarasenko:

That’s pretty fun, although it makes for a bottom-six that is … a bit lacking (via Left Wing Lock):

Magnus PaajarviIvan BarbashevDmitrij Jaskin

Scottie Upshall – Oskar SundqvistKyle Brodziak

Woof. Lines like those serve as a reminder that Robby Fabbri‘s presence is sorely missed, and the same could be said for Patrik Berglund and even Zach Sanford.

Perhaps head coach Mike Yeo could spread the wealth at least enough to convert that top-heavy top-six to a fairly well-rounded top-nine?

The Blues are also missing a big minutes muncher on the blueline, as Jay Bouwmeester‘s status remains a little murky after fracturing his ankle during that nightmare training camp for St. Louis:

The other bit of tough news is that the Blues will have to hang tough for another week and change:

Wed, Oct 18 vs Chicago
Thu, Oct 19 @ Colorado
Sat, Oct 21 @ Vegas
Wed, Oct 25 vs Calgary
Fri, Oct 27 @ Carolina

They’ll get a reward starting on Oct. 28: four games in a row and six of seven at home.

Even by the end of October, it’s unclear how many players the Blues will get back from injury. They’ll just need to savor the breaks that do go their way, and in this case of Steen, this is a pretty nice one.

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.

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Ian Cole adjusts to missing teeth, life with a cage

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NEW YORK — Ian Cole has played 342 games and blocked 578 shots in his NHL career. Two weeks ago, he finally got to experience losing teeth as a hockey player.

As he displayed on Twitter (don’t look, really) the following day, the Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen lost three choppers in gruesome fashion after taking a Roman Josi slap shot to the mouth on Oct. 7. When he returned to the lineup Tuesday night against the New York Rangers, he was a couple of pounds lighter and wearing a cage.

“It was definitely something it looks nasty, it certainly was nasty. The feeling of them clipping away at bone off my jaw was not a feeling that I would want to have again,” he said after Tuesday’s morning skate. “But it could have been much worse. It could have been a broken jaw, could have been a lot more teeth. I certainly was fortunate.”

Cole re-joined his teammates on the ice this week and after seeing his diet switch to that of rice cakes, smoothies and soups, he’s back to eating solid foods, and the weight that was lost is slowly returning. After the Penguins arrived in New York City on Monday, he went the sushi route for dinner, preferring not to take a chance with a steak.

While playing at Notre Dame, Cole sported a half-shield, half-visor look, so going the full cage route won’t be a major adjustment. Once the Penguins medical staff tell him he’s able to say goodbye to the cage, Cole will go back to wearing just a visor.

“There’s a little bit of visibility difference, but it’s not that big of a deal,” he said. “You shouldn’t be looking down at the puck too much anyway ideally. There might be a time or two when you might lose the puck for a second, but hopefully those times are few and far between.”

Cole’s dad, Doug, is a dentist, and has been especially interested in his son’s recovery, passing along questions he has to the medical staff about the treatment they are giving the defensman.

After going through this experience for the first time in his career Cole says he believes if the NHL ever mandated cages for players they would get accustomed to it over time.

“Guys always get used to it, whether it’s visors or slashing calls now or face-off rules, guys adapt well and they’ll be fine,” he said. “That decision’s way above my pay grade but guys can adapt to that.”

Cole will get used to peering through a cage on the ice. But will what he went through cause some hesitation next time the opportunity to block a shot arises? He led all players with five blocked shots at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.

“Now that I’ve got the full cage on, I’ve got nothing to worry about,” he joked. “I’m in full armor, I’m ready to go.”

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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.

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‘Young Mario’ Matthews continues to reinvent ways to score

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Auston Matthews is drawing comparisons to Mario Lemieux and getting noticed by Bryce Harper amid a hot start to his second NHL season.

Last season’s Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year, Matthews went into training camp seeking to be more assertive on the ice. That has translated to five goals and three assists in his first six games and the kind of improved all-around play that makes the face of the Toronto Maple Leafs a superstar already at age 20.

”He’s got a skillset that ranges from just about everything,” Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said Tuesday. ”The ceiling’s the limit for Matts, and he knows he can be a great player and he already is. It’s crazy to think he’s (still) at such a young age.”

Even though Matthews remains in the shadow of Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby on hockey’s pantheon of top players, he already has filled up the highlight reel thanks to some tweaks and adjustments. The Scottsdale, Arizona, native was the first rookie to score 40 goals since Alex Ovechkin in 2005-06 and is conscious of the pressure to keep up that pace.

”You’re always reinventing yourself,” Matthews said. ”The league’s always adjusting and you’ve got to adjust right back to it.”

The league hasn’t adjusted yet. Matthews showed that by scoring goals so many different ways this season.

Matthews scored an overtime winner against Chicago by taking the puck off a carom off the back of Patrick Kane‘s right skate and going down the ice. Against Montreal, he scored one goal by flipping the puck past a Canadiens defender and knocking it down at full speed before firing through a screen, and then another on the rush by shooting short side on 2015 Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Carey Price.

”For me, the first (Montreal goal) was probably a little more impressive just how he handled the pass and you see how much he changed the angle,” Toronto winger James van Riemsdyk said. ”He’s really good at changing the angle, getting it off quick, things like that. He’s got a lot of different shots that he’ll try within his toolbox. It makes him pretty unpredictable when he’s going to shoot it.”

Matthews has only played 88 regular-season and six playoff games and yet has admirers far and wide.

Harper wore a brand new blue No. 34 Matthews jersey out of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse after their season-ending Game 5 loss to the Chicago Cubslast week. Matthews said he doesn’t know Harper, who’s from Las Vegas, but called the honor ”awesome.”

Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been watching Matthews’ growth and likened him – already – to a Hockey Hall of Famer and one of the best players in history.

”Auston Matthews, I’ve been saying it: He’s a young Mario Lemieux,” Trotz said. ”He’s (big), he can skate, he’s ultra-skilled, he’s very, very competitive, he makes plays.”

Matthews’ rookie success earned him another believer: himself. He said last month he was aiming to trust his skills more and want the puck more. With the season underway he said ”you just want to be the best player you can be,” and that’s evident with how much the line of Matthews, Zach Hyman and William Nylander have had the puck.

”We’ve been able to create offense, which is important, and that leads to chances,” Nylander said. ”That’s always a positive.”

At even strength, Matthews has been on the ice for 80 Leafs shots and 64 by opponents, evidence of just how much his evolving defensive game benefits the Maple Leafs.

”When you play well defensively, you feel like you get the puck more,” Matthews said. ”We’re offensive guys. We want to create offense so when you have the puck it feels good and you feel like you can create chances.”

Those chances are coming, and Matthews is cashing in on them. No wonder he has earned coach Mike Babcock’s trust.

”He’s a good player trying to get better each and every day,” Babcock said. ”What I like about him is how hard he works and how competitive he is and how much he wants to get better. The best players in the league, the superstars, they love hockey more than everyone else, so they can work at it harder and longer than the next guy.”

Matthews downplays his own improvements but sounds like a perfect Babcock-type player when discussing his early-season success.

”I feel good,” Matthews said. ”Just a couple weeks in, so you want to find that consistency individually, with your linemates, with everybody. You just want to continue to get better every day.”

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NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Blackhawks vs. Blues; Canadiens vs. Kings

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Wednesday night. In the early game, the St. Louis Blues host the Chicago Blackhawks at 8:00 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here

It’s still early, but the Blackhawks and Blues are currently first and second in the Central Division standings, so this should be a pretty entertaining matchup.

Despite making plenty of big changes this off-season, the ‘Hawks have found a way to take care of business so far. No Western Conference team has scored more goals (25) than Chicago, and they owe a lot of that to Brandon Saad.

Saad was re-acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade involving Artemi Panarin. The move may not have been overly popular at the time, but Saad is off to an incredible start (six goals and two assists in six games). Add Patrick Kane (eight points in six games), Ryan Hartman (eight points in six games), Jonathan Toews (six points in six games) and Richard Panik (six points in six games), and you quickly understand why the ‘Hawks have been so good.

Also, don’t forget about Corey Crawford, who’s been lights out this season. He’s won four of five starts and he owns a 1.39 goals-against-average and a .960 save percentage. Referring to him as good is a heck of an understatement.

The Blues might not be as flashy as the ‘Hawks, but they’ve been impressive nonetheless. St. Louis has had to overcome injuries to key figures like Alex Steen, Jay Bouwmeester and Robby Fabbri early on this season.

They have cooled down a little though, as they’re coming off back-to-back losses to in Florida and Tampa Bay. In their defense, those were the final two games of a four-game road trip and it was a stretch of five road games (six games overall) is 11 days.

In the late game, the Los Angeles Kings host the Montreal Canadiens at 10:30 p.m. ET. To stream that game live, click here

The 2017-18 season hasn’t been kind to the Canadiens, who have now lost five games in a row. Montreal is coming off a 5-2 loss to San Jose last night.

There are some major concerns with the team right now. First, their top players haven’t been performing up to standard. Max Pacioretty, who has been an automatic 30-goal scorer over the last four seasons, hasn’t looked dangerous at all this season.

Alex Galchenyuk scored his first goal of the season last Saturday, but he hasn’t been overly impressive either. He’s been so inconsistent that head coach Claude Julien has decided to demote him to the fourth line.

And then there’s Carey Price, who has looked like a shell of himself in the early going. By now, we know that without Price, this team doesn’t have a chance of making a dent. He has a 1-4-1 record with a 3.56 goals-against-average and a .885 save percentage.

If those three players don’t get their game sorted out quickly, the Canadiens could be in for a very long season.

Things couldn’t be going much better for the Kings right now. They’re off to a 4-0-1 start, and players that struggled to produce last year have been really good this year.

Captain Anze Kopitar has eight points in five games, which is impressive. And where has this Dustin Brown been? Brown four goals and three assists in five games. Last season, he had 14 goals and 36 points. Can he keep it up? Probably not, but the Kings will continue to ride these guys for as long as they can.

Overall, it’s been a dream start for the Kings. Going from Darryl Sutter to John Stevens appears to be paying off in a big way.

“I think it’s a lot of what we hoped it would be,” Stevens said of the season so far, per LAKingsInsider.com. “We wanted to be a really solid, defensively sound team, but we wanted to have more of an attack mentality so we can do more with the puck. We’ve created some really good quality opportunities on the rush, and I think we’re starting to implement some of the things in terms of having more of an attacking mindset when we’re in the offensive zone. I think we’ve got lots of work to do with that. We want to be an aggressive team, but we want to have more of an attack mindset on our team.”