NHL on NBCSN: Devils fight to stay in heart of playoff race vs Avs


NBCSN continues its coverage of the 2013-14 campaign tonight when the New Jersey Devils host the Colorado Avalanche at the Prudential Center at 7:30 p.m. ET. In addition to NBCSN, you can also watch the game online.

Going into the season, not much was expected of the Devils or Avalanche. That’s where the similarities between their seasons end.

The Colorado Avalanche, fresh off making Joe Sakic the team’s executive vice president and Patrick Roy the head coach, became the talk of the league when they kicked off their campaign with a 14-2-0 run. They’ve hit a couple bumps in the road since then, but haven’t dramatically slowed down. They’ve only endured a single three-game losing streak and one four-contest slump on their road to a 35-14-5 record.

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Rookie Nathan MacKinnon has been everything they could have hoped for after being selected with the first overall pick, but their roster isn’t substantial different from the one that finished last in the Western Conference in 2013. Instead, they have succeeded largely by getting more out of the same guys and goaltender Semyon Varlamov in particular.

Varlamov has rebounded from a rough 2013 campaign thanks in part to Roy and goalie coach Francois Allaire’s guidance. Colorado recently rewarded Varlamov for his comeback with a five-year, $29.5 million extension.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Devils’ roster is substantially different from what it was even last season with far more mixed results. To be fair, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello can’t really be blamed for that. From a short-term perspective, the single worst thing to happen to New Jersey over the summer was Ilya Kovalchuk deciding to “retire” to get out of his contract and move to the KHL.

The Devils were forced to scramble to overcome the offensive void he left and while Jaromir Jagr has done a remarkable job, especially at the age of 41, they were struggling to find the back of the net even before Kovalchuk left.

Even a strong season out of goaltender Cory Schneider hasn’t been enough to turn the tide. All he’s been able to do is keep them afloat so that while they’re shy of a Wild Card spot, at least they’re still very much in the race.

In fact, given that only two points separate second and sixth place in the battle for Wild Card spots in the Eastern Conference, every game is still critical for the Devils. At the same time, the Avalanche could use a win as they try to stay in the battle for the Central Division title against the formidable St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.

Vladimir Tarasenko returns to Blues at pivotal time

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The St. Louis Blues are getting Vladimir Tarasenko back at a crucial time.

Tarasenko missed the past two games with an upper-body injury — a suspected but never confirmed concussion — and returns with the Blues sitting three points back of the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

The Blues host the Vancouver Canucks on Friday and hold a game in hand over the Anaheim Ducks

Tarasenko sits second on the team in scoring with 27 goals and 58 points in 71 games.

The Blues don’t have much wiggle room in terms of losses in their last nine games. Anaheim is going for their fifth straight win and the Colorado Avalanche have been on fire ever since the return of Nathan MacKinnon.

But the Blues have won three in a row themselves to put themselves back in contention.

The return of a talent as good as Tarasenko can only help their efforts.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Wayne Huizenga, founding owner of Florida Panthers, dies at 80

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MIAMI (AP) — College dropout Wayne Huizenga started with a trash hauling company, struck gold during America’s brief love affair with VHS tapes and eventually owned three professional sports teams.

Huizenga owned Blockbuster Entertainment, AutoNation and the world’s largest trash hauler, and was founding owner of baseball’s Florida Marlins and the NHL Florida Panthers. He bought the NFL Miami Dolphins for $138 million in 1994.

The one thing he never got was a Super Bowl win.

Huizenga died late Thursday, according to Valerie Hinkell, his longtime assistant. He was 80.

The Marlins won the 1997 World Series, and the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, but Huizenga’s beloved Dolphins never reached a Super Bowl while he owned the team.

”If I have one disappointment, the disappointment would be that we did not bring a championship home,” Huizenga said shortly after he sold the Dolphins to New York real estate billionaire Stephen Ross, who still owns the team. ”It’s something we failed to do.”

Huizenga earned an almost cult-like following among business investors who watched him build Blockbuster Entertainment into the leading video rental chain by snapping up competitors. He cracked Forbes’ list of the 100 richest Americans, becoming chairman of Republic Services, one of the nation’s top waste management companies, and AutoNation, the nation’s largest automotive retailer.

”You just have to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. ”It can only happen in America.”

For a time, Huizenga was also a favorite with South Florida sports fans, drawing cheers and autograph seekers in public. The crowd roared when he danced the hokey pokey on the field during an early Marlins game. He went on a spending spree to build a veteran team that won the World Series in only the franchise’s fifth year.

But his popularity plummeted when he ordered the roster dismantled after that season. He was frustrated by poor attendance and his failure to swing a deal for a new ballpark built with taxpayer money.

Many South Florida fans never forgave him for breaking up the championship team. Huizenga drew boos when introduced at Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino’s retirement celebration in 2000, and kept a lower public profile after that.

In 2009, Huizenga said he regretted ordering the Marlins’ payroll purge.

”We lost $34 million the year we won the World Series, and I just said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do that,”’ Huizenga recalled. ”If I had it to do over again, I’d say, ‘OK, we’ll go one more year.”’

Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

He sold the Marlins in 1999 to John Henry, and sold the Panthers in 2001, unhappy with rising NHL player salaries and the stock price for the team’s public company.

Huizenga’s first sports love was the Dolphins – he had been a season-ticket holder since their inaugural season in 1966. But he fared better in the NFL as a businessman than as a sports fan.

He turned a nifty profit by selling the Dolphins and their stadium for $1.1 billion, nearly seven times what he paid to become sole owner. But he knew the bottom line in the NFL is championships, and his Dolphins perennially came up short.

Huizenga earned a reputation as a hands-off owner and won raves from many loyal employees, even though he made six coaching changes. He eased Pro Football Hall of Famer Don Shula into retirement in early 1996, and Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, interim coach Jim Bates, Nick Saban, Cam Cameron and Tony Sporano followed as coach.

In 2008, Huizenga’s final season as owner, the Dolphins had a turnaround year and won the AFC East on the final day of the regular season.

”It was a magical feeling,” Huizenga said. ”I had tears in my eyes. I kept looking away so I wouldn’t have to wipe my eyes in front of everybody.”

Miami lost in the first round of the playoffs and didn’t return to the postseason until 2016. But Huizenga won praise from such disparate personalities as Shula, Johnson and Marlins manager Jim Leyland even when they no longer worked for him.

Harry Wayne Huizenga was born in the Chicago suburbs on Dec. 29, 1937, to a family of garbage haulers. He attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but dropped out and began his own garbage hauling business in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1962. He would drive a garbage truck from 2 a.m. to noon each day, then shower and go out and solicit new customers in the afternoon.

One customer successfully sued Huizenga, saying that in an argument over a delinquent account, Huizenga injured him by grabbing his testicles – an allegation Huizenga always denied.

”I never did that. The guy was a deputy cop. It was his word against mine, a young kid,” he told Fortune magazine in 1996.

He eventually bought out several competitors, expanding throughout South Florida. In 1968, he merged with the Chicago sanitation company his uncles owned, creating Waste Management Inc., which eventually became the world’s largest trash company. That became his method of operation – becoming the first national player in industries that had been dominated by small and local operations. He resigned from the company in 1984, taking $100 million in stock.

But retirement bored him and he soon began buying dozens of small businesses like hotels and pest control companies. In 1987, a business partner persuaded him to check out Blockbuster, a small chain of video stores. At the time, video stores were mostly locally owned mom-and-pop operations. Huizenga didn’t even own a VCR.

”I had an image of them being dark and dingy and dirty types of adult bookstores,” he told The Miami Herald. ”But when I finally saw a Blockbuster store, it opened my mind.”

The stores were clean and carried 10,000 titles, 10 times more than the typical corner video store. He loved the concept and thought it could become the McDonalds of video. He and two partners bought 43 percent of the business for $19 million and he became chairman and president. By 1991, the chain had grown to over 1,800 stores, with one opening every 17 hours, on average.

”The whole deal was to move quickly before our competition saw what we were doing and moved in on us,” he told the business magazine FSB in 2003.

In 1994, Viacom bought Blockbuster, then a publicly traded company, for about $8 billion.

In 1995, Huizenga got back into trash hauling by buying Republic Waste Industries Inc. for $27 million. Mergers and acquisitions soon followed. He renamed the company Republic Industries as it branched out, buying Alamo Rent-A-Car and National Car Rental.

Republic, under Huizenga’s leadership, then started AutoNation, a national chain of car dealerships – again, an industry that had been dominated by local and regional ownership. At its peak, AutoNation had about 375 dealerships in 17 states.

Republic Services was spun off in 1998 to control the waste management portion of the portfolio, a sector that had grown to more than $1 billion in annual sales. He remained its chairman until 2002.

Huizenga became a large benefactor of Nova Southeastern University, a private South Florida school where the Dolphins train. Its business school is named after him – even though he never completed college.

In 1960 he married Joyce VanderWagon. Together they had two children, Wayne Jr. and Scott. They divorced in 1966. Wayne married his second wife, Marti Goldsby, in 1972. She died in 2017.

Blue Jackets are rolling at right time

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The Columbus Blue Jackets season has looked a lot like a scary rollercoaster at Six Flags. They started the year well enough, but they quickly faded as their top players weren’t performing up to par.

But just when it looked like they were in danger of missing the playoffs, they decided to rattle off 10 consecutive victories. This streak has surprised even the most optimistic Blue Jackets fans.

The timing of this winning streak couldn’t be any better. With the playoffs just a few weeks ago, the red-hot Jackets are firing on all cylinders at the perfect time. Sure, beating Pittsburgh or Washington in the opening round won’t be easy, but confidence is a funny thing.

The question is, where exactly did all this come from?


Let’s start with an obvious answer: Sergei Bobrovsky.

Their franchise netminder has been between the pipes for seven of his team’s last 10 wins. Keep in mind, he also missed a game because of an illness. In those seven starts, the 29-year-old has given up two goals or fewer five times. He allowed three goals in road games against the Flyers and Rangers.

In all, he’s given up just 13 goals in seven victories over San Jose, Detroit, Montreal, Philadelphia, Ottawa, New York and Florida. Even though five of those teams aren’t in the playoffs right now, those are still impressive numbers.

So, the goalie’s red-hot. What else has contributed to this recent run?

Top forwards are rolling

Well Cam Atkinson, who signed a huge extension this season, has finally come to life. In fairness to him, he’s been productive for a lot more than 10 games.

Since coming back from a foot injury in late January, Atkinson has failed to pick up at least one point in just eight of 27 games. 19 games with a point, eight without. That’s strong.

During the winning streak, the 28-year-old has come up clutch a few times. He’s scored a hat trick and three game-winning goals all in his last five outings. Not too shabby.

Another player that has greatly contributed to the streak is Artemi Panarin, who has really turned it on of late.

The 26-year-old has racked up 16 points in his last 10 games. Four of those came in a win over the Rangers earlier this week.

The acquisition of Panarin has injected some speed and skill into Columbus’ lineup. That’s something they were definitely missing over the last couple of seasons. You think Chicago would want a do-over on that trade? Sure seems like they it.

All six defensemen getting it done

We all know about Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, who are two of the best young blue liners in the entire NHL, but this group is more than just two players.

Former second overall pick Ryan Murray and little-known Finnish blue line Markus Nutivaara have also helped move the puck on the back end. Nutivaara missed 11 games because of an upper-body injury between Feb. 18 and Mar. 9, but he’s picked up two goals and an assist in six games since returning.

As for Murray, he doesn’t provide as much in terms of offense, but he’s seen his minutes increase as the season has gone on.

Columbus also acquired Ian Cole from Ottawa at the trade deadline and they have veteran David Savard rounding out the group.

The play of these six defensemen forced John Tortorella to make Jack Johnson a healthy scratch on Thursday night.

The question isn’t whether or not they’ll make the playoffs because they will. Instead, it’ll be whether or not they can finally get themselves out of the first round. They won’t have it easy, but it’s time for this team to take the next step.

If the playoffs started today, they’d have a date with the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions. On a positive note, they could still land home ice advantage in the first round.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: How Avs turned it around; How Oilers fell apart

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• It sounds like Marc-Andre Fleury will be joining his teammates in Colorado. That’s good news considering he suffered an injury just a few days ago. They can’t afford to lose him right before the start of the playoffs. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

• The Colorado Avalanche were awful last year, but thanks to Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Semyon Varlamov and a few others, they’ve managed to claw their way back to respectability. (Fan Rag Sports)

Brayden Schenn won’t be facing supplemental discipline for the hit he delivered on David Krejci Wednesday night. (NBC Sports Boston)

• No one expected the Edmonton Oilers to fall off the face of the earth one year after making the second round of the playoffs, but that’s exactly what happened. TSN’s Frank Seravalli examines why that happened to them. (TSN.ca)

Aleksander Barkov has emerged as one of the best centers in the NHL this season. His ability to play a quality two-way game has them in the playoff conversation. (The Hockey News)

• The “Melnyk Out” billboards in Ottawa have have sparked a national conversation about the way Eugene Melnyk is affecting the Senators fan base in a negative way. (The Sports Daily)

• British hockey player Liam Kirk has developed into a legitimate prospect for this summer’s NHL Entry Draft. Instead of moving to a more traditional hockey country when he was younger, Kirk decided to stay in Great Britain. (Elite Prospects)

• Here’s an interesting list of players that broke the color barrier for each NHL team. (Grand Stand Central)

• The 2018 Isobel Cup will be handed out to the Buffalo Beauts or the Metropolitan Riveters. Here’s a full preview of the championship game. (The Ice Garden)

• Blues forward Jaden Schwartz has developed into one of the most underrated stars in the league. (Bleedin Blue)

• Only one defenseman has won the Lady Byng Trophy since 1954. Could Roman Josi be the next one? (On the Forecheck)

• The fact that so many potential candidates pulled themselves out of the running for the Carolina GM job probably isn’t a good sign. New owner Thomas Dundon might have to reexamine his structure. (Scotty Wazz)

Clayton Keller talks about his path to the NHL, how he prepared for his first full season and more in a Q&A with the Sporting News. (Sporting News)

• Coverage of the Vancouver Canucks seems to have taken a negative turn over the last couple of years, but is that surprising given their recent results? (Canucks Army)

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Golden Knights and Sharks.

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.