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Eichel on Sabres: ‘We think we can be a playoff team’

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This deep into the salary cap era, it feels like it’s generally easier to identify which teams are contenders and which teams need to rebuild. Things seem fairly “stratified” in the NHL.

That said, there’s still that murky middle class of teams that could either slip into the cellar or fight their way into the bubble. With a cleaner bill of health, a management shakeup, and some off-season tweaks, the Buffalo Sabres stand as one of those tough teams to peg.

So, some might snicker at Jack Eichel thinking big while discussing the Sabres’ outlook with NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, but the rest of us might not be so sure that he’s totally off the mark.

“We think we can be really good,” Eichel said. “We think we can be a playoff team. That’s what’s important. We have to go into training camp with the right mindset, get the season off and running, put our best foot forward.”

(Hey, for what it’s worth, almost 70 percent of voters in a PHT poll leaned toward Buffalo making the playoffs.)

If the Sabres make a big push, just about everyone expects the 20-year-old to be a central figure in such a turnaround. With Connor McDavid‘s meteoric rise and the Sabres’ struggles in mind, it’s easy for casual fans to forget that Eichel is trending toward stardom in his own right. But he clearly is.

It can’t hurt that Eichel and some other key Sabres are approaching contract years, even if Eichel could very well sign an extension in the near future.

Even if Eichel does, both goalies (Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson) need new contracts, while Evander Kane, Benoit Pouliot, and others also enter seasons that could make a huge impact on their futures in Buffalo or elsewhere.

One would expect at least some improvement in Buffalo, but will the Sabres make the sort of leap that, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs managed in 2016-17?

It’s difficult to say, but Eichel sure seems happy about getting a clean slate.

NHL on NBCSN: ‘Out of sync’ Lightning look to end three-game losing skid against ‘Hawks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Monday, as the Chicago Blackhawks will host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 8:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

As of last night, the Tampa Bay Lightning were no longer in first place in the NHL. That honor now belongs to the Vegas Golden Knights. But the Bolts can jump back into first place with a win over the ‘Hawks tonight.

Things have been tough for the Lightning lately. They’ve been without top defenseman Victor Hedman, they’ve lost three games in a row and this is the second game of an eight-game road trip (thankfully for Tampa, the trip will be broken up by next weekend’s All-Star break).

“We’re out of sync,” head coach Jon Cooper said, per The Tampa Times. “The guys didn’t forget how to play hockey in the last week and a half.

“We didn’t get where we are today by fluke, but we’ve got better in us, we know that.”

As if they didn’t have enough problems, they also found out that Ondrej Palat is going to miss an indefinite period of time because of a lower-body injury.

The Blackhawks have been going through a similar difficult stretch of late. They’ve been without starting netminder Corey Crawford and it doesn’t sound like he’ll be back anytime soon. Chicago has dropped each of their last two games against the Red Wings (4-0) and Islanders (7-3).

“Time’s ticking,” said defenseman Duncan Keith, per The Chicago Tribune. “We know that the urgency has to be there. … We can talk all we want, but it’s got to come down to us doing it in the game. I’m responsible in that too.”

The alarming part for the Blackhawks, is that they’re falling out of the playoff picture in a hurry. They’re now five points out of the final Wild Card spot in the West and they’re nine points behind the St. Louis Blues for third spot in the Central Division.

The ‘Hawks will play their next two games at home before they play four straight games on the road in Detroit, Nashville, Vancouver and Calgary.

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: Karlsson on trade speculation; Do Blues need to make a move?

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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.

• Up top, check out the highlights from yesterday afternoon’s game between the Flyers and Capitals.

Erik Karlsson isn’t worried about a potential trade out of Ottawa. (Sportsnet)

• Paul Coffey has joined the Edmonton Oilers organization as a skills coach. (Edmonton Journal)

Aaron Dell looks like he’s ready to take on a bigger role with the San Jose Sharks. (Mercury News)

• Should the Blues make a trade to bolster their roster or should they just stick with what they have? (St. Louis Game Time)

• Islanders prospect Josh Ho-Sang still has a lot to prove if he wants to become a regular in the NHL. (Newsday)

• Jim Benning’s contract expires after this season. If the Canucks decide not to bring him back, there are a number of quality candidates that could step in. (Daily Hive)

• Chris Chelios discusses his favorite Olympic moments, NHLers not going to the Olympics and much more in this Q&A with The Detroit Free Press.

• Short stints in the minors have helped young goalies stay sharp for their NHL teams this season. (NHL.com)

• Coyotes defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson is still trying to move on from his team with the Chicago Blackhawks. (Chicago Tribune)

• The Rangers need Tony DeAngelo to develop into an impact player. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• South Koreans have no issue with North Korea being in the Olympics, but they aren’t thrilled about sharing a hockey team. (ABC News)

• John McCarthy isn’t a household name, but the minor-leaguer is going to be representing Team USA at the Winter Olympics. (Sporting News)

• Here’s a list of young players that could join the U.S. Women’s National Team in the near future. (The Ice Garden)

• Team Canada GM Sean Burke went to some strange places to find the right players for his squad. (Fan Rag Sports)

• Air Force had to postpone hockey games because of the government shutdown. (College Hockey News)

• College hockey players are now allowed to be represented by an agent, but there are some strict conditions. (USCHO.com)

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.

The Buzzer: Thornton moves up all-time scoring list; Kings snap six-game losing skid

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Players of the Night:

Brian Elliott looked solid in Philadelphia’s overtime win over the Capitals, as he turned aside 27 of 28 shots. This was the first time in eight games that the Flyers netminder allowed fewer than three goals in a game, but he’s still been victorious in three of his last four outings.

• How about that goalie duel between Connor Hellebuyck and Anders Nilsson. The Jets won the game, but both goaltenders were fantastic during this all-Canadian matchup.

• Sticking with the goalie theme, Aaron Dell was fantastic between the pipes for in San Jose’s win against Anaheim. Even when starter Martin Jones comes back from a lower-body injury, Dell should continue to be a factor for the Sharks.

• Sharks forward Mikkel Boedker had a solid night at the office, as he racked up two goals and an assist against the Ducks. That’s impressive considering he only had 12 points on the season coming into tonight’s action.

• The Kings’ power play isn’t a player, but it came to play tonight against the Rangers. Los Angeles got three goals on the man-advantage from Jake Muzzin, Michael Amadio and Tanner Pearson. Those three power play markers helped them snap their six-game losing skid.

Highlights:

Poor Markus Granlund never saw Hellebuyck coming:

That’s a pretty sweet shot from Kevin Labanc:

Here are two pretty sweet backhand passes leading up to Pierre-Edouard Bellemare‘s goal:

Alex Ovechkin scored a power play from his favorite spot on the ice:

Non-called Penalty of the Night:

That’s a pretty dangerous hit by Dmitry Orlov on Claude Giroux. No boarding call?

Factoids:

That’s a lot of power play goals for Ovechkin:

Joe Thornton keeps movin’ on up:

The Rangers have received some balanced scoring this season:

The Golden Knights simply can’t be stopped. What a season they’re having:

Scores:

Flyers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)

Golden Knights 5, Hurricanes 1

Jets 1, Canucks 0

Sharks 6, Ducks 2

Kings 4, Rangers 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.

Fight Video: Kempe comes to Lewis’ defense by dropping gloves with Smith

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It’s not every day that you see Los Angeles Kings forward Adrian Kempe drop the gloves, but he did so against the Rangers tonight.

Things got chippy at the end of the first period between the Rangers and Kings. As both teams were mixing it up, New York’s Brendan Smith shoved Trevor Lewis from behind. Kempe wasn’t impressed with Smith’s move, so he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Here’s Smith’s shove on Lewis:

And this is the fight between Smith and Kempe:

(h/t: hayyyshayyy on Twitter)

As you can tell from the above video, Smith is the more experienced fighter. Also, Kempe has great hair, but it’s clearly not practical when dropping the gloves.

Thanks to Smith, the Kings got a power play to start the second period. Defenseman Jake Muzzin cashed in on the man-advantage to cut Los Angeles’ deficit to 2-1.

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.