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Offseason changes to Capitals, Penguins could make the East wide open

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A handful of Pittsburgh Penguins players whose names are on the Stanley Cup, some of them twice or even three times, are gone.

The same goes for core players from the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals.

The goliaths of the East haven’t fallen apart, but maybe they’ve lost just enough to make the conference winnable for just about anyone. Pittsburgh no longer has forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen, defensemen Trevor Daley or goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Washington couldn’t afford to keep Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk.

The Penguins and Capitals are still favored to finish 1-2 in the brutal Metropolitan Division, but improvements made by the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and a return to health for members of the Tampa Bay Lightning have cracked the Eastern Conference wide open.

“The competition level is as high as ever,” Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “There’s a lot of teams that have a chance to win the Cup. Making the playoffs, it’s very tough nowadays. I think we’re not the only team when we always say, `We want to make the playoffs and then we’ll see what happens’ because you just want to make the playoffs and then anything can happen. There’s no real favorites.”

Pittsburgh is still the betting favorite, and if Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co. make it happen they’d become the first NHL team with three consecutive titles since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty. Then again, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is healthy after a knee injury ended his 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes got a top goaltender in Scott Darling and the Toronto Maple Leafs are only expected to get better now that Auston Matthews and the kids have some playoff experience.

“Toronto obviously made a big step forward, Columbus is a team that has tremendous upside, made a big move this summer, and then you look at a team like Carolina who’s going to be knocking on the door in the next few years,” said Shattenkirk, who signed with the revamped Rangers.

In a league with considerable playoff turnover from year to year, there’s no rest for the eight teams that made it last year: the Penguins, Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Bruins and Maple Leafs. But Fleury, now the starter for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, believes his old team has a chance to three-peat, and Alex Ovechkin said the Capitals will be good.

“Our goal is still to go out there and be the best team in the regular season and be the best team in the postseason,” Washington winger T.J. Oshie said. “It’s not a very far-fetched goal.”

Some things to watch in the Eastern Conference this season:

YOUTH IS SERVED

Matthews is only 20, but now there’s a whole new crop of potential teenage stars, including the New Jersey Devils’ No. 1 pick , Nico Hischier, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ No. 2 pick, Nolan Patrick. The Swiss-born Hischier turned heads with some big-time plays in the preseason and in the process ratcheted up expectations.

PRICE IS RIGHT

The Canadiens lost defenseman Andrei Markov and winger Alexander Radulov and traded their top defensive prospect for forward Jonathan Drouin. Montreal probably should make the playoffs despite all the changes because of goaltender Carey Price, who won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2014-15 and missed most of the 2015-16 season with a knee injury.

“He is the best goalie in the NHL,” Drouin said. “He’s proved it for a lot of years now.”

Price has some competition in Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington’s Braden Holtby, the past two Vezina winners. The play of those three and Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray will likely determine the order of finish in the East.

C’MON, CROSBY

After leading the league with 44 goals in the regular season and the playoffs with 27 assists, there’s no doubting Crosby has another MVP season in him. Teammates and opponents always expect him to sharpen another skill, though he could just keep scoring goals better than anyone else.

“He was always, I think, a passer a little more – always looking for other guys,” Fleury said. “But he doesn’t have a crazy hard shot. It’s just how quick the release is. He’s skating, he’s looking around and the shot comes (from) any angle. His backhand is good too, probably as hard as anybody.”

BRIGHT LIGHTS ON BIG CITY

The Rangers added Shattenkirk, re-signed Brendan Smith and traded Derek Stepan to retool while goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is still in his prime. Across town, the Islanders are hoping to re-sign captain John Tavares before he can become a free agent next summer New York is where it’s at, and there’s no shortage of drama.

SUNRISE REDUX

Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has gone to great lengths to undo some of the moves made in the summer of 2016 when he was shifted out of a position of power. Defenseman Jason Demers and forward Reilly Smith are gone, Bob Boughner is the new coach and big things are expected in South Florida.

“We’ve got to go in one direction and never look back,” winger Jonathan Huberdeau said. “That’s what we want to do, and Dale Tallon knows that. We want to build something with Bob and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

 

The Buzzer: Rinne hits 300, glorious Gaudreau, Matthews scare

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Players of the Night:

Barzal scored a goal and two assists in this game, pushing him to 65 points in 62 games during this sensational rookie campaign. He’s been all-or-nothing lately, generating three points in two of five games and then zero in the three other contests.

Going to go out on a limb and say the Islanders will take it …

  • Johnny Gaudreau matched Barzal’s output on Thursday, collected a goal and two assists as well. Gaudreau moved to second in the NHL in points with 73, a distant-but-impressive second to Nikita Kucherov‘s 80 points. Gaudreau is on pace to clobber his previous career-high of 78 points, set in 2015-16. Kinda staggering to realize he’s just 24.

Gaudreau’s surely had a hand in Sean Monahan rapidly changing his descriptor from “boring” to “clutch.”

Pekka’s 300th

Sure, the Predators probably didn’t need a ton from him on Thursday, what with a 7-1 caging of the Sharks, but Pekka Rinne‘s great work – not to mention great season – includes another milestone in his 300th win. Apparently he’s the eighth European-born goalie to hit that mark.

Tough to blame Rinne for becoming emotional when you consider his path to the NHL. Nashville selected him in the eighth(!) round in 2004, making him the 258th overall pick that year and the last pick of that round.

(Remarkably, there were some very solid NHLers who went in the ninth round of that draft: Mark Streit, Daniel Winnik, and Jannik Hansen.)

Good and bad for Matthews

Auston Matthews helped the Toronto Maple Leafs grab an eventual shootout win against the Islanders, continuing a run of even-strength dominance that really cements his beyond-his-years play:

Unfortunately, late in regulation, Matthews was sandwiched by two Islanders players and did not return, with people wondering if he suffered a shoulder injury.

Highlights of the Night

Hey, the Oilers aren’t gearing up for a playoff run during this trade deadline, but at least Leon Draisaitl reminded people of his profound skills.

Twice. The first move is flashier, but the second likely makes defenders feel just as hopeless.

Speaking of large hockey humans doing preposterous things, I give you Victor Hedman and the Lightning:

Scores

Maple Leafs 4, Islanders 3 (SO)
Wild 4, Devils 2
Flyers 2, Blue Jackets 1
Canadiens 3, Rangers 1
Lightning 4, Senators 3
Sabres 3, Red Wings 2 (OT)
Panthers 3, Capitals 2
Predators 7, Sharks 1
Oilers 3, Avalanche 2 (OT)
Flames 5, Coyotes 2
Stars 2, Kings 0

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.

Rangers trade Michael Grabner to Devils

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The New York Rangers signaled that they’re still open for business – and aren’t taking injury chances – by making Ryan McDonagh, Michael Grabner, and Rick Nash healthy scratches in Thursday’s eventual loss to Montreal. It wasn’t long before they showed why.

The Rangers, daringly, traded with local rivals in the New Jersey Devils for the first time ever. Grabner serves as another significant forward the Devils have added via a trade.

The Trade: Devils acquire Michael Grabner from the Rangers; Rangers receive a second-round pick and prospect Igor (Yegor) Rykov.

Why the Devils made this trade: New Jersey is battling hard for playoff positioning, and things have been a little dicey lately, with two straight losses, even as Taylor Hall continues his red-hot scoring streak.

[Get up to date on a busy night on the ice for the Metro division]

Grabner gives the Devils more scoring punch, and considering his speed, he could really fit in well with the way New Jersey has been converting to the sort of attacking system that was once almost unthinkable.

Maybe New Jersey needs defense more, but is it that easy to come by? “Out-scoring your problems” is a fun strategy, either way. Grabner, 30, currently boasts a “Cy Young” stat line of 25-6 (25 goals, six assists) so far this season. Really, he might be the biggest winner of all; the pending unrestricted free agent could enjoy an even bigger raise from his bargain-basement $1.65 million cap hit if he powers the Devils during a playoff push.

Why the Rangers made this trade: Grabner’s contract expires after this season. Getting a second-round pick and a prospect is a nice return for a mid-level “rental.” The Rangers have made no mistake about being in liquidation mode, as Grabner continues the work they already began by moving Nick Holden. There could be quite a bit more coming for the Rangers.

It’s unclear if Rykov will be much more than a throw-in.

Some like the defenseman’s two-way game, and he’s maturing in the KHL. That said, the 20-year-old wasn’t drafted in 2015, while the Devils selected him in the fifth round (132nd overall) in 2016. All About the Jersey provided interesting instant feedback on Rykov when he was selected.

This is most likely about the second-rounder for the Rangers, although …

Who won the trade?

This is a straightforward deal. The Devils gamble a bit, but not enormously, to try to further their playoff push. There’s always the chance that Grabner would be a big hit in Newark and re-sign, but so far this sure looks like a short-term fix.

The Rangers get a fabulous return for what might just be a few months of Grabner’s services, which weren’t going to do them any good with their season going down the tubes. This could really get the ball rolling on a wave of moves, whether this franchise goes “full rebuild” or leans more toward a “reset.”

(Ah, sporting terminology …)

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.

Metro movement: Flyers gain on Capitals, Penguins

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Every now and then, it’s convenient to group the highly competitive Metropolitan Division’s games into a lightning round post. That was especially true here, but it seems reasonable enough tonight, too.

Let’s start at the bottom: the New York Rangers are just short of waving the white flag, as they lost to the Montreal Canadiens. The most relevant thing they did on Thursday was to make Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, and Michael Grabner healthy scratches, a nod to the trade deadline. They’re stuck at 59 points in 61 games.

[BREAKING: Rangers reportedly send Grabner to the Devils(!)]

Now let’s rattle off the relevant results, going from the first-ranked Capitals and stepping down the ladder.

Inactive on Thursday: Penguins (74 points in 61 games played), Hurricanes (64 points in 60 GP)

Capitals drop emotional loss to Panthers, and (barely) in regulation

It seemed like Washington would shake off Roberto Luongo‘s much-see speech and grab a win during an emotional night in Florida. They had a 2-1 lead fairly deep into Thursday’s game.

The Panthers wouldn’t be denied. They ended up tying the game with less than four minutes remaining, and then Vincent Trocheck won it with just 20 seconds left in regulation. Leaving this one empty-handed stings for the Caps, although in the grand scheme of things, it was nice for Florida to get to W.

[Luongo’s speech, Panthers’ emotional ceremony.]

Flyers virtually tie second-ranked Penguins, beat Blue Jackets in regulation.

On paper, this wasn’t a pretty 2-1 win for the Flyers. Prevailing in regulation against a divisional opponent, thus limiting at least one threat from chipping away at their buffer? Now, that’s beautiful for Philly.

If you want a summary of how rapidly fortunes can change in the NHL, consider this: the Flyers have a very real chance to win this division mere months after losing 10 games in a row. Sports, everyone.

Both teams only managed 20 shots on goal, making for a pretty friendly way for Petr Mrazek to make his Flyers debut. Claude Giroux (goal, assist) and Shayne Gostisbehere (two assists) really powered the victory, too, as they were involved in both goals.

The Flyers are showing that they can win a variety of games … and with a variety of goalies. They’re now on a four-game winning streak, and are even better when you zoom out, going 8-0-2 in their past 10 games.

Mrazek got the Ric Flair treatment:

The bright side for the Blue Jackets is that they’re currently in the final wild-card position, even with frustrations piling up. Still, this was an opportunity to create some distance from opponents that are breathing down their necks …

Islanders fall to Maple Leafs, but it was in a shootout

… as the Islanders grabbed a “charity point.”

While the Blue Jackets are at 65 standings points in 61 games played for that final wild-card spot (and fifth in the Metro), the Islanders are close by with 65 points in 62 GP.

It was a thriller in Toronto, and while Doug Weight’s bunch deserves some kudos for hanging in there, they did see 2-0 and 3-2 leads dissolve.

The brightest side is probably that they might be making modest gains on defense, as they’ve limited opponents to 32 and 31 shots on goal during the past two contests. That’s progress for a team that recently saw goalies make 45 and 50-save shutouts.

Taylor Hall remains hot, but not enough for a win (again)

The New Jersey Devils fired 40 shots on goal, and Taylor Hall kept his remarkable scoring streak going. (Officially, his 26th goal of 2017-18 pushed him to 13 games, while others believe it’s 20 in a row.)

You’d think that would be a winning combination, but not exactly the quietly climbing Minnesota Wild, who ended up winning 4-2.

Still, that Hall kid is going to be OK, eh?

***

So, here is how the Metro looks after all of that action.

Capitals: 75 points in 61 games played (31 ROW)
Penguins: 74 points in 61 GP (33 ROW)
Flyers: 74 points in 61 GP (31 ROW)
Devils: 70 points in 61 GP (27 ROW)
Islanders: 65 points in 62 GP (26 ROW)
Hurricanes: 64 points in 60 GP (24 ROW)
Rangers, if you must: 59 points in 61 GP (24 ROW)

The Penguins also have 35 vanilla wins, while the Flyers are at 32.

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’ Luongo gives emotional speech about Florida school shooting

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Prior to Thursday’s game against the Washington Capitals, the Florida Panthers honored victims of last week’s shooting Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, which claimed the lives of 17 people.

Being that the high school is located about 14 miles from the Panthers’ BB&T Center, it’s not surprising that many players were highly emotional during the ceremony. Remarkably, Roberto Luongo gave an outstanding speech about his love for the Parkland area, where he’s spent 12 years of his life, and how the shootings affected his family and the community at large.

You can see a full transcript of Luongo’s emotional speech here and watch it in the video above this post’s headline.

NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika noted earlier today that Luongo’s son experienced a scare last week:

That’s just one of Cotsonika’s tweets about this emotional night; his full feed is worth your time.

The Panthers projected names of the victims on the ice during the pre-game ceremony, and also provided this beautiful tribute:

It says a lot about the composure of Luongo and the Panthers to go from such an emotional ceremony into a game against the Capitals, especially considering moments like these:

For more information, particularly how to support those affected, the Panthers’ website is a great place to start. You can also find out more about the Panthers’ tribute in this earlier PHT post.

Sadly, nights like these have been far too common lately, but credit the NHL and its teams for heartfelt responses to tragedies. Much like the Vegas Golden Knights opening their inaugural season without ads on the boards and with an emotional presentation, the Panthers handled this situation with class.

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.