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Central Division schedule analysis: What Blackhawks, others face in October

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Teams can transcend back-to-backs and road trips. Conversely, it’s common for squads to squander the opportunities that come with long homestands.

Either way, it’s interesting to break down schedules; context can allow cooler heads to prevail. Sometimes you can see something extra-special forming when a team goes on a run even without factors working in their favor.

This is the third of four divisional breakdowns for October. Check out the Atlantic Division outlook here and the Pacific Division one in this post.

Also, click here for PHT’s in-depth season preview for the Central Division.

Blackhawks (won first two games, both at home)

Schedule

Mon, Oct 9 @ Toronto
Tue, Oct 10 @ Montreal
Thu, Oct 12 vs Minnesota
Sat, Oct 14 vs Nashville
Wed, Oct 18 @ St. Louis
Thu, Oct 19 vs Edmonton
Sat, Oct 21 @ Arizona
Tue, Oct 24 @ Vegas
Fri, Oct 27 vs Nashville
Sat, Oct 28 @ Colorado

After starting with two games at the United Center, the Blackhawks play six of their next 10 games on the road. It’s a fairly away-heavy schedule through late November, overall. None of it seems too outrageous, though.

The bigger issue might be back-to-back sets, particularly with a core that has a lot of mileage on it. Chicago faces three back-to-back sets in October alone.

Avalanche (One win and one loss, both games on road)

Schedule

Mon, Oct 9 @ Boston
Wed, Oct 11 vs Boston
Fri, Oct 13 vs Anaheim
Sat, Oct 14 @ Dallas
Tue, Oct 17 @ Nashville
Thu, Oct 19 vs St. Louis
Tue, Oct 24 vs Dallas
Fri, Oct 27 @ Vegas
Sat, Oct 28 vs Chicago

The Avalanche begin the season with a three-game road trip, which ends on Monday. They face a back-to-back set in mid October and late in the month. Starting with five of seven road games is a challenge overall.

Colorado’s schedule is generally heavy on road games through Nov. 19. The table is set for tough times, which might not be such an issue if the Avs count on “tanking,” anyway.

Stars (Lost twice, one at home and one away)

Schedule

Tue, Oct 10 vs Detroit
Thu, Oct 12 @ Nashville
Sat, Oct 14 vs Colorado
Tue, Oct 17 vs Arizona
Thu, Oct 19 @ Arizona
Sat, Oct 21 vs Carolina
Tue, Oct 24 @ Colorado
Thu, Oct 26 @ Edmonton
Fri, Oct 27 @ Calgary
Mon, Oct 30 @ Vancouver

Don’t be surprised if there’s talk of the Stars being inconsistent even if they start to get it together.

Tuesday begins a reasonably kind stretch, with four home vs. six road games.

They’ll be rotating home and road runs in more dynamic ways starting on Oct. 24. That visit to Colorado begins a five-game road trip, then Dallas will see three at home and three more away.

With one back-to-back remaining in October, it could be worse.

Wild (Lost two games, both on the road)

Schedule

Thu, Oct 12 @ Chicago
Sat, Oct 14 vs Columbus
Fri, Oct 20 @ Winnipeg
Sat, Oct 21 @ Calgary
Tue, Oct 24 vs Vancouver
Thu, Oct 26 vs NY Islanders
Sat, Oct 28 vs Pittsburgh
Tue, Oct 31 vs Winnipeg

The Wild will close off a three-game road trip on Thursday, although their season also starts with three of five games on the road. Some of that is tempered by the big gap in their loss in Carolina on Saturday vs. Thursday’s trip to Chicago. They begin a five-game homestand on Oct. 24, only to follow that with four away contests.

Minnesota’s going to have to grind to keep from a bad start. This isn’t the most extreme schedule, but it’s not the easiest by any stretch.

Predators (two losses, both on the road)

Schedule

Tue, Oct 10 vs Philadelphia
Thu, Oct 12 vs Dallas
Sat, Oct 14 @ Chicago
Tue, Oct 17 vs Colorado
Thu, Oct 19 @ Philadelphia
Sat, Oct 21 @ NY Rangers
Tue, Oct 24 vs Calgary
Fri, Oct 27 @ Chicago
Sat, Oct 28 vs NY Islanders

The Predators need to shake off this tough start to the season. With three of four games at home coming up, there’s an opportunity to get back on track (and for boisterous “Smashville” crowds to give this group a little more energy).

Oct. 19 begins a dicey stretch. They play three of five games on the road, but when you check the four-game trip that begins November, that’s seven of nine games away from Nashville from Oct. 19 – Nov. 7.

There are some solid opportunities after that, but the Predators need to keep their cool for the next month or so.

Blues (Won first two games, one at home and one away)

Schedule

Mon, Oct 9 @ NY Islanders
Tue, Oct 10 @ NY Rangers
Thu, Oct 12 @ Florida
Sat, Oct 14 @ Tampa Bay
Wed, Oct 18 vs Chicago
Thu, Oct 19 @ Colorado
Sat, Oct 21 @ Vegas
Wed, Oct 25 vs Calgary
Fri, Oct 27 @ Carolina
Sat, Oct 28 vs Columbus
Mon, Oct 30 vs Los Angeles

The Blues begin the season with two straight wins, an especially nice achievement considering all the injuries they’re dealing with.

It’s also useful considering what is ahead. Beginning on Monday, the Blues go on a four-game road trip against East teams, including a back-to-back set. The Blues also play six of seven games on the road (and face two back-to-back sets) from Oct. 9-21. Extending from Oct. 9 – 27, seven of nine games are on the road.

Yeah, not easy.

The Blues then get four straight home games and six of seven in St. Louis. Most of that comes in November, so this next month could be a struggle.

Jets (Two losses, one at home and one on the road)

Schedule

Mon, Oct 9 @ Edmonton
Thu, Oct 12 @ Vancouver
Sat, Oct 14 vs Carolina
Tue, Oct 17 vs Columbus
Fri, Oct 20 vs Minnesota
Thu, Oct 26 @ Pittsburgh
Fri, Oct 27 @ Columbus
Sun, Oct 29 vs Pittsburgh
Tue, Oct 31 @ Minnesota

Not the greatest start to the season or to a three-game Western Canada road trip for the Jets here. The good news is that their schedule is fairly reasonable, with only one back-to-back set and fairly standard home vs. away mixes.

Then again, as fun as probably will be to watch, two games apiece against the Blue Jackets and Penguins might not be the easiest draw.

WATCH LIVE: Tampa Bay Lightning vs Chicago Blackhawks

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Projected Lines

Tampa Bay Lightning

Nikita KucherovBrayden PointTyler Johnson

Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosChris Kunitz

Alex Killorn — Matthew Peca — Yanni Gourde

Michael Bournival — Cedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Jake DotchinAnton Stralman

Mikhail SergachevDan Girardi

Braydon CoburnAndrej Sustr

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

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

Chicago Blackhawks

Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsAnthony Duclair

Patrick SharpNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane

Alex DeBrincatArtem AnisimovRyan Hartman

Tomas Jurco — David Kampf — Vinnie Hinostroza

Duncan KeithJordan Oesterle

Erik Gustafsson — Brent Seabrook

Michal KempnyConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Jeff Glass

Are Penguins making the right call with Sprong demotion?

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After being a healthy scratch for two games and seemingly being in the doghouse since at least Jan. 17, Daniel Sprong is headed back to the AHL.

To some degree, the move was made because it seems like Bryan Rust is getting ready to return to the mix after being sidelined since Dec. 27. Still, it’s a frustrating development for those who believe in Sprong’s potential as the 46th pick of the 2015 NHL Draft.

All of the 20-year-old’s points came in one game, as Sprong scored two goals and one assist against the Islanders on Jan. 5. He went without a point in his other seven appearances in the NHL this season, with six coming during his latest stint.

Sprong was in the double digits in ice time each night until the Penguins’ loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 17, when he was glued to the bench from the second period on. Considering his lack of production in general, it’s understandable that head coach Mike Sullivan is more reactive to mistakes.

Certain details make the move more debatable, though.

For those who believe that Ryan Reaves‘ role is antiquated, it must be frustrating to see Sprong get demoted. Reaves has been averaging less than seven minutes per game (6:41) despite taking a spot in the lineup for 49 contests. Pittsburgh is in a life-or-death battle for a playoff spot, and many believe that his presence (and the first rounder they gave up to acquire him) is a waste for the Penguins.

The Pens also seem like they’re taking a questionable all-or-nothing approach with Sprong.

Sprong’s most common even-strength linemates (by far) were Sidney Crosby and Dominik Simon, via Natural Stat Trick. Maybe Sprong isn’t quite the right fit for Crosby at this point in his career, but there has to be at least a chance that he could provide more punch for the Penguins’ lineup than someone like Reaves lower in the lineup?

His possession stats have been solid in a small sample size and he hasn’t been shy, firing just less than three shots on goal per game (22 SOG in eight games). Couldn’t the Penguins find room for Rust and Sprong?

These are questions at least some Penguins media members and fans are asking right now, but the bottom line is that the team clearly believes that Reaves is a difference-maker. If Sprong is going to rank as one as well, it sounds like he’ll need to earn his next chance first.

We’ll see how the Sprong-less Penguins fare against the Carolina Hurricanes in a pretty important game on Tuesday. In other Penguins news, Matt Murray was overwhelmed by the support he received from his team and teammates following his father’s death.

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.

Troubling injury news for Bruins’ McAvoy, Lightning’s Palat

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Monday brought some tough injury news around the NHL. Let’s hit some of the bigger bits beyond Jaden Schwartz figuring to give the St. Louis Blues a boost.

  • Scary news for Boston Bruins star rookie Charlie McAvoy: he’s expected to miss about two weeks after undergoing a procedure to “treat an abnormal heart rhythm.” According to the statement from team Dr. David Finn, his issues were originally discovered on Nov. 26.

The full statement is really something:

Charlie McAvoy underwent a successful procedure today at the Massachusetts General Hospital to treat an abnormal heart rhythm.

Following the Bruins game on November 26, 2017, Charlie told team physicians that he experienced heart palpitations during the game. Subsequently he underwent an evaluation, which diagnosed him with a supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). The type of SVT Charlie has is not considered to be dangerous to his health but can recur at any time and causes significant symptoms.

After consultation with team physicians, as well as experts in this type of heart condition, Charlie decided to have the condition treated with a procedure called an ablation. The decision to have the procedure done at this time is due to a high probability of recurrence. During the period from the initial occurrence ‪through Saturday’s game, Charlie was cleared to play by the medical team and was monitored closely.

He will be monitored overnight at Mass General and the expected recovery period is two weeks.

Such issues only make McAvoy’s rookie season that much more impressive. His ice time remains robust, with an average of 22:06 per night in 14 December games and 21:32 per game in eight January contests.

Here’s hoping that the procedure takes care of McAvoy’s issues over the long haul. He’ll be sidelined for the 2018 All-Star Game, and it sounds like Morgan Rielly will not be available either, so the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith makes a good point in wondering who will replace Victor Hedman as the Atlantic Division’s third defenseman at the 2018 All-Star Game.

Could we see the latest slap in the face for Habs GM Marc Bergevin in Mikhail Sergachev being the guy to take Hedman’s spot?

[Bruins are red-hot, to the point of maybe giving the Lightning a run.]

  • McAvoy’s heart issues are quite scary, but if recovery windows work out, the Tampa Bay Lightning might actually suffer from worse news on Monday.

On what Bolts head coach Jon Cooper deemed a “non-hockey play” with Jared Spurgeon, Ondrej Palat suffered an injury that could sideline him for as long as two months.

“I won’t dig too much into that other than that’s a huge loss for us on a complete non-hockey play that didn’t have to take place,” Cooper said, via the team website.

This post details the injury, including footage of the hit.

  • Finally, the New Jersey Devils will lose Taylor Hall for what sounds like a couple games. It doesn’t sound like a long-term problem, but it’s reasonable to at least wonder if his presence at the All-Star Game might be threatened.

Hmm. Considering how important Hall is to a Devils team that might be in for a real battle to hold onto its current playoff spot, it’s fair to ask if he would be better off getting rest.

For more on the All-Star Game, read up on how the skills competition will be different here.

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.

NHL announces details of 2018 All-Star Skills Competition

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We know who’s going to Tampa this week for the 2018 NHL All-Star Game, and now we know what events will make up this year’s Skills Competition.

On Saturday night (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN), there will be six events focusing on individuality, with the winning player taking home $25,000 for each victory. The NHL Department of Player Safety will choose the players for each event. Sadly, it doesn’t look like Zdeno Chara or Shea Weber will be making the trip, which means the Hardest Shot will have a new winner for the first time since Sheldon Souray and Adrian Aucoin shared the title in 2004.

So Hardest Shot is back along with Fastest Skater, and there will be two new events, one old standard with a new look and one brought back for the first time since 2008. Here’s a rundown:

TWEAKED

Accuracy Shooting: “Eight players will compete in the Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting™, a timed event where a shooter is positioned 25 feet from the goal line and shoots pucks at five LED targets located in the net. On the referee’s whistle, one of the five LED targets will randomly light up for three seconds and the player will attempt to hit the lighted target. Hit targets will be taken out of the random sequencing and if the target is not hit within three seconds, the next target will be lighted. The clock stops when the player has successfully hit all five targets, the player that hits all five targets in the fastest time will be crowned the winner of the Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting™. If there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will compete again to determine the winner.”

No longer will players get to pick which targets to hit. It will all be done randomly and they’ll need some quick thinking in order to take out all five.

Puck Control Relay: “Eight players will compete in the Gatorade NHL Puck Control Relay™, a timed single-round event that includes three skills: (1) Stickhandling, where a skater controls a puck through a series of eight pucks in a straight line; (2) Cone Control, where a skater controls a puck through a series of eight cones in a zig-zag formation; and (3) Gates, where a skater approaches a gate and is required to shoot or otherwise guide the puck through the lighted rung of a gate. Each skill must be completed before moving on to the next skill. The referee’s whistles will signal completion of each skill and the player to complete the three skills in the fastest time is deemed the winner of the Gatorade NHL Puck Control Relay™. If there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will compete again to determine the winner.”

NEW

Passing Challenge: “Eight players will compete in the Dunkin’ Donuts NHL Passing Challenge™, which consists of three skills over one round, including  (1) Target Passing, where each player must complete four successful passes to targets that light up in a random sequence; (2) Give and Go, where each player must successfully complete the four required passes through a course set up in the neutral zone; and (3) Mini Nets, where each player must complete one pass over a barricade and into each of four mini nets, as well as an additional pass into the game net. Each skill must be completed before a player moves on to the next. The referee’s whistle signals completion of each skill. The player to complete all three skills in the fastest time is deemed the winner of the Dunkin’ Donuts NHL Passing Challenge™, and if there is a tie for the fastest time, the tied players will compete again to determine the winner.”

[NHL reveals 2018 All-Star Game rosters; who missed out?]

Save Streak: “Five goalies and all 36 skaters will participate in the GEICO NHL Save Streak™, a shootout grouped by division where goalies compete to make the most consecutive saves. Each goalie will face one opposing division and a minimum of nine scoring attempts. Each scoring attempt is officiated in accordance with NHL shootout rules and begins on the referee’s whistle. Players from each division will shoot in numerical order, lowest to highest, with the divisional captain shooting ninth. A goalie’s round at the GEICO NHL Save Streak™ cannot end with a save – if the divisional captain’s shot is saved, the goalie will continue to face shooters until a goal is scored. If the goalie makes a save on the divisional captain’s shot, the order of shooters to follow is the same as at the original order. The goalie with the longest consecutive save streak during his time in net is the winner of the GEICO NHL Save Streak™. If there is a tie for longest consecutive save streak, the goalie with the highest total saves made during his round will be crowned the winner.”

Where’s the fun for the goalies? We need to get them doing something other than stopping shots. Let’s get them back to trying to score, hitting targets down the ice like they were outlet passes or, hey, why not bring back the goalie race?

The Tampa Bay Lightning, who are celebrating their 25th season, and the city of Tampa will host the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend. The League’s midseason showcase will take place at AMALIE Arena and will include the 2018 GEICO NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Saturday, Jan. 27 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS) and 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Sunday, Jan. 28 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

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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.