PHT Morning Skate: Sharks’ Labanc helped his father’s dream come true over the weekend

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–Check out the highlights from Buffalo’s 1-0 win over Detroit. Benoit Pouliot scored the only goal of the game and Robin Lehner came up huge for the Sabres. (Top)

Jonathan Quick was forced to come out of Monday’s game against the Leafs after an opponent made contact with his head. A concussion spotter asked for him to be checked and he was. All he missed was 36 seconds, which proves that the entire process still needs some work. (The Hockey News)

–Tough blow for the Canucks, as they’ll be without defenseman Troy Stecher for four to six weeks. He was injured on Sunday when he collided knee-on-knee with Detroit’s Tomas Tatar. (TSN.ca)

–Jake Virtanen has been living every young Vancouver hockey fan’s dream lately. He grew up cheering for the Canucks and watching the Sedins do their thing on a nightly basis. Now, he gets to skate on the same line as them. Oh and Virtanen scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Minnesota last night. (Vancourier.com)

–Here’s a cool story about the Islanders. When the Islanders usually have alumni reunions, they invite a dozen or so of their former players. But they had one last weekend and they welcomed anyone who put up an Islanders jersey. Even Mike MacWilliam, who played six games with the Isles, was there. (SNY.tv)

–Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland wrote a letter for Las Vegas in The Players’ Tribune. Engelland discusses how he ended up calling Vegas home and how difficult it was to watch the mass shooting that happened a few weeks ago. (The Players’ Tribune)

–Sean Avery has written a new book out! Not only does he talk about his career and his dating life, but he also roasted a couple of former teammates and opponents along the way. (Sports Illustrated)

–Predators forward Filip Forsberg has been one of the better scorers in the NHL over the last few years, but there’s a good chance he’s about to reach a new level over the next little while. He’s off to a hot start right now, and don’t be surprised if he scores 40 goals sometime soon. (fanragsports.com)

–The Ottawa Senators are a lot more comfortable in Guy Boucher’s system and it shows. As a team, they’ve been producing as a top notch offensive squad so far this season. (silversevensens.com)

–The Calgary Flames have taken quite a few penalties this year. And although their penalty-kill hasn’t given up too many goals, there is cause for concern, according to flamesnation.ca, who used advanced stats to show where they could get better. (flamesnation.ca)

–Roman Polak got a one year contract from the Leafs earlier this week, and most of the fan base seems to be split on him. Some like his hustle, while others who prefer analytics, feel like he’s nothing more than a liability. Is he still a useful player or should the leafs have taken a hard pass? (faceoffcircle.ca)

–Here’s a really nice story about Sharks forward Kevin Labanc and his father, Milan. Last weekend, Labanc played in his hometown of Brooklyn, where his father immigrated to 23 years ago. Watching his son play there was a dream come true for the older Labanc. “I have tremendous happiness to see Kevin reach the level of NHL hockey and play in his home town,” Milan Labanc said. “Whatever I started in hockey, when you see your kid continue it and you see your kid go further, that’s what every parent wants.” (Mercury News)

–The St. Louis Blues have had a decent start to the season, but it’s pretty clear that their special teams is holding them back. Their power play is ranked 24th, while their penalty-kill is ranked 27th. It needs to be better. (stlouisgametime.com)

–Team USA’s 1998 women’s hockey team was inducted into the Colorado Spring Sports Hall of Fame. As you may remember, that team which had Cammie Granato, Katie King, Sara DeCosta and many others, won the gold medal. (usahockey.com)

–Lucas Sbisa has emerged as an important blue liner for the Golden Knights this season. He’s the player that has gone up against the opposing team’s star forward on most nights. Believe it or not, it’s worked out pretty well so far. (sinbin.vegas)

Sidney Crosby started a trend when he put on number 87 because he was born in 1987. There’s a long list of players that have done that, but that’s going to be coming to an end in the very near future. (puckjunk.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.

Stars’ Klingberg is building serious Norris argument

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From Nicklas Lidstrom to Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman, NHL fans are used to Swedish defensemen being involved in Norris Trophy talks, and often winning the award outright. It’s about time that we add another name to the conversation: John Klingberg of the Dallas Stars.

Some might roll their eyes when points come up in the Norris discussion, but how could they not, especially in Klingberg’s case?

After collecting three assists in the Stars’ 7-1 Saturday squash of the Sabres, Klingberg now has a whopping 46 points in just 48 games. As of this writing, Klingberg leads all defensemen by 10 points. If he maintains that margin for the remainder of the 2017-18 season, it will be tough to deny Klingberg the first Norris Trophy in Stars history.

Klingberg’s 46 points tie him with Jamie Benn for the team points lead, and place him in a multi-player tie for 18th overall in the NHL.

About two weeks ago, Jamie Benn told the Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika that Klingberg deserves consideration.

“One hundred percent,” Benn said. “He’s such a dynamic player, and a leader on this team. And I think this year he’s taking his game to another level, and it’s showing out there on the ice.”

It’s not just about the scoring. Klingberg is getting the ice time you’d expect from a Norris hopeful, with an average of 23:33 per game. While that isn’t in the Drew Doughty range, it shows that the slick Swede is a go-to guy for the Stars (he easily leads Dallas in ice time).

His all-around game is impressive. You can see strong possession stats at a glance at Hockey Reference, and with just 14 penalty minutes so far, he’s not hurting his team with bad discipline. While he’s not a primary penalty killer for Dallas, there’s some trust in that area, as he’s averaging 1:18 PK time per contest.

Maybe you’d lean more toward Doughty, Brent Burns, P.K. Subban, or Karlsson – it’s a dynamic and deep field this year – but Klingberg deserves consideration, and he’s already drawing favorable comparisons to beloved Stars blueliner Sergei Zubov (without the in-game smoking breaks, one would assume).

You could argue that Klingberg has been one of the greatest beneficiaries to Ken Hitchcock’s return to Dallas.

Not that long ago, Klingberg was suffering through healthy scratches as the Stars experienced a wildly disappointing 2016-17 season. Now he’s easily on pace to surpass his career-high of 58 points, and Klingberg might just collect some hardware in the process.

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.

Johnson’s shot at Duchene makes lack of Colorado return a bummer

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Through a rare scheduling quirk, Matt Duchene‘s first game as a member of the Ottawa Senators against the Colorado Avalanche was both a letdown and a case of instant gratification.

The Senators faced the Avs on back-to-back games on Nov. 10 and 11, Duchene’s debut contests with Ottawa. That’s really something, but those contests took place in Sweden, so fans – and former teammates, honestly – were deprived of the spectacle of seeing Duchene return to town.

Barring a highly unlikely trade or an equally unlikely meeting in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (hey, the Avs are doing a better job holding up their end of the bargain in that regard), Duchene won’t play in Colorado as a member of the opposing team until 2018-19.

That was already a bummer, even before Colorado extended its scorching run to nine straight wins. That missed opportunity for drama and entertainment stings more today, though, as Erik Johnson took a swipe at Duchene without using his name, as NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski reports.

“The way things went last year, I think the easy thing to say would have been, ‘It’s not working here, let’s go somewhere else, let’s jump ship.’ The character guys and the core guys in this room said we want to figure things out here in Colorado and make it work,” Johnson said, via Sadowski.

Zing.

Again, Johnson didn’t add “Right, Matt Duchene?” at the end, so perhaps there’s plausible deniability right there. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Johnson wasn’t taking a shot at, say, Mikhail Grigorenko, though.

It’s disappointing that we won’t get to see those two teams play in North America until next season, but at least Erik Johnson provided the in-real-life answer to a “subtweet” on Matt Duchene, eh?

(Hot take: the NHL needs more smack-talking moments like these, even if names aren’t always named.)

In case you’re wondering

Duchene now has 13 points in 29 games with the Senators heading into Saturday’s action, numbers that lag behind his Colorado work (including 10 points in 14 sometimes-awkward games with the Avs in 2017-18).

That said, Duchene has been heating up lately, generating at least one point in four of his last five games (three goals and four assists for seven points during that span).

Samuel Girard has nine points (all assists) in 31 games with Colorado after generating a goal and two assists in five contests for Nashville. Girard has three assists in his last five appearances for the Avs. He also has seven assists during Colorado’s nine-game winning streak, even with more modest ice time than he first received with the Avalanche.

Kyle Turris‘ numbers are most relevant to Sens fans, but nonetheless: he’s been slowing down a bit with Nashville lately, yet he still has 19 points in 29 games as a member of the Predators.

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.

Are boiling-hot Avalanche for real? We’ll find out soon

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If the Colorado Avalanche’s New Year’s resolution was to never lose again, they’ve been sticking to it so far.

With a 3-1 win against the New York Rangers today, the Avalanche are undefeated in 2018 (7-0-0), and that’s not even the extent of their ridiculous winning streak. They’ve now won nine games in a row, with this run stretching back to an overtime win against Toronto on Dec. 29.

The Avalanche are now at 26-16-3, a resounding rise from being under .500 not that long ago (they dipped to 12-13-2 on Dec. 7).

About two weeks ago, PHT glanced at the Avalanche when their winning streak was at five consecutive victories.

Since then, they’ve tacked on four more wins, outscoring opponents 15-6 during that span. It’s not as if they’re facing cupcakes, either, as these last four teams (Stars, Ducks, Sharks, and Rangers) are either in playoff position or are battling hard for a spot.

Many of the same things continue to go right for the Avalanche.

  • Nathan MacKinnon continues to battle for Hart recognition: MacKinnon scored a goal and an assist against the Rangers today, giving him 23 goals and 59 points in just 45 games this season. This is already the second-best total of his career, and his peak of 63 points isn’t far away. One could probably assume that Nate-Mac is more intrigued by the possibility of flirting with a 100-point season than any of his previous marks.

MacKinnon’s point streak now spans the Avalanche’s nine-game run: eight goals and 11 assists for a blistering 19 points. He’s currently ranked second in scoring with 59 points, just two points behind Nikita Kucherov‘s 61.

  • Jonathan Bernier is also leading the way: Remember when Bernier was going to be the next big thing?

Instead, he’s quietly showing why scouts were once so excited about him, and you wonder what the pending UFA ($2.75 million cap hit this season) might net the Avalanche if they’re not sold on his future. With injured would-be starter Semyon Varlamov only signed through 2018-19, Colorado has some questions to answer. That said, it’s a lot better to have multiple options in net than none.

Bernier is now on an eight-game winning streak and has won nine of 10 games. Bernier has an absurd .957 save percentage in seven January appearances.

The two have even combined for some highlights, conveniently enough.

Now, there are some caveats.

The Avalanche have played nine of their last 10 games at home. Only the Rangers have seen a more home-dominant start to 2017-18, as the Avs have played 26 games in Colorado versus just 19 on the road.

Starting Monday, the Avalanche will essentially see their schedule reverse:

Mon, Jan 22 @ Toronto
Tue, Jan 23 @ Montreal
Thu, Jan 25 @ St. Louis
Tue, Jan 30 @ Vancouver
Thu, Feb 1 @ Edmonton
Sat, Feb 3 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Feb 6 vs San Jose
Thu, Feb 8 @ St. Louis
Sat, Feb 10 @ Carolina
Sun, Feb 11 @ Buffalo

You could extend the tough times to about a month, really.

So far, the Avalanche are 18-7-1 at home and just 8-9-2 on the road. Of course, they’ll now be going on the road with a rejuvenated Bernier; with that in mind, maybe this stretch of away games will merely give the Avs a chance to drive home the point that they’re a true contender?

It’s already been a marvelous turnaround for this group, as they basically exceeded their atrocious 2016-17 season at the midway point of this one.

Much like MacKinnon in trying to do far more than merely set career-highs, the Avalanche don’t need to settle for moral victories right now. They’re getting plenty of actual victories, especially lately.

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.

What happened to the Los Angeles Kings?

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They were doing so well, those Los Angeles Kings.

And it wasn’t that long ago, either.

Back on Jan. 4, these same Kings were tied for the second spot in the whole of the Western Conference. Hell, they were knocking on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s door at the summit of the league.

That night, the streak began.

Now, the Kings are fresh off their latest defeat, a narrow 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night. It was Los Angeles’ sixth straight loss and their second to the rival Ducks in less in a week.

But why?

Why has a team that looked so dominant prior to this fallen off a proverbial cliff so quickly?

Perhaps fans could blame Jonathan Quick.

He’s lost his past five starts now, allowing three goals or more in four of them. But while his numbers might be in a little bit of decline, it’s hard to pin the Kings’ woes on a man who’s sporting a .924 save percentage and 2.34 goals-against average.

We must look deeper.

There we find some issues with getting the rubber puck in the back of the net.

When the streak began, the Kings were scoring. They posted three goals in each of their 4-3 losses to the Calgary Flames and the Nashville Predators – tight games that may have gone another way depending on a bounce or two. But since then, they’ve scored two, one, one and one in their past four, respectively.

Winning hockey games where you score one goal and expect your goalie to stop a barrage of shots is, well, nearly impossible in today’s NHL.

The lack of scoring is perhaps the Kings’ biggest problem. They simply need more of it.

They’re a team that ranks among the top in goal differential. They have a starting netminder that gives them a chance to win nearly every night.

Yet, when Anze Kopitar registers just two markers in 15 games, it’s not exactly helping. And when a resurgent Dustin Brown stops surging with just three goals in his past 16 games, it’s not helping. And when 18-goal man Tyler Toffoli has one goal in his past seven games… you get the picture.

Scoring is a must. No one needs to be told this, let alone the Kings who have won a couple Stanley Cups in recent years.

The good news: those scoring slumps likely won’t last.


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