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Blues defy big odds to rank among NHL’s best

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After an absolutely maddening run of injuries before the season even began, there was some concern that the St. Louis Blues would miss the playoffs. Instead, they’re in a position to run away with the Central Division with November about to begin.

You can forgive the Blues for setting their sights higher than that, too, even after all those false alarms about “this being the year,” to some extent stretching back to the days of Al MacInnis’ booming shot and Steve Yzerman-administered heartbreak.

Maybe it’s fitting, then, that the Blues enter Tuesday tied with Yzerman’s Tampa Bay Lightning with matching 10-2-1 records as the top teams in the NHL (and, thus, the top seeds in their conferences). They ended October with quite the win, too, topping the Pacific-leading, also-resurgent Los Angeles Kings.

Really, the Blues’ successes might be more impressive than that of the Lightning and Kings. While everything seems to be going right for the Lightning after an injury-ravaged 2016-17 campaign, St. Louis’ black-and-blue status makes its run of victories seem that much more impressive.

Alex Steen missed a big chunk of October. Jay Bouwmeester‘s status remains murky, and Patrik Berglund hasn’t returned yet. Robby Fabbri‘s season-ending knee issues deprived the Blues of a fascinating young forward. Zach Sanford lost a chance to move up the ranks and prove himself.

With all of that, the Blues are 10-2-1, but are especially hot lately: four wins in a row and a 6-0-1 points streak.

That’s pretty fantastic, and might only be an under-the-radar story because of how well-built this franchise is thanks to GM Doug Armstrong. He doesn’t get many mentions among the game’s brightest minds, yet Armstrong looks pretty shrewd as of this moment.

Let’s ponder what is going right for the Blues, and maybe also consider a few elements that make this run even more impressive.

  • The season began with a hot power play, but they’ve learned to adjust as it cooled off.

To start 2017-18, the Blues scored a single power-play goal in five straight games. That man-advantage dominance hasn’t sustained, however, as St. Louis has only generated PPGs in one of their last eight contests (2-for-3 against Calgary on Oct. 25).

  • Critics can’t just dismiss the Blues as having a cushy schedule. So far, they’ve played eight of 13 games on the road. They’ve also faced three back-to-back sets, so if anything their success should have tapered off.
  • As disruptive as those injuries must have been, this is Mike Yeo’s first real season running the Blues.

After all, Yeo was an assistant-turned-interim head coach last season. This time around, Yeo had the opportunity to implement his systems and really cement his philosophies in training camp. Perhaps that makes some difference in how the Blues are approaching each game?

  • Jaden Schwartz has been healthy, and Jaden Schwartz has been a force. With 17 points in his first 13 games, Schwartz leads St. Louis in scoring, enjoying a hotter start than star sniper Vladimir Tarasenko (14 points). Now, with a 25 percent shooting rate, Schwartz is bound to slow down a bit. The Blues would settle for him regressing if he can flirt with a healthy season.

  • Alex Pietrangelo is quietly amassing a pretty compelling Norris Trophy argument. He’s already a sneaky-fantastic, all-purpose defenseman.
  • Some hit-or-miss supporting cast members are belting our homers like Yasiel Puig. Paul Stastny is nailing his contract year so far, including 11 points in 13 contests. Brayden Schenn‘s been a great fit after the trade.
  • The biggest factor is probably the goaltending, which seems to be carrying over the momentum from last season’s turnaround once Yeo took over. Jake Allen continues to look like a legitimate number one guy, while Carter Hutton managed a .950 save percentage in his three appearances.
  • That said, there are the red flags you’d expect from a team wildly exceeding expectations. The Allen-Hutton tandem combined for the best save percentage in the NHL, and that .9475 mark at even strength will slip even if they’re outstanding all season. Other stats over at Natural Stat Trick look fishy, with their third-best PDO signaling that the party might stop or at least slow down.

Of course, the Blues can sidestep some of the plummeting one might expect from the rigors of the season by getting back some key players.

They’ll likely face challenges in their schedule, in the standings, and on the scoreboard to pair with injury headaches, as just about every NHL team hits cold streaks. They still deserve credit for a strong October, all things considered, and their reward is more than just pride: St. Louis currently leads the Central Division by seven points.

Not bad for a team that seemed like an ailing afterthought heading into the season.

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.

Ducks deny rally, end Penguins’ winning streak

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When Ondrej Kase cashed in on another breakaway opportunity for the Ducks to make it 4-1 in the second period, it looked like that goal would be icing on the cake for Anaheim. Even if it would be especially pretty frosting.

Instead, that stylish goal ended up being critical, as the Pittsburgh Penguins nearly rallied in the third period to at least send Wednesday’s game to overtime. John Gibson ended up holding down the fort, and with an empty-netter in the dying seconds, the Ducks ended up beating the Penguins 5-3.

You could call it a game of periods and close calls.

The Penguins entered the first intermission thanks to a 1-0 Evgeni Malkin goal, but the Ducks dominated the middle frame with their first four-goal period of 2017-18. The Penguins’ prolific power play helped them stay in the game (2-for-4, with both goals coming during that third-period comeback bid), but the rally fell short. Pittsburgh’s winning streak ended at four victories.

Some bounces went both ways, as Antoine Vermette nearly scored for the Ducks while Carl Hagelin suffered a near-miss. So maybe those missed opportunities cancel each other out?

From the Ducks’ perspective, this is the latest argument in favor of this team being a threat now that key pieces have returned to the lineup. This win begins what they hope is a successful five-game homestand, as Anaheim still needs to battle for its own playoff hopes.

The Penguins can’t ruminate on this loss for very long. They head to Los Angeles to face what must be a frustrated Kings team (four straight defeats, only two wins in their last eight games) on Thursday, with little reason to expect any mercy.

This last stretch of wins improved the Penguins’ outlook, but dropping games in back-to-back nights could make things tense again in a hurry. You can check out that Penguins – Kings game on NBCSN Thursday.

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.

Willie O’Ree celebrates 60th anniversary of debut with Bruins

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BOSTON (AP) Hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree was honored in Boston on Wednesday on the 60th anniversary of the Bruins forward breaking the NHL’s color barrier.

At a news conference at the TD Garden before the Bruins game against the Montreal Canadiens, Mayor Marty Walsh declared Jan. 18, 2018 to be “Willie O’Ree Day”. O’Ree made his debut in 1958 during a 3-0 victory against the Canadiens at the Forum in Montreal.

Walsh called O’Ree a Boston legend who changed the city for the better and thanked him for his courage. As part of the celebration, the city dedicated a new street hockey rink in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood to be known as Willie O’Ree Rink.

A native of Canada, O’Ree, 82, had four goals and 10 assists in 45 games over parts of two NHL seasons. He spent a total of 21 years in pro hockey.

For the past two decades, O’Ree has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, spreading the message that hockey is for everyone.

More AP NHL hockey at https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Bruins cruise vs. Canadiens in Julien’s return to Boston

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Don’t blame Claude Julien if Wednesday made him think of better times, and not just because it was his welcome back night in Boston.

Coming into this one, it was a tale of two teams going in opposite directions, and the teams stuck to their scripts. The Boston Bruins remain red-hot with a 4-1 win, while the Montreal Canadiens are mired in mediocrity .. or worse?

When you’re as disappointing as the Canadiens have been, plenty of things are going wrong. It was a weak start even with a 1-0 lead and 1-1 first period in mind, and it obviously didn’t get any better.

Nights like these have to sting for Julien, a coach known for his sophisticated systems and eye for defensive detail.

There are questions about Max Pacioretty possibly being trade bait. People wonder if Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk fit as centers, or if neither work that way. Yet, these performances make you realize that as exasperated as management must be, they may also appreciate more specific distractions.

Because, frankly, this was a team … non-effort.

Then again, the Bruins are a red-hot squad, so maybe they shine an especially harsh light on the Habs’ haplessness?

Boston generated a 32-22 shots on goal advantage in this one, with multiple contributors stepping up. Big guns came through (Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were among the goal scorers, Patrice Bergeron collected two assists), while David Backes and others added to the fun.

It was the kind of effort Julien would have been very happy with, if it didn’t come at his expense.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Anaheim Ducks

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PROJECTED LINEUPS

Pittsburgh Penguins

Dominik SimonSidney Crosby — Daniel Sprong

Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Conor ShearyJake GuentzelPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanRyan Reaves

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Olli MaattaJustin Schultz

Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Derek GrantRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: John Gibson