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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.

Edmonton Oilers GM not panicking over team’s slow start

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As most teams hit the 20-game mark you have to do some extra scrolling to find the Edmonton Oilers while looking at the overall NHL standings.

A Stanley Cup favorite after a nice run last spring, the Oilers have only 16 points in 19 games. Only the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes currently have fewer points. A number of things have gone against Edmonton so far. There’s that negative-11 goal differential and the 73.4 percent penalty kill. There’s also the lack of secondary scoring, or scoring in general with their average down to 2.47 goals per game. Meanwhile, Jordan Eberle is enjoying his time in Brooklyn.

Speaking from the general manager’s meetings in Montreal on Friday, Peter Chiarelli described his thoughts on the slow start as “general disappointment.”

Via Michael Traikos of the National Post:

“For me, it goes back to where our mindset was in terms of managing expectations,” Chiarelli said. “We fell behind the eight ball at the start for a number of reasons. Execution was one of them, and now you’re in that recovery mode and you lose runway. So that’s where we are right now.

“I’m not putting blame for our record on (the pressure of meeting expectations), but I think it’s something that we needed to address and we did. And maybe we didn’t do a good enough job of it.”

There are a few things in Edmonton’s favor as they attempt to dig themselves out of this whole. First, they have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Second, their possession numbers are good as shown by a league-best 55 percent Fenwick, via Corsica. Then there’s their 98.12 PDO, which tells you they’ve been a bit unlucky at times. And despite their slide, the Oilers are only four points out of both a Western Conference wild card spot and third place in the Pacific Division.

Chiarelli already made one move to try and help their scoring woes by acquiring Mike Cammalleri, who’s enjoyed a nice start to the season. If things don’t improve, you can bet more trade attempts will be made by the GM because if you take a look at their salary cap picture over at CapFriendly, it won’t get any easier to build a contender.

This is the cheapest the Oilers will ever have McDavid, who will see his cap hit go from $925,000 to $12.5 million for 2018-19. Then you have the numbers of restricted and unrestricted free agents after this season. If initial reports of NHL revenues hold, we could see the salary cap ceiling rise a decent amount in the off-season, which could be beneficial.

Of course, other GMs aren’t going to bail Chiarelli out without helping themselves first, so the Oilers can’t rely solely on trades in order for their season to turnaround.

“All of the teams in the league need more help,” Chiarelli said. “But at this point, these guys have to figure it out also.”

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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.

National Hockey League had humble beginnings 100 years ago

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MONTREAL (AP) The five men who met on Nov. 26, 1917, to form the National Hockey League could not have dreamed of the 31-team, multi-billion-dollar enterprise it is a century later.

That day the owners of the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators and Quebec Bulldogs, along with league president-to-be Frank Calder, drew up a document at the posh Windsor Hotel in Montreal that established the NHL out of the ruins of the strife-torn National Hockey Association, which had been founded in 1909.

World War I was raging and most of the best young players were serving in Europe. Professional hockey had not yet eclipsed the amateur game in popularity. Top players earned about $900 per season.

The owners had met twice earlier in the month and announced they would suspend play due to scarcity of top-level players, although it turned out the real plan was to form a new league that did not include Eddie Livingstone, the combative owner of the Toronto Blueshirts who had repeatedly been in disputes, even lawsuits, with other clubs over rights to players or arena leases.

Elmer Ferguson, sports editor of the defunct Montreal Herald, was the only journalist at the Windsor that day. When it ended, he asked Calder what had happened and was told “nothing much.”

But Canadiens owner George Kennedy told Ferguson the new league was “like our old league except that we haven’t invited Eddie Livingstone to be part of it.”

Livingstone filed for an injunction and tried unsuccessfully to start another league, but it was hardly smooth sailing for the NHL in its early days.

Before the season started, Quebec announced it didn’t have the resources to begin play until the following season, so its players were divided up among the other clubs. Toronto took the Bulldogs’ place under a more cooperative owner, Charles Querrie.

On the new league’s opening night, Dec. 19, 1917, only 700 fans were on hand as the Wanderers beat Toronto 10-9.

It was to be the only victory for the team founded in 1903 out of clubs that stretched back to 1884. After only four games, the Westmount Arena that housed the Wanderers and the Canadiens burned to the ground, destroying all their equipment.

The Canadiens were able to replace their lost gear and moved into the 3,200-seat Jubilee Rink, but the Wanderers folded, leaving only three teams. The Canadiens had won their opener, officially the first NHL game because it started 15 minutes earlier, on five goals from Joe Malone, who had been picked up from the Bulldogs.

It took less than a month for the first rule change, which allowed goalies to drop to the ice to make saves where they previously had to remain upright. The new rule was inspired by Ottawa’s Clint Benedict, a master at “accidentally” losing his footing when shots were being taken.

The game was different in many ways that season. There were no forward passes or lines on the ice. Minor penalties lasted three minutes instead of two. Goaltenders served their own penalties, leaving skaters to guard the net.

And the Stanley Cup was not NHL property. Toronto got the O’Brien Cup for taking the first league championship, then had to win a five-game series against the champions of the rival Pacific Coast league, the Vancouver Millionaires, to claim the Stanley Cup. It did not become an exclusive NHL trophy until 1926-27.

By then, a rapidly growing NHL had reduced the Pacific Coast and Western leagues to insignificance. While Quebec City had rejoined the league, moved to Hamilton, and then folded, the NHL was booming in the United States.

Boston joined in 1924, the same year the Forum was built to house the Canadiens and the new Montreal Maroons. The New York Americans joined in 1925-26 along with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Teams in Chicago and Detroit soon followed. In Toronto, Conn Smythe bought a team called the St. Pats and renamed them the Maple Leafs.

In New York, promoter Tex Rickard was angling for a franchise and the local joke was they would be Tex’s Rangers. Rickard liked the name and the New York Rangers were born. His coach and general manager was Lester Patrick, who brought stars Bill and Bun Cook from the Pacific Coast league.

More iconic rinks were built. The Detroit Olympia in 1927, Boston Garden in 1928, Chicago Stadium in 1929 and Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931.

Player salaries shot up.

But the Great Depression was too much for some clubs and after 1941-42, when the Americans folded, the league was down to what came to be called the Original Six, even though the 1930s had brought major rule changes to speed up play and boost offence, including forward passing across lines, icing, penalty shots and flooding the ice between periods.

Then came an extended period of stability, marked by the rise of powerhouse teams in Detroit, Montreal, Toronto and then Montreal again. Massive stars emerged like Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Jean Beliveau and Gordie Howe.

A year after Bobby Orr debuted with the Bruins in 1966-67, the league finally expanded by six teams – Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minnesota North Stars (now Dallas), St. Louis, Los Angeles and Oakland. Then came Buffalo and Vancouver in 1970; New York Islanders and Atlanta (now Calgary) in 1972; Washington and Kansas City (now New Jersey) in 1974; and four clubs from the defunct World Hockey Association – Edmonton, Quebec (now Colorado), Winnipeg (now Arizona) and Hartford (now Carolina) in 1979.

San Jose joined in 1991; Ottawa and Tampa Bay in 1992; Florida and Anaheim in 1993; Nashville in 1998; Atlanta (now Winnipeg) in 1999; Columbus and Minnesota in 2000; and Las Vegas in 2017.

Since 1917, when teams were valued in five figures, the NHL has become a business with an estimated $4.5 billion in revenues in 2016-17 and three teams – the Rangers, Leafs and Canadiens – worth more than $1 billion.

Where players were once almost exclusively Canadian, now there are nearly as many Americans and many others from Europe.

And there will likely be at least one more team coming soon.

As Ottawa boss Tommy Gorman said on that day in 1917: “Now we can get down to the business of making money.”

For more NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

The Buzzer: Bob blanks Rangers; Sabres drop fourth straight

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Player of the Night: Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bob made 36 saves and recorded his 21st career shutout in helping the Blue Jackets to a 2-0 win over the New York Rangers. The win was the Blue Jackets’ third in a row while New York was blanked for the first time this season.

Highlight of the Night: Bob was on his game:

MISC:

• Despite the loss, Henrik Lundqvist was outstanding for the Rangers in stopping 40 shots.

Artemi Panarin’s power play goal in the third period put the game out of reach:

• New York has dropped two in a row since their six-game winning streak.

Tomas Tatar snapped a 1-1 tie midway through the third period and Dylan Larkin added the insurance tally as the Detroit Red Wings beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-1.

• The Sabres, who have now lost four straight, had their chances, but Jimmy Howard stopped 19 of 20 shots and was thankful for one of his posts:

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Columbus 2, New York Rangers 0
Detroit 3, Buffalo 1

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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.

Matthew Tkachuk suspended one game for inciting line brawl (Update)

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The Detroit Red Wings felt like the punishment didn’t fit the crime as Luke Witkowski received an automatic 10-game suspension for returning to the ice during that line brawl with the Calgary Flames. How will they feel about Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk receiving a one-game suspension for his “crime,” then?

Tkachuk had a lot to do with the brawl, as Witkowski returned to the ice because of his actions.

This marks the second time Tkachuk’s been suspended by the NHL, as he sat two games for this hit on Drew Doughty, which ultimately served as the first chapter in his hate-fest with the Los Angeles Kings:

It’s fitting with such an agitating figure like Tkachuk that the decision stands as polarizing. Some are stunned that the NHL would tack on a one-game suspension after he was ejected for his actions during the 8-2 win for the Red Wings:

It wouldn’t be surprising if, meanwhile, the Red Wings believe that it wasn’t nearly sufficient. After the game, Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson reports that Tkachuk said that Witkowski was looking for an excuse to return and that he just gave him “a poke.”

Apparently, this time, Tkachuk also poked the bear and will have to sit one game in timeout as punishment.

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.