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How many goals will Nikita Kucherov score this season?

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The Tampa Bay Lightning continued to roll on Thursday night with a dominating 5-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Leading the way was Nikita Kucherov with another three-point effort including his league-leading 16th goal of the season. He enters play on Friday with a three-goal lead over Alex Ovechkin for the top spot in the NHL and is of to one of the best starts to a season (at least as far as goal-scoring is concerned) in recent league history.

After scoring a career-high 40 goals a year ago (in only 74 games) he looks like he is destined to shatter that number this season, barring injury.

So what is his ceiling or goals this season? 45? 50? Maybe even 60?

Keep in mind this is an era where the 50-goal scorer is nearly extinct. Over the past 10 seasons only nine different players have scored at least 50 goals in a season. Only three have hit that mark since the start of the 2011-12 season. But we also haven’t really seen a player storm out of the gates quite like this. Not even Alex Ovechkin, the greatest goal scorer of this generation and one of the best to ever play in the NHL, has started a season with this many goals this far in.

According to the Hockey-Reference database, Kucherov is just the 20th player since the start of the 1987-88 season to score at least 16 goals in his team’s first 17 games of a season.

He is just the fourth player to do it since 1996. Two of the other three were Daniel Alfredsson and Simon Gagne during the 2005-06 season, the one year in the past two decades when goal-scoring across the league saw a significant spike, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Alex Steen.

The rest of the players all did it during the run-and-gun late 1980s and early 1990s.

When looking at the list of previous players to score 16 goals in his team’s first 17 games all but one went on to score at least 30 goals. The one player that didn’t was Chris Kontos, finishing the 1992-93 season with 27.

Steen was the only other player on the list to not score at least 40, having scored 33 goals in 68 games.

That would have been a 39-goal pace over 82 games.

Twelve of them went on to score at least 50 goals, including some video game type numbers from the likes of Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman and Bernie Nicholls in the late 80s and early 90s.

What stands out the most about Kucherov’s start, aside from the fact he is doing it in 2017-18 when players simply do not score goals like this, is the fact that he has one of the lowest shooting percentages (23.8) out of that group during the opening 17-game stretch. That number is a bit of a spike from his career average (15 percent) but it is still 17th in the league right now. So it’s not like it is all a luck driven run of success.

Along with a spike in shooting percentage Kucherov is also generating shots on goal at what would be a career-high rate, averaging 3.94 per game.

If he maintains a 23 percent shooting percentage the rest of the way he would score an additional 58 goals on top of what he has already scored. That is … probably not realistic, but is it entirely impossible? Over the past 10 years there have been four players (Brad Boyes, Loui Eriksson, Jason Spezza, Mark Scheifele) that have recorded at least 150 shots on goal in a season and finished with a shooting percentage higher than 23 percent.

At some point though that shooting percentage is going to drop down because, well, almost nobody is superhuman enough in today’s NHL to score that many goals with that sort of shot volume.

If he maintains a similar shot volume right over the remaining 65 games and simply shot at his normal career average (15 percent) that would still give him another 40 goals on top of what he has already scored this season. That would give him 57 goals, which would be the highest total in the NHL since Steven Stamkos scored 60 during the 2011-12 season.

If he only shot at 10 percent over the next 65 games (keep in mind the only time Kucherov shot lower than 14 percent in a season was his rookie season when he only appeared in 52 games) that would still be an additional 25 goals and give him 42 on the season. That total would have placed him second in the NHL a season ago, only two behind Sidney Crosby.

In other words, what we are looking at here with Kucherov this season is the potential for what could be one of the best goal-scoring seasons in recent NHL history.

Whether or not he can remain that sort of absurd pace over the next few months remains to be seen, but even if we see a slight regression he should still be in the driver’s seat to win his first goal-scoring crown, assuming he is able to stay healthy.

The Lightning look like the best team in the NHL right now and with Kucherov and Stamkos racking up points the way they are they have the two best offensive players in the league at the moment as well.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Playoff Race: The teams still in it and the teams that are out of it

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With only about one quarter of the 2017-18 NHL regular season remaining the league’s playoff race is starting to get a little clearer.

Let’s take a look at where things stand as of Saturday afternoon and who should be in, who should be out, and who is still very much on the bubble.

Eastern Conference

Who should be comfortable: Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, Washington, Pittsburgh, probably Philadelphia

Who is on the bubble: New Jersey, New York Islanders, Columbus, Carolina.

Two of those four will get in.

Who is probably out of it: New York Rangers, Florida, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa, Buffalo.

Analysis: The Three playoff teams in the Atlantic Division are pretty much set in stone as Toronto, the third place team, has a 19-point lead over the fourth-place Florida Panthers. It is the most top-heavy division in the league. The only thing left to be decided is what order those top three teams finish in, especially when it comes to Tampa Bay and Boston. Entering play on Saturday the Lightning have a three-point lead over the Bruins, but Boston still has three games in hand.

Over in the Metro the top-three spots belong to Washington and Pittsburgh with Philadelphia right on their tails. All three teams should feel pretty good about their spot in the standings.

That means the other two spots in the Eastern Conference should come down to the remaining four bubble teams.

At the moment Columbus is on the outside of that playoff picture, sitting one point behind the New York Islanders but the Blue Jackets have played two fewer games and hold the edge based on points percentage. If both teams continue on their current pace the Blue Jackets would jump ahead into one of those spots.

Right now Columbus is on track for 89 points, which puts them just barely ahead of the Hurricanes and Islanders in the playoff race. The table below looks at each of the four bubble teams, how many games they have remaining, their current pace, and the records they would need the rest of the way to reach 90 points (to beat Columbus’ current pace) and 95 points (which would make any team a near lock for the playoffs).

Based on their current pace and projections, the Devils are in a pretty good position. The wild card with them, however, is the fact they are still without Cory Schneider and they have been fading a bit down the stretch here.

The Hurricanes and Islanders are still the two teams with the most work ahead of them.

If you are wondering why I made the Islanders and Hurricanes the cut off and did not include the New York Rangers, just keep in mind the Rangers would need to go 15-8-1 the rest of the way to reach 90 points. They would need to do that while potentially selling off players at the deadline and after having gone 8-14-1 in their past 24 games. It is always possible that Henrik Lundqvist could play out of his mind down the stretch, but that seems like it is asking a lot.

Western Conference

Who should be comfortable: Vegas, Nashville, Winnipeg, Dallas

Who is on the bubble:  San Jose, St. Louis, Calgary, Minnesota, Anaheim, Colorado, Los Angeles.

Four of those seven will get in.

Who is probably out of it: Chicago, Edmonton, Vancouver, Arizona

Analysis: The Western Conference is a bit more wide open because there are two races taking place at the same time and that is keeping a lot of teams in it. Not only do you have a wild card spot up for grabs, but perhaps two spots in the Pacific Division as well.

At this point Vegas seems to be running away with the regular season Pacific Division crown thanks to the 10-point lead (with one game in hand) it has over the San Jose Sharks.

The other two spots in that division are up for grabs with only five points separating the second place San Jose Sharks and fourth place Los Angeles Kings.

Based on each team’s current point projection the cut-off to make the playoffs in the Western Conference is significantly higher than it is in the Eastern Conference with the final playoff teams on pace for close to 97 points at the moment.

Let’s take a look at those races.

Even though when you look at the standings today and see that the Anaheim Ducks are just one point back of a playoff spot, and ahead of the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings in the standings, they still have the hardest road ahead of them given each team’s current pace and the fact everyone else still has games in hand on them. They would need to win 15 of their final 23 games to hit that 97-point pace to jump ahead of the Flames’ current pace in the Pacific Division.

Still, there is a razor thin margin of error for pretty much every team on that table.

Any of those four teams could grab the four spots that are still legitimately up for grabs.

The Blackhawks would need a 20-3-1 over their final 24 games to reach 97 points. So let us just say that them, and every team below them, is finished for this season.

Even though Dallas is tied with St. Louis with 72 points at the moment I did not include them on the bubble because they have played two fewer games. They have a top-10 points percentage in the NHL and are currently on pace for 101 points. It would take a pretty significant meltdown for them to fall out of the playoff picture.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Kovalchuk scores twice, Russians outclass US 4-0 at Olympics

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Ilya Kovalchuk scored two back-breaking goals as the Russians outplayed, outhit and outclassed the United States in a convincing 4-0 shutout Saturday night as each team wrapped up pool play at the Olympics.

With the loss, the United States is guaranteed to have to play in the qualification round Tuesday. U.S. goaltender Ryan Zapolski allowed four goals on 26 shots, including Kovalchuk’s goals less than 33 seconds apart at the end of the second period and start of the third.

Los Angeles Kings 2012 draft pick Nikolai Prokhorkin scored the Russians’ first two goals in a dominant performance.

As close as the shots on goal were, the U.S. rarely generated the quality scoring chances against Vasily Koshechkin the Russians did around Zapolski, who played all three preliminary-round games. Koshechkin stopped all 29 shots he faced for his first shutout of the tournament.

This night lacked the tense political subtext of the Cold War from their 1980 meeting and the pomp and circumstance of Russian president Vladimir Putin attending and the pressure on the home team in Sochi in 2014, but it had the same kind of in-arena atmosphere. U.S. and Russian fans filled Gangneung Hockey Centre and went back and forth with “U-S-A” and the “ROSS-I-YA” chants that made up the background noise at the Olympics four years ago.

There was at least one disagreement in the stands between those fans and plenty more on the ice. Pushing and shoving followed countless whistles, and at one point U.S. forward Jordan Greenway and Prokhorkin got tangled up and came as close to a fight as players can without dropping the gloves.

In a tournament full of mistakes, the U.S. made a couple to allow the Russians to take the lead 7:21 in. Alexander Barbanov had all the time in the world behind the net and dished the puck to KHL star Sergei Mozyakin, who found Prokhorkin free and clear in front for the deflection goal.

Ryan Donato had the Americans’ best chance of the first late in the period when he pinged a shot off the crossbar behind Koshechkin. The Russians hemmed the U.S. in its zone late in the period, and the fatigue took its toll as the game went on.

Left open on the rush as the U.S. was slow to backcheck, Prokhorkin scored his second goal 2:14 into the second, using a Jonathan Blum screen on Zapolski to make it 2-0. The U.S. spent the rest of the second period unable to convert on a delayed-penalty chance and a couple of power plays.

Things tilted even further when Sergei Andronov held the puck away from U.S. defender Bobby Sanguinetti and passed it to Kovalchuk, whose shot went under Zapolski’s arm and in with 0.2 seconds left in the second. As if that goal wasn’t deflating enough for the U.S., Slava Voynov sprung Kovalchuk for a semi-breakaway and the former Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils sniper beat Zapolski clean 32 seconds into the third for a 4-0 advantage.

NOTES: U.S. defenseman Will Borgen was a healthy scratch for the third consecutive game. Forward Jim Slater was also scratched. … David Leggio backed up Zapolski.

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Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Olympic streak over as Canada loses to Czechs in shootout

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The Czech Republic rallied twice to hand the Canadian men’s hockey team its first Olympic loss in eight years Saturday, riding goaltender Pavel Francouz to a 3-2 win in a shootout.

Canada had won 11 consecutive games at the Olympics – the first 10 with NHL players – dating to a loss to the United States in pool play in Vancouver in 2010. Canada opened these games with a comfortable 5-1 win over the Swiss that confirmed its status as one of the favorites in the tournament.

Still, Russia, the United States and now Canada have all lost in the preliminary round.

”The first 10 minutes I thought they had a little bit of an advantage but from that point on I thought we played hard,” Canada coach Willie Desjardins said. ”Lots of parts of our game were good. Now we just move ahead. This one’s gone, we don’t worry about it at all. We just move ahead to the next one.”

Mason Raymond and Rene Bourque scored first-period goals for Canada, but Dominik Kubalik and Michal Jordan answered for the Czechs, who used a successful forecheck. The Czechs tied it up 35 seconds into the second period: Ben Scrivens, who had mishandled the puck seconds earlier, stopped a Michal Birner shot but Jordan banged in the rebound.

”We had one (goal against) with a couple chances to clear it and a sharp-angle shot that I probably want to have (back),” said Scrivens. ”Another one where they break in, throw it in the middle and hope for bounces, and they get one.”

Canada outshot the Czechs 33-20 through overtime, but Francouz stood tall – particularly in the extra session.

The three-on-three overtime on the big ice was frantic entertainment with quality scoring chances. Canada’s Derek Roy made some nifty rushes but couldn’t finish it off, while Mat Robinson broke up a two-on-one before losing the puck on a breakaway.

Wojtek Wolski scored for Canada in the shootout while Maxim Lapierre, Roy and Bourque were all stopped by Francouz and Maxim Noreau hit the post on his attempt. Petr Koukal and Jan Kouvar scored for the Czechs.

”A penalty shot is 50-50,” said Czech forward Roman Cervenka. ”We were more lucky today.”

The three group winners and the best second-ranked team advance directly to the quarterfinals. The remaining eight play, with the four winners advancing to the quarters.

Canada will take on South Korea, a fledgling program that features a half-dozen Canadians, on Saturday while the Czechs face Switzerland. A Czech win in regulation will give them top spot in the group and a direct route to Wednesday’s quarterfinals. The Canadians would have to hope to be the best second-place team to join them there or else play a qualification playoff game Tuesday.

”We played hard,” said Desjardins. ”The time you worry is when you don’t play hard. Like if you give everything you’ve got, then what happens happens and you move on to the next game and you look for some adjustments and you come back ready.”

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

The Buzzer: Hot Islanders goalies, Jets take off

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Players of the Night

  • Much like Jaroslav Halak with his 50-save shutout last night, Thomas Greiss stole the show – and a shutout – for the New York Islanders, stopping all 45 of the Hurricanes’ shots on Friday. He probably deserves the top spot; you can read about his performance here.
  • Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele helped the Jets dominate the Avalanche 6-1. Wheeler collected two goals and one assist, while Scheifele generated three assists. Since returning from an injury, Scheifele is on a three-game point streak, collecting two goals and five helpers. Wheeler continued to produce without Scheifele, but like peanut butter and chocolate, they’re even better together.

Note: if you go after them, you may have to answer to Dustin Byfuglien. That’d probably bad news for you.

Highlights of the Night

This was Patrik Laine‘s 16th power-play goal of 2017-18. Looks like his office covers a lot of ground/ice:

Sean Couturier continues to be a revelation as a top-line center for the Philadelphia Flyers, scoring the overtime-winner against the Blue Jackets:

Columbus carried a substantial shot advantage over Philly, but Sergei Bobrovsky made some great stops:

Factoids

Again, the Islanders’ shutouts are especially impressive because the defense has not been impressive.

Quite a start to Patrik Laine’s career.

Select company for John Klingberg.

Jay Bouwmeester: 1,100 games, countless surprised facial expressions.

Scores

Flyers 2, Blue Jackets 1 (OT)
Islanders 3, Hurricanes 0
Jets 6, Avalanche 1
Stars 2, Blues 1

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.