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Check, mates: NHL top lines are expected to do it all


By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Tyler Seguin doesn’t consider it a challenge. He sees it as an opportunity.

Every time Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock sends Seguin and his linemates over the boards against an opponent’s top line, he knows he has a job to do.

”Out-check the other line and let the skill kind of take over,” Seguin said. ”It’s fun.”

Fun? Sure. It’s also increasingly common in the NHL as coaches seek to put their top lines on the ice against the other team’s best forwards to create matchup problems that often lead to goals.

Goodbye to the likes of Bob Gainey and hello to Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom. All can help keep the puck out of the net almost as well as they can put it in.

”We’re seeing less of the old Don Luce, Craig Ramsey, Brent Peterson lines,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, referring to defensive-minded forwards of yesteryear. ”We have guys like Bergeron; Sid goes up against top guys. So I think you’re seeing more of the power against power than we have in the past.”

Power against power is the name of the game in hockey today as players such as Bergeron, Crosby, Backstrom and Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews embody the kind of top-line stars who can double as shutdown centers. Crosby was so good in that dual role at the 2014 Sochi Olympics that Canada won a gold medal – and he was so dominant offensively the past two seasons that the Penguins won consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

Crosby is well aware of the modern duties of a top-flight center.

”You have more responsibility defensively,” he said. ”You’re covering a lot of space, so it’s just something you’ve got to be aware of.”

Before the season, reigning MVP Connor McDavid of Edmonton cited defense and faceoffs as areas he wanted to improve. He already has the dynamic offensive capabilities and sees that as the next step in his evolution.

”It’s more rounding out your game,” McDavid said. ”Being a defensive guy, being able to be put out there in the last two minutes to defend a lead, just to be able to be trusted by your coach out there.”

Coaches have to be able to trust their top players in all situations, particularly since the days of strict shutdown lines are dwindling.

”The systems are about defense, and everyone needs to play it,” Backstrom said. ”That’s what the mindset is – to be good defensively and offensively.”

The best defense is good puck possession because often the most productive players aren’t as sound in their own end. Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella considers it essential to make elite offensive players spend time in their defensive zone, figuring they’re more apt to try to do too much in the neutral zone and turn the puck over.

Good two-way players also have that mindset when they’re matched up against top skill guys.

”They’re so good offensively that sometimes they can forget about their defense, and that’s when you can take advantage of them,” Philadelphia Flyers No. 1 center Sean Couturier said. ”They’re thinking so much offense that once they turn the puck over they’re going to try plays to get turnovers. That’s when you can take advantage of them most of the time.”

That’s the danger of going skill on skill. Few see Calgary Flames stars Johnny Gaudreauand Sean Monahan as defensive stalwarts, but coach Glen Gulutzan continues to put them on the ice against other top lines.

Gaudreau said ”sometimes the best offense comes from playing against other top lines.” And the strategy has multiple benefits.

”It makes sure that your top guys, they’re aware that they’re out there against the other sharks, so to speak, in the league,” Gulutzan said. ”Now they’re a little more conscious defensively. And what you hope is that, through a course of a season, you’re making your guys more defensively aware and come playoff time those things will come in handy.”

Seguin said he thinks the playoffs lead to concerted defensive efforts to shut down certain players, though that largely comes from coaches leaning on their top defensemen. Hitchcock and other coaches said putting their best defensemen against opponents’ top forwards is the most important matchup no matter the situation.

Of course, it helps to have forwards who thrive on tough matchups and understand balancing priorities.

”A lot of times you’re getting matched up with better players, so I think playing offense the whole game isn’t realistic,” Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said. ”Most of the time it’s just being in the right places and knowing where you are on the ice as opposed to chasing everybody around and that whole ‘shadow’ thing. You’ve just got to be in right areas and right zones.”

Playing responsible defense is one piece of the transition to offense, whether it’s winning board battles or faceoffs or taking the puck away. But top players are counted on and paid to score, so keeping others off the board simply isn’t good enough.

”If it’s 0-0, we’re still kind of mad as a line,” Backstrom said. ”We want to win that match. It would be nice if we could score against them.”

Panthers hold keys to playoff fate

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Few teams have been hotter than the Florida Panthers down the stretch, something that had to be the case for the Cats to be in the spot they are currently in.

No, they’re not in a playoff spot at the moment — as a Wednesday they sit one point back of the New Jersey Devils for the second and final wildcard spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But a massive game awaits them on Thursday against one of the few teams that have been hotter than them in the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have strung together nine straight wins.

The Panthers hold two games in hand over the Devils, who squandered an opportunity to increase their slim lead in a 6-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. New Jersey has struggled as of late, going 4-6-0 in their past 10, including back-to-back losses now. The Panthers, meanwhile, eviscerated the Ottawa Senators 7-2 to pull within a point of them. Florida is five points back of the Philadelphia Flyers and six points behind their opponents on Thursday in Ohio. To thicken the plot, Florida holds three games in hand on Philly and Columbus.

Since the All-Star break, the Panthers have gone 18-5-1, have scored more 5-on-5 goals than any other team with 35 and are third in expected goals percentage during that time. The Florida Sun-Sentinel also points out that the Panthers have more points since the ASG out of any Eastern Conference team and the great goal differential (plus-27).

With 11 games to go, the Panthers sit in the driver’s seat when it comes to their own playoff fate.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner slightly downplayed the Columbus game in a conference call with the media on Wednesday.

“This time of year, it’s easy for these guys to get up for games, obviously how important they are,” he said. “It’s not going to be nothing over-the-top, extra special than what we normally do to prepare for a team. Obviously, it is an important game, but we have 10 more important games coming in.”

Despite losing key pieces in Jonathan Marchesseault and Reilly Smith over the summer — both are having career years with the Vegas Golden Knights — the current crop for the Panthers appear to have bought into Boughner’s message. And with Roberto Luongo healthy after missing two-and-a-half months with a groin injury, Florida is peaking at the right time.

“I think if you ask the guys, they’re having the time of their lives, having lots of fun,” Boughner said. “Let’s face it, we’ve been playing playoff hockey here for the last couple of months, just trying to dig in and scrape for points every night.”

Coming into Tuesday’s game, Luongo had gone 8-2-1 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage with two shutouts in his past 11 starts — vintage Luongo, who’s been down this road before.

“Lu means everything to our team, obviously,” Boughner said, adding that Luongo will be in the driver’s seat in Florida’s last 11 games.

“He’s going to play a lot of hockey,” he said, saying it will be in the realm of an 80/20 split between Luongo and backup James Reimer.

Boughner said Aleksander Barkov — who has eight goals and 26 points in his past 19 games — is his vote for the Selke Trophy and that Keith Yandle is the glue that helps keep the room together. Evgenii Dadonov, who has 12 goals and 13 assists in his past 19 games, shouldn’t be forgotten.

Boughner said when the team was struggling earlier this season, consistency was the most frustrating part — noting that the team couldn’t string together more than two wins in a row.

“There was too much individual work going on,” he said. “It took us a long time to sort of get the team convinced with sticking with the process and playing as a team… less selfishness and more about the team.”

That changed with a five-game winning streak in the last half of December.

“That’s probably where the light went on,” Boughner said.

It’s burned brightly ever since.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Wednesday Night Rivalry – Bruins at Blues

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[Puck drop at 8 p.m. ET, CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE.]


Boston Bruins

Brad Marchand / Riley Nash / David Pastrnak

Ryan Donato / David Krejci / Danton Heinen

Tim Schaller / Sean Kuraly / Tommy Wingels

Jordan Szwarz / Noel Acciari / Brian Gionta

Torey Krug / Brandon Carlo

Matt Grzelcyk / Kevan Miller

Nick Holden / Adam McQuaid

Starting goalie: Anton Khudobin

[Bruins – Blues preview]

St. Louis Blues

Jaden Schwartz / Brayden Schenn / Alexander Steen

Patrik Berglund / Kyle Brodziak / Vladimir Sobotka

Dmitrij Jaskin / Ivan Barbashev / Tage Thompson

Nikita Soshnikov / Oskar Sundqvist / Chris Thorburn

Carl Gunnarsson / Alex Pietrangelo

Vince Dunn / Colton Parayko

Joel Edmundson / Robert Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

Will Coyotes give Dylan Strome a real shot?


Aside from seeing who can tank harder, it might be tough to sell the Arizona Coyotes’ game against the Buffalo Sabres tonight. There is one interesting storyline, though: will Dylan Strome finally gain some traction? And will the Coyotes give him a solid chance to actually do so?

A failure at one level

Take a look at the top 10 picks of the 2015 NHL Draft, and you’ll see that nine of those prospects have played in at least 106 regular-season games.

The lone exception is Strome, the third selection by the Arizona Coyotes, who’s only appeared in 18 games at the highest level so far during his fledgling NHL career.

Strome’s development has been a frustrating process, as the book on Strome seems to be that he can dominate at lower levels, yet his strength and especially foot speed just isn’t there. This season backs up that even with Strome slowing down a bit at times in the AHL, as Strome generated 50 points in 47 games for the Tucson Roadrunners.

No doubt, it’s distressing to see Strome struggle, especially with Mitch Marner (fourth overall), Noah Hanifin (fifth), Ivan Provorov (seventh), Zach Werenski (eighth), and Mikko Rantanen (10th) all looking like studs who were selected behind him.

Sink or swim

No doubt about it, that stings. Allow some advice, then: the Coyotes should give him a better chance to prove himself than Strome has been afforded thus far.

Look, there’s no denying that his scant production (one goal, one assist in 18 games spread between last season and this one) is troubling. A can’t-miss prospect would probably be able to make every moment count, and you can’t really make that argument for Strome.

Still, with very little to lose – in fact, with plenty of incentive to lose – why not really set the table for him? That hasn’t exactly been the case at the NHL level; Strome averaged a measly 12:26 TOI per game during that 11-game span this season, and that was slightly down from his seven games in 2016-17. Strome averaged 1:23 power-play time on ice per night.

To Arizona’s credit, they’ve given him quality linemates during his brief window of action this season. According to Natural Stat Trick, his most frequent forward linemates have been Clayton Keller and Christian Fischer. Not too shabby, especially by the standards of Coyotes forwards.

It’s unclear who the Coyotes will line Strome up with during tonight’s game, but it could be very helpful for them to get a better read on him by really rolling him out. Ideally, they’ll give him more reps on the man advantage, strong linemates, and more opportunities in general.

Ten games won’t answer every question or solve any riddle.

For a team that’s shown signs of growing impatience with a slow rebuild, it sure would be nice to find out if Strome has a better chance of helping them out in 2018-19. What better time to find out than now?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sounds like Auston Matthews will finally return for Leafs

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All things considered, the Toronto Maple Leafs have weathered the storm when it comes to Auston Matthews‘ injuries.

Granted, there are likely “What if?” games, with Tuesday’s disappointing loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning standing as an example. Would the Maple Leafs have coughed up a 3-0 lead to lose to the Bolts in regulation with two-way star Matthews in the lineup? It’s a moot point, but Buds fans likely wonder as much.

Either way, the Maple Leafs are comfortably resting as a dangerous third seed in the Atlantic Division, waiting to see if the Lightning slip to second place or if they’ll take on the Boston Bruins (who likely feel little sympathy for Toronto’s injury issues considering their own).

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The Maple Leafs deserve credit for resisting the urge to rush Matthews back in the lineup, yet with the regular season winding down, they have to weigh risking re-injuries against the American star being too rusty. It sounds like Matthews will finally get back into the lineup for Thursday’s game against the red-hot Predators in Nashville.

At least, that’s what Matthews says, via TSN’s Mark Masters:

Matthews’ latest malady has sidelined him since Feb. 22. During his absence, the Maple Leafs went 5-3-2, scoring four more goals than they allowed.

There have been some bright sides to Matthews missing 20 games, including 10 most recently.

For one thing, other players have been able to run with opportunities that might have been muted with him in the lineup. Mitch Marner generated an impressive 14 points in the latest 10 games with Matthews on the shelf, while James van Riemsdyk has been sniping at a ridiculous pace (eight of his 10 points have been goals). Morgan Reilly’s also been on fire, collecting nine points during that 10-game span.

From Left Wing Lock’s listings, it looks like Matthews will see some familiar linemates in William Nylander and Zach Hyman, while Marner and JVR aim to flesh out the second and third lines respectively.

Ideally, such alignments would allow the Maple Leafs to deploy waves of offense much like some of their most dangerous peers, including the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Matthews missing all this time has that silver lining, and as The Athletic’s James Mirtle notes (sub required), the American center’s loss could be the Leafs’ long-term gain. Depending upon how bonuses pan out, Matthews likely missing some marks could save Toronto quite a bit in cap space in 2018-19 and 2019-20, which is ideal considering that Matthews, Marner, and Nylander will see their rookie deals expire in the near future.

“The injury probably cost him the $2-million, as he would have been top 10 in goals,” Mirtle’s anonymous source said. “Technically, he could still make it in points per game but highly unlikely.”

If Matthews can get up to speed and in a good rhythm by the time the playoffs begin, the situation would present a lot to like for the Maple Leafs.

That said, much of that optimism ignores the plain reality that the Maple Leafs face a significant hurdle to even escape the first round. The Bruins and Lightning both pose serious challenges, so it won’t be an easy draw early on for Toronto.

Then again, the Maple Leafs are a tougher out than they seem, too, being that they’ve been without their best player for 20 games. A Maple Leafs team with Matthews at or near full-strength could set the stage for one of the best series of the first round.

Barring setbacks, that drive begins in earnest on Thursday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.