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Let’s talk about Phil Kessel potentially winning the scoring title

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For the longest time this season it looked like Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov was just going to run away with the NHL’s scoring title.

Suddenly, though, he has some real competition starting to breath down his neck, and it is a member of the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

No. It is not Sidney Crosby, and it is not Evgeni Malkin, either.

It is Phil Kessel.

After his three-point game on Friday night Kessel enters play on Saturday just two points back of Kucherov for the top spot.

Working against him in his quest to win the Art Ross is the fact Kucherov still has two additional games to play the rest of the way and is still averaging more points per game. That is going to make it a tough deficit to overcome, because even though the gap now is only two points, Kucherov is still on pace for 102 points this season while Kessel is on a 96-point point pace.

But working in his favor, aside from the fact that Kucherov’s pace has slowed, even if only slightly as the season has progressed, is that Kessel is playing on a Penguins team that is starting to figure things out and has a power play unit that is currently ripping apart the NHL. That power play unit has the top-three power play point producers in the league (Kessel, Crosby, Malkin) with Kessel leading the way. His 33 power play points are already just two shy of the league leading total (35 for Nicklas Backstrom) a season ago.

If he manages to pull it off — and even if ends up finishing in the top-two or three — it would be another somewhat hilarious development in the second half of his career.

Just look at the player Kessel was thought to be before he arrived in Pittsburgh by a pretty significant portion of the hockey world.

For years he was stuck as the best player on a bad team (in Toronto, of all places, the worst possible city for that to be the case) and was pretty much run out of town while having his reputation sullied on the way out the door.

Even before that critics always spent more time focussing on what he didn’t do as a player instead of what he does do. Colby Armstrong, his former teammate, once said the words “But when the game’s on the line, if he can get a goal for you, that’s about all he’s gonna do.”

One of his former coaches, Ron Wilson, once said “you can’t rely on Phil.”

A couple of years later it turns out that getting goals when the game is on the line is a pretty important skill, and that yes, you can, in fact, rely on Phil.

Since arriving in Pittsburgh Kessel has not only been a focal point of two Stanley Cup winning teams, he was the leading postseason scorer on one of them and should have won (let’s not even say probably — let’s just be honest, he should have won) the Conn Smythe Trophy.

During those two Stanley Cup ones only Crosby and Malkin had more points over the two-year stretch (they each have 46 points; Kessel has 45) while nobody has scored more goals.

Even after accomplishing all of that he was still undervalued as a player (Team USA did not think enough of him to include him on its World Cup roster) while he entered this season still facing bizarre criticism.

It had been well documented that Kessel had developed a great relationship with former Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet.

Once Tocchet left this summer to take over the Arizona Coyotes there was real concern as to how Kessel would perform, and if you believe one preseason column in the Post-Gazette, if the Penguins would even want him around.

That storyline has not aged particularly well.

Kessel is not only one of the league’s top-two scorers at this point and having what is the best offensive season of his career, he has been the Penguins’ most consistent player and arguably their team MVP. He may not be the focal point of the roster, he may not be the biggest superstar on the team, and he may not be the locker stall the media crowds around first after a game, but you can’t make the argument that Kessel hasn’t been doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the Penguins since arriving in Pittsburgh.

He has been doing even more this season, and even though it almost certainly will not result in him getting an MVP award — whether it be league or team — he may still end up adding another trophy to his collection. One that nobody has to vote on.

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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.

The Buzzer: Raanta shutout, Brassard showcase, Blackhawks finally win

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Players of the Night:

Antti Raanta, Arizona Coyotes: Raanta shutout Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, stopping all 40 shots sent his way for his first goose egg as a member of the Coyotes.

Derick Brassard, Ottawa Senators: The Derick Brassard Showcase continued on Saturday night. The Senators forward, who has been the subject of trade speculation leading up to the trade deadline in two weeks, scored in his fourth straight game and added two helpers in a 6-3 win against the New York Rangers.

Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights: Smith extended his point streak to seven games, scoring twice and adding a helper in a 6-3 win against the Montreal Canadiens. Smith has five goals and seven assists during his streak and now has 51 points in 58 games this season.

Anders Nilsson, Vancouver Canucks: Nilsson turned aside 44 of the 45 shots he faced from one of the league’s hottest teams in the Boston Bruins. The Canucks obliged their goaltender, scoring six and chasing Tuukka Rask in a 6-1 win.

Jonathan Toews and the rest of the Chicago Blackhawks: Losers of eight straight coming into Saturday, the Blackhawks finally ended the streak, putting up seven goals against the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals. Toews had a goal and two assists in the game. It was Chicago’s first win of the month and their seven goals were half of the number they scored in their previous eight games.

Eddie Lack, New Jersey Devils: Lack wasn’t supposed to be playing against the league’s top team. But there he was on Saturday, stopping 48 of 51 shots against Stamkos, Kucherov and Co. He even out-dueled Andrei Vasilevskiy, who will likely win the Vezina in June. Impressive stuff.

Highlights of the Night:

Ryan Hartman, untouchable:

Nikita Scherbak’d:

Matt Murray did this two nights ago. Deja vu:

Two-pad stack alert:

Factoids of the Night:

The season can’t end fast enough for the Oilers:

The Golden Knights are creeping toward another record:

Evgeni Malkin hits 900:

MISC:

Scores:

Kings 4, Sabres 2

Ducks 3, Wild 2 (SO)

Senators 6, Rangers 3

Coyotes 1, Oilers 0

Golden Knights 3, Canadiens 3

Devils 4, Lightning 3

Penguins 5, Maple Leafs 3

Red Wings 3, Predators 1

Blackhawks 7, Capitals 1

Canucks 6, Bruins 1

Panthers 6, Flames 3


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

Blackhawks fans tossed after racist taunts toward Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly

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Four Chicago Blackhawks fans were kicked out of Saturday’s game against the Washington Capitals at United Center after racially-charged taunts were made toward Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly.

Smith-Pelly, serving a five-minute major for fighting in the third period, got upset with a fan next to him who, according to the Washington Post, was chanting, “Basketball, basketball basketball,” toward Smith-Pelly, who is black. 

“There’s absolutely no place in a game of hockey, or a country, for racism,” Trotz said after the game. “I think it’s disgusting. There’s no place for it. The athletes in this country don’t deserve that. It just shows ignorance.”

Trotz said he hadn’t spoken with DSP about the incident, but said he was upset and his teammates had been talking with him.

DSP did not speak with the media following the game, which the Capitals lost 7-1.

February is Hockey is For Everyone month in the NHL.

The Blackhawks issued a statement following the game

““We were made aware of an incident at tonight’s game involving a small group of attendees who made harmful comments directed at Washington Capitals player Devante Smith-Pelly,” a Hawks spokesperson said. “The fans were immediately removed and we apologize to Smith-Pelly and the Washington Capitals organization. We are committed to providing an inclusive environment for everyone who attends our games and these actions will never be tolerated.”


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

Should Miles Wood be suspended after boarding Vladislav Namestnikov? (video)

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang

He won’t have much of a defense, it would seem.

New Jersey Devils forward Miles Wood took off his responsible thinking cap on Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In the second period, Woods came barrelling in on the Lightning forward Vladislav Namestnikov. The latter had already ushered the puck up the ice, and with his back turned to Woods, the Devils sophomore appeared to leave his feet, driving his shoulder into the nameplate of Namestnikov’s jersey.

If that wasn’t enough, Andrej Sustr came in to defend his teammate and paid the price at the hands of Wood, who broke his visor with a punch, leaving Sustr bloodied.

Wood was given a boarding minor on the play and an additional two minutes for roughing after he left Sustr in a mess. It wouldn’t be at all shocking if Wood is summoned by the NHL’s player safety department.

Both Namestnikov and Sustr had to leave the game, but both returned in the third period.

The Devils won the game 4-3. Guess who scored the game-winner…


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

Cam Talbot, furious with overturned goal, launches expletive-laden tirade

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang

Cam Talbot wasn’t too happy after losing to the bottom feeders of the NHL’s Western Conference on Saturday afternoon.

The Oilers, who have Connor McDavid, couldn’t manage to score a goal against a team that’s given up the third most to opposing teams this season.

And the goal they appeared to score to tie the game 1-1 in the third period was eventually overturned because of goaltender interference.

Video review confirmed that Patrick Maroon impeded Antti Raanta’s ability to move his blocker side arm freely, a call that Talbot took exception to following the game.

“It’s extremely frustrating, to have what seems like every single one of these calls go against us in the past two years is just unbelievable,” Talbot lamented to the media. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We challenge a goal, it stands. They challenge a goal on us for some reason it’s always waved off.

“I just don’t understand it, it’s the exact same play that we had last week against L.A. where the guy clips my blocker. We challenge and it’s still a goal. Last year in the playoffs against  Corey Perry, same play, takes my blocker with him, puck goes blocker side and it’s still a goal on us. There’s just no consistency and I’m f***ing sick of it.”

Answering another question, Talbot continued to drop f-bombs speaking to Robert Tychkowski of the Edmonton Journal.

“The fact that every single goal is disallowed against us and every single call or every single time we challenge it’s still upheld. I don’t f***ing get it. They’re the same f***ing plays every time and for some reason, the call goes against us these past two years. We haven’t won one challenge in the past two years. It’s ridiculous. I just don’t get it.” 

This looks one part frustration and another part sour grapes. There have been some blown calls this season, for sure, including against the Oilers.

Here.

Here.

And here.

But this one the Situation Room got right.

Meanwhile, Talbot’s Oilers were shutout for the seventh time this season. They continue to wildly underachieve, despite having names like McDavid and Draisaitl. And they have to watch former teammates like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle light it up with their new teams.

Sure, Talbot and Co. can blame it a host of external issues. But he and the Oilers have to start looking within. They didn’t become bottom feeders because a goal got overturned.


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