Alex Ovechkin

Vasilevskiy shines again as Lightning take top spot in NHL

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Tuesday’s game in St. Louis was a showdown featuring the top two teams in the NHL.

In the end it was the Lightning picking up the 3-0 win to extend their current winning streak to five games and to reclaim sole possession of the No. 1 spot in the NHL.

Their win improves them to 22-6-2 on the season and puts them two points ahead of the Blues despite having played two fewer games.

It was another impressive showing for Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy who has been one of the underrated stars of this year’s Lightning team. Most of the attention has been directed to forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov (and deservedly so!) but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Vasilevskiy, in his first full season as the Lighting’s full-time starter, has been one of the best goalies in the league so far.

Tuesday’s game was his third shutout of the season, and after his 32-save performance against the Blues his .933 save percentage is among the best in the NHL, while his 20 wins (in only 25 starts) are tops in the league. Nobody else in the league has more than 17.

While Vasilevskiy was shining in net again, Kucherov scored his 21st goal of the season to move back into a tie with Alex Ovechkin for the top spot in the league. It was also his 42nd point which moved him into a tie with Stamkos for the league lead.

Brayden Point also continued his breakout season by opening the scoring with his 13th goal of the season. He also added an assist on Tyler Johnson‘s third period goal.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Is it time for the Sens to trade Erik Karlsson?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill isn’t worried about Jimmy Howard‘s recent slide. (MLive.com)

• The ESPN roundtable discusses whether or not the Senators should consider trading Erik Karlsson. The answer to this one seems pretty easy. (ESPN.com)

• Certain NHLers prefer not wearing a helmet during pre-game warmups so they can show off their hair. (Sports Illustrated)

• The Columbus Blue Jackets have one of the top penalty-killing units in the NHL. It’s so good, it’s even won them games. (Columbus Dispatch)

Jamie Benn has struggled to find the back of the net over the last 10 games, but he’s not the only Dallas Star that needs to get going. (Dallas Morning News)

• The Montreal Canadiens have a couple of days off after their ugly loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night. They have plenty to figure out before they take on the Devils on Thursday. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• The Devils expected a lot from young forward Pavel Zacha, but 2017-18 hasn’t been his year so far. How can they get his development back on the track? (NJDab.com)

Alex Ovechkin and the Caps have been rolling of late. They’ll look to keep that going in a game against the Islanders. (DCpuckdrop.com)

• With whiffs of expansion in the air, hockey fans and bar owners are excited to find out whether or not Seattle can become a hockey town. (National Post)

• Even though they’re one of the teams that’s scored the least amount of goals this season, Fear the Fin doesn’t believe that the Sharks need to make a trade for a scoring forward. (Fear the Fin)

• Team USA will look to repeat as World Junior Hockey Championship champions. Here’s a full preview of what the roster might look like. (The Hockey Writers)

P.K. Subban was really good in the game he played against his brother, Malcolm, and the Vegas Golden Knights. (Predlines.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Slashing crackdown, infusion of youth boost NHL scoring

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

The nets aren’t bigger, the goaltenders aren’t smaller and yet scoring is up significantly around the NHL.

Through the first two months of the season, goals are up more than 12 percent from the same time a year ago, including a whopping 14 percent increase on the power play and a 38 percent spike in short-handed goals.

”That’s what the league wanted,” San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc Edouard-Vlasic said. ”The league has done everything in their power to make there more goals out there, and that’s exactly what’s going on.”

The uptick can be credited to a concerted crackdown on slashing by issuing more penalties and a league-wide move toward younger and more skilled players. The current pace of 6.01 goals per game would be the highest since 2005-06, when a series of rule changes were put in to open up the game and get more scoring to attract new fans.

”Teams try to go for it more,” said New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, whose goals-against average is 2.66, nearly 13 percent higher than it was at this point a year ago. ”Most teams are trying to go for it, have this fast hockey, leave the zone quickly and it opens it up.”

Deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly said general managers are pleased with the current pace, which has lasted beyond the typical high-scoring October as defenses settle in for the season. Stricter enforcement of slashing was designed to reduce hand and wrist injuries, though it has had a positive effect on offense with defenders unable to whack at puck carriers’ sticks in an effort to stop them.

”I do think that has created certainly more room for our players to be offensive,” Daly said. ”I think over time, clearly since we increased the standard for hooking and holding and interference (in 2005-06), slashing has become a way to defend and an effective way to defend, and I think this year it’s a less effective way to defend.”

Players have noticed, even if some are frustrated at the varying degrees of what rises to the level of a slashing penalty. Every referee is watching closely.

”The last five years, you could do so much more with your stick and probably now lots of players are afraid to use their sticks,” Los Angeles Kings forward Jussi Jokinen said. ”I think everybody wants to see more goals, so scoring being up, I think it’s good.”

Everyone except maybe the goaltenders may think so, but it’s not like they’ve been terrible. Four goalies who have played at least 20 games have a save percentage of .930 or higher.

”The goaltenders, they haven’t been any better than they are right now and some of them are still getting lit up pretty good,” said Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who has the league’s leading goal-scorer in Alex Ovechkin.

Certainly the emphasis on slashing has helped players such as Ovechkin, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and New York Islanders star John Tavares, who can do wonders with even a few extra inches of space. Columbus Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson, who scored 10 goals in his first 15 games, said slashing is on everyone’s mind and ”guys are not getting (their sticks) up into the hands as much as they used to.”

Slashing and otherwise, there have been 173 more power plays than last season and teams are converting on 19.7 percent of them. Almost half the league is at or above 20 percent. The massive increase in short-handed goals has a lot to do with aggressive penalty kills stocked with offensive-minded players more likely to score.

”That’s one more thing that the power play has to worry about,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”Now they don’t just have to worry about scoring goals. They have to worry about their turnovers, what plays they make, how risky they want to get because there is that chance if it goes the other way and it’s a 2-on-1, it could end up in the back of your net.”

Los Angeles coach John Stevens said teams are in ”attack mode” all the time now, and Trotz estimates that he spends three-quarters of time trying to figure out how to score more.

But risk is also inherent in the NHL getting younger and featuring so many rookie scorers such as Arizona’s Clayton Keller, Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat and Vancouver’s Brock Boeser. The average age of an NHL player is 27 and Daly said the number has dropped over the past several years. He said more scoring is a byproduct as junior hockey and college programs get better at making players NHL-ready sooner.

Team composition has also changed. There are fewer journeyman faceoff specialists and grinders, and more players kept for speed and skill.

”Just the mold of all teams is kind of changing: They’re going for smaller, skilled guys rather than guys who are two-way forwards and stuff like that,” said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who is all of 27. ”These young kids have unbelievable skill, too. It’s kind of crazy how much skill. They have things they grew up getting taught how to do those things, which we didn’t have access to when we were kids.”

For all the offense so far, there are those who don’t expect it to keep happening. Goals were up through October last season and the NHL finished averaging 5.54 per game. DeBoer said teams often tighten their systems and structure after Christmas, making it more difficult to score.

”I think it’s still early to say,” Blackhawks winger Richard Panik said. ”The game is going to get tighter. It always does before playoffs.”

PHT Morning Skate: Blues season-ticket holder suits up as emergency goalie

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• A big blow for the Vancouver Canucks, as Bo Horvat will miss up to six weeks because of a lower-body injury. (Canucks Army)

• The Penguins called up Frank Corrado from the minors because they were forced to put Justin Schultz on IR. (Pittsburgh Tribune)

• Dave Lozo argues that the NHL needs a “super team” like the NBA has with the Golden State Warriors. With John Tavares, Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson about to hit free agency over the next couple of years, it’s entirely possible that those three can join forces. (Vice)

• The Tampa Bay Lightning have been really good this season, but are they even better than we realize? (TSN.ca)

J.T. Brown, Alex Ovechkin, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin are all proof that the NHL is definitely political. (Sporting News)

Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler are huge reasons for Winnipeg’s strong start to the 2017-18 season. (NHL.com)

• From top to bottom, things are pretty tight in the Metropolitan Division. Believe it or not, there’s only 11 points separating first and last place. (elitesportsny.com)

• The Calgary Flames definitely miss Kris Versteeg on and off the ice. Whether it’s the things he does during games or his ability to be the team deejay in the locker room, they can’t wait for him to be back. (Calgary Herald)

• The Hockey News compares Capitals forward Tom Wilson to a bully in 1980’s teen movies. (The Hockey News)

• Many expect the Sabres to trade pending free agent Evander Kane, but what would Buffalo’s salary cap situation look like if they signed him to an extension? Diebytheblade.com has the answer.

• Things have been rocky for Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith lately. Not only did he finish minus-4 in a game earlier this week, he’s also failed to score in 42 consecutive games. (Chicago Sun-Times)

• Devils blue liner Steve Santini had been struggling this season, but the acquisition of Sami Vatanen has allowed him to slide into a more comfortable spot on the depth chart. (NJDab.com)

• Here’s an awesome story about a Blues season-ticket holder that became the team’s emergency goalie last night. (The Score)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Capitals punishment, Miller gets shutout

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Players of the Night: 

Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals:

I suppose this is somewhat cheating the system, but instead of doing three separate posts for each guy, why not just praise them all at once? These three had a dominant night as the top line for the Caps, combining for 11 points. Wilson (two goals, two assists) and Ovechkin (one goal, three assists) each had four-point outings. Backstrom scored and added two helpers of his own for good measure.

Ryan Miller, Anaheim Ducks: 

Miller record his first shutout of the season to give the Ducks just their second win in their past nine games. The 37-year-old stopped 29 shots and has yet to lose in regulation this season with a 3-0-4 record.

Highlights of the Night:

Jonathan Toews provided this nasty deke on Braden Holtby in a game that was a lost cause for his Chicago Blackhawks:

This was pretty filthy from Ondrej Kase:

Bone-headed play of the Night:

This one goes to Matthew Tkachuk, who tried to get in a sneaky spear that was inevitably caught on camera. This could require a hearing from the league:

Factoid of the Night:

MISC: 

  • Don’t look now, but the Philadelphia Flyers have put together back-to-back wins after a 4-2 defeat of the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday. Don’t plan the parade just yet, though. They’ve only won two of their past 11.
  • NHL insider Bob McKenzie dropped by the NBSCN studios on Wednesday and got a little more specific as to how long Roberto Luongo would be out for. McKenzie said the timeline could stretch up to eight weeks for the veteran netminder.
  • McKenzie added that the Panthers will be looking at the possibility of adding a netminder. 
  • The Senators created a bunch of hope and belief in their dressing room after a 6-5 win against the New York Islanders last week. But they’ve resumed normal service as of late. After getting blanked 5-0 on Sunday against the Winnipeg Jets, Ottawa lost 3-0 in Anaheim on Wednesday.
  • Sticking with the Senators, Erik Karlsson has no points in his past 10 games.
  • Ottawa is 1-8-1 in their past 10.
  • Adam Henrique scored his first goal in a Ducks uniform on Wednesday.

Scores: 

Maple Leafs 2, Flames 1 (SO)

Capitals 6, Blackhawks 2

Flyers 4, Oilers 2

Ducks 3, Senators 0


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