Evgeny Kuznetsov

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The Buzzer: Backstrom dominates, another shutout for Anderson

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Player of the night: Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

Before the Washington Capitals took the ice in New Jersey on Friday night there was some doubt as to whether or not Nicklas Backstrom would play after he left warmups after taking a puck to the head (he was initially listed as a scratch).

He not only played, he absolutely dominated in the Capitals’ 5-2 win.

Backstrom finished with four points, scoring a goal and adding three assists to help the Capitals bounce back from a tough loss on Wednesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov are all tied for the league lead in points (10) after Friday’s game.

The Capitals may not have the depth that they did a year ago, especially after losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt over the summer, but they still have some elite players that are going to carry them a long way.

Highlight of the night. 

How can it be anything other than Artemi Panarin‘s first goal as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets? It is a thing of beauty.

Factoid of the night. 

Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson recorded the 39th shutout of his career. That puts him in the top-five among American-born goaltenders.

Misc.

— The Vegas Golden Knights have lost a game. With their loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Friday, as well as the New Jersey Devils’ loss to the Washington Capitals, there are now no more unbeaten teams in the NHL.

— Speaking of the Vegas-Detroit game, Henrik Zetterberg was magnificent for the Red Wings with four points. James Neal also continued his incredible start for Vegas with his sixth goal of the season.

Mike Smith had a brutal night for the Calgary Flames, getting benched after giving up five goals on 22 shots.

— The Colorado Avalanche … dominated? Yeah. They did. Not only did they beat the Anaheim Ducks, 3-1, to improve to 4-1-0 on the young season but they also outshot the Ducks by a 39-18 margin. Has to be concerning if you are a Ducks fan. This game was a classic Randy Carlyle game on the shot chart.

Scores and recaps

Washington Capitals 5, New Jersey Devils 2

Columbus Blue Jackets 3, New York Rangers 1

Colorado Avalanche 3, Anaheim Ducks 1

Ottawa Senators 6, Calgary Flames 0

Detroit Red Wings 6, Vegas Golden Knights 3

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.

Mike Green, NHL points co-leader, and other odd early stats

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Here’s a sign that it’s very early in an NHL season: two defensemen are among the league’s scoring leaders, and their names aren’t Brent Burns or Erik Karlsson.

Nope, instead, there are five players tied for first in the league with eight points before Friday’s games kick off: Alex Ovechkin, Alex Pietrangelo, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Ryan Hartman, and Mike Green. Pietrangelo and Hartman have played five games while Green and the Ovechkin – Kuznetsov combo have been on a roll for four.

Kuznetsov and Green both subsist off assists with eight, while Ovechkin’s mind-blowing sniping gives him eight goals and zero helpers through a week-plus.

Yep, pretty weird stuff.

Consider this a little time capsule of trends that (cough) might not last through the entire 2017-18 season. Not that it wouldn’t be fun for Green to finish with 164 assists and Ovechkin to hit 164 goals, mind you.

That would call for an HBO 24/7-inspired joy ride reunion, eh?

Um, anyway …

Snakebitten

While the season is young, we’re also at the point where fans are starting to get impatient with struggling stars/important players. Let’s take a look at some guys with high shooting volume and no goals to show for it.

Morgan Rielly and Jonathan Drouin: 17 SOG apiece in four games, zero goals.

Rick Nash and Charles Hudon: 16 SOG in four GP, zero goals.

Jakob Silfverberg and Duncan Keith: 15 SOG, zero goals.

Taylor Hall: 14 SOG, zero goals.

Poor Rick Nash. Considering his crazy-low career playoff shooting percentage numbers, he might be worthy of induction into an imaginary Hall of Fame for bad bounces.

Anyway, it’s one thing for defensemen to have low shooting percentage numbers; Rielly and Keith could both enjoy fine seasons, even if they continue to shoot at a low clip (though zero percent would, naturally, be infuriating). Those forwards, on the other hand, should start getting some breaks.

Drouin must be especially steamed, as he’s likely dying to score his first goal in a Montreal Canadiens uniform, what with the big trade and big extension. If you need further evidence that the Habs are better than their scoring stats would indicate, consider that promising forward Hudon is similarly stalled despite firing four SOG per game.

(It’s still confounding that the Vegas Golden Knights balked on Hudon. But that’s the NHL.)

GWG

Whoa, Brandon Saad and James Neal both already have three game-winning goals. Last season, Rickard Rakell was the only guy in double digits with 10, so Neal and Saad afforded themselves two tremendous head-starts.

(They have a solid chance of sticking at the top of those rankings if they stay healthy.)

Fun with goalies

These goalies are likely to see plenty of time, even as backups, so three perfect save percentages might not last very long: Laurent Brossoit (on 19 saves) along with Aaron Dell and Anton Khudobin (nine apiece).

As far as goalies who’ve seen more than relief duty, here are three who should settle down a bit, even if they’re in position to possibly have strong seasons:

Sergei Bobrovsky – .985 save percentage in two games

Marc-Andre Fleury – Remarkable .963 in 3GP

Corey Crawford – .956, and he’s done it in four. (Jimmy Howard‘s right behind him with .955 in three.)

Conversely, here are four goalies who seem quite likely to rise above the 90 percent mark as the season goes along:

Frederik Andersen – .871 save percentage in 4GP

Matt Murray – .885 save percentage in 4GP

Carey Price – .889 save percentage in 4GP

And, special mention, Steve Mason – .831 save percentage in 2GP, and a 6.56(!) GAA.

Lightning round: team stats

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.

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Kucherov’s star continues to rise, Stamkos sharp as Lightning best Penguins

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Look, it’s early in the season, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were closing off a tough back-to-back set after beating the Washington Capitals last night.

It’s dangerous, then, to draw too many broad conclusions from the Tampa Bay Lightning beating the Penguins 5-4 on Thursday.

Certain thoughts feel safe enough to at least express, though, so let’s throw one out: if Nikita KucherovSteven StamkosVladislav Namestnikov isn’t the best line in the NHL during this early season, it’s awfully close.*

For the Lightning, seeing a keyed-in Stamkos is enough after their captain’s 2016-17 season was derailed by another baffling run of bad injury luck. Stamkos scored his first goal in some time after testing Antti Niemi frequently:

The scary thing for the Lightning’s opponents is that Kucherov, 24, sure seems like the most brilliant star on that line. At least on many nights.

One can only wonder what kind of money Kucherov will receive after his sub-$4.8 million cap hit expires at the end of the 2018-19 season. He scored a goal and an assist in this win, and while he hasn’t been as flashy as the Ovechkins of the world, his relentless production is something to behold. Kucherov has a goal and an assist in three straight games after totally slacking to start the season with a mere goal.

The slick Russian winger also is firing away with a healthy 15 shots on goal in his first four contests.

To an extent, other Lightning players stole some of the thunder on Thursday. Slater Koekkoek scored the first two goals of his NHL career. Alex Killorn generated a career-high four assists.

Supporting cast members will need to come through for the Lightning to win big; they merely need to note that the repeat champs they beat tonight enjoyed big contributions from Jake Guentzel, not just the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Still, those stars do often drive the bus, and Stamkos – Kucherov looks like it could be one of the league’s dynamic duos if this first week is any indication.

Such observations aren’t anything to complain about, right?

* – Tough to argue with Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovJakub Vrana, agreed.

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.

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WATCH LIVE: Penguins – Capitals on Wednesday Night Rivalry

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Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby. The reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners in Washington Capitals (2-0-1) hosting the repeat champions in the Pittsburgh Penguins (1-1-1) in the latest edition of “Wednesday Night Rivalry” on NBCSN. What more could you want?

Well, OK.

These teams also boast some absolutely fantastic supporting cast members, even after each franchise said goodbye to notable contributors during the summer.

Many believe that Nicklas Backstrom is now the Capitals’ catalyst, but they also boast a fantastic one-two punch down the middle with Evgeny Kuznetsov helping Ovechkin get off to his resounding start. Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel provide Pittsburgh with plenty of firepower.

Oh yeah, there’s also the goalie battle of Matt Murray vs. Braden Holtby.

Puck drops around 7:30 p.m. ET, but you can also get ready for the action with some analysis before the game. Along with watching on NBCSN, it’s also available online and via the NBC Sports App.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

For an even deeper dive on this always-fun rivalry, check out PHT’s preview from earlier today.

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.

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Boyle is not alone in fighting cancer and playing hockey

When Phil Kessel got over the initial shock of being diagnosed with cancer and had surgery, he asked doctors, ”When can I play?”

When Jason Blake was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, he had the choice of taking a chemotherapy pill or having a bone marrow transplant that would cause him to miss a full season. He chose the pill and got back on the ice.

After his cancer diagnosis last month, New Jersey Devils forward Brian Boyle quickly turned his attention to playing hockey again. He will join a group of NHL players who played with cancer or after beating the disease, including Kessel, Blake, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta, former Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux.

”This (stuff) rocks your world,” said Blake, who played six more seasons after being diagnosed with CML, the same type of bone marrow cancer Boyle is now fighting. ”It’s tough. I think it doesn’t matter how old you are, who you are. When someone says you have cancer, it definitely turns your world upside down.”

Now 44 and retired, Blake reached out to Boyle last month to offer his support. Blake said if his situation had come up five years earlier, doctors would’ve given him a 50/50 chance of living five to seven more years and is glad Boyle can benefit from even more advanced technology.

Blake said medication ”shocked my system” and made him lose a lot of weight. He still feels tired but was glad to have his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates and hockey to distract him from his battle with cancer when he wasn’t with his wife and three children.

”That’s the one positive or plus that every time I went to the rink, you kind of just forget about it,” Blake said. ”Those are distractions, and those are good distractions in this case. I understand what (Boyle) is going through, but I understand the person that he is, he’s a character guy and I know that he’ll get through this no problem.”

Kessel said Boyle has a great support system from his family, teammates and players around the league.

”Having a positive attitude toward the fight is important,” Kessel said. ”He needs to listen to the professionals and do whatever you can to return to the game.”

Kessel was found to have testicular cancer at age 19 and recently partnered with Cigna on the NHL’s ”Every Save Counts” program to raise awareness and money for cancer research. After noticing a lump and having surgery early in his rookie season in 2006-07, Kessel was back on the ice in 11 days.

”I love the game and I knew that because I was in good shape that this would help me in returning as quickly as I could,” Kessel said. ”I didn’t want to miss any games. I was fortunate that I came back as soon as I did.”

Longtime coach and general manager Bryan Murray, who lost his battle with colon cancer this past summer at age 74, said he wanted early detection to be part of his legacy. Nephew Tim Murray, a former Buffalo Sabres GM, was one of several people around hockey who immediately got a colonoscopy.

Kessel hopes he can have the same effect.

”If partnering with Cigna to share my personal health story can encourage others to get a check-up with their doctor and potentially save a life, that’s a huge win for me,” said Kessel, who has won the Stanley Cup with Maatta for Lemieux’s Penguins each of the past two seasons. ”Being a voice for early detection and regular check-ups will always be my priority.”

Lemieux missed two months after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993 at age 27 and then took a leave of absence because of fatigue brought on by radiation treatments. Upon his return, ”Super Mario” led the league with 69 goals, 92 assists and 161 points and won the Hart Trophy as MVP.

Koivu missed most of 2001-02 with a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, set a new career high with 71 points the next year and played 11 more NHL seasons. Maatta, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2014, returned two weeks after surgery.

”When I found out I had a tumor, it’s scary,” Maatta said. ”It’s a scary word. Every situation’s different. There are different stages, and mine was really harmless and easy to take out. … The more we found out about it, the less scary it was for me. I was lucky with that.”

Lemieux, Kessel, Blake, Koivu and Maatta provide examples for Boyle that he can not only keep playing but at a high level.

”I’m expecting to live my life, to live a normal life,” Boyle said. ”Hopefully the season can go on as normal, as regular as possible. We don’t have to be asking about it all the time. And if I suck one night, it’s because I sucked, not because of any other reason and hopefully if that’s the biggest issue, then that’s a good thing.”

HOCKEY AND POLITICS

Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown on Saturday night became the first hockey player to engage in a national anthem protest when he stood on the bench with his fist raised in the air. Brown said he received death threats and racist remarks on Twitter after his protest but defended his decision to bring light to ”police brutality, racial injustice and inequality” in the U.S.

”I know it may not sit well with everyone, but to truly make change in this world we must be able to be pushed outside of our comfort zone,” Brown said on Twitter. ”I want young minorities to see that what they may be going through is not being ignored by the hockey community.”

The Cup champion Penguins visited President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday, reiterating that it wasn’t about politics. Trump mostly stuck to hockey, and coach Mike Sullivan thought the ceremony went well.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 7; Assists: Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington), 8; Points: Kuznetsov, 8; Time on ice: Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis), 27:02. Goals-against average: Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus), 0.48; Save percentage: Bobrovsky, .985.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The defending Western Conference champion Nashville Predators on Saturday night visit the Chicago Blackhawks, who they swept in the first round of the playoffs last spring.

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

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

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