Jason Zucker

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WATCH LIVE: Minnesota Wild at Chicago Blackhawks

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PROJECTED LINES

Minnesota Wild

Forwards

Tyler EnnisEric StaalZach Parise

Jason ZuckerMikko KoivuJoel Eriksson Ek

Chris StewartCharlie CoyleMikael Granlund

Marcus FolignoMatt CullenDaniel Winnik

Defense

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon

Jonas BrodinMathew Dumba

Mike ReillyNate Prosser

Starting Goalie: Devan Dubnyk

NHL On NBCSN: Blackhawks, Wild meet in Wednesday Night Rivalry Central Division Clash

Chicago Blackhawks

Forwards

Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsVinnie Hinostroza

Ryan HartmanNick SchmaltzPatrick Kane

Patrick Sharp – David Kampf – Alex DeBrincat

Lance BoumaTommy Wingels

Defense

Duncan KeithJordan Oesterle

Gustav ForslingJan Rutta

Michal KempnyConnor Murphy

Brent Seabrook

Staring Goalie: Anton Forsberg

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.

WATCH LIVE: Nashville Predators at Minnesota Wild

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Predators:

Colton Sissons, Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson

Kevin Fiala, Kyle Turris, Craig Smith

Filip Forsberg, Calle Jarnkrok, Pontus Aberg

Miikka Salomaki, Nick Bonino, Austin Watson

Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm

Alexei Emelin, P.K. Subban

Matt Irwin, Yannick Weber

Startling Goalie: Pekka Rinne

PREVIEW FOR PREDATORS – WILD

Wild:

Jason Zucker, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund

Tyler Ennis, Eric Staal, Charlie Coyle

Daniel Winnik, Joel Eriksson Ek, Chris Stewart

Marcus Foligno, Matt Cullen, Zack Mitchell

Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon

Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba

Mike Reilly, Nate Prosser

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

Wild could really use Parise, even if he’s limited

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Look, it’s tough to imagine Zach Parise doing enough to make his contract look any less frightening for the Minnesota Wild.

(/Opens Cap Friendly profile. Shrieks at $7.54 million through 2024-25. Shrieks again.)

It’s also tough to imagine 33-year-old Parise playing like prime-age, forechecking and scoring phenom Parise once he returns from an AHL stint to shake off the rust, as has been reported by Dane Mizutani of the Pioneer Press.

Ultimately it will take him time to regain whatever form he’s truly capable of, something Parise acknowledges (with a smile, it must be noted).

“These guys have to get ready to play games, and when I’m not on a line, it’s tough to get reps,” Parise said. “So, I think this would probably be the best thing, to go there, practice with them, play a game, and go from there.”

As Parise says, the plan is to see how Thursday’s game with the Iowa Wild (his first AHL work since 2004-05, his lone season with the Albany Devils) and then go from there. The Athletic’s Michael Russo notes that players can opt for 14-day conditioning stints in the AHL, so the door’s open for him to shake off the rust into early 2018.

(Bruce Boudreau notes that he hopes to have Parise back sometime after New Year’s.)

Answering the question of “When?” is interesting enough, but it’s most fascinating to ponder how much of a difference Parise can really make.

Let’s consider a few factors.

Playing in pain

It’s important to remember that precedent only matters so much. Parise is 33, a tough time for snipers, and that rust factor cannot be ignored.

That said, it’s worth noting that Parise elected not to get back surgery during the 2016-17 season before ultimately opting for it in October. Maybe he could generate similar numbers through the remainder of 2017-18, with a cleaner bill of health canceling out some of that discomfort? At least eventually?

If you’re looking at Parise’s numbers as a guy making too much money, you won’t be happy. On the other hand, if you picture this type of scorer added to a Wild group that could use the extra punch and balance, it’s a sunnier picture:

Parise: 19 goals, 42 points in 69 games. Over an 82-game season, that would translate to about 23 goals and 50 points.

With all the (understandable) hand-wringing over his contract being discussed, it’s easy to forget that even a diminished Parise can still help a team win games.

How to use him?

While Eric Staal continues his career renaissance in Minnesota and others have been contributing, there have also been some struggles, particularly for the likes of Mikko Koivu and Nino Niederreiter. Adding a smart, 20-goal-ish player to the mix could really bring things together.

Heading into tonight’s game against the Dallas Stars, the Wild figured to line up Staal with Charlie Coyle and Tyler Ennis, Koivu with Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund, and Joel Eriksson Ek with Daniel Winnik and Chris Stewart.

One could picture a more balanced attack with Parise in many situations, but particularly taking the spot of either Ennis or Winnik. By Natural Stat Trick’s linemate listings, Parise’s most common linemates were Staal (by far) and then Coyle, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Boudreau would go in that direction.

(It might be wise to ease Parise in, really, which could mean starting off a little lower in the lineup.)

Down, but not out

Heading into Wednesday’s games, the Wild were out of the West’s playoff picture, but in reasonable distance of the final wild card. With a home-and-home against the Nashville Predators on Friday and Saturday after tonight’s Stars skirmish, Boudreau’s early January proclamation seems most reasonable, though not set in stone.

Here’s what the next few weeks look like:

Wed, Dec 27 vs Dallas
Fri, Dec 29 vs Nashville
Sat, Dec 30 @ Nashville
Mon, Jan 2 vs Florida
Wed, Jan 4 vs Buffalo
Fri, Jan 6 @ Colorado
Mon, Jan 9 vs Calgary
Tue, Jan 10 @ Chicago

Maybe the Wild would want Parise to play one of those home-and-home games against the Predators, or perhaps they’d go a safer route and wait until January.

The broader goal might be to get him up to speed by that away date against the Blackhawks. After that, the Wild will enjoy a four-game homestand, which is the sort of opportunity that could help them strengthen their position in the West’s bubble.

***

Yes, it’s true that this is a pretty modest situation for Parise; many in the Wild organization probably expected these questions and considerations to surface closer to, say, 2020.

The reality is harsher than such daydreams, but at least he’s still in a position to help Minnesota, and the Wild can use all the help they can get.

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.

The Buzzer: Red-hot lines, Murray’s tremendous save

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Lines of the Night: With combinations of forwards running wild in many cases, it might be best to break things down by the lines that dominated Thursday.

Let’s start with the painfully obvious one.

Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosNikita Kucherov

Will the Lightning’s top line ever cool down? Probably, but right now they’re basically unstoppable; they didn’t even take it easy on Ben Bishop as he made his return to Tampa Bay. Instead, the Lightning beat the Stars 6-1 thanks to that top trio.

Stamkos scored two goals and two assists to boost his points total to 35 (!) in 19 games, while Nikita Kucherov scored his league-leading 17th tally and also produced two assists. Names grabbed an assist and apparently fought Dan Hamhuis.

Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen

Some Colorado fans might have uttered “Matt WHO-chene?” for at least one night, as this top trio was ridiculous. Landeskog recorded his first career hat trick, Rantanen collected four points (1G, 3A), and MacKinnon generated one goal and four helpers.

This might just be the breakout season people were hoping to see with MacKinnon, as he has 20 points in 17 games.

It was a landslide from Avalanche captain Landeskog, if you will.

Brayden Schenn continues to ride high for the Blues, as he collected two goals and an assist. His point streak is honestly a little ridiculous:

Eric Staal (1G, 2A) had the better night, but his linemate Jason Zucker is on a tear of his own:

To keep this from getting unwieldy, we’ll leave it at that, but there are worth honorable mentions, such as top scorers for the Golden Knights (who just keep winning).

Highlight of the night: Matt Murray‘s save

There were some other great stops, goals, and hard hits on Thursday, but wow, Murray.

More factoids:

The Maple Leafs make a little history in their 1-0 OT win, which was their fifth straight W.

Roberto Luongo shuts out the Sharks for the first time in his career. You’d think San Jose would have been a victim of one of the previous 73 goose eggs …

And some relief:

More on that Coyotes win here and the Habs’ angry reactions here.

Scores

Leafs 1, Devils 0 (OT)

Islanders 6, Hurricanes 4

Coyotes 5, Canadiens 4

Penguins 3, Senators 1

Lightning 6, Stars 1

Wild 6, Predators 4

Jets 3, Flyers 2 (SO)

Avalanche 6, Capitals 2

Golden Knights 5, Canucks 2

Blues 4, Oilers 1

Bruins 2, Kings 1

Panthers 2, Sharks 0

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.

NHL Power Rankings: The Lightning, then everybody else

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A little more than one month into the NHL season and we are starting to see which teams are good and which teams are … well … not.

We are still at a point where one or two teams could emerge from the bottom of the pile or fall from the top, but once the NHL season gets to Thanksgiving there typically is not much change in the standings. At least not much of a significant one.

With that said, there should be no question at this moment as to who the best team in the NHL is. It’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, and really, there might not be anybody close to them.

At times this season the Lightning have looked like an on-ice version of the Harlem Globetrotters and have just been toying with their opponents. Entering the week the Lightning have the best record in the league (three points ahead of the next best team) and own a plus-25 goal differential. That is 11 goals better than any other team in the league.

Two of their four losses have come on the second end of back-to-backs (with one of them coming against a team that had been rested for three days). Their current four-game winning streak includes a perfect road trip through California that saw them beat the Kings, Sharks and Ducks (two of those teams are excellent at the moment) by a combined score of 12-4. The fourth win in that streak is against Columbus, another likely contender in the NHL this season.

They have the NHL’s leading goal-scorer (Nikita Kucherov has a three-goal lead over John Tavares) and the top-two point producers (Steven Stamkos and Kucherov), both of whom are at least seven points ahead of the No. 3 scorer in the league (Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler).

As if the talent up front is not enough, their starting goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy has a .930 save percentage in 15 starts.

Right now in the NHL it is Tampa Bay, then everybody else fighting for second.

So where is everybody else at the moment? Let us take a look.

Positively terrifying

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They are, quite simply, the best team in the NHL right now for all of the reasons mentioned above.

The rest of the best right now

2. St. Louis Blues — I had little expectation for the Blues heading into this season, largely due to their injury situation, but they still have the second best record in the league, the second-best goal differential, and one of the best lines in hockey.

3. Los Angeles Kings — Dustin Brown has found the fountain of  youth. He has topped 30 points just once in the past five years with 36 being the high point during that stretch. He is pretty much halfway to that total just 18 games into this season.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs — They hit a little bit of a rut a couple of weeks ago but have come back strong with four straight wins. What is truly impressive is three of those wins heading into the new week came without Auston Matthews.

5. New Jersey Devils — The Devils are … fun?! Seriously, what is this? Who is this team? Fifth in the league in goals scored and coming off of a 7-5 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Brian Gibbons, out of the NHL for two years, somehow has eight goals so far.

6. Ottawa Senators — Everybody complains about watching them play but all they do is collect points. It is not pretty, but this is pro sports. Teams don’t have to apologize for doing what they need to do to win.

Teams on the rise

7. Winnipeg Jets — Could this be the year the Jets finally turn all of that individual talent into something good?

8. New York Rangers — What a difference a couple of weeks can make. After a disastrous start the Rangers have ripped off six wins in a row. Big time move in this week’s rankings.

9. Nashville Predators — No team improved more in the big Matt DucheneKyle Turris-Colorado trade than the Predators thanks to the addition of Turris at the expense of nothing significant from their roster. The defending Western Conference Champs enter the week 7-3-1 in their past 11 games.

10. San Jose Sharks — Entering Monday the only team that has beaten them over their past seven games is the Tampa Bay juggernaut. Just when you think the Sharks are going away they always find a way to still be hanging around in the Western Conference.

11. Washington Capitals — Don’t look now but here come the Capitals! After a slow start they are starting to look like the team that has dominated the regular season the past two years. Entering the week 6-2 in their past eight games while only allowing 16 goals during that stretch.

12. Montreal Canadiens — The overall record still stinks, I get it, but like the Rangers the Canadiens are starting to erase all of the memories from a miserable start to the season with wins in seven of their past 10 games. That qualifies as a team on the rise even if there are a lot of teams in the league that still have a better overall record.

Teams still looking good

13. New York Islanders — Nikita Kucherov’s start has kind of hidden the fact that John Tavares is scoring goals whenever he feels like it as well. Mighty fine time for a contract year, eh?

14. Calgary Flames — Mike Smith is giving the Flames exactly what they need in net. If he can continue to do that they are going to be a tough out in the Western Conference with that defense and that young talent up front.

15. Dallas Stars — I may have underrated them a bit a couple of weeks ago. They are solid, and in a bizarre twist from recent Stars teams are 20th in the league in goals scored and third in goals against. John Klingberg is playing fantastic hockey right now.

Teams on the decline

16. Columbus Blue Jackets — I still like this Blue Jackets team an awful lot and think they can be right there at the end of the season when it comes down to winning the Eastern Conference, but they have slipped a bit in recent weeks with just five wins in their past 12 games.

17. Vegas Golden Knights — Being down to their fourth and fifth goalies is not helping, but they are starting to expansion team results in recent weeks. They still have a lot of forwards playing really well and producing.

18. Philadelphia Flyers — Brian Elliott has started to look better in his recent starts. With their top forwards going the way they are this could still be an interesting team if they can get that goaltending spot solidified.

19. Chicago Blackhawks — After starting the season 3-0-1 with 21 goals in their first four games the Blackhawks are just 5-8-2 with only 32 goals in the 15 games since.

20. Anaheim Ducks — Injuries have decimated this team this season and they just keep getting worse with Ryan Getzlaf being sidelined for another two months.

Still need some work

21. Pittsburgh Penguins — The schedule with all of these back-to-backs is hurting them. So is the bottom of the roster. The depth problems that plagued them from 2010 through 2015 are back in a bad way.

22. Minnesota Wild — It has been the Jason Zucker and Devan Dubnyk show lately, but other than them nobody else is really doing much of anything to help the cause.

23. Carolina Hurricanes — Everything about this team looks good. They are exciting. They play hard. They once again have dominant underlying numbers. But there is still something missing.

24. Vancouver Canucks — They had a great start to the season that seemed to have them exceeding expectations but things are starting to return to normal for the Canucks. The early start was a mirage.

25. Boston Bruins — A very top-heavy roster. Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are great, but where else is the offense going to come from?

26. Detroit Red Wings — Anthony Mantha has been a nice bright spot so far this season with a team-leading 16 points. He has been especially strong lately with eight points, including four goals, in his past seven games.

27. Colorado Avalanche — They picked up some intriguing young players in the Matt Duchene trade but an already bad team ended up getting worse in the short-term.

28. Buffalo Sabres — They have scored more than two goals just twice in the past seven games.

29. Edmonton Oilers — Not to keep hitting this same point over and over again, but Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have more points than every player on the Oilers not named Connor McDavid.

30. Florida Panthers — Only two wins in their past nine games with 37 goals against.

31. Arizona Coyotes — In their first 19 games of the season the Arizona Coyotes have exactly zero wins in regulation. Their only two wins, as of Monday, coming by way of overtime or a shootout. That is … really something.