Jonathan Toews

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

Ovechkin, Wilson each notch four points in win

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Have a night, Washington.

You managed to jump out to an early 3-0 lead in the first period after scoring three times in roughly three-and-a-half minutes. Your explosion on offense forced Joel Quenneville to abandon starting goaltender Anton Forsberg before the first intermission. And your captain increased his lead in the NHL’s goal-scoring race after a four-point night.

Oh, and you won 6-2 to push your winning streak to three games on the back of your scintillating top line, which combined for 11 points, including Tom Wilson‘s two goals and two helpers to match Ovechkin’s point total for the night.

Indeed, the Capitals played the way they wanted to on Wednesday against the Chicago Blackhawks, who have now lost five straight.

Nicklas Backstrom, who had a goal and two assists, Wilson and Alex Ovechkin, who scored his NHL leading 21st goal, tallied in a span of 3:28 in the second half of the first frame. The spurt spelled the end of Forsberg’s night. He allowed three goals on 10 shots.

Lance Bouma pulled one back for Chicago before the period was out.

But Washington was just too strong.

After Brett Connolly scored the lone goal of the second period to make it 4-1, Evgeny Kuznetsov scored his 10th to push the lead to 5-1 in the third.

Jonathan Toews scored a slick goal late in the period off a dirty backhand deke.

But Wilson scored his second of the game, this time from long-range into the empty net for a 6-2 final scoreline.

Braden Holtby turned aside 37 of 39 for his 15th win of the season and four in his past five.

With aging, expensive core Blackhawks’ window is closing fast

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For the seven year stretch between 2008-09 and 2014-15 there was not a more successful team in the NHL than the Chicago Blackhawks. They played in the Western Conference Finals five times and won three Stanley Cups. They did it with a remarkably strong core of top-tier players that were all in the prime of their careers and that they were able to keep together at all costs, even if it meant gutting their depth when they were pushed to the limits of the league’s salary cap.

Because they always seemed to have a pipeline of talent coming through the organization they always seemed to be able to replenish that depth and continue to compete for Stanley Cups.

Until recently.

Despite a lot of regular season success the Blackhawks have not won a playoff series since their Stanley Cup win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2014-15, and more than a quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season find themselves sitting on the playoff bubble in real danger of actually missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season. They are not the dominant possession team they used to be, they have gone from being one of the best shot suppression teams in the league to one of the worst, and they don’t boast anywhere near the overall scoring depth they used to have.

Missing the playoffs at this point is legitimate concern, and combined with back-to-back first-round exits in the playoffs it’s worth wondering if the Blackhawks’ championship window with its current core is starting to come to a close.

If it hasn’t already closed completely.

The popular consensus with teams like the Blackhawks is that it is just too hard to compete when a team invests a significant chunk of money into a small number of players. This is ot a new thing for the Blackhawks, and it is not a new thing for Stanley Cup winning teams. I have beaten this drum for years when it comes to the salary cap and the Stanley Cup but every team that wins puts the majority of its allotted salary cap space into a small number of players. You need superstars to win, superstars cost money. The Blackhawks, even when they were winning, were always pressed against the salary cap and always had to make cuts elsewhere on the roster.

The same has been true for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings, the other two teams that have been most successful in the league’s salary cap era.

As long as those players are at the top of their game and among the game’s elite, the money is literally no factor. You can find another third-line center. You can rebuild your fourth line. You can’t find another peak Jonathan Toews or Duncan Keith or Sidney Crosby or Anze Kopitar, and you can not win without players like them.

The problem the Blackhawks are running into is the players they have committed to are starting to get old and are no longer at their peak.

And it is happening fast.

The Blackhawks have seven players signed through the 2020-21 season. Those seven players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, Artem Anisimov, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy) already account for more than $50 million in salary cap space for each of the next four seasons. Add in Corey Crawford‘s contract over the next three and that’s more than $56 million to eight players.

Again, as long as those players are in their prime and producing among the league’s elite, that is not a big deal.

The problem is they no longer are, and that is not likely to reverse itself.

First, just for comparisons sake, let’s look at the past 10 Stanley Cup champions, a list that is made up primarily of the aforementioned three franchises. What this table shows is each team’s salary cap commitment to its top-seven players, what percentage of the league’s salary cap that commitment is, as well as the average age of those players.

The important thing to keep in mind here as it relates to the Blackhawks is the age category.

Other than the 2007-08 Red Wings, the overwhelming majority of them had their top players all between the ages of 27 and 28.

How are the Blackhawks looking this season? They have 66 percent their salary cap space going to their top-seven players.

The average age of those players this season: 30.

All of those players are signed for at least three more seasons, while six of them (Kane, Toews, Anisimov, Saad, Seabrook and Keith) are signed for at least another four. Four of them (Kane, Toews, Seabrook and Keith) are signed through at least 2023.

(Keep in mind, none of this includes Marian Hossa‘s contract that is still on the books through 2021 as well.)

At this point we obviously don’t know what exactly the NHL salary cap will look like in future seasons, but let’s just try to ballpark and assume it increases at a rate comparable to the past four seasons (about a $2 million increase per season). Here is what the Blackhawks could be looking at over the next four years.

Their cap commitments to their top-seven players are either higher, or at the same level as the highest cap commitments of any Stanley Cup winner over the past decade, while their average age is significantly higher than just about all of them with the exception of a Red Wings team from a decade ago.

The problem here, again, is the age and what the current players are going to be capable of in the future because a lot of them are already starting to slow down.

How good is a 31 or 32 year old Artem Anisimov going to be? Brent Seabrook, currently in his age 32 season, is already a shell of his former self and he is signed for nearly $7 million per season until he turns 38. Duncan Keith is still an outstanding defender, but he is already in his age 34 season and is signed for more than $5 million per season until he turns 39. Father time is undefeated and will eventually claim victory over Keith.

I realize it is sacrilegious to say anything about Jonathan Toews that is anything other than effusive praise but he will count more than $10 million against the salary cap through the end of the 2023 season. His offense has already started to decline, and since the start of the 2015-16 season is 44th in the NHL in scoring and is currently on pace for what could be — by a significant margin — his worst offensive season in the NHL. Is that offensive trend going to reverse as he crosses into his 30s? Is there any amount of defensive ability from a forward that justifies a $10 million salary for a good, but very far from elite offensive player?

These are the issues facing the Blackhawks moving forward.

So how can they fix it?

First, it would be a huge boost if a player like Alex DeBrincat becomes the superstar it looks like he has the potential to be.

Getting an impact player like him — especially over the next few years when the salary cap situation is what it is — at an entry level price would be a game-changing development.

They also need a player like Kane to maintain his current level of production because he remains the one player that can drive the offense. If his production starts to decline things could really start to fly off the rails. He is probably not going to be a 100-point player again like he was a couple of years ago when he won the scoring title, but if he falls too far below the point-per-game pace he has been at the past two years there is really nobody else on the roster (other than potentially DeBrincat) that can be a go-to player offensively.

It would also help to shed one of those mega contracts one way or another.

This is going to be easier said than done for a number of reasons.

Not only do the Blackhawks seem to have a ton of loyalty to the core players they won with (look no further than trading Artemi Panarin to bring back Brandon Saad; the various reunions with Brian Campbell and Patrick Sharp over the years) but it is going to be awfully difficult to find a team that not only wants to take on a contract like, say, Brent Seabrooks, but to also find a team that a player like Seabrook would be willing to accept a trade to.

In terms of on-ice success the past decade has been one of the best in the history of the Blackhawks’ organization.

They kept the players they needed to keep to make that happen and you can not really blame them for doing so, even if it meant creating a salary cap mess right now. But it seems as if that group has finally hit its wall.

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.

Corey Crawford has become Chicago’s most important player

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The big news out of the Chicago Blackhawks this past week was the announcement that starting goaltender Corey Crawford has been placed on injured reserve, and that there is currently no timeline for his return to the lineup.

If he has to miss an extended period of time it could be a damaging blow to a team at a position where it really can not afford one. If there is one player this Blackhawks team can least afford to lose, Crawford is probably the one.

Prior to his injury Crawford had been having an outstanding season for the Blackhawks and owned a .930 save percentage that is fifth best in the league. That performance has been huge for a Blackhawks team that has its share of flaws, especially when it comes to its defense.

The Blackhawks are allowing 34 shots on goal per game this season, the third highest total in the league and it continues a trend from recent seasons that has seen the team go from being one of the absolute best shot suppression teams in the league to one of the absolute worst. Typically, that has not been a great recipe for success in the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins showed last season that it is possible to win giving up that sort of shot volume, but onlly if a team has scoring depth and great goaltending to cover it up.

With Crawford in net the Blackhawks have been getting great goaltending. That has allowed them to stay in the top-five in goals against despite bleeding shots and shot attempts against.

So just how much has Crawford been saving the Blackhawks this season?

The difference between a .914 save percentage (which would still be above the league average this season) and the .930 mark on the same number of shots that Crawford has faced so far this season would have been an additional 10 goals against at this point. That may not seem like a lot right now, but that is only through 20 games. Those goals against quickly add up, and given a normal workload (think 60 games) that could be an additional 30 goals against over the course of a season.

That is a lot, and it could swing a season for a team that is currently sitting on the playoff bubble in the Western Conference.

What really hurts the Blackhawks this season is they don’t really have a proven backup that can step up in Crawford’s absence. At least not one that we know of yet. In recent years Scott Darling had proven to be one of the top backup goaltenders in the NHL and was more than capable of filling in for Crawford when he was injured or just simply needed a break or hit a slump. But Darling was traded over the summer to the Carolina Hurricanes to become their starter, turning the backup job over to Anton Forsberg.

In just six appearances this season Forsberg has already allowed 18 goals on just 187 shots and has managed only an .889 save percentage in his career.

The Blackhawks have won just one of his five starts so far this season.

Fortunately for the Blackhawks they don’t expect Crawford’s injury to be anything long-term.

They better hope that turns out to be the case.

When the Blackhawks were at the height of their power between 2010 and 2013 the rest of the team was so stacked that they didn’t really need elite goaltending to win.

Antti Niemi was solid in 2010, but not irreplaceable. That was proven the following offseason when they walked away from his arbitration ruling and allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent (they decided re-signing Niklas Hjalmarsson was far more vital to their success).

The same was mostly true for Crawford during their 2013 championship run. They had four dominant scoring lines and a defense that had four horses all in the prime of their careers that could shut down any offense. But the salary cap has ripped apart a lot of that forward depth while the defense is not what it used to be.

Players like Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell are gone, Brent Seabrook is a shell of his former self, and the rest of the unit outside of Duncan Keith is mostly a patchwork group of young players still finding their way and veterans signed on the cheap.

They still have forwards up front that can score, but their ability to prevent goals has shifted from having dominant defense to a huge reliance on their goaltender.

For years Crawford was the forgotten player among Chicago’s core, constantly getting overlooked behind Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Keith and Seabrook.

Now he might be the most important part of it.

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.

Rinne stands tall vs. Blackhawks, Predators stay hot

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Forgive Nashville Predators fans if tonight brought back memories of the team’s run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Really, you could argue that the month of November has also drummed up that nostalgia.

Tuesday marked the Chicago Blackhawks’ first visit to Nashville since the Predators swept them in the first round, and the narrative ended up being familiar. Once again, Pekka Rinne generated strong work against the Blackhawks, this time guiding Nashville to a narrow 3-2 win.

Rinne stopped 37 of 39 shots, edging Anton Forsberg in the process:

This moves the Predators to 10-2-1 in November; Nashville’s probably sad to see the month end with one last game against the Canucks on Thursday. While they’re behind the Blues and Jets at the moment, the Predators are very much in the thick of things in a tight battle for the Central Division crown.

Chicago, meanwhile, is quite a few strides behind, although the Blackhawks had been picking up steam in their own right this month. The top-heavy team has to be happy to see more strong work from Alex DeBrincat, who followed up his first career hat trick with this beautiful setup:

It must have been a frustrating night for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, perhaps best illustrated by this amusing GIF of Joel Quenneville:

/Files away for future use.

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.