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Center stage: NHL contenders go deep down the middle

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A linesman orders Sean Couturier out of the faceoff circle and Claude Giroux shrugs before stepping in and winning the draw.

Two centers on the ice at once is a nice luxury for the Philadelphia Flyers to have.

”He’s one of the best in the league at faceoffs,” Couturier said of Giroux, who ranks third in the NHL. ”When you start with the puck, it’s a huge part of the game.”

Beyond just controlling faceoffs, having depth at center is a growing factor for success in the NHL. Contenders like the Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins all boast depth down the middle and are spreading centers all over the lineup.

The flexibility gives teams potentially game-altering matchups with the playoffs coming up in a month.

”You can never have enough center-ice men on your team for lots of reasons,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Crucial faceoffs, injuries and defensive-zone coverage are many of the reasons to load up on centers who can almost always shift to wing and not miss a beat. Philadelphia has long followed the model of drafting and acquiring centers and moving them around, and now has nine natural centers on its roster.

The Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup going with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Max Talbot down the middle and captured it the past two years with Crosby, Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. The free agent departures of Bonino and Cullen left a void that Pittsburgh filled by trading for Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to again look like a championship contender.

”To have the depth that we have at this point at the center-ice position is I think an important aspect of our overall game,” Sullivan said. ”We didn’t have that coming into training camp. I think our general manager, Jim (Rutherford), has worked extremely hard at making sure that he gave us what has become now I think a strength of our team.”

It’s also a strength of the Eastern Conference-leading Lightning, who are overflowing with center options beyond Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn and trade-deadline pickup J.T. Miller. The Toronto Maple Leafs also roll deep with forwards who play center or have in the past, including Patrick Marleau and recent acquisition Tomas Plekanec.

”I can get a can’t-miss matchup,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. ”You’re not scared of any matchup as time goes on.”

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

It’s all about the matchups in the arms race that is the absurd Central Division. It wasn’t good enough that the Central-leading Predators had Ryan Johansen, signed Bonino last summer and traded for Kyle Turris in November; they welcomed center Mike Fisher back from retirement and still have Colton Sissons and Craig Smith.

The Jets acquired center Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues to add to an already forward-heavy roster. It paid immediate dividends with Patrik Laine extending his point streak to 13 games and Winnipeg cruising along after Mark Scheifele went down with an injury.

”We’ll be putting two centers out there for D-zone draws and whatnot,” said Andrew Copp, who thinks Winnipeg’s center depth stacks up with the best in the league. ”That’s really important, and then just depth with injuries. … Now we’ve got six, seven, eight guys that we can really lean on.”

It’s an increasingly popular strategy. The Flyers are vying for the league lead in faceoffs, handling the early-season crackdown on faceoff violations and compensating for a young, mostly unproven defense with versatile forwards.

”Being strong up the middle is important,” coach Dave Hakstol said. ”That’s the backbone of every line, so to have guys that are comfortable in that spot I think is important. Playing down low in your zone – there’s so much switching and interchanging that goes on from the wing to that down-low position in coverage, having somebody that’s comfortable being down there I think is a benefit, as well.”

Two centers are better than one not just for faceoffs but because the extra responsibilities of the position allow for better awareness in the defensive zone, where wingers typically are only tasked with defending their respective opposing winger in man-to-man schemes. Giroux shifted to wing on the top line with Couturier after spending the past eight-plus years at center and is approaching his career high in points and playing some of the best hockey of his career.

”We get a read off each other,” said Couturier, a leading candidate for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. ”It’s about chemistry and trying to trust each other out there. Guys can fill in different roles and it’s nice and it helps the team. That’s what you kind of want from having so many centermen is you want to fill in each other’s roles.”

Having extra centers is a substantial benefit – if they can handle the position change. Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler made a rapid adjustment from wing to center amid injuries, but just about everyone agrees it’s much easier to go the other way.

”There’s a real quick adjustment to going from center to the wing: figure out how to work the walls and find your point men,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. ”That’s a very difficult change.”

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

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

NHL Power Rankings: The Panthers are not going away


Let’s hop in our time machine and go back one month when the Florida Panthers were just starting to string together a couple of wins.

That little surge, combined with the fact that they still had a ton of games in hand on every team in the Eastern Conference, sparked a bit of a conversation that maybe they could still make a run at one of the Wild Card spots in the Eastern Conference.

So I looked into a bit and concluded that, while not totally out of it, it may have been a case of too little, too late (then I went and doubled down on it a few days later).

It seems I may have underestimated their chances.

All the Panthers have done since then is go 9-2-0, win six in a row, and climb to within a single point of a Wild Card spot entering play on Monday.

Let’s take a look at that race now, and notice not only the games played column, but also the fact the Panthers have more regulation/overtime wins than every team they are competing with, which would be very important for potential tiebreaker situations.

So maybe I was wrong.

This doesn’t mean they are going to make the playoffs (again, games in hand are not necessarily wins in hand) and they still have to maintain at least a similar pace the rest of the way (and probably get some help), but I was definitely wrong to underestimate their chances because they are still very much in it.

Their hot streak helps them make a big leap in the Power Rankings this week.

We also have a new team in the top spot as well as a new team in the basement.

To the rankings!

The Elites

1. Nashville Predators — They have the best points percentage in the NHL, they enter the week having won eight games in a row, they just added Ryan Hartman and Mike Fisher to a team that was already loaded. Find a better team in the NHL right now. You can not.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — They didn’t get Erik Karlsson, but Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller are two pretty big additions to a team that is already as good as it gets on paper (and on the ice). Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are crushing everybody right now.

3. Boston Bruins — That 8-4 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins was pretty impressive. Even more impressive: They did it without Patrice Bergeron.

4. Winnipeg Jets — One of the best offensive teams in the league managed to get a little more powerful after adding Paul Stastny without giving up anything off of its roster.

5. Vegas Golden Knights — They hit a little bit of a rough patch recently and lost their hold on the top spot in the Western Conference, but they are still running away with the Pacific Division crown.

The rest of the contenders

6. Toronto Maple Leafs — They are 13-3-2 in their past 18 games and are currently without their best player, Auston Matthews. Scary deep offense and a fun team to watch. As long as Frederik Andersen keeps doing what he is doing (maybe rest him a bit?) they will be a tough team to knock out.

7. Philadelphia Flyers — How will the goaltending hold up is a question that always gets asked regarding the Philadelphia Flyers. It is still true this season. Elite skill players up front and a lot of good young talent on this roster. This team has been on a roll for the better part of the past three months.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — Without a healthy Matt Murray in net they are in trouble. Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith are not going to get them through a playoff series the way Marc-Andre Fleury did in relief a year ago.

9. Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin is closing in on 600 career goals, another 50-goal season, another goal-scoring crown. He very well could be the greatest goal scorer of all time. Tell me why I am wrong.

10. Minnesota Wild — I think, just like the Capitals just ahead of them, they are probably a little worse than their record might indicate, but you can not change the results that already happened. And hey, Eric Staal is incredible again.

All of these teams seem the same

11. Florida Panthers — Aleksander Barkov is one of the best two-way players in hockey.

12. San Jose Sharks — It is a little surprising they are as high up in the standings as they are. Neither goaltender has been great (nor have they been bad; they have  just been pretty good), their top players are not having great seasons offensively, and Joe Thornton has already missed more than a quarter of the season. Yet here they are, second place in the Pacific Division, on their way to the playoffs (probably).

13. Dallas Stars — John Klingberg should be getting more consideration for the Norris Trophy. He is having a stellar season for the suddenly defensive Stars.

14. New Jersey Devils — It is the Taylor Hall show in New Jersey. He is, quite literally, carrying the team to a playoff spot. They should send the Edmonton Oilers a big thank you card.

15. Anaheim Ducks — The two-headed monster of John Gibson and Ryan Miller has been nothing short of sensational in net for the Ducks this season. They have matching .925 save percentages and played a big role in keeping the team afloat while they dealt with injury after injury earlier this season.

16. Los Angeles Kings — Sometimes they look like a force. Sometimes they look boring and dull. This is what they are. A mediocre, middle of the pack team that has a good system in place but just lacks talent beyond its top four or five players.

17. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon is having one of the best offensive seasons of the past 10 years. Even though he has been around for a while it is important to keep in mind he is still only 22 years old.

18. Columbus Blue Jackets — Overall they have been a disappointment this season. One player that has not been a disappointment, however, is Artemi Panarin. Electrifying every time he has the puck.

19. Calgary Flames — Since Mike Smith went out of the lineup they are just 3-6-1 and falling back in the playoff race.

20. Carolina Hurricanes — With only two wins in their past nine games they are hanging on by a thread in the playoff race.

21. St. Louis Blues — The Blues are falling apart. They are losing games, they traded one of their top players at the deadline, they lost two more players to injury on Monday.

Lottery time

22. New York Rangers — Henrik Lundqvist won back-to-back games where he had to make 50 saves. This is the 2017-18 New York Rangers in a nutshell.

23. Detroit Red Wings — Sometimes I look at their team page on CapFriendly and wonder how in the world they will get better in the coming seasons.

24. Chicago Blackhawks — They have only won four of their past 16 games. The only reason I do not have them lower is because so many teams below them have been even worse.

25. Arizona Coyotes — Hey, give them some credit, they have gone on a bit of a roll here recently with an 8-2-1 mark in their past 11 games. Young team gaining some confidence? Just a blip on the radar at the end of the season that doesn’t really mean anything? That is all still yet to be determined, but they definitely have played better recently.

26. Vancouver Canucks — Brock Boeser will not win the rookie of the year (Mathew Barzal has that locked up, let’s be honest) but he is still the one thing on the Canucks worth watching right now.

27. Buffalo Sabres — They might actually be the worst team in the NHL, but they have won managed to win three of their past five games, including games against the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning. So points for that.

28. Ottawa Senators — The good news is Senators fans get a few more weeks to watch Erik Karlsson before he gets traded this summer. So at least they have that going for them.

29. Montreal Canadiens — They have three wins in their past 11 games. Two of them came against an Islanders team that is circling the drain. The other came against a Rangers team that was in the process of trading most of its roster.

30. Edmonton Oilers — Milan Lucic has one point — an assist — in his past 17 games. That is an ugly, ugly, ugly contract.

31. New York Islanders — Are they actually *the worst* team in the NHL?

No, they are not. But my goodness are they tough to watch right now and deserve to be in the basement this week. Stick with me here for a second: They have lost six in a row. They have only won four of their past 16 games. They have given up 50 shots in a game four times during that stretch (only one other team in the NHL has given up more than 50 shots in a game more than twice all season) and Doug Weight seems to be, I don’t know, totally out to lunch behind the bench.

After Saturday’s loss in Pittsburgh he called out rookie Mathew Barzal by name for staying on the ice too long during a power play in overtime (even though he had called a timeout just before that power play started, presumably to give his top players a rest so they could be on the ice for that power play). When asked about another 50-shot debacle he wrote it off as being no big deal because of where the shots were coming from and referenced a 5 p.m. ET start time after playing at 7 the night before and called it a “good effort by the guys.” The reality is had it not been for rookie goalie Christopher Gibson, making his first start of the season, standing on his head for most of the game they would have been obliterated on the scoreboard. The only two goals the Islanders scored that day were because the other team’s goalie literally fell on his butt while a weak shot was sliding toward the net and then later because an opposing defender accidentally kicked the puck in his own net.

It was not a good effort.

Plus, it just makes me mad they have wasted such great offensive seasons from John Tavares, Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle.

Worst team overall? No. A deserving spot in the basement this week for the way the past few weeks — and the season as a whole — have gone? Yes.


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: Galchenyuk, MacKinnon shine; Hall’s streak hits 24 games


Players of the Night:

Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal Canadiens: Galchenyuk went into Friday’s game with no goals in his last 15 games. He managed to score not one, not two, but three goals against the Islanders. He also registered a primary assist on Brendan Gallagher‘s first-period goal. That’s one way to celebrate your 400th career game.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: It seemed impossible to top Galchenyuk’s night, but MacKinnon found a way to do it. The Avs forward picked up two goals and three assists against Minnesota. Since returning from an upper-body injury on Feb. 18, he’s accumulated 15 points in seven games.

Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche: Rantanen “only” had four points tonight, as he scored a goal and three assists against the Wild. If you haven’t figured it out already, the Avalanche scored seven times in Friday’s win. Touchdown!

Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers: Someone forgot to tell Lundqvist that the Rangers are rebuilding. For the second game in a row, King Henrik has turned aside 50 shots in a Rangers win. Oh, he also turned 36 years old on Friday.

Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets: Laine scored two more goals in Friday night’s win over the Red Wings. The 19-year-old is now riding a seven-game point streak. What’s even more impressive, is that he’s put together six multi-point efforts in his last seven outings.

Highlights of the Night:

Yea, Mikael Backlund is going to see Lundqvist in his nightmares tonight:

It wasn’t the most amazing goal you’ll ever see, but Taylor Hall has at least one point in each of his last 24 games:

Four Red Wings surrounding Laine? No problem:

Mike Fisher scored in his first game of the season:

A wicked release by MacKinnon:

Calle Jarnkrok in OT:

Factoids of the Night: 

The Islanders still can’t keep the puck out of the net:

Lundqvist has been pretty busy over the last two games:

Another mention for Laine:

Hall is in some elite company:


Canadiens 6, Islanders 3

Panthers 4, Sabres 1

Hurricanes 3, Devils 1

Jets 4, Red Wings 3

Avalanche 7, Wild 1

Rangers 3, Flames 1

Predators 4, Canucks 3 (OT)

Senators 5, Golden Knights 4

Ducks 4, Blue Jackets 2

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.

How will Mike Fisher fit back in with Predators?

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If you’re a fan of the Nashville Predators, you’ve probably been wondering if Mike Fisher can return from retirement and still be as effective as he was last season. Maybe you wonder if he’ll take minutes from a younger player with more to offer at this point, whether it be Colton Sissons, Austin Watson, Calle Jarnkrok now or Eeli Tolvanen later.

One cannot help but wonder if Peter Laviolette will tire of being asked if Fisher is in or out of the lineup once the playoffs kick into gear.

Friday won’t answer those questions, although we’ll at least get a look at Fisher as he makes his 2017-18 debut for the Predators, who close out a back-to-back set. They rallied from down two goals to beat the Edmonton Oilers 4-2 last night, and they turn around to face the Vancouver Canucks tonight.

Really, back-to-backs rank as no-brainer situations for Fisher. Going further, maybe you rest the veteran one night, then give someone a break by lining him up the other?

There’s also the unfortunately real possibility that injuries could always silence the debate, whether it be Fisher getting hurt or the attrition of the postseason limiting Laviolette’s options. Still, at the moment, it’s not that easy to decide who to bump from the lineup for the veteran forward. Especially if he must be at center in any situation.

[Predators bolster center depth with Fisher signing]

We haven’t gotten word about Fisher’s linemates just yet, but take a look at Nashville’s previous alignments, via Left Wing Lock:

Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenRyan Hartman
Kevin FialaKyle TurrisCraig Smith
Scott HartnellNick Bonino — Calle Jarnkrok
Austin Watson — Colton Sissons — Viktor Arvidsson

That’s already a pretty deep lineup, with Jarnkrok, Watson, and Sissons coming to mind as possible scratches. Scott Hartnell could probably sit for a night or two, depending upon different alignments.

Even so, Hartman’s addition already caused some shockwaves. Even if Arvidsson isn’t long for the fourth line – or maybe you consider that Nashville’s third line – it’s jarring to see him outside of the top six. This also serves as another reminder that this Predators team has seen a lot of changes during these trade-happy years for GM David Poile.

For what it’s worth, the team and Fisher are saying the right things. Let’s note Laviolette’s comments, because his opening sentence (via the team website) is “very hockey.”

“Mike is another horse in the stable in there,” Laviolette said. “He brings character and leadership, and I think everybody knows the way he plays. This wasn’t a move out of desperation where we needed this, our team was moving along, but we also know Mike’s strengths and we know what he’s able to do on the ice. We know the person he is, and though conversations, it evolved to this point where it’s getting closer Mike plays … I think everybody’s excited about that and we’re happy to have him.”

Now, when you hear people praise Fisher, it’s easy to get bogged down in vague talk about “leadership” and “intangibles.”

Sometimes such language feels like a smokescreen for a limited player who brings little more to the table than grit. Maybe that’s what Fisher will be at 37 (turning 38 on June 5), but it’s worth mentioning that he really did end things on a solid note in 2016-17.

Fisher scored 18 goals and 42 points in 72 regular-season games. His 54.9 faceoff winning percentage might get excessive praise in some quarters, yet that’s actually a decent plus considering Nashville’s merely giving him $1 million prorated and devoting a roster spot to him (rather than having to spend assets on a veteran in a trade). His possession stats were acceptable, too, especially considering heavy defensive usage.

Things went sideways during the playoffs, when Fisher failed to score a goal and generated four assists in 20 postseason games despite logging 17:17 minutes per night. Then again, with forwards like Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala eventually injured, the Preds didn’t possess the same depth that they do now.

Situations like those might be the key, then. If Fisher flounders in important moments – which, again, would be quite understandable – will Laviolette be able to sit the veteran down for a game or more, even after the team asked him to come back? Considering the wealth of talent on hand even if Tolvanen doesn’t come to the team after his KHL season ends, that could provide quite the conflict.

That said, it’s not that difficult to imagine Fisher pushing an already-impressive Predators team over the top by providing them with jaw-dropping depth and useful minutes on the PK.

It should be an interesting dynamic to witness, starting with tonight’s game against the Canucks.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: ‘Hawks have options this summer; Nolan Patrick’s strong second half

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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.

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the St. Louis Blues and Detroit Red Wings.

• The Predators have added forwards Mike Fisher and Ryan Hartman, which means that two good players are going to have to sit. (Predlines)

• What was life like for the Oilers before they got all those first overall picks? (Oilers Nation)

• Jets Nation breaks down the trades that Winnipeg made before the deadline. (Jets Nation)

• The Bruins power play has been slumping of late, but is it cause for concern. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

Alex Ovechkin‘s gap-tooth smile helped this hockey fan get through a difficult time. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

Nolan Patrick got off to a slow start this season, but he’s been a lot better in the second half. (Broad Street Hockey)

• If the Rangers want to do this rebuild right, they have to make sure to play their young players ahead of veterans like David Desharnais, Cody McLeod and Steven Kampfer. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• ‘Hawks GM Stan Bowman will have options this off-season. (Second City Hockey)

• Developing multiple young goaltenders is important in today’s NHL. (NHL.com)

• Here’s a deeper look at the hits Ryan Reaves dished out with the Golden Knights and the penalties he took too. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• If you love hockey, you should check out a non-Olympic women’s game. (Toronto Star)

• The Hamilton Spectator looks at how the NHL creates its outdoor rinks. (Hamilton Spectator)

• The NHL is all about youth and speed, but here’s a list of five veterans that have played at a very high level. (The Hockey News)

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.