Nicklas Backstrom

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The Buzzer: Halak stops 50 in shutout

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Players of the Night:

Jaroslav Halak, New York Islanders: The New York Rangers kept coming. And coming. And coming. The Blueshirts put up 50 shots on Halak, but the veteran netminder shut the door on each and every one of them in a heroic shutout effort.

Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals: Ovie had a four-point game, scoring his league-leading 34th goal (his 592nd in his career) and helping out on three others, including both of Wilson’s goals. Wilson also added an assist for a three-point night. Add in Nicklas Backstrom‘s goal and assist and the Capitals top line had a nine-point night.

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders: Barzal was instrumental in setting up all three Islanders goals. Furthermore, the rookie put himself in some elite company with his 60th, 61st and 62nd point of the season.

Marian Gaborik, Ottawa Senators and Dion Phaneuf, Los Angeles Kings: Both players made their debuts for their new teams after they were traded for each (and a couple other pieces) on Tuesday. Both ended up scoring a goal for their respective new teams.

Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks: Stopped 43 of 44 to help the Sharks get back to winning ways.

Highlights of the Night: 

Kucherov makes them all stand still:

Poor Henrik Lundqvist:

Matt Murray sprawlin’:

Factoids of the Night:

Scores:

Penguins 3, Kings 1

Islanders 3, Rangers 0

Devils 5, Hurricanes 2

Senators 3, Sabres 2 (OT)

Lightning 4, Red Wings 1

Capitals 5, Wild 2

Flames 4, Predators 3

Ducks 3, Blackhawks 2

Coyotes 5, Canadiens 2

Golden Knights 4, Oilers 1

Sharks 4, Canucks 1


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

Are the Capitals as good as their record?

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Let’s talk about the Washington Capitals for a little bit because it seems like we’re not doing that enough.

Entering play on Tuesday they own a four-point cushion for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. They are on track to finish with 100-plus points for the fourth year in a row and win their division for the third-year in a row. Impressive stuff. But that success doesn’t seem to be getting much attention.

Maybe it’s because we’ve taken their regular season success for granted a little bit over the years because it hasn’t resulted in a championship.

Or maybe it is because we really do not have a sense for how good this team actually is, even with its strong record.

On paper there is still an awful lot to like about the roster.

Alex Ovechkin has roared back from a “down” year to once again lead the league in goals and make a strong push for another 50-goal season, defying the usual aging curve for goal scorers in the process.

They still have high-end, front-line forwards around him in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and what should be a pretty good support cast around them that includes T.J. Oshie and defensemen John Carlson and Matt Niskanen.

Behind all of that they still have one of the best goaltenders in the world in Braden Holtby, and they’ve made sure he’s been tested a bit more than usual this season.

But when you look below the record and look at how that roster is actually playing it paints a somewhat concerning picture.

Entering play on Tuesday the Capitals are 25th in the NHL in terms of shot attempt percentage, attempting only 47.8 of the shot attempts during 5-on-5 play.

They are dead last in the NHL in shots on goal per game, averaging just 28.6. They are the only team in the league that is not averaging at least 29 shots per game.

They are also giving up more than 32 per game on the other end of the ice.

Of the teams in the bottom-10 in shot attempts percentage and shots on goal per game, the only two teams that currently occupy a playoff spot are the Capitals and Minnesota Wild, who are barely clinging to a wild card spot in the Western Conference. It’s pretty simple: Teams that don’t generate a lot of shots on goal and get outshot on a regular basis tend to struggle to win games. It’s not impossible, but the odds of sustained success are greatly reduced if the other team is controlling the majority of shots and chances.

The Capitals will argue they are looking for quality over quantity (Brett Connolly, who has 14 goals on only 49 shots this season, was featured prominently in a recent Washington Post article talking about this). But every team in the league that ever finds short-term success thanks to high shooting percentages says the exact same thing and almost none of them can maintain it.

When it comes to finding success in that sort of environment it really comes down two different kinds of teams: Those that are lucky and catching lightning in a bottle, whether it be due to a hot goaltender or a couple of career seasons from forwards that are shooting the lights out at at the same time; and those that have the kind of high-end talent that don’t need to generate huge shot volumes to score. When it comes to the latter, those teams are very few and far between. Back in the spring I argued that the Penguins were the rare team that could outperform their shot metrics because of how much natural talent they had up front.

The Capitals could also be that kind of team.

To a certain degree, they have been in recent seasons.

Even when the Capitals were winning the Presidents’ Trophy the past two years they were never really a team that dominated possession or relied on heavy shot volumes to score goals.

Over the previous three years (all 100-point seasons; two Presidents’ Trophies) they finished higher than 13th in shot attempts percentage only once. They never finished higher than eighth in shots per game (they were 15th and 20th the other two years). Hockey analytics website Natural Stat Trick keeps track of “high danger chances” and the Capitals have consistently rated among the bottom half of the league in terms of their share of those chances. In 2014-15 they generated 50.9 percent of the high-danger chances during 5-on-5 play in their games, that was 14th in the league. In 2015-16 they were 11th (50.8 percent). They were 20th a year ago (49.9 percent). This year they are dead last (only 43.5 percent).

Obviously this season almost all of their shot and chance metrics are worse than they have been, but the Capitals have always been a team that relied on pure shooting talent more than bludgeoning teams with a dominant possession game. And honestly, that shouldn’t be a surprise given the makeup of the roster. Players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and a lot of the players they have had over the years don’t need a ton of shots to score. Sometimes they only need one mistake from their opponents, one opening, or one good luck to find the back of the net.

They have consistently finished among the top teams in the league in shooting percentage, and their shooting percentage marks have remained pretty consistent the past few years, including this season.

Still, the decrease in shot volume has been a problem because even though the Capitals are the top shooting percentage team in the league they are still only 10th in the league in goals scored (they were second and third the past two years).

This is where a lot of the losses to the roster have probably hurt a bit. Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson were top-six forwards that walked out the door for no immediate return. No disrespect to Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson, but they aren’t Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. That does not even get into the departures on defense where Kevin Shattenkirk, Nate Schmidt and Karl Alzner left.

It remains an interesting team.

They have scary talent up front that can burn any team in the league, even in limited opportunities. They have an elite goalie that can mask a lot of flaws on the back end or when it comes to allowing too many high-danger chances and can carry a team when he gets hot. But even with that they are not quite as dangerous as they could be because they generate even fewer opportunities than they have in recent seasons, due in large part to losing a significant chunk of the roster without being able to replace it.

That brings up what has to be a concerning point for the Capitals and their fans: If better Capitals teams than this one could not break through the glass ceiling that is the second round, why is this group with the way it is actually playing going to be the one that is different? Even with a Metropolitan Division title staring them in the face there are still some nightmare matchups potentially facing them, perhaps even as early as the first-round where that top Wild Card team could be anyone from a Columbus team that is probably better than its record, to a Philadelphia team that has been dominating for two months now, or, perhaps worst of all, a Pittsburgh team that finally seems to be figuring it all out this season.

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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.

Capitals sign Lars Eller to five-year, $17.5 million contract extension

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The Washington Capitals locked up one of their key depth players to a long-term contract extension on Saturday afternoon by announcing a five-year, $17.5 million deal with veteran forward Lars Eller.

Eller, 28, has been with the Capitals since the start of the 2016-17 season after coming over in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens.

In his time with the Capitals he has scored 23 goals and added 30 assists in 134 regular season games.

Over the course of his career his production has been remarkably consistent and can be counted on to score around 12-15 goals and record 25-28 points as a third-line center. The salary cap hit of $3.5 million per season is a pretty fair deal for what Eller provides (it is also identical to the salary cap hit he has on his current contract), but the term of the contract could be a concern in the future. The contract will run through Eller’s age 34 season and while he is a really good depth player now, will he still over that same level of production into his 30s?

That is a question the Capitals will find out the answer to in the future.

In the meantime the Capitals now have a lot of their key players locked in place for the next few years, with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Eller, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and Braden Holtby all signed for at least the next three years (and some of them well beyond that).

They still need to come to terms with potential unrestricted free agent John Carlson if they plan on keeping him beyond this season. Forward Tom Wilson is also eligible for restricted free agency after this season.

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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: Rask wins again and a brutal night for the Blackhawks

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Player Of The Night: Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

The Bruins probably didn’t need Tuukka Rask to steal one for them on Tuesday night, but we have to give the man some credit for continuing to be pretty much unbeatable right now. By stopping 26 of the 28 shots he faced in the Bruins’ 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings, Rask pushed his personal point streak to 21 consecutive games.

He is now 19-0-2 in his past 21 decisions, a stretch that has seen him allow more than two goals just three times. He has not lost a game in regulation since November 26. With him playing the way he is and the team in front of him being as dominant as it has been the Bruins are going to be a true force to deal with in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

According to NHL, PR Rask is just the 11th different goalie in NHL history to record at least a point in 21 consecutive games. He is the fourth to do so as a member of the Bruins.

The Blackhawks Might Be Finished This Season

Tuesday night could not have gone worse for the Chicago Blackhawks and their playoff chances.

Not only were they 3-2 losers to the Calgary Flames, one of the many teams they are in direct competition with for a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but pretty much every other team they are competing with for a playoff spot that was in action on Tuesday night also came away with wins.

The Wild were 6-2 winners over the St. Louis Blues, the Anaheim Ducks were 4-3 winners over the Buffalo Sabres, the Flames picked up two points by beating Chicago, and the Colorado Avalanche were 3-1 winners over the San Jose Sharks.

The Blackhawks now find themselves sitting seven points out of a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference playoff race with four teams ahead of them. This late in the season that deficit is going to be nearly impossible to overcome.

Highlight Of The Night

With less than a minute to play in regulation Nicklas Backstrom broke a 2-2 tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets to give the Washington Capitals a 3-2 win to help them maintain a four point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

It was also a milestone goal for Backstrom. It was career goal No. 200.

Highlight Of The Night Part 2

The Philadelphia Flyers picked up a big extra point over the Carolina Hurricanes thanks to Jordan Weal‘s overtime goal with three seconds to play.

Probably the second best thing to happen to Philadelphia sports over the past couple of days.

Factoid Of The Night

It was a big night for Aleksander Barkov as he helped the Florida Panthers stay hot. Is it too little, too late to get them back into the playoff race? Maybe. But they are at least trying to keep it interesting.

Scores

Anaheim Ducks 4, Buffalo Sabres 3

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Vegas Golden Knights 4

Philadelphia Flyer 2, Carolina Hurricanes 1

Washington Capitals 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2

Ottawa Senators 5, New Jersey Devils 3

Boston Bruins 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Florida Panthers 3, Vancouver Canucks 1

Minneasota Wild 6, St. Louis Blues 2

Winnipeg Jets 4, Arizona Coyotes 3

Calgary Flames 3, Chicago Blackhawks 2

Colorado Avalanche 3, San Jose Sharks 1

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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.

Let’s talk about Phil Kessel potentially winning the scoring title

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For the longest time this season it looked like Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov was just going to run away with the NHL’s scoring title.

Suddenly, though, he has some real competition starting to breath down his neck, and it is a member of the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

No. It is not Sidney Crosby, and it is not Evgeni Malkin, either.

It is Phil Kessel.

After his three-point game on Friday night Kessel enters play on Saturday just two points back of Kucherov for the top spot.

Working against him in his quest to win the Art Ross is the fact Kucherov still has two additional games to play the rest of the way and is still averaging more points per game. That is going to make it a tough deficit to overcome, because even though the gap now is only two points, Kucherov is still on pace for 102 points this season while Kessel is on a 96-point point pace.

But working in his favor, aside from the fact that Kucherov’s pace has slowed, even if only slightly as the season has progressed, is that Kessel is playing on a Penguins team that is starting to figure things out and has a power play unit that is currently ripping apart the NHL. That power play unit has the top-three power play point producers in the league (Kessel, Crosby, Malkin) with Kessel leading the way. His 33 power play points are already just two shy of the league leading total (35 for Nicklas Backstrom) a season ago.

If he manages to pull it off — and even if ends up finishing in the top-two or three — it would be another somewhat hilarious development in the second half of his career.

Just look at the player Kessel was thought to be before he arrived in Pittsburgh by a pretty significant portion of the hockey world.

For years he was stuck as the best player on a bad team (in Toronto, of all places, the worst possible city for that to be the case) and was pretty much run out of town while having his reputation sullied on the way out the door.

Even before that critics always spent more time focussing on what he didn’t do as a player instead of what he does do. Colby Armstrong, his former teammate, once said the words “But when the game’s on the line, if he can get a goal for you, that’s about all he’s gonna do.”

One of his former coaches, Ron Wilson, once said “you can’t rely on Phil.”

A couple of years later it turns out that getting goals when the game is on the line is a pretty important skill, and that yes, you can, in fact, rely on Phil.

Since arriving in Pittsburgh Kessel has not only been a focal point of two Stanley Cup winning teams, he was the leading postseason scorer on one of them and should have won (let’s not even say probably — let’s just be honest, he should have won) the Conn Smythe Trophy.

During those two Stanley Cup ones only Crosby and Malkin had more points over the two-year stretch (they each have 46 points; Kessel has 45) while nobody has scored more goals.

Even after accomplishing all of that he was still undervalued as a player (Team USA did not think enough of him to include him on its World Cup roster) while he entered this season still facing bizarre criticism.

It had been well documented that Kessel had developed a great relationship with former Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet.

Once Tocchet left this summer to take over the Arizona Coyotes there was real concern as to how Kessel would perform, and if you believe one preseason column in the Post-Gazette, if the Penguins would even want him around.

That storyline has not aged particularly well.

Kessel is not only one of the league’s top-two scorers at this point and having what is the best offensive season of his career, he has been the Penguins’ most consistent player and arguably their team MVP. He may not be the focal point of the roster, he may not be the biggest superstar on the team, and he may not be the locker stall the media crowds around first after a game, but you can’t make the argument that Kessel hasn’t been doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the Penguins since arriving in Pittsburgh.

He has been doing even more this season, and even though it almost certainly will not result in him getting an MVP award — whether it be league or team — he may still end up adding another trophy to his collection. One that nobody has to vote on.

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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.