Nino Niederreiter

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The Buzzer: Nino storms, Price channels Hasek

Player of the Night: Nino Niederreiter, Minnesota Wild.

There were some strong contenders around the league. Quite a few players enjoyed impressive one-goal, two-assist nights: Ivan Provorov for the successful Flyers, Nino’s teammate Mikko Koivu (who was also bloodied), Taylor Hall, and Alex Radulov among them. Sebastian Aho‘s really close, too, with two goals and an assist.

Still, it’s worth noting that Niederreiter generated his hat trick about four minutes into the second period, and only logged 12 minutes of ice time in this game. It’s also the second time he’s generated a hat trick against the Sabres, as he also did so in November.

With all the headlines about a “bomb cyclone” getting weather on the brain, it only makes sense for “El Nino” to gust through the Sabres’ defense.

Highlights of the Night:

Carey Price pulled out a Dominik Hasek/Tim Thomas-style barrel roll trick here:

Actually, speaking of Aho, let’s give him the highlight of the night for this sweet goal. Teuvo Teravainen also scored a pretty one as the Hurricanes were too much for the Penguins to handle.

Blooper of the Night: Ouch, Frederik Andersen. Ouch.

(This was also a tough break.)

Beard pull of the Night: Nazem Kadri on Joe Thornton. If you somehow missed it, check here.

Factoids:

Auston Matthews, American hero.

In case you’re wondering, the Canadiens’ struggles aren’t really on Carey Price.

The Golden Knights’ run came to an end. More on that here.

Scores

Maple Leafs 3, Sharks 2 (SO)
Flyers 6, Islanders 4
Hurricanes 4, Penguins 0
Canadiens 2, Lightning 1 (SO)
Blues 2, Golden Knights 1
Wild 6, Sabres 2
Stars 4, Devils 3
Avalanche 2, Blue Jackets 0
Flames 4, Kings 3
Oilers 2, Ducks 1 (SO)
Coyotes 3, Predators 2 (OT)
Panthers – Bruins, postponed

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.

Did Ristolainen deserve to be ejected for bloodying Koivu?

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The Minnesota Wild are making life pretty miserable for the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday, but some Sabres fans might be as irritated by a penalty call as they are by the scoreboard (which currently reads 5-0 in favor of Minny).

Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen was given a five-minute interference major and game misconduct for a hit on Minnesota Wild veteran Mikko Koivu. You can watch video of that hit in the clip above this post’s headline.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety automatically looks at situations like these, but should anything come of it? Some wonder if the call was excessive to begin with.

The hit did leave Koivu bloodied:

Koivu didn’t miss the entire contest, however, scoring a goal (and counting?). Nino Niederreiter continues to victimize the Sabres, generating a hat trick against Buffalo for the second time in his career.

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.

Zach Parise, Ryan Ellis set to make season debuts tonight

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Two prominent Western Conference players are set to make their season debuts on Tuesday night as Zach Parise and Ryan Ellis will be returning to the lineup for their respective teams.

Let’s start with Parise, because his return could potentially make the biggest impact out of the two just based on where the Minnesota Wild are in the standings.

Parise has missed the Wild’s first 39 games this season as he recovered from back surgery. Tuesday will be his first NHL game in eight months and it comes as the Wild are in a fight for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Wild enter Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers — a Panthers team that has won five in a row, by the way — just one point back of a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference even though they have been without Parise for the entire season and have missed Nino Niederreiter for 10 games.

Parise may not be the player that he was during his peak years with the New Jersey Devils, but he is still a top-line player that can score at a 50-60 point pace over 82 games. That is going to be a big addition to the lineup, even if he is limited in the early going.

[Wild could really use Parise right now]

While the Wild are getting one of their top forwards back for a playoff push, one of the NHL’s top teams and top Stanley Cup contenders is getting a key part of its defense back when Ellis makes his season debut for the Nashville Predators on Tuesday night when they visit the Vegas Golden Knights.

Ellis has been sidelined all season as he recovers from offseason knee surgery.

The foundation of the Predators’ success has been their defense that is led by what is arguably the best top-four in the league with P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ellis. Even without Ellis — who played 23 minutes per game a season ago — the Predators are still one of the best teams in the NHL and enter Tuesday night looking like one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the league once again. They are also still one of the top teams in the league when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net.

With Ellis back in the lineup that defense will only get better.

Ellis’ return also comes at a good time as the Predators just lost one of their top forwards, Filip Forsberg, to an injury.

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.

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.

Minnesota Wild GM says team has been “incredibly disappointing”

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It’s never a good sign when your general manager has to address the state of his floundering team two months into the season.

It’s even worse when lays it out ever-so bluntly.

“Incredibly disappointing,” Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told the Pioneer Press on Wednesday.

Ouch.

Fletcher’s comments come just two days after the Winnipeg Jets embarrassed their Central Division foes 7-2 — this after the Wild held a 2-0 lead in the first period — on Monday in Winnipeg.

The Wild’s start to this season is in stark contrast to how they finished the last one.
Minnesota was a dominant force last year, piling up 106 points to cross the regular season finish line in second place in the Western Conference.

A 12-game winning streak, like the one the Wild embarked on last year, or any sustained winning streak for that matter, seems like a pipe dream at the moment for the struggling Wild.

What’s going wrong?

Fletcher specifically called out his forward contingent on Wednesday.

“Until our forwards in particular start to play the game the right way, we will not win,” Fletcher said. “It’s somewhat surprising that Monday’s result hasn’t happened sooner. … We want to encourage our forwards to make plays when they have open ice or when they have an odd-man rush. We want creativity. We want skill. That said, when we’re through the neutral zone and there’s three or four defenders lined up, to think that we can make cute plays through them, I think we’ve seen the results.”

Truth be told, the Wild are 14th in the NHL in goals for with 71. Their goals-per-game is 13th at 2.96. They also own the fifth best power-play unit and ninth best penalty-killing squad heading into Wednesday’s action.

These aren’t the numbers of a team sitting second-last in the Central Division. The Wild are actually 6-3-1 in their past 10 games.

So what’s the real problem?

Consistency, for one.

The Wild have traded wins and losses, winning streaks and losing streaks, this season.

“We just have to get back to work, we have a way to go,” Matt Cullen said after Monday’s game. “I think we’d all agree we’re not where we need to be yet as a group. I think we all need to make a decision about how we’re playing. We’ve got to turn things around. We’ve got the pieces to do it.

“To play the way we did is unacceptable. It falls on all of us. When we’re playing well, we’re playing solid defensively and tonight we had some big breakdowns in our own end that turned the momentum and they cost us.”

Their possession numbers are very poor at 28th in the NHL. They’re 24th in shooting percentage.

Team defense is struggling, even when they’re winning. The Wild are allowing 3.04 goals per game, including 30 goals in their past seven games.

“That’s four-and-a-half goals a game,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said after Monday’s loss. “If you’re going to do that, you can’t win in the NHL. It’s almost impossible for me to think you can get three shutouts in a row and seven games later you allow 30 goals. After those shutouts, we were third in the league defensively.”

Furthermore, Devan Dubnyk hasn’t looked like the same goaltender that won 40 games and posted a .923 save percentage a year ago (although he did string three straight shutouts and five straight wins together recently).

Sure, injuries haven’t helped.

Charlie Coyle only returned on Nov. 20 after missing 16 games with a fibula fracture. Nino Niederreiter missed six games ankle sprain, Mikael Granlund missed five with a groin issue and now Jared Spurgeon will miss some time with a groin strain of his own.

Zach Parise has missed all 24 games this season after microdiscectomy surgery in late October. But he’s getting there.

But it takes a team effort to get blown out 7-2. And it’s taken that same team effort to get to where the Wild are now, which is the dumps.

Maybe it wasn’t Mike Yeo’s fault after all.


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