Patrice Bergeron

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Stricter faceoff rules have put some defensemen in an ‘unnatural’ position

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Well, this is awkward.

Stricter rule enforcement in the National Hockey League has led to more defensemen taking draws this season and, well, it has been a challenge – even for some of the best players in the world.

“It’s a little bit unnatural,” Arizona Coyotes defenseman Luke Schenn said. “It’s not something you see all the time. You see a D-man go in there, you’re probably not going to win too many of them.”

Such is life for NHL defensemen these days, thrown into the faceoff circle to do something they never figured was in their job description. Like position players taking the mound to pitch in a Major League Baseball game or NFL running backs having to throw a pass, defensemen aren’t accustomed to taking faceoffs and almost never work on it in practice. But this season, defensemen are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory much more often as officials order forwards out of the circle for failing to follow the protocol .

Faceoffs are one of the most tactical elements in hockey, a chess match played out over a couple of seconds between players who have spent much of their lives perfecting their craft to win possession of the puck. Blindingly fast work with sticks and leverage are key. It’s no place for bigger defensemen with their longer sticks, most of whom are far more comfortable handling the puck once it’s won back to them.

Eleven different defensemen have taken a faceoff so far this season and 64 since 3-on-3 overtime was instituted in 2015-16. No matter how many times it happens or how awkward, it’s on the highlight reel and becomes the subject of ribbing from teammates.

“They’re going to give you a hard time because they know it’s not something you do all the time,” Calgary Flames defenseman Michael Stone said. “If you do win one, it’s pure excitement, I think, from everybody.”

Defensemen have been involved in 92 faceoffs over the past two-plus seasons and have won only about a third of them. Maybe a few of the unlikely victories have come from being underestimated.

“It’s funny that when you get a D-man in, a lot of times those centermen relax and the D-men are all-in,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who grew up playing defense. “There’s a lot of cheers that go on when a defenseman goes in there and wins a draw.”

Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning is 6-foot-6 and a Norris Trophy finalist as one of the best defensemen in the league. He recently was pressed into faceoff duty on a penalty kill in overtime. No pressure, right?

Hedman put his stick down, beat Columbus center Nick Foligno and is now a perfect 1 for 1. He was stunned.

“The guys were probably as shocked as I was that I actually won it,” Hedman said. “I could probably not do it again. I guess my timing was perfect in that moment.”

Call it perfect timing, call it luck or call it whatever you want. New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk is 3 for 4 in his career but still remembers losing his first faceoff and getting mad about it.

Of course, Boychuk has put “zero” practice time into it and has a simple, albeit ugly, strategy.

“You just tie up,” Boychuk said. “Try to tie up, at least, and smack it to the wall. Tell the person that you’re going to try to shoot it to.”

Or maybe just lose it intentionally, suggested Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so everyone on your team knows where the puck is going. Because, c’mon, this is probably not going to end well.

“Centermen are so good at faceoffs now, you’re probably going to lose it anyway,” Gardiner said. “You’re kind of just going in there and hoping for the best.”

Hedman is no faceoff specialist like Patrice Bergeron or Jonathan Toews. And defensemen face another twist of pressure in addition to trying to a) win the draw and b) avoid taking a faceoff violation penalty trying to do something they aren’t good at:

“For a defenseman, if you lose it you’ve just got to make sure you get into your position right away and make sure you focus on playing D,” Hedman said. “Just make sure that you don’t lose it too clean that they get a scoring opportunity right away. You just try and do as good a job as you possibly can and try and win it obviously, but it’s pretty tough.”

In 19 NHL seasons, Islanders coach Doug Weight took thousands of faceoffs. But he hadn’t thought much about asking defensemen to practice faceoffs – until now.

“Later in periods it’s so prevalent getting thrown out now that you want guys that can come in and take a draw,” Weight said. “The only occasion where we’d have a D is if you’re down 4-on-3, 5-on-3. Obviously it’s a huge piece of puck possession.”

Puck possession? Sure, that’d be great, but most defensemen just don’t want to get embarrassed.

After years of practicing against his brother Mark, a forward for the Ottawa Senators, Stone wants to make sure he at least makes things interesting.

“I’m mostly just playing not to get beat clean,” Stone said. “I’m not looking to win a faceoff clean, especially on that kind of a play. You just try not to get beat clean, do whatever you can to kind of push that in the direction of your guys.”

When Washington defenseman John Carlson stepped in recently for a draw in overtime, he had a sterling record: He had won his lone NHL faceoff. But he lost this one an cursed teammates for not letting him practice faceoffs.

Even though Carlson lost his second career faceoff attempt, he scored the game-winning goal to quiet the razzing from his teammates. Hedman won his and wants his faceoff days to be over.

“Hopefully I don’t have to take any more,” he said, “so I stay 100 percent for the rest of my career.”

Red-hot Rangers within range of Metro lead after beating Bruins

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As of Oct. 19, the New York Rangers were spinning out of control at 1-5-2. As of tonight, they’re two points behind the Penguins for the Metropolitan Division lead.

Riding a hot first period from youngsters Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey, the Rangers maintained a 3-1 lead to an eventual 4-2 win against the Boston Bruins. The B’s made things interesting for some time in the third, but New York won, giving the Rangers an impressive five-game winning streak.

They’ve also won six of eight, moving to 8-7-2 on the season.

The good news is that they’re now in the thick of things in the Metro. The bad news is that, even with this hot streak, they still have a lot of work to do:

Metro standings as of Wednesday night

Penguins: 9-6-2, 20 points, 17 games played
Devils: 9-4-1, 19 pts., 14 GP
Blue Jackets: 9-6-1-, 19 pts., 16 GP
Islanders: 8-5-2, 18 pts., 15 GP
Rangers: 8-7-2, 18 pts., 17 GP
Capitals: 8-7-1, 17 pts., 16 GP
Flyers: 7-6-2, 16 pts., 15 GP
Hurricanes: 5-5-3, 13 pts., 13 GP

So, yes, the Rangers are in the mix, and with some other Metro teams stumbling, things are looking up. At the same time, you can see that things are very tight. One can’t count Carolina out, as while the Canes are five points behind the Rangers, they have played four fewer games.

(The Rangers have also played 12 of 17 games at home so far.)

Regardless, the Rangers end the night in the East’s final wild card spot, which stands as a pretty startling turnaround when you consider how dire things looked mere weeks ago.

Looking at this five-game winning streak, the Rangers have simply found different ways to win. Their power play has been hot some nights, as they’ve scored six times on the man advantage during this run, with three of those PPGs coming against Columbus. This time around, the Rangers didn’t need their power play, going 0-for-1 in that regard.

On other nights, the Rangers needed to grind out overtime wins and rally from a tough deficit against Vegas. In this case, the defense-challenged group showed that they could protect a lead, even one that they built early on.

That has to be a promising sign for Alain Vigneault, Henrik Lundqvist & Co., even if the Bruins are dealing with some serious injury issues. Credit Boston for a strong push late in this game, but this team obviously needs some supplementary scoring beyond Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, the source of their two goals. (Maybe they need to work the trade market?)

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.

McKenzie: What Rangers, Bruins want to trade for

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With the Matt Duchene trade taken care of, could the Boston Bruins or New York Rangers make some moves of their own?

Hockey insider Bob McKenzie discussed what the Rangers and Bruins would look for on the trade market in the video above, and if nothing else, it seems like both teams want to make additions.

McKenzie notes that the Rangers were in on discussions regarding Duchene, but the asking price – which might have required brilliant young defenseman Brady Skjei going the other way – was far too rich for their liking.

Now that the Rangers are on a bit of a roll, McKenzie believes that any “rebuild” talk is put on hold. Instead, New York is hoping to add in immediate ways rather than planning for the longer-term future.

[The argument for a rebuild in New York]

The Bruins are open to a wide variety of possibilities to try to improve their team, according to McKenzie. Boston would like to improve at both forward and/or defense, and they’d be willing to do a player-for-player move or trade away prospects/picks. So just about anything.

At the same time, McKenzie notes that management would also like to get a better idea of what the Bruins might actually be capable of with all hands on deck. Patrice Bergeron ranks among players who’ve missed time while Brad Marchand (day-to-day), David Krejci (week-to-week), and David Backes (indefinite, possibly quite some time after colon surgery) are currently injured.

Some hurdles

So, it’s great that the Rangers and Bruins want to improve. Still, a few things must be considered.

For one thing, the Bruins might need to accept that injuries could be a consistent headache with core members. Bergeron, Rask, Krejci, and Backes are already past 30 and Marchand isn’t far behind at 29. Considering their careers, these guys have accrued a lot of mileage, and wear-and-tear is to be expected.

Beyond that, the Bruins don’t have a ton of cap space to work with, as you can see from Cap Friendly. A move would likely require some creativity and maybe a patient, open-minded GM on the other end.

The Rangers have more options, but it’s up to management to weigh options properly.

Rick Nash‘s massive contract is set to expire, but New York needs to decide if they’re better off taking another swing or two at a window that might be closing or if they’d benefit more from “reloading.”

***

Both the Rangers and Bruins want to do something, and from the looks of McKenzie’s update, that means pushing for immediate returns rather than future considerations.

Easier said than done.

As a bonus, enjoy this clip of Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones sharing memories of being traded:

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.

WATCH LIVE: Bruins – Rangers, Wednesday Night Rivalry

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Heading into November, things were looking pretty glum for the New York Rangers. Now things are looking up, as they host the Boston Bruins while on a four-game winning streak.

It began on Halloween as the Rangers rallied for a flawed-but-fun win against the Vegas Golden Knights. They also beat the Lightning and Panthers in overtime and the Blue Jackets, so it’s not like the Rangers are merely taking advantage of a “cupcake” schedule.

The Bruins are often a formidable opponent, but you could argue that the Rangers should make it five in a row; Boston is busted-up by injuries with Brad Marchand, David Backes, and David Krejci all sidelined. Patrice Bergeron is expected to play tonight, yet he’s dealt with issues of his own.

That said, it’s rarely wise to count out Bergeron and David Pastrnak, not to mention Tuukka Rask and Charlie McAvoy (who must be jazzed to play at Madison Square Garden for the first time as an NHL player).

You can watch on NBCSN, online, and via the NBC Sports App.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Also, for an extended preview, check out this post.

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 on NBCSN doubleheader: Bruins vs. Rangers; Lightning vs. Sharks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Wednesday night. In the early game, the New York Rangers host the Boston Bruins at 8:00 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here.

The Bruins are coming off a 5-3 win over the Minnesota Wild on Monday night. The victory was their second in three games. It appears as though they’re starting to get the ball rolling in the right direction despite being without some key pieces.

They’ve been forced to deal with a significant amount of injuries to key veterans, including David Krejci, David Backes and Brad Marchand. Starting goaltender Tuukka Rask and top center Patrice Bergeron have also missed games at different times in 2017-18.

“Guys are stepping up. They see their chance, they’re getting more ice time, getting more looks,” defenseman Zdeno Chara said after the win over the Wild, per the Boston Herald. “It’s great to see that guys are taking advantage of those chances, and they want to play and earn their ice time.”

Boston currently sits in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, but they’ve only skated in 13 games this season (no team has played in less games).

After getting off to a sluggish start, the Rangers have put together some positive momentum, as they’ve won four in a row and five of their last six contests.

Alain Vigneault’s hot seat seems to have cooled down (at least a little bit) now that the team has strung together a few wins.

One of the big reasons New York has been successful over the last week or so, is because their power play has starting cashing in on their opportunities. On Monday night, they scored three power play goals against Columbus. In their last five contests, they’ve gone 7-for-19 on the power play.

“We all have to be shooters first, and I think that’s the first thing that we tell each other,” Kevin Shattenkirk said, per the New York Post.

“I’m getting very clear lanes because everyone is shielding over to Mika (Zibanejad) because he is such a threat. So it’s important that I’m chipping in and getting my shots through, because at that time they’re going to have to pick someone.”

Despite being between the pipes for all four of the victories, Henrik Lundqvist‘s individual numbers are still lacking. He’s given up three goals or more in three of the four wins. He has a 3.07 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage.

In the late game, the San Jose Sharks host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 10:30 p.m. ET. To stream that game live, click here. 

The Tampa Bay Lightning will kick off their three-game California road trip with a visit to the Shark Tank. It’s never easy for an Eastern Conference team to head out to the West Coast, but the Lightning are well equipped to do on-ice damage in any city.

The Bolts are off to an incredible 11-2-2 start. A lot of the credit will be given to forwards like Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, who have 25 and 23 points respectively in 15 games. But you can’t ignore the contributions they’ve received from Brayden Point, Vladislav Namestnikov, Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Andrei Vasilevskiy and many others.

This team may have missed the playoffs last year, but they’re healthy and clearly on a mission. They’ve dropped just one decision in regulation since Oct. 9, and they’ve showed absolutely no signs of slowing down.

Tonight’s contest should provide us with an interesting special teams battle, as Tampa has the second ranked power play in the league, while the Sharks own the second best penalty killing unit.

San Jose has been a whole lot better on the kill this year than they were last year. To learn more about their remarkable improvement, check out this story by NBC Sports Bay Area‘s Marcus White.

The Sharks’ biggest problem is that they can’t find the back of the net with any kind of regularity. Their 36 goals rank 29th in NHL behind only Carolina and Edmonton.

On a positive note, they’ll come into this game having won four in a row. They scored just one goal in regulation during their 2-1 shootout win over Anaheim on Saturday night, but they scored four times against the Predators last Wednesday night.

Is the offense starting to come around? We’ll find out tonight.

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.