William Karlsson

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Evgeni Malkin rockets into Rocket Richard race

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Step aside SpaceX, Evgeni Malkin has blasted off.

For while there, it appeared that Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Nikita Kucherov would battle it out for the Rocket Richard Trophy.

The two Russians traded places with each other on top of the goal-scoring summit, a two-horse race for bragging rights back home and around the NHL.

That in its own right would have been a fantastic duel to watch down the stretch here.

But Kucherov hasn’t scored in his past 11 games, and that’s opened the door for a couple others to join the race.

Vegas Golden Knights forward William Karlsson, for instance, inserted himself into the conversation among the best snipers in the NHL with 28 goals on the season. And if it wasn’t for another familiar sniper over the past 10 days, this article might be centering around the young Swede and his pursuit of Ovi.

Instead, over the past five games, Malkin — the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar who has flirted with Richard’s honor in the past — has skyrocketed into second place, two goals back of compatriot Ovechkin.

Malkin’s last five games have been nothing short of spectacular. Here’s a quick look:

Yes, Malkin has nine goals during a five-game goal-scoring streak.

Nine.

Neuf.

ДЕВЯТЬ (Russian for nine)

He also has 16 tallies in his past 13 games. It’s a bit crazy.

Malkin is shooting at 43 percent during those five games and now sits at 18.4 percent on the season.

Unsurprisingly, Malkin’s torrid pace has equated to success for the Penguins, who have won four of their past five games and now sit in second in the Metropolitan Division. In a division that no one seems to want to put their stamp on, Malkin is doing his best to help the Penguins change that.

Malkin won’t continue shooting above 40 percent. But consider that he’s scoring a goal every 5.4 shots and that he’s averaging over three shots per game.

Math is hard, but this appears to mean a lot more goals could come off the stick of No. 71 before the season is over.

Grab some popcorn.


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

Marc-Andre Fleury talks about an emotional return to Pittsburgh

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PITTSBURGH — It was quite a scene in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night when Marc-Andre Fleury, one of the most beloved players in Penguins history, made his return to the city for the first time as a visiting player.

It probably wasn’t the night Fleury had planned for his return, giving up five goals on 38 shots in a wildly entertaining 5-4 loss to the Penguins, but a standing room only crowd spent much of the night — from the start of warmups to his announcement as the third star of the game — showering him with cheers, thanks and appreciation for what he did for the team over the previous 13 years.

During the first TV timeout in the first period they roared during an extended tribute video and then  kept cheering for so long that the linesman actually delayed for a minute before finally dropping the puck to continue the game.

[More: Why Pittsburgh Loves Marc-Andre Fleury]

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Fleury after the game when asked about the night. “In warmup I had goosebumps. Before the game, people had signs and kind words. It’s a night I won’t forget. Except maybe the score.”

“It was just amazing, the support I’ve gotten over the years here is just incredible. I thank everybody for all these years and once again showing up tonight with such great support.”

Here is a look at the tribute video the Penguins put together to welcome back Fleury.

Fleury was obviously a bit emotional during the video and said after the game he was just glad he had a mask on.

“They always do a good job with these (videos),” he said. “A lot of good memories. A lot of good years. It just brought some fun memories.”

Early on it looked like it was going to be Fleury’s night as the Golden Knights jumped out to an early 2-0 lead thanks to goals from William Karlsson and James Neal, one of the four former Penguins that currently play for Vegas.

Fleury also made a handful of big saves, including robbing Jake Guentzel on a breakaway.

But in the second period the Penguins’ firepower finally became a bit too much. A Ryan Reaves goal opened the floodgates, and then Ian Cole, Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel all followed to help the Penguins score five consecutive goals.

“They’re a very talented team, very fast, and able to create a lot of space and time for themselves to get some goals,” said Fleury.

“Sometimes I caught myself thinking a little too much about their tendencies. Hopefully it will get easier to play them as it goes on.”

Vegas received third period goals from Ryan Carpenter and Jonathan Marchessault to cut the deficit to one but were never able to get the equalizer.

Kessel and Malkin nearly had a couple of more goals as Kessel ripped two shots off the post early in the game, while Fleury was able to stop Malkin with one of his patented poke checks on a second period breakaway.

“I had Geno on a breakaway and got a poke check in there so I let him know,” Fleury said with laugh after the game when asked if there was any friendly trash talk during the game. “Phil wanted one and hit the post a few times and kept telling me he was coming back. He did get one.”

Fleury said the entire day was a different experience for him but that he now knows what it’s like to be other goalies in the NHL having to play in that building against that team.

“It was so different to be in this locker room and going on the ice in another jersey and seeing them coming at me,” said Fleury.

“Now I get to see what the other goalie faced all these years. It was a lot going on, lots of emotions, a little bit of stress, but it was worth it.”

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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.

Coolest hair wasn’t enough, Boeser wins accuracy competition

Let’s be honest, it’s fun to watch great players do difficult things.

When it comes to aiming at small targets in front of an arena full of people, it’s especially fun. You get a taste of very different scenarios: virtuosic displays of accuracy and those moments where near-misses start to stack up, frustration builds, and the cringe-worthy comedy kicks in.

The tweaked passing challenge provided both ends of the spectrum.

Passing

Nikita Kucherov struggled to start things off, but Drew Doughty really hit his head against the wall, showing his frustration in a pretty funny moment while finishing last.

Alex Pietrangelo, meanwhile, was the virtuoso, winning the passing competition under one minute:

Eric Staal was excellent as well, the other passer to finish under one minute:

Accuracy

Brock Boeser‘s hair and accuracy were too much for the targets during the accuracy shooting.

If only we could all be this cool.

Brian Boyle was awfully close to winning it, too.

[Boyle thankful to be part of All-Star weekend.]

What did you think about the targets lighting up, thus adding to the challenge? Brad Marchand probably didn’t love it, as he ages to finish, and the fans let the agitating winger know it.

The accuracy competition is the best, isn’t it?

Really, the toughest question is: would Boeser win coolest hair at the All-Star Game if William Karlsson made it? Maybe we’ll get that answer in San Jose.

More on the Skills Challenge

Great moments in the past.

Alex Ovechkin wins hardest shot; Marc-Andre Fleury takes save streak.

Connor McDavid shocks no one in winning fastest skater; Johnny Gaudreau shows off puck control.

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 Midseason Report Card: Metropolitan Division

PHT Report Card

Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

  • Carolina Hurricanes

Season Review: A lot of what we are used to seeing from the Hurricanes in recent years. They have a lot of exciting young talent, they play hard, they do a lot of things well, they always seem to be just on the cusp of making some noise … and then the goaltending falls apart. Grade: C-

Biggest Surprise: Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise at this point because they are always one of the top teams in this category, but the Carolina Hurricanes are the top possession team in the NHL at a 53.5 shot attempts percentage heading into the All-Star break.

Biggest Disappointment: It has to be Scott Darling. After being one of the top backups in the NHL during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks the Hurricanes acquired him over the summer and immediately signed him to a long-term contract extension to hopefully solve their long-standing issue in net. So far he has managed only an .892 save percentage and has played fewer games than Cam Ward.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Probably stand pat. They are not out of the playoff race by any means, but they are not really close enough to being a contender where it makes sense to be significant buyers. They also don’t really fit the profile of a seller because it is still a very young team while the only upcoming UFA that fits the profile of a rental for another team is Lee Stempniak.

Second half outlook: They enter the All-Star break four points out of a playoff spot with three teams ahead of them. They dominate possession, they are great at keeping teams away from their end of the ice, and they have some talent. If they can get even competent goaltending they could make a second half push. If not? It will just be more of the same in Carolina.

  • Columbus Blue Jackets

Season Review: They stormed out of the gate and looked like one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference but after winning 17 of their first 26 games have mostly been a .500 team over the past two months and find themselves on the playoff bubble. Grade: B

Biggest Surprise: Probably the fact that their offense has dropped so much. The Blue Jackets were sixth in the NHL in goals scored a season ago and then went out and picked up Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the league’s most productive forwards. Panarin has been outstanding but the Blue Jackets as a team are only 25th in the league in goals scored.

Biggest Disappointment: Aside from trading William Karlsson before the expansion draft and watching him blossom into a top goal-scorer, it might be captain Nick Foligno for his drop in offense. After scoring 26 goals and finishing with 50 points a season ago he is currently on a 14/35 pace this season, while his possession numbers have also taken a hit. Given the contract he is signed for they need more.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are almost certainly going to look to add, and they could probably use a little more offense up front. They also have to figure out a way to handle the Jack Johnson situation following his trade request. What sort of value he has, though, remains to be seen, and it is unlikely he is going to find a spot that is going to give him increased playing time over what he is getting in Columbus.

Second half outlook: They should be a playoff team, and they could still be a dangerous one, but that is all going to come down to Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky has been one of the best goalies in the league since arriving in Columbus but his career playoff performances have been a nightmare. If they are going to make any kind of a run they are going to need him to solve those postseason demons.

  • New Jersey Devils

Season Review: They have cooled off considerably after their start, but they are still one of the bigger surprises in the NHL and look to be on the verge of ending their current playoff drought. Taylor Hall has been great and their young core has mostly taken a big step forward. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: There are no shortage of surprises on this team, from Jesper Bratt emerging as one of the team’s top scorers, Will Butcher making an immediate impact, to the entire team itself. But there is no bigger surprise than Brian Gibbons already having 12 goals. He scored five in 66 career games before this season.

Biggest Disappointment: While Bratt, Butcher and No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier have all played extremely well, one young player that probably hasn’t taken the step the Devils would have liked is Pavel Zacha, the No. 6 overall pick from 2015 hasn’t taken that step yet. Granted, he is still only 20 years old so it is way too soon to write him off, but his production has regressed from where it was a year ago.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Ray Shero tends to be pretty bold when it comes to the trade deadline — or any time of year, honestly — and you can be certain he is going to be browsing for rentals.

Second half outlook: The Devils have a great opportunity to end a five-year playoff drought, but even if they don’t this season should be seen as a pretty big step forward if for no other reason than so many young players have stepped forward and shown they can be long-term pieces to build around.

  • New York Islanders

Season Review: Say this for the Islanders, they are not boring. They can score and they can’t really stop anybody from scoring. Is it a recipe for success? Well, probably not but they are right in the thick of the playoff race, even if they are entirely unpredictable.  Grade: C

Biggest Surprise: Josh Bailey has always been a pretty good player, but he is on the verge of shattering just about every career high he has ever had in the NHL. He is two points away from matching his personal best and only four goals away. He never topped 16 goals and 54 points in a season before this year and is currently on pace for 22 goals and 96 points this season. Nobody saw that coming. It is also perfect timing for Bailey as he is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

Biggest Disappointment: You could point to the goaltending but no one really had high expectations for that position. Andrew Ladd is currently two years into a seven-year, $38 million contract and has nine goals in 42 games. That is … not great.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are one of those teams that is in a really tough spot. They’re not really in a position to be heavy buyers because they’re not even guaranteed to be a playoff team. They have some major potential free agents but because they are still in the race they are not going to want to sell them. They should look to find a goaltender because with better play at the position they could be an intriguing team.

Second half outlook: A lot of it just comes down to what type of goaltending they can get. They are not going to trade Tavares or Bailey, so they are going to keep filling the back of the net like one of the top teams in the league but they have to find a way to keep other teams off the board.

  • New York Rangers

Season Review: The Rangers’ defensive strategy seems to be the same as it has been the past few years — give up a lot of shots and hope for Henrik Lundqvist to steal a bunch of games. The Rangers’ underlying numbers point to a bad team, but because they have one of the best goalies of his generations they are still in the playoff race. Grade: D+

Biggest Surprise: Michael Grabner, for the second year in a row, is one of the top even-strength goal scorers in the NHL. Sure, he has that aided by a ton of empty net goals, but he is still a fascinating — and extremely underrated — player.

Biggest Disappointment: Kevin Shattenkirk has had a really disappointing season, mostly due to injury. When he is healthy he can still be an impact player and a strong top-four defenseman, and given his contract the Rangers are going to need him to be the focal point of the blue line for a long time. They need him healthy.

Trade Deadline Strategy: If we are to believe a report from the New York Post on Friday they could be on the verge of blowing it all up, and not just potential free agents like Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, but perhaps even Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh.

Second half outlook: Henrik Lundqvist is always going to give them a chance, but it really all depends on what they do at the deadline. The Rangers bleed shots against like a bad team, but Lundqvist is always going to keep them in games and mask those flaws. If they stand pat, they could always sneak into a playoff spot. But if they jettison players like Nash, McDonagh, Zuccarello and/or Grabner it would almost certainly end their run of consecutive postseason appearances.

  • Philadelphia Flyers

Season Review: A completely bizarre team. The Flyers lost 10 games in a row at one point and looked like a team that was potentially on the verge of firing their coach. Since then they have been one of the better teams in the league and have some of the top offensive players in the league. Which team is the real Flyers? Who knows. Grade: C+

Biggest Surprise: The offensive breakthrough for Sean Couturier, easily. He has always been one of the best defensive centers in the league and a decent offensive player, but this season has offensive game has taken a massive step forward and made him one of the league’s best two-way forwards.

Biggest Disappointment: Brian Elliott has been extremely hit-and-miss throughout his career, sometimes performing like one of the league’s best goalies and sometimes like … well … just an ordinary goalie. The Flyers have gotten both versions this season, and overall his .908 save percentage would be his lowest since the 2012-13 season. The Flyers need more consistency from him.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They could easily be a playoff team and they have the top-line players (Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov) to cause a lot of headaches once they get there, but they could probably use some additional depth everyone on the roster. Definitely go into the deadline as buyers.

Second half outlook: Which Flyers team are we going to get? The one that lost 10 in a row, or the one that has gone 16-6-1 since then?

  • Pittsburgh Penguins

Season Review: The Penguins were, to say the least, a massive disappointment throughout a large portion of the first half but over the past month-and-a-half have started to kick it into gear and look like the Penguins again. Their stars are really dominating right now and have been unstoppable for a few weeks now. Grade: C

Biggest Surprise: Matt Murray has struggled a bit this season and has missed some time recently due to the passing of his father, but backups Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have stepped in admirably and shown that the Penguins have some pretty incredible depth at the position, and all of it is young.

Biggest Disappointment: This is a weird one to say because he is at the All-Star game, but Kris Letang has just not looked like himself this season. It is not that he has been entirely bad, because he can still play at a high level and is producing points, but he just does not look to be anywhere near as dynamic as he has been in the past. Still recovering from the injury that ended his season a year ago? Just a rough half season? Either way, he has another level he can get to.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are certainly going to buy. They have some salary cap space and they still have a glaring hole at third-line center. If they can find one this team is going to be one that nobody wants to see in the playoffs.

Second half outlook: They are kicking it into gear at the right time. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are all climbing the scoring leaderboards, they are starting to find some answers to some roster questions (Riley Sheahan seems to be the answer at fourth-line center; Jamie Oleksiak has been a nice depth addition on defense), and they probably have one or two more trades to make that will further solidify the roster. The first half was a disappointment, but they are setting themselves up for a great second half.

  • Washington Capitals

Season Review: Even after losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt the Washington Capitals are still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and have a pretty solid hold on the Metropolitan Division. Will they win a third consecutive Presidents’ Trophy? No, but they are still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: Can it just be the simple fact they lost five pretty significant players in one offseason, have had a couple of returning players take a small step backwards, and are still multiple points ahead of every other team in the most competitive division in hockey? Every time we think the Capitals window is starting to shut they always find a way to keep showing up at the top of the league.

Biggest Disappointment: It’s not a huge concern at this point, but some of the Capitals’ top offensive players have gone a little cold recently with Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Andrey Burakovsky have combined for just six goals over the past 14 games.

Trade Deadline Strategy: As long as the Capitals have Alex Ovechkin and are near the top of the standings they are going to be buyers, especially as they keep going without actually winning the Stanley Cup. The pressure keeps building to get there and there is no doubt they will look to add. The salary cap situation will make it tough, but there is always a way to make it work.

Second half outlook: They have the best goal-scorer in the league, an elite playmaking center, a solid defense, and one of the best goalies in the NHL. They are going to win the Metropolitan Division and probably, at some point, have to face their long-time nemesis — the Pittsburgh Penguins — in the playoffs. Will this be the year?

Previous: Atlantic Division

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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: Eichel beats McDavid; More Vegas gold

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Player of the Night: Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

So far in their careers, Connor McDavid comparisons haven’t been kind to Jack Eichel. To be fair, just about every other NHL player pales in comparison to McDavid, but Eichel gets it the worst because he was selected right behind McDavid in the 2015 NHL Draft.

McDavid’s enjoyed a deep playoff run and piled up some impressive hardware, yet Eichel got the best of number 97 for at least one night. As part of a 5-0 win for the Sabres against the Oilers, Eichel generated a goal and three assists.

If you haven’t noticed, Eichel’s been playing some of the best hockey even before Tuesday. With 10 points in his last five games, he’s enjoying the most productive stretch of his young career.

It was outrageous to place Buffalo’s blame on Eichel, so hopefully this torrid run at least turns down the volume on his critics.

Highlights of the Night:

We saw the nasty side of Brad Marchand with this questionable hit, but this goal was very, very nice:

This Shea Theodore outlet pass is so slick, it’s almost tough to keep your eye on it. William Karlsson scored yet again, and the Golden Knights won once again.

You may also enjoy Travis Konecny’s overtime game-winner, which you can check out here.

Factoids

The Boston Bruins’ run continues, while the Avalanche’s winning streak ended.

Vegas Golden Knights zero in on more records for expansion teams. Remarkable stuff.

From remarkably great to almost unspeakably bad: how can the Oilers’ penalty kill be this ineffective?

Some key bits from tonight

Panthers, Stars brawl.

Canadiens end Avalanche’s winning streak at 10.

Flyers edge Red Wings in OT.

Possible injury for Joe Thornton?

Goalie injuries also cause for concern.

Scores

Bruins 3, Devils 2
Penguins 3, Hurricanes 1
Canadiens 4, Avalanche 2
Flyers 3, Red Wings 2 (OT)
Blues 3, Senators 0
Lightning 4, Predators 3 (OT)
Stars 6, Panthers 1
Sabres 5, Oilers 0
Canucks 6, Kings 2
Golden Knights 6, Blue Jackets 3
Ducks 6, Rangers 3
Jets 5, Sharks 4 (OT)

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.