James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

Nasty hits, fights, and a blowout in Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens

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First, the Edmonton Oilers fell 6-3 to the Dallas Stars. Next: the Toronto Maple Leafs absolutely throttled the fledgling Montreal Canadiens in a game that was ugly even beyond the 6-0 score.

It’s been a bad day for embattled GMs of teams who’ve made polarizing moves in hopes of solidifying Stanley Cup contenders. The Oilers (7-11-2) and Canadiens (8-11-2) even finish the night with nearly identical records, just to really hammer home their parallel pains.

You almost wonder if something is in the air this week (spoilers: not love), as nastiness has really ratcheted up since the Calgary Flames – Detroit Red Wings line brawl. The Canadiens and Maple Leafs boast one of the NHL’s richest and bitterest rivalries, and it showed on Saturday.

As you can see from the video above this post’s headline, Nazem Kadri played a major role in one of the most explosive moments, taking his frustrations out on Shea Weber. Weber and Jordie Benn wasted no time in going after Kadri.

(Criticisms of the hit are totally fair, but it seems strange to go too heavy on “turtling.” Who would be able to stand up to both Weber and Benn? In the heat of the moment, I’d wager most people would go with flight over fight.)

That was the most bombastic moment, but there was also this seemingly unlikely bout between Nikita Zaitsev and Paul Byron:

This absolute dismantling comes after Claude Julien was steaming mad from a 5-4 loss to the Arizona Coyotes. It’s tough not to read all of this as an indictment of the moves Marc Bergevin has made, especially considering the fact that their rivals dominated them for their sixth win in a row. If you’re the type to draw big conclusions from about a month of a season, you’d look at it as how to build a contender vs. how to waste Carey Price‘s prime.

That’s a little harsh … but either way, these are tough times for Bergevin.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski passed along an interesting take from Julien, who wishes he could bag skate his bumbling players. OK, then.

Auston Matthews was definitely part of the fun for Toronto in his return from injury, including scoring this goal:

(You almost wonder if Mike Babcock was rolling the dice even having his star players out there amid all that carnage, but that goal was a sweet reward.)

[MORE: Why Toronto needs Matthews back for a tough stretch]

Yes, this is an 82-game season, and we’re only at about the first-quarter-mark. Still, teams like the Oilers and Canadiens came into 2017-18 with big expectations and big questions, and so far fans and management can’t like the answers.

By the way, asking for a well-dressed GM: what’s the opposite of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”

Yikes.

Ovechkin returns after being badly bloodied by puck to face

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It’s still relatively early on Saturday night, and both the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals could eventually provide further updates that derail this optimism.

With that out of the way, at the moment, the theme of the night might just be teams dodging big injury bullets, even if the star players in question can’t dodge actual damage.

In the case of Corey Crawford, he bounced back for the Blackhawks after Evgeni Malkin‘s thigh area clipped him in the head. Maybe it looked worse than it was?

Now, any time you see people scrape blood off the ice, you get a reminder of how dangerous – and yeah, occasionally strange – hockey can be. That only becomes more disturbing when that blood is coming from a player as important as Alex Ovechkin:

Remarkably, Ovechkin is returning for the third period of the Capitals’ game against the Minnesota Wild.

So:

  • This is a reminder that Ovechkin is tough, in case you foolishly think he isn’t because … his teams have lost in big games or something? Considering how recklessly he often throws his body around, and how infrequently he misses games due to to injury, you’d think that debate would have died a long time ago. Moments like this make it seem that much sillier.
  • Ovechkin must really want to help the struggling Capitals turn things around.
  • Maybe he wants to hang an L on his old boss Bruce Boudreau?

Anyway, PHT will keep an eye on these situations. Sometimes there are more answers the night of events, and sometimes it takes a little longer.

Right now, it’s reasonable for Capitals fans and Blackhawks fans to feel some relative, even if it’s only in the interim.

Update: The Capitals ended up winning 3-1, thanks in large part to Braden Holtby‘s strong night.

Ovechkin logged 8:18 TOI in the third period, so it seems like he’s OK. This post will be updated if he shares a nasty battle scar.

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.

Crawford avoids injury, helps Blackhawks beat Penguins

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The Chicago Blackhawks have been up-and-down so far in 2017-18, but Corey Crawford has been brilliant almost every night he’s been in net. It’s to the point that he might be a little underrated, as people assume that Chicago will keep finding ways to win, possibly missing how big a part he’s playing in its successes.

Crawford’s been able to clean up a lot of messes, so Saturday brought a scare, as he seemed to take head contact from Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.

You can see the contact in the video above. It seemed like quite a collision, as part of Malkin (thigh? middle-boy) seemed to connect with Crawford at a fairly high speed.

The penalty call drew at least some complaints from Penguins fans, but the important thing either way is that the Blackhawks took a look at Crawford before allowing him to return to the game.

Now, we’ve seen players return to action only to miss games in the future, so it’s still worth monitoring Crawford. Considering how important he is to the Blackhawks, they have to hope that it was one of those plays that looked more painful than it actually was.

Also, with some justifiable complaints about players not going through concussion protocol lately, a lot of people are pleased with Chicago for at least assessing Crawford. We’ll see if anything changes, but right now, this seems like a dodged bullet (but not a dodged Malkin).

Update: Not only did Crawford stick with it, he made a big difference in the Blackhawks beating the Penguins 2-1, including making this save:

Chicago sure seems to have an edge on Pittsburgh lately, by the way:

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.

Coyotes are (gasp) on a winning streak

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As of this writing, the Arizona Coyotes have the least standings points in the NHL (11) despite playing a league-leading 22 games.

Things could change for this young team, but for now, it’s about small victories, which makes actual wins that much bigger. Perhaps what they really needed was this road trip through Canada?

After losing to the Jets in Winnipeg 4-1 on Nov. 14 (no real shame, really, as everyone’s losing to the Jets lately … just ask the Devils), the Coyotes left Claude Julien and the Montreal Canadiens fuming by getting their first regulation win of 2017-18 by a score of 5-4.

Arizona couldn’t make it consecutive wins in regulation, but when Anthony Duclair completed a hat trick with the overtime game-winner, they did something rare: the Coyotes won back-to-back games. Yes, gang, those scrappy kids now have their very own winning streak after today’s 3-2 OT win against the Ottawa Senators.

They wrap up this run of Canadian games by facing the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Monday.

Just like any self-respecting sports team, the Coyotes get to participate in a ceremony after wins.

One would guess that Zac Rinaldo got the “championship belt” stemming from the rough stuff between the Coyotes and Canadiens, which included a Rinaldo fight (no surprise) and Tomas Plekanec‘s first NHL bout (in his 941st career game).

The Coyotes want to bounce back from their bad start, while Duclair hopes to shed the weight of a lousy 2016-17 season.

At 4-15-3, Arizona might already be in too big of a hole to make any waves. Even so, they can gain some respect, and show that they’re not as bad as their record indicates. Heck, a win in Toronto would give them an undeniably successful road trip, something that’s not always a layup even for established, contending teams.

Now, now, all of that aside … it might be a little too early to take them seriously.

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.

Update: Matthews returns at perfect time for Maple Leafs

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Update: Auston Matthews is indeed playing for the Maple Leafs against Montreal on Saturday. Read below to find out why this is a big deal, even beyond the obvious of merely having a star return.

(And not just because they’re trying to win a sixth game in a row and make life more miserable for the rival Canadiens.)

***

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock must be delighted by how his team is winning games.

Most obviously, they’ve been doing so without Auston Matthews, who’s currently dealing with an upper-body injury. The Leafs won their fifth consecutive game 1-0 in OT thanks to William Nylander‘s slump-breaking goal, and Toronto’s played the last four without Matthews.

The variety of wins – some in overtime, some with outstanding goaltending, many likely boosting other talents who step up – must really encourage Babs. And that confidence could come in handy very soon.

The Athletic’s James Mirtle breaks down how they’ve been winning and who’s stepped up in Matthews absence, so check that out for more in that regard (sub required).

That’s all good stuff, but here’s the thing: the Maple Leafs are lucky that Matthews seems like he’s nearing his return, because the rest of 2017 presents a beast of a schedule. Before we get to that, consider that Matthews appears to be a gametime decision for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens:

So, obviously, that’s not a guarantee that he’ll play. It implies that he’s at least getting closer, though.

Feast your eyes on the remainder of the Maple Leafs’ schedule during this calendar year, which might prompt a New Year’s resolution of “Let’s just try to forget what we just went through.” The away games are bolded, with back-to-backs underlined.

Sat, Nov 18 @ Montreal
Mon, Nov 20 vs Arizona
Wed, Nov 22 @ Florida
Fri, Nov 24 @ Carolina
Sat, Nov 25 vs Washington
Tue, Nov 28 @ Calgary
Thu, Nov 30 @ Edmonton
Sat, Dec 2 @ Vancouver
Wed, Dec 6 vs Calgary
Sat, Dec 9 @ Pittsburgh
Sun, Dec 10 vs Edmonton
Tue, Dec 12 @ Philadelphia
Thu, Dec 14 @ Minnesota
Fri, Dec 15 @ Detroit
Tue, Dec 19 vs Carolina
Wed, Dec 20 @ Columbus
Sat, Dec 23 @ NY Rangers
Thu, Dec 28 @ Arizona
Fri, Dec 29 @ Colorado
Sun, Dec 31 @ Vegas

The Maple Leafs play 15 of their next 20 games on the road. The final stretch is especially rough, with a five-game road trip and eight of nine away from home. There are also five back-to-back sets.

So, it’s great that the Maple Leafs have manufactured ways to win without their brilliant top forward. That said, as Mirtle points out, they’ve been outplayed pretty badly at times in those games, and you wonder how long that luck (and timely work, to be fair) can last.

From the look of things, the Maple Leafs might not have to worry too much about that, and Matthews’ return couldn’t come at a much better time.

Not that it will be easy even with him, especially since he might not be at full-strength right away.

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.