James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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WATCH LIVE: Flyers – Blackhawks on Wednesday Night Rivalry

A lot has changed since the Chicago Blackhawks bested the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, but now the two teams find themselves in somewhat similar circumstances.

At least, they do if you look at it strictly from the perspective of the 2017-18 season. Both the Blackhawks (5-5-2) and Philadelphia Flyers (6-5-1) are hanging in there in their respective conferences, yet each team likely identifies plenty of areas for improvement.

Even with the Blackhawks’ and Flyers’ issues, there is still plenty of firepower on hand. To start off Wednesday’s doubleheader of NBCSN games, we get to see the powerful Claude GirouxSean CouturierJakub Voracek line (along with a power play featuring Wayne Simmonds) square off against Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and the rest of Chicago’s big names.

It should be a fun one, and a useful barometer for two prominent NHL teams. You can also watch online and via the NBC Sports App.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

For a full preview of both NBCSN games (tonight also features the Sharks and Predators), 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.

Blues defy big odds to rank among NHL’s best

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After an absolutely maddening run of injuries before the season even began, there was some concern that the St. Louis Blues would miss the playoffs. Instead, they’re in a position to run away with the Central Division with November about to begin.

You can forgive the Blues for setting their sights higher than that, too, even after all those false alarms about “this being the year,” to some extent stretching back to the days of Al MacInnis’ booming shot and Steve Yzerman-administered heartbreak.

Maybe it’s fitting, then, that the Blues enter Tuesday tied with Yzerman’s Tampa Bay Lightning with matching 10-2-1 records as the top teams in the NHL (and, thus, the top seeds in their conferences). They ended October with quite the win, too, topping the Pacific-leading, also-resurgent Los Angeles Kings.

Really, the Blues’ successes might be more impressive than that of the Lightning and Kings. While everything seems to be going right for the Lightning after an injury-ravaged 2016-17 campaign, St. Louis’ black-and-blue status makes its run of victories seem that much more impressive.

Alex Steen missed a big chunk of October. Jay Bouwmeester‘s status remains murky, and Patrik Berglund hasn’t returned yet. Robby Fabbri‘s season-ending knee issues deprived the Blues of a fascinating young forward. Zach Sanford lost a chance to move up the ranks and prove himself.

With all of that, the Blues are 10-2-1, but are especially hot lately: four wins in a row and a 6-0-1 points streak.

That’s pretty fantastic, and might only be an under-the-radar story because of how well-built this franchise is thanks to GM Doug Armstrong. He doesn’t get many mentions among the game’s brightest minds, yet Armstrong looks pretty shrewd as of this moment.

Let’s ponder what is going right for the Blues, and maybe also consider a few elements that make this run even more impressive.

  • The season began with a hot power play, but they’ve learned to adjust as it cooled off.

To start 2017-18, the Blues scored a single power-play goal in five straight games. That man-advantage dominance hasn’t sustained, however, as St. Louis has only generated PPGs in one of their last eight contests (2-for-3 against Calgary on Oct. 25).

  • Critics can’t just dismiss the Blues as having a cushy schedule. So far, they’ve played eight of 13 games on the road. They’ve also faced three back-to-back sets, so if anything their success should have tapered off.
  • As disruptive as those injuries must have been, this is Mike Yeo’s first real season running the Blues.

After all, Yeo was an assistant-turned-interim head coach last season. This time around, Yeo had the opportunity to implement his systems and really cement his philosophies in training camp. Perhaps that makes some difference in how the Blues are approaching each game?

  • Jaden Schwartz has been healthy, and Jaden Schwartz has been a force. With 17 points in his first 13 games, Schwartz leads St. Louis in scoring, enjoying a hotter start than star sniper Vladimir Tarasenko (14 points). Now, with a 25 percent shooting rate, Schwartz is bound to slow down a bit. The Blues would settle for him regressing if he can flirt with a healthy season.

  • Alex Pietrangelo is quietly amassing a pretty compelling Norris Trophy argument. He’s already a sneaky-fantastic, all-purpose defenseman.
  • Some hit-or-miss supporting cast members are belting our homers like Yasiel Puig. Paul Stastny is nailing his contract year so far, including 11 points in 13 contests. Brayden Schenn‘s been a great fit after the trade.
  • The biggest factor is probably the goaltending, which seems to be carrying over the momentum from last season’s turnaround once Yeo took over. Jake Allen continues to look like a legitimate number one guy, while Carter Hutton managed a .950 save percentage in his three appearances.
  • That said, there are the red flags you’d expect from a team wildly exceeding expectations. The Allen-Hutton tandem combined for the best save percentage in the NHL, and that .9475 mark at even strength will slip even if they’re outstanding all season. Other stats over at Natural Stat Trick look fishy, with their third-best PDO signaling that the party might stop or at least slow down.

Of course, the Blues can sidestep some of the plummeting one might expect from the rigors of the season by getting back some key players.

They’ll likely face challenges in their schedule, in the standings, and on the scoreboard to pair with injury headaches, as just about every NHL team hits cold streaks. They still deserve credit for a strong October, all things considered, and their reward is more than just pride: St. Louis currently leads the Central Division by seven points.

Not bad for a team that seemed like an ailing afterthought heading into the season.

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 players got weird for Halloween (beyond McDavid as Trump)

via Patrik Laine's Instagram
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To some, there’s no topping Connor McDavid‘s Internet-disrupting turn as U.S. president Donald Trump this Halloween. Check out this post for the fallout on all of that.

Then again, that might come down to taste/how much you weigh in timely references, as NHL players and teams have really gone all-in on Halloween this year. In fact, there’s little chance that this post will cover every fake-blood-crusted costume and zany bit, so feel free to share more in the comments or via Twitter.

(Also realize not every Halloween dream was realized. Ask Mitch Marner.)

As you might expect, P.K. Subban came up with a clutch costume, and maybe a little nightmare fuel. Just a lot to unpack here:

Dude, what?

Subban’s teammate Roman Josi went pretty generic with a zombie riff, but made up the difference with how elaborate it got:

🎃

A post shared by Roman Josi (@rjosi90) on

The instinct was to make fun of Erik Gudbranson for such an outdated costume as Austin Powers, but the follow-through is inspiration for anyone who wants to dust off an aging reference:

Oh behaaaaave…🤓

A post shared by Erik Gudbranson (@guddy44) on

Then again, Eric Gryba went for a KISS theme, so maybe there are lot of old souls in the NHL?

(Aside: are hairy chests making a comeback?)

Hey, Henrik Lundqvist might be off to a tough start, but at least he provides some comic relief:

There’s King Henrik, and then there’s his teammate Kevin Shattenkirk, who embraced a love of “Game of Thrones” as going with “The Night King.”

Amazing work by @itsbphelps transforming me into the Night King for Halloween! #winteriscoming #thrones 📸: @itsjlev

A post shared by Kevin Shattenkirk (@shattdeuces) on

Kris Letang also got into the “GoT” spirit.

(This is probably a good opportunity to remind you that hockey players have the sort of time and resources many of us lack when it comes to knocking Halloween out of the park.)

Not sure what to say, Vladimir Tarasenko. Not sure what to say.

Повязали🤷🏼‍♂️👮🏼‍♀️

A post shared by Vladimir Tarasenko (@vt9191) on

Most Marc-Andre Fleury costume possible? Arguably.

Nazem Kadri reminds us of an artist on the ice sometimes, so Bob Ross is a good fit. (We’ll assume Maple Leafs teammate Matt Martin took a day off from looking like Brad Pitt.)

"Make love to the canvas" – Bob Ross

A post shared by Nazem Kadri (@43kadri) on

Finally, Patrik Laine haunts our dreams, instead of mainly scaring goalies with his shot:

🎃🎃

A post shared by Patrik Laine (@patriklaine) on

(Hey, at least we did a public service and provided none of the “It” costumes. Don’t say we never did anything for you.)

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.

Wild get key weapon back in Nino Niederreiter

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The Minnesota Wild have been on an upward trend lately, with three wins in four games. Even so, their 4-3-2 record tells the fuller story that Bruce Boudreau’s bunch haven’t always been able to navigate some significant injury challenges early in 2017-18.

On the bright side, they’re calling in a key reinforcement on Tuesday, as Nino Niederreiter has been activated from injured reserve before tonight’s game against the Winnipeg Jets.

The 25-year-old hasn’t appeared in a game for the Wild since Oct. 12. Even with that in mind, this must be an antsy time for “El Niño,” who has yet to score his first point in 2017-18 after signing a five-year, $26.25 million contract during the summer.

MORE: Niederreiter expects the Wild to break through in the playoffs

Even with Charlie Coyle sidelined and Zach Parise dealing with some disturbing back problems, Niederreiter suddenly gives the Wild some balance on offense. These were their lines earlier today:

Nino Niederreiter – Eric StaalLuke Kunin

Jason ZuckerMikko KoivuMikael Granlund

Marcus FolignoJoel Eriksson EkChris Stewart

Tyler EnnisMatt CullenDaniel Winnik

Not bad, and you can imagine that group climbing to explosive with Coyle and (ideally) a semi-healthy Parise in the mix.

Niederreiter was already showing some promise early in his Minnesota career (three straight 20+ goal seasons), but 2016-17 seemed to signal a breakthrough to another level. The Swiss-born winger generated career-highs in goals (25), assists (32), and points (57), while also continuing to be a fancy stats darling with outstanding possession numbers.

Maybe the Wild lack outright superstars, but players such as Niederreiter are difference-makers at forward, and you can bet that he’s been sorely missed.

Considering the firepower on hand for the Winnipeg Jets, the Wild could really use the boost, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the two teams traded blows in a fun affair.

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.

Puck to face lands Getzlaf on IR as Ducks’ bad luck continues

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The Anaheim Ducks have already been dealing with injury issues this season, and now an errant puck to the face lands Ryan Getzlaf on injured reserve.

He’ll be reevaluated on Monday, according to the team, which means that Getzlaf will miss at least the next three games for the Ducks. They host the Maple Leafs on Wednesday, the Predators on Friday, and then face the Sharks in San Jose on Saturday. After that, they’ll begin a five-game homestand on Tuesday, Nov. 7.

Here’s that unfortunate moment from the Ducks’ eventual 4-3 shootout win against the Carolina Hurricanes:

Give the Ducks credit; they won that game, and head coach Randy Carlyle is taking a matter-of-fact approach:

True, but it’s understandable if the Ducks are a little frustrated.

They finally got Ryan Miller into the mix on Sunday. Sami Vatanen is back to some extent, as he played on the weekend but didn’t suit up for back-to-back games. Cam Fowler‘s knee injury looks foreboding, and it remains to be seen when Ryan Kesler can return (and how long it will take the hard-working two-way center to approach full health). Kevin Bieksa is banged-up, while Patrick Eaves deals with a legitimately frightening ailment.

Speaking of frightening aliments, John Gibson seemed to avoid anything, um, too severe:

Despite these injuries, the Ducks have won four of their last five games to improve to 6-4-1. That’s resilient work, yet you wonder if they’ll cave under the pressure with their captain sidelined for at least the next three contests.

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.