James O'Brien

Video: Coyotes lose ninth in a row on brutal Smith turnover

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Earlier this season, Mike Smith kept the Arizona Coyotes in games that would normally be lopsided losses. On Friday night, he was the goat, at least in overtime.

The Coyotes lost their ninth game in a row most directly from the puckhandling mistake/bit of bad luck Smith experienced, with the Anaheim Ducks winning 3-2 in OT.

You can see that gaffe in the video above.

The question is: was Cory Schneider‘s mistake from the New Jersey Devils’ 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs even worse?

Tough call.

Canucks’ six-game tear is good for Ryan Miller, if no one else

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 02:  Ryan Miller #30 of the Vancouver Canucks reacts on a call by the referee on an empty net goal late in the third period during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on November 2, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Vancouver Canucks 3-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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If anyone can benefit from the Vancouver Canucks not doing a “tank job,” it’s the one guy conceivably most capable of thwarting such efforts: Ryan Miller, whose contract expires after this season.

It’s no secret that a goalie can make the difference between winning and losing many nights, and that was certainly the case on Friday; Miller willed the Canucks to a 4-2 win against the Calgary Flames, the team’s sixth consecutive victory. As of this moment, Vancouver is – shockingly – in the West’s final wild card spot.

The Flames generated more shots on goal in the third period (23) than Vancouver managed all game as Calgary ultimately generated a 46-13 edge. Miller had none of it, stopping 44 out of 46 shots.

Loui Eriksson didn’t really provide in-depth analysis above, but at least it shows that the Canucks are aware of how much this latest win hinged on Miller’s performance.

That’s fitting, too, because Miller’s future hinges on his work in 2016-17 overall.

At 36, his stature in the league is muted, yet one could also see serious potential as a backup or 1B-platoon-type goalie. If a contender like Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh loses a key goalie, maybe they scoop up Miller at a decent price, giving him a chance to extend his career while making a little more money?

Such a scenario is far easier to ponder if Miller keeps the Canucks in the playoff picture.

Now, this six-game winning streak is actually logically timed, even if Friday’s game is by no means repeatable.

The Canucks have played five of their last six games in Vancouver and nine of 11 overall at home since Dec. 16. If they were ever to go on an anti-tanking run, this would be the time to do it.

Now, we can debate the merits of piling up wins this late in the season all we want, but we can be certain that Miller has zero interest in losing games.

If he keeps this up, we might just get a real barometer regarding how much management truly wants to win vs. trying to get the best draft lottery odds possible.

Video: MacKinnon, Avs’ reason for optimism, ends losing streak in OT

The Colorado Avalanche don’t have a ton of reasons to smile, but many of their beacons of hope shined brightly on Friday.

Most obviously, Nathan MacKinnon is still just 21, and his under-the-radar greatness sometimes proves brilliant enough to reach the greater hockey consciousness. Take tonight, when he assisted on the Colorado Avalanche’s first goal and generated the overtime-clincher in a 2-1 OT win against the New York Islanders.

Gabriel Landeskog scored that first goal, which was also assisted by fellow light at the end of the tunnel applicant Mikko Rantanen:

Of course, Calvin Pickard also played splendidly, stopping 35 out of 36 shots. This season seems like it will be a slog the rest of the way for the Avalanche (they ended a five-game losing streak and got just their fourth win since Dec. 1) – and likely beyond – but nights like these lead you to believe that there are at least a few building blocks in place.

Oh my Darling: Blackhawks survive Hurricanes’ torrent of shots for win

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 06:  Jeff Skinner #53 of the Carolina Hurricanes moves to the puck next to Scott Darling #33 of the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on January 6, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The Carolina Hurricanes are a team that’s likely jealous of the Chicago Blackhawks, even beyond the more obvious jewelry-related reasons.

You see, so far in 2016-17, the Blackhawks are the team that some would label as “finding ways to win” while the Hurricanes are quite the opposite. Some would chalk that up to veteran savvy vs. youngsters not being ready for primetime, but it also might come down to luck.

(PDO, the prime indicator of luck, ranked Chicago as the fifth-luckiest team in the NHL and Carolina as the team with the second-worst luck, and that was before Friday.)

If you’re interested in squabbling over bounces vs. “tests of will” and everything in between, the narratives persisted in the Blackhawks’ 2-1 win against the Hurricanes on Friday.

Some of the factors were predictable enough. Jonathan Toews scored and Artemi Panarin notched the eventual game-winner on the power play. That all follows the script nicely.

Still, Scott Darling was the true star of this one; he made 39 out of 40 saves as he stemmed the steady tide of Hurricanes shots. Cam Ward allowed two goals on a lighter night of 24 shots.

The chances were actually even more lopsided headed into the final frame. Over the first 40 minutes of action, Carolina generated a 31-16 shots on goal edge, yet only Victor Rask‘s goal eluded Darling, and that came with five seconds remaining in the second period.

Neither team scored in the final frame, and so the Blackhawks beefed up their record to 25-12-5 while the Hurricanes fell to 17-15-7. Darling continues to quietly build a resume as one of the NHL’s best backups alongside the likes of Antti Raanta, while even with Ward being a bit more competent than usual, the Hurricanes still face nights where they must overcome their goalies.

Maybe that’s the message the Blackhawks really imparted to the young Hurricanes tonight: stop sleeping on goaltending.

Matthews is red hot and Maple Leafs sure look like a playoff team right now

NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 06: Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates in warm-ups prior to the game against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on January 6, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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At this moment, the margin of error is small, but the Toronto Maple Leafs look more and more like a (gasp) playoff team after Friday’s 4-2 win against the New Jersey Devils. And Auston Matthews looks more and more like the Calder winner, too.

Since reaching the point of mediocrity (11-11-7) with a 3-2 shootout loss to the Coyotes on Dec. 15, the Leafs have been on a roll. They’ve gone 7-1-1 since then, failing to generate a standings point in just one contest.

Speaking of the standings, they’re now in third place in their division. Even with things looking tight, their outlook is promising, especially if the Ottawa Senators can’t keep up their own surprising pace:

Atlantic standings

1. Canadiens – 54 points in 39 games played
2. Senators – 44 points in 37 GP
3. Maple Leafs – 44 points in 38 GP

4. Bruins – 44 in 41 GP
5. Lightning – 42 in 40
6. Panthers – 42 in 40
7. Red Wings – 39 in 39
8. Sabres – 37 in 38

The inactive Bruins fell past the wild card ranks, as the Capitals (53 in 38) and Flyers (45 in 40) are ahead of the pack.

Considering the tight nature of the race for the last two spots in the Atlantic, it would be foolish to guarantee Toronto makes it. Still, things haven’t looked this good for the Maple Leafs in ages.

Then again, it’s been quite a while since they had a player as promising as Auston Matthews.

He already scored his 21st goal of his outstanding rookie season, and you really don’t need to qualify his accomplishments as “great for a rookie,” either.

Wow.

Again, plenty can go wrong; Maple Leafs fans know that things can fall apart rapidly, even for a team that’s in prime playoff position pretty late in a season.

Still, for those optimists or for those willing to buy into the Matthews and Mike Babcock hype … this franchise might just be a little ahead of schedule.