James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Oilers sink Ducks, set up interesting test against Pacific-leading Sharks

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The Edmonton Oilers did the San Jose Sharks a bit of a favor by beating the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday. Maybe they’ll say thanks when the Oilers and Sharks meet tomorrow?

Regardless, it was an impressive showing by Edmonton, handily winning the sort of “low-event” contest few associate with the Oilers. It wasn’t close on the scoreboard, either, as they beat Anaheim 4-0.

The battle for the Pacific Division crown remains tight, as all three of the top teams are in the running:

1. Sharks – 64 points in 49 games
2. Ducks – 63 points in 51 games
3. Oilers – 62 points in 50 games

Leon Draisaitl was one of the standouts, scoring two goals (including the 1-0 game-winner). Zack Kassian showed a little burst on what was probably the prettiest tally of the contest:

Nifty.

Cam Talbot continues to be lights-out in January, turning aside all 26 Ducks for a shutout. Here’s one of his best saves:

Fans can debate if it’s appropriate to call this a “statement game,” but it’s pretty reasonable to say that the Oilers look like they’re very likely to make the playoffs. Nights like tonight and Thursday’s test against the Sharks may merely specify where they fit in.

Canucks hold off Avalanche, move into West’s top eight

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Wednesday’s been a strong night for teams trying to climb back into the playoff picture.

First, the Philadelphia Flyers dislodged the Boston Bruins for the East’s second wild card spot with a tight win against the New York Rangers.

The Vancouver Canucks followed a similar path, needing to sweat it against the Colorado Avalanche, but now they’re back in the West’s second wild card spot after edging Colorado 3-2.

Let’s take a look at the wild card races in the West:

Blues – 53 points in 48 games played
Canucks – 52 points in 49 GP
Flames – 51 points in 51 GP
Kings – 48 points in 50 GP
Stars – 49 points in 48 GP
Jets – 48 points in 51 GP

Vancouver doesn’t have a huge margin of error, yet that’s still a positive situation, especially for a team that many pegged to be the worst in the NHL at times in 2016-17.

Instead, the Avalanche solidified their place as the sad sack of the West and NHL overall.

To be fair, Colorado’s actually pushed its opponents recently. They did so on Wednesday, erasing a 2-0 deficit. It just wasn’t enough, as Sven Baertschi’s second goal of the night and 13th of the season made the difference.

Mason silences Rangers, Flyers move ahead of Bruins for last wild card spot

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If Steve Mason puts together more nights like these, the Philadelphia Flyers might not need to worry that much about securing a wild card spot.

Mason’s 34-save shutout powered Philly’s 2-0 win against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, pushing the Flyers ahead of the Bruins for the East’s final wild card spot thanks to games in hand:

Flyers – 54 points in 49 games
Bruins – 54 points in 51 games

(The Florida Panthers lead the rest of the bubble with 50 points, while everyone else has 49. See the full standings here.)

The Rangers remain well above the fray in the first wild card spot with 63 points in 49 games, yet Wednesday’s loss had to be frustrating.

The game remained scoreless through two periods even as the Rangers managed a resounding 27-16 shot advantage. Philly took the third with the game’s only two goals and a slight 10-7 shot edge, however.

Wayne Simmmonds’ 20th goal was very, well, Wayne Simmonds. It stood as the game-winner:

It would probably be hasty to put too much of this loss on Henrik Lundqvist, though it likely slows at least some of his recent momentum … and there was no doubt which goalie was the star of this one.

When asked by Pierre McGuire if he felt like there was a specific moment when he felt “in the zone,” Mason said it actually started with his win against the Islanders a few days ago, when he stopped 36 out of 38 shots.

As up-and-down as this season has been for Mason and the Flyers, you may recall how impressive both the goalie and team looked during their 10-game winning streak.

Perhaps this is the beginning of another big push?

The present, not just future, is looking increasingly bright for Maple Leafs

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It’s almost a reflex, at this point, to take the Toronto Maple Leafs’ successes as evidence that they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Considering their bounty of young talent, looking forward is reasonable.

Still, are we discounting what this group might accomplish in 2016-17?

Wednesday presented the latest reason for Maple Leafs fans to live in the moment, as they really sweetened their playoff chances with a resounding 4-0 win against the Detroit Red Wings.

That win had the usual, like Auston Matthews responding to a tremendous goal with “no big deal.”

… While also featuring a rare moment, like Roman Polak scoring a goal, and in his 600th game to boot:

Yeah, things are good right now, even if some are trying to keep others in check.

With this result, the Leafs opened up a brief lead over the Boston Bruins for third in the Atlantic Division. Really, though, the race between Toronto and Ottawa for what would be home ice in a first-round matchup looks like it will be more interesting:

Senators: 57 points in 46 games played
Maple Leafs: 55 points in 46 GP
Bruins: 54 points in 51 GP
Panthers have 50 points, bottom three teams have 49, Canadiens way ahead in first at 65.

As you can see, the Maple Leafs are looking more and more like a lock for a spot in the postseason.

With respectable possession stats and that arsenal of young players who only seem to be getting better, they may even be able to make some noise if they make the playoffs.

Snoop Dogg, Alex Trebek continue celebrity flood to NHL All-Star weekend

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On Tuesday, PHT mostly survived a lack of knowledge of what the kids listen to these days (still unsure if Carly Rae Jepsen deserved main image treatment over Nick Jonas) in mentioning some of the huge names involved in some form in 2017 NHL All-Star weekend performances.  (Watch Sunday, 3:30 pm ET on NBC and the NBC Sports app)

Tonight’s slew of surprisingly big names is more eclectic, and luckily for fogies, easier to connect to dopey, dated references.

One of the highlights is Snoop Dogg, who was going to prompt a “Is he still called Snoop Dogg?” until you read more of the NHL press release, which notes that DJ Snoopadelic will be “behind the turntables” to open Saturday’s skills competition.

Whatever genre of music you stream/play on records/inexplicably enjoy via cassettes, you have to admit that it’s funny and surreal to see “Gin and Juice” mentioned in an official release from the NHL. Here’s a portion of that bio:

Since 1993, he has released fourteen albums and collaborated with artists across all genres of music. Snoop defines hip-hop history. He’s set records with his seminal album Doggystyle, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart and sold over 800,000 copies in the first week. Throughout his career, Snoop’s produced chart-topping hits including “Gin & Juice,” “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?),” “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang,” “Next Episode,” “Beautiful,” “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” “Signs,” “Sensual Seduction” and “I Wanna Rock.”

(Kind of disappointing that they didn’t mention that time Snoop wore a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey in a video, but you can’t win ’em all.)

Snoop isn’t the only name that stands out from Wednesday’s batch of news.

The Hollywood Reporter notes that Michael J. Fox, Keanu Reeves, Al Michaels and Alex Trebek will be presenters during “NHL 100,” which we’ll count as part of the All-Star weekend for simplicity’s sake. With Jon Hamm as the host and plenty of other performers, it feels like there’s something for just about everyone.

Bonus points if someone can convince Trebek to host a round of “Celebrity Jeopardy.”