James O'Brien

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

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

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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

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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.

Injuries keep piling up for Panthers in win; Luongo, Bjugstad hurt on Friday

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Earlier on Friday, PHT discussed all the tough times for the Florida Panthers. Whether they beat the Nashville Predators or lose, it’s clear that those tough times are continuing.

Injuries were a focus of that post and they kept piling on tonight. The game is still in progress, yet it looks like Roberto Luongo and Nick Bjugstad will headline the injured list.

Luongo may have suffered his upper-body injury during warm-ups, prompting the team to bring an emergency goalie into the mix.

The Panthers didn’t specify what, exactly, is ailing Bjugstad. They only said that he won’t return to the game. It may have happened during this faceoff:

Bjugstad missed significant time already this season, so 2016-17 could be a rough one for the forward.

With the likes of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau on the shelf, Florida must hope that these are merely minor issues for Bjugstad and Luongo.

Knowing their luck lately, it’s tough to drum up a lot of optimism for these wounded Cats.

Update: The Panthers at least managed a win from a messy day. They beat the Predators 2-1 thanks to an odd game-winner by Jonathan Marchessault.

Predators reward Matt Irwin with one-year extension at $650K

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P.K. Subban‘s injury situation means that the Nashville Predators’ off-season gets a grade of “Incomplete,” but one of the smaller moves has been working out wonderfully.

Defenseman Matt Irwin isn’t blowing anyone’s mind, yet he’s been a very nice piece for their defense, and the team rewarded him with a little future certainty by way of a one-year, $650K extension on Friday.

(Granted, that “certainty” could be questioned since the expansion draft creates a lot of questions for anyone outside of a team’s core … but let’s table that for a moment.)

As of right now, Predators defensemen under contract through at least 2017-18 currently include Irwin, Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Petter Granberg and Anthony Bitetto.

Irwin can provide a decent mixture of solid offense and respectable defense – he’s usually on the right end of possession stats – so this deal could be a subtle bargain … whether it stays in Nashville, or perhaps migrates to Vegas.