James O'Brien

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

Rich get richer: Letang returns for Penguins, Carlson back for Capitals

Chalk it up to getting a little extra time off thanks to the All-Star break or (most likely) just a coincidence, but two East contenders are getting a key defenseman back apiece on Tuesday.

In the case of the Pittsburgh Penguins, blueliner Kris Letang returns to the lineup as Pittsburgh faces the Nashville Predators. Letang last played on Jan. 14. The Penguins ended up winning 4-2.

The remarkably healthy Washington Capitals get even healthier with John Carlson back in the mix as the Caps visit the suddenly hot New York Islanders in Brooklyn. Similar to Letang, Carlson’s most recent appearance came about two weeks ago (Jan. 15). Washington dropped a 3-2 loss to the Islanders.

As much as each Metropolitan power thrives off of their star forwards, these two defensemen are key motors in their own right, especially in the case of Letang (as there’s a pronounced drop-off between No. 58 and every other Penguins blueliner).

Oh, and speaking of Metro teams, a friendly reminder that Marc Staal is in for the New York Rangers as well:

Success rewarded: Rangers reportedly extend Vigneault through 2019-20

Getty
6 Comments

Heading into the 2016-17 season, people wondered if Alain Vigneault could learn from the New York Rangers’ humbling playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. It sure seems like the answer is “Yes,” something reinforced by the bump in job security (and pay) he reportedly received.

The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports that Vigneault is now signed through 2019-20 and received a hefty $2 million bump in pay per season. Vigneault’s previous deal only ran through 2017-18.

After his successful run with the Vancouver Canucks, Vigneault’s shown a knack for making things work and churning out wins in a way that reminds of Bruce Boudreau.

He’s also managed to take the Rangers deep into the playoffs (after nearly winning a Stanley Cup with the Canucks).

The Rangers fell to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and also made it to Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Rangers are currently 31-17-1 with 63 points, a total that would put New York in the running for a division crown if it weren’t for the ridiculous Metropolitan Division.

Now, it’s no doubt that Vigneault has his critics, much like virtually every coach who’s been long enough for fans to sour on them. The obvious example is his seeming fixation on putting Tanner Glass in the Rangers lineup.

If you look at his results, it’s tough to argue with the logic of keeping him around. If you produce winner after winner, you’re probably doing something right.

With All-Star break over, let’s take a look at playoff races

Getty
4 Comments

LOS ANGELES (AP) Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were linemates. Connor McDavid scored on a pass from Ryan Kesler. Wayne Simmonds was the shooting star of the show.

The dreamlike quality of the NHL All-Star Game was particularly pronounced on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Hollywood. After all, just about every All-Star got to meet his hockey heroes when most of the game’s greatest living players performed the ceremonial opening faceoff with them.

“I was pretty star-struck,” Montreal goalie Carey Price said.

But when the league revs up again Tuesday night, another dream comes into focus. Only 40 percent of the regular season remains, and there’s a Stanley Cup to chase.

Few teams are out of the postseason race, and nearly every club is about to begin 10 weeks of high-stakes play. Most teams reported back to work on Monday morning, and the league schedule resumes Tuesday with 28 of the 30 teams in action.

Nobody is an overwhelming title favorite yet. The Canadiens’ seven-point lead in the Atlantic is the biggest edge in a division race, and the competition for the Presidents’ Trophy is still wide-open as well: There are 10 teams within nine points of Washington’s league-leading 72 in the chase for home-ice advantage in the postseason.

“The All-Star (weekend) a great time, but we all know what happens when we have to get back to work,” San Jose captain Joe Pavelski said.

Here’s a quick preview of the four divisional races and what’s coming up in the NHL’s home stretch:

PACIFIC

The race out West is particularly enticing: San Jose, Anaheim and upstart Edmonton are separated by one point atop the division.

McDavid and the Oilers have hung in with the division’s three California powers all winter, capped by back-to-back road victories over the Ducks and Sharks to close out the first half.

“We’ve put ourselves in a good position, and we’re happy about that,” McDavid said. “We realize how much work we have left to do, because this is a long season. None of it means very much if you don’t finish out the way you started.”

The Golden State’s trio of contenders isn’t about to give up.

The Ducks have won four straight Pacific titles, and they’re hoping coach Randy Carlyle can inspire postseason success that Bruce Boudreau couldn’t. The Sharks look easily capable of defending their Western Conference title, and the Los Angeles Kings should get star goalie Jonathan Quick back from injury shortly before the postseason.

CENTRAL

The Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks are in tight competition atop the division. Boudreau got the Wild off to their best start to a season in franchise history, and All-Star goalie Devan Dubnyk is having another standout season. This could be the year Minnesota reaches its first Stanley Cup Final, or at least wins two playoff rounds for the first time since 2003.

Of course, the team that beat them in the second round twice in the past three years is right behind them in the Central standings – and it just happens to be the best playoff team of this era.

Chicago returns with three of the 100 greatest players in NHL history in its lineup. Captain Jonathan Toews admits he isn’t having a great season, but he has plenty of time to ramp up for another playoff run with Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.

METROPOLITAN

The best divisional race might be among the stars who won the four-division, 3-on-3 tournament at the All-Star Game. A four-team competition has swung back and forth in the Metropolitan, with Columbus streaking in front on its 16-game winning streak, only to be passed by Washington two weeks ago.

The Capitals’ fretful fans might think they’ve peaked too soon yet again, but nobody gets comfortable with Crosby’s Penguins lurking behind them. The defending Stanley Cup champions begin the second half in third place, just seven points back.

ATLANTIC

The Canadiens have bounced back smartly from last season’s second-half collapse without the injured Price, and Les Habitants’ nearest competitors all have problems: Ottawa’s goal-scoring woes, Boston’s inconsistent play and powerful Tampa Bay’s major injuries have all put a cushion underneath the Canadiens.

But that cushion isn’t as big as it looks. The Senators have three games in hand on Montreal, and the Lightning hope to get Steven Stamkos back for the late playoff push.

And the Toronto Maple Leafs? They’ve got problems, as you’d expect for a team that’s made the postseason once since 2004. They’ve also got All-Star Auston Matthews, fellow high-scoring youngsters Mitchell Marner and William Nylander, and more than enough talent to be dangerous down the stretch.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/gregbeacham

By luck or by design, Capitals have been remarkably healthy this season

Getty
4 Comments

Upon reflection, Alex Ovechkin griped about the Washington Capitals meeting the Pittsburgh Penguins – arguably a matchup of the East’s two best playoff teams – in the second round of the 2016 postseason. It felt unlucky to Ovechkin, and likely others.

The Capitals can’t complain about one big luck factor, however: health. They’ve been insanely sturdy in 2016-17, and to some extent during the Barry Trotz era.

NHL Man Games Lost is an essential resource for tracking such figures. With the 2017 NHL All-Star Break serving as a natural stopping point, this seems like a great opportunity to drop our jaws in awe at Washington’s astounding luck in this area:

To give you an idea of how unusual that is, the Penguins hit 18 alone with Kris Letang. The second-luckiest team total goes to the St. Louis Blues, who are at 69 man-games lost.

Remarkably, the Capitals ranked as one of the healthiest teams in 2015-16, too:

Maybe the Capitals feel like they can get more out of a player like Andre Burakovsky. And, sure, bounces go their opponents’ way in plenty of cases. Even so, this is a pretty unlikely run of luck.

It’s difficult to hatch many theories about why this might be happening. Maybe the Capitals follow the lead of their sturdy, constantly scoring captain Alex Ovechkin. He’s played 888 regular season to Sidney Crosby‘s 749 since their rookie seasons in 2005-06. Ovechkin’s never played fewer than 72 games in a non-lockout season, and usually plays at least 78.

Perhaps there’s something about Trotz’s system that leaves the Capitals less susceptible to big hits? Maybe not whining to refs as often is good for the health?

Whatever the case may be, it’s pretty remarkable stuff. If they can stay this healthy throughout 2016-17, they’ll be that much tougher to beat.

Mathieu Perreault says ‘dirty’ Corey Perry slash broke his finger

Getty
6 Comments

Winnipeg Jets forward Mathieu Perreault isn’t happy with the slash he received from Anaheim Ducks star Corey Perry, and not just because it resulted in a broken finger. Not just because he’ll probably lose the nail (gag) on that finger.

No, Perreault believes that the play was dirty, and didn’t exactly shoot down reporters’ comments about Perry’s “reputation” for going over the line.

Illegal Curve has the audio from Perreault’s discussion with the media from Monday, with the “dirty” talk beginning around the 50-second mark. He threw the word around multiple times in discussing the exchange, also noting that he was once teammates with Perry in Anaheim.

For what it’s worth, Perreault didn’t seem too irritated that the league didn’t take action about the slash, reasoning that it’s difficult to judge the impact of a slash in the moment (it didn’t even draw a penalty). That doesn’t mean Perreault is happy about it, mind you.

Footage of the slash wasn’t easy to find, but here’s an overhead shot in GIF form:

The slash happened during last Monday’s 3-2 loss for the Jets against the Ducks. The team’s play one more time (March 30 in Winnipeg), so perhaps there will be some fireworks.