James O'Brien

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

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers on NBC

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If being without Evgeni Malkin wasn’t enough of a challenge for the Pittsburgh Penguins, how about adding an angry Henrik Lundqvist?

The New York Rangers’ star goalie likely remembers Marc-Andre Fleury‘s “baby stuff” comments, adding a little tabloid drama to an already intriguing game at Madison Square Garden.

Even with Malkin out, there’s no shortage of star power, and the Rangers also get Derick Brassard back from a brief bout with the flu.

You can watch the drama unfold on NBC and stream it via the link below.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Looking back at Predators’ team-record 14-game point streak

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The Nashville Predators’ 14-game point streak went a bit under the radar for a few reasons, most obviously because they’re still a significant haul from the Central Division title race.

Still, it could be something we look back on if, say, the Predators make some noise as a strong wild card team in the West.

Let’s take a look at that team-record 14-game run, which ended Saturday via a 4-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.

MORE: Predators are “pretty hot right now.”

Craig Smith, Filip Forsberg catch fire

It’s pretty easy to see the difference between some of the Predators’ go-to forwards before vs. during this streak.

Smith is probably the most dramatic example. In his first 50 games of 2016-17, Smith scored 14 goals and 30 points. That’s perfectly reasonable, but Smith generated 14 goals and 22 assists in the 19 games since the All-Star break. Obviously, that included a healthy chunk of that point streak.

Signs of life from Pekka Rinne

As we stand, this still ranks as one of Rinne’s worst statistical seasons; his .909 save percentage is the second-lowest mark he’s experienced (his woeful 2013-14 season featured a .902 percentage).

Nashville weathered the storm of what may have been his lowest points, so seeing recent confidence-building means more than those past struggles. His save percentage is much healthier at .917 since the All-Star break, and the points are coming with that improved play.

Overtime struggles persist

Strangely, the Predators remain a team that’s struggled after regulation. They now sit at 9-1-5 if you include that Canucks loss.

It’s disturbing enough that the team website attempts to put their overtime struggles “in perspective.”

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Long story short, with some rising scorers and an improving starting goalie, the Predators stand as an opponent to avoid. Their record streak put that notion under the spotlight.

No rust: Mike Smith returned with 44-save shutout for Coyotes

AP

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) Mike Smith didn’t look like a guy that has missed half a season.

Smith made 44 saves in his return from a 40-game injury absence and Antoine Vermette had two goals and an assist to help the Arizona Coyotes beat the Edmonton Oilers 4-0 on Saturday night.

It was the 29th shutout of Smith’s career and his second this season. He returned after having surgery to repair a core muscle injury.

“It was nice to get back out there obviously,” Smith said. “I haven’t played in a long time and I couldn’t draw it up much better than that. I owe a lot of thanks to a lot of people.”

Vermette said Smith’s play was impressive.

“He was really good,” he said. “All through the game he made some big saves and he played well with the puck also. We know what he is capable of and he’s a big factor for us, so it was nice to see him back and hopefully he can keep going that way.”

Viktor Tikhonov and Alex Tanguay also scored for the Coyotes, who have won two straight on the road on the heels of a franchise-record 10-game losing streak as the away team.

Cam Talbot stopped 25 shots for the Oilers, who have lost two of their last three.

“The smarter team won the game, hands down,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. “We had 44 shots on net, but other than Taylor (Hall’s) breakaway, I don’t recall having one single outnumbered rush. On the other end, we gave up five or six clear-cut 2-on-1s.

“It’s a formula for failure,” he added. “It’s been going on and has proven here over the years to be a formula for failure. We just proved it again tonight. It’s kind of insanity isn’t it? When you keep hitting you head against a wall and getting the same result.”

Edmonton had the bulk of the early chances, but Arizona struck first with 7:30 to play in the opening period when Martin Hanzal sent a puck toward the net from the sideboards and Tikhonov deflected it past Talbot.

The Coyotes made it 2-0 7 minutes into the second period when Vermette elected to shoot on a 2-on-1, scoring his 13th.

Arizona added another goal midway through the middle frame when Tanguay skated into the slot and beat Talbot while the Coyotes were on a two-man advantage.

The Coyotes added to their lead midway through the third period. Vermette was allowed to get to his own rebound and record his second goal of the game.

NOTES: The Coyotes were 2-0-1 against the Oilers in their three previous meetings this season, with both wins coming in Arizona. … Absent with injuries for the Coyotes were Oliver Ekman-Larsson (upper body), Anders Lindback (Achilles tendon surgery) and Joe Vitale (fractured orbital bone). Ekman-Larsson did, however, skate with the team on Saturday. … Missing from the Oilers lineup were Oscar Klefbom (leg), Andrew Ference (hip), Brandon Davidson (knee), Benoit Pouliot (shoulder), Eric Gryba (knee), Adam Pardy (undisclosed) and Matt Hendricks (upper body). … Edmonton center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins returned from a broken hand injury after missing 23 games. … The Oilers play the second game of a five-game homestand on Monday against Nashville. The Coyotes are off until Thursday, when they return home to face the San Jose Sharks.

Boston Pride win first NWHL championship, honor Denna Laing

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The Boston Pride are the first-ever winners of the Isobel Cup, the NWHL’s championship, after completing a two-game sweep of the Buffalo Beauts on Saturday.

The final game ended 3-1, with Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker accepting the trophy, which was “named after Lord Stanley’s daughter Isobel and is presented to the best professional women’s hockey team in North America,” according to the league’s release.

Members of the Boston Pride dedicated that win to Denna Laing, a teammate who was injured during an outdoor game before the 2016 Winter Classic.

“She meant everything to us,” Pride defenseman Kacey Bellamy said, via the NWHL’s release. “She’s been with us every step of the way and we know she’s with us right now.”

For more, check out the NWHL’s website.

 

Central showdown: Blues beat Stars in overtime thriller

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With about a month remaining in the regular season, the NHL looks packed with great playoff runs, but the race to win the Central Division title might just take the cake.

Saturday providing Exhibit A for why that might be, as the piping-hot St. Louis Blues won a thrilling 5-4 overtime game against the Dallas Stars.

The Blues built multiple leads in this contest, going up 1-0, then 2-1 and 4-2. The Stars came back every time … until they weren’t allowed to respond to Alex Pietrangelo‘s heady, clinching goal.

Fittingly, it was a thrilling moment with the two teams trading hay-makers, as Tyler Seguin was painfully close to ending the game in the Stars’ favor during that same sequence.

Here is a GIF of Pietranglo’s OTGWG; video of the entire exchange will be added if available.

By getting a “charity point,” the Stars are technically still on top of the Central, even if the Blues are enjoying the screaming momentum of a six-game winning streak. Of course, the Chicago Blackhawks cannot be ignored in this race, either:

1. Stars – 91 points in 70 games played, 41-20-9 with 39 ROW

2. Blues – 91 points in 70 GP, 41-20-9 with 36 ROW

3. Blackhawks – 88 points in 69 GP, 41-22-6 with 40 ROW

This marks the final regular season meeting between the Blues and the Stars. Both the Stars and Blues have a game against the Blackhawks, so expect a lot of scoreboard watching through mid-April.

Aside: Vladimir Tarasenko remained in the game, but he took a slash from Antoine Roussel, so that could be a possible injury situation to watch … or maybe not?