James O'Brien

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

Calvin Pickard is making a case for Avs’ starting job


For a while, it seemed like Devan Dubnyk was going to be the story of Saturday’s Colorado Avalanche – Minnesota Wild game. Instead, he lost a goalie duel to Calvin Pickard.

It’s remarkable that it all really did come down to one save. Pickard made 32 of 32 while Dubnyk stopped 31 of 32, and that was the difference in a 1-0 win for the Avalanche.

Now it brings up a question that is either already on the mind of the Avalanche, or should be soon: is Pickard actually a better option in net than Semyon Varlamov?

That’s something of a mind-blowing thought when you consider that Varlamov often propped up some terrible Avalanche defenses. No goalie faced more shots than Varlamov has since he took over in Colorado’s net in 2011-12.

Still, Jared Bednar isn’t being paid to look in the past, and more recent results make it a question worth asking.

Pickard now has three wins in as many starts. Varlamov is stuck at 2-5-0, and most troubingly, his .891 save percentage sits in “bad backup” territory.

Also, his numbers have been drifting downward every season since his impressive 2013-14 campaign (when he faced a ridiculous 2,013 and stopped 92.7 percent of them).

Yes, there’s a cruel “What have you done for me lately?” element to this, but fortunes can turn on a dime in sports.

On that note, consider this: Dubnyk has only allowed three goals total in his last four games. This run included another team record. And for that? He has two wins in those four contests.

Goaltending, everyone.

Kings get big win against Pens (not just because they finally scored)


Did the Los Angeles Kings need a win more than any other team on Thursday? That seems like a reasonable point, considering the notion that they probably needed a goal more than anyone else.

After matching a 1968-69 Kings unit that failed to score a goal in three straight games, Los Angeles managed to break through on Thursday.

To sweeten the deal, Nic Dowd‘s hard work paid off as he scored the overtime-winner in a 3-2 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins:

More tough times ahead?

Looking at the Kings’ schedule, this win carries that much more importance.

After Saturday’s home game against the Calgary Flames, they face a five-game road trip largely against Canadian teams from Nov. 8-15. On paper, you’d expect that to be a tough stretch, but who knows? The Kings are finding ways to win amid serious injury issues and Peter Budaj being their go-to goale – in 2016 – so this team is showing some serious backbone.

Of course, they’ve proven their resolve in two Stanley Cup runs, but considering the mounting number of doubters, this is the kind of stretch that could very well build that defiant streak back up again.

(Or it will just put them in a very vulnerable position.)

Matthew Tkachuk rewards Flames for keeping him in the NHL

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Did the Calgary Flames make the right choice in burning a year off of Matthew Tkachuk‘s entry-level deal? For at least one night, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Tkachuk scored two goals, including the game-winner, as the Calgary Flames beat the San Jose Sharks 3-2 on Thursday night.

If you look at Tkachuk’s five points in 10 games, his start to 2016-17 isn’t that impressive. Things have really picked up in the last five games, however:

Thursday: two goals against San Jose, +2 rating
Nov. 1: no points, two shots on goal
Oct. 30: assist
Oct. 28: assist
Oct. 25: assist

With that, we’re reaching an interesting fork in the road for Son of Keith; is it possible that the Flames aren’t giving the impressive 18-year-old enough ice time?

His 16:10 of time on ice from Thursday easily marks a career-high, but perhaps that should become the norm, particularly for a team in the middle of the pack in a Pacific Division that seems ripe for the taking.

At minimum, it sounds like the Flames made the right choice in keeping Matthew Tkachuk around. At least for one night.

Yep, the Central Division looks formidable again


If you’re looking at nightly schedule, and your favorite team is facing someone from the Central Division, are you really ever comfortable?

OK, the Winnipeg Jets are dealing with some issues finishing chances and stopping pucks. And, yes, the Colorado Avalanche are struggling with growing points post-Patrick-Roy.

Still, there’s not really a soft team in this division, a point that Thursday really hammered home.

Hossa and Crawford hoss up

On paper, a 4-0 Blackhawks win against the Avalanche follows the script you would expect, even if the Blackhawks enjoyed the added wrinkle of Marian Hossa continuing to enjoy a small-sample-size resurgence (two goals on Thursday, four goals and one assist for five points in his past four games).

Even with score effects almost certainly factoring in, it must be noted that Colorado didn’t necessarily roll over here, though; the Avs generated a 38-21 shot differential. They just couldn’t solve Corey Crawford on Thursday.

The Blackhawks are on a five-game winning streak and have won five of six (5-0-1) and seven of nine (7-1-1).

Stars build momentum

It’s true that both St. Louis (5-4-2) and Dallas (4-4-2) did not expect such modest records to begin 2016-17. Still, both teams are showing flashes of the brilliance they are capable of, with Dallas breaking a troubling three-game losing streak and a trend of losing five of its last six.

The Stars stand as an interesting barometer for the division in the short term: their next two games involve a back-to-back set against the Blackhawks and then a road game against the Winnipeg Jets.

(They also face a tough five-game road trip after Saturday’s home game against Chicago … so Dallas would earn some plaudits if they don’t hit the wall too hard through mid-November.)

Predators make progress

The Arizona Coyotes beat the Nashville Predators 3-2 via a shootout on Thursday. Louis Domingue is a story in his own right as the main factor in Arizona’s streak of winning three of four.

Still, you have to tip your cap to the Predators to some extent. They’ve generated three of four points in the last two games to somewhat salvage a debilitating five-game road trip (1-2-2).

They now get to enjoy four games in a row in Nashville and seven of their next 10 at home after boosting their confidence a bit these past couple nights.

Does it mean that they’ve justified their status as a chic Stanley Cup pick? Maybe not, but they’d probably settle for another step toward respectability.

From the look of things, in this Central Division, you might not be able to afford too many dry spells.

Ovechkin, Giroux among Thursday heroes beyond regulation

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Thursday has seen some really nice performances beyond regulation, whether they be in overtime or in shootouts (or a combination of the two).

Let’s take a look at some of the standout moments after the first 60 minutes of competition then, shall we?

First, we start with Alex Ovechkin‘s 91st game-winning goal, set up by John Carlson:

One of the more scintillating moments of the night came when Vincent Trocheck ended an exciting overtime between the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers with this nice goal:

Finally, Claude Giroux enjoyed a fine night for the Philadelphia Flyers, making a difference for the struggling New York Islanders. His shootout goal stood out among other moments:

The NHL is lacking in more glaring lesser lights so far this season, so for all we know, it could come down to superlative performances in overtime and beyond in 2016-17. On Thursday, Ovechkin, Trocheck and Giroux made the difference for their respective teams.