Jason Brough

AP

A rebuilt third line has been key for the Caps

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The Washington Capitals are on quite a roll, and it’s not just the usual suspects who are filling the net.

Though Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov have, indeed, been piling up points since the Caps caught fire after Christmas, the third line of Brett Connolly, Lars Eller, and Andre Burakovsky has been pretty potent itself.

“You’re getting guys who’ve got double-digit goals on that line,” head coach Barry Trotz said, per the Washington Post. “We didn’t have that on that third line last year. We do now. We’re getting scoring from the third line, no question. We’re getting scoring from all lines. That’s good for us. It makes us a hard team to play.”

The Caps did not get the balanced scoring they so desperately needed in last year’s playoffs. And so GM Brian MacLellan added Eller and Connolly in the offseason, lauding both for their size, skating ability, and skill.

“We’ve been looking to fill that (third-line center) spot for a little while now,” he said after acquiring Eller from the Montreal Canadiens, who received a couple of second-round draft picks in return.

Connolly, meanwhile, was a former sixth overall draft pick who was running out of chances to stick in the NHL. He signed a one-year, $850,000 deal with the Caps on July 1, after the Bruins chose not to extend him a qualifying offer

“He just hasn’t seemed to put it together yet consistently,” said McLellan. “Talking to him, I think in hindsight he probably started in the league as too young a guy so his game hasn’t fully come around or matured and I think he’s got a good awareness of where he’s at and so do we. We’re going to try and fulfill his potential and he’s trying to do the same thing.”

Of course, all of this success will be forgotten if the Caps don’t keep rolling in the postseason. That’s the burden this team will carry into the spring. Washington is now in the second year of what McLellan has deemed a “two-year window.” Win or lose in the playoffs, some tough decisions will need to be made this summer, and the balanced scoring the Caps are currently enjoying may take a hit.

But that’s a worry for another day.

“It’s fun to play right now,” said forward Marcus Johansson, per CSN Mid-Atlantic. “The confidence in the group is outstanding.”

Capitals goal-scoring since Jan. 1

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The Stars have an awful PK, and it’s dooming their season

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For the seventh straight game, the Dallas Stars surrendered at least one power-play goal. The Stars fell, 3-1, last night in Toronto, as their playoff hopes continued to fade.

“It’s kind of been the story of the season. The way we’ve been finding ways to lose is by taking penalties,” said veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, per Sports Illustrated.

Against the Leafs, it was a penalty by Radek Faksa — for a face-off violation, of all things — that put the Stars two men down in the third period. Dallas had just scored to make it 2-1. But Toronto converted to make it 3-1, and that was that.

With a success rate of just 73.3 percent, the Stars have the worst penalty killing in the league, and they’re on pace to have the worst PK of the salary-cap era.

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Suffice to say, it is not a good look for the players or the coaching staff. When a team surrenders almost one PP goal per game, it suggests a lack of discipline and structure.

“I look at special teams, that’s on me, improving special teams,” head coach Lindy Ruff said recently, per NHL.com. “I don’t like where our penalty kill is. We’ve worked on trying to change that.”

Of course, it also suggests there may be a goaltending problem, but we knew that already. Kari Lehtonen has the worst save percentage in the league while shorthanded (.797), and Antti Niemi (.839) hasn’t been too good either.

The Stars, now seven points out of a playoff spot, take on the Sens tomorrow in Ottawa.

Habs need to ‘look in the mirror’ after 4-0 loss to Avs

AP
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DENVER (AP) This is exactly how Mikko Rantanen and the Colorado Avalanche envisioned playing all season.

Of course, it’s way too late by now.

Rantanen scored three times for his first career hat trick, Calvin Pickard stopped 27 shots and last-place Colorado beat the Montreal Canadiens 4-0 on Tuesday night.

Andreas Martinsen added a goal as the Avalanche posted back-to-back wins for the first time since November. Even more, it’s the first time all season they’ve won two straight at home.

“We’re playing like how we should have played the last 30 games,” Rantanen said. “We were sharp tonight and we played a solid 60 minutes.”

Pickard picked up his second shutout of the season, withstanding a late flurry at the end. He also had an assist.

All-Star goaltender Carey Price was off his game early, giving up two quick goals, and the Canadiens never recovered. This after routing Colorado 10-1 on Dec. 10 in Montreal.

After that debacle, the Canadiens knew the Avalanche wouldn’t forget and would come out with something to prove the next time the teams met. Montreal simply couldn’t answer.

“We didn’t weather it early. Right from the puck drop to the end we weren’t very good,” said Canadiens defenseman Nathan Beaulieu, who played in his 200th NHL game. “We all hold ourselves accountable. It’s a good time for all of us to look in the mirror right now.”

The Atlantic Division leaders dropped to 1-4-1 over their last six games.

“Every team goes through tough stretches,” said Price, who has three wins in his last 12 appearances. “It’s important that we continue to have fun and not dwell on things when they’re not going well. It always seems to be the recipe to get out of funks. It’s what we’re going to use.”

His coach was more succinct.

“We all have to do better,” Michel Therrien said. “Just a disappointing night.”

Read more: Brendan Gallagher could be back soon

Rantanen finished off his hat trick at 6:01 of the third period when he scored on a 5-on-3 advantage. The crowd tossed a few hats onto the ice in celebration.

The 20-year-old Rantanen made it 3-0 at 13:10 of the second when he tipped in a shot from defenseman Mark Barberio, just recently claimed off waivers from Montreal. Before the move, Barberio spent the season shuffling between the Canadiens and their American Hockey League affiliate.

“As good of a team as Montreal is – they’re very good defensively and they have the best goalie in the league – so it was a great start,” Rantanen said.

Amid trade rumors, the Avalanche played one of their best periods of the season, scoring twice in a 1:55 span during the first. Rantanen scored on a hard shot from the right side 30 seconds into the game and Martinsen added another on a play set up by an assist from Pickard.

Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene have been constantly mentioned in trade speculation with the team well out of the playoff picture. First-year coach Jared Bednar is trying to keep it out of the locker room – and his players’ heads.

Although, he doesn’t expect the rumors to quiet down.

“When you’re sitting where we are, it’s part of the game,” Bednar said. “It’s a couple wins for us that we’re really happy to have, especially with the way our team has been playing. But I don’t think it’s going to do anything with those rumors.”

Pre-game reading: On the future of Claude Julien, who may be a fit for Vegas

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— Up top, Jeremy Roenick talks about his old coach, Mike Keenan, who literally scared J.R. into playing a more physical game.

— The Claude Julien takes didn’t take long to publish. Here’s one by TSN’s Gary Lawless, who wonders if Vegas will try to hire the now-former Bruins coach. “Perhaps being part of a new build from the ground up would invigorate Julien. Or maybe he’s only interested in his next job being with a contender. He has the rest of this year at $2.5 million and all of next at $3 million to take his time and make a decision.” (TSN)

— Whether it’s Vegas or some other team, Mike Babcock would be shocked if Julien doesn’t get snapped up. “Good, good, good man. Even better coach. Someone out there is happy today. I mean, you ain’t getting better. When you make these decisions, you better have a guy in mind that’s better than that guy. Not many, I can tell you that.” Babcock and Julien were part of Team Canada’s victorious coaching staffs at the 2014 Olympics and 2016 World Cup. (Sportsnet)

— On Julien’s successor, Bruce Cassidy, whose first go-around as an NHL head coach didn’t end so well. “He was once before a head coach in the NHL, leading the Washington Capitals for a year and half (2002-04) until getting fired after 25 games of his second season as the team spiraled down to last place in the NHL. According to reports at the time, Cassidy also went on a rant in the media about his players that included some personal remarks that later required an apology.” (Boston Globe)

— Back in 2011, there were high hopes for Mark McNeill when the Chicago Blackhawks drafted him 18th overall. “But now here we sit 5½ years later and the 6-foot-2, 212-pound McNeill has played in just one NHL game. For one reason or another players such as Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Phillip Danault — all taken after McNeill in 2011 — and others such as Teuvo Teravainen, Vinnie Hinostroza, Ryan Hartman, Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz all were promoted while McNeill has stayed in Rockford.” (Daily Herald)

— On the future of Nassau Coliseum. Could it one day be home to the New York Islanders again? That’s what Newsday investigates as the Isles go in search of a new place to play. “The Islanders and Barclays Center can opt out of their 25-year licensing agreement in January 2018. If the team opts out, it can leave as early as the 2018-19 season. If Barclays opts out, the Islanders must leave after the 2018-19 season.” (Newsday)

Enjoy the games!

Sabres preaching the process, but major roster holes remain

AP
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The Buffalo Sabres have been hammered by injuries this season, with key players Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, and Zach Bogosian all missing extended periods of time.

But injuries were no excuse for last night’s 2-1 loss in New Jersey. Sure, Bogosian was missing again, but the Sabres were relatively healthy otherwise, and they still got badly outshot, 39-23.

“It is up to us in this room to get things going,” goalie Robin Lehner told reporters afterwards, “and today we didn’t get things going.”

According to Sports Club Stats, the Sabres will have to go around 19-8-3 in their remaining 30 games in order to make the playoffs.

In other words, it’s looking like a sixth straight miss. They’re not officially out of it yet, but it’s getting close to “maybe next year” time.

Still, they have to play on. The Sabres host the Sharks tonight, the Ducks Thursday, then head to Toronto for a Hockey Night in Canada contest Saturday.

“Our players have to treat these games like they’re meaningful playoff-type games to get that experience of winning and playing playoff-type of hockey,” said head coach Dan Bylsma, per WGR 550. “That’s the process we have to go through, and it’s really important to have meaningful games for the players to have that sense about it.”

For GM Tim Murray, decisions have to be made ahead of the March 1 trade deadline. Brian Gionta, Dmitry Kulikov, Cody Franson, and Anders Nilsson are all pending unrestricted free agents. And it remains to be seen if Kane is going to be part of the future; he’s only signed through next season.

Murray, like Bylsma, has been preaching the process. And in the GM’s defense, it wasn’t that long ago that the Sabres stripped the roster bare in order to draft the likes of Sam Reinhart and Eichel.

“We’re not happy where we are,” Murray told The Buffalo News recently. “We’re trying to be better and we have been in certain areas. But when you go to the bottom, you can’t snap your fingers and learn how to win. This is a process and we’re sticking with it. You have to.”

But for the fan base, it is frustrating all the same to see a team like Toronto in the thick of the playoff chase. Winning the lottery and drafting Auston Matthews obviously helped the Leafs, but Eichel was supposed to be the same caliber of franchise center. So, why aren’t the Sabres having success too?

In reality, Eichel is the least of the Sabres’ problems. There are still major holes on the roster, especially on the back end, arguably the toughest area to fix with a snap of a GM’s fingers. Though Buffalo does have a nice prospect in Brendan Guhle, he’s only 19, and there’s no blue-chip blue-liner beyond him.

That’ll be up to Murray to address, and it won’t be easy. He’s not the only GM looking to upgrade his defense, and prices for top-4 guys are unlikely to come down.