Jason Brough

AP

Flyers’ Voracek named NHL’s first star of the week

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Jakub Voracek is earning his money. The 27-year-old forward was named the NHL’s first star of the week today, after a pair of four-point games in the past seven days for the streaking Philadelphia Flyers.

Voracek entered the season under a lot of pressure to produce. He did not have a fantastic 2015-16, finishing with 55 points in 73 games. Through 31 games of 2016-17, he already has as many goals (11) as he did all of last season. He also has 21 assists, giving him 32 points total, tied for the second most in the league behind only Connor McDavid (39).

This is the first year of an eight-year, $66 million contract extension that Voracek signed in the summer of 2015.

From the league’s press release:

Voracek led the NHL with six assists and nine points in four outings to help the Flyers (18-10-3, 39 points) complete a perfect week and extend their overall winning streak to nine games, their longest such run since April 2-22, 1995 (also 9-0-0). He scored his eighth career overtime goal – and second of the season – in a 3-2 victory against the Florida Panthers Dec. 6. Voracek then registered 1-3—4 in each of his next two contests: a 6-5 triumph over the Edmonton Oilers Dec. 8 and a 4-2 win against the Dallas Stars Dec. 10. In doing so, he became the first Flyers player to collect four-plus points in consecutive team games since Dec. 31, 1997 – Jan. 3, 1998 (Eric Lindros).

Rangers goalies Antti Raanta and Blue Jackets center Sam Gagner were the second and third stars of the week, respectively.

All hail the Metropolitan, the new best division in the NHL

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The New York Rangers are 20-9-1 and tied with the Montreal Canadiens for the most points in the NHL.

And yet, the Blueshirts can’t get too comfortable, because lurking below them in the Metropolitan Division are…

— The defending Stanley Cup champs from Pittsburgh.
— The Philadelphia Flyers, who’ve won nine in a row.
— The Columbus Blue Jackets, who’ve gone 11-2-3 in their last 16.
— And the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals.

Indeed, the Metropolitan is the new best division in hockey, assuming the mantle from the Central, which only has two teams, Chicago and Minnesota, with a positive goal differential so far this season. The Blues are still a good team, but the Predators and Stars have been disappointing.

The top five teams in the Metropolitan have a combined goal differential of — get this — plus-99.

Pity the New York Islanders, who’ve gone 6-1-1 in their last eight and still sit 10 points back of the fifth-place Capitals.

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The Caps, meanwhile, have won four in a row, and they’re also having trouble making up ground. They’re currently in the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Though on the bright side, they’re seven points clear of the fourth-place team in the Atlantic, so a playoff spot isn’t really in serious jeopardy yet.

“You just realize how good the Eastern Conference is this year,” said Capitals coach Barry trotz, per the Washington Post. “I think two years ago, we didn’t have as much balance in the Eastern Conference. There was six or eight teams that you knew they were going to be in, and there was just going to be a fight for the rest. Now, all those teams have drafted well, their young players have developed. Free-agent signings were probably a little more prominent in the East than the West last year, and maybe the last two years.”

The way the standings look right now, the Metropolitan will have five playoff teams, leaving just three spots for the Atlantic.

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The Habs have a comfortable cushion for now, but that won’t be easy to maintain without Alex Galchenyuk for next month and a bit.

The Senators are definitely vulnerable, with one of the lowest score-adjusted Corsis in the league.

The Bruins really need to make the playoffs after missing them two straight years.

The Lightning were considered strong Stanley Cup contenders, but they’ve really been scuffling along lately.

The Panthers will be very interesting to watch after the firing of coach Gerard Gallant.

And the Red Wings, of course, have a lengthy playoff streak on the line — one that looks more and more likely to end in their final season at the Joe.

As for the Maple Leafs and Sabres, well, they’re probably going to draft well again. They could maybe make a run at third place in their division, but failing a dramatic turn of events, a wild-card spot is almost out of the question.

Stars can’t afford any more ‘moral victories’

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With five straight home games before the Christmas break, the Dallas Stars have a good opportunity to get back into the playoff race.

On the other hand, their opponents will be the Ducks, Rangers, Flyers, Blues, and Kings, so maybe it’s not such a great opportunity after all.

The Stars dropped both their games over the weekend. Saturday, they lost 4-2 in Philadelphia. Sunday, it was a 3-1 defeat in Chicago. They’re currently two points back of Los Angeles for the second wild-card spot, and the Kings have three games in hand.

Though Dallas has been playing better lately compared to the start of the season, it still hasn’t been good enough.

“There’s no moral victories. There’s no ‘We played good in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Philly,'” said forward Jason Spezza, per the Dallas Morning News. “It’s not good enough. It’s not good enough with the type of team we have. It doesn’t matter if you play well if you don’t win games. It’s a results-oriented business, and these losses get tougher and tougher because we know we have a hole to climb out of.”

     Read more: What has happened to the Dallas Stars?

If this five-game home stand goes poorly, that hole will only get deeper for the defending Central Division champs.

The Stars only lost 23 games in regulation last season. They’ve already lost 13 this season. There’s still time to turn it around — starting Tuesday against the Ducks — but the pressure is building.

Bishop trying not to let contract situation affect his play

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Ben Bishop was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, and that makes it particularly striking to see his numbers a quarter of the way through 2016-17.

After 18 starts, Bishop is 8-10-1 with a .906 save percentage. He got the hook after two periods last night at Amalie Arena, where he surrendered four goals to the Vancouver Canucks in a 5-1 loss.

Last night marked the third time in his last five starts that he’d surrendered at least four goals, and one of the goals he allowed looked like this:

So, do things feel different this season?

“I feel fine,” Bishop said today, per Lightning Insider. “We go back and watch the games and technically it’s all there. There is really no difference from the way I’ve played the last couple of years to now. I don’t like saying this, but it’s been a strange season with goofy goals on tips and bounces, goals off your own players. So I think if you took some of those away, the numbers would be pretty similar to years past. I would like to get the wins a little higher.”

Bishop, of course, is a pending unrestricted free agent who is unlikely to re-sign with the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy appears to be the goalie of the future in Tampa Bay. On July 1, the 22-year-old re-signed through 2019-20.

Vasilevskiy is also 6-2-1 with a .929 save percentage.

So in that regard, it’s a bit like the situation we’re seeing in New York, where Henrik Lundqvist is struggling and Antti Raanta is thriving.

The difference is Lundqvist isn’t going to be looking for a new team anytime soon. Remember that Bishop “was close” to being traded to Calgary in the offseason. He could still end up there in free agency, depending if Brian Elliott bounces back.

Bishop says he’s trying not to let his contract situation affect his state of mind; however, he admits he’d “be lying if I said I never thought about it.”

“It’s definitely there in the back of your head,” he said.

The Lightning host the Penguins on Saturday.

Expect Vasilevskiy to start that one.

Pre-game reading: Leonsis has Ovechkin’s back on Olympics

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— Up top, relive Carey Price‘s blocker attack on Kyle Palmieri, but this time in French!

— Not for the first time, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has said he’ll support Alex Ovechkin if Ovechkin goes to the Olympics, regardless of what the NHL decides about the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. “Alex Ovechkin and his family and the Capitals and I are in it together. He’s given so much to our organization, and I would respect what he wanted to do and be very supportive of him. On this one matter I understand and I would support him.” Leonsis said essentially the same thing in 2013, before the deal to send NHLers to Sochi was struck. Granted, that was a bit different because the 2014 Games were in Russia and Ovechkin was going to be a big part of them, but Leonsis knows how badly his franchise player wants to win Olympic gold. (NHL.com)

— Wayne Gretzky, who recently rejoined the Edmonton Oilers in an executive capacity, has some thoughts on the Olympic debate: “From my point of view, we play for one thing and that’s a Stanley Cup. There’s nothing more exciting than the Stanley Cup. The one spectacle that’s really remarkable is the Olympic games. I’m a big believer in the Olympic games. I happen to love everything about the Olympic Games. I think since ’98 when we first went to Nagano, the NHL players, not only promote our sport but they do a really nice job of being around the other athletes. It helps every sport in our country. I think it’s a positive but I’m not the only guy who has say in this. I happen to love the Olympic Games, but that’s my opinion.”  (Yahoo Sports)

— Hockey is an expensive sport to play, and that means a lot of kids don’t get to enjoy it. Former NHLer Jamal Mayers is trying to change that in Chicago’s inner city. “I think it’s about kids here seeing that it’s actually possible. They’ve never seen a hockey stick before. It’s the same principles as any of the ‘ball’ sports, like soccer and basketball. You’re creating two on one’s all over the place. It’s important that we did this the right way. We can’t just put kids on the ice and say ‘Let’s play hockey.’ They have to get comfortable holding a stick.” (Rolling Stone)

— The Blue Jackets’ power play was bound to slow down. It’s still the NHL’s best, converting at 24.6 percent, but opponents have started to defend it differently. “What we’re doing is not revolutionary,” said assistant coach Brad Larsen. “But teams have made adjustments, and now we’ve had to make little tweaks here and there to answer what they’re doing.” The Jackets went 2-for-6 Monday against Arizona, but that was after four straight games without scoring a power-play goal. (Columbus Dispatch)

— The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted 11 players in 2016, but not all of them were 18 years old. Take Regina Pats center Adam Brooks, who went in the fourth round. He was 20, in his third year of draft eligibility, when he finally heard his name called in June. “It comes down to opportunity. I just didn’t have a chance to get a lot of ice time in my first couple of seasons.” Whether or not this strategy pans out for the Leafs remains to be seen, but general managers across the league will be watching. Brooks, by the way, has 47 points in just 21 games for the Pats this season. (Sportsnet)

Enjoy the games!