Jason Brough

Buffalo Sabres goalie Anders Nilsson makes a glove save during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
AP

Strong goaltending has given the Sabres a flicker of hope

2 Comments

We’ve written a lot lately about the failed backup goalie situations in Toronto, Edmonton, and Boston, so let’s switch things up and talk about Anders Nilsson in Buffalo, because he’s put up some excellent numbers for the Sabres this season.

Nilsson improved to 7-3-4 with a .930 save percentage after last night’s 39-save triumph over the Flyers. The 26-year-old only allowed one goal in the 4-1 victory. In the three starts he’s made this month, he’s 2-0-1 with a .944 save percentage.

Granted, the Sabres are still a fair bit back of a playoff spot, five points behind Ottawa for third place in the Atlantic Division, with three other teams between them and the Senators.

But thanks in large part to their goaltending, they’re at least feeling some optimism now.

“We’re happy with where we’re at,” forward Sam Reinhart told reporters last night. “We know it’s a long road to get back to where we want to be. … Tonight was another step in the right direction.”

The Sabres acquired Nilsson in an offseason trade with the Blues, sending a fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft to St. Louis.

Buffalo GM Tim Murray deserves credit for the move. Though at the same time, it’s worth remembering that Nilsson was not Murray’s first choice to back up Robin Lehner, as the Olean Times Herald explained on the day of the trade:

After the Sabres lost goalie Chad Johnson to his hometown Calgary Flames on Friday, Murray said another backup verbally agreed to an $850,000 contract. The Sabres had even placed the goalie on their depth chart.

Then the goalie took a $900,000 deal with another team, Murray said. Based on the contracts awarded, Jeff Zatkoff, who signed for that money with the Los Angeles Kings, was possibly the player.

Zatkoff, in case you’re wondering, has struggled badly with the Kings, going 2-6-1 with an .886 save percentage.

The Sabres, meanwhile, couldn’t ask for much more from their two netminders, as Lehner has also put up solid numbers with a .921 save percentage in 27 starts.

sabres

Looking ahead, if the Sabres have any hope of making up more ground in the standings, they’ll need their goalies to be good, or even better than good. Buffalo has nine games left in January, and only two of them are at home.

The Sabres’ next game is Thursday in Tampa Bay.

Ovechkin, on verge of 1,000 points, has been well worth the money for Caps

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 1:  Ted Leonsis , owner of the Washington Capitals, introduces  Alexander Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals 2004 first round draft pick at a press conference September 1, 2005 at the MCI Center in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Getty
Leave a comment

When the Washington Capitals signed Alex Ovechkin to a $124 million, 13-year contract eight years ago, the long-term commitment and first nine-digit deal in NHL history represented a significant risk.

Owner Ted Leonsis and former general manager George McPhee’s concerns were about possible injury. But now that Ovechkin is one point away from 1,000 for his career, he has eased their concerns.

Few players over the past decade have been as durable or productive as the rough-and-tumble 6-foot-3, 245-pound superstar, who hits almost as much as he scores.

“I never had any issues about whether the fire would die,” McPhee said by phone Tuesday. “I never, ever thought he would cheat us on effort because he was such a hard-working kid on the ice. … The only concern was, `What if he gets hurt?’ And that’s everybody’s fear with long-term deals. But in terms of ability and desire, I never worried about that.”

A year ago Ovechkin became the fifth-fastest player to 500 goals, and if he reaches 1,000 in his 880th game Wednesday against longtime rival Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, he’d be the second-fastest active player to that milestone behind Jaromir Jagr, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Crosby, who’s at 982 points in just 740 games, could bump him to down the list very soon.

While concussions interrupted Crosby’s prime, the 31-year-old Ovechkin has never missed more than 10 games in 12 NHL seasons despite countless bumps, bruises and assorted other injuries. He played through a broken foot in the 2013 playoffs, came back with no ill effects from a knee injury in 2014 and battled a back injury on the way to scoring 50 goals (again) last season.

As McPhee put it, Ovechkin “plays through everything.” The now-Vegas Golden Knights GM remembers Ovechkin needing several stitches to close a bad skate cut on the inseam of his leg during a game in Pittsburgh in December 2007 and then surprisingly playing two nights later in Ottawa and scoring four goals.

Former coach Glen Hanlon said Ovechkin at 80 percent is still great, which is why his scoring prowess has continued into his 30s against the trend of most goal-scorers.

“When we signed Alex to the 13-year deal, did we anticipate that he would remain an elite goal-scorer now going into his 30s, and the answer’s obviously yes,” Leonsis said before this season. “We had great confidence in him. What I’ve been surprised at is that he’s continued his physical play and still has remained a great goal-scorer. His durability has really positioned him as a really historic player.”

Ovechkin will become the 84th player to reach 1,000 points, a mark that he said means he’s “getting older.”

“I remember my first year, my first game, like it was five minutes ago,” Ovechkin told The Canadian Press after a three-point night Monday in Montreal that helped the Capitals win their sixth consecutive game. “Time move forward and time move quick, so you just have to enjoy every second and every moment and when you have an opportunity, try to do something special.”

Coach Barry Trotz said it would fitting if Ovechkin would hit 1,000 at home since Washington is on a three-game home stand against the Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. It would be even more fitting if Ovechkin gets No. 1,000 on an overtime goal to pass Jagr for sole possession of the most in history.

Ovechkin has 19 OT goals among his 544 and his production at such a high level for so long has defied convention, especially with the reckless abandon the Russian winger has played with his entire career. McPhee said Ovechkin among maybe only 10 players in the history of the game with the blend of toughness and scoring – like Gordie Howe, Cam Neely and Eric Lindros.

“When Ovi is best on his game, he’s got the unique ability to play a physical game like no other star in the league can,” Trotz said. “He has the ability to shoot the puck as good as anybody who’s ever played the game, and he can be a force. He has those two elements.

“When he’s imposing his will, he’s skating, he’s using his big frame to be a hard guy to handle. When he’s got all those things going, he’s very, very unique. There’s not too many guys in the league that have all those elements.”

 

Pre-game reading: A list of All-Star snubs, starting with Cam Atkinson

5 Comments

— Up top, learn more about the early days of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, the late Canadiens superstar whom Alex Ovechkin tied last night with his 544th career goal.

— A list of 17 All-Star omissions. Cam Atkinson is the first name mentioned, and there’s no doubt he was deserving of consideration. Only five players in the entire league have more goals than Atkinson’s 19. But with each team requiring at least one representative, he didn’t make the cut out of the star-studded Metropolitan Division. A pair of Blue Jackets, Seth Jones and Sergei Bobrovsky, did receive invites. In a related story, Max Pacioretty, David Pastrnak, and Michael Grabner also have 19 goals and didn’t make it. (Sportsnet)

— The one guy with 19 goals who did get invited was Ovechkin. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for the minutes he plays, keeping himself healthy, playing as many games as he has,” Capitals teammate Jay Beagle said. “He sometimes gets a bad rap, but seeing him from the inside and seeing what he does and how hard he works, it’s a special thing.” (Washington Post)

— It still remains to be seen if NHLers will participate in the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, but it’s worth noting that not a single American goalie was named to the All-Star Game. Granted, Jonathan Quick is hurt, so he couldn’t play anyway. But both Ben Bishop and Cory Schneider, USA’s other two goalies at the World Cup, are having down seasons. If NHLers do go to South Korea, it will be interesting to see which three American netminders make the cut. John Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck should be in the running as well. Maybe even Scott Darling, too. (Olympic Talk)

— The Boston Bruins could probably use a winger like Gabriel Landeskog, but Joe Haggerty argues they’d be nuts to trade Brandon Carlo or Charlie McAvoy in order to make it happen. “The notion of trading McAvoy or Carlo should be a non-starter, even for a talented 24-year-old player like Landeskog who has years of solid productivity in front of him. It appears the Bruins agree, especially now that Carlo has impressed in his first half-season in the NHL and McAvoy dominated all the big moments in helping Team USA win the World Junior championship.” (CSN New England)

— Halfway through the NHL season, it doesn’t look like Canada will get skunked again. After no Canadian teams made the playoffs in 2015-16 (for the first time since 1969-70), at least one, Montreal, seems a sure thing to be in the postseason come April. And if the playoffs started today, three others — Ottawa, Calgary, and Edmonton — would join the Habs. The remaining three — Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Toronto — are hardly out of the race either. (CBC Sports)

Enjoy the games!

He’s not going to the All-Star Game, but Pacioretty has been ‘phenomenal’ for Habs

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 12:  Max Pacioretty #67 of the Montreal Canadiens takes a shot during the warmup prior to the NHL game against the Detroit Red Wings at the Bell Centre on November 12, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Detroit Red Wings 5-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Getty

MONTREAL (AP) Max Pacioretty will have to wait at least another year to get his time in the All-Star spotlight.

The Montreal Canadiens’ captain was left off this year’s All-Star roster despite being one of the league’s most consistent scoring threats.

He built a strong case for this month’s event in Los Angeles, right there among the league leaders with 19 goals and he’s been on a roll since the middle of November.

The 28-year-old’s star power still needs a boost, falling well short of his production on the ice.

Only three players have scored more goals (173) than the American winger since 2011: Alex Ovechkin (243), Steven Stamkos (202) and Joe Pavelski (178).

His 129 even-strength goals are bettered only by superstars Ovechkin (139) and Stamkos (139).

“I don’t know about (the media), but we don’t (take him for granted),” Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said recently. “We appreciate what he’s capable (of doing). The last two months he’s been phenomenal with us.”

After a slow start — just two goals in the first 14 games — Pacioretty has been on a roll.

He’s tied with Sidney Crosby and Jeff Carter for the NHL lead in goals since Nov. 12 with 17. He scored four in three games last week, including back-to-back overtime winners, the second one giving him the franchise lead in OT goals.

His 38 winning goals over the past five-plus seasons trail only Ovechkin’s 42.

Therrien raved about his play, pointing to his “passion” in particular, and positive influence on the dressing room of the first-place Canadiens.

“He wants to make a difference every game,” Therrien said of Pacioretty, on pace to hit 38 goals and establish a career best with 68 points. “And he’s doing a hell of a job for us.”

Teammate Mark Barberio thought Pacioretty’s consistency as a scorer – in an era when goals continue to trend downward and goalies get bigger and better – was underrated.

In fact, Pacioretty has been one of the league’s most consistent scoring threats, one of only four players to hit 30 goals in each of the previous four full seasons – the others being Ovechkin, Pavelski and the Ducks’ Corey Perry.

Yet, he’s rarely in the conversation of the league’s top players.

He has probably been overshadowed by star teammates Carey Price, P.K. Subban, Shea Weber and Alex Radulov. He’s also never been the best or even second-best player on his team and his game lacks the sizzle of Ovechkin or Stamkos.

While he may not be flashy, Pacioretty is plenty effective.

Formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Barberio joined the Habs last year and was struck by the quickness of his new teammate’s release, describing his shot as “world-class”.

“He’s deceptive,” Barberio said. “And when he brings it to the net he brings it with a lot of force and I think that’s what surprises goalies the most.”

“Not everybody has a shot like that,” he added. “There’s (only) a few guys in the league that can just beat a goalie clean one-on-one and he’s definitely one of them. We’re lucky to have him.”

Pacioretty’s wrist shot, in particular, has been the NHL’s most potent over the past six seasons. He tops all players with 111 goals on his wrist shot in that span, trailing only the Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko and Jets’ Mark Scheifele with 12 this season.

Pacioretty doesn’t just score either. Underlying stats that suggest he’s one of the more effective penalty-killing forwards in the NHL, albeit in a secondary role. He’s also one of Montreal’s top puck possession players (53.8 percent), a long 6-foot-2, 215-pound winger who’s spent the season with a variety of linemates because of injuries for the Habs.

Only one Atlantic Division forward, Toronto’s Auston Matthews, has more goals than Pacioretty so far and, heading into Tuesday’s games, only three had more than his 34 points (Nikita Kucherov, Brad Marchand and Matthews).

But it was not enough to earn him a first-time All-Star nod with Price and Weber both garnering spots for Montreal.

“Maybe he flies under the radar but not in this room,” Barberio said. “We know what he brings.”

Coach Q wants Seabrook to ‘get back’ to what he does best

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 21:  Brent Seabrook #7 of the Chicago Blackhawks skates with the puck as Peter Holland #24 of the Toronto Maple Leafs defends during the second period at the United Center on December 21, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Maple Leafs 4-0. (Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images)
Getty
2 Comments

Brent Seabrook‘s ice time is down, and Joel Quenneville explained why this morning.

“I thought he had a great start to the season, defended well, [got] involved in the offense and shot off the point,” the Blackhawks’ head coach said, per the Chicago Sun-Times. “Defensively, when he’s playing his best, he’s killing plays, going to people quickly, and [making] quick outlet passes. … We’d like to see him get back to that.”

On the season, Seabrook has two goals and 19 assists with an average ice time of 22:07.

But in Sunday’s 5-2 win over Nashville, the 31-year-old logged just 18:08. And two days prior, it was a mere 15:52 against Carolina, when he didn’t see the ice for the final six minutes in a 2-1 victory that required Scott Darling to make 39 saves.

Perhaps the last few games are just a blip, something every player goes through from time to time. Seabrook has earned the benefit of the doubt that he can get back to where his coach wants him to be.

But if it’s more than a blip, then it’s a problem for the Blackhawks, who have him under contract through 2023-24 for a cap hit of almost $7 million.

He’s not getting any younger.

Including the playoffs, Seabrook has already played 1,004 games in the NHL. Among active defensemen in the league, only seven have played more regular-season games than his 885.

d

As you can see, one spot below Seabrook is teammate Duncan Keith, with 876 games played. A couple of spots above is teammate Michal Rozsival, with 953. And a few spots higher is teammate Brian Campbell, with 1,043.

Related: Blackhawks banking on improvement from rookies