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How many goals will Nikita Kucherov score this season?

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The Tampa Bay Lightning continued to roll on Thursday night with a dominating 5-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Leading the way was Nikita Kucherov with another three-point effort including his league-leading 16th goal of the season. He enters play on Friday with a three-goal lead over Alex Ovechkin for the top spot in the NHL and is of to one of the best starts to a season (at least as far as goal-scoring is concerned) in recent league history.

After scoring a career-high 40 goals a year ago (in only 74 games) he looks like he is destined to shatter that number this season, barring injury.

So what is his ceiling or goals this season? 45? 50? Maybe even 60?

Keep in mind this is an era where the 50-goal scorer is nearly extinct. Over the past 10 seasons only nine different players have scored at least 50 goals in a season. Only three have hit that mark since the start of the 2011-12 season. But we also haven’t really seen a player storm out of the gates quite like this. Not even Alex Ovechkin, the greatest goal scorer of this generation and one of the best to ever play in the NHL, has started a season with this many goals this far in.

According to the Hockey-Reference database, Kucherov is just the 20th player since the start of the 1987-88 season to score at least 16 goals in his team’s first 17 games of a season.

He is just the fourth player to do it since 1996. Two of the other three were Daniel Alfredsson and Simon Gagne during the 2005-06 season, the one year in the past two decades when goal-scoring across the league saw a significant spike, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Alex Steen.

The rest of the players all did it during the run-and-gun late 1980s and early 1990s.

When looking at the list of previous players to score 16 goals in his team’s first 17 games all but one went on to score at least 30 goals. The one player that didn’t was Chris Kontos, finishing the 1992-93 season with 27.

Steen was the only other player on the list to not score at least 40, having scored 33 goals in 68 games.

That would have been a 39-goal pace over 82 games.

Twelve of them went on to score at least 50 goals, including some video game type numbers from the likes of Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman and Bernie Nicholls in the late 80s and early 90s.

What stands out the most about Kucherov’s start, aside from the fact he is doing it in 2017-18 when players simply do not score goals like this, is the fact that he has one of the lowest shooting percentages (23.8) out of that group during the opening 17-game stretch. That number is a bit of a spike from his career average (15 percent) but it is still 17th in the league right now. So it’s not like it is all a luck driven run of success.

Along with a spike in shooting percentage Kucherov is also generating shots on goal at what would be a career-high rate, averaging 3.94 per game.

If he maintains a 23 percent shooting percentage the rest of the way he would score an additional 58 goals on top of what he has already scored. That is … probably not realistic, but is it entirely impossible? Over the past 10 years there have been four players (Brad Boyes, Loui Eriksson, Jason Spezza, Mark Scheifele) that have recorded at least 150 shots on goal in a season and finished with a shooting percentage higher than 23 percent.

At some point though that shooting percentage is going to drop down because, well, almost nobody is superhuman enough in today’s NHL to score that many goals with that sort of shot volume.

If he maintains a similar shot volume right over the remaining 65 games and simply shot at his normal career average (15 percent) that would still give him another 40 goals on top of what he has already scored this season. That would give him 57 goals, which would be the highest total in the NHL since Steven Stamkos scored 60 during the 2011-12 season.

If he only shot at 10 percent over the next 65 games (keep in mind the only time Kucherov shot lower than 14 percent in a season was his rookie season when he only appeared in 52 games) that would still be an additional 25 goals and give him 42 on the season. That total would have placed him second in the NHL a season ago, only two behind Sidney Crosby.

In other words, what we are looking at here with Kucherov this season is the potential for what could be one of the best goal-scoring seasons in recent NHL history.

Whether or not he can remain that sort of absurd pace over the next few months remains to be seen, but even if we see a slight regression he should still be in the driver’s seat to win his first goal-scoring crown, assuming he is able to stay healthy.

The Lightning look like the best team in the NHL right now and with Kucherov and Stamkos racking up points the way they are they have the two best offensive players in the league at the moment as well.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Zucker tricks Habs; Lightning remain unstoppable

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Players of the Night: Devan Dubnyk and Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild

The Wild pair were the main cogs in Minnesota’s 3-0 shutout of the Montreal Canadiens. Dubnyk did his job between the pipes stopping all 41 shots he faced for his 25th career shutout. Zucker, meanwhile, netted all three goals for his first career hat trick. Zucker has now scored the Wild’s last five goals.

Highlight of the Night:

Welcome back to the goal scoring column, Brian Boyle.

MISC:

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl once again teamed up to break another team’s spirits in overtime. Edmonton has now won back-to-back games for the first time this season.

Jaromir Jagr scored his first goal with the Calgary Flames and Johnny Gaudreau chipped in three points during a 6-3 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.

Carter Hutton made 27 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped both Arizona shootout attempts during a 3-2 St. Louis Blues victory. Alex Pietrangelo scored his seventh goal of the season. The Blues have won 12 straight over the Coyotes.

• The Coyotes have not won in regulation in 18 games this season. Per the NHL, they’re one loss shy of tying the 1999 Calgary Flames’ dubious record.

• The Philadelphia Flyers got goals from Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier while Brian Elliott made 38 saves during a 3-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Giroux and Voracek each added a pair of assists.

• Chicago has not beaten the Flyers in the regular season in Philly in 14 meetings, dating back to Nov. 9, 1996.

Jakob Silfverberg scored twice 35 seconds apart early in the third period to power the Anaheim Ducks past the Vancouver Canucks 4-1. Rickard Rakell handed out three assists.

Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos scored in a span of 2:02 in the first period to power their way to a 5-2 win against the Los Angeles Kings. Kucherov and Stamkos combined for five points, with Kucherov potting his league-leading 16th goal of the season.

• Congrats to Oscar Fantenberg for scoring his first NHL goal.

• The Tampa power play is just unfair:

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Edmonton 3, New Jersey 2 (OT)
Philadelphia 3, Chicago 1
Minnesota 3, Montreal 0
St. Louis 3, Arizona 2 (SO)
Calgary 6, Detroit 3
Anaheim 4, Vancouver 1
Tampa Bay 5, Los Angeles 2

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy

NHL fines Killorn, Hayes, Stamkos $5,000 for water-squirting antics (Video)

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Some water bottle-related controversy during Thursday night’s New York Rangers overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning has resulted in three fines.

Alex Killorn and Steven Stamkos of the Lightning and Rangers forward Kevin Hayes were each docked $5,000 by the NHL for “unsportsmanlike conduct” early in the third period.

Not long after Killorn had a goal taken away due to goaltender interference, he was getting ready for a neutral zone face-off when Hayes squirted him with water from the Rangers’ bench. Killorn waved his stick at Hayes and a brouhaha ensued, which led to a J.T. BrownSteve Kampfer scrap.

After spending a few moments arguing with an official, Stamkos tried to return the favor but ended up hitting MSG Network’s John Giannone, who was stationed inside the glass at Amalie Arena.

Giannone, who took a puck to the face during a game in 2013, is used to the dangers that come with the territory of working between the benches. At least this time it was only water.

The $5,000 fine is the maximum under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement and the $15,000 will benefit the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy

Former Ranger Dan Girardi ready for ‘weird’ game against old team

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Dan Girardi spent the first 11 years of his NHL career with the New York Rangers, but that all changed this summer when the team decided to buy out his contract.

For those of us on the outside, the decision was a lot less surprising. Stay-at-home defensemen with big contracts are becoming more and more rare, so the fact that the Rangers wanted to move on from the inflated contract wasn’t exactly shocking for the average hockey fan.

Still, being forced to leave the only team you’ve ever known couldn’t have been easy. Now, he’ll get the chance to suit up against his former team for the first time, on Thursday night.

Most players pretend like this is just another game, but not Girardi, who told NHL.com that Thursday’s game is “still going to be weird” even though it’s being played in Tampa, not New York.

The Lightning have more overall depth than the Rangers, so they’ve been able to use Girardi in a much more limited role than he had been playing with New York in the past. Between 2007-08 and 2015-16, the 33-year-old was averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per game. In his first season with the Bolts, he’s playing just 16:33 per game, which is probably just right for him at this stage of his career.

“Definitely, it’s kind of a different role,” Girardi said. “They want me to still come in and play my game, but I’m not leaned upon to be the top guy. I’m paired with (Braydon) Coburn and we’re still playing some hard minutes against top lines, [but] my job is to be really good defensively and if I can contribute on offense it’s great.”

Obviously, contributing offensively isn’t his forte (he has one assist in 13 games), but he’s been a decent fit with his new squad.

Girardi’s CF% is under 50 percent at 47.6. But considering he isn’t great with the puck on his stick and that he starts in the defensive zone 57.4 percent of the time, those are fair numbers for the veteran. During his final three years in New York, his CF% was 46.3, 41.3 and 44.

For those wondering when Girardi will get a chance to go back to New York for the first time, that’ll come on Mar. 30, 2018.

Boyle is not alone in fighting cancer and playing hockey

When Phil Kessel got over the initial shock of being diagnosed with cancer and had surgery, he asked doctors, ”When can I play?”

When Jason Blake was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, he had the choice of taking a chemotherapy pill or having a bone marrow transplant that would cause him to miss a full season. He chose the pill and got back on the ice.

After his cancer diagnosis last month, New Jersey Devils forward Brian Boyle quickly turned his attention to playing hockey again. He will join a group of NHL players who played with cancer or after beating the disease, including Kessel, Blake, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta, former Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux.

”This (stuff) rocks your world,” said Blake, who played six more seasons after being diagnosed with CML, the same type of bone marrow cancer Boyle is now fighting. ”It’s tough. I think it doesn’t matter how old you are, who you are. When someone says you have cancer, it definitely turns your world upside down.”

Now 44 and retired, Blake reached out to Boyle last month to offer his support. Blake said if his situation had come up five years earlier, doctors would’ve given him a 50/50 chance of living five to seven more years and is glad Boyle can benefit from even more advanced technology.

Blake said medication ”shocked my system” and made him lose a lot of weight. He still feels tired but was glad to have his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates and hockey to distract him from his battle with cancer when he wasn’t with his wife and three children.

”That’s the one positive or plus that every time I went to the rink, you kind of just forget about it,” Blake said. ”Those are distractions, and those are good distractions in this case. I understand what (Boyle) is going through, but I understand the person that he is, he’s a character guy and I know that he’ll get through this no problem.”

Kessel said Boyle has a great support system from his family, teammates and players around the league.

”Having a positive attitude toward the fight is important,” Kessel said. ”He needs to listen to the professionals and do whatever you can to return to the game.”

Kessel was found to have testicular cancer at age 19 and recently partnered with Cigna on the NHL’s ”Every Save Counts” program to raise awareness and money for cancer research. After noticing a lump and having surgery early in his rookie season in 2006-07, Kessel was back on the ice in 11 days.

”I love the game and I knew that because I was in good shape that this would help me in returning as quickly as I could,” Kessel said. ”I didn’t want to miss any games. I was fortunate that I came back as soon as I did.”

Longtime coach and general manager Bryan Murray, who lost his battle with colon cancer this past summer at age 74, said he wanted early detection to be part of his legacy. Nephew Tim Murray, a former Buffalo Sabres GM, was one of several people around hockey who immediately got a colonoscopy.

Kessel hopes he can have the same effect.

”If partnering with Cigna to share my personal health story can encourage others to get a check-up with their doctor and potentially save a life, that’s a huge win for me,” said Kessel, who has won the Stanley Cup with Maatta for Lemieux’s Penguins each of the past two seasons. ”Being a voice for early detection and regular check-ups will always be my priority.”

Lemieux missed two months after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993 at age 27 and then took a leave of absence because of fatigue brought on by radiation treatments. Upon his return, ”Super Mario” led the league with 69 goals, 92 assists and 161 points and won the Hart Trophy as MVP.

Koivu missed most of 2001-02 with a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, set a new career high with 71 points the next year and played 11 more NHL seasons. Maatta, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2014, returned two weeks after surgery.

”When I found out I had a tumor, it’s scary,” Maatta said. ”It’s a scary word. Every situation’s different. There are different stages, and mine was really harmless and easy to take out. … The more we found out about it, the less scary it was for me. I was lucky with that.”

Lemieux, Kessel, Blake, Koivu and Maatta provide examples for Boyle that he can not only keep playing but at a high level.

”I’m expecting to live my life, to live a normal life,” Boyle said. ”Hopefully the season can go on as normal, as regular as possible. We don’t have to be asking about it all the time. And if I suck one night, it’s because I sucked, not because of any other reason and hopefully if that’s the biggest issue, then that’s a good thing.”

HOCKEY AND POLITICS

Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown on Saturday night became the first hockey player to engage in a national anthem protest when he stood on the bench with his fist raised in the air. Brown said he received death threats and racist remarks on Twitter after his protest but defended his decision to bring light to ”police brutality, racial injustice and inequality” in the U.S.

”I know it may not sit well with everyone, but to truly make change in this world we must be able to be pushed outside of our comfort zone,” Brown said on Twitter. ”I want young minorities to see that what they may be going through is not being ignored by the hockey community.”

The Cup champion Penguins visited President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday, reiterating that it wasn’t about politics. Trump mostly stuck to hockey, and coach Mike Sullivan thought the ceremony went well.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 7; Assists: Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington), 8; Points: Kuznetsov, 8; Time on ice: Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis), 27:02. Goals-against average: Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus), 0.48; Save percentage: Bobrovsky, .985.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The defending Western Conference champion Nashville Predators on Saturday night visit the Chicago Blackhawks, who they swept in the first round of the playoffs last spring.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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