Around the rink – Saturday, December 4th

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Know how I can ruin your Saturday? You’ve only got three weeks until Christmas and I know you’re not done shopping yet.  Know how I can make your Saturday better? I can tell you that there are 12 games on the schedule today and that the first one drops the puck at 1:00 this afternoon. A full day of hockey? You bet your gingerbread house there is. All times are Eastern.

1:00 pm

New Jersey @ Philadelphia

Philly is going to be looking for a bit of redemption in this one after dropping their last meeting against the Devils in a shootout. The Devils, meanwhile, are still trying to get things right and coming off a 5-1 loss to Montreal the other night, getting that kind of sting to heal could be made worse by having to deal with the Flyers. Martin Brodeur is still out for New Jersey and Ilya Kovalchuk is still not scoring. The Flyers, meanwhile, are looking to snap a three-game skid of their own. Something’s got to give.

2:00 pm

San Jose @ Montreal

Hockey Day in Canada? You got it. An afternoon tilt between the strong Habs and the on-again, off-again Sharks. San Jose comes into the game after thumping Ottawa 4-0 the other night. Montreal is riding high after delivering a sound beating to the Devils. If both teams are on top of their games, it should make for a great matinee in Montreal.

7:00 pm

Boston @ Toronto

If the Maple Leafs want to do their part to save head coach Ron Wilson’s job, beating Boston at home would be a good way to do it. The Leafs have struggled with Boston and Phil Kessel has been a non-factor in virtually every meeting between the two teams since he was acquired from Boston. With Toronto having lost four straight, dealing with the Bruins who have won two in a row including an 8-1 thrashing of Tampa Bay doesn’t sound like a good mix. Things could get ugly here.

Buffalo @ Ottawa

Buffalo gets a big win over Columbus last night after having nearly a week off. Their reward is getting to play back-to-back nights with the second coming against a team they struggle mightily with in Ottawa. If Buffalo is back, beating the Sens in Ottawa would make for a heck of a sign. Ottawa, meanwhile, needs to get things going especially after their brutal no-show against Dany Heatley and the Sharks on Thursday.

Atlanta @ Washington

The team in charge of the Southeast Division gets to deal with the upstart youngsters once again. The Thrashers and Caps have already met four times. The Caps are 2-2-0 against the Thrashers this year, but in their last meeting Atlanta mopped the floor with them 5-0 with Ondrej Pavelec getting the shutout. These teams play just six times this year and the schedule makers being funny like that are making sure they get all their games out of the way now. Their final meeting will come just before the All-Star break in late January. Look for the Caps to be angry after getting a bit hosed by the referees in their previous game in Dallas.

Pittsburgh @ Columbus

What’s Columbus’ reward for getting thumped by Buffalo?  A home game against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. Worse yet, the game will be a virtually home game for the Penguins as fans from western Pennsylvania have no qualms about making the trip to Ohio to take over Nationwide Arena. It’s bad timing for the Jackets as they’ve dropped three straight. Meanwhile, the Penguins are winners of eight in a row. Some might say it’s a recipe for disaster for Columbus, but this has all the makings of a trap game for the Pens. This one could be a lot more interesting than it seems at first glance.

7:30 pm

Colorado @ Tampa Bay

Colorado got off to a bad start on their road trip dropping a game in overtime to Carolina last night. They’ll get to deal with a Lightning team looking to redeem themselves after an 8-1 beat down by Boston on Thursday night. Tampa has lost three of their last four games and the reason for them falling off has been goaltending. The Lightning are 29th in goals allowed this year. Colorado being one of the better scoring teams in the league will look to get back on track after only getting one goal last night.

8:00 pm

Carolina @ Nashville

Life without Pekka Rinne for the next 2-4 weeks starts for Nashville and it couldn’t come at a worse time for the Preds as Rinne had been playing great. Now it’ll be up to Anders Lindback to try and keep the Hurricanes at bay. The Canes will prove to be a tough opponent as while the wins have been inconsistent for Carolina, their games have been close. Expect a tight-knit affair here.

Minnesota @ Dallas

Minnesota comes in after losing a tough one against Calgary last night and they’ll look to turn around their fortune in Dallas. The Wild have a miserable record in Dallas as the Stars are 14-2-2 against the Wild in Texas. Yikes. Dallas will want to keep their eyes focused on Martin Havlat who has been carrying the bulk of the Wild offense of late notching 16 points in his last 11 games.

Florida @ Phoenix

The Panthers come into this one losers of five of their last six games and the Coyotes will be looking to pick up after their last game, a 4-2 win over Minnesota. Florida over that span of six games have allowed 20 goals, an average better than three per game. Tomas Vokoun and the Panthers defense will have to tighten things up if they want to have a shot to win. For what it’s worth, their offense hasn’t been bad, it just hasn’t been consistent at all.

10:00 pm

St. Louis @ Edmonton

Can the Oilers keep it going? They went 3-0-0 on their tour of eastern Canada and now they return home with renewed confidence. Getting to face off with the slumping Blues could help them keep rolling. The Blues are losers of four in a row but the rest they’ve had the last few days could be the thing they needed. The Blues looked a bit gassed in their 4-1 loss to Washington on Wednesday night. If the Blues are going to compete though, they’ll need goals. During their four game skid, the Blues have scored nine goals, five of which came in a 7-5 loss to Chicago.

10:30 pm

Detroit @ Los Angeles

The slumping Kings get to deal with a Wings team that is just on a roll. The Kings are 2-7-0 in their last nine games while Detroit has won four straight. Potentially working in the Kings favor in this one is who they’ll face in goal. Chris Osgood is back from injury and will make the start. Osgood has gone back to being inconsistent this year and if the Kings are looking for a means to shake off the cobwebs, perhaps getting a shaky and rusty Osgood will help matters.

The Buzzer: Red Wings win; Laviolette lost a bet

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Three Stars

1. Mark Stone

The fantastic two-way winger performed at a high level for Ottawa, generating two goals (including the impressive overtime game-winner) and an assist while logging a busy 20:53 time on ice.

On a night where stone generated a +2 rating, the 26-year-old fired four shots on goal, delivered two hits, and blocked two shots. Stone was probably the biggest reason the Senators won a battle of not-as-dour-as-expected teams.

(See his booming OTGWG in the highlights section.)

2. Nathan MacKinnon

Gabriel Landeskog‘s two goals (and five goals in two games) grabs your attention, but MacKinnon actually had the better overall game.

MacKinnon scored one goal, already his eighth of 2017-18, and also generated two assists. They were primary helpers on both of Landeskog’s goals.

It was an all-around effort for the speedster, as MacKinnon finished +2, generated five SOG, and also delivered a hit and a blocked shot. About the only thing you’d ask for is more success on draws.

Philipp Grubauer was crucial to Colorado’s success, too, stopping 42 out of 43 shots.

(For more on MacKinnon’s rise to stardom, click here.)

3. Jeff Skinner

You could point out plenty of other three-point games from Saturday; perhaps you’d highlight Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakub Voracek, or Patrick Kane instead?

Regardless, Skinner’s starting to heat up for Buffalo, with all six of his points coming during the Sabres’ last four games. Skinner’s hat-trick goal itself was an empty-netter, but his Saturday was still sterling; he scored on all three of his SOG and sported a +4 as Buffalo added to the Kings’ miseries. Jack Eichel was fantastic in his own right, collecting three assists.

This sort of result really has to be heartening for the up-and-down Sabres.

Highlights

When in doubt, go with overtime game-winners. There were a few to choose from on a busy Saturday around the NHL, but let’s go with Stone’s authoritative shot:

And Gustav Nyquist taking advantage of a nice play by Dylan Larkin to earn Detroit’s first win of the season:

In what might have been the real highlight of the night, Peter Laviolette lost a bet, and well, this happened:

Factoids

Not bad, Marc-Andre Fleury.

This is quite the zany group of former Senators:

What was that line? Living well is the best revenge?

Scores

Flyers 5, Devils 2
Avalanche 3, Hurricanes 1
Sabres 5, Kings 1
Jets 5, Coyotes 3
Blues 4, Maple Leafs 1
Senators 4, Canadiens 3 (OT)
Red Wings 4, Panthers 3 (OT)
Blackhawks 4, Blue Jackets 1
Wild 5, Lightning 4 (OT)
Canucks 2, Bruins 1 (OT)
Golden Knights 3, Ducks 1
Predators 3, Oilers 0
Sharks 4, Islanders 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blackhawks saw ‘vintage’ Crawford in tonight’s win

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“Vintage Crow.” That’s how Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville described Corey Crawford‘s first win of 2018-19, as he stopped 37 out of 38 shots as Chicago beat Columbus 4-1 on Saturday.

This marks Crawford’s second game back from concussion issues that put his season – if not career – on the line, and he’s been thrown right in the deep end. The veteran goalie has faced at least 30 shots in each of his two appearances, so Chicago hasn’t exactly been able to make it an easy return.

“Yeah, we gotta play better in front of him, no doubt,” Patrick Kane said, according to the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus. “It’s one of those things where we played pretty well the first five games, then all of a sudden he comes back and maybe you’re just expecting him to bail you out — which he has the past two games.”

Perhaps the clearest moment of Crawford bailing his team out came on this save, as Artemi Panarin made things happen very quickly in setting up this scoring chance for Pierre Luc-Dubois:

Following the 4-1 win, Crawford said that he felt like he was reading plays well, and the numbers back that up. The Blue Jackets fired 11 shots on goal on their four power-play opportunities, but Crawford shut the door on all of them.

With this victory, the Blackhawks continued their generally strong start to the season, improving their record to 4-1-2, giving them 10 standings points from seven games.

Before Crawford came back, Chicago was largely winning despite its goaltending, as Cam Ward looked shaky at best through five games. You could state that perhaps Crawford returned at the perfect time, but either way, this is a promising start for the goalie and his team.

It doesn’t guarantee that Crawford won’t suffer health-related setbacks as the season progresses, but so far, so good.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Concussion worries loom as Predators put Rinne on IR

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Pekka Rinne‘s Friday-night start ended in a painful way: not only did the Flames score on his basically empty net, but he suffered an injury thanks to an unlucky collision with Predators teammate Kevin Fiala.

Rinne was removed from Nashville’s eventual 5-3 win against Calgary on the behest of concussion spotters, and now the reigning Vezina-winner has been placed on IR.

At minimum, Rinne will miss three Predators games: tonight’s contest against Connor McDavid and the Oilers, along with a Tuesday home game against the Sharks and a Thursday road date versus the Devils. He’d first be eligible to suit up again on Oct. 27, when the Predators visit the Oilers in Edmonton.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Rinne will actually be ready to return to play.

As usual with NHL teams, it’s unclear how serious Rinne’s issue is, and there’s no guarantee that Rinne suffered a concussion. It’s difficult not to worry about that being the case, as that’s been a growing concern around the league, as we’ve seen with the likes of Corey Crawford and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Rinne’s injury does bring about an interesting situation, as the Predators could choose to roll out promising backup Juuse Saros in more of a No. 1 starter-workhorse role.

Earlier this week, Bob McKenzie discussed the Predators wanting to sign Rinne long-term.

Considering how well Rinne played at times last season, and all the accolades he’s accrued and will likely pile up with this franchise, one can understand the drive to keep him around.

Still, Rinne’s 35 and probably won’t want to take too much of a cut from his current, expiring $7 million cap hit; meanwhile, Saros is just 23 and will carry just a $1.5M cap hit through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could be the guy, Rinne would move on, and the Predators would set themselves up to be in a decent situation to avoid losing a key skater.

That still-unresolved issue makes even a truncated Saros audition quite fascinating, then.

It’s never good news to lose your starter, particularly a long-time workhorse and reigning Vezina-winner like Rinne. Even so, Saros has shown that he’s quite capable when given opportunities, and it could be valuable to see what they really have here. If Rinne misses more than a week, then the Predators could really feed Saros some reps.

One would assume that the Predators would lean on Saros for most, if not all, of this stretch. If not, we might see called-up goalie Miroslav Svoboda play a bit, too. This would be a big step up for Svoboda, who has been playing for the ECHL’s wonderfully named Atlanta Gladiators, and was a seventh-round pick (208th overall) by Edmonton in 2015.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in best in NHL conversation

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As you can see from this Associated Press piece, there are some hot “best in the NHL” debates going around, with people batting around names like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Auston Matthews.

Colorado Avalanche speedster Nathan MacKinnon‘s name didn’t come up in that conversation, but quite frankly, he’ll be impossible to ignore if keeps this up.

The 23-year-old has scored at least one point in all eight games, and his numbers are positively eye-popping. MacKinnon generated six points in the past two games alone, leaving him with a ridiculous eight goals and six assists for 14 points. As of this writing, only Auston Matthews (16 points in eight games) has generated more offense so far in 2018-19, while MacKinnon’s running mate Mikko Rantanen also has 14.

[More on Rantanen becoming a “driving force” for Colorado]

Remarkably, MacKinnon isn’t subsisting on a red-hot power play, either, as only two of his 14 points have come from the man advantage. With that in mind, it’s less shocking that MacKinnon’s seven even-strength goals currently lead the NHL.

It’s dangerous to rely too heavily on season stats, particularly when we’re still in October, but zooming out to last season really cements MacKinnon’s rise among the league’s most exhilarating scorers.

When you combine last season with these early showings, MacKinnon generated a whopping 111 points in just 84 games, trailing only Connor McDavid (119 in 87) and Claude Giroux (113 in 90). MacKinnon’s 1.31 points-per-game average is second only to … you guessed it: McDavid, at 1.35.

MacKinnon slips under the radar almost as seamlessly as he flies by defensemen for a few reasons:

  • The Avalanche haven’t been very great lately. MacKinnon’s efforts helped Colorado make the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet before that, the Avs suffered a three-season drought. The Avs have only made the playoffs twice since 2010-11, and they’ve only won one playoff series since 2005-06.

Even so, looking back at the past illuminates how special MacKinnon’s start has been. MacKinnon scored a goal in his first six games, something Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and many other standout Avs failed to do:

Could he break more club records as he goes?

  • Maybe some of the reluctance to name MacKinnon among the best stems from the speedy center beginning his career as an effective scorer, yet not quite the guy people expected.

Through his first four seasons, MacKinnon only crossed the 60-point barrier once (63 on his way to a Calder Trophy in 2013-14), with his 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons inspiring real concern about his shooting ability. It’s one thing to have bad puckluck for a single season, but through the first four years of his career, MacKinnon shot under 10-percent on three occasions, and his peak was just a flat 10.0 during that rookie campaign.

Well, it’s not clear what precisely changed, yet it’s probably safe to dismiss those concerns already. MacKinnon probably would have hit 40 goals and 100 points if he played every game last season (finishing with 39 goals and 97 points in just 74 games), and he’s off to that red-hot start in 2018-19.

  • There were times when MacKinnon almost felt like comic relief in his apparently long-running Tim Horton’s commercials alongside Sidney Crosby.

Now? He’s still goofy, but in more of an “effective buddy cop movie character” sort of way.

His bond with Crosby and the Canadian coffee chain giant really peaked recently, as the two surprised members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team (more about that in this post):

Heartwarming stuff, right?

***

To recap: MacKinnon is a speedy center who’s scoring at a near-McDavidian-rate, and he’s building enough evidence that his quantum leap from 2017-18 could be the rule, rather than the exception.

With a rising winger in Rantanen, not to mention a productive, hard-nosed captain in Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon also pilots a top line that deserves consideration as the best trio in the NHL.

Oh yeah, MacKinnon also deserves serious consideration for having the best bargain contract in the NHL. Somehow, the Avalanche will receive five more prime-level years of MacKinnon’s services at the ridiculous rate of $6.3 million per season. That’s barely more than half of what McDavid’s getting — and McDavid is worth more than $12.5M.

So, MacKinnon’s on that rare McDavid plane of being lightning fast, yet still boasting the skill and hockey IQ to take advantage of that world-class speed. Maybe it took him more time to harness that, but this seems to be clear today.

It also seems like he’s kind of a goober, and can provide a salty quote here or there.

While it’s true that MacKinnon isn’t totally dismissed as a great player – he was a finalist, falling right behind Taylor Hall for the 2018 Hart Trophy – the point is that the latest Avalanche superstar is worthy of greater hype.

If nothing else, make sure you watch him play. Chances are, his name will pop up more often in “best in the league” conversations if you do.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.