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.

Where Connor McDavid ranks after racing past 300 points

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The Edmonton Oilers saw their four-game winning streak end 5-4 in overtime against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday, but they should feel some satisfaction in hanging with such a great team, and getting a standings point for their troubles.

Sometimes thoughts like those can soothe the irritation of a close loss. If that doesn’t work, the Oilers should find perspective in remembering how special superstar Connor McDavid truly is. Reaching a big milestone can do that.

With two assists in that 5-4 OT loss, McDavid crossed the 300-point barrier, finishing the night at 301 points in just 240 career regular-season games. As you might guess, the 21-year-old ranks among the best in league history in that regard:

If you’re like me, you muttered “imagine what McDavid could have done if his rookie season didn’t end with that unlucky shoulder injury?”

Interesting to see how closely McDavid’s work is paralleling that of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin, eh?

Let’s consider a few other enticing and impressive things about what McDavid has accomplished, and what might still come.

  • McDavid could probably argue that he’s been the best scorer since the moment he entered the league.

Using Hockey Reference’s fancy season tools, you can see that Patrick Kane (308 points) is the only player with more points since McDavid entered the NHL in 2015-16. That shoulder injury muttering comes into place here, though, as Kane hit 308 in 278 games, versus 240 for McDavid.

McDavid’s 1.254 points-per-game average easily ranks as the best in the NHL during that span.

  • If healthy, McDavid should compile three consecutive 100-point seasons. He scored 100 in 2016-17, while setting a career-high with 108 last year. With 45 points in 31 games this season, with one contest missed, McDavid could play 50 more games this season. He’d easily hit 100 at this pace, as he’d hit about 117-118 at this rate.
  • McDavid remains a premiere playmaker (Alex Chiasson‘s accountant is nodding so hard right now), as you can see most clearly with 28 assists in 31 games. But he’s becoming a more dangerous goal-scorer, too.

Sometimes that comes down to being more assertive as you spend more time in the NHL, and become more confident in your abilities. Sidney Crosby seemed to enjoy a similar growth in making defenses and goalies respect both his shot and his passing more or less equally.

With 111 SOG in 31 GP so far in 2017-18, McDavid’s averaging 3.58 SOG per contest. That’s a significant jump from last season’s 3.34 SOG per game, and he’s fired the puck more frequently in every season of his NHL career. It wouldn’t be one bit surprising to see him enjoy closer to a 1:1 ratio in goals to assists after collecting 104 goals and 197 assists for his first 301 points.

That’s not the most pleasant thought in the world for opposing goalies and defensemen.

  • It probably wouldn’t hurt if the Oilers get it together.

The Ken Hitchcock Era is off to a booming start, but that should inspire Edmonton to continue to make shrewd decisions, rather than rest on its laurels. At minimum, it can’t hurt McDavid’s spirits – and numbers – if he’s playing competitive hockey deep into the season, and ideally into the playoffs. Still, things could be even merrier if there was more help around number 97.

Imagine what McDavid can do with higher-quality teammates beyond Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?

Other NHL Teams: “We’d rather not.”

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.

Did Svechnikov make big gains in Hurricanes’ loss?

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The Carolina Hurricanes are justified in their search for a top-six forward/sniper, but whenever a team goes shopping for a trade, they should also ask if they’re taking advantage of the ingredients at hand.

That’s a long way of saying that the Hurricanes possess at least one player who could score more goals for them: Andrei Svechnikov.

Looking at certain underlying numbers (as PHT did earlier in December), it seems fair to wonder if Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour should take the training wheels off of Svechnikov, and just let him fly. Yes, there are risks when it comes to really unleashing rookies – particularly in Svechnikov, who’s made an immediate jump after being the second pick of the 2018 NHL Draft – but the rewards can often be worth it.

After all, this is a young man’s game. Besides, Svechnikov frequently looks fully-grown on the ice, even this early in his NHL career.

Sometimes advanced stats don’t slap you in the face like highlight-reel work, though. Svechnikov scored two goals in Carolina’s 6-4 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, and his first one was absolutely gorgeous:

Might that demand Brind’Amour’s attention? There’s some reason to hope for even more.

“We did have a coming out party, for me, out of Svechnikov,” Brind’Amour said, via Sara Civian of The Athletic.

It’s not like Svechnikov is getting totally buried in the Hurricanes’ lineup, yet here’s a pushy request: just keep ramping up his minutes and opportunities, seeing how much he can handle. Carolina needs goals, and maybe they’d get more with more Svechnikov, risks and all. Brind’Amour could even do so selectively, by handing him more reps on the power play, preferably on a top unit that hasn’t exactly been lightning the world on fire, based on full-season stats.

As of Thursday night, the Canadiens are where the Hurricanes want to be (comfortably in a playoff spot), while Carolina’s sitting in Montreal’s expected position (searching for answers, seven points out of the wild card). You can chalk that up to a lot of things – Carey Price has now won four games in a row – but it’s worth noting that the Canadiens are embracing speedy and/or skilled young players like Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, while shrugging their shoulders and just letting Jesperi Kotkaniemi play. There are quite a few stories of immediate successes this season, with Elias Pettersson and top 2018 pick Rasmus Dahlin also coming to mind.

So why not see what Svechnikov can do? For all we know, rolling the dice might just help the Hurricanes break out of this frustrating funk.

Here’s Svechnikov’s other, nice goal from Thursday:

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.

Lightning ride Vasilevskiy’s spectacular return to beat Maple Leafs

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The Tampa Bay Lightning remained one of the best teams in the NHL even with Andrei Vasilevskiy missing 15 games, taking a seven-game winning streak into Thursday’s best-versus-best clash against Toronto. All due respect to Louis Domingue, but the Lightning wouldn’t have won their eighth game in a row without a vastly impressive Vasilevskiy.

Honestly, you could make a sane argument that no other goalie in the world could author such a masterpiece, but that’s a debate for your local, hockey-friendly bar.

Speaking of debates, NHL fans were treated to what could potentially be an epic, too-good-for-the-second-round series, with the Lightning beating the Maple Leafs 4-1.

Prediction: a lot of people will look at that 4-1 score and believe that the Lightning absolutely dominated the Maple Leafs. That wasn’t the case, at all, as Vasilevskiy showed the opposite of rustiness in stopping 48 shots.

Vasilevskiy set a new Lightning franchise record for saves in a home game, and tied the overall mark. To review: Vasilevskiy set a new career-high for saves against one of the most explosive offenses in the NHL, and he did it in his first game back since Nov. 10. Tremendous.

Many of those saves were jaw-droppers, rather than run-of-the-mill, with this making a late push for Save of the Year contention:

You can’t really put the Leafs’ lone goal on Vasilevskiy, either, as Kasperi Kapanen stole an ill-advised pass, getting a ton of time and room to score:

After an evenly-matched, exciting 1-1 first period, the Lightning pulled away by scoring three times during the middle frame. All of those tallies were painful for Toronto. Tampa Bay made it 2-1 when Nikita Kucherov scored a barely-goal that Frederik Andersen seemingly gloved, and then the game really got away from the Maple Leafs when the Lightning scored two more times in the final minute of the second period.

Overall, the Maple Leafs generated a gaudy 49-21 shots on goal advantage. While you could accuse the Bolts of sitting on their lead late (they were outshot 16-2 in the third, and endured at least a 13-minute SOG drought), Toronto generated an edge during each period. It didn’t matter, because Vasilevskiy was a human highlight reel in net.

It’s foolish to read too much into a single night during an 82-game season, but perhaps a night like this might give the Maple Leafs that extra push to add that missing piece or two? If nothing else, the Lightning only strengthened their stranglehold on the Atlantic Division crown, not to mention the top spot in the East, and the Presidents’ Trophy.

Sure, the score was lopsided, yet this game made a best-of-seven series that much more tantalizing to imagine, even if getting there would be easier said than done. You know, kind of like getting pucks past Vasi.

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.

NHL’s top two teams meet as Lightning, Maple Leafs face off

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The NHL’s best team is getting even stronger on Thursday night when the Tampa Bay Lightning will welcome back starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The Vezina Trophy finalist from 2017-18 hasn’t played in more than a month, while the Lightning still managed to go on a 12-3-0 run during his absence including the seven-game winning streak the team is currently riding into Thursday night. It’s a testament to how dominant the rest of the team around him is that they kept piling up wins at such a ridiculous pace.

His return comes at a perfect time for the Lightning and helps set up a titanic regular season matchup of Stanley Cup contenders when the Lightning host the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As far as mid-December regular season games go, it doesn’t really get much more exciting than this.

[Related: Vasilevskiy back for Lightning after Domingue’s stretch of solid play]

The Lightning and Maple Leafs enter Thursday as the top two teams in the NHL, sitting first and second in total points, first and second in goal differential, first and second in goals scored, and are both among the top-10 in terms of fewest goals against. The two teams also boast six of the top-30 individual scorers in the league (including three of the top-seven) and that list doesn’t include Auston Matthews, one of the game’s elite offensive talents, who has 16 goals and 27 total points in only 17 games.

Tampa Bay’s offense has been especially dominant this season and is currently averaging an almost unheard of four goals per game. The last time an NHL team averaged more than four goals per game over an entire season was the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins with an average of 4.41. Only five other teams since then have been above 3.80 over a full season.

Only three teams over the past 25 years have scored more goals than Tampa Bay’s 130 through the first 32 games of a season: The 1995-96 Penguins, 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche, and the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators.

The Maple Leafs are not far behind them with 113 goals (a 3.61 goals per game average) in their 31 games, and they have done that while only getting 20 combined man-games from Matthews and William Nylander, two of their top-three leading scorers from a year ago.

That all brings us to the next big thing regarding Thursday’s game as both star-laden rosters are starting to get back to full-strength.

While the Lightning are getting Vasilevskiy back on Thursday, the Maple Leafs recently welcomed Matthews back to their lineup after he was sidelined with an injury and also have Nylander starting to make an impact after he missed the first quarter of the season due to an unresolved contract issue. The only key player for either team that isn’t playing on Thursday night is Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman.

It’s also a pretty massive game for what it means to the Atlantic Division playoff race because a Lightning win would extend what is already a pretty significant lead.

If the Lightning end up taking this game in regulation it would extend their lead in the Division (and also the lead for the top spot in the Eastern Conference) to eight points. Even if it’s only the middle of December that would still be a significant lead and a gap that would be extremely difficult for any team to make up — even one as good as Toronto. A Maple Leafs win in regulation cuts the gap to four. That is a massive swing one way or another.

If nothing else, this game is a great preview for a potential early playoff matchup.

Barring some sort of second half collapse from either team they have established themselves as the top teams in the Atlantic Division and look like strong bets to finish at least in the top-three, with Tampa Bay positioning itself well for the top spot. Assuming all of that happens, and assuming both teams take care of business in their opening round matchups where they will almost certainly be favored, they would be meeting in the second round. There is a lot of hockey to be played before it gets to that point, and a lot of things still have to happen, but on paper it’s an exciting matchup to think about and we will get to see our first preview of what it might look like this season on Thursday night.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.