NBC Game of the Week – March 20: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. New York Rangers

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With the season winding down, each game has a little more importance tied to it and NBC’s Game of the Week on March 20th could turn out to be a huge one with playoff implications. At 12:30 p.m. ET on the 20th we’ll see the New York Rangers head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins.

The Rangers are in a fight for their playoff lives right now and without Marian Gaborik, the Rangers offense seems to be struggling of late. Henrik Lundqvist can only do so many things for the team, but scoring goals is unfortunately not one of them. The Rangers have to hope that other forwards like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, and Wojtek Wolski can step up. Gaborik may be available to return by the time the puck drops in this game, and if the Rangers slide continues, they’re going to need him sooner than later.

The Penguins, meanwhile, are hoping to retain home ice advantage and perhaps catch the slumping of late Philadelphia Flyers for first place in the Atlantic Division. James Neal, Jordan Staal, and former Ranger Alex Kovalev are the guys that will carry the Penguins into the playoffs this year, especially with Sidney Crosby’s status coming back from a concussion still up in the air. These aren’t the stars you’re used to seeing out of Pittsburgh, but it will help show off goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury a bit more. Fleury’s had an outstanding season in helping the Penguins keep winning and not fall off with the injury losses of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Two teams in distinctly different positions each with their own sense of desperation for different reasons. Sounds like a recipe for a great late-season match-up to us.

PHT Morning Skate: Wang’s legacy; Should Oilers keep Bouchard?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Charles Wang always fought to keep the Islanders on Long Island. He’s an important figure in the franchise’s history. (Newsday)

• Former NHLer Jordin Tootoo announcement his retirement from professional hockey. He became the first player from Ninavut to make it all the way to the NHL. (North Jersey)

• Teams have been pulling goaltenders earlier and earlier over the last few years. But how much does that make sense? TSN’s Travis Yost breaks it down. (TSN)

• Hockey fans have been blessed with plenty of goals so far this season, but will that continue? (Spector’s Hockey)

• With expectations rising quickly in New Jersey, the Devils believe they have a group of players that are ready to meet to compete at a high level. (The Trentonian)

• Younger players like Auston Matthews and Evgeny Kuznetsov are bringing “attitude” back to the game with their post-goal celebrations and fashion statements. Now, they only need other players to follow their lead. (The Ringer)

Joe Thornton, who has missed two weeks with an injury, is planning on joining the Sharks on an upcoming three-game road trip. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• For the Rangers to take the next step, they need to find a player that can put the puck in the net consistently. (Forever Blue Shirts)

• Now that he’s back with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, Lightning forward Tyler Johnson seems to be as comfortable as he’s been in a long time. (Raw Charge)

• Now that we’re over a year removed from the Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad swap, it’s easy to see that both teams are facing their respective issues with both players. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Even though the Los Angeles Kings are off to a rocky start, there’s still some time for them to get their season back on the rails. (Featurd)

• A number of former NHLers, including Kelly Buchburger and Jason Smith (both former Oilers) are coaching in the Western Hockey League. There experience and expertise make them valuable additions to any junior coaching staff. (The Hockey Writers)

• Now that the season is two weeks old, it’s easy to pin-point where certain teams need help. For the Bruins, it appears as though they need to swing a deal for another forward that can chip in offensively. (NBC Sports Boston)

• The Buffalo Sabres have a trio of Swedes in the minors that are just waiting for their opportunity to help the big club in the near future. (Elite Prospects)

• Blackhawks prospect Collin Delia found out the hard way that the moorings in the minors aren’t as solid as they are in the NHL. (In Goal Mag)

• Oilers rookie defender Evan Bouchard has been solid in his first five games in the NHL, but sending him back to junior could make sense because of an upcoming expansion draft. (Oilers Nation)

• The Carolina Hurricanes are going to have to figure things out on special teams if they want to make a push for a playoff spot this season. (Section 328)

• Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov has been a consistent force on the blue line since he came into the NHL, so there’s no point in questioning him now. (NBC Sports Philly)

• Puck Junk has put together all the rookie cards of every head coach in the NHL. (Puck Junk)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Lightning dominate, Sabres rally and Gaudreau shines

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Three Stars

1. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. Point was a big part of the Lightning’s dominant offensive showing in Chicago on Sunday night when they scored six goals and put 55 shots on goal. Point was a factor in three of those goals, scoring one of them and assisting on two others to give him five goals and eight total points on the season. We know the Lightning have superstars at the top of the lineup, but it is the emergence of secondary players like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Point himself over the past four years that have made this team such a force in the Eastern Conference.

2. David Rittich, Calgary Flames. With Mike Smith struggling in the early part of the season could backup David Rittich start to steal some playing time away from him? He has certainly made a strong case for himself over his past two starts, including Sunday’s game in New York where he stopped 43 out of 44 shots in a 4-1 Flames win. In his two starts this season he has now stopped 67 out of 70 shots.

3. Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres ruined the Ducks’ celebration of Paul Kariya on Sunday night by scoring four consecutive goals to erase what was a two-goal deficit midway through the second period. Kyle Okposo started the rally with his first goal of the season late in the period, and then helped complete when he set up Rasmus Ristolainen‘s game-winning goal early in the third period. Okposo had recorded just three assists in his first eight games before Sunday, so it was a much-needed big night for him on the scoresheet.

Ducks defense looks awful again

The Anaheim Ducks have been relying on their goalies — particularly starter John Gibson — more than any other team in the league this season, surrendering shots and chances at an unsustainable rate.

So far, Gibson has been able to keep them in it and steal a bunch of wins.

This weekend Gibson and Ryan Miller were not able to bail them out.

After getting outshot by a 45-18 margin in a 3-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night, they were outshot 45-28 in their 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday. That is 90-46 over two games in 48 hours. That is … terrible.

They are giving up more than 37 shots on goal per game and have been outshot by a ridiculous margin on the young season.

This team looks like a house of cards teetering on the verge of a collapse if their goalies slip up even a little bit. This is, quite simply, not a good hockey team right now no matter what their record says.

Highlights of the Night

Johnny Gaudreau was a big part of the Flames’ win in New York on Sunday night by scoring a pair of goals, both of them coming on wonderful individual efforts. His second goal — which was also his 300th career point — was the best of the two.

The Lightning were dominant all night and it started very early with this slick Nikita Kucherov goal to put them on the board first.

He made that look easy.

Factoids

The Tampa Bay Lightning set an NHL record for most shots in a single period when they recorded 33 in the second period (we highlighted that here). They also set a franchise record for most shots on goal in a game.

The Calgary Flames won their first game at Madison Square Garden since 2008.

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 6, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Calgary Flames 4, New York Rangers 1

Buffalo Sabres 4, Anaheim Ducks 2

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.

Blackhawks’ defense still has long way to go

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The Chicago Blackhawks have been off to a better-than-expected start this season, especially when you consider they had Corey Crawford, arguably their most important player, for just two of their first seven games entering Sunday’s contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

That surprising start has been primarily due to Jonathan Toews‘ offensive resurgence, Alex DeBrincat‘s continued rise to stardom, and some good fortune in a bunch overtime/shootout games. They still have their flaws, particularly on their defense, and wow did a lot of those flaws get exposed on Sunday night against one of the league’s best teams.

The defense should have been viewed as the weak link on the roster heading into the season, and so far there has not been much to change that perception.

That is especially true after Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Entering Sunday’s game the Blackhawks were 26th in the NHL in goals against and 25th in terms of shots allowed per game. Neither number is anywhere close to good enough, and they are almost certain to be looking even worse after Sunday’s game that saw the Lighting set an NHL record and completely overwhelm the Blackhawks in a game that was not as close as the final score would indicate.

At times it looked like two teams playing two completely different sports.

Just consider these two numbers: 55 and 33.

What do those numbers represent?

The former is the number of shots on goal the Blackhawks surrendered to the Lightning for the entire game, while the latter is how many they gave up in the second period alone, setting an NHL record for most shots on goal in a single period. During that second period the Lightning outshot the Blackhawks by a 33-5 margin and outscored them 3-0. It was, to say the least, the difference in the game.

It also helped show just how far the Blackhawks’ defense has to go to make them a serious contender in the meatgrinder that is the NHL’s Central Division.

It is only the ninth time since the 2010 season that a team recorded 55 shots on goal in a game that did not go to overtime.

The Blackhawks have been trending in the wrong direction defensively (both from a shots and goals perspective) for several years now as that core on defense has gotten older or moved on to new teams. Once a team that dominated opponents territorially and never let them set up shop in their end, the Blackhawks are now a team that consistently bleeds shots and scoring chances against and needs its goaltenders to be great to have a chance.

There are several problems with the unit.

First, Connor Murphy has not played a singe game this season as he recovers from a back injury. He was probably one of the team’s best defenders a year ago and has been a major loss at the start of the year.

Gustav Forsling, who has shown promise over the past two years, has also not played yet this season due to a wrist injury.

When it comes to the players that are in the lineup there just isn’t enough high end talent here.

At the top you have Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both of whom were cornerstone pieces of the Blackhawks’ mini-dynasty between 2010 and 2015, but are now on the wrong side of 33 and are a fraction of what they once were (especially Seabrook). Once you get beyond them there is just a stunning lack of quality depth as they have tried to piece together a makeshift unit of various veteran free agents like Jan Rutta, Brandon Mannning, Erik Gustafsson, and Brandon Davidson.

None of them are particularly great.

Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, has shown a ton of promise this season and is already playing some big minutes and being given a major role at the age of 19. But he’s still 19, and he’s going to have some growing pains at times and he had a particularly tough time on Sunday matching up against the Lightning.

Jokiharju and 2018 first-round pick Adam Boqvist are going to be the future of that unit, and the return of a healthy Murphy at some point should help at least a little bit in the short-term.

But they are probably a few years and a lot of help around them from being where they need to be as a unit. Even with the strong start to the season the Blackhawks’ best hope to contend this season is going to be continued strong play from their forwards and the return of a healthy and productive Corey Crawford.

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.

Ducks retire Paul Kariya’s No. 9

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Before the Anaheim Ducks played host to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night they honored the career of one of the best — and most important — players to ever wear their uniform by officially retiring Paul Kariya’s No. 9.

Kariya, the No. 4 overall pick in the 1993 draft, was the first player ever selected in the NHL draft by the franchise and quickly became the organization’s first superstar, playing nine seasons with the club between the 1994-95 and 2002-03 seasons. During his time with the Ducks he scored 300 goals and 369 assists (669 total points) in 606 games, and was a central figure in the team’s run to the 2002-03 Stanley Cup Final.

It was during that series where he was knocked out by New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens. Concussions and injuries would later derail his career and ultimately lead to his early retirement following the 2009-10 season.

He is among the top-five players in Ducks history in games played, goals, assists, and total points, while his 1.10 point-per-game average with the team is first in franchise history.

After playing for the Ducks he also spent time with the Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues, finishing his Hall of Fame career with 402 goals and 989 points in 989 games.

His number is now in the rafters in Anaheim next to his longtime linemate and teammate, Teemu Selanne.

Prior to Sunday’s game all of the current Ducks players wore jerseys with the No. 9 on the back.

You can see highlights of the jersey retirement ceremony in the video above.

Later this season the Ducks will also retire Scott Niedermayer’s No. 27.

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.