Three reasons why tonights Isles-Penguins game won’t be another embarrassment to hockey

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When last we saw the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins get together, the Islanders were punishing the Penguins on the scoreboard 9-3 all while the Islanders were busy making themselves feel better through fighting. The Isles felt slighted by the league and took out their aggression on the Penguins with their fists and elbows to the tune of 346 combined penalty minutes between the teams.

That game in February saw three different players get suspended including Isles forward Trevor Gillies get suspended for nine games for elbowing Eric Tangradi, Matt Martin was suspended for suckerpunching Maxime Talbot, and Penguins enforcer Eric Godard received a ten game suspension for leaving the bench to fight. The NHL’s apparent lack of action even got Penguins owner Mario Lemieux to sound off on the league for not being tough enough about on-ice thuggery.

After getting nearly two full months to sit and stew about this game, we’re suspecting cooler heads will prevail in tonight’s game. Sound crazy? Not at all and here’s three reasons why tonight’s game won’t devolve into Fight Night at the Nassau Coliseum.

1. The Penguins still have plenty to play for

Pittsburgh is up on Tampa Bay by three points for the fourth seed in the East. The fourth seed means home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The Pens are also one point behind Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division lead. If the Penguins end up winning the division, that means they’ll likely land the second seed in the Eastern Conference which means, if things break right for them, they could have home ice throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs if the Capitals got knocked off.

Pittsburgh will treat this game like any other game, it’ll just have a little more hate flowing through it give who they’re playing. With Pittsburgh still having a lot on the line going into their final two games, they don’t need to get involved in a side show act with the Islanders and any of their potential goons that might look to get a little more out of them. The Isles will play them hard and tough, but the Pens have to keep the stiff upper lip if they want to have a shot at winning the Atlantic Division.

2. Brent Johnson isn’t starting

We all remember a bit too well that it was Brent Johnson that helped light a fire for the Islanders in their previous meeting on February 2nd, the game before their massive brawl on February 11th. Johnson’s fight with Rick DiPietro proved to be another addition to the lowlight reel in DiPietro’s career as Johnson KO’ed DiPietro with a straight left and put the former first overall pick on the disabled list with facial fractures and a swollen knee. Johnson started the previous game against the Isles and allowed seven goals in the game. That fight along with Max Talbot’s hit on Blake Comeau, to the Islanders, planted the seed that made the massive circus of fights happen on February 12th. In that game on the 11th Brent Johnson fought Islanders forward Michael Haley which was then interrupted by Eric Godard. Godard’s ten game suspension was thanks to him coming off the bench to stand up for his goalie.

Marc-Andre Fleury did relieve Johnson midway through the blowout affair but left the game after being run by the Islanders. Upon Johnson’s return and the subsequent brouhaha that developed, Johnson had had about enough of the Isles antics when he then went on to give DiPietro the Mike Tyson treatment. Tonight see’s Fleury get the start in goal against DiPietro so as long as those two aren’t chirping each other from 180 feet away, things should be a bit cooler between the goalies.

3. The NHL will be watching very closely

Like a couple of kids who have been fighting all through a long trip in the car, the NHL will be keeping an eye on this game very closely to make sure they don’t get back at it all over again. There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh has some sore feeling over what happened the last time between these two, and while there will be a host of Penguins fans in Long Island tonight lusting for another bloodbath and for the Penguins to get vengeance on the likes of Trevor Gillies, there’s virtually zero chance of the NHL and the officials in tonight’s game letting it get to that level again.

If you thought the suspensions were harsh between these two teams before, turning tonight’s game into a circus with the NHL keeping an eye on matters closely could be crushing for the Penguins if they lash out. The Pens have the playoffs to be concerned with and anyone doing something that could get them suspended during the postseason only hurts them more when it counts the most. With Matt Cooke already suspended through the first round of the playoffs, the Pens cannot afford to have any other players being forced to the press box due to on-ice misdeeds.

Coaches Jack Capuano and Dan Bylsma will certainly have all eyes on them as this game progresses tonight and how they choose to handle things as they go along will speak a lot about how they respond to things. Our guess as to what happens tonight: Eric Godard and Trevor Gillies square off early on to settle the score once and for all and then the teams play hockey the rest of the night battling hard for the win. Anything more than that on the ugly side of things and we’ll be disappointed yet fascinated all the same.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Bounce-back candidates for the second half

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I’d normally focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. For this week though, because we’re coming off the All-Star break, I’m doing something a little different. This week I’m highlighting 10 players who underperformed in the first half and should do better for the rest of the campaign.

Johnny Gaudreau, Flames – LW/RW: With 13 goals and 38 points in 50 contests, you can’t say that Gaudreau is having a bad season, but it is a significant step down from his previous two campaigns. The Flames as a whole have had a rough campaign offensively, going from the second best in 2018-19 to the 25th ranked offense this season. Part of Gaudreau’s problem though might be some rough puck luck. His shooting percentage is significantly off from his career average (9.2% in 2019-20 compared to 12.4% in his career), his PDO is the lowest it’s ever been, and his IPP is the lowest it’s been since the 2014-15 campaign.  Those can be taken as indicators that he’s been rewarded less than he should have been. All that has to be taken with a grain of salt, but even with that qualifier, Gaudreau is a top-tier player so it’s not a bad idea to put your faith in him.

Phil Kessel, Coyotes – RW: The Coyotes added Kessel in the hopes that he would provide them with the one thing they sorely lacked last season: goals. So far that hasn’t quite worked out. Arizona has been a better team offensively this season than they were in 2018-19, but it’s still their main weakness and rather than lead the charge, Kessel has been a decent, but not great top-six forward. Kessel has 11 goals and 31 points in 51 contests after recording 61 goals and 174 points in 164 contests in his previous two seasons with Pittsburgh. Kessel might have needed some time to adjust to his new environment though and he has been doing better lately with seven goals and 17 points in his last 23 contests as well as three goals and 10 points in his last 10 games. The stage seems to be set for him to have a better second half.

Jake Gardiner, Hurricanes – D: Gardiner typically produced solid numbers offensively with the Maple Leafs, but he also was logging over 20 minutes of ice time with them each season. By contrast, he has three goals and 13 points in 50 games while averaging just 16:29 minutes in Carolina. With Dougie Hamilton sidelined indefinitely though, the Hurricanes might need to lean on Gardiner significantly more. He’s averaged 20:22 minutes in the three games since Hamilton’s injury and if that continues then he should have a much stronger second half.

Pekka Rinne, Predators – G: If the season ended today, this would arguably be the worst campaign of Rinne’s career. He has a 16-10-3 record, 2.95 GAA, and .899 save percentage in 29 starts. That save percentage would be the worst he’s ever endured and his GAA is only topped by the 3.80 GAA he had over two games back in 2005-06. Just two years removed from his Vezina win, it’d be quite the collapse. He’s largely been dragged down from one prolonged bad stretch though. From Oct. 31-Dec. 21, he had a 3.91 GAA and .864 save percentage in 12 starts. Before that he was having a terrific season and since he’s bounced back somewhat with a 2.86 GAA and .907 save percentage in nine games. This is probably going to go down as a season where Rinne declined meaningfully, but his second half should still be an improvement on his first.

John Klingberg, Stars – D: Klingberg had two goals and 19 points in 37 games going into the All-Star break. That’s not terrible, but if the season ended today, his points-per-game pace would be the lowest of his career. He’s thawing out though with nine assists in his last nine games. Given his track record, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe that he can do better going forward.

Jack Hughes, Devils – C: The first overall pick in the 2019 draft hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm. He has six goals and 17 points in 40 contests so far, which means there hasn’t been much reason to own Hughes if you’re in a standard fantasy league. That being said, the more NHL experience he gets, the better he should be. The fact that the Devils are out of the playoff hunt might also strangely work in his favor. The Devils have already traded Taylor Hall and they will likely attempt to continue selling, which may lead to the team handing Hughes more ice time to compensate. There’s also more incentive for them to give their young players plenty of ice time if their focus is on the future and not the 2019-20 campaign.

Sidney Crosby, Penguins – C: This one is a bit of a cheat. I’ve been avoiding highlighting players who spent most of the first half on the sidelines, but in terms of players who missed time in the first half, Crosby is among those who should have the biggest impact in the second. When he’s been healthy this season, Crosby has been his usual dominant self with eight goals and 25 points in 22 contests. As long as he can stay off the sidelines for the rest of the campaign, he should be among the league scoring leaders from the All-Star break onwards.

Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche – C/LW: Landeskog set a career-high last season with 75 points in 73 games, but he’s had a quiet first half with 13 goals and 21 points in 33 contests. Part of the problem was a lower-body injury that cost him 16 games, but of course that doesn’t explain away his decline in points-per-game. He has a 42.9 IPP, which is very low and might indicate that he’s endured some unusually bad luck. That might be part of the reason for his underwhelming first half and if that’s the case, we might see a better return out of him after the All-Star break.

Jordan Eberle, Islanders – RW: In early January, Eberle described himself as a second-half player and so far he’s backed that assertion up with four goals and seven points in his last eight games. That’s in stark contrast to his three goals and 17 points in 31 contests from Oct. 4-Jan. 6. Eberle has been hit-and-miss in recent years, so it’s entirely possible that his recent run is simply a hot streak, but he underperformed thus far relative to what we’ve seen out of him for most of his career, so it’s not out of the question that he will be better in the second half of the season compared to the first.

Braden Holtby, Capitals – G: Holtby can become an unrestricted free agent this summer and his is not the sort of season he’d like to have in his contract year. While he has a great 18-9-4 record behind the amazing Capitals, his GAA and save percentage leave a lot to be desired at 3.09 and .897 respectively. He’s certainly had some good stretches this season though and perhaps the break came at an ideal time for him because it gives him an opportunity for him to step back from his recent struggles. He’s allowed at least three goals in each of his last seven games, which has dragged down his numbers. The time to reflect might be just what he needed and with his contract expiring, he’s not short on motivation to bounce back.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup contenders entering second half

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we take a look at where things stand around the league as the second half of the 2019-20 NHL season is set to begin.

The top Stanley Cup contenders, the teams making a big move to climb the standings, the teams still on the playoff bubble, and the teams that are already looking ahead to next season (and probably beyond).

Where does every team currently sit? To the rankings!

TOP CONTENDERS

The teams that stand out above the rest as Stanley Cup Contenders right now…

1. Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin and Co. are in position to win another Presidents’ Trophy and have all the ingredients to win another Stanley Cup.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning. They are flat out dominating teams again. Two years ago the Capitals finally broke through after years of disappointment. Last year it was the Blues. Maybe this year it is the Lightning.

3. St. Louis Blues. Winning it all two years in a row is an extremely difficult task in the NHL (it has only happened three times in the past three decades) but this Blues team looks just as good as the championship version from a year ago, and is doing it without its best offensive player (Vladimir Tarasenko).

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. They simply look and play like the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017 and they still have some key players to get back in the lineup.

5. Boston Bruins. One of the best lines in the league and two outstanding goalies. Could use a tweak or two to their depth lines and a little more from Charlie McAvoy and some of their defensemen, but they will be there when it counts.

6. Colorado Avalanche. They are positioned for a run of dominance in the Western Conference for years to come.

TEAMS MAKING A BIG MOVE RIGHT NOW

Maybe not Stanley Cup contenders at the moment, but these are some of the hottest teams in the league …

7. Columbus Blue Jackets. Superb goaltending can mask a lot of flaws and carry a team to places no one expected it to be.

8. Florida Panthers. The highest scoring team in the league and one that could be a real sleeper in the Eastern Conference if they can just get a little more out of their goalies and defense.

9. Vancouver Canucks. One of five teams separated by just one point in the Pacific Division, but also probably the hottest with 11 wins in their past 14 games.

THE MIDDLE GROUND AND PLAYOFF BUBBLE

10. Dallas Stars. Ben Bishop is playing his way toward another top-three finish in the Vezina Trophy voting. He might even win it this season. He probably should.

11. New York Islanders. They had an amazing start with a 17-game point streak but have struggled ever since. They should still be a playoff team, and a good one, but they still need another scorer.

12. Chicago Blackhawks. Even with their great play recently they are still three points out and there is no guarantee they keep playing at this pace. I’d say it’s more likely they miss the playoffs than make it, but if they get in they are the type of team that could cause problems due to their top-line talent and goalie situation.

13. Edmonton Oilers. A few weeks ago they looked like they were falling out of it, but a 6-1-1 in their past eight has brought them right back into the Pacific Division race. It would be nice to see Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl play meaningful hockey games.

14. Philadelphia Flyers. Still the hardest team in the league to get any kind of a feel for. Not even sure they know what they have or what they are.

15. Carolina Hurricanes. This is a great young team with a bright future, but they slumped going into the break and losing Dougie Hamilton is going to be a big problem in the short-term.

16. Toronto Maple Leafs. How big of a hole did the start under Mike Babcock put them in? They are 16-7-3 since the coaching change — the sixth-best record in the league during that stretch — and one of the hottest teams in the league, and they are still four points out of a playoff spot at the moment. October and November games count, too. A lot more than people realize.

17. Calgary Flames. A big second half from Johnny Gaudreau could swing this mess of a division in their favor.

18. Vegas Golden Knights. I would expect this team to make a big push and rapidly climb the standings over the next month or two, especially if Marc-Andre Fleury gets on a roll (and he can). They are too good and too talented not to.

19. Arizona Coyotes. Taylor Hall has been just what they needed, but the wins haven’t been there very consistently. At least not yet.

20. Winnipeg Jets. They are hanging on as best they can given the state of the defense, but eventually the lack of talent on the blue line is going to be too much to overcome.

21. Nashville Predators. Their biggest advantage in the playoff race right now is the number of games they still have remaining. The key is going to be actually winning those games.

THE PLAYOFFS ARE AN ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE LONG SHOT

These teams are not totally out of it, but are close to it…

22. Montreal Canadiens. They played a little better going into the break, and could get some top players back in the lineup soon, but they have way too much ground to make up. Right now no team in a playoff position in the East is on pace for less than 100 points. Montreal needs 49 points in 32 games to reach that.

23. Buffalo Sabres. Another year of Jack Eichel‘s prime on the verge of being wasted with absolutely nothing to show for it. 

24. New York Rangers. On the plus side, Artemi Panarin is on pace for one of the best offensive seasons in franchise history.

25. Minnesota Wild. The big question here is how bold Bill Guerin gets at the trade deadline. Does he move players with term still on their contracts (Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin)?

START PLANNING FOR NEXT SEASON

26. San Jose Sharks. The single biggest disappointment in the NHL this season, and no other team is even close. Doug Wilson will get a chance to fix this, but he has his work cut out for him.

27. New Jersey Devils. Nico Hischier getting a chance to shine at the All-Star Game is probably the bright spot for the Devils this season.

28. Ottawa Senators. If you squint really hard and look really closely you can see a path for a successful rebuild here. Some good young players, no long-term commitments of any kind that creates some flexibility.

29. Anaheim Ducks. The lack of anything resembling an offense here is staggering.

30. Los Angeles Kings. Not even a bounce back season from Anze Kopitar could make a difference here.

31. Detroit Red Wings. Instead of planning for next season, planning for 2022 and beyond might be a more reasonable and realistic goal.

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.

Blue Jackets sign forward Robinson for 2 more years

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Columbus Blue Jackets signed forward Eric Robinson to a two-year contract extension on Monday.

The 24-year-old Robinson was pressed into action at the NHL level this season because of rash of injuries to regulars. He has responded with five goals and four assists and a +10 plus/minus rating in 31 games. He got his first NHL goal on Nov. 12 at Montreal.

Robinson, who played college hockey at Princeton, would have been a restricted free agent this summer. Contract terms were not disclosed.

General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen announced the move as the Blue Jackets began their NHL-mandated winter break. They return to action Feb. 1 at Buffalo.

Ovechkin sits as Caps return to ice against Canadiens

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The Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals own a one-point lead over the Boston Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy as they return from a nine-day break to face the Canadiens in Montreal on Monday night.

The Capitals, who went into their bye week and the All-Star Game break on a three-game win streak, will be without Alex Ovechkin for the contest. Ovechkin must serve a mandatory one-game suspension for skipping the All-Star Game in St. Louis to rest up for the second half of the season.

Ovechkin was red-hot before the break, scoring eight goals over a three-game span, including back-to-back hat tricks in a 5-2 win over New Jersey and a dramatic 6-4 come-from-behind victory at the New York Islanders on Jan. 18 in their final game before the layoff.

Washington trailed 4-1 after two periods against the Islanders before exploding for five third-period goals, with Ovechkin scoring two of them — including an empty-netter to seal the win.

Ovechkin is tied with Toronto’s Auston Matthews for second place in the NHL in goals with 34, three behind Boston’s David Pastrnak (37). His last goal was the 692nd of his career, tying Steve Yzerman for ninth place on the NHL’s career goals list.

“It’s something special,” Ovechkin said. “It’s history. It’s pretty cool.

“I just left out there everything I had because I have a week off. Now it’s time to regroup and get ready for the second half of the year.”

Montreal also will be playing its first game in nine days and brings in a two-game winning streak. The Canadiens entered the break off a 5-4 shootout victory over the Vegas Golden Knights with leading scorer Tomas Tatar (17 goals, 26 assists) scoring the winner in the fourth round of the shootout.

Montreal is tied for fifth place in the Atlantic Division with the Buffalo Sabres with 51 points, 10 points behind third-place Florida and also 10 points behind Carolina for the second wild-card spot.

“A little reset here for the mental side of things and also the physical side of things, and now it’s time to hunt,” center Max Domi told NHL.com. “We believe in each other as a group, and we want to win some hockey games. We proved it time and time again and we know we can do it. We’ve just got to find ways put the right foot forward here.”

One Canadien who didn’t get the whole eight days off was All-Star defenseman Shea Weber, who won the hardest shot competition on Friday night with a blast registered at 106.5 mph. Washington defenseman John Carlson was second at 104.5 mph.

“Obviously, the fun’s kind of over with,” Weber said. “It’s time to get back to work in Montreal.”

This is the second of three meetings between the two teams. Montreal, behind a goal and three assists by Tatar and 26 saves by goaltender Carey Price, won the first one, 5-2, in Washington on Nov. 15.

The Capitals enter Monday night’s game with a 18-6-1 road record, best in the NHL. No other team has won more than 14 games away from home.

–Field Level Media