Rinne on “unreal” Smith: “He was the difference in the series”

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Now this is how you pump a goalie’s tires.

Pekka Rinne — Nashville’s Vezina-nominated, $49-million man — spent a good chunk of his post-elimination presser talking up the guy that out-dueled him over the five-game series, Phoenix’s Mike Smith.

“Their goalie was unreal,” Rinne told Fox Sports Arizona. “He was the difference in this series.”

Smith’s performance in the series including a 168-minute, 45-second shutout streak that covered parts of three games. All told, the 30-year-old stopped 150 of 159 shots against Nashville (a .943 save percentage) and allowed just four goals over the course of Games 3, 4 and 5.

“Smitty was unbelievable in the net,” Coyotes forward Radim Vrbata said. “It was a big effort by everybody, but Smitty was a huge part of it.”

Smith has been huge throughout the playoffs. He leads the league in shots faced (400) despite playing over 90 minutes less than Braden Holtby, No. 2 on the list. He’s also making a strong case to become just the third goalie to win the Conn Smythe since the lockout, though Phoenix would have to be in the Cup final for him to merit consideration.

Of course, Phoenix in the Cup final is now a totally reasonable scenario.

“In the playoffs, you need great goaltending — it just goes without saying,” said Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett. “If you have great goaltending, you’ve got a chance every night.”

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.