Holtby to start for Caps vs. Flyers tonight

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The slumping Washington Capitals will switch things up in goal on Friday and start Braden Holtby for the first time in 10 days.

Holtby, last year’s playoff hero, will be between the pipes against Philadelphia, snapping Michal Neuvirth’s streak of five consecutive starts.

Boasting woeful numbers across the board — 0-2-0, 5.04 GAA, .863 save percentage — Holtby is looking to put his sluggish start to the season behind him.

In this instance, the past is a small sample size (two games, two losses to Winnipeg and Tampa Bay) but large enough for Holtby to realize he needs to play better.

“Obviously I want to forget about them,” he explained. “But there’s a lot of things that I’ve taken out of them that I want to work on and a lot of good things that happened at the same time.

“That’s the way hockey goes.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Caps head coach Adam Oates deals with his goaltending situation after tonight.

The Caps play four games next week — Sunday vs. Pittsburgh, Tuesday vs. Toronto, Thursday at Pittsburgh and Saturday vs. Florida — and it’s possible Oates could go right back to Neuvirth for the majority.

“I obviously understand that we want to get some stability to our game right now and Michal’s giving it to us,” Holtby said prior to Thursday’s 3-2 loss to Toronto. “That’s just the life of being a goaltender.”

Blackhawks finally end their losing streak, again

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It’s finally over, again.

The Chicago Blackhawks ended their second eight-game losing streak of this season with a 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN.

Playing just 24 hours after getting thrashed 6-3 by the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, Chicago was desperate not to extend that streak to nine (which would have been a first since 2012).

Chicago had no answers following the Winnipeg game. Head coach Jeremy Colliton said his team was playing against men, sharply implying his team wasn’t.

Patrick Kane flat out called it “embarrassing.”

All the losing was taking its toll, again.

One of the biggest knocks recently with the Blackhawks is that they started so poorly in many of those games that no matter how good they played in the final two periods, it was never enough.

A winning formula would likely begin with a good start, and that’s exactly what they got at the United Center on Wednesday.

Chicago scored first — something they hadn’t done in 11 previous games — and then scored second, too, to take a 2-0 lead through Andreas Martinsen and Brent Seabrook, respectively.

It helps when you shoot. The Blackhawks failed to get a shot on goal in the first 17:36 of the opening frame on Tuesday.

They reconciled that in 19 seconds on Wednesday.

Winning rarely comes easy, and Wednesday’s ‘W’ was by no means a comfortable one for Chicago.

Twice they coughed up the lead. Bryan Rust scored a hat trick in the game, potting his first with 1:20 left in the first period. He tied the game 5:46 into the second before Alex DeBrincat regained Chicago’s advantage on the power play late in the period. But as he did in the first, Rust scored a late (and lucky goal off Seabrook’s stick) to complete his hat-trick and bring proceedings level once more.

By all accounts, Pittsburgh had an easy path to victory laid out for them. Yeah, yeah… any team, any night and all of that. But an ailing team playing the second half of a back to back is as mouth-watering as it gets in the NHL.

Instead, the Pens allowed a fourth goal to Marcus Kruger in the third and despite throwing up 43 shots on the night, couldn’t solve Corey Crawford a fourth time as he came away with a 40-save win — his first in his past nine starts.

The Blackhawks fed two more into the back of the net — both empty netters — as Jonathan Toews and Brendan Saad drove the final nails into the coffin.

Toews, who had a goal and two assists for a three-point night, eclipsed 700 points in his NHL career. He came into Wednesday two shy of the milestone.

Chicago’s schedule doesn’t get much easier going forward. They face Winnipeg once again on Friday before welcoming San Jose and Nashville over the next week.

The Blackhawks took a stride on Wednesday and have something to rally behind now, even it was just a baby step.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Blackhawks host Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday Night Hockey with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This matchup features two teams that have combined to win 6 of the last 10 Stanley Cups, but are both currently outside of playoff position. The Penguins are in the mix though – they enter Wednesday night ninth in the Eastern Conference, and have a chance to move into a top-3 Metropolitan Division spot tonight. Chicago is last in the NHL with 23 points.

After losing 6-3 in Winnipeg on Tuesday, the Blackhawks enter tonight having lost eight straight in regulation. That stands in contrast to their current eight-game winning streak against the Penguins. The last Pittsburgh win over Chicago came on March 30, 2014.

This is the second time this season that the Blackhawks have lost eight in a row, and Tuesday’s loss means they’ve won only three times in their last 22 games (3-16-3). Once again, the team was doomed by a slow start, getting out-shot 14-0 to start the game and falling behind 3-0 after the 1st period. Chicago did eventually cut the deficit to 4-3, but Winnipeg added 2 more goals in the 3rd to seal it.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

From Oct. 30 to Nov. 19, the Penguins went 1-7-2 and were in last place in the East. But since then, they’ve gone 6-2-2 (including 3-0-1 in their past four) to vault up the standings.

Their latest win (2-1 shootout win over the Islanders on Monday) came with some drama, as Derick Brassard – who was moved up to Sidney Crosby’s line to ignite a struggling offense in the 3rd period – tied the game off an assist from Jake Guentzel. Guentzel later scored the decisive tally in the shootout on his first career shootout attempt.

“I think it was good for Brass,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s such a gifted player. He’s playing a different role on this team than he has on all the other teams he’s played on. I’m trying to find more ways to keep him involvedand maximize what he brings to this team because I think he’s a unique player.”

What: Pittsburgh Penguins at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Wednesday, December 12th, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Penguins-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Derick Brassard – Sidney Crosby – Jake Guentzel
Tanner PearsonEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Zach Aston-ReeseRiley SheahanBryan Rust
Derek GrantMatt CullenJean-Sebastien Dea

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Olli MaattaJamie Oleksiak
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson

Starting goalie: Casey DeSmith

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsDominik Kahun
Dylan Sikura – David KampfBrendan Perlini
Alex DeBrincatDylan StromePatrick Kane
John HaydenMarcus KrugerAndreas Martinsen

Duncan KeithHenri Jokiharju
Brandon ManningBrent Seabrook
Connor Murphy – Carl Dahlstrom

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Hitchcock Oilers are double-edged sword for McDavid, NHL fans

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By just about any measure, the Ken Hitchcock era has been a slam-dunk success for the Edmonton Oilers so far.

Through 11 games, the Oilers are 8-2-1 under Hitchcock. Edmonton’s now on a four-game winning streak after beating the Avalanche 6-4 on Tuesday, while they’ve also won seven of eight games.

They’ve narrowly outshot their opponents 337-329 since Hitchcock took over on Nov. 20, and their possession stats have been respectable-enough during that span. With the way things are going, Mikko Koskinen could be the latest in a line of goalies who’ve enjoyed glorious times under Hitchcock, and he might actually have some staying power compared to, say, Pascal Leclaire and his nine shutouts with Columbus back in 2007-08.

People can fuss over how much this surge has to do with Hitchcock’s acumen (or the competence Hitch can wring out of fear), but the Oilers will gladly take this boost.

That said, there are reasons to have mixed feelings about the Hitchcock era and its potential impacts, whether you’re Connor McDavid, an Oilers fan, or a fan of hockey as a sport. How about we work through some of those conflicting thoughts and feelings?

The world is a saner, better place with McDavid in the playoffs

Look, life is short. Injuries can happen, whether they present speed bumps to a career or derail them entirely. Just look at the struggles Sidney Crosby eventually worked through (mostly?), not to mention how rapidly Marc Savard’s promising career fell apart. If Hitchcock’s tweaks can get McDavid to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, more fans will be exposed to the sheer, 120-mph genius that is number 97.

It’s been argued that the Oilers verge on being the best team in the NHL when McDavid is on the ice, and something quite far from that when he’s not. There are worse viewing experiences than turning your attention from another screen back to an Oilers game in time for all of McDavid’s shifts.

Aim higher

All things considered, Hitchcock’s probably close to optimizing this rendition of the Oilers.

While Hitchcock seems interested enough in the “little things” to get better results out of various players, it still feels like the plan boils down to “grind everything down to a halt and hope Connor (and to a lesser extent, Leon Draisaitl) will carry you to wins.

That might seem like an insult, until you realize that it’s the best course considering what Hitchcock’s working with. After all, a little less than a month ago, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli railed against the defense he built, admitting that none of them are “exceptional passers.” With that in mind, it would be foolish to try to emulate, say, the Mike Sullivan Penguins by hoping to play a space-age, innovative, breakout-heavy game. Slowing the game down makes plenty of sense in context, and Hitchcock remains almost freakishly effective at giving his teams short-term boosts:

So, the good news is that Hitchcock is a shrewd hockey mind who can eke out better results from this limited group.

The less-sunny-side is that there are bright, shining, neon lights pointing to this not working. It was honestly surprising that Chiarelli remained as GM after last season, considering he’s the architect of a roster that generally asks McDavid to be Superman every night.

Hitchcock’s success conjures some worst-case scenarios, then. What if he’s clever enough to get them to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, possibly winning a round or two? Such success could lull Oilers management into a false sense of security, keeping them from making the progress that might open the door for McDavid to actually, you know, have some help around him.

In that way, Hitchcock could be the best possible paint on a hole in the wall/Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Considering that Hitch is already 66, it’s likely that he’s a short-term fix. He’s a great one in that, but still.

[More McDavid, Draisaitl under Hitchcock.]

Harming a revolution?

Much of the focus has been on the Oilers, aside from notes about how all of our lives will be brightened by more Connor McDavid, particularly Playoff Mode Connor McDavid.

But the NHL is a copycat league, and there’s the more existential fear that other NHL teams will see an Oilers team that might ride low-scoring, low-event games and think, “Hey, we should play boring hockey again, that clearly works.”

This would be unfortunate, as the league’s currently continuing its upward trend of scoring, which saw a noteworthy bump starting in 2017-18. So far, teams are allowing 2.89 GAA per game, up from last year’s 2.78. Some of that disparity can be chalked up to curiously shaky goaltending, but it’s important to note that the pace of games has improved, with a modest bump in shots each night. If you were to randomly turn on an NHL game in 2018, you’d likely face higher odds of being entertained than, say, in 2015. Sometimes the bump in entertainment value is pronounced; in other ways, the differences can be subtle. Nonetheless, we’re generally seeing more skill on the ice, less dump-and-chase drudgery, and more entertaining hockey.

The worry, then, is that coaches will see situations like Hitchcock succeeding with the Oilers and return to their worst, fun-killing instincts.

Hopefully these concerns aren’t justified, but those thoughts surface. After all, Hitchcock’s history points to the Oilers’ blueprint for winning being closer to “McDavid scores the only goal” (1-0 win against Calgary on Sunday) than 10-goal games (beating the Avs 6-4 on Tuesday).

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Ultimately, these “state of the games” aren’t Hitchcock’s concern, and the Oilers seemed to make a wise decision by hiring him. The sky won’t fall if this only portends greater success in, say, June.

Nonetheless, there’s the dream of the Platonic ideal of the McDavid Oilers: a team that embraces their speedy, near-superhuman superstar, playing fast and skillful hockey. The fear is that, if things break the wrong way, the Oilers will end up looking more like a nightmare: a bland team that mires the best player in the world in mediocrity.

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.

Nylander already showing flashes of brilliance for Maple Leafs

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After a contract holdout that extended almost until the last minute on Dec. 1, William Nylander finally signed with the Maple Leafs, yet he was unable to generate a point in his first two games back. One could almost feel the restlessness build in Toronto, but there were breakthrough moments in the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win against the Hurricanes on Tuesday.

Granted, there were also some breakdowns on Nylander’s part, too. Some of that is just the nature of the beast when it comes to NHL hockey, but rust is a factor, as well.

Nylander generated his first two points of 2018-19 in Tuesday’s win, both being assists.

His first didn’t seem like an assist at all, as Morgan Rielly was credited with a goal after it became clear that Dougie Hamilton was guilty of a tragicomic own-goal. Nylander’s second assist came on a brilliant pass to Patrick Marleau, who converted on what was the hockey equivalent of a layup:

Nylander might just deserve that token assist, really, as he made another brilliant pass to Marleau that did not result in a goal.

That’s some great stuff, and the Maple Leafs have the potential to be truly terrifying if Nylander, Marleau, and Nazem Kadri can make for a strong line while Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner also confound defenses at different times. We’ve seen a lot of NHL teams load up with supreme top lines, hoping that the gains would offset any losses. Toronto could score a monumental advantage over most opponents if they can really leverage this depth.

As tantalizing as those thoughts are, it’s not as though Nylander is a finished product.

The 22-year-old experienced some sloppy moments during that same game against Carolina, finishing the night with six penalty minutes. Maybe his high-sticking penalty ranks as one of those things that just happens, but Nylander essentially had to take an interference penalty out of exhaustion, as he was caught out on the ice during a shift that went too long.

After the game, Nylander acknowledged that some shifts went too long, while Mike Babcock had an interesting take on what the winger is going through.

“It’s going to take some time, let’s not get carried away,” Babcock said. “They’re all fine as long as the ice is open. As soon as it is in contact and you’ve got to get your legs going and you can get stuck out on a shift. He took a penalty the one time he got stuck out on a shift … It’s going to take some time. We’ll be patient and he has to be.”

Maple Leafs fans should be heartened by that last sentence: the team will be patient with Nylander. That’s crucial, and it’s especially promising coming from a coach who can sometimes be … hard-driving, like Babcock’s known to be.

Now, about that patience: when should the Maple Leafs expect Nylander to be at full speed?

Ignoring the potential advantages that come with skipping months of bumps and bruises by beginning his season in December instead of October, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Toronto believes that a player gets truly up-and-running about 12 days after training camp.

By the best estimates of the Leafs sports science department, it typically takes a player 12 days after training camp before his heart rate levels out during exertion.

That would put Nylander on schedule to be functioning at his peak sometime in mid-January after hitting the ground running last week and so far playing more games (three) than he’s had full practices (two) with the Leafs.

As much as any other team, the Maple Leafs have the resources to research such sports science issues, so the league should keep an eye on developments like these. If any league could see a franchise exploit “rest versus rust” for, say, gains in the playoffs, it might be someone in the NHL. Plenty of franchises lack that eye for innovation, so those who do might enjoy at least a brief edge.

The thing is, it’s human nature to fixate on mistakes like Nylander’s interference penalty, and lose sight of the big picture (his assists, and strong overall play).

Consider that, according to Natural Stat Trick’s individual rates, Nylander’s Corsi For Percentage was 61.29-percent on Tuesday, the second-best mark of any Maple Leafs player in that game (Igor Ozhiganov topped all at 65.22). Perhaps you can nitpick that a bit being that Nylander didn’t face the toughest Hurricanes competition during much of the contest, but you’d be grasping at straws.

In other words, there’s already a lot to like about Nylander three games into his latest season, even if there are signs of growing pains. He could be a boon to the Maple Leafs in his current form, and chances are, he’ll get up to game speed and shake off all the rust, possibly quite soon.

Long story short, Nylander’s showing that he’s worth the wait.

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.