Koivu, Harding prove Wild are hotter than Jets

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The Minnesota Wild might just be the hottest team in the NHL right now. They strengthened their argument on Sunday, eking out a 2-1 regulation win against the Winnipeg Jets, who brought a four-game winning streak into tonight’s action.

The usual suspects carried the Wild to victory.

Josh Harding won his fourth game in a row as he continues to make a Vezina run seem more and more feasible. He hasn’t lost in regulation since Oct. 17 and has only allowed more than two goals once this season (three goals allowed in a Nov. 1 win against Carolina).

Mikko Koivu scored both of the Wild’s goals, doubling his total for the season from two to four. (He isn’t slacking, though; Koivu has 17 points in 21 games.)

The good news for the Jets is that they’re hanging in there and Dustin Byfuglien seems to be getting that bounces that eluded him earlier this season. All four of his goals – including one tonight – have come in the last four games.

Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in best in NHL conversation

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As you can see from this Associated Press piece, there are some hot “best in the NHL” debates going around, with people batting around names like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Auston Matthews.

Colorado Avalanche speedster Nathan MacKinnon‘s name didn’t come up in that conversation, but quite frankly, he’ll be impossible to ignore if keeps this up.

The 23-year-old has scored at least one point in all eight games, and his numbers are positively eye-popping. MacKinnon generated six points in the past two games alone, leaving him with a ridiculous eight goals and six assists for 14 points. As of this writing, only Auston Matthews (16 points in eight games) has generated more offense so far in 2018-19, while MacKinnon’s running mate Mikko Rantanen also has 14.

[More on Rantanen becoming a “driving force” for Colorado]

Remarkably, MacKinnon isn’t subsisting on a red-hot power play, either, as only two of his 14 points have come from the man advantage. With that in mind, it’s less shocking that MacKinnon’s seven even-strength goals currently lead the NHL.

It’s dangerous to rely too heavily on season stats, particularly when we’re still in October, but zooming out to last season really cements MacKinnon’s rise among the league’s most exhilarating scorers.

When you combine last season with these early showings, MacKinnon’s generated a whopping 111 points in just 84 points, trailing only Connor McDavid (119 in 87) and Claude Giroux (113 in 90). MacKinnon’s 1.31 points-per-game average is second only to … you guessed it: McDavid, at 1.35.

MacKinnon slips under the radar almost as seamlessly as he flies by defensemen for a few reasons:

  • The Avalanche haven’t been very great lately. MacKinnon’s efforts helped Colorado make the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet before that, the Avs suffered a three-season drought. The Avs have only made the playoffs twice since 2010-11, and they’ve only won one playoff series since 2005-06.

Even so, looking back at the past illuminates how special MacKinnon’s start has been. MacKinnon scored a goal in his first six games, something Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and many other standout Avs failed to do:

Could he break more club records as he goes?

  • Maybe some of the reluctance to name MacKinnon among the best stems from the speedy center beginning his career as an effective scorer, yet not quite the guy people expected.

Through his first four seasons, MacKinnon only crossed the 60-point barrier once (63 on his way to a Calder Trophy in 2013-14), with his 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons inspiring real concern about his shooting ability. It’s one thing to have bad puckluck for a single season, but through the first four years of his career, MacKinnon shot under 10-percent on three occasions, and his peak was just a flat 10.0 during that rookie campaign.

Well, it’s not clear what precisely changed, yet it’s probably safe to dismiss those concerns already. MacKinnon probably would have hit 40 goals and 100 points if he played every game last season (finishing with 39 goals and 97 points in just 74 games), and he’s off to that red-hot start in 2018-19.

  • There were times when MacKinnon almost felt like comic relief in his apparently long-running Tim Horton’s commercials alongside Sidney Crosby.

Now? He’s still goofy, but in more of an “effective buddy cop movie character” sort of way.

His bond with Crosby and Canadian coffee chain giant really peaked recently, as the two surprised members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team (more about that in this post):

Heartwarming stuff, right?

***

To recap: MacKinnon is a speedy center who’s scoring at a near-McDavidian-rate, and he’s building enough evidence that his quantum leap from 2018-19 could be the rule, rather than the exception.

With a rising winger in Rantanen, not to mention a productive, hard-nosed captain in Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon also pilots a top line that deserves consideration as the best trio in the NHL.

Oh yeah, MacKinnon also deserves serious consideration for having the best bargain contract in the NHL. Somehow, the Avalanche will receive five more prime-level years of MacKinnon’s services as the ridiculous rate of $6.3 million per season. That’s barely more than half of what McDavid’s getting — and McDavid is worth more than $12.5M.

So, MacKinnon’s on that rare McDavid plane of being lightning fast, yet still boasting the skill and hockey IQ to take advantage of that world-class speed. Maybe it took him more time to harness that, but this seems to be clear today.

It also seems like he’s kind of a goober, and can provide a salty quote here or there.

While it’s true that MacKinnon isn’t totally dismissed as a great player – he was a finalist, falling right behind Taylor Hall for the 2018 Hart Trophy – the point is that the latest Avalanche superstar is worthy of greater hype.

If nothing else, make sure you watch him play. Chances are, his name will pop up more often in “best in the league” conversations if you do.

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.

Who’s hockey’s best? McDavid, Matthews, Crosby stir debate

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TORONTO — Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews? Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid?

With debate ramping up about which player sits atop hockey’s throne – after some remarkable early performances – Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock’s goes in a different direction – Sidney Crosby.

”This is what I think,” Babcock began as he made his case for the Penguins captain before Pittsburgh’s 3-0 victory over Toronto on Thursday. ”I think one guy’s got two Olympic gold medals and three Stanley Cups.”

And the other guys?

”They don’t.”

McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers captain with blazing speed, has won back-to-back NHL scoring titles and the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. Matthews, the Maple Leafs’ deadly sniper, has the most points in the league, 16 in just eight games.

McDavid set an NHL record this week by becoming the only player to either score or assist on the first nine goals of his team’s season.

Matthews has a lethal shot that often leaves a goalie looking up at the replay for a glimpse at a puck that just whizzed by him. He is just the fifth player to have seven straight multipoint games to start a season.

Babcock is quick to acknowledge what these 21-year-old phenoms have done. But he says personal accolades matter only so much.

Crosby is 31 and has been on top of the hockey world for the better part of the last decade. He won the Cup in 2009, 2016 and 2017 to go along with gold medals for Canada at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.

Had it not been for the concussions that limited him to 63 of his team’s 164 games between 2010 and 2012, the two-time Hart and Conn Smythe Trophy winner might own even more hardware.

Babcock coached Crosby at the Vancouver and Sochi Games, and again at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016, which Canada also won.

”Team success in the end, that’s how you’re measured,” he said. ”When you’ve been the best player on the best team, to me that’s totally different than being the best player on a team that’s not as good. As you’ve got people around you to raise your game and set a standard … to me, it’s not even close.”

Mike Sullivan became Pittsburgh’s coach during the 2015-16 season and immediately grew to appreciate Crosby’s gifts.

”Sid’s the most driven athlete I’ve ever been around,” he said. ”Not only is he an elite player, but he’s willing to put the work in to continue to try to be the best player he can be. … I have the privilege of watching him on a daily basis put the work in to be the player that he is.”

Toronto center Nazem Kadri says it’s tough to pick among Crosby, McDavid and Matthews.

”I still think Sid’s an incredible player and McDavid’s definitely up there,” he said. ”(Matthews) is creeping up there. … To me, McDavid’s speed is just incredible and so hard to stop. You can’t necessarily make a mistake when he’s on the ice because when you’re beside him you’re going to be behind him.”

Maple Leafs center John Tavares went head-to-head with Crosby for nine seasons while with the New York Islanders.

”He doesn’t take anything for granted and his work ethic’s tremendous,” Tavares said. ”He puts a lot of commitment into being the player that he is.”

Crosby has five assists in six games this season playing on a line with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust – the first time he’s gone without a goal this long. But Sullivan’s admiration is undiminished.

”He leaves no stone unturned,” Sullivan said. ”He takes care of himself physically. He trains so hard, both off the ice and on the ice. We learn as much from Sid as I think he does from our coaching staff with just the way he thinks the game.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

PHT Roundtable: Early-season surprises, stand-out stats

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1. Carolina, Montreal, Ottawa, Chicago and Anaheim are off to surprise starts this season. Which team(s) do you see being able to maintain that success throughout this season and why?

SEAN: I can see teams like Carolina and Anaheim cooling off, but not to a degree like Ottawa or Montreal where they’ll fall way to the back of the pack. Then there’s Chicago, who now with Corey Crawford back, stand to be able to keep above water the rest of the season. Alex DeBrincat, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will do what they do and produce up front. It’ll be a matter of secondary scoring helping out. If Crawford stays healthy and regains the form that made him a Vezina Trophy candidate before suffering a concussion last December, the Blackhawks can find a way back to the playoffs.

JAMES: While the threat of bad goaltending looms like Michael Myers around Halloween, the Hurricanes’ deep defense and young offense gives them a great chance to break their interminable playoff drought. The Blackhawks and Ducks have a strong chance to at least be in the West bubble picture if they get some better health luck (even as Jonathan Toews’ shooting luck is certain to cool off at least a bit). Montreal and Ottawa? No, sorry, but at least the Habs might be fun to watch.

ADAM: Off the top of my head I would say most likely Carolina or Anaheim and maybe — MAYBE — Chicago. Anaheim’s hot start seems like it is entirely based off of John Gibson‘s play, and it pretty much is. But he is an elite goalie that can carry a team and they are going to start getting some of their forwards back at some point, at least as far as Ryan Getzlaf and Ondrej Kase are concerned. That will help. Every year I get fooled and sucked in by Carolina but I really think they have some of the right pieces in place, and that defense is pretty legit. It all depends on what sort of goaltending they get. Speaking of, if Corey Crawford comes back healthy and plays well he could be a huge difference-maker for Chicago. They have had a lot of things go their way in the early going, but Crawford can be a game-changer and Jonathan Toews looks like he might be back on track offensively. Montreal and Ottawa are nice early season stories, but I just do not see how either way sustains it.

JOEY: I think the Ducks can keep this rolling. First, John Gibson has arguably been the best goalie in the NHL from the start of the season. If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason to think he can’t be dominant more often than not. Secondly, they’ve been able to have success while dealing with a lot of injuries. Ryan Getzlaf, Ondrej Kase, Corey Perry and Patrick Eaves have all missed time early on. At some point, they’re going to start getting healthier which should make them better. The Ducks are in one of the tougher divisions, so they’ll be battling for positioning on a nightly basis, but there’s no reason to think that they can’t keep winning.

SCOTT: Carolina because they have a potent offense that seems to be able to drive possession and put up a pile of shots. That’s a recipe for scoring goals and scoring goals wins games. Their defense seems much improved and if they can get some league average goaltending, book that ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Anaheim is the other team, and John Gibsons is a big reason for that. He’s been nothing short of stellar and helps Anaheim pull out some victories when the number of injuries they had might suggest they shouldn’t be winning. And now they’re beginning to get healthy, with names like Getzlaf, Kase, Perry and Kesler all making their way back into the fold. Sure, some of their stars are aging, but there’s still a bevy of talent there to propel them along.

2. What’s the most surprising player/team stat to you so far?

SEAN: Everything Connor McDavid is doing so far this season. I know we shouldn’t be surprised given his all-world talent, but it’s incredible to watch him have an impact on just about every Oilers goal. Edmonton has scored 13 goals through five games and McDavid has been involved in 11 of them with four goals and seven assists. It’s truly maddening to see the Oilers fail to build around him. Let’s hope this trend doesn’t continue as he continues racking up Hart and Art Ross Trophies.

JAMES: Look, the Canadiens boast some nice talent, but their hot start is quite surprising. More than the respectable record is the sheer brilliance of their early play. Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Blues, Montreal averaged almost 10 more shots on goal than they’ve allowed so far (36 vs. 26.6). In other words, their strong start isn’t just a matter of dumb luck.

(I still think they’ll miss the playoffs, though.)

ADAM: Probably the fact that Arizona is near the top of the league in shots on goal per game but somehow has still only scored three total goals (as of Thursday) and has not scored a single one at even-strength. How is that even possible? Even if they were near the bottom of the league in shots you would expect more than three goals in five games, even from a bad team. But to put that many pucks on net and still not score is just incredible. They have also been really good defensively so far, both in terms of shots against and goals against. So, like, there is some positive stuff happening there but the offense just quite literally cannot buy a goal right now. It is remarkable.

JOEY: I knew Sebastian Aho was a talented player, but I never expected him to get off to this kind of start. Only Auston Matthews, Patrice Bergeron and Morgan Rielly have collected more points than Aho, who has 12 points in seven games. The ‘Canes have desperately needed a forward to step in and become a go-to guy and it looks like they finally have that person in place. The 21-year-old won’t hit the 141 points he’s currently on pace to score, but he’s off to a really promising start.

As far as team stats go, how about that Sharks power play that’s clicking at 9.5 percent? Once they acquired Erik Karlsson from the Senators, most people assumed that they’d be clicking at an insane rate. That hasn’t been the case just yet. Of course, it’s nothing to be alarmed about if you’re a fan of the Sharks because they’re six games into their season. It’s only a matter of time before they figure out. With Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski, Evander Kane, Logan Couture and Karlsson on the roster, there’s no reason to think that this power play will continue slumping like it is right now.

SCOTT: New Jersey’s defense and goaltending is very good. Keith Kinkaid has allowed just eight goals in five starts this season. He’s already got two shutouts (and they weren’t against Arizona, either — both came against respectable offenses in Washington and Dallas). He’s arguably the best goalie in the NHL at the moment and I never expected to say that through the first few weeks of the season or, really, ever.

An honorable mention here goes to Carolina. I mentioned them in the first question and they deserve another here. They’re averaging 42 shots a game. A. That’s silly. B. It’s the best in the NHL. And they’re only allowing 25 against, second fewest. It’s no wonder that they’re pacing the Metropolitan Division early on in the season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Coaches win appeal against ban for removing medals at worlds

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ZURICH (AP) — Three coaches who quickly took off their silver medals after last year’s title game at the World Junior Ice Hockey Championship have won appeals against bans.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in favor of Sweden head coach Tomas Monten and assistants Nizze Landen and Henrik Stridh. They faced bans of two or three games at the 2019 junior worlds.

The International Ice Hockey Federation says it ”acknowledges the oversight” in rules which previously required only players to wear their medals ”in respectful manner” for the post-game ceremony and interviews.

The IIHF has updated its rules for the next tournament, which starts in December in Canada.

Sweden lost to Canada for the 2018 title in January in Buffalo, New York.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports