Red Wings grab another important win, beat Lightning 3-2

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There seems to be some division regarding whether the Detroit Red Wings would serve as a scary first-round opponent in the 2014 playoffs or not, but the Red Wings improved their chances of at least making it that far after a highly successful weekend.

(Gustav Nyquist illustrated why some believe the Red Wings are dangerous in a very dramatic way today.)

One day after giving the Toronto Maple Leafs a crushing loss, the Red Wings beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 on Sunday.

With that, the Red Wings will remain at least two points ahead of the wild card pack at the end of today and hold that first wild card spot, making them the Eastern Conference’s seventh-ranked team.

Detroit holds a two-point lead (84 to 82) over the Columbus Blue Jackets for the top wild card spot, although Columbus holds a game in hand. Most importantly to a team trying to keep its playoff streak alive, the Red Wings have a four-point lead against the plummeting Maple Leafs while the Washington Capitals (80 points, one game in hand on Detroit) face the Nashville Predators on Sunday.

Even with that win against fellow Atlantic team Tampa Bay today, the Red Wings can pretty much keep their sights set on holding off Columbus, Washington, Toronto, New Jersey and the rest of the East’s potential usurpers.

As far as the Lightning go, they seem that much more likely to be the Atlantic’s third seed, as the Montreal Canadiens have two more standings points (although Tampa Bay holds a game in hand there).

Penguins are a mess after another ugly loss to Devils

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The Pittsburgh Penguins seem to be the cure for whatever is ailing the New Jersey Devils these days.

After starting the season with a four-game winning streak, the Devils have won just three of the 12 games that followed while being outscored by 20 goals (52-32). They have been, for lack of a better word, bad.

Unless they happen to be playing the Penguins as two of those three wins have not only come against their divisional rival — including Tuesday’s 4-2 decision in New Jersey — but they have also outscored them by a 9-3 margin.

That is not a good look for the Penguins. Also not a good look for the Penguins: The fact they are now just 1-5-1 in their past seven games and are showing a lot of the same potentially fatal flaws that held them back at times a year ago, specifically when it comes to the abysmal play of their third-and fourth-lines.

Some numbers to ponder: After Tuesday’s game it has now been nine games since the Penguins received an even-strength goal from their third-or fourth-line. Meaning, a line that has not been centered by Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. The last such goal came in a 9-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Oct. 25 when Matt Cullen scored his first, and only, goal of the season.

During the stretch that has followed, the team has scored only 18 total goals, with only 14 of them coming at even-strength. One of Crosby or Malkin has been on the ice for all 14 of those even-strength goals, and at least one of them has contributed (scoring or assisting) to 11 of them.

It is not just the lack of goals, either. Their third-and fourth-lines are getting crushed in every aspect of the game, whether it’s actual goals (outscored 8-0), shot attempts (less than 44 percent) or scoring chances (also less than 44 percent).

On Tuesday, Crosby had a hand in both goals recording the primary assist on both of them, including an incredible cross-ice pass to Phil Kessel on the power play, and a controversial goal that saw Crosby plow through the crease and skate into Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid, leaving a rebound right on the doorstep for Jake Guentzel to pounce on.

The Devils challenged the goal for goalie interference but the on-ice call was upheld.

General manager Jim Rutherford addressed the depth issues a week ago when he ripped into his team’s slow start and commented on how they are not getting contributions from their depth players.

[Related: Obviously unhappy GM rips Penguins’ slow start]

For a refresher:

“It’s almost like the guys come to the games and say, ‘Let’s just let the top guys do it.’ Let’s let Sid, Geno, Phil and Letang carry us. We’ll just get through the game and move on to the next game. Forget about the work ethic it takes or forget about the role they play. But when those top players aren’t getting it done, whether they’re shut down or they’re just not having a good game, that’s when we need those other guys to come in and contribute and help win games. We’re not getting it.”

That was probably the most on-point and accurate thing he said.

Over the past couple of weeks coach Mike Sullivan has tried a lot of different things to jumpstart individual players in an effort to get them going.

Bryan Rust, fresh off signing a long-term contract extension over the summer, has been off to a terribly slow start and been bumped up to the top line alongside Crosby and Dominik Simon.

Carl Hagelin, who has just three points in 16 games, has remained in the top-six alongside Malkin despite his lack of offense.

With Rust and Hagelin getting those big-minute roles, it means somebody else gets bumped down the line, and on Tuesday it was Guentzel and Phil Kessel (the two most productive wingers on the team) opening the night on the third line being centered by Riley Sheahan … who has two points in 16 games, none in his past seven, and has not scored a goal since the second game of the season.

None of it has worked.

What the Penguins really need right now is for Derick Brassard to get healthy again, and once he does, they need to stick him on the third-line (which is the role they acquired him for; not to play alongside Crosby on the top line as he had been doing prior to his injury) and hope that he starts to produce as they expected him to.

They also need to hope that somebody out of the Rust, Hagelin, Sheahan trio (which accounts for nearly $10 million in salary cap space) starts to contribute something.

Or, as the GM hinted at, maybe even a trade to bring in somebody that might help add some offense.

Whatever the solution might be, they better find it fast because they are only two points out of the bottom spot in the Eastern Conference.

Yeah, it is early (and yeah, they were in a nearly identical spot at this exact same time a year ago). But it is not so early that there should not be some concern.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

Jeff Skinner has been just what Sabres needed

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The Buffalo Sabres seem to be finally — finally! — taking some sort of a significant step toward regaining relevance in the NHL.

Thanks to their 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night, they were able to pick up their 10th win and improve to 10-6-2 on the young season.

This, of course, is major progress in Buffalo.

For one, this is tied for the Sabres’ best start (22 points) through their first 18 games since the 2009-10 season when they were 12-5-1 at this point.

(They also had 22 through 18 games during the 2011-12 season.)

Second, the Sabres did not win their 10th game of the season a year ago until Dec. 29. They didn’t get it until Dec. 6 in 2016-17. Even more, this is only the third time since 2009-10 that they have won their 10th game of the season before the calendar rolled over to December. All of that is insane, and just shows how much this organization has struggled over the past seven seasons.

There are a lot of reasons for their newfound early success.

[Related: Top Pick Dahlin has been strong for Sabres]

At the top of that list is the fact that Jack Eichel is healthy and, once again, playing like a superstar.

The other is that some of their offseason acquisitions are really paying off in the early going. Conor Sheary, thought to be a salary dump by the Pittsburgh Penguins, has six goals and 10 points in 18 games and been a nice complement to their forwards. Carter Hutton has been solid in net. They have another emerging star in top pick Rasmus Dahlin whose progress seems to be ahead of schedule for an 18-year-old defender.

But perhaps the biggest improvement from outside the organization has been the addition of Jeff Skinner.

The Sabres desperately needed a top-line winger that could complement Eichel, something he had not had over the first three years of his career. Skinner has given them exactly what they needed, and perhaps even more. It should not be a surprise.

Skinner, still only 26 years old even though it seems like he’s been around forever, has been one of the most productive goal-scorers in the league in recent years. Entering this season he was 15th in the league in goals over the previous five years and still in the middle of what should be his peak years of production in the league is on pace for what could be a career year.

He opened the scoring for the Sabres on Tuesday night with what is already his 13th goal of the season. Only Boston’s David Pastrnak has scored more as of this posting.

He and Eichel have been especially dominant together. When the Sabres have had the two of them on the ice this season they are outscoring teams by a 14-7 margin at even-strength and completely dictating the pace of the play from a shot attempt and scoring chance perspective.

They are not only steamrolling opposing defenses, they have given each exactly what the other needed and had been lacking for most of their careers.

Skinner has been an exceptional goal-scorer throughout his career despite the fact he has never had a center like Eichel setting him up.

Eichel has been great since the Sabres drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick four years ago even though he has never really had a finisher like Skinner on his wing.

Put them together and it has been close to perfection for the Sabres.

The two big questions for the Sabres now: Can the duo keep this rolling and do the Sabres have enough in the lineup beyond them to maintain this early pace, and will they be able to keep Skinner beyond this season. Skinner remains unsigned after this season and is no doubt playing his way into a huge contract given the combination of his age (again, still only 26) and continued production.

For right now this should be something that Sabres fans are enjoying, because they have not seen much of it over the better part of the past decade.

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.

Tom Wilson scores goal, gets called for penalty on same play

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Tom Wilson was back on the ice on Tuesday night, returning from his latest suspension earlier than expected after an independent arbitrator reduced his 20-game suspension to 14 games earlier in the day.

It took less than 20 minutes for the type of insanity that can only happen around Tom Wilson to take place.

With 27.4 seconds left in the first period of the Washington Capitals’ game against the Minnesota Wild, Wilson scored his first goal of the season when he drove to the net and directed a puck behind Devan Dubnyk to give his team a 2-0 lead.

[Related: Tom Wilson suspension reduced to 14 games]

Totally normal play.

Except for the fact Wilson was also called for a penalty on the play for goaltender interference for running into Dubnyk (with some help from Wild defenseman Ryan Suter).

The thinking here is that the puck went in the net before the contact was made, so both calls — the goal and the penalty — get made.

Still, this is not something you see very often in an NHL box score.

This can only happen to Tom Wilson.

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.

Kuhnhackl scores weird, wild goal against Canucks

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Tom Kuhnhackl doesn’t find himself on the scoresheet very often.

Entering play on Tuesday night he had one goal in six games this season, only three in his past 75 games dating back to last season, and only 12 in 174 career games.

In any given season he might give you five goals.

At this point in his career he is what he is: A fourth-liner that eats up some minutes at the bottom of the lineup and kills penalties by wildly throwing his body in front of slap shots with little to no regard for his own well being. He showed enough doing that over the first three years of his career to get a one-year contract from the New York Islanders over the summer.

In the first period of their game against the Vancouver Canucks he netted his second goal of the season, and it might be one of the weirdest goals we see all year.

It was beautiful, and at the same time, incredibly ugly.

Beautiful in the sense that he even managed to get the puck on net as he fell to the ice, ended up on his back, and facing away from the net.

Ugly in the sense that Canucks goalie Jakob Markstrom should never give up a goal on this shot.

I hate it when people say “[insert random NHL goalie here] would love to have that goal back,” because goalies are competitive people and never think they should give up a goal and would like to have all of them back … but maybe it would be in Markstrom’s best interest to just stop thinking about that goal and its very existence. Just pretend it never happened.

Just 44 seconds later the Islanders took the lead on a Josh Bailey goal and then extended their lead later in the period thanks to Jordan Eberle.

For as good as the Canucks have been so far this season their goaltending has not been good. That was obviously on display here.

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.