Should Dallas be worried about its ‘Zoolander’ defense?

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The Dallas Stars revamped their offense and have No. 1 goalie Kari Lehtonen locked up for some time, which only seems to shine a brighter light on what’s believed to be their biggest weakness: team defense.

The Stars front office seems confident that they’ll improve from within after a quiet offseason in that area (but, again, certainly not on offense). The team’s website passes along some favorable quotes from some prominent figures in the franchise, including head coach Lindy Ruff’s take from an interview with The Ticket’s Bruce Levine.

“I’m excited about our defense,” Nill said. “We kind of had two different defenses during the season. There was the early-season defense that we didn’t know who was going to play with who, how they were going to match up, how it was going to fit. And then you had the defense from January on that played very well. We know now what that fit is. We’re excited.”

The team seems especially excited about perceived improvements from oft-criticized blueliner Alex Goligoski as well as Trevor Daley. Still, Defending Big D brings up an interesting problem in an amusing way by referencing Derek Zoolander’s inability to turn left: will the Stars’ defense corps be greatly limited by the lack of right-handed shots at that position?

Remember, NHL players make decisions in fractions of seconds. Working from the backhand means every action comes with an extra step. That step reduces the fluidity of a player’s actions. It’s an opportunity for the forecheck drop the hammer, or for the penalty kill to slide into a shooting lane. Bye bye one-timer. That step is also an opportunity for error. Just look at the curve of your average hockey stick. The split second it takes to ensure a wobbling puck doesn’t slide under the blade is more than enough time to pull a forward offside or close off a pass.

Then again, Mike Modano brought up an interesting point while talking up the Stars for ESPN.com: Dallas seems to be rebuilding piece-by-piece.

“I think it’s been very positive, a kind of piece-by-piece process, but that pretty much goes with a lot of teams rebuilding. Bits and pieces become available, there are big trades to acquire the personnel you want and Jim did that with the Seguin deal,” Modano said.

In other words, maybe that proper right-handed defensive piece didn’t present itself just yet. There are plenty of times for that to happen – perhaps the trade deadline? – so in the mean time the Stars might as well say the right things about their defense being really hot right now.

Blackhawks put in complete performance in 2-1 win against Predators

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Nothing has really gone right for the Chicago Blackhawks as of late.

The firing of Joel Quenneville and hiring of Jeremy Colliton hasn’t done much to rekindle the club’s glory days.

They had actually won more games (six) under Quenneville than they have under the new guy (four) coming into Tuesday’s game.

Corey Crawford, perhaps their ray of hope if he could get it together between the pipes, suffered another concussion this week and is out indefinitely.

Even their mascot, Tommy Hawk, hasn’t been immune to the frustrations in the Windy City.

So Tuesday’s 2-1 win at home at United Center against the mighty Nashville Predators on NBCSN, however insignificant it ends up being at the end of the season, was a welcomed change.

If recent history is to be believed, the Blackhawks might have even been slight favorites heading into the game.

Nashville began the season a perfect 8-0-0 outside of Tennessee, but have now lost eight in a row (0-6-2) since. They’re also pretty banged up, so that helped, too.

Despite Nashville’s shortcomings on the road this as of late, it shouldn’t take away from Chicago’s performance.

They played a tight, offensive-minded game, outshooting the Predators 36-31, including 16-7 in the second period as they erased Nashville’s 1-0 lead and replaced it with a 2-1 advantage of their own.

Any hope of the Blackhawks not falling further from grace rests in the hands of Cam Ward at this point.

With Crawford out, Ward will be leaned on to provide the best netminding he can.

On Tuesday, he did just that, turning aside 30 shots. Ward was especially solid in the third, including the last two-and-a-half minutes of the third after the Preds pulled Rinne for the extra attacker.

Other things that went well: Chicago’s last-ranked power play was 1-for-3, producing five shots on goal. Their last-ranked penalty kill was 2-for-2, allowing just two shots on goal.

It all equates on some good stuff to build on. It’s been a while since Chicago produced an effort like that. The blueprint is there.


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

Stars’ Bishop returns to game after taking shoulder to the head

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Dallas Stars fans were able to breathe a sigh of relief as the team came out for the third period on Tuesday.

Nearing the mid-way point fo the second period, Calgary Flames forward Garnet Hathaway went to challenge Bishop, who was playing the puck behind the net.

Bishop was able to move the puck to his defenseman but the incoming Hathaway’s shoulder caught him in the mask. The impact knocked Bishop over and he was slow to get up before being pulled from the game.

Here’s the hit:

Hathaway was given a two-minute minor for goaltender interference. Stars defenseman Roman Polak got a roughing minor after going after Hathaway following the hit.

Bishop stopped all nine shots he faced in the 33:37 he played. Anton Khudobin logged 6:23 in relief before Bishop led the Stars out for the third period.

Bishiop had a 10-8-1 record coming into Tuesday with a .920 save percentage. The Stars were leading 2-0 in the third.


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: Predators visit Blackhawks on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks with coverage beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This is the second of four meetings between these Central Division foes. The Predators beat the Blackhawks 5-2 on Dec. 1 in Nashville. Pekka Rinne made 19 saves and five different Predators scored a goal.

During the 2016-17 season, the Blackhawks finished as the top team in the Western Conference with 109 points and faced the upstart Predators (94 points) in the First Round of the playoffs. Since Nashville delivered a surprising sweep in that series, the Preds have become one of the premiere franchises in the NHL, while the Hawks have taken a nosedive:

Last night in Ottawa, the Preds went down 3-0 in the first period and pulled Rinne, rallied back to force overtime, but fell 4-3 on Thomas Chabot’s OT winner. They have now lost seven straight on the road (0-5-2) after starting the season 8-0-0 away from Bridgestone Arena.

The Blackhawks snapped an eight-game losing streak last week with a 6-3 win over Pittsburgh, but have since lost each of their last two games — a 4-3 OT loss to Winnipeg on Friday and a 7-3 defeat on Sunday to San Jose. They have won just four times in their past 25 games (4-17-4) and are 4-13-3 under Jeremy Colliton.

Entering last week’s game against the Penguins, the Blackhawks had allowed the first goal of the game in 11 straight. Since then, they’ve tallied the first goal in two of their last three games. Chicago actually jumped out to a 2-0 lead against the Sharks and led 3-2 after the first period. But San Jose scored five unanswered goals from there.

When they do score the first goal of the game, Chicago is 8-2-4. When they allow the first goal of the game, they are 2-17-2.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Nashville Predators at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Predators-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PREDATORS
Ryan HartmanRyan JohansenKevin Fiala
Calle JarnkrokKyle TurrisCraig Smith
Colton SissonsNick BoninoAustin Watson
Miikka SalomakiFrederick Gaudreau – Rocco Grimaldi

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Dan HamhuisMattias Ekholm
Matt IrwinYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsDominik Kahun
Dylan StromeArtem AnisimovPatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatDavid Kampf – Dylan Sikura
John HaydenMarcus KrugerBrendan Perlini

Duncan KeithErik Gustafsson
Gustav ForslingBrent Seabrook
Carl Dahlstrom – Connor Murphy

Starting goalie: Cam Ward

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Capitals face conundrum with Burakovsky

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Right now, it sure seems like Andre Burakovsky is the odd man out for the Washington Capitals, and you wonder if something eventually has to give.

The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan reports that Burakovsky is likely to be a healthy scratch during the Capitals’ Wednesday game against the Penguins (airing on NBCSN), which would mark the fourth consecutive game that Capitals head coach Todd Reirden sat him viable the dreaded “coach’s decision.”

Publicly, Reirden provided the boilerplate optimism you’d expect, even when a player seems to be in the doghouse.

“He’s just got to continue to come to work every day with the right attitude, which he has,” Reirden said, via Khurshudyan. “He’s got so much skill and talent and had a great day of practice again today. It’s a difficult situation right now; the players are making it difficult for our staff to pick the guys who should be playing each night, and that’s a good thing.”

Limited minutes if he even manages to play

To some extent, it’s true that the defending champions are fairly stacked at forward. Granted, it’s easy for me to picture Burakovsky bringing more value to the table than a limited (albeit rugged) winger like Devante Smith-Pelly, but it sure seems like Reirden’s soured on Burakovsky.

Earlier in his career, it was frustrating to see Burakovsky’s minutes somewhat limited, as it felt like a case of Barry Trotz being too rigid to trust a younger player to learn from mistakes. That’s only gotten worse under Reirden, as Burakovsky’s averaged just 11:36 TOI through the 29 games he has appeared in, a significant drop from last season (13:50) and his career average of 13:04.

Burakovsky’s struggles become a chicken-and-the-egg argument, then: how much of it is pure up-and-down play, and how much of it comes down to shaken confidence?

Checking Hockey Reference, you can see that Burakovsky often enjoyed strong possession numbers, including relative to his teammates … until 2018-19, when he’s been mediocre, if not bad. It’s noticeable that a player who was once deployed for offensive opportunities (career average of 56.8 percent of his shifts starting in the attacking zone) is now averaging a career-low of 45.9 percent.

On one hand, Burakovsky’s stock may be at a new low, judging by his underlying struggles, healthy scratches, and being limited to a disappointing eight points in 29 games. Selling low is a way to lose trades … but considering how reluctantly he’s being deployed by Reirden, maybe a trade would just be better for everyone involved?

After all, the Capitals might not want to hand the pending RFA a $3.25M qualifying offer if this funk – and impasse with Reirden – is the rule, rather than the exception.

Khurshudyan reports that the Capitals wouldn’t want futures in a hypothetical trade, instead wanting someone who could help them now. Either way, a trade before Wednesday’s holiday freeze is reportedly unlikely.

With all of that in mind, is there some sort of solution?

How Capitals can help him out

Well, that might require a bit of creativity. Back in late November, Japers Rink’s Adam Stringham brought up an interesting point: like a flip-flop of Alex Ovechkin thriving as a LW, the left-handed Burakovsky tends to put up better numbers as a RW.

Andre Burakovsky has played roughly the same number of minutes on both the right and left sides of the ice but with pretty different rates of production. Across all lines, Burakovsky’s production is 35% higher when he’s playing on his off-wing.

It could be especially bold – and make Adam Oates’ blood boil – if the Capitals rolled out a line of Ovechkin (LW), Nicklas Backstrom/Evgeny Kuznetsov at center, and Burakovsky on the right.

One could also argue that Burakovsky is worthy of more power play time whenever he might re-enter the lineup. While it would be foolish to quibble with Washington’s top unit, more reps with the second group would make a lot of sense. Burakovsky probably deserves more than 32 seconds of PP time per night, particularly since the Caps roll out two defensemen on the second group (Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen), when a lot of metrics argue that a 4F, 1D setup is more productive.

Checking Corsica’s numbers, Burakovsky has often acquitted himself well on a per-60-minutes basis, frequently meeting or exceeding the likes of T.J. Oshie at that mark. That’s not to slight Oshie; instead, the point is that the Capitals might be leaving goals and assists on the table when they’re failing to find ways to get Burakovsky on the ice.

Getting Burakovsky out there more often could pump his trade value back up, and could also help thaw out the relationship with Reirden. The Capitals have been hit by injuries more often this season merely by comparison to their almost-spooky run of near-impeccable health during the Trotz era, but if those ailments start to hit in waves, wouldn’t it be better to not just have Burakovsky around, but have him on the right track?

Considering the Capitals’ five-game winning streak, things are obviously looking good overall. It’s unlikely that many are losing sleep regarding this situation.

Still, Burakovsky is the sort of talented player who can sometimes turn the tide of a close series, or at least help Washington land that type of player in a trade. He’s not going to do that by languishing on the bench, though.

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.