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Five Early Observations From The 2016 World Cup of Hockey

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The 2016 World Cup of Hockey doesn’t officially begin until Saturday in Toronto, but we have had a number pre-tournament exhibition games over the past week to help the teams get some work in with one another in a game setting.

It has also given us an early look at what the teams are going to look like and how they are going to play.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the developments from these initial games.

Team USA cares about this tournament. A lot. The one thing that has stood out about the pre-tournament games is the players, at least as it relates to the United States and Canada, really seem to care about it and are taking it seriously. That intensity was on display in a pair of games this past week that did not resemble the exhibition games they were.

You can question the construction of the Team USA roster (in fact, you should question it), and there are a lot of reasons to doubt whether or not their desired style of play will actually work against teams that are more talented than them (unless they get amazing goaltending, it probably won’t). But whether it’s about winning and trying to get some sort of redemption for themselves after a disappointing showing at the 2014 Olympics, or just because they care about beating Canada and sending some sort of message to them, these guys have already bought into the style of play that the braintrust in charge of building and coaching this roster wants it to play.

If the first two pre-tournament games were played with that level of intensity, what are the real games going to look like?

Team North America looks like it can be scary good. Or at least really, really, really entertaining.

It certainly hasn’t hurt that their first two pre-tournament games were against what is probably the weakest team in the field (Europe), but the most impressive team so far has been the North American young stars team that has already scored 11 goals in two games and has played at an absolutely stunning pace.

While the United States team under John Tortorella is going to try to impose its will and inflict as much physical damage as it possibly can on its opponents, the North American team seems determined to just try and out-skate everybody.

They did exactly that in their first two games against Europe. Perhaps the most impressive thing about their goal output in the first two games is that they did it without their best player, Connor McDavid, recording a point. Don’t expect that goose egg to last next to his name much longer.

The idea of the North American and European teams has been a point of ridicule for critics of the tournament, but the reality is their creation has added a significant level of skill and entertainment to the tournament that may not have otherwise existed. A lot of these players would not have been playing in this if they were only eligible for the Team USA or Canadian rosters.

It has also been a great opportunity for Johnny Gaudreau to make a pretty big statement as he attempts to finalize a new contract with the Calgary Flames.

The Boston Bruins should probably be a little concerned about Zdeno Chara. While Team North America has looked great in its first two games, Team Europe, having been on the other side of those performances, has obviously looked like … well … kind of bad.

They just can not match the speed and skill of the North American team, and it is unlikely that is going to change when they run into any other top team in the tournament.

One player that seemed to especially struggle to keep up with the pace of the younger, faster skaters on the other side of the ice was Bruins defender Zdeno Chara.

Look, it’s only two exhibition games of a preseason tournament, so we don’t want to go overboard here. But Chara is 39 years old. He has already started to show signs of slowing down over the past year in the NHL. The Bruins, after doing almost nothing to fix a blue line that was by far the weak link of their team a season ago and significantly contributed to the team missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, are going to be relying heavily on him to still be a No. 1 defender. He just may not be able to physically play at that level anymore. That should be a pretty big point of concern with the start of the season just around the corner.

Team USA needs to just trust Max Pacioretty. At the 2014 Olympics Pacioretty was pretty much an afterthought when it came to playing time for team USA, mainly being relegated to fourth-line duty and only getting a little more than 10 minutes per game.

We’re not even into the actual tournament here and Pacioretty is already being challenged by Tortorella to show him more.

Together, it’s all a very weird approach to take with the player that has been — literally — the best the best goal scorer from your country over a five-year stretch. He has at least 30 goals in four of the past five NHL seasons, while his 154 goals are the fifth most in the entire NHL. He is tops among all American-born players and is one of only five American-born players in the top-30 of the entire league (and one of those five, Phil Kessel, is not even on the team).

Pacioretty is like any other goal scorer in hockey. He is not going to score every night, and when he doesn’t, it is easy to get frustrated with that and start picking apart other areas of his performance and concluding that you need more from him.

He is going to be streaky, and there are going to be a few cold streaks that you have to get through. Sometimes you need to be a little patient through the dry spells and wait for the inevitable hot streak where he can carry the offense. Especially when you are dealing with a roster that doesn’t really have a lot of players that are capable of putting together that type of hot streak.

Coaches and GMs around the league probably can’t wait for it to be over. At least the ones that aren’t involved in it. There have already been a handful of injuries in the tournament and more than a few scares, especially in the USA-Canada matchups, with top players like Shea Weber, Claude Giroux, and Logan Couture all taking massive hits. The Chicago Blackhawks, a team that really can’t afford to lose any forward depth, have also had a couple of players in Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa get banged up a little.

Hockey is a collision sport, and there are always going to be injuries. They are inevitable. But it still seems like it would be a little tougher to accept a potentially significant injury to a star player if it happened in a tournament game like this and not in a game for their own team and in a game that counts in the standings.

And as long as the USA and Canada try to beat each other up whenever they step on the ice together, there are probably going to be a lot of nervous coaches and GMs around the league.

 

The Buzzer: Streaks good and bad around NHL; Leafs turn the page

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Turning over new Maple Leafs

One streak did end, although Sheldon Keefe has to hope that his NHL head coaching career will begin with a streak that goes beyond a debut win. The Maple Leafs ended their losing streak at six games by beating the Coyotes 3-1 in their first game after Mike Babcock fired. Read up on that win here.

From hot streaks to cold

The Islanders maintained their now-franchise-record breaking point streak of 16 games by beating the Penguins in overtime. In doing so, the Isles are also on a five-game winning streak. The Dallas Stars matched that winning streak with their fifth victory in a row, and are pretty hot in their own right, going 9-0-1 in their last 10 games. They’re also 12-1-1 in their last 14 contests.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Flames put forth a painful, pitiful effort in dropping their sixth straight loss. The Predators were more competitive in many ways on Thursday, but Nashville has also lost six in a row. Tense times for two teams that expected to be Western Conference contenders.

Three Stars

1. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

Heading into Thursday’s game, Giroux was on a three-game pointless streak, and only had a single point (one goal) over his past six games. The veteran forward exploded with a two-goal, two-assist performance to help the Flyers beat the Hurricanes.

Giroux’s two assists were primary assists, and his second goal ended up being the game-winner. He even threw in a 17-10 mark on faceoffs for good measure.

2. Zach Sanford, St. Louis Blues

Despite a modest 13:19 in ice time on Thursday, Sanford helped lead the charge as the Blues humiliated a flustered Flames team. Sanford scored the game’s first goal (thus getting a GWG) and added three assists during a four-point performance that was almost as impressive as Giroux’s output.

If you’d prefer handing this star to Jordan Binnington for his 40-save shutout, that’s totally understandable.

3. Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers

Florida found itself down 4-0 with less than two minutes remaining in the second period, yet managed to enter the third period down a more palatable 4-2. From there, Ekblad took over, scoring a goal and an assist during the third period, then adding the overtime game-winner to lock up a comeback win for Florida. Like Giroux, Ekblad came into the night’s action on a cold streak, having only managed a goal over seven games.

For me, Ekblad’s little trot after the OT-GWG breaks the tie with other players who scored three points on Thursday:

Highlight of the Night

No doubt about it, that goes Tuukka Rask, whose save rivals Marc-Andre Fleury for the save of the week/month/year. This post has more.

Benn the Bulldozer

On a less busy night, Jamie Benn trucking Mark Scheifele than scoring a pretty game-winning goal would be the top dog. It’s at least worth watching:

Factoids

  • The Panthers have now overcome four-goal deficits to win games twice in 2019-20, joining the 1983-84 Oilers as the only teams to manage such wins twice in the same season, according to NHL PR.
  • Sportsnet notes that the Flames are on a streak of 362:46 without taking a lead, the longest stretch in franchise history. Um, at least they haven’t squandered any leads, then? The Maple Leafs’ run without a lead ended at 446:47 when Tyson Barrie scored the opening goal on Thursday, also according to Sportsnet.
  • Via NHL PR: Cale Makar is the first Avs/Nordiques rookie defenseman to generate at least 15 points in a single month, and sixth overall among the franchise’s defensemen.

Scores

BOS 3 – BUF 2
FLA 5 – ANA 4 (OT)
NYI 4 – PIT 3 (OT)
PHI 5 – CAR 3
CBJ 5 – DET 4
STL 5 – CGY 0
VAN 6 – NSH 3
MIN 3 – COL 2
TBL 4 – CHI 2
DAL 5 – WPG 3
TOR 3 – ARI 1
SJS 2 – VGK 1 (OT)
LAK 5 – EDM 1

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.

Maple Leafs end skid in first Babcock-less game

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If it weren’t for Vinnie Hinostroza spoiling Frederik Andersen‘s shutout with 17 seconds left, Thursday would have been just about perfect for the Toronto Maple Leafs during their first game post-Mike Babcock.

Most importantly, the Maple Leafs ended their six-game losing streak with a win. (Yes, that makes brand-new head coach Sheldon Keefe 1-0-0.)

The symmetry starts to go up a notch when you consider that, on this night, Tyson Barrie finally scored his first goal of the 2019-20 season, which is also his first with the Maple Leafs. Barrie is up there when you picture Leafs with relief of Babcock grief, so scoring here almost feels on-the-nose:

That Barrie goal gave the Maple Leafs a coveted 1-0 lead, and that’s quite a reversal from how things could have felt if Andersen didn’t make this great glove save (which would have stood out even more if Tuukka Rask didn’t give Marc-Andre Fleury competition with an absolutely ludicrous stop).

The underlying numbers are promising, too. In particular, it has to be uplifting to see that the Maple Leafs managed an impressive 18-7 advantage in high-danger chances at all strengths, according to Natural Stat Trick.

There’s a lot to like for the Leafs, but there’s also no denying that the Maple Leafs have a lot of work to do — and a hole they need to dig out of. That win merely brought them back to “.500,” as they’re now 10-10-4 for 24 standings points in 24 games. They wouldn’t make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began on Thursday night, and Toronto’s ninth place standing is even inflated when you realize that teams right behind them hold games in hand. (Toronto’s 24 games played ties for the most in the NHL, while teams like the Lightning [22 points in 19 GP] loom large.)

Ultimately, though, the Maple Leafs can only control what they’re doing on the ice. So far, so good then, when you consider how they’re playing with Keefe pulling the strings instead of Babs.

More on Babcock, Leafs:

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.

Blues’ Dunn levels Flames’ Mangiapane with huge hit

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These are painful times for the Calgary Flames … sometimes literally.

By falling 5-0 to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday, the Flames have now dropped six consecutive games. It’s hard not to think a little bit about the Toronto Maple Leafs firing Mike Babcock amid their slump when considering the Flames’ own struggles, both now and in their own disappointing showing in Round 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Talk of big changes (to coaching, Johnny Gaudreau, the GM, or anything else) can wait for another day … maybe one soon? For now, let’s bask in the fearful glow of Vince Dunn‘s hit on Andrew Mangiapane, as you can witness in the video above this post’s headline.

Is that hit symbolic of the Flames’ pains lately, or could you best embody that agony by comparing the team to its most snakebitten player, Sam Bennett?

Either way, these are uncomfortable times for the Flames, and not just Mangiapane.

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.

Islanders’ point streak hits 16 games, a new franchise record

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The Penguins spoiled the Islanders’ 10-game winning streak, but not the Islanders’ point streak, back on Nov. 7. The Islanders really haven’t slowed down since then, as Thursday’s 4-3 OT win against Pittsburgh extended their latest winning streak to five games, and allowed them to set a new franchise record.

By going 15-0-1 in their last 16 games, the Islanders set a new franchise mark for longest point streak. Yes, that means Barry Trotz’s odds-defying group has accomplished something the dynastic Mike Bossy-powered ’80s group never did.

At this rate, the Islanders might just bank enough standings points that it might not matter much when/if they “come back to Earth.”

In the spirit of Derek Jeter wedging his jersey number into a word where it only kinda sorta works, the Islanders embraced the history of the 16-game streak:

When you’re winning (or at least getting a point) as often as the Islanders have been, you’ll need to win in different ways. After some comeback wins recently, Thursday’s game against the Penguins was a back-and-forth affair where the two teams traded leads, and the Penguins needed a last-minute goal to even get the game to overtime. Brock Nelson‘s two goals were key, including his OT-winner:

There’s been a “cardiac kids” element to this run, especially lately. Thursday’s win marks the third consecutive game where the Isles’ action went beyond regulation, and six of the Islanders’ wins (plus their lone OT loss to the Penguins) have come via either a shootout or overtime goal.

This also marks the best 20-game start in franchise history for the Isles, according to The Athletic’s David Staple.

Just resounding stuff.

It says a lot about the Capitals’ own hot start (16-4-4, 36 points in 24 games played) that the Islanders still aren’t in the lead in the Metro. Of course, the Islanders could close a ton of ground considering their games in hand, as they’re 16-3-1 for 33 points in just those 20 games played.

Looking ahead, the Islanders will go on the road quite a bit as they try to extend this point streak even beyond 16 games. To start, they’ll take a California road trip, and the away-heavy stretch doesn’t end there.

Nov. 23: at San Jose
Nov. 25: at Anaheim
Nov. 27: at Los Angeles
Nov. 30: vs. Columbus
Dec. 2: at Detroit
Dec. 3 :at Montreal
Dec. 5: vs. Vegas
Dec. 7: at Dallas
Dec. 9: at Tampa Bay
Dec. 12: at Florida

As you can see, the Islanders face a run where eight of their next 10 games are on the road. You’d think that maybe there will be stumbles (dare I wonder, *gasp* maybe even a single regulation loss?) along that way, but the Islanders keep buzzing along, and they’re 6-1-0 on the road thus far this season … so who knows?

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.