Christmas Q&A: What has been the NHL’s biggest surprise?

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Brough: This is an easy answer for me, because I thought the Columbus Blue Jackets would be terrible again. Oh, sure, I knew they had a talented, young defense, and I knew Sergei Bobrovsky had the potential to play like an elite netminder. I even thought John Tortorella might be a good fit with them. But I certainly didn’t foresee the rise of Alexander Wennberg, or the resurgence of Sam Gagner. I thought they’d have to hope and pray that Pierre-Luc Dubois would one day become a legitimate No. 1 center. How wrong I was. The young Jackets, with their “new culture,” have shocked the hockey world.

Gretz: I find the Ottawa Senators’ first half success to be a pretty big surprise. Maybe not quite on the same level as Columbus, but I didn’t really expect them to be in playoff contention. Erik Karlsson is probably one of the five best players in hockey, and they have a couple of decent pieces around him, but this just didn’t seem like a roster that had improved enough to make up the necessary ground in the Eastern Conference to get back into a playoff position, especially in a division that had Tampa Bay, Florida and a Montreal team that was going to get Carey Price back. But here they are now heading into Christmas with a pretty big cushion in the Atlantic Division playoff race. Yep, I’m surprised.

Alfieri: I’d like to say the Edmonton Oilers are the biggest surprise, but if you remember correctly, I predicted they’d make the playoffs this year. So, I’ll be a grinch and go with a negative surprise and say Filip Forsberg. Last year, the Predators forward netted 33 goals in 82 games, but he’s nowhere close to being that productive this season. Through 32 contests, he’s managed to find the back of the net just five times. It’s no coincidence that Nashville isn’t as high in the standings as many expected them to be at this point. If the Predators plan on turning things around in the New Year, they’ll need their star forward to find his game — and the back of the net — in a hurry.

Tucker: It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Florida’s two NHL teams, that’s for sure. At the start of the season, it would’ve seemed foolish not to pencil in the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Stanley Cup contender in the East. Moreover, it would not have seemed likely that the upstart Panthers would be the first team to fire its coach. There’s still time for both squads to correct their respective courses, and, as the 2016 champion Penguins showed us, it’s not necessarily about what you do from October through December. But given the progress of both franchises in recent years, the fact they’re both trying to catch up to a playoff spot is a surprise.

O’Brien: As the optimistic soul/dummy who chose the Dallas Stars to win the 2017 Stanley Cup, I’d have to say that their struggles are right up there. While their defensive and goaltending issues are even more problematic than expected, it’s their modest offense that’s truly eye-popping, even with all of the injuries. It’s startling that such an explosive team could slip into the lower half of the league in scoring. That’s borderline criminal for a team that employs Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and John Klingberg (and seriously, what’s going on with Klingberg this season?).

Halford: The answers is the Rangers but, more specifically, how well GM Jeff Gorton’s moves paid off. Gorton was kinda painted into a corner this summer — New York needed to get younger, and faster, yet needed to do it on the cheap. No easy task. So he took low-risk fliers on the likes of Nick Holden, Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri, made what looked like a “lose now, win later” trade (Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad) and landed Jimmy Vesey. It’s safe to say expectations were tempered, but the result? A team that’s currently on pace for 110 points, which would be nine more than last season. Given many saw the Blueshirts as a team on the decline, it’s a huge surprise.

PHT Morning Skate: ‘No easy fix’ for emergency backup goalie situations like Ayres’

David Ayers NHL tries to fix emergency backup goalie situations EBUGS
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Bill Daly told reporters that there “are no easy fixes” for the NHL regarding emergency backup goalie situations like David Ayres suiting up for the Hurricanes. Ah yes, the league definitely must do something about the scourge that is getting a feel-good story that landed on outlets such as “Today Show” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Why would any league want scores of cheap attention if it comes with even an ounce of embarrassment? Preposterous! (Sportsnet)

• You’d think hockey people didn’t need to hear this, but stories like Ayres’ is why we love sports. (The Portage Citizen)

• Great stuff from William Douglas on memorable former NHL player Mike Grier, who ranks among four black assistant coaches in the NHL. Grier explains that his father Bobby Grier inspires his work ethic, as the elder Grier once was an assistant coach for the New England Patriots. (NHL.com celebrates Black History Month)

• Plenty of big names for the U.S. roster heading into the women’s world championship, including Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, and Brianna Decker. If a familiar face isn’t there, it might be due to them having children. (Olympic Talk)

• Great news for the Blues, and really for hockey: Vladimir Tarasenko may return sooner than expected. As in, before the end of the regular season. (NHL.com)

• Blues GM Doug Armstrong explains why the team was quiet at the trade deadline. Frankly, Armstrong’s made enough splashes over the years that it’s understandable to sit one out. Plus, the Blues can make people roll their eyes by saying Tarasenko is their “trade deadline acquisition.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• If you only look at points, John Carlson ranks as the next Erik Karlsson when it comes to seemingly easy Norris Trophy calls. That said, the Capitals experienced a high-scoring blueliner getting downgraded before when Mike Green was at his fauxhawk’d peak. Could it happen again? Kevin Klein went into deep, fascinating detail on that question. (Japers Rink)

• Speaking of Capitals-related no-brainers, what about Alex Ovechkin playing a game in front of a Russian crowd? Daly says the league is working on it. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Adam Gretz argues that Conor Sheary can score enough to stick with Sidney Crosby on the Penguins’ top line. Pittsburgh showed off its new look in a narrow loss to the Kings on Wednesday. (Pensburgh)

• When Viktor Arvidsson is rolling, the Predators often roll with him. Amid a turbulent season, it seems like Arvidsson is finding his way. That’s extremely promising for Nashville’s chances. (A to Z Sports Nashville)

• Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman lays out his plan, explaining that the draft and young players are “the lifeblood of your team.” (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Senators fans waved goodbye to key players in multiple trades now, from Karlsson to Mark Stone to now Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Could Pageau be the end of that line? (TSN)

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.

The Buzzer: Fleury’s shutout helps Golden Knights win 7th in a row

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Three Stars

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. Fleury is starting to get on a roll for the Golden Knights and continued that on Wednesday night with his fifth shutout of the season in a big 3-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers. The win extend stheir lead in the Pacific Division. Fleury has now won each of his past five starts and is starting to get back on track after a mid-season slump. Vegas acquired Robin Lehner just before the NHL trade deadline to give the team some goaltending depth, and with Fleury playing the way he has lately they should have one of the best duos in the league going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Golden Knights’ winning streak now sits at seven consecutive games.

2. Cal Petersen, Los Angeles Kings. Petersen was the difference in the Kings’ 2-1 win over the Penguins on Wednesday, extending their losing streak to four games. He stopped 35 shots in the win including some great scoring chances in the closing seconds to secure the win. With Jack Campbell now in Toronto, Petersen is going to get an opportunity to be the primary backup for the Kings and he put on a great show against the Penguins. Read more about the Kings’ win right here.

3. J.T. Compher, Colorado Avalanche. With the Avalanche’s current injury situation they need their depth to come through. It did so again on Wednesday night in a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres, and it was Compher making the biggest impact with a goal and an assist. His goal late in the third period ended up being the game-winner to help the Avalanche extend their winning streak. Read more about their win right here.

Highlight of the Night

Avalanche rookie Martin Kaut scored his first NHL goal in their win over the Sabres.

Blooper of the Night

Dustin Brown accidentally crushed his own teammate.

Suit of the Night

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar really got into the spirit of military night in Denver. This camo, though, seems more suited for duck hunting night.

Factoid of the Night

Scores

Colorado Avalanche 3, Buffalo Sabres 2
Vegas Golden Knights 3, Edmonton Oilers 0
Los Angeles Kings 2, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

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.

Kings hold on to extend Penguins’ losing streak to 4 games

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The Los Angeles Kings played the role of spoiler on Wednesday night by stealing a 2-1 decision from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Blake Lizotte and Trevor Lewis provided the offense for the Kings, while goalie Cal Petersen was sensational in net by turning aside 35 out of 36 shots, including two great chances by the Penguins in the final seconds.

The Kings have won only four games since the start of February, but all four have been against teams either in a playoff spot or in direction competition for a playoff spot — Colorado, Calgary, Florida, and now Pittsburgh.

Los Angeles got off to a fast start on Wednesday by capitalizing on an early power play to jump out to a 1-0 lead with Lizotte’s goal, and then added some insurance in the closing seconds of the second period.

They also got a little bit of help from the goal post, including late in the first period when Penguins forward Sidney Crosby thought he had tied the game only to have a review overturn it because the puck did not completely cross the goal line.

It has to be a frustrating result for the Penguins. Not only because it is their fourth loss in a row and prevented them from gaining ground on the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division race, but also because it is the second game in a row during that streak that they probably played well enough to win only to have nothing to show for it. They outshot the Kings 36-22 on Wednesday and dominated every possession category.

Bryan Rust finally got them on the scoreboard midway through the third period to cut the deficit in half, but the Kings did a really good job locking the game down after that. It was not until the Penguins pulled goalie Tristan Jarry in the final minute for an extra attacker that they started to tilt the ice again, and it was then that Petersen stood tall and made a couple of huge saves to preserve the win.

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.

Avalanche stay hot with win over Sabres

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The injury situation is not slowing down the Colorado Avalanche.

Their 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night was their fourth in a row and improved them to 12-3-1 in their past 16 games to help them keep pace in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference.

What makes this current run so impressive is the number of players they have out of the lineup, currently playing without Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Matt Calvert, and starting goalie Philipp Grubauer. It is a testament to the way general manager Joe Sakic and the Avalanche front office has improved the team’s depth over the past year.

That depth was on display on Wednesday night.

J.T. Compher scored the game-winning goal with just under nine minutes to play on Wednesday night, while 20-year-old Martin Kaut scored his first career goal earlier in the night.

The big star of the game for the Avalanche, though, had to be goaltender Pavel Francouz. He continued his outstanding season by stopping 31 out of 33 shots. He helped keep the Avalanche in the game early in the first period, and then made a handful of highlight reel saves late in the third period with the Avalanche trying to protect their one-goal lead. The 29-year-old has been a great find for the Avalanche and earned a two-year contract extension earlier this month.

As for the Sabres, this was their first game after a busy trade deadline that saw them add Wayne Simmonds and Dominik Kahun in an effort to play meaningful games down the stretch, and maybe hang around in the Atlantic Division playoff race. While their recent hot streak has helped bring them closer to the Toronto Maple Leafs for that third spot, they still have almost no margin for error the rest of the way. By failing to gain a point on Wednesday they remain eight points behind the Maple Leafs.

 

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.