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Challenges for Penguins and Caps, Opportunity for Rangers: Metro in October

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If the Metropolitan Division isn’t the best division in the NHL once again, it probably still ranks as the most prominent.

You have the repeat defending champions in the Pittsburgh Penguins going toe-to-toe with the Washington Capitals, who’ve won consecutive Presidents’ Trophies. The New York Rangers are fixtures in the playoffs, and the Columbus Blue Jackets are aiming to join them. The Carolina Hurricanes hope to push one of those teams out of such status. Meanwhile, both the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils are making strong cases for their rebuilds being ahead of schedule, while the New York Islanders hover as an intriguing wild card.

Check out the Atlantic Division outlook here, this Central Division outlook, and the Pacific Division one in this post.

Also, for an in-depth preview for the Metro, check here.

Carolina (beat Wild in season-opener at home)

Schedule

Tue, Oct 10 vs Columbus
Sat, Oct 14 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Oct 17 @ Edmonton
Thu, Oct 19 @ Calgary
Sat, Oct 21 @ Dallas
Tue, Oct 24 vs Tampa Bay
Thu, Oct 26 @ Toronto
Fri, Oct 27 vs St. Louis
Sun, Oct 29 vs Anaheim

After a slow start with their season beginning at home on Saturday, things get tougher on the weekend, following Tuesday’s game. (One must wonder if the young Hurricanes really enjoy the way this schedule fell, at least to begin.)

Beginning with that road game against the Jets, they’ll play four in a row and five of six away from Carolina. Stretching into November, they’ll play eight of 12 on the road from Oct. 14 – Nov. 10. There’s also a lengthy road trip in early December, so the Hurricanes might need to work through some self-doubt early.

On the bright side, the Hurricanes only have one back-to-back in October. Even a young team can appreciate that.

(Justin Williams doubly appreciates it.)

Columbus (Won opener at home, lost on the road to Chicago)

Schedule

Tue, Oct 10 @ Carolina
Fri, Oct 13 vs NY Rangers
Sat, Oct 14 @ Minnesota
Tue, Oct 17 @ Winnipeg
Thu, Oct 19 vs Tampa Bay
Sat, Oct 21 vs Los Angeles
Wed, Oct 25 vs Buffalo
Fri, Oct 27 vs Winnipeg
Sat, Oct 28 @ St. Louis
Mon, Oct 30 vs Boston

The road and home games seem like a reasonable mix. While they’re currently on a stretch of four of five games on the road counting that loss at the United Center to the Blackhawks, they’ll then play four straight and five of six at home.

Following that, they’ll open November with a three-game road trip.

They do face two back-to-back sets, so they’ll want to rest up between home games on Oct. 21 and Oct. 25.

New Jersey (handily won first two games  [one at home, one on the road])

Schedule

Wed, Oct 11 @ Toronto
Fri, Oct 13 vs Washington
Sat, Oct 14 @ NY Rangers
Tue, Oct 17 vs Tampa Bay
Thu, Oct 19 @ Ottawa
Fri, Oct 20 vs San Jose
Fri, Oct 27 vs Ottawa
Sat, Oct 28 vs Arizona

Sort of an odd start to the season for the Devils, as things are spaced out but New Jersey also faces three back-to-back sets in October alone. They might want to hope that the Senators are in a rut, as two of those sets feature single contests against the Sens.

Getting a week between the second and third back-to-back sets should help navigate some of the fatigue, which might make one stretch (Oct. 17 vs. Lighting plus a back-to-back on Oct. 19 and Oct. 20) tougher.

November’s likely the bigger concern, as it begins with seven of 10 games on the road.

Islanders (1-1-1 start, one road vs. two home games)

Schedule

Wed, Oct 11 @ Anaheim
Sat, Oct 14 @ San Jose
Sun, Oct 15 @ Los Angeles
Thu, Oct 19 @ NY Rangers
Sat, Oct 21 vs San Jose
Tue, Oct 24 vs Arizona
Thu, Oct 26 @ Minnesota
Sat, Oct 28 @ Nashville
Mon, Oct 30 vs Vegas

As you can see, the Islanders face some challenges, with their upcoming four-game road trip including a three-game tour of California. They also play six of their next eight away.

The Islanders only have one back-to-back in October, so there could be some “Yes!” chants if they fare well through this stretch.

Their schedule is relatively mild for a while, so it’s on this team to gain traction. That’s still a work in progress.

Rangers (Lost two of three, two of three games were at MSG)

Schedule

Tue, Oct 10 vs St. Louis
Fri, Oct 13 @ Columbus
Sat, Oct 14 vs New Jersey
Tue, Oct 17 vs Pittsburgh
Thu, Oct 19 vs NY Islanders
Sat, Oct 21 vs Nashville
Mon, Oct 23 vs San Jose
Thu, Oct 26 vs Arizona
Sat, Oct 28 @ Montreal
Tue, Oct 31 vs Vegas

Wow, what an opportunity for the Rangers.

Counting the three games they’ve already played, October is a home-packed month for the Rangers. Ten of their 13 October games take place at Madison Square Garden, including a six-game homestand beginning this coming weekend. Aside from winning their last game, the main plus of their bumpy start is that none of those losses came against Metro rivals.

Scanning their big-picture schedule, some of the heavier road runs seem concentrated in late January and beyond, so the Rangers would benefit from a strong start to 2017-18 (even if they’ve had a recent history of being a good-to-great traveling team).

Philadelphia (2-1-0, with all three games on the road)

Schedule

Tue, Oct 10 @ Nashville
Sat, Oct 14 vs Washington
Tue, Oct 17 vs Florida
Thu, Oct 19 vs Nashville
Sat, Oct 21 vs Edmonton
Tue, Oct 24 vs Anaheim
Thu, Oct 26 @ Ottawa
Sat, Oct 28 @ Toronto
Mon, Oct 30 vs Arizona

The Flyers are already showing promise in the standings, but when you consider that every game’s been on the road, these upstarts look especially intriguing so far.

(It’s noticeable that they’ve fired at least 31 shots on goal in all three contests and kept two of three opponents under 30, to boot.)

This four-game road trip wraps up with a significant challenge: beating a winless, angry Predators team playing its first home contest of 2017-18. If they can get a point or even a win out of that, then this is quite the start.

They can put a lot of energy into that game, as their five-game homestand doesn’t begin until Saturday. Nine of 13 games are in Philly from Oct. 14 – Nov. 11. Interesting stuff, especially without any back-to-backs remaining in October.

Pittsburgh (1-1-1, two at home vs. one road)

Schedule

Wed, Oct 11 @ Washington
Thu, Oct 12 @ Tampa Bay
Sat, Oct 14 vs Florida
Tue, Oct 17 @ NY Rangers
Fri, Oct 20 @ Florida
Sat, Oct 21 @ Tampa Bay
Tue, Oct 24 vs Edmonton
Thu, Oct 26 vs Winnipeg
Sat, Oct 28 @ Minnesota
Sun, Oct 29 @ Winnipeg

The repeat champs are used to fighting through bumps on the road, but even so, there are some suspension-challenging potholes up ahead. Their three back-to-back sets in October all take place on the road, for instance.

It’s bad enough that they also play seven of their next 10 games away from home, but November looms with more challenges. That Oct. 28 game in Minnesota actually begins a five-game road trip, and a run of seven of eight games on the road.

From now until Nov. 11, they play 12 of 16 games on the road and deal with five back-to-back sets. If this team has a strong record in mid-November, give them some kudos. If things are rough, these breaks could be a factor.

Washington (2-0-1, two road vs. one home)

Schedule

Wed, Oct 11 vs Pittsburgh
Fri, Oct 13 @ New Jersey
Sat, Oct 14 @ Philadelphia
Tue, Oct 17 vs Toronto
Fri, Oct 20 @ Detroit
Sat, Oct 21 vs Florida
Thu, Oct 26 @ Vancouver
Sat, Oct 28 @ Edmonton
Sun, Oct 29 @ Calgary

Counting the three previous games, the Capitals play eight home games vs. four road contests to start the season, so getting at least a point in their first three contests is a nice plus.

Washington’s schedule isn’t much easier than that of the Penguins, as they also face three back-to-back sets (mostly on the road) in October. Things lighten up for the Caps in November, though, especially with a lot of home games in late-November to early December.

Maybe Ovechkin can keep his hot streak going when the Capitals can use some power-play goals to ease the challenges early on?

The Buzzer: Caps’ Carlson is on fire; James Neal keeps scoring

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Three Stars

1. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

When you’re trying to split hairs and choose the best of the best on a night of strong performances, sometimes you have to break the tie by looking at the larger body of work.

You could make a strong argument that Capitals defenseman John Carlson is on the hottest start of any player. Not just of any defenseman in the NHL — of any skater.

Carlson generated three assists in Washington’s 5-2 win against the New York Rangers on Friday. That gives him six points (one goal, five assists) in his last two games, and 17 points through nine games overall in 2019-20.

If you haven’t clued into just how impressive that start is yet, consider this: Carlson is tied with Connor McDavid for the league lead with 17 points after McDavid finally went pointless in Edmonton’s tight win against the Red Wings on Friday. Yes, McDavid’s gotten to eight games compared to Carlson’s nine, but this is still some resounding stuff. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is the only other blueliner in double digits so far in 2019-20, as he reached 10 points after scoring two goals against the struggling Stars.

Carlson’s building quite the early lead in the Norris Trophy race.

Anyone who thinks point totals don’t matter to at least some Norris voters is naive, but Carlson hasn’t just been a points machine. Two of his three goals have been game-winners, he’s logging significant ice time, and Carlson’s continuing his recent upswing in possession stats. The cherry on top is that Carlson’s underlying stats are up a bit from 2018-19’s impressive jump even though he’s not seeing the same cushy situations (50.9 of his shifts started in the offensive zone heading into Friday, versus of an average of 56.6 percent last season; maybe the stemming from Matt Niskanen being traded away?).

Carlson’s certain to slow down, but has a strong chance to reach a new peak from last year’s career-high of 70 points.

2. Andre Burakovsky, Colorado Avalanche

A former Capitals player might have enjoyed the superior overall Friday, though.

Burakovsky generated two goals and one assist in Colorado’s 5-4 OT win against the Panthers, and his points were significant. Burakovsky scored Colorado’s final two goals of regulation, including the tally that sent the contest into overtime, and then nabbed the primary assist on a Nathan MacKinnon OT-winner that looked way too easy, even by 3-on-3 standards.

Could this be the breakout many expected to see in Washington? He’s riding high percentages, yet it’s promising that Burakovsky’s off to a strong start in Colorado (eight points in seven games). If Burakovsky can help the Avalanche generate secondary scoring, that team could get scary, arguably sooner than many expected/feared.

3. Patric Hornqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins

During the same week that Hornqvist made plenty of enemies in Colorado thanks to a questionable hit on MacKinnon, Hornqvist was a disruptive force on the scoreboard, scoring one goal and two assists as the Penguins added to Dallas’ miseries.

Hornqvist ended up with a +3 rating, game-winning goal, four SOG, and one blocked shot. The only upset is that the sandpaper-y winger didn’t get credited with a hit.

(Considering Pittsburgh’s injury woes, maybe that’s the wisest path.)

Highlight of the Night

After scoring a goal in a video game where you hammered the deke button, you might feel some emptiness — that this never would have happened in “real life.” Then again, were you scoring that goal with Kris Letang?

Factoids

Scores

COL 5 – FLA 4 (OT)
PIT 4 – DAL 2
WSH 5 – NYR 2
CHI 3 – CBJ 2 (OT)
EDM 2 – DET 1
ANA 4 – CAR 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg sitting at three points (after Thursday’s goal and assist).

Things should improve to some extent, even if it’s foolish to count on all-world goaltending once again. With six of their first nine games on the road, maybe Dallas is having some trouble bringing its small-margin-of-error style out of Dallas.

While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving, so Dallas needs to shake out of this funk as soon as possible.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

[MORE: What’s wrong with the Stars?]

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Nationals’ Scherzer drops ceremonial baseball before Capitals game

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The Washington Nationals have some time to kill before the 2019 World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, so why not take in a Washington Capitals game … and maybe put a new knuckleball-like spin on a common hockey photo-op?

Instead of dropping the ceremonial first puck before Friday’s Capitals – Rangers contest, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer elected to drop a baseball instead. You can watch video of that fun ceremony (which vaguely reminded me of Auston Matthews doing a little Globetrotter spin with a Raptors basketball) in the video above. Sports city synergy is fun, is what I’m trying to say.

As a baseball not-knower, this brings up a lot of questions — some I can answer, some not so much.

  • Was it one of those new-fangled “juiced” baseballs? Scherzer probably doesn’t like those, if they’re really a thing.
  • I was wondering about Scherzer’s (maybe somewhat intimidating) different-colored eyes. Apparently Scherzer was born that way, although one eye was blue and the other was green, originally. (The blue eye turned bluer, while the green one turned brown.) Dany Heatley is a hockey player who comes to mind with that, but his story is less fun and more upsetting.
  • CNN clears up the Nationals’ connection to “Baby Shark,” which I wondered about thanks to this:

(Even Capitals fans would probably admit that this is swimming a bit close to San Jose’s waters.)

  • In case you were wondering, that sports city synergy went both ways, as you can see from Alex Ovechkin hugging Scherzer before a Nationals game in June 2018 (via Getty):
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

As of this writing, the Capitals lead the Rangers 3-2 and the New York Yankees are trying to protect a 4-1 lead against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS. If the Astros win, they’ll face Scherzer’s Nationals.

… And that about concludes my baseball-knowing.

/chews imaginary tobacco/Major League Chew

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Devils, Hischier agree to seven-year, $50.75 million extension

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While the Devils don’t know yet if Taylor Hall will sign an extension to remain in New Jersey or find a new home next summer in free agency, GM Ray Shero has young locked down one of the team’s core pieces.

On Friday, Nico Hischier agreed to a seven-year, $50.75 million extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit through the 2026-27 NHL season. The deal buys three unrestricted free agent years since the Devils forward has been playing since he was 18, per Cap Friendly.

“Nico is a special person who possess a team-first mentality combined with an inner drive to succeed,” said Shero in a statement. The entire organization is thankful to him and his family for believing in our future. We are excited that he will continue to play a prominent role with us for many years to come.”

According to the Devils, here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

2020-21: $7,000,000 (includes $3 million signing bonus)
2021-22: $7,250,000
2022-23:  $4,500,000
2023-24:  $7,750,000
2024-25:  $7,750,000
2025-26:  $8,000,000
2026-27:  $8,500,000

The extension also features a modified no-trade clause in the final three years.

In 157 NHL games, Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has 37 goals and 101 points while averaging over 17 minutes a night. His offense has been just fine with a 20 and 17 goals in his first two seasons, but his two-way game is what’s really boosted his talent.

The 20-year-old center joins the list of NHLers who passed on restricted free agency in 2020 to put pen to paper on a new deal, joining the likes of Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Sam Girard.

Mathew Barzal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Strome, and Mikhail Sergachev are some of the other potential 2020 RFAs who will be looking for extensions before next season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.