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Blues defy big odds to rank among NHL’s best

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After an absolutely maddening run of injuries before the season even began, there was some concern that the St. Louis Blues would miss the playoffs. Instead, they’re in a position to run away with the Central Division with November about to begin.

You can forgive the Blues for setting their sights higher than that, too, even after all those false alarms about “this being the year,” to some extent stretching back to the days of Al MacInnis’ booming shot and Steve Yzerman-administered heartbreak.

Maybe it’s fitting, then, that the Blues enter Tuesday tied with Yzerman’s Tampa Bay Lightning with matching 10-2-1 records as the top teams in the NHL (and, thus, the top seeds in their conferences). They ended October with quite the win, too, topping the Pacific-leading, also-resurgent Los Angeles Kings.

Really, the Blues’ successes might be more impressive than that of the Lightning and Kings. While everything seems to be going right for the Lightning after an injury-ravaged 2016-17 campaign, St. Louis’ black-and-blue status makes its run of victories seem that much more impressive.

Alex Steen missed a big chunk of October. Jay Bouwmeester‘s status remains murky, and Patrik Berglund hasn’t returned yet. Robby Fabbri‘s season-ending knee issues deprived the Blues of a fascinating young forward. Zach Sanford lost a chance to move up the ranks and prove himself.

With all of that, the Blues are 10-2-1, but are especially hot lately: four wins in a row and a 6-0-1 points streak.

That’s pretty fantastic, and might only be an under-the-radar story because of how well-built this franchise is thanks to GM Doug Armstrong. He doesn’t get many mentions among the game’s brightest minds, yet Armstrong looks pretty shrewd as of this moment.

Let’s ponder what is going right for the Blues, and maybe also consider a few elements that make this run even more impressive.

  • The season began with a hot power play, but they’ve learned to adjust as it cooled off.

To start 2017-18, the Blues scored a single power-play goal in five straight games. That man-advantage dominance hasn’t sustained, however, as St. Louis has only generated PPGs in one of their last eight contests (2-for-3 against Calgary on Oct. 25).

  • Critics can’t just dismiss the Blues as having a cushy schedule. So far, they’ve played eight of 13 games on the road. They’ve also faced three back-to-back sets, so if anything their success should have tapered off.
  • As disruptive as those injuries must have been, this is Mike Yeo’s first real season running the Blues.

After all, Yeo was an assistant-turned-interim head coach last season. This time around, Yeo had the opportunity to implement his systems and really cement his philosophies in training camp. Perhaps that makes some difference in how the Blues are approaching each game?

  • Jaden Schwartz has been healthy, and Jaden Schwartz has been a force. With 17 points in his first 13 games, Schwartz leads St. Louis in scoring, enjoying a hotter start than star sniper Vladimir Tarasenko (14 points). Now, with a 25 percent shooting rate, Schwartz is bound to slow down a bit. The Blues would settle for him regressing if he can flirt with a healthy season.

  • Alex Pietrangelo is quietly amassing a pretty compelling Norris Trophy argument. He’s already a sneaky-fantastic, all-purpose defenseman.
  • Some hit-or-miss supporting cast members are belting our homers like Yasiel Puig. Paul Stastny is nailing his contract year so far, including 11 points in 13 contests. Brayden Schenn‘s been a great fit after the trade.
  • The biggest factor is probably the goaltending, which seems to be carrying over the momentum from last season’s turnaround once Yeo took over. Jake Allen continues to look like a legitimate number one guy, while Carter Hutton managed a .950 save percentage in his three appearances.
  • That said, there are the red flags you’d expect from a team wildly exceeding expectations. The Allen-Hutton tandem combined for the best save percentage in the NHL, and that .9475 mark at even strength will slip even if they’re outstanding all season. Other stats over at Natural Stat Trick look fishy, with their third-best PDO signaling that the party might stop or at least slow down.

Of course, the Blues can sidestep some of the plummeting one might expect from the rigors of the season by getting back some key players.

They’ll likely face challenges in their schedule, in the standings, and on the scoreboard to pair with injury headaches, as just about every NHL team hits cold streaks. They still deserve credit for a strong October, all things considered, and their reward is more than just pride: St. Louis currently leads the Central Division by seven points.

Not bad for a team that seemed like an ailing afterthought heading into the season.

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.

Talbot shuts out Stars as Flames take 2-1 series lead

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The Calgary Flames may not have had Matthew Tkachuk in the lineup for Game 3 of their First Round series against the Dallas Stars on Friday night, but they did have Cam Talbot.

Turns out, that was all they needed.

Talbot turned aside all 35 shots he faced to record a shutout in a 2-0 Flames win that gives them a 2-1 series leads.

Mikael Backlund‘s shorthanded goal goes in the books as the game-winner for the Flames, while T.J. Brodie added a late insurance marker on a booming slap shot. But even with those two goal scorers, Talbot was the star of this game for Calgary in what was a big bounceback performance for the starting goalie.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Talbot got the start in the Flames’ Game 2 loss on Thursday, surrendering five goals in what was probably his worst game of the postseason so far.

Despite that, Flames coach Geoff Ward decided to stick with his starter in the back-to-back situation (sometimes a risky call) and Talbot was more than up to the task by recording his second shutout of the playoffs (and the fourth of his career).

It continues what has been an outstanding performance for him in the NHL return to play. Outside of Game 2 on Thursday he has been one of the Flames’ most valuable players and has played his way into the (very) early Conn Smythe discussion.

It is not an exaggeration to say he was the single biggest difference maker on Friday.

Even though the Flames ended up getting the upper hand on the scoreboard, they were probably not the better team overall as the Stars carried the play for much of the night. Dallas held a pretty commanding territorial edge and seemed to get the best of the chances. But sometimes all you need to get a win in the playoffs is to have the better goalie, and that is what the Flames had on Friday.

They also should not apologize for it. This was a tough spot to be in playing a back-to-back without one of their best players. Maybe it was not their best overall effort, but if you are going to go on a deep run into the playoffs you sometimes need to find ways to steal games where you do not have your “A” game.

Tkachuk did not play for Calgary after being a game-time decision. He was injured on Thursday when he was hit by Jamie Benn and Jamie Oleksiak. There is no word on his status for Game 4 on Sunday.

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames (Flames lead series 2-1)

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Flames 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Stars 5, Flames 4 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Flames 2, Stars 0
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET – CNBC
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Islanders take 2-0 series lead as Capitals look flat again

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The New York Islanders look to be in complete control of their First Round matchup with the Washington Capitals following their 5-2 win in Game 2 on Friday night.

The win gives the Islanders a commanding 2-0 series lead, as they have completely shut down the Capitals’ offense through the first two games of the series.

For the second game in a row the Capitals scored first — Alex Ovechkin scored his first of the playoffs on the game’s first shift — but were unable to hold on. The Islanders received goals from five different players (Nick Leddy, Matt Martin, Brock Nelson, Cal Clutterbuck, and Anders Lee) and played their frustrating brand of defense that at times rendered the Capitals’ offense completely useless.

That was pretty much the story of this game.

Other than a great showing Ovechkin — two goals, a near-miss in the third period, and six total shots on goal — the Capitals’ offense looked like it was skating in mud all night. They struggled to get to dangerous scoring areas, they could not get any kind of a consistent push in the offensive zone, and when Ovechkin was not driving things there was nobody that even looked to be a threat to score.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Not having top center Nicklas Backstrom certainly hurt, and the other team on the ice absolutely has a role in the outcome, but the Capitals have not yet been able to find their game since the 2019-20 season resumed.

They won only one of their three Round-Robin games and so far have not scored more than two goals in any of the five postseason games they have played. It has been a carryover from the way they played during the stretch run of the regular season.

What has to be especially frustrating is that this is the second game in a row they started off with the lead only to allow the Islanders to later take over. In Game 1 they held a 2-0 lead until the final minute of the second period, only to watch Braden Holtby allow a soft goal and the Islanders pour in four unanswered goals for the win.

On Friday, they got the early goal from Ovechkin and allowed the Islanders to strike for two goals to take the lead. When Ovechkin tied the game in the second period, they allowed the Islanders to reclaim the lead just 15 seconds later when Jakub Vrana turned the puck over at the Islanders’ blue line, giving Nelson a clear breakaway.

For the Islanders this entire postseason remains a complete 180 turnaround from the team we saw at the end of the regular season. That team was a sinking ship trending in the wrong direction as they had lost 11 of 13 and seven in a row. Since the restart they have gone 5-1 and have put themselves in a great position to advance.

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders (NYI lead 2-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Islanders 4, Capitals 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Islanders 5, Capitals 2
Sunday, Aug. 16: Washington at NY Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Washington at NY Islanders, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Thursday, Aug. 20: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Washington at NY Islanders – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Matthew Tkachuk out for Flames in Game 3

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Some bad injury news for the Calgary Flames going into Game 3 of their First Round playoff series against the Dallas Stars.

Matthew Tkachuk will not play on Friday night after being listed as a game-time decision earlier in the day.

He will be replaced on the second line by Tobias Rieder.

Tkachuk was injured early in the third period of Thursday’s game (a 5-4 Stars win) when he was sandwiched between Jamie Oleksiak and Jamie Benn. It was the third different time during the game that Tkachuk had to exit the game and go down the tunnel. That time, he did not return to the game.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

There is no easy way to replace a player like Tkachuk. While he has the reputation for being a pest that always plays right on the line (and sometimes over it) to infuriate his opponents, he is also a legit first-line player and one of the Flames’ go-to offensive players.

He finished the regular season with 61 points (23 goals, 38 assists) in 68 games.

So far this postseason he has a goal and an assist for the Flames.

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames (Series tied 1-1)

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Flames 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Stars 5, Flames 4 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Dallas at Calgary, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET – CNBC
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Horvat’s OT goal helps Canucks stun Blues, take 2-0 series lead

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The young, upstart Vancouver Canucks have the defending Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues on the ropes.

Thanks to their 4-3 overtime win on Friday night, the Canucks have jumped out to a stunning 2-0 series lead in their First Round matchup.

The story for the Canucks on Friday night was, once again, their young core players taking charge and carrying the offense. In this game in particular, it was captain Bo Horvat scoring two more goals, including the overtime game-winner.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Horvat opened the scoring for the second game in a row when he scored this ridiculous shorthanded goal just seven minutes into the game. He flew through the Blues’ power play and finished it off by just embarrassing a helpless looking Jaden Schwartz.

Horvat then won it overtime on a breakaway after taking an incredible bank-pass off the boards from standout rookie defenseman Quinn Hughes.

That goal came just minutes after Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom made a desperation diving save along the goal line to keep the game going.

Elias Pettersson also had another huge game for the Canucks, scoring a goal and adding an assist in the win.

This group of players is what this Canucks team is all about. It is still a team that has its share of flaws, and Friday’s game was far from perfect. They were dominated on the short chart, they allowed a two-goal lead to slip away in the final 10 minutes of regulation (Schwartz tied the game on a deflection with just six seconds to play), and they generated almost nothing at even-strength on Friday night outside of Horvat’s winner. That is not always a winning recipe. The roster still probably needs some added depth around the edges before it can really become a serious Stanley Cup contender.

But man, this Canucks team does have the most important pieces in place that can help them eventually get to the status. They do not just have franchise building blocks, they have stars. Stars that can carry a team in stretches and completely take over games. The core of Pettersson, Hughes, Horavt, Brock Boeser, and J.T. Miller is tremendous, and all of them have been shining so far in the postseason. Add in an underrated goalie in Markstrom and it’s a team that can look pretty special when all of those players are going the way they are right now.

As for the Blues, well, the 2019-20 season restart is not going as they planned. With Friday’s overtime loss they are now 0-3-2 and been outscored by an 18-11 margin.

Now they are in a position where they have to win four of the next five games against a young team that is playing with confidence and whose best players are clicking on all cylinders.

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks (VAN leads 2-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Canucks 5, Blues 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Canucks 4, Blues 3 (OT)
Sunday, Aug. 16: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: St. Louis at Vancouver – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.