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Slashing crackdown, infusion of youth boost NHL scoring

By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

The nets aren’t bigger, the goaltenders aren’t smaller and yet scoring is up significantly around the NHL.

Through the first two months of the season, goals are up more than 12 percent from the same time a year ago, including a whopping 14 percent increase on the power play and a 38 percent spike in short-handed goals.

”That’s what the league wanted,” San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc Edouard-Vlasic said. ”The league has done everything in their power to make there more goals out there, and that’s exactly what’s going on.”

The uptick can be credited to a concerted crackdown on slashing by issuing more penalties and a league-wide move toward younger and more skilled players. The current pace of 6.01 goals per game would be the highest since 2005-06, when a series of rule changes were put in to open up the game and get more scoring to attract new fans.

”Teams try to go for it more,” said New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, whose goals-against average is 2.66, nearly 13 percent higher than it was at this point a year ago. ”Most teams are trying to go for it, have this fast hockey, leave the zone quickly and it opens it up.”

Deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly said general managers are pleased with the current pace, which has lasted beyond the typical high-scoring October as defenses settle in for the season. Stricter enforcement of slashing was designed to reduce hand and wrist injuries, though it has had a positive effect on offense with defenders unable to whack at puck carriers’ sticks in an effort to stop them.

”I do think that has created certainly more room for our players to be offensive,” Daly said. ”I think over time, clearly since we increased the standard for hooking and holding and interference (in 2005-06), slashing has become a way to defend and an effective way to defend, and I think this year it’s a less effective way to defend.”

Players have noticed, even if some are frustrated at the varying degrees of what rises to the level of a slashing penalty. Every referee is watching closely.

”The last five years, you could do so much more with your stick and probably now lots of players are afraid to use their sticks,” Los Angeles Kings forward Jussi Jokinen said. ”I think everybody wants to see more goals, so scoring being up, I think it’s good.”

Everyone except maybe the goaltenders may think so, but it’s not like they’ve been terrible. Four goalies who have played at least 20 games have a save percentage of .930 or higher.

”The goaltenders, they haven’t been any better than they are right now and some of them are still getting lit up pretty good,” said Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who has the league’s leading goal-scorer in Alex Ovechkin.

Certainly the emphasis on slashing has helped players such as Ovechkin, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and New York Islanders star John Tavares, who can do wonders with even a few extra inches of space. Columbus Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson, who scored 10 goals in his first 15 games, said slashing is on everyone’s mind and ”guys are not getting (their sticks) up into the hands as much as they used to.”

Slashing and otherwise, there have been 173 more power plays than last season and teams are converting on 19.7 percent of them. Almost half the league is at or above 20 percent. The massive increase in short-handed goals has a lot to do with aggressive penalty kills stocked with offensive-minded players more likely to score.

”That’s one more thing that the power play has to worry about,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”Now they don’t just have to worry about scoring goals. They have to worry about their turnovers, what plays they make, how risky they want to get because there is that chance if it goes the other way and it’s a 2-on-1, it could end up in the back of your net.”

Los Angeles coach John Stevens said teams are in ”attack mode” all the time now, and Trotz estimates that he spends three-quarters of time trying to figure out how to score more.

But risk is also inherent in the NHL getting younger and featuring so many rookie scorers such as Arizona’s Clayton Keller, Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat and Vancouver’s Brock Boeser. The average age of an NHL player is 27 and Daly said the number has dropped over the past several years. He said more scoring is a byproduct as junior hockey and college programs get better at making players NHL-ready sooner.

Team composition has also changed. There are fewer journeyman faceoff specialists and grinders, and more players kept for speed and skill.

”Just the mold of all teams is kind of changing: They’re going for smaller, skilled guys rather than guys who are two-way forwards and stuff like that,” said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who is all of 27. ”These young kids have unbelievable skill, too. It’s kind of crazy how much skill. They have things they grew up getting taught how to do those things, which we didn’t have access to when we were kids.”

For all the offense so far, there are those who don’t expect it to keep happening. Goals were up through October last season and the NHL finished averaging 5.54 per game. DeBoer said teams often tighten their systems and structure after Christmas, making it more difficult to score.

”I think it’s still early to say,” Blackhawks winger Richard Panik said. ”The game is going to get tighter. It always does before playoffs.”

NHL Bubble Wrap: Hurricanes advance, Eberle shines and Maple Leafs get even

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  • Thanks to another big game from Sebastian Aho the Carolina Hurricanes are advancing.
  • The Nashville Predators, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vancouver Canucks all get even in their series.
  • The Calgary Flames and New York Islanders get one step closer to advancing.

New York Islanders 4, Florida Panthers 2 (Islanders lead series 2-0)

Jordan Eberle scored a pair of goals for the Islanders in 4-2 win as they take a commanding 2-0 series lead over the Florida Panthers. The Islanders were able to feast on a sloppy Panthers effort in the second period to take complete control of the series. This has to be disappointing for the Panthers after spending so much money this offseason to try and build this team into a contender. Now they are in a position where they need to win three in a row to move on.

Nashville Predators 4, Arizona Coyotes 2 (Series tied 1-1)

The Predators stuck with Juuse Saros in net and it turned out to be a bit of a role reversal from what we saw in the first game. This time it was Nashville jumping out to the big early lead and holding off a (very) late push to get the win. The Predators received goals from four different players (Nick Bonino, Ryan Johansen, Calle Jarnkrok, and Viktor Arvidsson) while Saros stopped 24 out of 26 shots for the win. He shut the Coyotes out for 59 minutes before allowing two goals in the final minute of regulation.

Toronto Maple Leafs 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 0 (Series tied 1-1)

After a Game 1 clunker the Maple Leafs desperately needed this win. It was not just the fact they were able to bounce back and win, but the way they were able to win. Simply put, they dominated this game from start to finish and had it not been a valiant effort from Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo this could have quickly turned into a blowout. Auston Matthews and John Tavares both scored for the Maple Leafs in the win. The bad news from this game was the scary injury suffered by defenseman Jake Muzzin as he had to be stretchered off the ice late in the third period.

Calgary Flames 6, Winnipeg Jets 2 (Flames lead series 2-1)

The injuries are catching up to the Jets. Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine both missed another game, while Tucker Poolman and Mathieu Perreault were injured in the Jets’ 6-2 loss. It was a huge bounce back game for the Flames as six different players scored goals and Cam Talbot played a great game in net to get them one game closer to advancing.

Carolina Hurricanes 4, New York Rangers 1 (Hurricanes win series 3-0)

The Hurricanes wrapped up a very emphatic and decisive three-game sweep of the New York Rangers on Tuesday night with a 4-1 win to become the first team to advance through the qualifying round. Sebastian Aho scored two more goals including a highlight reel play in the third period (see it below) to finish the series with eight points in the three games. The trio of Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen is going to be a problem for any opponent this postseason.

Vancouver Canucks 4, Minnesota Wild 3 (Series tied 1-1)

The Canucks needed their top-six to come through after a quiet start to the postseason, and they did exactly that on Tuesday night in a 4-3 win. Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, Tanner Pearson, Quinn Hughes, and Alex Edler all had big games to help Vancouver even the series.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders. All Eberle has done for the Islanders in his two years with the team is score a bunch of big goals in the playoffs. His two-goal effort on Tuesday helped the Islanders take a commanding 2-0 series lead against the Florida Panthers, while giving him six goals in his first 10 playoff games with the Islanders (dating back to last year’s postseason).

2. James Reimer, Carolina Hurricanes. The last time Reimer started a playoff game he was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs and on the losing end of an epic Game 7 collapse that saw his team blow a 4-1 third period lead. On Tuesday, he had a much better result on Tuesday. Reimer stopped 37 out of 38 shots — some of them in spectacular fashion — in the Hurricanes’ 4-1 win over the Rangers. It is fitting that this performance took place in, of all places, Toronto.

3. Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames. Monahan was the big offensive star for the Flames on Tuesday with a goal and two assists in their win over the Jets. Two of those points (his goal and his first assist) came on the power play as he helped that unit score three goals to drive the offense in the win.

Highlights of the Night

Sebastian Aho had a massive series for the Hurricanes and capped it off with a two-goal effort on Tuesday. This goal is especially beautiful.

This J.T. Miller shot is about as perfect of a shot as you can get off the rush.

This was one of the most incredible sequences for Reimer in his Game 3 performance for the Hurricanes.

Factoids

Wednesday’s Schedule

Game 3: New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Islanders lead 2-0)
Game 3: Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators, 2:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 1-1)
Round-Robin: Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Round-Robin: Colorado Avalanche vs. Dallas Stars, 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)
Game 3: Edmonton Oilers vs. Chicago Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

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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.

Canucks top players shine in Game 2 win over Wild

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After getting shut out in Game 1 of their qualifying round series the Vancouver Canucks needed their top players to bounce back with a big game on Tuesday.

They got exactly that type of performance in a 4-3 win to even their series with the Minnesota Wild.

Tanner Pearson opened the scoring for the Canucks just 24 seconds into the first period to get their offense rolling and set the tone for a big night for the team’s top-six group of forwards.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

J.T. Miller‘s goal at the three-minute of the second period — an absolute laser of a snap shot off the rush that picked the corner on Alex Stalock — gave Vancouver 2-1 lead, while Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat all added insurance goals late in the game. Boeser’s goal was the first postseason goal of his career, while standout rookie Quinn Hughes picked up an assist on Horvat’s third period power play goal that would end up going in the books as the game-winner.

Depth is the biggest question mark for this Canucks team and if they are going to have any chance of making any noise this postseason it is going to have to be through their top-six. If that group does not score and carry the offense there really is not much else throughout the lineup that can make up for that.

On Tuesday, Boeser, Miller, Horvat, Pearson, and Elias Pettersson all found the scoresheet, while defenders Hughes and Alex Edler combined for three assists.

Just about the only negative for the Canucks on Tuesday is the fact veteran forwards Micheal Ferland and Antoine Roussel were both injured. Roussel logged just four minutes of ice-time while Ferland played only two minutes.

While the final score looks close, the Canucks were in control of this game for most of the night and held a 4-1 lead until there were two minutes remaining on the clock. It was at that point that Kevin Fiala continued his torrid goal-scoring pace by adding two more goals, giving him 16 goals in his past 15 games dating back to the regular season. He already has three goals in the first two games of the series. His second goal came with just 8.8 seconds to play in regulation.

Game 3 of the series will take place on Thursday afternoon.

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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.

Hurricanes complete sweep, eliminate Rangers

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Thanks to their 4-1 win on Tuesday night the Carolina Hurricanes are the first team to advance through the qualifying round.

They eliminated the New York Rangers in a clean three-game sweep in a series that turned out to be a fairly obvious mismatch.

Simply put, the Rangers were no match for Carolina and had no answer for anything they were doing.

The Rangers scored just four goals in the three games and played with the lead for only three minutes in the entire series. Those three minutes came early in the second period of Tuesday’s game when Chris Kreider scored just 12 seconds into the second period to give them a 1-0 lead.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just three minutes later Carolina’s Teuvo Teravainen completely an absolutely dominant shift by his line by beating Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin with a backhander from the slot.

It was Shesterkin’s first start of the series after missing the first two games. He played well, but did not get anywhere near enough support from the team in front of him. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort. It was just the simple fact that Carolina is a faster, more talented, and better team and it was on display throughout the entire series.

Given the way they played in this series the Hurricanes are looking like a team that nobody in the Eastern Conference is going to want to play this postseason. They are already coming off of a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Final a year ago and have one of the league’s most exciting young cores in place. Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, and Sebastian Aho all shined in this series and played at a dominant level, while the Hurricanes’ defense was smothering even though it received zero minutes from one of its top players in Dougie Hamilton.

Aho was especially dominant during the season, scoring two more goals on Tuesday to finish with seven points.

His first goal of the game was a highlight reel goal that helped put the game out of reach.

He added an empty net goal later in the game.

James Reimer got his first start of the postseason for the Hurricanes and played brilliantly, stopping 37 shots in the win.

As for the Rangers, they now return home and will have a 12.5 percent chance of winning the No. 1 overall draft pick in the second phase of the NHL’s draft lottery.

This was always going to be a rebuilding year for them, and there were some very promising developments along the way, but it was clear in this series they are not quite ready to be a contender and have some significant holes that need addressed. With Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Adam Fox, and Shesterkin there is a strong core in place, but the depth and the defense need a lot of help.

It also seems entirely possible — if not likely — that their Game 2 loss on Monday could have been the final game Henrik Lundqvist plays for the Rangers.

(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers (Hurricanes win series 3-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Hurricanes 3, Rangers 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Hurricanes 4, Rangers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes 4, Rangers 1

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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.

Flames bounce back with Game 3 rout, push Jets to brink

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This time the Calgary Flames were able to take advantage of a shorthanded Winnipeg Jets team.

After dropping Game 2 on Monday, the Flames bounced back on Tuesday evening with a 6-2 rout in Game 3 of their qualifying round series to take a 2-1 series lead, pushing the Jets to the brink of elimination.

They will have a chance to close out the series in Game 4 from Edmonton on Thursday.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Jets were once again without the services of star forwards Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine, and the lack of firepower caught up with them in a big way on Tuesday. Nikolaj Ehlers did strike with an early goal (his second in as many games) to give them an early lead, but it would prove to be a short-lived advantage as Calgary’s Elias Lindholm scored the equalizer just 14 seconds later.

The Jets would never regain the lead.

The Flames ended up getting goals from six different players, and it was an especially big day for some of their top stars.

Sean Monahan finished with three points (a goal and two assists), while Mikael Backlund, Johnny Gaudreau, Andrew Mangiapane, and Lindholm all had two points, while Matthew Tkachuk and Milan Lucic also added goals.

Starting goalie Cam Talbot stopped 33 out of 35 shots in the win.

This was always going to be a tough series for the Jets to get through even before the injuries started to pile up in Game 1. They have a limited defense and were going to need Conor Hellebuyck to carry them in net. When you take two players as good as Scheifele and Laine out of the equation, it eliminates pretty much any room they may have had for error. Without them recipe is going to have to look exactly like Monday’s Game 2 win with great goaltending and just enough offense to scratch out a win. They did not get either of those elements on Tuesday.

It remains to be seen if Scheifele or Laine will be ready for Thursday’s game.

(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets (Series tied 1-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Flames 4, Jets 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets 3, Flames 2 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames 6, Jets 2
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames vs. Jets*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Jets vs. Flames*, TBD

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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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.