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New Year in fantasy hockey: West edition

So, the year is still pretty new. Let’s celebrate 2018 by considering every NHL team, whether it be asking burning questions, pondering make-or-break situations, and pointing out interesting tidbits.

This week, we’ll roll with the Western Conference, because they win the epic battle of alphabetical order and to reduce risks of people complaining about “East Coast Bias.” Next we’ll we go with the East.

Anaheim: What is this team?

Honestly, it’s easy to forget that Ryan Kesler is finally back. The pugnacious pivot is at five games played now, with his first goal coming last night against Edmonton. Between Kesler, Ryan Getzlaf, and plenty of others being hurt, injuries leave the Ducks’ with an “Incomplete” on their mid-term report card.

The good and bad news is that there’s some uncertainty with this team. Maybe you can take advantage of that?

Arizona: Antti Raanta could be a wild card.

Quietly, Raanta has actually been OK this season, sporting a .915 save percentage, in range of his .916 career average. Raanta stopped 37 out of 39 shots to help the Coyotes beat the Nashville Predators 3-2 in OT last night.

Wins should be tough to come by, but Raanta may be worth a look if you’re desperate for goaltending. With his next contract on the line, motivation won’t be in short order.

Calgary: Can Mike Smith keep this up? At 35, he’s carrying a big workload, and the Flames traded away a possible insurance policy – albeit a flimsy one – in Eddie Lack. Even if Calgary has some other goalies with future potential, is anyone ready if he hits a wall?

Chicago Jonathan Toews could be starting a hot streak with two straight two-point games after a six-game drought. Consider last season, when he scored more points after the All-Star break (30 points in as many games) than he did before it (28 points in 42 games).

Colorado: Will Nathan MacKinnon continue to rise among the NHL’s best, as he’s been doing – delightfully – so far? More on that here.

Dallas: John Klingberg already has 36 points in 42 games, leading NHL defensemen by five points. You don’t hear a ton about the 25-year-old blueliner thanks to Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, but he ranks as one of the great fantasy steals of this season.

Edmonton: Oilers in need of new contracts are the most intriguing, and recently suspended winger Patrick Maroon has quite a bit to lose if this team decides to sell, especially if Edmonton does so soon.

Beyond Maroon, interesting situations to watch include Darnell Nurse and Ryan Strome. Other guys, including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, could also be up for grabs. It’s a mess, but it’s a mess worth monitoring.

Los Angeles: Is this Marian Gaborik resurgence real? Maybe it’s as real as Dustin Brown‘s rebound?

The often-injured scorer has 13 points in 18 games this season, with an active three-game point streak (two goals, two assists). Gaborik scored 21 points in 56 games in 2016-17 and 22 in 54 in 2015-16, so this would be quite the turnaround if this isn’t a fluke. Some of it very well could be considering his 17.1 shooting percentage, so be warned.

Minnesota: Devan Dubnyk sure seems to be back, and the same seems to be true of the Wild. Probably not a coincidence.

Dubnyk has won six times, lost once, and stopped all 10 shots in another period of relief work where he wasn’t credited with a win or a loss.

Nashville: With Filip Forsberg out four-to-six weeks, it’s crucial to keep an eye on who will trot out with Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson. Calle Jarnkrok first drew that assignment, while Pontus Aberg got the nod on Thursday. Then again, maybe it’s not worth the work if you’re the low-maintenance type.

San Jose: Joe Thornton is tied for the Sharks’ scoring lead alongside Brent Burns with 27 points, which is remarkable.

Also remarkable: Kevin Labanc isn’t far behind with 20 points. He’s getting dangerously close to convincing me that his last name shouldn’t have an “l” in it.

St. Louis: The Blues get a lot from guys you’d expect, but the boost comes from the unexpected. Brayden Schenn still leads the Blues in scoring with 42 points while Carter Hutton has an absurd .947 save percentage starting 11 games and appearing in 14.

Vancouver: This is a bad time to invest in the Canucks.

They start a seven-game road trip on Saturday, and during that time, they deal with two back-to-back sets. This team’s been way more competitive than expected, but it’s likely to be a tough January.

Vegas: William Karlsson, as an RFA, has a lot of incentive to keep his strong work going. So do a lot of Golden Knights, who also face a tough schedule in the near future. Karlsson stands out as a risk for regression, with an unsustainable 26.3 shooting percentage.

Winnipeg: Mark Scheifele‘s last game before that unfortunate injury came on Dec. 27. Since then, Blake Wheeler hasn’t really missed a beat as the new center of the top line, generating four goals and one assist in three games.

Reminder: the guy is a star.

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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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.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.