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St. Louis Blues getting healthier at crucial time

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At one point during this season, it looked like the St. Louis Blues might run away with the Central Division. Failing that, it seemed like they would at least silence doubts about injuries submarining their campaign.

Then Jaden Schwartz got hurt.

OK, that’s a mild exaggeration. The accumulation of injuries was about more than Schwartz, and to some extent, the Blues’ stumbles come down to depth issues and Jake Allen‘s struggles.

To the credit of Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko, they’ve both been quite productive even with Schwartz out since Dec. 9. Either way, St. Louis has been losing ground, and you get the impression that attrition is at least part of the problem.

Monday brings some fantastic news, then, even if the gratification is delayed: Schwartz has been medically cleared to return. Early indications are that Schwartz will come back on Thursday instead of Tuesday, according to The Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford and others, but either way that’s great news for a Blues team that could use a boost.

It will be intriguing to see how Mike Yeo handles the infusion of high-end talent.

On one hand, he may be tempted to put Schwartz right back with Schenn and Tarasenko to reunite one of the deadliest lines of 2017-18. On the other, the Blues have been quite top-heavy at times lately. Yeo’s actually already been experimenting with Schenn and Tarasenko on different lines (see this Left Wing Lock study of their last 10 games), so it’s a puzzle he’s already trying to solve.

Getting Schwartz back means players who were maybe straining while being “promoted to a level of incompetence” could then go back to more appropriate spots. Ivan Barbashev and Kyle Brodziak are two players more suited for depth roles, as just two examples.

With Patrik Berglund and Jay Bouwmeester healing up as well, the Blues might get back on track after some mild stumbling.

Not a moment too soon

As of this writing, the Blues are ranked third in the Central Division, but their standing (59 points) is inflated by the number of games they’ve played (49 games). Consider some of the most pressing threats to the Blues, and you’ll realize that a playoff spot is by no means guaranteed.

First, consider how close their Central Division rivals are to pushing the Blues into the wild card fray:

Blues: 28-18-3, 59 points, 49 games played

Stars: 27-17-4, 58 points, 48 GP
Avalanche: 26-16-3, 55 points, 45 GP
Wild: 25-17-5, 55 points, 47 GP
Blackhawks: 22-18-6, 50 points, 46 GP

Chicago doesn’t pose the largest threat, yet the Blackhawks could make things a lot more interesting if they win those three games in hand. And that’s the team that’s probably the least of the Blues worries, Central-wise.

You’d think that the Central Division has a strong chance to land five of the eight West playoff spots, but St. Louis can’t disregard some Pacific hopefuls.

Blues: 28-18-3, 59 points, 49 games played

Kings: 25-17-5, 55 points in 47 GP
Ducks: 22-17-9, 53 points in 48 GP

As you can see, Los Angeles could tie the Blues in points by winning those two games in hand. St. Louis would still have more wins in that scenario (28 to 27, Kings currently at 25), but the point is that the temperature could rise quickly.

***

The Blues began a four-game homestand on Saturday, and they play five of their next seven in St. Louis. While there’s a tough stretch here and there (late February to early March stands out), nothing on the schedule screams “meltdown.”

We may look back at this week as a turning point for the Blues, as Schwartz’s important return spotlights a larger trend of improved health.

They must hope that rust isn’t too much of a factor, as their margin of error is a lot slimmer than it was when the underrated winger got injured.

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.

Predators’ Subban accuses Golden Knights’ Bellemare of biting him

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We (allegedly) have a biter.

At least P.K. Subban seems to think so, and the video suggests something happened based on Subban’s reaction. What actually occurred late in the second period on Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN, or perhaps the severity, is still up in the air.

The incident happened in front of the Nashville net with less than a minute left in the frame. Juuse Saros had covered up the puck and Subban was engaged with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. The former had his hand over the latter’s face. Not long after, Subban pulled away, shaking off his glove and grabbing his fingers.

Skating back to the Predators bench, Subban appeared to be pleading his case with Vegas’, making a few chomping motions.

He then tried to make his case to the referee, who didn’t see the incident, nor did any of the linesmen. Subban appeared to have blood on his jersey and some sort of cut on his hand right hand.

A shot of Bellemare on the bench following the incident showed him suggesting that Subban had his hand in his mouth and was pulling up on Bellemare’s face.

Bellemare was not penalized on the play. Subban, however, was — for roughing against Ryan Reeves. The two had a squabble after the whistle.

Subban left the game to get repairs but returned for the third period.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kadri hat trick extends Capitals losing streak to seven games

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The Washington Capitals gambled on this one.

With one game remaining prior to the all-star break and their mandated week off, the Caps were looking to end their six-game losing streak and head into the mini-holiday on a winning high.

Alex Ovechkin, who could have chosen to sit this one out and serve his one-game suspension for missing the NHL All-Star Game, decided to play. The team decided to go back with Braden Holtby, 24 hours after he coughed up seven goals in a 7-6 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday.

Neither choice paid off, thanks in no small part to Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri in a 5-3 win for the host Leafs.

You see, Kadri didn’t seem all that interested in allowing the Caps to end their streak against an equally struggling Leafs team. Sure, the Leafs didn’t have the six-game losing streak entering Wednesday, but both teams each only had three wins in their past 10.

His hat trick (and four-point night) sealed Washington’s fate.

Ovechkin tried to do his part.

He scored in the game, his fourth goal in the past two nights after his 23rd hat trick on Tuesday, to put the Caps ahead 2-1 in the second period. The goal was historic as it was the Great 8’s 1,179th NHL point, tying him for first among Russia-born players with fellow legend Sergei Fedorov.

Nicklas Backstrom gave the Caps a 1-0 lead on the power play in the first, a goal that was answered by Kadri’s first of the game.

Ovi’s goal regained the lead in the second, but two goals 3:08 apart gave the Leafs their first lead of the night.

The go-ahead goal was of particular importance, given that it was Auston Matthew who fired it home, ending a seven-game goalless drought. It was just his second goal in 14 games.

Kadri rattled off his second and third of the game in the third to give the Leads a 5-2 lead before Matt Niskanen made it 5-3.

Frederik Andersen had another solid game, stopping 41 shots.

The Leafs moved three points up on the idle Boston Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division.

Washington, despite all the losing, sits second in the Metropolitan, three points back of the leading New York Islanders.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Predators at Golden Knights on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Predators and Golden Knights represented the Western Conference in the 2017 and 2018 Stanley Cup Final series, and each team looks primed to contend the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, to boot.

With that in mind, Wednesday’s game should be a lot of fun.

While Pekka Rinne is expected to get the night off, the goalie matchup of Juuse Saros and Marc-Andre Fleury should still be an interesting contrast of rising star and ageless wonder. The Predators’ defense boasts the likes of P.K. Subban and Roman Josi, while Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson are back in the swing of things. Speaking of that, after some early season stumbles, the Golden Knights rank as one of the NHL’s hotter teams.

Considering how Vegas pushes the pace, expect an exciting affair to wrap up Wednesday’s doubleheader on NBCSN.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Nashville Predators at Vegas Golden Knights
Where: T-Mobile Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Predators-Golden Knights stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PREDATORS

Filip Forsberg — Ryan Johansen — Viktor Arvidsson
Kevin FialaColton SissonsCraig Smith
Calle JarnkrokNick BoninoAustin Watson
Ryan HartmanColin BlackwellRocco Grimaldi

Roman Josi — P.K. Subban
Mattias EkholmRyan Ellis
Dan HamhuisMatt Irwin

Starting goalie: Juuse Saros

GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Brandon PirriWilliam KarlssonJonathan Marchessault
Max PaciorettyPaul StastnyAlex Tuch
Oscar LindbergCody EakinRyan Carpenter
Tomas NosekPierre-Edouard BellemareRyan Reaves

Brayden McNabbNate Schmidt
Shea TheodoreDeryk Engelland
Nick HoldenColin Miller

Starting goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Eddie Olczyk (analyst) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Nev.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals – Maple Leafs on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Yes, every team hopes to enter the All-Star break on a high note, but the Capitals rank among those with the most incentive to churn out another win.

They’ve lost six consecutive games, and since it looks like Alex Ovechkin‘s playing on Wednesday (thus meaning he’s suspended for a game on Feb. 1), falling to the Maple Leafs would really make for a dour way to begin a little hockey vacation.

With the Bruins and Canadiens not all that far behind the Maple Leafs for second place in the Atlantic, don’t expect Toronto to take it easy on Wednesday. Considering all of these factors, it should be fascinating to watch these two teams duke it out.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs
Where: Scotiabank Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Capitals – Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin — Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Dmitrij JaskinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Chandler StephensonTravis BoydAndre Burakovsky

Dmitry OrlovJohn Carlson
Michal KempnyMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikJonas Siegenthaler

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

MAPLE LEAFS

Patrick MarleauAuston MatthewsMitch Marner
Zach HymanJohn TavaresKasperi Kapanen
Connor BrownNazem KadriWilliam Nylander
Par LindholmFrederik Gauthier — Trevor Moore

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Travis DermottNikita Zaitsev
Martin MarincinIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

Gord Miller (play-by-play), Brian Boucher (analyst) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call.

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.