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PHT Midseason Report Card: Atlantic Division

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Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

• Boston Bruins:

Season Review: The Bruins have been the hottest team in the NHL for over a month now. They went into the All-Star break riding an 18-game point streak (14-0-4). They own a 29-10-8 record (66 points) through 47 games. The Bruins are currently second in the division, just five points behind the Bolts with two games in hand. Grade: A.

Biggest Surprise: We all knew that Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak were good players, but nobody could have expected this kind of dominance from Boston’s top trio. They haven’t only dominated in the offensive zone, they’ve managed to keep teams in check in their own end, too.

Biggest Disappointment: There aren’t many disappointments in Boston this season, but Brandon Carlo‘s second season hasn’t gone as well as his first. He’s averaging almost less than two minutes of ice time per game compared to last year and he has just five assists this season.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Buy, buy, buy. The Bruins have a lot of young assets they can use to acquire some help for their playoff push. GM Don Sweeney could be in the market for another scoring forward. Making a splash at the deadline could be the difference between going to the cup final or not.

Second Half Outlook: They’ll suffer a loss in regulation eventually, but they’ve managed to close the gap between themselves and the first-place Lightning enough that they can challenge for top spot in the Atlantic.

• Buffalo Sabres:

Season Review: Things couldn’t have gone much worse for the Sabres in the first half of the season. They head into the break with a 14-26-9 record (37 points), which puts them only ahead of the Arizona Coyotes in the standings. It’s another lost year in Buffalo. Grade: F.

Biggest Surprise: The fact that Evander Kane is having a strong season isn’t a surprise, but he’s on pace to score a career-high 60 points in his contract year. Kane will almost certainly be traded before the trade deadline. Sabres fans will have to hope that he nets them a nice return.

Biggest Disappointment: There are plenty of disappointing things about the Sabres’ 2017-18 season, but the fact that they’ve scored a league-low 114 goals in 49 games. Kane, Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly are the only three players on the roster to hit double-digit goals so far this season.

Trade Deadline Strategy: There’s no doubt that they Sabres will be in seller mode at the deadline. There’s absolutely no way that they’ll make the playoffs, which means they’ll be trading pending unrestricted free agents for draft picks and futures before the end of the month.

Second Half Outlook: With the playoffs a distant dream, the Sabres should focus on finishing as low as they can in the standings, so they can try to land an impact blue liner like Rasmus Dahlin through the draft. Judging on their first half of the season, it won’t be too hard for them to lose during the stretch.

• Detroit Red Wings:

Season Review: The Red Wings season has gone exactly the way most people had anticipated. They aren’t one of the bottom teams in the league, but they’re still 10 points out of a playoff spot. The Red Wings have a 19-21-8 record (46 points) through 48 games. To make matters worse, they went out and signed veterans like Trevor Daley in free agency. It’s time for them to start embracing the rebuild. Grade: D+.

Biggest Surprise: Dylan Larkin is having quite the bounce back season. He currently leads the Red Wings in points with 38 in 48 games this season, which is strong considering he had just 32 all of last year. The 21-year-old appears to be back on the right track. It looks like he’ll turn into the player they hoped he’d be after his strong rookie season.

Biggest Disappointment: Only the Senators, Coyotes and Sabres have found the back of the net less often than the Red Wings in the first half of the season. Justin Abdelkader, Henrik Zetterberg and Larkin have combined to score just 22 goals. That’s simply not enough if the Red Wings want to make a statement in the East.

Trade Deadline Strategy: The Wings front office needs to realize that it’s time for them to sell off veteran assets like pending unrestricted free agent Mike Green. It’s time for them to start piling up young assets and draft picks, so that they can start putting together another dynasty.

Second Half Outlook: Their 10 points out of a playoff spot, so they won’t be able to play deep into April, but they aren’t quite as bad as the Buffalo Sabres either. Expect the Red Wings to play spoiler as the season goes on.

• Florida Panthers: 

Season Review: The Panthers have some talent on their roster with players like Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau, but it’s clear that they’re still lacking in the depth department. Florida has 19-22-6 record (44 points), which puts them 12 points out of a Wild Card spot. Grade: D.

Biggest Surprise: Trocheck is coming off a pair of back-to-back 50-point seasons, but he’s been on a roll this year. Trocheck is already up to 18 goals and 44 points in 47 games this season. Nobody expected the Panthers forward to score at nearly a point-per game pace.

Biggest Disappointment: Veteran forward Radim Vrbata‘s production has fallen off the map. After scoring 20 goals and 55 points last season, he has just five goals and 13 points in 35 games this season. The fact that they’re lacking in the depth scoring department is partly Vrbata’s fault.

Trade Deadline Strategy: The Panthers don’t have much to trade in terms of rentals, but they could look to make a hockey trade or two to improve their outlook going forward. They’ve built a strong core with Huberdeau, Barkov and Aaron Ekblad, but they clearly need more if they want to get back to the playoffs next season.

Second Half Outlook: Like the Red Wings, the Panthers have enough talent not to finish in the basement of the Eastern Conference. They’ll likely be looking to play spoiler for teams hoping to make the playoffs.

• Montreal Canadiens: 

Season Review: The Canadiens have been one of the biggest disappointments in the league this season. They had legitimate playoff aspirations at the start of the year, but they’ve fallen totally flat. They don’t have enough scoring, their defense is mediocre and Carey Price can’t do everything himself. Grade: D.

Biggest Surprise: Brendan Gallagher is having a strong bounce back season after dealing with a few injuries over the last couple of years. Gallagher is on pace to score 30 goals for the first time in his career. But even beyond the numbers, he’s continuously been the heart and soul of his team all season.

Biggest Disappointment: Jonathan Drouin was the major acquisition of the offseason and he just hasn’t lived up to the hype. He’s still young, but his transition to center has been slow, painful and filled with mistakes. Drouin is far from the only disappointment on the roster, but he’s the one they were counting on to be their next local superstar. There’s still time for him to turn it around, it just hasn’t happened as quickly as most expected.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Marc Bergevin will surely look to sell off expiring contracts like Tomas Plekanec, but it sounds like they could be looking to shake things up in the locker room, too. Max Pacioretty‘s name has come up in trade rumors. If they make that move before the deadline that would be a huge wake up call to the players in the locker room.

Second Half Outlook: The Canadiens don’t have much coming through the pipeline, so they need to focus on being as bad as they can be in order to increase their odds of winning the lottery. They’ll be competitive some nights because of Price, but giving Antti Niemi a few more starts down the stretch could be a subtle way to tank.

• Ottawa Senators:

Season Review: Oh how things can change quickly in the NHL. The Senators were a goal away from going to the Stanley Cup Final last season, but they’ve fallen off the map completely in 2017-18. Ottawa’s 39 points put them just two ahead of the lowly Sabres, who are in the basement of the Eastern Conference. All this talk of trading Erik Karlsson certainly hasn’t helped their team. Grade: F.

Biggest Surprise: Mark Stone has put up a pair of 60-point seasons in his career, but he’s rolling at exactly a point-per-game pace through 44 games in 2017-18. The 25-year-old’s play is definitely the biggest positive to come out of this season for the Senators even though he’s banged up right now.

Biggest Disappointment: The Matt Duchene trade simply didn’t give the Sens the shot in the arm they were looking for. To make matters worse, the Avalanche and Predators have been rolling since the three-way trade went down earlier this season. This whole year has been a colossal disappointment in Ottawa, and the trade that was supposed to fix everything hasn’t done that at all.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Like most of the other teams in the division, the Senators will look to be sellers at the trade deadline. It’s also important to keep things in perspective. As much as their season has been a disappointment, they’ve still managed to get top prospects Thomas Chabot and Colin White some playing time. They need to find a way to add youngsters to their up-and-coming group.

Second Half Outlook: Well, when you’re 17 points out of a playoff spot it’s easy to see what your second half will look like. One thing they should try to do between now and the end of the season is make Erik Karlsson happy again. They’ve done a horrendous job of doing that since October, so it’s time for them to admit their mistakes and get him signed to a long-term deal. Or else, you might as well blow this team up.

• Tampa Bay Lightning:

Season Review: After missing the playoffs last season, the Lightning couldn’t have asked for a much better first half of the season. Sure, they might be slumping a little bit heading into the All-Star break, but that’s bound to happen to every team over an 82-game season. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Andrei Vasilevskiy and the gang have emerged as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. They have the best record in the NHL at 34-12-3, which gives them a grade I could’ve only dreamed about when I was in school. Grade: A+.

Biggest Surprise: Sergachev was made a healthy scratch in the last two games before the break, but he’s clearly been the biggest surprise on the team. When the rookie blue liner was acquired from the Canadiens last summer, no one expected him to play such a big role on this season. The 19-year-old has eight goals and 27 points in 47 games during his first full NHL season. Honorable mention to Yanni Gourde.

Biggest Disappointment: They have the best record in the league, they’ve scored the most goals in the league and they have the best goal differential in the league, so writing down a disappointment seems unnecessary.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Most people will say that the Lightning need to be buyers. Sure, they could add a complimentary piece or two to their roster, but they don’t have to go overboard. Their team is clearly good enough to make a Stanley Cup run if they stay healthy, and making a major trade might disrupt chemistry. GM Steve Yzerman should be looking to make small tweaks to his roster, nothing more.

Second Half Outlook: As good as they were in the first half, they need to make sure they keep rolling from February through the end of the season. They can’t allow themselves to get complacent. Getting home ice advantage throughout the playoffs should be the goal. They’re definitely talented enough to get the job done.

• Toronto Maple Leafs: 

Season Review: The Leafs came out of the gate like gangbusters at the start of the season. They were scoring goals by the truckload and they were skating everybody out of the building. They looked like they were going to give the Lightning a run for the division crown, but things haven’t materialized that way. Their offense has dried up in recent weeks and many of the players they were counting on to produce haven’t done that. The injury to Auston Matthews earlier this season seemed to have set them back. Despite all that, they are comfortably in a playoff spot with a record of 28-18-5 (61 points). Grade: B.

Biggest Surprise: It’s not necessarily a surprise, but Morgan Rielly has been a real positive on a team that is clearly lacking good defensemen. The Leafs blue liner has taken another positive step in his development and that’s led him to tallying more points. The 23-year-old is already up to 31 points through 47 games this season (his career high is 36). They need him to get healthy.

Biggest Disappointment: The Leafs’ play in their own end still isn’t good enough to be considered an elite team in the league or even the conference. They rank in the bottom half of the NHL in goals allowed, and that’s something that will have to change if they’re going to compete with the Bruins and Lightning.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They have to go out and find themselves another competent, puck-moving defenseman. They clearly have enough offense to get the job done, now they have to find a way to land a blue liner that can play top-four minutes. Making that kind of trade is difficult during the season, but they’ll need to do it if they want to make it out of the first round.

Second Half Outlook: Babcock and his team will never admit this, but they’ve pretty much wrapped up a playoff spot. Now, they’ll have to focus on getting their game in order before the postseason hits in April. Whether they face Tampa Bay or Boston, they’ll have their hands full. And as bright as the future is, another first-round exit would be disappointing.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL on NBC: Bruins want to be more than ‘teddy bears’ vs. Penguins

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Considering the Bruins’ comfortable lead atop the Atlantic Division, most teams would gladly take on Boston’s “problems.”

Still, for the Bruins — and few other teams, but yes, also the Penguins, their opponents on Sunday afternoon — it’s about more than division titles. After falling a Game 7 shy of winning the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, this group boasts lofty aspirations.

The Bruins aim to fine-tune during this stretch of the 2019-20 season, and to some, that means reestablishing their identity.

Bruins try to shed ‘Teddy Bears’ criticism

The B’s didn’t just lose Tuukka Rask to an injury on Tuesday when Emil Bemstrom delivered an errant elbow during Columbus’ 3-0 win. Their perceived lack of a response meant that some lost respect for this group.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty went as far as to call the Bruins “teddy bears.”

The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa also opined (sub required) that “The Big, Bad Bruins are dead.”

Bruins players seemed to get the memo in beating the Penguins 4-1 on Thursday. Haggerty and others praised the team’s physical response, including a rare Torey Krug fight against Patric Hornqvist.

“It’s not about going out there and trying to run them out of the rink. Looking at our roster, we don’t have that kind of group anymore,” Krug said after that win, via Haggerty. “But we talked about sticking together and competing harder and sacrificing a little more. That doesn’t mean putting a guy through the glass, but it means going into the corner and having the willingness to get hit, or to hit somebody else, in order to come out of there with the puck. I think that desperation was lost there for a few games, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction and we can kind of grasp that concept again. It’s been part of our DNA for years, so as long as we can get back to that [we’ll be good].”

Some lingering questions for Bruins

Again, you could argue there’s some mild soul-searching going on for Boston.

Blame it on a drop in physicality, or perhaps some other factors, but I’d personally be a little more concerned about dipping underlying numbers.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

Looking at sites like Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference, there’s been a dip in key categories. They’ve hogged the puck less often, and have been on the wrong end of high-danger chances (owning just 45.6 percent of that category, via Hockey Reference).

These numbers shouldn’t make anyone pull a fire alarm. It’s not that the Bruins have been terrible. Instead, there are some red flags that the Bruins should improve their play. Sean Tierney (Charting Hockey)’s expected goals share chart captures the sometimes middle-of-the-pack feel to the Bruins’ stats:

Bruins xg

Would the Bruins dominate the puck if they add more edge? Maybe, but either way, there are signs that the B’s have room to improve.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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.

The Buzzer: Elvis, Ovechkin, and others who rocked

Elvis Ovechkin three stars pht buzzer
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Three Stars beyond Elvis and Ovechkin

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago blowing out Toronto will lead to some hand-wringing, no doubt. Yet, as much as that was on a tough night for Frederik Andersen, give the Blackhawks some credit. Toews topped all in that game with an outstanding four-point performance (two goals and two assists).

Saturday continued what’s been one heck of a month for Toews. The Blackhawks captained pushed his January total to 15 points (5G, 10A). Toews reached that total in just eight games, scoring at least one point in seven contests.

Scratch that. Toews has been on fire for a while now. He started off ice-cold with only two points in 11 October games. Toews took off after that, and has generated an impressive 41 points in his past 28 contests.

Underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik contributed to Chicago’s win, too, with three points (2G, 1A).

2. Riley Sheahan, Edmonton Oilers

Sheahan scoffs at Toews’ slow start. The journeyman forward failed to score a point in 12 October games, and managed one in 11 November contests. Sheahan went and matched his December points total (four in 14 GP) in one contest on Saturday.

That’s right, he generated four points, scoring an empty-netter plus three assists. Connor McDavid dominated in his own right with two goals, but Sheahan helped the Oilers rout the Coyotes. Josh Archibald generated three points (1G, 2A) as well.

This just in: the Oilers have a lot of “that guy’s still around?” forwards. It’s honestly cool to see some of them have such a strong day, and maybe take a bit of the pressure off McDavid here and there.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s as though Atkinson never missed any time. After scoring a goal and an assist in his first game in almost one month on Thursday, Atkinson generated three points (2G, 1A) on Saturday. This gives Atkinson seven points (4G, 3A) in his past four contests.

Others give Atkinson a run for his money, even beyond the next section. Jason Zucker (1G, 2A) and James van Riemsdyk (1G, 2A) both contributed to their respective teams’ blowouts. Atkinson’s extra goal gives him the edge.

OK, now let’s consider Elvis and Ovechkin

Saturday featured enough strong performances that it feels better to give these two a mention. After all, they already received their own posts. Yes, these two probably rank as the “real” third and fourth stars of Saturday, or higher, depending upon your personal taste.

Highlight of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury is suffering through a tough season, big-picture wise. “The Flower” keeps adding to his resume of breathtaking saves, though:

Comic relief

Jamie Benn provides us with a reason to laugh. At least those of us who aren’t immediately transported to our own memories of hilarious blunders.

That video summarizes the Stars’ night succinctly, as the Wild beat them 7-0.

Factoids

  • Ovechkin nabbed consecutive hat tricks to push his career goals total to 692. He passed Mario Lemieux (11th all-time, 690) and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time (692). Mark Messier sits just two goals away at eighth with 694. Ovechkin also generated consecutive hat tricks for the third time in his career. In doing so, Ovechkin joined Joe Malone (four times) and Wayne Gretzky (three) as the only players to generate consecutive hat tricks three or more times, according to NHL PR. Again, this post delves deeper into Ovechkin’s latest accomplishments.
  • Ovechkin’s teammate John Carlson reached 60 points. Carlson managed the feat in just 49 games, getting to 60 faster than any Capitals defenseman; Mike Green held the previous mark with 60 by game 57. Opinion: Green deserved better treatment from hockey folks during his peak years.
  • Merzlikins authored the 18th instance of a rookie goalie getting a shutout of at least 41 saves, via NHL PR.
  • Cale Makar scored his 11th goal, setting a new record for goals by a rookie Avalanche defenseman.
  • Dominik Kubalik reached 20 goals in his 47th game. NHL PR points out that Kubalik ranks among sixth Blackhawks to reach 20 goals in 50 games or less.

Scores

WSH 6 – NYI 4
COL 5 – STL 3
EDM 7 – ARI 3
OTT 5 – CGY 2
CHI 6 – TOR 2
MTL 5 – VGK 4 (SO)
FLA 4 – DET 1
PHI 4 – LAK 1
CBJ 5 – NJD 0
NSH 2 – BUF 1
MIN 7 – DAL 0
VAN 4 – SJS 1

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.