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PHT Midseason Report Card: Central 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.

  • Chicago Blackhawks

Season Review: They’ve dealt with Corey Crawford being injured twice and Jeff Glass has been one of the heartwarming stories this season. But sitting last in a notoriously tough Central Division is unfamiliar territory for the Blackhawks. They’ve simply underperformed given the talent they possess. Grade: D-

Biggest Surprise: Alex DeBrincat. The second-round pick in 2016 has been sensational in his rookie season with 17 goals and 32 points in 49 games played. His 17.2 percent shooting percentage is stellar, and he’s defying the (perceived) odds at 5-foot-7, 165 pounds.

Biggest Disappointment: Brent Seabrook has been a healthy scratch and Jonathan Toews is well off point-per-game production and Duncan Keith hasn’t scored a goal since last March. But Chicago’s biggest disappointment is a team effort. They’re simply too inconsistent. Scoring droughts have plagued this team this season and their power play is fourth-worst in the league.

Trade Deadline Strategy: The Blackhawks won’t have to worry about a disappointing first-round exit this year as they’re unlikely to get into the playoffs as it stands. It might be time to give that roster a small detonation. Stan Bowman has worked his genius to keep his team’s competitive in the past. Now he may have to work that genius to get his team back to that.

Second half outlook: The Blackhawks have all the talent to work their way out of the basement in the Central. They’re only four points adrift of a playoff spot, but that can seem like 10 in a division that is as stacked as it is. That success hinges on the health of Corey Crawford, who is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury. Until he’s able to return, things don’t look great.

  • Colorado Avalanche

Season Review: Early on, the Avs season seemed to go as expected. They hit the lowest of lows last season, so some improvement was expected, but to be in a playoff spot at the All-Star break was something anyone would have thought. Of course, 10-game winning streaks are helpful, as is the ridiculous play of Nathan MacKinnon. Grade: B

Biggest Surprise: Mikko Rantanen is a point-per-game player. Nathan MacKinnon is having that breakout season many had been waiting for (and should be up for the Hart Trophy). Alex Kerfoot has had a great rookie campaign. Sam Girard is turning bona fide NHL defenseman. But Jonathan Bernier has been integral to the team’s recent success, highlighted during their 10-game winning streak where Bernier collected nine straight wins. He’s sitting with a .919 save percentage and is looking like the Bernier that played for the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs.

Biggest Disappointment: Matt Duchene is gone, and thus, so is the easy pick here. Some might point to Tyson Jost, but he’s been injured and thus is a little behind where some might have pegged him at the mid-way point. Nail Yakupov’s name could work here, but his career has been a disappointment.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Colorado is a young team that’s still rebuilding. They got a king’s ransom for Matt Duchene. If the Avs keep climbing up in the Division, it’s conceivable that Joe Sakic looks for some depth, but staying the course with a team that’s showing some positive signs should be the focus. The Avs aren’t winning the Cup this year.

Second Half Outlook: This team has found some much-needed chemistry and is gelling as a young squad. That bodes well for a good second half of the season if they can continue. But young teams can have young-team problems. Consistency down the stretch could be an issue and the Avs are by no means a lock for a playoff spot. A 10-game winning streak only got them to the second wildcard spot. The tough part now will be keeping it.

  • Dallas Stars

Season Review: The Stars have been a great home team this season, but have only begun to get things in order on the road, where they stumbled during the first two months of the season. Still, the Stars have worked their way into the first wildcard spot in the Western Conference thanks to improvements in team defense and goaltending.  Grade: C+

Biggest Surprise: John Klingberg is a good defenseman. We knew this coming into the season. But to be in the running for the Norris might have been a stretch back in September. But that’s where Klingberg is at the moment, leading NHL defenseman in points (and sitting second on the Stars, behind Alexander Radulov and ahead of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin).

Biggest Disappointment: This one is easy: Jason Spezza. Spezza is forging a path to a career-worst year in terms of production. Early this month, he was made a healthy scratch, a coach’s decision by Ken Hitchcock stemming then from a five-game spell with no points and low ice time. Factor in that he’s counting $7.5 million toward the cap and the picture becomes even more clear.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Buy if it makes sense, but don’t sell assets. The Stars have a goalie in Ben Bishop and other talents they can build around going forward.

Second half outlook: The Stars play 11 games (including a six-game road trip) away from American Airlines arena in March and April. Given their position at the moment and coupled with their away record, it would appear that will be their biggest test in the second half if they can maintain where they are at the moment.

  • Minnesota Wild

Season Review: Spinning the tires. The Wild could be given a pass after some of the injuries they’ve dealt with – Devan Dubnyk and Zach Parise come to mind. It is a team that finished second in the division with, largely, the same roster, so the talent is there. Grade: D

Biggest surprise: Matt Dumba makes some bone-headed plays. And then he makes some plays that leave you scratching your head, in a good way. He sits only behind Ryan Suter in terms of points and he’s averaging nearly 23 minutes per night. If he keeps it up, he’ll record a career-year in goals and assists.

Biggest disappointment: Marcus Foligno. He’s played better as of late, but that doesn’t excuse a rocky first half that saw him in the press box in December. The 26-year-old was supposed to bring depth to the lineup when the Wild acquired him in a four-player deal on the eve of free agency last year.

Trade Deadline Strategy: So many teams on the cusp of a playoff spot in this division that it’s hard to sort out which teams should buy and which should sell. The Wild have the talent to be much better than they are. We saw that last season. Perhaps a depth player or two on the cheap would help.

Second half outlook: Getting better away would certainly help. The Wild are one of four teams tied on 57 points and tied for the second wildcard spot, with Colorado holding the tiebreaker at the moment). The Wild have eight home games in February, which bodes well given their 17-4-4 record at Xcel Energy Center. But they have two big road games to start the month in Dallas and St. Louis and play Colorado twice in March. Those will be pivotal. The Wild are getting healthy and that could spell trouble for other teams around them on the bubble.

  • Nashville Predators

Season Review: The Stanley Cup finalists from last year have picked up where they left off, currently trailing the Winnipeg Jets by one point for tops in the division. They’re playing great at home (16-4-3) and have picked up points in 17 of 24 road games (13-7-4), a drastic change from this team a year ago. They have Pekka Rinne playing great along with the litany of talent in front of him, which is scoring at a better pace than last season. Grade: A-

Biggest Surprise: Kevin Fiala had 16 points in his rookie season last year. This year, he’s nearly doubled that in eight fewer games. The addition of Kyle Turris has certainly helped, making that line (with Craig Smith) a potent option that’s providing a secondary scoring threat. Fiala’s season including a nine-game point streak in December.

Biggest Disappointment: Perhaps the only disappointment on this Preds team is that Ryan Ellis has only been limited to nine games after offseason knee surgery. He returned earlier this month.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Bolster. The Preds Stanley Cup window is still wide open. Perhaps another player for bottom six depth. Not much needed on a team this good.

Second half outlook: More of the same. The Preds have been solid against their own division with a 10-3-2 record and just need to stay the course.

  • St. Louis Blues

Season Review: Man, did this team every navigate some tough injury problems to start the season, something that speaks to the depth in St. Louis.  Grade: B-.

Biggest Surprise: Brayden Schenn has been nothing short of spectacular since getting traded last year. Schenn, currently at the NHL All-Star Game, leads the Blues with 50 points and is tied for the team lead with 21 goals. Schenn hit 59 points in 80 games a couple years back. He looks set to smash that career-high.

Biggest Disappointment: The team waived Magnus Paajarvi this week, so scratch that idea. Jake Allen deserves a mention. Carter Hutton is sitting on a .943 save percentage this season while Allen is only sporting a .909. Hutton is the backup and producing numbers that Blues’ fans hoped Allen would. Also, where is Alexander Steen?

Trade Deadline Strategy: With all their injury problems, a couple of depth players wouldn’t hurt just in case.

Second half outlook: Jaden Schwartz’s return after missing two months is a huge boon for the Blues. Schwartz had 35 points in 30 games before busting his ankle. Now, with the line of Schenn, Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko back together, domination could ensue once again.

  • Winnipeg Jets

Season Review: The best team heading in the to All-Star break. Yes, the Winnipeg Jets. What’s got them there? Great goaltending, for starters. A season worthy of a Hart Trophy nod for Blake Wheeler as well. And they’re just finding ways to win games, especially ones that, in the past, they would find ways to lose. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: Undoubtedly Connor Hellebuyck. The Jets went out and got what they thought would be their No. 1 netminder in Steve Mason during free agency. Yeah. Not in Hellebuyck’s house. The second-year starter is in the Vezina conversation and is at the NHL All-Star Game along with Pekka Rinne. Who in Winnipeg thought the former would be the same conversation as the latter at the end of last season?

Biggest Disappointment: Dustin Byfuglien. It took him nearly half the season to score his first goal and has just two at the All-Star break. Couple that with some interesting defensive decisions and you have the makings of one of his worst seasons of his career, statistically speaking and otherwise.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Buy. The Jets have a legitimate shot at making a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They seemingly have all the tools: a rededication to team defense, a high-scoring offense, great netminding and one of the best power plays in the league. They could probably use some depth on their fourth line and perhaps a seventh defenseman with playoff experience.

Second half outlook: Keep on keeping on. The Jets haven’t strung together a big losing streak this season, something that’s derailed them in the past. They basically play all of February at home at Bell MTS Place, which has become a fortress for them this season. The Jets just need to keep doing what got them to the summit of the division in the second half. Oh, and they’ll get Mark Scheifele back sometime next month. 

Previous: Atlantic Division / Metropolitan Division

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

The Wraparound: Maple Leafs get chance to exact revenge vs. Bruins

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

They couldn’t get it done in 2013 when an epic third-period collapse ended in disaster in the ensuing overtime period in Game 7. Five years later and a second Game 7 catastrophe, another third-period collapse, and a finish that this time didn’t require an extra frame.

The Toronto Maple Leafs will get a chance to finally atone for those slip-ups when they face the Boston Bruins on Easter Sunday (3 p.m. E.T.; NBC; Live stream).

A third-period effort in a tight Game 5 produced two goals and that was enough to fling the Bruins onto the ropes with a 3-2 series lead.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

To do so, they’ll have to complete one of the hardest tasks in hockey.

“The hardest game to win is the fourth game to put the other team out, especially a proud group of guys (like the Bruins),” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “It is something that we haven’t been able to do in the last three years… Now it is the process of learning how to do this. That is all a part of growing the group. It’s not easy, as you can see in the league. It’s not easy. We will get prepared to really push.”

For Boston to force a Game 7, they’ll need their top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak to produce. In games where the line combines for two points or fewer, they’ve lost. In the two games they’ve won, the trio has put up 10 points total.

“I think they’re doing a good job of keeping us to the outside,” Bergeron said. “We have to find a way to get to the inside a lot more. The goals we’ve scored have been from the inside… also some rebounds, some really in tight.”

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 6: Sharks at Golden Knights, 7 p.m. ET (VGK leads 3-2): Martin Jones remembered how to stop pucks and the Sharks remembered how to score facing elimination in Game 5 three nights ago. They’ll have to combine that effort two more times, beginning tonight if they’re to continue their season. The Sharks scored early and often as Tomas Hertl found twine twice. When Jones has posted a save percentage above .900 in these playoffs, he’s won. In the other games, he’s been chased twice and allowed six in another loss. Jones is the key, as is stopping Vegas’ dominant second line. (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream)

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info


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

Avalanche moving on in playoffs for first time since 2008

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DENVER (AP) — The brief message on social media from Colorado defenseman Nikita Zadorov was rhetorical in nature: ”How is your bracket ?”

Because obviously, it’s pretty messy.

The eighth-seeded Avalanche certainly played a big role in that. Colorado knocked off the Calgary Flames – the top team in the West – in five games for its first playoff series win since 2008. It’s on to the second round, where Colorado faces the winner of the Vegas-San Jose series. The Golden Knights lead the Sharks 3-2.

While others may be surprised, Nathan MacKinnon and his teammates have been asserting that this postseason would be entirely different. This time, unlike a year ago, they wouldn’t be content with merely making the playoffs. This time, they wanted to make some noise even if they again entered as an eight seed and faced a No. 1 seed.

”We’re not just happy to be here,” said MacKinnon, whose team was eliminated in the opening round by top-seeded Nashville in six games last year. ”We’re here to win the Cup.”

Colorado actually has been in playoff mode for about a month, needing to go 8-0-2 down the stretch to earn the last spot. Despite the Avalanche’s surge, they weren’t exactly a trendy pick to spring an upset on a Flames squad that amassed 107 points. But they outscored the Flames by a 17-11 margin and outshot them 205-164.

”Now we can rest before the second round,” forward Mikko Rantanen said Friday after a 5-1 win in Game 5. ”That’s going to be huge.”

And just like that, another top seed exited. Tampa Bay, the Presidents’ Trophy winner with the league’s best record, got swept out of the playoffs by Columbus.

Dating to expansion in 1967-68, this marks the first time the top two teams in each division or conference or the teams with the two best records have been eliminated in the opening round, according to the league.

”We told you going into the playoffs that we had a different feeling, a different mindset this year, that we’re here for a purpose,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. ”Our guys believe it … Our guys are hungry for more.”

Rantanen turned in quite a series, with five goals and four assists. He has at least a point in four straight games, which is one away from tying the Colorado/Quebec franchise mark held set by Peter Stastny in 1982 and equaled by Peter Forsberg on three separate occasions.

This after Rantanen missed the last eight games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. He shook off some rust in Game 1 and then spent the rest of the series shaking free of defenders. He scored the overtime winner in Game 4.

”He came back and he looked amazing and dominated,” MacKinnon said. ”It’s so nice to have a guy like that on your team.”

The same can be said for goaltender Philipp Grubauer, whose play down the stretch got the Avalanche into the postseason and whose play now has kept them rolling. Grubauer posted a 1.90 goals-against average against the Flames.

”He was a wall for us,” said captain Gabriel Landeskog, whose team went 0-3 against San Jose during the regular season and 2-1 versus Vegas. ”He was really important for us. He’s been really solid this whole series.”

Grubauer believes this team can reach an even higher level.

”If we can manage to play that way for a long time, we’re going to set ourselves up for a good chance here,” said Grubauer, who won a Stanley Cup title with Washington last season. ”Guys are stepping up in the right moments.”

Like recently signed rookie defenseman Cale Makar , who made his NHL debut in Game 3 and scored a goal. The 20-year-old signed a three-year deal with Colorado last Sunday, a day after his college season ended when Massachusetts lost in the Frozen Four championship game.

Makar, who is from Calgary, grew up a big Flames fan. He just played a role in eliminating them.

Matt Nieto had two short-handed goals in the series, while Tyson Barrie added five assists and logged the most ice time among Colorado skaters.

In the clincher at Calgary, Rantanen, Colin Wilson, MacKinnon and Barrie all had at least three-point performances. This marked the first time in the team’s history that four players had at least three points in a series-clinching game.

That comes as no surprise to Landeskog.

”We wouldn’t be here,” Landeskog said, ”if it wasn’t for every single guy in this room.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Canes’ Svechnikov hopes to play in Game 6 after concussion

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Carolina Hurricanes rookie Andrei Svechnikov hopes to play in Game 6 against the Washington Capitals on Monday after suffering a concussion in a fight with Alex Ovechkin a week earlier.

Svechnikov took part in his first full team practice on Saturday during the Hurricanes’ morning skate before Game 5 of their first-round series. The 19-year-old Russian winger wore a yellow non-contact jersey and would need to clear the NHL’s concussion protocol before he returns to game action.

Coach Rod Brind’Amour was noncommittal about Svechnikov’s status for the remainder of the series. Svechnikov is one of three Carolina forwards out with injury, along with Micheal Ferland and Jordan Martinook.

Ovechkin knocked out Svechnikov with a right hook during a fight in the first period of Game 3. Both players has said the other asked to fight.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Playoff Buzzer: Blues eliminate Jets; Capitals, Stars take leads

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  • The Blues advanced to Round 2, and while the Jets made the final score look respectable, it wasn’t a great, complete effort by Winnipeg.
  • The Stars’ top line was downright dominant for Dallas in taking a 3-2 series lead, putting the Central-winning Predators on the ropes.
  • Washington’s biggest names flexed their muscles, and the Capitals took a 3-2 series lead by blasting the Hurricanes.

Blues 3, Jets 2 (St. Louis wins series 4-2)

Jaden Schwartz scored all three of the Blues’ goals, and he gave St. Louis a 3-0 lead in doing so. After a pitiful, 1-shot second period, Winnipeg did make things more interesting in shrinking that 3-0 deficit to 3-2, but that final push was pretty late, and the overall (lack of) effort could stick with Jets fans and management for quite some time.

St. Louis gets to rest up and prepare for the winner of the series right below …

Stars 5, Predators 3 (Dallas leads 3-2)

It would be frustrating for Nashville if this all came down to Pekka Rinne struggling. Instead, Rinne was often quite sharp on Saturday, particularly when the game was close but the Predators seemingly couldn’t get anything going. Dallas dominated much of the proceedings. The top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov was the most overwhelming, yet other players are stepping up for the Stars, who’ve carried much of the play lately in Round 1. The Predators have some serious work to do, or they’ll be another division winner who will hit the golf course far earlier than most expected.

Capitals 6, Hurricanes 0 (Washington leads 3-2)

To be fair to Carolina, this game was closer than the score seemed … at least early on. They even kinda, sorta had a chance through most of the second period, at least before that much-discussed Dougie Hamilton icing gaffe opened things up for the 3-0 goal. Still, the Hurricanes couldn’t score a goal in this one, and players like Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin really imposed their will on Game 5. So far, the home team has taken all five games in this series, so the Hurricanes must maintain that trend in Game 6, and then hope they can flip the script if they force a Game 7.

Note: Isabelle Khurshudyan and Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post report that T.J. Oshie suffered a broken collarbone, and will miss the remainder of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. An official announcement is expected, possibly as early as Sunday. PHT will monitor that situation.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom

The Capitals are only five games into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet Backstrom already has many goals (five) as he had during all of their Stanley Cup run. He’s also only one behind his career-high for a single postseason of six. Backstrom’s known for his passing, and that’s still generally how he leans when attacking, but he’s absolutely on fire sniping-wise lately, and that will only make him tougher to contain.

Backstrom scored the first two goals of Game 5, including the game-winner to help Washington off to a blazing start, and also chipped in two assists for a four-point game. That’s the most of any skater on Saturday.

(Alex Ovechkin deserves consideration for player of that game and of Saturday, too, as he was a domineering physical presence, along with scoring one goal and two assists.)

2. Jaden Schwartz

You could make an argument that Schwartz’s strong Game 6 was just as important as Backstrom’s performance, even if Backstrom gets the edge in total points at four.

Schwartz scored all three of the Blues goals to claim a hat trick, and that’s coming off of scoring the Blues’ Game 5 winner with about 15 seconds left to stun Winnipeg, and maybe partially explain why the Jets seemed to lack a spark on Saturday.

Personally, Schwartz has been one of those Jonathan Huberdeau-type players who’s always signaled serious talent, but has sometimes been lost in the shuffle, in part because of bad injury luck. With that in mind, it’s nice to see a high-quality player such as Schwartz get his moment in the sun, and Schwartz is absolutely shining in the spotlight.

3. Jamie Benn

Consider this a collective Stars’ first line award if you’d like, as Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov were too much for the Predators to handle, too.

Benn had the most points of the trio, generating three assists, with two of them being primary.

Jim Lites’ “blanking horse-blank” roast of Benn and Seguin seemed to ignore a number of realities, such as the impact the aging curve can have on any star player, particularly a power forward such as Benn. Yet, Benn was that irresistible force at times in Game 5, particularly when he used his size and senses to muscle the puck away from Ryan Ellis to set up one of Dallas’ goals. (Benn’s three assists all came during a single period, a rare feat.)

The Predators will try their best to find an answer for Benn, Seguin, and Radulov, but performances like these make you wonder if they can be denied.

More Factoids

Sunday’s games

Game 6: Bruins at Maple Leafs (Toronto leads 3-2), 3 p.m. ET on NBC (livestream)
Game 6: Sharks at Golden Knights (Vegas leads 3-2), 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN (livestream)

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.