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Devils should never stop thanking Oilers for Taylor Hall

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The New Jersey Devils have put themselves in a pretty good position when it comes to ending their playoff drought that goes all the way back to the 2011-12 season. After defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night, 3-2, they sit nine points clear of the first non-playoff team in the Eastern Conference and are just two points out of one of the top-three spots in the Metropolitan Division.

Given how hard it is for teams to make up ground this late in the season, they should be feeling pretty good.

They still have the Edmonton Oilers to thank for being in this position.

It was less than two years ago that the Oilers sent Taylor Hall, one of the best left wingers in the sport, to New Jersey in a one-for-one swap for defenseman Adam Larsson.

At the time it was a stunning trade was widely panned outside of Edmonton.

Today, it is a pretty much an embarrassment.

On Tuesday, in a game that featured Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, none of them were the best player on the ice. It was Hall, as he caused havoc every time he entered the game, forcing turnovers, disrupting the Penguins’ defense, adding to his points streak (now at 22 games) with a goal and an assist to help the Devils pretty much beat the Penguins at their own game.

It was a sight to behold, and every single time the puck touched his stick, or every single time he created a chance, the only thought that could go through your mind was “how did somebody in charge of an NHL hockey team think trading this guy was going to make their team better?”

With 68 points in 58 games this season his place in the MVP discussion has gone from, well maybe he has a pretty good argument, to he should probably be one of the three finalists.

He is sixth in the NHL in points per game and second to only Brad Marchand among left-wingers.

During his point streak, which started on the first day of the new year, he has recorded 32 points and had a hand (either scoring the goal or assisting the goal) in 49 percent of the Devils’ total goals during that stretch. That number on its own without any sort of context would be amazing.

When you consider that Hall did not play in three of the Devils’ games during that stretch due to injury it is absolutely incredible.

He has done for the Devils what the Oilers hoped he would do for them, and something they never really gave him an opportunity to do — give the team an identity and help change the fortunes of the franchise.

With Hall in place, and a few lucky bounces of the ping pong balls in the draft lottery, and a few shrewd additions by general manager Ray Shero, the Devils look like an entirely different team than the one that was taking the ice just two short years ago. With Hall, Michael Grabner, Miles Wood and five other players under the age of 24 the Devils are a young, fast team that looks like it is built to play in the NHL in 2018.

They can fly all over the ice. They can put pressure on opponents. They are actually — and I can’t believe this is something we can say about the New Jersey Devils — kind of fun to watch.

It’s definitely a career year for Hall, which is not surprising given that he is in his age 26 season, usually around the point where players are in their peak.

But it’s not like Hall hasn’t always been one of the most productive players in the NHL throughout his career.

From the time he entered the NHL as the top pick in 2010 through his trade out of Edmonton, he was 22nd in the NHL among all players in points per game (minimum 200 games played) and fourth among all left wingers. If you remove his rookie season when he was only 19 years old, he goes up to 13th and third respectively. The only two players on that list ahead of him to be traded at any point in their careers are Martin St. Louis and Tyler Seguin. St. Louis requested a trade. Seguin was traded by the guy that also traded Taylor Hall.

Hall was the only player in the top-15 that never played in the playoffs during that stretch. The 12 players ahead of him combined for only 10 missed playoff appearances during that stretch. It’s more of a damning statement about the Oilers’ inability to build a team around an elite player than it is about Hall. Edmonton’s inability to build a team around Connor McDavid on an entry-level contract only seems to confirm that.

Since being hired by the Devils Ray Shero has made some pretty bold trades to get the team headed back in the right direction.

Getting Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks for a couple of draft picks was steller. Injuries have derailed his season, but the same could one day be said for getting Marcus Johansson in a trade with the Washington Capitals. He made some quality moves at the deadline to improve their depth for the stretch run by adding Grabner and Patrick Maroon without really giving up anything of significance. He got a little bit of good fortune in the draft lottery by having everything go his way to land Nico Hischier.

All of those moves working in unison have helped put the Devils in a position to where they could finally return to the playoffs.

But nothing compares to the good fortune, or has had the same impact, as happening to catch Edmonton feeling that it absolutely had to trade away one of the best players in the league in a one-for-one swap.

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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.

Ovechkin mocks Hamilton, Hurricanes with chicken gesture

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Did Dougie Hamilton “bail out” on a would-be Alex Ovechkin check, thus letting Ovechkin retrieve the puck for a dagger 3-0 goal in Game 5? Was it a mental mistake by Hamilton, which would still be a gaffe, but not bring into questions of “toughness?”

Whatever the true answer might be, that moment reverberated through the Capitals – Hurricanes Round 1 series, and was referenced early in Game 6 on Monday (currently airing on NBCSN; Stream here). After Ovechkin missed a check on Hamilton, Ovechkin did a “chicken flapping its wings” motion at Hamilton and/or the Hurricanes bench.

You can watch the mocking gesture in the video above this post’s headline, and judge for yourself on that 3-0 goal from the Capitals’ eventual 6-0 win in Game 5 in this clip. Jeremy Roenick provided his take, too.

(Personally, I think Hamilton was confused, not frightened, but perhaps we’ll never truly know.)

Ovechkin’s not shy about trash talk, including in the playoffs – you may remember him jawing at Henrik Lundqvist in 2015 – and the Hurricanes must respond on the scoreboard. Alex Ovechkin let his play do some talking along with that taunting, as he scored a 2-1 goal for a Capitals lead moments after Petr Mrazek was bumped hard in an accidental collision by his own teammate, Justin Williams.

Tune into Game 6 on NBCSN and/or stream it here to see the taunting, heavy-hitting, and tense action.

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: Hurricanes, Predators attempt to force Game 7s

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Game 6: Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 3-2)
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Call: Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
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Stream here

Game 6: Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET (Stars lead 3-2)
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Call: Chris Cuthbert, Joe Micheletti, AJ Mleczko
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PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
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Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Holtby has been ultimate closer for Capitals

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With a win on Monday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live streamthe Washington Capitals will advance to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth year in a row.

It is a pretty impressive streak when you remember just how often they were a postseason punchline before finally winning the Stanley Cup last season. Especially since no other team in the league has an active streak of more than three years (if the Nashville Predators come back to beat the Dallas Stars, it will be their fourth consecutive year advancing to Round 2, but they still need to win two games in a row to make that happen).

It is not easy to get out of Round 1 that regularly.

One of the biggest reasons they have been able to do so pretty much every year has been the consistently great postseason play of starting goalie Braden Holtby.

He is also a big reason why you have to like their chances of winning just one more game against the Carolina Hurricanes in this series.

Especially since these are the games he tends to really excel in.

Monday’s Game 6 against the Hurricanes will be the 19th time in Holtby’s career he will play a game where the Capitals have a chance to eliminate an opponent.

In the previous 18 games, he has a .932 save percentage in potential knockout games (slightly higher than his career postseason mark of .929 — which is significantly higher than his career regular season mark of .918), and has won seven of hits past 10 including each of his past five.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That includes a perfect 4-for-4 mark in the playoffs a year ago on the Capitals’ run to the Cup when he only allowed one goal in a Game 6 series-clinching win on the road in Pittsburgh in Round 2, and then shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning in a decisive Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final (after also shutting them out in Game 6).

Of the three games he lost during that stretch, he didn’t allow more than two goals in any of them, and has allowed more than two goals in just five of the 18 games where he has had a chance to knock out an opponent out of the playoffs.

In other words: Even when the Capitals lose and fail to move on in the playoffs, it has rarely — if ever — been due to the play of their goalie.

For his career he has been one of the best postseason goalies in NHL history, and when he has a chance to finish the job in a series, he almost always plays well enough to do it.

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.

Zuccarello is perfect complement for Stars’ top line

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The Dallas Stars had a problem for much of the 2018-19 season, and it was always a very easy one to identify.

Even when the team was at its lowest point, their top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn was doing what it had always done in carrying the team’s offense.

When Seguin and Benn came under irrational fire from their own CEO in the middle of the season, they were far from the biggest issue on the team. In fact, they weren’t even an issue at all and just five seconds of objective research should have made that clear. When they were on the ice the Stars were carrying the play, dominating the opposition, and performing exactly as you would want your franchise players to perform. Maybe the individual numbers weren’t what we have come to expect from them, but they were consistently outplaying and outscoring their opponents.

The problem was that they didn’t have any other forwards that could do the same thing. Their forward depth was so thin that only one other forward outside of the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio topped topped the 30-point mark this season (Radek Faksa had exactly 30 points in 81 games). That is not anywhere near good enough. It wasn’t a “star” problem; it was a problem with players around the stars.

But because the top trio was so good, and because they received Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ben Bishop (and don’t forget about the play of backup Anton Khudobin, either) they were able to stay in playoff contention in a watered down Western Conference and continue playing their way toward the postseason. If they were going to do anything once they got there they were going to need somebody outside of their top line to provide some kind of a threat offensively.

This is where Mats Zuccarello comes in.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He has only played seven games with the team entering Game 6 of their Round 1 series against the Nashville Predators on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), but his impact has already been noticeable.

The Stars acquired Zuccarello from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline and in his first game with the team made an immediate impact with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win. It was exactly what the Stars needed for the stretch run. But because he was also injured in that game and missed several weeks they never really had an opportunity to see exactly what he could provide. They are seeing it in the playoffs where he has already tallied three goals (second only to Radulov) and has given them an additional threat offensively.

It’s even more impressive when you remember he is still finding his way with a new team and still probably isn’t all the way back to 100 percent.

In other words, he probably has room to get better.

When you look at his individual shot and scoring chance numbers he hasn’t created a ton of them, and so far is riding a short-term spike in shooting percentage to carry his postseason production. It would be fair to point to that as somewhat of a red flag for what it might mean in the future.

You have to keep in mind, though, that the injury not only took him off the ice, it also robbed him of an opportunity to develop chemistry with a new set of linemates. Getting thrown into what is still a new lineup, when you may not be totally healthy, and right in the middle of the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not an easy thing to do. There is still probably a bit of an adjustment period taking place here.

What is important for the Stars, though, is that he is another high-level player that has the ability to capitalize on the chances he does get, and that is an element the team had been lacking all season.

He is a threat with a proven track record of production.

Zuccarello has been a criminally underrated player for quite some time now and has always been a lock to finish with 50-60 points over a full season. That may not seem great or anything that instantly jumps off the page at you, but it is top-line production, and top-line players are not always easy to acquire.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the year Zuccarello became a full-time player in the NHL, his 0.72 point-per-game average puts him 67th out of more than 570 players that have appeared in at least 200 games during that stretch.

Outside of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov there is not another forward currently on the Stars’ roster that sits in the top-100 out of that group.

Jason Spezza is the only other one in the top-200.

You have to go all the way down to Faksa at No. 296 to find the next one.

There just wasn’t enough impact talent elsewhere on the roster to help support the Stars’ top players.

Zuccarello gives them one, and his presence, along with the emergence of Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz in this series, is a big reason they have been able to put themselves in a position to advance.

MORE: Hintz becoming important part of Stars’ lineup

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.