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Center stage: NHL contenders go deep down the middle

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A linesman orders Sean Couturier out of the faceoff circle and Claude Giroux shrugs before stepping in and winning the draw.

Two centers on the ice at once is a nice luxury for the Philadelphia Flyers to have.

”He’s one of the best in the league at faceoffs,” Couturier said of Giroux, who ranks third in the NHL. ”When you start with the puck, it’s a huge part of the game.”

Beyond just controlling faceoffs, having depth at center is a growing factor for success in the NHL. Contenders like the Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins all boast depth down the middle and are spreading centers all over the lineup.

The flexibility gives teams potentially game-altering matchups with the playoffs coming up in a month.

”You can never have enough center-ice men on your team for lots of reasons,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Crucial faceoffs, injuries and defensive-zone coverage are many of the reasons to load up on centers who can almost always shift to wing and not miss a beat. Philadelphia has long followed the model of drafting and acquiring centers and moving them around, and now has nine natural centers on its roster.

The Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup going with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Max Talbot down the middle and captured it the past two years with Crosby, Malkin, Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. The free agent departures of Bonino and Cullen left a void that Pittsburgh filled by trading for Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to again look like a championship contender.

”To have the depth that we have at this point at the center-ice position is I think an important aspect of our overall game,” Sullivan said. ”We didn’t have that coming into training camp. I think our general manager, Jim (Rutherford), has worked extremely hard at making sure that he gave us what has become now I think a strength of our team.”

It’s also a strength of the Eastern Conference-leading Lightning, who are overflowing with center options beyond Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn and trade-deadline pickup J.T. Miller. The Toronto Maple Leafs also roll deep with forwards who play center or have in the past, including Patrick Marleau and recent acquisition Tomas Plekanec.

”I can get a can’t-miss matchup,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. ”You’re not scared of any matchup as time goes on.”

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

It’s all about the matchups in the arms race that is the absurd Central Division. It wasn’t good enough that the Central-leading Predators had Ryan Johansen, signed Bonino last summer and traded for Kyle Turris in November; they welcomed center Mike Fisher back from retirement and still have Colton Sissons and Craig Smith.

The Jets acquired center Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues to add to an already forward-heavy roster. It paid immediate dividends with Patrik Laine extending his point streak to 13 games and Winnipeg cruising along after Mark Scheifele went down with an injury.

”We’ll be putting two centers out there for D-zone draws and whatnot,” said Andrew Copp, who thinks Winnipeg’s center depth stacks up with the best in the league. ”That’s really important, and then just depth with injuries. … Now we’ve got six, seven, eight guys that we can really lean on.”

It’s an increasingly popular strategy. The Flyers are vying for the league lead in faceoffs, handling the early-season crackdown on faceoff violations and compensating for a young, mostly unproven defense with versatile forwards.

”Being strong up the middle is important,” coach Dave Hakstol said. ”That’s the backbone of every line, so to have guys that are comfortable in that spot I think is important. Playing down low in your zone – there’s so much switching and interchanging that goes on from the wing to that down-low position in coverage, having somebody that’s comfortable being down there I think is a benefit, as well.”

Two centers are better than one not just for faceoffs but because the extra responsibilities of the position allow for better awareness in the defensive zone, where wingers typically are only tasked with defending their respective opposing winger in man-to-man schemes. Giroux shifted to wing on the top line with Couturier after spending the past eight-plus years at center and is approaching his career high in points and playing some of the best hockey of his career.

”We get a read off each other,” said Couturier, a leading candidate for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. ”It’s about chemistry and trying to trust each other out there. Guys can fill in different roles and it’s nice and it helps the team. That’s what you kind of want from having so many centermen is you want to fill in each other’s roles.”

Having extra centers is a substantial benefit – if they can handle the position change. Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler made a rapid adjustment from wing to center amid injuries, but just about everyone agrees it’s much easier to go the other way.

”There’s a real quick adjustment to going from center to the wing: figure out how to work the walls and find your point men,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. ”That’s a very difficult change.”

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

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

McKenzie on Penguins injuries, Avs contracts … spider bites?

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When Alex Galchenyuk was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he likely breathed deep as he readied for a new coach, team, city, and system for the second straight season. Maybe there’s some fear about looking like a pale imitation of Phil Kessel, the other major part of that trade.

But did he factor in arachnophobia?

During a Wednesday appearance on NBCSN during the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche, Bob McKenzie reported that Galchenyuk has been dealing with what could be a groin injury (or otherwise a soft tissue issue), which many surmised. What people didn’t realize is that Galchenyuk took a detour on his road to recovery because of a spider bite.

McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk had a significant allergic reaction to the bite, which seems a lot less fun than being able to climb on walls, swing on webs, and sense danger before it’s coming. (Theory: Brad Marchand may have “spider sense.” Although we’d probably need to brand it differently. “Pest-pathy?”)

Anyway, McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk is back on that road to recovery, although his precise window of recovery is unclear.

Via McKenzie, Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust are essentially week-to-week still, as their windows seem to be two or three weeks. McKenzie reports that Evgeni Malkin‘s injury remains fuzzier.

Speaking of fuzziness, it sounds like the Colorado Avalanche are keeping things opaque when it comes to players on expiring contracts. So, we might need to wait-and-see with Andre Burakovsky and Nikita Zadorov.

That’s … understandable, especially with Burakovsky, who’s still making early impressions. Colorado might be wise to pick and choose with this stuff in the future, though. Could the Avalanche have signed Mikko Rantanen for less than a $9.25M AAV if they were more proactive? We can only speculate …

But hey, at least no one got bit by a spider.

*shudders*

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins remain hot with win vs. Avalanche

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Brandon Tanev notched a shorthanded goal in overtime to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also scored as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight victory. Matt Murray added 26 saves.

Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon found the back of the net for the Avalanche but their six-game point streak to open the season came to an end.

Crosby continues to dazzle

The Penguins captain has clearly moved on from a disappointing playoff run last year, which ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Instead, Crosby is off to a tremendous start, recording points in each of Pittsburgh’s seven games and leading the club on the ice to a 5-2-0 record.

Crosby netted a highlight-reel backhander to tie the game late in the first period and then assisted on a Jake Guentzel tally in the second.

The superstar center craftily tipped the puck around Erik Johnson, played the puck with his glove, and then somehow had the wherewithal to outlast goaltender Philipp Grubauer until an opening appeared for him to slide a backhander into the net.

Early in the second period, Crosby intercepted a pass at the blueline, then set up Guentzel to help the Penguins grab a 2-1 lead.

While several notable players remain sidelined, Crosby will be expected to lead the Penguins on the ice, and continue to improve the players around him. Pittsburgh will need Crosby to play at the top of his game until reinforcements return over the next few weeks.

Avalanche upcoming free agents

After the Mikko Rantanen contract issue this past summer, the Avalanche have several pending RFA’s for next summer.

Colorado is expected to be a legit Stanley Cup Contender with a great mix of dynamic playmakers, infusion of youth and seasoned veterans capable of leading the way during turbulent stretches.

However, Bob McKenzie offered that general manager Joe Sakic wants to see how the first part of the season plays out before engaging in contract talks.

Andre Burakovsky, Tyson Jost and Nikita Zadorov headline the pending RFA class and all presumably have a role to fill moving forward.

Is Lafferty here to stay?

The Penguins have been bitten by the injury bug early and have been forced to rely on their organizational depth to stay afloat during a challenging stretch.

During their Stanley Cup-winning years, the Penguins have always been able to call up a role player to fill a specific need. Is Sam Lafferty the next player to seamlessly fit in?

Lafferty was close to making the team out of training camp according to Bob McKenzie, but fell victim to the numbers game of a roster. However, injuries to five impact forwards — Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann — created a roster spot for him to slide in.

“We always felt like Sam was close coming into this training camp this year. But I think he has a whole lot more confidence in himself that he belongs here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s great for him, and that’s great for us.”

The 24-year-old originally from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh, Lafferty has taken advantage of the opportunity recording five points over the previous three games.

“He’s earned his playing time. He’s just playing terrific hockey,” Sullivan said. “He made a difference every game he’s been in. As a result, he’s getting more ice time. He’s a very good penalty-killer. I think he really understands his role and is taking pride in it. You can see it every shift. He’s gaining more confidence.”

The Penguins have done an excellent job in sliding players into appropriate roles, and Lafferty is just the latest example. Does the kid have what it takes to stick around for a full season and continue to make a difference? We will find out as the season goes on.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

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

Blue Jackets’ Milano scores ridiculous between-the-legs goal vs. Stars

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Sidney Crosby scored a wonderful highlight reel goal despite hard-working defense, yet he has some competition for Wednesday’s best one-man effort.

Sonny Milano hasn’t always been able to justify being selected 16th overall in 2014 by the Columbus Blue Jackets, but there have been flashes of brilliance when he’s avoided landed in John Tortorella’s doghouse. The 23-year-old authored his best NHL effort so far against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday, beating Esa Lindell, Roope Hintz, and Ben Bishop, making a great move and then finishing his chance with the sort of between-the-legs move you’d see in a shootout.

You’re just not supposed to be able to that at full speed in NHL action, particularly against quality players and Bishop, who finished second in Vezina voting in 2018-19.

That goal ended up standing as the game-winner as Columbus beat Dallas 3-2 on Wednesday, too.

So, which goal do you prefer: Milano’s (above this post’s headline) or Crosby’s from the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 OT win against the Colorado Avalanche?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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: Flyers visit Oilers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Oilers have missed the playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons, but this year has started successfully under new GM Ken Holland and new head coach Dave Tippett. Edmonton won their first five games of the season before losing on Monday in Chicago, 3-1. Still, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl carrying the load as usual, boosted by a torrid scoring pace from James Neal, the Oilers have shown promise early on.

The Oilers’ two superstars both have four goals and eight assists and are tied for the league lead with 12 points. They are tied with Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine, who have played two more games.

During the Oilers season-opening five-game winning streak, they became the first team in NHL history to win their first five games despite trailing at some point in each of those games.

Tonight, Carter Hart will play his first NHL game in his hometown; Hart was born in Sherwood Park, Alberta, which is just east of Edmonton. Hart did play the Oilers last season, but only in Philly; he was called up to the NHL three days after the Flyers played at Edmonton.

Hart’s mother Shauna will be in attendance, but his father John is in Regina on business and will not be at the game. In addition to Shauna, Hart’s longtime sports psychologist John Stevenson (who also works with Braden Holtby) will be there – the first time Stevenson will see Hart play an NHL game in person.

Prior to the game in Calgary yesterday, the Flyers signed Chris Stewart to a one-year contract after he joined the team on a PTO in the offseason. Stewart had three hits in 9:12 of ice time – his first NHL game since March of 2018.

[COVERAGE OF FLYERS-OILERS BEGINS AT 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Philadelphia Flyers at Edmonton Oilers
WHERE: Rogers Place
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 16, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flyers-Oilers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

FLYERS
Claude GirouxKevin Hayes – James van Riemsdsyk
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierTravis Konecny
Tyler PitlickScott LaughtonJakub Voracek
Chris Stewart – Michael Raffl – Carsen Twarnyski

Ivan ProvorovJustin Braun
Travis SanheimMatt Niskanen
Robert HaggShayne Gostisbehere

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

OILERS
Leon Draisaitl – Connor McDavid – Zack Kassian
Alex ChiassonRyan Nugent-Hopkins – James Neal
Jujhar KhairaRiley Sheahan – Patrick Russell
Tomas Jurco – Markus GranlundJosh Archibald

Darnell Nurse – Ethan Bear
Oscar KlefbomJoel Persson
Kris RussellMatthew Benning

Starting goalie: Mikko Koskinen

MORE: Oilers’ Neal comfortable again in bounce-back season

Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live on Wednesday with analysts Patrick Sharp, Roenick and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Chris Cuthbert and Ray Ferraro will have the call of Flyers-Oilers from Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta.