Soaring Jets get set to start at home vs. experienced Wild

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The NHL’s return to Winnipeg has been an instant success in the seats, with regular sellouts since the Jets arrived in 2011 for a second landing in the smallest market in the league.

Progress on the ice has been measurably slower, with just one appearance in the playoffs in the first six years in wintry Manitoba after a struggling franchise moved north from Atlanta, but the patience of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has been rewarded and then some this season.

Sporting the second-best record in the NHL, the Jets have carried the momentum of 11 wins in their last 12 games into their first-round series against Minnesota.

Stanley Cup Playoffs streaming, schedule and more

They boast one of the game’s coveted prodigies in 19-year-old Patrik Laine and his 44 goals. They have a balanced roster that ranked second in the league in scoring and fifth in fewest goals against. They face the Wild on Wednesday night at home, where they’re an NHL-best 32-7-2 this season.

“Enjoy it, right?” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “We work real hard to get to a place where there’s mounting pressure and mounting enthusiasm, and then we want to keep working to get to more and more and more. So you have to be a part of it. You have to enjoy it for sure.”

Their time to take a big step forward to join the league’s elite has arrived. They even, considering their seed, represent the best hope to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada for the first time since 1993.

Toronto is the only other team that made the playoffs this year, and the Maple Leafs must start the first round on the road against the Boston Bruins.

“You don’t know how many times you’re going to come across this opportunity,” goalie Connor Hellebuyck said, “and especially now with the great team like we have here. I’m really excited to see what these guys bring.”

With another series of “Whiteout ” events planned for Bell MTS Place, with fans encouraged to wear white team gear to the arena and surrounding parties, the city has been buzzing all week even as winter again overstays its welcome.

“I’m very excited. I can start feeling my body getting those butterflies,” Hellebuyck said.

The knock against the Jets is the collective lack of postseason experience, with a four-game sweep by the Anaheim Ducks in 2015 serving as the only action in the playoffs for some of these players. Laine hadn’t even been drafted yet.

That’s where the Wild have a clear advantage, with this their sixth straight appearance in the 16-team tournament.

Though they were overshadowed in the Western Conference this season by the Jets, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators and the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, the Wild posted the third-best record in franchise history. Center Eric Staal had 42 goals, his most in 12 years. Jason Zucker scored a career-high 33 goals. Their defensemen ranked second in the league with 200 points.

“You really got to go through it to know what it’s about,” left wing Zach Parise said, adding: “I know they’ve been short-lived the last couple years, but you hope with just being there that will help us.”

Here are some other key angles to follow with the series:

PALS IN PADS

Hellebuyck and Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk met last summer in British Columbia during training sessions and rounds of golf that forged a friendship, with Dubnyk encouraging Hellebuyck to keep his head up after the Jets signed Steve Mason to an $8.2 million contract.

Sure enough, Mason stumbled early and Hellebuyck supplanted him as the primary netminder to tie for the NHL lead with 44 wins and finish eighth in goals-against average.

“It’s been fun to watch but that’s enough now,” Dubnyk said. “It’s been a great year for him, but I’ll stop cheering for him now.”

SUTER OUT, SPURGEON IN

One of the Wild’s greatest assets for this matchup will be absent, with a season-ending broken ankle for stalwart Ryan Suter, who tied a franchise defenseman record with 51 points in 78 games.

The upside is that Jared Spurgeon, who missed the last 17 games with a torn hamstring, is on track to return. He practiced with one of the two power-play units on Tuesday, and coach Bruce Boudreau said he’d make a game-time decision about Spurgeon’s availability on Wednesday.

WHEELS UP

Jets captain Blake Wheeler tied for the NHL lead with 68 assists this season and finished ninth with 91 points, fueling a potent first line with Kyle Connor and Mark Schiefele to take some of the scoring pressure off Laine.

Wheeler played at Breck High School in the Twin Cities area and in college for Minnesota before turning pro. He has never missed more than three games in any regular season since his debut with Boston in 2008-09.

CULLEN’S CUPS

Wild center Matt Cullen contributed a modest 11 goals and 11 assists from the fourth line, but the 41-year-old’s contribution transcends points. He’s played in 123 postseason games, winning three Stanley Cups including the past two with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“This is why we got him, his experience in positions like we’re in right now,” Boudreau said. “So we’re hoping he’s going to be valuable.”

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Rangers beat Penguins in OT thanks to Kakko’s big night

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Kaapo Kakko looked dominant, at times, against men before he was drafted, including versus some NHL talent during the 2019 IIHF World Championship. The feeling was that he could make an immediate and successful jump from being the second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft to becoming an instant impact player for the New York Rangers, possibly outshining top pick Jack Hughes for the Devils.

A little more than a month into his career, it’s been up-and-down for Kakko, but we might just look at Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins as a breakthrough moment.

Rangers start strong

Kakko took advantage of a bodacious Brendan Lemieux pass to score the first goal of Tuesday’s game, then ended up collecting the game-winner in overtime as the Rangers beat the Penguins 3-2 (OT). You could call it a big night not just for Kakko, but the Rangers’ youth in general, as Adam Fox set up Kakko’s OT game-winner, and also scored the Rangers’ second goal off of a great feed by Artemi Panarin.

Here’s that OT-winner for your viewing pleasure:

The Rangers dominated the first period, ending in 2-0, and credit to Matt Murray for keeping it from being any worse. Natural Stat Trick’s period-by-period graph provides another way of showing how dramatic the bad start was for Pittsburgh:

Penguins roll with the punches, and break a slump

The point’s been made that the Penguins have had a knack for rallying lately, and they did again on Tuesday — just not for the win.

Pittsburgh scored two goals in the second period to tie things up. Maybe the biggest sigh of relief came on the second tally, and not just because it made the game 2-2 at the time. After going 0-for-28 in their last power-play opportunities and failing to score on the man advantage for almost a month, Jared McCann finally ended that drought.

That second-period effort was enough for the Penguins to secure a standings point despite falling behind 2-0 early on, but Fox and Kakko combined for the game-winner.

Kakko is now at six goals and eight points over his first 16 NHL games, while this also marks his first point streak (he scored a goal against the Panthers on Sunday). With that goal and assist, Fox generated his first multi-point game, but the defenseman has already been a quick study (insert Harvard joke), as this pushes his own point streak to five games (two goals, four assists for six points during that span). Fox also has eight points in 16 games this season.

Recent play of both teams

The Penguins will get a dose of the top two picks of the 2019 NHL Draft this week, as their next game is against Hughes and the Devils on Friday. After that, the Penguins play five of their next six games at home from Nov. 16-27, so maybe they’ll get some confidence in breaking that PP drought and at least getting a point with Sidney Crosby on the shelf for an unclear duration of time. Pittsburgh’s record sank to 10-6-2 for 22 points.

The Rangers, meanwhile, continue to quietly build up steam. They’ve gone 4-0-1 in their last five games, five of their last seven (5-1-1) to improve to 8-6-2 overall.

If young players like Kakko and Fox keep improving, the Rangers might just manage more hot stretches down the road in 2019-20.

If there are still growing pains as much as gains … well, at least Kakko & Co. have the ability to make plays like these:

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.

Lights went out during brief – but funny – moment in Bruins game

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The Florida Panthers were on the power play – and dangerous sniper Mike Hoffman had a chance to shoot from the slot – when the lights went out, briefly, at TD Garden on Tuesday night.

Now, this wasn’t like the blackout at Boston Garden during the 1988 Stanley Cup Final, when a Game 4 against the mighty Edmonton Oilers had to be replayed in its entirety in Edmonton because of such an outage. In that case, it went wrong for the Bruins, as they had managed a 3-3 tie during the second period of that nullified contest against that dynastic team.

In Tuesday’s case, you could imagine someone, somewhere – probably in Florida – claiming it was all a big conspiracy. For just a moment or two, the lights went out when the Bruins were killing a penalty. This screen grab of Sportsnet’s video (which you can watch fully above this post’s headline) gives you an idea of Hoffman’s location … if you squint a little. Actually, allow some help, as I fight the urge to go full John Madden in telestrator mode:

Apologies to conspiracy theorists, but these things happen. The brightest side is that it wasn’t a situation where a check was about to be delivered, as that could have made for a dangerous moment.

***

That wasn’t the only wild part of Tuesday’s game. The Bruins had a 4-0 lead in the third period against the Panthers, yet Florida ended up winning 5-4 via a shootout. Wow.

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.

Rangers’ Lemieux sets up Kakko for beauty vs. Penguins

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The New York Rangers ended the first period up 2-0 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday (watch live on NBCSN; stream here) thanks, in part, to some tremendous passing.

Most impressively, Brendan Lemieux sent a tremendous long bomb of a pass, beating multiple Penguins defenders, to Kaapo Kakko, who scored what might have been his best goal in the NHL so far by finishing the play with great moves.

This marks the first multi-game point streak for Kakko, 18, who also scored a goal against the Florida Panthers on Sunday. The second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft now has five goals and seven points so far in his rookie season, and still has two periods to add more during his 16th game.

The Penguins failed on two power plays in the first period, pushing them to 0-for-28. They haven’t scored a PPG since mid-October.

[More on the Penguins’ struggling power play]

To make matters worse for the Penguins, Artemi Panarin sent a tremendous pass to defenseman Adam Fox for the 2-0 goal with less than 10 seconds left.

Pittsburgh’s been a slow-starting team quite often in 2019-20, and in some cases have been able to rally for comeback wins. We’ll see if they can pull off another one on Tuesday, as it’s been a very weak start, and it’s possible it could have been more than a 2-0 lead for the Rangers after 20 minutes.

***

The Penguins ended up rallying back to tie the game 2-2, and sent it to overtime. Kakko scored again in OT, however, giving the Rangers the win. More here.

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: Penguins meet Rangers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. 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.

The Penguins are coming off a 3-2 (SO) win on Saturday – a game they trailed 2-0 midway through the second period. It was their third straight game rallying from a multi-goal deficit. Despite earning the win against Chicago, Sidney Crosby left in the third period with a lower-body injury. He has been ruled out for this game, and his status beyond that is unknown.

Pittsburgh enters this game on a massive power play drought. They have not scored a power play goal in their previous 11 games, going 0-for-25 in that span. The total drought actually extends to the game prior to that, when they failed on their final attempt, so the Pens are 0-for-their-last-26 overall.

Rangers No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad has missed the last six games with an upper-body injury, suffered on Oct. 27 on a hit from Patrice Bergeron. Zibanejad will reportedly not travel with the team to Florida, meaning he is out for at least the next three games. He was leading the team with 11 points in nine games prior to his departure from the lineup.

After alternating starts at the beginning of the season, the Rangers have spent the past few weeks giving chunks of consecutive starts to each of their netminders. Alex Georgiev will get the start in this game – his seventh of the season – after Henrik Lundqvist started the previous three.

[COVERAGE OF PENGUINS-RANGERS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Penguins-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Alex GalchenyukJared McCannJake Guentzel
Dominik SimonEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Dominik KahunNick BjugstadSam Lafferty
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Brian DumoulinJohn Marino
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Jack JohnsonJuuso Riikola

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

RANGERS
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Chris Kreider – Filip Chytil – Pavel Buchnevich
Brendan LemieuxBrett HowdenKaapo Kakko
Greg McKeggLias AnderssonBrendan Smith

Libor HajekJacob Trouba
Brady SkjeiTony DeAngelo
Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

MORE: Crosby out vs. Rangers, injury still being evaluated

Brendan Burke and Joe Micheletti will call the Penguins-Rangers showdown from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Paul Burmeister will anchor studio coverage with analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.