Three-time Stanley Cup champion Patrick Sharp will be back as a guest analyst on NHL Live tonight during NBC Sports’ first-round Stanley Cup Playoff coverage. Coverage begins on NBCSN at 6:30 p.m. ET.
NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.
After a hot start to the 2018-19 season that saw them score 18 goals in their first three games, the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals have dropped back-to-back games and been outscored by a 10-2 margin during that stretch. They look to end that brief two-game slide on Wednesday night when they host their divisional rivals, the New York Rangers, at the Capital One Arena in the nation’s capital.
The Rangers, meanwhile, come into the game having won two of their past three games after dropping three in a row to open the season but are still searching for their first regulation win of the season. It will be the first meeting of the season between the two teams after the Capitals took three out of four from the Rangers a year ago.
The Capitals boast one of the league’s deepest lineups and are led by Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov has been one of the hottest players in the league to start the year with five goals and four assists in his first five games.
Trying to slow them down will be Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist who has been off to an outstanding start as he enters the game with a .939 save percentage in his first five appearances.
What: New York Rangers at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Wednesday, October 17th, 7 p.m. ET
Live stream: You can watch the Rangers-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.
New York Rangers
Goalie: Henrik Lundqvist
Starting Goalie: Braden Holtby
Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson spoke to the media on Wednesday for the first time since he was handed a two-game suspension for slamming Vancouver Canucks Elias Pettersson to the ice over the weekend, leaving the rookie concussed and temporarily out of the lineup.
It was definitely an interesting couple of minutes as Matheson shared his version of what happened, as well as his feelings on the play, the outside perception of it, and the league’s decision.
“As a player you never go around trying to injure people,” Matheson said. “I know that’s not part of my game regardless of what happens on the play. Hopefully he’ll be back in the lineup soon. I’m definitely disappointed with the decision to suspend me for two games because I know deep down there was no frustration in me when that play happened, and there was no intent to injure. It was obviously an unfortunate event.”
Despite that disappointment, Matheson had a chance to reflect on the play after watching the replay and said he definitely understands the decision.
[Related: Panthers’ Matheson suspended two games]
“Having said that, after the game I’ve been able to watch the play numerous times, and I definitely understand what they saw and why they thought it was worth two games,” said Matheson. “The league is really focussing in on head injuries and protecting their players, which I am fully on board with and I support 100 percent.”
“I get it,” Matheson continued when asked a follow up about understanding why the league felt the need to suspend him.
“But at the same time it wasn’t my intent, it wasn’t at all what I meant to do. At any level I’ve never been a malicious player or someone that goes around trying to hurt players because I expect to receive the same respect in return, and that’s what hockey is about. So it’s two-fold. I can see it. I can see the point of view where people would say it was malicious and it was deserving of a suspension, but I know how I was feeling in the moment, and I know what I was thinking and it just wasn’t that and that’s what I’m disappointed about it.”
That is kind of refreshing take from a player in Matheson’s position.
He obviously doesn’t agree with the decision, or the outside of assessment of what happened or what his intent was. But his willingness to acknowledge that it looks bad, and that the result was bad, is something you don’t usually hear from a suspended player. Usually it’s defiance. Or blaming the player on the receiving end of the play. Or just a total disregarded for what happened.
That is not at all what happened here. And that is good.
As I wrote before the season following Max Domi‘s laughable preseason suspension, the whole point of the Department of Player Safety isn’t supposed to be to get a pound of flesh from a player for injuring an opponent or doing something dirty; It should be to get players to stop doing the things that result in suspensions and change the bad behavior, eliminating the plays that do result in avoidable injuries.
If more players took the mindset that Matheson did here (a willingness to understand the decision, and acknowledging that it looks bad, and probably is bad, and perhaps has a willingness to change it in the future) it might bring the results that the league is — at least in theory — ultimately hoping for.
Matheson also tried to explain, from his perspective, what exactly happened on the play.
“He’s a skilled player and he makes good plays and you have to respect that,” said Matheson. “When you’re in a battle with somebody you want to play them hard and make sure they can’t beat you back to the net and get good body position on them. There was no point in my frame of mind where I was thinking, ‘oh, I have to injure this guy.’ It was part of the game, it was just a hockey play where I think the fact I went into the boards stick on puck and my stick kind of got stuck in there, propped him up a bit too much, and that’s probably what led to what happened afterwards. It’s not like I put my stick in there to put him up and push him down. If people think that’s whats going on in mind when trying to play the game of hockey then that’s pretty foolish.”
He also added that he reached out to Pettersson in the days following the incident and that Petterson thanked him for reaching out.
In the end, no matter why he did it, what was going through his mind, or how it happened, it was still a dangerous play, an unnecessary play, and a play that knocked an opponent out of the lineup.
That is absolutely deserving of a suspension.
Matheson is free to be disappointed with it and the perception about it, especially if he’s sincere in his comments here.
But it’s even more important that he gets it and understands it.
When the New Jersey Devils hired Ray Shero to be their new general manager back in 2015 he was facing a rather daunting task of rebuilding what was, at the time, one of the league’s dullest teams. It was not a totally lousy team, but it was not a particularly good one, either.
It was coming off of its third consecutive non-playoff season, it seemed to have zero impact players anywhere in the organization (nobody had scored more than 45 points at the NHL level the year before), and it just seemed to be a team going nowhere.
In the years that followed Shero has rebuilt the Devils into a playoff team thanks in large part to a couple of significant trades (and a little luck in the draft lottery), with the most significant of those deals being the one that brought them Taylor Hall, the 2017-18 NHL MVP, from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for defenseman Adam Larsson.
In terms of one-for-one trades it has turned out to be one of the most lopsided deals in recent NHL memory and has completely altered the direction of the Devils’ franchise.
It was not the only Shero trade that has gone in the Devils’ favor by an overwhelming margin.
One of his first moves with the Devils was to acquire Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a second-round draft pick in 2015 and a third-round draft pick in 2016. It, too, has turned out to be a steal.
At the time, Palmieri was coming off of his age 23 season and even though his overall numbers didn’t exactly jump off the page at you, he had flashed some legitimate top-line potential during his limited with the Ducks. He was consistently scoring at a15-goal pace over 82 games even though he was only playing between 11 and 14 minutes per night.
On a per minute basis he was one of the team’s most productive goal-scorers and seemed to be the type of player that was worth giving an increased role. As soon as he arrived in New Jersey he received that increased role and immediately broke out with a 30-goal season, earning himself a five-year, $23.25 million contract extension.
He has not stopped producing since.
So far this season he has been one of the driving forces behind the Devils’ 4-0-0 start, having already scored seven goals. That includes three consecutive two-goal games to open the season, and at least one goal in every game the team has played.
While there is an element of luck and circumstance to that start — including a 38.9 percent shooting percentage and the fact four of those goals have come on the power play — he has certainly established himself as a legitimate top-line player with the Devils.
The production speaks for itself. In his first three full seasons with the Devils he has scored at least 24 goals every year, while his .357 goals per game average comes out to a 30-goal pace over 82 games.
Keep in mind he scored 24 goals in only 62 games a season ago which was, once again, a 30-goal pace.
He may not be on quite the same level as Hall or get as much attention, but he has still be a significant addition to the organization, especially when you consider how little the Devils had to give up to get him.
Even if you ignore his ridiculously fast start this season he has been one of the most productive wingers in the NHL since joining the Devils.
Between 2015-16 and 2017-18 his .357 goals per game average was 32nd among all forwards in the league, and placed him directly between Max Pacioretty and Artemi Panarin, and ahead of notable players like Jack Eichel, Joe Pavelski, James Neal, and Phil Kessel.
He is one of just 20 players in the league to score at least 24 goals in each of those seasons, and one of only 30 to average a 30-goal and 55-point pace over 82 games.
By pretty much every objective measure he has been one of the top-30 most productive forwards in the NHL since arriving in New Jersey. And all they had to give up was two draft picks that will probably never be as good as he is.
Going back to last season the Devils have found a pretty spectacular top line with him, Hall, and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier, a trio that has spent more than 350 minutes of ice-time together at 5-on-5 play and been nothing short of dominant.
During that time the Devils have controlled more than 53 percent of the shot attempts and outscored teams by a 23-11 margin.
All of them have been difference-makers for the Devils.
All they needed to acquire them was an okay second-pairing defenseman (for Hall), what amounted to two long-shot lottery tickets (for Palmieri), and a little luck from some lottery balls (Hischier).
Given where the Devils were at when Shero took over he need to pull off a little bit of magic to find some impact players and turn the team around. He somehow managed to do it twice without giving up anything of significance.
PITTSBURGH — When you think of Sidney Crosby at his absolute best, you probably think of him as more of a playmaker and puck distributor, making his wingers better and more productive and making defenders look completely helpless along the walls or below the goal line because, well, that is what he does best.
All of that has made his ability as a goal scorer probably one of his more underrated skills, and it seems easy to forget that not only has he been a dominant goal scorer throughout his career (he is 37th all-time in goals per game and fourth among active players and players that started their careers after 1995 — the beginning of the “dead puck era”) but that he has actually finished as the league’s leading goal-scorer on two different occasions, something only 24 players in league history have done (and only 11 in the post-Original Six era). In short, on top of everything else he’s a pretty darn good goal scorer, too.
But like every other great goal scorer he is not immune to the occasional drought, and he has hit one at the start of the 2018-19 season by going the first five games without finding the back of the net. While he has had his share of slower starts throughout his career, this is only the third time in 14 years that he has gone at least five games to open a season without scoring a goal, with the 2008-09 and 2015-16 seasons being the other two.
(The 2015-16 season was the year he opened the season without a point of any kind in five games and only tallied a point in nine of his first 10 games.)
Even though the chances are starting to present themselves, the results have not yet followed.
One of the big problems has been the shots that he is taking aren’t actually getting to the net, let alone in the net. Of Crosby’s 24 total shot attempts so far only 12 have actually been on goal. Small sample size that it is, that is still only 50 percent. Just for comparisons sake, over the past five years he has managed to get more than 60 percent of his total attempts on goal. Can’t score if the puck isn’t hitting the target.
In the first period of Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks he had a good look in the first period only to have Bo Horvat block it, and he had a similar miss during Saturday’s overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
Those near-misses have been happening to him so far this season.
“I thought he had some grade ‘A’ chances tonight,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said on Tuesday night. “He had a couple of real high-quality chances. He seemed to have a few in the last couple of games. The pucks just won’t seem to go in the net for him right now. He’s too good a player to keep off the scoresheet. I think it’s a matter of time we just have to stay with it. Just like our team, I think one of the things we are trying to encourage Sid to do is shoot the puck a little more and simplify his game. He’s just too good of a player to not break out of this. We just have to stay with it, keep working through it and not get discouraged. I think once he gets that first one things will start going in for him.”
The Penguins have tried a couple of things to get him going, from shaking up his linemates and dropping Patric Hornqvist to the third line and moving Derick Brassard, a natural center, up to the wing alongside Crosby and Jake Guentzel, to a sit-down chat and film study session between him and head coach Mike Sullivan.
So what did Sullivan and Crosby take out of that meeting, and what does the coach want to see?
More of what makes Crosby at his best: Working below the hashmarks, hanging on to pucks, and wearing defenders down.
“When Sid is at his very best, I think he’s the best player in the game underneath the hashmarks. He might be the best player that ever played underneath the hashmarks. He’s that good with the way he protects pucks and creates offense from below the goal line. We have high expectations when it comes to that aspect of his game, and his line’s game for that matter. He tends to thrive with players that are good in those areas.”
He continued: “Sid and I sat in my office yesterday after practice and we looked at a lot of the offensive zone stuff. He is such a student of the game, it sometimes gives you another vantage point. It’s a great learning opportunity to watch yourself in those situations. One of the things that I think came out of the conversation was just hanging onto pucks a little bit more. Sid is such a physically fit guy, he can wear players down by hanging onto pucks, and when they get tired, he doesn’t. He tends to have another gear because he’s so physically fit, and a lot of times that gives him a huge competitive advantage, so the longer he hangs on to pucks, and the longer his line hangs onto pucks, I think it’s a huge advantage for us, so we are trying to encourage all of our guys to force our opponents to have to defend us a little bit more.”
The Penguins haven’t yet found their game yet as a team, and that includes Crosby and the top line.
But Sullivan is right; Crosby is too good to get held off the scoresheet forever, and history does indicate that once he does get that first goal he probably will go on a run where he looks unstoppable. He followed up his five-game drought in 2008-09 with a three goal in four game stretch (that included nine total points) and when he finally got rolling in the second half of the 2015-16 season he helped carry the team to a championship.
We sometimes overreact to outlier performances at the start of a season because there is nothing else around them for any sort of perspective. You see a zero next to a player like Sidney Crosby’s name for a few games more games than you are used to and it seems like a big deal. And while there are definitely areas he and his linemates need to be better in, it’s also not something to be too overly concerned with.