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Sharks showed in Round 1 they’re not done yet

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For the better part of the past two decades the San Jose Sharks have been a near constant in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, making 18 appearances in 20 years. Because that run has not yet resulted in a Stanley Cup — and at times resulted in some crushing, premature postseason exits — they have usually been more of a playoff punchline than a celebrated success story for being a contender almost every year. With every passing year that does not result in a championship, and with every year that foundational  players like Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski get older, we seem to forget about them a little more.

It’s usually the old “their window has closed” situation as we wait for them to fade into obscurity.

Then two years ago, after everyone seemingly gave up on them being a serious threat to ever win it all, they finally had a breakthrough and reached the Stanley Cup Final.

They entered the playoffs this year as somewhat of an afterthought once again (hey, I admit, I was guilty of that too), lost beneath the hype of the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, and even their second-round opponent, the Vegas Golden Knights. But after making quick work of an overmatched and hapless Ducks team in round one, outscoring them by an 16-4 margin in a clean four-game sweep, they are now in the second-round of the playoffs ready to take on the Vegas with a trip to the Western Conference Finals on the line. They have done all of this while only getting 47 games out of Thornton who has not played since the end of January.

So what has been the key to their success? For one, they finally have a goalie they can count on in the playoffs.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

One of the biggest issues that plagued some of the great Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau teams in the early-mid 2000s were some truly disastrous postseason goaltending performances from the likes of Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi that completely sunk the team’s chances. Those postseason shortcomings were then hung on the two guys at the top of the lineup (Thornton and Marleau) even though they almost always produced.

Now the net belongs to Martin Jones, and in what is his third playoff run with the team he is once again playing some of his best hockey at the right time of year.

Jones was incredible in the first-round sweep of the Ducks, turning aside 128 of the 132 shots he faced. In his 34 playoff games as a member of the Sharks he now has a .930 save percentage. Of the 18 goalies that have appeared in at least 10 playoff games during that stretch, that would be tied for the third best mark in the NHL. That sort of goaltending will always give you a chance.

For as good as Jones has been, it is not just the goaltending that is sparking the Sharks right now.

They have also managed to reshape their roster a bit and work in some youth and speed, even from what the team looked like just one year ago. The Ducks, a classic rough-and-tumble “heavy hockey” Pacific Division team, were overmatched it by from the drop of the puck in Game 1.

When looking at the skaters that played in the first-round this season versus the first round a year ago (when they lost to the Edmonton Oilers) you can see where the changes come in.

After being a healthy scratch in all six playoff games a year ago, 22-year-old Kevin Labanc not only played in all four games in the first-round, he recorded two assists, was not on the ice for a single goal against, and generally played great two-way hockey. The same was true for 23-year-old center Chris Tierney as he came off what was a breakout regular season performance. Twenty-one-year-old Timo Meier, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2015, saw an increased role this season and after scoring 21 goals during the regular season contributed three points in the first-round against the Ducks.

That influx of young talent has been a great complement to the established veterans already on the roster, including Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Tomas Hertl, a trio that combined for six goals against the Ducks. And that doesn’t even include trade deadline acquisition Evander Kane whose two goal effort in Game 1 helped lead the Sharks to their first win of the playoffs.

Including playoffs, the Sharks are 16-6-1 since that trade while Kane has had three multiple-goal games during that stretch.

Given how impressive Vegas was in its first round sweep of the Los Angeles Kings — a series that pretty much mirrored the Sharks’ win, where a faster, more skilled team overwhelmed a slower, bigger, more physical team — the Sharks are certainly going to have their hands full in round two. But they have put themselves in a great position to make another deep run in the Western Conference in another year where everybody kind of forgot about them.

The Sharks are still here. They are still good. Given the makeup of their roster, they are not ready to go away anytime soon.

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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.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin already at 8

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Three Stars

1. Mark Scheifele

Scheifele helped Winnipeg stay in Monday’s game when it seemed like St. Louis might be pulling away (scoring the Jets’ first goal to shrink a deficit to 2-1, tying the game at 3-3) and then generated an assist on Jacob Trouba‘s overtime game-winner.

Overall, Scheifele generated two goals and two assists, with the tiebreaker being that none of his points came via an empty-netter.

Scheifele logged defenseman-like minutes (25:55), fired five shot on goal, and even was slightly above-.500 at draws with a 14-13 mark. He helped remind the Blues (and the hockey world) that few leads are safe against the high-octane Jets.

2. Alex Ovechkin

Ovechkin probably could have had a hat trick if he really wanted it, but instead he set up T.J. Oshie‘s empty-netter, which elicited some laughter from Oshie.

That empty-netter slightly downgrades Ovechkin’s night in comparison to Scheifele’s Monday, but you could make an argument for the superstar winger’s all-around night. He ended up with two goals and two assists, firing an Ovechkin-like seven SOG. With a +2 rating and a hit credited to him against Vancouver, The Great 8 filled up the peripheral categories, as he’s wont to do.

Ovechkin now has eight goals in eight games in 2018-19. Don’t count him out for yet another Maurice Richard Trophy.

The Capitals have some other worthy mentions, with John Carlson standing out as one of the better choices. (He’s having quite the start to his first season with that fat new contract that looks pretty justified at the moment.)

3. Ryan O'Reilly

You could make a strong argument for other players – again, Carlson stands out – and you might ding “ROR” for being on the losing team.

O’Reilly was pretty excellent in defeat, however. The two-way center scored one goal and two assists, showing that he can produce plenty of chances on the second line with David Perron (when he’s not running shotgun on the top trio with Vladimir Tarasenko).

As you’d expect from a guy who could be a dark horse candidate for the Selke, ROR was strong from an all-around standpoint. O’Reilly had a +2 night (not bad in a defeat), went 13-12 on faceoffs, fired four SOG, and managed three takeaways. O’Reilly also shook off a Brandon Tanev boarding hit that bloodied him early in the contest.

This has been a frustrating start to the season for St. Louis, but don’t blame O’Reilly.

Highlight of the Night

Justin Faulk scored a goal as the Hurricanes dominated the Red Wings, yet his best moment came when he auditioned for Carolina’s goalie position:

Factoids

Ovechkin moves up the all-time power-play goals ranks. How high will he finish by the end of this season? Could he end up being the all-time leader when he clears out his “office?”

Monday was a pretty big night for a few Capitals, it seemed.

Click here for plenty of numbers about the red-hot top Avalanche line of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog.

Faulk moved up the ranks with his goal:

Again, the Hurricanes really dominated the Red Wings for most of Carolina’s eventual win.

Scores

Avalanche 4, Flyers 1
Hurricanes 3, Red Wings 1
Jets 5, Blues 4 (OT)
Capitals 5, Canucks 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Flyers can’t stop Avalanche’s red-hot top line, either

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The Colorado Avalanche’s top line has to slow down at some point, right?

A cold streak certainly didn’t begin on Monday night, as the dominant trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog powered a 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

MacKinnon was the subject of this fawning piece on Saturday, and he did his part by extending his season-opening point streak to nine games (now 15 points), as he collected a primary assist. His wingers were the bigger stars on this night, however. For one thing Rantanen extended his own point streak with two goals, which actually places him one ahead of MacKinnon for the team lead. MacKinnon and Rantanen continue to make history for the Avalanche franchise:

[MORE: Rantanen’s becoming a “driving force” for Avs.]

Avs captain Landeskog is a few strides behind those two as far as season totals go (“just” 10 points in eight games), yet he’s been red-hot lately. The hearty Swede now has a four-game goal streak (seven tallies) and five-game point streak (10 points) going after collecting a breakaway tally and an assist in this one.

The Avalanche didn’t need much more from their non-stars to win against the Flyers, with a nice Matt Nieto goal being the only tally that wasn’t generated by one of Landeskog, MacKinnon, or Rantanen.

Colorado is now on a three-game winning streak, bumping its record to 6-1-2.

One of the impressive things about this outstanding start is that the Avalanche haven’t even really had many opportunities to leverage what can potentially be the best home-ice advantage in the NHL: that mile-high elevation.

Only three of the Avalanche’s first nine games have come at home, and this victory against Philly concludes a highly successful (3-0-1) four-game road trip against East teams.

The Avalanche’s early road challenges aren’t over yet, as you can see from their next month of work:

Wed, Oct 24 – vs Tampa Bay
Fri, Oct 26 – vs Ottawa
Sat, Oct 27 – @Minnesota
Thu, Nov 1 – @Calgary
Fri, Nov 2 – @Vancouver
Wed, Nov 7 – vs Nashville
Fri, Nov 9 – @Winnipeg
Sun, Nov 11 – @Edmonton
Wed, Nov 14 – vs Boston
Fri, Nov 16 – vs Washington
Sun, Nov 18 – @Anaheim
Wed, Nov 21 – @Los Angeles
Fri, Nov 23 – @Arizona

As you can see, eight of the Avalanche’s next 13 games are on the road. That’s not the sort of stretch that is so heavily weighted against Colorado as to throw things out of balance by itself, but it’s still another test for a team some expected to hit the wall after last season’s breakthrough.

If the Avalanche enter December with a strong record, then look out, particularly if that top line’s maintaining even a portion of this red-hot chemistry.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Seth Jones return reunites one of NHL’s top defensive pairs

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Huge news for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday as the team announced it has activated defenseman Seth Jones from injured reserve, and that he is expected to make his season debut on Tuesday against the Arizona Coyotes.

Jones has missed the first seven games of the season recovering from an MCL injury.

This is a huge development for a Blue Jackets team that has been, to say the least, inconsistent at the start of the year.

First, Jones is one of the NHL’s top defenders and a rising star in the league after finishing fourth in the Norris Trophy voting a year ago. Since arriving in Columbus as part of the one-for-one swap involving Ryan Johansen his game has taken off.

But it’s not just Jones himself that is a difference-maker for the Blue Jackets. When paired with Columbus’ other top young defender, Zach Werenski, the two help form one of the best and most productive defense pairings in the league, and Jones’ return might be just what Werenski needs to help bust him out of what has been a little bit of a slow start to the season.

Since the start of the 2016-17 season (when Werenski made his NHL debut) the two have spent almost all of their 5-on-5 ice-time together as a defense pairing, and they have been as good as any other duo in the league.

Coach John Tortorella said over the weekend that when Jones returns the plan is to put him back on the top pairing with Werenski.

In more than 2,500 minutes of ice-time the Blue Jackets control more than 56 percent of the shot attempts and outscore teams by a 95-69 margin. When neither player is on the ice that shot attempt share drops to below 50 percent, while the goal and scoring chance differentials also see a drop. But it’s not just the team that sees a drop without Jones — Werenski himself sees his play drop off when Jones is not next to him. Given how much time they spend together it’s not a huge sample size, but Werenski’s production and overall play has taken a hit without Jones by his said, especially at the start of this season. Understandable given how good Jones is, but it’s a testament to how well the two play alongside one another and how big of a difference they can make.

The Blue Jackets are fascinating team this season because there are so many different directions they can go in. When they are fully healthy they have a chance to be a really good team because they have two top-tier players in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the top of the lineup, and as mentioned here, one of the best defense pairings in the league in Jones and Werenski, a duo that can eat up 25 minutes per night and dominate.

But given the contract situations with Panarin and Bobrovsky and their uncertain future in Columbus no one really knows if they will be there beyond this season — or even at the end of this season.

If everything clicks just right this will almost certainly be a playoff team, and perhaps one that could even make some noise. Or they could be big-time sellers at the deadline if they stumble and find themselves on the playoff bubble and are not confident they can keep their top two players.

We have not seem them at their best yet so far this season.

Now that they are getting Jones back we should finally be able to see what they are really capable of.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

KHL player maintains rep, scores again from center ice (Video)

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If you’re a goaltender in the KHL you ought to have your head up when Andrei Kuteikin is carrying the puck through the neutral zone.

You see, Kuteikin established a reputation for himself during the 2017 Gagarin Cup playoffs as a Stephen Curry type shooter. Like the Golden State Warriors star, the longtime KHL defenseman isn’t afraid to fire the puck from anywhere. Two seasons ago, he scored three times from center ice for Dynamo Moscow in the postseason.

On Monday, now with Spartak Moscow, the 34-year-old Kuteikin drilled home the eventual game winner versus his old team from way downtown.

That’s Ivan Bocharov between the pipes for Dinamo. A teammate of Kuteikin’s last season, he may not have realized who had the puck or was just feeling super confident he could stop the long-range blast before the shot skipped through his five hole.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.