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Vegas’ wild playoff run built from expansion draft bonanza

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After Bill Foley agreed to pay a whopping $500 million for the right to put a hockey team in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the NHL decided his Vegas Golden Knights deserved a chance for a swift return on that investment.

If the other NHL owners had known just how huge Foley’s reward would be – and how incredibly quickly he would get it – they probably wouldn’t have been quite so nice to the new guy.

It’s too late now, though. After reaping a bonanza from one of the most generous expansion drafts in sports history, the Golden Knights are two victories away from an unbelievable Stanley Cup Final berth.

A brand-new team in a league that has been around for 101 years already has a Pacific Division title, two playoff series victories and a 2-1 lead on the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference finals.

“I don’t think anybody saw us here,” Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “It’s been a lot of fun to be part of it. Really proud of this team and the way these guys have been working. We deserve to be here.”

Fleury and the other players accomplishing this feat refer to themselves as the Golden Misfits, yet few of Vegas’ expansion draft selections were truly undesired by the clubs that lost them 11 months ago.

Instead, general manager George McPhee took full advantage of his opportunities to compile an uncommonly talented roster, and coach Gerard Gallant turned that roster into a brilliant team in shockingly swift fashion. But it all started with the draft that allowed McPhee to build this monster in less than a year.

“It had a big impact,” McPhee acknowledged. “The (expansion draft) rules were favorable. Gave us something to work with, and gave this team an opportunity to be a good team.”

The NHL allowed its teams to protect only seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. By way of comparison, when the NHL last expanded in 2000, teams were allowed to protect a whopping nine forwards, five defensemen and a goalie, or seven forwards, three defensemen and two goalies.

The league also required teams to expose players with significant NHL experience who were under contract through next season, closing loopholes and helping Vegas even more. Third-line forwards and top-four defensemen were available from almost every team.

The easiest acquisition was Fleury, of course. The Knights got a three-time Stanley Cup winning goalie with 375 career victories for nothing, and he has largely stayed healthy while playing at a formidable level.

The Knights also landed the likes of James Neal, a proven veteran talent with nine consecutive 20-goal seasons. He scored 25 goals while providing steady veteran leadership.

They plucked William Karlsson, a clearly gifted forward who had yet to reach his full potential with two NHL teams. The Swede swiftly became one of the NHL’s best players, racking up 43 goals – an NHL record for an expansion team’s first season – and 35 assists along with a plus-49 rating.

And the expansion draft terms allowed McPhee to get creative in trades with teams hoping to keep players who couldn’t fit under the protection umbrella. For instance, the Knights ended up with Reilly Smith in a trade because Florida wanted them to draft Jonathan Marchessault – and the two ex-Panthers became two of the Knights’ top four scorers.

The draft bounty isn’t the only reason these upstart Knights have immediately entered their Golden years.

All of this talent wouldn’t have won so many games without Gallant. He built a balanced, disciplined team that has rolled four lines and played relentless two-way hockey while mining untapped talents such as Karlsson and Eric Haula, who scored 29 goals after never managing more than 15 in Minnesota.

“Gerard has done a terrific job of making this a team,” McPhee said. “He has really brought a lot of players along, and they’ve played better than they’ve played anywhere else.”

Foley bought this opportunity with his $500 million expansion fee, yet nobody in the sports world expected the Golden Knights to put it all together so swiftly. That includes the 73-year-old Foley, who raised eyebrows around the league when he set a public goal of bringing the Stanley Cup to Las Vegas within six years – a goal he later revised to maybe eight years.

Instead, there’s an increasingly strong chance the Golden Knights will parade the Stanley Cup down the Strip one month from now. There are 12 other NHL teams that have never won a championship, along with seven franchises that haven’t raised the Cup in at least 23 years.

Potential NHL expansion owners in Seattle and Houston are probably thinking $500 million was a bargain, since the expansion fee is likely to go up when the league eventually awards its 32nd franchise. It also seems improbable that the NHL would ever make it this easy to build a team again.

But nothing will erase the Golden Knights’ remarkable embrace of this unusual moment in hockey history.

“It was important to the league and to Las Vegas and to Bill Foley that this franchise had a chance to work,” McPhee said. “That people that were coming to the games could enjoy the product and become real fans, and we could grow some deep roots in this marketplace. So I didn’t mind the rules.”

AP freelance writer W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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Nylander already showing flashes of brilliance for Maple Leafs

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After a contract holdout that extended almost until the last minute on Dec. 1, William Nylander finally signed with the Maple Leafs, yet he was unable to generate a point in his first two games back. One could almost feel the restlessness build in Toronto, but there were breakthrough moments in the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win against the Hurricanes on Tuesday.

Granted, there were also some breakdowns on Nylander’s part, too. Some of that is just the nature of the beast when it comes to NHL hockey, but rust is a factor, as well.

Nylander generated his first two points of 2018-19 in Tuesday’s win, both being assists.

His first didn’t seem like an assist at all, as Morgan Rielly was credited with a goal after it became clear that Dougie Hamilton was guilty of a tragicomic own-goal. Nylander’s second assist came on a brilliant pass to Patrick Marleau, who converted on what was the hockey equivalent of a layup:

Nylander might just deserve that token assist, really, as he made another brilliant pass to Marleau that did not result in a goal.

That’s some great stuff, and the Maple Leafs have the potential to be truly terrifying if Nylander, Marleau, and Nazem Kadri can make for a strong line while Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner also confound defenses at different times. We’ve seen a lot of NHL teams load up with supreme top lines, hoping that the gains would offset any losses. Toronto could score a monumental advantage over most opponents if they can really leverage this depth.

As tantalizing as those thoughts are, it’s not as though Nylander is a finished product.

The 22-year-old experienced some sloppy moments during that same game against Carolina, finishing the night with six penalty minutes. Maybe his high-sticking penalty ranks as one of those things that just happens, but Nylander essentially had to take an interference penalty out of exhaustion, as he was caught out on the ice during a shift that went too long.

After the game, Nylander acknowledged that some shifts went too long, while Mike Babcock had an interesting take on what the winger is going through.

“It’s going to take some time, let’s not get carried away,” Babcock said. “They’re all fine as long as the ice is open. As soon as it is in contact and you’ve got to get your legs going and you can get stuck out on a shift. He took a penalty the one time he got stuck out on a shift … It’s going to take some time. We’ll be patient and he has to be.”

Maple Leafs fans should be heartened by that last sentence: the team will be patient with Nylander. That’s crucial, and it’s especially promising coming from a coach who can sometimes be … hard-driving, like Babcock’s known to be.

Now, about that patience: when should the Maple Leafs expect Nylander to be at full speed?

Ignoring the potential advantages that come with skipping months of bumps and bruises by beginning his season in December instead of October, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Toronto believes that a player gets truly up-and-running about 12 days after training camp.

By the best estimates of the Leafs sports science department, it typically takes a player 12 days after training camp before his heart rate levels out during exertion.

That would put Nylander on schedule to be functioning at his peak sometime in mid-January after hitting the ground running last week and so far playing more games (three) than he’s had full practices (two) with the Leafs.

As much as any other team, the Maple Leafs have the resources to research such sports science issues, so the league should keep an eye on developments like these. If any league could see a franchise exploit “rest versus rust” for, say, gains in the playoffs, it might be someone in the NHL. Plenty of franchises lack that eye for innovation, so those who do might enjoy at least a brief edge.

The thing is, it’s human nature to fixate on mistakes like Nylander’s interference penalty, and lose sight of the big picture (his assists, and strong overall play).

Consider that, according to Natural Stat Trick’s individual rates, Nylander’s Corsi For Percentage was 61.29-percent on Tuesday, the second-best mark of any Maple Leafs player in that game (Igor Ozhiganov topped all at 65.22). Perhaps you can nitpick that a bit being that Nylander didn’t face the toughest Hurricanes competition during much of the contest, but you’d be grasping at straws.

In other words, there’s already a lot to like about Nylander three games into his latest season, even if there are signs of growing pains. He could be a boon to the Maple Leafs in his current form, and chances are, he’ll get up to game speed and shake off all the rust, possibly quite soon.

Long story short, Nylander’s showing that he’s worth the wait.

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.

Penguins heavy NHL odds favorite against beleaguered Blackhawks on Wednesday

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It is rare for a road team in the NHL to go as deep into minus money as the Pittsburgh Penguins are for their game against the reeling Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m ET; NBCSN), meaning a trend could be shrugged off due to small sample size.

The Penguins are -195 road favorites on the NHL odds for Wednesday night with the host Blackhawks coming back at +155, while there is a 6.0-goals total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The Penguins are only 1-5 in their last six road games as a favorite of -190 or greater on the moneyline, as well as 3-7 in their last 10 road games, but are 4-1 in five road games this season against Western Conference teams.

The Blackhawks’ trends are even more abject; they have surrendered the first goal in 11 consecutive games and are also 2-6 in their last eight home games at the United Center. Chicago also played Tuesday night, losing 6-3 against the Winnipeg Jets, and is 4-16 in its last 20 games when it played the previous day.

Pittsburgh is 13-10-6 on the season, including a 6-2-2 mark over its last 10 games. The Penguins are well off of their Stanley Cup form of two seasons ago, but still have a strong first two lines centered by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Both Pittsburgh special teams units are in the top 10 of the NHL, with the power play ranking ninth (23.2 percent) and the penalty killing unit ranking sixth (83.5).

With No. 1 goalie Matt Murray (lower body) close to a return to health, the Penguins could have a choice between him and Casey DeSmith, who is 3-1-1 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in five starts so far in December.

Chicago is 9-18-5, including 1-9 in its last 10 games, and there is little to suggest much in the way of an immediate turnaround. Captain Jonathan Toews‘ line is one of the least proficient first lines in the NHL and the next waves of attack, which include right wing Patrick Kane, have been just ok, which is why the Blackhawks have not scored more than three goals during any of their last eight home games.

The Blackhawks are also 31st, or dead last, in power play efficiency (11.6 percent) and 28th in penalty killing (74.4 percent).

Cam Ward played in the Winnipeg game, which would suggest the Blackhawks will start goalie Corey Crawford, who is winless in his last eight starts. Crawford is 5-14-1 with a 3.21 goals-against average and .901 save percentage, but his rate stats improve to 2.39 and .925 on home ice, which might provide a glimmer of hope for upset-minded bettors.

The total has gone UNDER in six of Pittsburgh’s last 10 road games against the Central Division, according to the OddsShark NHL Database. The total has gone UNDER in eight of Chicago’s last 10 home games.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Rangers’ Shattenkirk out 2-4 weeks with shoulder injury

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NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Rangers say defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk will be sidelined two to four weeks with a shoulder injury.

Shattenkirk left in the second period of Monday night’s game in Tampa. He took a check around the left shoulder and had a sling on his arm postgame.

The 29-year-old was checked out on Tuesday. General manager Jeff Gorton announced Wednesday that Shattenkirk had a separated shoulder.

Shattenkirk has one goal, seven assists and zero penalty minutes in 29 games this season. He suffered a knee injury last January that ended his season.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins’ David Backes takes skate to face, returns

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BOSTON (AP) Boston Bruins forward David Backes rushed himself off the ice Tuesday night after taking a skate blade to the face late in the first period but returned at the start of the second and finished the game.

Backes pushed Oliver Ekman-Larsson near the side of the net and the Arizona defenseman went to the ice, kicking up his left skate on the way down. It caught Backes in the face, and he went down before skating on his own quickly to the bench and out the tunnel.

Backes returned and won the faceoff to start the second period. He did not speak to reporters during the open locker room period but told The Boston Globe as he left the building he had a cut on the side of his nose that required a few stitches and some ointment.

“It’s always scary when your teammate takes a skate to the face, or really anywhere,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said after scoring twice and adding an assist in the 4-3 victory. “He’s a little prettier now and no worse for wear.”

Backes required 18 stitches to close a cut on his leg after a game against Tampa Bay in March.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports