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NHL on NBCSN Doubleheader: Rangers host Predators; Flyers visit Vegas

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Thursday. In the first game, the New York Rangers host the Nashville Predators at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The NHL season will begin at different ends of the spectrum for both the Rangers and the visiting Predators.

New York enters the season after tearing down parts of the organization over the second half of this past season. They finished last in the Metropolitan Division and began the fire sale while also subsequently firing head coach Alain Vigneault.

They return this season with Dan Quinn behind the bench, youth aplenty and a bevy of question marks often attached to a team that was forced into a rebuild.

The one constant for the Rangers will be in goal, where Henrik Lundqvist gets set to begin his 14th season with the Blueshirts. Lundqvist is coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro but remains the linchpin in the Rangers chances of winning games this season.

“I’ve been reflecting this summer and over the last few days and what I come back to is that I am consistently most successful when I’m confident in my game plan and stick with it,” Lundqvist said. “For me, it’s about getting back to my base and not changing too much because of what’s going on in front of me. I can’t tell you exactly why I’ve allowed those early goals, but if I face a big scoring chance right at the start, then I have to make that save. The group has to be ready, and that goes for me, too.”

On the other side of the center line will stand the Nashville Predators, fresh off a Game 7 defeat in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Expectations last season for the Preds were much loftier than their early-round exit dictated, but the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season enters this year as one of the best in the NHL once again.

They re-signed Ryan Ellis long-term to ensure their vaunted top-four on the back end remained the envy of the NHL and added Dan Hamhuis to provide further depth on the third pairing.

The Predators should be a force to be reckoned with once again this season, one confident enough in their offense — with the likes of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson — that they felt they could afford to send highly-touted prospect Eeli Toilvanen down to the American Hockey League.

They also boast the Vezina winner from last season in Pekka Rinne, who will be looking to bounce back from a poor playoff performance where his save percentage dipped from .927 in the regular season to an abysmal .904 in the postseason.

On paper, the matchup looks poor for New York, but consider that the Rangers have won eight of their last 12 meetings with the Preds. Counterpoint: Nashville was the best road team in the NHL last season with a 25-9-7 record.

Nashville will be without forward Austin Watson, who was suspended 27 games by the NHL for “unacceptable off-ice conduct” after pleading no contest in a domestic assault incident.

In the late game, the Vegas Golden Knights will host the Philadelphia Flyers at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

Can the Vegas magic continue?

That was one hell of an inaugural season for the Golden Knights, who reinvented what an expansion franchise can achieve after winning 51 games and reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

And those still thinking all that was a fluke can be reminded that Vegas only got better in the offseason, re-signing 43-goal man William Karlsson, and adding stars in Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny.

A second-straight run at the Cup doesn’t feel like a pipe dream for these Golden Knights. There’s a good chance they could repeat their same success as last season, and even eclipse it if things fall into place.

The Golden Knights boast one of the best lines in the NHL with Jonathan Marchessault, Karlsson and Reilly Smith and can now watch Pacioretty and Stastny work together on the second line.

“If you need a goal, they’re on the ice,” Vegas general manager George McPhee said of his second line additions. “If you’reprotecting a lead, they’re on the ice. They can play power play, they can kill penalties, so there’s a lot of utility.”

Vegas will also be counting on Marc-Andre Fleury to once again shoulder the load after putting up career numbers last season. Fleury battled injury during the regular season before putting on a goaltending clinic in the first three rounds of the playoffs. His numbers tailed off against the Washington Capitals, who pipped Vegas to the Cup in five games.

In Philly, Gritty has been the talk of the town after the googly-eyed mascot made his debut a couple weeks ago.

The move to introduce the brilliant mascot wasn’t made to mask the Flyers’ chances this season. They made the playoffs last season — despite losing 10 straight at one point — and added James van Riemsdyk over the summer to help solidify their offense.

Claude Giroux enjoyed a resurgence playing out on the wing, amassing a career-high 102 points and 34 goals. The move also helped Sean Couturier, who was given an elite winger and that helped turn his season into a career year also, finishing with 31 goals.

Philly’s biggest question — as it has been for years — comes in the crease. They have the offensive capabilities with Giroux, Couturier, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek, and a solid backend, but need Brian Elliott and/or Michal Neuvirth to stand on their head this year. The Flyers claimed Calvin Pickard of waivers earlier this week as insurance.

The Flyers will be looking to 2017 second-overall pick Nolan Patrick to take the next step after recording 30 points in his rookie season.

The tools are there for Philly to improve on last season’s showing.


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

The Buzzer: Pageau, Panarin stay hot; Blues sign Brouwer

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Three Stars

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. The Rangers may not be where they want in the standings right now, but Panarin has been everything they could have possibly expected him to be and more. He extended his point streak to 12 games on Wednesday night with a two-goal effort in the Ranges’ 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. Panarin has recorded at least one point in 16 of his 19 games this season and has at least two points in seven games during his current streak, including three in a row. Read all about the Rangers’ big win right here.

2. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators. Don’t look now but the Senators are just a single point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings and have played in one less game. The biggest reason for the Senators’ recent surge has been a goal-scoring binge from Pageau that has seen him score 10 goals in the month of November, tops in the league. His goal on Wednesday to open the scoring in the Senators’ 2-1 overtime win against Montreal was his 13th of the season and 10th of the month. He is on track for a career year offensively. The timing could not be better for him personally as he is in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. It will also increase his trade value for the Senators if they look to continue their rebuild by dealing him before the trade deadline.

3. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. Goaltending (mostly from Anders Nilsson) is the other big reason for the Senators’ recent improvement, and on Wednesday it was Anderson doing his best to steal two points by stopping 35 of the 36 shots he faced against the Canadiens. It was probably Anderson’s best performance of the season.

Blues add some forward depth

The defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues made a roster move on Wednesday by signing veteran forward Troy Brouwer to a one-year contract. He spent the 2018-19 season playing for the Florida Panthers, scoring 12 goals and adding nine assists in 75 games. That move comes on the same day the team announced that forward Sammy Blais will be sidelined for 10 weeks after he was injured in the Blues’ win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night. The Blues are already playing without Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, and recently traded Robby Fabbri to the Detroit Red Wings.

Highlight of the Night

Brady Tkachuk was the overtime hero for the Senators, finishing a great breakaway and taking advantage of a miscommunication by the Canadiens.

Factoids

  • Henrik Lundqvist earned his 454th career win, moving him into a tie with Curtis Joseph for fourth place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]
  • Panarin’s 12-game point streak is the Rangers’ longest since Scott Gomez during the 2007-08 season. [Rangers Stats & Info]
  • Pageau just needs more three more goals in November to tie the Senators’ franchise record for most goals in a month. Ottawa has five more games this month.  [NHL PR]
  • John Carlson added another assist to his total for the season, giving him 36 points on the season. Entering play on Wednesday he and Bobby Orr were the only defensemen in NHL history that needed only 23 games to hit the 35-point mark. [NHL PR]
  • Nick Suzuki scored the only goal for Montreal, giving him six on the season. That is second among the NHL’s rookies this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Ottawa Senators 2, Montreal Canadiens 1 (OT)
New York Rangers 4, Washington Capitals 1

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.

Panarin, Lundqvist help Rangers take down Capitals

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If the Rangers are going to contend for a postseason position, their top players have to perform.

On Wednesday Night Hockey, Artemi Panarin and Henrik Lundqvist led the Rangers to a surprising 4-1 victory against the NHL-leading Washington Capitals.

Panarin extended his individual point streak to 12 games and is living up to the high-priced contract he signed this past summer. The Russian winger has 11 goals and 14 assists through 19 games in his first season on Broadway.

Lundqvist picked up his first win since a vintage performance against the Carolina Hurricanes in early November when he made 47 saves.

Rangers power play has the right ingredients

Any time you add a deadly scorer via free agency, your power play unit should improve. The Rangers have multiple weapons and a player to fill each critical role. For years they were missing a puck-moving defenseman, a net front presence and a big shot from the outside, but Jeff Gorton and his staff have assembled a roster that should excel when skating up a man.

Panarin notched two power-play goals on Wednesday from the left circle but is not the only threat when the Rangers are on the man-advantage. Chris Kreider is a quick power forward that can create havoc in front of the goaltender and Adam Fox has been able to quarterback the play from the point. Mika Zibanejad has been sidelined a few weeks with an upper-body injury, but also boasts a big right-handed shot when in the lineup.

Offseason changes looming in Washington?

The Capitals have been one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference for quite some time, but this might be their final hoorah with the band together.

Forward Nicklas Backstrom — who missed his first game of the season with an upper-body injury – and goaltender Braden Holtby are unrestricted free agents this upcoming summer and have been key pieces in recent years.

Backstrom has long been Alex Ovechkin’s underappreciated sidekick and Holtby is constantly having to prove himself with Ilya Samsonov waiting for his chance to become a starting goalie.

Washington is off to a tremendous start and a November slip up against the Rangers is not going to damage their postseason plans. But, this could be the final season the Capitals get another crack at the Stanley Cup with their core from the past decade intact.

Climbing up the record books

Lundqvist earned his 454th NHL victory and tied Curtis Joseph for 5th place on the NHL all-time wins list. He also surpassed Grant Fuhr to take sole possession of 10th place on the NHL’s all-time appearance list.

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.

After year away, soldier surprises son during Rangers-Capitals

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It is often forgotten that sporting events serve as a form of entertainment. But on Wednesday Night Hockey, the Madison Square Garden crowd was reminded that life exists outside of the hockey bubble.

During the Rangers-Capitals game, a Staff Sergeant returned in surprising fashion. He had been deployed overseas for the past year and his son thought he was participating in a contest in which he won a Blueshirts jersey.

Instead of the sweater, Luke got to see his father and the emotional embrace delighted the crowd.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

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.