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Penguins – Maple Leafs is about as fun as it gets

It’s too early to make sweeping observations about the quality of a team in 2018-19 (sorry Canadiens; you’re welcome, Coyotes), but it’s never too early to get excited about a game. You know, if your soul is still attached to your person, and you’re not too cool to get excited about things in general.

Now, sure, circumstances could change matters. Players could be tired or just have an off night. Maybe a coach will bench an exhilarating talent because they hit the snooze button one too many times.

But, at least on paper, it’s really difficult to imagine a more exciting matchup than Penguins – Maple Leafs, a matchup taking place in Toronto tonight.

(Yeah, it doesn’t hurt that the hockey-mad city gets to channel its sometimes over-the-top excitement into this one, either.)

Just consider all of the factors, narratives, and certain statistics that make this game stand out like a sign for “Kenny Rogers’ Roasters.”

[Maybe this is the perfect opportunity for Crosby to shake off a relatively slow start?]

The Ridiculous Wattage of Star Power

No matter how Mike Babcock and Mike Sullivan deploy their lines, you’ll see high-end talent during almost every shift on Thursday.

Most obviously, we’ll get to see a clash between two premium one-two punches at center, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin trade scoring chances with Auston Matthews and John Tavares. That’s the sort of matchup that marketers and hockey fans alike would normally only dream about.

You could manufacture an exciting game if you sent out a bunch of fire hydrants with those guys, but the Penguins and Maple Leafs deploy other dangerous scorers, even with William Nylander‘s contract situation stuck in limbo.

Phil Kessel could easily have the best night of anyone in trying to spite his former team. Jake Guentzel tends to play his best when the spotlight shines brightest. Mitch Marner is a sensational talent who can take over a game in his own right.

Even the defensemen can bring some offense to the table, as Kris Letang and Morgan Rielly have begun 2018-19 on torrid scoring paces, while Jake Gardiner and others can contribute, too.

All the silliness that stems from all that star power

The goofy debates that stem from Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby vs. McDavid, and on and on, ultimately translates to entertainment. That goes for if you take barroom debates seriously, or are simply bemused by people believing that Matthews has reached McDavid after a couple scorching-hot weeks.

It’s not just columnists pumping out hot takes.

As you may remember, Lars Eller dismissed Matthews – Tavares because of the “been there, done that” feeling of facing Crosby – Malkin for all those years. You then have Babcock saying that McDavid vs. Crosby “isn’t even close,” while Mark Scheifele seems to feel the same way about McDavid vs. Matthews.

(You think we could get Edmonton to loan Connor to this game to really hammer home all of these points? Might be good for the fella’s morale.)

Oh yeah, there’s also Brian Burke comparing Rielly to … Nicklas Lidstrom?

Some of this stuff is dopey. Some of it is instructive. Maybe there’s a combination of both at times. But it all adds to the fun, if you ask me.

All offense, no defense?

By winning two consecutive Stanley Cups while playing an attack-first, play-defense later style, the Penguins played a big role in the NHL placing an increased emphasis on skill, scoring, and more exciting hockey.

So far this season, the Maple Leafs feel like the gnarly evolution of that style.

By just about any measure, Toronto’s been playing high-event hockey this season. They’ve been scoring so much that it’s generally allowed them to shrug their shoulders at what’s frequently been a leaky defense.

The Penguins haven’t been as crisp so far this season, failing to walk the high-risk tightrope because their defense has really cratered.

That’s bad news for Pittsburgh’s hopes of, say, winning its division … but it sure opens the door for tonight to be fun.

Big goalies back in net

Barring late-breaking setbacks, the teams’ two starters (Matt Murray and Frederik Andersen) should suit up for their respective teams on Thursday.

If they play well, this showdown could feature at least some slowdown. Perhaps we’ll see a spectacular save or two from both goalies to keep the score reasonable? If they’re rusty, then the floodgates may open even wider.

Either way, the returns of Murray and Andersen add another wrinkle to a game that’s jam-packed with intrigue.

***

Again, it’s possible that this game might not deliver the thrills you’d expect. Sometimes hockey is just that way in 2018, even with some progress made – thanks in part to these two talented teams.

Still, if you had to wager on a game being a ton of fun, Penguins – Maple Leafs is as safe a bet as you can get. You know, unless you’re the coach breaking down defensive lapses or the goalie trying to put out all of those fires.

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.

Everything comes up Bruins on Saturday

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Honestly, Zdeno Chara signing another team-friendly contract would have been enough to make Saturday great for the Boston Bruins, alone. But the good times didn’t stop there.

Nope, the Bruins carried those positive vibes to the ice, as they pummeled the Florida Panthers by a score of 7-3. In managing that lopsided win, the Bruins became the second team in the Eastern Conference to clinch a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A clinched spot and a big win to go with that Chara extension … that’s it, right? Nope, more fun stuff came when you zoomed into the specifics of the game.

For one thing, Chara celebrated his extended stay with the Bruins by scoring the 200th goal of his splendid NHL career, and it was a pretty nice one. (You can watch that milestone tally in the video above this post’s headline.)

Chara also had an assist in that win, so quite an all-around Saturday for “The Big Z.”

He wasn’t the only Bruins player to have a memorable evening, as Noel Acciari scored a goal and also threw punches at a gatling-gun-rhythm in quite the fight with MacKenzie Weegar:

*Infomercial voice* But wait, there’s more …

The Maple Leafs only managed a point against the struggling Rangers on Saturday, so now the Bruins hold a seven-point edge for the Atlantic’s second seed, and home-ice advantage in that looming first-round series.

While Toronto would be a tough opponent – warts and all – it must be tantalizing for the Bruins to picture what they might be capable of. After all, the B’s are starting to get healthier following a season of injury headaches, and they’re heating up considering their four-game winning streak.

They’re also an impressive 28-7-3 at home this season, so home ice could be pretty significant.

Yes, life was good for the Bruins on Saturday, and they aim to carry that over to most nights in April, and beyond.

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.

March Madness is theme of Hurricanes’ latest win celebration

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When you think of March Madness, it won’t take long for the Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels to come to your mind, especially if you’re living in the Carolinas. That apparently isn’t lost on the Carolina Hurricanes.

The team’s latest celebration evoked the NCAA’s beloved college basketball tournament, as the Hurricanes distanced themselves from the East’s bubble teams by thoroughly defeating (the very much West-bubble-dwelling) Minnesota Wild 5-1 on Saturday.

It was a great performance, with Teuvo Teravainen playing the role of MVP via one goal and two assists.

If Teravainen was the star, then call Trevor van Riemsdyk “The Human Hockey Highlight Reel,” as he showed some solid ups with his dunk during this fun celebration:

The Hurricanes are only going deeper into the “prop” stage of these win celebrations, and let me tell you: I’m all for it, and not just because it annoys the crustiest of crusty old hockey men.

Carolina now holds the first East wild-card spot with 89 points in 74 games played. The Montreal Canadiens are behind them in the second WC spot (87 points in 75 GP), making things only tenser for the struggling Blue Jackets, who remain out of the top eight with 84 points in 74 games played.

More and more, it looks like the Hurricanes will avoid another trip to hockey’s NIT (which would be the golf course, or maybe the hockey championship tournament overseas?), as their grip tightens on a playoff spot.

If things go really well, maybe the Hurricanes could celebrate a big win by cutting down the nets?

via Getty Images

Hey, they might as well file away ideas if they keep winning at this pace.

Jets dominate Predators, clinch playoff spot

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This is basically how the Winnipeg Jets probably dreamed of clinching a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With Kyle Connor collecting a hat trick, the Jets firmly took control of first place in the Central Division by drubbing the Nashville Predators 5-0 on Saturday. This outcome doesn’t just clinch that playoff berth, it also gives Winnipeg a four-point edge on Nashville.

The Jets also hold a game in hand, as they have seven games remaining, while the Predators only play six more.

The most spectacular of Connor’s three goals came when he shimmied around P.K. Subban (someone who regularly gets booed in Winnipeg), and then Pekka Rinne had no chance to stop the young winger:

The Predators find themselves vulnerable to beginning the first round on the road, as the Blues aren’t far behind them for the second seed in the Central.

Connor actually also had an assist in this game (3G, 1A), as he’s showing some fascinating chemistry with Kevin Hayes, who joined him in having a four-point game (1G, 3A). Considering how dangerous the Mark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler duo tends to be, and the luxury wingers Winnipeg also has in Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, a deadly combination of Hayes and Connor could be an absolute nightmare for opponents.

The Jets have been notably up-and-down at times this season, yet you could argue that it might be a matter of mild complacency. For the first time ever, this franchise is enjoying a glut where they can sort of mosey into the playoffs, so maybe they had been “struggling with prosperity” to some extent?

Well, as dangerous as it might be to supposedly “flip on the light switch,” the Jets are playing well enough that you might really start to hear some puns involving “taking off” and “getting fueled up” soon. That’s fair enough, if they fly as high most nights as they did on Saturday.

(Oh no, I’m doing it already, too.)

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.

GM bashes Blue Jackets for not ‘playing like a team’

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Plenty of people are under pressure as the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves in a panic-inducing spot: out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as of this moment.

Yet, you have to believe that GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s seat is the hottest. After all, he’s the one who decided to not only keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but also load up big-time during the trade deadline.

The thought was that keeping Bread and Bob would be “like getting trade deadline rentals” in the first place, so why not swing for the fences instead of giving up?

Well, instead of a deep run looking fully in view, the Blue Jackets instead are gazing at the standings, wondering if they might miss the postseason altogether. Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets have gone an unsettling 5-7-1, and Kekalainen told The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline that he doesn’t like what he’s seeing.

“We have to start playing like a team,” Kekalainen said (sub required). “Right now, we’re looking like a group of individuals who are pulling in different directions. We don’t look like a team.”

Is it John Tortorella’s fault that the Blue Jackets aren’t playing like a team?

That’s an argument for another day, but Kekalainen emphatically shot down any thought of Torts getting fired during the waning days of the 2018-19 season, telling Portzline that “if anybody can figure out how to turn this thing around, it is going to be [Tortorella].”

So, what might be the problem, then?

Well, unfortunately, those big holdovers aren’t delivering in a way that will please those worrying about Bobrovsky and Panarin leaving for nothing.

Panarin hasn’t been terrible, mind you, with a respectable eight points (though only one goal) in his last 13 games. And, as up-and-down as Bobrovsky’s been both this season and since the deadline, it’s not all Bob’s fault, as he’s dealing with some injury issues.

But those new additions really haven’t been able to take off. Matt Duchene seems to bring a hex with him everywhere he goes, and he’s only managed four points with Columbus. Most disturbingly, Pierre-Luc Dubois only has a single assist since the deadline.

It’s frustrating to linger on bad luck as a major reason for things going sideways, particularly for a team that’s been as frustrated in big games as the Blue Jackets have been. Still, it’s undeniable that bad bounces have been a factor.

Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets’ even-strength shooting percentage is just 5.23-percent, the second-worst number in the NHL (according to Natural Stat Trick). During an NHL season where teams are averaging close to three goals per game (2.82), the Blue Jackets have just 27 goals in 13 games, barely managing two per game (a bit less than 2.08).

As much as teams want to just will their way to goals and wins, sometimes it’s simply difficult to overcome cold streaks.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Kekalainen made was overrating his team/”group of individuals,” then? The underlying stats pointed to a Blue Jackets team that had mostly been middle-of-the-pack when it’s come to owning the puck and controlling high-danger chances, with a few key players like Panarin helping to make that key difference between victory and defeat.

Maybe making so many changes to the roster threw off delicate chemistry just enough to ruin that tightrope act? Could it be that Panarin actually … wanted to move on, to some extent, and feels a tad-bit dejected to have to play out the string?

Or, most likely, the bounces just haven’t been there, and such headaches have magnified issues, turning molehills into mountains?

Either way, it’s clear that things haven’t been coming easily for the Blue Jackets lately, and the pressure is getting to just about everyone — including the GM who put the team together.

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.