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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.

The Buzzer: Vasilevskiy endures 58 shots, still wins; Hellebuyck gets first shutout

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Three stars

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

Vasilevskiy will still be stopping pucks when he goes to sleep tonight.

The Washington Capitals fired 58 shots in the direction of the young Russian superstar netminder. He stopped 54, which was enough (and more than should have been required) in a 5-4 overtime win.

Vasilevskiy is well on his way to winning the Vezina this season, and Wednesday was just another brilliant performance in what’s been a season full of them.

2. Loui Eriksson, Vancouver Canucks

To be fair, Bo Horvat, Tanner Pearson or Alex Edler could be here, too. But Eriksson’s the one with the four-point night. The other three each had three-point nights, so let’s give it to Loui.

The Canucks had a 5-0 lead in the third period before the Ottawa Senators scored four unanswered to claw their way back into the game. Eriksson provided an assist on Horvat’s 6-4 goal and then scored the 7-4 marker to put the game out of reach.

Eriksson’s season isn’t much to write home about, but he had a solid night on Wednesday.

3. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

A Vezina runner up last season, Hellebuyck’s season hasn’t mirrored that this time around. He’s been solid lately, despite a tough start to the year, and getting his first shutout of the season is a monkey off his back.

Resting Hellebuyck is something the Jets are doing in the last couple of weeks here. He didn’t play Monday and won’t play against the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday, either, with the Jets electing to save him for a pivotal matchup against the Nashville Predators in Winnipeg on Saturday night.

Highlights of the night

This passing is unfair:

One-hopper to perfection:

Pretty tip on this one:

Don’t give Victor Hedman all day:

Factoids

Scores

Maple Leafs 4, Sabres 2
Lightning 5, Capitals 4 (OT)
Canucks 7, Senators 4
Jets 3, Ducks 0


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

Jets’ Hellebuyck earns first shutout of the season vs. Ducks

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The Winnipeg Jets have fallen victim of the bad-team bug a few times this season.

They lost twice to the Ottawa Senators inside one week earlier this year, twice to the Colorado Avalanche in the same time frame and once to the Arizona Coyotes, who weren’t quite yet on the run they’re now in February.

So coming into this road trip late in the season, where they’d play the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks in two of the three games, there was a reason to be worried they’d get caught in the trap.

The good news for the team is that hasn’t been the case this time out. They beat Los Angeles on Monday and put together a 3-0 win against the Ducks on NBCSN on Wednesday Night Hockey for their fourth straight win after a 29-save shutout from Connor Hellebuyck, his first of the season.

Winnipeg is now three points up on the second-place Nashville Predators with a game in hand and a big meeting with their rivals on Saturday back in Winnipeg — a game that could decide the division if Winnipeg can get the win.

First, however, they’ll have to play the streaking Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night in Sin City. For the most part, they didn’t expend too much energy in their Wednesday win, so there should still be some gas left in the tank.

Hellebuyck’s is unlikely to start against Vegas, with the Jets looking like they’ll rest their No. 1 for Saturday’s pivotal big game against the Predators, but he had a relatively easy night. Laurent Brossoit, Winnipeg’s’ exceptional backup, should get the call.

Winnipeg’s defense has been decimated down the stretch, with no Dustin Byfuglien, no Josh Morrissey and now no Nathan Beaulieu, a trade deadline acquisition that was thrust into a top-pairing role. Beaulieu missed the game because of an undisclosed injury, making an already thin blue line that much thinner.

Given all their injuries on the back end, the shutout performance by the team is remarkable, even against the Ducks. Winnipeg is slated to get Big Buff and Morrissey back in time for the playoffs, which is critical if they’re to make a deep run once again.

Kyle Connor has a goal and an assist for the second straight game for the Jets. The sophomore has 12 points in his past 14 games.

The Ducks, who came into the game winners of six of their past night, seemed more interested in pestering the Jets rather than playing hockey against them. They didn’t give up six first period goals this time around, or lose 9-3. So that was an improvement over their last meeting.

Like many nights this season, this wasn’t Anaheim’s. If nothing else, the loss helps their lottery chances. All the winning they’ve been doing lately hasn’t helped, however.


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

Canucks’ Pettersson sets franchise rookie record for points

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Elias Pettersson has been a revelation in Vancouver this season, a source of hope for long-suffering Canucks fans who haven’t had much to cheer about in recent years.

Petterson notched an assist on Markus Granlund‘s second-period goal and that moved him past the great Pavel Bure for the team’s rookie points record with his 61st point in what will likely end in a Calder-winning season for the young rookie.

Pettersson added another assist later in the period. He’ll surely extend that record before seasons’ end. He’s currently on 27 goals and 63 points in 63 games. He’d likely be closer to 80 at this point if not for an ugly hit early on in the season and another injury right after the New Year.

Pettersson is the player the Canucks are going to build around at the moment, and they have some solid young talent already around him with the likes of Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and others.

Vancouver could be a scary team in a few years, and Pettersson will be leading that charge.

For now, they have one of the NHL’s brightest young players who should bring back a shiny piece of hardware to British Columbia come June.


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

Lightning survive barrage, strike down Capitals in overtime

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It was going to take a Herculean effort from the Washington Capitals to somehow beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second half of a back to back. And man, did they ever deliver one.

But even that wasn’t enough to beat the insanely good Lightning, who recovered from 56 shots against in regulation and a game-tying goal with 57 seconds left in the third period to find a way to their sixth straight win.

The game-winner came courtesy of a Victor Hedman deke. It was pretty.

Tampa is now just five wins away from matching the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most victories in the regular season at 62. Given that the Lightning at 18-2-0 in their past 20 games, it’s completely acceptable to believe they can do this. With the Presidents’ Trophy already sewn up, the Lightning have eight games now to find five wins — six if they want the record all to themselves.

I’d bet the house on it. Both matching it and surpassing it.

It was a heartbreaking loss for the Capitals, who still managed to pick up a point to increase their lead in the Metropolitan Division to three points on the New York Islanders.

That Herculean effort included a total of 58 shots fired at Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was his usual, totally unfair self in this one. In typical Vasilevskiy fashion, he made easy saves look easy and hard saves look much the same. And he set a franchise record doing it, with his 54 saves the most in a game, surpassing the 48 Ben Bishop made back in 2014.

The game was also a clinic in why special teams matter so much.

When you’re given six power-play opportunities against the far-and-away best team in the NHL — on the second half of a back to back to boot — you need to take advantage.

The Capitals couldn’t, going just 1-for-6 in the game while the Lightning were a perfect 3-for-3, typical of the team with the best man-advantage in the league.

Nikita Kucherov scored twice in the game and Steven Stamkos had a goal while adding assists on each of Kucherov’s markers, which both came on the power play.

After taking a 1-0 lead in the first period, the Lightning scored three unanswered before Carl Hagelin stopped the bleeding. That goal was quickly followed up by T.J. Oshie‘s 22nd of the season to tie the game back up.

The deadlock lasted all of 1:21 thanks to a passing play that was equal parts filthy and beautiful.

The Capitals rested Braden Holtby in their Tuesday win against the Devils. Holtby’s effort could have been better after allowing five goals on 28 shots.

Another seven-game series between these two would be good fun.

More things Tampa did tonight:


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