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Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in best in NHL conversation

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As you can see from this Associated Press piece, there are some hot “best in the NHL” debates going around, with people batting around names like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Auston Matthews.

Colorado Avalanche speedster Nathan MacKinnon‘s name didn’t come up in that conversation, but quite frankly, he’ll be impossible to ignore if keeps this up.

The 23-year-old has scored at least one point in all eight games, and his numbers are positively eye-popping. MacKinnon generated six points in the past two games alone, leaving him with a ridiculous eight goals and six assists for 14 points. As of this writing, only Auston Matthews (16 points in eight games) has generated more offense so far in 2018-19, while MacKinnon’s running mate Mikko Rantanen also has 14.

[More on Rantanen becoming a “driving force” for Colorado]

Remarkably, MacKinnon isn’t subsisting on a red-hot power play, either, as only two of his 14 points have come from the man advantage. With that in mind, it’s less shocking that MacKinnon’s seven even-strength goals currently lead the NHL.

It’s dangerous to rely too heavily on season stats, particularly when we’re still in October, but zooming out to last season really cements MacKinnon’s rise among the league’s most exhilarating scorers.

When you combine last season with these early showings, MacKinnon generated a whopping 111 points in just 84 games, trailing only Connor McDavid (119 in 87) and Claude Giroux (113 in 90). MacKinnon’s 1.31 points-per-game average is second only to … you guessed it: McDavid, at 1.35.

MacKinnon slips under the radar almost as seamlessly as he flies by defensemen for a few reasons:

  • The Avalanche haven’t been very great lately. MacKinnon’s efforts helped Colorado make the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet before that, the Avs suffered a three-season drought. The Avs have only made the playoffs twice since 2010-11, and they’ve only won one playoff series since 2005-06.

Even so, looking back at the past illuminates how special MacKinnon’s start has been. MacKinnon scored a goal in his first six games, something Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and many other standout Avs failed to do:

Could he break more club records as he goes?

  • Maybe some of the reluctance to name MacKinnon among the best stems from the speedy center beginning his career as an effective scorer, yet not quite the guy people expected.

Through his first four seasons, MacKinnon only crossed the 60-point barrier once (63 on his way to a Calder Trophy in 2013-14), with his 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons inspiring real concern about his shooting ability. It’s one thing to have bad puckluck for a single season, but through the first four years of his career, MacKinnon shot under 10-percent on three occasions, and his peak was just a flat 10.0 during that rookie campaign.

Well, it’s not clear what precisely changed, yet it’s probably safe to dismiss those concerns already. MacKinnon probably would have hit 40 goals and 100 points if he played every game last season (finishing with 39 goals and 97 points in just 74 games), and he’s off to that red-hot start in 2018-19.

  • There were times when MacKinnon almost felt like comic relief in his apparently long-running Tim Horton’s commercials alongside Sidney Crosby.

Now? He’s still goofy, but in more of an “effective buddy cop movie character” sort of way.

His bond with Crosby and the Canadian coffee chain giant really peaked recently, as the two surprised members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team (more about that in this post):

Heartwarming stuff, right?

***

To recap: MacKinnon is a speedy center who’s scoring at a near-McDavidian-rate, and he’s building enough evidence that his quantum leap from 2017-18 could be the rule, rather than the exception.

With a rising winger in Rantanen, not to mention a productive, hard-nosed captain in Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon also pilots a top line that deserves consideration as the best trio in the NHL.

Oh yeah, MacKinnon also deserves serious consideration for having the best bargain contract in the NHL. Somehow, the Avalanche will receive five more prime-level years of MacKinnon’s services at the ridiculous rate of $6.3 million per season. That’s barely more than half of what McDavid’s getting — and McDavid is worth more than $12.5M.

So, MacKinnon’s on that rare McDavid plane of being lightning fast, yet still boasting the skill and hockey IQ to take advantage of that world-class speed. Maybe it took him more time to harness that, but this seems to be clear today.

It also seems like he’s kind of a goober, and can provide a salty quote here or there.

While it’s true that MacKinnon isn’t totally dismissed as a great player – he was a finalist, falling right behind Taylor Hall for the 2018 Hart Trophy – the point is that the latest Avalanche superstar is worthy of greater hype.

If nothing else, make sure you watch him play. Chances are, his name will pop up more often in “best in the league” conversations if you do.

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.

Push for the Playoffs: Flyers, Canadiens looking to keep their playoff hopes alive

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The Philadelphia Flyers kept their slim playoff hopes alive on Sunday night when they stormed back against the Pittsburgh Penguins, stealing two points with two stunning late goals. It was a game they absolutely had to have if they are going to make up this ground in the Eastern Conference, and they have another game just like that on Tuesday night when they host the Montreal Canadiens.

This one might really be a win-or-be-done type of game for them when it comes to their playoff chances.

They do not just need a win, either.

They need to win in regulation.

The Flyers open the day still six points back of a playoff spot, and trail the Canadiens (who are the first team on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture) by three points. A regulation win would at least bring them back to within a point of the Canadiens, and depending on what happens with the Columbus Blue Jackets in their game against the Calgary Flames, could close the playoff gap to as little as four points.

A loss could be devastating for what is left of their chances, especially if Columbus manages to win in Calgary.

The Canadiens can pull to within a point of the Blue Jackets with a win and a Columbus loss, while it would also pretty much leave the Flyers in their rear-view mirror the rest of the way.

Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday, the Penguins and Hurricanes meet in a pivotal game in the Metropolitan Division race as they both look to stay out of a wild card spot and what could be a potential first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Islanders (vs. the Bruins) and Capitals (vs. the Devils) are also both in action as they continue to fight for the top spot in the Division.

In the Western Conference, the Minnesota Wild have a chance to jump back over the Arizona Coyotes for the second Wild Card spot, while the Calgary Flames can extend their lead in the Pacific Division over the San Jose Sharks after they were blown out on Monday night.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Islanders vs. Hurricanes
Capitals vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Coyotes
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Jets

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Bruins vs. Islanders (7 p.m. ET)
Canadiens vs. Flyers (7 p.m. ET)
Penguins vs. Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET)
Capitals vs. Devils (7:30 p.m. ET)
Oilers vs. Blues (8 p.m. ET)
Maple Leafs vs. Predators (8 p.m. ET)
Avalanche vs. Wild (8 p.m. ET)
Panthers vs. Stars (8:30 p.m. ET)
Blue Jackets vs. Flames (9 p.m. ET)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Playoff Percentages (via Hockey Reference)

Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Islanders — 100 percent
Capitals — 99.8 percent
Penguins — 98.2 percent
Hurricanes — 93.5 percent
Canadiens — 20.5 percent
Flyers — 4 percent
Panthers — 0.9 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

WESTERN CONFERENCE(via Hockey Reference)

Playoff Percentages (via Hockey Reference)

Flames — Clinched
Sharks — 100 percent
Jets — 100 percent
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 98.2 percent
Stars — 91.3 percent
Coyotes 48.6 percent
Wild — 29.4 percent
Avalanche — 17.6 percent
Blackhawks — 12.3 percent
Canucks — 1.2 percent
Oilers — 1.4 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE

Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Ducks — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Oilers — 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Avalanche — 3 percent
Panthers — 2.5 percent
Wild — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent

ART ROSS RACE

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 117 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 105 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 101 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 92 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 91 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
John Tavares, New York Islanders — 40 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 38 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — 38 goals
Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — 38 goals

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Pastrnak on injury; Nashville’s Turris problem

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

David Pastrnak on his thumb injury: “Obviously I let the guys down a bit. It’s a tough time. It’s not an injury that happened on the ice, so I took full responsibility for that. That’s what hurt me most. Could I have avoided it? I wish [that I had]. But obviously things happen. The fact that I could let somebody down, I definitely hate that. The first couple of weeks were tough.” [NBC Boston]

• Just in time as the playoffs approach, James Neal returns to the Calgary Flames after a 14-game absence, hoping to find his scoring touch again. [NHL.com]

• When the postseason does arrive, who will get the starting gig in net for the Flames? [Featurd]

• A good look at the teams playing well with the Stanley Cup Playoffs less than a month away. [TSN]

• Playoffs might be out of reach but the Vancouver Canucks are now acting as a spoiler. [Sportsnet]

• Meet the only female full-time Zamboni driver in the NHL. [ESPN]

• The younger members of the St. Louis Blues are really enjoying this playoff push. [Post-Dispatch]

• The San Jose Sharks are trying not to think too far into the future when it comes to a possible first-round matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights. [NBC Bay Area]

Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey and Nick Leddy need to give more to the New York Islanders as the playoffs approach. [Islanders Insight]

• Examining who’s chasing and possessing the puck the most for the Columbus Blue Jackets. [1st Ohio Battery]

• The Nashville Predators have a Kyle Turris problem. [A to Z Sports]

• A product of the “Ovechkin Effect” in Washington D.C., the Capitals signed Yale product and local boy Joe Snively on Monday. [Japers’ Rink]

• Which AHL players could step up and make an impact with the Edmonton Oilers? [Oilers Nation]

• Finally, there were a good number of bloopers in the NHL over the last week:

————

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.

The Buzzer: Smith, Marchessault lead Shark slaughter; Connor helps Jets extend Central lead

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Three stars

1. Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights are unlikely to catch the Calgary Flames or the San Jose Sharks, but if the Sharks don’t surpass the Flames then both Vegas and San Jose are going to meet in the first round of the playoffs and the Smith and his squad fired the first shot on Monday with a four-point game in a 7-3 win.

Smith had a goal and three assists to help lead the Golden Knights to their third straight win. Smith has 16 points now in his past 12 games and has been on fire since early February.

2. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights

See the above preamble, substitute Smith for Marchessault, and you have pretty much the same thing.

Marchessault notched his own four-point game in their win against San Jose, scoring twice and adding two assists. Marchessault now has four goals and two assists in his past two games.

The 28-year-old had one goal in 14 outings prior to his current little heater. He’s well off the 75-point pace he set last season, but if he’s heating up heading into the playoffs, watch out.

3. Kyle Connor Winnipeg Jets

When Connor is using his speed, he’s dangerous and he’s a bona fide playmaker.

So when he rushed down the left side of the ice, wrapped the puck around the net and fed it to Kevin Hayes to open the scoring, it was the 22-year-old’s speed that started it all off.

He’d then score a goal just 1:05 later in the game on the power play, using his diminutive frame as a net-front presence, jamming his 28th past Jack Campbell.

The Jets moved three points clear of the idle Nashville Predators and Winnipeg still has a game in hand on their Central Division foes.

Highlights of the night

Jumbo Joe still has it:

Can’t defend this:

Myers picks his corner:

So close…

Factoids

Patrick Kane hit 100 points for the second time in his NHL career on Monday.

Pettersson does it in the arena that he was drafted in:

Scores

Lightning 4, Coyotes 1
Canucks 3, Blackhawks 2 (OT)
Jets 3, Kings 2
Golden Knights 7, Sharks 3


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

Sharks’ Haley tries to pull Golden Knights’ Reaves off bench for fight

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Micheal Haley is a tough dude. There’s no question.

But wanting a piece of Ryan Reaves and go as far as trying to pull him off the bench to fight him? That’s ambitious.

Haley wasn’t happy after Reaves destroyed Melker Karlsson with a big hit right in front of the San Jose Sharks bench in the first period of Friday’s meeting with Reaves’ Vegas Golden Knights.

Reaves took a quick look at his handy work before going off on a line change. Haley, who was also on the ice, didn’t seem to care and went after Reaves, throwing a punch at one of the toughest — if not the toughest — men in the NHL.

Haley ended up taking a roughing penalty on the play. Reaves got a good laugh in, seeming quite amused at the whole ordeal.

This is a matchup that could feature in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and judging by this one, it would be a fantastic series.


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