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Who’s hockey’s best? McDavid, Matthews, Crosby stir debate

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TORONTO — Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews? Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid?

With debate ramping up about which player sits atop hockey’s throne – after some remarkable early performances – Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock’s goes in a different direction – Sidney Crosby.

”This is what I think,” Babcock began as he made his case for the Penguins captain before Pittsburgh’s 3-0 victory over Toronto on Thursday. ”I think one guy’s got two Olympic gold medals and three Stanley Cups.”

And the other guys?

”They don’t.”

McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers captain with blazing speed, has won back-to-back NHL scoring titles and the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. Matthews, the Maple Leafs’ deadly sniper, has the most points in the league, 16 in just eight games.

McDavid set an NHL record this week by becoming the only player to either score or assist on the first nine goals of his team’s season.

Matthews has a lethal shot that often leaves a goalie looking up at the replay for a glimpse at a puck that just whizzed by him. He is just the fifth player to have seven straight multipoint games to start a season.

Babcock is quick to acknowledge what these 21-year-old phenoms have done. But he says personal accolades matter only so much.

Crosby is 31 and has been on top of the hockey world for the better part of the last decade. He won the Cup in 2009, 2016 and 2017 to go along with gold medals for Canada at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.

Had it not been for the concussions that limited him to 63 of his team’s 164 games between 2010 and 2012, the two-time Hart and Conn Smythe Trophy winner might own even more hardware.

Babcock coached Crosby at the Vancouver and Sochi Games, and again at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016, which Canada also won.

”Team success in the end, that’s how you’re measured,” he said. ”When you’ve been the best player on the best team, to me that’s totally different than being the best player on a team that’s not as good. As you’ve got people around you to raise your game and set a standard … to me, it’s not even close.”

Mike Sullivan became Pittsburgh’s coach during the 2015-16 season and immediately grew to appreciate Crosby’s gifts.

”Sid’s the most driven athlete I’ve ever been around,” he said. ”Not only is he an elite player, but he’s willing to put the work in to continue to try to be the best player he can be. … I have the privilege of watching him on a daily basis put the work in to be the player that he is.”

Toronto center Nazem Kadri says it’s tough to pick among Crosby, McDavid and Matthews.

”I still think Sid’s an incredible player and McDavid’s definitely up there,” he said. ”(Matthews) is creeping up there. … To me, McDavid’s speed is just incredible and so hard to stop. You can’t necessarily make a mistake when he’s on the ice because when you’re beside him you’re going to be behind him.”

Maple Leafs center John Tavares went head-to-head with Crosby for nine seasons while with the New York Islanders.

”He doesn’t take anything for granted and his work ethic’s tremendous,” Tavares said. ”He puts a lot of commitment into being the player that he is.”

Crosby has five assists in six games this season playing on a line with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust – the first time he’s gone without a goal this long. But Sullivan’s admiration is undiminished.

”He leaves no stone unturned,” Sullivan said. ”He takes care of himself physically. He trains so hard, both off the ice and on the ice. We learn as much from Sid as I think he does from our coaching staff with just the way he thinks the game.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

The Buzzer: First place Coyotes; Zuccarello leads Wild to another win

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Three Stars

1. Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. After a pretty miserable start to the season the Wild are starting to get back on track and picked up their fifth win in a row on Thursday by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-4. Zuccarello was the big star for the Wild with three points (his first three-point game of the season) including the game-winner in the third period. His goal came just eight seconds after Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn had tied the game. Things looked bleak for the Wild’s playoff chances in the first month of the season, but their win on Thursday moved them — at least temporarily — into the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.

2. Phil Kessel, Arizona Coyotes. And which team sits on top of the Pacific Division after Thursday’s action? It is none other than the Arizona Coyotes thanks to their 3-1 win in Philadelphia. They have been road warriors this season and now own a 10-3-3 record over their first 16 away games. They used a two-goal effort from Kessel — as well as another great goaltending performance — on Thursday to get their latest win. Kessel has yet to make the big offensive impact the Coyotes were hoping for this season, but he tends to score goals in bunches and maybe this is the start of one of those runs. Arizona is back in action on Friday when Kessel makes his first return to Pittsburgh since the Penguins traded him over the summer.

3. Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers. Artemi Panarin scored the game-winning goal in his return to Columbus, but the biggest difference maker for the Rangers in their 3-2 win was their goalie. Georgiev was sensational, stopping 45 out of 47 shots in helping to steal one for the blue shirts. Read all about that game here.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Petr Mrazek had an eventful night for the Carolina Hurricanes in their 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks. He stopped a lot of shots, picked up a shootout win, and got punched in the face. Read all about it here.
  • Joe Pavelski scored the overtime winner for the Dallas Stars in their 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks let a 3-0 third period lead slip away in Boston against the Bruins, but Jonathan Toews bailed them out in overtime with the game-winning goal.
  • Milan Lucic was finally able to get his first goal of the season for the Calgary Flames. It turned out to be the game-winning goal in a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Matt Calvert had a goal and an assist for the Colorado Avalanche in their 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

Highlights of the Night

The Wild looked like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Lightning looked like the Washington Generals on this Jason Zucker goal.

The Colorado Avalanche have their top line back together, and Gabriel Landeskog wasted no time in making an impact in his return to the lineup.

Maybe this is the shot that gets Johnny Gaudreau rolling for the Calgary Flames.

Blooper of the Night

Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk accidentally hip-checked a referee in their 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.

Factoids

  • It was a highly competitive night around the league with eight of the nine games being decided by a single goal, including four overtime games. The only game decided by more than one goal was Arizona’s 3-1 win over Philadelphia, and even that was a one-goal game until a late empty-net goal from Kessel. [NHL PR]
  • Thanks to Ryan Pulock‘s overtime goal the New York Islanders extended their point streak on home ice to 12 games. [NHL PR]
  • Jonathan Toews’ overtime goal in Boston was the 14th of his career in the regular season, moving him into a tie for 10th place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]

Scores

Chicago Blackhawks 4, Boston Bruins 3 (OT)
Colorado Avalanche 3, Montreal Canadiens 2
Minnesota Wild 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 4
New York Islanders 3, Vegas Golden Knights 2 (OT)
Arizona Coyotes 3, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Carolina Hurricanes 3, San Jose Sharks 2 (SO)
New York Rangers 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2
Dallas Stars 3, Winnipeg Jets 2 (OT)
Calgary Flames 4, Buffalo Sabres 3

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.

Mrazek gets punched in mask by Thornton; leads Hurricanes to win

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It was an eventful night for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek.

When it comes to the important stuff — stopping pucks to prevent goals and get a win — he was about as good as he could have possibly been by turning aside 28 out of 30 shots throughout regulation and overtime, as well as all three shots he faced in a shootout, to help lift his team to a 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks and bust out of a mini-slump that had seen them lose three of their previous four.

He also had a run-in with Sharks forward Joe Thornton that saw him get punched squarely in the mask.

It all started mid-way through the second period when Thornton attempted to jab at the puck that Mrazek had covered in the crease. Mrazek, taking exception to that jab, then chased after Thornton, swung his stick at the back of Thornton’s leg, stood up to get in his face … then got punched.

There were penalties handed out here, with Thornton getting two minutes each for roughing and slashing, while Mrazek was given a two-minute minor for slashing.

Mrazek was asked after the game if it is tough getting back into the game and maintaining focus after a scrum like that, and he was quick to say that’s actually better for him because it makes him feel like he is in the game.

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 scores in return to Columbus, helps Rangers steal one

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Artemi Panarin was back in Columbus on Thursday night for the first time since leaving the Blue Jackets to join the New York Rangers in free agency this past summer.

After hearing some early boos from the local crowd, Panarin ended up getting the last laugh and was the difference maker by scoring the game-winning goal in the third period of the Rangers’ 3-2 win.

Panarin was the Blue Jackets’ best player for two years and one of the biggest reasons they made the playoffs both years, finally winning their first playoff series a year ago when they upset the heavily favorite Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1.

This is the video tribute the Blue Jackets had prepared for Panarin on Thursday.

So far his time with the Rangers has been everything the team’s management could have hoped for, and with his goal on Thursday is now up to 13 goals and 34 points on the season in his first 27 games.

What has to be especially frustrating for the Blue Jackets in this one isn’t just the fact that Panarin came back to haunt them by scoring the game-winning goal, but they were probably the better team in this game and played well enough to win. They ended up dominating the pace of the game and outshot the Rangers by a 47-19 margin and spent the entire night taking up residence in the Rangers’ end of the rink.

The problem was Alexander Georgiev was a rock in the Rangers’ net.

They also gave up a crushing goal to Brendan Lemieux in the closing seconds of the first period, erasing what had been a 1-0 lead and squandering what was a tremendous start to the game.

The win allowed the Rangers to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race and leaves them just three points back of a Wild Card spot.

The Blue Jackets fall to 11-13-4 and are already eight points back.

Related: Rangers’ Panarin returns to Columbus the way he left: as a superstar

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.

 

Canadiens’ Kotkaniemi leaves game after scary fall (Video)

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Scary scene in Montreal on Thursday night during the first period of the Canadiens’ game against the Colorado Avalanche.

Second-year forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi had to leave the game after an ugly fall that resulted in him hitting his head off the ice. He remained on the ice for a few moments before being helped off the ice by teammates with his head slumped over.

The Canadiens announced that he was out for the remainder of the game due to an “upper-body injury.”

You can see the sequence in the video above.

It all happened after Kotkaniemi was pinned against the boards by Nikita Zadorov, and then fell backwards. There are a lot of problems with Zadorov’s hit, including the fact it looked to be very late (the puck was long gone from Kotkaniemi when Zadorov initiated the hit) as well as the fact he appeared to lift his right leg and swing into the back of Kotkaniemi’s, knocking him backwards. That doesn’t really qualify as a slew-foot, but everything about the play itself seemed unnecessary.

There was no penalty called on the play.

The Canadiens are already playing without two key forwards in Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron.

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.