Filip Forsberg is a bigger star than many realize

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Nashville Predators at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Injuries don’t just deprive us of the opportunity to see great players in action. They also tend to downplay just how dominant certain scorers are, as point totals shrink when you miss, say, 20 games.

Evgeni Malkin stands as a strong example of that phenomenon. As great as he is, would Malkin have been left of the NHL 100 list if he hadn’t been on the shelf so often?

Such thoughts come to mind when you consider Filip Forsberg‘s ascent with the Nashville Predators.

[Previewing tonight’s Predators – Golden Knights game]

Approaching elite production

If you just glance at last season’s 64 points, you might shrug your shoulders and think that it was business as usual. After all, Forsberg scored 63 in 2014-15, 64 in 2015-16, and 58 in 2016-17.

The difference, of course, is that Forsberg scored last season’s 64 points in just 67 games, leaving him close to a point per night. The Swedish sensation carried that strong work into the Predators’ overall-slightly-disappointing run in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, generating 16 points in 13 games.

It’s not just about impressive numbers with Forsberg, who is currently tied for second in goals with 10, and has 14 points in 11 games this season.

It’s the fact that Forsberg scores highlight reel goals, and has the courage to make unthinkable moves in high-pressure situations. His game-breaking ability can bring fans out of their seats and make defenders look outright foolish:

Since last season, Forsberg has exactly 78 points in 78 games; his (exact) point-per-game rate during that span matches Patrick Kane and Mark Scheifele. We’re approaching a moment where it’s fair to wonder if Forsberg’s making a leap from star to superstar.

Now, granted, the winger isn’t going to score almost a goal per game all season.

As talented as he is, Forsberg’s shooting percentage (25 percent, or 10 goals on just 40 shots on net) is bound to slip. Considering his career average of 13.1 percent, it may even slip by half.

Even so, it’s plausible that Forsberg is ascending among the NHL’s most potent wingers.

Help from his friends

It’s also worth noting that the Predators’ top line might just be able to hang with the other elite groups. Forsberg is joined by another volume shooter in Viktor Arvidsson, who has 28 SOG in 11 games (generating seven goals and 11 points). Arvidsson won’t continue his 25 shooting percentage either, yet he’s likely to continue making an impact on games; the Swedish jitterbug is currently in the middle of a five-game streak where he’s generated at least 3 SOG.

One pivotal factor in Forsberg’s climb toward more recognition is the play of Ryan Johansen, and his hot start might be the most promising sign of all … well, beyond the fact that Forsberg’s absolutely unleashing the puck so far this season.

Johansen carries an $8 million cap hit, yet he hasn’t always received plaudits for his work as a top center.

(For instance: Ryan Kesler‘s BFF didn’t land on Andrew Berkshire’s top 23 centers list heading into this season, falling behind the likes of Derek Stepan.)

So far, Johansen’s been off to a strong scoring start, collecting two goals and 13 points in 11 games.

It’s natural for Johansen to shoot less often than trigger-happy wingers like Forsberg and Arvidsson, yet he drew some criticism for being pass-first to a fault. The past two seasons were tough in that regard, with Johansen averaging a meager 1.63 SOG per game last season, and a not-much-better 1.88 SOG per contest in 2016-17.

This is a small sample size, but so far, Johansen has 23 SOG in 11 games. While that’s not an enormous uptick, this line gets scarier if Johansen isn’t telegraphing passes, and they’re combining for more than eight SOG per game between the three of them.

Shouldering a burden

It’s tempting to look at the Predators as a deep team at all levels.

The label is accurate for a defense featuring P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm. It says a lot about what the team’s built that Vezina winner Pekka Rinne can go on IR and few really panicked, as Juuse Saros is a gem in net. It also doesn’t hurt that hit-or-miss second-line center Kyle Turris is off to a promising start (eight points in 11 games).

Such factors distract from how crucial Forsberg and Nashville’s top line is to their success, though.

With Kevin Fiala going through early season struggles, the Predators’ offense depends upon that top line, that elite fleet of defense, and sporadic scoring (Turris, Ryan Hartman, few others). It makes you wonder why Eeli Tolvanen isn’t getting more immediate opportunities, but that’s a discussion for another day.

That tend is really just carrying over from the postseason, as Turris and Nick Bonino really failed to give Nashville the sort of supplementary scoring that contenders usually need. One can see the temptation of even spreading the wealth, although that would most likely qualify as messing with a good thing.

***

As strange as it might sound considering GM David Poile’s many great recent trades, a bigger-picture look at the Predators makes you wonder if another bold move could be in order.

On the bright side, there’s mounting evidence that Nashville’s top trio is for real, with Forsberg leading the way.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

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USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.