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Should you buy the fast starts by Islanders, Canucks?

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Two of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season have to be the Vancouver Canucks and New York Islanders. When the season began, nobody had any realistic expectations for these two except for them to lose and probably lose a lot.

So far, the opposite has been happening.

The Canucks, 7-6 overtime winners against Colorado on Friday in a completely insane game, are now 9-6-0 through their first 15 games and are being powered by their two young standout forwards, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

It is a surprising start because over the previous three seasons no team in the NHL (Vegas excluded, having only played in one of those seasons) had won fewer games, they lost two of their top-scorers from a year ago to retirement, and outside of the promise of Pettersson, Boeser, and Bo Horvat didn’t really have much going for them.

The Islanders, meanwhile, lost their best player — John Tavares — in free agency, entered the year with several more top players in contract years, and spent the offseason stacking a roster that was already full of depth players on long-term contracts with even more depth players on long-term contracts. It made no sense, and honestly, still probably doesn’t.

After completing a home-and-home sweep of the Penguins this past week, they enter Saturday’s game against New Jersey tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division and riding a four-game winning streak.

The early results are great, and early results matter. A lot. If they are good, they can give you a big cushion for later in the season when you might hit a slump and fall back to the back a little bit. If they are bad, like the early slow starts by the Kings and Panthers (which we wrote about here), they can end your playoff chances remarkably early because the points are almost impossible to make up.

But for as important as the results are, the process behind the results is often times just as important — if not more important — when it comes to sustaining them over the duration of the season.

That is where we start to see some red flags with the Canucks and Islanders because there is a lot of evidence that these two teams may not be playing as well as their early results might indicate, and that unless something changes there they could each be a house of cards just waiting to fall over.

Heck, the Canucks have actually been outscored this season by four goals and are 22nd in the league when it comes to goals against per game. The fact they are 9-6-0 right now with those two numbers is nothing short of insane. And it’s not like the Canucks haven’t had decent starts in recent years. In 2015-16 they were 6-2-4 (a 110-point pace) after 12 games. They won four games in a row to start the 2016-17 season. A year ago they were 8-5-2 after 15 games (only one point off their current start). All of those starts resulted in finishes that had them near the bottom of the Pacific Division and Western Conference.

The Islanders, meanwhile, are currently being carried by incredible starts by their two goalies (Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss). If those two see any sort of a regression things could turn ugly for the Islanders very, very quickly.

[Related: Ten stunning numbers from first month of NHL season]

Both of these teams have the same flaws when it comes to the way they are playing. They are both among the bottom-five teams in the league in terms of controlling shots and scoring chances, both sitting south of the 45 percent barrier when it comes to shot attempt share and scoring chance share. In other words, both teams are getting badly outshot and outchanced on a nightly basis.

There are a handful of teams in the league that are able to outperform their shot attempt numbers because they have difference-making high end talent or exceptional goaltending. Or both. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals the past two years come to mind. The Montreal Canadiens over the past few years had a season or two like that because Carey Price would be able to stand on his head and steal games. But most teams when they have that much of a territorial disadvantage tend to lose. A lot.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have been 18 teams that were below the 45 percent mark in terms of shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential on Nov. 3 (Saturday’s date). Of those 18 teams only five of them ended up making the playoffs that season. Only one of the six teams since the start of the 2011-12 season were able to do it.

Now, that is not entirely relevant to the situations the Islanders and Canucks are in because a lot of those teams managed to get off to terrible starts in the standings. The results were matching the way they playing. Things made sense.

But what about the teams that exceeded their early season shot and chance numbers and managed to actually win some games, collect points, and get off to decent starts?

Well, let’s take a look at them specifically.

There have been 10 teams since the start of 2007-08 that were under 45 percent in both shot attempts and scoring chance share through the first month of the season and managed to have a points percentage above .500 in those game.

Five of them went on to make the playoffs. Five of them collapsed, at times in spectacular fashion (looking at you, 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs).

Obviously a bit of a mixed bag in terms of season-long results and an ability to either maintain the early success, or improve upon the process.

It should go without saying that it is better to win these games early in the season even if you’re not playing all that well. The points matter, and they help and they can put your team in a good position. Think of it as a head start in a race. Especially if you are a team like the Canucks that is playing in a division as completely craptacular as the Pacific Division currently is because, honestly, who among that collection of mediocrity scares you?

But even with the early wins, and even with the brilliance of Elias Pettersson, the surprising play of Lehner and Greiss in New York, and the fact the Islanders have a sleeping giant of a superstar in Mathew Barzal that hasn’t really erupted yet this season, there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of these teams being able to maintain what they have already done. And recent history of teams in their position and playing the way they have does not paint a completely promising picture.

(Shot attempt, scoring chance data via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Skinner focused on present in Buffalo rather than future

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By John Wawrow (AP Sports Writer)

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jeff Skinner knows how much the Sabres and their playoff-starved fans want him to stay in Buffalo beyond this season.

”Ha, ha, I’ve heard,” the forward memorably said with a laugh in December. ”I’m having a lot of fun, too.”

And yet, two months later, Skinner is nowhere closer to providing anything resembling a definitive answer regarding where he’ll be playing once his contract expires after this season.

”The present is still where we are, and that sort of thing will play itself out,” he said Thursday. ”I think there’s no point in really talking about it now because there’s nothing really to talk about from me on my end.”

Skinner, however, can’t hide his emotions when asked how much he enjoys Buffalo.

His eyes brighten and he breaks into wide, toothy smile in saying: ”I like it here. Yeah, I like it.”

Cast off by Carolina as part of the Hurricanes’ latest rebuilding plan, the three-time 30-goal-scorer and 2011 NHL rookie of the year is approaching career-best numbers since being traded to the Sabres in August.

He has a team-leading 34 goals – three short of matching a career high – and is second in the NHL behind Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin (38). His seven game-winning goals are second in the NHL and most in Buffalo since Derek Roy had nine in 2008-09. Skinner has been so consistent, his longest goals drought was four games to start the season.

And he and captain Jack Eichel have been inseparable on a top line that’s played a significant role in keeping Buffalo in playoff contention in a bid to end a seven-year postseason drought, and on a team that finished last in the overall standings in three of the previous five years.

Despite going 11-15-5 since a 10-game win streak in November, the Sabres (28-21-7) already have 63 points – one more than they had last season – and sit 10th in the Eastern Conference, four points behind eighth-place Pittsburgh.

The topic of Skinner’s future is once again rising to the forefront with the NHL’s trade deadline looming on Feb. 25, and after Skinner was spotted having a lengthy conversation with his agent, Don Meehan, following a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders on Tuesday.

”To me it was just checking in,” Skinner said, referring to the meeting. ”No details to discuss. Nothing really to report.”

As for the approaching trade deadline, Skinner shrugged and said: ”I don’t think about it at all.”

It remains unlikely the Sabres will consider trading Skinner by Feb. 25.

General manger Jason Botterill told The Associated Press in December he didn’t consider that date as being a deadline for contract talks. And there has been no indication – publicly or privately – that Botterill’s stance has changed since.

Botterill has maintained regular contact with Meehan, and has said he wants Skinner to focus on playing and familiarizing himself with his new surroundings. What bolsters Botterill’s hopes is noting how Skinner chose to play in Buffalo by waiving his no-trade clause in a deal the Hurricanes acquired prospect forward Cliff Pu and three draft picks.

Eichel laughed when asked if he’s aware of Sabres fans campaigning for Skinner to stay.

”He has how many goals, 34?” Eichel said. ”I’m sure Sabres fans want him to stay. I mean, would they want him to leave?”

Eichel’s certainly on board, too.

”I’m not Skins’ agent. I’m not our GM, but he’s been a big part of our team this year,” he said. ”You could probably say we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

It will ultimately be up to Skinner to decide.

One positive is how much the Toronto-born player has enjoyed playing closer to home, and having his family attend games in Buffalo (essentially a two-hour drive) as opposed to Raleigh, North Carolina (roughly a two-hour flight).

Coach Phil Housley noted Skinner’s proximity to home and family has provided incentive. And it helps playing alongside Eichel.

”Jeff finds that open area, he’s a positional player, and Jack seems to find him in those areas,” Housley said. ”They just seem to have a great chemistry together.”

Skinner must also weigh what offers he might command in free agency at a time more teams are spending less in free agency and committing more salary cap-space to re-signing their own players.

All that can wait.

”As a player, you can only sort of control a small number of things,” Skinner said. ”For us right now, that’s moving on to tomorrow’s game and getting ready for that.”

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Sam Gagner headed back to Oilers after trade with Canucks

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The Edmonton Oilers continued shaking up their roster by shipping Ryan Spooner to the Vancouver Canucks for Sam Gagner.

A day after moving Cam Talbot to the Philadelphia Flyers for Anthony Stolarz, the Oilers made the one-for-one swap hoping  the 29-year-old Gagner can rekindle his scoring touch from his early days in Edmonton.

Gagner spent the first seven seasons of his NHL with the Oilers where he posted five consecutive 40-point seasons to start his career and was a big contributor on the power play. He did hit 18 goals and 50 points two years ago in Columbus, but was slowly phased out after moving on to th Canucks last season. He’s only played seven games in Vancouver this season, spending most of his time on loan to the AHL Toronto Marlies where he scored 12 goals and recorded 37 points in 45 games. The team is hoping to get him to Brooklyn in time for Saturday night’s game against the Islanders.

Spooner’s travels continue as he’s now joins his third NHL team of the season. After signing a two-year deal with the New York Rangers in the summer, they then shipped him to the Oilers for Ryan Strome in November. (The Rangers retained $900K of Spooner’s salary in the deal.)

It’s one of those “change of scenery” deals we see often in the NHL. In this case, the scenery is familar for Gagner and the Oilers are hoping he can be a beneficial presence as they try to salvage the mess that is this season.

MORE: PHT NHL Trade Tracker

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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.

What’s better than a goalie goal? A double OT goalie goal

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Everyone loves a goalie goal — a true goalie goal. Not one of those bad passes that turns into a goal and the netminder gets credit because they touched it last.

Goaltender Anthony Hurtubise scored a goal Friday night for his St. Thomas Stars of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. But it wasn’t just any goalie goal. The 20-year-old scored his in double overtime. Yes, double overtime. It was the only tally in the 1-0 win over the Komoka Kings.

Here’s Hurtubise describing how it went down inside the Joe Thornton Community Centre via Instagram:

We were tied 0-0 with about a minute and a half left in the second over time (3 on 3, if no one scores it’s a tie game, each team gets a point). Other team pulled their goalie to try and get two points as there are only a few games left before playoffs. I saw the goalie go to the bench while they were on the rush, made a glove save and took my shot.

(Komoka has already secured a playoff spot but clearly were trying to make up ground on fifth-place LaSalle.)

And not only did Hurtubise score the game-winning overtime goal, he also stopped 27 shots to record a shutout. Pretty nice way to spend a Friday night.

Stick-tap Chris Peters

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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: Schneider snaps winless run; Halak posts fourth shutout

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Three stars

1. Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils

He didn’t start the game, and coming into it, he hadn’t won since December 2017. But when Nico Hischier‘s shot off a rebound crossed the line in overtime, Schneider’s nightmare run between the pipes was over.

Schneider made 15 saves in relief of Keith Kinkaid, who allowed four goals on 17 shots. The Devils trailed 4-1 at that points but rattled off three unanswered to force overtime. Schneider did his job, making a couple great saves to give New Jersey a chance.

And that’s all they needed as Schneider stopped his winless streak at 21 games.

This is what relief looks like:

2. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins

Beating the Anaheim Ducks these days isn’t much of a feat. That said, shutting out any team in the NHL most certainly is.

Halak has his fourth shutout of the season, tying him for third most in the NHL, after stopping all 30 shots sent his way in a 3-0 win.

The Bruins have now won four straight and have points in nine of their past 10. They’re just a point back of second place in the Atlantic, currently occupied by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and more importantly, five points up on the Montreal Canadiens, who are in the first wildcard spot.

3. Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes

Niederreiter had himself an interesting night. He scored twice in a 3-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers to push his goal total to eight in 12 games since joining the Hurricanes from the Minnesota Wild.

He’s been a point-per-game player in Carolina, adding four assists in that span. The scoring has been a welcomed addition for the Canes.

Niederreiter was also on the receiving end of a hit from behind, and on the giving end of one, too:

Highlights of the night

Bat flip, run the bases:

Tic-tac-goal:

Factoids

Scores

Rangers 6, Sabres 2
Hurricanes 3, Oilers 1
Devils 5, Wild 4 (OT)
Bruins 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