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It’s time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated

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Shortly after Blake Wheeler exploded for a career-high five-point night on Friday, the labels began to flow from the mouths of those affiliated with the Winnipeg Jets.

In a paraphrased sentence of several combined players and a coach, it looked like this:

“Blake Wheeler is an elite player, the heartbeat of Jets and the guy who drives the bus.”

If we are to extrapolate on this joint statement of sorts, we can glean that Wheeler enjoys high regard among his closest peers, is the most vital organ to his NHL team and the man who leads its charge.

Of course, a five-point night from anyone in the NHL will often lead to superlatives by the truckload. And Wheeler undoubtedly deserved the due recognition he received from his teammates after a special night at the rink.

The thing is, his teammates and coaches have always known. They see his work ethic and what the 32-year-old puts in so that he’s able to produce at the level he does. It’s normal to hear those closest to a team heap praise on their comrades.

But pilling on plaudits outside of Winnipeg’s sphere? It hasn’t always been the case for the Jets captain.

Wheeler’s underrated status has tagged alongside him for much of his career. The argument can be made that, up until last year, Wheeler was known as a good player — a productive power forward — but not one that came with the same clout as, say, a Nikita Kucherov.

Then Wheeler hit 91 points, tied for the NHL lead in assists with 63 and finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting last season. Many started to wake up to Wheeler’s worth, even if he was a near-point-per-game player for several seasons prior.

The highlights from Friday night’s game were a clinic on what an elite passer looks like. Wheeler’s nine-game point streak is nothing to scoff at.

Yet, the underrated label endures. Last week, Wheeler was voted the third-most underrated player in the NHL by 61 of his peers, behind Aleksander Barkov and Nicklas Backstrom. Given that Wheeler has always seemed to operate in the shadows of the league’s top righties, it wasn’t all that surprising.

What might surprise you to know that since 2011, Wheeler has the third most assists among right-handed shots in the NHL, behind only Claude Giroux and Patrick Kane, neither of whom would be categorized as underrated.

There’s more, too. In all situations, here’s where Wheeler sits in a variety of categories during that time frame.

  • Primary points/60: 3rd
  • Primary assists/60: 1st
  • Primary assists: 1st (226)
  • Points/60: 5th
  • Expected goals-for: 3rd

I suspect if you polled players for each position around the league as to who they think of first when they hear ‘Winnipeg Jets’, it might go something like this:

Furthermore, I’d venture a guess that many fans outside of Winnipeg might levy similar answers, too.

Perhaps Wheeler falls victim to a little of the ‘East Coast Bias’ we often hear about.

Taylor Hall, for instance, admitted on the Spitting Chicklets podcast last week that he probably benefited from some of that bias when it came pipping Nathan MacKinnon to the Hart Trophy last year.

It’s possible Wheeler, a fellow Central Division player like MacKinnon, gets overshadowed in that regard as well.

Why?

“I don’t have an answer for you on that,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Saturday.

Maurice has opened the taps of praise for Wheeler many times during his Jets tenure. Maurice says Wheeler’s dominance isn’t lost in coaching circles.

“I know that other coaches do [notice Wheeler],” Maurice said. “So when you’re at the coaches meetings in the summer or you have colleagues you talk to, especially guys after you play, it’s like, ‘My god, Blake Wheeler is a dominant man out there.’ And they really see it, probably because he didn’t have a 50-goal season at 21 or 22 that brought the spotlight to him.

“He really built his game over the years, maybe in kind of the way Mark Scheifele did it early on in the first two or three [years]. He didn’t explode in his first few years. They are always very exciting young players that come in and put up numbers that are designated superstars from a young age. I think Blake has built this. He’s built his body to a machine that can drive as hard as anybody I’ve ever coached. And all of that has led to the skills I think he always possessed coming out.”


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

The Playoff Buzzer: Wild Card teams are 4-for-4

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  • The Washington Capitals blew 2-0 and 3-1 leads to drop Game 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes. Former Capitals player and frequent Game 7 star Justin Williams played a big role in Carolina’s 2OT winning goal.
  • With Carolina’s victory, all four Wild Card teams have advanced to Round 2.

Hurricanes 4, Capitals 3 [2OT] (CAR wins 4-3)
The Capitals got off to a terrific start. Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson scored in the first 6:23 minutes of the contest, but rather than fall apart, the Hurricanes dug in. It wasn’t until 2:56 of the third period when the Hurricanes caught up thanks to a Jordan Staal goal. Washington battled hard for the rest of the third period, but once overtime started the game was all Carolina until finally they broke through when Brock McGinn tipped in a Jason Williams shot. With that, the defending Stanley Cup champions are done and a franchise that last made the playoffs in 2009 is going to Round 2.

Three Stars

1. Brock McGinn, Carolina Hurricanes.
He got the series-winning goal and registered an assist on Teuvo Teravainen‘s marker. This was the 25-year-old’s first playoff series and prior to it he had 36 goals in 240 career regular season games. Of those 36 goals, only two were game-winners.

2. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes.

Assisted on three of the Hurricanes’ four goals. He also led both teams with 38:27 minutes of ice time in the 2OT contest. He finished the series with nine assists in seven games.

3. Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals.

Got the scoring started just 2:13 minutes into the contest off a superb steal. It was his first goal of the series.

One goal Dougie Hamilton will be happy is forgotten

It didn’t end up defining the game, but Alex Ovechkin outplayed Hamilton on this goal. If Washington won this game, this goal might have been a big part of the story.

Factoids of the night

Thursday’s Games

Game 1: Blue Jackets at Bruins, 7:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Game 1: Stars at Blues, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

No More Champs: Hurricanes oust Capitals in 2OT

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Not even the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals were immune in one of the craziest opening rounds ever seen. Brock McGinn tipped a shot by Justin Williams in double overtime in a series-clinching 4-3 victory for the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7.

Early on, it didn’t look like this would be a dramatic contest. Andre Burakovsky stripped the puck away in the Hurricanes’ zone and then beat goalie Petr Mrazek to put Washington on the board just 2:13 minutes into the game. Just four minutes later, Alex Ovechkin outplayed Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton before feeding the puck to Tom Wilson, who made the game 2-0.

Carolina hung in there though. Sebastian Aho scored a shorthanded goal at 9:51 of the second period to cut the lead in half. Evgeny Kuznetsov regained the two-goal lead at 13:22 of the second period, but Teuvo Teravainen answered right back at 16:37.

Early in the third period, Jordan Staal got a clean shot on Braden Holtby that he managed to get by him. It’s one that Holtby arguably should have gotten, but he didn’t have help on that play either and the end result was the game was tied.

From there, Carolina was a dominant force in overtime and it looked more and more like it was just a matter of time before the Hurricanes beat Holtby one more time. It took a while, but it happened.

Just like that, all four wild-card teams have advanced. Washington is out. Pittsburgh, which won the Cup in 2016 and 2017, is out. Vegas, which got to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, is out. Tampa Bay, which tied an NHL record with 62 wins in the regular season, is out.

This year has reinforced the notion that anything can happen in the playoffs. Carolina will face the New York Islanders in Round 2 and while the Hurricanes might be the underdogs, that hasn’t been a bad spot to be in.

MORE: Round 2 schedule, TV info

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2019: Round 2 schedule, TV info

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We’re down to eight.

With the last Game 7 out of the way in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we can now look ahead to all that Round 2 will bring.

The battle for the 2019 Stanley Cup continues as eight teams vie to become this year’s champion, and there won’t be a repeat after the Washington Capitals got bounced in Game 7 on Wednesday. All four wildcard teams are in. All four divisional winners are out. It’s been a wild ride and there are still three rounds to go.

Here is the full Round 2 schedule with the all-important TV information: 

MORE: 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

For the third consecutive postseason, NBC Sports’ coverage of Stanley Cup Playoff first-round games on NBCUniversal cable networks (NBCSN, USA Network and CNBC), as well as NHL Network, will air side-by-side and will be available for streaming on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app in local markets alongside regional sports network game telecasts. (Local blackouts apply in Las Vegas and Pittsburgh in the first round).


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

WATCH LIVE: Capitals, Hurricanes meet in Game 7

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Game 7: Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals, 7:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 3-3)
NBCSN
Call: Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Tonight’s pre-game coverage on NBCSN begins at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones.

NBC Sports begins its exclusive coverage of the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs tomorrow with a Game 1 doubleheader on NBCSN. Coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins, followed by the Dallas Stars-St. Louis Blues series at 9:30 p.m. ET. Thursday’s doubleheader pre-game coverage begins on NBCSN at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live.