As Capitals surge, Backstrom off to best start of career

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With eight wins in their past 10 games the Washington Capitals are back in their customary spot at the top of the Metropolitan Division.

Alex Ovechkin is one of the league’s leading goal scorers, Tom Wilson suddenly can not be stopped offensively, and they are continuing to pile up wins even though they have been hit by some injuries to key players in recent weeks that have sidelined Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie.

That is a lot of business as usual, especially as it relates to Ovechkin and the team’s place in the standings.

Also business as usual is the fact Nicklas Backstrom is dominating and not getting much attention for it.

His goal in Sunday’s 6-5 loss to the Anaheim Ducks was his 10th of the season and gives him 33 points through the team’s first 26 games. That includes 20 points in the past 15 games alone.

This is not only the best start to a season offensively for Backstrom in his career, it is one of the best starts any Capitals player has had over the past 30 years.

Going as far back as the 1987-88 season, only one Capitals player — Ovechkin with 34 during the 2008-09 season —  has ever recorded more points than Backstrom’s 33 through the first 26 games of a season (via the Hockey-Reference database).

His current point-per-game pace puts him on a 104-point pace over 82 games and would exceed his previous career high of 101 during the 2009-10 season. Just for comparison, he only had 24 points through the first 26 games of that season. Given that goal-scoring is on the rise again throughout the league, and that Backstrom is playing sensational hockey in all phases it is not out of the question to think he could maintain that pace and set a new personal best.

It is also another reminder as to how consistently great Backstrom has been throughout his career.

He is one of just two players (Sidney Crosby and Tyler Seguin being the others) to record at least 70 points in each of the previous five seasons, while no one has more assists than his 613 since he entered the league at the start of the 2007-08 season (he is just behind Connor McDavid and Crosby on a per-game basis, but still at an elite level).

It wouldn’t be fair to say he’s been completely overlooked throughout his career, because he is a very highly regarded player and a true star in the league. But it is still probably true that he hasn’t always received the recognition he has fully deserved for being one of the 10 best offensive players in the league with an outstanding defensive game to match it.

He is one of those players that will always be underappreciated in his time — probably because he just so happens to be teammates with a legend — and then 10 or 15 years after he retires we’ll look back and say, “wow, that guy was pretty damn great.” 

So with him off to one of the best starts of his career for the defending Stanley Cup champs, let’s just say it now.

 

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Unique pucks for Winter Classic; Caps’ Cup beer

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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.

• There will be some unique pucks used during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 (1 p.m. ET, NBC) when the Chicago Blackhawks take on the Boston Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium. The biscuits used during the game and other NHL “tentpole events” this season will feaure thermochromic coatings that will change from purple to clear to indicate the puck’s temperature is above freezing, telling the officials it should be replaced. [NHL.com]

• Pierre Dorion is in unique territory trying to sign two star players — Matt Duchene and Mark Stone — to eight-year extensions. [TSN]

• Would the Philadelphia Flyers take a run to bring Sergei Bobrovsky back to town? [NBC Philadelphia]

• A Baltimore brewery is coming out with the perfect beer in honor of the Washington Capitals. Fans will soon be able to enjoy some Cup Stand Pilsner. [RMNB]

• Which Pittsburgh Penguins defense pairings are working and which ones need to change? [Pensburgh]

• The time is right for more people of color to get the call from U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. [Color of Hockey]

• Has anyone not named Rantanen, Landeskog or MacKinnon picked up the pace in production this season for the Colorado Avalanche? [Mile High Hockey]

• Carter Hutton should be back in net for the Buffalo Sabres this week after missing Saturday’s game with an upper-body injury. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• Apparently it’s not too early for headlines like this: “Pettersson building early case as greatest Canuck in team history” [Sportsnet]

• “This fragile style of play is a contagion infecting everyone on this team and needs to be cured immediately.   The first step of the cure has been accomplished:  identification of the problem.  Now for the hard part the treatment, is Coach Berube part of that cure?” [Bleedin’ Blue]

• Why the NHL Department of Player Safety needs some fixing. [TXHT Hockey]

• We’re in the midst of a pretty enjoyable NHL scoring boom. [Featurd]

• Josh Ho-Sang is back up with the New York Islanders, but Barry Trotz says he feels “zero pressure” to insert him into the lineup. [Islanders Insight]

• Things look bleak now, but with the way that Adam Boqvist is playing for the OHL’s London Knights there’s some hope down the line for the Chicago Blackhawks. [NBC Chicago]

• Calgary Flames defenseman Oliver Kylington is showing he’s here to stay in the NHL. [EP Rinkside]

• Finally, if you missed it over the weekend, one week after Eeli Tolvanen scored his first NHL goal for the Nashville Predators, his brother Atte became the 11th goalie in NCAA history to score:

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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: Stamkos gets 700th point with hat trick; Howard sensational in win

Associated Press
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Three stars

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

Stamkos eclipsed the 700-point milestone in style on Monday as he scored a hat trick in a 6-3 win against the New York Rangers — the ninth of his career and first since 2014.

Stamkos has 701 points now in 696 games (363 goals and 338 assists). He’s the first player from the 2008 NHL Draft to reach the 700-point plateau and third in franchise history to do so after Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.

2. Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings

Beating the Los Angeles Kings isn’t too tough a task these days, but the Kings didn’t lose this one quietly.

And a big reason why they picked up the ‘L’ was Howard, who made 42 saves. The Red Wings are lucky he did and are fortunate they were able to score on three of their 18 shots on goal.

Howard improved his record to 10-6-4 with a .923 save percentage — the latter which ranks in the top 10 among starters.

3. Timo Meier, San Jose Sharks

Meier scored twice on Monday in a 5-2 win for the Sharks against the New Jersey Devils.

Meier now has 16 goals on the season, just five back from his career high of 21 set last season. He’s also up to 30 points, which is six back of his career high of 36, which was also set last season. He had those 21 goals and 26 points in 81 games last season. He’s up to 16 goals and 30 points with 53 games to go.

He’s going to shatter last year’s numbers, it would seem.

Highlights of the night

Drew Doughty‘s ankles hurting after this one:

Stamkos’ hat trick, including one of the goals where he’s falling over and still manages to roof it:

Passing, it’s a good thing:

Factoids

Scores

Penguins 2, Islanders 1

Red Wings 3, Kings 1

Lightning 6, Rangers 3

Sharks 5, Devils 2


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

Isles’ Clutterbuck injured after punch from Pens’ Letang

MSG
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This is a weird one, so let’s start from the beginning.

With the Penguins on the power play, Evgeni Malkin‘s one-timer deflected off Leo Komarov‘s stick and into the head of Thomas Hickey.

There was a quick bit of confusion amongst players before the referee came in to stop the play to make sure Hickey, who had blood on his visor, was OK.

While that was happening, Cal Clutterbuck, who was shadowing Kris Letang at the blue line, apparently didn’t hear the whistle or was upset that Letang, correctly, stopped playing and decided to cross-check him in the arm.

Letang, displeased with the cross-check, returned the favor with a punch that caught Clutterbuck high, sending rhe latter crumbling to the ice.

Clutterbuck struggled to get back up before skating hunched over off the ice. He was called for cross-checking on the play while Letang received a roughing minor.

Clutterbuck did not return to the game.

Hickey, meanwhile, left the game for a brief time before returning.


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

Avs’ duo of MacKinnon, Rantanen chasing rare feat

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One of the many downsides to the NHL’s goal-scoring decline over the past two decades has been the impact it has had on individual numbers and milestones. For quite a while it looked like the 100-point scorer was becoming a thing of the past, if it was not already entirely extinct. Between 2010-11 and 2017-18 it was a mark that was hit just eight times, and two of those were from Connor McDavid. In only one of those years (2017-18) did the league have multiple 100-point scorers.

There are currently 11 players around the league on a pace to do it this season, including the Avalanche duo of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. A pair of teammates hitting the 100-point mark in the same season would be a huge deal and put them in some pretty exclusive company as it has only been done six times over the past 25 seasons.

That list:

  • Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for the Washington Capitals in 2009-10
  • Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09
  • Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley for the Ottawa Senators in 2005-06
  • Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne for the Anaheim Ducks in 1998-99
  • Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg for the Colorado Avalanche in 1995-96
  • Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96

MacKinnon and Rantanen have both already topped 45 points this season.

Looking at that same 25-year time period only three other sets of teammates have had that many points through their team’s first 30 games: Alfredsson, Heatley and Jason Spezza for the 2005-06 Senators, Lemieux, Jagr, and Francis, for the 1995-96 Penguins, and Sakic and Forsberg for the 1995-96 Avalanche.

All of those sets of teammates went on to each top-100 points for the season.

(Spezza did not hit the 100-point mark for the Senators, only because of injury. He finished the season with 90 points in 68 games. He had not missed 14 games he almost certainly would have done so as well).

[Related: Avalanche sixth in this week’s PHT Power Rankings]

What stands out about the current Avalanche duo is that as of Monday they are both on pace for more than 120 points this season.

No one has hit that mark since Crosby did it during the 2006-07 season, and the only three times it’s happened in the salary cap era were the first two years coming out of the lockout when penalties, power plays, and goal-scoring briefly skyrocketed to near early-90s levels.

The last time a pair of teammates topped 120 in the same season was the Lemieux-Jagr duo in 1995-96. Before them? You have to go back to Lemieux and Kevin Stevens during the 1991-92 season, and then the Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey trio for the Edmonton Oilers during the 1985-86 season.

Overall, it’s been done just nine times in league history.

Given how rare it is and how difficult it is to maintain that kind of a pace of an 82-game season — especially in today’s NHL, even with the recent uptick in scoring — it’s asking an awful lot to expect them to do it. The 100-point mark, though, seems far more attainable as they would both need to maintain just around a point-per-game pace the rest of the season. Seeing as how they have both been point-per-game players for nearly a year-and-a-half now, it is not that far-fetched to think they can pull it off.

It is not the only piece of history they are chasing this season.

Rantanen and MacKinnon are currently first and second in the NHL’s scoring race.

The past five times teammates finished in the top-two in scoring:

  • Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos for the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Lightning lockout shortened season)
  • Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr for the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins
  • Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens for the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins
  • Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri for the 1986-87 Edmonton Oilers
  • Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri for the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers

The only other post-Original Six teammates to do it were Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito on a couple of different occasions for Boston Bruins in the 1970s.

This one seems a little more difficult if only due to the presence of McDavid and the season he is having for the Oilers. As long as he stays healthy you should probably bet on him to end up at the top of the scoring list, especially if new coach Ken Hitchcock is going to keep playing him 25 minutes per night.

Along with Gabriel Landeskog, Rantanen and MacKinnon give the Avalanche the NHL’s best line.

That trio has scored 45 percent of the team’s goals this season, while the Avalanche have outscored opponents by a 28-14 margin when all three are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play. They are the biggest reason the Avalanche are near the top of the NHL standings and on track to make the playoffs for a second year in a row.

(Data in this post via Hockey-Reference and 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.