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Get ready for full-strength Maple Leafs, as Nylander’s set to debut

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Even the Toronto Maple Leafs’ biggest haters should turn their frowns upside down for at least a little while, as hockey fans are rapidly approaching quite the gift.

Multiple reporters (including Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie) pass along word that William Nylander announced that he’ll play in the Maple Leafs’ next game, which takes place against the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday. To make the situation even more joyous, consider that the game is happening in Toronto.

To make things more delightful – and maybe excite a dork or two in advanceAuston Matthews hasn’t missed a beat since returning from injury. Thursday will only represent Matthews’ fourth game back in the lineup, yet he’s been making up for lost time, as the American star has five goals and two assists for seven points in three contests. (Yes, seriously.)

The Red Wings should expect to hold on for dear life, as Thursday represents the first time that we’ll get a full vision of what this Maple Leafs team can be in 2018-19: Matthews and Nylander joining John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly, and other talented offensive players to form what could be one of the most explosive offenses in recent history.

[Can they keep the band together beyond this season? That’s another story.]

Zooming out a bit, it will be fascinating to see how head coach Mike Babcock pieces things together.

Via Natural Stat Trick’s numbers, Matthews and Zach Hyman were far and away Nylander’s most common even-strength linemates last season. Hyman’s instead been lining up with Tavares and Marner lately, while Patrick Marleau and Kasperi Kapanen have been Matthews’ wingers.

It’s been noted that Kapanen was dreaming about Nylander returning, but will his buddy’s reemergence bump him down the Maple Leafs’ lineup? Someone has to get moved down the order, after all … unless Babcock boldly put Nylander on the third line with another overqualified forward in Nazem Kadri.

That’s anyone’s guess, and as hockey fans know, coaches tend to throw line combinations in a blender, anyway. Injuries, cold/hot streaks, and the scoreboard can all affect how things shake out.

Even so, it’s intriguing to see how some are drawing up combos.

Jeff Veillette, for example, argues for a line of Andreas Johnsson – Matthews – Nylander (with Tavares joined by Hyman and Marner) in this post for The Faceoff Circle. It’s interesting to see Veillette discuss salary cap implications in his explanation:

This line exists to win hockey games, not chess matches. If it was a chess match, it would probably be closer to what the coaching staff is doing to win hockey games – Patrick Marleau near the top to try to pad his point totals (in case he’s willing to waive his No-Movement Clause on the final year of his contract this summer), and Johnsson near the bottom to keep his production down (so he doesn’t cash in on his “prove it” year).

Stylistically, Nylander would certainly make a lot of sense back with Matthews, at least with Marner clicking so well as Tavares’ wingman. Nylander’s a right-handed shot who can create great opportunities for Matthews, while also punishing opponents severely if they overcommit to stopping that connection. It’s pretty terrifying to imagine having to deal with a pair of one-two punches on the scale of Matthews – Nylander and Tavares – Marner, especially considering how successful Toronto’s been, even at less-than-full-strength.

The Athletic’s Jonas Siegel also postulates (sub required) that Nylander could be a big boost to the Maple Leafs’ second power-play unit.

Putting Nylander in that group makes some sense. For one thing, that top group is dominating opponents. For another, Siegel notes that Babcock still gives plenty of PP ice time to Marleau, Jake Gardiner, and the second unit. Some might lean toward the “load up on one group” mantra, but it becomes increasingly sensible when you realize that top players often are the ones drawing penalties, so giving them a breather (rather than throwing them right back on the ice, or extending shifts) makes a lot of sense.

So, whether you go big picture or really get into the nuts and bolts, Nylander’s addition is a significant boon for the Maple Leafs.

Delightfully, it should bump an already-exciting team to an absolutely must-watch level.

And, hey, you could always go back to hating the Maple Leafs again when the games start to matter a bit more. You know, if hating the Leafs is your thing.

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.

Koskinen has Oilers thinking playoffs again

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A lack of quality goaltending was one of the reasons the Edmonton Oilers missed the playoffs last season. Cam Talbot, who was an integral part of Edmonton’s run to the playoffs in 2017, saw his numbers slip in a big way in 2017-18. Now, it’s another goalie that has the Oilers back in the playoff hunt.

Many hockey fans were left scratching their heads when Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli signed Mikko Koskinen to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. The move was a little random considering Koskinen hadn’t suited up in the NHL since the 2010-11 season. The 30-year-old had spent the previous five seasons in the KHL.

Talbot opened the year as the starter and Koskinen didn’t make his first appearance of the season until the nine-game mark, but things have changed. Not only is Koskinen coming off 24-save shutout over the rival Flames on Sunday, but he’s also been victorious in four of his last five and he has just one regulation loss since Nov. 20 (seven games).

Not only did Koskinen put an end to Calgary’s five-game winning streak on Sunday, he also helped extend his team’s streak to three games. So all this means is that the Oilers are just a single point behind the Vegas Golden Knights for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference and they’re also one point away from the San Jose Sharks, who are in third in the Pacific Division. The Oilers have played two fewer games than Vegas and one less than San Jose.

He now owns a 9-3-1 record with a 2.06 goals-against-average and a .929 save percentage. He’s been totally unbeatable at home, as he’s a perfect 6-0 with an 0.91 goals-against-average and a .970 save percentage. That’s unreal. His numbers on the road are a little less flattering, but he’s done enough to go 3-3 away from Rogers Arena.

If we take a deeper look at his numbers, only Pekka Rinne and Jaroslav Halak have better save percentages and only Rinne has a better goals-against-average. Of course, the small sample size is important to keep in mind, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Finn has played really, really, really well.

As good as Koskinen’s been, the Oilers will probably need Talbot at some point in the near future. Over the last five seasons, Koskinen has played more than 41 games just once. He’s currently on pace to play in 38 games, but you’d have to imagine that he’ll keep getting starts if he stays hot. Anyway, a wall will be probably be hit at some point.

But right now, Oilers fans aren’t worried about walls, they’re just glad to be back in the playoff hunt.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL’s broken playoff format; Can Matthews score 50?

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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.

• We’re still a few years away from the Seattle expansion draft, but The Tennessean is already looking ahead to who the Preds would protect in 2021. (The Tennessean)

• Speaking of protection lists, who will the Blue Jackets protect in 2021? (The Cannon)

• The New York Post’s Larry Brooks explains why the NHL’s playoff format is broken. (New York Post)

• The Ottawa Senators have gone through some tough times this season, but there are positives that have emerged. One of them is promising center Colin White. (Ottawa Citizen)

• Even though he’s missed some time with a shoulder injury, it’s not impossible that Auston Matthews scores 50 this season. (Toronto Sun)

• The Hockey News breaks down 10 things we’ve learned about the NHL so far in 2018-19. (The Hockey News)

• Sportscaster Rob Simpson is almost done visiting all 31 NHL arenas in 31 days. He’s doing all this to benefit Hockey Fights Cancer. (NHL.com)

• As you’d imagine, Matthew and Brady Tkachuk broke their share of windows while playing hockey in their driveway. (TSN.ca)

• Sports Illustrated takes a deeper look at the connection between being a younger sibling and becoming a goalie. (Sports Illustrated)

• Ready for this random fact? Former Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki was a perfect 17-0-0 against the Atlanta Thrashers during his career. I told you it was random. (Broad Street Hockey)

• It’s been a tough year for Kevin Shattenkirk in New York. What does the future hold for the veteran defeseman? (Blue Shirt Banter)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Is it too early to give Pettersson the Calder?

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Three Stars

1. Elias Pettersson

What’s easier: giving Pettersson the top star of Sunday, or just cutting through the red tape and handing him the Calder right now?

OK, the NHL can’t do that. After all, someone might close the 11-point gap between Pettersson (30 points) and every other rookie (Colin White‘s in second with 19), especially if the league is robbed of the glory of more Pettersson in the event of an injury.

His special Sunday really highlighted the gap between the Canucks wunderkind and everyone else. Pettersson scored the game-winning goal to go with four assists for a five-point performance. The kid is special, and you really don’t need the “for a rookie” caveat.

2. Brock Boeser

Normally, it might be best to lean away from placing two teammates in the top three, but sometimes you just have to acknowledge the truth. These two forwards are a blast to watch. The Boeser + Pettersson combo doesn’t merely make the Canucks palatable. If you’re not ready to go, they can absolutely dominate, stealing games for Vancouver in the process.

Boeser collected a hat trick as the Canucks bombarded the Blues by a 6-1 score:

3. Josh Morrissey

This is a tough call, as Morrissey’s teammate Mark Scheifele and Ducks forward Ondrej Kase also deserve serious consideration with their own three-point Sundays.

Morrissey gets the nod because his goal was a game-winner (Scheifele had three assists, while Kase’s goal and two assists lacked the GWG). Granted, it was the GWG in a lopsided game but … hey, we’re splitting hairs, here.

There were some nice goalie performances, yet with Mikko Koskinen being the only guy getting a shutout – and a light one, needings 24 saves – let’s hand the bronze to a skater.

Morrissey celebrated his first game in a week by collecting those three points as the Jets routed the Flyers. Along with the goal and two assists, Morrissey managed a +2 rating, three SOG, and one blocked shot.

Highlights

Admittedly, it’s strange to use the word “harmonious” to describe a hockey play, especially when Brad Marchand is involved. Such a description comes to mind here, though, as Marchand, David Krejci, and Torey Krug combine for an absolutely beautiful overtime game-winner:

While it doesn’t match the sheer beauty of that Krug tally, Connor McDavid scored the only goal of Edmonton’s 1-0 win against Calgary on another nice bit of puck movement:

Sunday featured at least a couple throwback “pad-stacking” saves, including this one by John Gibson:

Not hockey, but if you have even a passing interest in the NFL, this Miami Dolphins play is just bodacious. Honestly, “Miami Miracle” doesn’t even feel too over-the-top.

Lowlight

Here’s not how to help Cory Schneider, a goalie who’s been struggling for quite some time: the Devils were guilty of three own-goals on Sunday, with this one possibly being the most egregious:

Factoids

Montreal’s tight win against Chicago is more impressive when you realize the procession of penalties they faced, particularly during a high-stick-happy third period:

Could Mikko Koskinen be the latest goalie to flourish under Ken Hitchcock? He already started off pretty well for Edmonton, but the “low-event” Oilers have really helped him heat up:

More impressive: Marc-Andre Fleury‘s wins total(s), or his sweet, sweet pads?

Scores

VAN 6 – STL 1
WPG 7 – PHI 1
BOS 2 – OTT 1 (OT)
MTL 3 – CHI 2
ANA 6 – NJD 5 (SO)
VGK 4 – DAL 2
EDM 1 – CGY 0

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.

Milan Lucic gets in heavyweight fight after thunderous hit

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Much to the Edmonton Oilers’ chagrin, Milan Lucic isn’t the all-encompassing threat he once was. To be more precise, he’s not exactly the type who will score enough to justify his $6 million cap hit very often these days.

Lucic is still an enormous human, however, and sometimes you get a taste of what made him such a menacing presence in the past. Sunday stood as one of those examples, as Lucic delivered a thunderous check on Calgary Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic, then went toe-to-toe with Anthony Peluso in what seemed like a pretty even fight.

(You can watch it all in the video above.)

If you’re around an old-school type, you’ll probably overhear something about how this fight somehow propels the Oilers to victory rather than Ken Hitchcock’s patented “Connor McDavid scores the only goal” formula. Lucic kindly obliged following his first scrap of 2018-19:

Either way, the Oilers snagged a 1-0 win against the Flames, and Lucic looked like a beast, at least for that stretch. It hasn’t always been pretty, yet Edmonton will take it, especially when “it” qualifies as a win against their nearby rivals.

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.