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Panthers’ Huberdeau is playing best hockey of his career

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Those who follow hockey closely were already aware that Florida Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau is a really, really good player. His red-hot start to 2018-19 brings up a question, though: is he even better than we realized?

If you’re putting together a list of the hottest players in the NHL, quite a few of the top-end Panthers would be on there, including recent import Mike Hoffman. But don’t forget about Huberdeau … you know, scratch that. Huberdeau is forcing people to take notice.

The Quebec native generated three points (one goal, two assists) as the Panthers crushed the Boston Bruins 5-0 on Tuesday. With that, Huberdeau extended his multi-point streak to six games, giving him three goals and 11 assists for a whopping 14 points.

This isn’t merely a matter of a hot six games. Consider that, since Nov. 21, Huberdeau’s 16 points in eight games ranks second only to Nikita Kucherov, who’s managed a remarkable 18 in his own eight games.

Overall, Huberdeau has seven goals and almost an assist per game (24 in 26) to give him 31 points this season.

The third pick of the 2011 NHL Draft isn’t sacrificing all-around play to boost his offensive numbers, as Huberdeau remains as strong as ever when you consider his possession stats, including relative ones.

Huberdeau’s hot start doesn’t merely revolve around lucky bounces. His 11.7 shooting percentage is right around his career average (11.2), and Huberdeau’s on-ice shooting percentage (8.4) is actually below his career mark (8.9).

Goals like these paint a picture about this not just being about playing alongside Mike Hoffman and probable future Selke winner Aleksander Barkov, either:

Speaking of that mega-line, Thursday presents a treat even if you don’t want to bask in the explosive offensive glory of the Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s because the Huberdeau – Barkov – Hoffman line will get to make its case as the best (or at least the hottest) line in the NHL, as they’ll face the Colorado Avalanche, employers of the deadly Mikko RantanenNathan MacKinnonGabriel Landeskog trio.

Even with Vincent Trocheck sidelined thanks to that grisly injury, you’d think the Panthers would sport a better record than 11-10-5, considering the brilliant work by Huberdeau, Hoffman, Barkov, and Keith Yandle. Sitting four points out of the East’s final wild card spot (tied with the Penguins and Senators for 12th place with 27 points) isn’t just disappointing, it’s at times confounding.

Maybe we’ll look at that 5-0 win against the Bruins as something of a turning point for a Panthers team that’s been in quite a few tumultuous, close games lately?

“We have had some games where we had the lead and it went to overtime or we lost in the final minutes,” Mike Matheson said, via The Athletic’s George Richards (sub required).

“To have a game that I would call a no-doubter is a good feeling. This is a confidence booster and we have to keep it going, do it again. But this was huge for our team.”

Perhaps it will be, as Roberto Luongo was finally back in action, pitching a shutout and possibly hinting toward the Panthers receiving the goaltending they’ve been sorely lacking.

A Florida team that combined solid-to-great goaltending with an already impressive arsenal? Sure, that would be scary, but we’ve seen that dream disintegrate plenty of times before, often as Luongo goes down with another injury. It remains to be seen if the Panthers can finally put it together after multiple false alarms.

That said, even if they fail to do so, it should be a lot of fun to watch Huberdeau and their other top players conduct some harmonic hockey, including against the Avalanche’s tremendous top trio on Thursday.

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.

Flyers’ Hart kept injury a secret, expected to miss 7-10 days

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PHILADELPHIA — Carter Hart’s injury happened before the Philadelphia Flyers’ 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night. The problem was he didn’t tell anyone about it until after Friday’s practice at Lincoln Financial Field ahead of the Stadium Series game (8 p.m. ET; NBC) against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

So when Flyers head coach Scott Gordon addressed the media Friday and announced that Brian Elliott would start the game, he had no idea Hart, whom many expected would be starting, was injured. Hart participated fully in the team’s practice and then spoke with reporters afterward and expressed his disappointment with the decision while not giving off any inkling something was up.

Gordon said that Hart’s injury was discovered Friday night by team doctors, one day after the he allowed three goals on nine shots.

“Carter, to his credit, was trying to fight through it [vs. Montreal], and it was a little more severe than he thought,” Gordon said.

The Flyers announced on Saturday morning that Hart would be out a “minimum of 10 days” with a lower-body injury. Gordon said hours before the Stadium Series game it would be more like 7-10 days. Either way, Hart will miss a handful of games and their two losses this week to Montreal and Tampa Bay — which Hart was pulled from both — effectively ended their already-slim chances at grabbing an Eastern Conference playoff spot.

After the injury was been discovered, Gordon looked back at the Canadiens game and could see something was up with Hart.

“I couldn’t tell if he was favoring,” Gordon said. “I don’t necessarily look at just the goals if I’m gonna pull the goaltender. It’s more about how he’s handling the rebounds and I felt like pucks were coming off him funny. Like the third goal, usually he puts that to the corner or he’s tied that up and it popped out in front and Robert Hagg cleared it to the corner. I don’t know if that had any impact. I don’t know. I haven’t spoken with him on the specific shots. It was a shot where he reached up and he got a piece of it but he didn’t handle it. There was a couple rebounds that I thought were kind of awkward. Whether that has to do with it or not, maybe it was on his mind. I don’t know.”

With Hart sidelined, that leaves the Flyers with Elliott and Cam Talbot as their options in net. With a back-to-back next Thursday and Friday against Columbus and New Jersey, that will likely see Talbot make an historic debut. Whenever Talbot gets into a game for the Flyers the franchise will set an NHL record by using its eighth goaltender this season.

MORE 2019 STADIUM SERIES:
Penguins ready to enjoy Stadium Series, but focus is on two points
Why Scott Gordon chose Elliott over Hart for Stadium Series start
2019 Stadium Series by the numbers
Simmonds’ mind on helping Flyers, not NHL trade deadline
Scott Hartnell Q&A

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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.

Skinner leaves game after leg injury, makes third period return

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For a second there, it looked horrible.

Jeff Skinner, writhing in pain on the ice after a gruesome-looking leg injury and having to be helped off the ice by teammates and then helped down the tunnel by trainers, seemed to be in bad shape.

The 26-year-old got tangled up with newly-acquired Washington Capitals forward Carl Hagelin during the second period of Saturday’s game.

Hagelin got his stick between Skinner’s shin pads and the latter’s left skate picked into the ice, twisting his ankle in ways it should not.

Skinner was in obvious pain as soon as he hit the deck, at one point trying to push with his right leg toward the Sabres bench.

He missed the rest of the second period but remarkably, given the video you just watched, returned for the third, much to the surprise of everyone.

Skinner laughed when he told Buffalo News Sports’ Lance Lysowki that the team has good training staff. Skinner said he felt pain immediately after the play but was fine once he got to the room to test it.

“There’s a lot of things that go through your mind,” Skinner said. “At first you’re just wondering what’s wrong with it. …The tests went pretty well and I was able to come back.”

Skinner has been a godsend for the Sabres with 36 goals, just one off his career-high set two seasons ago when he was with the Carolina Hurricanes. The Sabres splashed for Skinner in the offseason and he’s been worth every penny in the final year of his six-year, $34.350 million contract.

The Sabres sit seven points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference and had just three wins in their past 10 games heading into Saturday.


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

Oilers’ CEO not a fan of Connor McDavid suspension

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The Edmonton Oilers are none too pleased with the National Hockey League’s decision to suspend Connor McDavid two games for his headshot on New York Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy on Thursday night.

Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson defended McDavid during a meeting with the media on Saturday before the team took to the ice for their pre-game skate.

“We’re really disappointed with the NHL’s decision,” Nicholson said. “This is a first-time offense for Connor. Everyone knows Connor is a skilled player and I thought he did a very good job explaining what he was doing before there was contact with Leddy.”

The hit in question took place at the 17:32 mark of the first period. McDavid was handed a two-minute minor for an illegal check to the head on the play. Leddy stayed down for a bit and was summoned for concussion testing but returned for the second period and played out the rest of the game.

McDavid went on to score the overtime winner in a 4-3 win.

Nicholson said McDavid’s intent heading into the hit was to strip the puck from Leddy and when he realized he couldn’t do that, became small and didn’t try to level Leddy.

Nicholson then argued the hit’s principle point of contact (although it clearly was) wasn’t the head.

“I thought the contact started at the chest and there was a deflection into the head but it was a slight deflection into the head,” Nicholson said.

McDavid figured he wouldn’t be suspended prior to the hearing and figured he raised some good points about the hit, but said that once he heard the tone of the voice once in the meeting, he knew that wouldn’t be the case.

“I think a lot of times, you go in and they already have their mind made up,” McDavid said. “They don’t really care what you have to say.”

McDavid said it’s frustrating given that it’s a crucial time for the Oilers. Edmonton sits eight points back of the Minnesota Wild for the second wildcard in the Western Conference heading into Saturday’s action. The Oilers battle the Ducks later on in the day, who are one point ahead of them in the standings. Edmonton needs to leapfrog six teams over their next 22 games to head to the playoffs.

Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock said he feels McDavid deserved better but said the team can’t worry about it right now.

“We just have to keep going,” Hitchcock said. “Fighting the fight isn’t going to do us any good right now.

What goes on, suspension-wise, I’m even sure I know all the rules, to be honest with you,” Hitchcock said.

McDavid was non-committal on appealing the decision. Nicholson said he didn’t think McDavid would.


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

Stars acquire defenseman Lovejoy in trade with Devils

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DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas Stars acquired veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy in a trade with the New Jersey Devils on Saturday.

The Stars sent defenseman Connor Carrick and a 2019 third-round draft pick to the Devils in the deal reached two days before the NHL’s trade deadline.

Lovejoy is an 11-year veteran and defensive specialist who won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016. He was second on the Devils with 77 blocked shots while playing a key penalty-killing role. He has two goals and seven points in 51 games this season and 20 goals and 99 points in 524 career games.

General manager Jim Nill called Lovejoy ”an experienced, battle-tested player who has a track record of performing in meaningful late-season games.”

With Marc Methot out after season-ending knee surgery last month and Stephen Johns (neck/head) having not played this season, Lovejoy is a boost to the Dallas defense. The Stars reacquired defenseman Jamie Oleksiak from Pittsburgh in a trade last month.

The trade comes with Dallas seeking to keep pace in the congested Western Conference playoff race in which five points separate the seventh-place Stars and 12th-place Vancouver.

Dallas was 2-4-1 in its past seven games going into Saturday’s home game against Carolina. The Stars were coming off a 5-2 win Thursday over St. Louis that snapped a franchise-record 11-game winning streak by the Blues.

New Jersey was 14th in the 16-team Eastern Conference.

The 24-year-old Carrick had a goal and four points in 14 games with the Stars this season.

Lovejoy was a healthy scratch when the Devils played Thursday against Ottawa. Lovejoy had a plus-one rating in his 51 games, one of only two New Jersey’s regulars in the positive.

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