NHL on NBCSN: Kovalchuk expected back as Kings visit Sharks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Saturday afternoon’s matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks with coverage beginning at 4 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks meet with a mountain of points between them in the Pacific Division standings.

The Sharks are sitting pretty in second place in the division while the Kings are plumb last in the Western Conference.

Still, it’s the Kings who are coming off a big win — a 4-1 triumph against the mighty Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday — and will be looking to build on that against the Sharks.

Los Angeles is also expected to get a boost to their lineup with the return of Ilya Kovalchuk, who has missed the past 10 games with an ankle injury. Perhaps the time off for Kovalchuk has also served as a reset for the 35-year-old, who went 11 games without a point prior to getting injured.

For the Kings, Saturday’s game is a chance to find some consistency.

“Being OK is a term that our (former) coach Darryl Sutter used back in the day. ‘OK is not OK.,’” Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said after the Winnipeg win. “What he meant by that was, you know, you can’t be satisfied with coming in and just playing OK and going through the motions. In order to get consistent as an individual, you need to want to play amazing every single night. You need to want to make a difference every single night.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 4 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Unlike the Kings, the Sharks are coming off a defeat to the Jets, who beat them 5-3 on Thursday on the back of Nikolaj Ehlers‘ hat trick.

It was San Jose’s first loss in five games, so think of it as more of a blip on the radar screen than anything else.

San Jose has been enjoying a more comfortable Erik Karlsson, who is finding his groove with his new team. Karlsson enters Saturday riding a seven-game point streak with eight assists during that span.

“He’s been great,” Sharks forward Evander Kane said. “You can tell he’s gotten a lot more comfortable out there. He’s making some of those plays that we’ve all seen him make. I think as a group we’re getting used to him as well. It’s a little bit of both, and it’s starting to click.”

The Sharks have benefitted from a revitalized power play as of later. In their first 18 games of the season, they were just 10-for-57 (17.5%) but have nearly doubled that over their past 18, going 16-for-50 (32%).

Randy Hahn (play-by-play) and Jim Fox (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from SAP Center San Jose. Paul Burmeister hosts studio coverage alongside analyst Mike Johnson.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Berube’s Blues playing well enough to make run at playoffs

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

This is not Brayden Schenn‘s first rodeo with a lot of things this season.

It is his second time playing under Craig Berube as an interim coach and the third time his name has been prominent in trade speculation. For Schenn and the St. Louis Blues, those things are related.

A bad start to the season cost coach Mike Yeo his job in November and started talk that just about anyone from Schenn to star winger Vladimir Tarasenko to young defenseman Colton Parayko could be dealt away. But over the past two month as interim coach, Berube has turned things around – so much so that the Blues could make a run at the playoffs and keep general manager Doug Armstrong from selling ahead of the Feb. 25 trade deadline.

”Guys are playing hard right now and (Berube) obviously commands a lot when it comes to the work ethic side of the game,” Schenn said Monday in Washington. ”We’ve had high expectations right from the beginning, we didn’t meet them, then there’s tons of rumors about everyone. That’s kind of how it goes when you’re not winning and you’re not meeting expectations.

”Now we’re in a position – closer, anyways – to make a playoff push, and we feel like we can in this locker room. Now it’s up to us to try and save ourselves, each other, from getting traded and staying here together.”

Berube has pulled the Blues together by getting them back to basics. They’ve gone 5-2-1 in their past eight games to move within four points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and can now think about the postseason.

”This is such a good team here, and we’re starting to get back to our game,” leading scorer Ryan O'Reilly said. ”We can get into the playoffs. We can make a difference.”

After trading for O’Reilly and signing forwards David Perron, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon last summer, the Blues were expected to make the playoffs and contend for the Stanley Cup. Twelve losses in their first 19 games led to the coaching change, and Berube has instilled some badly needed consistency.

”He’s one of those guys that wants you to make plays, but he demands a lot,” captain Alex Pietrangelo said. ”He wants you to work. And we’re working right now. That’s what we’re doing. That’s how we’re winning hockey games.”

Berube, who also was interim coach for Schenn and the Philadelphia Flyers in 2013-14, has helped the Blues win games by changing their mentality to become more of a north-south team. There was never a shortage of talent, but now the direction of the action is straight toward the net with the kind of direct style more suited to the group’s size.

”We control the puck in the offensive zone a lot,” Berube said. ”We shoot the puck and get to the net. That’s our game.”

It helps that the Blues are getting stellar goaltending from rookie Jordan Binnington and veteran starter Jake Allen of late. Binnington is 3-1-0 with a 1.55 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in his first four NHL starts after getting called up at age 25 and being asked to steady the ship.

”With a little bit of pressure comes opportunity,” Binnington said. ”You try to do your best to feel confident and prepared for the moment, so you just work hard off the ice and on the ice in practice, and when the moment finally comes, hopefully you’re prepared. That’s kind of how I looked at it.”

Blues skaters look at their rough start not as a case of subpar goaltending but disastrous play in front of the net. Schenn said it was ”ugly” early on, and Pietrangelo said the team has done a better job cutting down on rush chances against, which has made life easier for the goalies.

”We’re playing more of a 60-minute hockey game,” said Allen, who has a .910 save percentage this season under Berube (it was .879 under Yeo). ”We were finding ways to shoot ourselves in the foot prior to that. We’d play 20 minutes of good hockey, 20 minutes of bad hockey, 20 minutes of mediocre hockey and sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. But right we’re getting goals and we’re hunkering down, but at the same time we’re still finding a way to capitalize on opportunities.”

More than anything, the Blues need to pile up the points to go from last place in the Central Division at the time of Yeo’s dismissal to the playoffs after missing by one point last season. Berube gets a lot of credit within the locker room for establishing a foundation of success.

”He’s just brought some stability to the group,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. ”He’s definitely made an emphasis on character and compete. I think that’s something we all needed as a group and something we’re going to need night in and night out.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

‘Dinosaur’ defensemen like Orpik survive in NHL by adapting

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

When John Tortorella compares Brooks Orpik to a creature that went extinct 65 million years ago, he means it affectionately.

”He’s a little bit of a dinosaur because he hits, and there isn’t a lot of hitting in this game,” Tortorella said.

Orpik, who helped the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup last season and played his 1,000th NHL regular-season game Tuesday, is certainly a rarity. Big, rugged, defensive defensemen are going the way of prehistoric animals, mask-less goaltenders, helmet-less skaters and enforcers, except the ones like Orpik who have adapted to keep pace with the speed of modern hockey.

”I think if you don’t adapt to where the league’s going, then you’re pushed out,” Orpik said. ”If you weren’t willing to adjust how you trained or maybe shed some weight, that would push you out of the league. … There’s that and there’s obviously more of an emphasis on being able to move the puck up quickly.”

NHL teams are looking for the next Erik Karlsson or Thomas Chabot, smaller, more mobile defenseman who can lead the rush and pile up the points. Slower, play-it-safe defensemen like 6-foot-7, 245-pound Hal Gill don’t roam the ice anymore, and those players must approach the game differently.

”I’ve heard people come up and say, ‘Hey, my kid plays just like you,”’ Gill said. ”And I’m like, ‘Well, you better change quick.”’

Tortorella, who coached Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup in 2004 and is in his fourth season with Columbus, sees value in big ”miserable” defenders who can play a tough game. He believes the loss of that kind of player has contributed to an increase in scoring over recent years – which is what the NHL wants at the expense of old-school muscle.

Players like Orpik and St. Louis’ Robert Bortuzzo are far less prevalent than when Gill stayed in the NHL for 16 years from the late 1990s through 2013. Bortuzzo thinks the term ”stay-at-home” doesn’t apply anymore; even slow defensemen have to do more than just sit back, hit and defend like they used to.

”’Defensively conscious’ would probably be a better term nowadays and one that fits the game,” the 6-4, 216-pound Bortuzzo said. ”At this stage of the game, you need to be able to join the rush, you need to be able to move pucks. … The days of a defenseman not being able to skate and keep up with the pace of play is done. Guys are too fast and moving too quick.”

No one’s confusing Orpik, Bortuzzo, Vegas’ Deryk Engelland or Buffalo’s Zach Bogosian for speed demons, but puck moving helps those players stay in the NHL. Bortuzzo said his focus has always been on his skating, and similarly Orpik and Boston’s Zdeno Chara have worked with skating coach Adam Nicholas to adapt.

Even if they can’t get markedly faster, they can better manage their skates and sticks and use their size as an advantage.

”What I work on with those guys a ton is just always giving them good footwork-type drills and suggestions to allow them to still be able to control space and tempo,” Nicholas said. ”What we talk a lot about is continuing to be puck-moving machines and how to always stack decks in your favor to have time and space, control it and transition pucks very quickly.”

Todd Reirden, during his time as a Penguins assistant, helped Orpik evolve from a hit-seeking missile to a defensive stalwart. Orpik began picking his spots for hits and using his stick more to defend.

”That has allowed him to still have the physical element when he needed to around the net front against some of the skill guys,” said Reirden, who now coaches Orpik with the Capitals. ”He’s been able to really change his game to fit into today’s hockey.”

Orpik cites former Pittsburgh teammate Kelly Buchberger as the greatest influence on him as a young player. Buchberger hasn’t played since in 2004 but has since seen Orpik become an example for younger players of the same ilk.

”Players have to adjust to the new rules in the game. He’s adjusted very well,” said Buchberger, a retired winger who coaches the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans. ”If you have players like that, you don’t want to get rid of those players.”

Coaches and teammates all love guys who save goals with blocked shots, big hits and provide some snarl. Gill sees value in the kind of simplicity Hall of Fame Nicklas Lidstrom played with, and having contrasting styles on the blue line allows skilled, jump-up-in-the-play defensemen to take some more risks and score goals.

”They’re a real good safety valve a lot of time for D-men who do want to get up the ice and move the puck,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. ”You can’t just have offensive defensemen throughout your lineup. You want to have guys who will take care of the back end. You need guys that can play both ends of the ice.”

BOB BACK IN BLUE

The Columbus Blue Jackets made quick work of an ”incident” involving goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky last week after he was pulled from a game at Tampa Bay, punishing him by making him miss a game, meeting with him and getting him back with the team the next morning. Captain Nick Foligno said the leadership group, coaching staff and front office are adept at pushing aside distractions – which is important given that Bobrovsky and scoring winger Artemi Panarin could be free agents this summer.

”No matter who it is, it’s all right, we’re going to handle the situation and get back to what really matters and that’s trying to win hockey games,” Foligno said. ”We’re trying to win hockey games, trying to become a Stanley Cup champion and nothing’s going to get in the way of that. That’s kind of the message for everybody.”

POWERFUL PACIFIC

The first-place Calgary Flames have won five in a row, the San Jose Sharks seven in a row and the Vegas Golden Knights eight of their past 10. Move over, Central Division, the Pacific is where the power is out West, especially with San Jose rolling behind Erik Karlsson.

”Our game’s in a good spot,” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski. ”The standings are tight. You see Calgary winning every night, you see Vegas winning every night. You throw us in there. We’ve been on a good stretch.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Winnipeg Jets visit the Nashville Predators on Thursday night in a matchup of the top two teams in the Central Division.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 33; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 53; Points: Kucherov, 75; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:42; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 26; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.16; Save percentage: Jack Campbell (Los Angeles), .930.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

NHL on NBCSN: Rangers look to continue to build off Quinn’s challenge

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Well, that was one way to respond.

After a postgame tongue lashing through the media following Sunday’s 7-5 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, David Quinn’s team responded with a 6-2 victory on Tuesday. 

The stars maybe aligned for that New York Rangers win when you considered the motivation they had after getting publicly called out by their head coach, plus the fact that the Carolina Hurricanes hadn’t won at Madison Square Garden in 15 tries (before Tuesday), dating back to Jan. 5, 2011.

“I think we had played three good games before the debacle in Columbus,” Quinn said after the win. “I think we built off that and moved past what happened in Columbus. Guys took ownership of it and righted a wrong.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

All that changed against the Hurricanes as the Rangers came out and scored 76 seconds into the game and would score twice more in the first period for a solid start. Any time a team has a horrible game, there’s a desire to get right back out there to fix what went wrong. New York only had to wait 48 hours.

“Thank God we had a game this quickly after that one, get a chance to redeem ourselves,” said forward Mika Zibanejad. “We knew what we had to do. We talked about it. The way we play and the system we have, we didn’t really have that against Columbus. I thought we did a better job with that, and it showed.”

With games against Chicago and Boston before a break consisting of their bye week and the All-Star break, building off that rebound win will be at the top of their minds. Playoffs aren’t in the plans for this season, but strides taken by some of their younger players is what general manager Jeff Gorton will want to see. With a little over a month until the Feb. 25 trade deadline, there are a good number of decisions still to be made. Every game from here on out is an evaluation.

John Walton (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher will have the call from Madison Square Garden.

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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.

Off the Ice: Brad Marchand makes cannoli, explains licking opponents

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This week’s edition of Off the Ice with Kathryn Tappen featured Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins. The two headed to Mike’s Pastry in Boston to make some cannoli and talk about his career.

The topic of licking opponents came up and Marchand explained why he took a taste of Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Callahan‘s face during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“His visor was in my face and I was like ‘this will probably piss him off,’ so I tried to do it, tried to get him to hit me and draw a penalty and it kind of went the other way,” he said. “Yeah, that was definitely a decision that [you] go back in time and you would play out a little differently.”

Check out the episode above as Tappen and Marchand also talk about where his edge on the ice comes from and his penchant for pranks. Episodes will premiere exclusively on NBCSports.com/OffTheIce and YouTube each week.

Previous Off the Ice episodes:
Duncan Keith
Mika Zibanejad

Off the Ice with Kathryn Tappen takes viewers away from the rink and behind the scenes with some of the NHL’s most intriguing players, as they share their personal lives and unique hobbies with NBC Sports’ Emmy Award-Winning host and sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen.

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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.