NHL on NBCSN: Jets not worrying about Patrik Laine’s goal slump

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

WINNIPEG — Patrik Laine has been here before.

Mired in a scoring slump unbefitting of an elite goal scorer — one who has made a name for himself in the two-and-a-half years he’s played in the NHL with his signature release and near pin-point accuracy — Laine just hasn’t been the same player who set the league ablaze in the month of November.

It was then that Laine appeared to have the hockey equivalent of the Midas touch. Everything his stick graced ended up in the back of the net. A five-goal game, two more that ended with hat tricks, and 18 markers in 12 games had him flirting with the pantheon of some of the NHL’s best goal scorers.

Since then, Laine has only scored three times in 18 games dating back to Dec. 1. He’s gone stretches of six, five and four games without lighting the lamp and it has many concerned, questioning everything from his motivation to his morale.

Laine is a victim of his own doing in some of this. His rookie season produced 36 goals and he followed that up with a 44-goal campaign last season as he put up a fight against Alex Ovechkin in the race to the Rocket Richard Trophy. His theatrics in the month of November had people talking about him scoring 60, or more. And couple that effort with the fact that the Winnipeg Jets turned the corner last year and made their first push into the deep waters of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In short: expectations for Laine and for the team have never been higher. Gone are the days of merely hoping to get to the playoffs and fans yearning for a pedestrian 30-goal scorer.

The mob is ravenous now. They want Laine to hit 50, at least (he’s already amassed 104 in 197 career games). They want the Jets to win the Stanley Cup. Slumps, like the one Laine is currently treading water in, isn’t a part of this year’s game plan. It simply doesn’t compute.

And it’s not just the fans who are guilty of these expectations. They’re coming from within, too, including head coach Paul Maurice

“We’re all — I’m trying to find the right word — the one that popped into my head is ‘intoxicated’ by that shot,” Maurice said on Tuesday, just hours before the Jets pumped seven past the Colorado Avalanche — with none coming from Laine. “I’m doing it, too. When he crosses the blue line and he’s still four feet from the top of the circle and you know he’s going to shoot, I think there’s a chance this thing’s going in. How many guys in the league do you feel that way?

“If I was crossing the blue line you might as well just go get a Coke, because it’s not happening for you, you’re not missing anything. And then he kind of wears that frustration: ‘I can’t believe it didn’t go in. I’m going to use some Finnish words to describe how my play is.’ Would it be any different than when Connor McDavid winds it up from the tops of the circles and even though there’s five guys he’s gotta go through you think ‘Hey, there’s a chance he could do it,’ because you’ve seen it.”

Jets forward Bryan Little didn’t hesitate when asked if he felt that the expectations of Laine are too high.

“I think absolutely,” Little said. “Him and [Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston] Matthews being drafted [high], people are always going to compare and fight over who’s better for probably most of their careers. He’s one of those guys that if he doesn’t score in a few games he’s really down on himself – he feels like he should be giving himself opportunities to score every night and should be scoring every night.

“That’s pretty unrealistic, unless you can end the season with 82 goals. But for him, he puts a lot of pressure on himself to be that player. People expect that out of him now; he kind of put it on himself with how good he was and how much he scored right off the bat and I think people expect multiple five-goal games which is super unrealistic. But that’s what people expect.”

Laine, who leads the Jets with 24 goals this season (and is on pace to surpass his 44-goal mark from last year), has remained mostly mum when it comes to his current lot in life.

In the past, he declared that “hockey was hard” and that his confidence was lacking. When an elite goal scorer isn’t scoring, you kind of expect that life is a little in the dumps. Scoring goals makes an elite goal scorer happy. Not scoring does the opposite.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

“I would probably say the same things [now],” Laine said on Wednesday. “There’s been a big stretch where I haven’t scored, and so it’s kinda my specialty. It’s always frustrating when you’re not doing the right things. There’s still a lot of things you can do well for the team and that’s kinda my focus now, try to rather do those things and not worry about the goals because, eventually, they’ll come when you work hard and do small things right.

“I’m not saying these things because I want to score in the next game. I’m just saying this to you guys because this is how the thing is. I’ve had a couple of good responses in the last couple of years after I’ve said something like this, so hopefully, I can do some positive things on the ice and get over this bad stretch.”

Maurice feels Laine has made progress in the areas that a third-year pro should.

“He’s made progress in all the areas we need a 20-year-old to get better at,” Maurice said. “He’s still shooting the puck a ton. He’s had his stretches where he’s not scoring. He’s had his stretches when he’s absolutely on fire. We’ll take that. So many 20-year-olds can’t produce like he does at times. You’re constantly working his game to get more out of him. Like a lot of these kids that we’ve brought in, he’s been able to produce while they’re learning the game.

“So he’s getting better. A much, much better five-on-five hockey player than he was a year ago at this time. And as he gets physically stronger, he’ll be a little faster, the reads will come more natural to him. Eventually more zone time. I don’t know what his ceiling is. I wouldn’t be foolish enough to put one on him at this age. Great player, he’s going to get a lot better.”

What sparked Laine earlier this year was a move down the pecking order. Laine spent time a brief period on the fourth line before he was inserted on Adam Lowry‘s line as Maurice tried to stoke a fire.

It worked, with Laine finding adding some directness to his game and instilling in him the value of hard work in his own zone. From there, he was back on Little’s line, equipped with a new perspective, and it was off to the races.

Perhaps that’s what needs to happen again.

Maurice might say that Laine is getting better, but the eye test on some nights — arguably many lately — has shown a lethargic player struggling to find his way to the surface. His partnership with Little, despite some instances of brilliance, hasn’t formed the consistent chemistry wanted. One issue is the team has two other lines it would like to keep together, and the fourth line doesn’t see the minutes that Laine should be playing.

With Laine on the ice in 5v5 situations, shots for drop by 7.59 this year per/60, while shots against rise by 9.26 per/60. Numbers via Corsica.

Laine hasn’t been demoted during this spell, suggesting that Maurice is OK for the moment with having his sniper working within himself to sort out his issues.

“He’s just maturing, just getting older, being able to weather the times when you’re not putting the puck in the net,” Maurice said. “One of the positives is he doesn’t have to carry the weight of the team, that if he doesn’t score we can’t win. In the stretches where he hasn’t scored a lot, recently, we’re starting to see some real good improvements in his game, five-on-five. And that’s what we’re looking to do.”

Indeed, as good as Laine is, he isn’t tasked with carrying the team — in scoring or otherwise. It’s a luxury that Winnipeg has built over the years. They’re a team that’s deep enough to find scoring from all lines and can live without one of its top goal-getters not scoring for a while.

“If you’ve got a kid that can buy the hockey team time to teach and play him, that’s a real positive,” Maurice said.

John Walton (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Jets-Wild from Xcel Energy Center. Tappen, Milbury and Jeremy Roenick will anchor studio coverage.

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 Buzzer: Elvis, Ovechkin, and others who rocked

Elvis Ovechkin three stars pht buzzer
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Three Stars beyond Elvis and Ovechkin

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago blowing out Toronto will lead to some hand-wringing, no doubt. Yet, as much as that was on a tough night for Frederik Andersen, give the Blackhawks some credit. Toews topped all in that game with an outstanding four-point performance (two goals and two assists).

Saturday continued what’s been one heck of a month for Toews. The Blackhawks captained pushed his January total to 15 points (5G, 10A). Toews reached that total in just eight games, scoring at least one point in seven contests.

Scratch that. Toews has been on fire for a while now. He started off ice-cold with only two points in 11 October games. Toews took off after that, and has generated an impressive 41 points in his past 28 contests.

Underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik contributed to Chicago’s win, too, with three points (2G, 1A).

2. Riley Sheahan, Edmonton Oilers

Sheahan scoffs at Toews’ slow start. The journeyman forward failed to score a point in 12 October games, and managed one in 11 November contests. Sheahan went and matched his December points total (four in 14 GP) in one contest on Saturday.

That’s right, he generated four points, scoring an empty-netter plus three assists. Connor McDavid dominated in his own right with two goals, but Sheahan helped the Oilers rout the Coyotes. Josh Archibald generated three points (1G, 2A) as well.

This just in: the Oilers have a lot of “that guy’s still around?” forwards. It’s honestly cool to see some of them have such a strong day, and maybe take a bit of the pressure off McDavid here and there.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s as though Atkinson never missed any time. After scoring a goal and an assist in his first game in almost one month on Thursday, Atkinson generated three points (2G, 1A) on Saturday. This gives Atkinson seven points (4G, 3A) in his past four contests.

Others give Atkinson a run for his money, even beyond the next section. Jason Zucker (1G, 2A) and James van Riemsdyk (1G, 2A) both contributed to their respective teams’ blowouts. Atkinson’s extra goal gives him the edge.

OK, now let’s consider Elvis and Ovechkin

Saturday featured enough strong performances that it feels better to give these two a mention. After all, they already received their own posts. Yes, these two probably rank as the “real” third and fourth stars of Saturday, or higher, depending upon your personal taste.

Highlight of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury is suffering through a tough season, big-picture wise. “The Flower” keeps adding to his resume of breathtaking saves, though:

Comic relief

Jamie Benn provides us with a reason to laugh. At least those of us who aren’t immediately transported to our own memories of hilarious blunders.

That video summarizes the Stars’ night succinctly, as the Wild beat them 7-0.

Factoids

  • Ovechkin nabbed consecutive hat tricks to push his career goals total to 692. He passed Mario Lemieux (11th all-time, 690) and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time (692). Mark Messier sits just two goals away at eighth with 694. Ovechkin also generated consecutive hat tricks for the third time in his career. In doing so, Ovechkin joined Joe Malone (four times) and Wayne Gretzky (three) as the only players to generate consecutive hat tricks three or more times, according to NHL PR. Again, this post delves deeper into Ovechkin’s latest accomplishments.
  • Ovechkin’s teammate John Carlson reached 60 points. Carlson managed the feat in just 49 games, getting to 60 faster than any Capitals defenseman; Mike Green held the previous mark with 60 by game 57. Opinion: Green deserved better treatment from hockey folks during his peak years.
  • Merzlikins authored the 18th instance of a rookie goalie getting a shutout of at least 41 saves, via NHL PR.
  • Cale Makar scored his 11th goal, setting a new record for goals by a rookie Avalanche defenseman.
  • Dominik Kubalik reached 20 goals in his 47th game. NHL PR points out that Kubalik ranks among sixth Blackhawks to reach 20 goals in 50 games or less.

Scores

WSH 6 – NYI 4
COL 5 – STL 3
EDM 7 – ARI 3
OTT 5 – CGY 2
CHI 6 – TOR 2
MTL 5 – VGK 4 (SO)
FLA 4 – DET 1
PHI 4 – LAK 1
CBJ 5 – NJD 0
NSH 2 – BUF 1
MIN 7 – DAL 0
VAN 4 – SJS 1

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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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.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.