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

Hats off to Tavares’ fantastic first season in Toronto

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However you feel about John Tavares joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can’t deny how great he’s been during his first season with the team he rooted for as a child.

It’s possible that Monday represented his best game yet with the Maple Leafs.

For the 10th time in his already fantastic NHL career – and already the second time since joining the Maple Leafs – Tavares generated a hat trick. He did so through two periods of Monday’s game against the Florida Panthers, and actually added a fourth goal during the final frame as Toronto outgunned the Panthers 7-5. With that, Tavares enjoyed his first-ever four-goal game.

As you can see from the highlights of his hat trick above and the fourth goal below, the goals were very much of Tavares’ trademark: “greasy” goals in the dirty areas in front of the net. If you combined the distance of all four goals, they might only match that single center-ice goal by Sam Reinhart.

Tavares has already crossed the 40-goal barrier for the first time in his career, and the milestones are piling up from there, as this performance pushes him to 45 goals and 86 points in 76 games. Consider the following:

via Getty Images

Impressive stuff.

There’s a lot of angst in the air in Toronto right now, and a win might only do so much to soothe concerns, as a 7-5 win isn’t exactly “pretty.” At least if you’re wanting to tighten things up, as Mike Babcock surely hopes to do heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But imagine if Tavares was a flop, instead of a slam-dunk success, during his first season with the Maple Leafs? Instead, he’s playing at such a level that he might just help Toronto to simply “outscore its mistakes.”

Either way, it certainly doesn’t seem like signing Tavares was a mistake.

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.

Center-ice goal is latest low moment for Devils’ Schneider

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The lows have been far, far more frequent for Cory Schneider during the last few seasons, to the point that it was fair to wonder if he’d ever restore his NHL career. Monday represented one of the lowest lows, even if center-ice goals happen to just about all goalies – from the elite to the going obsolete.

Schneider could do little but shake his head after Sam Reinhart‘s bouncing attempt beat him from center ice. You can watch that unfortunate moment in the video above this post’s headline.

That lucky/sneaky goal marks the 20th of the season for Reinhart, who’s quietly been one of the more promising stories of a disappointing finish for the Buffalo Sabres.

It isn’t lost on Hockey Twitter that the New Jersey Devils are probably better off losing, so at least there’s that?

This unfortunate gaffe actually does inspire a look at Schneider’s recent stats, and that’s where there’s at least some muted optimism.

Heading into Monday’s game, Schneider’s managed a promising .920 save percentage in his last 14 games. That’s quite an improvement considering Schneider only played in nine games before February, slogging through a miserable .852 save percentage.

A couple promising months don’t erase a couple very discouraging years for Schneider, but it’s telling that, despite all of these tough recent times, Schneider’s career save percentage is still stellar at .919. The 33-year-old hasn’t been that goalie since 2015-16, but if he could even become a decent 1A/1B goalie, that could give the Devils a considerable boost.

He’ll need to shake off moments like these, though.

Update: That ended up being the only goal Schneider allowed, as he stopped 45 shots in New Jersey’s 3-1 win against Buffalo.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Predators visit Wild on NBCSN

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

The Predators and Wild wrap up their season series to start the penultimate week of the regular season. Both teams come in off blowout losses on Saturday that had major impacts on their respective playoff races.

Nashville lost 5-0 in Winnipeg, putting a major dent into the Predators’ quest to win a second straight Central Division title. A win would have moved the Preds even on points with the Jets atop the division, but instead Nashville suffered one of their worst losses of the season.

The Wild were handed a much more crucial defeat, falling 5-1 at Carolina. Minnesota came into Saturday’s game on a high after winning 2-1 at Washington the day prior. Devan Dubnyk started a second straight night as the Wild looked to take control of the second Wild Card spot in the West.

The Predators’ loss to the Jets on Saturday not only hampered their hopes to win the division, but it also allowed the Blues to pull closer to Nashville for second in the Central. What was a six-point lead just over a week ago has now dwindled to a two-point advantage, with St. Louis having a game in hand.

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

What: Nashville Predators at Minnesota Wild
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: Monday, March 25, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Predators-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

PREDATORS
Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Calle JarnkrokColton SissonsCraig Smith
Rocco GrimaldiKyle TurrisMikael Granlund
Brian BoyleNick BoninoWayne Simmonds

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Matt IrwinYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

WILD
Jason ZuckerEric StaalKevin Fiala
Jordan GreenwayLuke KuninRyan Donato
Marcus FolignoVictor RaskJoel Eriksson Ek
Matt ReadEric FehrJ.T. Brown

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinBrad Hunt
Nick SeelerGreg Pateryn

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Pre-game coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Jones and Patrick Sharp.

Drew Doughty continues beef with Flames’ Tkachuk

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The Los Angeles Kings are in Calgary on Monday night and that means it is time for defenseman Drew Doughty to continue what has become a longstanding feud with Matthew Tkachuk.

The 21-year-old Tkachuk has only been in the league for three years but has already earned himself quite the reputation as being one of the NHL’s most irritating players to play against, and no one seems to share that opinion more (publicly, anyway) than Doughty.

On Monday, he was asked about the “rivalry” that currently exists between the Flames and Kings only to downplay it as nothing more than Tkachuk going after him all the time.

“Our rivalry is not even close with this team compared to other teams,” said Doughty. “I think most of it is just because of Tkachuk going after me is why the rivalry kind of started. We never really had a playoff series against this team, never really had any big games against this team, so I think the rivalry just kind of started with all that [expletive].”

He did not stop there.

Doughty also said, via Sportsnet’s Eric Francis, that he has “no respect” for the Flames’ forward and that he will never talk to him off the ice, while also adding that Tkachuk is not respected by most  players in the league.

This is not the first time Doughty has publicly sounded off on Tkachuk or cited other players in the league not respecting the Flames’ forward.

A lot of this started during Tkachuk’s rookie season when he earned a two-game suspension for elbowing Doughty in the head, sparking this reaction from the Kings’ defender.

“He’s a pretty dirty player, that kid. To be a rookie and play like that is a little surprising. I don’t know exactly what happened because I got hit in the head, but I thought he elbowed me. I can’t tell you for sure, so I’m not going to say if I think anything should happen, but whatever it was, it hurt pretty bad, and it’s going to hurt for a little bit.”

This is the play that resulted in the two-game suspension.

The feud has only continued to escalate from there, including this little exchange in the penalty boxes early in the 2017-18 season…

… which was followed by Doughty saying later in that year that he is “pretty sure” Tkachuk is the most hated player in the NHL.

“I’m pretty sure he might be,” Doughty told Francis back in January, 2018. “I have lots of friends on other teams and they don’t love him either. But whatever, that’s how he plays.”

If nothing else, this might add some heat to what would be an otherwise dull game between a team (Calgary) that is rolling toward a division title and another team (Los Angeles) that is rolling toward the draft lottery.

It is also worth keeping in mind this fact about Tkachuk: For all of the talk about him as a pest and agitator, he is also one heck of a hockey player that has developed into a top-line player. His production has consistently improved across the board every year he has been in the league and he enters Monday’s game with 76 points (34 goals, 42 assists) in 75 games and is one of the league’s leading scorers.

He is one of four Flames players in the top-25 in the points race, joining Johnny Gaudreau (7th), Elias Lindholm (21st), and Sean Monahan (25th). Together they are a big part of why the Flames have emerged as a surprising Stanley Cup contender in the Western Conference.

Doughty, meanwhile, is having what might one of his worst seasons in the NHL and enters Monday’s game with five goals, 36 assists, and a minus-30 rating that is among the league’s worst.

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.