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Sabres slip out of playoff position behind Habs, Isles

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Back in late November, the Buffalo Sabres lead the entire NHL in points. Now they wouldn’t even have a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began as of late Saturday night.

Things can change with 37+ games left in the season for these teams, but it’s increasingly looking like there will be a three-team race for two East wild-card spots between the Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Islanders.

(Again, the Bruins, Penguins, and Blue Jackets rank among teams in the top three spots of their divisions who could conceivably slip, while perhaps the Panthers or Hurricanes could go on a wild run.)

Here’s how the bubble wrapped on a busy Saturday:

Montreal Canadiens climb to first wild-card spot: 24-17-5, 53 points, 46 games played, 22 regulation/overtime wins.

After losing three of their last four games, the Habs shut down the struggling Avalanche 3-0 on Saturday.

All three of Montreal’s goals came in the third period of that tight contest, with the last being an empty-netter. Brett Kulak‘s shorthanded goal ended up being the game-winner, while Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored an emphatic 2-0 tally.

Carey Price pitched a 28-save shutout at home in this one.

Schedule note: Over the next three games, Montreal will rotate home and away contests. After that, they’ll have a great opportunity to solidify their place as a playoff contender, as they’ll enjoy a seven-game homestand from Jan. 19 – Feb. 9.

New York Islanders lose, stay in second WC: 24-15-4, 52 points, 43 GP, 22 ROW.

Islanders fans probably aren’t happy today, as their team lost in regulation to the hated Rangers.

The bigger picture looks quite sunny, though. In fact, considering their games in hand, it’s quite possible that the Islanders could finish in the Metro’s top three, and maybe even grab home-ice for the first round. To sweeten the deal, consider that they’ve played 20 home games versus 23 on the road, so it’s mostly coming up Trotz-house.

Schedule note: This loss starts a four-game homestand on a tough note, but they’ll get a chance – and a challenge – in closing off a back-to-back by hosting the Lightning on Sunday.

Buffalo Sabres fall to ninth place: 23-16-6, 52 points, 45 GP, 20 ROW

Uh oh.

Buffalo’s lost three of four and only won three times in their last 10 games (3-6-1 during that stretch). While they have the same 52 standings points as Montreal, the Canadiens hold two more games in hand and two ROW.

It’s not time to panic, especially since Buffalo has a game in hand on Montreal. That said, with Montreal nearing a slate of home games fairly soon, Buffalo’s readying for quite the opposite, in the short term.

Schedule note: The Sabres are going to need to dig deep, as they’re set to being a five-game road trip on Monday.

The key will be to keep their heads high, even if that does go badly, because they’ll begin February with a seven-game homestand. Considering how all-or-nothing their schedule is, don’t be surprised if Buffalo’s streaky for the next month.

***

Again, there are other changes that could come to these East playoff races, but if it comes down to the Sabres, Islanders, and Canadiens jockeying for two spots, it could be very interesting to watch. The see-saw effect could be especially profound for Montreal and Buffalo, but we’ll see.

Overall, the Sabres have to hope that things go differently than they did on Saturday, but the Habs certainly wouldn’t mind.

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.

Johansen suspended two games for high-sticking Scheifele

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Nashville Predators center Ryan Johansen received a two-game suspension for high-sticking Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets.

Johansen was whistled for a two-minute minor during the game itself, which ended with the Jets beating the Predators 5-1 on Thursday.

The NHL demands that players be in control of their sticks at all times, and in this case, the Department of Player Safety asserts “that this is not a case where a player is so off balance or otherwise out of control of his stick, that a play can be sufficiently be penalized by the on-ice officials.” Ultimately, the league determined that Johansen handled his stick in a “reckless and irresponsible manner,” prompting the two-game suspension:

As the above video notes, Johansen doesn’t have a prior history of supplemental discipline. There’s no mention of a (lack of) injury factor for Scheifele, who was able to continue playing on Thursday.

The Predators face the Panthers in Nashville on Saturday and the Avalanche in Colorado on Monday, Jan. 21. Johansen is eligible to return to Nashville’s final game before the All-Star break (Jan. 23 at the Vegas Golden Knights).

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.

So, who will win the six 2019 All-Star Skills events?

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The NHL announced the six events for the 2019 SAP NHL All-Star Skills (competition no longer) on Friday, noting that the winner of individual events will receive $25K. The event will air on NBCSN, with things slated to run at Friday, Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. PT/ 9 p.m. ET.

Here’s a quick look at each event, with some speculation regarding who might win:

  • Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater

Last year, Connor McDavid became the first-ever repeat winner of fastest skater, but Dylan Larkin owns the best-ever time from 2016. Larkin isn’t slated to be at the ASG weekend (barring injuries?), but Mathew Barzal could conceivably push McDavid.

It would be cool for McDavid to threepeat, even if it would be way more fun if 97 was instead winning, you know, more actual hockey games.

  • Enterprise NHL Premier Passer

This event has been a “wild card” of sorts in the skills competitions past, right down to the particulars. Usually there are adorable mini-nets, and this years will include that too. Here are the three phases of competition, via the NHL:

(1) Breakout Pass, where each player is given 10 pucks to attempt to make a pass to three “players”; (2) Mini Nets, where each player must complete a pass over a barricade and into each of four mini nets; and (3) Target Passing, where each player must complete successful passes to all targets that randomly light up every three seconds. 

It’s tough to say that anyone would really have the “inside track” on this event. Alex Pietrangelo won in 2018.

The randomness is part of the fun, though … especially when trying to hit a tiny net in tough situations also leads to frustrations.

The players might not love it, though.

  • Ticketmaster NHL Save Streak

In 2018, Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 14 shootout attempts in a row, beating Pekka Rinne by one. Fleury and Rinne will get a chance in the 2019 version, while Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s sheer athleticism makes him a great bet to push the two veterans this time around. This shootout-related competition lends itself to some fun and absurd moments, so expect nothing less in 2019.

  • Gatorade NHL Puck Control

In the last edition of this event (which goes through three phases of puck control, with the “gate” portion providing particular zaniness), Johnny Gaudreau absolutely killed it. He figures to be tough to beat in this regard, although the NHL is brimming with talented puckhandlers, so who knows?

  • SAP NHL Hardest Shot

The savage simplicity of all those slap-shots has made the hardest shot one of the most entertaining portions of All-Star weekends for decades now. Reigning champion Alex Ovechkin is sitting this year out, so the field opens up.

Actually, quite a few of the go-to choices for hardest shot aren’t slated to be in the 2019 edition. Frequent threats Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber aren’t on the rosters, and Dustin Byufglien would otherwise present a possible threat. Maybe Brent Burns will take it in 2019 in front of a partisan crowd, even after he wasn’t rifling them like many expected last time?

  • Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting

Last year, Brock Boeser began his magical All-Star weekend by winning the accuracy challenge. It looks like Boeser won’t be around to defend that title (nor his 2018 ASG MVP), though.

This eye-friendly competition often comes down to who has the hot hand, but when you look at who’s shooting a high percentage despite heavy volume this year, some favorites emerge: Elias Pettersson (if healthy), Jeff Skinner, and Auston Matthews rank as just a few of the players who could shoot with the highest level of precision.

It would be pretty fun if the Vancouver Canucks saw one ray of hope (Pettersson) follow another (Boeser the year before) in All-Star Games, especially since Pettersson’s just been so much fun.

Who would you expect to win each competition, though? Which events do you look forward to the most?

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

Looking back at the 2018 All-Star Skills

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.

Berglund feels at peace a month after quitting Sabres

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Patrik Berglund tells Sweden’s Hockeypuls.se he feels at peace and has no regrets after abruptly ending his hockey career by walking away from the Buffalo Sabres a little over two months into the season.

”I just knew I had to go home to find myself again,” Berglund told the publication in speaking for the first time since the Sabres terminated the final three-and-a-half years left on his contract last month. The Sabres acted after suspending Berglund on Dec. 15 when he failed to report for the game at Washington.

Berglund was interviewed at his home in Vasteras, Sweden. The story was published in Swedish on Friday and translated by Google.

Berglund says he lost some of his passion for hockey last summer after being traded to Buffalo by St. Louis. Berglund was the Blues first-round draft pick in 2006 and spent 10 seasons in St. Louis.

He says he had difficulty handling the move, and eventually became tired of trying to hide his frustrations.

Berglund says his emotions had nothing to do with playing in Buffalo, and he apologized to the Sabres for betraying them.

Berglund provides no indication regarding his future plans. He added he’s not concerned about walking away from the remainder of his five-year, $19.25 million contract.

”My contract, and all the money I gave up means nothing,” Berglund said. ”I can give up that amount at any time to feel good inside.”

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

Will all this drama derail the Dallas Stars?

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The drama just never seems to stop for the Dallas Stars, although things do get kind of boring when this team actually tries to score goals. Worse yet, the Stars aren’t piling up PR losses alone any longer, as Dallas is now mired in a four-game losing streak.

The latest drama

Thursday presented the latest episode of “As the Stars Turn,” with embattled Stars coach Jim Montgomery deciding to bench Alexander Radulov – one of the team’s precious few actual scorers – for the remainder of the first period after an argument.

Such a tactic clearly isn’t about X’s and O’s, but instead about sending a message. If the message was sent, perhaps it was taken by carrier pigeon, as the results weren’t immediate. The Stars dropped a sad 2-1 loss to the lowly Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. During this span (all regulation losses), the Stars have scored a measly three goals. Total.

As Matthew DeFranks of the Dallas Morning News and others report, Radulov was able to cool off from his argument with Montgomery, eventually saying that his benching was “the right decision.”

Plenty of other people in the hockey world aren’t so easily convinced, and judging by Montgomery’s comments, even the coach might (deep down) have some second thoughts.

“Every decision we make is what’s best for the Dallas Stars, and at that moment, I thought that was best for the Dallas Stars,” Montgomery said. “When you’re struggling to score goals, it’s hard to do with a player of that caliber.”

In isolation, maybe Radulov did need to be reprimanded. The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro (sub. required) and others point out that Radulov had been drawing criticism for mental errors, including taking too-long shifts.

The questionable decisions and self-inflicted wounds really pile up when you look at the bigger picture, though. And that picture isn’t pretty.

Passing the buck

Ever since Stars CEO Jim Lites absolutely trashed Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn before the end of 2018, the Stars have suffered an almost unending run of embarrassing moments, and most of management’s wounds seem resoundingly self-inflicted.

After all, Lites went out of his way to throw Seguin and Benn under the bus, chiding bloggers to “write this!”

Since then, there’s been a steady stream of mistakes, and it doesn’t really seem like management is ever turning the discussion inward, at least on the record. Honestly, I almost picture Stars management transforming into Principal Skinner at some point.

Back in November, Montgomery discussed the Stars’ challenges in depth during a PHT Q&A, and it’s difficult to tell if anything’s changed for the better.

“Where we’ve got to get consistent is valuing our details that allow us to have success on nights when we don’t have legs. That’s where we have, I think, not embraced the process enough.”

All of the messaging seems to be about effort or “character.” Montgomery recently railed against a “culture of mediocrity,” but the thing is, that culture of mediocrity might just be plaguing the Stars’ front office more than the locker room.

This is a franchise that’s frequently failed when it comes to drafting, even whiffing on some crucial first-round picks. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn aren’t the ones who have bungled their way through a procession of three different head coaches in three seasons. GM Jim Nill and his staff were the ones who made mistakes like crossing their fingers that Martin Hanzal would somehow become a healthier player as he got older.

Maybe all of this bluster is an attempt to create a smokescreen around something that’s pretty obvious: management has failed to surround Benn, Seguin, Radulov, John Klingberg, and a few others with the proper supporting cast to succeed when they “don’t have their legs.”

Not hopeless yet

All things considered, it’s actually pretty amusing that the Stars would land in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began today.

In fact, the Stars aren’t so far off from the Colorado Avalanche, who currently rest as the third seed in the Central Division (27-18-8 for 50 points in 47 games played, 21 regulation/overtime wins).

Sure, the West’s wild card races are starting to feel like that year in the NFC where the Seattle Seahawks made the NFL playoffs with a 7-9 record, but if the Stars can stumble their way into a playoff berth, maybe they should start to take a more positive approach?

After all, it sure doesn’t seem like anyone’s having fun. From a per-game perspective, the Stars are the third weakest scoring team in the NHL, but they’ve been able to grind out wins thanks to fantastic goaltending and pretty solid special teams work.

Walking such a tight rope can lead to frayed nerves, yet failing to support the players doing the balancing act may throw everything out of whack.

A four-game losing streak, and a tiny margin for error to maintain a playoff spot, sends a message. While management seems to believe that they need to push and humiliate their players, maybe they should instead provide them support with an upgrade in trades — and a pat on the back?

After all, their competition might be just as much of a mess, but they seem to get that memo.

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.