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NHL on NBC: Cause for concern with Capitals’ recent slide?

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

SEAN: Beating a good Calgary team to stop their seven-game skid was a good start to putting a tough end to January in the rear-view mirror. If this Capitals team hadn’t won the Stanley Cup last June, think of how much concern there might be. But they’re the defending champions, and every team is going to have swoons at some point in the season. The bye week/All-Star break couldn’t have come for a better time for them.

And while one win doesn’t turn a slide around entirely, you’d like to see better goaltending the rest of the way. Braden Holtby and Pheonix Copley have posted sub .900 even strength save percentages since Jan. 1. That could see an uptick over with their first six games out of the break at home and with the remaining five games coming against teams going through their own struggles.

Concern? These next few weeks could show a better picture, especially as they try and chase the red-hot New York Islanders, who have taken over control of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

JAMES: On one hand, I’m not concerned about the Capitals making the playoffs.

But when it comes to hanging with the  best of the best? That’s when I start to worry.

This is a team that has some red flags from a wide variety of possession standpoints. While Washington checks the major “blueprint” boxes – not one, but two great centers, superhuman sniper, top defenseman, proven goalie – I wonder if they’d get exposed against one of the Atlantic powerhouses.

Pro tip: make sure you stay in the Metro bracket, Caps.

ADAM: I’m not going to be too concerned here.

I think it is entirely possible that the Capitals were probably not as good as their record was before this recent slide. I also know for a fact they are not as bad as they looked on their recent slide. Balance it all out and their overall record for the season is probably about exactly right where it should be — a team in contention for the division title but maybe not, at this point, one of the NHL’s elites. Is that something to be terribly concerned about? I’m just not there yet. The talent is still there and, ultimately, that is what wins.

Braden Holtby still has a higher level he can get to (and he showed in the playoffs a year ago he can get there at any time, even if his regular season is not great) and if/when that happens that is going to mask a lot of the flaws that seem to exist right now.
The Capitals have been so good and so dominant during the regular season for so long that when a team like this hits a lull it is easy to overreact and think there is something broken. But if I had to wager I would say by the end of this season they are back in the triple-digits for points, probably in first or second place in the Metropolitan Division, and a strong contender to win the Eastern Conference again.

JOEY: I’m not too worried about the way the Capitals have been playing of late. Braden Holtby has been struggling, which isn’t new. As dominant as he’s been at times, we’ve seen him go through difficult periods over the years. Last season was just one example of that. Holtby was so bad that he nearly lost the starting job to Philip Grubauer only to gain it back in the playoffs.

Evgeni Kuznetsov is coming off a stretch that saw him pick up four points in 10 games, but over his last three contests he’s already accumulated five points. There’s no way his production was going to keep dipping, either. The same goes for Nicklas Backstrom. He had two points in eight games and he’s already six points in his last four outings.

This team is still really good. It’s important that the hockey world doesn’t forget that.

SCOTT: The Capitals lost seven of their first 12 games last season and went on to win the Stanley Cup. That’s not giving them a pass for losing seven straight prior to Friday night’s win, but I think when you lose seven straight, things become a little overblown than they need to be. At the end of the day, they’re two points back of top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

With that being said, there were a few red flags during that seven-game losing streak. Blown leads instead of having a killer instinct, poor play from Braden Holtby at times, and a large reliance on Alex Ovechkin to do a lot of the heavy lifting (Evgeny Kuznetsov had two goals during the skid; secondary scoring wasn’t coming). Nicklas Backstrom cooled off for a bit during that streak, too.

In the end, I think Washington is as well-equipped as any to deal with adversity. There are a lot of battle-hardened guys on that team who have dealt with losing in the past. It was important to end the losing streak. Now it’s important to re-group down the stretch.

John Forslund, Mike Milbury, and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Kathryn Tappen will host studio coverage alongside Eddie Olczyk and Keith Jones.

The Buzzer: First place Coyotes; Zuccarello leads Wild to another win

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Three Stars

1. Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. After a pretty miserable start to the season the Wild are starting to get back on track and picked up their fifth win in a row on Thursday by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-4. Zuccarello was the big star for the Wild with three points (his first three-point game of the season) including the game-winner in the third period. His goal came just eight seconds after Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn had tied the game. Things looked bleak for the Wild’s playoff chances in the first month of the season, but their win on Thursday moved them — at least temporarily — into the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.

2. Phil Kessel, Arizona Coyotes. And which team sits on top of the Pacific Division after Thursday’s action? It is none other than the Arizona Coyotes thanks to their 3-1 win in Philadelphia. They have been road warriors this season and now own a 10-3-3 record over their first 16 away games. They used a two-goal effort from Kessel — as well as another great goaltending performance — on Thursday to get their latest win. Kessel has yet to make the big offensive impact the Coyotes were hoping for this season, but he tends to score goals in bunches and maybe this is the start of one of those runs. Arizona is back in action on Friday when Kessel makes his first return to Pittsburgh since the Penguins traded him over the summer.

3. Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers. Artemi Panarin scored the game-winning goal in his return to Columbus, but the biggest difference maker for the Rangers in their 3-2 win was their goalie. Georgiev was sensational, stopping 45 out of 47 shots in helping to steal one for the blue shirts. Read all about that game here.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Petr Mrazek had an eventful night for the Carolina Hurricanes in their 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks. He stopped a lot of shots, picked up a shootout win, and got punched in the face. Read all about it here.
  • Joe Pavelski scored the overtime winner for the Dallas Stars in their 3-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
  • The Chicago Blackhawks let a 3-0 third period lead slip away in Boston against the Bruins, but Jonathan Toews bailed them out in overtime with the game-winning goal.
  • Milan Lucic was finally able to get his first goal of the season for the Calgary Flames. It turned out to be the game-winning goal in a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Matt Calvert had a goal and an assist for the Colorado Avalanche in their 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

Highlights of the Night

The Wild looked like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Lightning looked like the Washington Generals on this Jason Zucker goal.

The Colorado Avalanche have their top line back together, and Gabriel Landeskog wasted no time in making an impact in his return to the lineup.

Maybe this is the shot that gets Johnny Gaudreau rolling for the Calgary Flames.

Blooper of the Night

Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk accidentally hip-checked a referee in their 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.

Factoids

  • It was a highly competitive night around the league with eight of the nine games being decided by a single goal, including four overtime games. The only game decided by more than one goal was Arizona’s 3-1 win over Philadelphia, and even that was a one-goal game until a late empty-net goal from Kessel. [NHL PR]
  • Thanks to Ryan Pulock‘s overtime goal the New York Islanders extended their point streak on home ice to 12 games. [NHL PR]
  • Jonathan Toews’ overtime goal in Boston was the 14th of his career in the regular season, moving him into a tie for 10th place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]

Scores

Chicago Blackhawks 4, Boston Bruins 3 (OT)
Colorado Avalanche 3, Montreal Canadiens 2
Minnesota Wild 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 4
New York Islanders 3, Vegas Golden Knights 2 (OT)
Arizona Coyotes 3, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Carolina Hurricanes 3, San Jose Sharks 2 (SO)
New York Rangers 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2
Dallas Stars 3, Winnipeg Jets 2 (OT)
Calgary Flames 4, Buffalo Sabres 3

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.

Mrazek gets punched in mask by Thornton; leads Hurricanes to win

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It was an eventful night for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek.

When it comes to the important stuff — stopping pucks to prevent goals and get a win — he was about as good as he could have possibly been by turning aside 28 out of 30 shots throughout regulation and overtime, as well as all three shots he faced in a shootout, to help lift his team to a 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks and bust out of a mini-slump that had seen them lose three of their previous four.

He also had a run-in with Sharks forward Joe Thornton that saw him get punched squarely in the mask.

It all started mid-way through the second period when Thornton attempted to jab at the puck that Mrazek had covered in the crease. Mrazek, taking exception to that jab, then chased after Thornton, swung his stick at the back of Thornton’s leg, stood up to get in his face … then got punched.

There were penalties handed out here, with Thornton getting two minutes each for roughing and slashing, while Mrazek was given a two-minute minor for slashing.

Mrazek was asked after the game if it is tough getting back into the game and maintaining focus after a scrum like that, and he was quick to say that’s actually better for him because it makes him feel like he is in the game.

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.

 

Panarin scores in return to Columbus, helps Rangers steal one

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Artemi Panarin was back in Columbus on Thursday night for the first time since leaving the Blue Jackets to join the New York Rangers in free agency this past summer.

After hearing some early boos from the local crowd, Panarin ended up getting the last laugh and was the difference maker by scoring the game-winning goal in the third period of the Rangers’ 3-2 win.

Panarin was the Blue Jackets’ best player for two years and one of the biggest reasons they made the playoffs both years, finally winning their first playoff series a year ago when they upset the heavily favorite Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1.

This is the video tribute the Blue Jackets had prepared for Panarin on Thursday.

So far his time with the Rangers has been everything the team’s management could have hoped for, and with his goal on Thursday is now up to 13 goals and 34 points on the season in his first 27 games.

What has to be especially frustrating for the Blue Jackets in this one isn’t just the fact that Panarin came back to haunt them by scoring the game-winning goal, but they were probably the better team in this game and played well enough to win. They ended up dominating the pace of the game and outshot the Rangers by a 47-19 margin and spent the entire night taking up residence in the Rangers’ end of the rink.

The problem was Alexander Georgiev was a rock in the Rangers’ net.

They also gave up a crushing goal to Brendan Lemieux in the closing seconds of the first period, erasing what had been a 1-0 lead and squandering what was a tremendous start to the game.

The win allowed the Rangers to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race and leaves them just three points back of a Wild Card spot.

The Blue Jackets fall to 11-13-4 and are already eight points back.

Related: Rangers’ Panarin returns to Columbus the way he left: as a superstar

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.

 

Canadiens’ Kotkaniemi leaves game after scary fall (Video)

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Scary scene in Montreal on Thursday night during the first period of the Canadiens’ game against the Colorado Avalanche.

Second-year forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi had to leave the game after an ugly fall that resulted in him hitting his head off the ice. He remained on the ice for a few moments before being helped off the ice by teammates with his head slumped over.

The Canadiens announced that he was out for the remainder of the game due to an “upper-body injury.”

You can see the sequence in the video above.

It all happened after Kotkaniemi was pinned against the boards by Nikita Zadorov, and then fell backwards. There are a lot of problems with Zadorov’s hit, including the fact it looked to be very late (the puck was long gone from Kotkaniemi when Zadorov initiated the hit) as well as the fact he appeared to lift his right leg and swing into the back of Kotkaniemi’s, knocking him backwards. That doesn’t really qualify as a slew-foot, but everything about the play itself seemed unnecessary.

There was no penalty called on the play.

The Canadiens are already playing without two key forwards in Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron.

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.