Surging Sharks in perfect position

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While most of this year’s wild Western Conference flails about looking for the last wild card spot, the San Jose Sharks can smell blood in the water.

After throttling the Vancouver Canucks Monday night 7-2, the Sharks have now won six straight games – five of them on the road – and seized the top spot in the West. They’re averaging five goals per game during that stretch and they’ve done it all without Erik Karlsson.

San Jose’s depth has been exemplary. Fourteen of 18 skaters registered at least one point against Vancouver alone. Eleven different players on the Sharks have multiple game-winning goals this season, tied with the New York Islanders for most in the league. Led by Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns, their 166 points by defensemen leads the NHL. The Sharks are also the only team in the league to have five different players – Joe Pavelski, Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier and Logan Couture – with 20 goals or more.

“If you look at the dynamics of this team, their secondary players are, a lot of times, their best players,” former Shark and current NHL on NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick told Pro Hockey Talk. “I say their secondary players being Hertl, Meier, (Melker) Karlsson played well (Monday) night. You have (Marcus) Sorensen who has just been an amazing work horse on that team that brings a lot of energy to that hockey club. (Joonas) Donskoi – these are all of their second-tier guys. A lot of the times, they’re the ones winning hockey games for them.”

That’s not to say the stars haven’t stepped up as well. Evander Kane has been red hot with 15 goals in his last 16 games dating back to Jan. 2, which leads the NHL during that span. He’s on pace for a career-high 37 goals, which is exactly what the Sharks envisioned when they signed Kane to a seven-year, $49 million extension last May.

“I talk to a lot of guys on that team and they say that if (Kane) prepared and got ready to play every single game and was consistent, he would be one of the best players in the National Hockey League,” Roenick said. “That’s saying something when it’s coming from your teammates.”

Next up for San Jose is a three-game homestand against three playoff contenders in the Capitals, Canucks and Bruins, followed by a four-game road trip in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Detroit and Boston. It seems like a two-team race between the Sharks and Flames for the top spot in the Pacific, and a four-team battle for the top spot in the west between San Jose, Calgary, Winnipeg and Nashville.

“There’s some good teams there,” Pavelski told reporters after the Vancouver win. “Being in first would help.”

On paper, Pavelski is right. The top seed in the West this season will have the pleasure of hosting one of the slew of teams gunning for playoff position. Since nine teams are currently within eight points of the final wild card spot, whichever team outlasts the others will have conceivably spent a lot of energy doing so over the stretch run of the regular season. That said, anyone that watches the NHL knows any team can make a run in April. The Sharks understand that all too well. After winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2008-09 behind a franchise record 117 points, San Jose lost in the first round in six games to the Anaheim Ducks. Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Marc-Edouard Vlasic all played in that series. Given their history, it is unlikely the Sharks would take any opening round opponent for granted.

“I think this is a different team, a different focus of a team,” said Roenick, a member of that 2008-09 Sharks club. “One thing you have to really take into consideration is, is this going to be Joe Thornton’s last year? That’s going to be something that’s going to be talked about quietly around the locker room among the guys and I think the focus is going to be much greater game in and game out…(The Sharks) are the only ones that can beat themselves right now. When they play their style of game, they dominate pretty much every team they play against, road or home.”

As for Thornton, the Sharks legend had one assist on Monday to pass Gordie Howe for ninth on the NHL’s all-time assists list and tie Teemu Selanne for 15th in all-time points. The sure-fire Hall of Famer is in his 21st season, but has only had one crack at a Stanley Cup Final (in 2016). Whispers of Thornton’s potential retirement could be quite the rallying cry for the Sharks in the playoffs.

“I played for 20 years and maybe with the exception of Chris Chelios, I have never seen a player be loved or be so respected in a locker room than Joe Thornton,” Roenick said. “I can honestly tell you that there is not one person in that organization – player, trainer, upper management, office people – that doesn’t absolutely love Joe Thornton through and through. You can’t say that about a lot of people. That’s an amazing compliment to a guy who has had such a glorious and Hall of Fame career.”

Barring an astounding stretch in the final two months of the season, San Jose’s franchise record of 117 points is safe. But this could very well be the deepest team the Sharks have ever had and one that could do what no other San Jose team has: hoist the Stanley Cup.

Jack Hughes scores first NHL goal in first game against brother (Video)

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Jack Hughes had to wait until his eighth game to score his first NHL goal, and the timing of it could not have been any better.

Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, scored on the power play at the 14:04 mark of the first period to give the New Jersey Devils the lead over the Vancouver Canucks, finishing a play that was set up by the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, Taylor Hall.

It turned out to be the only goal in a 1-0 Devils win, their second in a row.

Here is a look at the play.

Why was the timing so perfect for Hughes?

Because his older brother, Quinn, is also playing in his rookie season for the Canucks and is in the lineup on Saturday afternoon. And since this was the first regular season matchup in the NHL between the two brothers the entire Hughes family was in attendance In Newark to see the big moment.

Both players players figure to be contenders for Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year.

Jack’s goal on Saturday comes one game after he recorded his first career point, an assist in the Devils’ win over the New York Rangers  — and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko — on Thursday night.

Quinn entered Saturday’s game with a goal and two assists in six games for the Canucks. He scored his first goal in a win over the Los Angeles Kings earlier this season. He was the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 draft class.

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.

The Buzzer: Caps’ Carlson is on fire; James Neal keeps scoring

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Three Stars

1. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

When you’re trying to split hairs and choose the best of the best on a night of strong performances, sometimes you have to break the tie by looking at the larger body of work.

You could make a strong argument that Capitals defenseman John Carlson is on the hottest start of any player. Not just of any defenseman in the NHL — of any skater.

Carlson generated three assists in Washington’s 5-2 win against the New York Rangers on Friday. That gives him six points (one goal, five assists) in his last two games, and 17 points through nine games overall in 2019-20.

If you haven’t clued into just how impressive that start is yet, consider this: Carlson is tied with Connor McDavid for the league lead with 17 points after McDavid finally went pointless in Edmonton’s tight win against the Red Wings on Friday. Yes, McDavid’s gotten to eight games compared to Carlson’s nine, but this is still some resounding stuff. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is the only other blueliner in double digits so far in 2019-20, as he reached 10 points after scoring two goals against the struggling Stars.

Carlson’s building quite the early lead in the Norris Trophy race.

Anyone who thinks point totals don’t matter to at least some Norris voters is naive, but Carlson hasn’t just been a points machine. Two of his three goals have been game-winners, he’s logging significant ice time, and Carlson’s continuing his recent upswing in possession stats. The cherry on top is that Carlson’s underlying stats are up a bit from 2018-19’s impressive jump even though he’s not seeing the same cushy situations (50.9 of his shifts started in the offensive zone heading into Friday, versus of an average of 56.6 percent last season; maybe the stemming from Matt Niskanen being traded away?).

Carlson’s certain to slow down, but has a strong chance to reach a new peak from last year’s career-high of 70 points.

2. Andre Burakovsky, Colorado Avalanche

A former Capitals player might have enjoyed the superior overall Friday, though.

Burakovsky generated two goals and one assist in Colorado’s 5-4 OT win against the Panthers, and his points were significant. Burakovsky scored Colorado’s final two goals of regulation, including the tally that sent the contest into overtime, and then nabbed the primary assist on a Nathan MacKinnon OT-winner that looked way too easy, even by 3-on-3 standards.

Could this be the breakout many expected to see in Washington? He’s riding high percentages, yet it’s promising that Burakovsky’s off to a strong start in Colorado (eight points in seven games). If Burakovsky can help the Avalanche generate secondary scoring, that team could get scary, arguably sooner than many expected/feared.

3. Patric Hornqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins

During the same week that Hornqvist made plenty of enemies in Colorado thanks to a questionable hit on MacKinnon, Hornqvist was a disruptive force on the scoreboard, scoring one goal and two assists as the Penguins added to Dallas’ miseries.

Hornqvist ended up with a +3 rating, game-winning goal, four SOG, and one blocked shot. The only upset is that the sandpaper-y winger didn’t get credited with a hit.

(Considering Pittsburgh’s injury woes, maybe that’s the wisest path.)

Highlight of the Night

After scoring a goal in a video game where you hammered the deke button, you might feel some emptiness — that this never would have happened in “real life.” Then again, were you scoring that goal with Kris Letang?

Factoids

Scores

COL 5 – FLA 4 (OT)
PIT 4 – DAL 2
WSH 5 – NYR 2
CHI 3 – CBJ 2 (OT)
EDM 2 – DET 1
ANA 4 – CAR 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg sitting at three points (after Thursday’s goal and assist).

Things should improve to some extent, even if it’s foolish to count on all-world goaltending once again. With six of their first nine games on the road, maybe Dallas is having some trouble bringing its small-margin-of-error style out of Dallas.

While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving, so Dallas needs to shake out of this funk as soon as possible.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

[MORE: What’s wrong with the Stars?]

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Nationals’ Scherzer drops ceremonial baseball before Capitals game

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The Washington Nationals have some time to kill before the 2019 World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, so why not take in a Washington Capitals game … and maybe put a new knuckleball-like spin on a common hockey photo-op?

Instead of dropping the ceremonial first puck before Friday’s Capitals – Rangers contest, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer elected to drop a baseball instead. You can watch video of that fun ceremony (which vaguely reminded me of Auston Matthews doing a little Globetrotter spin with a Raptors basketball) in the video above. Sports city synergy is fun, is what I’m trying to say.

As a baseball not-knower, this brings up a lot of questions — some I can answer, some not so much.

  • Was it one of those new-fangled “juiced” baseballs? Scherzer probably doesn’t like those, if they’re really a thing.
  • I was wondering about Scherzer’s (maybe somewhat intimidating) different-colored eyes. Apparently Scherzer was born that way, although one eye was blue and the other was green, originally. (The blue eye turned bluer, while the green one turned brown.) Dany Heatley is a hockey player who comes to mind with that, but his story is less fun and more upsetting.
  • CNN clears up the Nationals’ connection to “Baby Shark,” which I wondered about thanks to this:

(Even Capitals fans would probably admit that this is swimming a bit close to San Jose’s waters.)

  • In case you were wondering, that sports city synergy went both ways, as you can see from Alex Ovechkin hugging Scherzer before a Nationals game in June 2018 (via Getty):
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

As of this writing, the Capitals lead the Rangers 3-2 and the New York Yankees are trying to protect a 4-1 lead against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS. If the Astros win, they’ll face Scherzer’s Nationals.

… And that about concludes my baseball-knowing.

/chews imaginary tobacco/Major League Chew

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.