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Which teams will win the West wild-card races?

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For quite some time, the Eastern Conference’s bubble races seemed confined to a few good teams, while the West wild-card skirmishes felt like they might come down to who would mess up the least.

As March begins, the West’s battles look a little more like those out East, even if the West teams are behind their bubble brothers by about four of five points.

With all due respect to the scrappiness of the Chicago Blackhawks (63 points, 64 games played) and Vancouver Canucks (63 points, 65 GP), the West’s two wild-card spots look like they’re going to come down to two of four teams, in order of their standings positions: the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, and Arizona Coyotes.

In all honesty, it’s extremely difficult to parse out who will win out, to the point that you’d probably be best wagering on the standings remaining in this order … mainly because it’s just that close.

All four teams have played 64 games. There’s not a huge disparity in home/road splits, as only the Wild have one extra road game (and thus one fewer home game).

Take a look at snapshots of each team to get an idea of how snug everything is. Again, teams are listed in order of their standings placement heading into Friday’s games.

WC1: Dallas Stars: 32-27-5, 69 points, 64 GP, 32 regulation/overtime wins.

Split: 10 homes remaining, eight left on the road.

Recent play: Won last game, 4-6-0 in last 10.

Trade deadline activity: Tragic, as Mats Zuccarello broke his arm 40 minutes into his first game as a Dallas Star.

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • Zero left against Coyotes.
  • Two remaining against Wild: @Min on March 14, close season home vs. MIN on April 6.
  • Two home games left against Avalanche: March 7 and 21.

Key stretch(es): From March 5-23, the Stars play eight of 10 games at home.

WC2: Minnesota Wild: 31-27-6, 68 points, 64 GP, 30 ROW

Split: Nine games left at home and on the road

Recent play: Four-game winning streak, 5-4-1 in last 10.

Trade deadline activity: On paper, you’d  think they’d be minuses, as they shipped out more established veterans in Mikael Granlund (for Kevin Fiala) and Charlie Coyle (for Ryan Donato). Yet, Donato’s off to such a hot start for his Wild career (six points in 4 games, one overtime game-winning goal) that those moves don’t seem like such subtractions at this moment. Shipping away Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask a little further out, though? Not much is polishing that one.

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • Two remaining against Stars: Home on March 14, season-closer in Dallas on April 6.
  • One left against Coyotes: At Arizona on March 31.
  • One left against Avs: Home on March 19.

Key stretch(es): Five-game homestand from March 11-19.

Ninth: Avalanche: 28-24-12, 68 points, 64 GP, 27 ROW

Split: 10 home games remaining, eight left on the road.

Recent play: Won last game, 6-2-2 in last 10 games.

Trade deadline activity: Pretty quiet, as the Avs settled for a modest addition in oft-traded forward Derick Brassard. Then again, the Senators selling off means that Ottawa’s 2019 first-rounder figures to be quite the future “upgrade.”

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • Two road games against Stars: March 7 and 21.
  • One road game against Wild: March 19.
  • One home game versus Coyotes: March 29

Key stretch(es): After they get through a run that includes three of four road games starting on Friday, the Avs’ schedule is pretty home-heavy, including a four-game homestand from March 9-17.

Tenth: Coyotes: 31-28-5, 67 points, 64 GP, 27 ROW

Split: 10 home games remaining, eight left on the road.

Recent play: Five-game winning streak, 8-2-0 in last 10 games.

Trade deadline activity: Not much.

Considering how hot the Coyotes have been – they’re basically the West’s version of the Carolina Hurricanes – you’d think the ‘Yotes added a big name that “galvanized the locker room.” Sorry, Michael Chaput, but improvements seem to be internal, rather than external.

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • One road game versus Avs: March 29
  • One home game against Wild: March 31.
  • No games left against Stars.

Key stretch(es): The Coyotes are three games in (all wins) to a seven-game homestand, so they have four home games left from March 2-9. They play six of their next eight games at home from March 2-16. After that, they’ll go on a four-game road trip (March 18-24), which puts them at six of eight games on the road from March 11-24.

So, taking advantage of the upcoming opportunities (while mitigating the challenges that follow) will be key.

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Again, if there are advantages, they are subtle. The Coyotes get the least amount of say, in that they only face the other three wild-card teams two times total, while the other three get four games to “control their destinies.”

Which two teams do you expect to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs? Could a team like the Blackhawks or Canucks defy considerable odds by leapfrogging into position? Can any of these teams threaten the Flames, Predators, or Jets in a potential first-round series?

There are quite a few questions to answer over the next five weeks (or so) of hockey, so expect a fascinating finish.

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 being limited to a single point.

Things should regress in a positive way, even in the highly likely instance that neither Bishop nor Khudobin will rekindle that 2018-19 magic. Much like the slow-starting Wild, the Stars have played most of their games on the road (six of nine away from home) so far. After Saturday’s trip to Philly to play the Flyers, the Stars play six of seven games in Dallas from Oct. 21 through Nov. 5. The outlook could look quite a bit rosier by the end of that stretch.

It doesn’t change the fact that the Stars dug themselves a formidable hole. While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving.

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?

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.

Devils, Hischier agree to seven-year, $50.75 million extension

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While the Devils don’t know yet if Taylor Hall will sign an extension to remain in New Jersey or find a new home next summer in free agency, GM Ray Shero has young locked down one of the team’s core pieces.

On Friday, Nico Hischier agreed to a seven-year, $50.75 million extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit through the 2026-27 NHL season. The deal buys three unrestricted free agent years since the Devils forward has been playing since he was 18, per Cap Friendly.

“Nico is a special person who possess a team-first mentality combined with an inner drive to succeed,” said Shero in a statement. The entire organization is thankful to him and his family for believing in our future. We are excited that he will continue to play a prominent role with us for many years to come.”

According to the Devils, here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

2020-21: $7,000,000 (includes $3 million signing bonus)
2021-22: $7,250,000
2022-23:  $4,500,000
2023-24:  $7,750,000
2024-25:  $7,750,000
2025-26:  $8,000,000
2026-27:  $8,500,000

The extension also features a modified no-trade clause in the final three years.

In 157 NHL games, Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has 37 goals and 101 points while averaging over 17 minutes a night. His offense has been just fine with a 20 and 17 goals in his first two seasons, but his two-way game is what’s really boosted his talent.

The 20-year-old center joins the list of NHLers who passed on restricted free agency in 2020 to put pen to paper on a new deal, joining the likes of Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Sam Girard.

Mathew Barzal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Strome, and Mikhail Sergachev are some of the other potential 2020 RFAs who will be looking for extensions before next season.

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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.

Helm fined $5K for slash on Flames’ Lindholm

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Darren Helm and Elias Lindholm had a little battle in the third period of Thursday’s 5-1 Flames win and it has resulted in a $5,000 fine for the Red Wings forward.

It all began during a face-off when Lindholm got taken down by Helm. The Flames forward took exception and skated after Helm as the puck entered the Calgary zone. The tiff continued on with Lindholm throwing an elbow at Helm, who responded by getting up off the ice and slashing Lindholm in the back of the leg.

“Their guy comes with an elbow that should have probably been called right away,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “Then Darren reacts to that as most guys would, you get an elbow to the face for no reason you’re going to react. We got to be more disciplined in those situations, but he slashed him. I don’t think the slash was that super-hard, but it sure looked hard the way he went down.”

The fine is the maximum amount allowable under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Helm was given a major for slashing and a game misconduct, while Lindholm got off with just an interference minor. Lindholm was helped to the dressing room and there’s been no update yet on his condition.

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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.