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Laine has rekindled passing ability, and goalies should be very afraid

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It was 11:24 into the first period of Thursday’s 4-3 win against the Boston Bruins when Patrik Laine was presented with a conundrum.

Bearing down on goal with the puck on his stick, and with linemate Mark Scheifele angling hard to the Boston net off to his right, the Winnipeg Jets forward had a choice to make: try and pick a corner, the preferred method of a 20-year-old superstar who has 109 goals in two-and-a-half years in the NHL or slide a perfect pass to Scheifele, who’d meet it at the back door behind a helpless Tuukka Rask.

For a guy born with the gift of snipe, the decision in front of him (and the one he’d eventually make) seemingly perplexed the young Finn.

“Yeah, I thought I was going to shoot, too,” Laine said while fielding questions after the game.

Laine chose Option B, making that perfect pass to Scheifele, who was, predictably, sitting on the back doorstep waiting to receive.

Never one to shy away from being brutally honest, Laine explained his strategy.

“If I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t think the goalie’s going to know what I’m doing,” he said. “I thought first I was going to shoot it, I was pretty close. But then I saw [Scheifele] back door so might as well pass it, sometimes.”

Might as well.

Laine’s gone from a goal-scoring prodigy to an elite passer (while still also being a goal-scoring prodigy). But we always knew he could.

Laine’s game has flourished since linking up on a line with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Before, Laine was so far down in the gutter that some pondered trading him, or at the very least, shipping him down to the American Hockey League to “teach him a lesson.”

Trading nor demoting Laine was ever going to materialize, but the concern over Winnipeg’s prized possession was reaching hysteria levels as Laine’s goal drought reached 15 games.

Laine-Scheifele-Wheeler had been experimented with in the past but results were average. Laine’s defensive game was never up to snuff, and playing on a line tasked with lining up against the NHL’s best demanded all three parts of the trio playing in both ends of the ice.

This time around, it’s clicked. Two months of floating around and looking bewildered with his lot in life has simply vanished. In its place is a Patrik Laine who backchecks, who can be found behind his own net digging out a puck and leading a rush up the ice. He’s adapted to the way both Scheifele and Wheeler play.

“I think what guys realize about me and Wheels is it’s never one guy’s the passer, one guy’s the shooter,” Scheifele said. “We all do the work, we all do what needs to be done. When you’re the guy to score, you’re the guy to score. When you’re the guy to pass, you’re the guy to pass. That’s the way we’ve always worked.”

Laine is now working within those parameters. Part of that is having no choice in the matter. You play north-south with intense pace like the other two or you play on a different line. The other part is that Laine has adopted the line’s mantra, as Scheifele explained.

“I think they’re good at creating spaces, kind of empty spots on the ice and it’s just easy for me to try to read off them, what they’re doing and where the open ice is going to be,” Laine said. “Now, I’m starting to learn where they want to go, and where do they want me to go. So it’s been kind of a learning process, learning every game and every practice. But it’s getting more and more comfortable.”

Winnipeg’s top line features three right-handed shots, a mixture that head coach Paul Maurice has liked. And why wouldn’t he? The line combined for seven points against the Bruins and his best shooter has unleashed a more well-round version of himself.

“It’s a completely different style of game,” Maurice said. “I’ve got three right-handed shots there, so when [Laine] opens up, he’s got two guys that are very, very fast. So Blake [Wheeler] just drives the pace and Mark [Scheifele] is very good at finding holes off that.

“It’s a different game if it’s a lefty there. There’s just different kinds of plays that get completed. It puts Patrik, because of the off-side speed that he’s playing with, it puts him in position, when he gets it, to have those passing options that he wouldn’t have had before. It also puts him in a more difficult place to shoot the puck. It’s more of a challenge how he gets the puck coming on that side of the ice, but he’s starting to put those numbers up.”

Maurice said himself Thursday that Laine’s game is night and day better the moment he moved to the left wing on Scheifele’s line.

“One, because he’s smart and he wants to make it work,” Maurice said. “But he also has an appreciation now that when you’re playing against – and tonight we ran [Adam] Lowry against [Patrice] Bergeron – but on nights when their best are playing [against Scheifele’s line], you don’t get to make two mistakes on one shift or it’s in the back of the net. The same as it is going the other [way]. We put him there, as much as we thought it would be an offensive grouping that we liked, to teach him that part of the game.”

Laine’s gone from the kid barely passing in the back of the class to the astute learner with his hand up in the front row.

And his game has evolved.

In the past, a stretch of points for Laine would look like betting odds: several goals and one or two assists. At the moment, he’s bucked that trend with four goals and eight assists in his past 11 games.

A Patrik Laine with a shot possessed by few and the vision to match? Tuukka Rask got a taste on Thursday. All he could do was guess with Laine bearing down on him. Like Laine, he didn’t know what was going to happen either.

“All the options are right there, obviously, but when it’s one of the best shooters in the league you don’t want to cheat on that so I just didn’t make the push on time,” Rask said.

Good luck, goalies.

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

The Buzzer: Mangiapane tricks Ducks; Lightning win record 11th straight

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THREE STARS

1. Andrew Mangiapane, Flames

The Flames’ 6-4 win over the Ducks was powered by Mangiapane’s first career hat trick. Two of his three goals came during a third period where Calgary entered it trailing 3-1 and scored five times en route to the win. He would register an assist on Matthew Tkachuk‘s 20th of the season to add to a career-best four-point night. The hat trick is also the first by a Flames player this season.

2. Antti Raanta, Coyotes

Arizona won for the second straight game behind Conor Garland‘s 20th goal of the season and 28 saves from Raanta. The 2-1 win over the Islanders gives the Coyotes a winning streak for the first time since Dec. 31-Jan. 7 and also puts them into a tie for the final Western Conference wild card spot. Raanta’s been in net for both wins and has stopped 64 of his last 66 shots faced.

3. Nikita Kucherov, Lightning

The Lightning set a franchise record with their 11th consecutive win by topping the Avalanche, 4-3, in overtime. During the extra period, it was Kucherov beating Pavel Francouz five-hold to keep Tampa red-hot. How hot? They are 23-2-1 since Dec. 21.

AVS LOSE RANTANEN

Adding to the bad night against Tampa, the Avalanche lost Mikko Rantanen to an upper-body injury in the second period. He’ll be out for “weeks.”

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NIGHT

• Here’s Alex Ovechkin catching up with old teammate Nate Schmidt:

• They don’t see each other often, but the temperature certainly rose when the Avs and Lightning met:

STATS OF THE NIGHT

Jonathan Huberdeau picked up his 50th assist of the season in the win over the Sharks. He now joins Aleksander Barkov as the only two players in Panthers franchise history to record multiple 50-assists seasons.

• Via the NHL, Matthew Tkachuk is now the fourth player in Flames history to record three 20-goal seasons before his 23rd birthday. Sean Monahan (4 times), Robert Reichel (3 times) and Jarome Iginla (3 times) are the only others on the list.

SCORES
Coyotes 2, Islanders 1
Panthers 5, Sharks 3
Flames 6, Ducks 4
Golden Knights 3, Capitals 2
Lightning 4, Avalanche 3 (OT)

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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.

Avs lose Rantanen for weeks after crash into boards

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Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen will miss “weeks,” per the team, after he crashed into the boards during Monday night’s loss to the Lightning.

Rantanen was on a 2-on-1 with Andre Burakovsky in the second period when he tripped over a diving Erik Cernak and slid into the end boards behind the Tampa net. He left the ice favoring his left shoulder and was later ruled out for the rest of the 4-3 overtime defeat.

Rantanen, who has 19 goals and 40 points in 41 games, missed 16 games this season due to ligament damage in his left ankle.

The injury comes on the day it was announced goaltender Philipp Grubauer is day-to-day with a lower-body injury suffered during the Stadium Series game, Matt Calvert is out long-term, and a week after Nazem Kadri was ruled out for “weeks, not days” with an LBI.

Colorado sits one point behind the Blues and Stars for the top spot in the Central Division with 24 games to go.

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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.

Canucks strengthen up front by acquiring Tyler Toffoli

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Tyler Toffoli‘s final game with the Los Angeles Kings was a memorable one.

After notching a hat trick during their Stadium Series win over the Avalanche, Toffoli was dealt to the Canucks on Monday. Heading back to LA is a package of Tim Schaller, the rights to NCAA prospect Tyler Madden, and a 2020 second-round pick.

The deal also includes a conditional draft pick, which would see a 2022 fourth rounder going to the Kings if Toffoli re-signs, per Pierre LeBrun. LA will also not be retaining any of Toffoli’s $4.6 million salary this season.

“Tyler brings goal scoring abilities and is good in battles,” said Canucks GM Jim Benning. “He has great offensive instincts and experience playing in high pressure, meaningful games. We look forward to adding his skill and strength to the line-up.”

The 27-year-old Toffoli can become an unrestricted free agent this summer and was one of the bigger name forwards likely to be on the move with the NHL trade deadline a week away. In 58 games this season he has 18 goals and 34 points.

As the Canucks sit one point behind the Oilers for tops in the Pacific Division, this is Benning bolstering his roster with 23 games to go. Vancouver has been a surprise this season and with the opportunity present to make a run at the playoffs and division title, the move is a boost to the players for the stretch run.

Adding Toffoli also helps the Canucks’ forward group after the news that Brock Boeser will be out of the lineup with a rib injury and will be re-evaluate in three weeks.

The question to be answered is whether this was a premature move for Benning to pull off given the price and where the Canucks are in their turnaround. Madden, who is currently dealing with a broken finger, has 19 goals in 27 games this season at Northeastern University and adds to an already strong prospect pool for the Kings. There’s also no guarantee that Toffoli, who is reunited with his “That 70s Line” mate Tanner Pearson, will stay in Vancouver.

We always see GMs gamble this time of year, but there’s certainly an opening in the West this season, and Benning clearly has confidence his group can do something special.

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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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.

Ovechkin continues chase for 700 goals Thursday on NBCSN

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The Capitals lost for the fifth time in seven games and Alex Ovechkin remained stuck on 698 goals as the Golden Knights came out on top, 3-2, Monday night.

NBCSN has added the Capitals’ next game, Thursday at home against Montreal (7 p.m. ET), to its schedule as Ovechkin continues chasing goal No. 700.

The Golden Knights built up a 3-0 lead by the second period and held off a Capitals’ comeback as T.J. Oshie cut the led to 3-2 with pair of goals. Marc-Andre Fleury, who has surrendered the most goals to Ovechkin of any NHL goalie (24 goals in 42 games), stopped 24 shots for his second straight win. Ovechkin finished with eight shot attempts and four shots on goal.

Ovechkin is now goalless in five straight games after registering a hat trick against the Kings on Feb. 4. Of the seven members in the 700-goal club, five players took five games or longer to go from 698 to 700 career goals – Jaromir Jagr (5 games), Marcel Dionne, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner (6 games), and Brett Hull (12 games).

MORE OVECHKIN:
NHL Power Rankings: Ovechkin’s top 10 goals
By the Numbers: Ovechkin’s 698 NHL goals
Stunning Numbers as Alex Ovechkin closes in on 700 goals
Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals?
My Favorite Goal: Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’

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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.