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What to watch for in final days of 2018-19 NHL season

There is only playoff spot still up for grabs in the NHL’s playoff race, and it could be decided as early as Friday night if the Columbus Blue Jackets can beat the New York Rangers. While that would be somewhat disappointing as it relates to drama and excitement for the final day of the regular season, there will still be plenty of big storylines to watch.

What should you be paying attention to? Let’s take a look.

1. Columbus just needs one win. Everything is sitting right there for the Blue Jackets. All they have to do is win one game against either the sixth-worst team in the league (the Rangers on Friday) or the worst team in the league (the Ottawa Senators on Saturday). That is it. That is all they need to do. If they manage to miss the playoffs (which they would do with if they fail to collect two points over those two games and if Montreal beats Toronto) it would probably be one of the most stunning end-of-season collapses in league history. No pressure!

2. Tampa Bay looks to tie the NHL’s single season win record. They can’t break the record, but if the Lightning beat the Boston Bruins they would win their 62nd game of the season, tying them with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in a single season. They are currently one of just three teams to have ever won at least 60 in a single season.

3. More Nikita Kucherov milestones. Assuming they do not rest him, Nikita Kucherov would need four points to become the first player since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr during the 1995-96 season to record at least 130 points in a season. He is also four assists away from 90 for the season. While that seems like a tall order, keep in mind he already has eight four-point games this season, including one four-assist game.

4. Blues try to go from worst to first. In the first week of January the St. Louis Blues had the worst record in the Western Conference. With a win on Saturday, combined with losses by the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets, they would finish the season in first place in the Central Division. That is a remarkable turnaround in a very short period of time.

5. Leon Draisaitl and John Tavares shoot for 50. You have to go all the way back to the 2011-12 season to find the last time the NHL had multiple 50-goal scorers in the same season (Steven Stamkos and Evgeni Malkin did it) but we have a chance to see it happen again this season. Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl needs just one to become the first Oilers player since Wayne Gretzky scored 62 during the 1986-87 season (that is, if you exclude Craig Simpson’s 1987-88 season, where he only scored 43 of his goals as a member of the Oilers). His season has been kind of lost in the shadows of another monster year from Connor McDavid and overlooked because of the rest of the team’s struggles, but he has been sensational. Tavares, if he plays in what is a meaningless game for Toronto, would need to score three goals against the Montreal Canadiens to record his first 50-goal season. There have only been seven 50-goal performances since the start of the 2010-11 season, and four of them belong to Alex Ovechkin.

6. Four players are within reach of 100 points. Kucherov, McDavid, Draisaitl, Patrick Kane and Brad Marchand are already at the century mark, and with big games in their regular season finales Sidney Crosby (98 points), Johnny Gaudreau (98 points), Nathan MacKinnon (98 points), and Stamkos (97 points) could also get there. That is, of course, assuming they play. Pittsburgh (Crosby) and Colorado (MacKinnon) are the only players on teams that can improve their place in the standings, so it is possible Gaudreau or Stamkos could be held out. Florida’s Aleksander Barkov is the next closest player with 94 points, but would need an incredible effort to get to 100 on the season.

7. The potential for some finales. While there is no indication that he is going to retire, the reality is that Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo is 40 years old and his future with the team (or in the NHL) could very much be in doubt. With the Wild missing the playoffs and a new general manager in charge, it is possible Bruce Boudreau could be coaching his final game in Minnesota. Jason Pominville, a long-time fan favorite in Buffalo, could be appearing in his final game as a member of the Sabres.

8. The draft lottery watch. The Ottawa Senators are locked in to the NHL’s worst record meaning their first-round pick (which now belongs to the Colorado Avalanche) will have the best odds to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But several other teams could see their odds change depending on the outcome of their remaining games. The big ones to watch are the Los Angeles Kings and New Jersey Devils. Entering play on Friday the Kings have the second worst record in the league, sitting just one point behind the Devils. A Devils regulation loss, combined with one Kings win, would see New Jersey’s lottery odds jump up from 11.5 percent to 13.5 percent.

9. The Nichushkin and Rieder watch. Tobias Rieder has played 66 games for the Edmonton Oilers this season and not scored a goal. Valeri Nichushkin has played 57 games for the Dallas Stars and not scored a goal OR taken a penalty. Will one of them get a goal? At least let Rieder get one after he had to take all of the blame for the Oilers’ struggles this season.

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.

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.