Zuccarello is perfect complement for Stars’ top line

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The Dallas Stars had a problem for much of the 2018-19 season, and it was always a very easy one to identify.

Even when the team was at its lowest point, their top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn was doing what it had always done in carrying the team’s offense.

When Seguin and Benn came under irrational fire from their own CEO in the middle of the season, they were far from the biggest issue on the team. In fact, they weren’t even an issue at all and just five seconds of objective research should have made that clear. When they were on the ice the Stars were carrying the play, dominating the opposition, and performing exactly as you would want your franchise players to perform. Maybe the individual numbers weren’t what we have come to expect from them, but they were consistently outplaying and outscoring their opponents.

The problem was that they didn’t have any other forwards that could do the same thing. Their forward depth was so thin that only one other forward outside of the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio topped topped the 30-point mark this season (Radek Faksa had exactly 30 points in 81 games). That is not anywhere near good enough. It wasn’t a “star” problem; it was a problem with players around the stars.

But because the top trio was so good, and because they received Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ben Bishop (and don’t forget about the play of backup Anton Khudobin, either) they were able to stay in playoff contention in a watered down Western Conference and continue playing their way toward the postseason. If they were going to do anything once they got there they were going to need somebody outside of their top line to provide some kind of a threat offensively.

This is where Mats Zuccarello comes in.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He has only played seven games with the team entering Game 6 of their Round 1 series against the Nashville Predators on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), but his impact has already been noticeable.

The Stars acquired Zuccarello from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline and in his first game with the team made an immediate impact with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win. It was exactly what the Stars needed for the stretch run. But because he was also injured in that game and missed several weeks they never really had an opportunity to see exactly what he could provide. They are seeing it in the playoffs where he has already tallied three goals (second only to Radulov) and has given them an additional threat offensively.

It’s even more impressive when you remember he is still finding his way with a new team and still probably isn’t all the way back to 100 percent.

In other words, he probably has room to get better.

When you look at his individual shot and scoring chance numbers he hasn’t created a ton of them, and so far is riding a short-term spike in shooting percentage to carry his postseason production. It would be fair to point to that as somewhat of a red flag for what it might mean in the future.

You have to keep in mind, though, that the injury not only took him off the ice, it also robbed him of an opportunity to develop chemistry with a new set of linemates. Getting thrown into what is still a new lineup, when you may not be totally healthy, and right in the middle of the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not an easy thing to do. There is still probably a bit of an adjustment period taking place here.

What is important for the Stars, though, is that he is another high-level player that has the ability to capitalize on the chances he does get, and that is an element the team had been lacking all season.

He is a threat with a proven track record of production.

Zuccarello has been a criminally underrated player for quite some time now and has always been a lock to finish with 50-60 points over a full season. That may not seem great or anything that instantly jumps off the page at you, but it is top-line production, and top-line players are not always easy to acquire.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the year Zuccarello became a full-time player in the NHL, his 0.72 point-per-game average puts him 67th out of more than 570 players that have appeared in at least 200 games during that stretch.

Outside of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov there is not another forward currently on the Stars’ roster that sits in the top-100 out of that group.

Jason Spezza is the only other one in the top-200.

You have to go all the way down to Faksa at No. 296 to find the next one.

There just wasn’t enough impact talent elsewhere on the roster to help support the Stars’ top players.

Zuccarello gives them one, and his presence, along with the emergence of Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz in this series, is a big reason they have been able to put themselves in a position to advance.

MORE: Hintz becoming important part of Stars’ lineup

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: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the decade scoring lead with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his four-point performance featuring two goals and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial for the team eyeing a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with four points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17 on Sunday.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

Players hope U.S.-Canada rivalry game helps spawn pro league

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The United States women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 on Saturday night, with players hoping the first in a series of five games between the international rivals will help kindle the public’s interest in both their sport and their fight off the ice for better professional opportunities.

Canada’s Victoria Bach and the Megan Keller of the U.S. traded power-play goals in the first period, before Amanda Kessel put the U.S. on top for good with a player advantage in the second. Abbe Roque’s backhand in the period gave the US a 3-1 lead and Alex Carpenter beat Genevieve Lacasse for the final goal 1:15 seconds later.

More than 7,000 fans showed up for the international competition, which comes after more than 200 members of what has since become the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced in May they would not play professionally in North America during the 2019-2020 season.

“I think it’s important for people to watch us play and see the level of talent and entertainment that’s out there,” Kessel said. “It’s getting that understanding that we need to help get us a place to play year-round so that people can see us more than five times a year.”

The women are seeking a professional league that provides a living wage, health insurance, infrastructure and support for training. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in the spring after 12 years of operation, leaving only the five-team National Women’s Hockey League, where most players make less than $10,000 a season.

“The product is there,” Kessel said. “The people to watch it are there. We just need a structure set in place.”

Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada, whose cousin Kia Nurse plays for New York in the WNBA, said players are hoping to get support from the NHL, which has, so far, expressed little interest in investing in a women’s league.

“We can look at (the WNBA) and see that women’s sports have value and they have a place in this world,” said Nurse, who made $2,000 last season playing in the CWHL. “That is definitely a model that we look to.”

The rivalry series was created after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over their salary and working conditions.

Without a viable pro league, players who are out of college have been training on their own at random rinks across North America in between gatherings of the national teams or training sessions and exhibitions sponsored by the players association.

Canada won two of those over the US in Pittsburgh last month.

But the lack of consistent competition can stunt the players’ development, especially when it comes to be being prepared for world and Olympic competitions, the players said.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Nurse said. “Games are when we truly get better and test out our skills, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more games to play.”

Cayla Barnes, who plays defense for the U.S. team and Boston College, said she and the other college players on the national teams understand what is going on and appreciate what the older players are doing.

“They are putting so much on the line for the younger generations,” she said. “Not just for us college kids who are coming up, but for U-8, U-10 girls who are coming up so they have opportunities later on. So I think all of us who are younger are trying to support them in whatever way we can.”

Hundreds of girls wearing their youth hockey jerseys attended the game, chanting “U-S-A” as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I want to be like them, like in the Olympics when I get older,” said 14-year-old Leila Espirito Santo, of Glastonbury “I started playing when I was in fourth grade and I wasn’t the best, but watching them play made me want to be better. It showed me I could do it.”

The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick. Other games part of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series are slated for Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Feb. 8 in Anaheim, California.

The Buzzer: Hats off to Duclair; Staal one point away from 1,000

NHL Scores Eric Staal Minnesota Wild
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Three Stars

1. Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators. This had to be a satisfying game for Duclair. He showed John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets that he does, in fact, know how to play the game by scoring three goals in a 4-3 win for the Ottawa Senators. That performance includes the game-winning goal in overtime. The 24-year-old Duclair now has 18 goals in 33 games this season and is on pace for more than 40 goals this season. Read all about his day here.

2. Bryan Rust, Pittsburgh Penguins. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bjugstad, and Patric Hornqvist out of the lineup the Penguins have more than $35 million in salary cap space sitting in the press box at the moment. They still keep finding ways to win. They picked up a 5-4 shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings in Saturday thanks to another huge game from Rust. He scored two goals and picked up an assist in regulation, then scored the game-winning goal in the shootout. Rust now has 12 goals and 22 total points in only 19 games this season for the Penguins. He has always been one of their most versatile — and valuable — players, and he is showing why this season.

3. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild. Staal has been on a roll for the Wild and thanks to his two-goal effort in Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, he now has six points in his past five games and is up to 999 for his career. That means with one more point he would become only the 89th player in NHL history to hit the 1,000 point milestone. The Wild are one of the league’s hottest teams since the start of November with a 12-3-5 record in their past 20 games. They were 4-9-0 before in October.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • David Pastrnak extended his lead in the NHL goal-scoring race with a pair of goals in the Boston Bruins’ 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers. He now has 28 goals on the season and is five ahead of Jack Eichel.
  • Warren Foegele scored two goals for the Carolina Hurricanes, James Reimer stopped all 32 shots he faced and Dougie Hamilton scored against his former team in a 4-0 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • Anthony Beauvillier was the overtime hero for the New York Islanders as they topped the Buffalo Sabres.
  • The New Jersey Devils gave Alain Nasreddine his first NHL win as a head coach while the Taylor Hall watch continues. Read all about it here.
  • Frederik Andersen stopped 36 out of 37 shots as the Toronto Maple Leafs sent the fading Edmonton Oilers to their fourth consecutive defeat. It is the 200th win of Andersen’s career.
  • Jonathan Bernier backstopped the Detroit Red Wings to their second consecutive win as they hold off the Montreal Canadiens.
  • Mika Zibanejad‘s two goals are not enough for the New York Rangers as they drop a 4-3 shootout decision to the Anaheim Ducks.
  • Ben Bishop turned aside 37 out of 38 shots to help the Dallas Stars crush the Nashville Predators.
  • Evander Kane and Logan Couture both record two points as the San Jose Sharks get a much-needed win over the Vancouver Canucks. It is the first win for Bob Boughner as head coach of the Sharks.
  • Tyler Bozak scored two goals as the St. Louis Blues stunned the Chicago Blackhawks. Read all about it here.

Highlights of the Night

Timo Meier finishes a great passing play for the San Jose Sharks with an absolute rocket of a shot to beat Jacob Markstrom.

Jonathan Quick has really struggled the past two years, and it came in a losing effort in Pittsburgh on Saturday, but this series of saves in overtime is pretty ridiculous.

Garnet Hathaway score with some style for the Capitals.

Give this fan a contract

This is a $50,000 shot between periods in Montreal.

Factoids

  • The Blues’ comeback is just the second time in franchise history they erased a three-goal third period deficit to win. [NHL PR]
  • Zibanejad’s first goal for the Rangers came just 10 seconds into the game, the fastest goal for the Rangers since the 1985 season. [NHL PR]
  • Jack Eichel extended his point streak to 16 consecutive games, making it the fourth longest in Buffalo Sabres franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • The Wild have earned a point in 12 consecutive home games, the second-longest streak in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Brad Marchand hit the 50-point mark for the season, the first Bruins player since Adam Oates during the 1995-96 season to reach that mark in 34 or fewer games. [NHL PR]
  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic played in his 1,000th career game on Saturday night, making him the 340th player in NHL history to reach that milestone. [San Jose Sharks]
  • Foegele’s two goals for the Hurricanes both came while shorthanded, making him the fifth Hurricanes player to ever accomplish that in a game. [NHL PR]

Scores

Ottawa Senators 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (OT)
New York Islanders 3, Buffalo Sabres 2 (OT)
Anaheim Ducks 4, New York Rangers 3 (SO)
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Calgary Flames 0
Dallas Stars 4, Nashville Predators 1
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Edmonton Oilers 1
Minnesota Wild 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Detroit Red Wings 2, Montreal Canadiens 1
Washington Capitals 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Boston Bruins 4, Florida Panthers 2
Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Los Angeles Kings 4 (SO)
New Jersey Devils 2, Arizona Coyotes 1
St. Louis Blues 4, Chicago Blackhawks 3
San Jose Sharks 4, Vancouver Canucks 2

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.