Karlsson’s health will dictate Sharks’ chances

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If you are a San Jose Sharks fan the current situation might seem a little bleak.

Your team was just dominated on home ice on Sunday afternoon and is heading on the road, facing elimination in the Western Conference Final, and needing to win the next two games to continue its Stanley Cup pursuit.

The odds, it would seem, are stacked against you.

If you are looking for something to be optimistic about it should be the fact Sharks have already been in a worse position this postseason and managed to overcome it. In Round 1 they trailed the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 in the series, needed to win three games in a row, and then found themselves with a three-goal deficit in the third period of Game 7 after crawling back to tie the series. Sure, they needed one of the biggest breaks in Stanley Cup playoff history to complete the comeback, but they still found a way to do it and take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself.

There is one very big difference this time around that might hold them back, and it is the health of top defender Erik Karlsson.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Karlsson is one of the many Sharks players that exited Sunday’s game due to injury, logging just 10 minutes of ice-time in the team’s 5-0 loss as he continues to deal with a nagging groin injury that has limited him all season. Head coach Peter DeBoer refused to offer any update on his status (as well as the status of injured forwards Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski) or if he would travel with the team.

His health is going to be a major determining factor in what happens for the Sharks over the next two games.

The Sharks acquired Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators just before the start of the 2018-19 season with the hope that he would be the missing piece on a Stanley Cup contender. When he is healthy and at his best, he is one of the best players in the world and on an elite tier of superstars. He is a difference-maker, and when the Sharks have had him at anything close to full health this season he has played like it.

Putting him on a defense that already has Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic gives the Sharks one of the best defensive groups in the league.

When the Sharks overcame their Round 1 deficit against the Golden Knights, Karlsson was a huge factor in that result.

He played more than 92 minutes (more than 40 percent of the total ice-time in those games), had four assists (tops on the team), and was on the ice for nine of the 12 goals the Sharks scored in their Games 5, 6, and 7 wins. Only two other players on the team (Hertl and Logan Couture) were on the ice for more than six goals in those three games. He had at least two points in every game the Sharks won in that Round 1 series. He was at the center of everything and one of the biggest reasons they came back to win.

Unfortunately for the Sharks, the groin injury has resurfaced and he has been obviously limited over the past few games. Not only in terms of his lack of ice time and early exit in Game 5 (as well as the extended stretch in Game 4 where he did not see the ice), but just in watching him play. He is clearly not where he — or the Sharks — want him to be from a health standpoint.

That is going to be a problem because even if he does play in Game 6, there is no guarantee that he is going to make the kind of impact we are used to seeing from him.

The Sharks have overcome the absence of key players in these playoffs, whether it was Joe Thornton‘s suspension in Round 1 or the Pavelski injury that sidelined him for all but one game in their Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche. But for as good and important as those players are, having to replace a player like Karlsson is an entirely different animal.

The Sharks have other forwards that can step up and impact a game if they lose a player like Pavelski, or Hertl, or Thornton.

But a No. 1 defender does so much more on the ice given the minutes they play, the number of times they touch the puck, and the way they can control the pace of the game and where it is played. Everything starts with the blue line, and you need those players on the back end that can move the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone. When he is healthy, there is nobody in the NHL that is better at that than Karlsson. It is not just his point production that makes him a superstar and a top-tier player — it is the way he can essentially be a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone and skate the puck out of danger when there are no passing options available.

There is nobody else stepping into his spot and doing that.

Yes, they still have a Norris Trophy winner (and a finalist for the award this season) in Brent Burns on the roster, but having Burns and Karlsson is what makes the Sharks such a fierce team to contend with.

Take one of them out of the lineup, or at least limit their ability to make an impact, and there is a major drop in how the team performs.

We have seen that over the past two games with Karlsson.

If the Sharks are going to come back in another series there may not be a bigger determining factor than Karlsson’s health and what he is able to do. It is going to require a significant turnaround from what we have seen over the past two games.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

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 a 1-0 lead over the Vancouver Canucks, finishing a play that was set up by the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, Taylor Hall.

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.