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Central Recasting: Division rivals ready to challenge Blues

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The NHL isn’t a copycat league. It’s a response league.

After the big and gritty St. Louis Blues muscled their way to the Stanley Cup, division rivals have responded in different ways.

The Nashville Predators inked top free agent center Matt Duchene ; the Dallas Stars beefed up with tough, playoff-tested scorers Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry; the Minnesota Wild got faster by signing Mats Zuccarello; the Colorado Avalanche replenished their scoring depth up front by trading for Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky and signing Joonas Donskoi; and the Chicago Blackhawks went bargain hunting and ended up with Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender Robin Lehner.

There is no precise blueprint on challenging a champion. Teams in the East tried to ratchet up the speed and skill to keep up with the 2016 and 2017 Cup-winning Penguins, and Pittsburgh spent the past year adding size and toughness to go toe to toe with the Washington Capitals after they won.

Now the Central Division is stacked with the reigning Blues, Stars, Avalanche, Wild, Predators, Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets ready to battle it out just to make the playoffs next season. Pacific powerhouses San Jose and Vegas lost some talent in free agency , and hockey’s balance of power has tilted further toward the Central.

”Everyone is a contender before the season starts,” said Zuccarello, who left the Stars for the Wild. ”A playoff spot is where to start and then everyone knows once we get to the playoff it’s about momentum and confidence. You never know what’s going to happen. Take St. Louis. Nobody thought they were going to get to the playoffs on Jan. 1 and then they got a boost and got some confidence, and boom, they’re the Stanley Cup champions.”

A year ago, the Blues dominated July 1 by signing Patrick Maroon, Tyler Bozak and David Perron and trading for eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O'Reilly. Those moves paid off with the first championship in franchise history.

St. Louis was quieter this year, leaving the door open for plenty of activity around them. Dallas reached double overtime of Game 7 against the Blues in the second round and could sell that opportunity to win to pending free agents.

The Stars being one goal away from the Western Conference final lured Perry, who said ”they have a legit chance to win.” They sure think so with the additions of Perry and Pavelski to a core of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen and Ben Bishop.

”Our team’s trending up and it’s a good sign,” Dallas general manager Jim Nill said. ”You can never be competitive enough. We saw that in the playoffs. I think St. Louis showed everybody that’s how you’ve got to play and we were right there with St. Louis.”

Nashville finished ahead of St. Louis the past two seasons before signing Duchene, and Winnipeg was right there in a six-game slobberknocker of a first-round series.

Playoff wild card Colorado is also trending up after being one win away from beating San Jose and facing St. Louis in the West final. The Avalanche had arguably the NHL’s best line in Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen and went into the summer stuffed with salary-cap space and the intention of supplementing those stars with more offensive forwards.

”We’re adding a supporting case to that group,” GM Joe Sakic said. ”The coaches have a lot of options to mix and match with line combinations.”

That supporting cast includes a major upgrade at second-line center with Kadri, more speed with Burakovsky and a little bit of everything with Donskoi. Colorado still has plenty of room to sign Rantanen to a new contract and has enough young pieces that Kadri was convinced to waive his no-trade clause with Toronto to go there.

”The Colorado Avalanche are going to be contenders for many, many years to come with such a young team with great players,” Kadri said Tuesday. ”I definitely think that this team has a chance to not only do it once but multiple times hopefully in the future with the pieces that they have.”

That won’t be easy, especially in this division. Zuccarello believes Minnesota can rebound from missing the playoffs and ride talent and goaltender Devan Dubnyk to be the Blues of 2020.

”I think we are a competitor,” GM Paul Fenton said after signing Zuccarello and forward Ryan Hartman . ”You look at our team right now and the stability we have with our goaltending. There’s not a lot of teams that have the top-four defensemen like we do in the league. And our center ice is just solid right down the middle. You put the excitement of our wingers on the outside, and I think we have a really good team that has a chance to win.”

The regular season and first couple rounds are enough of a gauntlet that players aren’t counting on anything done in June and July to guarantee success.

”We’re enjoying the position we’re in, but we haven’t done anything yet,” Landeskog said. ”It’s about taking that next step for us, and it’s about making sure that we’re all growing and we’re all doing our part to get better.”

AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell and Schuyler Dixon contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Buzzer: McDavid filets Flyers; Kane raises Sharks

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Three Stars

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

Look, this is Connor McDavid. He’s at the point where it’s tough to surprise us.

… Yet, I have to admit, he’s begun 2019-20 on an even hotter streak than I imagined, and for all that Edmonton might improve under Dave Tippett, it’s difficult not to chalk most of it up to McDavid, alongside Leon Draisaitl.

McDavid was outrageous on Wednesday, generating a very pretty goal and four assists for five points. Those four assists represent a career-high for McDavid.

Despite that great night, I was leaning toward giving the top star to Evander Kane until I saw this stat, which admittedly steps on the factoids section a bit:

Unless you get really obscure with a stat, it’s usually a great sign when you do something that hasn’t been done since Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were still lacing up their skates …

2. Evander Kane, San Jose Sharks

After sitting out the first three games of the 2019-20 season thanks to a suspension, Kane generated one goal and one assist in three contests. Wednesday represented an eruption for his fourth game, then, as Kane generated a hat trick during the first period of the Sharks’ 5-2 win against the Hurricanes.

Kane also assisted on a Tomas Hertl goal, giving him a hat trick plus a helper for a four-point night.

If you think Kane deserves the nod over McDavid, I understand.

That said, three stars aren’t just a great opportunity to spotlight one wonderful performance, but also a time where it’s that much more pressing to point out a hot streak and great season. Which is why we pivot to someone whose great start might slip under the radar.

3. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

When the Caps signed Carlson to an eight-year, $64 million contract, it felt like a necessary evil. We’ve seen plenty of players age poorly, and Carlson blew away his previous career totals when he generated 15 goals and 68 points in 2017-18, helping Washington win that coveted Stanley Cup.

And then Carlson put together an even better 2018-19, scoring a resounding 70 points in 80 games.

At some point he has to slow down, right?

Maybe, but so far, it doesn’t feel like that time will be at age 29. Carlson produced three points (one goal, two assists) in Washington’s win against Toronto on Thursday, giving him an eyebrow-raising 14 points in eight games.

Those 14 points leave Carlson in third place behind McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — not just among defensemen. Suddenly, that $8M AAV starts to look like a bargain for the Capitals.

The runner-up to the runner-up for Highlight of the Night

Wednesdays aren’t usually the busiest NHL days, yet this one was ripe with great moments.

The moments have been great enough that Sidney Crosby‘s bedazzling backhander already got its own post, while Sonny Milano provided ample competition with his downright silly goal for the Blue Jackets.

The bronze medal provides gold of its own, though, as Connor McDavid reminded the world why it’s pretty easy to look like a dominant team when you can basically just lob the puck up blindly and assume that it might end up becoming a goal for 97:

Factoids

Scores

PIT 3 – COL 2 (OT)
WSH 4 – TOR 3
CBJ 3 – DAL 2
EDM 6 – PHI 3
ANA 5 – BUF 2
SJS 5 – 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.

Oilers keep on rolling with win over Flyers

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Talent has never been the question in Edmonton, it was always a matter of systems and execution.

Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock each saw glimpses in recent years, but Dave Tippett might have unlocked the secret formula for the Oilers to have long-lasting success.

With six wins in the team’s first seven games, including a 6-3 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday Night Hockey, Edmonton is starting to believe that it has what it takes to become a serious contender in the Western Conference.

Jakub Voracek had two goals and an assist for Philadelphia while Carter Hart was pulled after allowing four goals on 14 shots in his first start near his hometown Sherwood Park, Alberta, as the Flyers concluded a three-game road trip through Western Canada where they went 0-2-1. Oskar Lindblom also scored.

Connor McDavid led the way offensively with five points (one goal and four assists), while Leon Draisaitl added two goals of his own as the Oilers bounced back after their first loss of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this week. Mikko Koskinen stopped 49 shots and picked up his third victory of the season.

The Oilers recorded four consecutive goals, including three in the second that broke the game wide open. McDavid or Draisaitl’s ability to break a game open has rarely been an issue, but slowing down the opposition has been problematic. But through seven games this season, the team has allowed only 17 goals thanks to improved goaltending and more importantly, better team defense.

Last season the Oilers allowed 271 goals, good for seventh worst throughout the NHL. It’s the sole reason Tippett was brought in, to limit the damage in their own end of the ice, and allow their superstars to flourish offensively without ignoring their defensive responsibility.

Tippett has opted to play McDavid and Draisaitl together for most of the season, which has always been a delicate situation. Should a coach load up to form a powerful top line, or spread the wealth throughout the lineup so a high-end player is on the ice for the majority of the game?

The Avalanche have had great success keeping Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen on the ice as a pairing almost exclusively and the Oilers have been trending in that direction.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal provide options in the middle of the lineup but neither have the top-end talent equivalent to McDavid and Draisaitl.

However, if the Oilers are able to have a prolific first line, combined with strong structure throughout the neutral zone and in front of their goaltender, they will quickly become an elite team that could be a force to be reckoned with.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

McKenzie on Penguins injuries, Avs contracts … spider bites?

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When Alex Galchenyuk was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, he likely breathed deep as he readied for a new coach, team, city, and system for the second straight season. Maybe there’s some fear about looking like a pale imitation of Phil Kessel, the other major part of that trade.

But did he factor in arachnophobia?

During a Wednesday appearance on NBCSN during the Penguins’ eventual 3-2 overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche, Bob McKenzie reported that Galchenyuk has been dealing with what could be a groin injury (or otherwise a soft tissue issue), which many surmised. What people didn’t realize is that Galchenyuk took a detour on his road to recovery because of a spider bite.

McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk had a significant allergic reaction to the bite, which seems a lot less fun than being able to climb on walls, swing on webs, and sense danger before it’s coming. (Theory: Brad Marchand may have “spider sense.” Although we’d probably need to brand it differently. “Pest-pathy?”)

Anyway, McKenzie reports that Galchenyuk is back on that road to recovery, although his precise window of recovery is unclear.

Via McKenzie, Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust are essentially week-to-week still, as their windows seem to be two or three weeks. McKenzie reports that Evgeni Malkin‘s injury remains fuzzier.

Speaking of fuzziness, it sounds like the Colorado Avalanche are keeping things opaque when it comes to players on expiring contracts. So, we might need to wait-and-see with Andre Burakovsky and Nikita Zadorov.

That’s … understandable, especially with Burakovsky, who’s still making early impressions. Colorado might be wise to pick and choose with this stuff in the future, though. Could the Avalanche have signed Mikko Rantanen for less than a $9.25M AAV if they were more proactive? We can only speculate …

But hey, at least no one got bit by a spider.

*shudders*

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 remain hot with win vs. Avalanche

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Brandon Tanev notched a shorthanded goal in overtime to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also scored as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight victory. Matt Murray added 26 saves.

Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon found the back of the net for the Avalanche but their six-game point streak to open the season came to an end.

Crosby continues to dazzle

The Penguins captain has clearly moved on from a disappointing playoff run last year, which ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Instead, Crosby is off to a tremendous start, recording points in each of Pittsburgh’s seven games and leading the club on the ice to a 5-2-0 record.

Crosby netted a highlight-reel backhander to tie the game late in the first period and then assisted on a Jake Guentzel tally in the second.

The superstar center craftily tipped the puck around Erik Johnson, played the puck with his glove, and then somehow had the wherewithal to outlast goaltender Philipp Grubauer until an opening appeared for him to slide a backhander into the net.

Early in the second period, Crosby intercepted a pass at the blueline, then set up Guentzel to help the Penguins grab a 2-1 lead.

While several notable players remain sidelined, Crosby will be expected to lead the Penguins on the ice, and continue to improve the players around him. Pittsburgh will need Crosby to play at the top of his game until reinforcements return over the next few weeks.

Avalanche upcoming free agents

After the Mikko Rantanen contract issue this past summer, the Avalanche have several pending RFA’s for next summer.

Colorado is expected to be a legit Stanley Cup Contender with a great mix of dynamic playmakers, infusion of youth and seasoned veterans capable of leading the way during turbulent stretches.

However, Bob McKenzie offered that general manager Joe Sakic wants to see how the first part of the season plays out before engaging in contract talks.

Andre Burakovsky, Tyson Jost and Nikita Zadorov headline the pending RFA class and all presumably have a role to fill moving forward.

Is Lafferty here to stay?

The Penguins have been bitten by the injury bug early and have been forced to rely on their organizational depth to stay afloat during a challenging stretch.

During their Stanley Cup-winning years, the Penguins have always been able to call up a role player to fill a specific need. Is Sam Lafferty the next player to seamlessly fit in?

Lafferty was close to making the team out of training camp according to Bob McKenzie, but fell victim to the numbers game of a roster. However, injuries to five impact forwards — Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann — created a roster spot for him to slide in.

“We always felt like Sam was close coming into this training camp this year. But I think he has a whole lot more confidence in himself that he belongs here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s great for him, and that’s great for us.”

The 24-year-old originally from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh, Lafferty has taken advantage of the opportunity recording five points over the previous three games.

“He’s earned his playing time. He’s just playing terrific hockey,” Sullivan said. “He made a difference every game he’s been in. As a result, he’s getting more ice time. He’s a very good penalty-killer. I think he really understands his role and is taking pride in it. You can see it every shift. He’s gaining more confidence.”

The Penguins have done an excellent job in sliding players into appropriate roles, and Lafferty is just the latest example. Does the kid have what it takes to stick around for a full season and continue to make a difference? We will find out as the season goes on.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.