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Blues’ Stanley Cup run shows value of regular season

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When the Tampa Bay Lightning woke up on Jan. 3 atop the NHL standings, the St. Louis Blues were dead last.

Tampa had won 31 of its first 39 games, while St. Louis had won just 15 of its first 37. The Lightning staked themselves to 30-point lead on the Blues before the season’s halfway mark.

The rest is league history: The Lightning got swept out of the playoffs in the first round, and the Blues went from the basement to lifting the Stanley Cup in triumph. That the Blues struggled for so long and didn’t hit their stride until January could make much of the marathon regular season seem pointless, though players suggest it actually shows the importance of ups, downs and adversity during the 82-game grind as a way to prepare to win playoff games.

”You’ve got to understand in the bigger picture if you’re going to have a four, five, six-game losing streak at some point, it’s no reason to hit the panic button,” said Jonathan Toews, who won the Cup as Chicago Blackhawks captain in 2010, 2013 and 2015. ”You almost have to go through that so when playoffs do come around, you’re ready to turn that switch and you’ve got that energy and you’ve got that confidence that if you work, you’re going to get the results for it.”

Players who watched all four division champions bow out in the first round and the Blues grind to the first title in franchise history came away with some important lessons on how to approach the regular season. St. Louis showed a midseason coaching change can work, a goalie can come out of nowhere and have success, and momentum can snowball in a positive direction.

”It was good at understanding that it’s a roller coaster, and the more you can stay even keel and keep staying with things and keep pushing each other to think that sometimes things will change, you’ll get a bounce and things will start to go your way,” Blues playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly said. ”It was very awful at the start. We couldn’t seem to string wins together. But guys kept working. Guys didn’t shut down. They kept working for each other and the next thing you know, things started to change. Once that belief happened, it kind of steamrolled.”

Tampa Bay wound up on the flip side having not lost more than two games in a row all season and lacking the struggles to draw from when things went poorly in the playoffs. They went four and out against Columbus.

”We were good in the regular season and probably thought we’ll be all right in the playoffs because we were good in the regular season,” Vezina Trophy winning Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said. ”The regular season was great. We were on a good run. In the playoffs, I think our tank was empty because of that and we just went straight down because of that.”

The Lightning tied the NHL record with 62 victories and finished 21 points ahead of the next-closest team. They also became the 10th Presidents’ Trophy winners in 11 tries to fall short of winning the Stanley Cup.

All of which supports the believe that standings and seeding matters little in the playoffs, where matchups take precedence. It also apparently doesn’t matter where a team is at by Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day, which used to be important markers about who will make the postseason.

”We started well and we ended bad,” said Jack Eichel, whose Sabres went on a 10-game winning streak, were first in the league at Thanksgiving and missed the playoffs. ”You look at St. Louis and they did the complete opposite. It’s a long season, and a lot goes into it. Consistency is one of the most important things in this league.”

Is it, though? The Blues didn’t put together a winning streak longer than two until mid-January. They got a boost from rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, tied a franchise record with 11 consecutive victories and became the poster boys for coming together at the right time.

”It’s just something to rally behind,” Dallas Stars goaltender Ben Bishop said. ”Usually that’s kind of what it comes down to. Something happens, and usually a team rallies behind it.”

For Vegas in 2017-18, it was the hometown shooting that killed 58 people and bonded an expansion hockey team with its community. The Golden Knights shocked the league by winning eight of their first nine games of existence and reached the Cup Final before losing to Washington. For St. Louis, Laura Branigan’s ”Gloria” became a popular rallying cry and young fan Laila Anderson battling a rare auto-immune disease was a heartwarming touchstone for the players as they made their run under Craig Berube, who was an interim coach until the celebrations had begun.

Rallying points are impossible to predict, and there’s no way to control when and how a group comes together. Still, general managers, coaches and players are always searching for that recipe of how to peak at the right time.

”You want to keep climbing,” said goaltender Tuukka Rask, whose Boston Bruins pushed St. Louis to Game 7 of the Cup Final. ”I don’t think you want to peak early and then slowly decline from there. That’s what everybody’s looking for. But you’re just trying to make the playoffs, always. You’re just trying to make the playoffs on a good note and not feeling like, ‘Oh, we dodged a bullet here. We barely made it.’ And then you’re kind of starting the playoffs not knowing what your game’s going to look like. You want to be feeling great as a team entering the playoffs.”

Toews pointed out a hot start never hurts. Points banked in October, November and December count just the same.

But St. Louis is perfect evidence that games lost early don’t spell the end. That’s how Jaccob Slavin sees the regular season now that he and the Carolina Hurricanes are trying to back up a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference final and every other team is looking to find the Blues’ rhythm and win it all.

”Until you’re out of it, don’t give up,” Slavin said. ”If you get on a roll at the right time, anything can happen.”

NHL injury roundup: Jets’ Lowry out 4 weeks; Schultz, Krejci near returns

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Checking in on some injury situations around the NHL…

Jets lose Adam Lowry for a minimum of four weeks

The Winnipeg Jets have won just six of their past 18 games and have been dominated in their most recent two, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks by a 12-3 margin. Not great. Also not great is the fact coach Paul Maurice announced on Monday that forward Adam Lowry is going to be sidelined for a minimum of four weeks due to an upper-body injury.

Lowry isn not a big driver of the team’s offense (only four goals and 10 total points in 47 games) but he is a good defensive forward and a big loss for a team that doesn’t have a lot of depth to begin with. As of Monday, the Jets are three points back of a Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.

Justin Schultz game-time decision for Penguins; Dominik Kahun has concussion

The Penguins could be getting one of their top defenseman back on Tuesday when they play the Philadelphia Flyers. Justin Schultz, sidelined since Dec. 17, was a full participant in practice on Monday and is not ruling out playing on Tuesday. Schultz is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and would no doubt love to have a big second half to boost his value. In 27 games this season he has just two goals and eight total points for the Penguins. If he is able to return it is likely that either Chad Ruhwedel or Jusso Rikkola would sit.

In other Penguins injury news, coach Mike Sullivan announced on Monday that forward Dominik Kahun is going to be sidelined with a concussion that he suffered in Sunday’s come-from-behind win against the Boston Bruins. Kahun has been a great addition to the Penguins lineup this season bringing some much-needed youth, speed, and two-way play to their forward group. He has 10 goals and 27 total points in 48 games this season. Dominik Simon was also injured on Sunday, but was at practice on Monday and is considered a game-time decision for Tuesday.

Krejci back at practice for Bruins

After missing the past two games an upper-body injury, veteran forward David Krejci was back at Bruins practice on Monday in a non-contact jersey. Coach Bruce Cassidy said Krejci will “give it a go” in the morning skate on Tuesday before their game against Vegas, but there is no guarantee he can play.

Following Tuesday’s game the Bruins will have nine days off before their next game.

Starting goalie Tuukka Rask was also back on the ice on Monday and skated on his own before practice. He has been sidelined with a concussion after being hit in the head by Columbus’ Emil Benstrom. He is also not expected to play on Tuesday against the Golden Knights.

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.

How aggressive should Blue Jackets be at trade deadline?

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We need to talk a little more about the Columbus Blue Jackets because they are one of the most fascinating teams in the NHL right now.

Not only for their recent hot streak, but for what might still be ahead of them over the next couple of months.

Thanks to their win in New York on Sunday night, capped off with an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal with 26 seconds to play in regulation, they hold the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They are 15-2-4 since Dec. 9, while their overall record through 50 games is actually one point better than it was at the same point a year ago. Considering their offseason and the almost unbelievable run of injuries they have experienced once the season began, they are one of the biggest surprises in the league.

It all creates a pretty interesting discussion for what their front office does — or is able to do — before the NHL trade deadline.

1. They are in a position to buy, not sell

That is not up for much debate, either. This is the same team and front office that went all in before last season’s trade deadline at a time when they were still on the outside of the playoff picture. Not only are they in a playoff position right now, they are just one point back of the New York Islanders for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.

There is also this: Their upcoming schedule through the trade deadline and end of February really softens up with only five of their next 16 games coming against teams that currently rank higher than 19th in the league in points percentage. Three of those games (two against Philadelphia, one against Florida) will be against teams they could be directly competing with for a playoff spot.

There is a chance to gain even more ground and solidify their spot even more.

2. What they need and what they have to spend

What they have to spend: A lot. The only teams with more salary cap space to spend ahead of the deadline are the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. Out of that group, only the Avalanche will be in a position to buy. The Blue Jackets, in theory, could add any player that is theoretically available before the trade deadline.

What they need: At the start of the season the easy — and expected — answer here would have been a goalie given the uncertainty of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and their ability to replace Bobrovsky. After some early struggles, they have turned out to be the Blue Jackets’ biggest bright spot as that tandem has combined for the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the NHL and the third-best all situations save percentage. They have been great, and especially Merzlikins with his recent play.

What they really need now is some scoring. Getting healthy would help a lot (Cam Atkinson just returned to the lineup; Josh Anderson, Alexandre Texier are still sidelined) but they do not have a single player in the top-77 of the league in scoring (Pierre-Luc Dubois is 78th), and only two in the top-120 (Dubuois and Gustav Nyquist).

As a team, they are 24th in the league in goals per game.

Looking around the league, obvious forward rentals would include Tyler Toffoli (Los Angeles Kings), Chris Kreider (New York Rangers), Ilya Kovalchuk (Montreal Canadiens), and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators). Potential trade options with term still remaining might include Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild) or Tomas Tatar (Montreal).

3. The problem: How aggressive can they be?

The downside to their “all in” trade deadline a year ago is that it absolutely decimated their draft pick cupboard for two years. They were left with just three picks in the 2019 class (none before pick No. 108) and as it stands right now they have just five picks in 2020, with only one of them (a first-round pick) slated to be in the top-100.

While players like Texier and Emil Benstrom are good prospects, their farm system is not the deep and the younger players currently on the NHL roster (Dubuois, Seth Jones, Werenski) are players they are going to build around.

That seriously limits what they can do.

Is general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in a position to trade another first-round pick to add to what is a pretty good, but probably not great team? Is there a player available that can a big enough difference to make that worth it? If there is, that player can not be a rental. It has to be a player that has meaningful term left on their contract and can be a part of the organization beyond just this season.

Even if you assume the Blue Jackets will not be able to maintain their current hot streak (and they will cool off at some point) they have at the very least put themselves in a position where they are going to be in the playoff race with a very good chance of making it. This is also not a team in a “rebuild” mode, either. When you are in that position you owe it to your fans and the players in that room to try to win. For the Blue Jackets, it is just a matter of how much they can do and how aggressive they should be over the next few weeks.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Top rookie performances so far

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we keep it on an individual player level and dig into the 10 best rookie performances so far this season.

It has been an interesting rookie class because two of the most anticipated rookies — top-two picks Jack Hughes and Kappo Kaako) have gone through some early growing pains and have not really played their way into the Calder Trophy discussion. That is nothing to be concerned about, either. Not every 18-year-old is going to jump right into the league and make an immediate impact. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two. They both still have great futures ahead of them and should be stars (maybe even superstars?) in the NHL.

It has, however, been a great first half for rookie defensemen (four in the top-ten) and a couple of rookie goalies.

Which rookies have stood out the most so far this season?

To the rankings!

1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. Makar entered the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites, and he has not only met the high expectations placed upon him, he has probably exceeded them. He is already the best defenseman on one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams. An exceptional skater, great passer, and a lightning fast release that just looks effortless and unstoppable. He is a one-man highlight reel almost every night.

(See it here, too)

2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. When the 2019-20 season began it was expected that a Hughes would be at the top of the rookie class. And there is. It’s just probably not the one (Jack, the No. 1 overall pick this year) that most thought would be this high on the list. For the third year in a row the Canucks have one of the league’s top-two rookies as Hughes joins their promising core alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres. One of the few bright spots in yet another massively disappointing season for the Sabres. At 24 he is a little older than your average rookie, but he has been a great fit next to Jack Eichel on the Sabres’ top line when he’s been healthy. As of Monday he still leads all rookies in scoring even though he has not played in close to a month due to injury.

4. John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins acquired Marino from the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in a trade that few people noticed when it was announced. All Marino has done this season is help transform the Penguins’ defense into one of the league’s best. He is already a 20-minute per night player, helps drive possession, has great defensive metrics, and has helped bring back mobility and puck skills to the Penguins’ blue line.

5. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. Stan Bowman has made some questionable trades and decisions over the past few years, but this is one that he knocked out of the park. The Blackhawks acquired Kubalik from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round draft pick almost exactly one year ago. He was always considered a talented prospect with offensive upside (something the Kings could use!), but he hadn’t shown a willingness to actually sign with the Kings. So they traded him. The Blackhawks were the team that pounced and added some desperately needed scoring depth. He has 21 goals on the season, with 10 of them coming over the past two weeks. Recency bias plays a role here, but he has made a huge jump in the Calder Trophy discussion from where he was even a few weeks ago when he probably was not even on the radar.

6. Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals. The Capitals’ goalie of the future should probably be getting even more playing time in the present. In his 19 appearances this season he owns a 15-2-1 record with a .927 save percentage and is currently on a run where he has won 10 consecutive decisions. He has not lost a start since Nov. 15 against the Montreal Canadiens. His play is probably making it easier to say goodbye to long-time starter (and long-time top-shelf goalie) Braden Holtby this summer in free agency.

7. Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets. Like Kubalik, he is another rookie that has picked up his play very recently. When Blue Jackets starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury, Merzlikins had yet to win a game in the NHL and had a sub-.900 save percentage. It would have been easy to write off the Blue Jackets’ playoff chances at that point. Instead, Merzlikins has helped carry the team into the first Wild Card spot (as of Monday) in the Eastern Conference thanks to an 8-2-0 record, three shutouts,

8. Adam Fox, New York Rangers. Not going to lie, I kind of hate putting him this low because I feel like it underrates the season he has had. He has been really good. But, I also think the top-four here are clearly the head of the rookie class. It is also hard to ignore how downright dominant Kubalik and Merzlikins have been recently and the role they have played for their teams. Fox was one of two key additions to the Rangers’ blue line over the summer alongside Jacob Trouba. Trouba has the big name and the massive contract, but there is no denying which player has been the better addition for — it is Fox.

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. Necas is very quietly putting together a strong rookie season. He is the fifth-leading scorer on the team and his current scoring pace would put him on track for nearly 20 goals and 50 points with strong possession numbers. Not quite enough to be a Calder Trophy favorite, but that is still a heck of a season for a 21-year-old in his first full NHL season.

10. Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens. Suzuki was the key long-term player for the Canadiens in the Max Pacioretty trade, and they are getting their first taste of what he is capable of this season. He is still a bit of a work in progress, but he has improved dramatically over the past couple of months and is currently the fifth-leading scorer among all rookies. Pacioretty is having a career year for the Golden Knights, but Tomas Tatar (the other key player in that trade) having a great year of his own, and Suzuki showing a ton of potential, it is one that — so far — has worked out well for both teams.

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.

PHT Face-Off: Kovalchuk’s trade value; Who hits 1,000 points next?

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It’s the start of a new week, which means it’s time for the PHT Face-off. We’ll look at numbers and trends around the NHL ahead of all the action coming your way over the next seven days.

Let’s go!

Who will hit 1,000 points next?

On Sunday, Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane hit the 1,000-point mark for his career. The 31-year-old did it pretty quickly, as it only took him 953 games to reach the milestone. But which active players are scheduled to hit that number next?

Assuming good health, Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf should be the next one to 1,000. He currently has 956 points, which means he should reach 1,000 sometime next season. Again, it depends how healthy he is, but it should come sooner than later.

Leafs forward Jason Spezza has 933 points, but he appears to be running out of steam. Will he play long enough to accumulate 67 more points? He’s on pace for 34 this year. That means he’ll get 16 more than he already has, which would leave him 51 points away. Is he going to play two more seasons?

Kings center Anze Kopitar is right behind Spezza with 931 points. The 32-year-old has 43 points in 50 games in 2019-20. That would put him on pace for 71 points this year. Like Getzlaf, if Kopitar stays healthy, he should find a way to reach this milestone sometime next season.

And considering Nicklas Backstrom just signed a new extension with the Washington Capitals, he should have plenty of time to hit 1,000. Backstrom has 911 points in his career and he’s currently at 38 points in 41 games this season. The 32-year-old has been pretty healthy during his career, so he should be able to get to that number in short order.

Merzlikins on quite a roll

Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins has turned his season around since Joonas Korpisalo was injured on Dec. 29. The 25-year-old is 8-2-0 in 10 games since Korpisalo went down, and he’s given up two goals or fewer in seven of those outings. The Jackets have one more home game (Wednesday against Winnipeg) before they get to enjoy their lengthy break.

What has this recent run meant for the Blue Jackets?

Well, as of right now, they’ve found a way to put themselves in the first Wild Card spot. There’s several reasons they’ve been able to overcome the losses of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but the recent play of their goaltenders is near the top of the list.

Whether or not Merzlikins can keep this up remains to be seen.

Are the days of the $9-million (or more) goalie done? The Blue Jackets sure seem to be poking holes in the “pay big money for a goalie” theory.

What’s Kovalchuk worth on trade market?

Earlier this month, not many teams were willing to roll the dice on Ilya Kovalchuk. The Montreal Canadiens did, and the move has paid off in a pretty significant way so far. The 36-year-old has looked nothing like the player that suited up for the Los Angeles Kings over the last two years. He’s been quicker than advertised and he’s found ways to put up points.

In eight games with the Habs, he’s scored four goals and four assists. He also added a goal in the shootout against the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night.

Now, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has to decide whether or not to keep Kovalchuk or trade him before the Feb. 24 deadline. With the Habs seven points out of a playoff spot, you’d think that they may look to get an asset or two in return for the veteran winger. Maybe there’s a trade and a side deal reached for next year, but it’ll be interesting to see what the market him is at this point.

Three weeks ago, nobody was willing to touch him. Now, could there be a bidding war for Kovalchuk? If he can keep rolling at this pace (that’s a big “if”), teams will be interested. What makes him even more of an intriguing addition, is that his cap hit is for $700,000. He’s only going to play half a season, so in reality he’ll make just $350,000 this year.

Teams looking for secondary scoring could do worse than Kovalchuk. Bergevin has the opportunity to turn this into a home run move.

What will Penguins do in goal?

What are the Pittsburgh Penguins going to do with their goaltending situation in the second half of the season? It’s an interesting question. Tristan Jarry has carried the load for the last little while, but Matt Murray appears to be played himself back in the picture recently.

Murray has started and won back-to-back games. Now, those games haven’t been perfect, but they’ve been encouraging. After he stopped 28 of 29 shots in a win over Detroit on Friday night, head coach Mike Sullivan went to him again on Sunday afternoon against Boston.

The 25-year-old and his team got off to a rocky start in the first period. They went down 3-0 and the Pittsburgh faithful even gave their starting netminder the Bronx cheer. But Murray settled down and the Pens eventually came back to win the game.

So, who gets the start against Philadelphia on Tuesday night? Do they go back to Jarry or do they give Murray a third straight opportunity right before the break?

Here’s an interesting stat:

What’s coming up this week?
• Afternoon Hockey: Red Wings vs. Avs, Mon. Jan. 20, 3 p.m. ET.
• Islanders vs. Rangers for the third time in eight days, Tue. Jan. 21, 7 p.m. ET.
• Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville is back in Chicago for the first time since his firing, Tues. Jan. 21, 8:30 p.m. ET.

NHL on NBCSN
• Penguins vs. Flyers, Tue. Jan. 21, 7:30 p.m. ET.
• NHL Skills Competition, Fri. Jan. 24, 8 p.m. ET. (NBCSN)

NHL on NBCSN
• NHL All-Star Game, Sat. Jan. 25, 8 p.m. ET. (NBC)

Wednesday Night Hockey
• Red Wings vs. Wild, Wed. Jan. 22, 8 p.m. ET. (NBCSN)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.