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James Neal keeps scoring goals as Oilers remain unbeaten

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Not even the most optimistic Edmonton Oilers fan could have drawn up a start this good for the 2019-20 season.

With their 4-3 shootout win over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night, the Oilers remained perfect on the young season and improved to 4-0 for just the fourth time in franchise history, and the first time since the 2008-09 season.

It was their big stars doing the damage on Thursday.

Connor McDavid sent the game to overtime with a late power play goal while Leon Draisaitl (who also scored in regulation) scored the lone goal in the shootout to help the Oilers extend their season-opening winning streak.

But the big story to come out of this game, again, is the continued resurgence of offseason acquisition James Neal as he scored in his third consecutive game and has already matched his goal output (seven) from the entire 2018-19 season. It has taken him just four games to do it.

His seven goals are also the most for any Oilers player through the first four games in franchise history.

After signing a huge contract with the Calgary Flames in free agency, Neal was a massive flop in his first year with the team scoring just seven goals in 63 games, quickly falling out of favor with the organization and the fanbase. Looking for a change — and some added toughness — the Flames dumped his contract on the Oilers in exchange for their biggest albatross contract (Milan Lucic). Given the construction of the two contracts it was a financial win for the Oilers, and it also had a great chance to be a win on the ice since Neal always seemed like the more likely player to have a bounce-back year.

So far, that gamble is paying off.

Neal has now scored in three consecutive games for the Oilers and is giving them exactly what they needed — a forward not named McDavid or Draisaitl that could put the puck in the back of the net on occasion.

Is he going to keep scoring at such a ridiculous pace all year? Of course not. But if he can at least get back to being a 25-30 goal player that is going to be a huge upgrade to the Oilers’ lineup. He has already been a major difference-maker in three of the team’s first four wins this season with two goals in a one-goal win against the Kings, four goals in a 5-2 win against the Islanders, and a goal in a shootout win on Thursday.

As for the Devils, Thursday’s defeat drops them to 0-2-2 on the season for what has to be a bitterly disappointing start after such a huge offseason.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Q&A: Nicklas Lidstrom on his toughest losses, influence of Brad McCrimmon

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Nicklas Lidstrom spent this past weekend in Toronto taking part in the 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame Weekend of festivities. He captained one of the teams during Sunday’s Legends Classic and watched as another European player, Vaclav Nedomansky, was enshrined Monday night.

While the former Red Wings captain, a 2015 inductee, is one of four Swedish players in the Hall of Fame, he sees more and more European players who will find their way to Toronto in the near future.

“I think we will have more representatives and more Europeans coming in as they get older,” Lidstrom told NBC Sports this week. “I know [Marian] Hossa’s been mentioned, Pavel Datsyuk is coming up, Henrik Lundqvist, the Sedin twins are coming up. Just talking about Swedes, but in general I think you’ll see more Europeans as these guys get older.”

Lidstrom has spent part of the fall promoting his book Nicklas Lidstrom: The Pursuit of Perfection, which was released in October.

We spoke with Lidstrom this week about his book, what current defensemen he enjoys watching, and what the “Perfect Human” isn’t good at.

Enjoy.

PHT: You write in the book about your first contract with Detroit and thinking you’ll play a few years and then go back home. What was behind that thinking and were there times later in your career where you contemplated that again?

LIDSTROM: “I didn’t really know what to expect when I first signed with the Wings. I didn’t know what it was like living overseas and playing in the NHL, playing almost twice as many games as I did in Europe at the time. That’s why in my mind I said I’m going to give it a try anyway and play a few years and see how it goes. If I’m not successful I can always move back and play in Sweden again. My mindset wasn’t to play 20 years or play a real long time. It was more just get used to playing and living in the U.S. and the NHL.”

PHT: You also wrote about Brad McCrimmon and how big of an influence he was on you in those early years. Did any of the lessons he taught you — on or off the ice — influence in how you dealt with younger players when you were the veteran?

LIDSTROM: “Yeah, one of the things he mentioned was that you’ve got to go to work every day, meaning you don’t take days off and you’ve got to work hard every day. He said if you do that then you’re a pro. If you do it well you can be a star. That’s something I tried to help younger players with as well, [telling them] just got to go there and work hard and feel good about yourself leaving the rink every day.”

PHT: A lot of players quoted in the book talk about how hard it was to get you off your game. Were you always like that as a player, even as a youth?

LIDSTROM: “No, as I matured and got older I developed that. In my junior years, not that I would lose my temper real bad, but I would try to get even or slash someone back if someone was trying to get under my skin. I would sometimes get sucked into that as a junior player. As I matured and as I got to know the game a lot more and became better I was able to keep my emotions intact and focus on the game.”

PHT: You play through a few different eras of the NHL. Today, there are no Derian Hatcher type defenseman. You have to be a good skater, be able to move the puck well. How do you think a 21-year-old Nick Lidstrom would do in the NHL in 2019?

LIDSTROM: “I think I would have adapted and adjusted to the style of today’s game. That’s what I had to do as a 34-, 35-year-old when they changed the rules in 2005. You have to adjust. You were taught to grab and hold and put your stick around someone’s waist, that was how you were taught when you first came into the league. All of a sudden, that’s a penalty every time you do it, so you had to adjust. As a young player I think I would have been able to adjust to that style, too. I was a mobile defenseman in a younger age, so I think I would have been able to adjust to that type of style earlier, too.”

PHT: Who are the defenseman you enjoy watching the most today?

LIDSTROM: “There’s so many good, young players today. Good skaters, they’re good at moving the puck. They wanted you to be big defenseman and maybe the real skill guys were a couple of every team, or three, four at the most, and now you see the opposite. Now you see skill is what team’s are looking for. They’re looking for skating defensemen and guys that can move the puck and be part of the offense. 

“I saw Rasmus Dahlin here in Sweden a couple of weeks ago when they played Tampa and seeing his style of play, how confident he plays with the puck. Cale Makar, I haven’t seen him play live but I’ve watched some highlights of him recently, too. They’re all good skaters and they can move the puck and they can be part of the offense. There’s a lot more mobility on the backend than there used to be.”

PHT: And the exciting thing is guys like Dahlin and Makar, they’re playing at that level right away. It’s not as if they’re older veterans.

LIDSTROM: “That’s what’s so impressive. Rasmus is 19 and Cale [is 21]. I’m so impressed with how they come in and really take charge of the game. You didn’t see that when I came in or even 10 years ago you didn’t see many players that young coming in and being so important to their teams. That’s another thing that’s impressive: how the young guys and young stars of the league have been able to step in and contribute right away.”

PHT: For all of the team awards you’ve won — Stanley Cups, gold medals — is there a loss in your career that still bothers you to this day when you think about it?

LIDSTROM: “Always when you think back at some of the losses, the one we had in the Olympics in 2002 against Belarus in the quarterfinals was a tough one. That was a real tough loss for us where we were huge favorite and came out on the wrong end of it. 

“The last Stanley Cup Final that I played in, 2009, was hard, too. We beat Pittsburgh the year before. We had a good team and they had a good team, too, which is why it went to seven games. It was disappointing losing that Game 7 at home.”

PHT: When that puck was squirting out to you in Game 7, were you confident you were about to score before [Marc-Andre] Fleury dove across?

LIDSTROM: “No, I can’t say I was confident because the puck was kind of coming on my off side, so I couldn’t get a lot on it. If the puck had squirted out on the other side it would have been like a one-timer. I had to focus more on getting it on net, but I didn’t get as much on it as I would have liked. That’s why when it came from the off side it makes it a little harder to get all of it. I wasn’t overly confident at all that I would score. I knew it was only within seconds of the buzzer, too, so I knew I had to get a shot off quick.”

PHT: Finally, you’ve had the “Perfect Human” nickname for a long time. But tell me, what is something Nicklas Lidstrom isn’t good at?

LIDSTROM: [laughs] “My wife would tell you a bunch of things. I was so detailed in getting ready for games and focusing on everything around the game, but away from the rink my car could be dirty, I could be sloppy with dishes or things around the house. You’re not as focused as you were at the rink. Those kinds of things.”

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Life after Babcock; goalie gambles not paying off

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Confidence should be gained for the Maple Leafs now that Mike Babcock is gone and Sheldon Keefe is in. [Toronto Star]

• The fun is gone in Toronto. [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Babcock is out, but now the pressure is upped on management. [Leafs Nation]

• “The NHL has to stop letting player safety depend on referees’ judgment calls.” [RMNB]

• “Why punching your opponent in hockey is fine but spitting on him is not.” [The Guardian]

• A look at Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and other NHL players carrying large offensive burdens for their teams. [ESPN]

• Jamie McGinn has been released from his tryout with the Blues, while Troy Brouwer inks a one-year deal. [Blues]

• Some goalie gambles haven’t paid off for a number of GMs. [Yahoo]

• It’s been a mixed bag of results for the Sabres’ blue line. [Die by the Blade]

• In good news for the Sabres, assistant coach Don Granato, who’s been out since Oct. 1 while battling severe pneumonia, was back at practice on Wednesday. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• The Blue Jackets have faced a pretty tough schedule to start the season. [1st Ohio Battery]

Yanni Gourde should not longer be considered underrated; he’s just that good. [Raw Charge]

• Sharks’ Evander Kane pushes growth of hockey at Oakland middle school. [NBC Sports Bay Area]

• Finally, a great development for Ryan Straschnitzki, who was paralyzed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash last April:

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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.

USA Hockey snub leads Alex Carpenter on Chinese adventure

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Once Bobby Carpenter’s flight from Beijing touched down in Boston, he raced to the Lawrence Larsen Rink in nearby Winthrop, Massachusetts, to catch his daughter’s Canadian Women’s Hockey League game.

Time was of the essence because, immediately following the game, Alex Carpenter was boarding a flight for China, of all places, with her new Shenzhen Vanke Rays teammates.

It was late January 2018, and Carpenter had gone some eight months without seeing his daughter while he coached Kunlun, the Chinese team in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League. Just as important, this also represented his first chance to speak to Alex personally since she was surprisingly left off the U.S. Olympic team preparing to play at the Winter Games in South Korea.

”I wanted to talk to her and make sure she was positive when she went over,” recalled Carpenter, who spent 18 seasons playing in the NHL. ”So, I just kind of said, ‘This is great. I’m glad you’ve got somewhere to play right now. Don’t worry about the other thing.”’

Some two years later, Alex Carpenter has no regrets or hold any lingering resentment over being left off a team that would go on to win its second gold medal and first since 1998.

”I don’t think it’s worth being bitter about. It was outside of my control,” said Carpenter, who had helped the U.S. win four previous world championships and a silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Games. ”It was decisions they made and I can’t do anything about it now.”

What matters is U.S. college hockey’s top women’s player in 2015 is back on the national team after helping the U.S. win its fifth consecutive world championship and ninth overall in April.

And the former standout at Boston College is still benefiting from her decision to play in China.

Carpenter is now in her third season playing for the Vanke Rays, who switched to the KHL-backed Women’s Hockey League after the CWHL folded last spring. The therapeutic move to leave her frustrations behind in North America has turned into a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for the 25-year-old.

”I think you just kind of learn to put things behind you and know that’s not the end of the world,” she said. ”I couldn’t have even imagined this in a million years. Sometimes you still can’t believe that you get to do this much traveling and playing in such a great league.”

Through games Tuesday, Carpenter is leading the eight-team league with 14 goals and 34 points in 14 games, while juggling her national team duties and the jet lag that comes with it.

Earlier this month, Carpenter traveled from China to Pittsburgh to participate in the U.S. team’s training camp, which included two exhibition games against Canada. Then, she was back on a flight to Krasnoyarsk in central Russia, where she had two assists in a 6-3 win on Nov. 13.

”You kind of get used to it after a while,” Carpenter said of a travel schedule in which the Vanke Rays’ closest road game is about a nine-hour flight. ”You just sleep when you can, eat when you can. It’s pretty basic.”

The key is she’s still playing, while many of her national team counterparts are relegated to practicing and competing in the occasional barn-storming game following their decision to not play professionally in North America and its lone remaining league, the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League.

The quasi-boycott came in the aftermath of the CWHL’s demise and led to the world’s top players to form the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association and push for a new league with a sustainable economic model.

Carpenter supports her colleagues and keeps track of developments in China. And it’s not lost on Carpenter that she and her Vanke Rays teammates are treated far better and have more access to resources than she had during her one NWHL season with the Boston Pride in 2016-17.

”We’d show up to rinks and not have dressing rooms until an hour or two before the game,” she said. ”Those kind of brought me back to my youth days.”

In Shenzhen, Carpenter has her room and board paid for, and players have daily ice times set aside and access to a workout facility. Carpenter made an impression at the recent Team USA camp on coach Bob Corkum, who noted she was in better game shape than players who elected to stay in North America.

”She’s as good as she wants to be,” Corkum said. ”Offensively she’s off the charts.”

Corkum replaced Robb Stauber and isn’t interested in what happened in the past. Upon welcoming Carpenter back at a camp in January, Corkum informed the entire team that he and his staff would strive to develop an open and honest relationship.

”I don’t really know what happened with the last people, and I would prefer to keep it that way, and treating Alex like any other player,” Corkum said. ”She’s been a great teammate and a great ambassador for the women’s game. I expect to see a lot more from her in the years to come.”

Bobby Carpenter has moved on, too. Not happy with how his daughter was treated before the 2018 Winter Games, he’s proud of how Alex has taken advantage of this opportunity.

”In hindsight, it couldn’t have worked out any better,” said Carpenter, who spends many early mornings watching his daughter’s games on YouTube. ”I think she’s focused on today, which is really important. If you’re focused on today, you work hard because it’s today. You don’t take anything for granted.”

The Vanke Rays are a multi-national squad which lists seven Americans, including national team defenseman Megan Bozek, six Canadians, and Finland national team goalie Noora Raty. Aside from playing, they’re also asked to help develop women’s hockey in China in advance of the 2022 Winter Game in Beijing.

The experience has provided Carpenter a unique perspective in seeing the women’s game grow, while also seeing the deficiencies that still exist.

”Obviously, we’re all together and fighting for the same things,” Carpenter said. ”I would love to see the day where we can be able to play professionally within North America.”

Should that happen, she’ll face a big decision over whether to stay in China.

”I’d have a lot of thinking to do,” Carpenter said. ”But it would definitely be pretty amazing to see that within your own country, and I think that would definitely sway my decision to come back.”

Our Line Starts podcast: What now for Maple Leafs? Issues in Calgary, Buffalo

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Kathryn Tappen, Mike Milbury, Keith Jones, and special guest Bob McKenzie react to the breaking news of Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday. Why now? What’s next? All your questions answered. Plus, Pierre McGuire interviews Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports