PHT Face-Off: High-Flying Oilers; What’s wrong with Bolts?

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Heading into today’s action, every team in the NHL has played between three and seven games. That’s not a huge sample size, but it’s enough to spot certain trends. The PHT Face-Off will break down some of the early-season storylines around the league. 

Here we go:

• Arizona can’t score:

The Coyotes made a blockbuster trade to acquire Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Unfortunately for the ‘Yotes, that hasn’t translated into more goals. Through four games, Arizona has found the back of the net a total of seven times. More than half of those seven goals (four) came in their 4-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night. They scored one goal against Anaheim, none against Boston and two in an overtime loss to Colorado on Saturday night.

The encouraging thing about Arizona’s start, is that they’re ninth in the NHL in Corsi For Percentage at 52.09 percent and ninth in High Danger Chances For percentage at 54.9 percent (stats provided by Natural Stat Trick). You have to think that if they can continue to post similar numbers, the pucks will start going in at some point.

Arizona will head into Tuesday’s game against Winnipeg with a 1-2-1 record. That’s not terrible considering their lack of scoring. The fact that they’ve given up just seven goals helps in a big way.

• What’s wrong with the Lightning?

Last season, the Lightning ran away with the President’s Trophy crown, as they amassed a 62-16-4 record which was good for 128 points. The Calgary Flames, who had the second-highest point total in 2018-19, collected 107 points. That’s a huge gap. Heading into Tuesday’s clash against the Montreal Canadiens on NBCSN, the Bolts have a 2-2-1 record.

Prior to Thursday’s win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, head coach Jon Cooper admitted that his team still felt the pain of being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“I would be lying if I didn’t think there was a burden carried over,” Cooper told assembled media in Toronto on Thursday morning. “But we’ve talked to the players about it. We can’t change last year. We’re defending nothing, so let’s go and attack, and wherever people pick us, that’s for everybody else to talk about. It’s not how we feel. As I said before, we have a completely different team. Yes, a lot of our core is the same, but there’s no question, there’s a little bit of a burden you carry from last year. If we’re fortunate enough to make the playoffs and, hopefully, if we do win a round, we’re probably going to hear it until then. So let’s brush it off and play hockey.”

Give Cooper credit for providing us with an honest answer, because most coaches would’ve denied that there was any carry over at all.

Tampa may not put up another 62-win season, but they should be just fine.

• High-Flying Oilers: 

If you look at the list of NHL scoring leaders, you’ll notice that the first two games at the top belong to Edmonton Oilers players. Yes, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have registered 12 and 11 points respectively through their first five games. Also, James Neal is the only player in the league with seven goals this season. That’s a pleasant surprise considering he scored just seven times in 63 games with the Calgary Flames in 2018-19.

Sure, four of those goals came in one game, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s been really, really good for his new team.

Even though there’s no way Neal is going to keep this pace up all season (breaking news: he won’t score 115 goals this year), it’s encouraging to see the Oilers get offensive production from someone other than McDavid and Draisaitl.

It’s early, but the Oilers are sitting atop the Pacific Division standings with a 5-0-0 record.

You can catch McDavid and the gang on NBCSN (9:30 p.m. ET) this Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers.

• Quiet start for top two picks in 2019:

The first two picks in the 2019 NHL Draft were both able to crack their respective squads. Jack Hughes is with the New Jersey Devils, while Kaapo Kakko is taking a regular shift with the New York Rangers. The expectations were pretty high for both teenagers heading into this year, but the offensive output they’ve provided has been limited.

Through five games, Hughes has failed to pick up a point. We know that he’s fast, we know that he’s talented, but it may take a little bit of time for him to get used to the pace of play and the lack of time and space in the NHL. Head coach Jon Hynes has kept his rookie’s minutes fairly consistent, as he’s played between 14:23 and 17:36 this season.

Don’t get it twisted, it’s not Hughes’ fault that the Devils are 0-3-2 right now. After trading for Nikita Gusev and P.K. Subban, and then signing Wayne Simmonds in free agency, the expectations were that New Jersey would be much better. Expecting their prized rookie to light it up in his first year just isn’t fair. The points will eventually come.

According to Scott Cullen, Hughes is the first first overall pick since Steven Stamkos in 2008 to open his career with no points in five games.

As for Kakko, he collected his first goal/point in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers (he scored the opening goal of the game). Is this the moment that gets him rolling? It’s way too early to tell, but we’ll find out soon enough. Kakko has played two fewer games than Hughes, but their minutes have been similar (Kakko is averaging 15:25/game, Hughes is averaging 15:31/game).

Can Kakko continue to build his Calder Trophy case?

Both players will go head-to-head for the first time on Thursday night on NBCSN (7 p.m. ET).

• Gibson’s Finest: 

The Anaheim Ducks have played three of their first five games on the road, but they managed to go 4-1-0. Their only loss came in Pittsburgh, as they held the highest scoring team in the league to just two goals in a 2-1 defeat. Yes, the Ducks appear to be giving starting goalie John Gibson some help, but he continues to be one of the top goalies in the NHL.

That loss to Pittsburgh was also the only time this season that Gibson has allowed more than one goal in a game, which is totally ridiculous. He has a 3-1-0 record with a 1.26 goals-against-average and a .961 save percentage this season. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but you’d have to think that he’ll be in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy if he can keep his team’s season on the rails.

Gibson got the night off against Columbus on Friday, which means he’ll be fresh for tonight’s tough matchup in Boston.

What’s coming up this week?

• A lot of afternoon hockey on Columbus Day, Mon. Oct. 14, starting at 1 p.m. ET

• Lightning vs. Canadiens, Tue. Oct. 15, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

• Jack Hughes vs. Kaapo Kakko, Thu. Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET( NBCSN)

• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs for the first time since they faced each other in the first round, Sat. Oct. 19, 7 p.m. ET

WEDNESDAY NIGHT HOCKEY
Avalanche vs. Penguins, Wed. Oct. 16, 7 p.m. ET

NHL on NBCSN
Flyers vs. Oilers, Wed. Oct. 16, 9:30 p.m. ET

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.

Capitals’ Hathaway suspended three games for spitting on Gudbranson

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The NHL announced that Washington Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway has been suspended for three games thanks to his “spitting incident” involving Anaheim Ducks defenseman Erik Gudbranson.

It happened during the end of a pretty wild brawl between the Capitals and Ducks, leading to Hathaway being ejected. For what it’s worth, Hathaway said that he regretted spitting at Gudbranson after the game.

“Unfortunately, spit came out of my mouth after I got sucker punched and it went onto him,” Hathaway said. “It has no place. It was an emotional play by me. You don’t plan any of that stuff in your head, and it was a quick reaction and unfortunately the wrong one for me to a sucker punch.”

The Capitals face the Rangers on Wednesday, the Canucks on Saturday, and then the Panthers next Wednesday (Nov. 27) so Hathaway will not be eligible to return until a Nov. 29 home game against the Lightning. Here’s video of the incident:

Gudbranson might feel like the punishment is just.

“That’s about as low as you dig a pit, really,” Gudbranson said. “It’s a bad thing to do. It’s something you just don’t do in a game, and he did it.”

Do you agree with the three-game suspension? If not, what would be an appropriate punishment? It’s certainly tough to shake the notion that Milan Lucic‘s “sucker-punch” drew less of a suspension (two games) than spitting, especially when other after-the-whistle stuff like licking often goes virtually unpunished … but three games it is for Hathaway.

Being that it’s a shorter suspension, it doesn’t sound like Hathaway has a ton of recourse here, although maybe he can try to get some of the $24,193.53 back if he appealed?

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.

Surging Vrana might be capable of even bigger things for Capitals

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

From Alex Ovechkin for Washington to Artemi Panarin for New York, you’ll see plenty of firepower during Wednesday Night Hockey’s bout between the Capitals and Rangers. Even with Nicklas Backstrom sidelined for the game, I’m here to argue that you still might not see enough of one potential rising star: Jakub Vrana.

When you give Vrana’s 2019-20 stats a quick glance, they’re already impressive.

Not only does Vrana already have 10 goals scored in 23 games, but all 10 of them have come at even-strength, tying him for third in the NHL in that category alongside players like Auston Matthews, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vrana’s former Capitals teammate Andre Burakovsky. His eight assists rounds out his numbers to 18 points in 23 games; over an 82-game pace, Vrana would author 37-goal, 66-point season.

While he’s been riding some hot puck luck since 2018-19 with a 15.1 shooting percentage, the overwhelming message one gets from diving deeper into Vrana’s stats is that the Capitals should strongly consider finding more ways to get him on the ice.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Despite Vrana’s 18 points in 23 games, he’s only averaging 14:15 TOI per game, which is a career-high and slight uptick from last season’s average of 14:02. Beyond getting some bounces, Vrana’s breakthrough in simple counting stats can probably be chalked up to an increasingly itchy trigger finger. After peaking with 1.96 shots on goal per game last season, Vrana’s getting almost one extra puck on net per evening, averaging 2.78 SOG per game (64 SOG in 23 GP).

It’s unclear if you can derive that from playing a more confident game, getting decent reps with a tremendous playmaker like Evgeny Kuznetsov, or if perhaps someone in the Capitals organization gave Vrana a directive to shoot more. Either way, it’s working out quite nicely, as he’s a significant part of the Capitals’ early work as the NHL’s most dangerous offense at even-strength.

Again, though, I must ask for more.

Just about every number seems to point a neon flashing arrow at “More Vrana.” His heat map at Micah Blake McCurdy’s Hockey Viz is, well, almost off the charts:

Wow.

Admittedly, it would be tough for Vrana to crack the Capitals’ top power play unit, and he’s getting some reps on the second unit (1:35 per game), but his all-around game makes me wonder if more PK work would be warranted.

It’s not as though Vrana is getting totally buried in the Capitals’ lineup, yet with Washington in a strong position (few teams enjoy the luxury of “Can we win the division again?” being one of their burning questions in November), I’d be tempted to see if Vrana would thrive in an even larger role.

And, hey, if all of that is boring … the skill is pretty obvious, too. Not everyone can pull off a Datsyukian shootout move, right?

Just saying.

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.

My Favorite Goal: Malik’s stunning shootout winner vs. Capitals

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Welcome to “My Favorite Goal,” a regular feature from NBC Sports where our writers and personalities remember the goals that have meant the most to them. These goals have left a lasting impression and there’s a story behind each one.

Today, Scott Charles remembers Marek Malik’s wild shootout-winning deke against the Capitals in 2005.

14 years ago, the shootout was still a new phenomenon in its first year of existence.

The NHL implemented the game-deciding method after a lockout to add a unique level of excitement and create a stand-alone moment within the game for players to showcase their individual skills. Fans have seen plenty of breakaway attempts and penalty shots throughout the years, but the concept of a singular moment with the game on the line created a buzz.

Many NHL stars struggled to adapt to the one-on-one event while several unknown players became heroes overnight.

Marek Malik of the New York Rangers used his opportunity to cement his legacy in the organization’s history.

Rangers coach Tom Renney elected to send Malik over the boards in the 15th round on November 26, 2005 when New York squared off against the Washington Capitals.

Renney had few options at the time because shooters are not allowed to shoot twice unlike international competitions. But when the six-foot six-inch offensively challenged defenseman took the ice, a moment about to be etched into NHL history.

The big fellow skated to the right, majestically slid the puck between his legs and released a wrist shot that sent Madison Square Garden into a frenzy for the second time that day!

“I was expecting to see a shot,” Renney remembered. “I certainly was not expecting, as was no one else in the building expecting to see what he did. It was completely out there and maybe that was the right approach. Maybe Malik was having just enough fun watching all of this as I think we all did. It kind of didn’t matter so go try something. He did and it worked.”

The Rangers and the NBA’s Knicks often play the same day at MSG, but on this Saturday both teams left the venue with thrilling victories. Nate Robinson drilled a three-pointer at the buzzer to propel the Knicks to an overtime win against the Philadelphia 76ers prior to Malik’s beauty.

Malik had the chance to become a fan favorite because Jason Strudwick answered the bell in the round prior.

Bryan Muir of the Capitals scored and Renney had to make a very difficult decision; he needed to find someone to respond. The three remaining players who hadn’t shot yet were Strudwick, Darius Kasparaitis and Malik.

“He (Kasparaitis) kept looking at me every time I looked toward that end of the bench,” Renney said. “I was doing everything I could to not make eye contact with him. Kasparaitis was doing everything he could to make eye contact with me and Strudwick was doing everything he could to not make eye contact with me. There was a certain irony in all of that.”

Even though Strudwick lacked confidence Renney selected him anyway.

“I was thinking there was no way I was going to score,” Strudwick said while chuckling. “I remember Tom calling my name I pretended I did not hear him. He looked over and I was like ‘Oh God.’ Over my career I wasn’t really an offensive type guy. Part of me was praying someone would have scored earlier to just end it, but part of me was thinking I actually want a chance at this.”

Malik’s shootout goal encapsulates the spirit of the unlikely hero. A reminder of the underdog moments of triumph hockey can create.

Depth defensemen and bottom-six forwards are often overlooked and viewed as replaceable players, but the ‘Malik Deke’ was another reminder how talented each NHL player is despite their role on any team.

PREVIOUSLY ON MY FAVORITE GOAL
McCarty shows off goal-scoring hands during 1997 Cup Final
Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’ as a rookie

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.

Senators’ Bobby Ryan to enter NHL/NHLPA player assistance program

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The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Wednesday morning that Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan will be stepping away from the team indefinitely while he enters the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program.

The league and union said in a release there “will be no further comment at this time.” The Senators are in Montreal to face the Canadiens Wednesday night.

Ryan did not play Tuesday night in Detroit, one day after he left practice early. Senators head coach D.J. Smith said the forward wasn’t feeling well, according to the Ottawa Citizen.

“Bobby is an important member of the Ottawa Senators family and he has our full support as he tends to this matter,” said Senators GM Pierre Dorion.

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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.