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Canucks, Oilers are getting great goaltending so far

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When an NHL season is young, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking that “This is the year,” or that a great season is going to come tumbling down. Sometimes those assumptions end up being correct, but it’s often far too easy to be roped in by a strong sprint and forget how much of a marathon an 82-game season can be.

Well-oiled machine … running a bit on luck

The Edmonton Oilers came into 2019-20 with very low expectations, yet they’re off to a hot start, even after falling 1-0 in a shootout to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.

It’s been easy to focus on Edmonton’s skaters for much of the Oilers’ 7-1-1 start.

How could you not, really, with Connor McDavid looking even better than usual, Leon Draisaitl seemingly continuing to prove that he’s probably worth more than his $8.5 million AAV, and James Neal getting off to such a strong start that he’s already blown away his 2018-19 goal totals from that disastrous year with the Flames?

This strong start isn’t just about that, though.

Still-new head coach Dave Tippett made his reputation on insulating goalies with great defense, so he’s probably most excited about strong early returns in that area.

It’s too early to say that GM Peter Chiarelli should feel vindicated for the baffling final move of his run, as he signed Mikko Koskinen to a risky contract basically right before he got a pink slip. But there’s little denying that Koskinen is off to a strong start. The 31-year-old has a marvelous .934 save percentage and 4-0-0 record so far.

Tippett’s old buddy Mike Smith tended net on Friday, and produced what was likely the best game of his run with the Oilers. Yes, the Jets won 1-0 via a shootout, but Smith stopped all 23 shots he faced between regulation and a scintillating 3-on-3 OT period; 10 of those saves came on power play opportunities, as the Jets went 0-for-4.

Watch this sequence as Mark Scheifele makes a ridiculous move, Smith beats him, and Connor Hellebuyck stops Connor McDavid:

Smith is now at 3-1-1, and brought a .917 save percentage into Sunday, so he’s combined with Koskinen to help Edmonton be very stingy.

We’ve already seen Oilers scorers cool down ever so slightly from unsustainable paces, as McDavid sits at 17 points despite going pointless the past two games. Edmonton has to be delighted to manage three of four standings points during these rare pointless McDavid games, but it’s a reminder that they’re going to need more from other players.

Chances are, they won’t get this sort of elite goaltending over and over again, either. That said, if Tippett can figure out a way to get enough stops, the occasional grind-it-out win (or even “charity point”), and then ride some token “McDavid being five strides ahead of the world” games, Edmonton might just be able to make the most of this 7-1-1 start.

Canucks could also rise

After beginning the season 0-2-0, the Canucks have won five of their last six games, pushing their 2019-20 record to 5-3-0. That included a Sunday matinee win where they beat the Rangers 3-2 thanks to 38 saves by Jacob Markstrom.

Vancouver shares a promising development in common with Edmonton in net. Not only are both teams getting strong goaltending; they’re also getting great early play from two different goaltenders. In the Canucks’ case, it’s holdover starter Markstrom (2-2-0, but with a strong .926 save percentage) and potential goalie of the future Thatcher Demko (2-1-0 with a fabulous .943 save percentage).

While Markstrom’s .912 save percentage from 2018-19 won’t wow many, he managed those numbers on a team that really struggled in its own end, and you can see that he was a pretty good difference-maker from various metrics, including Sean Tierney’s goals saved above expectation chart, which uses data from Evolving Hockey:

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The Canucks and Oilers are riding some hot streaks right now, with Edmonton in particular profiting in the standings. We’re almost certain to see those goalies cool off, and even McDavid may not be able to score almost two points per game.

But can Travis Green and Dave Tippett manufacture above-average goaltending from their rotations for enough of 2019-20 to bring one or both of their teams to the playoffs? Stranger things have happened, and few positions in sports are as strange — and important — as goaltending tends to be in the NHL.

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.

Islanders are rolling: 14-0-1 stretch harkens to 1982 glory

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NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Islanders insist they don’t think about how well they are playing. They are too busy preparing for their next opponent.

However, win after win after win has added up to a point streak the franchise hasn’t seen since its Stanley Cup dynasty days,

Since opening the season with three losses in four games, the Islanders are 14-0-1 while matching the team points record set during a 15-game winning streak from Jan. 21 to Feb. 21, 1982, in the midst of their run of four straight Cup titles (1980-83).

“The teams they’ve had in the past, they’re legendary teams,” coach Barry Trotz said. “I don’t know if it means anything right now because we’re so focused on just the next game and then just this season. I think when you look back, when you’re done, you can say, ‘Hey, remember that streak we had?’”

The Islanders have earned points in 15 straight games for just the fourth time, with the previous three coming long before teams earned a point for losing in overtime and long before shootouts (1978, 1980 and 1982).

They have pulled it off different ways. The Islanders have given up the first goal seven times, trailed after one period four times and after two periods twice. They won three times in overtime and twice in shootouts. At Philadelphia on Saturday, the Islanders trailed 3-0 in the third period before scoring three times in the last 12:14 to tie it and then winning in a shootout. At Pittsburgh on Tuesday, New York scored twice in the last 4:19 to tie the score 4-4 before winning in overtime.

The two comebacks made the Islanders the first team in NHL history to win consecutive games in which it trailed by multiple goals in the final seven minutes of regulation.

“There’s going to be games when you’re down in the score and you have to find to kind of get back in the game,” said veteran forward Derick Brassard, who has had a resurgence in his first season with the Islanders.

Trotz, in his second year in New York, has repeatedly said his players are so focused on the upcoming game they wouldn’t know about it except for reporters.

“The media seems to keep bringing it up, so we’re understanding the numbers now,” he said, “but really the mentality has been just look at the next game.”

Mathew Barzal has led the way with nine goals, but seven other players have scored at least three goals in the run. The goaltending has been stellar, with Thomas Greiss 7-0-0 with a 1.69 goals-against average and Semyon Varlamov 7-0-1 (2.45 GAA).

“We have a group of people that put a great plan in place for us and then we’ve got a group of guys who have committed themselves to going out there and executing that plan 100% of the time,” veteran forward Cal Clutterbuck said. “It’s never perfect but our goal is to make sure that mental errors don’t get in the way of us winning hockey games, and I think we’ve been able to do that over time.”

To set a new team point streak record, the Islanders will have to do it against the Penguins in the back end of the home-and-home set Thursday night. Pittsburgh is responsible ending New York’s two longest winning streaks – the 15-game run in 1982 and the 10-game stretch earlier this month on Nov. 7. In that loss, the Islanders took a 3-0 into the third period at home before the Penguins tied it and then won in overtime for New York’s only blemish since Oct. 11.

The Islanders were a surprise team last year, reaching the playoffs in the first year under Trotz and president and general manager Lou Lamoriello. New York led the Metropolitan Division for a chunk of the season before finishing second and then reaching the second round. After the Islanders returned largely the same team this season without any big-name additions, many predicted a regression.

The Islanders are proving their doubters wrong again.

“Anyone that doubts us can doubt us, that’s up to them,” Clutterbuck said, “but there’s no doubt in here.”

Latest PWHPA ‘Dream Gap Tour’ stop to be held in Toronto

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TORONTO (AP) — The Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association’s latest barn-storming stop will be back in Toronto and feature six teams.

The PWHPA on Wednesday announced its fourth Dream Gap Tour stop will be held January 11-12 in northern Toronto. There will be 120 players participating, representing the largest turnout of the association’s four stops to date.

The series was launched in Toronto in September, followed by weekend events in New Hampshire and Chicago last month.

The PWHPA is made up of about 200 of the world’s top players and was established in May after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded. The players have pledged not to play professionally in North America this season in a bid to gain support to establish a single league with a sustainable economic model.

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. The punishment was delivered by the league’s Hockey Operations department, not the Department of Player Safety.

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.