PHT Face-Off: Carlson racking up points; Tight finishes

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The first few weeks of the NHL regular season have been pretty exciting. Not every game has been tight, but it appears as though the schedule has been filled with one-goal games and teams trailing by a goal or two seem to be able to come back more than ever before. This is what the NHL wanted. It’s all about parity and excitement.

Here are the PHT Face-off storylines for this week:

• Tight finishes:

As we mentioned above, a lot of games seem to be coming down to the wire. This is clearly the dream scenario for the NHL. According to NHL Public Relations, 53.1 percent of games have been decided by one goal or a two-goal margin following an empty-netter from the team with the lead. If you look at the boxscore from each of Sunday’s five contests, you’ll notice that all of them fell into that category.

The fact that the losing team isn’t really out of the game until the end more than half the time is pretty impressive. We may not all be fans of the salary cap because it dismantles talented teams, but the parity level in the NHL is at an all-time high as we speak.

John Carlson is racking up points: 

If you check the list of scoring leaders in the NHL, you may be a little surprise to find a defenseman at the top of the list. The Capitals blue liner is currently ahead of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Mark Stone and everybody else in the league when it comes to points scored.

Heading into this week, the 29-year-old has picked up three goals and 18 points in just 10 games. He’s registered at least one point in nine of his team’s 10 contests. The only team that has managed to keep him off the board is the Carolina Hurricanes.

It’s no coincidence that the Capitals have won three games in a row. Their success isn’t just because of Carlson, but he’s certainly a bit part of it.

“I’m just getting lucky,” Carlson said when asked how he’s leading the league in points and assists. “Guys are making some good plays to me. The guys I’m passing to are scoring right now. Especially as a D, it’s pretty streaky. You take it when you can. A lot of guys making a lot of plays out there.”

J.T. Miller trade paying off for Canucks

Eyebrows were raised when the Canucks traded a future first-round draft pick to the Lightning for forward J.T. Miller. After all, Miller was coming off a 47-point season, which is good, but that first-rounder had the potential to be a lottery pick down the road. To be clear, if the Canucks 2020 pick falls into the lottery, they will send their 2021 pick to Tampa, but that’s still a risky proposition for a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in a while.

How has Miller fit in? Well, he’s been doing just fine on the Canucks’ top line with Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

Through eight games, the 26-year-old has racked up four goals and four assists. He leads the team in goals and is tied with Pettersson for first in points.

“Our games are different, but I’ve played with some elite players before,” said Miller, per CBC.ca. “There are some things that I try to instill on them and help them out.

“I can retrieve pucks for them. I think I have enough skill to make plays at their level. They are two really elite players. I just try to get the puck to them when they are open and get to the net.”

So far so good.

Sidney Crosby is still good at hockey

After being swept by the New York Islanders in last year’s playoffs, many wondered whether or not the Pittsburgh Penguins would still be able to compete in the Metropolitan Division. To make matters worse, they’ve been hit by the injury bug pretty badly since the start of the year, as Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk and Nick Bjugstad have all been out.

But somehow, some way, Sidney Crosby has found a way to keep the Penguins afloat. Sure, he’s had plenty of help, but the captain has also racked up four goals and 12 points in nine games, which puts him tied for fifth in NHL scoring.

Included in those four goals is this beauty which happened during last week’s nationally televised game against the Colorado Avalanche:

That’s just not fair.

It’s still WAY too early to be talking about Hart Trophy candidates, but if there was an MVP award for the first month of the season, Crosby would definitely be in the mix.

• Are the Bolts dull?

Speaking of the Penguins, they’ll be on NBCSN again this week, as they’ll take on the Lightning on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET).

Many (including myself) expected the Bolts to finish at the top of the Atlantic Division standings this season, and even though that still might happen, they haven’t looked like themselves just yet.

According to Sean Tierney’s awesome shot rate charts, the Lightning are right on the border of bad and dull. Who would’ve thought?

Nobody’s pushing the panic button. It’s still very early and they’re still an incredibly talented team, but it looks like they’re going to go through more adversity than they did last year. In the end, that might not be such a bad thing.

Tampa Bay currently owns a 4-3-1 record. After losing to Ottawa two weeks ago, they managed to beat Montreal and Boston before dropping a 6-2 home decision the Avs.

“Sometimes it turns into a game of mistakes, and the team that makes the most usually pays the price,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the blowout loss to Colorado, per NHL.com. “I can’t sit here and say we made the most mistakes, but the ones we did make, it seemed like they put in the back of the net.”

What’s coming up this week?
• Bruins look to avenge Saturday’s loss to the Maple Leafs, Tue. Oct. 22, 7 p.m. ET.

Alex Ovechkin vs. Connor McDavid, Thu. Oct. 24, 9 p.m. ET.

Patrick Marleau and the San Jose Sharks return to Toronto, Fri. Oct. 25, 7 p.m. ET

WEDNESDAY NIGHT HOCKEY ON NBCSN
Penguins vs. Lightning, Wed. Oct. 23, 8 p.m. ET

NHL on NBCSN
Stanley Cup rematch alert: Blues vs. Bruins, Sat. Oct. 26, 7 p.m. ET.
Heritage Classic: Jets vs. Flames, Sat. Oct. 26, 10 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.

Canadiens’ Shea Weber bloodied after blocking shot with his face (Video)

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The Montreal Canadiens picked up a hard fought (and much needed) win in New York on Friday night by knocking off the Rangers, 2-1, thanks to a late goal from Nate Thompson with a minute to play in regulation.

It was a painful win for captain Shea Weber.

He was once again a workhorse on the Canadiens’ blue line, playing a game-high 24 minutes, finishing as a plus-one, attempting five shots, and blocking five in the defensive zone. One of those blocks in the first period left him bloodied as he slid to the ice and was hit directly in the face by a shot from Rangers center Ryan Strome.

You can see the play in the video above. He somehow did not miss a shift after that play.

Weber has been one of the consistent bright spots for the Canadiens this season and is showing that he can still be a dominant, impactful player. His biggest problem the past few years has been staying healthy enough to remain in the lineup so he can make that impact. So far this season that has not been a problem. He already has 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in the Canadiens’ first 30 games this season while posting some of the best possession numbers of his career. His 0.76 points per game average would also be the highest mark of his career.

The Canadiens’ win on Friday was only their second in their past 11 games.

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.

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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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.

Kessel returns to Pittsburgh trying to find his game for Coyotes

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When the Arizona Coyotes acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins back in August (for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph) it gave them the type of player the organization had been lacking for years: a bonafide star forward, and one that was capable of scoring at a level that no Coyotes player had reached in close to a decade.

For a team that was just a couple of games away from the playoffs a season ago — despite an absurd season-long run of injuries that consistently decimated the roster — it was the type of move that could not only generate excitement within the fan base (it did, and they have the season ticket sales to prove it), but also give the team the last extra push it needed to get over the hump and end what is currently a seven-year playoff drought.

With Kessel set to make his first visit to Pittsburgh since the trade on Friday night, the Coyotes have put themselves in a great position to end that drought, sitting on top of the Pacific Division after 30 games thanks to their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

What is perhaps most surprising about their current spot in the standings is they have done it while getting minimal offensive impact from Kessel, even with his two-goal effort in Thursday’s win.

The early numbers are kind of staggering given the high bar Kessel has set for himself over the years offensively.

  • His six goals are his fewest through 30 games since his rookie year in 2006-07 (five goals).
  • He has been held without a goal in 26 of the team’s first 30 games.
  • He has just one even-strength goal on the season, with the other five coming on the power play (including both goals on Thursday — one of which was also an empty-net goal).
  • He is on pace for just 16 goals over 82 games. If he does not improve on that it would be his lowest total since his rookie year (11) and the first time since 2007-08 (his second year in the league when he missed 10 games) he did not top 20 goals in a season.

Some decline in his overall production should have been expected.

Not only because he is another year older (32) and another year away from his prime, but because he went from playing on a veteran, star-laden roster in Pittsburgh that plays one of the most up-tempo styles in the league, to a young Arizona team that, while talented, does not have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the middle of its lineup.

Even with all of that in mind this is still a pretty significant drop across the board, but it does not mean all hope is lost for him this season. Like any elite goal scorer Kessel can be notoriously streaky and score goals in bunches (this is not a knock on Kessel; it’s a reality for all players across the league), and it’s also not the first time he’s started a year slow. In his first year with the Penguins back in 2015-16 he had just nine goals through 30 games before getting hot in the second half, then catching fire in the playoffs on the way to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Kessel has not exactly lit the world on fire for the Coyotes, the trade has not exactly been a rousing success for the Penguins.

For all of Kessel’s flaws as a player, the Penguins absolutely miss his presence on a power play unit that been mostly dysfunctional this season. A lot of their power play the past few years ran through him, from his ability to gain entry into the zone (a problem for the Penguins this year), to his playmaking, to his ability to finish. Even with all of his struggles in Arizona offensively his five power play goals are more than any player on the Penguins.

They also have not received anything close to what they hoped they would from Alex Galchenyuk, which is starting to become a pretty big issue. He has just two goals through his first 20 games and has mostly been relegated to fourth-line duty. Even with the Penguins missing several regulars in their lineup he has not topped the 10-minute mark in three of the team’s past four games, while general manager Jim Rutherford on Thursday (via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe) that Galchenyuk is not a lock to remain in the lineup when everyone is back. Galchenyuk always seemed like a one-and-done player in Pittsburgh from the very beginning — Joseph is the key long-term piece — but they probably expected more than this.

The funny thing about all of this is the trade has not really done much for either team through the first quarter of the season, but both teams have still managed to put themselves on solid ground.

The Coyotes are healthy and in first place and still have the hope that a Kessel goal-binge is lurking somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

The Penguins are overcoming their injury issues, playing the way they want to play, and finding ways to collect points while they wait for their regulars to return.

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.

Laila Anderson meets bone marrow donor

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Laila Anderson has made us shed a tear or two (or several) over the last year, and she was involved in another touching moment on Thursday night.

It was special to witness the 11-year-old’s journey. We got to see her ups with the St. Louis Blues and we also got to see the emotion behind her battle with a rare auto-immune disease, HLH. Last night, Anderson got to meet the person who helped her get better, as she got to interact with Kenton Felmlee, who ended up being her bone marrow donor.

“I felt a bond with her before we ever met. I think the second I look at her on the stage and saw her face,” Felmlee, who is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, said, per Fox 2 Now St. Louis. “Every emotion that I was feeling all exploded into so much more.”

As you can tell from the above video, their first interaction was incredibly emotional.

“I don’t care if we go to dinner or if we go to Disney World. I don’t care what we do, I just want to spend time with you,” Laila told her new friend on Thursday night.

And, of course, Anderson and Felmlee will be attending Saturday’s game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center.

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.