PHT Face-Off: Pacioretty’s career year; Hart’s strong start

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The PHT Face-Off is back every Monday to break down some of the trends and storylines around the NHL.

Let’s take a look at what’s on tap this week:

Carter Hart has had a good year:

Last week, the Flyers goaltender officially hit the one-year mark in his NHL career, and it’s actually gone pretty well when you consider his age and position. Hart and backup netminder Brian Elliott were splitting starts at one point, but the youngster is now the regular between the pipes for Philly this season.

Those numbers aren’t terrible, especially when you consider how much the NHL has changed over the last two seasons. Offense seems to have gone up quite a bit and point totals are also on the rise. With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why the Flyers are excited about their future when it includes Hart. How long has it been since they’ve had a real difference-maker in goal?

Ryan Strome fitting in nicely with Rangers:

Sure, Strome has had the benefit of playing with Artemi Panarin for a good chunk of this season, but the fact that he’s accumulated 30 points in his first 35 games of the season is still impressive. The Strome’s success looks even better for New York when you realize that all they gave up for him was Ryan Spooner, who’s now playing in Europe.

On the flip side, when you look at his numbers without Panarin, you quickly realize just how good the Russian winger is at making those around him better. Almost all of Strome’s individual numbers drop when Panarin isn’t by his side, according to Natural Stat Trick.

With Panarin, Strome has a 47.39 CF%, a 47.86 FF%, a 61.76 GF% and an XGF% of 48.79 percent. Without him, he has a 43.6 CF%, a 42.91 FF%, a 45.45 GF% and an XGF% of 41.76.

Yeah, those numbers are definitely inflated by a talented linemate, but nobody will really mind if he continues to put up points throughout the season.

• Veterans coming through for Wild: 

Nobody really expected much from the Minnesota Wild this year, but a solid couple of months has them in the mix for a playoff spot heading into the Christmas break. Eric Staal, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have a lot to do with the teams recent play.

Parise has 16 points in his last 19 contests, Staal has picked up 11 points in his last nine games and Ryan Suter has seven points in his last six games and, oh by the way, he’s averaging over 25 minutes of ice time per game for the season. There’s no denying that the Wild are an aging team and they’re still not likely to make the playoffs, but maybe this group of old timers (no offense) can get them back into the postseason one last time.

This is a stat that dates back to last week, so the numbers have changed a little bit, but look at the balanced scoring they’re receiving and look at the names of the players contributing.

Overcoming the Zucker injury won’t be easy (he’s expected to miss a month). The good news is that the team has activated Joel Eriksson Ek from injured reserve.

Max Pacioretty is playing best hockey of career:

The Golden Knights paid a huge price to land Max Pacioretty from the Montreal Canadiens last fall, as they gave up Tomas Tatar, top prospect Nick Suzuki and a second-round draft pick. Tatar has been solid for the Habs and Suzuki has made quite the impression during his rookie season, but you can’t overlook what Pacioretty has done in his second year with Vegas.

The 31-year-old is on pace to score 32 goals this year, which wouldn’t be a career-high, but he could also surpass the 70-point mark for the first time in his career. Even though Pacioretty is known as a scorer first, he’s found a way to help set up teammates this year. He and Mark Stone have given the Golden Knights another incredible forward line.

He’s heading into this week with 10 points in his last seven games. On top of all that, his CF%, SF% XGF%, SCF%, and HDCF% are all at 55 percent or higher, per Natural Stat Trick.

The fact that he’s no longer playing in a hockey-crazy market like Montreal seems to be helping him.

“I haven’t really thought about it, but that’s kind of my personality. Not really attention-grabbing,” Pacioretty told The Athletic. “You’re never as good as they say you are. You’re never as bad as they say you are, so I try to stay even keel. Good news is right now we’re getting contributions from everybody and we’re winning as a team.”

• Are the 200-minute penalty men back?

Last season, only one player surpassed the 150-minute penalty mark, and that was San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane. In all, only six players had more than 100 minutes in the sin bin (Kane, Tom Wilson, Antoine Roussell, Ian Cole, Brendan Lemieux and Zack Kassian. Yes, those numbers would’ve been higher had each of those players not missed games, but those are still low totals.

This year, the high-end penalty minute takers appear to be back in find form. Leading the way this season is Erik Gubranson of the Anaheim Ducks, who has 86 penalty minutes in just 33 contests. That puts him on pace for 203. Lemieux is right behind him, as he has 85 PIMs in 33 contests. Kane is right behind both of them with 83 minutes in 35 games.

This is what happens when Lemieux and Gudbranson go head-to-head:

What’s coming up this week?

• The Christmas break runs from Dec. 24 to Dec. 26, but that means we’re loaded with hockey games on Monday and Friday night.
• The World Junior Hockey Championship begins on Boxing Day.

NHL on NBCSN

• New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers, Mon. Dec. 23, 7 p.m. ET
• Minnesota Wild vs. Colorado Avalanche, Fri. Dec. 27, 8 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.

NHL reports second straight week of zero positive COVID-19 tests

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For the second week in a row the NHL has announced that it had zero positive COVID-19 tests during the Phase 4 portion of its return to play.

The league resumed the 2019-20 season and playoffs in late July with 24 teams playing within two hub cities (Toronto and Edmonton).

Since the participating teams entered their respective bubbles on July 25 they have reported zero positive tests during that time.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The league announced on Monday that it conducted 7,245 tests between August 2 and August 8. Previously the league reported 43 positive tests during the Phase 2 portion of the return (small group workouts at team facilities) and two positive tests during the first week of Phase 3 (return to training camp). But since then the league has reported zero positive tests through the remainder of training camps and, to this point, during the return to play in the hub cities.

The NHL just completed the Qualifying Round and Round-Robin portion of its return to play and will begin the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday afternoon in Toronto and Edmonton.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Conn Smythe Watch: Korpisalo, Aho leading entering First Round

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With the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round and Round-Robin phase of the NHL’s 2019-20 season restart in the books, we have our 16-team playoff field officially set.

Because of the unusual circumstances around the postseason this year, we also have a head start on the race for the 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Let’s take a quick look at how that race is already starting to unfold.

We will update this on a weekly basis throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A couple of surprising goalies find themselves near the top of the list after they helped their teams pull off a couple of upsets, while some of the games brightest young stars are beginning to make names for themselves.

There are also a couple of seasoned veterans showing they can still help carry their teams.

The Early Favorites

1. Joonas Korpisalo, Columbus Blue Jackets. He got benched in one game, did not start another, and is STILL at the top of the list. That is how good he was in his other starts to help shut down the Maple Leafs. He posted a .956 save percentage in the series and recorded two shutouts, including the series-clinching Game 5 win. Goaltending was always going to make or break the Blue Jackets’ season, and their duo has been better than anyone could have possibly anticipated. It has continued in the playoffs.

2. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. Just a completely dominant showing by Aho in the qualifying round against the Rangers. He finished with eight points in the three games and is the cornerstone piece of the Hurricanes organization. Another deep run by the Hurricanes could take him from “underrated star” to “superstar” status.

3. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes. Kuemper has proven to be a steal for the Coyotes since they acquired him two years ago, and he was the biggest reason they were able to get through the Predators in the qualifying round. They are going to need an even bigger effort from him to get through Colorado.

4. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. What a qualifying round series he had for the Canucks. He is a key part of their young core — perhaps the most important part given his position and minutes — and was the best player on the team against Minnesota. He played massive minutes, helped the Canucks dominate possession when he was on the ice, and was the team’s leading point-producer against the Wild.

5. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens. The recipe for Montreal having success in the playoffs always revolved around Price channeling the 2014-15 version of himself. He was great against Pittsburgh and a huge part of the Canadiens’ upset win. The only reason he is not higher is because the Montreal team in front of him did such a great job shutting down the Penguins and rendering their offense useless throughout Games 3 and 4 of the series.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

6. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks. In some ways the series against Edmonton was a vintage Toews performance. He schooled some players defensively, scored big goals, and played a huge role in the Blackhawks winning. His offensive game has really rebounded the past two years and it was great against the Oilers.

7. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. The second rookie to make our list, Kubalik started the Edmonton series with a five-point game, then finished it by scoring the game-winning goal in the series-clinching win. He has been an outstanding addition to the top of the Blackhawks lineup and a much-needed impact player.

8. Cam Talbot, Calgary Flames. It was always assumed that a goalie was going to significantly impact the Jets-Flames series. That is exactly what happened. It just was not the goalie everyone expected. It was Talbot, and not Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck, that ended up dominating the series as the Flames’ starter posted a .945 save percentage in the four games.

9. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers had no answer for Svechnikov and Aho in their qualifying round series, and they are going to be a thorn in the side of the league for the foreseeable future.

10. Scott Laughton, Philadelphia Flyers. Probably the biggest surprise name on the list so far, and the only player that played in the Round-Robin phase. Laughton was the surprise star for the Flyers as they rolled through the round-robin to claim the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference. If they get this type of depth scoring they are going to be a force to deal with in the playoffs.

Honorable mentions: Pierre-Luc Dubois (Blue Jackets), Nathan MacKinnon (Avalanche), Sean Monathan (Flames), Mark Stone (Golden Knights), Anthony Beauvillier (Islanders)

More:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Flyers vs. Canadiens: 5 things to know about their First Round series

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The First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins August 11. Before the NHL postseason resumes play, PHT will preview each of the eight opening round matchups, including Flyers and Canadiens.

1. Carey Price found a time machine

Montreal pulled off the biggest upset of the Qualifying Round, dispatching the Penguins in four games. Their goaltender, who many had doubted before the series (*raises hand*), was a primary factor in their series win. Price posted a .947 even strength save percentage and a shutout. He was busy as Montreal allowed the sixth-most shots at 5-on-5 (96, via Natural Stat Trick). He’ll match up against Carter Hart, who’s been outstanding as well with a .971 ESSV% in two appearances.

2. Depth leads the way

Over the course of Philadelphia’s three round-robin games, Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, and Travis Konecny all combined for a grand total of zero goals. The Flyers won all three games with Scott Laughton (three goals) and Nicolas Aube-Kubel (two goals) leading the way. Teams become champions because of their depth, and once their stars get going, there’s no question Philadelphia is capable of running through the Eastern Conference.

Montreal also got help from players down their lineup. Paul Byron finished with four points, Jesper Kotkaniemi scored twice, and Artturi “Playoff” Lehkonen had a goal and two assists in the series. Rookie Nick Suzuki held his own with two points. Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, Tomas Tatar, and Philip Danault were all held in check. The Canadiens can’t bank on Price putting up another stellar ESSV%. They’ll need more from their offensive leaders in order to knock off the Flyers.

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3. Oskar Lindblom‘s possible presence

He’s beaten Ewing’s sarcoma, is skating back home in Sweden, and there’s a chance he could play in the playoffs. Lindblom’s is a remarkable story. The 23-year-old forward was diagnosed with the form of bone cancer in December, completed chemotherapy last month, and according to Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher, could play should they still be around in September.

If he does join the Flyers in Toronto this week, he’ll have to quarantine for four days and have four COVID-19 tests come back negative before he’s able to skate with this teammates.

“We will see how it goes,” Lindblom told Gefle Dagblad last week. “I feel that my conditioning is getting better and better each day. … It’s fantastic being back on the ice after all that’s happened.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

4. The head coaches are old, old friends.

The 1981-82 and 1982-83 Central Hockey League Salt Lake City Golden Eagles featured a pair of future NHL head coaches. Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault were once teammates, and once again are foes in the NHL playoffs. The two have coached against one another in the Stanley Cup Playoffs twice. Their last meeting came in 2017 when Vigneault’s Rangers bested Julien’s Canadiens. Their biggest stakes matchup was, of course, the 2011 Stanley Cup Final when Julien and the Bruins topped the Canucks and Vigneault in seven games.

5. Flyers in 5

For as much as Price carried the Canadiens against Pittsburgh, Hart’s play has matched what the Canadiens netminder has done so far. There’s also the aspect of Philadelphia’s bottom line players becoming key contributors that, when the stars and a power play that went 0-for-8 get going, could be too much for Montreal to handle.

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Montreal at Philadelphia, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: Montreal at Philadelphia, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Philadelphia at Montreal, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Philadelphia at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Philadelphia at Montreal – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD

MORE:
Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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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.

Tenacious Blue Jackets shift momentum to advance in playoffs

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TORONTO (AP) — The Columbus Blue Jackets’ successful playoff series against Toronto was a microcosm of their tumultuous, up-and-down season.

Plagued by injuries to key players in the regular season – including both goaltenders at different times – Columbus pieced together lines with rookies and managed to get within striking distance, earning a No. 9 seed in the Eastern Conference qualifying series when play resumed after the coronavirus pause.

Inside the bubble in Toronto, the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs traded shutouts in the first two games. Game 3 saw Columbus come back from a 3-0 deficit to win in overtime. Then they blew a 3-0 lead in the final four minutes of Game 4 and eventually lost in overtime to set up a decisive Game 5.

Then, with the series momentum seemingly leaning in Toronto’s favor, Columbus shut out the Leafs 3-0 Sunday night to advance to the round of 16 and play Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team the Blue Jackets swept in the first round of the 2019 playoffs.

Quite a ride so far.

”Stretches we played really well,” coach John Tortorella said of the qualifying series. ”You know, as you keep moving on, the hockey gets more into a grind. We’re playing Tampa, a very good hockey club with lots of weapons.

”We’re going to have to get better in a lot of things, not just defense, but we have to make some more plays, we’ve got to have our forecheck better,” he said. ”So as you move along here and teams are starting to get knocked out here and you start playing these other teams, the game is going to be better so we have to join in.”

The Lightning are suddenly facing injury issues. Star defenseman Victor Hedman went down with an apparent right ankle injury in a 4-1 robin-robin-closing loss to Philadelphia on Saturday, and captain Steven Stamkos has yet to play since sustaining a lower body injury last month. It’s unclear if either will be available for Game 1.

Tortorella said his players didn’t get down after blowing the big lead in the last four minutes of Game 4 and then going down in overtime on an Auston Matthews goal.

”We were confident in the way we’re playing,” Tortorella said. ”We didn’t want that to happen (in Game 4). (Stuff) happens, I guess. But right from the get-go as we started preparing for this game, we knew how we were playing, we just wanted to get back to our game as quickly as possible when we started Game 5.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped 33 shots for the Blue Jackets after being pulled for Elvis Merzlikins before the Blue Jackets went on to win in overtime in Game 3. Merzlikins got the start in Game 4 and was solid until the late flurry of Toronto goals.

Merzlikins was listed as unable to play in Game 5, giving Korpisalo the start and he responded with another shutout. There was no word on Merzlikins’ condition or whether he’ll be able to play Tuesday,

”I think we felt confident coming into the game, and obviously in Game 4 we kind of lost ourselves for a little bit, but we felt confident about where our game was at,” said defenseman Zach Weresnki, who opened the scoring for Columbus on Sunday. ”So we didn’t even have to get settled in, we knew how we had to play and how we had to execute our game plan.”

The Blue Jackets contained Toronto’s high-octane offense, limiting it to just 19 shots through two periods and 33 overall Sunday, two nights after allowing 53.