NHL on NBCSN: Playoffs within reach for Blackhawks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

If you gave up on the Chicago Blackhawks’ playoff chances in the middle of December it would have been an understandable decision.

They had won just 12 of their first 31 games, were getting buried in the Western Conference standings, and looking like a deeply flawed team in need of some sort of a reboot. They may still have their flaws, but there is no denying that they are right back in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race, entering Tuesday’s game against the Minnesota Wild (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) just three points back of a playoff spot with a game in hand.

A win against the Wild, combined with a Coyotes regulation loss in Edmonton, would close that gap to just a single point. Considering where this team was just five weeks ago that is a huge accomplishment and turnaround, especially when you consider just how bad of a start they had, and how much it typically buries a team in the standings. Keep in mind that in the salary cap era only five teams (out of 68) with 12 or fewer wins through their first 31 games of a season have been able to bounce back to make the playoffs.

The Blackhawks still have a lot of work ahead of them (even a three-point gap is a lot harder to make up than it looks) and are going to have to maintain their recent pace, but they have at least given themselves a shot.

What has been driving their recent success?

For starters, their two superstar forwards — Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane — have helped carry the offense. Kane is again one of the league’s top-10 scorers for the season, while Toews is continuing to show that he isn’t yet ready to fade off in a decline. Toews has been especially productive over the past month.

They have also found something in rookie Dominik Kubalik, one of the league’s hottest goal scorers at the moment. He has 13 goals since Dec. 14 and is starting to climb the rookie rankings and look like one of general manager Stan Bowman’s best acquisitions in years.

The biggest factor, though, is the play of the goaltending duo of Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford. The Blackhawks’ defense still has its issues, but Lehner and Crawford have both been outstanding in net this season. This duo was always going to be the Blackhawks’ X-factor this season because they are both capable of playing at a level that can elevate a team around them.

They have done that.

This recent surge also creates a lot of questions for general manager Stan Bowman and how he handles the trade deadline later this month. Is this is a team worth adding to try and get in and make a run in a Western Conference that only has maybe a couple of really strong contenders at the top? What does he do with his goaltending situation where both players are unrestricted free agents at the end of this season? How much is Erik Gustafsson worth a new deal?

The answers to those questions will almost certainly depend on what happens over the next couple of weeks. They have 10 games between today and the trade deadline, with most of them coming against teams they could be competing with for a playoff spot. They’ve already won a couple of those “four-point games” recently (Winnipeg, Arizona) and have a bunch more ahead of them.

Wild have no margin for error

The Wild, meanwhile, are going to need a miracle to play their way back into the playoff race.

They enter the Tuesday’s game having lost eight out of 12 games, are coming off a brutal 6-1 loss to Boston over the weekend, and open the day seven points back of a playoff spot with four teams ahead of them. A win on Tuesday could help close that gap a little, and they do have a favorable schedule in the second half due to the number of home games they have, but this might be too much to overcome.

The big question here is how many more losses general manager Bill Guerin needs to see before he starts selling? And how drastic will he look to get with the changes?

Chris Cuthbert and Pierre McGuire will have the call from St. Paul. Liam McHugh hosts studio coverage with Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.

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.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”