Roundtable: NHL Training Camp storylines; teams helped by break

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What’s the biggest thing you’ll be keeping an eye on over these three weeks of training camp?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: To me, it boils down to: which teams are closest to “full-strength.” That’s a simple thought, but it gets more complicated when you factor in a lack of transparency in the NHL. “Unfit to play” is becoming the new “lower-body injury.” Does unfit to play mean injured, infected, both? Just a day off? Good luck getting many concrete answers from NHL teams. Or, if we do, does that mean every cagey answer equates to mistruths being told?

None of this is especially fun to follow, but it’s the elephant in the room. It might even just be the entire room, elephant, furniture, backwards talking and all.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: The biggest thing to keep an eye on in the next three weeks is the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the NHL. I think there will be a few before the teams head into the two hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto and then it will just be a matter of controlling the infection rate among the rest of the player’s teammates. It will be more interesting once the players get to their bubble in their respective hub cities and if there are any cases after being in the bubble 14 days.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The foremost concern for me surrounds whether the 24 teams will be able to successfully transition from their home cities to the two bubbles, such that the Return to Play can proceed safely come August 1. Only time will tell there.

But in the meantime, one thing that’s got my interest early on in training camp is the young talent that, because of the hiatus and the expanded rosters, could be poised to make a big splash. Nick Robertson has made a strong impression early in Leafs camp; imagine if the 18-year-old, who scored 55 goals in junior this season, brought that offensive flair to Toronto’s lineup right away? Or if Peyton Krebs, one year after partially tearing his Achilles and falling in the draft because of it, could somehow earn playing time on the Cup-contending Vegas Golden Knights? The league is full of talented young stars, and we may get to see that list grow in this unique postseason environment.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I’m curious about how coaches facing goalie decisions will plan for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. If you’re Mike Sullivan, and you’re confident in both Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray, do you think of your Game 1 starter as the one you’ll ride with or in a game-by-game situation? Since the Qualifiers are best-of-five, there’s very little room for error, so if you’re a team like the Penguins, Rangers, Flames, Golden Knights, among others, how short is the leash if your Game 1 starter struggles?

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Which teams benefited the most from the four-month break?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: My first instinct was to pick the Penguins, the perennially-injured powerhouse. The health issue moves the goalposts constantly, but actually got me to thinking more broadly.

It’s not just teams that are getting healthier since the pandemic pause. It also might be helpful for familiarity.

The Golden Knights and Maple Leafs rank among teams that made midseason coaching changes, so all that time off and training camps could really help new coaches.

So now I lean toward the Penguins (if they can shake off their outbreak) and the Maple Leafs, who were both unhealthy and dealing with tumultuous times. Of course, both the Penguins and Maple Leafs could get bounced during the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, so we’ll see how much any of that matters.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/EditorAny team that had a long-term injury will benefit from the break. Carolina got Dougie Hamilton back, while Pittsburgh added Jake Guentzel and Columbus welcomed Seth Jones and Oliver Bjorkstrand back. Tampa Bay should get Steven Stamkos back in time for the first round of the playoffs.

But the team benefiting the most are the Colorado Avalanche. At the time of the pause, Colorado had seven regulars out of the lineup including Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky, Philipp Grubauer, Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi and Matt Calvert. While most likely would have returned in time for the playoffs in April, the Avs are healthy and are now considered one of the favorites for the Stanley Cup.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I’m in agreement with everyone else regarding teams that have had the opportunity to get healthy. So to offer another perspective, I’m going to off the board and say Florida. For starters, they faced an uphill battle to make the top eight in the East, so for a talented team with plenty of expectations, the new format obviously gave them a break. And perhaps the hiatus gave two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky the opportunity to move on from what had been a highly disappointing year. His GAA in the regular season was 3.23 – fourth-worst in the league. Bob is capable of shaving a full goal off that, but even with a more modest improvement, the Panthers would still become a much bigger threat. If he gets hot, watch out.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: The Blue Jackets were already going to be underdogs against the Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers round. We know how much John Tortorella loves to play that card any time he can. Now, with a four-month break, Columbus is just about healthy, though they will miss Josh Anderson. Getting Seth Jones and Oliver Bjorkstrand back will help both sides of the ice, as will Cam Atkinson, who dealt with an ankle injury during the regular season.

Columbus-Toronto was already was one the series I was most looking forward to, and a healthy Blue Jackets roster will help move this matchup into the “potential upset” column.

MORE:
2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule
NHL salary cap to stay flat at $81.5M

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

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USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.