Four separate leagues? Divisional styles develop around NHL

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Barry Trotz tuned his television to the game between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers to do a little scouting, flipping around to others outside the East Division just to check some scores and move on.

“I really haven’t focused in on the other divisions, really,” the New York Islanders coach said. “I probably focus 80- or 90% just our division and the teams within it.”

Trotz is able to do that because it’s all divisional play this season, an effort by the NHL to reduce travel in the pandemic and make virus-forced schedule changes easier to pull off.

One side effect: Distinctively different styles developing around the league. The North Division is star-studded and high-scoring; the East is tight and full of rivals that know each other well; the West is the most tightly bunched in the standings at the moment, big and heavy with teams pushing each other around. The Central is a mishmash of opponents who haven’t seen each other much and tend to wind up in games that look like track meets.

“It almost feels like it’s four separate leagues,” said Mike Johnson, a former player and NHL Network analyst. “It’s four separate, unique, independent kind of leagues right now that will convene at the end to see who wins.”

With 56 games and the first two rounds of playoffs all within the same division, each one is starting to show its own personality.

RED LIGHT NORTH

A quarter of the way through the season, the NHL is averaging 5.9 goals per game. In the North Division, that number climbs to 6.4; for context, the last time league-wide scoring was that high was 1993-94.

Six of the league’s top eight scorers play in the North. There’s Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and reigning MVP Leon Draisaitl, Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele and Vancouver’s Brock Boeser. And that’s just the start of the star power among the seven teams, all of them based in Canada.

“There’s some really good players in this division,” Oilers coach Dave Tippett said. “That’s driving the offense a little bit.”

Maybe driving coaches a little crazy, too. Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice never feels in control of a game behind the bench in the North Division, though that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy it and try to capitalize on the offensive talent of some Jets players.

“I like the offensive part of the game,” Maurice said. “I like watching it. Where the coaches try to fit himself in in the Canadian Division is in the transition. All of these guys have let their team make plays. If a guy turns the puck over and I see what he’s trying to do, if there was a method to it, if there was a rightness to it — pucks are going to get turned over, you can live with that.”

Oh, pucks are getting turned over, all right: The seven teams in the North are all in the top eight in giveaways, so it’s no surprise the division has five of the top six scoring teams in the league.

NAIL-BITING EAST

Games in the East have been tied or within a goal over 80% of the time, with more than a third going to overtime. Geographically, the teams are closer than any other division, and the play is super tight because they know each other so well.

“There’s a lot of parity in the East, and so as a result there’s going to be a lot of close games,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “Maybe it’s a combination of the parity in the league plus the familiarity by playing teams a number of times, and so teams get familiar with each other and their tendencies and their tactics.”

Boston and Philadelphia like to lock down opponents, Washington can do it, and Trotz’s Islanders thrive in grind-it-out games. The top five teams in the standings were separated by three points through Wednesday.

“You win a game and you move up about three spots, you lose a game you move down three spots — it’s an emotional high and emotional low every game,” Trotz said. “You’re a goal post away from winning a game or a goal post away from losing a game.”

ROUGH AND TUMBLE WEST

The Western Conference over the past couple of decades developed a bigger, heavier style of game. The Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues used that to their advantage on Stanley Cup runs.

It’s just the West Division now, but the style hasn’t changed. Players in the West weigh in at an average of over 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, and they’re not afraid to throw their weight around, to the tune of almost 3,000 hits through 71 games.

“If you look around our league and our division, obviously Vegas has got some heaviness on their fourth line and Colorado is more of a skill team, Anaheim’s got some heaviness on their fourth line,” San Jose coach Bob Boughner said. “Every team’s different, but I think that generally it’s a heavier style of play out in the West.”

The Avalanche are a bit of an exception to that, but even they’ve bulked up in recent seasons.

“Why Vegas and Colorado are so good is they can kind of do both — they can play that physical, grinding style, but then they also can turn it up several notches and play really fast and really skilled,” Johnson said.

CONFUSING CENTRAL

What happens when you throw the two teams from the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, a couple from the Metropolitan Division and a few from the Western Conference together? It’s complicated, plus no division has been upended more by game postponements than the Central.

“It still feels kind of a newness to a lot of the teams,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Where when you’re in the other division, you just knew the teams because you played them so much.”

Brind’Amour said “it’s a tough night every night” but in a more wide-open way than the East. First-place Florida put up 29 shots in a single period against Cup runner-up Dallas this week but thanks to good goaltending only got two goals out of it.

“Fast games, high-event games, lots of back and forth,” Johnson said. “It just feels like it’s a track meet in the Central.”

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

Mitch Marner
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

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
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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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Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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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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Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
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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.