NHL Three Stars from Thursday
1. Mike Smith, Edmonton Oilers
No doubt about it, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the (conductors of?) the engine that drives the Edmonton Oilers. That double-headed monster of a superstar duo ranks as the main reason the Oilers have now won 11 of their last 13 games.
But in a team sport like hockey, it can’t be all about McDavid and Draisaitl. Others have to step up, at least when you really start to put wins together.
One of the bigger surprises lately has been Mike Smith. The 38-year-old won a goalie duel with Thatcher Demko (30 saves), as Smith pitched a 32-save shutout on Thursday. Smith already carried a .934 save percentage for the season into Thursday, so the veteran goalie is on a roll. He’s 6-0-0 so far this season.
Malcolm Subban kept the Blackhawks’ run of goaltending going with a 26-save shutout of his own, but Smith gets the edge for Thursday in the NHL.
2. Sam Gagner, Detroit Red Wings
Seeing Mike Smith as one of the top three NHL stars on a Thursday — in 2021 — already feels decidedly old-school. Why not add Sam Gagner, someone who enjoyed some of his biggest nights many moons ago for the Oilers?
Nowadays, Gagner is toiling away for the Red Wings. Despite being a rebuilding phase, the Red Wings have been scrappier this season — just ask the struggling Predators. Thursday marked the second time Detroit beat Nashville so far in 2020-21.
Gagner collected a hat trick in that latest Red Wings upset(?) of the Predators. This marks the third hat trick of Sam Gagner’s career, and the first on a team other than the Oilers (he last collected a hat trick in 2012).
If you needed the point hammered home that few could have seen a 2021 Sam Gagner hat trick coming on Thursday (at least in the NHL), consider that Gagner had zero goals and two assists through 13 games coming into this one. He also hasn’t reached double digits in goals since 2017-18, and even then, he only just got to 10.
Honestly? Good for Gagner. He’s been through more lows than highs lately, at least on the ice.
(For quirky bonus Sam Gagner reading material, enjoy this bit on sleep habits for him and other NHL players from The Athletic back in 2019 [sub required].)
3. Pavel Zacha, New Jersey Devils
Jack Hughes isn’t the only highly-drafted Devils player off to a promising start to 2020-21. Although most would’ve picked Hughes to put up strong numbers way before they’d tab Pavel Zacha.
Now, Zacha has a ways to go before people won’t groan at him going fifth overall in 2015 — ahead of the likes of Ivan Provorov, Zach Werenski, Mikko Rantanen, and Mathew Barzal. But Zacha can only do the best with the opportunities he receives, and he’s been running with them lately.
With an overtime game-winning goal and two assists on Thursday, Zacha now has 12 points in 15 games. He set his career-high at 32 points last season, so this is fairly uncharted territory for the 23-year-old.
How cool would it be if long-struggling high draft picks like Zach and Jesse Puljujarvi simply turn the corner this season, and never look back?
Highlight of Thursday night in the NHL
Lowlight of the night
Look, it has to be frustrating to allow a goal from waaaaay downtown. But bonking your head like this makes it a lot worse.
Thursday’s NHL scores
Islanders 7, Bruins 2
Capitals 5, Penguins 2
Lightning 3, Hurricanes 1
Panthers 3, Stars 2
Blackhawks 2, Blue Jackets 0
Senators 6, Flames 1
Devils 4, Sabres 3 (OT)
Red Wings 5, Predators 2
Jets 6, Canadiens 3
Oilers 3, Canucks 0