NHL Rink Wrap: Flames burn Golden Knights; Bad news for Bruins

nhl push for the playoffs
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Top players from Wednesday in the NHL

Mikael Backlund, Flames

One night after the Golden Knights shut out the Oilers, Vegas got smoked by the Calgary Flames. By beating the Golden Knights 6-0, the Flames are now on a four-game winning streak, and have also won seven of nine. Calgary’s scored at least four goals in six of those seven victories.

So apparently this Darryl Sutter-coached team can score, not just defend.

Mikael Backlund played a substantial role in that blowout, scoring a goal and three assists for four points.

Quietly, Backlund was a gem for the Flames, peaking with 53 points in 2016-17, and scoring at least 45 points from 2015-16 through 2019-20. All while being a strong two-way player.

Perhaps he’s slipped slightly at 32 (19 points in 43 games, even after this outburst), but don’t be surprised if Backlund is the sort of supporting cast member who could make a difference in a potential Calgary playoff run.

Wednesday NHL highlights

Some players go for “The Michigan.” Connor McDavid seemingly scores a coast-to-coast goal per month. Matthew Tkachuk? He’s the master of between-the-legs goals:

On the same day that his former Bruins crease-mate Tuukka Rask retired (more on that soon), Jaroslav Halak allowed three goals in 31 seconds against the Islanders, a team he once played for.

If you’ve followed hockey analysis at all, you know that people often get irritated when a player is called “underrated.” Sometimes that’s fair because Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov have been called underrated for, what, half of a decade? It used to happen all the time with Lou Eriksson, before his main descriptor became “overpaid.”

So, maybe Roope Hintz isn’t underrated (though he’s definitely underpaid). Allow me to appease the hyper-nerds, then by merely calling Hintz “under-mentioned.” Plays like these should shine a bit more of the spotlight on a great player with a great name.

Wednesday NHL Takeaways

Tuukka Rask retires from NHL; Marchand suspended six games

There was plenty of big Boston Bruins news, and none of it was particularly good.

After a late in-season return to the Bruins following hip surgery, things just weren’t feeling right for Tuukka Rask. Sadly, Rask decided to retire at age 34. Perhaps, as time passes, Bruins fans will come to realize how great Rask was for that team. (Often, Rask would take unfair blame during cold streaks and playoff losses.)

Maybe some of the reluctance to realize Rask was so good comes down to his effectiveness being relatively subtle?

The Bruins did their part to honor Rask with a nice video:

A bummer to see him hang them up, but hopefully he’ll at least be comfortable during his day-to-day life.

Speaking of uncomfortable, Bruins miscreant-superstar Brad Marchand received a six-game suspension for “roughing and high-sticking” Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry. We’re all certain that Marchand will learn his lesson this time (runs out of fingers trying to count every Marchand incident).

Anyway, click here for more on the latest bit of Brad Marchandary.

Canadiens fire Ducharme, hire Martin St. Louis

Beyond the Bruins, there was more big NHL news on Wednesday. It seemed like Dominique Ducharme would keep the seat warm until new Montreal Canadiens management could pick their coach in the offseason. Instead, the Habs have hobbled so badly lately that the Canadiens made an in-season coaching change, switching to Martin St. Louis.

This deep into a shockingly lost season, there’s a real “arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” vibe to making Martin St. Louis interim Canadiens head coach. At least it’s a more fun game of musical chairs, though. There’s something sort of quaint and charming about seeing St. Louis sprout up as a head coach already.

Maybe it’s a matter of feeling like he retired while having at least some gas left in the tank?

Still, it’s hard to tell what there is to “accomplish.” Although getting Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki back on track for next season would be swell.

Blues sign Craig Berube to contract extension

Speaking of NHL coaching news, there was more on Wednesday, as the Blues signed head coach Craig Berube to a contract extension.

Overall, the Blues seem like a team somewhere in the middle. But this feels like a warmer, cozier middle than the puck purgatory of “too good for a lottery pick, too bad for a playoff spot.” They may actually have a decent shot at (another) sneaky playoff run, considering their general competence and +32 goal differential.

Is Berube that great of a coach? He seems like he’s somewhere in the middle, too. So that seems like a fair deal for all involved. Much like some of the older parts of that Blues roster, we’ll see how this feeling ages, though.

Scary moment for Duncan Keith

Oilers defenseman Duncan Keith needed help leaving the ice after this awkward crash into the boards.

Remember when people downgraded Phil Kessel as being terrible defensively, possibly to the point that his offense wasn’t enough? That was often unfair. Nowadays, Kessel lives up to that criticism. Yet, as a selfish blogger and seeker of entertainment, I still kinda want to see one more Kessel playoff run (at least). What about you? Come on, someone should make it happen. Hey, the Oilers could use some goodwill …

Thursday’s big story

Possible 2022 Stanley Cup Final preview between Avalanche and Lightning?

On one side, you have the repeat defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. In the opposite corner, you have the explosive Colorado Avalanche. More and more, the Avalanche feel like the Stanley Cup favorites, but can you really count out the proven, prolific Lightning?

On paper, the Lightning seem like they’d face a tougher road to make this more than just an imaginary Stanley Cup Final series vs. the Avalanche. Wading through one or both of the Panthers and Maple Leafs seems harrowing. None of the East wild-card teams seem like the easiest outs, either.

(Although this is a tough time for the Bruins.)

Granted, the Central could put up quite a fight, too. It’s the playoffs … who really knows?

Even if that dream match never becomes a reality, Avalanche vs. Lightning should at least be a game to watch.

NHL scores from Wednesday

Red Wings 6, Flyers 3
Blackhawks 4, Oilers 1
Stars 4, Predators 3
Flames 6, Golden Knights 0
Coyotes 5, Kraken 2
Islanders 6, Canucks 3

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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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.”

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

    Ilya Mikheyev
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports

    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports

    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

    caufield surgery
    David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports

    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.