NHL Rink Wrap: Matthews takes goals lead; Chara passes Chelios

NHL Rink Wrap: Matthews takes goals lead; Chara passes Chelios
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Thursday’s top NHL players

J.T. Miller, Canucks on night of blowout upsets

Consider this an alternate takeaway for Thursday’s NHL games: not just upsets, but blowouts in those upsets. (Sometimes styled JT, not J.T.) Miller contributed to one of the biggest ones. Miller scored two goals and two assists as the Canucks clobbered Calgary 7-1.

Quite a way for the Flames’ 10-game winning streak to go up in smoke.

That constituted the largest margin of defeat in these upset-blowouts. There were other eyebrow-raising results, however. It’s unlikely people saw it coming when the Devils pulverized the Penguins 6-1. The margin was smaller, but a 6-3 win for the Blue Jackets over the Panthers? Not expected.

Either way, a big night for Jonathan Tanner (J.T.) Miller.

That four-point flame-out leaves Miller with 20 goals and 57 points in 51 games. As strong as his first season was with the Canucks, this is probably the best Vancouver’s seen of J.T. Miller. Rank Miller as one of those players who’s either pumping up their trade deadline value or making them too hard for their current teams to give up.

Thursday NHL highlights

By playing his 1,652nd NHL game, Zdeno Chara passed Chris Chelios for the most games played by a defenseman. In a fun moment, Chelios discussed Chara passing him. More on Chara – Chelios in the takeaways.

Watch the Predators retire Pekka Rinne’s number 35 in this video. If you’re a Predators fan, prepare a tissue. (Though you probably already saw it by now? Maybe?)

I keep saying this, but Patrik Laine keeps scoring. In this case, Laine extended his point streak to 11 games, and extended my line of questioning for the Blue Jackets. What will Laine’s next contract look like? Does it make sense for him to make that money in Columbus? If not, should they shop him around? The gap to gain a playoff spot seems too large, so this might be a good thing that messes up the greater good of building for the future (by being bad in the present).

Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s better for Laine (and just about everyone) when he’s thriving.

Thursday NHL Takeaways

Saros shines after Predators retire Rinne’s number 35

As bittersweet as retiring Pekka Rinne’s number 35 must have been, it would’ve felt worse for the Predators if they didn’t have an elite active goalie in net.

The Predators continue to lean on Juuse Saros, and Saros delivers more often than not. The Predators only managed 20 shots on goal and a single regulation goal versus the Stars, but that was all the “run support” Saros needed to carve out a shootout win. Getting an extra point against the Stars is extra-useful, too, if the two teams end up jousting for a playoff spot.

You think Pekka Rinne was having flashbacks of the stingier, likely Barry Trotz-led Predators days during this win?

Anyway, click here for more on the Predators jersey retirement ceremony for Rinne’s number 35. Scroll up if you just want to watch it go to the rafters.

Auston Matthews takes lead in Maurice Richard Trophy race

An empty-netter iced it, but really, Auston Matthews was the driving force in the Maple Leafs’ tight win over the Wild during the NHL action on Thursday. Matthews scored both Maple Leafs goals (before that ENG by Alexander Kerfoot) for the win, and also the lead in the Maurice Richard Trophy race.

Here’s where Matthews and other top Maurice Richard Trophy hopefuls rest after the NHL games on Thursday:

Auston Matthews: 36 goals in 48 games played
Leon Draisaitl: 35 goals in 51 GP
Chris Kreider: 34 goals in 51 GP
Alex Ovechkin: 32 goals in 61 GP

Those top four stand as the only NHL players to score 30+ goals so far this season. Kyle Connor (in 51 GP) and Alex DeBrincat (52) are currently tied at fifth with 29 goals.

While Matthews has been limited to 48 games played, the Maple Leafs appeared in three more. Meanwhile, the Oilers match the Maple Leafs in games played (51) while the Capitals have played in 53.

Overall, Matthews vs. Draisaitl may be the closest race, but you’re of course not wise to count out Ovechkin in the Maurice Richard Trophy race. Even in 2022, somehow.

That said, I can’t help but believe that if Matthews hasn’t wrestled the Maurice Richard Trophy favorite torch from Ovechkin, big-picture-wise, Ovi’s grasp is at least rapidly slipping. Chris Johnston notes that Matthews scored 77 goals in his last 100 games, a pace that’s almost unthinkable against today’s goalies and defensive systems.

Chara passes Chelios for most games played by an NHL defenseman (1,652)

Indeed, Zdeno Chara stands taller than any other NHL defenseman — now figuratively, to go along with wearing that literal crown.

Chara broke his tie with Chris Chelios, setting a new NHL record for defensemen with 1,652 games played. This ended up being a night of milestones for veterans few will associate long-term with the Islanders, as Zach Parise also reached goal 400:

While Chara might be a tad bit larger than Chelios, it’s interesting to compare the two after seeing them play 1,652 games and 1,651 games respectively. Consider some similarities:

  • They both ended up winning at least one Stanley Cup and at least one Norris Trophy.
  • Each defenseman was pretty gritty, making their longevity that much more impressive. (Keith Yandle‘s streak is impressive, but it’s also a testament to his ability to avoid the sort of collisions that cause injuries.)
  • Despite playing past age 40, both Chara and Chelios maintained a high level of play far beyond that of normal defensemen. If you want, compare Chara with the Islanders to Chelios with the Thrashers as those “jump the shark” moments of severe decline. But note that their late-career slippage is a small part of each story. This isn’t like more than half of “The Simpsons” being a pale imitation of its earlier brilliance.
  • Oh, and you may note that Chara got into a fight in game 1,652.

Slight size difference in this bout. Real disrespect to weight classes, perhaps.

Friday’s big story

Kings – Ducks the latest “battle of California” with West/Pacific playoff implications

While the Sharks sank out of any realistic playoff contention, they’re still part of a larger story that the California teams have been far better than expected.

Zooming out, tons of hockey nerds (raises hand) professed love for the Kings’ larger rebuild. Plenty expected steps in the right direction in 2021-22. But only a few people penciled the Kings in as a possible playoff team.

Right now, they’re relatively comfortable in that role. The Kings hold the Pacific’s third seed, and aren’t that far behind the Golden Knights.

That said, that gap could close quickly. The Kings (61 points in 51 games played) could lose a chunk of their cushion to the Ducks (59 points in 53 GP; outside wild card right now) if Anaheim wins in regulation.

Yes, there’s a lot of season left, but the Ducks likely feed a lot of pressure to win a game like this vs. the Kings. Will the Kings fatten their lead over the wild-card pack, and also eye Pacific Division positioning? Or can the Ducks creep back into that wild-card (if not that divisional) picture?

Few expected battles of California this relevant with March so close.

Thursday NHL scores

Maple Leafs 3, Wild 1
Blue Jackets 6, Panthers 3
Rangers 4, Capitals 1
Devils 6, Penguins 1
Predators 2, Stars 1 (SO)
Canucks 7, Flames 1
Bruins 3, Kraken 2 (OT)
Sharks 4, Islanders 3 (SO)

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.

Panthers offer Sarah Nurse deal to lead girls hockey program

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are trying to sign a high-scoring forward who has an Olympic gold medal and two world championships, with hopes of getting the deal done in the coming days.

If it happens, she won’t be playing for the Panthers.

Sarah Nurse, the Canadian forward who had a highlight-reel goal against the New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin during the NHL’s All-Star Skills Competition, has the chance to run the Panthers’ new program designed to get more girls playing hockey.

Florida president Matthew Caldwell offered the job to Nurse publicly – very publicly, at a lectern, with a microphone, before a crowd of onlookers. And he was serious.

“I’m going to embarrass you, but we’re going to offer you a job today,” Caldwell told Nurse, who was seated in the crowd. “We want you to be the face of our girls program at the War Memorial. So, are you in? On the spot? We don’t deal with agents, OK. I’m a tough negotiator.”

The idea to hire Nurse was first floated to Caldwell by Melissa Fitzgerald. She’s the general manager for the War Memorial, which is the two-rink facility being refurbished by the team and will become its practice headquarters.

“We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks,” Caldwell told The Associated Press. “Our youth hockey team kind of brought it up as a joke to me, but I said, `Let’s think big. We’re building this huge facility. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.”‘

The only part Caldwell was less than serious about with Nurse was how the Panthers don’t deal with agents. He spoke with Nurse’s representative, Thomas Houlton, after the event.

Houlton did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He and Caldwell spoke for about 15 minutes after the event, which was attended by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Panthers stars Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk, and dozens of kids who got to play ball hockey afterward.

Nurse played for Canada’s world-champion teams in 2021 and 2022, along with Canada’s Olympic gold winners at the Beijing Games last year.

She was one of five women’s players from USA Hockey and Team Canada – the two most dominant women’s national teams in the world – who were part of the skills events. She wore custom skates highlighting Black History month and the Black Girl Hockey Club, a nonprofit focused on getting more Black girls and women into the sport.

She used a move made famous by Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg when he helped Sweden win gold at the 1994 Olympics against Shesterkin, a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie.

U.S. star Hilary Knight didn’t think Nurse’s goal should have surprised anyone, saying, “she’s a top scorer.”

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

“It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

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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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.