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.