The Buzzer: Toews’ trick; Chabot puts on a show

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Three Stars

1. Jonathan Toews – The Blackhawks followed their game one script in game two, although beating the Blues feels like a bigger accomplishment than eking out a win against the Senators (though people will note that Ottawa has a win and St. Louis does not). Regardless, for the second consecutive game, the Blackhawks rode fantastic performances from their star players.

Toews was strong in Chicago’s first win, yet Saturday was his standout night, as he generated a hat trick, with that third goal coming in OT on a head’s up play. His other two goals were very Toews goals: grinding tallies in the dirty areas of the net.

(While Toews was second to Patrick Kane in Chicago’s first win, Kane was slightly behind Toews in this one, collecting a goal and an assist.)

2. Tyler Seguin – Consider this a collective  star assignment for the killer Stars top line of Seguin (two goals, two assists), Jamie Benn (two goals, one assist), and Alex Radulov (one goal, two assists).

While Dustin Byfuglien drew the Stars’ ire with a questionable hit, the Stars’ high-end firepower turned what would seem like a Central Division showdown into a laugher.

Seguin fired a whopping eight shots on goal, even going 9-3 in the faceoff circle during an impressive night in Dallas. He’s playing as if he’s in a contract year, rather than having already powered up with a Super Mario-sized contract extension.

3. John Gibson – Despite this being the leakiest time of the season for defenses, as teams get used to new systems and rookies get their first exposure to the NHL, there were some great goalie performances on Saturday.

Gibson stood just a little bit taller than some other goalie performances, grabbing another win for an injury-limited Ducks team by stopping all 41 shots to shut out the snakebitten Coyotes.

Much like Seguin, the would-be contract year case is playing as if his extension hasn’t already been settled, winning his first two games while stopping 72 of the first 74 shots he’s faced in 2018-19. If Gibson can stay healthy through 2018-19, he might truly get his recognition as one of the league’s brightest young goalies.

(Andrei Vasilevskiy, another of the NHL’s brightest young goalies, stole one for Tampa Bay against Florida in his own right.)

Most honorable among many honorable mentions:

Thomas Chabot factored in a big way in the Senators’ surprise win against the Maple Leafs, scoring two goals and one assist. It’s hasty to make “Erik Who?” jokes regarding departed defenseman Erik Karlsson, but … you know what, Sens fans? You’ve suffered enough. Go ahead.

Elias Pettersson enjoyed a sensational start to his night, scoring his two goals and one assist through the first two periods of Vancouver’s eventual loss to the Flames, as Johnny Gaudreau‘s line came through with what ended up being comparable box score numbers to the latest sensational Vancouver rookie.

Again, there were a lot of other great performances on Saturday, so feel free to share your picks for honorable mentions, or alternate three stars.

Highlight of the Night

Both of Thomas Chabot’s goals were pretty fantastic against Toronto, but this one really takes the cake:

Saturday was jam-packed with games, so there were some other great moments. Viktor Arvidsson‘s video-game goal can be seen here. Meanwhile, Mikhail Vorobyev‘s first goal was more of a low-light, but it should give all but Avs fans – and really, some Avs fans – a chuckle.

As another bonus, Carter Hutton‘s strong night included this “three-on-none” save:

Rough breaks

There are at least two injuries of note from Saturday. Roberto Luongo suffered a lower-body injury and didn’t return for Florida, while James van Riemsdyk endured an unfortunate lower-body issue of his own, not returning to the Flyers game. Both are issues worth monitoring.

Factoids

A lousy night for the Penguins – particularly their defense – featured a milestone moment for Kris Letang.

The Wild haven’t had a knack for finishing strong, but at least they tend to begin seasons on a high note.

Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, seems to sleep through the first month of Maple Leafs seasons.

The Coyotes were haunted by an “0-fer” last season, as they didn’t win a game in October. With that in mind, they must be that much more frustrated after failing to score a goal on 71 shots on net through their first two games of 2018-19, including 41 saves from Gibson on Saturday.

Arizona’s low point probably came late in tonight’s game, as they were unable to tie a 1-0 game with a 5-on-3 power play that was essentially 6-on-3 at times when Antti Raanta was pulled from the Coyotes net.

Winning is tough in the NHL, and sometimes scoring is, too.

Scores

Flames 7, Canucks 4
Devils 5, Oilers 2
Sabres 3, Rangers 1
Senators 5, Maple Leafs 3
Lightning 2, Panthers 1 (SO)
Predators 4, Islanders 3
Canadiens 5, Penguins 1
Stars 5, Jets 1
Blackhawks 5, Blues 4 (OT)
Golden Knights 2, Wild 1 (SO)
Avalanche 5, Flyers 2
Ducks 1, Coyotes 0

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.

The Buzzer: Bruins bounce back; working overtime

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Three Stars

1. Brad Marchand – Bad news for those who believed Marchand should have been suspended for jumping Lars Eller during Washington’s 7-0 trouncing of Boston: Marchand didn’t just play on Thursday. Instead, he was dominant.

Marchand assisted on all four of the Bruins’ goals in a 4-0 win against the Buffalo Sabres, with three of his four helpers being of the primary nature. The pesky winger also registered a +3 rating.

Maybe Marchand was feeling a little deferential on Thursday, as he piled up all of those assists yet didn’t fire a single shot on goal.

The Bruins’ other strong candidate for three star treatment was Jaroslav Halak, who stopped all 32 shots for his first shutout (and win) with Boston.

2. Kris Letang – From Patrick Kane to Artemi Panarin to Mathew Barzal, plenty of star players opened their 2018-19 seasons with overtime game-winning goals. Letang probably enjoyed the most impressive night of anyone in that group, as he finished with two goals and one assist, with that OTGWG included in the mix.

Letang had a busy night with the Penguins, delivering two hits, blocking two shots, and logging almost eight minutes of time on the power play alone.

It’s tantalizing to imagine what Letang might be able to accomplish if he’s anywhere near full health in 2018-19. This is a player with four 50+ point and five 10+ goal seasons to his name, even as injuries have often hounded his career. A three-point evening certainly propels him to a strong start.

3. Connor Hellebuyck – Maybe last season’s breakthrough was the tip of the iceberg, not a fluke?

While Hellebuyck didn’t nab a shutout like other three star candidates did (Halak and Ben Bishop), the Jets goalie stopped 41 shots, and only allowed Vince Dunn‘s goal when the game was essentially decided.

At the other end of the ice, embattled Blues starter Jake Allen received a “Bronx cheer” from St. Louis fans when he finally made a save after some serious struggles, and it couldn’t  have helped matters to see Hellebuyck playing so well in opposition.

The new-look Blues seem like the sort of team that could really push the Jets, at least when the goaltending is comparable. Hellebuyck made sure that it would, instead, be quite lopsided.

Highlights of the Night

Alex Radulov‘s celebration was almost as entertaining as his goal. Almost.

Maxime Lajoie made his mom cry tears of joy as he scored in his NHL debut:

The Penguins’ wild game against the Capitals was basically one big highlight reel, including a big Braden Holtby save, so enjoy it here.

Factoids

Plenty of hockey fans love when the Capitals and Penguins trade goal after goal, and chance after chance. If you want that to continue, maybe hide this from anyone who works for the Caps:

It might not be such a bad thing for Alex Ovechkin, though, as he keeps climbing the all-time goal ranks.

Brandon Carlo might want to consult Zdeno Chara for goal-scoring tips.

Scores

Bruins 4, Sabres 0
Penguins 7, Capitals 6 (OT)
Islanders 2, Hurricanes 1 (OT)
Predators 3, Rangers 2
Blue Jackets 3, Red Wings 2 (OT)
Blackhawks 4, Senators 3 (OT)
Jets 5, Blues 1
Stars 3, Coyotes 0
Avalanche 4, Wild 1
Flyers 5, Golden Knights 2

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.

Spezza wants to be more than ‘good locker room guy’ for Stars

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Jason Spezza is unlikely to play like a $7.5 million guy for the Dallas Stars this season, but it’s tough to imagine things getting worse than they did last season.

Spezza mixed with Ken Hitchcock about as well as wolves get along with sheep in 2017-18, seeing his ice time plummet from 16:10 minutes per game in 2016-17 to a pitiful 13 minutes per night. To put things mildly, Spezza’s numbers suffered, with just 26 points in 78 games. Excluding the 2012-13 lockout (when he generated five points in as many contests), you’d need to go as far back as Spezza’s rookie season to see such a poor point total, and Spezza managed his 21 points in just 33 games all the way back in 2002-03.

Waning confidence could be seen in a number of areas, including a 5.8 shooting percentage, easily a career-low and just the second time Spezza’s endured a sub-10 shooting percentage over 15 seasons.

Brutal stuff, right?

The good news is that his shooting percentage is almost certain to level out, and the even better news – for Spezza, if not the Stars as a whole – is that Jim Montgomery replaced Hitchcock as head coach. That said, at 35, you wonder how much Spezza really has left in the tank.

If nothing else, Spezza told Mike Heika of the Stars website that he has a “fire in his belly” after that miserable 2017-18 campaign. A mixture of pride and the motivation of a contract year should make it certain that, if Spezza has anything left, he’ll show it this season.

“I’m here to play,” Spezza said. “I’ve produced my whole life and I want to do that again. I don’t want to just hang around for intangibles and being a good locker room guy. I’m here to produce — that’s what I expect of myself.”

Amid struggles that could prompt an existential crisis in a less confident athlete, Spezza continued to succeed in the faceoff circle last season, a sneaky-impressive area of his game. The former Senators center won 55.8-percent of his draws in 2017-18, while his career mark is a strong 53.5.

Such successes weren’t lost on Montgomery, who told Heika that he expects Spezza to take more faceoffs in the defensive zone this season. (Spezza began 43.4-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone last season.)

That’s an interesting idea beyond leveraging Spezza’s ability to win draws.

Most obviously, it could open the door for Radek Faksa to enjoy more favorable opportunities. The stealth Selke candidate began just 33.4-percent of his shifts in the attacking zone last season, and one cannot help but wonder if Faksa could enjoy a Sean Couturier-like leap if his workload was relaxed to a substantial degree. The Stars’ top centers (Faksa, Spezza, and Tyler Seguin) were all pretty effective at winning faceoffs last season, which would hopefully inspire Dallas to focus more on landing advantageous matchups, rather than obsessing over who might win or lose a draw.

Of course, Spezza wasn’t talking about faceoff wins when he was discussing production; he wants to put up points and land another NHL gig after this contract year.

The veteran center truly stands as a crucial make-or-break player for the Stars, especially if Dallas continues to load up with a top-heavy first line of Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov.

Through one preseason game, Spezza primarily lined up with Valeri Nichushkin (another Stars forward who could go either way, really) and Mattias Janmark. Via Natural Stat Trick, Janmark stood out as Spezza’s most common linemate last season, so we’ll see if that combination sticks even with coaching changes. You could do worse than Spezza with Janmark and Nichushkin, a trio that would have a lot to prove, even if Spezza’s in a very different phase of his career.

It’s important to remember that Spezza’s not that far removed from being the productive scorer he hopes to be. He generated 50 points in 2016-17, and that total came in 68 games. Before that, Spezza rattled off three consecutive seasons with at least 62 points.

Considering his age and the possibility that Faksa and others might push Spezza for power play reps and other opportunities, it might be too much to ask for Spezza to hit 60+ points in 2018-19. Despite that $7.5M clip, the Stars would probably be quite happy if the veteran landed in the 50 range, especially if he can juggle that with increased defensive duties.

That would make him “good in the room” and on the ice.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Panarin to Stars? Unlikely, but it would be glorious fun

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Sometimes it’s enjoyable to boil your favorite things down to their most basic components, channeling what made you fall in love with that hobby in the first place.

Such thinking probably explains part of the reason why arcade-style sports games can be so fun. Instead of aiming to be a realistic simulation of 5-on-5 basketball, NBA Jam pitted the two best players (licensing pending) against the two best from other teams, throwing in a fiery net or three for good measure.

Picturing hockey simplified to posters for boxing or pro wrestling main events can be fun, particularly as we enter September, when things can sometimes get bogged down in granular details.

Don’t get me wrong, training camp battles are absolutely worth discussing. PTOs can sometimes work out so well that you wonder why the players involved didn’t instead command a bidding war on the free agent market. These are worthy endeavors, particularly for us NHL obsessives.

Still, seeing John Tavares go to the Toronto Maple Leafs brings back that childlike “Pokemon” urge to watch superpowers form. With that in mind, it’s tough not to be tantalized by the mere mention of Artemi Panarin someday joining the Dallas Stars.

Is such a situation all that realistic? It’s difficult to say, and foolish to predict. This thought did come to mind, however, after the Athletic’s Sean Shapiro and Aaron Portzline reported that the Stars are on Panarin’s “short list” of destinations.

Again, it’s crucial to remember that a trade is by no means imminent. Shapiro noted as much, also bringing the discussion back to the belief that Panarin’s greatest preference might be to sign in New York.

No, this is mere daydreaming about how fun it would be, unless you’re a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Consider the following:

1. This core has already shown it can be very, very exciting.

If you were to give one NHL team the most credit for the league’s hope-instilling push toward a faster, more skilled style, you’d probably point to the Mike Sullivan-era Pittsburgh Penguins.

Love them or hate them, the Penguins opened the door for teams to take something closer to a “Let’s out-score our problems” approach, as Pittsburgh won back-to-back Stanley Cups even as they didn’t necessarily play lockdown defense. Winning that second consecutive title with Kris Letang on the shelf had to send a message to at least some teams that, hey, maybe it’s smarter just to load up on offense and hope you can just overwhelm your more conservative-style opponents.

The success of the Penguins might obscure other contributors to The Cause of Watchable Hockey, and the 2015-16 Dallas Stars were a shooting star across a sometimes-bleak sky during their all-too-short run as the must-watch team of the NHL.

That version of the Stars fell in the second round, yet they also generated 109 standings points, topped all teams in scoring, allowed enough goals to keep things exciting, and generally made the argument that a high-octane team could succeed. The Penguins took that to the next level.

Things went off the rails for Lindy Ruff after that, to the point that management over-corrected by putting their system in reverse by rolling the dice on a second tour for Ken Hitchcock. Their roster and his coaching philosophy mixed as well as oil and water, so there’s already hope that this team will be way more fun under incoming head coach Jim Montgomery.

2. No longer “wait for Benn-Seguin?”

For better or worse from a W-L standpoint, Hitchcock decided to load up the Stars’ high-end talent by frequently putting Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alex Radulov on the same line.

Watching those three befuddle opponents could be a lot of fun, but with all due respect to quality players like Radek Faksa, it also made watching a Stars game sometimes feel like a chore when the big guns were on the bench.

Adding a dynamic talent like Artemi Panarin wouldn’t just make the Stars better in just about any instance, even if it meant landing him in a trade. It would also make them way, way more fun to watch.

There’s a scenario where the Stars could have one of Benn, Seguin, Panarin, and Radulov on the ice at all times. That’s a grab-your-popcorn scenario.

Seriously, imagine adding this skill to an already-impressive top-end.

3. Making it work would be nerdy fun, too.

One prevailing thought – yes, it’s OK if you’ve been screaming this at your screen during this entire post – is “Yeah, but how will they pull it off?”

That’s a pertinent question whether the Stars would, hypothetically, land Panarin either in a trade or by convincing him to come to Dallas in free agency. Such thoughts undeniably force this into daydream territory, rather than being a reality the Stars should realistically pencil in.

(The Rangers? They might want to put together a Trapper Keeper full of Panarin plans. Just saying.)

Even so, it would be entertaining for us “franchise mode” types to see if GM Jim Nill could pull off this balancing act.

After all, Panarin isn’t the only star forward who needs a new contract – one way/place or another – after the 2018-19 season. The Stars’ star forward Seguin needs one too, and that situation sure seems murky at this moment. Imagine the juggling act that would be required if the Stars found a way to get Panarin and Seguin on the books from 2019-20 and on; the best-case scenario would probably call for the pairing to cost $20M, as much as management would instead love for Jamie Benn’s $9.5M per year to remain the peak price.

Benn – Seguin – Panarin – Klingberg would be right up there with the cream of the crop for teams like Toronto and Tampa Bay, but you might only be able to afford old cartridges of “NBA Jam” after paying all of those guys. That’s a challenge, but it would be one to watch for team-building dweebs such as myself.

***

To reiterate, Panarin to Stars isn’t reported to be imminent.

For all we know, the Blue Jackets might find a way to pull a rabbit out of a hat and convince Panarin to stay in Columbus, after all. It’s also plausible that, while Dallas is a big market, it might not be where Panarin really wants to play.

Still, the Stars have their advantages. There are the tax breaks that would allow Panarin to retain more of the bread from a new deal, the weather’s warmer than some other locales, so that Tampa Bay tanning tampering wouldn’t win out as much.

The most fun advantage is that Panarin would play with other star players if he somehow ended up with the Stars. Honestly, it would be a crime if that happened and Dallas found a way to be not-so-fun to watch.

Such events will probably only happen in alternate realities and daydreams, but they’re fun scenarios to picture, realistic or not.

What are some other fun Panarin possibilities that come to your mind? And, yes, it’s OK for Blue Jackets fans to blurt out “Just stay.”

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.

Building off a breakthrough: Radek Faksa

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Dallas Stars.

In the case of Radek Faksa, you can probably argue this as a bit of a cheat, as there’s a case to be made that his breakthrough happened in 2016-17. His numbers, both in the simplest terms and if you get into the woods with analytics, are quite comparable. In some cases, he took a step back last season.

[Looking back at 2017-18]

That’s actually the point the Stars should consider, though: there’s a chance that Faksa could have taken yet another step in 2017-18. If Faksa and the Stars want to go further, they might both benefit from taking a long, hard look at how they’re using the 13th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.

To put things mildly, Faksa was used in a heavy defensive role these past two seasons, but that went to an extreme during Ken Hitchcock’s lone season (version 2.0) with Dallas. Faksa began a whopping 66.6 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, up from an already hearty 59.3 percent the previous year. The 24-year-old also topped all Stars forwards by averaging 1:59 in penalty kill time per game.

It’s no surprise, then, that Faksa received more underground Selke hype than ever.

Back in February, Defending Big D’s Derek Neumeier made a compelling case for Faksa to at least receive more attention:

To summarize what all of these numbers mean: Despite constantly starting shifts in his own zone against tough competition, Faksa is astonishingly good at stopping the other team from producing shots and scoring goals. Opposing teams simply don’t generate offense when they have to go through Faksa’s line to make it happen.

That’s good stuff, and if you tend to fall down rabbit holes in Hockey Twitter (meekly raises hand), you’ve probably heard some praise – maybe couched in “give my guy attention” – for Faksa during the past year or so.

The tantalizing question, however, is: will Jim Montgomery do a better job getting the most out of Faksa?

It’s understandable that Ken Hitchcock would want to lean so heavily on Faksa. As progressive as Hitch is, he’s probably a bit more rooted in players specializing with certain roles, hence Faksa experiencing an even more extreme defensive burden.

Still, for a Stars team that’s desperately needed help outside of an all-world top line, it’s baffling that Faksa wasn’t given more opportunities.

Most directly, it’s head-scratching stuff that Faksa went from averaging 16:10 TOI per game in 2016-17 to just 15:16 in 2017-18. It’s impressive that Faksa has been able to score 30+ points these past seasons, considering context, but especially so as he scored 17 goals last season.

It’s pretty much impossible – for me, anyway – to avoid a best-case scenario comparison, then: what if the Stars make Radek Faksa their answer to Sean Couturier?

Now, it’s true that Couturier still carried a considerable defensive workload in 2017-18, yet the Flyers frequently surrounded him with better teammates and also gave him way, way more ice time. For three seasons, Couturier had averaged about 18-and-a-half minutes per contest; last season, his ice time skyrocketed to 21:36 per game.

The Stars should absolutely experiment with different ways to get Faksa on the ice more often, ideally rewarding him for doing all of that dirty work by giving him better chances to score. While Faksa would probably struggle to land on Dallas’ top power play unit, it’s probably not outrageous to give him more than last season’s paltry average of 14 seconds of PP time per game.

For years, the Stars have failed to convert “winning the off-season” into regular-season and playoff successes.

Part of those failings can be chalked up to roster issues – they’ve rarely provided Benn, Seguin, and John Klingberg with strong supporting cast members – but you can also argue that the cooks on hand haven’t made the best use of the ingredients on hand.

It’s quite plausible that Faksa could be even better than the already-quite-effective defensive player he is. He’s managed to score in tough circumstances. Why not give him a chance to take off in 2018-19?

The Stars could very well break through with him.

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.