Kucherov making plenty of points for NHL’s MVP consideration

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Connor McDavid knows better than to risk making end-of-season NHL award projections.

Through no fault of his own, the Edmonton Oilers captain was not included among last year’s three MVP candidates, causing a stir back home. So McDavid understandably deferred when recently asked to list his Hart Trophy front-runners this year.

”After last year, I’m not commenting,” McDavid said, chuckling. ”I have no idea who will win it at all.”

McDavid, who won the Hart in 2017 after leading the Oilers to their first playoff berth in 11 years, isn’t likely to be included among this year’s finalists even though he entered the final week of the season second in the league with 115 points. Trouble is, the Oilers have already been eliminated from playoff contention, and McDavid and everyone else are being overshadowed by the numbers Nikita Kucherov is putting up with the President’s Trophy-clinching Tampa Bay Lightning.

With 125 points through 80 games, Kucherov has already matched Joe Thornton‘s league-leading total in 2005-06. The highest total after that is Jaromir Jagr’s 127 points in 1998-99, and the last player to top 130 points was Mario Lemieux, who had 161 in 1995-96.

”It’s not at all surprising. He was unbelievable last year, and seemed to get no recognition for it,” McDavid said, noting how Kucherov finished third in the NHL with 100 points last season. ”They’re a team that scores a lot of goals. And he’s in on most of them. It’s pretty impressive.”

Kucherov is tied for the Lightning lead with seven game-winning goals and part of a team that became only the NHL’s third to win 60 or more games. Kucherov has also led the points race since Dec. 28, and gone no more than two games without registering a point this season.

That’s not to say there aren’t others worthy of mention.

Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, with a career-best 97 points already, has played a key role in helping the Flames clinch their first division title in 13 years.

Though Sidney Crosby‘s production has tailed off with just three assists in Pittsburgh’s past nine games, the Penguins could have been in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006 if not for their captain’s team-leading 95 points. Chicago’s Patrick Kane, who enjoyed a 20-game point streak, would deserve consideration if not for the Blackhawks sitting last in the Central Division.

Former NHL executive-turned broadcaster Brian Burke said it’s difficult to consider anyone ahead of Kucherov, suggesting he has essentially ”lapped the field.”

”You’d have to be statistically such an aberration, such a unicorn, that voters would have no choice but to say, ‘OK, that’s the guy,”’ Burke said.

”But that’s not the case where you’ve got Kucherov. So there’s no unicorns,” Burke added. ”You’ve already got a guy who’s blowing everyone away.”

That said, here is The Associated Press list of end-of-season award contenders:

HART (MVP)

In the conversation: Crosby, Gaudreau, Kucherov and Brad Marchand (Boston).

Who should win: Kucherov.

Comment: To quote Burke: ”There’s no unicorns.”

NORRIS (Top defenseman)

In the conversation: Brent Burns (San Jose), John Carlson (Washington), Mark Giordano (Calgary), Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay).

Who should win: Giordano.

Comment: A career-best season for a captain on the Pacific Division’s top team.

VEZINA (Top goalie)

In the conversation: Ben Bishop (Dallas), Darcy Kuemper (Arizona), Carey Price (Montreal) Pekka Rinne (Nashville) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay).

Who should win: Vasilevskiy.

Comment: Tightest race to call and could include Islanders’ tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, though each eliminate each other by splitting starts.

SELKE (Top defensive forward)

In the conversation: Aleksander Barkov (Florida), Patrice Bergeron (Boston), Sean Couturier (Philadelphia), Mark Stone (Vegas), Ryan O'Reilly (St. Louis).

Who should win: Stone.

Comment: Before being traded to Vegas, Stone had an exceptional plus-13 rating on a Senators team that has currently allowed an NHL-worst 285 goals.

CALDER (Top rookie)

In the conversation: Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo), Andreas Johnsson (Toronto), Elias Pettersson (Vancouver) and Brady Tkachuk (Ottawa).

Who should win: Pettersson.

Comment: Pettersson leads rookie forwards in averaging 18:20 of ice time per game.

JACK ADAMS (Top coach)

In the conversation: Craig Berube (St. Louis), Jon Cooper (Tampa Bay), Bill Peters (Calgary), Barry Trotz (Islanders).

Who should win: Cooper.

Comment: Though Berube and Trotz deserve consideration, it is difficult to overlook the job Cooper’s done with a 60-win team.

THEY SAID IT

Blue Jackets John Tortorella wasn’t initially in the mood to divulge what was discussed during a team meeting after a 4-1 loss at Edmonton on March 21 that extended Columbus’ skid to 0-2-1.

”That’s none of your business,” he responded. Pressed further, given how Columbus rebounded to win its next five, Tortorella said: ”We (stunk) against Edmonton. I mean it was pitiful against Edmonton, so we tried to clean some things up.”

Blackhawks survive late Leafs assault to win fourth straight

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Score five straight goals against the Toronto Maple Leafs and hold on for dear life.

It’s a plan that the Chicago Blackhawks executed to perfection (planned or otherwise) on Wednesday night in a ___ win against their Original Six foes. And my goodness did they ever have to hold on.

Chicago came out with the determination of a team needing two points to keep their playoff dreams going. They scored four times in the first period — chasing Frederik Andersen after he allowed four on 14 shots — and added a fifth later in the second period, appearing to seal it with less than half a game to go.

The Leafs have been struggling since beating the Calgary Flames 6-2. And it’s unraveled now, after getting made to look like the JV squad against the Tampa Bay Lightning and then decimated once again against the Blackhawks.

A 5-0 deficit seemed like the next chapter in their recent story, but Andreas Johnsson‘s goal with 1:33 left in the second period seemed to give the Leafs some life.

The Leafs owned the third period, with Chicago looking content to sit back and wait for the final buzzer. It didn’t help Chicago’s cause that Corey Crawford, who was solid through the first two periods, didn’t emerge for the third after falling ill with the flu. Collin Delia had to come in cold and the game became very interesting.

Auston Matthews and Co. went to work in the third. Matthews grabbed his 32nd of the season at 7:57 of the period followed by Morgan Rielly‘s 19th three minutes later to make it 5-3. With the net empty and 1:31 to go, John Tavares clawed the Leafs back to 5-4, banging in a shot from a bad angle past Delia to set a new career high with his 39th.

Toronto fired 30 pucks on goal in final frame, with Delia getting a game’s worth of shots sent his way in a 20-minute span of complete chaos.

The final 90 seconds, particularly, were epic and well worth the watch.

When the dust settled after the final whistle, the Blackhawks moved four points back of the idle Arizona Coyotes for the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference. ‘

The odds aren’t great, but all Chicago can do is keep winning and let the chips fall where they may.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Small silver lining to Maple Leafs’ Kapanen being out with concussion

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Maple Leafs shared some lousy news heading into Wednesday’s game against the Blackhawks: forward Kasperi Kapanen is out with a concussion.

Kapanen, 22, was held out of Monday’s 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning for “precautionary reasons,” so it seems like the team might have determined the nature of his injury recently. It’s not clear when, exactly, Kapanen actually suffered the injury, with Jeff Veillette wondering if it’s actually something Kapanen had been dealing with for five games or so.

(Kapanen was limited to only an assist during that span, perhaps in part because he wasn’t at full-strength?)

Concussions are never really good news, obviously, but this is especially rough for Kapanen. He’s just short of his first 20-goal season with 19, and as a pending RFA, getting those counting stats could really bump up his earning potential. (Granted, he might just earn his way to the point of being too expensive to stay in Toronto, but there are worse problems to have.)

It would be a serious bummer – though certainly not unprecedented – if a concussion lingers into when the games matter the most, as the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs are less than a month away.

[MORE: Can the Maple Leafs make it past the first round?]

So, yeah, this is crummy both for the Maple Leafs and the winger, who’s enjoying a breakthrough season after struggling to make a full mark on the NHL during previous years.

There’s potential for at least one silver lining, however.

This could be a great opportunity for William Nylander to a) heat up with the postseason nearing and b) show that he warrants a longer run on Auston Matthews‘ wing.

That’s where Nylander is slated to line up for Toronto’s game against Chicago on Wednesday, forming an interesting line with Matthews and Andreas Johnsson. (Patrick Marleau – Kapanen’s other regular linemate with Matthews – slides to the third line with Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown.)

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

It seems like Mike Babcock’s needed a nudge to line up Nylander with Matthews regularly, and to an extent, it’s understandable. Kapanen’s often prospered with Matthews, while Nylander occasionally shines running his own line as a center.

Still, the Maple Leafs might simply have a better chance to win if they load up with two stronger lines, as you’d at least think would be the case if Nylander pushes Kapanen down the lineup. Teams tend to lean on their top lines more often in the playoffs, so while depth is important, it might be wiser if Toronto rolled out Matthews – Nylander and John TavaresMitch Marner as two deadly duos, challenging anyone to match them in that regard.

And, again, Babs hasn’t been that eager to go with such an alignment. Nylander has more than twice as much even-strength ice time with Kadri than with Matthews, according to Natural Stat Trick. Kapanen, meanwhile, has basically been glued to Matthews and Marleau.

Perhaps it’s true that Kapanen really is the better fit as a second-line winger, while Nylander might fit better as 3C, at least when they’re both healthy. That’s not an absolute certainty, though, and it wouldn’t hurt to see if Nylander can rekindle his past magic with Matthews.

Overall, losing Kapanen still hurts, but maybe it can mean bigger things for Nylander, and the Leafs as a whole?

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: DeBrincat, Kane keep Blackhawks in playoff race

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Three stars

1. Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks

Patrick Kane was the hero of the game with his later winner, but it was Alex DeBrincat who made it possible, scoring twice in the game, including the goal that made it 3-3 also late in the third period.

DeBrincat now has 36 goals this season, including an impressive seven in his past five games. His scoring (like Kane’s heroics) are going to be vital down the stretch for Chicago.

2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

The human point machine was at it again on Wednesday. He didn’t score, but he had a hat trick of assists, including the primary one on Victor Hedman‘s game-winner in overtime to give the Lightning their record-setting 10th straight win.

Kucherov now has 104 points, 10 more than Patrick Kane, who scored a goal on Wednesday.

Kucherov is on pace to smash Vincent Lecavalier’s franchise record of 108 points.

3. Andreas Johnsson, Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto is going to need this kid to slow down to avoid having to open the coffers for him, too.

Johnsson scored twice on Wednesday to help lead the Maple Leafs past the Edmonton Oilers 6-2.

The 24-year-old Swede has nine goals in his past 10 games and is up to 19 goals and 36 points in 56 games in his rookie season.

Highlights of the night

What a move by Saad, what a finish by Kane:

This was nice:

Unstoppable:

Factoids

Scores

Maple Leafs 6, Oilers 2
Flames 2, Devils 1
Lightning 4, Rangers 3 (OT)
Avalanche 3, Canucks 2 (SO)
Blackhawks 4, Ducks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Rangers host Maple Leafs on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Maple Leafs won a pivotal division clash Saturday with a 4-3 overtime victory in Montreal to remain in second place in the Atlantic Division. John Tavares scored his team-leading 33rd goal (also T-second in NHL) in OT with a beautiful backhand past Carey Price.

With two points yesterday (goal, assist), Tavares has three straight multi-point games and reached the 60-point mark (33G, 27A in 54 GP), two games shy of his fastest season to 60 points (52 GP in 2013-14 w/ New York Islanders).

Toronto has won four straight games and has a six-game point streak (5-0-1).

On Friday night when the 1993-94 Stanley Cup champion Rangers team was honored for the 25th anniversary of their title, the current Blueshirts fell 3-0 to the Hurricanes. It was scoreless entering the third period before Warren Foegele scored the eventual game-winner and Carolina tallied two empty- netters. Petr Mrazek made 27 saves for Carolina in the shutout, though defenseman Jaccob Slavin also rescued two would-be goals on the doorstep.

The Rangers were shut out for the 5th time this season, tied for second most in the league.

Despite being shut out on Friday, the Rangers top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello has been one of the hottest trios in the league. Since January 12, they have combined for 41 points (19G, 22A) in the last 11 games.

Zibanejad has already set career highs with 53 pts and 31 assists this season. His previous career marks were 51 pts and 30 assists, both in 2015-16 with Ottawa. He is on pace for 80 pts, which would be the highest tally by a Rangers player since Marian Gaborik had 86 in 2009-10.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Sunday, Feb. 10, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Patrick MarleauAuston MatthewsKasperi Kapanen
Connor BrownNazem KadriWilliam Nylander
Par LindholmFrederik GauthierAndreas Johnsson

Jake MuzzinMorgan Rielly
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottRon Hainsey

Starting goalie: Garret Sparks

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Mats Zuccarello
Pavel BuchnevichKevin HayesJesper Fast
Filip ChytilRyan StromeVladislav Namestnikov
Jimmy VeseyBoo Nieves – Vinni Lettieri

Brady SkjeiAdam McQuaid
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Brendan SmithKevin Shattenkirk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass analyst) will have the call from Madison Square Garden. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.