Zuccarello is perfect complement for Stars’ top line

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The Dallas Stars had a problem for much of the 2018-19 season, and it was always a very easy one to identify.

Even when the team was at its lowest point, their top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn was doing what it had always done in carrying the team’s offense.

When Seguin and Benn came under irrational fire from their own CEO in the middle of the season, they were far from the biggest issue on the team. In fact, they weren’t even an issue at all and just five seconds of objective research should have made that clear. When they were on the ice the Stars were carrying the play, dominating the opposition, and performing exactly as you would want your franchise players to perform. Maybe the individual numbers weren’t what we have come to expect from them, but they were consistently outplaying and outscoring their opponents.

The problem was that they didn’t have any other forwards that could do the same thing. Their forward depth was so thin that only one other forward outside of the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio topped topped the 30-point mark this season (Radek Faksa had exactly 30 points in 81 games). That is not anywhere near good enough. It wasn’t a “star” problem; it was a problem with players around the stars.

But because the top trio was so good, and because they received Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ben Bishop (and don’t forget about the play of backup Anton Khudobin, either) they were able to stay in playoff contention in a watered down Western Conference and continue playing their way toward the postseason. If they were going to do anything once they got there they were going to need somebody outside of their top line to provide some kind of a threat offensively.

This is where Mats Zuccarello comes in.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He has only played seven games with the team entering Game 6 of their Round 1 series against the Nashville Predators on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), but his impact has already been noticeable.

The Stars acquired Zuccarello from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline and in his first game with the team made an immediate impact with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win. It was exactly what the Stars needed for the stretch run. But because he was also injured in that game and missed several weeks they never really had an opportunity to see exactly what he could provide. They are seeing it in the playoffs where he has already tallied three goals (second only to Radulov) and has given them an additional threat offensively.

It’s even more impressive when you remember he is still finding his way with a new team and still probably isn’t all the way back to 100 percent.

In other words, he probably has room to get better.

When you look at his individual shot and scoring chance numbers he hasn’t created a ton of them, and so far is riding a short-term spike in shooting percentage to carry his postseason production. It would be fair to point to that as somewhat of a red flag for what it might mean in the future.

You have to keep in mind, though, that the injury not only took him off the ice, it also robbed him of an opportunity to develop chemistry with a new set of linemates. Getting thrown into what is still a new lineup, when you may not be totally healthy, and right in the middle of the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not an easy thing to do. There is still probably a bit of an adjustment period taking place here.

What is important for the Stars, though, is that he is another high-level player that has the ability to capitalize on the chances he does get, and that is an element the team had been lacking all season.

He is a threat with a proven track record of production.

Zuccarello has been a criminally underrated player for quite some time now and has always been a lock to finish with 50-60 points over a full season. That may not seem great or anything that instantly jumps off the page at you, but it is top-line production, and top-line players are not always easy to acquire.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the year Zuccarello became a full-time player in the NHL, his 0.72 point-per-game average puts him 67th out of more than 570 players that have appeared in at least 200 games during that stretch.

Outside of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov there is not another forward currently on the Stars’ roster that sits in the top-100 out of that group.

Jason Spezza is the only other one in the top-200.

You have to go all the way down to Faksa at No. 296 to find the next one.

There just wasn’t enough impact talent elsewhere on the roster to help support the Stars’ top players.

Zuccarello gives them one, and his presence, along with the emergence of Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz in this series, is a big reason they have been able to put themselves in a position to advance.

MORE: Hintz becoming important part of Stars’ lineup

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

‘Grind’ games likely to continue as Predators-Stars series shifts to Dallas

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The Dallas Stars put up a strong defensive showing during the regular season, which saw the team finish just behind the New York Islanders in goals allowed. While Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin did a good job keeping pucks out of the net, the team as a whole still let plenty of shots through (31.6 shots allowed per game).

That’s continued into their Round 1 matchup against the Nashville Predators. As the series is split 1-1 with Game 3 Monday night in Dallas (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream), Bishop’s been stingy in net, allowing four goals through two games, but the Stars as a whole have allowed 74 shots so far and 101 even strength shot attempts.

Five of those shots for came in overtime during Game 2, with the winner coming off Craig Smith’s stick after five minutes.

“They’re difficult to generate against,” said Predators head coach Peter Laviolette. “Good team defense, they have good goaltending, and our team is built a lot of the same way, and so that probably leads itself to some low-scoring games. We’re able to get one in overtime, and it was a big goal to tie and crack one in overtime. The difference between 2-0 and 1-1 is a big difference especially going on the road.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

While Nashville has done a fine job creating chances on Bishop, they’ve also done good through two games at limiting the Stars’ opportunities on Pekka Rinne. Via Natural Stat Trick, Dallas has 70 attempts at 5-on-5 through two games and their power play was fruitless in Game 2, failing to capitalize on all six of their opportunities.

“When you go 0-for-6, a couple good chances, but you got to come through,” said Stars head coach Jim Montgomery. “Need to think shot-first. I thought we were all looking for the next play instead of looking to score. That’s power play, but also 5-on-5. I thought we passed up too many shots.”

Both games have been decided by a single goal, a trend that wouldn’t be surprising if it continued for the rest of the series.

“We kind of expected it with these two defensive teams,” said Stars forward Tyler Seguin after Game 2. “It was a grind game, it was a hard, compete game. We’ve done a pretty good job at keeping them to the perimeter. We’re expecting, maybe, a little different game now that we’re going home. We’re going to have the juices going for sure.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Predators vs. Stars: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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If you want to get cute with it, you can deem Predators – Stars as the battle of the team with a coach who worse a horse mask versus the team whose CEO called his own players, uh, horse-blank. And, hey, considering the “nontraditional” roots of both franchises, this also features teams with fans most likely to ride actual horses. It’s all enough to leave you hoarse.

But beyond all of that horsin’ around, the Predators and Stars truly are remarkably similar teams.

While the combination of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin has been far hotter this season, each squad boasts two goalies (Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros) who could conceivably be ridden to strong performances during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Most other West teams wish they merely had one such goalie.

Unfortunately, the Stars and Predators also need that great goaltending the most among West teams, at least judging by this season.

The Stars and Predators needed to rank in the top four in fewest goals allowed this season, as they weren’t setting scoreboards on fire.

Dallas scored just 209 goals this season, tied for third-worst, joining the Islanders as the only other playoff team in the bottom 10. The Predators weren’t that much better (236 goals, 13th-worst), and they languished with the NHL’s least efficient power play at a still-rather-shocking 12.9 percent.

Strange things can happen during hockey’s postseason, and goalies are a strange breed beyond that, but this sure seems like it’s going to be a tight-checking nail-biter of a series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 9:30 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | USA, SN1, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 6 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 9:30 p.m.: Predators @ Stars | NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 17, 8 p.m. Predators @ Stars | USA, SN, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Predators @ Stars | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD

FORWARDS

STARS: Despite Jim Lites’ criticisms, the Stars should thank the top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov for providing most of their scoring. Seguin (80 points) and Radulov (74 points) have the most points of any players in this series, and while Benn is no longer the player who once won the Art Ross Trophy, he ranked third among the Stars with 53 points, 27 of which were goals.

The drop off from the top forwards and everyone else is steep, as Radek Faksa is the fourth-highest scoring Stars forward with just 30 points. Faksa’s known for a strong defensive game more than anything else, so he’s not chopped liver, but the point is that this is a top-heavy bunch.

One interesting wild card is Mats Zuccarello, though. The poor soul got hurt blocking a shot in his first Stars appearance, but he’s slated to be in the lineup during Game 1, and the Stars are tinkering with a Zuccarello – Benn combination. Could a one-line team become a two-line team?

Of course, both Nashville and Dallas lean heavily on their defensemen to score, but that’s for the next section.

PREDATORS: At a quick glance, the Predators’ top line seems inferior, with Ryan Johansen‘s 64 points leading the way. Injuries cloud such judgments, though, as Viktor Arvidsson managed 34 goals in just 58 games (!) this season, while Filip Forsberg was his usual dynamic self with 28 goals and 50 points in 64 games. The gap between these two teams’ top line is small, if they aren’t outright even.

On paper, the Predators should boast better depth, but they really haven’t been able to click. Kyle Turris has suffered through a pretty miserable season, and Mikael Granlund‘s been mouse-quiet since being traded to Nashville. Meanwhile, Wayne Simmonds is struggling through an almost tragically rough contract year.

ADVANTAGE: Nashville, by a hair. While Faksa ranked fourth in Stars forward scoring with 30 points, the Predators had seven forwards who had 30+, and Turris almost certainly would have hit that mark if he wasn’t limited to 55 games. Granlund scored 54 points counting his superior totals with the Wild. Zuccarello makes the argument more fascinating, though.

DEFENSE

STARS: After Seguin, Radulov, and Benn, the Stars’ next three leading scorers were all defensemen: John Klingberg (10 goals, 45 points), Miro Heiskanen (12G, 33P), and Esa Lindell (11G, 32P). Klingberg managed to get that many points in 64 games, and as Stars fans will tell you until your ears are red, he’s very worthy of his hype as a future Norris hopeful.

Where the Stars’ top guys are grappling at least slightly with Father Time, the Stars’ trio is in their primes, with Klingberg at 26, Lindell 24, and Heiskanen somehow this great already at 19.

This is a modern group, and while they’re not as hyped or as well-compensated as the Predators’ blueliners, they’re gaining fast as far as on-ice effectiveness is concerned.

PREDATORS: For the standards of Nashville’s defensemen, you could count 2018-19 as a bit of an off-year, but they likely remain the deepest group in the NHL, or at least rank highly in that regard.

Much like Dallas, three of Nashville’s defensemen ranked in the top six in overall team scoring: Roman Josi (15 goals, 56 points), Mattias Ekholm (8G, 44P), and Ryan Ellis (7G, 41P). Despite being limited to 63 games played, P.K. Subban almost hit double digits in goals with nine, and finished with 31 points. Missing time likely exaggerated worries about Subban’s overall game, as he remains a strong two-way player.

It will also be interesting to monitor Dante Fabbro. He’s a fairly well-regarded prospect, but coaches are reluctant to trust rookies, especially late-arriving ones, and Laviolette is not really an exception. (See: Tolvanen, Eeli.) Fabbro could give Nashville’s third pairing a boost, and while that wouldn’t be a revolutionary change, it could matter in a series where the margin of error figures to be slim.

ADVANTAGE: Predators, but not by as much as some would think. Dallas’ defense is underrated, but Nashville’s group is among the most potent and polished in the NHL.

GOALTENDING

STARS: If Ben Bishop stayed healthy (an unfortunately common phrase for Bishop), he’d get some heavy Vezina hype. He generated a .934 save percentage this season, brilliant even compared to his very strong career average of .921. Bishop put together an absurd .969 save percentage over nine March games, with a league-best .959 save percentage since February (among anyone who played at least two games, sorry Christopher Gibson).

Anton Khudobin hasn’t been far behind, producing a strong .923 save percentage in 41 games.

Jim Montgomery’s system and some strong young defensemen helped, but this Stars team shut opponents down because of stellar goaltending.

PREDATORS: If you had to wager on the best goalie pairing heading into 2018-19, you could have done worse than the (“father – son”) combination of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros.

Goalies are about as easy to predict as cats are to herd, so they haven’t been the best … but they’ve still been fine. Rinne sported a solid .918 save percentage this season, and after a rough start, Saros ended up with a respectable .915 mark.

Of course, Rinne’s had his playoff nightmares, so people will wonder if those demons will crop again. Maybe the more interesting question is: if they do, will Laviolette go to Saros if needed?

ADVANTAGE: Stars, with mild concerns that Bishop isn’t 100 percent. Of all the West series, this is the one where you could be reasonably confident about both tandems. Again, though: they’re goalies.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

What if the Stars’ first line is horse manure?

One could imagine some Stars executive gloating about giving Seguin “tough love,” but this was really about Seguin finally getting the bounces that didn’t go his way, pre-horse-bleep. If that luck dries up once again, can other lines shovel in some goals?

(Note: yes, you could ask similar questions about the Predators’ depth, too.)

Can the Predators’ power play do something?

NHL officials are notorious for “putting away their whistles” during the playoffs, relative to the regular season, but special teams will still be prominent. Actually, considering how tight this series could be – and how much each team struggles to score goals – getting a few markers on the man advantage might just swing the series.

If nothing else, the Predators spent big to improve this weakness. Wayne Simmonds has slipped, but his resume as a PP specialist is robust. Brian Boyle‘s big body is useful in screening goalies, even a jumbo-sized one like Ben Bishop. Things have looked better at times recently, but overall, the power play looms as a potential problem for the Preds.

PREDICTION

NASHVILLE IN 6. These two teams are structured very similarly, so here’s betting that the Predators are just a little better at making this formula work.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins
Capitals vs Hurricanes

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.

Montgomery steers Stars to playoffs in college-to-pro debut

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DALLAS (AP) — While the NHL buzzed in early January over the Dallas Stars CEO profanely ripping the franchise’s two best players, first-year coach Jim Montgomery worked to figure out how to make defense the priority for a team that was having trouble scoring goals.

Never mind that the former journeyman forward was also making the rare college-to-pro jump two years after winning an NCAA title at the University of Denver, and guiding a club that expected to reach the playoffs right away following a decade of mostly missing the postseason.

Fast-forward three months, and the Stars are preparing for a Western Conference first-round series starting Wednesday night in Nashville. And Tyler Seguin, one of the objects of Jim Lites’ ire, has been impressed by the stewardship of his third coach in three years.

”I mean, look where we are,” said Seguin, who was criticized along with captain Jamie Benn in somewhat shocking comments by Lites. ”He did such a great job not only with our team but individually in meetings. Getting the most out of each player individually, and it’s benefited all of us this year.”

Montgomery had a few strong words of his own not long after Lites used plenty of profanity along with ”terrible” and ”embarrassing” to describe the play of Benn and Seguin. The coach said he was frustrated that he hadn’t been able to ”change the culture of mediocrity.”

Through all of that drama, the Stars stayed in the playoff picture. Dallas never really lost its grip on a wild-card spot that was wrapped up with two games remaining in the regular season. It’s the club’s first postseason berth since 2016.

For that, the Stars credit finding, and sticking to, their identity – a strong defensive game in front of standout goalies Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin. As a result, Montgomery sees a team that’s better on the road and in the third period, and more consistent.

”We’ve been able to change our mentality and our idea of what work ethic is,” Montgomery said. ”We’ve done that all together. That’s the growth you want to see because that’s how you get everyone believing in it. Players have had ownership in it and so has the coaching staff.”

Both Seguin and Benn finished among the top 25 in the NHL in scoring in each of their first five seasons together. Neither did it this season. Seguin led the Stars with 80 points (33 goals, 47 assists) while finishing 28th in the league.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In 2017-18, Seguin had his first 40-goal season, but the Stars collapsed in the final weeks, getting swept on a six-game road trip while losing eight straight. This time, Dallas went 3-0-1 on a critical four-game Canadian swing that put them on the brink of a playoff spot.

”We thought we were going to score goals this year a little bit more and playing more of an offensive game,” Seguin said. ”But we’re a defensive team that’s gonna outwork and gonna outlast you. After the All-Star break, that’s what he talked to us about is, ‘What is our identity?’

”As a team and as a leadership group, we came up with it and went from there.”

Montgomery benched Alexander Radulov for a period after the team’s No. 2 scorer talked back to the coach during a 2-1 loss to the last-place Los Angeles Kings.

That setback capped the second of two season-worst four-game losing streaks about a month apart. The first was about two weeks before Lites summoned two reporters who cover the team regularly to unload on Benn and Seguin. The second was about two weeks after.

The turnaround started immediately after the second skid, in the first game before the All-Star break. And when Montgomery returned from the break, he said he intended to be more upbeat. Several times after losses, he said he liked the club’s direction, and its playoff chances.

A two-time champion as a coach in junior hockey and a two-time NCAA Frozen Four qualifier at Denver, Montgomery acknowledged that his first NHL experience was challenging.

”I didn’t know what the unexpected was going to be,” Montgomery said. ”And the unexpected ended up being some big moments. All those things have made us tougher. And if you’re tougher now, you’ve got to be tough going into playoffs or you have no chance.”

This rookie coach still has that chance.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Push for the Playoffs: Stars on brink of postseason return

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

Jim Lites’ chewing out of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin seems like it happened ages ago. For the Dallas Stars, their season, which was highlighted by their CEO calling out his team’s best forwards in separate interviews in late December, could take a turn in a new and brighter direction Tuesday night.

With just as single point against the Philadelphia Flyers (or a Coyotes loss to the Kings), the Stars will return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2016.

Since Dec. 28, when Lites went off, the Stars have accumulated the fourth-most points in the Western Conference. Seguin has 20 goals and 43 points in 41 games, while Benn has netted 12 goals and recorded 22 points in 38 games. But the biggest heroes of this season for the franchise have been their goaltenders.

Both Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin have been phenomenal between the pipes for the Stars. Their play is a reason why Dallas is battling the New York Islanders for the William Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed (194). Head coach Jim Montgomery has split their time in net, some of that having to do with the injury bug biting Bishop several times.

Khudobin has played 39 games and posted a .934 even strength save percentage. Bishop has suited up for 45 and has a .936 ESSV%. Those numbers put both in the top five of that category among net minders with 30 appearances, with Bishop leading the league.

Bishop is also third in the NHL with six shutouts, and you wonder if injuries hadn’t hit him in the last few weeks how much of a favorite would he be for the Vezina Trophy? Montgomery said on Monday that he expects Bishop to get in a game before the end of the regular season on Saturday, so that’s a good sign as they hope to be prepping for their Round 1 opponent by then.

“We want to play him, and he needs a game before we start the playoffs and it’s not good for (Anton Khudobin) to play every game, either,” Montgomery said.

The Stars are also waiting on Mats Zuccarello, who played a whole 13:35 after being dealt from the New York Rangers before breaking his arm. There’s an outside chance he returns this weekend as well.

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Bruins at Blue Jackets, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN; live stream link)
Hurricanes at Maple Leafs, 7:30 p.m. ET
Lightning at Canadiens, 7:30 p.m. ET
Penguins at Red Wings, 7:30 p.m. ET
Jets at Wild, 8 p.m. ET
Flyers at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET
Oilers at Avalanche, 9 p.m. ET
Kings at Coyotes, 10 p.m. ET

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

Lightning vs. Hurricanes
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Stars
Blues vs. Predators
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIOS
The Penguins will clinch a playoff berth:

• If they defeat the Red Wings in any fashion
OR
• If they get one point against the Red Wings AND either of the following occur:
-The Canadiens lose to the Lightning in any fashion
-The Hurricanes lose to the Maple Leafs in regulation
OR
• If the Canadiens lose to the Lightning in regulation

The Blue Jackets will clinch a playoff berth:

• If they defeat the Bruins in any fashion AND the Canadiens lose to the Lightning in regulation

The Dallas Stars will clinch a playoff berth:

• If they get one point against the Flyers
OR
• If the Arizona Coyotes lose to the Kings in any fashion

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — Clinched
Capitals — Clinched
Islanders —  Clinched
Maple Leafs — Clinched
Penguins — 99.9 percent
Blue Jackets — 94.1 percent
Hurricanes — 75.4 percent
Canadiens — 30.6 percent
Flyers — Eliminated
Panthers — Eliminated
Sabres — Eliminated
Rangers — Eliminated
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Flames — Clinched
Jets — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Predators — Clinched
Blues — Clinched
Golden Knights — Clinched
Stars — 99.5 percent
Avalanche — 77.5 percent
Coyotes — 22.3 percent
Wild — 0.6 percent
Blackhawks — 0.1 percent
Oilers — Eliminated
Canucks — Eliminated
Ducks — Eliminated
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE

Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Devils — 11.5 percent
Sabres — 9.5 percent
Red Wings — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Ducks — 6.5 percent
Oilers – 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Wild — 3 percent
Flyers — 2.5 percent
Panthers — 2 percent
Coyotes — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent
(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 125 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 115 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 105 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 102 points
Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins — 98 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 51 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 47 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 46 goals
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning — 42 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — 41 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 41 goals
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 41 goals

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.