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PHT Morning Skate: Diving into problems for Devils, Canadiens

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• William Douglas profiles the hockey journey of Joonas Oden in the latest edition of Douglas’ “Color of Hockey” series. Could Oden’s journey include playing with the Seattle expansion franchise? (NHL.com)

Connor McDavid recently turned 23, so Frank Seravalli put him in elite company. (TSN)

• NJ.com’s Steve Politi argues that Devils co-owner Josh Harris needs to “look in the mirror” when pondering the team’s problems. (NJ.com)

• Speaking of the Devils, there’s early evidence that they’ve improved during third periods after replacing John Hynes with Alain Nasreddine. (All About The Jersey)

• Sean “Down Goes Brown” McIndoe takes Erik Karlsson and other players to “contract court.” (The Athletic [sub required])

• Blackhawks fans should relax about the team’s negotiations with Robin Lehner. My take: he’s been fantastic, again … but what kind of package would a contender send to Chicago to land such a talented goalie? If Chicago isn’t asking that type of question, even if they prefer an extension, then I would be worried. (The Rink)

• On the subject of pending free agent goalies, Jimmy Howard‘s really struggling. With Jonathan Bernier injured, the Red Wings might lean on him even more. Doesn’t seem like an ideal situation, folks. Maybe they should put him in situations to succeed so (wait for it) they can trade him to a contender? Just saying, part II. (Detroit Free-Press)

• More goalie talk: Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin continue to dominate for the Stars. Can they keep it up? My feeling parallels that of the Islanders: if not, they should at least be commended for doing it for 1.5 seasons. Pretty tough to maintain such dominance in an unforgiving NHL. (Dallas Morning News)

• Brodie Brazil dares to wonder if the Sharks might be turning it around. (Goaltending ranks among his three reasons.) I dare to wonder if it’s already too late. (NBC Sports California)

• Andrew Berkshire breaks down what broke down for the Canadiens in 2019-20. (Sportsnet)

• The Blues Jackets keep defying those who assume they’re down for the count. (Jackets Cannon)

• Capitals fans vote on the team’s best jersey design. Allow an opinion: the general rule is: less bird, the better. (Nova Caps)

• More jersey design banter: Hockey By Design ranks the Maple Leafs sweaters from worst to first. (Hockey By Design)

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.

Blackhawks have some big goaltending questions to answer

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Robin Lehner was one of the many offseason additions for the Chicago Blackhawks this past summer, and probably the only one that has actually worked as expected.

After helping guide the New York Islanders to a surprising playoff berth a year ago, a performance that saw him finish the season as a Vezina Trophy finalist, Lehner signed a bargain one-year, $5 million contract with a Blackhawks team that was still trying to squeeze something out of its aging championship core.

Halfway through the season Lehner has been everything the Blackhawks could have hoped for him to be and has been one of the few bright spots for a team that still can’t stop anybody defensively.

He enter’s Saturday’s game with a .922 save percentage and is one of the biggest reasons the team is still reasonably competitive given the state of its defense. Along with his individual numbers, the Blackhawks have a .608 points percentage when he starts (99-point pace over 82 games) and a .363 mark when he doesn’t.

He is also eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, which could cause some headaches for the Blackhawks.

1. Lehner wants his fair value

Lehner talked about his contract situation a little on Friday (via NHL.com), and while he made it very clear he would like to return to Chicago, he also made it clear he would like to get what he considers to be fair value on his next contract. He also wants a long-term home instead of signing another one-year deal.

His play the past two seasons makes it clear he has earned both.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season his .927 all situations save percentage is second in the NHL behind only Dallas’ Ben Bishop. His .930 mark at even-strength is fifth best. The only season out of the past five where he didn’t produce like a No. 1 goalie was the 2017-18 season in Buffalo when he played behind a Sabres team that was one of the league’s worst. By every objective measure he is a top-shelf goalie and at age 28 should still have some strong seasons ahead of him.

Complicating matters for the Blackhawks is their other goalie, Corey Crawford, is also playing out the final year of his contract.

2. Lehner should be the Blackhawks’ priority

For as great as Crawford has been for the Blackhawks, helping the team win two Stanley Cups, it is pretty clear that Lehner is the best option at the moment has to be the priority if winning is still the priority.

He has not only outperformed Crawford this season (and has for two years now), he is also seven years younger.

Bowman has always been extremely loyal to players he has won with (even re-acquiring several that won in Chicago after losing them in cap-related transactions), but that has also played a role in the team’s rapid decline into mediocrity the past three years.

At some point you have to turn the page, and for as much as Crawford has meant to the Blackhawks, if it comes down to an either/or situation the only sensible choice is Lehner. He is also probably the best option that will be available to them this summer.

Washington’s Braden Holtby is the other big-name goalie that could be available, but he seems to be a shell of his former Vezina Trophy self, while the early returns on Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida should make every team wary of giving out a massive contract to a soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie.

None of the other potential free agents (Jacob Markstrom, Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson) can match up with Lehner.

He is the best option no matter where you look.

3. The other factors

And by other, we mean everything from the salary cap ramifications, to what exactly the short-term direction is for the Blackhawks and where Lehner might fit in.

Bowman added a ton of future money to the organization this past summer, and when combined with the mega-contracts that belong to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith at the top of the lineup the salary cap is always going to be an issue. They could get some relief if they move Brandon Saad or another veteran or two.

But even if they do, is there enough space to fit in a long-term deal for Lehner and still make the necessary additions around him to make the team better?

Barring a drastic second-half turnaround, the Blackhawks are on the verge of a third consecutive non-playoff season and still have holes all over the lineup. The defense is again one of the worst in the league, the forward depth is lacking after Kane, while he, Toews, and Duncan Keith are going to be another year into their 30s next season.

The Blackhawks tried to stay in “win-now” mode this past summer and hoped a few tweaks could fix it. That has not been the case.

Even if they find a way to keep Lehner, they still have a lot of problems to fix to make the team competitive.

If he goes, it simply adds another problem and takes away one of the few remaining strengths the team still has.

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.

 

The Buzzer: Pastrnak’s third hat trick; Big games for DeAngelo, Rinne

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Three Stars

1. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators. An incredible night for Rinne as he stopped 29 shots against the Chicago Blackhawks then scored the first goal of his career. What a way for new coach John Hynes to get his first win with the team. Rinne is just the 12th different goalie in NHL history to score a goal during a game. Read more about it here.

2. Tony DeAngelo, New York Rangers. He continued his breakout season with one of the most productive individual performances by a defenseman in NHL history. He finished with three goals, two assists, seven shots on goal, was a plus-3, and was on the ice for all six of the Rangers’ goals in a 6-3 win over their top rivals, the New Jersey Devils. Read all about his game and just how rare it is right here.

3. David Pastrnak Boston Bruins. The Pastrnak show continues to roll on in Boston. He recorded his third hat trick of the season (and his seventh since the start of the 2018-19 season) to open up a four-goal lead over Auston Matthews in the race for the Rocket Richard Award. He already has 35 goals in his first 45 games this season and is just three goals away from his career high which he set a year ago (in only 66 games). Since the start of the 2018-19 season he has 73 goals in 111 regular season games. That is a 54-goal pace over 82 games. He is currently on pace for 64 goals this season. If he can maintain that it would be the most since Alex Ovechkin scored 65 goals during the 2007-08 season.

Other notable performances on Thursday

  • Nikita Kucherov scored two goals for the Tampa Bay Lightning as they extended their winning streak to nine games. Read more about it here.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, the Montreal Canadiens have now lost eight games in a row after giving up four consecutive goals to the Edmonton Oilers.
  • Noel Acciari continued his stunning season in Florida with two more goals (he now has 17 in 41 games this season) in a 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks.
  • Alexander Steen scored his first two goals of the season as the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues crushed the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Cam Talbot stopped 42 out of 43 shots and Johnny Gaudreau scored his 12th goal of the season to lead the Calgary Flames to a huge win over the Minnesota Wild.
  • Alec Martinez scored his first goal of the season and Jack Campbell stopped 44 out of 46 shots as the Los Angeles Kings stunned the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Ben Bishop stopped all 27 shots he faced for the Dallas Stars as they shut out the Anaheim Ducks. They have now won six games in a row.
  • In their first game without injured forward Logan Couture the Sharks were able to pick up a 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets thanks to goals from Kevin Labanc, Joe Thornton, and Brent Burns. The Blue Jackets have just two regulation losses over their past 16 games. Both of those losses have been against the Sharks.

Highlights of the Night

Of course we have to start with Pekka Rinne’s first career goal.

Look at this set-up by Jonathan Huberdeau as he fakes out the Canucks on this highlight reel play.

It did not get his team a win but Kyle Connor scores a beauty of a goal.

Blooper of the Night

Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins made this save lot more difficult than he needed to.

Factoids

  • Anze Kopitar recorded his 600th career assist for the Kings on Thursday night. [NHL PR]
  • With 60 points, Artemi Panarin has more points through the first 43 games of a season than any Rangers player in franchise history, topping the mark previously held by Wayne Gretzky. [NHL PR]
  • Connor McDavid reaches the 70 point mark in just his 46th game of the season for the second year in a row. It is the first time an NHL player has reached the 70-point mark in 46 games or fewer in consecutive seasons since Jaromir Jagr reached it for the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 1998-99 and 1999-00 seasons. [NHL PR]

Scores

Boston Bruins 5, Winnipeg Jets 4
Edmonton Oilers 4, Montreal Canadiens 2
Tampa Bay Lightning 4, Arizona Coyotes 0
Florida Panthers 5, Vancouver Canucks 2
New York Rangers 6, New Jersey Devils 3
St. Louis Blues 5, Buffalo Sabres 1
Nashville Predators 5, Chicago Blackhawks 2
Calgary Flames 2, Minnesota Wild 1
Dallas Stars 3, Anaheim Ducks 0
Los Angeles Kings 5, Vegas Golden Knights 2
San Jose Sharks 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 1

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.

Dallas Stars emerge from eventful first half in solid shape

DALLAS — There was the 1-7-1 start for the Dallas Stars, who had such high expectations after an impressive playoff run last season.

When they started consistently winning again, there was the shocking coaching change unrelated to anything on the ice.

Dallas then opened 2020 with another comeback victory on New Year’s Day, outdoors at Cotton Bowl Stadium before 85,630 fans – the second-largest crowd ever to see an NHL game.

“Forty-one games, and it seems like we’ve been through 100,” center Andrew Cogliano said.

This has already been an eventful regular season for the Stars, and they are only halfway done.

Through it all, the Stars (23-14-4, 50 points) are third in the Western Conference standings after the 4-2 win over the Nashville Predators in the Winter Classic. It was the third win in a row for Dallas, which came from behind in the third period in each of those games.

“Our team still hasn’t even shown our true potential. Lately, especially after the coach change, we’ve been very inconsistent and all over the map, and trying to put our identity back together,” center Jason Dickinson said. “So I think we’re on our way there, and we’ve still got half a season to go. It’s about time for us to really hone in on that stuff.”

Dallas will be back inside, at home in the American Airlines Center, to start the second half of its 82-game regular-season schedule Friday night against Detroit.

The Stars are 6-3-1 since second-year head coach Jim Montgomery was fired Dec. 10 for unspecified unprofessional conduct. They beat New Jersey 2-0 that night when Rick Bowness, in his second season in Dallas, took over as interim head coach for the rest of the season.

Bowness has coached in more NHL games than anyone – 2,238 overall, 473 as a head coach – and in five different decades after Wednesday’s win to kick off the new year.

“I didn’t want to be put in this position because you don’t expect it. None of us saw it coming, so when it was thrown at us, we were all completely in shock,” said Bowness, adding that he came to Dallas with the goal of helping the Stars and Montgomery win the Stanley Cup.

Now Bowness is calling the shots on the bench for the Stars, who last April made the playoffs for only the third time in 11 seasons. They won a six-game series against Nashville in the first round, then went seven games in the Western Conference semifinals before falling to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis.

Bowness said players were shocked as much as the other coaches about the dismissal of Montgomery, but that they have all together invested in what they have to do to win games.

“It happens in sports. You lose players, guys get traded. … Obviously, your coach, that doesn’t happen all the time,” goalie Ben Bishop said. “When the coach gets fired or let go, you still have your job to do. And I think guys, you know, continue to do their jobs. And obviously the players are the ones who go out there and execute the game plan.”

Bishop and other Stars players say that transition was made easier with Bowness, with the 64-year-old Canadian’s experience and an upbeat personality a bit different than Montgomery’s.

“To take over that role midway through the season speaks volumes to what kind of coach he is,” Cogliano said.

After that horrendous nine-game start to the season, the Stars went 14-1-1 over the next five weeks. They then had an 0-3-1 slide before two wins in a row preceded the sudden coaching change.

“We have an idea where when we’re good, how we want to play and our compete level. And just a lot of trustworthy players out there wanting to play the right way,” said veteran forward Joe Pavelski, one of the Stars newcomers this season. “Up to this point, I would say we’re a pretty resilient group.

“The coaching change and different things like that, guys have just stuck together, stayed resilient,” he said. “Hopefully, it’ll just keep making us better.”

Cotton Bowl Winter Classic an unforgettable experience for all

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DALLAS — Under cloudy skies and with 85,630 fans inside Cotton Bowl Stadium, the Predators and Stars played one of the more memorable outdoor games in NHL history.

The 2020 Winter Classic had it all and a lot happened as the fans were still settling into their seats. An ejection, two goals, a denied penalty shot, a comeback, horses, longhorns and pig races — yes, pig races — were all part of an afternoon of outdoor hockey in Texas.

Before and after the game, those in attendance were able to experience the fan fest at The State Fair of Texas Midway. Along with the usual carnival items like corn dogs and merchandise, there were attractions like the Texas Star Ferris Wheel, the Top o’ Texas Tower and the Texas Skyway. Former Stars players Mike Modano and Brad Lukowich signed autographs and played bubble hockey with fans.

The party outside was only the beginning. As is tradition, the NHL dressed up the Cotton Bowl to really give it a Texas feel. On one side was a country dancing floor, which featured dancers and table tops and bar stools for performers. There were also the boots of Big Tex, the 55-foot talking cowboy, on display and a mechanical bull that was put to good use. Surrounding the rink was split-rail fencing for a true ranch vibe. 

But the real highlight of the setup was next to the walkway where the players entered the field. That was the location of something that we’ve never seen before at an NHL game: pig racing.

Ro-ham Josi, Tyler Swine-in, Ryan Jo-ham-sen, Andrew Hog-liano, and Pork-a Rinne were some of the competitors vying to be the pig racing champion. Most players didn’t really notice what was going on there during the game. Then there was Stars forward Jason Dickinson.

“I saw it on the big screen at one point,” he said. “I had to look away. I knew I’d get in trouble if I kept laughing.”

The racing pigs were just another part of the in-game entertainment that didn’t take place on the ice. Juggers, a unicycle performer, and small children riding sheep were also included in the 2020 Winter Classic experience. There was something Texas-sized and Texas-related happening at all times during stoppages and intermissions.

“I understand Twitter is going nuts in a good way about the pig races,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said between periods. “We tried to blend Texas and hockey. Each year we try and learn something and do it a little bit better.”

Above and beyond expectations

When the NHL was planning the event, they thought about maxing out capacity at 65,000 believing they couldn’t fill the entire stadium. But when tickets went on sale they saw the incredible demand and decided to open more sections of the stadium. It paid off and now the sold-out Stars-Predators Winter Classic ranks only behind the 2014 Maple Leafs-Red Wings game at Michigan Stadium in terms of attendance for an NHL game.

“I think the atmosphere speaks for itself,” Bettman said. “It has been nothing short of spectacular.”

And it wasn’t a sea of green in the seats. There were plenty of Predators jerseys to be seen in and around Dallas this week and throughout the stadium.

“There were more people here in yellow from Nashville than would fit in Bridgestone Arena,”  Bettman said. “So that’s how well Predators fans travel. All in all, it has been sensational.”

The show of support will only boost Nashville’s chances of landing a future outdoor game, something the Commissioner said the League has been working on.

Stars enjoyed it all

Home teams usually have a tough time in Winter Classic. The Stars are only the fourth team out of 12 to host the New Year’s Day spectacle and come away with a victory. Being able to play in front of your own fans in such a unique setting and win will stay with the players forever.

“Having it on home soil and the fans came out in great numbers and it was a lot of fun for us,” said Stars goaltender Ben Bishop. “To get the win is just that cherry on top. We were just saying how much more fun it is to win any game, but a game like this, of this magnitude. To do it front of our home fans in Dallas, which is what this whole event is all about, just makes it that much better.”

The sound level was certainly something new for the Stars players. As loud as American Airlines Center can be, it was nothing compared to the decibel levels reached in the Cotton Bowl. Tyler Seguin said that he’d never heard anything louder than the crowd after Alexander Radulov’s tiebreaking power play goal  in the third period.

The NHL took its crown jewel event south for the first time and it worked. The atmosphere, the visuals, and the game itself — it all worked.

“Everything and more. They did everything right,” Dickinson said. “The NHL marketing department, whoever puts it all together for us, it was an unbelievable experience you’ll never forget. I certainly won’t.”

MORE WINTER CLASSIC COVERAGE:
Stars win 2020 Winter Classic
Outdoor hockey in Texas? Sure thang, and was a hoot to boot

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.