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Wednesday Night Hockey: Nikita Kucherov is a master of deception

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Nikita Kucherov had three options. Carter Hutton had no chance.

The Tampa Bay Lightning superstar could have dished the puck off to Brayden Point on his right or set up Tyler Johnson for a one-timer from the faceoff circle. Instead, the likely winner of the 2019 Art Ross and Hart Trophies did what he does best: wristed a shot by another NHL goaltender using a bit of deception.

Kucherov patiently waited just long enough to use Zach Bogosian as a screen while leaving Johnson available as a dangerous option to his left.

Patience. Awareness. Deception. A killer shot. That’s the essence of Kucherov’s game. He can shoot, and he can pass, and he does it all by keeping opponents unsure of what he’s going to do with the puck, especially skating in one-on-one on a poor goaltender as he prepares his “no-move” shootout move.

“I’ll be honest, he can almost surprise you on a daily basis with some of the plays he makes,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “It’s once every couple of days he makes a play and I’m glancing at one of the assistant coaches like, ‘I hope we got that on tape.’ He just makes plays that most players don’t see. But to watch his growth every single year, and he’s just gotten better and better. It’s a testament to him with what he’s done and how he works.”

Kucherov’s year-by-year improvement has come to this: 117 points with nine games remaining this season. His previous career high in points was 100, which he reached last season. He scored 40 goals during in 2016-17 and has a good chance at passing that mark as he’s scored 35 through 73 games this season.

His scoring prowess is something this league has not seen in a long time. Kucherov is the first NHL player to reach 115 points since Sidney Crosby’s 120 during the 2006-07 season. Helping hit that number has been his six four-point games this season.

Kucherov’s ascension to elite superstar status has been helped by his off-ice work ethic. The inside of his two-car garage is taken up by synthetic ice. It’s a place he’s able to go during his down time or even after a game to hone his skills. There might work with weighted pucks, some shooting to sharpen his accuracy, or tightening up his stick-handling. It could have been a winning night for the Lightning, but if he’s not satisfied with how he played you’ll find him there. It’s also not a rare sight to see him inside the dressing room stickhandling with a ball. There’s always room for improvement, right?

Everything we see on the ice from Kucherov is connected to what he does off of it.

“People don’t understand how hard he works away from the rink,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “Like, it’s all hockey. He’ll text me the night before a game if there is a game going on and be like, ‘Did you see that?’ or ‘Did you see this guy’s move?’ or ‘Did you see that goal?’ or ‘Did you see how many minutes this guy played tonight?’ He just loves hockey so much.”

***

It’s not just Kucherov’s ability to shoot that makes him so dangerous. His vision allows him to create as well, which explains his 260 assists since 2014-15, placing him tied for sixth in the league over that span. In fact, if you take away his 35 goals this season, he would be tied for ninth in NHL scoring.

Kucherov’s 82 helpers are the most since Henrik Sedin’s 83 in 2009-10. He’s also only the fourth different player to reach the 80-assist mark in a season since 1999-00 (Joe Thornton did it twice).

Knowing not just where his teammates are on the ice but also opponents is what makes Kucherov a dangerous playmaker. Always one for wanting to be unpredictable, his vision allows him to survey the ice and read the play so well in order to create scoring chances.

Take for example this Stamkos goal from last season. Kucherov could have easily taken not one, but two different one-timers on a single power play shift, but both times he saw an opening in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ penalty kill setup that he felt he could exploit. They were both high-risk, cross-ice passes to Stamkos, with the second opportunity leading to a goal.

But with great risk comes great reward.

On the first pass, Kucherov uses his patented deception. He fakes the one-timer, freezing the Blue Jackets long enough to thread a seam to Stamkos. The second one, through a bit of a mad scramble, he catches Zach Werenski, who isn’t 100 percent sure where the puck is, flat-footed, and with Seth Jones going for the shot block and Boone Jenner still getting back to his feet, a slot opens up to find Stamkos again for the goal.

Opponents can try and read Kucherov’s body as he possesses the puck, but that isn’t going to give them an edge in trying to take it away. More often than not when you think you’ve got him closed up, he’ll find an outlet.

***

The great ones never rest on what they’ve already achieved. Kucherov’s point totals have increased every season since he broke into the NHL, including his back-to-back 100-point seasons. He’s averaged 35 goals a year since 2014-15 and will very likely hit the 40-goal mark for the second time in his career within the next three weeks.

Kucherov, who has an eight-year, $76M extension kicking in next season, doesn’t turn 26 until June. He’s only improving as the years go on and shows no signs of being satisfied.

“The one thing about Kuch, when he got to the NHL he didn’t sit down and say, ‘OK, exhale, I made it,'” said Cooper. “He was one of those guys that now the work’s just beginning, and he’s been putting it in ever since that day.”

“When you have the skillset he has, his hockey mind is so elite, his physical skills and all that is catching up. The improvement you see year after year after year is he just keeps working at it; and not only on the ice but studying the game and where guys should be and how they should play and how other teams play you. 

“He’s educated himself on what other teams do and defensemen and all the other things. This is the product you get.”

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie.

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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.

The Buzzer: Price passes Plante; hats off for Jenner, Gaudreau

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Three Stars

1. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames kept pace with the San Jose Sharks in the Pacific Division race with a 9-4 win over the New Jersey Devils, featuring the NHL’s first six-point game since the 2013-14 season from Johnny Gaudreau. Read all about it here.

2. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens. The list of Hall of Famers and legendary goalies to play for the Montreal Canadiens organization is a lengthy and impressive one. It is a who’s who list of some of the greatest goalies in the history of the league, and Carey Price now officially has more wins than all of them. By stopping 20 of the 21 shots he faced in a 3-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night, Price earned the 315th win of his career and moved him ahead of Hall of Famer Jacques Plante for sole possession of first place on the team’s all-time wins list.

3. Boone Jenner, Columbus Blue Jackets. The Columbus Blue Jackets’ offense has gone cold in the games after the trade deadline and it has put them in a tough spot when it comes to making the playoffs, especially with a tough schedule still remaining down the stretch. The offense finally clicked on Tuesday night in a 7-4 win over the Boston Bruins — who have now lost two regulation games in a row after going 19 consecutive games without one — that was highlighted by a hat trick from Boone Jenner to give him 15 goals on the season.

Highlights of the Night

Joe Pavelski scored the game-winning goal for the San Jose Sharks with just 3.6 seconds remaining in their 5-4 win over the Winnipeg Jets.

The Pittsburgh Penguins stormed back for a 5-3 win over the Washington Capitals thanks in part to a pair of goals from Sidney Crosby. The first of those two goals was a beauty.

Some highlights from Carey Price’s milestone night for the Montreal Canadiens.

This is not really a “highlight” in the traditional sense, but it is still worth watching as MacKenzie Blackwood’s water bottle did not cooperate.

Daniel Sprong has not always put it all together at the NHL level, but there is no denying his talent when he does. His goal on Tuesday was the game-winner for the Anaheim Ducks in their 3-2 win over the Nashville Predators.

Factoids

  • Believe it, the Arizona Coyotes are in a playoff spot thanks to their 3-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night, and Oliver-Ekman Larsson scored his 10th goal of the season. He is one of just four defenders, joining a list that includes Brent Burns, Roman Josi, and Mark Giordano, to score at least 10 goals in each of the past six seasons. [NHL PR]
  • Ben Bishop is on an incredible run for the Dallas Stars and quietly putting together a Vezina Trophy caliber season. He recorded his third consecutive shutout on Tuesday night, helping the Stars top the Buffalo Sabres. [NHL PR]
  • Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin are the fourth pair of players to each record 1,000 points after being selected No. 1 and 2 overall in an NHL draft year. Malking recorded his 1,000th point on Tuesday night, while Ovechkin recorded his 1,200th point in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 5-3 win. [NHL PR]

Scores

Dallas Stars 2, Buffalo Sabres 0

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Washington Capitals 3

Columbus Blue Jackets 7, Boston Bruins 4

Montreal Canadiens 3, Detroit Red Wings 1

Arizona Coyotes 3, St. Louis Blues 1

San Jose Sharks 5, Winnipeg Jets 4

Calgary Flames 9, New Jersey Devils 4

Anaheim Ducks 3, Nashville Predators 2

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.

Penguins’ Murray offers up two candidates for save of the year

Sportsnet
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There’s nothing a goalie can do that is more spectacular than a desperation paddle save.

The odds of saving a shot with a few inches of composite material are very low, so when they happen, they’re something to marvel at.

It was Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray‘s paddle on Saturday night in a pivotal game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

And my, oh my, was it a save to behold in the first period.

Poor Boone Jenner. He did everything you’re supposed to do to score the goal.

And so did Markus Nutivaara. But he, too, was robbed by a filthy save in the second frame.

The game has been full of highlight-reel saves from Murray, who if not for him, the Penguins would be getting blown out.

Here’s another ridiculous save.


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: Blue Jackets visit Penguins on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Thursday night’s matchup between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game is the start of a home-and-home that will wrap up the season series between Columbus and Pittsburgh. The Penguins have won both meetings so far, including their game last week in Columbus. Overall, the Pens have won seven in a row in the regular season vs. the Blue Jackets.

This home-and-home series figures to have massive implications on the playoff race. Entering this game, just two points separate third in the Metro from being outside of the playoffs entirely.

Columbus picked up a much-needed two points on Tuesday with their 2-1 shootout win over New Jersey. The Jackets had been 1-3-0 since the trade deadline, so the win was a tangible measure of progress to keep them right in the playoff mix. However, the reaction in the locker room afterwards was hardly celebratory. The Jackets played very poorly, mustering only 18 shots on goal (a season-low) against a Devils team that had nearly half of its regular lineup out due to injury.

Pittsburgh also went past regulation on Tuesday, defeating Florida 3-2 in OT, thanks to Jake Guentzel’s second goal of the game. He now has 33 goals this season. Sidney Crosby had three points to surpass the 1,200-point threshold.

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

What: Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Thursday, March 7, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUE JACKETS
Artemi PanarinPierre-Luc DuboisJosh Anderson
Nick FolignoMatt DucheneCam Atkinson
Ryan DzingelAlex WennbergOliver Bjorkstrand
Brandon DubinskyBoone JennerRiley Nash

Zach WerenskiSeth Jones
Markus NutivaaraDavid Savard
Scott HarringtonAdam McQuaid

Starting goalie: Joonas Korpisalo

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Jake Guentzel
Zach Aston-ReeseEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Dominik SimonNick BjugstadPatric Hornqvist
Teddy BluegerMatt CullenGarrett Wilson

Brian Dumoulin – Zach Trotman
Jack JohnsonJustin Schultz
Marcus PetterssonErik Gudbranson

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

John Forslund (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Pittsburgh. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Mike Johnson.

Another Blue Jackets trade deadline riddle involves Duchene, Wennberg

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The Columbus Blue Jackets face the sort of conundrums that would stump “Good Will Hunting,” and that messy blackboard isn’t just filled with equations about Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Although, come to think of it, maybe the Blue Jackets might find a solution for this Panarin proof in an indirect way.

In discussing Columbus possibly going after Matt Duchene in the latest edition of 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman brought up a name many of us haven’t really pondered in a while: Alexander Wennberg. Specifically, Friedman wrote that he believes “Columbus’s offer for Duchene screams Alexander Wennberg as part of it.”

That’s a fascinating observation. Also fascinating, if frustrating, is the question: “What is going on with Wennberg?”

The 24-year-old is suffering through a downright disastrous 2018-19 season.

Yes, Wennberg’s clearly more of a passer, but two goals (none at even-strength) is still troubling, and totaling 23 points in 58 games is disappointing. After averaging at least 18:08 TOI during the past two seasons, Wennberg’s slipped to third-line center in Columbus, logging just 15:46 minutes per night, the second-worst average of his career.

The telltale sign of a miserable season is seen in his atrocious 3.6 shooting percentage, more than anything else.

It’s becoming almost a rule to wave NHL GMs off with the motto: “Simply don’t move prominent young players when their shooting percentages are way down,” but Wennberg’s situation is especially confounding. Allow me to rummage through the many ins and outs.

  • It’s not just bad puck luck.

For a passer such as Wennberg, it can be helpful to consider on-ice shooting percentage, not just his personal shooting luck. While Wennberg’ 8.3 on-ice shooting percentage is a big drop from last year’s career-high of 10.6, it’s not that far off from his career average of 8.9 percent.

When considering bounces, it’s tougher to let a player off the hook when they’re not creating a ton of them.

Wennberg hasn’t even generated a shot on goal per game this season, only managing 55 in 58 games, marking a career-low of .95 SOG per contest. He’s never been a volume-shooter, yet perhaps opposing defenders are so convinced that he won’t shoot, that it may also affect his ability to set up linemates? On Feb. 3, The Athletic’s Tom Reed wondered how much longer Columbus could wait through Wennberg’s offensive struggles (sub required), featuring this bummer of a quote from Wennberg.

“You gotta create your own luck and right now I don’t have any,” Wennberg said.

  • Opportunities

On one hand, Wennberg’s ice time is down. If John Tortorella has permanently soured on the Swede, then that’s a big concern.

Yet, it’s not as though Wennberg’s totally buried in the lineup. While he’s generally slotting in at 3C, Wennberg’s most frequent even-strength wingers have been Anthony Duclair and Oliver Bjorkstrand, according to Natural Stat Trick. Duclair’s speed and Bjorkstrand’s goal-scoring potential give Wennberg something to work with, if nothing else.

He’s also been on the second power-play unit, and it’s a group with reasonable talent, considering its secondary stature. You could do worse than lining up with the likes of Seth Jones, Bjorkstrand, Boone Jenner, and Josh Andersen, as Wennberg is currently slated to do.

It’s not a perfect situation, but Wennberg’s also not being healthy scratched and glued to the bench, either.

  • A few other notes

This in-depth breakdown from Jackets Cannon compares Wennberg to some other players like Max Domi, Dylan Larkin, and Jonathan Drouin, pointing to a potential future turnaround. At the same time, that profile also brings into question one area where Wennberg may still shine: his two-way game.

A few days ago, The Athletic’s Alison Lukan did point out ($) that Wennberg does bring decent under-the-radar attributes to the table, such as his ability to initiate an effective forecheck, and his acumen when it comes to exiting the defensive zone.

Columbus has seen better days from Wennberg, after all. He managed 40 points in just 69 games in 2015-16, then rattled off career-highs of 13 goals, 46 assists, and 59 points in 80 games in 2016-17 (the only season he’s exceeded 69 GP so far in an NHL season). There was a time when it seemed like Wennberg was on an upward trajectory, although those feelings have faded.

  • The Matt Duchene solution?

Trading for Duchene becomes immensely fascinating in at least one scenario: what if Columbus moves on from Panarin, but trades and then extends Duchene, instead?

On one hand, Panarin makes a bigger impact than Duchene by various measures, particularly if you zoom out beyond what’s been a fairly hot contract year for Duchene. On the other, it seems clear that Panarin is unlikely to return, so Columbus could avoid losing Panarin for nothing (except $6M in cap space) by pivoting to Duchene. Instead of the giant collapse that would be going from losing Panarin for nothing but that cap space, they could instead take the more palatable step back to Duchene, likely at a substantial increase from that $6M per year.

If Duchene was on board to sign an extension with Columbus, trading away Wennberg and his $4.9M cap hit through 2022-23 would make sense even if Wennberg does bounce back considerably from this slump. The Blue Jackets could also recoup some of the costs in landing Duchene if they decided to move on from Panarin.

Interestingly, there are quite a few ways that could work out. Maybe the Blue Jackets find a way to keep both Panarin and Duchene for a big push in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Perhaps they decide that renting Duchene and moving on from Wennberg would be the best move?

***

Consider one other amusing wrinkle to this situation. Reports indicate that Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen wasn’t on board with potential trade partners discussing possible extensions with Artemi Panarin (at least earlier, such as during the offseason, and before the trade deadline heated up). Now, it’s tougher to gauge the value of a potential Duchene-to-Columbus trade without knowing if the speedy center would sign an extension.

Whether a Duchene trade is likely or not, the Blue Jackets need to really dig to find out if Wennberg’s really worth keeping around, or if it’s best for everyone if he has a “change of scenery” — if some other team would even be on board with buying low on the playmaker.

“When or if to move Wennberg?” is not the toughest question Kekalainen faces, but it’s consistent with the Panarin and Bob conundrums in that it’s pretty complicated.

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.