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WATCH LIVE: Blackhawks face Avalanche on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Avalanche head into Sunday in a solid position, as they hold a one-point lead and game in hand on the closest teams behind them vying for the West’s second wild-card spot. That rosy outlook can change in a big way if the Avs can’t beat the Blackhawks, though.

Looking at The Push for the Playoffs, things don’t look very good — at all — for Chicago, but this proud team likely isn’t waving the white flag on the 2018-19 season just yet. Beating the Avalanche (particularly in regulation) would certainly improve their odds of making an unlikely run, too.

With the stakes in mind – not to mention the star power in Nathan MacKinnon, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews – this should be a fun one at the United Center.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Colorado Avalanche at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Sunday, March 24, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Avs-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

AVALANCHE

Derick Brassard — Nathan MacKinnon — J.T. Compher

Colin WilsonCarl SoderbergAndrew Agozzino

Alexander KerfootTyson JostMatt Calvert

Gabriel BourqueSven Andrighetto

Samuel GirardErik Johnson

Ian ColeTyson Barrie

Nikita ZadorovPatrik Nemeth

Ryan Graves

Starting goalie: Philipp Grubauer

[More: check out this preview for Sunday’s game.]

BLACKHAWKS

Dylan Sikura — Jonathan Toews — Patrick Kane

Alex DeBrincatDylan StromeBrendan Perlini

Brandon SaadArtem AnisimovDominik Kahun

Chris KunitzDavid KampfMarcus Kruger

Duncan KeithBrent Seabrook

Carl DahlstromErik Gustafsson

Gustav ForslingConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick.

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.

Sabres captain Eichel disagrees with NHL’s two-game suspension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel disputes the NHL’s decision to suspend him for two games for an illegal check to the head of Carl Soderberg of the Colorado Avalanche.

Eichel was suspended Sunday following a hearing with the league’s department of player safety.

He blamed Soderberg for lowering his head while the two raced for a loose puck along the boards during Colorado’s 3-0 victory Saturday. He said Soderberg was reaching for the puck and that his head hit Eichel’s back.

The NHL ruled Eichel was to blame because Soderberg didn’t change the direction he was heading, while Eichel cut sharply in front of Soderberg to initiate contact.

Eichel was penalized for an illegal hit. The suspension will cost him more than $107,500 in lost salary.

Alexander Nylander is expected to replace Eichel in the lineup after the 2016 first-round draft pick was called up from the minors.

Sabres’ Eichel, Flyers’ Voracek get two-game suspensions

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The NHL handed out two-game suspensions to Jack Eichel and Jakub Voracek on Sunday.

Eichel’s suspension

In Eichel’s case, it was a high hit on Carl Soderberg from Saturday’s 3-0 win for the Colorado Avalanche against Eichel’s Buffalo Sabres. Eichel received a two-minute minor penalty for an illegal hit to the head during the game itself.

Here’s the league explanation for Eichel’s two-gamer:

Voracek is/was not happy

Meanwhile, Voracek received a five-minute major, and now this two-game suspension, for a hit on Johnny Boychuk from the Philadelphia Flyers’ 5-2 win against the New York Islanders on Saturday. (You can see the hit and more in the video above this post’s headline.)

After the game, Voracek had quite the comment for Boychuk, stemming in part from an incident between the Islanders defenseman and Nolan Patrick.

“He’s pointing at me like it’s WrestleMania or something,” Voracek said, via the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi. “Come on, it’s a hockey game. This is a guy who was sucker-punching 19-year-old Nolan Patrick last year at the end of the game, and he’s going to do that. Give me a break.”

Voracek’s response to the two-game suspension was similarly entertaining:

Maybe Voracek can team up with Gritty against Elias and Boychuk at “Wrestlemania?” There’s certainly some “heat” in the feud between Voracek and Boychuk, if you will.

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.

Sabres’ Eichel, Flyers’ Voracek facing hearings after Saturday hits

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The NHL’s Department of Player Safety will be busy on Sunday.

Forwards Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres and Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers will be asked to explain their actions in their respective games on Saturday after two massive hits.

Eichel’s came in the second period of a 3-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. He and Carl Soderberg were chasing down a loss puck in the neutral zone when Eichel took his shoulder and laid it square into Soderberg’s chin, forcing the latter to leave the game temporarily.

Eichel was given a two-minute minor for an illegal check to the head on the play, which can be seen here around the one-minute mark:

Eichel had enough, he admitted after the game.

Nikita Zadorov drilled him in the first period (a hit you can see from the beginning of the above video) after an offside whistle had already been blown.

“He hits me after they (bleeping), excuse my language, blow the whistle,” Eichel told the Buffalo News following in the game. “That’s whatever.

“I thought he was just reaching. I don’t know. I’d have to look at it, to be honest with you. I’m trying to protect myself. It’s a physical game. I think he’s going to deliver a hit to me.

“It seems like they were taking runs a little bit at times. If I’m going to be at the forefront of it, I might as well push back a little bit. I’ve got to protect myself.”

Eichel has never been suspended.

Meanwhile, Voracek will have to answer for this bit of interference he threw on New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk in their game on Saturday.

In a 5-1 game for the Flyers, Boychuk was pinching in to try and snag a loose puck heading Voracek’s way. Instead, Voracek saw Boychuk coming and dropped him with hit, forcing Boychuk from the game and resulting in a five-minute major for interference.

You can be the judge here:

Voracek was far from pleased with the call following the game.

“The explanation I got was if I hit him in the head, it would be a game [misconduct],” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I don’t know why I got five. I try to protect myself, to be honest, maybe the puck was a little further than I thought — I thought the puck was close to me.

“It’s a tough hit. You know, he’s getting off the ice, he’s pointing at me like it’s a WrestleMania or something. Pointing at me like it’s a WrestleMania. Come on, it’s a hockey game. … He’s the guy that was sucker-punching 19-year-old Nolan Patrick last year in the end of a game. He’s going to do that? Give me a break.”

Voracek, like Eichel, has no history.


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

PHT Power Rankings: Best under-the-radar performances

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we dig beyond the superstars to find some of the most under-the-radar individual performances around the NHL.

Players that are maybe exceeding their previous expectations or just not getting enough attention for the type of season they are having.

Among the group is a former top-five pick that has taken advantage of a fresh start, one of the league’s most consistently overlooked goal-scorers, and a couple of career backup goalies that have had to step in to starting roles and help their teams.

To the rankings!

1. Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames — In only 65 games this season he has already shattered — completely shattered … obliterated … destroyed — every major career high. Before this season he had scored more than 11 goals in a season just twice in five years and never scored more than 17. Entering Monday, he already has 26 goals. Before this season he had never recorded more than 45 points in a season, and had topped 40 just twice. Entering Monday, he already has 72 points and is a top-10 scorer in the league. The fresh start in Calgary, the opportunity to play with top-tier offensive talents, and an increased role has completely jumpstarted a career that had been, for lack of a better word, a bit underwhelming until this season. He is one of the driving forces behind the Flames’ incredible rise to the top of the Western Conference standings and has been lost in the shadows of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk.

2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — Everything about Atkinson’s career to this point is under-the-radar. He is currently on track for what could be his second top-10 finish in the goal-scoring race, and if you go back to the start of the 2015-16 season he is one of the top-15 players in the league in goals-per-game during that stretch. Columbus’ roster is going to look very, very, very different next season after what is likely to be a free agency purge, but Atkinson is still going to be there as one of the organizational building blocks along with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

3. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens — If you are not a Canadiens fan you probably know him as an annoying pest that you absolutely hate every single time you have to watch him play. He is all of that every night, every shift, every game. He is also an outstanding hockey player who is one goal away from his second consecutive 30-goal season and one of the Habs’ top players. He is Montreal’s best possession-driving forward and for a few years now whatever line he has been on has always been the team’s best and most productive. He doesn’t get a lot of attention for his skill as a player, but he should. There’s a lot of Brad Marchand in him — that is both a good thing and a bad thing — and his career seems to be following a similar trajectory in terms of when his big breakout offensively is happening.

4. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes — Yes, the West stinks and that is a big reason why the Coyotes, with their current record, are still so alive in the race. But even with that it is an impressive feat that they are still in it given the injury situation this team has dealt with this season. It is bordering on absurd and somehow keeps getting worse. One of the biggest injuries was the one suffered by starting goalie Antti Raanta that pretty much robbed him of the entire season. That has opened the door for Kuemper to slide in and, for all intents and purposes, save the Coyotes’ season. They got him for Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood a little more than one year ago in a deal that didn’t really move the needle for anybody. This season it is paying off in a huge way.

[Related: Coyotes’ hot streak starts in goal and goes from there]

5. Curtis McElhinney, Carolina Hurricanes — After years of disastrous goaltending, a revolving door of hopeful fixes that all fizzled out, and what seemed to be a positional curse the Hurricanes are finally getting solid play in net thanks to the arrival of … Curtis McElhinney?! Who would have ever guess that a 35-year-old career backup would step in and help solidify a position that has been one of the league’s most franchise-destroying blackholes for the better part of a decade. But here we are. There are a lot of reasons for the Hurricanes’ improvement this year, from Sebastien Aho’s continued development into a star, to the major addition of Nino Niederreiter mid-season. But as we have seen from this team in the past none of that would have mattered if the goaltending was still among the worst in the league.

6. Casey Cizikas, New York Islanders –– Before this season Cizikas was your classic bottom-six energy player who was tasked with playing hard, rattling some cages, and just trying to do a lot of the “little things.” He never scored more than nine goals in a season and was never thought of as any kind of an offensive weapon. His season, though, is a microcosm of everything that is happening on Long Island right now — everything is going right. Entering play on Monday Cizikas is third on the team with 18 goals in only 58 games. That is more goals than Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey and Jordan Eberle. On a per-game basis, the only player on the team that is having a better goal-scoring season than him is Anders Lee. We have to point out that his success this season is almost entirely driving by a 20.8 percent shooting percentage that is almost certainly going to return to reality next season (he is an 11 percent shooter for his career) but everything is clicking for him right now and it is a huge part of the Islanders’ incredible story.

7. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins — The 2017-18 season was a disastrous one for Halak with the Islanders, but joining the Bruins seems to have jumpstarted his career. Together he and Tuukka Rask have formed what is arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league this season and Halak has been especially important because he was able step up and fill in for Rask earlier this season when he was struggling and had to step away from the team for a bit for personal reasons. When he is at his best we have seen Halak take a team pretty far in the playoffs, and so far this season he has played at that level. He and Rask are a big reason why the Bruins should be such a feared team going into the postseason.

8. Alex Tuch, Vegas Golden Knights — Tuch was one of Vegas’ under-the-radar steals in the expansion draft when they got him and Erik Haula from the Minnesota Wild in return for not selecting one of the Wild’s defenders. After a promising rookie season in Vegas, Tuch’s game has elevated even more this season to the point where he has been perhaps their most productive forward this season, even ahead of Jonathan Marchessault, Max Pacioretty, and William Karlsson.

9. Carl Soderberg, Colorado Avalanche — The Avalanche have been, for the most part, a one-line team this season. Their offense has been dominated by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog with little help from anyone else on the roster. There is one exception to that, however — Carl Soderberg. The veteran forward recoded has already recorded the first 20-goal season of his career this year, and he did it during his age 33 season, something that no other player in NHL history has ever done. The Avalanche are still lacking in depth, but Soderberg has been one of the few bright spots after the top line this season.

10. Erik Gustafsson, Chicago Blackhawks — The Blackhawks defense has taken a lot of hits over the years due to the departure of key players and the decline of several returning players. Their surprising standout this season has been Gustafsson who has emerged out of nowhere to be one of the most productive blue-liners in the league with 13 goals, 35 assists, and 48 total points in his first 63 games. Overall it has been a disappointing year for a Blackhawks team that seems headed for its second straight non-playoff season, but this has been one of the positive developments along the way.

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.