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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.”

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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.

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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.

Jordan Binnington’s incredible, season-saving run for Blues

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The St. Louis Blues are the hottest team in hockey and in a little less than a month-and-a-half have gone from being one of the worst, most disappointing teams in the league, to what now looks to be a sure-fire playoff team with less than a quarter of the season to go.

It is not hard to see what the turning point has been for them, and it happened on Jan. 7 when they gave Jordan Binnington, a 25-year-old goalie that had appeared in just three NHL games in his career to that point, all of them in mop-up duty, his very first start.

He stopped all 25 shots he faced that night in a 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, and he has simply not stopped winning since.

The early numbers so far are more than impressive

  • In his 20 appearances this season he has recorded a 15-2-1 record for the Blues.
  • He has a .936 save percentage that is tops among goalies that have appeared in at least 20 games. Tampa Bay’s Andre Vasilevskiy is second at .930.
  • Along with that, he has a .948 save percentage at even-strength, that is also far and away the best mark in the league. New York Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss is second at .938.

When the Blues lost Carter Hutton in free agency this past summer to the Buffalo Sabres, it left their net in the hands of Jake Allen and Chad Johnson to start the season. That experience did not go well for either one of them individually, or for the Blues as a team. Through Jan 6, one day before Binnington’s first career start, the two Blues’ goalies had combined for an .891 save percentage, a performance that was, at the time, the third-worst in the league ahead of only the Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers.

The Blues had their share of problems early in the season, but none of them were bigger than the black hole that was their goaltending situation. Neither Allen or Johnson were able to do anything to secure the position, and their performance was helping to sabotage a team that probably should have been at least a little bit better than their overall record showed.

Then Binnington showed up and everything for the Blues has been different ever since.

After being selected in the third-round of the 2011 draft by the Blues, Binnington spent the first seven years of his pro career in the American Hockey League and really started to see his performance improve over the past three. Still, he never really got his chance until this season and so far it has been a somewhat historic run that is kind of reminiscent of the improbable starts that Patrick Lalime and Andrew Hammond had to their careers when they came out of nowhere to lift their teams in their debut seasons.

Going as far back as the 1987 season, Binnington is one of just seven goalies to win at least 15 of their first 21 appearances in the NHL, joining a list that includes Brent Johnson, Hammond, Matt Murray, Semyon Varlamov, Lalime, and Frederik Andersen.

At some point Binnington’s individual performance is going to regress. It did for all of the goalies just mentioned, and there is no way he is going to maintain a .936 overall save percentage and a .948 even-strength save percentage. Lets be realistic here, it is a hot start to a career that could still go in any direction. Nobody, not even the Blues and Binnington himself, knows what that direction will ultimately be because projecting goalie performance is an almost impossible task, even for the people that are paid big money to have to figure it out. But this hot streak is still happening, and it came at just the right time for a Blues team that spent its offseason spending big money in an effort to get back into the playoffs and was dangerously close to having it all go to waste because nobody could stop the puck for them.

They found somebody to do that, and the season is headed right where they hoped it would be when it began.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers host Sabres on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers. 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 figures to be crucial as both teams chase the Hurricanes and Penguins, who are tied with 72 points for the final Eastern Conference wild card spot. Though the Sabres (10th in East) sit one point ahead of the Flyers (11th), their recent play has them going in opposite directions.

Philadelphia is 13-3-1 in its last 17 games and are coming off dramatic 4-3 overtime win vs. the Penguins in Saturday’s Stadium Series game. Meanwhile, the Buffalo is 1-4-1 in its last 6 games, including Monday night’s 5-3 defeat at Toronto. The Sabres have not won two in a row in over two months.

After snapping a four-game losing streak on Saturday against Washington, and then taking a 1-0 lead into the first intermission yesterday against Toronto, it appeared that the Sabres were building some momentum. However, Buffalo allowed four goals in the second period, saw Carter Hutton get pulled, and ultimately lost 5-3.

The Flyers have had a couple days off since their improbable comeback victory in the Stadium Series game at Lincoln Financial Field. Trailing 3-1 with just over three minutes to play, Philly rallied to tie the game before Claude Giroux – in his 800th career game – scored the OT winner.

Just when it appeared that Carter Hart was finally providing some stability in net, he was pulled in back-to-back starts last week before getting ruled out for at least 10 days with a lower-body injury in advance of the Stadium Series game. In stepped Brian Elliott, who made 40 saves to defeat the Penguins in his first start since November 15 (he did appear twice in relief of Hart earlier in the week). Elliott will start again in this game.

Since winning their 10th straight game on Nov. 27 to claim 1st place in the entire NHL, Buffalo has been a very below-average team. They have a 12-19-6 record over that span and have dropped from first in the NHL in 17th.

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

What: Buffalo Sabres at Philadelphia Flyers
Where: Wells Fargo Center
When: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sabres-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelEvan Rodrigues
Conor ShearyCasey MittelstadtSam Reinhart
Scott Wilson – Vladimir Sobotka – Jason Pominville
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen
Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Marco ScandellaBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

FLYERS
Claude Giroux – Nolan PatrickTravis Konecny
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
James van RiemsdykScott LaughtonMichael Raffl
Corban Knight – Ryan Hartman

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbehereRadko Gudas
Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald

Phil Myers

Starting goalie: Brian Elliott

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa.

The Buzzer: Markstrom backstops Canucks to big win; Schneider continues resurgence

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Three stars

1. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks needed a good effort from everyone involved if they were going to gain some ground in the log jam that is the Western Conference wildcard race.

Step up Jacob Markstrom, who made 29 saves for his first shutout of the season.

Markstrom’s solid performance came as the Canucks entered the day six points back of the Minnesota Wild for the second wildcard. The Canucks got two goals from Bo Horvat in the win and are now just four points out.

2. Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils

It’s been a minute since Schneider has played this good for a decent stretch, but it appears the old Schneider is back between the pipes.

The 32-year-old picked up his fourth win in his past five games after making 34 saves in a 2-1 win for the Devils against the Montreal Canadiens. Schneider was 0-17-4 in 24 regular-season games prior to getting his first win since Dec. 27, 2017, earlier this month.

Schneider appears to be getting back into the groove now, with a shutout sprinkled into two games with an identical .971 save percentage in each and another game where he stopped 15 shots in relief and the Devils rallied from a 4-1 deficit to the Minnesota Wild to win 5-4 in overtime.

The Devils felt good enough about it all to trade Keith Kinkaid at the deadline on Monday.

3. Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs

Nothing sucks the will out of a team quite like a shorthanded goal.

Kapanen provided that marker — the insurance goal — in the third period for the Maple Leafs in a 5-3 win against the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres looked deflated after that one.

Kapanen provided the primary assist on Auston Matthews goal, which ended up being a Kapanen shot that was bobbled by Carter Hutton, then a defender and then potted home by Matthews.

The 22-year-old had six shots in the game.

Highlights of the night

Dirty move:

Beauty pass:

Vasilevskiy doing his thing:

Factoids

Scores

Maple Leafs 5, Sabres 3
Devils 2, Canadiens 1
Lightning 4, Kings 3 (SO)
Predators 3, Oilers 2 (SO)
Panthers 4, Avalanche 3 (OT)
Canucks 4, Ducks 0


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

Winning with Binnington: Blues goalie making most of chance

By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Jordan Binnington doesn’t let much get to him.

When junior goaltending coach Greg Redquest put him through the paces of a post-practice skate, he came away seeing the same chill Binnington.

”He doesn’t sweat,” Redquest said. ”He’s just too cool.”

Binnington is playing cool and has made the St. Louis Blues the hottest team in the NHL. After finally getting his call-up from the minors at age 25, Binnington is 12-1-1 with four shutouts in his first 14 starts and the Blues have won 10 in a row to go from out of the race to firmly in a playoff position.

When Binnington made his first start Jan. 7, St. Louis sat dead last in the Western Conference, nine points back of a playoff spot. The Blues turned to him to make a difference. No pressure, kid.

”With a little bit of pressure comes opportunity, right?” Binnington said. ”You try to do your best to feel confident and prepared for the moment, so you just work hard off the ice and on the ice in practice, and when the moment finally comes, hopefully you’re prepared. That’s kind of how I looked at it.”

It has been a near-perfect look. Binnington has stopped 356 of 380 shots for a 1.58 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. He’s the first goalie since Curtis Sanford in 2005-06 with multiple 30-save shutouts.

That kind of play is just what the Blues needed to crawl out of a hole dug before Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as coach.

”He’s played really well,” Berube said. ”He’s stopped the ones he’s supposed to stop, and he’s looked really confident in net, and aggressive.”

A lack of confidence has never been the problem. Redquest, who coached Binnington for four seasons with the Ontario Hockey League’s Owen Sound Attack, said the goalie’s technique has always been on point, with the need for just a few tweaks here and there.

The mental part of the game was a work in progress. Redquest, who still works with Binnington in the summer, said if a bad goal gets in, sometimes he’d just ask about what Binnington did the previous night to get his mind off it and back on track.

Binnington hasn’t allowed many goals, but he has shown an uncanny ability to shake them off, not allowing more than four in a game so far.

”If the puck goes in, it doesn’t bother him,” Redquest said by phone Monday ”(Blues veteran goalie) Jake Allen, he plays a little bit deeper in the goal than Jordan. Jordan comes out and challenges a bit more and everything hits him, and it’s just hitting him. And he’s so patient. He won’t overplay anything.”

So what took so long for Binnington to get this chance? Mostly a numbers game, with the Blues committed long term to Allen and rotating Brian Elliott, Carter Hutton and Chad Johnson into the crease in recent years.

Binnington bided his time in the American Hockey League, competing and building a friendship with Pheonix Copley along the way. The two came to blows in a game last year but are now both in the NHL.

”I think we both understood that having that competition is healthy and it pushed us both to be better goalies and learn from each other,” said Copley, who is the Washington Capitals’ backup. ”We had a really beneficial relationship for both of us.”

Binnington earned AHL All-Star honors last year and had three shutouts in his first 16 games this season under head coach Drew Bannister and assistant Daniel Tkaczuk, whom he knew from juniors. Bannister noticed a more confident and mature goalie than the one he knew from several years earlier when it came to brushing off adversity.

”Jordan himself off the ice has had to adjust himself, too, and not kind of let things bother him,” Bannister said. ”In the past, Jordan, that was probably part of his game where he let things bother him and it worked into his game. I think you see a goalie that believes in himself and obviously his teammates believe in him.”

His AHL teammates believed in him, and when Johnson didn’t work out and was put on waivers, Binnington got the opportunity he had been waiting for and fit right in with the Blues.

”That’s where your surroundings come in,” Binnington said. ”There’s good people around you that can keep you going in the right direction and believe in yourself. If the opportunity came, you want to be prepared for it, so that’s kind of what my mindset was. Thankfully, it came.”

The Blues are thankful, too. They’ve played better in front of their goalies since Berube took over, but Binnington making so many expected and unexpected saves has changed the course of St. Louis’ season.

”Obviously he’s playing outstanding,” center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”With Binner coming in with the way he’s been playing, I think it’s a spark. I think he’s coming in excited and playing with great energy. It provides a spark, for sure.”

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