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The Buzzer: Schneider snaps winless run; Halak posts fourth shutout

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Three stars

1. Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils

He didn’t start the game, and coming into it, he hadn’t won since December 2017. But when Nico Hischier‘s shot off a rebound crossed the line in overtime, Schneider’s nightmare run between the pipes was over.

Schneider made 15 saves in relief of Keith Kinkaid, who allowed four goals on 17 shots. The Devils trailed 4-1 at that points but rattled off three unanswered to force overtime. Schneider did his job, making a couple great saves to give New Jersey a chance.

And that’s all they needed as Schneider stopped his winless streak at 21 games.

This is what relief looks like:

2. Jaroslav Halak, Boston Bruins

Beating the Anaheim Ducks these days isn’t much of a feat. That said, shutting out any team in the NHL most certainly is.

Halak has his fourth shutout of the season, tying him for third most in the NHL, after stopping all 30 shots sent his way in a 3-0 win.

The Bruins have now won four straight and have points in nine of their past 10. They’re just a point back of second place in the Atlantic, currently occupied by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and more importantly, five points up on the Montreal Canadiens, who are in the first wildcard spot.

3. Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes

Niederreiter had himself an interesting night. He scored twice in a 3-1 win against the Edmonton Oilers to push his goal total to eight in 12 games since joining the Hurricanes from the Minnesota Wild.

He’s been a point-per-game player in Carolina, adding four assists in that span. The scoring has been a welcomed addition for the Canes.

Niederreiter was also on the receiving end of a hit from behind, and on the giving end of one, too:

Highlights of the night

Bat flip, run the bases:

Tic-tac-goal:

Factoids

Scores

Rangers 6, Sabres 2
Hurricanes 3, Oilers 1
Devils 5, Wild 4 (OT)
Bruins 3, 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

Devils’ Schneider wins first game since 2017 after epic Wild collapse

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Cory Schneider hadn’t won a regular-season hockey game since Dec. 27, 2017.

Not 2018. Oh, no.

2017.

A 21-game winless streak (0-17-4) and a year and a bit of frustration thanks to injury. Nobody had a bigger monkey on their back.

And when he was inserted into a 4-1 deficit to the Minnesota Wild on Friday night, he wasn’t expected to end that drought either. His job was merely to relieve Keith Kinkaid, who was chased after allowing four goals on 17 shots in the second period.

But the Devils, who came into the game as the worst team in the NHL, Schneider’s appearance seemed to rally the team. Will Butcher snagged a late goal in the second frame to pull the Devils to 4-2. From there, the Devils rattled off two more in the third, including a game-tying goal by Ben Lovejoy with 2:45 remaining in the game to force overtime.

The Wild simply fell apart and Schneider’s 15 saves made sure New Jersey had a chance.

Nico Hischier supplied the overtime winner off a gaffe from Devan Dubnyk, who’s misplay of the puck summed up the second half of the game for the Wild — and utter embarrassment.

“Everyone else was probably more excited than I was,” Schneider said in a post-game interview on MSG+. “For me, it’s just nice to get a win and get two points. It’s been a long time, obviously. It’s just one, but it’s nice to get it.”

Schneider said 2018 was “just a bad year” and he was really looking forward to 2019.

“I’m my harshest critic. I’m hard on myself and I expect a lot from myself,” Schneider said. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t working. I’ve never gone through anything like that in my career, my life, to be honest.

“It seemed like no matter what I did, nothing was really going my way or working for me. I always want to play well for this franchise. For the owners and management who put a lot of faith in me and a lot of expectations on me, which is what I accept. It’s been a while, but hopefully, we can get back to try to play hockey, win games and get my career back on track here.”

So much for Bruce Boudreau’s promise of playoff hockey this season. A 4-1 lead should be an automatic win.

The Wild have been in free-fall mode for a while now, with just three wins in their past 10 games.

The loss of Mikko Koivu was deflating — devastating, really — but the team has failed to even attempt to rally around it. Look no further than Friday’s game for proof of that

Given the race for the final wildcard spots in the Western Conference, if the Wild don’t figure it out, they’re going to fall out of the playoff picture in short order.

For now, they own the final playoff berth.

Bonus content — just listen to the call on Hischier’s goal:


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

Devils face slew of tough choices in rebuild

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The New Jersey Devils signed head coach John Hynes to an extension on Thursday, answering a significant question about their future. Honestly, GM Ray Shero faces far more complicated and difficult ones as this rebuild goes forward, though.

Granted, the bright side is that Shero’s at least acknowledging that this will take time, rather than battling a rebuild every step of the way, as NHL.com’s Mike Morreale reported:

“Doing something for the sake of getting a little bit better, or to just say you’re doing something, is patchwork and not a plan,” Shero said. “There’s only one way to do this. The idea is to build something that once you do build it, you’re in a good position each year to have a chance to make the playoffs and at a certain point you’re considered a Cup contender.”

On one hand, that’s easier said than done, and some of that comes down to landing blue-chip prospects at the best time.

Still, it’s better to at least have the right perspective, rather than risking being in that puck purgatory: too good to land the Jack Hughes of the world, but too bad to become a credible contender.

Let’s go over the many “easier said than done” parts in greater detail, then.

[More on the Hynes extension.]

Stocking the cupboard

In overachieving their way to a berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs on the strength of Taylor Hall‘s MVP season, the Devils broke a slump of five seasons without a playoff berth.

Unfortunately, drafting Nico Hischier with the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft broke a different slump: the Devils had an agonizing run of botching some of their premium picks. Take a look at their first-rounders before Hischier:

2016: Michael McLeod (12th overall)
2015: Pavel Zacha (sixth)
2014: John Quenneville (30th)
2013: None
2012: Stefan Matteau (29)
2011: Adam Larsson (fourth)

McLeod and Zacha sting the most considering where they were drafted, and who went afterward. (Seriously, scrolling the 2015 list in particular will do Devils fans no good.)

To some extent, these tough times are to be expected for a franchise that enjoyed a resounding run of success during the Martin Brodeur days, but it’s not the greatest sign when you suffer for years but still see your farm system listed as low-end. Getting a high pick in 2019 to combine with Hischier and intriguing prospect Ty Smith would make things look brighter, for sure, but Shero would be wise to try to buy more “dart throws” in the draft by trading veterans for picks.

Hall of a challenge

Shero would be wise to tread lightly for a firesale for one key reason, though: Taylor Hall’s contract is coming up.

Hall’s been a brilliant steal at just a $6M cap hit, but that ends after 2019-20. While there are some reasons to worry about the aging curve – Hall would be 29 once his next deal kicks in – the Devils would likely gladly gamble on an extension if Hall would allow it. The question is: will he want to stick around? The freight train of a winger has endured two protracted rebuilds with Edmonton and now New Jersey, so could anyone blame him if he wanted to sign with a proven contender?

It’s up to the Devils to convince Hall that they’re building such a structure in New Jersey.

Other pivotal contract situations

Hall can sign an extension as early as July, or opt for a contract year in 2019-20, and he’s far from alone.

Consider these prominent cases of players whose current deals run out after this season or next:

  • Nico Hischier: His rookie deal ends after the 2019-20 season, so the Devils might want to learn a bit more about the promising Swiss-born center. To be specific, how effective can he be without Hall?

While it’s promising that Hischier has been able to stick with Hall, he’s really been attached at the hip with the star winger basically since day one. New Jersey may find it very valuable to see how well he can play on his own.

  • Sami Vatanen ($4.875M) sees his contract end after 2019-20, and he’s 27, much like Taylor Hall. Vatanen’s been an important, if imperfect, addition to a Devils defense that remains quite flawed, but New Jersey will need to decide if he’s a part of the long-term solution. Especially if he calls for a substantial raise.
  • Will Butcher will see his entry-level deal expire after two seasons with the Devils, making him a pending RFA after 2018-19. The 23-year-old’s offense cooled off this season (14 points in 38 games) after generating 44 points as a rookie, yet Butcher’s possession stats are promising, and he stands as an important building block for this defense. Locking him up to the right deal is crucial, and could be quite challenging.
  • Marcus Johansson‘s another interesting expiring contract. Injuries have hampered him since joining the Devils, which leads to an interesting question: should NJ part ways with him, or do they see a potential bargain here? It’s plausible that they can re-sign Johansson for quite a bit less than his current $4.58M cap hit.

Letting rentals Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon walk after last season was one thing, but can Shero make the right calls often enough in those situations?

Glaring areas of concern

Hashing out the right deals for those players – and begging Hall to stay? – won’t be easy. It’s sobering to realize that Shero needs to pull off some magic even if those situations go really well.

Looking at things from a more immediate perspective, there are three key weaknesses to work on: goaltending, scoring beyond Hischier/Hall/Kyle Palmieri, and improving on defense.

With each discouraging start, it seems less and less likely that Cory Schneider will find a way to get his career back on track. His $6M cap hit appears to be a sunk cost through 2021-22. Apologies to Keith Kinkaid and Mackenzie Blackwood, but it sure seems like the Devils need to look outside their organization for a lasting answer in net.

There are some pieces on the Devils’ defense, particularly compared to the days before they landed Butcher and Vatanen, but they lack a premium, Norris-type. As you’ve likely noticed, franchise No. 1 defensemen aren’t easy to find, either.

***

It’s not all bad for the Devils. Even with Schneider and Travis Zajac ranking among their problem contracts, they’re not saddled with as many problems as many others. Hall won’t be cheap if he decides to stick around, yet New Jersey can make up some of the difference with Andy Greene‘s $5M dissolving after 2019-20, as one example.

“Our car is in good shape,” Shero said while making an odd metaphor back in December, according to The Athletic’s Corey Masisak (sub required). “Some other ones on the same highway aren‚Äôt.”

Can Shero keep the Devils on the right course despite all the speed bumps and potholes waiting up ahead? It should be fascinating to see how that wild ride turns out.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Who needs a fresh start in 2019?

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New Year’s Day is right around the corner, so naturally many of us have already started thinking about our resolutions. Maybe you want to get into better shape, eat better, expand your knowledge on a certain topic, spend less time on your phone, or something totally different.

Hockey people and teams are just like us. They need a reset, too. So who’s most looking forward to Jan. 1 in the NHL?

‚ÄĘ Corey Crawford – Chicago Blackhawks: It’s been a really tough year for the Blackhawks netminder. The 34-year-old played in just 28 games last season because of a concussion. He managed to return to the lineup in October, but he’s now sidelined by another concussion. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, and you have to wonder if the end is near for the veteran. We hope 2019 brings a lot more health to Crawford and we hope to see him back on the ice really soon.

‚ÄĘ Eugene Melnyk and the Ottawa Senators: It’s been a bad 12 months for the owner of the Sens. This snowball started rolling downhill last December, when he mentioned the possibility of relocating and it’s just gotten worse and worse for his franchise. Hopefully 2019 is filled with a lot less drama for Melnyk, GM Pierre Dorion and the rest of the Senators organization. From the situation between Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman to Uber-gate, the Sens were the organization that kept on giving when it came to headlines. But even we have to acknowledge that this is getting ridiculous. All the best in 2019, Ottawa.

‚ÄĘ Peter Chiarelli – Edmonton Oilers: Do I really have to explain this one? Chiarelli tried shuffling the duck with a pair of trades over the weekend, but that won’t calm the waters in Edmonton. He absolutely needs to push the right buttons so that his team can get their season back on the rails as soon as possible. The Oilers are still only four points out of a Wild Card spot, but they’re also just six points away from last place in the West.

‚ÄĘ Kyle Okposo – Buffalo Sabres: Okposo has failed to pick up a single point since late November. That’s right. He hasn’t scored or picked up an assist at all during the month of December. 14 games without any production is a long time for any player, especially one that makes $6 million per year. Okposo also had a significant injury scare last year, when he battled a concussion.

‚ÄĘ Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov – Philadelphia Flyers: After making the playoffs last season, the Flyers were expected to be back in the postseason this year, too. Unfortunately for them, things haven’t panned out that way. Goaltending has always been an issue for them, but in-zone coverage hasn’t been great either. They definitely expected more from their two young defenders. If this dynamic duo doesn’t figure things out soon, the Flyers will be watching the playoffs on television.

‚ÄĘ Dallas Stars: Alright, team president Jim Lites made some serious comments regarding Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Whether you agree with them or not, it’s time for the Stars to live up to their potential. They may not be the deepest teams, but there’s no denying that there’s talent on that roster. They all just need to regroup and find a way to grab one of playoff spots at their disposal.

‚ÄĘ William Nylander – Toronto Maple Leafs: Nylander didn’t report to training camp this year and he also sat out until December because of a contract dispute. Since his return to the lineup, he’s picked up just two assists in 11 games, and they both came in the same game. We know how talented the 22-year-old is, now he just needs to get up to speed with the rest of his teammates. All he needs is a little more time.

‚ÄĘ Karl Alzner – Montreal Canadiens: After signing a lucrative free-agent contract in the summer of 2017, Alzner found himself as a healthy scratch pretty regularly in the first half of the season. Then, to make matters even worse, the Canadiens assigned him to their AHL affiliate in Laval. Alzner has since been recalled, but he still doesn’t appear to fit in his team’s plans. A fresh start somewhere else may help him, but he’s just not built for this new NHL.

‚ÄĘ James Neal – Calgary Flames: Neal decided to leave Vegas to join Calgary on July 1st, but that decision is looking shockingly bad right now. The Flames gave the veteran winger a five-year, $28.75 million deal this summer, only to watch it blow up in their face so far. Neal has three goals and four assists in 38 games, and he hasn’t scored since Nov. 1 (24 games). Although he got a fresh start in Calgary a few months ago, it sure looks like he needs another one.

‚ÄĘ Tuukka Rask – Boston Bruins: The 2018-19 season has been a tough one for Rask. Not only did he have to leave the team for personal reasons earlier this year, he also hasn’t been very good on the ice. The Bruins made a nice move when they signed Jarolsav Halak last summer, but there’s no way they expected him to play as often as he has. Rask has to find a way to be more consistent if the Bruins are going to make a serious push in April and May.

‚ÄĘ Cory Schneider – New Jersey Devils: Not many NHLers had a worse calendar year than Schneider. Not only did he deal with some significant injuries, he also went all of 2018 without recording a victory, as he went 0-14-2 in 17 starts. Keith Kinkaid has done a nice job for the Devils, but they need their starting goaltender to play a much higher level.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Power Rankings: No one is close to Lightning right now

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The 2018-19 NHL season is almost at its halfway point and the Tampa Bay Lightning are rolling into the holiday break with what has been the best team in the league this season.

There is no one really close to them, either.

A quick look at where they stand compared to the rest of the league…

  • They have a six point lead over every other team in the league, one of the largest leads any team has had at this point in the season in recent history
  • They are on pace for 128 points this season. The NHL’s second best team at the moment is on pace for 115.
  • Their plus-48 goal differential is 11 goals better than any other team in the league, while there is only one team (the Toronto Maple Leafs) that is within 20 goals of that mark.
  • Their 28 wins are tied for the most of any team through the first 37 games of a season in the salary cap era.
  • Over the past 25 years only two teams (the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins and 2005-06 Ottawa Senators) have scored more goals than Tampa Bay’s 154 through 37 games.

Needless to say, they are in the top spot in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

On to the rest of the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Just a stunningly great hockey team right now. An offense that no one can slow down, an outstanding defense, and great goaltending. Put it all together and you have a team that is 16-2-1 in its past 19 games and is six points ahead of every other team in the league heading to the holiday break.

2. Winnipeg Jets — The Jets have one of the best records in the NHL and they haven’t really received great goaltending from Connor Hellebucyk yet. Kind of scary to think about how good they could be if he starts to get back closer to the level he showed a year ago.

3. Washington Capitals — After winning just seven of their first 16 games the Capitals have gone on a 15-4-0 run in the 19 games that followed and Alex Ovechkin is scoring goals at a pace that is ridiculous even for him.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs —¬† Talk of them losing any of their young stars to an offer sheet is a waste of time (it is not going to happen) but they are still heading toward a truly¬†fascinating offseason with Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. Both players have been absolutely sensational this season, with Marner already topping the 50-point mark just 36 games into the season.

The Playoff Teams/Contenders

5. Columbus Blue Jackets — Sergei Bobrovsky has won his past four decisions with two shutouts. That is just what the Blue Jackets need right now.

6. Calgary Flames — The biggest surprise on one of the biggest surprise teams is still the play of Elias Lindholm. With 17 goals and 39 points on the season he has already matched his career high in goals and is just five points away from matching another career high.

7. Nashville Predators — The injuries are really starting to catch up to them, but it is nothing to worry about at the moment.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins — They are starting to look like the Penguins again. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel are scoring almost every night, Kris Letang is playing at a Norris Trophy level on defense, and the goaltending is starting to perform like they need it to.

9. Vegas Golden Knights — Early on it looked like the Golden Knights were headed for a big year two regression. Even though they are unlikely to match their year one point total they have gone 12-5-3 in their past 20 games. They are just three points out of first place in the Pacific Division.

10. Boston Bruins —¬†They have managed to keep winning and maintain a playoff spot despite some significant injury issues. They are starting to get healthy again with the recent returns of Charlie McAvoy and Patrice Bergeron.

[Related: Patrice Bergeron grabs four points in return to lineup]

11. Colorado Avalanche — The top line is as dominant as it has been at any point over the past two years. At some point, though, the Avalanche are going to need another line to become somewhat of a goal-scoring threat.

12. San Jose Sharks — They went on a roll by winning seven out of eight and looked like they were starting to become the team we expected them to be. Then they dropped three in a row going into the break, including games against the Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyotes. Erik Karlsson is starting to look like Erik Karlsson again, which is great news (he also received a two-game suspension … which is not great news).

13. Buffalo Sabres — Jeff Skinner and Jack Eichel have not cooled off, but the rest of the team has. Fortunately for them that early season winning streak and great start gave them a nice cushion so this recent slump has not hurt them too much.

The Bubble Teams

14. Montreal Canadiens — Carey Price had a couple of good games this past week but he is still way below what they need from him. It is actually kind of remarkable they have won as much as they have this season with the level of goaltending they have received from Price and Antti Niemi.

15. New York Islanders — They keep hanging around, especially impressive when you consider Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey have only combined for 12 goals at this point.

16. Anaheim Ducks — They occupy a playoff spot at the moment but I am still skeptical they will hold on to it. The team is too dependent on goaltending and has been outscored by 14 goals on the season. Not a good sign!

17. Edmonton Oilers — After the initial surge that followed the coaching change the Oilers have started to look like, well, the Oilers again. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can only carry this team so far on their own.

18. Vancouver Canucks — They have put together a little run here in recent weeks to get back closer to a playoff spot. They’ve been an extremely hot and cold team this season, but the two constants have been the play of Brock Boeser (when healthy) and rookie forward Elias Pettersson. They are great building blocks.

19. Dallas Stars — They backed into the break by losing six out of eight. Getting John Klingberg back will help a lot in their push for a playoff spot, though.

20. Minnesota Wild — The offense has dried up and now they are without one of their top defenders in Mathew Dumba for the foreseeable future.

[Related: Bad news for Wild as Dumba to miss significant time]

The Lottery Teams

21. Carolina Hurricanes — Andrei Svechnikov looks like he has a bright future ahead of him. Sebastian Aho is a star right now. These are the positives for the Hurricanes at the moment. They also played really well in the Hartford Whalers uniforms.

22. Philadelphia Flyers — The Carter Hart era has officially started. Will he be the one to finally solve the decades long problem in net, or will he be doomed to whatever it is that happens to goalies once they put on a Flyers uniform? He has won two of his first three decisions. The Flyers have already used six different goalies this season.

23. Florida Panthers — Aleksander Barkov finally got whistled for his first penalty of the season this past week. He has drawn¬†more than 20. He has taken one. Just one of the under-the-radar things that¬†makes one of the league’s¬†most under-the-radar stars so dominant on the ice.

24. St. Louis Blues — I still wonder what this season would have looked like for the Blues with better goaltending. A flawed team for sure, but they should not be this far down in the standings.

25. Los Angeles Kings — Points in five out of their past six and a three game winning streak to head into the break. Ilya Kovalchuk is back in the lineup and played his best hockey of the season with three points, including an overtime goal, in his first two games back.

26. Chicago Blackhawks — They had their first three game winning streak of the season with wins over Nashville, Dallas, and Colorado. A nice little stretch, but not enough to¬†make¬†much of a dent in the deficit they face for a playoff spot.

27. New York Rangers — It has been a tough¬†month for the Rangers with just two wins, and only one of them coming in regulation. Kevin Hayes is having a strong season and could be an attractive trade chip as we get closer to the trade deadline later in the season.

28. Arizona Coyotes — After a promising start to the season the Coyotes have really struggled in recent weeks with losses in seven of their past 10 games.

29. Detroit Red Wings — What will this team look like if — or when — they trade Jimmy Howard? He has been one of the few bright spots on the roster this season.

30. Ottawa Senators — Just what the Colorado Avalanche, owners of the Senators’ 2019 first-round pick, want to see happening this season.

31. New Jersey Devils — Other than Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri there just is not much going on here with this team. Goaltending is a massive issue right now as it looks like Cory Schneider might be completely done.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.