Surging Sharks in perfect position

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While most of this year’s wild Western Conference flails about looking for the last wild card spot, the San Jose Sharks can smell blood in the water.

After throttling the Vancouver Canucks Monday night 7-2, the Sharks have now won six straight games – five of them on the road – and seized the top spot in the West. They’re averaging five goals per game during that stretch and they’ve done it all without Erik Karlsson.

San Jose’s depth has been exemplary. Fourteen of 18 skaters registered at least one point against Vancouver alone. Eleven different players on the Sharks have multiple game-winning goals this season, tied with the New York Islanders for most in the league. Led by Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns, their 166 points by defensemen leads the NHL. The Sharks are also the only team in the league to have five different players – Joe Pavelski, Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier and Logan Couture – with 20 goals or more.

“If you look at the dynamics of this team, their secondary players are, a lot of times, their best players,” former Shark and current NHL on NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick told Pro Hockey Talk. “I say their secondary players being Hertl, Meier, (Melker) Karlsson played well (Monday) night. You have (Marcus) Sorensen who has just been an amazing work horse on that team that brings a lot of energy to that hockey club. (Joonas) Donskoi – these are all of their second-tier guys. A lot of the times, they’re the ones winning hockey games for them.”

That’s not to say the stars haven’t stepped up as well. Evander Kane has been red hot with 15 goals in his last 16 games dating back to Jan. 2, which leads the NHL during that span. He’s on pace for a career-high 37 goals, which is exactly what the Sharks envisioned when they signed Kane to a seven-year, $49 million extension last May.

“I talk to a lot of guys on that team and they say that if (Kane) prepared and got ready to play every single game and was consistent, he would be one of the best players in the National Hockey League,” Roenick said. “That’s saying something when it’s coming from your teammates.”

Next up for San Jose is a three-game homestand against three playoff contenders in the Capitals, Canucks and Bruins, followed by a four-game road trip in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Detroit and Boston. It seems like a two-team race between the Sharks and Flames for the top spot in the Pacific, and a four-team battle for the top spot in the west between San Jose, Calgary, Winnipeg and Nashville.

“There’s some good teams there,” Pavelski told reporters after the Vancouver win. “Being in first would help.”

On paper, Pavelski is right. The top seed in the West this season will have the pleasure of hosting one of the slew of teams gunning for playoff position. Since nine teams are currently within eight points of the final wild card spot, whichever team outlasts the others will have conceivably spent a lot of energy doing so over the stretch run of the regular season. That said, anyone that watches the NHL knows any team can make a run in April. The Sharks understand that all too well. After winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2008-09 behind a franchise record 117 points, San Jose lost in the first round in six games to the Anaheim Ducks. Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Marc-Edouard Vlasic all played in that series. Given their history, it is unlikely the Sharks would take any opening round opponent for granted.

“I think this is a different team, a different focus of a team,” said Roenick, a member of that 2008-09 Sharks club. “One thing you have to really take into consideration is, is this going to be Joe Thornton’s last year? That’s going to be something that’s going to be talked about quietly around the locker room among the guys and I think the focus is going to be much greater game in and game out…(The Sharks) are the only ones that can beat themselves right now. When they play their style of game, they dominate pretty much every team they play against, road or home.”

As for Thornton, the Sharks legend had one assist on Monday to pass Gordie Howe for ninth on the NHL’s all-time assists list and tie Teemu Selanne for 15th in all-time points. The sure-fire Hall of Famer is in his 21st season, but has only had one crack at a Stanley Cup Final (in 2016). Whispers of Thornton’s potential retirement could be quite the rallying cry for the Sharks in the playoffs.

“I played for 20 years and maybe with the exception of Chris Chelios, I have never seen a player be loved or be so respected in a locker room than Joe Thornton,” Roenick said. “I can honestly tell you that there is not one person in that organization – player, trainer, upper management, office people – that doesn’t absolutely love Joe Thornton through and through. You can’t say that about a lot of people. That’s an amazing compliment to a guy who has had such a glorious and Hall of Fame career.”

Barring an astounding stretch in the final two months of the season, San Jose’s franchise record of 117 points is safe. But this could very well be the deepest team the Sharks have ever had and one that could do what no other San Jose team has: hoist the Stanley Cup.

The Buzzer: Murray stymies Flyers; Kuznetsov carries Capitals

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Three stars

1. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins 

Fifty saves. 50. A new career-high.

That’s what Murray had to contend with on Monday against the Flyers, who fired 51 shots Murray’s way in the game. The 24-year-old stopped all but one of them, and was heading to his fourth shutout of the season before Evgeni Malkin decided to try and take someone’s head off.

The effort was sorely needed. The Pens had dropped four straight prior to Monday’s win and were becoming a question mark in the playoff race. They still are, despite the win, but the two points help.

2. Evgeni Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

Kuznetsov was all over the place in a four-point effort in a 6-4 Capitals win against the Los Angeles Kings.

He scored to tie the game at three, assisted on the go-ahead goal to make it 4-3 and then provided the insurance marker to make it a 6-4 game in the Caps’ favor.

Kuznetsov now has five goals in his past three games, 10 points in his past four and 15 in his past eight.

3. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

You could pick several in this game. Evander Kane had two goals. Brent Burns had two assists. Melker Karlsson had a goal and an assist.

But Hertl scored his fourth goal in his past three games with his marker. He also added an assist to make it seven points now in a three-game point streak.

The Sharks benefitted heavily from 19-year-old rookie Michael DiPietro being in goal and the Canucks abandoning him.

The Sharks are killing it these days, with six wins on the trot now. With the win, they took over first place in the Pacific Division, one point ahead of Calgary (although the Flames have two games in hand).

Highlights of the night

Bjugstad’s first as a Penguin was a nice rip:

Ovechkin threading the needle:

Jumbo Joe:

Factoids

Scores

Penguins 4, Flyers 1
Capitals 6, Kings 4
Sharks 7, Canucks 2


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

Oilers’ Hitchcock left dumbfounded after latest loss

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If we’re talking about National Hockey League coaches that have seen it all, Ken Hitchcock is in that upper echelon.

He’s orchestrated five different teams in his 22 years as a bench boss — some 1,571 regular-season games. And in those 1,571 games, he’s won 53 percent of them — 838 wins under his belt, third-most all-time.

He’s fifth in total games coached (third among active coaches) and has a Stanley Cup ring to back up those credentials.

And yet when it comes to the Edmonton Oilers, the man who could pen a coaching encyclopedia has been reduced to dumbfoundedness in Northern Alberta.

“At this time of year the coaches can’t want it more than the players,” Hitchcock said after another lackluster performance in a 5-2 loss against the San Jose Sharks on Saturday night. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be decided whether we want to play the right way because it’s successful or whether we just want to do our thing. To me, today was a day we just wanted to do our thing and we paid dearly for it.

The only reason the Oilers can even sniff the playoffs this year is Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and a log jam of teams who appear to unwilling to want to separate themselves from each other.

But even a guy like Draisaitl seemed uninterested on Saturday.

In Hitchcock’s post-game presser, Sportsnet’s Mark Spector asked Hitch about the play, when Evander Kane, who eventually scored the 2-0, skated past Draisaitl, who was basically standing still.

“That’s a good question,” Hitchcock responded. “I think it’s a symptom of something much bigger. It’s priorities and what’s important. It just can’t be acceptable.”

The goal in question is here:

The Oilers sit four points back of the St. Louis Blues for the second and final wild card in the Western Conference. They’ve benefitted from the turtle derby (great phrase) around them, so even though they’ve only won three of their past 10, they’re still somehow relevant.

Of course, that won’t be the case for much longer. With 27 games to go, a couple teams around them are starting to figure it out. The Blues, for instance, have won five in a row. The Chicago Blackhawks have strung together six victories on the trot. And with efforts like Saturday’s — the status quo, it seems — their chances, despite their close proximity to a postseason spot, appear to be fading quickly.

“We can’t do the things we are doing and expect to be a playoff team,” Hitchcock said. “When you put skill ahead of work, you get burnt. And there’s too much of it going on.”

Hitchcock’s job is akin to Mission Impossible. But there’s no movie script here or no inevitable save-the-day-moment. There’s no Tom Cruise, either. It’s just a man who figured he might be able to make a difference on a doomed team but has begun to realize he most likely can’t.

And it’s no fault of his own.

He inherited a tire fire with seemingly unlimited rubber to burn. He took charge of a team that has been crippled by bad trades and handcuffed by horrible contracts. Reinforcements aren’t coming.

The table of contents in Hitchcock’s nearly 1,600-game coaching career doesn’t list a section for this.

There’s no manual. No Coaching the Edmonton Oilers for Dummies.

The problems run much deeper and God only knows when they’ll be solved.

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

Flames, Sharks meet as battle for Pacific heats up

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Thursday night’s game between the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks offers plenty of intrigue. They are the top two teams in the Pacific Division, and they are also the two highest scoring teams in the Western Conference. And after their most recent meeting on December 31 – an 8-5 Flames win – the scoreboard might not be the only place we see fireworks this evening.

In the final 41 seconds of that game, the two teams combined for 66 penalty minutes, including a match penalty for Sam Bennett after he concussed Sharks defenseman Radim Simek with a questionable hit. There was no supplemental discipline for the play, which the Sharks called “gutless” and “predatory” afterwards, so one wonders whether there will be any retribution sought by the Sharks on Bennett.

Close watch should also be kept on Evander Kane and Matthew Tkachuk, who each picked up 10-minute misconducts in a brawl just prior to the Bennett hit. There are fewer Kanes and Tkachuks in today’s NHL – both in terms of their style on the ice and their unfiltered remarks off the ice – which makes the build up to this game even more interesting. However, neither would fully take the bait when asked about things carrying over from December:

“I know what you’re asking, I know what you’re trying to get me to say. We’ll see,” Kane said via The Mercury News. “It’s something that, hopefully, everybody in this room remembers because it doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a skill guy, a big guy, a tough guy or a small guy, it’s on each and every person in this room to stick up for one another. We’ll see.”

Said Tkachuk: “I’m don’t think I’m going to be the guy who’s going to give you what you want on that quote. Those games are fun to play in. I love those games. Our whole team’s thriving in those games this year. We have guys that can play that style, too. (Kane) is a good player. They’re a really good team. It’s going to be a great game.”

Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer was much more definitive in downplaying the revenge factor, telling reporters yesterday, “We know where everybody is in the standings, so that’s first and foremost. This isn’t about settling scores. This is about trying to close the gap on these guys in the division. There’s going to be a lot of emotion. It’s going to be physical. That stuff takes care of itself.”

He is right about the importance of this game in the standings. Since that New Year’s Eve meeting, the Flames have not lost to a Western Conference opponent, and they now have an opportunity to create a six-point cushion over the Sharks. Considering these teams play only once more during the regular season – and not until March 31 – this may be San Jose’s best opportunity to chip away at that deficit.

It would be an even bigger boost for the Sharks considering they will be without Erik Karlsson (lower body) for a sixth straight game, however he could return on the team’s current road trip. It should be noted that in the middle of this absence, Karlsson did participate in the NHL All-Star Game.

Regardless of the outcome tonight though, it is safe to say these are two of the most complete teams in the conference. Bill Peters is a Jack Adams candidate in his first year behind the bench for the Flames, and fellow former Hurricane Elias Lindholm has joined with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau to form one of the most potent lines in hockey. The Sharks are dangerous up and down their lineup, with a pair of Norris Trophy caliber defensemen, as well as five different forwards with 19+ goals – the most such players in the league.

San Jose and Calgary have not faced each other in the playoffs since 2008, but if they keep up their play from the first four months of the season, this could wind up being a high-scoring, hard-hitting, and headline-grabbing second round Stanley Cup playoff matchup.

NHL to celebrate Black History Month for first time

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The NHL will celebrate Black History Month for the first time, shifting its focus in February from its wide-ranging ”Hockey Is For Everyone” campaign to emphasize racial diversity in the sport.

The league and NHL Players’ Association will announce the joint initiative Friday morning. It includes a traveling mobile museum devoted to the history of minorities in hockey predating Willie O’Ree breaking the color barrier in 1958 and going up to the present day. The museum will debut outside Madison Square Garden in New York on Saturday.

As part of this, ”Hockey Is For Everyone” is expanding to year-round. March will be gender-equality month, and the plan is to add acknowledgement of Hispanic heritage and ”First Nations” next season.

There are roughly 20 black players currently on NHL rosters, though executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs Kim Davis said there is strong minority representation at youth levels.

”I think a focus like this during Black History Month will affirm those many kids of color that are already playing our game,” Davis said. ”I think we often underestimate the pipeline of talent that is already involved in our game.”

USA Hockey only recently began collecting data on player participation by race, so it will take some time to show if the sport that is predominantly white at its highest levels is making inroads. Davis added that another aim is to educate all fans of the contributions of non-white players during hockey’s history.

O’Ree, who has worked since 1996 as NHL diversity ambassador and director of youth development, says he’s proud the league is celebrating black history and has seen progress in more kids playing hockey over his two decades on the job.

Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, one of several black stars who will be the subject of video specials this month, said ”important conversations and perspectives will be shared as part of the Black History Month celebration.”

Predators defenseman P.K. Subban, Sharks forward Evander Kane and Hall of Famers Grant Fuhr and Angela James will also be among those featured.