McDavid, Marchand, Gritty top 2019 NHLPA Player Poll

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The annual NHLPA Player Poll has been released and there are very few surprises from the results. Over 500 players took part in the 20-question poll answering questions ranging from best forward to best shot to biggest trash talker to best mascot to best hair. The poll was conducted during the Players’ Association’s annual team meetings, which took place between late September 2018 and early January 2019.

You won’t be shocked to read that the players are big fans of both Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby. The Edmonton Oilers captain was voted “Best Forward” (63.6 percent), “Most Difficult to Play Against” (30.9 percent), and “Player You Would Select to Start a Franchise With” (60 percent). The Pittsburgh Penguins captain was the runner up in all three of those categories.

Reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman was named “Best Defenseman” (31.7 percent) and Carey Price was given the title of “Best Goalie” (29.9 percent).

In some off-beat categories, Brad Marchand was a double winner. The Boston Bruins pest was voted “Biggest Trash Talker” (21.3 percent) and “Worst Trash Talker” (12.5 percent) by his peers.

Marchand was honored by his victories:

Gritty, as you’d expect, was voted “Best Mascot” (69.4 percent), Hilary Knight (27.6 percent) topped Marie-Philip Poulin (24.1 percent) as the “Best Current Female Player,” and Erik Karlsson (18.4 percent) was given the honor of “Best Hair,” beating out long-time champion Henrik Lundqvist (6.6 percent).

Check out the NHLPA site to see who the players believe is most underrated, who would make the best general manager after retirement, the funniest player, NHL arena with the best ice, and more.

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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.

How concerned should Maple Leafs be as playoffs approach?

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There is no team in the NHL under more immense pressure to win, and win big, this postseason than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There probably is not even a team that is a close second when it comes to the expectations this team is carrying around.

Not only are they the Toronto Maple Leafs, which always brings immense pressure just because of who they are and where they play, but because this team is built to win now. Not tomorrow, not two seasons from now, not five seasons from now, but right now. This season. And then every season that comes after it. But especially this season.

This is not a team that was constructed to simply make the playoffs and give their fans a little bit of a thrill for a couple of weeks in the spring.

This is a team that is built to win championships, end a Stanley Cup drought that goes back to the Original Six days of the NHL, and take part in championship parades. Not a parade. Multiple parades.

The roster is loaded with All-Stars at the top of the lineup that are tying up a significant chunk of their salary cap situation for years to come (and that does not even include Mitch Marner‘s new deal that will be coming through this summer). It is no doubt an overstated concern, but this is the core they have tied themselves to and are locked in with for the next eight years.

So far, that core has produced nothing but two first-round exits in their only postseason appearances. They are now headed for another first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins, a potential nightmare scenario against one of the league’s best teams (that might finally be healthy come playoff time) that has given them fits over the past two years and knocked them out in the first round a year ago in a series that probably went a game or two longer than it deserved to go.

They have the highest paid head coach in the NHL in Mike Babcock who has not been out of the first-round since the 2013 season, and only once since 2010. There have been 23 different head coaches that have won at least one playoff series since Babcock last won one, including Mike Yeo, who has won a playoff series with two different franchises during that stretch. Any other coach in the NHL with that postseason track record wouldn’t be regarded as highly as Babcock still is. You can be sure that will change if they bow out in round one again. It should, anyway.

All of that adds up to a situation where anything other than a deep playoff run is going to be looked at as a spectacular failure.

What has to be concerning for Maple Leafs fans is the team doesn’t really seem to be trending in the right direction as the playoffs draw near.

Entering the week they have lost four of their past six games, three of which came against non-playoff teams, including an ugly loss to the league’s worst team, the Ottawa Senators.

One of the two games they did win during that stretch required an incredible late rally to steal two points from the Philadelphia Flyers, another team that is likely to miss the playoffs.

If you are looking for explanations, the injury situation has not been ideal.

Kasperi Kapanen has missed a handful of games and the blue line has been shorthanded without the services of Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, a development that resulted in this quote from Babcock on Monday.

“You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going,” Babcock said, via Sportsnet. “There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t the only team that has been hit hard by injuries this season. The team they are chasing in the standings and about to play in the first round has been hammered all season when it comes to their best players, and it’s not like the Bruins were starting with the league’s greatest depth. They have simply played better.

The biggest concern for the Maple Leafs should still be their play defensively because it is just not at a Stanley Cup level.

They are currently one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to allowing shot attempts and scoring chances during even-strength play, currently sitting 27th in the league in total shot attempts against, 30th in shots on goal against, and 20th in scoring chances against. And that is not just because Gardiner and Dermott are out of the lineup, because their numbers were nearly identical prior to their exit from the lineup.

Just for example, here are their 5-on-5 Shot attempt and scoring chance numbers from before Gardiner’s injury (and Dermott’s, which happened two days later) and since.

(CF% = Shot Attempt differential; CA/60 = Shot attempts against per 60 minutes; SCA/60 = Scoring chances against per 60 minutes)

This is, quite simply, who and what the Maple Leafs are defensively.

The total shot attempt differential is still among the top-10 in the league, but the number of attempts and chances they give up are both among the bottom-10. It is awfully difficult, if not impossible, to go on a deep playoff run with that sort of defensive play unless you have elite shooting talent at forward that can score and/or great goaltending to cover up for your flaws.

The Maple Leafs definitely have the shooting talent to outscore their defensive deficiencies, and they have a really good goalie in Frederik Andersen.

The latter is probably the key to what this team does in the immediate future.

Ever since he arrived in Toronto to be their starting goalie Andersen has been masking all of the Maple Leafs’ flaws on defense and giving them a chance to win on most nights. He has been a workhorse in net and a player the team has leaned on extensively. There are few teams in the league that are as dependent on one goalie than the Maple Leafs are on Andersen given the workload he has faced. Since the start of the 2017-18 season no goalie in the league has faced more shots in the regular season than Andersen’s 3,918. The only two goalies that have faced more than 3,600 shots during these past two seasons are Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (3,807) and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (3,602).

There is an argument to be made that the Maple Leafs ran him into the ground last season more than they needed to and that playing in 66 games (for the second year in a row) didn’t leave him as fresh and rested as he could have been for the playoffs. He will not face quite the same workload this season, but he is still on track to play at least 60 games this season and once again be one of the league leaders in games played, minutes played, shots faced.

He is probably the one player that is going to make or break their season, because that is simply the way the Maple Leafs are built and play.

There is no questioning the high-end talent on the roster. But there are still enough questions on the back end, and what might be the worst possible first-round matchup looming in a couple of weeks, to be concerned about how this spring is going to go.

The expectation is something different, and better, and franchise altering. But there are a lot of signs that it could still be more of the same.

That would not be kind to anyone in Toronto.

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.

The Buzzer: Hats off to Zucker, Radulov; Kuemper shines again for Coyotes

Three Stars

1. Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild. The Minnesota Wild just keep on winning. They dramatically improved their playoff chances on Thursday night with a 3-0 win over the NHL’s best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, thanks to huge games from Jason Zucker and and starting goalie Devan Dubnyk. Zucker scored all three goals for the Wild who now find themselves three points up on a playoff spot in the Western Conference. It is an incredible run for a Wild team that has been ripped apart by trades and injuries over the past few weeks.

2. Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars. This was a huge win for the Dallas Stars, not only because it was two points in the standings as they look to secure a playoff spot, but because it was two points in a head-to-head game with a team they are competing with for one of those spots. By defeating the Colorado Avalanche, 4-0, they now find themselves five points ahead of the Avalanche and four points ahead of the Arizona Coyotes. Alexander Radulov had the big night in the Stars’ win with three goals to give him 20 on the season.

3. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes. With Dallas and Minnesota both winning on Thursday night this was a game the Arizona Coyotes absolutely had to have to keep pace. They got it, and in rather impressive fashion, by beating the top team in the Western Conference, the Calgary Flames. Darcy Kuemper continued his incredible play by stopping all 30 shots he faced in a 2-0 win.

Highlights of the Night

The Boston Bruins scored two goals in 30 seconds to come from behind against the Florida Panthers.

Somehow the Edmonton Oilers are going to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time in four years with Connor McDavid on their team.

The St. Louis Blues kept rolling with a win over the Los Angeles Kings, and it was Vladimir Tarasenko getting things going early.

Factoids

  • This was the second time in franchise history the Boston Bruins have erased a deficit in the final minute of a game then won in regulation. [NHL PR]
  • Patrick Kane passed Steve Larmer for fourth place on the Chicago Blackhawks’ all-time points list. [NHL PR]
  • Henrik Lundqvist appeared in his 850th game for the New York Rangers on Thursday night, which is a pretty big deal. [NHL PR]

Scores

Boston Bruins 4, Florida Panthers 3

Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 0

New York Islanders 4, Ottawa Senators 2

Detroit Red Wings 3, New York Rangers 2 (SO)

Minnesota Wild 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 0

Chicago Blackhawks, Buffalo Sabres 4 (SO)

Dallas Stars 4, Colorado Avalanche 0

Edmonton Oilers 3, Vancouver Canucks 2

Arizona Coyotes 2, Calgary Flames 0

St. Louis Blues 4, Los Angeles Kings 0

San Jose Sharks 5, Montreal Canadiens 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.

Capitals outlast Rangers in shootout, regain Metropolitan lead

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It took a no-goal call on the ice and then a correction by the league for Alex Ovechkin to be awarded the shootout winner in a 3-2 victory against the New York Rangers on NBC on Sunday.

Ovechkin came down the ice for his attempt, deked Alexandar Georgiev to the right and then lost the puck after Georgiev hurled his stick at Ovechkin’s. The call was no goal. It was still no goal after a referee huddle, but then the call came in from the NHL and the review clearly showed Georgiev’s infraction.

Ovechkin’s shot, after getting stopped six times in regulation and overtime, counted and the Washington Capitals moved into first place in the Metropolitan Division for the first time since the middle of January with their fourth straight win (and fourth straight this season over the Rangers).

If not for Georgiev, the game never would have been in the shootout to begin with. He was the prime reason why the Rangers took a point off the Capitals. His saves on Ovechkin throughout the game were particularly impressive. He slid across the ice twice on Washington power plays to rob The Great 8, and then he stopped Ovechkin cold in overtime with this beauty:

For a Rangers team in rebuild mode, and with Henrik Lundqvist in the twilight of his career, it has be comforting to the Rangers to see The King’s heir-apparent doing this well against some of the top shooters in the game.

The Rangers have been plucky as of late, even with the losses of Kevin Hayes, Mats Zuccarello and Adam McQuaid. They took a point of the Tampa Bay Lightning last week after playing them into overtime and did well once again on Sunday to take the Metropolitan-leading Capitals into deep waters.

Ryan Strome gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead 45 seconds into the game but it was quickly leveled by Carl Hagelin just 1:18 later as the swift forward scored his first for the Caps since being acquired last week.

The Capitals would take a 2-1 just after the midway point of the period, a score that would remain that way until 14:20 of the second frame, when Pavel Buchnevich found the back of the net behind Braden Holtby to tie the game.

Georgiev was front and center for the rest of the way, ultimately making 37 saves in 65 minutes as the Rangers lost their fourth straight.

Holtby’s save on Filip Chytil, however, would be the one needed to give Washington a chance and then Ovechkin ultimately scored to secure both points.

The Capitals will hold first place at least until the conclusion of the New York Islanders matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers, which is in progress.

For now, Washington can enjoy the view from the summit.


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: Rangers host Capitals on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington sits in a tie for first in the Metro with the New York Islanders (Isles have one game in hand) as they look to be headed back to the postseason for the fifth straight time and what would be an 11th appearance in the last 12 seasons. The Capitals have won five of their last six games and this is the second game of a thre-game road trip after beating the Islanders, 3-1, on Friday (Washington plays at Philadelphia on Wednesday on NBCSN at 7:30 p.m. ET).

Alex Ovechkin leads the team in points (75) and paces the entire league with 45 goals (Patrick Kane – second with 40) as he pursues another Rocket Richard trophy – aiming to break a tie with Bobby Hull (seven) and become the first player in NHL history to finish atop the goal-scoring race eight times. With Ovechkin’s goal on Friday, he became the first player in NHL history to score 45-plus goals in 10 seasons:

The Rangers are coming off a 4-2 loss to Montreal on Friday – their third straight loss as they are headed towards missing the postseason for the second consecutive year – after a stretch that saw them make the playoffs 11 times in a 12-season span from 2006-2017.

Henrik Lundqvist turned 37 years old on Saturday. The longtime starting goalie is in a bit of slump having lost seven of his last eight starts (1-5-2, 3.14 GAA). His record sits at 17-17-9, and he’s currently sporting a 3.04 goals against average and .907 save percentage, both of which would be career-worsts if the season ended today.  King Henrik is just three wins away from his 14th straight 20-win season (in as many years in the NHL). If he can reach that mark, he’ll become the fourth goalie in NHL history to record at least 14 seasons with 20 wins, along with Patrick Roy (17), Martin Brodeur (16) and Ed Belfour (15).

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12 P.M. ET – NBC]

What: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Sunday, March 3, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
Live stream: You can watch the Capitals-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Jakub VranaNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Andre BurakovskyNic DowdTravis Boyd

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

RANGERS
Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadJimmy Vesey
Vladislav NamestnikovRyan StromeJesper Fast
Brendan LemieuxLias AnderssonPavel Buchnevich
Brendan SmithBrett HowdenFilip Chytil

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Libor Hajek – Neal Pionk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick (play-by-play), Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from New York. Liam McHugh, Mike Milbury and Keith Jones will handle studio coverage.