Jordan Binnington

NHL On NBCSN: Underrated stars of Blues’ title defense

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues 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.

When the St. Louis Blues lost All-Star forward Vladimir Tarasenko after just 10 games it was easy to assume that one of two things would happen the rest of the way.

Either it would put a significant dent in their chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champions. Or it would force general manager Doug Armstrong to make some kind of a significant trade to strengthen their offense.

As it turns out, neither one of those outcomes happened.

The Blues’ only in-season addition was to add defenseman Marco Scandella from the Montreal Canadiens, while they enter Sunday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN) with the best record in the Western Conference and 14 points ahead of their pace from a year ago at the same point in the season. Before losing to New Jersey on Friday, they had won eight games in a row.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

The overall recipe is very similar to a year ago: A great defensive team that is backed up by solid goaltending to make them one of the league’s toughest teams to score against. That combination is going to give any team a chance to win every night. But what might be impressive about this year’s Blues team is that they have actually been slightly better offensively even without Tarasenko for almost all of the season. At the very least, they are not really any worse. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t be better with him, or that they don’t need him back for another playoff run (he makes them dramatically better and even more dangerous).

It is just that some of their more underappreciated players have really stepped up in his absence.

At the top of that list has to be current leading scorer David Perron. He is probably not the first player you think of when the Blues are mentioned (it is probably Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan O'Reilly, or Jordan Binnington), but he has been outstanding.

He is in his third different stop with the Blues and has been outstanding since signing with the team last summer. Since re-joining the Blues this latest time he’s scored at 30-goal, 70-point pace per 82 games. It is the most productive he has ever been offensively at any point in his career and with any team. He is already at 25 goals and 60 points this season, rapidly closing in on career highs in both categories, and has nine game-winning goals. He has been great at 5-on-5 and on the power play, and has been one of their go-to players for offense.

Next you have 20-year-old forward Robert Thomas, the Blues’ future star. He has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two years due to his speed and playmaking ability, and has already seen his overall offensive numbers increase from what they were during his rookie season. He has also been one of the Blues’ most productive players at even-strength. Among the 15 Blues players with 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, his 0.68 goals per 60 minutes are 5th on the team, while no one averages more primary assists than his 1.82. He’s been outstanding and has a great future ahead of him.

Finally, there’s Zach Sanford. Acquired by the Blues a couple of years ago in the trade deadline move that sent Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington, Sanford has already doubled his previous career-high in goals and enters play on Sunday with 15 in only 55 games, with all but one of them coming at even-strength. No player on the Blues this season has been a more efficient goal-scoring at even-strength than he has been (1.23 goals per 60 minutes).

The Blues needed some forwards to step up in Tarasenko’s absence, and these three have. It is a big reason they are going to enter the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs as one of the favorites to come out of the Western Conference again.

Kate Scott will call the action alongside U.S. Olympic gold medalists Kendall Coyne-Schofield and AJ Mleczko from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Game production will be led by producer Rene Hatlelid and director Lisa Seltzer.

The first-of-its-kind broadcast will be in celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, which dates back over 100 years. The broadcast will highlight women who have made their mark on hockey, and sports in general, with the hopes to inspire future generations of women to excel on the ice and behind the scenes.

Sunday night’s coverage will also be surrounded by On Her Turf, NBC Sports’ female empowerment brand. The broadcast will include a number of features highlighting women in hockey during pre-game and intermissions, with custom in-game graphic integration and social coverage.

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.

Blues’ eight-game winning streak ends vs. Devils

Blues see eight-game winning streak end vs. Devils
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The Blues saw their eight-game winning streak end in an unlikely place: New Jersey. St. Louis saw its run close out after the Devils beat them 4-2 on Friday.

Takeaways after Blues see their eight-game winning streak end vs. Devils

  • Sometimes the unlikely happens. Sometimes that includes unlikely successes from players with unlikely names. Dakota Mermis, an undrafted 26-year-old defenseman, scored his first NHL goal in New Jersey’s upset win. In doing so, he proved that he doesn’t just exist in the rough draft in a Hollywood script. (I’m thinking “rushed sequel to Point Break.”)
  • Jesper Bratt made a pretty sound argument that he likely deserves more ice time.
  • I mean, unless … you know, the Devils actually want to lose more often.

On that note, they might want to ponder some contrived ways to keep Cory Schneider on the bench and in a baseball cap more often.

Schneider began the 2019-20 season on the trajectory that’s become all-too-uncomfortably-familiar lately: as someone who might not be an NHL goalie, let alone a $6M one. He was 0-6-1 with a hideous .852 save percentage through Jan. 18.

Lately, Schneider’s looked like a new goalie, though. He’s now 3-0-1 over his last four starts, stopping 31 out of 33 shots against the Blues. At this rate, the Devils might heat up enough to see their draft lottery odds sink below those of the slipping Sabres.

(Also, Schneider nabbed an assist on that Mermis goal. Strange game, indeed.)

Blessing or curse for New Jersey to heat up?

Seeing the end of an eight-game winning streak leaves the Blues with precious little room to breathe against the Avalanche for the top spot in the Central. St. Louis only holds a two-point edge (90 to 88), while Colorao has one game in hand after also losing on Friday (67 games played vs. 68 for the Blues).

  • Circling back to that earlier draft lottery point, the Devils are also 6-2-2 over their last 10 games.

Inevitable(?) Taylor Hall joke: does Hall’s draft lottery luck count when he’s no longer playing for a team, but the pick involved was related to a Hall trade? Asking for a rather Coyote-like friend.

  • Either way, the Devils’ relative competence will inspire another round of existential debates about tanking.

Should the Devils be happy to grab some wins while closing out a disappointing season? Is this round of too little too late also going to be self-destructive?

Maybe Schneider isn’t the goalie you want to drive that tank. Consider that, in 2018-19, he was terrible before the All-Star break (strangely, the same .852 save percentage in the same number of games [9] as this latest pre-All-Star run) and then caught fire after (.921 save percentage during his last 17 games of 2018-19).

It’s too small of a sample size to say anything for sure, but maybe the Devils and/or Schneider linger as upset threats? They certainly did so on Friday, as the Blues saw their eight-game winning streak come to an end.

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.

Blues beat Blackhawks in a 6-5 barn burner

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What’s the best way to summarize the Blues finding a way to beat the Blackhawks 6-5 on Tuesday? Maybe we should just make the “fanning self” hand motion and call it a night?

This was a wild one from the start, with Brayden Schenn scoring 33 seconds in. Maybe that opening goal implied that this would be an easy one for the Blues, but that was far from the truth. Regardless, St. Louis has won all three of its games against Chicago this season. This marks five straight wins for the Blues overall.

The mark of a good — and versatile — team is to win in multiple ways. Even so, Craig Berube’s facial expression in the moment captured by Getty Images probably captured his mood for much of the night:

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The Blackhawks roared back after falling behind early, flipping a 1-0 deficit to a 3-1 lead. Jonathan Toews found ways to make subtle picks during those first goals, setting the stage for Duncan Keith to break a 40-game goalless streak, and reach 100 for his career.

Wild get games wildest during the third period

Chicago scored two power-play goals during that stretch, and three overall on Tuesday.

Maybe it was just that kind of night, really, as the Blackhawks went 3-for-4 while St. Louis managed two on four power-play chances.

The seesaw really wobbled during the third period, in particular. Ryan O’Reilly made it 3-3, then Zach Sanford continued his blazing streak to make it 4-3 16 seconds later. That Blues lead only lasted for 1:13 before Matthew Highmore tied it up.

Brandon Saad regained Chicago’s lead three minutes later only for (catches breath for a moment) Justin Faulk to tie it up again 1:12 later.

The above two paragraphs describe a span of five goals during less than six minutes of game time.

A bit more than four minutes after Faulk tied it up, Sanford scored the game-winner for St. Louis on the power play. Phew.

The end result is that the Blues strengthened their Central Division lead, while the Blackhawks saw their playoff hopes fade even more with a regulation loss. Many likely expected the two teams to reach this sort of destination on Tuesday, but the journey was quite unexpected.

Jordan Binnington, Corey Crawford, and Berube certainly don’t want to navigate such a bumpy road most nights, that’s for sure.

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.

The Buzzer: Connor McDavid does not miss a beat in return

Connor McDavid shines in return The Buzzer
Getty Images
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Three Stars

1. William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights

What matters more: a hat trick, or a two-goal, two-assist night? Maybe the tiebreaker can be who ends up the winner.

I’m going with that, and thus handing Sunday’s top star to Karlsson. “Wild Bill” broke a 20-game goal drought with the third hat trick of his NHL career. The Ducks almost ended up spoiling his big night (more on that here, and in a moment), but Vegas held strong. Now the Golden Knights are on a six-game winning streak.

For all we know, a Karlsson hot streak could be the difference between Vegas winning the Pacific Division or not.

2. Adam Henrique and Nick RitchieAnaheim Ducks

Both Henrique and Ritchie authored those two-goal, two-assist nights discussed in the first star section.

Henrique provided the greatest dramatics, as his two goals unexpectedly sent Sunday’s Golden Knights – Ducks game to OT.

Henrique now has 23 goals and 37 points in 62 games this season. It would be tempting to call the 30-year-old a possible trade deadline target, but his $5.825M AAV extends to 2023-24, so I’m not sure teams really want to take that type of risk.

3. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers managed remarkably well without number 97, but it must have been exhilarating to get him back. Perhaps it even gave Oilers GM Ken Holland the extra push to trade for Mike Green later on Sunday?

Either way, it was a promising return by McDavid. The all-world player scored a goal and two assists, pushing his 2019-20 totals to 31 goals and 84 points in just 56 games. It’s pretty staggering that players are skilled enough to generate such numbers in a very clamped-down NHL (even if games are slightly higher scoring lately).

Anders Lee (2G, 1A), Jordan Binnington (32 out of 33 saves) and Anton Khudobin (31 out of 32) rank as other players worthy of honorable mentions. When in doubt, go with McDavid, especially during a return from injury.

Highlight of the Night (yes, from a great return by Connor McDavid)

Is it wrong to describe this as “vintage McDavid?” McDavid celebrated his return with a triumphant, very “McDavid” goal:

Factoids

  • The Blues have only allowed two goals total over the last four games, all wins. That’s only the eighth time they’ve managed to allow two or fewer over a four-game span during their history. Remarkably, they last pulled off the feat in February 2019. (NHL PR)
  • Speaking of the Blues, they will face the Wild in the 2021 Winter Classic.
  • If Calgary makes it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, chalk it up to being scrappy. They’re an NHL-best 14-4-1 on the road since Nov. 23. (Sportsnet Stats)
  • The Canadiens traded Ilya Kovalchuk to the Capitals, while the Oilers snagged Mike Green from the Red Wings. Zach Bogosian signed with the Lightning.
  • For better or worse, the Stars continue to play with a small margin for error. They’re tied with the Blue Jackets for the most wins in one-goal games this season with 18. (NHL PR)
  • Sabres goalie Jonas Johansson earned his first NHL win. (Sabres)

Scores

WSH 5 – PIT 3
BUF 2 – WIN 1
DAL 2 – CHI 1
NYI 4 – SJS 1
CGY 4 – DET 2
STL 4 – MIN 1
VGK 6 – ANA 5 (OT)
EDM 4 – LAK 2

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.

Blues keep heating up, cruise against Wild

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After a troubling lull early in 2020, the Blues are heating up again. St. Louis soundly defeated the Wild 4-1 on Sunday, pushing the Blues’ winning streak to four games.

Top Central Division teams pushing Blues

Again, the Blues have been heating up — and they haven’t been given much of a choice. At least, if they want to win the Central. The idle Avs are on a nice roll, while the Stars won their Sunday game.

Blues: 82 points in 63 games played (36-17-10)
Avalanche: 79 points in 61 GP (36-18-7)
Stars: 78 points in 62 GP (36-20-6)

Considering Colorado’s games in hand, it looks like the Central race could end up being close. Managing at least one round of home-ice advantage might come down to grinding out wins like the one the Blues managed on Sunday.

As much as Jake Allen and Jordan Binnington credit the play in front of them, goaltending’s been a considerable factor in the Blues’ success. Marcus Foligno ended Binnington’s shutout streak at 142:51, but the larger point remains that it’s tough to score vs. St. Louis.

Wild get an extra push to sell at trade deadline?

The Wild built a modicum of confidence by winning two games in a row before this one.

Minnesota seemed to put forth a pretty good effort, at least early on. Sunday stands as another game where they may shake their heads at missed opportunities. Minnesota’s man advantage went 0-for-4, and also allowed a shorthanded goal that took any steam out of a comeback bid.

The Wild ended Sunday outside of the West’s top eight with 65 points in 61 games played. While this loss doesn’t condemn them outright, you have to wonder if GM Bill Guerin might be a little bit more willing to sell off another piece or two.

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.