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Who will win the six 2019 All-Star Skills events?

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The NHL announced the six events for the 2019 SAP NHL All-Star Skills (competition no longer) on Friday, noting that the winner of individual events will receive $25K. The event will air on NBCSN, with things slated to run at Friday, Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. PT/ 9 p.m. ET.

Here’s a quick look at each event, with some speculation regarding who might win:

  • Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater

Last year, Connor McDavid became the first-ever repeat winner of fastest skater, but Dylan Larkin owns the best-ever time from 2016. Larkin isn’t slated to be at the ASG weekend (barring injuries?), but Mathew Barzal could conceivably push McDavid.

It would be cool for McDavid to threepeat, even if it would be way more fun if 97 was instead winning, you know, more actual hockey games.

  • Enterprise NHL Premier Passer

This event has been a “wild card” of sorts in the skills competitions past, right down to the particulars. Usually there are adorable mini-nets, and this year’s will include that too. Here are the three phases of competition, via the NHL:

(1) Breakout Pass, where each player is given 10 pucks to attempt to make a pass to three “players”; (2) Mini Nets, where each player must complete a pass over a barricade and into each of four mini nets; and (3) Target Passing, where each player must complete successful passes to all targets that randomly light up every three seconds. 

It’s tough to say that anyone would really have the “inside track” on this event. Alex Pietrangelo won in 2018.

The randomness is part of the fun, though … especially when trying to hit a tiny net in tough situations also leads to frustrations.

The players might not love it, though.

  • Ticketmaster NHL Save Streak

In 2018, Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 14 shootout attempts in a row, beating Pekka Rinne by one. Fleury and Rinne will get a chance in the 2019 version, while Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s sheer athleticism makes him a great bet to push the two veterans this time around. This shootout-related competition lends itself to some fun and absurd moments, so expect nothing less in 2019.

  • Gatorade NHL Puck Control

In the last edition of this event (which goes through three phases of puck control, with the “gate” portion providing particular zaniness), Johnny Gaudreau absolutely killed it. He figures to be tough to beat in this regard, although the NHL is brimming with talented puckhandlers, so who knows?

  • SAP NHL Hardest Shot

The savage simplicity of all those slap-shots has made the hardest shot one of the most entertaining portions of All-Star weekends for decades now. Reigning champion Alex Ovechkin is sitting this year out, so the field opens up.

Actually, quite a few of the go-to choices for hardest shot aren’t slated to be in the 2019 edition. Frequent threats Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber aren’t on the rosters, and Dustin Byufglien would otherwise present a possible threat. Maybe Brent Burns will take it in 2019 in front of a partisan crowd, even after he wasn’t rifling them like many expected last time?

  • Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting

Last year, Brock Boeser began his magical All-Star weekend by winning the accuracy challenge. It looks like Boeser won’t be around to defend that title (nor his 2018 ASG MVP), though.

This eye-friendly competition often comes down to who has the hot hand, but when you look at who’s shooting a high percentage despite heavy volume this year, some favorites emerge: Elias Pettersson (if healthy), Jeff Skinner, and Auston Matthews rank as just a few of the players who could shoot with the highest level of precision.

It would be pretty fun if the Vancouver Canucks saw one ray of hope (Pettersson) follow another (Boeser the year before) in All-Star Games, especially since Pettersson’s just been so much fun.

Who would you expect to win each competition, though? Which events do you look forward to the most?

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

Looking back at the 2018 All-Star Skills

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.

NHL All-Star Game: Draisaitl, Landeskog, Letang, Skinner voted ‘Last Men In’

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Jeff Skinner of the Buffalo Sabres, Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche, and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers have been added to the 2019 NHL All-Star rosters after fans elected them through the Last Men In vote.

Following the player announcement last week, the NHL left one spot open on each divisional roster for the new Last Men In competition. After a week of voting by fans, those four will be heading to All-Star Weekend in San Jose later this month.

According to the NHL, more than 11.5 million votes were cast over in the last week, including two million on Thursday, which was the final day of balloting.

Still to be announced is the new captain for the Metropolitan Division after Alex Ovechkin pulled out for more rest. And barring another injury replacement, the Montreal Canadiens will be the only team without a representative after Carey Price announced he would not be participating.

Here are the updated rosters:

Atlantic Division
F Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
F Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres (Last Men In vote)
F Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning
F Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Captain)
F David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
F Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
F John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs
D Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators
D Keith Yandle, Florida Panthers
G Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings
G Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning*
(*Injury replacement for Carey Price)

Metropolitan Division
F Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes
F Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets
F Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
F Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
F Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
F Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils
D Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins (Last Men In vote)
D John Carlson, Washington Capitals
D Seth Jones, Columbus Blue Jackets
G Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
G Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
(*Captain Alex Oveckin pulled out.)

Central Division
F Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks
F Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche (Last Men In vote)
F Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Captain)
F Ryan O’Reilly, St. Louis Blues
F Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
F Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
F Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets
D Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars
D Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
G Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild
G Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

Pacific Division
F Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames
F Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes
F Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Captain)
F Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (Last Men In vote)
F Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks
F Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks
D Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks
D Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
D Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
G Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights
G John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE:
NHL reveals 2019 All-Star Game rosters
Pass or Fail: NHL’s eco-friendly 2019 All-Star Game jerseys
NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches

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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.

Islanders’ defense has improved under Trotz, but goalies are the difference

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The New York Islanders are a different team than they were a year ago in pretty much every significant way.

From a personnel standpoint the changes are obvious.

John Tavares is gone after heading to the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency, leaving second-year sensation Mathew Barzal as the new franchise cornerstone.

The key decision makers in the organization have been changed with big names. Lou Lamoriello replaced Garth Snow in the general manager role, and they have the reigning Stanley Cup winning coach (Barry Trotz) calling the shots behind their bench.

They are even back to playing games at the Nassau Coliseum on a semi-regular basis.

Given that the Islanders have probably exceeded expectations so far this season and are one of the hottest teams in the league entering play on Saturday night (9-2-1 in their past 12 games) those changes are getting a little extra light shined on them.

Perhaps the most stunning turnaround for the Islanders through the first half of the season has been their play defensively, because it is pretty much a night and day difference from where they were a year ago.

The 2017-18 Islanders were one of the worst defensive teams in recent league memory by giving up an almost unheard of 3.57 goals per game. It was a mark that was not only (by far) the worst in the NHL during the 2017-18 season, but was one of the six worst marks over the previous 20 years.

There was no major defensive category where they were not among the worst in the league, if not the worst.

One of the things that has stood out about the Islanders this season is the fact they have gone from being one of the absolute worst defensive teams to — at least as it relates to goals against — one of the best.

Entering Saturday the Islanders are allowing just 2.56 goals per game this season which is the second lowest total in the league, trailing only a Stanley Cup contender in Nashville. The natural reaction to that improvement is to point in the direction of Trotz for his system and the way he has the Islanders playing.

There does appear to be some truth to that.

Some being the big word here because it’s easy to let a narrative run away from you in a situation like this.

First, Trotz is an extremely successful coach whose resume in the NHL speaks for itself. Ultimately, he knows what he’s doing so it’s not totally out of the question to think any team coached by him would show improvement, and there is evidence to suggest there has been improvement. Let’s take a look at three sets of numbers here relating to the Islanders’ defensive performance (shots against, shot attempts against, goals against, scoring chances against, and high-danger scoring chances against) from the first half of this season, the first half of the 2017-18 season, and the full 2017-18 season.

That is definitely better, and in some areas significantly better. Giving up five fewer shots (and a decrease in scoring chances against) per game over the course of a season can really add up. But it’s not going to add up enough to take a team from dead last in the league in goals against to the top-two without some stellar play from the goaltenders.

That is where the real change for the Islanders is this season.

What sunk the Islanders a year ago wasn’t just the fact they were a team that was constantly bleeding shots against. That was a big part of it for sure, but it was also the fact they received some truly horrific goaltending from Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss that was barely above .900 for the season. Put those two things together and, well, you have the worst defensive hockey team the NHL has seen in 20 years.

How much has the goaltending impacted their performance this season? Even if they experienced the same improvement defensively under Trotz and were getting the same performance in net they would have already given up an additional 20 goals this season. An additional 20 goals over 39 games takes their goals against per game average from 2.56 (second best in the league) all the way to 3.10 (20th in the league). You think they are still flirting with a playoff spot in early January with that kind of defensive showing? No chance.

Greiss has had a wonderful bounce back season in a platoon role, while Robin Lehner, who joined the Islanders on a one-year, $1.5 million contract in free agency, has been one of the biggest steals of the season as the other half of that platoon. His .929 save percentage is tops in the NHL among goalies that have appeared in at least 20 games this season.

This is the true difference-maker for the Islanders this season (perhaps with a little influence from new goalie coach Mitch Korn?).

It’s not necessarily a culture change. It’s not that they are better without Tavares (the offense certainly is not). It’s not even so much that Barry Trotz is that much of a better coach than Doug Weight (though, I don’t think anybody would argue that he isn’t an upgrade).

It is that they have made some incremental improvements defensively and have received All-Star level goaltending from two players they probably weren’t expecting it from at the most important position on the ice.

How long they are able to do that will determine where this season goes for the Islanders.

They still give up a concerning number of shots and chances and don’t score enough to make up for it when (or if) the goaltending regresses. Keep in mind the Islanders had almost the exact same record at this point a year ago before an extensive second-half losing streak ruined their shot at the playoffs. If they want to avoid that sort of second half meltdown again they are going to need Lehner and Greiss to keep playing like their most valuable players.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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: Kucherov dominant; Ovechkin makes history

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Three Stars

1. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. It is starting to get insane. Nikita Kucherov had another four-point game for the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night, extending his league-leading point total to 69 on the season and his current point streak to 12 games. He also has points in 22 of his past 23 games. Thursday’s performance, which came in a 6-2 rout of the Los Angeles Kings, is already his 10th game this season with at least three points and fourth with at least four points. He has recorded multiple points in seven consecutive games, a stretch that has seen him record 21 total points. That is a three-point per game average. He also reached the 400-point mark for his career with that performance. The Lightning are now a league-best 32-7-2 on the season and sit 12 points ahead of any other team in the league. At this point a year ago they were only 29-9-3. They are somehow even better this season.

2. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres. With Jack Eichel, their captain and best player, sidelined for at least the next two games the Buffalo Sabres needed somebody to step up to help them get out of their recent funk. That somebody on Thursday night was Eichel’s usual linemate, Jeff Skinner. Skinner scored a pair of goals in the Sabres’ 4-3 win to help them snap their three-game losing streak. Since the end of their 10-game winning streak earlier this season the Sabres have won just five out the 16 games that have followed. Skinner’s second goal on Thursday was his 28th of the season as he sits just two behind Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin for the league lead. It was also his seventh game-winning goal of the season, putting him in a three-way tie with Vancouver Canucks rookie forward Elias Pettersson and Colorado Avalanche forward Gabriel Landeskog for the league lead.

3. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens. Playing in his first game since December 22, Carey Price stopped all 33 shots he faced for the Montreal Canadiens in their 2-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks for his second shutout of the season. Price has not played up to his usual standard this season but has a save percentage of .920 or better in three of his past four starts. Perhaps he is starting to get back on track.

Highlights of the Night

Mathew Barzal continued his incredible play with this ridiculous goal in the New York Islanders’ 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.

Jeff Skinner’s first goal was as absolute beauty for the Buffalo Sabres in their win over the Florida Panthers.

Oskar Sundqvist scored the game-winning goal for the St. Louis Blues in what was a nice revenge game for him against Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals.

Factoids

It came in a loss, but Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin scored his 30th goal of the season on Thursday night against the St. Louis Blues. By doing so he has now done something that only one other player in NHL history has done by scoring at least 30 goals in 14 consecutive seasons to begin his career. What is perhaps most remarkable about this stat is that Ovechkin was able to maintain his 30-goal season run through a lockout shortened 48-game season. Gartner had his run ended by the 1994-94 lockout shortened season before scoring at least 30 goals in each of the next two seasons. Ovechkin is only the third player to ever record 14 consecutive 30-goal seasons at any point in their career, and just the sixth player to record at lest 14 30-goal seasons in a career. He is a remarkable goal-scorer. The best ever.

The Calgary Flames did not beat the Boston Bruins thanks to a pair of goals from Brad Marchand and Jake DeBrusk on Thursday night but they did record another shorthanded goal. They lead the league in that category this season.

Devon Toews scored the game-winning goal in overtime for the New York Islanders on Thursday night. It was also the first goal of his NHL career. Not many players have done that in the history of the NHL.

The Minnesota Wild were the latest team to overcome a two-goal deficit this season to win.

 

Sebastian Aho continued his great season for the Carolina Hurricanes in their 5-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

 

Scores

Minnesota Wild 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 3

Boston Bruins 6, Calgary Flames 4

Buffalo Sabres 4, Florida Panthers 3

Carolina Hurricanes 5, Philadelphia Flyers 3

New York Islanders 3, Chicago Blackhawks 2

Montreal Canadiens 2, Vancouver Canucks 0

St. Louis Blues 5, Washington Capitals 2

Tampa Bay Lightning 6, Los Angeles Kings 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Barzal’s crazy goal, Devon Toews’ first help Islanders win fifth straight

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The New York Islanders are not only playing their best hockey of the season, they are also one of the hottest teams in the entire NHL.

Their 3-2 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night was not only their eighth win in their past nine games, but was also their fifth in a row as they attempt to keep pace in the tight Eastern Conference playoff race.

Thursday’s game was a particularly strong showing as they outshot the Blackhawks by a 50-21 margin and completely controlled the pace of the game. Had it not been for a sensational performance in net by Chicago’s rookie goalie Collin Delia, this game probably wouldn’t have been anywhere as close it was.

The two stars for the Islanders were forward Mathew Barzal and, somewhat surprisingly, rookie defender Devon Toews.

Barzal playing a big role should not be a surprise at this point. He is the Islanders’ best player (and now their franchise player) and has been playing some of his best hockey of the season in recent weeks.

He continued that hot streak with a pair of goals on Thursday.

The first of those goals was completely ridiculous as he scored by knocking the puck out mid-air with a baseball-style swing from just inside the faceoff circle. It is not totally unheard of to see a player score a mid-air goal, but to see a player do it from this far away from the net with this much force behind it is truly something to behold.

Just look at this shot.

By adding a second goal later in the game he has now found the back of the net eight times in his past seven games, a stretch that has seen him tally 11 total points.

He is now up to 12 goals and 38 total points for the season.

A fluky goal from Chicago’s Patrick Kane tied the game early in the third period, ultimately sending the game to overtime.

It was there that Toews (no relation to Chicago’s Jonathan Toews) scored his first NHL goal to lift the Islanders to the win.

The goal came in Toews’ fifth NHL game.

Thursday’s game was the Islanders’ fourth game back at the Nassau Coliseum this season and improved their record to 3-0-1 in the old barn.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.