Parise, Letang key injuries in Monday’s playoff race

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The Minnesota Wild have another massive game on Monday night as they try to get themselves back into the Western Conference playoff picture, and for the second game in a row they will have to play without one of their best forwards in Zach Parise.

Parise remains sidelined with a lower-body injury that also kept him out of Saturday’s blowout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said on Monday, via The Athletic’s Michael Russo, that they are hoping he is back sooner rather than later, but that right now “it is just hope.”

After trading Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund before the trade deadline, Parise is one of the few top-line scoring threats left on the team.

His 26 goals and 59 total points are both tops on the roster.

“As it goes we’re not a high-scoring team,” said Boudreau on Monday. “And you take out one guy with 26 goals it makes it a little more difficult. It makes it so you have to win the low-scoring games. Simple as that, you can’t play a run-and-game against a high offensive team.”

The Wild enter Monday’s game just two points out of a playoff spot but have only won three of their past 11 games. Two of those losses during that stretch were shootout losses to the Nashville Predators team they play on Monday.

[Related: Wild host Predators on NBCSN]

Minnesota’s remaining schedule is as brutal as it gets among playoff hopefuls in the Western Conference as every single one of their opponents is either in a playoff spot, or in direct competition with them for one. After hosting Nashville on Monday their remaining five games are against the Vegas Golden Knights, Arizona Coyotes, Boston Bruins, Winnipeg Jets, and Dallas Stars. Three of those teams (the Golden Knights, Jets and Bruins) are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, while the Stars are one of the toughest teams in the league to score against.

Parise is not the only significant injury on Monday’s slate of games.

The Pittsburgh Penguins will also be without their top defender, Kris Letang, when they visit the New York Rangers.

Letang had just returned from an injury that sidelined him for a couple of weeks and had been outstanding in his three games back in the lineup. According to Penguins coach Mike Sullivan Letang is “day-to-day” with an upper-body injury, and it is unknown if that injury is in anyway related to the one that had just sidelined him for 11 games. The Penguins were still able to go 7-2-2 during that stretch thanks in large part to the play of starting goaltender Matt Murray.

Letang was averaging more than 25 minutes of ice-time over the past three games, had a point in each one, and was a 55 percent possession player while the Penguins outscored teams by a 4-0 margin with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play. When he has been healthy this season he has returned to being one of the top defenders in the league after a down year during the 2017-18 season.

Along with Letang, the Penguins are still playing without center Evgeni Malkin and defender Olli Maatta.

Even though they have not yet officially clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, they have really solidified their spot with what is now a seven-point lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets and still have a chance to get home-ice advantage in the first round (they enter Monday just two points back of the New York Islanders) and an outside shot at perhaps even winning Metropolitan Division (three points back of the Washington Capitals).

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.

 

Predators’ top line is dominant when you look deeper

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It’s never been a better time for those of us who want to know every little thing that we can about hockey. From in-depth features on the nuances of the game, to increasingly insightful “fancy stats,” you can go deep down that hockey rabbit hole.

Even with all of that information in mind, it’s still easy to miss things. Take, for example, how the Nashville Predators’ top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg really isn’t that far behind the best combinations in the NHL.

If you merely look at season totals, you’ll think reasonably highly of the trio, but maybe not fully absorb how dominant they’ve been.

Johansen has 58 points, and that’s reasonably reflective of his season, as he’s played in 71 of 73 games.

His wingers have been outstanding, especially since they’ve missed quite a bit of time with injuries.

Arvidsson on a 50-goal pace

Perennially underrated, constantly-moving Swedish scorer Arvidsson might be having the most impressive season. He’s also tied his career high of 31 goals … in just 49 games. If Arvidsson maintained that .63 goals-per-game pace through 73 games, he’d have about 46 goals right now. Over an 82-game season, he’d have between 51 and 52 (51.66).

Now, sure, the bounces would start to even out in a less positive way for Arvidsson, as his shooting percentage is by far at a career-high of 19.3 percent.

Yet, it still all points to career-best work. Arvidsson’s up to 19:16 TOI per game, a significant jump from last season’s career-high of 17:45 per contest.

Taking the ball and running with it

In general, the Predators realize that they need to lean on this trio for their offense, and it shows beyond ice time. After being closer to fifty-fifty with zone starts previously, the top line has been leveraged for offense more than ever, beginning 64.9 to 67 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone.

Speaking of those meatier numbers, one of the most promising developments is that Johansen is sure looking like a true top-line center. Johansen’s enjoying some of the best possession numbers of his career, and his .82 points-per-game average in 2018-19 ranks as the second-best of his career.

For a while, Johansen’s $8 million cap hit seemed like a mild problem for the Predators. Now it seems perfectly fine, and only really pales in comparison to the obscene discounts for Forsberg ($6M) and Arvidsson ($4.25M).

Forsberg is probably the player most widely acknowledged as a star, likely in part because of his penchant for scoring highlight-reel goals. He’s also the player who has probably been most shortchanged by injuries over the years. Forsberg has 25 goals in just 55 games this season, after managing 26 while being limited to 67 contests in 2017-18.

(Much like his linemates, Forsberg’s been more than opponents can handle possession-wise, too.)

Now, we can tussle about where the Predators’ top line ranks among the best of the best. But the point is that they’re really not that far behind the upper-most of the elite, making Nashville a team with an interesting ceiling.

Because, for the most part, the Preds have pieces that only a few other contenders also have.

Their defense is much-hyped, and rightfully so. They not only have a veteran starter in Pekka Rinne, but an increasingly proven backup/goalie of the future in Juuse Saros.

Still searching for scorers beyond the big three — and that defense

But, yes, there is an issue: are the Predators something of a one-line team?

It’s telling that a) the top line players lead all other forwards, despite Arvidsson and Forsberg missing so much time and b) three of the Predators other top-six scorers are defensemen, with Roman Josi‘s 55 points sitting not that far behind Johansen’s 58 for the team lead.

(Mattias Ekholm has 42 points, while Ryan Ellis is at 37.)

Craig Smith‘s the highest-scoring forward after that trio with 33 points. Being that 19 of those points are goals, Smith’s been a useful player – as usual – for the Predators.

The key, then, is to get his would-be linemates on track by the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

While Johansen’s been justifying his price tag, Kyle Turris hasn’t exactly looked like a $6M center this season. Turris’ already-rough season hit a new low with a recent healthy scratch, but maybe he can start to get things back on track, beginning with a likely return to the lineup during Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs?

(Granted, he’s currently slated for fourth-line duty, so it might be an uphill battle.)

[More in the Morning Skate]

Mere ripples after from splashy moves

The Predators were aggressive during the trade deadline, but the returns haven’t been astronomical.

Mikael Granlund‘s four points in seven games can be considered acceptable, yet not exactly mind-blowing. Through eight games, Wayne Simmonds hasn’t scored a single goal, managing just an assist during that span.

Some of these results must be frustrating, no doubt. At least there’s time to find offense beyond that explosive top line, though.

Peter Laviolette could always at least tinker with seeing how it would work to spread the wealth, although too much movement might be messing with a good thing. Granlund could easily slide into a role as center, where he often played with the Wild.

The Predators haven’t enjoyed great results from forwards beyond Forsberg – Johansen – Arvidsson, but there are at least plenty of options. Hey, maybe this would be a good time to see if Eeli Tolvanen can finally stick in the lineup, too?

Even if none of those other options work out, the NHL’s shifted to being a league that’s heavy with teams who depend largely on their top lines, and the good news is that the Predators’ trio can hang with most of them.

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 on NBCSN: Sharks look to take bite out of Wild’s playoff hopes

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

As of right now, the Wild and Sharks are both sitting in a playoff spot in the Western Conference. That’s right around where the comparison between these two teams ends. The Sharks have all but clinched a postseason berth, while the Wild are fighting for their playoff lives.

Minnesota GM Paul Fenton was pretty active at the trade deadline, as he shipped Charlie Coyle to Boston and Mikael Granlund to Nashville. They got back some pretty good players in Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala, but there’s no denying that they took a step back in order to get a little younger.

Many were inclined to believe that those moves would result in the Wild falling out of the playoff picture, but here they are. Now, it’s important to realize that they are far from being in an ideal situation. Minnesota has 74 points in 69 games. The teams behind them are right on their heels. The Coyotes have 73 points in 68 games and the Avalanche had 72 points in 69 games.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

In fairness to the Wild, they’ve had a tough stretch of games since the start of March. They opened the month by beating the Flames in Calgary and they dropped a pair of shootout decisions against the Nashville Predators on Sunday and Tuesday before surprisingly taking down the Tampa Bay Lightning, 3-0. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Friday’s 6-2 loss to Florida was devastating.

“It just felt like we weren’t ready when the puck dropped and we got behind early and we weren’t able to get the shifts back to back to get the momentum back,” said veteran forward Eric Fehr, per the Wild’s website.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened. It seemed from the start of the game we didn’t bring any part of the game we brought last night. It’s unfortunate. This was a game we needed to win and we let it go.”

The good news for Minnesota, is that Victor Rask is expected to make his return to the lineup tonight. He’s been out for almost a month with a lower-body injury.

This is a huge stretch for the team. Starting tonight, they’ll begin a five-game home stand. Four of the teams they’ll be hosting are in or near a playoff spot, as they’ll take on the Sharks, Stars, Rangers, Islanders and Avalanche.

This will either make or break their season.

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.

Wild aren’t going away, despite injuries and trades

You’re to be forgiven if you had already written off the Minnesota Wild this season because, well, it was a pretty easy thing to do.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that they were in the middle of a stretch where they had lost nine out of 10 games, were on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture and surrounded by a pile of teams that all seemed to be in a better position to make a run at a playoff spot than they were, and the roster was in the process of being torn apart by trades and injuries.

Already playing without one of their top defenders in Mathew Dumba, they also lost their captain, Mikko Koivu, for the remainder of the season.

As if those two injuries were not enough, there were the trades that saw Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund all get shipped off in exchange for Victor Rask, Ryan Donato, and Kevin Fiala. Those trades allowed the Wild to get younger and a little cheaper, but it didn’t seem to make the team much better in the short-term (or even the long-term where a couple of those trades are still questionable moves).

There was every reason to believe the season was teetering on the edge of collapse not long after coach Bruce Boudreau all but guaranteed a playoff berth.

Somehow, even with all of that adversity and roster upheaval, the Wild have managed to collect a point in seven consecutive games (winning five of them) and still have a hold on a playoff spot in the Western Conference, sitting two points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche for the second Wild Card spot and only two games back of the St. Louis Blues for the third spot in the Central Division.

Their past five games alone have been against Calgary, Winnipeg, St. Louis, and Nashville (twice) and they managed to come out of that stretch with eight out of a possible 10 points. That is three of the top teams in the Western Conference and a fourth (St. Louis) that is one of the hottest teams in the league. And they came out way better than could have reasonably been expected going in.

What is driving that recent success?

For one, starting goalie Devan Dubnyk deserves a lot of credit for playing some outstanding hockey over that stretch, posting a .935 save percentage and a 5-0-1 record. If you get a .935 save percentage (and let’s not forget backup Alex Stalock posted a .953 mark in his one appearance during that stretch, too)  you are going to have a chance to win a lot of hockey games no matter what the rest of your roster looks like or who you are playing on any given night.

They have also received some big contributions from some of their newest acquisitions.

Since arriving from Boston in the Coyle trade Donato has been one of the team’s best offensive players with two goals and five assists in seven games.

Fiala also had a big game on Tuesday night with a pair of goals against his former team to help the Wild secure at least a point in the standings.

Eric Staal has also been on a role as of late with nine points over the past seven games.

[Related: Zach Parise having sneaky good season for Wild]

Put all of that together and suddenly the playoffs don’t just seem to be a possibility for the Wild, they seem to have a great chance to punch their ticket even with all of the chaos that has happened within.

It certainly helped that they caught Calgary, Winnipeg, Nashville when they did, because while all three are the top teams in the West, none of them have really played their best hockey as of late.

It has also helped that the competition for the two Wild Card spots in the Western Conference has thinned out dramatically.

Vancouver, Chicago, Edmonton, and Anaheim — teams that were all within a point or two of a playoff spot just a couple of weeks ago — have fallen back out of the race and now sit as many as seven points back. None of them, realistically speaking, are a serious threat to the Wild (or anyone else in the playoff race, for that matter).

The two biggest threats on the outside remain Colorado and Arizona, while Minnesota still has a head-to-head game remaining with each.

A couple of weeks ago the Wild were a battered team whose roster was in the process of being broken apart and were one of nine teams fighting for what would only be three playoff spots.

Today that potential playoff race has been whittled down to just five teams fighting for the same three spots.

The Wild are not only one of the five teams still in it, they are probably sitting in a better position and playing better than at least three of them. That might be all they need to get in the postseason and give themselves a chance.

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.

Recent Cup champs show small trades can make big difference

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Nick Jensen was just a Minnesota boy who played his first three seasons in Detroit.

Then he walked into the Washington Capitals’ locker room and saw the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who welcomed their newest defenseman with open arms.

”I never knew them before this and I just see them on TV, and it’s a little star-striking right away,” Jensen said.

Jensen isn’t a star, but he and winger Carl Hagelin sure fit the mold of low key trade-deadline acquisitions who can pay big dividends during a long playoff run. The Capitals learned last year in getting defenseman Michal Kempny how a seemingly small trade can make a big difference, and the defending Stanley Cup champions are among the teams that made low-risk moves at last month’s trade deadline in hopes of reaping a high reward.

Vegas paid a big price to land winger Mark Stone, Winnipeg gave up its first-rounder for center Kevin Hayes and both teams are better for those pickups. Yet recent history shows contenders who tinkered rather than making a splash at the deadline got it right.

”To bring in people that are going to take major roles from some of your core guys, it starts to create some issues,” Washington coach Todd Reirden said. ”Any time you have a chance to improve your players and acquire depth and give them a better opportunity to win, you don’t ever pass it up. But it’s something that seems like it’s been a successful one for us last year with a little bit of an under the radar acquisition and then this year the same thing.”

Before the 2018 Capitals, the 2016 Penguins got Hagelin and defenseman Justin Schultz before the deadline, and a year later added Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit for blue line depth and repeated as champions even without Kris Letang. The 2015 Blackhawks similarly added forwards Antoine Vermette and Andrew Desjardins and defenseman Kimmo Timonen before winning their third championship in six seasons.

While Columbus went all in to get forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel even with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky set to be free agents, other playoff teams tweaked to fill existing holes. Nashville paid reasonable prices to upgrade up front with Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund. Winnipeg made perhaps its most important pickup with unheralded defenseman Nathan Beaulieu and Pittsburgh responded to injuries by trading for defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Chris Wideman.

”We feel like we picked up some good pieces,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. ”But for the most part, this is the group that we’ve got to get on the page and get going in the right direction.”

Perhaps one reason minor deadline moves have as big an impact as substantial ones is there’s only a quarter of a season for players to get acclimated to their new teammates. It’s an ongoing process of watching video, studying and adjusting and it all happens on the fly in the midst of valuable games.

”You have to make an impact pretty quickly,” Gudbranson said. ”Just play my game, be physical, make the simple play, be solid and just communicate quite a bit.”

TICKING CLOCKS

NHL general managers have approved adding small digital clocks embedded in rink boards in all four corners beginning next season, an improvement that could add the odd goal or two because players won’t have to look up at a scoreboard for the time anymore.

”It’s a good idea,” Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk said. ”You have an awareness of how much time is on the clock no matter what, but to see it, especially toward the end of a period or whatever may be happening, I think it’s only a good thing for players to have that.”

The league’s Board of Governors must approve the idea first for it to become a reality in all arenas.

HITCH’S MEMORY

The goal that haunts Buffalo Sabres fans isn’t etched in Ken Hitchcock’s memory. Twenty years since he coached the Dallas Stars to the Cup – a series that ended with Brett Hull’s infamous ”skate in the crease” overtime goal – Hitchcock has barely watched the game.

”I watched the game that we lost to New Jersey (in the 2000 Final) 20 times, and I know every shift,” said Hitchcock, who now coaches Edmonton. ”I know everything that went on in that Jersey game. But I never looked at (Game 6 in 1999) until it came up in the summer on the NHL Network, and there was a one-hour highlight package that they show on games. That’s the first time I saw it.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Blue Jackets need all the points they can get as they claw for a playoff spot, and it doesn’t get much bigger than their game against the Penguins on Saturday night.