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Penguins – Maple Leafs is about as fun as it gets

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It’s too early to make sweeping observations about the quality of a team in 2018-19 (sorry Canadiens; you’re welcome, Coyotes), but it’s never too early to get excited about a game. You know, if your soul is still attached to your person, and you’re not too cool to get excited about things in general.

Now, sure, circumstances could change matters. Players could be tired or just have an off night. Maybe a coach will bench an exhilarating talent because they hit the snooze button one too many times.

But, at least on paper, it’s really difficult to imagine a more exciting matchup than Penguins – Maple Leafs, a matchup taking place in Toronto tonight.

(Yeah, it doesn’t hurt that the hockey-mad city gets to channel its sometimes over-the-top excitement into this one, either.)

Just consider all of the factors, narratives, and certain statistics that make this game stand out like a sign for “Kenny Rogers’ Roasters.”

[Maybe this is the perfect opportunity for Crosby to shake off a relatively slow start?]

The Ridiculous Wattage of Star Power

No matter how Mike Babcock and Mike Sullivan deploy their lines, you’ll see high-end talent during almost every shift on Thursday.

Most obviously, we’ll get to see a clash between two premium one-two punches at center, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin trade scoring chances with Auston Matthews and John Tavares. That’s the sort of matchup that marketers and hockey fans alike would normally only dream about.

You could manufacture an exciting game if you sent out a bunch of fire hydrants with those guys, but the Penguins and Maple Leafs deploy other dangerous scorers, even with William Nylander‘s contract situation stuck in limbo.

Phil Kessel could easily have the best night of anyone in trying to spite his former team. Jake Guentzel tends to play his best when the spotlight shines brightest. Mitch Marner is a sensational talent who can take over a game in his own right.

Even the defensemen can bring some offense to the table, as Kris Letang and Morgan Rielly have begun 2018-19 on torrid scoring paces, while Jake Gardiner and others can contribute, too.

All the silliness that stems from all that star power

The goofy debates that stem from Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby vs. McDavid, and on and on, ultimately translates to entertainment. That goes for if you take barroom debates seriously, or are simply bemused by people believing that Matthews has reached McDavid after a couple scorching-hot weeks.

It’s not just columnists pumping out hot takes.

As you may remember, Lars Eller dismissed Matthews – Tavares because of the “been there, done that” feeling of facing Crosby – Malkin for all those years. You then have Babcock saying that McDavid vs. Crosby “isn’t even close,” while Mark Scheifele seems to feel the same way about McDavid vs. Matthews.

(You think we could get Edmonton to loan Connor to this game to really hammer home all of these points? Might be good for the fella’s morale.)

Oh yeah, there’s also Brian Burke comparing Rielly to … Nicklas Lidstrom?

Some of this stuff is dopey. Some of it is instructive. Maybe there’s a combination of both at times. But it all adds to the fun, if you ask me.

All offense, no defense?

By winning two consecutive Stanley Cups while playing an attack-first, play-defense later style, the Penguins played a big role in the NHL placing an increased emphasis on skill, scoring, and more exciting hockey.

So far this season, the Maple Leafs feel like the gnarly evolution of that style.

By just about any measure, Toronto’s been playing high-event hockey this season. They’ve been scoring so much that it’s generally allowed them to shrug their shoulders at what’s frequently been a leaky defense.

The Penguins haven’t been as crisp so far this season, failing to walk the high-risk tightrope because their defense has really cratered.

That’s bad news for Pittsburgh’s hopes of, say, winning its division … but it sure opens the door for tonight to be fun.

Big goalies back in net

Barring late-breaking setbacks, the teams’ two starters (Matt Murray and Frederik Andersen) should suit up for their respective teams on Thursday.

If they play well, this showdown could feature at least some slowdown. Perhaps we’ll see a spectacular save or two from both goalies to keep the score reasonable? If they’re rusty, then the floodgates may open even wider.

Either way, the returns of Murray and Andersen add another wrinkle to a game that’s jam-packed with intrigue.

***

Again, it’s possible that this game might not deliver the thrills you’d expect. Sometimes hockey is just that way in 2018, even with some progress made – thanks in part to these two talented teams.

Still, if you had to wager on a game being a ton of fun, Penguins – Maple Leafs is as safe a bet as you can get. You know, unless you’re the coach breaking down defensive lapses or the goalie trying to put out all of those fires.

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.

Contract talks: Nylander and Leafs meet; Rinne’s future with Predators

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Update: The Ducks announced a three-year contract for Nick Ritchie tonight, so scratch one name off the list.

***

Hockey insider Bob McKenzie swung by the NBCSN studio on Wednesday, covering multiple bases. As you can see in the video above this headline, McKenzie provided an array of contract-related updates from around the NHL, so let’s dive in:

William Nylander and the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs are scoring goals like a glutton piling a plate high at a buffet, yet they’re missing quality top-six winger William Nylander. It’s far from a simple situation for either side. From Nylander’s perspective, he doesn’t want to leave too much money on the table, considering that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner may raise the bar with their own second contracts. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs must worry about maintaining enough cap space beyond those three young forwards and John Tavares‘ new deal, plus a big investment in Nylander is especially risky since he doesn’t have the largest sample size of work at the NHL level.

Phew.

As much as Kasperi Kapanen‘s strong early work has eased some of the burden of Nylander’s absence, the bottom line is that the two sides want to get something done. With that in mind, McKenzie and others report that Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas met with Nylander in Switzerland.

It remains to be seen if the two sides made any real progress in these high-stakes contract negotiations, although if nothing else, McKenzie notes that Dubas’ visit could at least ease some of the tensions that come with (literal and figurative) games of telephone.

Plenty of people believe that a “bridge” deal would ultimately be the most likely route for a compromise, but that could change with time, for all we know.

Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Dec. 1 deadline: That’s the NHL deadline for an RFA to sign a contract. If a deal isn’t reached, that player cannot play in the NHL during the 2018-19 season. It’s tough to imagine that being the outcome, although Nylander could conceivably play in the KHL or another league if things get truly nasty.
  • Nylander would be eligible for salary arbitration in the unlikely event that the Maple Leafs only sign him for 2018-19.
  • Nylander, 22, is five seasons away from being eligible for UFA status. That’s worth considering when you ponder how long a “bridge” deal might be.
  • The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun discusses the circumstances (sub required) that could make a trade more likely. (Personally, it’s tough to imagine, but it’s also surprising that the situation keeps dragging on.)

It’s a tough situation – with a lot of ins and outs – yet if the two sides can hammer something out, it could also be worth the headaches.

Nick Ritchie and the Anaheim Ducks

McKenzie provides an update to a far-less-pressing RFA situation, with the tone being optimistic about a deal being struck.

It’s been interesting to see how the beginning of the 2018-19 season could conceivably provide more leverage for both sides. On one hand, the Anaheim Ducks have been able to manufacture wins and standings points with Ritchie on the shelf. On the other, injuries have really left Anaheim with a pretty threadbare group of forwards.

Again, the stakes are profoundly lower there, as Ritchie’s been merely a modest scorer at the NHL level.

Key situations for the Nashville Predators

There were two fascinating situations for Nashville discussed in the video, with two players essentially in opposite phases of their careers.

Pekka Rinne: Some might expect the Predators to accelerate the “passing of the torch” in net from Rinne to Juuse Saros. After all, Saros is 23, has shown serious promise so far in the NHL, and is dirt-cheap at $1.5M per year through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could provide the Predators with a quality starter at a backup cost, possibly opening up room to keep Nashville’s depth intact. That’s not a terrible concept considering that Roman Josi‘s due a big raise from $4M (which expires after 2019-20), Kevin Fiala‘s rookie deal ends after this season, and Ryan Ellis‘ extension kicks in starting next season.

Reasonable ideas all around, but that might not be Nashville’s path.

McKenzie reports that the Predators hope to get an extension done, and interestingly, it might even be a long-term deal.

The numbers matter, then, from both a financial and years standpoint. Rinne is already 35, so it would be a 35+ deal, making an already risky proposition that much riskier. Such a commitment could really make you sweat if Rinne’s extension carries a cap hit anywhere near his current $7M.

Bringing Rinne back seems fair enough, but we’ll see if the Predators make a shaky gamble.

Eeli Tolvanen: From an established 35-year-old goalie to a still-quite-raw first-rounder from 2017, we have 19-year-old Eeli Tolvanen.

As PHT discussed when Tolvanen was demoted, the Predators prospect has a clause that would allow him to escape to Europe (KHL or otherwise) after he plays in 10 AHL games. McKenzie notes that Tolvanen is playing in his fifth AHL game tonight.

Read more here about the conundrum Nashville faces. Should they bite the bullet and just keep him with the big club, even with some work to be done? If he goes to the KHL, he wouldn’t be able to play in the NHL again this season, according to McKenzie.

***

Again, you can get that rundown in the video above this post’s headline, while this article aims to provide additional insight. McKenzie also discussed Jake Dotchin’s situation with Anaheim (and Tampa Bay), so it’s worth your time to check it out.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

More feuds, more personality means more fun for NHL

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For all we know, it might take decades for hockey players to totally shake off their generic “aw shucks” mentalities. Maybe it will never fully happen.

That said, it sure seems like we’re seeing a rise in trash talks, brutally honest conversations, and examples of bigger personalities during this goal-happy start to the new NHL season. The latest incident involves Lars Eller, Nazem Kadri, “bulletin board material,” the Leafs, Capitals, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. So, yes, it’s pretty entertaining.

To catch you up to speed, Eller half-dismissed the rising Maple Leafs after they beat his Capitals 4-2 on Saturday, as NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti reported:

“We’re used to playing against Crosby and Malkin,” Eller said. “Everything kind of drops from there, so it’s not that special.”

While Eller added that the Maple Leafs are “a good team” and that he thinks Toronto would make the playoffs, Nazem Kadri didn’t take those comments kindly.

“Bulletin board material,” Kadri said on Monday, via NHL.com’s Dave McCarthy. “I don’t know how he can be serious with that comment. I understand they’re coming off hanging a banner, but you’ve got to give teams respect that have earned it, and I certainly think we’ve earned it.”

Juicy stuff, right?

Here’s a request: teams and players shouldn’t be so stuffy. Instead of getting tense in the shoulders about “respect,” it would be a lot more fun for fans if there were more comments like those of Ellers, and if personalities continue to surface.

Now, don’t get this totally twisted. NHL players aren’t going to rival the NBA when it comes to gloriously flamboyant behavior, at least not yet. It’s fitting that Eller was already walking back his comments on the Maple Leafs, as Gulitti notes today:

Sure, it’s possible that people got a little carried away with Eller’s comments … but who does it really hurt?

OK, so maybe Eller himself was recently bloodied by Brad Marchand for showing some personality following a goal, so you can understand why he might want to pump the brakes a bit here:

Let’s not forget that, while there’s a lot on the line in the NHL, this is still about entertainment.

Thankfully, this latest crop of hockey players – particularly stars – are opening up in ways that are keeping us laughing and sometimes egging on a fight like a crowd watching high schoolers slap each other. And it’s great.

Consider the recent flourishes we’ve enjoyed:

Matthews’ fashion sense generates memes that are almost as fun as watching him score ridiculous goals.

  • Do the Hurricanes have a name for this celebration yet? “The Carolina Climb” doesn’t have the same ring to it (or the same accuracy) as “The Lambeau Leap.” Either way, it’s a fun celebration; it also shows that elder statesmen can get it on the fun, as apparently this is the masterwork of Justin Williams:

(And you thought the team undergoing “Team Grit” and “Team Grind” practices couldn’t have fun.)

  • The Ryan JohansenRyan Kesler feud hasn’t resulted in a parking lot brawl … yet. The real highlight is Johansen’s adorably weak smack talk, to be frank.
  • Patrik Laine is just about as quick with quips as he is releasing shots. The highlight might be the jab he sent Vancouver’s way regarding “Fortnite” habits, as PHT’s own Scott Billeck reported on Oct. 3:

Good stuff, and this list is really just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve already seen Connor McDavid embrace his funny side with commercials and that meme-generating awkward airport photo. Matthews isn’t the only Maple Leafs youngster who can take and/or dish out jokes, as we saw from those cheesy Mitch Marner as a child barbs.

Maybe this all boils down to a more social media-savvy, meta generation of hockey players. On the other hand, we all might need to step up our games to even briefly wrestle the attention away from Gritty.

Whatever the case may be, let’s hope these moments of personality become a consistent part of hockey fandom, and – if we’re really lucky – crop up even more often.

If this is just a brief wave before we land back into blandness, at least it’s been a good run.

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.

Matthews scores 2 and helps Maple Leafs beat Red Wings 5-3

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DETROIT (AP) — Auston Matthews heard the short list of NHL greats he joined by scoring nine times in the first five games of the season.

Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Marleau, Mario Lemieux and Mike Bossy are the only other players in league history to pull off the feat.

”Nice,” Matthews said after scoring twice for a league-leading nine goals to help Toronto beat Detroit 5-3 Thursday night.

Matthews is the third player in franchise history to score in the first five games of a season.

”He had a fast start last year, too, unfortunately he got injured,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. ”He’s a big man. He’s really worked hard on his body. He’s worked hard on his skating and all parts of his game. With and without the puck, he’s better.”

Morgan Rielly had a goal and an assist, giving him 12 points to surpass Bobby Orr’s strong start during the 1973-74 season. Among defensemen, Rielly trails only Harry Cameron, who had 15 points in the Toronto Arenas’ first five games of the 1917-18 season.

”I’m not going to address personal stuff,” Rielly said. ”I think it’s more important to move on.”

Nick Jensen gave the Red Wings a 1-0 lead midway through the first period and scored a second goal midway through the third to pull them within a goal.

”It’s never as sweet when you get the goals but you don’t get the win,” he said.

Soon after Jensen’s second goal, Matthews took advantage of a power play by scoring his second goal of the game.

Detroit pulled within a goal again when a review determined Dylan Larkin scored with 6:04 left in the game. The Red Wings pulled Jimmy Howard to add an extra skater, but Ron Hainsey scored an empty-net goal to seal the win.

”I didn’t like the third,” said Babcock, a former Detroit coach. ”We didn’t take care of the puck as good and we didn’t keep our foot on the gas.”

Frederik Andersen made 26 saves and Mitch Marner had a goal for the Maple Leafs.

Howard had 30 stops for the rebuilding Red Wings, who have lost their first four games for the first time since the 1980.

”Bits and pieces of the game we did some of the good things, but it wasn’t enough done right,” Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said.

John Tavares, the top prize in free agency last summer, had four assists for the Atlantic Division-leading Maple Leafs, winners of three straight.

”It’s great for the all the guys who are doing some scoring right now,” Babcock said. ”It makes you feel good. In the end, though, it’s about winning. It doesn’t really matter who does the scoring as long as you find a way to win. It’s an exciting time for our team, but we’ve got to get a lot better.”

NOTES: Matthews joined Sweeney Schriner (1944-45) and Corb Denneny (1921-22) in team history as the three players who scored in each of its first five games in a season. … The Red Wings announced before the game they will retire Hall of Famer Red Kelly’s No. 4 jersey on Feb. 1, 2019, when they host Toronto. Kelly played in Detroit from 1947-60 and for the Maple Leafs from 1960-67. Toronto retired his jersey two years ago. … Jensen has scored three of the six goals in his career against Toronto. The defenseman did not score in 81 games last season and had four the previous season as a rookie.

The Buzzer: Maple Leafs stars keep rolling; Hurricanes win again

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Three Stars

1. Evander Kane, San Jose Sharks. A lot of Sharks players were great on Tuesday night as they exposed a lot of the Philadelphia Flyers’ flaws, but Kane might have been their best player. He finished the night with a pair of goals (giving him four on the year), was a plus-three, had seven shots on goal, and nine total shot attempts. The Flyers had no answer for him.

2. Nick Foligno, Columbus Blue Jackets. The captain was great for the Blue Jackets on Tuesday in their 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche, recording three points including a pair of goals, his first two of the season. Foligno is coming off of a down year that saw him score just 15 goals and 33 points in 72 games a season ago. If the Blue Jackets are going to make the playoffs and actually get out of the first round this season they are going to need more from him. With four points in three games he is off a nice start.

3. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs. Then there is Auston Matthews, who just keeps filling the back of the net and putting points on the board. He scored two more goals for the Maple Leafs on Tuesday night in their 7-4 win over the Dallas Stars, giving him seven goals in the team’s first four games this season. He has also recorded at least a pair of points in every game this season. Just because the Maple Leafs offense is totally unfair, John Tavares scored two more goals (giving him six on the year), while Mitch Marner and Morgan Reilly each had four point nights in the win. They may not be able to stop anybody defensively, but there are not many teams that can stop them offensively. If nothing else, they are going to be an incredibly fun team.

Highlights Of The Night

Sven Baertschi scored a pair of goals for the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night, with his first goal of the night being a beautiful move after taking a perfect outlet pass from veteran defenseman Alex Edler.

It was not enough for the Canucks as they were on the losing end of a 5-3 decision to a Carolina Hurricanes team that is now 3-0-1 on the season and look like a ton of fun.

Yes, the Hurricanes did their victory celebration again as young forwards Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Warren Foegele all contributed to the offense again.

Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau is one of the NHL’s most exciting players, and he made the Nashville Predators defense look bad in the first period on Tuesday night when he set up Elias Lindholm for this power play goal to get the Flames on the board. Gaudreau and Sean Monahan were particularly dominant for the Flames on Tuesday with the Monahan scoring a pair of goals in the 3-0 win.

Ilya Kovalchuk scored his first NHL goal in more than five years on Tuesday night when he gave the Los Angeles Kings an early 1-0 lead on a nice pass from defenseman Drew Doughty. That would be the only offense the Kings would get on the night in a 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. The close score does not illustrate how ugly this game was for the Kings as they were outshot by a 39-17 margin.

Factoids

The San Jose Sharks’ defense is loaded with a pair of Norris Trophy winners in Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. On Tuesday they teamed up for a goal, making them the first Norris Trophy winners to combine for a goal since 2009.

Auston Matthews is off to some kind of a start for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Scores

Columbus Blue Jackets 5, Colorado Avalanche 2

Carolina Hurricanes 5, Vancouver Canucks 3

San Jose Sharks 8, Philadelphia Flyers 2

Calgary Flames 3, Nashville Predators 0

Winnipeg Jets 2, Los Angeles Kings 1

Toronto Maple Leafs 7, Dallas Stars 4

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.