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The Buzzer: Wheeler keeps dealing; big apples

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Three Stars

1. Blake Wheeler

What a night for the wildly underrated Winnipeg Jets captain.

Wheeler scored a goal and four assists, crossing 400 for his (again, wildly underrated) career. That milestone helper came as he read Nathan MacKinnon to create a turnover and set the table for Nikolaj Ehlers. Three of Wheeler’s four assists were primary helpers, too.

As usual, the winger brought a great all-around game, earning a +3 rating and logging a significant 3:13 of shorthanded time.

This virtuoso performance extended Wheeler’s point streak to nine games (two goals, 15 assists). Wheeler’s now at 21 points on the season, with 18 of them being assists, which ranks second in the NHL.

Mark Scheifele had a strong game against the struggling Avs, too, scoring a goal and two assists.

2. Mikael Granlund

The Wild absolutely dominated the Ducks, who seem to have no gear other than “hope John Gibson and a few deadly shooters can save the day.”

Granlund and Jason Zucker both generated three points, so you could consider them tied for the second star. Granlund gets the slight edge because he scored two goals and one assist, while Zucker generated two assists and one goal. Again, you could make the argument that Zucker should get that nod instead (or be the third star, if you’re really being difficult), as he had five SOG to Granlund’s two, and Zucker’s tally was the GWG.

Still, Granlund enjoyed a slightly more impressive night, including really making it easy for Zucker on his goal.

The Wild are quietly heating up, with wins in nine of their last 11 games. Bruce Boudreau just finds ways to keep his team’s regular-season-relevant, doesn’t he? Granlund and Zucker deserve serious credit for stepping up with Eric Staal banged up.

3. Chad Johnson

Friday was a solid night for goalies around the NHL. Sergei Bobrovsky earned praise from Torts and had the same number of saves (33) as Johnson. Like Bob, Frederik Andersen only allowed one goal while making 38 stops.

Chad Johnson is the only goalie who earned a shutout on Friday, though.

Considering Jake Allen‘s substantial struggles, the Blues might want to lean on Johnson for a while, as the journeyman goalie has – on occasion – shown that he can carry a team in net at times during certain stretches. The Blues have been able to occasionally create a really nurturing atmosphere for hot-and-cold goalies (like Brian Elliott, Johnson’s creasemate from last season), so perhaps Johnson could go on a mini-run? If nothing else, this was a nice win, especially if Mike Yeo is in any way looking over his shoulder at Joel Quenneville.

In other Blues news, Ryan O'Reilly is on a nine-game point streak.

Highlights

It didn’t translate to a goal, but this bit of Scheifele wizardry was magical:

Speaking of magical, Nick Foligno‘s beautiful pass to Oliver Bjorkstrand played a trick on three Capitals opponents:

Andreas Athanasiou ranks as one of Friday’s honorable mentions, scoring the goal that sent Detroit’s game against the Rangers into OT, then setting up Dylan Larkin for this OT game-winner:

Lowlight

Here’s hoping referee Brad Meier is feeling OK after this uncomfortable fall:

Factoids

Wheeler’s 400th assist wasn’t the only milestone from Friday. Patrick Marleau didn’t do a whole lot for it (Nazem Kadri ended up batting down a puck for a nice goal), but most of his 600 career assists have surely been impressive. (These two assist milestones explain the big apples part of this post’s headline, in case that wasn’t clear.)

Kinda cool to see his old buddy Joe Thornton on this list with him:

Chad Johnson’s enjoyed some nice peak moments in the NHL, but it’s been a while since he’s enjoyed a night like Friday.

Rarely a bad time to see your name next to Wayne Gretzky’s, eh, Blake Wheeler?

Scores

TOR 6 – NJD 1
CBJ 2 – WSH 1
DET 3 – NYR 2 (OT)
STL 4 – SJS 0
WPG 5 – COL 2
MIN 5 – ANA 1

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.

Matthews-less Maple Leafs look clunky against Flames

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The Toronto Maple Leafs’ weak effort in a 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames wasn’t merely about missing Auston Matthews. It wasn’t even about the Maple Leafs being without Matthews and unsigned winger William Nylander.

Still, there was a brief stretch that might remind you one of the sneaky things that makes the full-strength version of this Leafs team so potent: they boast the offensive talent to essentially outscore their problems on many nights.

After dominating the puck through two scoreless periods, the Flames finally started breaking through in the third. Sean Monahan made it 1-0 5:39 into the final frame, while his linemate Elias Lindholm hammered home a great pass from Johnny Gaudreau to make it 2-0 less than a minute later.

It looked like the Maple Leafs were going to lose the game with a big thud, and honestly, a deserving one.

Yet, during one comically odd and misleading moment, it seemed like the Maple Leafs somehow tied the game.

Let’s set the stage:

As rudderless as the Maple Leafs seemed for most of the contest, Toronto was gifted a pretty lengthy 5-on-3 opportunity late in regulation. Calgary provided some hearty efforts on the PK, but the Maple Leafs finally broke through once Morgan Rielly sent a great pass to Mitch Marner, who set up a Nazem Kadri with an even sweeter feed.

Then, with about 1:30 left, a chance seemingly beat Mike Smith, prompting Zach Hyman and other Leafs to boisterously celebrate, as it looked like Toronto tied things up 2-2 with its net empty.

Nope, the puck actually was stuck in the twine on the outside of the net, creating an optical illusion that tricked the Maple Leafs and thousands of their hometown fans. There was so much confusion that Toronto was lucky enough to see the play whistled dead.

Instead of it being 2-2, Michael Frolik eventually scored an empty-netter to lock things up at 3-1. Perhaps Matthews would have made the difference in Toronto getting that extra push to steal that game, but hockey justice was served: Calgary was way, way better.

It’s just one game, but the clunky work clearly irritated Maple Leafs fans. With Nylander still in limbo and Matthews on the shelf for at least one month, Toronto still has some credible talent – Kadri has proven to be the sort of center you could easily place on the second line, and John Tavares is John Tavares – yet you wonder if more earthbound ammo might leave Mike Babcock that much more trigger-shy.

However you place the blame, the Maple Leafs struggled in transition in this game, and often asked Frederik Andersen to bail his team out a lot like he’d be doing on his old team, the Anaheim Ducks.

Players like Matthews are special (and fun to watch) because they make difficult athletic accomplishments look easy. Chances are, this will be a grind with him on the shelf, and Monday showed that the Maple Leafs have some serious work to do.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Early season NHL surprises and disappointments

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the league as a whole and where everyone sits nearly one month into the season.

Who are the early season elites? It is a lot of the usual suspects. Who are the early season surprises? Carolina, Arizona and Buffalo are all extremely competitive, and dare we say … good. Who are the early disappointments? Look no further than Philadelphia and St. Louis. Who are we just not sure about? Everyone from Edmonton, to Chicago, to Montreal, to even Colorado.

All of that and more!

To the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — I know, I know. They just got clobbered by Arizona. Tough way to end the week. But that loss ended what had been a seven-game point streak and they are still 7-2-1 on the season. And they still haven’t really gotten much of anything out of players like Steven Stamkos or Ondrej Palat yet. The fact they are still piling up wins when they have not really started to click yet is a testament to how good and deep this team is.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins — They just completed a four-game road trip through Canada where they went 4-0-0 and outscored their opponents by a 23-6 margin. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are firing on all cylinders right now.

3Nashville Predators — They were the Western Conference champions two years and the Presidents’ Trophy winners this past season. They have shown no signs of slowing down and might be even better this season.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs — There are real questions about their defense and goaltending that need to be answered, and losing Auston Matthews for a month is going to hurt in the short-term, but when you still have John Tavares and Nazem Kadri to center your top two lines in his absence they are going to be just fine. We know they will pile up wins in the regular season and that they are going to make the playoffs. We just don’t know how far they will go once they get there.

Great start, but still skeptical

5. Colorado Avalanche — They have a great record, one of the best lines in hockey that is driving one of the highest scoring offenses in the league, and as of Monday a plus-14 goal differential that is tied for the best in hockey. Why the skepticism: They are still a bottom-10 possession team and they really haven’t had a daunting schedule yet having only played three teams that finished in the top-12 of the standings a season ago. They are 1-2-0 in those games.

[Related: Is the line of Rantanen, MacKinnon, Landeskog the NHL’s best?]

6. Minnesota Wild — The Wild remain a fascinating team when it comes to quality vs. quantity in the shots department. They are once again one of the bottom teams in the league in shot attempt differential. They are one of the best teams in scoring chance differential. There are not many teams that can pull that off. The Wild did it a year ago and, so far, are doing it again.

7. Montreal Canadiens — Of all the teams in this tier this might be the one I am most skeptical of because, well, I just don’t think they’re that good. They have, however, played pretty well so far this season and have the one X-factor that can really elevate them if he is on top of his game. That X-factor: Carey Price. He hasn’t consistently been at that level this season, though he has shown flashes of it. Max Domi has also been a huge surprise having already scored five goals in 10 games after scoring nine in each of the past two seasons.

8. Edmonton Oilers — Two games into the season it looked like Todd McLellan had one foot out the door and the team was doomed to be awful again. And who knows, maybe it will all still play out that way. But they are 6-1-1 in the eight games since and some people other than Connor McDavid are starting to provide some offense. Up is down. Down is up.

9. Chicago Blackhawks — Like the Canadiens I’m not really sure how good this team actually is but they do have some players that can be difference-makers and carry them a long way. Patrick Kane is off to a great start offensively, Alex DeBrincat is emerging as a star, and Corey Crawford is a massive upgrade over Cam Ward and the goalies they were using a year ago. They are not the team they once were. They might still be … decent?

10. New Jersey Devils — They have cooled off considerably from their four-game unbeaten streak to open the year and that concerns me, because this was a very average team a year ago outside of Taylor Hall and the top line. Still reason to think they can be good, but maybe not as good as the 4-0-0 start.

Teams that are better than this

11. San Jose Sharks — In the category of “teams that are not going to be this low in the standings (or the power rankings) for much longer,” the Sharks are at the top of that tier. After winning just two of their five five games the Sharks have now won five out of six and have at least a point in six consecutive games. Erik Karlsson has not been the player they expected … yet. He will be. When he is, look out.

12. Vegas Golden Knights — Everything went right for them a year ago, and so far this season their puck luck has changed. Don’t let that make you think this team is going to keep regressing. They are controlling 60 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts in their games and have the second best scoring chance differential. It is a weird thing to say about a team in its second year, but they are somewhat of a sleeping giant early in the season.

13. Winnipeg Jets — They need to get Patrik Laine going, and they will, but the bigger concern might be the fact that Connor Hellebuyck‘s early save percentage is only .907. His play a year ago is a big reason why they went from middle-of-the-pack, bubble playoff team to legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

[Related: What is wrong with Patrik Laine?]

14. Boston Bruins — There is quite a gap between what their top line is doing offensively and what the rest of the team is doing offensively. That is going to be a problem if it continues.

15. Washington Capitals — I don’t believe in Stanley Cup hangovers. I do believe the 2017-18 Capitals were a really good, top-tier team that had everything click and go in their favor at the right time and that so far this season they have not yet hit their stride.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets — I kind of cringe as to what this team might look like if/when Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky are not there. Given the way Bobrovsky has played so far this season we are getting a little preview of that, and it is not promising. But Bobrovsky is still there for now, and he will play better. As long as he does, so will the Blue Jackets.

The upstarts and surprises

17. Carolina Hurricanes — This is definitely the year the Hurricanes realize their potential and become the team we always thought they could be. This is definitely the year the Hurricanes realize their potential and become the team we always thought they could be. This is definitely the year the Hurricanes realize their potential and become the team we always thought they could be.

18. Arizona Coyotes — The Coyotes did not win their fifth game of the 2017-18 season until the end of November. They have not only won four of their past five to get back to .500 through their first 10 games, they have been one of the toughest teams in the NHL to score against.

19. Buffalo Sabres — There does seem to be a different feel around this team this year. Jeff Skinner has always been everything they could have hoped for him to be. Just a matter now of how long he will remain there.

20. New York Islanders — They have not been great, but they have also not yet been the cellar dweller I thought they would be at the start of the year. Given the way their underlying numbers look they still might very well end up there, but so far they have been competitive. Anders Lee is on his way to having the type of season that can make him a lot of money in a few months.

The disappointments

21. Florida Panthers — They are probably playing better than their record indicates as goaltending has really hurt them, but you can not start a season with only two wins in your first nine games and expect to easily make up that ground. Given the way the 2017-18 season played out this team should know that better than anyone.

22. Calgary Flames — This team just seems like it should be … better. I really don’t know what else to say other than that. They are just underwhelming.

23. Dallas Stars — Take what we just said about the Flames and repeat it here.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — At the start of the season I argued this was the NHL’s ultimate boom-or-bust team given the makeup of the roster and the questions on the blue line and in net. So far they are a bust.

25. St. Louis Blues — The Blues were one of the toughest teams in the league to score against in 2017-18 and missed the playoffs because their offense stunk. They spent the offseason throwing money at fixing their forwards and entering play on Monday have the fourth highest goals per game in the league. Success! The problem: Now they can’t stop anybody. You know what it means when one part of the team works and the other doesn’t, and then when the other part works the part that had been working stops working? It means you are probably a mediocre team.

These teams are bad

26. Ottawa Senators — They haven’t been as bad as expected, but they still only have four wins in 10 games and have probably had a few players playing over their heads so far. It would still not surprise me to see them 31st when the season concludes.

27. Vancouver Canucks — They had a really impressive three-game road trip through Florida and Pittsburgh early in the year where they won all three games. But other than that this team has been about what we expected: A couple of good young forwards, a bad defense and only mediocre at best goaltending.

28. Anaheim Ducks — The injuries have not helped, but other than the play of John Gibson and Ryan Miller there is nothing positive about the way this team has played this season. Think about how bad your team has to play to have a pair of goalies with a combined .938 save percentage over 12 games, and only win five of those games. When those two see any sort of a regression the bottom could fall out on this team.

[Related: Ducks ask too much of Gibson and Getzlaf is not happy]

29. New York Rangers — This season is all about which young players will show some progress and which veteran players will play well enough to get traded for a nice return before the deadline later in the year. Brett Howden has been impressive.

30. Los Angeles Kings — The window on this team as a Stanley Cup contender has been emphatically slammed shut. A slow, dull, boring team that needs overhauled.

31. Detroit Red Wings — It took them until game No. 11, but they finally have a win in regulation. That is how things are going for the Motor City’s hockey team so far this season.

(Shot attempt and scoring chance data provided is via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

Tavares helps Leafs hold off ferocious Jets’ rally

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One game after storming back from a 3-1 deficit against the Blues, the Jets almost stormed back into Wednesday’s Canadian clash with the Maple Leafs.

Toronto largely quieted the Winnipeg crowd – you could, in fact, hear plenty of Leafs fans as the Buds took an early lead – as they carried a 3-0 lead into the third period. Chalk it up to desperation, or the tweak of swapping Patrik Laine out for a speedy, keyed-in Nikolaj Ehlers on Winnipeg’s top line, but the Jets made things really interesting.

Ehlers and hockey savant Mark Scheifele scored goals about 90 seconds apart, shrinking Toronto’s lead to 3-2 with plenty of time remaining.

The Maple Leafs could have cratered under that pressure … but nights like these remind you why it was so huge for this rising team to land John Tavares. The star center tapped in a loose puck two minutes after Scheifele’s goal to make it 4-2, and that really calmed things down for the Maple Leafs.

The Maple Leafs ultimately won 4-2, with that thrilling third period really backing up the hype of these two hyper-talented, young Canadian teams.

While Tavares’ goal served as critical insurance, Nazem Kadri finally broke his goal slump to generate the 3-0 tally, which would end up being the game-winner. You could see pure relief on the face of the center, whose opportunities have shrunk quite a bit with Tavares and Auston Matthews grabbing the biggest reps.

Through the first two periods, the Maple Leafs didn’t just generate a 3-0 advantage. They carried much of the play, generating a 28-18 shots on goal edge. The Jets’ mad late rush featured a whopping 22 SOG, with Ehlers emerging as a constant nuisance.

With that in mind, Frederik Andersen deserves serious credit.

The Leafs’ leaky defense might sabotage his chances of ever winning the Vezina Trophy, yet Andersen is at times a tremendous workhorse. He came to play in this one, stopping 38 out of 40 shots.

Considering all the media attention this game drew – the thriller was featured on both Canadian and American broadcasts – it has to be disappointing for Winnipeg to lose, and maybe “wake up” too late. On the other hand, they really might have something interesting if Ehlers finds lasting chemistry with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

If you want to see these two sublimely talented teams trade chances and big saves once again, you won’t need to wait very long. The two teams will meet again in Toronto on Saturday.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Leafs visit Jets on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

It’s the battle of the top two picks from the 2016 NHL Draft as Patrik Laine faces off against Auston Matthews. The two young NHL stars have already established themselves as impact players in the league and will be on display in of their two annual regular season matchups.

The Maple Leafs’ offense was sensational through the first 7 games of the season (4.71 goals per game), but has since hit a speed bump. They were shut out 3-0 against Pittsburgh and then fell 4-1 to St. Louis.

“We know we’re going to have to be at our best to beat a team like this,” said Jets forward Mark Scheifele.

Winnipeg’s matchup with Toronto will mark the end of their season-long six-game homestand. The Jets are 5-0-1 at home this season. Last year they were the best home team in the league at 32-7-2.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

WHAT: Toronto Maple Leafs at Winnipeg Jets
WHERE: Bell MTS Place
WHEN: Wednesday, October 24th, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVESTREAM: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Jets stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach HymanJohn TavaresMitch Marner
Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – Kasperi Kapanen
Par LindholmNazem KadriConnor Brown
Tyler EnnisFrederik GauthierJosh Leivo

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Martin MarincinIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

JETS
Patrik Laine – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Kyle ConnorBryan LittleNikolaj Ehlers
Andrew CoppAdam LowryBrandon Tanev
Brendan LemieuxJack RoslovicMathieu Perreault

Josh MorrisseyJacob Trouba
Ben ChiarotDustin Byfuglien
Dmitry KulikovTyler Myers

Starting goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

MORE: The Laine vs. Matthews debate