Small silver lining to Maple Leafs’ Kapanen being out with concussion

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Maple Leafs shared some lousy news heading into Wednesday’s game against the Blackhawks: forward Kasperi Kapanen is out with a concussion.

Kapanen, 22, was held out of Monday’s 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning for “precautionary reasons,” so it seems like the team might have determined the nature of his injury recently. It’s not clear when, exactly, Kapanen actually suffered the injury, with Jeff Veillette wondering if it’s actually something Kapanen had been dealing with for five games or so.

(Kapanen was limited to only an assist during that span, perhaps in part because he wasn’t at full-strength?)

Concussions are never really good news, obviously, but this is especially rough for Kapanen. He’s just short of his first 20-goal season with 19, and as a pending RFA, getting those counting stats could really bump up his earning potential. (Granted, he might just earn his way to the point of being too expensive to stay in Toronto, but there are worse problems to have.)

It would be a serious bummer – though certainly not unprecedented – if a concussion lingers into when the games matter the most, as the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs are less than a month away.

[MORE: Can the Maple Leafs make it past the first round?]

So, yeah, this is crummy both for the Maple Leafs and the winger, who’s enjoying a breakthrough season after struggling to make a full mark on the NHL during previous years.

There’s potential for at least one silver lining, however.

This could be a great opportunity for William Nylander to a) heat up with the postseason nearing and b) show that he warrants a longer run on Auston Matthews‘ wing.

That’s where Nylander is slated to line up for Toronto’s game against Chicago on Wednesday, forming an interesting line with Matthews and Andreas Johnsson. (Patrick Marleau – Kapanen’s other regular linemate with Matthews – slides to the third line with Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown.)

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

It seems like Mike Babcock’s needed a nudge to line up Nylander with Matthews regularly, and to an extent, it’s understandable. Kapanen’s often prospered with Matthews, while Nylander occasionally shines running his own line as a center.

Still, the Maple Leafs might simply have a better chance to win if they load up with two stronger lines, as you’d at least think would be the case if Nylander pushes Kapanen down the lineup. Teams tend to lean on their top lines more often in the playoffs, so while depth is important, it might be wiser if Toronto rolled out Matthews – Nylander and John TavaresMitch Marner as two deadly duos, challenging anyone to match them in that regard.

And, again, Babs hasn’t been that eager to go with such an alignment. Nylander has more than twice as much even-strength ice time with Kadri than with Matthews, according to Natural Stat Trick. Kapanen, meanwhile, has basically been glued to Matthews and Marleau.

Perhaps it’s true that Kapanen really is the better fit as a second-line winger, while Nylander might fit better as 3C, at least when they’re both healthy. That’s not an absolute certainty, though, and it wouldn’t hurt to see if Nylander can rekindle his past magic with Matthews.

Overall, losing Kapanen still hurts, but maybe it can mean bigger things for Nylander, and the Leafs as a whole?

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.

Roundtable: Binnington’s Calder hopes, Tampa’s challengers, Blue Jackets’ pressure

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Despite his number of games played, will Jordan Binnington garner enough support to win the Calder Trophy?

SEAN: It’s going to be hard to unseat Elias Pettersson as winner for rookie of the years, but certainly Binningon can make a challenge. He’ll likely get around 10 starts the rest of the regular season, putting him in 30 games player territory.

Only four goaltenders have won the award in the last 25 years with Martin Brodeur playing 47 games in 1994, the fewest of any netminder who took home the Calder. Binnington leads all goalies with at least 20 starts in even strength save percentage (.941) and is tied for third in the NHL with five shutouts. That’s all quite good for a guy who wasn’t a regular until Jan. 7.

But when the PHWA submit their ballots, Binnington likely won’t pass Pettersson for the award, but he definitely deserves a trip to Vegas in late June as one of the 2018-19 Calder finalists.

JAMES: The gap is simply too large between Elias Pettersson and everyone else, but I wonder if Binnington’s fantastic season might spark up some conversations about getting more Calder attention for non-forwards in the future.

In a slower season (like, say, when Nail Yakupov won a Calder), Binnington would be getting far more consideration, and Rasmus Dahlin or Miro Heiskanen would also get more hype. When it comes to the main awards, people often sequester goalies to the Vezina and skaters to the Hart, barring a truly transcendent season from a netminder. The Calder doesn’t allow such latitude, and I wonder if we may gradually change the way we measure different accomplishments.

It’s far too easy to dismiss just how enormous an impact Binnington’s made. He’s won 16 games despite being limited to just 20 starts (and 22 games played), which almost feels like it should be impossible. Pettersson’s special, and should probably be a unanimous choice (don’t get weird about it, Buffalo/Dallas/St. Louis beat writers), but Binnington saved the Blues’ season.

JOEY: I just don’t see it happening. Binnington has been terrific since taking over between the pipes for the Blues, but the fact that he’ll likely play in just over 30 games means that he can’t overtake Canucks forward Elias Pettersson in the race for the Calder Trophy. Pettersson has slowed down a bit, but he’s still a point-per-game player in his first season. What Binnington has done definitely puts him in the mix, it just doesn’t put him over the top. He probably won’t mind falling short in this race considering his team will be playing meaningful games in April. The 25-year-old’s short tenure in the NHL has been a huge success regardless of whether or not he’s named rookie of the year. 

ADAM: In any other year where there wasn’t a clear cut favorite that played in significantly more games I would say yes, because he has been that good and has quite literally been the savior of the Blues’ season. Okay, maybe not the savior, but definitely one of them. I just think Elias Pettersson is so far ahead of the pack and so outstanding that it would be really tough to unseat him. Point-per-game in his first full season in the NHL, and as electrifying as he is? Definite rookie of the year for me. Binnington probably definitely gets in the top-three, but the award is Pettersson’s.

SCOTT: He should be considered, but he won’t be because of when his rookie season began. The problem comes down to this all starting in early January and not in early October or November. He’s a victim of things outside of his control, like waiting half a year to give the kid a shot.

I get it, Jake Allen was the guy. Again, it’s just nothing something Binnington could control. But he deserves to be on the ballot and deserves to win the award. Why? Because while Elias Pettersson has been great, he hasn’t single-handedly put his team into the playoffs quite like Binnington has. This raises the prospects of him garnering some Hart votes, too. Call me crazy, but in its purest form, few have been as integral to their team’s success like Mr. Winnington.

[PHT’S PUSH FOR THE PLAYOFFS]

What team in the East poses the biggest threat to the Tampa Bay Lightning come playoff time?

SEAN: It’s not a big list, but you have to believe the Washington Capitals will take what they did last spring in the Eastern Conference Final and use it again against an even better Lightning team. 

If they’re to meet again it will once again be in the third round where the Capitals will have likely use the same approach as Barry Trotz did a year ago. If Todd Reirden keeps the same game plan, it’s slowing down the pace and suffocating the Lightning’s stars. Tampa was blanked in Games 6 and 7 last May, unable to solve Braden Holtby. 

Washington also managed to limit Tampa to only 24.8 shots per game in the seven-game series. As dangerous as their arsenal is, if they aren’t getting shots on goal, it’s hard for them to keep up their explosive offense. It’s a big challenge, but the Capitals know they can do it in a series.

JAMES: I find myself waffling between the Lightning’s likely second-round opponents: the Maple Leafs and the Bruins, a.k.a. my choices for second and third-best in the East.

It’s dangerous to imagine everything going right when it hasn’t always actually come together on the ice, but I just can’t shake the impression that Toronto has the higher ceiling.

With Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Nazem Kadri down the middle, they’re one of – maybe the only – teams that could credibly hang with the Lightning’s deadly forwards. Both the Bruins and Maple Leafs have goalie(s) who could conceivably have a better best-of-seven series than Andrei Vasilevskiy, too.

So Toronto has a shot, but it’s not outrageous to look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Lightning as the NHL’s closest answer to a Golden State Warriors-style juggernaut. Luckily for Tampa Bay’s opponents, upsets are more common in the NHL … but the Bolts remain heavy favorites to win it all.

JOEY: The Bruins have been red-hot since the start of 2019. They’ve been just as good as the Lightning and they’ve found a way to do it despite missing David Pastrnak. Boston has one of the top lines in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Pastrnak (when healthy), they have secondary scoring with Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, Charlie Coyle and a few others, they’ve got a solid group of defensemen, and they have a great one-two punch between the pipes with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. If anyone can take down the Lightning in a seven-game series, it’s the Bruins. 

ADAM: It is going to either take a great team with superstar talent all clicking at the same time, or a team with great goaltending. Or more likely a team that has both. When it comes to the latter, the Boston Bruins stand out to me as someone that could do it. They may not be able to match Tampa Bay’s offensive firepower or depth, but they have two starting caliber goalies that are both playing at an extremely high level this season. Washington is definitely a threat because of the talent they have at the top of the roster and as we saw last year if Braden Holtby gets on a roll at the right time he can change a series and a season. Then there is Pittsburgh. For as mediocre as they have looked for most of the season they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and presumably come playoff time, a healthy Kris Letang. Matt Murray is playing like a true No. 1 goalie again and they might be a good matchup for one another.

SCOTT: Boston. Tampa made Toronto look like a JV squad on Monday night. Boston beat them 4-1 earlier this year and lost a close 3-2 decision. Simply put, Boston has the experience and the skill to run with Tampa, and with Tuukka Rask playing as well as he is, if there’s anyone that can duel Andrei Vasilevskiy, he’s the guy to do it at the moment in the East.

Now, with that said, can any team in the East (or even the West) go toe-to-toe with the Lightning over seven games and win four of them? I’m not sure that’s possible at this point. Tampa can make the best teams look like they belong in the American Hockey League (no disrespect to the AHL, but you get the point).

Boston has the only outside shot in my opinion, and everything would have to go right.

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If the Blue Jackets’ big gamble doesn’t pay off with a playoff berth, should that be the end for Jarmo Kekalainen and/or John Tortorella?

SEAN: I don’t believe there will be a cleaning of house should the Blue Jackets’ fail to either get in the playoffs or get out of the first round. I do think there will be a shortening of the leash, especially for Tortorella if that happens as we head into next season.

Kekalainen’s big moves at the deadline were one to push the franchise forward and accomplish something they’ve never done in 17 seasons: win a playoff round. It’s a big bet, but one that should be applauded next time we complain about a general manager sitting on their hands and standing pat rather than try and improve their team.

JAMES:  A thought has lingered in my mind this season: what if Artemi Panarin simply wants out because of John Tortorella?

Torts is brighter than his dimmest rants would indicate, but would it be that surprising if players found him gruff and intimidating, maybe leading to embarrassments in the film and locker rooms? Tortorella’s been around forever, and as his successes become more distant in the rearview mirror, I think that missing the playoffs should probably be it for him.
That’s a sad thought from an entertaining quote standpoint, and perhaps the Blue Jackets might flinch on replacing either their coach or GM after giving both of them extensions heading into this season. But what does it say about Columbus’ front office if they view this year as a time to go all-in and then they miss the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs altogether? Kekalainen’s been around since 2013 and Torts has been around since 2015. You have to wonder how many chances they’d need to get things right if they fall short here.
If Columbus misses, I’d move on, despite my belief that Kekalainen’s a pretty good GM.

JOEY: I really didn’t like what the Blue Jackets did at the deadline. I felt like they were in a unique situation given the contract statuses of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Adding more high-end free agents doesn’t make that situation better. If the Jackets fail to make the playoffs, I don’t think Kekalainen or Tortorella lose their jobs, but I feel like they’ll be on the hot seat going into next season. Even if they get into the postseason and lose in the first round, jobs will be on the line going into next season. 

ADAM: Should it? That is a tougher question to answer than “will it?” Because if they miss the playoffs I think it would be awfully difficult for ownership to rest easy looking at this situation. You give up almost your entire draft class for rentals, you may lose some or all of them, you may lose your two best players that were already on the roster, and then you have to deal with the brutal look that is going all in as a buyer and falling on your face. But I also think that would be a knee-jerk reaction to the result more so than the process. Even if they do get in the playoffs they are probably not winning the Stanley Cup, so you are still going to be sitting there at the end of the season with no championship, no draft picks, and maybe a bunch of free agents walking out the door. If you want your GM to be aggressive and “go for it” I don’t see how you can punish him for doing just that, because he theoretically put his team in the best possible position to succeed. If it doesn’t, at that point it comes down to the coaching staff and the players themselves. Truly one of the most fascinating teams to watch down the stretch, because what they do is likely to have huge implications on what the upper management and ownership does in the summer.

SCOTT: I mean, for Kekalainen, he’d be gone as soon the word eliminated appeared beside the name of the Blue Jackets, no?

He went out, kept the two players that would have brought in a decent haul at the deadline, brought in two players who cost them most of this year’s draft and could conceivably have nothing to show for it come July 1… at least the league’s punch line (Ottawa) was able to recoup some goods when they lost everybody.

Torts goes, too. If they don’t make the playoffs and somehow manage to keep Kekalainen, then Torts takes the sword for him. If Kekalainen goes and a new general manager is hired, I assume they look at Torts in the same way — had a bunch of talent handed to him and couldn’t do anything with it. Goodbye.

It’s win or bust for both of them.

O’Reilly scores historic overtime winner as Blues win 11th straight

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And then it was 11.

The St. Louis Blues set a new team record for consecutive wins in emphatic fashion when Ryan O'Reilly went bar down on Frederik Anderson 34 seconds into overtime to down the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 on NBCSN on Tuesday.

Mitch Marner came rushing in just before O’Reilly’s winner, but Colton Parayko was able to fend him off. O’Reilly was there to intercept Marner’s attempt at a centering pass and it was off to the races for No. 90, who scored his 26th of the season to extend St. Louis’ remarkable streak.

The Blues came into the game riding a three-game shutout streak — because beating teams simply wasn’t enough anymore. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead thanks to first-period goals from Jaden Schwartz and Parayko.

The game appeared to be heading toward another blank sheet after two periods, but a bad giveaway by Alex Pietrangelo led to Zach Hyman‘s weird angle shot turning into an own goal and bringing an end to the shutout streak at a 2:33:50.

The Leafs were mostly lifeless through the first two periods but Hyman’s goal seemed to be the jolt they needed.

Auston Matthews bagged his 28th of the season just 31 seconds later to tie the game. St. Louis challenged for (non-existent) goaltender interference and the call of a good goal on the ice was upheld.

Jordan Binnington entered the game already having set a Blues rookie record with eight straight wins, including shutouts in his past two outings. ‘Winnington’ could do little on the own goal and Matthews’ goal came off a rebound in front that he couldn’t get to. He managed to stop 31-of-33 shots to extend that record to nine straight.

His personal shutout streak ended at 173:50.

The Blues haven’t trailed in a game since Feb. 5. They were in last place on Jan. 3 but are now six points up on Dallas Stars for third place in the Central Division. What a turnaround.

Meanwhile, a massive open-ice hit that Vince Dunn delivered priority mail to Nazem Kadri seems to have put the latter on the shelf.

Dunn drilled Kadri at the 8:48 mark of the first period, but Kadri stayed in the game. He took another shot, this time more of a glancing blow from Brayden Schenn, who had Toronto’s No. 43 in his crosshairs before missing at the last second.

Kadri did not emerge after the first intermission and was ruled out with a concussion not long after.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Rangers host Maple Leafs on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Maple Leafs won a pivotal division clash Saturday with a 4-3 overtime victory in Montreal to remain in second place in the Atlantic Division. John Tavares scored his team-leading 33rd goal (also T-second in NHL) in OT with a beautiful backhand past Carey Price.

With two points yesterday (goal, assist), Tavares has three straight multi-point games and reached the 60-point mark (33G, 27A in 54 GP), two games shy of his fastest season to 60 points (52 GP in 2013-14 w/ New York Islanders).

Toronto has won four straight games and has a six-game point streak (5-0-1).

On Friday night when the 1993-94 Stanley Cup champion Rangers team was honored for the 25th anniversary of their title, the current Blueshirts fell 3-0 to the Hurricanes. It was scoreless entering the third period before Warren Foegele scored the eventual game-winner and Carolina tallied two empty- netters. Petr Mrazek made 27 saves for Carolina in the shutout, though defenseman Jaccob Slavin also rescued two would-be goals on the doorstep.

The Rangers were shut out for the 5th time this season, tied for second most in the league.

Despite being shut out on Friday, the Rangers top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello has been one of the hottest trios in the league. Since January 12, they have combined for 41 points (19G, 22A) in the last 11 games.

Zibanejad has already set career highs with 53 pts and 31 assists this season. His previous career marks were 51 pts and 30 assists, both in 2015-16 with Ottawa. He is on pace for 80 pts, which would be the highest tally by a Rangers player since Marian Gaborik had 86 in 2009-10.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Sunday, Feb. 10, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach Hyman – John Tavares – Mitch Marner
Patrick MarleauAuston MatthewsKasperi Kapanen
Connor BrownNazem KadriWilliam Nylander
Par LindholmFrederik GauthierAndreas Johnsson

Jake MuzzinMorgan Rielly
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottRon Hainsey

Starting goalie: Garret Sparks

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Mats Zuccarello
Pavel BuchnevichKevin HayesJesper Fast
Filip ChytilRyan StromeVladislav Namestnikov
Jimmy VeseyBoo Nieves – Vinni Lettieri

Brady SkjeiAdam McQuaid
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Brendan SmithKevin Shattenkirk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass analyst) will have the call from Madison Square Garden. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.

The Buzzer: Kadri sinks Capitals; Saros turns out the lights in Vegas

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Three stars

1. Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs

Three goals and an assist helped the Maple Leafs end a two-game losing skid and send the Washington Capitals to their seventh straight loss in a 5-3 win.

The Leafs had just three wins in their past 10 games coming into Wednesday, so the win was a big deal. Kadri had just one goal in his past 13 games before going off.

2. Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators

Saros could easily be the first star after making a career-high 47 saves in a 2-1 win against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Vegas had little chance based on how well Saros was tracking the puck in this one. He made 37 straight saves (a busy night by its own right) after Max Pacioretty gave Vegas a 1-0 lead in the first period.

From there it was lights out on The Strip.

3. Alex Nedeljkovic, Carolina Hurricanes

First NHL start, first NHL win. Not a bad debut from Nedeljkovic.

The 23-year-old stopped 24 of 26 shots sent his way and the Hurricanes, led by Teuvo Teravainen‘s three-point night, did the rest in a 5-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks.

His only other NHL action came in 2016-17 when he played 30 minutes in a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, making all 17 required stops.

It sure would fill a void if Nedeljkovic turns into starting material down the line.

Highlights of the night

Here’s the filthiest save Saros made of the 47:

The fans still appreciate him, even if management didn’t:

Yeah, nice passing:

Factoids

Scores

Maple Leafs 6, Capitals 3
Canadiens 2, Coyotes 1
Wild 5, Avalanche 2
Predators 2, Golden Knights 1
Blues 5, Ducks 1
Hurricanes 5, Canucks 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck