Unlikely Selke candidate emerges in Montreal

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When the Montreal Canadiens traded Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016, no one believed that they had acquired a potential Selke Trophy candidate. But through 48 games this season, Phillip Danault has shown that he has what it takes to be in the conversation for the NHL’s top two-way forward.

Over the last few years, the Canadiens have been thin down the middle. Danault has had to play on the team’s top line for a while, but no one ever expected him to be a go-to center. Most people still see him as a quality third-liner.

The 25-year-old has spent most of the season on a line with Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher. Those three have consistently gone up against every opponent’s best line. The minutes have been difficult, but those three have done a tremendous job of locking things down.

Danault opened the season with just two goals in his first 35 games, but he’s taken off since December. In his last 17 contests, the Habs forward has picked up 17 points. He’s now up to eight goals and 32 points in 48 games, which puts him on pace 55 points this season.

But let’s take a look at some of the advanced numbers that show us just how good he’s been in 2018-19.

He and his linemates are all in the top 50 when it comes to Corsi For Percentage. His 57.24 percent ranks 43rd in the NHL. The fact that the Canadiens control nearly 60 percent of the shot attempts when he’s on the ice is impressive. Keep in mind, he’s on the ice going up against Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews, Nikita Kucherov and so many other top players. That’s remarkable.

Also, when he’s on the ice, the Habs score nearly 60 percent of the goals that occur. Again, impressive. How about high-danger CF%? With Danault on, his team controls 57 percent of the high-danger chances that occur on the ice. He’s also the top faceoff guy on the team, at 53 percent.

“Phillip is playing some very good hockey. We rely on him a lot and we give him a lot of responsibility,” said head coach Claude Julien, per the Canadiens’ website. “He’s headed in the right direction. He’s often taking important faceoffs late in the game. He’s an extremely useful player.”

Over the last seven seasons, only three different players have won the Selke Trophy. Patrice Bergeron has won four times, Anze Kopitar has won it twice, and Jonathan Toews did it once. Bergeron is having a better offensive season than Danault, but he’s also missed 16 games so far. Kopitar and the Kings are totally off the grid this year and Toews is in a similar spot.

If Danault can continue to chip in offensively, while taking care of business defensively, he could find himself in the conversation for a nomination. Of course, he’s no slam dunk, but he’s been good enough to get himself on the radar, which is tough to do for this award, because voters usually hand it out on a reputation basis.

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.

Pressure is on for Lightning’s best team yet

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The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the difficult and often times unenviable position the Washington Capitals used to find themselves in.

An objectively outstanding team that is loaded with stars and wins a ton of regular season (and playoff) games but never really gets taken seriously as a great team because they are still lacking the one piece of hardware that great teams are ultimately measured by — the Stanley Cup.

If you are thinking about things rationally this should be a great position to be in because it means you are one of the elite teams in the league. It means you have a chance to compete for a championship every year and you know you are going to be right there in the spring as one of the last teams standing.

There should probably be 28 or 29 fanbases around the NHL that would have happily switched places with this team over the past four years.

But in sports we do not often to look at things rationally.

In sports we have a championship or bust mentality — especially with teams like this — and we tend to be harder on the great teams that get close and ultimately fall short than we are the teams that never get close to this level. It’s why Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals always took more heat and criticism for not winning a championship than some middle of the pack team that was never able to even consistently make the playoffs. It’s why Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau spent most of their time together in San Jose fighting off the choker and playoff underachiever label than being recognized as some of the best players of their generation.

It is the curse of expectation.

Because of that, until this group gets their names on the Stanley Cup there is always going to be that “yeah, but…” that follows them around.

Teams like this never really get the credit or recognition they deserve because one or two shots or games have gone against them at the worst possible time when all of the eye balls in the league are on them. It is almost as if everyone is waiting for them to fail instead of viewing them as one of the best teams of their era, which they absolutely are.

What has to make it all so frustrating for Lightning fans is just how close they have been with this current core. They have consistently been right on the threshold of a championship but always fallen just short while allowing a late postseason series lead to slip away. In 2015 they were up 2-1 in the Stanley Cup Final before losing three games in a row. The next year they had a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final, with Game 6 at home, before losing two in a row to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last season they again had a 3-2 series lead in the conference final against the Capitals only to get shutout in Games 6 and 7.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Lightning are in the top-three with the Penguins and Capitals when it comes to most regular season and postseason wins. The Penguins and Capitals have combined to win three of those four Stanley Cups. They have been the two obstacles standing in their way and keeping them from a championship.

All of that brings us to this year’s Lightning team, which just might be their best one yet.

Their 36 wins through their first 47 games are tied for the most of any team in the salary cap era, a mark that only the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks and 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks have matched. They are seven points better than they were at this same point last season when they ended the season with 113 points. They are currently on a 129-point pace this season, a mark that only three teams in NHL history have ever reached (the 1977-78 and 1978-79 Montreal Canadiens and the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings).

Their 191 goals are the second-most during that same era, trailing only the 199 the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators scored in their first 47 games. No other team ha scored more than 178 at this point in the season.

They have major award contenders at every position.

Nikita Kucherov is racing toward the Art Ross trophy and for the second year in a row will be in the MVP discussion. Victor Hedman is the reigning Norris Trophy winner and their starting goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago and currently possesses a better save percentage than he did a year ago.

This team is so great as currently constructed that the latter player missed a month of this season and they still went 12-3-0 during that stretch without him.

What makes the Lightning even better this season is the supporting cast around the four stars (Kucherov, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, and Steven Stamkos — don’t forget about him) is even better.

Brayden Point has taken a massive leap in his development this season and gone from being a good top-line player to one of the top scorers in the league. With him they now have three of the league’s top-17 scorers, including two of the top-seven.

The depth around them up front is so good that when none of the three are on the ice the Lightning still control more than 53 percent of the shot attempts, more than 54 percent of the scoring chances, and outscore teams by a 39-31 margin during 5-on-5 play (numbers via Natural Stat Trick).

In other words, they still play like a top-five team in the NHL when none of their three best forwards are on the ice. Comically good stuff. They were still very good without any of those three on the ice a year ago, but not quite this good.

They have a full season of Ryan McDonagh on the blue line who has been even better than he was a year ago in his limited time with the team. Along with him, Mikhail Sergachev is starting to emerge and they finally have a healthy Anton Stralman back after he missed a significant portion of the first half of the season.

[Related: Surging Sergachev helps already loaded Lightning]

While they are dominant at 5-on-5 as a team, they also boast the league’s best special teams with the No. 1 power play unit and the sixth-best penalty killing unit. In every phase, at every level, they are better than everybody else in the league.

That is where the pressure for this team is going to come from.

They have been a “so close, but just short” team for four years now and the team they are putting on the ice this season is even better than any of those previous versions, and probably by a pretty significant amount.

Given that, and given how close they have been in recent years, there truly is going to be a “championship or bust” for this group.

If they finally break through and do it, no one will ever doubt them again and the reputation of the Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman core will forever be changed for the better.

If they fall short again, whether it is in the first round or the Cup Final, the doubt will only increase for a core that is mostly locked in place contractually for the foreseeable future. Whether it is fair or not, there is no margin for error this group. The expectation is definitely the Stanley Cup.

They once again have the team that just might be able to do it. They just need to … do it.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Aho helps Hurricanes keep rolling; Islanders, Flames win big

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. With wins in seven out of their past eight games the Carolina Hurricanes are trying to make a run at a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They continued their recent strong play on Sunday afternoon with a very impressive win over one of the league’s best teams, the Nashville Predators, and it was Sebastian Aho once again leading the way. Aho finished with four points, including a hat trick, in the 6-3 win. Aho now has 12 points during this recent eight-game stretch and is up to 21 goals and 51 total points for the season. He is having an incredible season.

2. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames are looking like one of the best teams in the NHL and dominated the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday night with an emphatic 7-1 win that featured another huge game for Norris Trophy contender Mark Giordano. Giordano scored two goals and added an assist in the win as he continues what has been the best season of his already strong career.

3. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders. This was a complete beatdown for the New York Islanders as they raced out to an early three-goal lead against the NHL’s best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and never looked back. One of the reasons they never looked back is because Thomas Greiss stopped 38 out of the 39 shots he faced. Regular starter Robin Lehner has been one of the Islanders’ best and most important players this season, but Greiss has been outstanding as well and now has a save percentage north of .917 for the season, which is well above the league average. 

Other notable performances from Sunday

  • Artemi Panarin had two more points and Nick Foligno scored two goals as the Columbus Blue Jackets were all over the New York Rangers in a 7-5 win that left Rangers coach David Quinn fuming angry after it was over.
  • Johnny Gaudreau had two more points to give him 67 on the season, tying him with Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid for third-most in the league. They are both just one point behind Mikko Rantanen of the Colroado Avalanche for second in the scoring race. Everyone is a distance second to Tampa Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov, who was held off the scoresheet on Sunday night, something that has not happened very much this season.
  • The New York Islanders’ fourth line played a big role in their win over the Tampa Bay Lightning by scoring a pair of goals. Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Matt Martin all had two points in the win.

Highlights of the Night

Yes, it came in a losing effort but Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg scored a pretty incredible goal on Sunday afternoon.

The Vancouver Canucks did not get Michael Matheson to drop the gloves in response to his body-slam on prized rookie Elias Petterson earlier this season, but they did get plenty of revenge on the scored with a 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers. Jacob Markstrom had a great night in goal against his former team with this fancy glove save being his best of the night. 

The Winnipeg Jets sent the Anaheim Ducks to their 11th straight defeat thanks to this overtime goal from Bryan Little with 10 seconds remaining in the overtime period. 

Factoids

  • Winnipeg Jet forward Patrik Laine scored his 25th goal of the season on Sunday, giving him three 25-goal seasons in the NHL before celebrating his 21st birthday. Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Carpenter, Dale Hawerchuk, Brian Bellows, Jimmy Carson, and Ilya Kovalchuk are the only other players in league history to accomplish that feat. [NHL PR]
  • The Calgary Flames needed just 47 games to record their 30th win of the season, matching a franchise record for fewest games needed to win 30 games in a season. The other season they did it was the 1988-89 campaign, when they went on to win the Stanley Cup. [NHL PR]
  • Carolina Hurricanes forward Justin Williams extended his goal-scoring streak to five games on Sunday afternoon, making him just the sixth player in NHL history to record a goal-scoring streak of at least five games after celebrating their 37th birthday. [NHL PR]

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 6, Nashville Predators 3

Winnipeg Jets 4, Anaheim Ducks 3 (OT)

Columbus Blue Jackets 7, New York Rangers 5

Vancouver Canucks 5, Florida Panthers 1

New York Islanders 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 1

Calgary Flames 7, Arizona Coyotes 1

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Blue Jackets mock Kuznetsov; A bloody good goal

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Three Stars

1. Tyler Bertuzzi

For the first time in his NHL career, Bertuzzi generated a hat trick, playing a role in a very frustrating night for Bruce Boudreau and the Wild.

Overall, Bertuzzi ended up with five shots on goal and a +3 rating in that win. Todd’s nephew now has 13 goals and 25 points in 45 games this season.

Consider this also an honorary spot for Dylan Larkin, who continued a quietly strong 2018-19 with three assists.

2. Nikita Kucherov

Things get funky after Bertuzzi, whose three points being three goals makes for an easy tiebreaker. The rest are judgment calls, really.

It doesn’t help that there’s a little club of one-goal, two-assists nights where both assists are primary helpers. That was the case with Kucherov, Sean Kuraly, and Jeff Carter.

Kucherov gets one of the nods because, honestly, we really need to step back and behold his amazing run whenever we can. And the same should be said for the absolutely ridiculous Lightning, who are now on an 18-1-1 run.

Kucherov’s now at 75 points in just 45 games. Goodness.

3. Sean Kuraly

From a guy on top of the hockey world to someone who might not make these lists very often, Kuraly also enjoyed an aforementioned one-goal, two-assist night.

Considering his recent efforts, it seems well-earned. Kuraly had been suffering through a four-game pointless streak, yet he fired a healthy 14 SOG during that drought. The Bruins would end up needing all three of his points, too, as they won 3-2 against the Maple Leafs on Saturday.

Again, there’s a strong case for Carter to be in the top three, too. Goalies also had some arguments, including Carey Price, who pitched a 28-save shutout against the Avalanche.

Highlights of the Night

Conor Garland has been quietly building up a nice season between the AHL and NHL, but Saturday might just boost him up to the level of semi-mainstream consciousness among hockey fans.

It’s not just that he scored two goals in Arizona’s win against Edmonton. It’s that the first one went off of his face, and then he came back and scored another one that had to be reviewed. Garland is now on a four-game goal streak (six goals).

This continues what’s been a tough couple of days for faces, even by the gritty standards of hockey players. Braden Holtby took a stick to the eye. Johnny Boychuk blocked a shot with his face. At least Garland got a goal for his efforts, then, eh?

Watch Garland’s two goals, stitches and all, in the video above this post’s headline.

In that same game, Connor McDavid scored a very business-as-usual goal, which of course means it was really impressive:

The magical ride isn’t over yet for Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, as he helped St. Louis suppress Dallas. This was a great sequence. Also, great call on the nickname/Twitter handle “Binn Nasty.”

Trash talk moment of the night

In response to Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s bird/eagle celebration, Artemi Panarin and the Blue Jackets laid it on pretty thick in mocking his cele after winning things 2-1 in OT.

Maybe these teams will get to hash things out in a playoff series? Kuznetsov got a pretty nice burn in that regard, via Ian Oland of Russian Machine Never Breaks:

“That’s fine, you know. It’s nice to get some people to think about me,” Kuznetsov said. “Same as like in April last series.”

Ouch. Also: that Panarin shot was nasty, though.

More on a tough night for the Capitals here, which also includes a breakout pass that ranks as an honorable mention for highlights of the night.

Factoids

  • Brent Burns played in his 1,000th game, collecting two points, and also being distinctly Brent Burns (read: weird).

Scores

NJD 3 – PHI 2
NYR 2 – NYI 1
TBL 5 – BUF 3
BOS 3 – TOR 2
MTL 3 – COL 0
CBJ 2 – WSH 1 (OT)
DET 5 – MIN 2
VGK 4 – CHI 3 (OT)
STL 3 – DAL 1
ARI 3 – EDM 2
SJS 4 – OTT 1
LAK 5 – PIT 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the updated rosters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.