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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.

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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.

Looking at Johnny Gaudreau’s career, 100 goals in

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Johnny Gaudreau and the Calgary Flames likely experienced mixed feelings following their 5-2 win against the Boston Bruins last night.

Looking at the good side, the Flames won in part because a line other than Gaudreau’s top trio stepped up, as Michael Frolik trumpeted the reunion of the often-puck-dominant “3M Line.” Wednesday also represented a milestone moment for Gaudreau, who scored the 100th goal of his NHL career in his 318th game, putting him at that mark at age 25.

That milestone tally happened during a stretch where the Flames really overwhelmed the Bruins:

The bad news came right after Gaudreau narrowly fell short of NHL goal 101, as Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy injured the spritely forward with this questionable, late hit:

As much of a bummer as the injury is – especially if further updates indicate that “Johnny Hockey” would miss some time – it might be fitting that such an event happened. After all, defenders realize that they’re not often going to catch or out-think Gaudreau, so they often try to outright bully him. Let’s not forget that the many slashes he took during certain stretches helped inspire the NHL to cut down on the infractions heading into last season.

Generally speaking, such a vicious approach hasn’t stopped Gaudreau from lighting up scoreboards.

To review, the 25-year-old now has 100 goals and 197 assists for 297 points over 318 NHL games, so Gaudreau could hit two other noteworthy milestones in the near future — health permitting.

It’s fitting that Gaudreau scored a goal in his lone 2013-14 appearance, as he’s been a delight to watch basically since he entered the NHL. Perhaps it might be helpful to consider his place among the elite scorers after hitting the 100-goal plateau?

  • Since Gaudreau entered the NHL, he ranks 12th among all players with those 297 points. Gaudreau stands in front of Vladimir Tarasenko (293), Jakub Voracek (291), and Phil Kessel (290) despite appearing in fewer games.
  • That 100th goal stands out as a rare instance where Gaudreau was the player scoring the easy tap-in. Typically, he really sets the table for his linemates with brilliant playmaking, which is part of the reason why many pundits have been so reluctant to praise Sean Monahan.

Gaudreau’s 197 assists places him in a tie with Brent Burns for ninth-best in the NHL, and the burly Sharks defenseman played in 16 additional games (not to mention logging Norris-level minutes).

  • One remarkable thing about those impressive numbers is that Gaudreau hit the ground running right away as a rookie, while other players were, in many cases, far more experienced.

Gaudreau’s really impressed lately, generating 93 points in his last 86 games between this early season and 2017-18. Despite Sidney Crosby playing in two additional games last season (82 to Gaudreau’s 80), he tied the Penguins playmaker for seventh in the NHL with 60 assists.

While Gaudreau is – understandably – leveraged for heavy offensive usage, it doesn’t hurt that the puck tends to go in the right direction when he’s on the ice, either.

The Flames would be missing one heck of a scorer if Gaudreau needs to heal up before shooting for goal 101 (not to mention assist 200, and point 300 …). Beyond that, hockey fans will miss out on one of the NHL’s most splendid playmakers, so here’s hoping that this is just a minor hiccup.

Update: It looks like things are going well in that regard.

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.

Kyle Palmieri, the other forward Ray Shero stole for the Devils

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When the New Jersey Devils hired Ray Shero to be their new general manager back in 2015 he was facing a rather daunting task of rebuilding what was, at the time, one of the league’s dullest teams. It was not a totally lousy team, but it was not a particularly good one, either.

It was coming off of its third consecutive non-playoff season, it seemed to have zero impact players anywhere in the organization (nobody had scored more than 45 points at the NHL level the year before), and it just seemed to be a team going nowhere.

In the years that followed Shero has rebuilt the Devils into a playoff team thanks in large part to a couple of significant trades (and a little luck in the draft lottery), with the most significant of those deals being the one that brought them Taylor Hall, the 2017-18 NHL MVP, from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for defenseman Adam Larsson.

In terms of one-for-one trades it has turned out to be one of the most lopsided deals in recent NHL memory and has completely altered the direction of the Devils’ franchise.

It was not the only Shero trade that has gone in the Devils’ favor by an overwhelming margin.

One of his first moves with the Devils was to acquire Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a second-round draft pick in 2015 and a third-round draft pick in 2016. It, too, has turned out to be a steal.

At the time, Palmieri was coming off of his age 23 season and even though his overall numbers didn’t exactly jump off the page at you, he had flashed some legitimate top-line potential during his limited with the Ducks. He was consistently scoring at a15-goal pace over 82 games even though he was only playing between 11 and 14 minutes per night.

On a per minute basis he was one of the team’s most productive goal-scorers and seemed to be the type of player that was worth giving an increased role. As soon as he arrived in New Jersey he received that increased role and immediately broke out with a 30-goal season, earning himself a five-year, $23.25 million contract extension.

He has not stopped producing since.

So far this season he has been one of the driving forces behind the Devils’ 4-0-0 start, having already scored seven goals. That includes three consecutive two-goal games to open the season, and at least one goal in every game the team has played.

While there is an element of luck and circumstance to that start — including a 38.9 percent shooting percentage and the fact four of those goals have come on the power play — he has certainly established himself as a legitimate top-line player with the Devils.

The production speaks for itself. In his first three full seasons with the Devils he has scored at least 24 goals every year, while his .357 goals per game average comes out to a 30-goal pace over 82 games.

Keep in mind he scored 24 goals in only 62 games a season ago which was, once again, a 30-goal pace.

He may not be on quite the same level as Hall or get as much attention, but he has still be a significant addition to the organization, especially when you consider how little the Devils had to give up to get him.

Even if you ignore his ridiculously fast start this season he has been one of the most productive wingers in the NHL since joining the Devils.

Between 2015-16 and 2017-18 his .357 goals per game average was 32nd among all forwards in the league, and placed him directly between Max Pacioretty and Artemi Panarin, and ahead of notable players like Jack Eichel, Joe Pavelski, James Neal, and Phil Kessel.

He is one of just 20 players in the league to score at least 24 goals in each of those seasons, and one of only 30 to average a 30-goal and 55-point pace over 82 games.

By pretty much every objective measure he has been one of the top-30 most productive forwards in the NHL since arriving in New Jersey. And all they had to give up was two draft picks that will probably never be as good as he is.

Going back to last season the Devils have found a pretty spectacular top line with him, Hall, and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier, a trio that has spent more than 350 minutes of ice-time together at 5-on-5 play and been nothing short of dominant.

During that time the Devils have controlled more than 53 percent of the shot attempts and outscored teams by a 23-11 margin.

All of them have been difference-makers for the Devils.

All they needed to acquire them was an okay second-pairing defenseman (for Hall), what amounted to two long-shot lottery tickets (for Palmieri), and a little luck from some lottery balls (Hischier).

Given where the Devils were at when Shero took over he need to pull off a little bit of magic to find some impact players and turn the team around. He somehow managed to do it twice without giving up anything of significance.

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.

 

The Buzzer: Kessel, Perron tally hat tricks; Campbell blanks Habs

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Three Stars

1. Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins – Kessel powered the Penguins to a 4-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights with his sixth career hat trick. It was the 48th time No. 81 has recorded a multi-goal game and all three goals saw involvement from Evgeni Malkin.

2. David Perron, St. Louis Blues – During a 5-3 win, Perron recorded his first hat trick since 2016, which funny enough also came against the Calgary Flames. Perron now has four career hat tricks.

3. Jack Campbell, Los Angeles Kings – The 26-year-old netminder has experienced a lot in his professional career, and on Thursday he was able to record his first NHL shutout with a 40-save performance against the Montreal Canadiens. Campbell stopped double digit shots in all three periods and withstood four Montreal power plays in the 3-0 victory.

Honorable Mentions

Pekka Rinne and Keith Kinkaid also posted shutouts, with the Nashville Predators netminder stopping 29 vs. the Winnipeg Jets and the New Jersey Devils goaltender make 21 saves against the Washington Capitals.

Auston Matthews now has nine goals in five games after scoring twice vs. the Detroit Red Wings. John Tavares dished out four helpers in the win.

Jason Zucker of the Minnesota Wild and Brady Skjei of the New York Rangers are your overtime heroes of the night.

Thursday’s Highlights

• Enjoy all three goals of Kessel’s natural hat trick:

• Here’s the second of Perron’s two second period power play goals to complete his trick:

Marcus Sorensen made the most out of this shorthanded opportunity:

• Brett Howden got a little fancy with some between-the-legs action to open the scoring for the Rangers:

• If you haven’t seen David Pastrnak’s beauty yet, click here.

• Meanwhile, Connor McDavid turned on the afterburners to score his first goal of the season:

• Good things happen when Ryan Johansen shoots the puck:

Factoids of the Night

Scores
Penguins 4, Golden Knights 2
Rangers 3, Sharks 2 (OT)
Bruins 4, Oilers 1
Avalanche 6, Sabres 1
Devils 6, Capitals 0
Blue Jackets 5, Panthers 4
Canucks 4, Lightning 1
Maple Leafs 5, Red Wings 3
Kings 3, Canadiens 0
Predators 3, Jets 0
Blues 5, Flames 3
Wild 4, Blackhawks 3 (OT)

————

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.

Star-laden Penguins hope longer summer equals faster start

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Sidney Crosby can admit it now: The Pittsburgh Penguins were tired last season, a natural byproduct of becoming the first franchise in two decades to win consecutive Stanley Cups.

And though the Penguins came as close as any team in the last 35 years to capture three straight titles – they recovered from a blah start to reach the Eastern Conference semifinals before falling to Washington – that special gear they relied on so heavily during their run of dominance never materialized.

”Just for whatever reason, shorter summer, mentally not having that desperation level, as a group we were lacking that,” Crosby said.

Crosby isn’t making excuses so much as stating a simple fact. The Penguins played 213 regular season and playoff games from October 2015 to June 2017. A heavy workload to be sure but also a small price to pay to have your name written on hockey’s most prized possession.

While Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company spent most of last fall downplaying the idea they might be emotionally and physically drained, at times they certainly played like it. The proof came on the defensive end, where they gave up the most goals (250) of any playoff team.

Though they eventually got it going behind Malkin – who finished fourth in the league with 98 points – they also understand sleepwalking for three months cost them a legit shot at home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs and forced them to expend more energy than they anticipated just keep pace in the hyper-competitive Metropolitan Division.

That can’t happen this time around if they want to throw another downtown parade in June.

”The start is important,” Crosby said. ”You want to start out the right way, especially with how tight teams are. You can’t be playing catch-up.”

A less taxing schedule should help. The Penguins played a league-high 19 sets of back-to-back games in 2017-18. That number drops to 11 this season. For a group whose core of Malkin, Crosby, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang are all in their 30s, that’s no small comfort.

Oh, and there’s the lingering taste of watching the Capitals celebrate a rare playoff triumph in Pittsburgh.

”Of course I’m upset,” Malkin said. ”I feel we beat Washington, we have chance to win. … I never watch (after we lose). I like go to Miami, spend time with my family, my kids. It doesn’t matter, last year or five years ago. I never watch (after we lose). It’s not fun to watch.”

JACK’S BACK

Pittsburgh made just one splashy move in free agency when it lavished a five-year, $16.25 million contract on defenseman Jack Johnson. He called the move a ”perfect fit,” one that unites him with longtime friend Crosby. Still, the length of the deal and Johnson’s forgettable finish in Columbus – he requested a trade in the middle of last season and was a healthy scratch during the playoffs – raised eyebrows. The Penguins consider Johnson a versatile puck mover who could thrive in a system where he won’t be required to do much more than play responsibly and get out of the way.

”It’s always great to come into a team that has high expectations,” Johnson said. ”That’s what you want. That’s what any athlete wants coming into a team. There’s a lot of established guys that have been leaders on this team for a long time. I just wanted to come in and be myself and be part of the group and fit in with the guys and help the team win.”

‘DAD’ IS HOME

Matt Cullen is still going. The veteran center – who turns 42 in November – returns to Pittsburgh after one season in his native Minnesota. Cullen played a vital role both on the ice as a penalty killer and off the ice as a ”glue” guy as the Penguins won back-to-back Cups. Cullen still looked plenty spry during his 21st NHL training camp, and he will give the fourth line a boost.

MATT’S METTLE

Matt Murray‘s first full season as Pittsburgh’s firmly entrenched No. 1 goalie did not go to plan. After twice backstopping the team to the Cup before his 24th birthday, Murray struggled to stay healthy and play with consistency. He’s hoping an extra month to prepare for his third NHL season will help and coach Mike Sullivan is quick to point out Murray didn’t exactly receive a serious boost from the play in front of him.

GOING DEEP

As long as the Penguins have Crosby, Malkin and Kessel in the fold, they’ll be among the most talented offensive teams in the league. The goal this season is to spread the wealth a little bit more. Pittsburgh relied almost exclusively on its top power play and the combination of Crosby and Jake Guentzel late in the season and into the playoffs. A full training camp to integrate Derrick Brassard – who played with an injury most of last spring after being acquired at the trade deadline – should help. If Brassard and Patric Hornqvist can develop some chemistry, the third line could take some of the pressure off the star-laden top two groups.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule