Associated Press

The Buzzer: Niederreiter keeps scoring; Atkinson lifts Blue Jackets into wildcard spot

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Three stars

1. Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes were going to need a hell of a performance against the Nashville Predators to beat them a night after the Canes dropped an 8-1 decision against the Winnipeg Jets.

Playing the top two teams in the Central Division on consecutive days seems like an unfair lot in life, but the Hurricanes swept aside their embarrassing loss on Friday and putting together a fine display in a 5-3 win on Saturday, helping them stay in third place in the Metropolitan Division.

Niederreiter led the way, scoring twice in the first period to declare Carolina’s intent. ‘El Nino’ has been lights out since he was traded to Raleigh from Minnesota. He has 11 goals and 10 assists in 22 games since the move.

2. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

With the Blue Jackets struggling recently, Atkinson used a four-letter word to explain that the team needed to screw it on straight and start winning again. After losing to the Penguins on Thursday, Columbus needed a bounceback to climb back into a playoff spot and they got just that, with Atkinson scoring twice in a 4-1 win as the Blue Jackets moved into the second and final wildcard in the Eastern Conference, level on points with the Montreal Canadiens (who lost on Saturday), who have an inferior number of ROWs.

3. Philipp Grubauer, Colorado Avalanche

The Avs needed this one, if only to lift their spirits after the loss of Gabriel Landeskog for the remainder of the regular season.

Grubauer stood tall, making the 18 saves required of him in a 3-0 shutout of the Buffalo Sabres. The win moved the Avalanche to within two points of the final wildcard in the Western Conference.

It’s a long shot, especially with their captain lost to injury, but Nathan MacKinnon picked up the slack in this one, putting up points on all three goals to make sure Grubauer had the run support.

Highlights of the night

One of two incredible paddles saves by Matt Murray in Pittsburgh’s loss:

Scott Hartnell ceremonial faceoffs are the best ceremonial faceoffs:

When you get knocked down, always get back up:

Dirty pass, filthy goal:

So close…

Factoids

Scores

Avalanche 3, Sabres 0
Sharks 3, Blues 2 (OT)
Maple Leafs 3, Oilers 2
Bruins 3, Senators 2
Lightning 3, Red Wings 2
Flyers 5, Islanders 2
Rangers 4, Devils 2
Blue Jackets 4, Penguins 1
Coyotes 4, Kings 2
Hurricanes 5, Predators 3
Blackhawks 2, Stars 1
Golden Knights 6, 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

Inside the Bruins’ 18-game point streak

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The Boston Bruins train kept rolling on Thursday night, even in the face of what appeared to be sure defeat. Boston trailed Florida 3-2 with under a minute to play, when Matt Grzelcyk tied the game with a power play goal from the point. Moments later, Patrice Bergeron scored with 6.7 ticks left on the clock. Two goals. Thirty seconds. Points in 18 straight games.

It’s so nice to see a Boston sports team doing so well.

The Bruins have not lost a game in regulation since January 19, a 3-2 defeat to the Rangers at TD Garden. Since then, they’ve been the hottest team in the league at 14-0-4, but remarkably have only made up two points on NHL-leading Tampa Bay, since the Lightning has gone 14-3-2 during the same span. Still, no team is playing with more confidence than Boston heading into the stretch run of the season.

As one would expect, especially with David Pastrnak (thumb) out of the lineup, Brad Marchand (27 points) and Bergeron (21 points) have led the way as the top two scorers on the team during the streak. After never scoring more than 61 points during the first seven years of his career, Marchand has now hit 80 points in each of the last three seasons. He is on pace to shatter his previous career-high of 85. Bergeron has been his Selke Trophy self, leading the team with a plus-17 rating over the past 18 contests while also winning 59.2 percent of his faceoffs. He also became just the fifth Bruins player in the last 30 years to score short-handed goals in back-to-back games and the first since Brian Rolston (Oct. 13-16, 2001). Only seven times in NHL history has a player had a short-handed goal in three or more consecutive games, the last being Mike Richards in 2009 with Philadelphia.

David Krejci (18 points) and Jake DeBrusk (16 points) have been the team’s two biggest X-factors. After this current tear – which included a goal against the Panthers – Krejci is flirting with a career season. He is on pace for 70 points, which would be three behind his career-high of 73 set in 2008-09. DeBrusk, meanwhile, did not play Thursday against Florida due to a lower-body injury. Bruce Cassidy said Friday he didn’t believe it was anything major. The Bruins will certainly hope not, since the 22-year-old has lit the lamp eight times in his past 10 games.

Boston’s power play has also gotten hot. They’ve scored at a 25 percent clip during their 18-game streak (13-for-52) and done so without Pastrnak, who still leads the team with 15 power play goals despite being out nearly a month.

Then there’s the last line of defense in Tuukka Rask, who does not have a regulation loss since the calendar turned to 2019. For the second straight season, Rask has been challenged by a backup at the start of the year. Last season there were calls for Anton Khudobin to take over the net for good. This year, there was more of the same for Jaroslav Halak. But Rask has once again proved doubters wrong with a big second half. Since the Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium on New Year’s Day, Rask is 14-0-3 with a .931 save percentage and 1.94 goals against average. Halak hasn’t been so bad himself, going 5-0-2 with a .941 save percentage and 1.77 goals against average over his past seven games.

Remember, the last three Stanley Cup champions needed contributions from two goaltenders. The Penguins’ repeat in 2016 and 2017 with Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury is well documented. But the Capitals also needed backup Philipp Grubauer to be clutch last March to assure Washington the top spot in the division. Braden Holtby would re-take the reins at the start of the playoffs and lead the Caps to the Cup.

The Red Sox are the reigning World Series champions in spring training and the Patriots have entered yet another offseason atop the NFL. There’s no reason to believe the Bruins can’t contend for the Stanley Cup this season and, especially with no LeBron James in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics could win the East in the NBA as well. What a time to be a Boston sports fan.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Braden Holtby back on track

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Like most players, Braden Holtby has gone through some ups and downs this season. Nobody in Washington seemed to be panicking while their star netminder was slumping and there’s a simple reason for that. Last year, Holtby lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer for a while. In the end, not only was he able to get his job back, he also helped lead his team to their first Stanley Cup title.

The biggest difference between this year and last, is that Grubauer is no longer around to shoulder the load. No disrespect to Pheonix Copley, but he’s never shown the ability to keep his head above water for long stretches at the NHL level. He’s a respectable backup goalie. That’s it. So Holtby can’t afford to go into a prolonged slump.

So even though there didn’t appear to be any panic when Holtby struggled, there should be some sense of relief now that he’s  back on track. The 29-year-old has rattled off three victories in a row over the Senators, Islanders and Rangers. During those three contests, he’s allowed just five goals.

He’s also given up two goals or fewer in six of his last eight games.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

The Capitals aren’t in any danger of missing the postseason, but they’re currently in a tough battle for the Metropolitan Division crown. Last season, they battled the Pittsburgh Penguins for the division. This year, they’re in the same boat but with the Islanders instead of the Pens. As of right now, the Isles and Caps are tied at the top of the Metro with 83 points in 66 games. They’ve both won 34 games in regulation/overtime.

Robin Lehner‘s been terrific for the Isles, so Holtby will have to continue to perform at a high level if the Capitals are going to keep pace with New York.

“We had a ton of work to do then,” Holtby said of his team’s division battle with the Pens last year. “It’s no different this year. We’re still not close to where we want to be to give ourselves a chance to win again…Like last year we have to use every single game and every moment to improve ourselves. Our guys are looking forward to that challenge.”

The Capitals have to take care of business against a hot Flyers team tonight, but they’ll get one more crack on at the Islanders on the final day of the regular season. That might be the difference between being the top seed in the division and being second.

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie.

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.

Blues win ninth in a row as Avalanche keep fading

AP
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At the start of December the Colorado Avalanche were off to one of the best starts in the NHL with a 15-6-5 record and looking like a sure-fire playoff team thanks to one of the best lines in the league.

They had their flaws, yes, but they had enough top-end talent playing at an incredibly high level and seemed to have given themselves plenty of cushion to allow for any sort of regression that might follow in the coming months.

On Dec. 1, they were 14 points ahead of what looked to be a bitterly disappointing St. Louis Blues team in the Western Conference standings. That Blues team, meanwhile, looked like its season was already over before it really even had a chance to start, was going through a change behind the bench, and rumors were swirling that major changes to the roster could be coming if things did not turn around.

Two-and-a-half months later, everything has changed for both teams and we saw it all playing out on Saturday afternoon when the two teams met in Denver.

It was there that Blues won their ninth game in a row with a 3-0 victory that improved their lead over the Avalanche in the standings to eight points. That means the two teams have experienced a 22-point swing in less than three months.

That is an absolutely shocking flip in that amount of time.

The big change for the Blues has been the fact that their goaltending has completely turned around with the arrival of Jordan Binnington who is now 11-1-1 with a .931 save percentage in his first 13 starts. On Saturday, Jake Allen — who had been a mess earlier this season — recorded his second shutout of the season to give the Blues back-to-back shutouts.

They’re also getting the type of performance they expected out of Vladimir Tarasenko.

After what was one of the worst starts of his career, Tarasenko extended his current point streak to 11 games on Saturday with his fourth consecutive multi-point game.

Since Jan. 1 he has 26 points (including 14 goals) in 19 games.

As for the Avalanche, well, their problems are plentiful.

They still don’t have enough scoring depth beyond their top players, and now they can’t keep anything out of their own net. The defense isn’t anything special, but the goaltending has been a massive disappointment. Put those two things together and they have now given up at least four goals in eight of their past 10 games, while neither goalie (Semyon Varlamov or big offseason acquisition Philipp Grubauer) has done anything to solidify the position.

They have lost nine out of their past 10 games and 24 out of their past 32 since Dec. 1.

As if that is not bad enough, their upcoming schedule is brutal with games against Vegas, Winnipeg, a white-hot Chicago team, and Nashville over their next four.

In short, this could continue to get worse for the Avalanche before it gets better.

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.

NHL goalies do best to prepare for unexpected, unpredictable

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — NHL goaltenders prepare for the unexpected and unpredictable, ready for pucks deflecting off sticks, bodies, feet or even a divot in the ice past all the gear designed to help defend their net.

The freaky, fluky or simply weird goals can be laughed off by goalies who know sometimes the puck just takes a funny bounce.

The goals that eat away at a goalie are those he believes he could’ve – and should’ve – stopped. Not the goal allowed by Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin where the puck bounced off a Nashville forward’s back and over the net before hitting the back of the goalie’s helmet, then off his back and into the net.

”It stings anytime you give up a goal,” Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said Tuesday. ”That kind of goal, there’s nothing really he could’ve done. It’s a freaky goal, and I feel like those things maybe happen once, twice in a season. But yeah, the ones that hurt the most as a goalie, it’s the ones that you feel like you should’ve had it.”

Stick-handling in the NHL has improved right along with players’ speed and skating thanks to offseason workouts. That also has boosted the creativity for shooters looking to do a bit more than a simple slap shot, wrister or snap shot.

”There’s a lot of talent in the league, more maybe so now than there has been in years past,” Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. ”These young guys coming up, everybody has their own skills coaches and things like that. There’s a lot of skills. I don’t doubt there’s more highlight-reel goals.”

Goaltenders have to be ready for the next move dreamed up by the league’s stars to put the puck over the line. Scoring is up with the average number of goals scored per game increasing in each of the past four seasons, and the current average of 3.06 goals per game is on pace to be the highest since the 2005-06 season, according to Hockey-Reference.com

”Maybe it’s the skill of the players too, finding that one spot,” Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer said. ”(Evgeny) Kuznetsov in Washington, he’s so sneaky in terms of what he wants to do and doesn’t want to do. He puts the puck in spots. Maybe you get a weird bounce, hit a guy’s shin pad or something like that.”

The NHL also keeps downsizing goaltenders’ pads, most recently chest protectors . Grubauer sees teams also changing how they break out on offense, attacking faster and giving goalies less time.

”Back in the days, you always used to go back and regroup and break out as a unit,” Grubauer said. ”I feel like the last couple of years, it’s always like, (snaps fingers) and up (snaps fingers) and up.”

Sometimes goalies get lucky, too.

Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton appeared to be losing his balance Sunday in the first period against Winnipeg with Adam Lowry coming in on a short-handed breakaway. Hutton put his glove down at the exact moment Lowry tried to slip the puck between the goalie’s legs for the save.

”You definitely get some fluky saves where you’re beat and a guy just hits you,” Hutton said.

The Sabres goalie also recalls being on his goal line when the puck came up, rolled over the top of the net, hit his neck and went in. He had another puck slip past him on a penalty shot in December against Florida.

”You make the initial save, and it lands on my pads sideways and just slowly rolls off,” Hutton said. ”That’s one where if it’s during a game, a D-man’s probably there to stop it or that puck lands flat on my pad and doesn’t go in. It’s unfortunate that it lands sideways and rolls off my pad. So that’s one that I would say this year that’s been fluky.”

There’s one goal so weird it’s called the Butt Goal.

Defenseman Mark Pysyk, now with Florida, got his first goal of the 2013 season right before Christmas in overtime after jamming at the puck, sending it into the air and into the pants of Coyotes goalie Mike Smith who then backed into his own net.

”I didn’t think they would call it a goal, because I didn’t think they’d see it, but they did,” Pysyk said. ”It was in his pants and he backed in. I think you could see me point at it. They counted it a little bit after, obviously, so I didn’t have a chance to celebrate normally. It was pretty funny.”

SURPRISING ISLANDERS

The New York Islanders are atop the Metropolitan Division in coach Barry Trotz’s first season despite losing John Tavares last offseason to Toronto. They just snapped a three-game streak Tuesday night with a 3-1 loss in Buffalo but are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and remain second overall in the Eastern Conference.

To Buffalo coach Phil Housley, credit Trotz using the same philosophy and structure from coaching in Nashville and winning the Stanley Cup with Washington last summer.

”I really had a pleasure to work with him for one year and learned a lot from him,” Housley said. ”You can see he’s had success wherever he’s went.”

RIVALRY SERIES

The best of women’s hockey are back at it this week with the United States and Canada playing each other in a rare three-game ”Rivalry Series” that ends Sunday in Detroit at the home of the Red Wings. The U.S. beat Canada nearly a year ago for Olympic gold and then won a fourth straight Four Nations Cup title last November. Kendall Coyne Schofield will be the U.S. captain for the series, which will be aired on NHL Network.

”That’s something we’ve been fighting for, is more chances for us to play against Canada,” U.S. forward Dani Cameranesi said. ”It’s not that often that we get to play at the highest level. We don’t really have that many chances for that, but for them all to be … on NHL Network too and for us to get coverage on that is a really big deal.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Washington Capitals visit the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night in a matchup of two of the NHL’s top 10 teams.

LEADERS (after Monday games)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 38; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 60; Points: Kucherov, 84; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:45; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 29; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.05; Save percentage: Robin Lehner, (N.Y. Islanders), .930.