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More feuds, more personality means more fun for NHL

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For all we know, it might take decades for hockey players to totally shake off their generic “aw shucks” mentalities. Maybe it will never fully happen.

That said, it sure seems like we’re seeing a rise in trash talks, brutally honest conversations, and examples of bigger personalities during this goal-happy start to the new NHL season. The latest incident involves Lars Eller, Nazem Kadri, “bulletin board material,” the Leafs, Capitals, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. So, yes, it’s pretty entertaining.

To catch you up to speed, Eller half-dismissed the rising Maple Leafs after they beat his Capitals 4-2 on Saturday, as NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti reported:

“We’re used to playing against Crosby and Malkin,” Eller said. “Everything kind of drops from there, so it’s not that special.”

While Eller added that the Maple Leafs are “a good team” and that he thinks Toronto would make the playoffs, Nazem Kadri didn’t take those comments kindly.

“Bulletin board material,” Kadri said on Monday, via NHL.com’s Dave McCarthy. “I don’t know how he can be serious with that comment. I understand they’re coming off hanging a banner, but you’ve got to give teams respect that have earned it, and I certainly think we’ve earned it.”

Juicy stuff, right?

Here’s a request: teams and players shouldn’t be so stuffy. Instead of getting tense in the shoulders about “respect,” it would be a lot more fun for fans if there were more comments like those of Ellers, and if personalities continue to surface.

Now, don’t get this totally twisted. NHL players aren’t going to rival the NBA when it comes to gloriously flamboyant behavior, at least not yet. It’s fitting that Eller was already walking back his comments on the Maple Leafs, as Gulitti notes today:

Sure, it’s possible that people got a little carried away with Eller’s comments … but who does it really hurt?

OK, so maybe Eller himself was recently bloodied by Brad Marchand for showing some personality following a goal, so you can understand why he might want to pump the brakes a bit here:

Let’s not forget that, while there’s a lot on the line in the NHL, this is still about entertainment.

Thankfully, this latest crop of hockey players – particularly stars – are opening up in ways that are keeping us laughing and sometimes egging on a fight like a crowd watching high schoolers slap each other. And it’s great.

Consider the recent flourishes we’ve enjoyed:

Matthews’ fashion sense generates memes that are almost as fun as watching him score ridiculous goals.

  • Do the Hurricanes have a name for this celebration yet? “The Carolina Climb” doesn’t have the same ring to it (or the same accuracy) as “The Lambeau Leap.” Either way, it’s a fun celebration; it also shows that elder statesmen can get it on the fun, as apparently this is the masterwork of Justin Williams:

(And you thought the team undergoing “Team Grit” and “Team Grind” practices couldn’t have fun.)

  • The Ryan JohansenRyan Kesler feud hasn’t resulted in a parking lot brawl … yet. The real highlight is Johansen’s adorably weak smack talk, to be frank.
  • Patrik Laine is just about as quick with quips as he is releasing shots. The highlight might be the jab he sent Vancouver’s way regarding “Fortnite” habits, as PHT’s own Scott Billeck reported on Oct. 3:

Good stuff, and this list is really just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve already seen Connor McDavid embrace his funny side with commercials and that meme-generating awkward airport photo. Matthews isn’t the only Maple Leafs youngster who can take and/or dish out jokes, as we saw from those cheesy Mitch Marner as a child barbs.

Maybe this all boils down to a more social media-savvy, meta generation of hockey players. On the other hand, we all might need to step up our games to even briefly wrestle the attention away from Gritty.

Whatever the case may be, let’s hope these moments of personality become a consistent part of hockey fandom, and – if we’re really lucky – crop up even more often.

If this is just a brief wave before we land back into blandness, at least it’s been a good run.

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.

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)

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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.

Ryan Johansen on playing in Smashville, Central Divison battles (PHT Q&A)

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The Nashville Predators took many years to be built into the contenders that they are now. General manager David Poile had made shrewd move after shrewd move in order to put his team in the best possible spot to win a Stanley Cup.

One of those moves was trading Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen in Jan. 2016. It was a move trading from excess to fill a need, which was an impact centerman. Johansen has filled that role scoring 37 goals and recording 150 points in 205 games with the Predators.

During the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last month, Johansen sat down with NBC to talk about coming up short last season, playing in Nashville and the tough Central Division.

Enjoy.

PHT: When you look at last season, especially the playoffs, do you see “Wow, we had a good year” or that was a blown opportunity?

JOHANSEN: “I’d lean towards more of a good year. [We] won the Presidents’ Trophy and it is not an easy thing to do. Our league is so competitive, it’s anyone’s game in the playoffs, but it was definitely a disappointing finish. We felt like we were a better team than that and falling short was just a little disappointing.”

Q. You have a great home environment. Describe Smashville for somebody who doesn’t know.

JOHANSEN: “That’s all you need to say, is Smashville. It is absolutely incredible. It is tough to describe from the time I was traded until now. It is absolutely amazing to see the support for our team, and not only hockey fans but kids learning about the game and learning about the Preds. Young kids, their eyes just light right up when we run into people around town and it truly has turned into a remarkable place to play hockey and I am definitely very fortunate to be there.”

Q. Does it sound differently in that rink than any place else?

JOHANSEN: “When it’s time, and when we’re going and the crowd’s into it, I don’t know how you can compare it or who you can compare it to. I mean, Winnipeg’s pretty fun when they were going, but two years ago when we were in the Finals and we were the underdogs and surprising people and making Nashville fans proud, you couldn’t help yourself but be distracted from it. It was so cool.”

Q. In past years, the success you guys have had, does that start by sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017?

JOHANSEN: Yeah, I think that was a big confidence booster. That was the hump here in the West that we needed to get over. And more than we probably knew it, it gave us a boost where we felt unbeatable after that and we had a swagger to our game, our team game, where no matter what was happening on the ice we were going to keep coming and we were going to get the job done.”

Q. How much does it take out of a player to play in the Central Division?

JOHANSEN: “Whenever we’re matched up against each other it’s a different game than playing other teams. I would say more of the West though, too. There’s just a lot of strong, big hockey teams and, not taking away from anybody in the East but, just with the rivalries between the teams that are close to us, it’s fun hockey. Those are games you want to play in, you love to play in. There’s no days off or else you’re losing, so, especially when we’re in our division, and the games are so important.”

Q. Even though they finished last, last season, are the Blackhawks and guys like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane still a measuring stick for you?

JOHANSEN: “Definitely as a centerman, being matched up against Toews, who won the Stanley Cup three times, it’s a very fun challenge in competitiveness that personally I thrive on. I thrive on those opportunities to match up with those guys and see where my game’s at and gain confidence from, or go back to the drawing board with my own game and find ways to improve or outplay not only Toews but all the top centermen or forwards in the league.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Rangers, Predators open season at MSG

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Thursday. First up, the New York Rangers host the Nashville Predators at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The season opens on Thursday night for both the Rangers and Predators — two teams in two entirely different situations.

The Predators are aiming for the Stanley Cup after having reached the Final in 2017 and falling short last spring with a second-round exit, thanks to the Winnipeg Jets. They have pretty much the same roster as last season and remain one of the NHL’s staunchest defenses, led by reigning Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne.

New York is in a transitional phase where they’re kind of sort of rebuilding, but still have Henrik Lundqvist in goal. There are still plenty of veterans around like Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes and Kevin Shattenkirk, but new head coach David Quinn will gives some kids a chance like Filip Chytil to allow them to solidify a spot in the lineup.

What: New York Rangers vs. Nashville Predators
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, N.Y.
When: Thursday, October 4th, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch Rangers-Predators on NBC Sports’ live stream page.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

Rangers
Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Jimmy Vesey – Kevin Hayes – Mats Zuccarello
Vladislav Namestnikov – Brett Howden – Vinni Lettieri
Ryan Spooner – Filip Chytil – Jesper Fast

Brady SkjeiAdam McQuaid
Brendan Smith – Kevin Shattenkirk
Marc StaalNeal Pionk

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Predators
Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Kevin FialaKyle TurrisCraig Smith
Calle JarnkrokNick BoninoColton Sissons
Miikka Salomaki – Frederick Gaudreau – Ryan Hartman

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Dan HamhuisYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

NHL on NBCSN Doubleheader: Rangers host Predators; Flyers visit Vegas

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Thursday. In the first game, the New York Rangers host the Nashville Predators at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The NHL season will begin at different ends of the spectrum for both the Rangers and the visiting Predators.

New York enters the season after tearing down parts of the organization over the second half of this past season. They finished last in the Metropolitan Division and began the fire sale while also subsequently firing head coach Alain Vigneault.

They return this season with Dan Quinn behind the bench, youth aplenty and a bevy of question marks often attached to a team that was forced into a rebuild.

The one constant for the Rangers will be in goal, where Henrik Lundqvist gets set to begin his 14th season with the Blueshirts. Lundqvist is coming off one of his worst seasons as a pro but remains the linchpin in the Rangers chances of winning games this season.

“I’ve been reflecting this summer and over the last few days and what I come back to is that I am consistently most successful when I’m confident in my game plan and stick with it,” Lundqvist said. “For me, it’s about getting back to my base and not changing too much because of what’s going on in front of me. I can’t tell you exactly why I’ve allowed those early goals, but if I face a big scoring chance right at the start, then I have to make that save. The group has to be ready, and that goes for me, too.”

On the other side of the center line will stand the Nashville Predators, fresh off a Game 7 defeat in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Expectations last season for the Preds were much loftier than their early-round exit dictated, but the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season enters this year as one of the best in the NHL once again.

They re-signed Ryan Ellis long-term to ensure their vaunted top-four on the back end remained the envy of the NHL and added Dan Hamhuis to provide further depth on the third pairing.

The Predators should be a force to be reckoned with once again this season, one confident enough in their offense — with the likes of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson — that they felt they could afford to send highly-touted prospect Eeli Toilvanen down to the American Hockey League.

They also boast the Vezina winner from last season in Pekka Rinne, who will be looking to bounce back from a poor playoff performance where his save percentage dipped from .927 in the regular season to an abysmal .904 in the postseason.

On paper, the matchup looks poor for New York, but consider that the Rangers have won eight of their last 12 meetings with the Preds. Counterpoint: Nashville was the best road team in the NHL last season with a 25-9-7 record.

Nashville will be without forward Austin Watson, who was suspended 27 games by the NHL for “unacceptable off-ice conduct” after pleading no contest in a domestic assault incident.

In the late game, the Vegas Golden Knights will host the Philadelphia Flyers at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

Can the Vegas magic continue?

That was one hell of an inaugural season for the Golden Knights, who reinvented what an expansion franchise can achieve after winning 51 games and reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

And those still thinking all that was a fluke can be reminded that Vegas only got better in the offseason, re-signing 43-goal man William Karlsson, and adding stars in Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny.

A second-straight run at the Cup doesn’t feel like a pipe dream for these Golden Knights. There’s a good chance they could repeat their same success as last season, and even eclipse it if things fall into place.

The Golden Knights boast one of the best lines in the NHL with Jonathan Marchessault, Karlsson and Reilly Smith and can now watch Pacioretty and Stastny work together on the second line.

“If you need a goal, they’re on the ice,” Vegas general manager George McPhee said of his second line additions. “If you’reprotecting a lead, they’re on the ice. They can play power play, they can kill penalties, so there’s a lot of utility.”

Vegas will also be counting on Marc-Andre Fleury to once again shoulder the load after putting up career numbers last season. Fleury battled injury during the regular season before putting on a goaltending clinic in the first three rounds of the playoffs. His numbers tailed off against the Washington Capitals, who pipped Vegas to the Cup in five games.

In Philly, Gritty has been the talk of the town after the googly-eyed mascot made his debut a couple weeks ago.

The move to introduce the brilliant mascot wasn’t made to mask the Flyers’ chances this season. They made the playoffs last season — despite losing 10 straight at one point — and added James van Riemsdyk over the summer to help solidify their offense.

Claude Giroux enjoyed a resurgence playing out on the wing, amassing a career-high 102 points and 34 goals. The move also helped Sean Couturier, who was given an elite winger and that helped turn his season into a career year also, finishing with 31 goals.

Philly’s biggest question — as it has been for years — comes in the crease. They have the offensive capabilities with Giroux, Couturier, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek, and a solid backend, but need Brian Elliott and/or Michal Neuvirth to stand on their head this year. The Flyers claimed Calvin Pickard of waivers earlier this week as insurance.

The Flyers will be looking to 2017 second-overall pick Nolan Patrick to take the next step after recording 30 points in his rookie season.

The tools are there for Philly to improve on last season’s showing.


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