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The Buzzer: Schwartz helps Blues keep pace; Rinne, Rask pick up shutouts

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Three stars

1. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues

There’s a real race for the third spot in the Central Division down the stretch here, with the Blues leading the Dallas Stars by two points for the spot.

Both teams won on Tuesday, and Schwartz led the way for the Blues, scoring a hat trick en route to a 7-2 thrashing of the Edmonton Oilers. Schwartz opened the game’s scoring and then scored in the second and a late third-period marker on the power play to complete his fourth career hatty.

Schwartz hasn’t had the season he would have hope after putting up 24 goals and 59 points last season. He’s now up to 10 tallies this year and 34 points after also grabbing an assist for a four-point night.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

The Predators are in tough to try and win another Central Division crown. They’re one point back of the Winnipeg Jets but the Jets have two games in hand. Basically, they need to win out and hope for some help.

Part of that help will come from within, and Rinne was on point in the crease on Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, stopping all 22 shots he saw. It’s the second time this season that Rinne has blanked the Leafs.

The Preds neutered the Maple Leafs high-powered offense in this one as the Predators nursed a one-goal lead for most of the game.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

The Bruins put in a complete effort against the Islanders in this one, and Rask only saw 13 shots come his way. But he stopped all 13 to snap a two-game stretch where he was less than the stellar goaltender that he had been. And sometimes those games where you barely see action can be the hardest.

Rask now has four shutouts on the season and 25 wins. He started the season off horribly and likely would have been in the Vezina conversation if not for that. Still, a focused — and well-rested — Rask is exactly what the Bruins need heading into the playoffs.

Highlights of the night

Hurricanes go duck hunting:

Here’s how to make Seth Jones look silly:

Simmons ends drought, scores first with Predators:

Factoids

Scores

Bruins 5, Islanders 0
Red Wings 3, Rangers 2
Canadiens 3, Flyers 1
Hurricanes 3, Penguins 2 (SO)
Capitals 4, Devils 1
Blues 7, Oilers 2
Predators 3, Maple Leafs 0
Avalanche 3, Wild 1
Stars 4, Panthers 2
Flames 4, Blue Jackets 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

Wednesday Night Hockey: Will Leafs get out of first round this year?

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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 biggest question surrounding the Maple Leafs this year is not whether or not they’ll make the playoffs, it’s more about them getting out of the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Because of the current playoff format in the NHL, we have a pretty good idea that the Leafs will take on the Boston Bruins in the first round. That’s a pretty terrible “reward” for the team with the third-most amount of points in the Eastern Conference right now. Of course, there’s still a chance that the Leafs could make up four-point gap between themselves and the Bruins. That would allow them to get home-ice advantage in the first round, which would go a long way in helping their odds of winning the series.

Last season, the Leafs and Bruins squared off in the opening round of the playoffs. The Bruins had home-ice advantage in that series and they eventually won it in seven games. In 2017, the Leafs dropped their first-round series to the Washington Capitals in six games. Between 2014 and 2016, Toronto didn’t even get a sniff of the postseason.

If we look back at 2013, they lost a first-round matchup to the Bruins in seven games. As you probably remember, Game 7 was played at TD Garden in Boston.

The last time they got out of the first round was back in 2003-04, when Pat Quinn was their head coach. And as we all know, they haven’t wont a Stanley Cup since 1967.

Even the biggest Leafs hater has to admit that this team has the talent on their roster to do damage in the playoffs. If healthy, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and the rest of the team have the offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league. There’s still some question marks surrounding their defense, but Morgan Reilly and Jake Muzzin are solid pieces on the back end.

The most interesting battle between the Bruins and Leafs would come between the pipes. Can Frederik Andersen outlast Tuukka Rask in a seven-game series? Andersen has shown that he’s more than capable of stealing games for the Leafs when they aren’t at their best. Can he do it on the biggest stage? We’ll find out in just a few weeks.

So what happens if the Leafs don’t get out of the first round? Is their sweeping changes? Is Mike Babcock on the hot seat? We’ll worry about that if they fail, again, in April, but you’d have to think that everyone in place will get a little more time to finish building the team.

On the flip side, how can any team that lost in the first round last year add John Tavares and not make any further than they did the previous season?

It should be a very interesting spring in Toronto.

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick (play-by-play), Jeremy Roenick (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’analyst) will have the call from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 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.

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.

Getty Images

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.

The 2019 Minnesota All-Hockey Hair Team doesn’t disappoint

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The beginning of March means that it’s Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament time. That also means it’s time for an annual rite of spring and tradition like no other: the 2019 All-Hockey Hair Team.

For those new to this tradition, John King, a Minneapolis native has put together this montage of the best flow in the tournament for a decade. It didn’t take long for them to blow up, and even ESPN did a feature on how King and his family put together the videos back in 2016.

King also uses the videos to raise money for the Hendrickson Foundation, which supports special, sled, and military hockey in Minnesota.

Sadly, as King announces in the 2019 edition, it’s his final one. So on that note, let’s check out the finest lettuce in Minne-flow-ta:

Two of the heavenly manes featured stood out to us:

“The lion’s mane from Coleraine.” This younger version of Tuukka Rask didn’t need to do anything other than stare into the camera and let his flow do the work.

“The railroad baron,” by Teagan Kamm of New Ulm. This is a solid decision on his part, not only to ensure the business in the front/party in the back look, but also get the lines in the side right, as well as construct the sweet facial foliage.

How many NHLers wish they could grow facial hair like that come playoff time?

Hopefully King rethinks his All-Hockey Hair Team retirement and comes back for the 2020 version, or at least gives us a best-of-the-best flow-nale with the greatest manes the Minnesota State High School Tournament has ever seen.

————

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.

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.