Vladimir Tarasenko

Eichel’s point streak reaches 14 as Sabres send Blues to third straight loss

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There is simply no stopping Jack Eichel right now.

The Buffalo Sabres’ captain extended his point streak to 14 consecutive games on Tuesday night by scoring the game-winning goal five minutes into the third period (then adding an empty-net goal), helping to send the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues to their third straight loss in a 5-2 decision.

The win helped the Sabres keep pace in the tight Atlantic Division playoff race and was their second in a row.

Let’s take a quick look at three big takeaways from this one.

1. The Eichel line keeps dominating. Eichel’s two goals on Tuesday give him 20 on the season — a mark that is good enough for third in the league behind only David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin — and currently has him on a 51-goal pace for the season. It is worth pointing out that the Sabres have not had a 50-goal scorer since Alexander Mogilny (76) and Pat Lafontaine (53) both hit that mark during the 1992-93 season.

This hot streak all started with a four-goal game back on Nov. 16 and he has not slowed down since then. After Tuesday’s game he is now up to 12 goals and 25 total points during the streak, leading the league in both categories during that stretch.

But it’s not just the play of Eichel that is making things click.

Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson, the other two members of the team’s top line, are also playing some outstanding hockey right now and helping to carry the team’s offense. Olofsson, who has in the middle of an outstanding rookie season, picked up two helpers on Tuesday to give him five goals and 10 assists over the past 14 games, while Reinhart’s two points (one goal, one assist) give him 10 points during that stretch.

2. The Blues fell asleep on Eichel’s game-winner. Seriously, what happened here?

The Blues have been one of the NHL’s best defensive teams going back to last season, but this was a terrible breakdown at the worst possible time. There is no reason for Eichel to be able to walk in front of the net completely uncontested like this in a five-on-five situation. Everyone just fell asleep here and made it way too easy for the league’s hottest player to get a wide open look. You are not really helping your goalie here at all.

3. This is the Blues’ first real slump of the season. Yes, they did lose four games in a row earlier this season but they lost two of those games in overtime and were at least able to collect a couple of points. This is the first time all year they have lost three consecutive regulation games, while they have been outscored by a 13-5 margin during that streak. It is also the first time since last November that they have dropped three consecutive regulation games. Over an 82-game season even the best teams are going to run into slumps like this, so it’s probably not a cause for huge concern at the moment. But the Blues still have to be a little worried about the state of their offense without Vladimir Tarasenko. Since he went out of the lineup in late October this has been one of the league’s worst offensive teams, currently sitting in the bottom-10 in shots and goals per game at both even-strength and in all situations. Yes, they are defensive team. But they still need to find more offense than this.

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Blues finding ways to overcome key injuries

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Stanley Cup hangover can be a real thing. It’s come back to bite several defending champions over the years. The St. Louis Blues had every reason to fall apart early on this season for a number of reasons, but to their credit they’ve been able to stand at the top of the Central Division.

Before we jump into the Blues, we have to point out that their opponent tonight, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have also been decimated by injuries lately. They’re currently without Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz and Nick Bjugstad.

But St. Louis is missing some firepower of their own, too.

Sniper Vladimir Tarasenko has been out of the lineup since Oct. 26. He underwent shoulder surgery and he’ll be re-evaluated sometime in March. The 27-year-old had 10 points in 10 games when he came out of the lineup.

“History has shown to me, losing Vladi, it’s a big loss to a team, but you can overcome these ones — you hope to be able to overcome it,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. “(But) it’s the next one and the one after that is where everything starts to get really tested.”

In their first game without Tarasenko, they dropped a 3-0 decision to the Boston Bruins in a Stanley Cup rematch. Since then, they’ve found a way to go 13-2-3, which is very impressive.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Like Armstrong mentioned, good teams can absorb one big loss, but it’s the other injuries that really test your squads depth. The Blues have also been without Alexander Steen (12 games), Sammy Blais (nine games), Robert Thomas (five games) and Oskar Sundqvist (three games). How they continue to get the job done is pretty amazing.

“Our organization (has) done a great job of finding players that can come up and do the job up here,” head coach Craig Berube explained. “We’ve got a deep farm team, and whether it’s from drafting and free-agent signings, like (Nathan) Walker and (Derrick) Pouliot, they came up and filled in real nice.”

Having depth in the minors is nice, but there’s no way they’d be able to overcome these injuries without added contributions from their top players. The defending champs have received some solid production from David Perron, who leads them in scoring with 28 points in 29 games. Ryan O'Reilly has just one goal in his last 11 games, but he’s found a way to chip in with 26 points in 29 outings. And Brayden Schenn (team-high 14 goals), Jaden Schwartz (22 points) and Alex Pietrangelo (20 points) have all done their part. Even a depth player like Ivan Barbashev has done his part by picking up six points in his last four games.

The other big reason they’ve been able to fight through all this adversity is because of the solid goaltending their receiving, and it’s not just Jordan Binnington. Yes, Binnington has been terrific this year, as he’s posted a 13-4-4 record with a 2.26 goals-against-average and a .926 save percentage. He’s showing that last year’s run was no fluke.

Backup netminder Jake Allen has also done his part. Allen and Binnington have split starts with an even rotation over the last few weeks. The veteran owns a 5-1-2 record with a 2.35 goals-against-average and a .926 save percentage this season. That only regulation loss came at home against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 19. He allowed a horrendous goal to Habs forward Brendan Gallagher in that one, but he’s found a way to bounce back since then.

The Blues will hit a rough patch at some point, but there’s no reason to believe they’ll fall apart completely because they’re showing they have the talent and mental ability to face adversity head on.

They’ll probably be really sad to see the 2019 calendar year end in a few weeks though. It’s been a really good year for them.

Liam McHugh will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Blues-Penguins from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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.

Stunning numbers on Flyers, Penguins, Coyotes, and more

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During the 2019-20 NHL season we will take an occasional look at some stunning numbers from around the league. Here is what stood out to us through the first two months of the season. 

The Flyers’ best start since … Eric Lindros played?! This, to me, is literally stunning. The Philadelphia Flyers started December with 35 points, which is their highest point total at the start of the month since the 1995-96 season. That stat comes via NBC Philadelphia’s Jordan Hall. Not sure if this says more about the Flyers’ 2019-20 performance, or the Flyers’ performance between 1996 and 2019.

McDavid and Draisaitl’s dominance. It would not be a stunning numbers update if we did not look at the performance of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl out in Edmonton because everything about these two is completely stunning. They are both at the 50-point mark entering play on Tuesday and are No’s. 1 and 2 in the scoring race. No other players in the league have more than 43 points so far this season. The only other Oilers players in franchise history to hit 50 points through December 1 are Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. No other player on the current Oilers team has more than 19 points this season. These two are the offense.

The Penguins’ absurd injury run. With Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Nick Bjugstad all currently sidelined, the Penguins have more than $25 million in salary cap space sitting in the press box. That represents more than 30 percent of their total salary cap number. Since the start of the season the Penguins have lost 85 man games (and counting) to injuries to Crosby, Rust, Dumoulin, Schultz, Bjugstad, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alex Galchenyuk, Patric Hornqvist, and Jared McCann. It is incredible they are still in a playoff position and played as well as they have.

Quick’s continued decline: The Kings were hoping that Jonathan Quick could bounce back from his brutal 2018-19 performance, but he has been just as bad this season. Since the start of last season he has managed only an .888 save percentage. Among goalies with at least 45 starts during that stretch, that is the worst mark in the league. San Jose’s Martin Jones is the only other goalie with sub-.900 save percentage.

Darcy Kuemper is Arizona’s MVP: In February, 2018, the Arizona Coyotes traded Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood to the Los Angeles Kings for backup goalie Darcy Kuemper. It was a trade that probably snuck under your radar. It is also a trade that might get the 2019-20 Coyotes back in the playoffs. Since arriving in Arizona Kuemper has been one of the league’s most productive goalies, owning a .924 all situations save percentage. Of the 55 goalies that have logged at least 2,000 minutes of ice-time since then, that number places Kuemper sixth in the entire league. His goalie partner in Arizona, Antti Raanta, is fifth (Kuemper has played more nearly 5,000 minutes, while injuries have limited Raanta to just a little over 2,000 minutes). They are one of the best goalie duos in the league, right up there with Boston (Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak), Dallas (Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin), and New York (Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov).

Cale Makar is better than advertised. The Colorado Avalanche top forwards are incredible, and when the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog is healthy and together they are borderline unstoppable. But what is really exciting about the Avalanche and the biggest reason they have emerged as one of the rising NHL powers is the development of their young defense, specifically Cale Makar. He is averaging a point-per-game so far this season (26 points, 26 games) and is off to one of the best starts ever for a rookie defensemen. Since 1979-80 the only defender with more points through his team’s first 26 games was Larry Murphy, who had 29 points in 26 games for the 1980-81 Los Angeles Kings. Combined with Sam Girard and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram the Avalanche have a trio of young defenders that will shape their blue line for a decade or more.

Blues keep rolling. No Vladimir Tarasenko, no problem for the Blues. Since their top forward and most impactful player was sidelined with an injury, the Blues have managed to go on a 13-3-3 run. Leading the way for the Blues offense is David Perron, who is off to one of the best starts of his career with 28 points in 29 games, including five game-winning goals.

Red Wings’ struggles. The Detroit Red Wings have a minus-56 goal differential entering play on Tuesday. The next worst team (New Jersey Devils) is only at minus-31. That goal differential through 30 games is the 23rd worst in the history of the league and the worst since the 1993-94 Ottawa Senators.

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 Power Rankings: Best landing spots for Taylor Hall

Taylor Hall‘s contract situation with the New Jersey Devils was always going to be a big storyline this season, and with the team off to a disappointing start and the possibility of him re-signing looking slimmer by the day it was only a matter of time until trade talk picked up.

Over the weekend The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported that teams around the league are calling the Devils regarding their top player, and general manager Ray Shero is starting to listen.

With that in mind, this week’s PHT Power Rankings takes a look at the best possible landing spots for the former league MVP.

Which teams make the most sense?

To the rankings!

1. New Jersey Devils. Honestly the ideal situation is Hall staying right where he is in New Jersey with one big if — If he is willing to re-sign there. I am just looking at this from a Devils perspective because trading Hall would be a pretty significant blow to what general manager Ray Shero has tried to build here. It is nearly impossible to get fair value for players of this caliber in trade, they have the salary cap space to make a new contract work, and even though he is no longer considered “young” by NHL standards, he is still at an age where he can absolutely be a part of a contending team in New Jersey around Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Will it work out that way? It is looking less and less likely with each passing day. But you have to keep trying!

Having to trade him after getting just one playoff appearance out of his four years with the team would just seem like a waste and missed opportunity.

So what are the best options assuming they have to trade him?

2. Colorado Avalanche. The worst nightmare for the rest of the Western Conference, and something that is absolutely possible given their situation. The Avalanche roster is already loaded with top-line talent, they have more salary cap space than all but two teams in the league, they have young assets to deal, and they are in a position to win right now. Could you imagine Hall on a team that already has Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Nazem Kadri, and Cale Makar? They would go from Stanley Cup contender to Stanley Cup favorite.

3. Montreal Canadiens. They have been hoarding salary cap space and desperately trying to find an impact forward, going as far as to actually signing a restricted free agent offer sheet (Sebastian Aho) over the summer. They need a star, they need an impact forward, they need something to try and break the cycle of mediocrity the Marc Bergevin era has produced.

4. St. Louis Blues. The salary cap is a real obstacle here, but smart teams can find ways to make that work to get the player they want (or need). The Blues look like a Stanley Cup favorite again, but with Vladimir Tarasenko sidelined for most of the season they have a huge hole on the wing. It is a long shot, but it works from a hockey standpoint.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins could definitely use another winger with some finish, and let’s be honest here, finding a way to trade for an impact player like Hall is exactly the type of blockbuster move the Penguins are known for going after as they try to maximize the best years of the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang core. Salary cap space is tight, but it only seems to be a matter of when Jim Rutherford dumps Alex Galchenyuk and/or Nick Bjugstad (once he returns from injury) to clear more space.

6. New York Islanders. They have the goaltending, they are shutting teams down defensively, and they are showing their 2018-19 performance was no fluke. They just need one more impact player up front to bring the whole thing together.

7. Edmonton Oilers. After wasting the first part of Hall’s career then trading him for pennies on the dollar, there has been speculation that they could be interested in a reunion with their former No. 1 overall pick. On one hand it would also give us an opportunity to see the Connor McDavid-Hall combination that we never really had a chance to see. On the other hand, they already had their chance with Hall and blew it.

8. Calgary Flames. After finishing the 2018-19 season with the best record in the Western Conference the Flames have badly regressed this season and have been one of the league’s worst offensive teams. It would also add a fascinating twist and storyline to the Battle of Alberta.

9. Nashville Predators. This entire team is built on big trades and free agent acquisitions, so you know general manager David Poile is not afraid to do something like this. They are not a bad offensive team at this point so it is not like Hall would be addressing a huge need, but the team does look stale and in need of a spark. Their window should not be closing, and with no truly dominant team in the Western Conference they should still have a chance to do something this season.

10. Boston Bruins. They would have to get extremely creative with the salary cap and convince New Jersey to eat some salary, but the Bruins have a window to win right now and need some offense beyond the David PastrnakBrad Marchand duo.

11. Carolina Hurricanes. Not sure how realistic it is given the salary cap, but I am including them just because I think it would be a fun match. They have a ton of draft picks at their disposal to use as trade chips, they are obviously a contender, and adding another impact player like Hall to an already underrated group of forwards would make them a fierce team to defend.

12. San Jose Sharks. It makes no sense, but would it really surprise you if it happened? Or if they tried for it? They have very limited salary cap space, no first-round draft pick this year, and their biggest need is still a goalie. All of that makes it tough to consider them an option. But they are desperate to win a Stanley Cup for Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Erik Karlsson, and with the goalie trade market being slim maybe they just try and outscore their hole in net.

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Power Rankings: Incredible run takes Islanders to top spot

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we move the New York Islanders to the top spot because it is really the only logical choice.

They have the best record in hockey, they are on an incredible 15-0-2 run that has seen them collect a point in 17 consecutive games, and they continue to prove to any lingering doubter still waiting for them to fail that their 2018-19 turnaround was no fluke.

One of the biggest drivers of their recent stretch has been the play of the Brock Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier, and Derick Brassard line that has been dominant over the past few weeks. They helped keep the point streak alive in Pittsburgh this past week by powering a late third period rally. This season that trio has outscored teams by an 8-2 margin when together during 5-on-5 play while they have been one of the team’s most dangerous lines offensively.

Along with them, Mathew Barzal has been better than a point-per-game player during the streak, the defense has been a rock, and the goaltending duo of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss has been outstanding (especially Greiss).

Right now they are the only choice for the top spot.

After them, we have a couple of new teams crack the top-five this week.

Where does your team currently sit?

To the rankings!

1. New York Islanders. Lot of under-the-radar contributors for this team but perhaps none more than Brassard who seems to have rediscovered his career here.

2. Boston Bruins. Only five players in Bruins history have scored 50 goals in a season, and no one has done it since Cam Neely during the 1993-94 season. David Pastrnak has 59 games to get 30 goals to accomplish it. He can do it.

3. Dallas Stars. A few weeks ago they looked like a team that needed a coaching change. Since then they are 13-1-1, have rocketed up the standings, and are looking like the team they were supposed to be. Great goaltending helps a lot.

4. Washington Capitals. Would not be a surprise to see this team playing into mid-June and skating around with a big trophy at the end of it.

5. Carolina Hurricanes. That four-game losing streak at the start of November is looking like a distant memory. They have won six out of seven and seem to be back on track.

6. Edmonton Oilers. I give them credit for opening the week with the best record in the Western Conference. I am still having trouble going all in on them, though. After starting the season 7-1-0 they have played 18 games and won nine of them. That is … okay.  They are still entirely dependent on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to be better than everyone else.

7. St. Louis Blues. It is impressive the way they have collected points without Vladimir Tarasenko but the offense is still a big question mark.

8. Tampa Bay Lightning. It seems like this sleeping giant is starting to wake up.

9. Arizona Coyotes. One of the league’s best goaltending duos is turning them into a playoff team.

10. Pittsburgh Penguins. Mike Sullivan is turning in a Jack Adams level coaching performance this season. Everything about the way this team is playing points to a Stanley Cup contender if they can just keep their best players on the ice.

11. Colorado Avalanche. Once Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog return they will be back in the top-five in a very short period of time. Cale Makar, meanwhile, looks like he is ready to start running away with the rookie of the year race.

12. San Jose Sharks. They are finally starting to look like the Sharks again — a great team that can overcome consistently sup-par goaltending.

13. Winnipeg Jets. Connor Hellebuyck is playing the best hockey of his career and is not getting enough credit for it.

14. Florida Panthers. The Panthers are in the same position as they were a year ago where a playoff caliber offense is getting sunk by lousy goaltending. The problem this year is they just gave a goalie $70 million over seven years in an effort to solve the goaltending problem.

15. New York Rangers. They are very quietly hanging around and starting to play better. Artemi Panarin has been worth every penny.

16. Montreal Canadiens. Losing Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron is going to be a lot for this team to overcome right now offensively.

17. Vegas Golden Knights. They still have not won a game this season that Marc-Andre Fleury has not started. That is a problem, because they can not rely on him to play 65 games.

18. Vancouver Canucks. This current road trip is going to be a big test for them. So far it is off to a promising start.

19. Toronto Maple Leafs. It is only two games but they have looked like a completely different team with Sheldon Keefe behind the bench. Do not be surprised if it continues. This team needed a coach that would let them play to their strength. They needed this change.

20. Philadelphia Flyers. We just need to accept this fact this team is capable of winning six games in a row at any time and losing six games in a row at any time. Which team will you get? That is the mystery!

21. Buffalo Sabres. This season is starting to look an awful lot like the 2018-19 season in Buffalo. This team really does not do anything well.

22. Nashville Predators. Viktor Arvidsson is out for more than a month because of a cheap shot, and Kyle Turris can no longer seem to crack the lineup. There are a lot of problems in Nashville right now.

23. Ottawa Senators. They are not a playoff team right now, but they are not rolling over and giving up. They are a tough team to play right now.

24. Chicago Blackhawks. That four-game winning streak made things a little interesting in Chicago, but they have followed it up with three consecutive losses and their schedule over the next five games is brutal (Dallas, Colorado twice, St. Louis, and Boston).

25. Columbus Blue Jackets. Cam Atkinson only having four goals through the first 22 games of the season is a big problem. He has been one of the most underrated goal-scorers in the league and they need him to get rolling again.

26. Calgary Flames. You had to expect some regression this season, but this is a little much.

27. New Jersey Devils. They made all of those moves this summer and ignored the biggest weakness on the team (their goalies). Very strange.

28. Minnesota Wild. They were two minutes away from putting together their first three-game winning streak of the season, only to completely fall apart against Boston.

29. Los Angeles Kings. Anze Kopitar is having the bounce-back season the Kings needed him to have. Jonathan Quick is not.

30. Anaheim Ducks. Even the goaltending is not there to bail them out right now.

31. Detroit Red Wings. The only good news for the Red Wings is they have a great head start on getting the best draft lottery odds.

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.