NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
When the St. Louis Blues lost All-Star forward Vladimir Tarasenko after just 10 games it was easy to assume that one of two things would happen the rest of the way.
Either it would put a significant dent in their chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champions. Or it would force general manager Doug Armstrong to make some kind of a significant trade to strengthen their offense.
As it turns out, neither one of those outcomes happened.
The Blues’ only in-season addition was to add defenseman Marco Scandella from the Montreal Canadiens, while they enter Sunday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN) with the best record in the Western Conference and 14 points ahead of their pace from a year ago at the same point in the season. Before losing to New Jersey on Friday, they had won eight games in a row.
The overall recipe is very similar to a year ago: A great defensive team that is backed up by solid goaltending to make them one of the league’s toughest teams to score against. That combination is going to give any team a chance to win every night. But what might be impressive about this year’s Blues team is that they have actually been slightly better offensively even without Tarasenko for almost all of the season. At the very least, they are not really any worse. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t be better with him, or that they don’t need him back for another playoff run (he makes them dramatically better and even more dangerous).
It is just that some of their more underappreciated players have really stepped up in his absence.
He is in his third different stop with the Blues and has been outstanding since signing with the team last summer. Since re-joining the Blues this latest time he’s scored at 30-goal, 70-point pace per 82 games. It is the most productive he has ever been offensively at any point in his career and with any team. He is already at 25 goals and 60 points this season, rapidly closing in on career highs in both categories, and has nine game-winning goals. He has been great at 5-on-5 and on the power play, and has been one of their go-to players for offense.
Next you have 20-year-old forward Robert Thomas, the Blues’ future star. He has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two years due to his speed and playmaking ability, and has already seen his overall offensive numbers increase from what they were during his rookie season. He has also been one of the Blues’ most productive players at even-strength. Among the 15 Blues players with 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, his 0.68 goals per 60 minutes are 5th on the team, while no one averages more primary assists than his 1.82. He’s been outstanding and has a great future ahead of him.
Finally, there’s Zach Sanford. Acquired by the Blues a couple of years ago in the trade deadline move that sent Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington, Sanford has already doubled his previous career-high in goals and enters play on Sunday with 15 in only 55 games, with all but one of them coming at even-strength. No player on the Blues this season has been a more efficient goal-scoring at even-strength than he has been (1.23 goals per 60 minutes).
The Blues needed some forwards to step up in Tarasenko’s absence, and these three have. It is a big reason they are going to enter the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs as one of the favorites to come out of the Western Conference again.
Kate Scott will call the action alongside U.S. Olympic gold medalists Kendall Coyne-Schofield and AJ Mleczko from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Game production will be led by producer Rene Hatlelid and director Lisa Seltzer.
The first-of-its-kind broadcast will be in celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, which dates back over 100 years. The broadcast will highlight women who have made their mark on hockey, and sports in general, with the hopes to inspire future generations of women to excel on the ice and behind the scenes.
Sunday night’s coverage will also be surrounded by On Her Turf, NBC Sports’ female empowerment brand. The broadcast will include a number of features highlighting women in hockey during pre-game and intermissions, with custom in-game graphic integration and social coverage.
After making the All-Star Game for the first time in his NHL career, Perron started the second half of the season with a two-game point streak. He added a goal, an assist and a shootout tally as the Blues defeated the Flames 5-4 in a back-and-forth battle that ended in the skills competition. The 31-year-old forward notched his 22nd of the season when he hammered home a loose puck in front to knot the game at 2-2 late in the first period. Perron also made a nifty pass to help St. Louis exit the zone before Zach Sanford tied the game early in the final frame. Additionally, the Blues snapped a three-game losing streak.
The Flames alternate captain is still a bit behind his 82-point total pace from last year after surpassing his previous career-high by 18 points set the season before. Monahan remains a critical piece in the Flames’ lineup as they prepare for a playoff push in the tightly contested Pacific Division. The 25-year-old recorded his 400th career point when he snapped off a wrist shot from the slot at 15:43 of the first period to give Calgary a 2-1 lead at the time. He would go on to record his second of the game, another wrister from the slot, early in the middle frame to even the score at 3-3.
It’s not often an empty-net goal helps an NHL player land on this list, but Borowiecki’s game-sealing tally late in the third period was quite the play in the Senators’ 5-2 win against the Sabres. Ottawa’s alternate captain willingly went down on one knee in order to block a one-timer from Marcus Johansson to help preserve a one-goal lead at the time. After the block, Borowiecki quickly gathered himself, collected a loose puck and fired it off the boards into the empty cage. The Senators lead the NHL with 11 shorthanded goals.
It's Jan. 28 and this man is currently making zero dollars next year.
Mark Borowiecki puts his body on the line every single day for this team, and it's just so impressive to watch. pic.twitter.com/9BaH4uQxaS
No doubt, the best parts of All-Star introductions come in seeing who gets the biggest cheers (and loudest boos). Usually, we’re talking about players, coaches, and maybe a celebrity like Jon Hamm. The 2020 NHL All-Star Game provided a unique moment, though: Laila Anderson received a big cheer, and then introduced the hometown Blues’ All-Star representatives.
Let me say this: Anderson did a great job. The “good luck charm” showed potential as an announcer.
To jeers from the St. Louis faithful, Patrick Kane won the first rendition of the “Shooting Stars” competition at the 2020 NHL All-Star Skills Event.
Now, the crowd wasn’t booing just because Kane plays for the Blues’ rival Blackhawks in the Central Division. Some might have been grumbling because of some rules confusion. In particular, shooters going for 10 points often felt like they hit the mark, only to realize that they were foiled by the arc. That happened most dramatically when Mitch Marner thought he hit 10 during the tiebreaker round against Kane (and Ryan O'Reilly?). Once it was clear Marner got nothing, Kane pulled off the equivalent to getting a field goal to win in NFL overtime.
Shooting Stars brings some fun. It also is the sort of activity where you can get a pop from the crowd by bringing in retired stars. The audience received two such treats, as Keith Tkachuk joined his ragamuffin sons Brady and Matthew Tkachuk for an attempt. Brett Hull also took to the stage on behest of Ryan O’Reilly.
People worked the crowd beyond that. As often as Matthew Tkachuk plays the role of pro wrestling villain, he drew some easy cheers by showing off a Cardinals jersey. (To be fair, Matthew spent plenty of time in the area, so he might be a “shoot” Cardinals fan, to use pro wrestling parlance.)
So … maybe this one needs some fine-tuning, but it was really fun, including strong showings from Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight. Hockey combining Dude Perfect trick shot videos with Skee-Ball seems like a winner. Now they just need to print out tickets so people can earn worthless nicknacks.
What player has been your biggest surprise of the first half of the 2019-20 season?
SEAN: Tristan Jarry, Penguins. A season ago the Penguins netminder played only two games in the NHL having lost the backup job to Casey DeSmith. This season he’s usurped Matt Murray for the No. 1 job and helped backstop the team into contender status as the roster has dealt with numerous injuries.He’s top five in even strength save percentage, goals saved above average, and has helped Pittsburgh to 16 wins in 22 starts.
JAMES: John Carlson, Capitals. Look, we all knew Carlson could score. He’s been rising up the defensive scoring ranks for a while now (interestingly, increasing even after he got paid). Still, 60 points in just 49 games, placing him comfortably in front of Auston Matthews for 10th overall in the NHL right now? Yeah, can’t say I saw that coming.
ADAM: Bryan Rust, Penguins. He has always been a pretty good complementary player, but this year his play has just reached an entirely unexpected level. He is on a near 50-goal, 100-point pace over 82 games! No one ever expected that from him. Even if he cools off in the second half he is still going to have career year.
JOEY: David Perron, Blues. He’s currently on a point-per-game pace and he’s also top 20 in league scoring. We knew he was a good hockey player, but he’s playing at a totally different level right now.
SCOTT: Artemi Panarin, Rangers. High-priced free agents have a long history of failing at Madison Square Garden but Panarin has been everything the Blueshirts could have hoped. The Russian winger is on his way to his first All-Star game and could be the star player that helps the Rangers right the ship.
What team has been your biggest surprise so far?
SEAN: Blue Jackets. They lose their two biggest stars and their trade deadline pick ups walk in free agency. The enter 2019-20 with one goaltender who posted back-to-back seasons with a sub-.900 save percentage and another who had spent his entire pro career in Switzerland. So of course they’d be sitting in a wild card spot on the heels of third place in the Metropolitan Division at the All-Star Break. Just as we all expected.
JAMES: Blue Jackets. Honestly, I’d expected the Blue Jackets to be scrappy, but without that extra oomph to avoid being (word that rhymes with scrappy). Instead, they’re in the thick of the East wild-card races, not that differently from last season, when they still had Sergei Bobrovsky and especially Artemi Panarin. Managing to hang in there with a legitimately crushing run of injuries makes them even more surprising.
ADAM: Canucks. The easy answer here is probably Columbus or Arizona, but I had fairly high hopes for both at the start of the season. So I am going to say the Canucks get the call for biggest surprise. I liked Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, and figured Quinn Hughes would make a big impact, but the rest of the team just seemed like it was years away from contention.
JOEY: Blue Jackets. Somehow, they’ve found a way to be in a Wild Card spot at this point. John Tortorella is doing the coaching job of his life and he’s been able to get some reliable goaltending from unlikely candidates. It would be awesome to see them make it back to the postseason after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.
SCOTT: Blues. I felt there was potential for a huge letdown after a surprising championship run last season and the Vladimir Tarasenko injury only strengthened those beliefs. However, they have been dominant at home and are sitting on top of the most competitive division in the NHL.
SEAN: Andreas Athanasiou, Red Wings. There’s a lot of work to be done in Hockeytown to make the Red Wings a playoff team again, but there is a small core of players for GM Steve Yzerman to build around. Athanasiou is supposed to be one of those players but has struggled mightily after posting 30 goals last season. Through 36games he only has five goals and 19 points. You’d expect his 5.7 shooting percentage to jump in the second half, which he needs since he’ll be an RFA this summer and can earn himself a nice raise.
JAMES: P.K. Subban, Devils. The hope was that Subban would bounce back from a troubling 2018-19. After all, it seemed like Subban was injured. Instead, things have gone worse, as his offense dried up while he continues to struggle defensively. I’m not totally giving up on P.K. — he might still be less than 100 percent — but I’m not exactly betting on him being a $9M defender again, either.
ADAM:Sergei Bobrovsky, Panthers. I thought Bobrovsky’s contract was going to be a problem in three or four years, but I figured the Panthers would at least get a couple of quality seasons out of him before that happened. They have not even been able to get that yet. I figured he would be the missing piece to get them back in the playoffs in the short-term, and while they might make the playoffs it is currently in spite of Bobrovsky’s and not because of it.
JOEY: Alex Galchenyuk, Penguins. The Penguins gave up Phil Kessel in a trade for Galchenyuk, but things just haven’t worked out the way they had hoped with him. Despite all the injuries in Pittsburgh this year, Galchenyuk hasn’t been able to make an impact with his new team. He’s now played for three teams in three seasons and it doesn’t look like his stop in Pittsburgh will be very long. Who knows what’s next for him.
SCOTT: P.K. Subban, Devils. The hope was Subban’s career would be rejuvenated by a trade to the New Jersey Devils. However, not much has gone right in Newark and Subban’s disappointing play has been a factor in John Hynes and Ray Shero losing their jobs.
What team has been your biggest disappointment?
SEAN: Predators. Teams you expected to be better but aren’t so far can pinpoint poor goaltending as a main factor. You wouldn’t expect that from Nashville but Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros — with a combined .918 even strength save percentage — helped sink Peter Laviolette and have kept the Predators outside of the Western Conference playoff picture.
JAMES: Sharks. How can it not be the Sharks? Looking at the age of that roster, many of us expected a stark reality … just not so soon. The parallels between the 2018-19 version of their hated rivals, the Kings, are honestly getting a little scary. Maybe the Sharks can be respectable again soon … kind of like the Kings, whose underlying numbers indicate they’re actually better than their place in the standings indicates.
ADAM: Sharks. Couple of options here but I think the Sharks take this title pretty easily. You had to know the goaltending was going to be a problem again, but it is far from their only problem. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns have both had terrible seasons (by their standards), while several forwards have regressed or underperformed. This should still be a Stanley Cup contender and they are not only a disappointment, they are downright bad.
JOEY:Predators. The Predators made a splash when they signed Duchene in free agency and another one when they dumped P.K. Subban on New Jersey. Unfortunately for them, those moves haven’t made them any better this year. They’ve already fired head coach Peter Laviollette and things haven’t looked much better since then.
SCOTT: Predators. A coaching change could help turn things around, but the Predators expected to compete for the Stanley Cup this season and are currently on the outside looking in.
What current team in a playoff spot will fall out by the end of the regular season?
SEAN: Oilers. Their team even strength save percentage is .909 and Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl make up 35% of their goals scored. Winnipeg and Chicago are right behind them and Nashville is lurking.
JAMES: Blue Jackets. A competitive team is going to finish ninth in the East. To me, the Blue Jackets just don’t give themselves good enough margins for error. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking at goal differential, and when you see that, it seems clear that the Blue Jackets are only slightly outscoring their problems.
ADAM:Panthers. I want to buy into the Panthers because I love the way Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau play, but the goaltending question still concerns me and if they fall out of the top-three in the Atlantic Division I question if they can finish ahead of one of those Metropolitan teams in a Wild Card spot.
JOEY: Blue Jackets. As impressed as I’ve been with the Blue Jackets, it’s hard to envision them making the postseason ahead of teams like Toronto, Philadelphia and Florida. They deserve credit for the job they’ve done, but they still have a long way to go before they clinch a playoff spot.
SCOTT: Blue Jackets. They have overcome great odds to remain competitive but eventually they will feel the loss of three star players. John Tortorella should be in the Jack Adams conversation with a strong first half, but a second-half slump could be looming.
What team currently out of the playoffs make it in?
SEAN: Predators. They’ve underachieved all season and the hole to dig out of isn’t too deep. If Saros and Rinne can start making saves again and Nashville’s special teams can wake up, they can find a way back in the postseason.
JAMES: Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs aren’t perfect. They are brilliantly talented, however, and have been able to unleash the fury since Sheldon Keefe took over. I think that talent will help them push across the finish line.
ADAM: Maple Leafs. Toronto is too talented to not make it. I know they have their flaws defensively, but you have to think they are going to do something to address that and I just can’t imagine this roster missing. Do they have enough to get through Boston or Tampa Bay? Maybe not. But they will be in.
JOEY: Maple Leafs. Yes, the Leafs are without Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin right now, but you have to imagine that they’ll figure things out before it’s too late. Toronto has too much firepower with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares.
SCOTT: Flyers. It has previously taken teams quite a while to adjust to Alain Vigneault’s system. If the Flyers can figure out their struggles on the road and survive Carter Hart’s injury, they have the talent to find their way into the tournament.
What team needs to make a big splash at the February trade deadline?
SEAN: Maple Leafs. Their star core players are off their rookie contracts and three straight Round 1 exits means the pressure is on in Toronto. The blue line is the biggest area of need, especially with Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin out injured. GM Kyle Dubas will need to shore up the back end in order to put them in a better position entering the playoffs — if they get there, of course.
JAMES: Oilers. Look, there are teams like the Bruins, whose windows could close in a hurry. But, frankly, we as hockey fans should be more outraged that Connor McDavid, hockey superhuman, is so rarely in the playoffs. It’s a travesty, and the Oilers need to give him some help. Not just for McDavid, but frankly, for all of us.
ADAM: Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs need to do something on defense. Morgan Rielly’s injury is huge and Tyson Barrie has not quite worked out as hoped. Add to that the fact that Barrie and Jake Muzzin are unrestricted free agents after this season and they need to do something to strengthen the blue line for now and in the future.
JOEY: Bruins. The Bruins could add a defenseman and/or some secondary scoring before Feb. 24. Boston is good enough to go on a postseason run, but they could definitely use some reinforcements.
SCOTT: Islanders. They have won with excellent coaching and strong defensive play, but they desperately need a big-time scorer up front. They missed out on Panarin this summer and didn’t pull the trigger on Mark Stone last season. Is Lou Lamoriello ready to bring in the proper support to help the Islanders advance through the Stanley Cup Playoffs?