Jack Eichel

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Sabres respond with shutout win over Red Wings

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There are plenty of reasons to doubt the Buffalo Sabres, but Friday evening the club responded with an important victory following a disappointing effort the night prior.

Jake McCabe potted his first of the season, Sam Reinhart notched a power-play goal and Linus Ullmark recorded his third-career shutout as the Sabres prevented Thursday night’s 6-2 loss against the New York Rangers from having a ripple effect.

“It definitely as a coach helps when you have confirmation. Nothing ever replaces winning in sports,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger recently said. “And we know the opposition will have more and more respect for us as we go on here, and we will need to be better every day to continue having success.”

Buffalo has been down this road before, posting a 17-6-2 record to open up the 2018-19 regular season. However, the Sabres’ 2-0 win against the Red Wings could be the mark of a team that is ready to turn the corner.

Last November, when the Sabres’ impressive 10-game winning streak came to an end, Buffalo dropped five consecutive games and its game dipped dramatically. The team only secured 16 victories in the final 57 games and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by a wide margin.

But this year feels a bit different.

“When we play the right way, you see the results,” defenseman Colin Miller told The Athletic. “If we play within our system, I think we’re going to have a good chance every night. It’s fun hockey right now.”

Krueger’s impact on the Sabres has been felt in every aspect of the game through their 9-2-1 start. But his ability to allow his players to utilize their creative instincts has been most prominent on the man advantage. Buffalo’s power-play unit is operating at close to a 30% clip and is currently one of the five best in the NHL.

Victor Olofsson has been front and center with his six power-play goals. But, Jack Eichel leads the team with eight points on the man-advantage including an assist against Detroit. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin has been able to effectively quarterback the group from the point, giving the Sabres options from multiple positions.

“You need to be creative within each game and take each game with a different approach to neutralize some of that pre-scouting that’s going on,” Krueger told the Athletic. “But what we have is an extremely skilled group when it comes to puck possession and the opportunity that lies within it. It’s been a lot of fun. They’ve bought into the principles and we give them a lot of freedom to create within that.”

The Sabres will be forced to prove the doubters wrong given their recent history. But with an imaginative coach and a lethal power-play unit, they have the chance to snap their postseason drought.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

The Buzzer: Eichel explodes for Sabres; More history for Caps’ Carlson

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

The Sharks ended the first period up 2-0 against the Sabres, so it took quite the surge from Eichel & Co. to win that one 4-3 in OT.

Eichel was involved in all four of Buffalo’s goals, scoring two goals and two assists. That included the game-winner in overtime for the Sabres. The American-born forward ended the night with six shots on goal, a +2 rating, and went 12-10 on faceoffs.

The 22-year-old went two games without a point, but he’s still off to a hot start in 2018-19, as Tuesday pushed Eichel’s totals to 14 points in 10 games.

2. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Minnesota’s showing some signs of life with a two-game winning streak, but some of the joy was muted thanks to Devan Dubnyk leaving the game with an injury after a bad collision.

As ominous as that seems, it has to be a relief for the Wild to see Eric Staal finally have a breakthrough night on Tuesday. Staal scored two goals (including the 1-0 tally, thus the game-winner) and an assist, with those two goals being Staal’s first of the season. The 34-year-old’s been a revelation in Minnesota (peaking with 42 goals and 76 points in 2017-18), and he seemed to give the Wild a pretty sweet deal with his latest contract. Well, it’s a sweet deal if Staal’s game doesn’t sink too much; otherwise, you wonder if they’d be better off moving on and getting younger.

Anyway, this was a nice overall effort from Staal, who also had a +2 rating, five SOG, and went 8-7 on draws.

3. Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks

Like the Sabres, the Canucks fell behind early on Tuesday. The Red Wings opened up a 2-0 lead against Vancouver, only for the Canucks to explode with five unanswered goals in the third period.

Horvat contributed three of those goals. While Staal gets the higher star because all of his points came against a goalie (Horvat’s third tally was an empty-netter), it was still a strong night from Horvat.

Similarly to Staal, Horvat came into Tuesday on a quiet start, as Horvat only had two goals and one assists for three points through eight contests. He managed his first career NHL hat trick on Tuesday, pushing him to six points in nine games.

Highlight of the Night

It was already covered here (alongside a fun blooper), but it has to be David Pastrnak‘s between-the-legs goal, right?

Factoids

  • John Carlson cemented his spot alone atop the NHL’s scoring leaders list by generating two goals, pushing him to 20 points on the season as Washington beat Calgary. NHL PR points out some impressive history for Carlson, including that he joined Bobby Orr (twice) and wonderfully old-timey-named Baldy Northcott (in 1932-33) as the only defensemen to lead the league outright in scoring through 20 days. Carlson reached 20 points in 11 games, tying Orr (in 1974-75) as the second-fastest surge to 20 points for a defenseman. Only Paul Coffey hit 20 faster, doing it in 10 games in 1988-89. Sportsnet notes that Carlson’s already off to one of the best Octobers for a defenseman, and the Capitals have three more games left in the month.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury earned his 446th NHL win, breaking a tie with Terry Sawchuk for seventh all-time. Henrik Lundqvist is at sixth with 450, while Curtis Joseph ranks at fifth with 454. It should be interesting to see if MAF ends up higher than Lundqvist when they’re both done — which hopefully isn’t anytime soon.
  • Sabres wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin has 10 points through his first 10 games, landing on a short list of defensemen who managed such a short at 20 years old or younger. Another Sabres stat: Eichel scored his sixth overtime goal, already tying the franchise record at 22.

Scores

BOS 4 – TOR 2
BUF 4 – SJS 3 (OT)
FLA 4 – PIT 2
ARI 3 – NYR 2 (OT)
VAN 5 – DET 2
NSH 6 – ANA 1
MIN 3 – EDM 0
LAK 3 – WPG 2
VGK 2 – CHI 1 (SO)
WSH 5 – CGY 3

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

NHL on NBCSN: History of top-two picks facing off for first time

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko are always going to be compared. Not only because they were the top two picks in the 2019 NHL Draft, but because they are now going to be the centerpieces on each side of one of the league’s fiercest rivalries between the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers.

They will meet head-to-head for the first time on Thursday night when Hughes and the Devils host Kakko and the Rangers at Prudential Center in Newark.

With that in mind let’s take a little trip in the time machine and recall some of the more notable first-ever meetings between top-two picks in the same draft class.

2016-17: Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets) vs. Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs)

Date: October 19, 2016
Result: 
The No. 2 overall pick (Laine) ended up stealing the show in this game as the Jets overcame a 4-0 deficit to beat Matthews and the Maple Leafs in overtime thanks almost entirely to the play of Laine. He was outstanding on the night, scoring three goals — including the overtime winner — and giving Jets fans one of their first glimpses of his ability to take over a game and dominate it. Both teams have become contenders in the years since, but only Laine and the Jets have gone on any kind of a playoff run to get close to a championship to this point.

2015-16: Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers) vs. Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres)

Date: March 1, 2016.
Result: The Sabres spent the entire 2014-15 season losing hockey games — to the delight of their fans and front office — in a quest to finish with the league’s worst record to put them in a position to secure one of the top two picks in the draft where McDavid and Eichel would be waiting. The ultimate prize was McDavid, and the one that the entire season-long tankfest was inspired by. But instead of going to Buffalo, the league’s worst team over the previous two years, the Oilers snuck in to win their fourth draft lottery in six years to steal McDavid away from Buffalo. Eichel turned out to be a fine consolation prize, but in their first head-to-head meeting McDavid single-handedly drove the Oilers to a win by scoring both goals in a 2-1 overtime win. Neither team has found much sustained success in the years since, but both are off to great starts this season. 

2009-10: John Tavares (New York Islanders) vs. Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning

Date: Dec. 5, 2009
Result: This was an intriguing one because you could start a debate on what type of player you would rather build your team around — a star No. 1 center or a No. 1 defender. The Islanders ended up going with the center (Tavares) leaving the Lightning with the defender (Hedman) at No. 2. In their first meeting it was Hedman that got the better of it, playing 22 minutes and recording an assist in a 4-0 Lightning win. Tavares was a great player for the Islanders, but the team managed just one postseason series win before he left in free agency to return home to Toronto. Hedman is one of the best defenders in the league and remains a focal point of a Stanley Cup contender for a Lightning team that has been one of the league’s best over the past five years.

2006-07: Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals) vs. Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins)

Date: Dec. 11, 2006
Result: The top two picks in the 2004 NHL draft had to wait two years to face off due to an NHL lockout and Malkin not immediately making the jump to the NHL. When they finally met it was a hectic game with Malkin and the Penguins overcoming a 4-0 deficit to beat the Capitals, 5-4. Malkin scored the game-winning goal and added an assist, while Ovechkin had two helpers. The Penguins-Capitals rivalry always focussed on Crosby and Ovechkin, but the Malkin-Ovechkin dynamic was almost even more interesting because they were the top two picks in the same draft (with both teams rebuilding the year before trying to position themselves for Ovechkin), were from the same country, and for a while seemed to have a genuine dislike for one another.

[MORE: Hughes, Kakko unfazed ahead of first Devils-Rangers game]

1997-98: Joe Thornton (Boston Bruins) vs. Patrick Marleau (San Jose Sharks)

Date: October 11, 1997
Result: 
The intrigue here wasn’t necessarily what happened in this game (Marleau had one assist in a run-of-the-mill Sharks win), but what happened years later when Thornton and Marleau ended up becoming teammates in San Jose. The Bruins traded Thornton to the Sharks in the middle of the 2005-06 season, uniting him with Marleau where the two of them would be the focal point of the franchise more than a decade (they were reunited again earlier this season when Marleau returned to San Jose as a free agent).

1993-94: Alexandre Daigle (Ottawa Senators) vs. Chris Pronger (Hartford Whalers)

Date: Nov. 10, 1993
Result: The Senators were so bad at the end of their inaugural season 1992-93 season that they were accused of intentionally losing games in order to secure the top pick in an effort to select Daigle, ultimately helping to lead to the creation of the draft lottery. The Senators ended up picking Daigle No. 1 overall and hindsight would not be kind to this pick. Not only because Daigle was a bust, but because the player selected immediately after him (Pronger) went on to become one of the all-time greats on defense and one of the most impactful players in league history. In their first matchup Daigle actually got the better of it, scoring a goal (already his seventh in his first 13 games!) in a 4-3 win over Pronger and the Whalers.

1984-85: Pittsburgh Penguins (Mario Lemieux) vs. New Jersey Devils (Kirk Muller)

Date: Oct. 24, 1984
Result: The Penguins and Devils were two historically bad teams during the 1983-84 season and there was a huge prize waiting for the worst of the two in the 1984 draft — Mario Lemieux. The Penguins succeeded in being just a little bit worse and selected Lemieux. It was a franchise-altering moment that ended up saving the team for the first time. Muller and the Devils ended up winning the first game and it was one of the few times during Lemieux’s rookie season that he was held off the scoresheet.

Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live on Thursday with analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones. Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire will have the call from Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

Are the Sabres the real deal?

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It’s way too early in the season to be asking this question, but we’re going to do it anyway. Are the Buffalo Sabres the real deal?

Through six games, the Sabres have rattled off a 5-0-1 record and they have the best goal differential at plus-12. Not bad, not bad at all. New head coach Ralph Krueger has seemingly pushed all the right buttons and his players have responded in a positive way. Now, all he has to do (easier said than done) is keep it going for 76 more games!

“Anytime you get off to a good start and get results, confidence naturally comes with that,” forward Jeff Skinner said after Monday’s win over Dallas. “What you have to do is keep working at your game and use the confidence in a positive way. We still have things to work on, we still have things we want to improve. Being able to get off to a good start results-wise is nice. Now we have to keep that momentum going.”

There’s a few things that stand out when you take a look at why they’ve been so good. First, their power-play has been lethal. Raise your hand if you thought Rasmus Dahlin, Jack Eichel and Victor Olofsson would all be in the top six when it came to power play points to start the season. What? Anybody? Thought so.

Buffalo has scored at least one tally on the man-advantage in five of their six games. They scored three power play goals against the New Jersey Devils, two against the Columbus Blue Jackets and two against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Sabres’ power play was ranked 16th last season at just under 20 percent. This year, they’re clicking at 42.9 percent while the league average is right around 21 percent. As dynamic as they are when they’re up a man, there’s no way they’re going to roll at over 40 percent all year. To put that number into perspective, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had the best power play in the league last year, were firing at just over 28 percent.

One of the other strong parts of their game has been their goaltending. Carter Hutton has been rock-solid between the pipes and Linus Ullmark has been really good, too. Hutton, who has started four of the team’s six games, has a 4-0-0 record with a 1.74 goals-against-average and a .931 save percentage this season. He’s coming off a 25-save shutout in a 4-0 win over the Dallas Stars.

“A lot of it is the fact that they both get to play then they both feel like they have a little bit of a rhythm going,” assistant coach Mike Bales, who works with the goaltenders, told the Sabres’ website. “One guy’s not going to sit for too long. So, they always feel game-ready because of that too. It helps a lot.

“You can practice all you want, but when you get into games it feels a little bit different. The traditional, old-school way of doing it where you have one guy play 65 games and the backup would come in and mop up once in a while, wouldn’t get that many starts, was tough on backups for rhythm and feeling ready so I think having two guys going all the time helps them be ready when they do play.”

Whether or not Hutton and Ullmark can keep this going remains to be seen, but it’s imperative that they get great goaltending if they’re going to earn a playoff spot in 2019-20. Ullmark hasn’t been a regular in the NHL for as long as Hutton, so it’s tough to get a gauge of what he can do over a full season. As for Hutton, he’s a veteran and he’s been around the league a lot. He got off to a very strong start last year before fading in a hurry in the second half of the season.

Another reason they haven’t lost in regulation yet is because of their balanced scoring. Through six contests, Buffalo has had 10 different scorers. Olofsson leads the way with five goals, Skinner has four, Marcus Johansson, Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel each have three, Conor Sheary has two, while Johan Larsson, Marco Scandella, Kyle Okposo and Dahlin have all found the back of the net once. Now that’s balance.

As fun as the Sabres have been, it’s tough to envision them staying ahead of teams like Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, but they don’t have to finish atop the Atlantic Division to have a successful season. Making it back to the postseason in a Wild Card spot would be a huge success. They still have plenty of work to do before they can reach that point, but this team filled with youth seems to be on the right track.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Early season surprises and slow starts

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we take a look at some of the early season results around the league.

The first couple of weeks can be tricky to analyze because there is a lot of random noise still taking place, and that can cloud our early outlook on a lot of teams. Over the course of an 82-game season every team is going to hit hot streaks and cold streaks, and if one of those streaks happens early in the year with nothing else around it we can easily jump to some wrong conclusions.

So far some Stanley Cup contenders have struggled, while a couple of teams that were thought to be at the bottom of the league have excelled.

Which teams are for real and which ones are not? Let us try to figure some of that out now.

To the rankings!

The early elites

These teams are at the top and will likely stay here…

1. Carolina Hurricanes. Anyone that thought this team’s second half and postseason run was a fluke was mistaken. They are for real and they are not going away. If they get the goaltending they could be a serious contender to win it all.

2. Colorado Avalanche. So far the preseason hype is legit. They still have the superstars at the top of the lineup, and now they have some actual depth to go with it. Cale Makar looks like a potential Calder Trophy winner.

3. Boston Bruins. When Tuukka Rask is on his game — as he has been so far — the Bruins can be close to unbeatable.

4. Vegas Golden Knights. They do have two losses (a one-goal loss to a great Boston team, and a random off night in Arizona) but they have absolutely steamrolled every other team they have played, including several division foes. Mark Stone could be a real sleeper MVP contender this season.

Great starts but still have something to prove

These teams have started fast, but may not stay here…

5. Edmonton Oilers. The good news: They won their first five games, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl look unstoppable, and James Neal is doing exactly what they hoped. The bad news: The roster after those three is still littered with questions and their underlying numbers point to an unsustainable hot streak. We will see where this goes.

6. Buffalo Sabres. Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin is a heck of a duo to build around, but after the way they started last year and fell apart after the first two months the rest of the team has to prove they can do it all year before anyone buys into them.

7. Anaheim Ducks. John Gibson might be the best goalie in hockey, and because of that they always have a chance on any given night. Having Ryan Miller is a backup is a pretty darn good Plan B in net, too.

8. Philadelphia Flyers. Still not quite sure what to make of the Flyers. The top of their lineup is great but the rest of the roster has question marks. A lot here still depends on what Carter Hart does. They started the season with three games in three different countries and managed to collect five out of six points during that stretch. Nice start.

The contenders that you know will be there

These teams are almost certainly going to be in the playoffs, and maybe even have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup, but have not yet played their best (or close to their best)…

9. St. Louis Blues. Brayden Schenn is responding to his new eight-year contract extension by scoring a ton of goals. We know he is good now, but that contract comes down to how good he looks four or five years from now.

10. Nashville Predators. Matt Duchene has been everything they could have hoped for so far. If he continues that he will be a significant addition to this roster.

11. Washington Capitals. They have not really played their best yet but are still managing to collect points in the standings almost every night. Good thing to do when you are not yet at your best.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. The injury situation has left their forward lines a jumbled mess, but they are still finding ways to score goals and win. Sidney Crosby has been completely dominant.

13. Toronto Maple Leafs. The defensive questions that have followed this team around for the past few years are still there right now.

14. Tampa Bay Lightning. Something seems a little off so far. This is the best roster in the league on paper, but they have been really hit-and-miss so far this season. Their 4-2 loss in Ottawa over the weekend was ugly.

15. Calgary Flames. Some regression was to be expected this season, but they still have enough talent to be a factor in the Western Conference. Johnny Gaudreau is superb with the puck and is off to a great start.

The great unknowns

These teams are still mysteries whose seasons could still go in any direction…

16. Winnipeg Jets. Their defense is not very good, and that is going to be a big problem, especially if Dustin Byfuglien does not re-join the team. But they do still have a great collection of forwards and the big wild card is Patrik Laine having a monster season. So far, he is.

17. Montreal Canadiens. What this team really needs is for Jonathan Drouin to have a breakout year and become the star forward they hoped he could (and would) be.

18. Detroit Red Wings. They have to be thrilled with the start Anthony Mantha is off to. They have played well, but the roster just does not seem to stack up to the other potential playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.

19. New York Rangers. Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin looks like it has a chance to be quite a duo this season.

20. New York Islanders. They are still going to struggle to score goals, but Mathew Barzal will produce more than he has so far. They will still go as far as the goalies can take them.

21. Florida Panthers. They won just one of their first five games entering Monday, but two of their losses came in a shootout. Yeah, they missed out on two points, but we are talking about a coin flip away from their start looking dramatically different than it does. Sergei Bobrovsky being off to a slow start is not helping.

22. Columbus Blue Jackets. So far the goaltending has been the issue it was expected to be, but Pierre Luc-Dubois looks like he is on track for the huge year that was expected of him.

23. Vancouver Canucks. Quinn Hughes was the big reason for excitement this season and so far he is looking like a player that wants to insert himself into the Calder Trophy discussion.

24. Los Angeles Kings. The expectation was that there was no way Jonathan Quick could play worse than he did a year ago. In his first three games he has surrendered 19 goals. That is not going to cut it.

25. Arizona Coyotes. They are still getting great goaltending, but the lack of offense is a real concern.

Good teams that should be better

These are good rosters and should be playoff teams, but they have struggled so far…

26. San Jose Sharks. Not sure if a 40-year-old Patrick Marleau was the missing piece here, but they did win their first two games after he arrived, helping to ease the frustration from an 0-4 start. Do not expect this team to remain this low all season. Too much talent here. Still a potential Western Conference champion.

27. Dallas Stars. Roope Hintz has been the lone bright spot on what has been, so far, one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL.

Could be a long season

These teams have looked bad and may continue to look bad all season…

28. Ottawa Senators. Their win over the Lightning this weekend really was impressive, but other than that they have looked exactly like we expected the Senators to look.

29. Chicago Blackhawks. The early returns on the “did they do enough to fix their defense?” question are not looking promising.

30. New Jersey Devils. Their best players and their new faces are all off to slow starts, and that should help when those players get things turned around. Not sure if the goaltending will turn around, though. So far the Devils have not really done anything well this season.

31. Minnesota Wild. There is just — well — there is just not much positive happening here.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.