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Crosby-McDavid matchup headlines Penguins vs. Oilers: 3 things to watch

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One of the highlights of the NHL’s top games this weekend will take place in Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon when Sidney Crosby and the Penguins host Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.

It’s an individual matchup of the league’s two biggest stars (and two best players) and one that we only get two times per year.

So far Crosby’s team has won all six head-to-head matchups in the series even though McDavid has shined (three goals, seven assists) in the games.

Here’s what to watch for on Saturday.

1) Obviously the Crosby-McDavid matchup. Simply the two best players in the league today.

Offensively speaking McDavid is the most impactful player in the league, averaging 1.31 points per game for his career, significantly more than any other player in the league since his debut. If you look at just the past three seasons and excluded his rookie season (when he played in just 45 games) that number jumps even higher to 1.36. He has become a lock for 100 points (assuming he stays healthy) and is going to be one of the favorites to win the scoring title every year. With a better supporting cast the past few years he would have probably been the league MVP every year.

But while McDavid may now have the offensive edge, Crosby is not ready to give up his crown as the league’s best player and no doubt welcomes the push that McDavid provides in that debate. Even with a slight decline in his offensive production (if only compared to what he did earlier in his career) Crosby is still one of the three or four most productive offensive players in the league and is a play-driving, team-carrying force in every situation.

2) The Penguins should be fully healthy. They already welcomed back Jared McCann, Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bjugstad, Bryan Rust, and Alex Galchenyuk in recent days, but Saturday should see the return of their most significant injured player this season — Evgeni Malkin.

The Penguins activated Malkin from injured reserve on Friday, and while he is officially listed as a “game-time decision” all signs point to him being back in the lineup on Saturday. That is probably ahead of schedule from the original timeframe when he was sidelined.

He has played in just one-and-a-half games this season and has been motivated to have a bounce-back year. With him back in the lineup it will really be the first time all season that their entire lineup that they wanted to have will be on the ice together.

3) Don’t forget about Leon Draisaitl. As if Crosby, McDavid, and Malkin was not enough, there is a fourth superstar in this game and one that — as of Friday — was actually leading the league in scoring and tied for the league lead in goals.

Draisaitl is doing his best to prove his 2018-19 performance was not a fluke as he and McDavid have single-handedly carried the Oilers offense through the first month (with a little help from former Penguins forward James Neal).

The Oilers still have a lot of questions that need to be resolved before they can be expected to maintain this fast start, but the McDavid-Draisaitl duo is capable of taking over games when they are at their best. They have been at their best from Game No. 1 this season and get one of their biggest tests and most high-profile matchups on Saturday.

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.

The Buzzer: Draisaitl takes over league lead in goals, points

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Three Stars

1. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. He is doing his best to show that his 50-goal, 100-point season from a year ago was no fluke. With two goals and an assist in the Oilers’ 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night Draisaitl is now tied for the league lead in goals (12, along with Boston’s David Pastrnak) and is in sole possession of the top spot in points with 25. If you like to have fun with early season “on pace for” numbers those put him on track for 70 goals and 145 points over 82 games. Obviously he will slow down at some point, but what a start for the Oilers and their top forwards.

2. Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks. An absolutely massive game for the Canucks’ top young players as they crushed the Los Angeles Kings — again — this season. Boeser was the big star on the night with three goals and an assist in the win. He is now up to seven goals and 14 total points this season. Boeser, Elias Pettersson, and Quinn Hughes give the Canucks quite a trio of young stars to build around, and they all shined on Wednesday.

3. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. With eight minutes to play in regulation the Panthers found themselves trailing by two goals in Colorado. It was at that point that their stars took over. Aleksander Barkov scored his first goal of the season to bring the Panthers to within one, and then Huberdeau tied it with 1:30 to play and the goalie pulled for an extra attacker. As if that was not enough, Huberdeau won it just 29 seconds into overtime to give the Panthers a huge two points. The Panthers have earned at least a point in nine of their past 10 games.

Other notable performances from Wednesday

Highlights of the Night

This shot from Elias Pettersson is a thing of beauty. You can not place the puck in a better spot. A totally unstoppable shot.

Here is Huberdeau’s game-winner for the Panthers.

At least the Devils had this going for them on Wednesday. Kyle Palmieri scored three goals in the loss, with the third goal coming in the final 10 seconds to tie the game and send it to overtime.

Blooper of the Night

It was a tough night for Arizona Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta, and nothing illustrated that more than him losing a skate blade and allowing Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber to score an easy goal from the blue line.

Factoids

  • Boeser is the fifth player in Canucks history to record at least three hat tricks before their 23rd birthday. [NHL PR]
  • Anze Kopitar became the fifth player in Kings history to record 900 career regular season points. [NHL PR]
  • Nathan MacKinnon extended his season opening point streak to 12 consecutive games, the fifth player in the past 20 years to accomplish that feat. [NHL PR]
  • Tampa Bay’s come-from-behind win on Wednesday was the 12th multi-goal third period come-from-behind win of the season, the most in NHL history through the first 193 games of the season. [NHL PR]
  • James Neal scored his 11th goal of the season for the Oilers, meaning he and Draisaitl are just the fourth set of teammates in NHL history to each score at least 11 goals in the month of October. They are the first to do it since Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens for the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins. [NHL PR]

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 7, New Jersey Devils 6 (OT)
Edmonton Oilers 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 1
St. Louis Blues 2, Minnesota Wild 1
Montreal Canadiens 4, Arizona Coyotes 1
Florida Panthers 4, Colorado Avalanche 3 (OT)
Vancouver Canucks 5, Los Angeles Kings 3

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.

Capitals-Oilers provides rare matchup of 50-goal scorers

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Probably the most intriguing matchup on Thursday’s NHL schedule will be taking place in Edmonton where the Oilers will be hosting the Washington Capitals.

Not only are both teams off to great starts and at the top of the league standings, but the individual talent on display is also going to be incredible.

Let’s just go right on down the list…

So there is a lot happening here tonight.

But it is the Ovechkin-Draisaitl aspect of this that makes it such a rare matchup.

The two players finished last season as the top-two goal-scorers in the league, each topping the 50-goal mark. Ovechkin scoring 50 goals was not a shock because it has been a regular occurrence for him throughout his career. For the better part of the past decade it has been almost unheard of for anyone else in the league to top that mark. Only 15 different players have done it over the past 20 years, and because of that it has been extremely rare for a pair of 50-goal scorers from the previous year to face off in a head-to-head matchup.

Thursday’s game in Edmonton will be the first time it has happened since the 2012-13 season when Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin (50 goals during the 2011-12 season) faced Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos (61 goals during the 2011-12 season).

Before that you have to go back to the 2010-11 season when there were three players (Ovechkin, Stamkos, and Sidney Crosby) all coming off of 50-goal seasons the year before. Crosby and Ovechkin faced each other twice that year head-to-head, while Crosby and Stamkos faced off three times. Ovechkin and Stamkos played each other six times.

And those are the only instances over the past 12 years.

Given the way they have produced so far both Ovechkin and Draisaitl are scoring goals at a pace that could help them once again challenge the 50-goal mark. With seven goals in his first 11 games Ovechkin is on a 52-goal pace, while Draisaitl is currently on a 49-goal pace. There was always a chance he could regress a bit because he had such an insanely high shooting percentage a year ago, but his 17.1 mark so far this season is fairly close to his normal career average. He and McDavid help form one of the best top-lines in the league and should be a force for the Oilers all year, providing some hope the team will be able to maintain its fast start.

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 over/under: How many goals will Pastrnak, Neal finish with?

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Entering play on Tuesday night David Pastrnak (Boston) and James Neal (Edmonton) sit on top of the NHL’s goal scoring leaderboard with nine goals each. They have been two of the hottest players in the league to start the season and are in action on Tuesday looking to increase their lead.

Pastrnak’s climb to the top isn’t all that surprising given how good he has been the past few years. He is coming off of his third consecutive 30-goal season and is part of one the league’s top lines alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. He scored 38 goals in just 66 games last season, a pace that would have had him pushing the 50-goal mark had he stayed healthy. Including his start this season, he has scored 52 goals in his last 82 regular season games played dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season.

He is simply one of the best finishers in the league and is just now entering what should be his peak years for offense.

Neal’s early success is a little more surprising.

He has always been a good goal scorer, but was coming off by far his worst season in the league in Calgary, scoring just seven goals in 63 games. He has already blown past that number this season.

With both players pacing the rest of the league so far, let’s try to project what they might be capable of for the entire season.

Let’s start with Pastrnak — As already mentioned, he has a recent track record of being a lethal goal scorer and is surrounded by two elite players in Boston. Their line is driving all of the offense in Boston right now and Pastrnak is at the center of it. He entered the season looking like a lock for at least 35 goals as long as he was able to stay healthy. Nothing he has done so far has shaken that belief. As is the case with most players on a nearly goal-per-game hot streak, he is carrying a shooting percentage well north of 30 percent, a number that is no doubt going to drop as the year goes on. Even the best players don’t shoot above 20 percent (and even that is an outrageously high number for a full year) for a full season, while Pastrnak himself has consistently settled around the 14 percent mark.

So let’s use some simple math here: If Pastrnak maintains his current 3.38 shots per game average (he easily could) and shoots at his normal 14 percent on those shots, that would be an additional 35 goals on top of what he already has this season. That would give him 44 goals, just shy of the pace he was on last year without the injury and that seems like a pretty fair projection.

Can he hit that? Or exceed it? And can he continue to make a run at knocking Alex Ovechkin from his goal scoring throne?

What about Neal? — Everything disappeared for Neal in Calgary last season. His shot volume plummeted, his shooting percentage cratered, he seemed like a player that was just totally out of it and had seen his career wash out. But given his track record there was always a chance he could rebound, and the Oilers are the team that is benefitting from it.

He is back to averaging close to three-and-a-half shots per game (up a full shot from Calgary) and so far is riding the same shooting percentage wave that Pastrnak is in Boston. He also has the added bonus of getting to play on Edmonton’s power play (an area he has always excelled) alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That is going to help a lot, but not so much that he keeps scoring on 30 percent of his shots.

The Oilers have 72 games remaining on their schedule. With his same shot rate and career average shooting percentage that would put Neal on a 35-goal track for this season, a number that the Oilers would have almost certainly signed up for in the preseason when they made the trade.

Can he get there? Or will he exceed it?

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.

The Buzzer: Caps’ Carlson is on fire; James Neal keeps scoring

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Three Stars

1. John Carlson, Washington Capitals

When you’re trying to split hairs and choose the best of the best on a night of strong performances, sometimes you have to break the tie by looking at the larger body of work.

You could make a strong argument that Capitals defenseman John Carlson is on the hottest start of any player. Not just of any defenseman in the NHL — of any skater.

Carlson generated three assists in Washington’s 5-2 win against the New York Rangers on Friday. That gives him six points (one goal, five assists) in his last two games, and 17 points through nine games overall in 2019-20.

If you haven’t clued into just how impressive that start is yet, consider this: Carlson is tied with Connor McDavid for the league lead with 17 points after McDavid finally went pointless in Edmonton’s tight win against the Red Wings on Friday. Yes, McDavid’s gotten to eight games compared to Carlson’s nine, but this is still some resounding stuff. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is the only other blueliner in double digits so far in 2019-20, as he reached 10 points after scoring two goals against the struggling Stars.

Carlson’s building quite the early lead in the Norris Trophy race.

Anyone who thinks point totals don’t matter to at least some Norris voters is naive, but Carlson hasn’t just been a points machine. Two of his three goals have been game-winners, he’s logging significant ice time, and Carlson’s continuing his recent upswing in possession stats. The cherry on top is that Carlson’s underlying stats are up a bit from 2018-19’s impressive jump even though he’s not seeing the same cushy situations (50.9 of his shifts started in the offensive zone heading into Friday, versus of an average of 56.6 percent last season; maybe the stemming from Matt Niskanen being traded away?).

Carlson’s certain to slow down, but has a strong chance to reach a new peak from last year’s career-high of 70 points.

2. Andre Burakovsky, Colorado Avalanche

A former Capitals player might have enjoyed the superior overall Friday, though.

Burakovsky generated two goals and one assist in Colorado’s 5-4 OT win against the Panthers, and his points were significant. Burakovsky scored Colorado’s final two goals of regulation, including the tally that sent the contest into overtime, and then nabbed the primary assist on a Nathan MacKinnon OT-winner that looked way too easy, even by 3-on-3 standards.

Could this be the breakout many expected to see in Washington? He’s riding high percentages, yet it’s promising that Burakovsky’s off to a strong start in Colorado (eight points in seven games). If Burakovsky can help the Avalanche generate secondary scoring, that team could get scary, arguably sooner than many expected/feared.

3. Patric Hornqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins

During the same week that Hornqvist made plenty of enemies in Colorado thanks to a questionable hit on MacKinnon, Hornqvist was a disruptive force on the scoreboard, scoring one goal and two assists as the Penguins added to Dallas’ miseries.

Hornqvist ended up with a +3 rating, game-winning goal, four SOG, and one blocked shot. The only upset is that the sandpaper-y winger didn’t get credited with a hit.

(Considering Pittsburgh’s injury woes, maybe that’s the wisest path.)

Highlight of the Night

After scoring a goal in a video game where you hammered the deke button, you might feel some emptiness — that this never would have happened in “real life.” Then again, were you scoring that goal with Kris Letang?

Factoids

Scores

COL 5 – FLA 4 (OT)
PIT 4 – DAL 2
WSH 5 – NYR 2
CHI 3 – CBJ 2 (OT)
EDM 2 – DET 1
ANA 4 – CAR 2

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.