Mika Zibanejad

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) pushes the puck forward on a break-away as Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau
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A best on best mythical tournament: Players in their prime

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament over the next few Thursdays. The first team created was a 23-and-under roster that would be fascinating to watch.

An NHL player usually reaches peak performance in his late 20’s and this roster is comprised of players in the prime of their career between the ages of 24 and 29. The combination of skill, size, wisdom and depth in this group will be difficult to match for any opponent. The most surprising part of building this team was seeing several superstars left on the sidelines.

Line Combinations

First line: Artemi PanarinNathan MacKinnonLeon Draisaitl

Thoughts: All three players are firmly in the conversation for the 2019-2020 Hart Trophy and the thought of them on the same team, let alone the same line would be highly entertaining. Panarin has established himself as one of the best passers in the NHL and having two lethal goal scorers alongside him should make for an explosive trio.

Second line: Johnny GaudreauMark ScheifeleNikita Kucherov

Thoughts: Both wingers don’t offer much size but Gaudreau and Kucherov are both electric players that have learned how to win in the corners despite their diminutive stature. Scheifele has long been one of the more underrated players in the league and should find instant chemistry with two players that possess elite on-ice vision.

Third line: Taylor HallMika ZibanejadMark Stone

Thoughts: Hall’s game has dipped since winning the 2018 Hart Trophy but still remains a top two-way forward. Zibanejad was one of the most controversial picks beating out the likes of John Tavares, Tyler Seguin and others. But No. 93 has improved his game since the New York Rangers acquired him in a one-sided traded.

Fourth line: Chris Kreider – Ryan O’Reilly – Jonathan Huberdeau

Thoughts: Kreider and O’Reilly have anchored shut down lines in the past but the addition of Huberdeau should add more offensive punch to a very responsible grouping. All three skaters play a disciplined, 200-foot game and could match up with any combination of forwards an opponent has to offer.

First D pairing: Roman JosiSeth Jones
Second D pairing: Victor HedmanDougie Hamilton
Third D pairing: Oliver Ekman-LarssonAaron Ekblad

Thoughts: It’s hard to find a flaw in this grouping of defensemen. These six players collectively possess all the attributes needed to shut down opponents and can quickly move the puck out of the defensive zone.

Starting Goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Backup Goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

Just Missed: Aleksander Barkov, Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg, Tyler Seguin, John Tavares

Captain: Roman Josi

Alternate captains: Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl

Analysis

It was surprising to see only one player on this team with a championship ring and just seven players have participated in a Stanley Cup Final. With that said, this team has experience in best on best tournaments at every level and have routinely been through the grind of an NHL regular season.

On paper, there are limited areas of concern. The team is comprised of players with diverse attributes to form an extremely well-balanced roster. It has several explosive goal-scorers in the top-six and responsible players in the bottom-six that have the ability to consistently produce on the offensive side of the ice.

In addition, the blueline is staggered with lockdown defensemen and two Vezina candidates guarding the crease.

One challenge for this team, and for any roster in a tournament of this nature, is the ability to find instant chemistry with line mates. In theory, Panarin can set up a few of the top scorers but does it work in reality?

Due to the balance of the roster and varied characteristics, I believe this team would have the inside track to winning this mythical tournament.

Surprising omissions

John Tavares: It wasn’t too long ago that Tavares was the most sought-after free agent in the summer of 2018, but it was challenging to find a spot for the Maple Leafs captain on this roster. It was a tight race between No. 91 and Mika Zibanejad for the third line center position, but the Swedish right-handed centerman has become one of the more dynamic players in the NHL. Tavares is a world-class player. He could easily slide back onto the roster and change the narrative with a dominant stretch when professional hockey returns.

Erik Karlsson: This Swedish defenseman used to terrorize the league with his smooth skating and incredible vision. However, Karlsson hasn’t looked like himself since being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September of 2018. He routinely crossed the 60-point plateau and set a career-high with 82 points in 2015-16, but injuries have slowed him down the past two seasons. This mythical tournament will require teams to perform at an incredibly high level and there is no room for someone who has not been at the top of his game.


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.

Our Line Starts podcast: Handicapping Metro; Avs doomed without MacKinnon?

Kathryn Tappen, Patrick Sharp and Anson Carter debate if the Flyers will win the Metro and discuss if Nathan MacKinnon‘s injury is going to be too much for the Avs to battle through. Anson explains why the Rangers have hope for the playoffs as long as they have Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin. Sharpy and Ace detail how playing in empty buildings due to the coronavirus would impact players. Plus, Pierre McGuire sits down with Victor Hedman.

0:00-5:04 Intros, reactions to all-female broadcast

5:04-11:04 Who will win the Metro Division?

11:04-14:27 Can Avalanche overcome MacKinnon’s injury?

14:27-17:57 Zibanejad, Panarin give Rangers hope for playoffs

17:57-23:40 How coronavirus is affecting the NHL

23:40-43:45 Pierre interviews Lightning’s Victor Hedman

43:45-End Playoff race in Atlantic heating up

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Push for the Playoffs: Rangers in must-win mode

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2019-20 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The New York Rangers are right there.

Heading into tonight’s action against the Colorado Avalanche, the Rangers find themselves three points behind the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets for the final Wild Card spots in the Eastern Conference.

New York has a game in hand on on Columbus, but the Hurricanes have a game in hand on them. The really interesting thing about this battle is that the Rangers currently own the “regulation wins” tie-breaker by a significant margin (more on that later).

The Rangers’ late-season push has been driven by Mika Zibanejad, who hit the 40-goal mark in last night’s victory over the Dallas Stars. The 26-year-old has scored at least one goal in five consecutive games and he’s found the back of the net 10 times during that stretch.

“He continues to grow day in and day out,” head coach David Quinn said of Zibanejad, per NHL.com. “I said to him the day after his five-goal game (6-5 overtime win against the Washington Capitals last Thursday), ‘I’m really tired of talking about you, but if you keep scoring, I’ll talk about you until I’m blue in the face.'”

Quinn’s team will finish their four-game road trip in Arizona on Saturday night. They’ll head home to take on Calgary and Pittsburgh. They’ll follow that up by playing five of their next six on the road.

So the schedule isn’t exactly a walk in the (Central) park for them.

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Bruins vs. Blue Jackets
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Lightning vs. Maple Leafs
Flyers vs. Penguins

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Blues vs. Canucks
Golden Knights vs. Predators
Avalanche vs. Stars
Oilers vs. Flames

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Sharks vs. Blackhawks, 8 p.m. ET
Jets vs. Oilers, 9 p.m. ET
Blues vs. Ducks, 10 p.m. ET
Rangers vs. Avalanche, 10 p.m. ET

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Bruins – 100 percent
Lightning – 100 percent
Capitals – 100 percent
Flyers – 99.6 percent
Penguins – 95.3 percent
Hurricanes – 78.1 percent
Maple Leafs – 77.1 percent
Islanders – 57.2 percent
Panthers – 37.4 percent
Blue Jackets – 33.6 percent
Rangers – 21.7 percent
Canadiens – 0 percent
Sabres – 0 percent
Senators – 0 percent
Red Wings- 0 percent
Devils – 0 percent

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES
Avalanche – 100 percent
Blues – 100 percent
Golden Knights – 98.6 percent
Stars – 96.1 percent
Oilers – 95.5 percent
Canucks – 69.1 percent
Flames – 63.3 percent
Predators – 56.8 percent
Wild – 52.1 percent
Jets – 50.7 percent
Coyotes – 15.5 percent
Blackhawks – 2.3 percent
Ducks – 0 percent
Sharks – 0 percent
Kings – 0 percent

THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Detroit Red Wings — 18.5 percent
Ottawa Senators  — 13.5 percent
Los Angeles Kings — 11.5 percent
Ottawa Senators* — 9.5 percent
Anaheim Ducks — 8.5 percent
New Jersey Devils — 7.5 percent
Buffalo Sabres — 6.5 percent
Montreal Canadiens — 6 percent
Chicago Blackhawks — 5 percent
New Jersey Devils** — 3.5 percent
Winnipeg Jets  — 3 percent
Minnesota Wild — 2.5 percent
Florida Panthers — 2 percent
New York Rangers 1.5 percent
Columbus Blue Jackets — 1 percent

(* SJ’s 2020 first-round pick owned by OTT)
(** ARZ’s lottery-protected 2020 first-round pick owned by NJ. If top three, moves to 2021)

ART ROSS TROPHY RACE
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 110 points
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 96 points
David Pastrnak, Bruins – 95 points
Artemi, Panarin, Rangers – 94 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche – 93 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
David Pastrnak, Bruins – 48 goals
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 48 goals
Auston Mattews, Maple Leafs – 47 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 43 goals
Mika Zibanejad, Rangers – 40 goals

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.

Looking at the NHL’s race to 50 goals this season

NHL Goal Leaders
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Boston’s David Pastrnak and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin are currently involved in a back-and-forth race for the NHL’s goal scoring crown, with both sitting just two goals away from reaching the 50-goal mark for the 2019-20 season.

Pastrnak will have a chance to get there on Tuesday night when his Bruins visit the Philadelphia Flyers (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and try to snap their current nine-game winning streak.

Barring injury, it seems to be a lock that both players will eventually get there this season, while Toronto’s Auston Matthews (46 goals entering Tuesday’s game) should be right behind them.

Overall, there is a very real chance for the NHL to see at least four, and perhaps even five, 50-goal scorers this season with Pastrnak, Ovechkin, Matthews, Leon Draisaitl, and Mika Zibanejad all having a chance at it.

This would be a significant accomplishment.

How significant? Just consider that before this season there were only five 50-goal seasons in the league between the 2013-14 and 2018-19 seasons, and four of those seasons belonged to Ovechkin (Leon Draisaitl was the other player, reaching the mark last season). Go back as far as the 2010-11 season and that number only goes up to eight.

In other words: You are lucky if you see one 50-goal scorer in a single season.

The last time the NHL had at least five in one season was the 2005-06 season, while there have only been four seasons since 2000 where they were more than two (the ’05-06 sesaon, and three each in 2000-01, 2007-08, and 2009-10).

Here is a quick look at the current contenders this season,

A few random factoids about the race for 50 goals, just for some historical context.

  • With two more goals this season Ovechkin will hit the 50-goal mark for the ninth time in his career, which will tie him for the most ever alongside Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.
  • Pastrnak would be the first Bruins player to score 50 goals in a season since Cam Neely did it during the 1993-94 season.
  • Matthews would be just the fourth Maple Leafs player to reach it. Rick Valve scored 50 goals three different times during the early 1980s, Gary Leeman did it once, and Dave Andreychuk reached it most recently during the 1993-94 season.
  • Aho would need an absolutely incredible finish to the season to score 50, but it would make him just the second player in the history of the Hartford/Carolina franchise to do it. Blaine Stoughton did it twice for the Whalers (1979-80 and 1981-82). Even if he does not get to 50, he is still having an all-time great season for the Hurricanes. Eric Staal (twice) and Jeff O’Neil (once) are the only players to ever score 40 goals since the franchise relocated to Carolina.
  • It seems the only thing that is going to stop Zibanejad is the fact he has missed 13 games this season due to injury. Even with that he still has a decent shot at it. The only Rangers to ever score 50 goals: Jaromir Jagr (2005-06), Adam Graves (1993-94), and Vic Hadfield (1971-72).
  • Draisaitl’s current two-year run is already one of the most impressive and dominant runs the league has seen in decades. If he can score seven more goals that would give him back-to-back 50-goal seasons, which would put him on a very short list of players to do that over the past 25 years. That list: Ovechkin, Dany Heatley, and Mario Lemieux.

Even if it is just Pastrnak, Ovechkin, Matthews, and Draisaitl that get there it would still be a pretty dramatic change for goal scoring in the NHL after we went nearly a decade where only one player (Ovechkin) seemed capable of reaching 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.

Islanders, Hurricanes slide leaves playoff door open for Rangers

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Thanks to Mika Zibanejad‘s five-goal performance on Thursday night, the New York Rangers were able to pick up a huge win against the Washington Capitals to snap what had been a three-game losing streak.

Combined with regulation losses by the Carolina Hurricanes (against Philadelphia) and the New York Islanders (against Ottawa) on Thursday, the results helped the Rangers inch a little bit closer to a potential playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The odds are still stacked against them, but the fact they are even in the race at this point is a remarkable accomplishment and a minor hockey miracle.

As of Friday the Rangers are two points back of the Islanders for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Hurricanes, and two points ahead of the Florida Panthers.

Here is how the current Wild Card race shakes out, including every team’s current pace.

Given their current paces you can see the Rangers still have some work to do to catch either the Columbus Blue Jackets or Islanders and stay ahead of the Hurricanes, but this is still a dramatic change from what we saw as recently as one month ago.

Go back to the start of February and the Rangers were 10 points back of the Islanders and seven points back of both the Hurricanes and Panthers. Today, they have pretty much drawn even with the Hurricanes, moved ahead of the Panthers, and climbed to within striking distance of the Islanders. Those are significant gaps to close in that period of time. It is remarkably rare for teams to make up even a four-or five-point gap at the halfway point of the season, and the Rangers are currently in the process of closing 7-10 point gaps in just a little more than a month.

It’s been the perfect storm of the Rangers getting white hot and quite literally every team in direct competition with them starting to crumble for a variety of reasons.

Columbus, a team that has been completely devastated by injuries this season, has lost 11 out of its past 13 games (six of those losses have come in overtime or shootout, though).

The Islanders still have a decent hold on a Wild Card spot, but have been one of the league’s worst teams (no exaggeration) since that early-season point streak came to an end in late November. In 45 games since Nov. 25 the Islanders own only a .489 points percentage, 24th in the league during that stretch. Most recently, they have won just two of their past 11 games and take a five-game losing streak into Saturday’s game with the Hurricanes.

Speaking of the Hurricanes, their current injury situation is really starting to catch up with them.

They are still playing without both of their regular goalies (Petr Mrazek and James Reimer) and have lost four in a row since they exited the lineup. The most recent Hurricanes goalie to record a win was David Ayres. Even more concerning the goalie situation is the fact they are now without Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. That puts an absolutely massive dent in their blue line, and for as good as trade deadline acquisitions Brady Skjei and Sam Vatanen are, neither one is an upgrade over the two injured players and Vatanen has still yet to appear in a game due to his own injury. They are just 8-7-1 since Hamilton went out of the lineup, and remain winless since Pesce went out.

That’s not to say the Rangers don’t have their own concerns right now.

Igor Shesterkin, who had overtaken both Alexandar Georgiev and Henrik Lundqvist as the team’s no No. 1 goalie, remains out of the lineup due to injuries sustained in a car accident just before the NHL trade deadline. Chris Kreider, meanwhile, is going to miss most — if not all — of the remaining games in the regular season due to an ankle injury. In the meantime, they are going to need to keep leaning on the duo of Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin to keep carrying the offense, and hope that the Islanders, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets continue the recent slides that have helped close the gap.

It’s asking a lot, and any extended slump by the Rangers or any winning streak by the Islanders, Blue Jackets or Hurricanes could render all of this meaningless. But the Rangers have at least given themselves a chance and a reason for their fans to pay close attention to the stretch run of the regular season.

Related: Western Conference Wild Card race is still not clear

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.