Nathan MacKinnon

Matthews Pastrnak Richard race
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Matthews, Pastrnak set up thrilling Maurice Richard race

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For quite some time, it looked like David Pastrnak (32 goals) would run away with the Maurice Richard Trophy. While Pastrnak remains atop that race, Auston Matthews is knocking on that door with 31 goals. If they keep this up, hockey fans are in for one heck of a battle.

Of course, it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if this turned into a three-horse race, or more. Alex Ovechkin demands attention as the most obvious threat, and he currently sits in a three-way tie for third place alongside Jack Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon at 26 goals.

Frankly, someone could alter the landscape with a hot month (or, for all we know, a hot weekend).

Pastrnak vs. Matthews is just too fun, and close, not to pick apart, though.

Before we burrow, consider the simplest facts:

Pastrnak: 32 goals , Bruins have 38 games remaining
Matthews: 31 goals, 37 GR

(Don’t worry, potentially aggrieved other fanbases; we’ll also discuss some of the other frontrunners to end this post.)

Matthews on fire, Pastrnak seemingly shakes slight cold streak

Chalk it up to Sheldon Keefe replacing Mike Babcock or not, the bottom line is Matthews is red-hot. After scoring an already-strong 14 goals during his last 23 games under Babcock, Matthews now has a ludicrous 17 goals in 22 games with Keefe at the helm.

Luck matters just as much as coaching. That’s worth noting considering how many bounces have been going Matthews’ way lately. Matthews has scored 15 goals on just 63 SOG over his last 17 games, a 23.8 shooting percentage since December. In November, he enjoyed a comparatively pedestrian 10.6 shooting percentage.

Pastrnak wandered through dramatic shifts of his own. The Bruins winger managed an absurd 30 percent rate in 10 October games. Pastrnak barely slowed down in November, but he seemed somewhat human in December, though he was still dominant (five goals and 18 points in 15 games, limited by an earthly 9.1 shooting percentage).

Overall, they’re both enjoying some bounces, with Pastrnak at 18.5 percent and Matthews at 18.3. Cold streaks could bring one or both of them back to the pack.

Pastrnak the power play phenom; Matthews’ interesting ice time notes

“Pasta” swiped the power play wizard torch from Ovechkin at some point, it seems. Pastrnak easily leads the NHL with 15 power-play goals, with James Neal being the only other player at double digits with 12.

Not too surprisingly, Pastrnak soaks up a lot of ice time on the power play, averaging 3:39 PP TOI. Time on ice remains an interesting topic with Matthews, actually …

During much of Babcock’s run, the veteran coach was (justifiably) chastised for using Matthews less than he should have. While Babcock did deploy Matthews more in his final season (19:50 TOI in 23 games, versus 18:33 in 2018-19), Keefe is giving Maple Leafs fans more of what they want. Matthews’ average climbed to 20:42 TOI per night under Keefe.

Interestingly, that boost is coming at even strength. After averaging 3:24 PP TOI per night during Babcock’s last run, Matthews’ power play average is actually down under Keefe to 2:38.

Overall, the response is “More Matthews, the merrier.” Matthews averages more time per game than Pastrnak since Keefe took over (20:42 vs. Pastrnak’s 19:29), while Pastrnak receives about an extra minute of power play time lately.

The two might indirectly make for some interesting quality vs. quantity debates if those trends continue. (That’s not a guarantee, mind you, as certain variables can change, but it’s a factor to watch.)

Considering the rest of the field

  • This is somewhat uncharted territory for Matthews and Pastrnak. Their youth and occasional injury issues make their ceilings unclear. Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, delivers the goods, and lingers as a huge threat at 26 goals.

Ovechkin might be the greatest sniper ever, already boasting eight Richard trophies, including two in a row, and six of the last seven.

Ovechkin is firing the puck more than usual (210 SOG for 4.67 SOG per game, his highest rate since 2015-16), possibly because his shooting percentage is “just” at 12.4. Ovechkin’s track record and durability make him a strong pick to climb the ranks.

  • Nathan MacKinnon gives Ovechkin competition for trigger-happiness with 204 SOG. He’s right behind Ovechkin in SOG (4.64 per game), improving on what was already a career-high last season (4.45 in 2018-19, his first in the four range).

As spectacular as MacKinnon is, I wonder if his tendency to be a “volume shooter” might doom him in this race. If he maintained his current 12.7 shooting percentage, it would rank as the second-highest mark of MacKinnon’s career.

  • Jack Eichel completes that three-way tie for third, getting his 26 goals on 147 SOG (17.7 percent). Another Sabres swoon might take the wind out of his sails, although who knows?
  • Leon Draisaitl stands alone at sixth place with 25 goals. Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid have 24 apiece, while Sebastian Aho and Artemi Panarin round out the top 10 at 23. There are 16 players at 20+ goals so far in 2019-20.

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.

The Buzzer: Nylander keeps Maple Leafs rolling; Canucks make it 6 in a row

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Three Stars

1. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs. Following a restricted free agent contract dispute and a down 2018-19 performance, Nylander became a popular target for criticism in Toronto. Not anymore. He continued what is turning out to be a massive breakout season on Thursday night by scoring two more goals and adding an assist in the Maple Leafs’ 6-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets. The Maple Leafs are now 14-4-1 under new coach Sheldon Keefe and 8-0-1 in their past nine games. Nylander has 19 goals and 38 total points in 41 games this season. That puts him on a pace for 38 goals and 76 points over 82 games. That level of production makes his $6 million cap hit a bargain.

2. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche. MacKinnon got the Avalanche rolling with a late first period goal and never slowed down as the cruised to a huge 7-3 win over the St. Louis Blues. He recorded his fourth four-point game of the season, most in the NHL. It is his ninth since the start of the 2017-18 season, tied for second-most in the league (behind only Nikita Kucherov) during that stretch. Read more about the Avalanche’s big win here.

3. J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks. Miller continues to be a massive addition to the Canucks’ lineup and helped them win their sixth game in a row with his second four-point game of the season. He opened the scoring with an early first period goal, then added three assists, including the lone assist on Adam Gaudette‘s game winning goal in a wild 7-5 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. He has at least one point in five of the Canucks’ six games during this streak and continues to help push them toward a playoff spot. They paid a steep price to get him, but he has been worth it so far.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Pierre-Luc Dubois‘ overtime goal against the Boston Bruins helped the Columbus Blue Jackets improved to 8-0-4 in their past 12 games.
  • Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 38 shots to help the Tampa Bay Lightning pick up a huge 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau remained hot and Evgeni Dadonov had three points as the Florida Panthers used a four-goal second period to storm by the Ottawa Senators.
  • Brent Burns scored an overtime goal and Aaron Dell made 36 saves to help the San Jose Sharks get a much-needed 3-2 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • All 12 Arizona Coyotes forwards recorded a point in their 4-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks.
  • Max Pacioretty continued to be a dominant force for the Vegas Golden Knights as he scored two more goals in their 5-4 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • Johnny Gadreau had a goal and an assist for the Calgary Flames as they beat the New York Rangers.

Highlights of the Night

It did not result in a win, but Patrik Laine finished with 13 shots on goal for the Winnipeg Jets and scored this beauty of a goal after turning Morgan Rielly inside out.

Thanks to this beauty of a Nico Hischier goal the New Jersey Devils were able to win their third game in a row. It is their first three-game winning streak of the season. Read all about it here.

Jack Eichel helps the Buffalo Sabres get a huge win by scoring the game-winning goal on a penalty shot in overtime.

Blooper of the Night

This is only a blooper in the sense that it should NEVER HAPPEN if you are the New York Rangers. They allowed Calgary’s Mikael Backlund to score a shorthanded goal in a 3-on-5 situation. That was the difference in a 4-3 Flames win.

Factoids

  • Zdeno Chara, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau became 12th, 13th, and 14th players in NHL history to play in four different decades in their NHL careers. [NHL PR]
  • David Pastrnak is the first Bruins player since Cam Neely during the 1993-94 season to score his 30th goal in 42 or fewer games. [NHL PR]
  • With his assist on Brent Burns’ overtime goal, Joe Thornton collected the 1,080th assist of his career to move him into sole possession of seventh place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]

Scores

Columbus Blue Jackets 2, Boston Bruins 1 (OT)
Buffalo Sabres 3, Edmonton Oilers 2 (OT)
Tampa Bay Lightning 2, Montreal Canadiens 1
New Jersey Devils 2, New York Islanders 1
San Jose Sharks 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 2 (OT)
Florida Panthers 6, Ottawa Senators 3
Toronto Maple Leafs 6, Winnipeg Jets 3
Calgary Flames 4, New York Rangers 3
Arizona Coyotes 4, Anaheim Ducks 2
Colorado Avalanche 7, St. Louis Blues 3
Vancouver Canucks 7, Chicago Blackhawks 5
Vegas Golden Knights 5, Philadelphia Flyers 4

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.

Avalanche crush Blues to break out of slump

When the Colorado Avalanche are clicking on all cylinders that can look downright unbeatable. Like one of the scariest, most intimidating teams in the league. A true Stanley Cup favorite. We have not seen that version very much over the past couple of weeks, but it showed up in a big way on Thursday night in a huge 7-3 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

Nazem Kadri scored two goals, Nathan MacKinnon and Sam Girard both finished with four points, and Cale Makar continued his Calder Tropy caliber season with another huge game in the win.

The win snapped what had been a three-game losing streak for Colorado and is just its third win in the past nine games.

Breaking out of this little funk isn’t the only reason this was a big night for the Avalanche.

Even though it’s only the halfway point of the season, this was still a pretty massive game in the Central Division and could have helped swing the top spot in a certain direction. The Blues entered the game with an eight-point lead over the Avalanche and were already 2-0 against them this season. A regulation win would have given them a 10-point cushion with only two more head-to-head meetings the rest of the way.

Certainly too soon to call it in St. Louis’ favor, but it would have a huge deficit for the Avalanche to overcome in half a season. But with Thursday’s win the Avalanche were able to close that gap down to just six points. They also still have a game in hand and two more head-to-head matchups ahead of them. That may not seem like much of a swing, but it could be massive in the big picture.

Thursday’s win is only the fourth time the Avalanche have beaten the Blues in their past 17 meetings. It also snapped a six-game losing streak against the Blues.

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 on NBCSN: Can Grubauer, Avalanche get on track vs. Blues?

Blues Avalanche preview Grubauer
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

About a month ago, a Blues – Avalanche game would present a battle for Central Division supremacy. As we’ve learned all too often in the turbulent NHL, a lot can change — fast.

The Blues took care of their end — and then some. While their eight-game winning streak ended on New Year’s Eve, they’re running away with the top spot in the Central and West. Their most relevant battles might instead be for the Presidents’ Trophy, and they’re rightfully perched among the league’s best during their impressive defense of that first-ever Stanley Cup championship.

Meanwhile, cracks are forming for the Avalanche.

Colorado on the edge of a crisis?

Despite injuries to Mikko Rantanen, Cale Makar, and Gabriel Landeskog, the Avalanche found ways to keep winning.

Lately, that train came to a screeching halt, even with such key players returning to action. The Avs ended 2019 with a thud, falling 7-4 to the Jets to slip to 1-4-1 over their last six games.

You can almost feel the Avs’ confidence fading.

“It feels like it’s hard to win right now,” Rantanen said following that loss to the Jets, via the Denver Post’s Mike Chambers. “We play good periods at times, but then we shoot ourselves in the leg. I think it’s in our minds. When it’s a tie game, or we’re up one or down one, we get scared that (a collapse) is going to happen again.”

That doesn’t sound like a resilient team. Really, a team that was snatching victory from defeat is now experiencing the opposite.

“We’re finding different ways to lose every night lately, and it’s frustrating,” Erik Johnson said, also via Chambers.

Goalie battle brewing?

Looking at win-loss records alone, you’d assume Philipp Grubauer has mainly been struggling recently. After all, he’s only managed a single victory since Dec. 4.

The larger truth might just be that the Avs aren’t propping Grubauer up the same way.

The deeper you drill into Grubauer’s stats, the clearer it is that he’s been just OK all season. Grubauer actually managed a better save percentage during his one-win December (.910) as he did in a 3-4-0 November (.903).

Overall, Grubauer sports a mediocre 10-9-3 record, and a middling-but-not-catastrophic .911 save percentage.

In a more anxious hockey market, you’d probably hear all about how a goalie battle should be brewing. Maybe that hypothetical nervous group of fans would have a point, too.

Pavel Francouz stepped in when Grubauer was hurt, and now it’s fair to wonder who will start each night.

Even after a tough loss to the Wild on Dec. 27, Francouz’s numbers sparkle. The 29-year-old is 11-3-1 with a splendid .927 save percentage. That tough night against Minnesota ended a four-game winning streak, and Francouz also saw the end of an impressive eight-game point streak (7-0-1).

Avalanche count on history repeating with Grubauer?

Looking at Francouz’s numbers, it’s fair to wonder why he received such scant opportunities during his career. The undrafted goalie managed strong (if not brilliant) numbers basically everywhere he went. One could validly argue that the Avs should let him run with these chances.

On the other hand, what if Grubauer repeats the narrative from last season.

Consider that Grubauer was putrid before the All-Star break last season (.891 save percentage over 21 games), only to catch on fire afterward (.948 in 16 games), closing it off with a strong playoff run.

It’s easy to see why the Avalanche weigh that experience — and, frankly, their larger financial commitment to Grubauer — more than Francouz’s superior recent play.

That said, it’s absolutely a situation to watch, and one the Avs can’t afford to ignore. The Blues won’t be shy about testing Colorado’s goalies, either.

John Forslund and Brian Boucher will call the action from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

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.

Alex Ovechkin will not play in 2020 NHL All-Star Game

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Shortly after helping the Washington Capitals to a 2-1 overtime win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night, Alex Ovechkin announced that he will not be participating in the 2020 NHL All-Star weekend in St. Louis.

Ovechkin was recently named captain of the Metropolitan Division team.

He wants to make sure he is ready for the second half of the season and playoffs. He did not participate in the 2019 game for similar reasons.

League rules dictate that Ovechkin will have to sit out one game either before or after the All-Star break due to his withdrawal from the game. The Capitals’ game before the break is January 18 at the New York Islanders. Their game immediately after is January 27 at the Montreal Canadiens. Given that the Islanders are a divisional opponent they might rather have him for that game.

Either way, not playing in the All-Star game, combined with the one regular season game he sits out, will give him more than 10 days off in the middle of the season.

That can not hurt for a 34-year-old that is trying to pace himself for what could be a lengthy playoff run.

Even as he gets into his mid-30s Ovechkin has shown little sign of slowing down offensively. With his assist on T.J. Oshie‘s overtime goal on Friday, he has 37 points in 39 games for the Capitals this season, including 23 goals. That puts him on pace for 48 goals over 81-games.

The other captains for the game are Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak (Atlantic Division), Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon (Central Division), and Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (Pacific Division).

The NHL All-Star weekend takes place on January 24-25 in St. Louis.

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.