schedule analysis

Seeking revenge against Corey Perry could backfire for Predators

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On the list of things to do against the Stars on Thursday, you’d think the Predators would rank “get revenge against Corey Perry for his hit on Ryan Ellis” pretty low. The Predators have bigger catfish to fry, basically.

Ellis said he is not “bitter” about Perry hit

Given more than a month to reflect on the hit from the 2020 Winter Classic, Ellis himself downgraded talk of bitterness on Feb. 20.

“To be honest, it’s a hockey play. I’m not bitter at him,” Ellis said. “Obviously, I’d like to catch him with a nice open-ice hit as I would anyone on any other team. But it’s a hockey player, I get where he was at, I get what he was thinking. It looks bad. … But I’m not bitter. It sucks not playing.”

So, as Ellis said, he’d be glad to “catch him with a nice open-ice hit,” but it doesn’t sound like the defenseman will strain to go after Perry. That’s smart. Maybe it also helps that Perry sat through a five-game suspension for his actions.

Predators can’t afford to risk losses to get revenge on Perry

To be frank, there are also other thoughts likely on the forefront of Ellis’ mind, and that of the Predators.

In the most human way, the Predators certainly have the devastation of the Nashville-area tornadoes on their minds. That seemed to be the topic of discussion for Ellis & Co., and rightfully so.

Ellis downplaying winning the games has to push “revenge on Perry” down the ledger a bit, too, right?

Certainly, it would rank lower than getting some key wins.

[Push for the Playoffs provides a deeper look at races for the Predators and other NHL teams]

The Predators simply don’t have the luxury to settle grudges right now. You can see that in the standings above. Things look challenging when you glance at Nashville’s remaining schedule, particularly in the near future:

Mar. 5: vs. Dallas
Mar. 7: at Dallas
Mar. 10: at Montreal
Mar. 12: at Toronto
Mar. 14: at Columbus
Mar. 15: at Minnesota
Mar. 19: vs. Colorado
Mar. 21: vs. Philadelphia
Mar. 22: at Chicago
Mar. 24: vs. Winnipeg
Mar. 26: vs. L.A.
Mar. 28: at Arizona
Mar. 29: at Colorado
Apr. 1: vs. Montreal
Apr. 2: at Philadelphia
Apr. 4: vs. Minnesota

Looking at that schedule, it would be foolish to think: “Yes, take this opportunity to air your grievances on the way to the penalty box.”

If anything, the Predators should be focusing on performing better, and that goes all the way to the coaches.

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.

Panthers have a lot to prove, starting with big test vs. Maple Leafs

Panthers face test in Atlantic third seed race vs. Maple Leafs
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What would be more embarrassing: the Maple Leafs or Panthers missing the playoffs? Because most signs point to the Maple Leafs and Panthers battling for one playoff spot as the Atlantic’s third seed.

There’s no question that the Maple Leafs missing the mark would draw more attention. Yet, as of Thursday, Feb. 27, I’d argue that Toronto would have more excuses than Florida. Not that such a notion would save anyone’s job, mind you, but it feels worth a mention.

Because, really, in a harsher market, there’d be more desperation in the air than the humidity in Sunrise as the Panthers host the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

[Maple Leafs perspective: can their banged-up defense survive?]

Panthers are a lot like Maple Leafs, but with fewer excuses

When you look at all the factors involved, these two teams are remarkably similar in strengths (scoring buckets of goals) and weaknesses (seeking shelter from a blizzard of goals). The biggest difference is that the Panthers’ most important players have generally stayed healthy, while the Maple Leafs feel like the NHL’s answer to Wile E. Coyote.*

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have experienced injuries to Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and the current list features Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Andreas Johnsson.

The point isn’t about the Maple Leafs’ challenges, as they have company among the most bruised teams in the NHL. Instead, it highlights Florida’s lack of excuses. They spent big on Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville yet … from a big picture perspective, their situation doesn’t feel all that different from last season. Prominent Panthers will need to look hard in the mirror if they fall short (particularly GM Dale Tallon, who made another baffling move in shipping out Vincent Trocheck).

* – OK, the Blue Jackets are probably Wile E. Coyote, but the Leafs take a beating, too. Maybe Tom of Tom & Jerry?

Florida has a slightly friendlier schedule, so … again, not many excuses

The Panthers should be deeply disappointed if they don’t hold an advantage over the Maple Leafs after the first week-or-so of March.

A look at the standings cements the notion that Thursday’s game is huge for both teams:

Panthers Maple Leafs Atlantic standings

But the stage is set for Florida to gain ground. While the Maple Leafs play four of their next five games on the road, the Panthers begin a five-game homestand with this crucial contest.

Other contextual situations set the stage for the Panthers to go on a run, if this team has it in them.

The Panthers face the Senators two more times this season, and also have one game apiece against the Devils and Red Wings.

Will the Canadiens sag by March 7, and if not then, by March 26? The Rangers might also run out of magic by March 30, while the Capitals might opt to rest key players during a season-closing contest on April 4.

Of course, the two biggest games seem obvious. Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs in Florida could loom large, especially if it ends in regulation. The two teams meet for the final time in the regular season in Toronto on March 23.

Overall, the Panthers play 11 more games at home versus eight on the road, while the Maple Leafs see an even split (nine each).

No, that schedule doesn’t present a towering advantage for Florida, though it does seem like it’s more favorable. Instead, it makes it clearer that the Panthers have every opportunity to prove themselves, starting with Thursday’s big test against the Maple Leafs.

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.

Ducks’ winning streak: luck, skill, Gibson?

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On paper, it sure seems like the Anaheim Ducks are heating up after weathering some storms early this season.

The Ducks beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 on Wednesday, extending their current winning streak to five games. Their upward trend dates back a bit before that, too, as they’ve won seven of their last eight games.

Combine Anaheim’s surge with a weak Pacific Division and you get a rosy outlook: the Ducks are comfortably located in a playoff position (second place, though others have a game or two in hand, with 35 points in 30 games).

So, does this mean that the Ducks are merely shrugging off an undeniably tough run of injuries to begin 2018-19? Is Randy Carlyle’s crew ascending back to true contender status? Alternatively, are they mainly getting lucky?

This post dives into the Ducks’ recent run to see how much has changed, and how much they might be able to sustain.

Simple team-wide stats

The Ducks and Lightning share the same 7-1-0 record in eight games since Nov. 21, tying for the best mark during that span.

One bit of promising news is that, in some areas, the Ducks aren’t playing too over their heads. Anaheim’s power play success rate through eight games (21.7) is higher than the full-season mark of 16.9), yet that’s not an astronomical jump that would raise a red flag. The Ducks’ PK has been basically unchanged, killing about 80 percent of penalties.

Still, the Ducks have arrived at their seven wins in a far less impressive way than the Lightning. While Tampa Bay’s generated 37 goals for versus 24 goals against, the Ducks have scored just 26 goals versus 20.

Keeping pucks out of the net

If you want to point to a single factor propelling the Ducks to this strong run, it’s probably the element you’d anticipate if you’ve been following this team’s sporadic successes. Goaltending has been the ace up Anaheim’s sleeve.

That starts – but it doesn’t end – with splendid starter John Gibson. During his seven games since Nov. 21, Gibson has only allowed 16 goals, putting up a strong .922 save percentage. It says a lot about Gibson’s talent that he’s actually been a bit better over the full season (.926) and his entire career (.924).

Ryan Miller hasn’t played a ton during this winning streak, yet he’s been lights out when called up. During two games (and one start), Miller stopped 53 out of 56 shots for a .946 save percentage. Miller’s at a .929 save percentage in 2018-19, and he’s been absolutely tremendous since joining the Ducks, generating an overall save percentage of .928 in 37 games between the past two seasons.

(That agonized groan you heard might have been the Hurricanes, Flames, and other teams that could have conceivably tabbed Miller as their starting goalie.)

Some scoring variety?

Over the past eight games, six Ducks forwards (Ryan Getzlaf, Nick Ritchie, Pontus Aberg, Adam Henrique, Ondrej Kase, and Rickard Rakell) have at least seven points, with Getzlaf leading the pack at eight.

They’ve also enjoyed some solid production from defensemen like Hampus Lindholm and Brandon Montour; fascinatingly, Marcus Pettersson was traded to Pittsburgh with a hot hand, as he had four of his season’s six points during that streak.

Some of those forwards have been on unsustainably hot streaks (Ritchie, for example, enjoyed a 36.4 shooting percentage during these eight games), but it would be heartening if the Ducks could get offense beyond Getzlaf. It was just one game, yet management had to be high-fiving after seeing Daniel Sprong score on his first shot with the Ducks.

Lingering issues

Possession stats aren’t the end-all, be-all, but they can often forecast an icy team thawing out or a hot team cooling off.

Looking at the Ducks’ numbers, there are reasons to be concerned about a lull.

Using Puck on Net’s stats since Nov. 21, you can see that the Ducks have still been a bottom-third NHL team when it comes to Corsi, Fenwick, and simple shots for/against. While the Ducks have shown some signs of improvement compared to especially troubling full-season trends, they seemingly remain quite dependent upon Gibson/Miller stopping a lot of shots, and hoping Getzlaf and others can make up any difference.

The health question

Look, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel sympathy for the Ducks, as they’ve suffered through some tough injury issues. In the case of Cam Fowler‘s painful-sounding facial ailments, there’s an element of random, lousy luck.

Even so, it’s reasonable to wonder if Corey Perry will be able to move the needle in a return, if he can manage to play again this season. It frequently takes players time to get back to full strength after an injury, particularly serious ones.

And, let’s face it. While the Ducks have some nice young players, many of their most prominent players are on the older end, and the Getzlaf/Perry/Ryan Kesler types are also the ones who’ve really been through battles.

As uncomfortable as it is to ask, it’s fair to wonder if the Ducks are simply going to have to live with a lot of trips to the trainer in the short and medium-term future.

Resiliency

Give the Ducks credit for finding ways to win, though, especially lately.

It’s impressive that the Ducks began this five-game winning streak by winning the last four contests during a road trip. Wednesday’s win against Chicago began a four-game homestand, so the Ducks have a chance to store some points as if they’re building up winter coats.

(Do actual ducks have winter coats?)

These recent experiences could help the Ducks, as their schedule features some dramatic home and road swings:

  • Once they conclude this four-game homestand (three games remaining), they’ll head out for a six-game road trip.
  • They’ll enter 2019 with a six-game homestand from Dec. 29 – Jan. 11.
  • An especially daunting stretch follows that. They play five games on the road from Jan. 13-20, get a home game against the Blues on Jan. 23, then head out on a five-game road trip from Feb. 2-9. Playing 10 of 11 games on the road? That’s the sort of stretch that can really tear a season apart – or bring players closer together – depending upon how things go.

I’ve criticized Carlyle’s coaching plenty of times, but if he can keep things positive through the thick and thin of the next six weeks or so, then he deserves some kudos.

Closing thoughts

There are a lot of warning signs that the Ducks might not be able to walk this tightrope.

Anaheim is still asking a lot of its goalies, and if we know anything about the position, it’s that results can be unpredictable. Even the best of the best tend to suffer through dry spells. It doesn’t help that the Ducks tend to allow a significantly higher number of chances for than against (hence the Carlyle criticism).

The Ducks’ schedule isn’t exactly what you’d call “forgiving,” either.

Then again, the formula of Gibson, Getzlaf, and assorted other players might just work. That’s especially true in a Pacific Division that hasn’t been very good, at least so far.

It may not be pretty, yet if the Ducks can put together another stretch or two like this one, they might be able to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. For all their flaws, plenty of teams probably would prefer to avoid a best-of-seven series against Gibson.

Do you think the Ducks can navigate these choppy waters?

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Canadiens hold Stamkos at 58 goals; Budaj’s blooper reel offering

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On paper, playing the sad-sack Montreal Canadiens was a great chance for Steven Stamkos to bolster his chances to hit the 60-goal mark. Instead, he was held at 58 tallies as his four shots on goal failed to befuddle Peter Budaj.

Budaj generally had a light night of work, needing just 14 out of 16 saves to collect a 5-2 win. Still, the night won’t be all gravy for the mediocre backup, whose blunder of a pass set up an easy Vincent Lecavalier goal that will be blooper fodder for some time.

The Canadiens’ most productive combo instead highlighted the night, as both Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole collected two goals. That pushes Pacioretty to 32 and Cole to 34 in 2011-12, making them rare bright spots on what has mostly been a blight of a season.

Check out full highlights of the game below:

Stamkos’ road to 60

After giving himself a small cushion, Stamkos must score a goal per game in his final duo to hit 60. Here’s a look at those two remaining contests, including how many tallies he already has against each opponent:

Thursday: at Toronto Maple Leafs (one goal in three games)

Saturday: at Winnipeg Jets (three goals in five contests)

Theoretically speaking, the two teams are “vulnerable” enough that an empty-net goal or two isn’t out of the question. That being said, the Maple Leafs delighted in spoiling things for Buffalo earlier this week and the Jets are formidable at home.

Considering those factors and more, how do you feel about Stamkos’ chances of reaching 60? Let us know in the comments.

Sharks sweep huge home-and-home vs. Stars

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Going into their home-and-home series, the Dallas Stars had a chance to essentially bury the San Jose Sharks. Instead, their bitter division rivals shoveled two huge regulation losses on top of them, including today’s soul-crushing 5-2 decision.

(In fact, Stars coach Glen Gulutzan didn’t say anything to the team after the loss because emotions were too high.)

Two of the standout moments came in the third period where San Jose was just a little bit better than Dallas. Jamie Benn received a partial breakaway and made a nice backhand move but Antti Niemi got his stick down to prevent a heart-stopper when it was 3-2. Just moments later, Joe Thornton scored his 17th goal of the season to make it 4-2 and essentially lock it down.

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The “clutch” criticisms of Thornton continue to wither away as he’s coming up big for San Jose in later months; he has 18 points in February and generated 15 in March. (He’s quietly putting together another nice season as his 75 points ties him for 14th overall in the NHL.)

What’s next for Dallas, San Jose

Now, it’s true that much like the Colorado Avalanche, the Stars aren’t technically done. They’re now simply reduced to last week in the NFL-type scenarios where they root for different teams to win and lose at different times while needing to squeeze every point they can out of two remaining games.

By a similar token, the Sharks aren’t assured of a spot. Here’s what the West situation looks like at the moment, with a crucial Columbus Blue Jackets-Phoenix Coyotes still to be determined:

3. Los Angeles – 93 points, 34 regulation/OT wins, two games left

7. San Jose – 92 points, 33 regulation/OT wins, two games left
8. Phoenix – 91, 33 regulation/OT wins, three games left (one tonight)

9. Dallas – 89, 35 regulation/OT wins, two games left
10. Colorado – 88, 32 regulation/OT wins, two games left

Depending upon how the Coyotes fare, the Sharks’ home-and-home series against the Los Angeles Kings might just decide the Pacific Division title. Meanwhile, Dallas essentially must hope that one of the three teams ahead of them finishes with as few points as possible (to keep it simple).

The Stars face the Predators in Nashville and host the St. Louis Blues in their last two games, so those are tough draws from both the quality of opponent and the fact that they cannot influence other bubble teams. Dallas had its chance to do that and watched both games go up in smoke – in regulation.