Bruins look to stay healthy after mid-winter break

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By Matt Kalman (Associated Press)

BOSTON (AP) — The Boston Bruins almost made it into their mid-winter break completely healthy.

Forward Joakim Nordstrom is recovering from a fractured lower leg and goaltender Tuukka Rask is dealing with a concussion sustained against the New York Rangers on Saturday. Otherwise, the Bruins’ lineup from the start of the season was on the ice when they completed their 49th game with a 3-2 loss to the Rangers.

A nearly full complement of players had the Bruins excited about what they could accomplish after the break. They’re in third place (27-17-5) behind Tampa Bay and Toronto in the Atlantic Division despite fighting injuries throughout the first half.

”I think we can continue to build on some of the success we had in the beginning of the season,” said defenseman Kevan Miller, who missed 26 games because of injuries. ”We think we still have some areas in our game that we need to work on. But I think the break will help a little bit, some guys get their legs.”

The eight-day vacation, which combines the NHL-mandated break and the NHL All-Star break, possibly came at just the right time because of Rask’s head injury. He was bowled over by Rangers forward Filip Chytil in the midst of the wing scoring a goal on an end-to-end rush in the first period on Saturday.

Rask is 14-8-3 with a .919 save percentage and 2.43 goals-against this season and has formed an impressive goaltending tandem with Jaroslav Halak. He signed as an unrestricted free agent last summer and is 13-9-2 with a .919 save percentage and 2.47 GAA. When Rask struggled early in the season and took a four-day leave of absence to attend to a personal matter, Halak carried the load. Rask has returned the favor after Halak struggled in the weeks leading up to the break.

Their performances were a big reason the Bruins overcame their injury issues, including a 16-game absence of four-time Selke Trophy-winning center Patrice Bergeron and 19 games without captain Zdeno Chara. The Bruins are tied for second place in the NHL at 2.61 goals allowed per game.

”Our goaltending . they’ve been healthy, a balanced workload,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”You look at the numbers, they’re almost identical now. So you’re getting a chance to win every night.”

Cassidy noted their back-to-back record has been good – finishing 6-1-1 in the second game.

”Guys pick each other up around here,” he said. ”So they understand if someone, a major part of the lineup is out, they’ve got to pick it up.”

More than a week off between games could give Rask and others a chance to heal up for the stretch run and could prevent an unfortunate slide in the standings. The Bruins followed a 6-1-0 stretch with a 1-2-1 record before the break, including regulation losses to the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, teams 10 points or more behind them in the standings.

Boston ranks just 17th in goals scored per game (2.90) and leans a bit too much on its second-ranked power play (27.2 percent).

”I thought we had some really good games,” Chara said. ”You know we had some games we could’ve played better, but overall I think we’re in a good position going into the break. It’s always very important to play better and keep improving the closer you get to the playoffs. You demand to play the best hockey.”

Bruins’ Rask helped off ice after huge collision

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Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask needed help off of the ice – and took quite a while to leave the ice – after a frightening collision with New York Rangers forward Filip Chytil.

Moments after this post went up on Saturday, the Bruins provided an unsettling – if, sadly, not surprising – update that Rask suffered a concussion and will not return to the game.

You can see the collision (and get an idea of how long it took Rask to leave the ice) in the video above this post’s headline.

This is the Bruins’ final game before the All-Star break, and they won’t play again until they host the Winnipeg Jets in Boston on Jan. 29, so at least there isn’t much pressure for Rask to rush back to action too soon.

Rask began the game tied with Tiny Thompson at 252 wins, the most in Bruins’ franchise history.

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.

Who will win the six 2019 All-Star Skills events?

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The NHL announced the six events for the 2019 SAP NHL All-Star Skills (competition no longer) on Friday, noting that the winner of individual events will receive $25K. The event will air on NBCSN, with things slated to run at Friday, Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. PT/ 9 p.m. ET.

Here’s a quick look at each event, with some speculation regarding who might win:

  • Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater

Last year, Connor McDavid became the first-ever repeat winner of fastest skater, but Dylan Larkin owns the best-ever time from 2016. Larkin isn’t slated to be at the ASG weekend (barring injuries?), but Mathew Barzal could conceivably push McDavid.

It would be cool for McDavid to threepeat, even if it would be way more fun if 97 was instead winning, you know, more actual hockey games.

  • Enterprise NHL Premier Passer

This event has been a “wild card” of sorts in the skills competitions past, right down to the particulars. Usually there are adorable mini-nets, and this year’s will include that too. Here are the three phases of competition, via the NHL:

(1) Breakout Pass, where each player is given 10 pucks to attempt to make a pass to three “players”; (2) Mini Nets, where each player must complete a pass over a barricade and into each of four mini nets; and (3) Target Passing, where each player must complete successful passes to all targets that randomly light up every three seconds. 

It’s tough to say that anyone would really have the “inside track” on this event. Alex Pietrangelo won in 2018.

The randomness is part of the fun, though … especially when trying to hit a tiny net in tough situations also leads to frustrations.

The players might not love it, though.

  • Ticketmaster NHL Save Streak

In 2018, Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 14 shootout attempts in a row, beating Pekka Rinne by one. Fleury and Rinne will get a chance in the 2019 version, while Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s sheer athleticism makes him a great bet to push the two veterans this time around. This shootout-related competition lends itself to some fun and absurd moments, so expect nothing less in 2019.

  • Gatorade NHL Puck Control

In the last edition of this event (which goes through three phases of puck control, with the “gate” portion providing particular zaniness), Johnny Gaudreau absolutely killed it. He figures to be tough to beat in this regard, although the NHL is brimming with talented puckhandlers, so who knows?

  • SAP NHL Hardest Shot

The savage simplicity of all those slap-shots has made the hardest shot one of the most entertaining portions of All-Star weekends for decades now. Reigning champion Alex Ovechkin is sitting this year out, so the field opens up.

Actually, quite a few of the go-to choices for hardest shot aren’t slated to be in the 2019 edition. Frequent threats Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber aren’t on the rosters, and Dustin Byufglien would otherwise present a possible threat. Maybe Brent Burns will take it in 2019 in front of a partisan crowd, even after he wasn’t rifling them like many expected last time?

  • Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting

Last year, Brock Boeser began his magical All-Star weekend by winning the accuracy challenge. It looks like Boeser won’t be around to defend that title (nor his 2018 ASG MVP), though.

This eye-friendly competition often comes down to who has the hot hand, but when you look at who’s shooting a high percentage despite heavy volume this year, some favorites emerge: Elias Pettersson (if healthy), Jeff Skinner, and Auston Matthews rank as just a few of the players who could shoot with the highest level of precision.

It would be pretty fun if the Vancouver Canucks saw one ray of hope (Pettersson) follow another (Boeser the year before) in All-Star Games, especially since Pettersson’s just been so much fun.

Who would you expect to win each competition, though? Which events do you look forward to the most?

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

Looking back at the 2018 All-Star Skills

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.

Unlikely Selke candidate emerges in Montreal

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When the Montreal Canadiens traded Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016, no one believed that they had acquired a potential Selke Trophy candidate. But through 48 games this season, Phillip Danault has shown that he has what it takes to be in the conversation for the NHL’s top two-way forward.

Over the last few years, the Canadiens have been thin down the middle. Danault has had to play on the team’s top line for a while, but no one ever expected him to be a go-to center. Most people still see him as a quality third-liner.

The 25-year-old has spent most of the season on a line with Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher. Those three have consistently gone up against every opponent’s best line. The minutes have been difficult, but those three have done a tremendous job of locking things down.

Danault opened the season with just two goals in his first 35 games, but he’s taken off since December. In his last 17 contests, the Habs forward has picked up 17 points. He’s now up to eight goals and 32 points in 48 games, which puts him on pace 55 points this season.

But let’s take a look at some of the advanced numbers that show us just how good he’s been in 2018-19.

He and his linemates are all in the top 50 when it comes to Corsi For Percentage. His 57.24 percent ranks 43rd in the NHL. The fact that the Canadiens control nearly 60 percent of the shot attempts when he’s on the ice is impressive. Keep in mind, he’s on the ice going up against Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews, Nikita Kucherov and so many other top players. That’s remarkable.

Also, when he’s on the ice, the Habs score nearly 60 percent of the goals that occur. Again, impressive. How about high-danger CF%? With Danault on, his team controls 57 percent of the high-danger chances that occur on the ice. He’s also the top faceoff guy on the team, at 53 percent.

“Phillip is playing some very good hockey. We rely on him a lot and we give him a lot of responsibility,” said head coach Claude Julien, per the Canadiens’ website. “He’s headed in the right direction. He’s often taking important faceoffs late in the game. He’s an extremely useful player.”

Over the last seven seasons, only three different players have won the Selke Trophy. Patrice Bergeron has won four times, Anze Kopitar has won it twice, and Jonathan Toews did it once. Bergeron is having a better offensive season than Danault, but he’s also missed 16 games so far. Kopitar and the Kings are totally off the grid this year and Toews is in a similar spot.

If Danault can continue to chip in offensively, while taking care of business defensively, he could find himself in the conversation for a nomination. Of course, he’s no slam dunk, but he’s been good enough to get himself on the radar, which is tough to do for this award, because voters usually hand it out on a reputation basis.

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.

Off the Ice: Brad Marchand makes cannoli, explains licking opponents

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This week’s edition of Off the Ice with Kathryn Tappen featured Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins. The two headed to Mike’s Pastry in Boston to make some cannoli and talk about his career.

The topic of licking opponents came up and Marchand explained why he took a taste of Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Callahan‘s face during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“His visor was in my face and I was like ‘this will probably piss him off,’ so I tried to do it, tried to get him to hit me and draw a penalty and it kind of went the other way,” he said. “Yeah, that was definitely a decision that [you] go back in time and you would play out a little differently.”

Check out the episode above as Tappen and Marchand also talk about where his edge on the ice comes from and his penchant for pranks. Episodes will premiere exclusively on NBCSports.com/OffTheIce and YouTube each week.

Previous Off the Ice episodes:
Duncan Keith
Mika Zibanejad

Off the Ice with Kathryn Tappen takes viewers away from the rink and behind the scenes with some of the NHL’s most intriguing players, as they share their personal lives and unique hobbies with NBC Sports’ Emmy Award-Winning host and sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.