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The Buzzer: Schwartz helps Blues keep pace; Rinne, Rask pick up shutouts

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Three stars

1. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues

There’s a real race for the third spot in the Central Division down the stretch here, with the Blues leading the Dallas Stars by two points for the spot.

Both teams won on Tuesday, and Schwartz led the way for the Blues, scoring a hat trick en route to a 7-2 thrashing of the Edmonton Oilers. Schwartz opened the game’s scoring and then scored in the second and a late third-period marker on the power play to complete his fourth career hatty.

Schwartz hasn’t had the season he would have hope after putting up 24 goals and 59 points last season. He’s now up to 10 tallies this year and 34 points after also grabbing an assist for a four-point night.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

The Predators are in tough to try and win another Central Division crown. They’re one point back of the Winnipeg Jets but the Jets have two games in hand. Basically, they need to win out and hope for some help.

Part of that help will come from within, and Rinne was on point in the crease on Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, stopping all 22 shots he saw. It’s the second time this season that Rinne has blanked the Leafs.

The Preds neutered the Maple Leafs high-powered offense in this one as the Predators nursed a one-goal lead for most of the game.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

The Bruins put in a complete effort against the Islanders in this one, and Rask only saw 13 shots come his way. But he stopped all 13 to snap a two-game stretch where he was less than the stellar goaltender that he had been. And sometimes those games where you barely see action can be the hardest.

Rask now has four shutouts on the season and 25 wins. He started the season off horribly and likely would have been in the Vezina conversation if not for that. Still, a focused — and well-rested — Rask is exactly what the Bruins need heading into the playoffs.

Highlights of the night

Hurricanes go duck hunting:

Here’s how to make Seth Jones look silly:

Simmons ends drought, scores first with Predators:

Factoids

Scores

Bruins 5, Islanders 0
Red Wings 3, Rangers 2
Canadiens 3, Flyers 1
Hurricanes 3, Penguins 2 (SO)
Capitals 4, Devils 1
Blues 7, Oilers 2
Predators 3, Maple Leafs 0
Avalanche 3, Wild 1
Stars 4, Panthers 2
Flames 4, Blue Jackets 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

After tough start, JVR is showing why Flyers brought him back

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For a while there, JVR felt a little … well, JV for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Two main factors seemed to complicate things for James van Riemsdyk as he tried to justify that five-year, $35 million contract to return to Philly. The first was a freak injury, right in the beginning of the 2018-19 season.

The other was even more out of JVR’s hands than the bad luck of getting hurt: the Flyers were transitioning from Wayne Simmonds to JVR, particularly on the power play, and it wasn’t exactly a seamless passing of the torch.

[JVR came into this season under pressure.]

Bumpy start

Flyers coach Scott Gordon saw JVR’s season firsthand, as he went from hurt and a bit lost to his current red-hot streak, where van Riemsdyk now has 10 goals in his last 11 games.

“I think being out that time and not really …he almost didn’t have a role with the team for a while there,” Gordon said, via Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post. “He wasn’t playing as much power-play time, not playing as much top-six ice time and so now I find he’s skating more consistent, getting involved in the play up and down the ice and just has the puck more often. Getting to the front of the net more often obviously, whether it’s a tip or a rebound, that’s critical for anybody but to do that you’ve got to be around the net and he’s been around the net more.”

The turnaround truly has been remarkable, as JVR now has 25 goals and 42 points despite being limited to 56 games played.

2019 has been kind to JVR, so far

JVR is tied for the second-most goals since 2019 began with 20, and no player has more goals than his nine since the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

As with any sniper who’s scoring at an even higher level than usual, a hot streak will eventually be iced, and that’s true with JVR. His 18.8 shooting percentage overall this season is a little high – even for a player who has a knack for getting to the areas of the ice where you can get quality shots, and one who is among the best at finishing such chances – and his luck has been even better lately.

But, to me, it’s the renewed clarity of it all that bodes well for JVR’s short-term future, and the Flyers’ chances of getting the most out of him in 2019-20.

Yes, scoring nine times on 35 shots on goal (25.7 shooting percentage) is unsustainable, but it’s a great sign that van Riemsdyk is firing the puck that often.

It sure seems like JVR isn’t just getting the green light, but that he knows it. Not only does he have eight goals in as many March games, but after averaging 16:26 TOI or less in previous months this season, he’s averaged 18:18 per game during March. That’s an exciting development for a player who went from heavy usage during Toronto’s awkward years, to being shuttled into more of a specialist role during his final two seasons with the Maple Leafs. The thought was that JVR scored incredibly well considering a bit under 16 minutes of ice time in 2016-17 and a bit under 15 in 2017-18, so imagine what he could do with fuller minutes … but he was sort of relegated to that same, more supporting duty through most of this first season.

If the Flyers carry over this finish to giving JVR a heightened role in 2019-20, they might just enjoy the sort of rewards that would get people to look at his $7M as a bargain.

… At least for a while.

Will it all line up?

Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher faces an interesting question, with an invisible deadline from Father Time: can he put a few more pieces together to take advantage of what this team has, before a decline happens?

JVR is already 29, and will turn 30 in May. Jakub Voracek is 29 as well, while Claude Giroux is 31.

For every Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, and other player who continues to play at a high level past age 30, there are scary examples of other steep declines. The stories are especially frightening for power forward-types like JVR. Wayne Simmonds himself has already been showing signs of decay, while Milan Lucic and James Neal rank as some of the starkest examples of how steep the falls can be.

Will the Flyers be able to best take advantage of the remaining high-level years of productivity, however many there might be? As much as Philly can look at many positive developments heading into 2019-20 (and beyond), it remains to be seen if they can make all the pieces fall into place at the perfect time to contend – for real – for at least a few years.

If nothing else, JVR looks far more capable of being a big part of that solution as of today, compared to earlier this season.

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.

How concerned should Maple Leafs be as playoffs approach?

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There is no team in the NHL under more immense pressure to win, and win big, this postseason than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There probably is not even a team that is a close second when it comes to the expectations this team is carrying around.

Not only are they the Toronto Maple Leafs, which always brings immense pressure just because of who they are and where they play, but because this team is built to win now. Not tomorrow, not two seasons from now, not five seasons from now, but right now. This season. And then every season that comes after it. But especially this season.

This is not a team that was constructed to simply make the playoffs and give their fans a little bit of a thrill for a couple of weeks in the spring.

This is a team that is built to win championships, end a Stanley Cup drought that goes back to the Original Six days of the NHL, and take part in championship parades. Not a parade. Multiple parades.

The roster is loaded with All-Stars at the top of the lineup that are tying up a significant chunk of their salary cap situation for years to come (and that does not even include Mitch Marner‘s new deal that will be coming through this summer). It is no doubt an overstated concern, but this is the core they have tied themselves to and are locked in with for the next eight years.

So far, that core has produced nothing but two first-round exits in their only postseason appearances. They are now headed for another first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins, a potential nightmare scenario against one of the league’s best teams (that might finally be healthy come playoff time) that has given them fits over the past two years and knocked them out in the first round a year ago in a series that probably went a game or two longer than it deserved to go.

They have the highest paid head coach in the NHL in Mike Babcock who has not been out of the first-round since the 2013 season, and only once since 2010. There have been 23 different head coaches that have won at least one playoff series since Babcock last won one, including Mike Yeo, who has won a playoff series with two different franchises during that stretch. Any other coach in the NHL with that postseason track record wouldn’t be regarded as highly as Babcock still is. You can be sure that will change if they bow out in round one again. It should, anyway.

All of that adds up to a situation where anything other than a deep playoff run is going to be looked at as a spectacular failure.

What has to be concerning for Maple Leafs fans is the team doesn’t really seem to be trending in the right direction as the playoffs draw near.

Entering the week they have lost four of their past six games, three of which came against non-playoff teams, including an ugly loss to the league’s worst team, the Ottawa Senators.

One of the two games they did win during that stretch required an incredible late rally to steal two points from the Philadelphia Flyers, another team that is likely to miss the playoffs.

If you are looking for explanations, the injury situation has not been ideal.

Kasperi Kapanen has missed a handful of games and the blue line has been shorthanded without the services of Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, a development that resulted in this quote from Babcock on Monday.

“You’re supposed to build the best program you can, so you have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep going,” Babcock said, via Sportsnet. “There’s other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state we’re at, and you just gotta keep adding better players.”

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t the only team that has been hit hard by injuries this season. The team they are chasing in the standings and about to play in the first round has been hammered all season when it comes to their best players, and it’s not like the Bruins were starting with the league’s greatest depth. They have simply played better.

The biggest concern for the Maple Leafs should still be their play defensively because it is just not at a Stanley Cup level.

They are currently one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to allowing shot attempts and scoring chances during even-strength play, currently sitting 27th in the league in total shot attempts against, 30th in shots on goal against, and 20th in scoring chances against. And that is not just because Gardiner and Dermott are out of the lineup, because their numbers were nearly identical prior to their exit from the lineup.

Just for example, here are their 5-on-5 Shot attempt and scoring chance numbers from before Gardiner’s injury (and Dermott’s, which happened two days later) and since.

(CF% = Shot Attempt differential; CA/60 = Shot attempts against per 60 minutes; SCA/60 = Scoring chances against per 60 minutes)

This is, quite simply, who and what the Maple Leafs are defensively.

The total shot attempt differential is still among the top-10 in the league, but the number of attempts and chances they give up are both among the bottom-10. It is awfully difficult, if not impossible, to go on a deep playoff run with that sort of defensive play unless you have elite shooting talent at forward that can score and/or great goaltending to cover up for your flaws.

The Maple Leafs definitely have the shooting talent to outscore their defensive deficiencies, and they have a really good goalie in Frederik Andersen.

The latter is probably the key to what this team does in the immediate future.

Ever since he arrived in Toronto to be their starting goalie Andersen has been masking all of the Maple Leafs’ flaws on defense and giving them a chance to win on most nights. He has been a workhorse in net and a player the team has leaned on extensively. There are few teams in the league that are as dependent on one goalie than the Maple Leafs are on Andersen given the workload he has faced. Since the start of the 2017-18 season no goalie in the league has faced more shots in the regular season than Andersen’s 3,918. The only two goalies that have faced more than 3,600 shots during these past two seasons are Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (3,807) and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (3,602).

There is an argument to be made that the Maple Leafs ran him into the ground last season more than they needed to and that playing in 66 games (for the second year in a row) didn’t leave him as fresh and rested as he could have been for the playoffs. He will not face quite the same workload this season, but he is still on track to play at least 60 games this season and once again be one of the league leaders in games played, minutes played, shots faced.

He is probably the one player that is going to make or break their season, because that is simply the way the Maple Leafs are built and play.

There is no questioning the high-end talent on the roster. But there are still enough questions on the back end, and what might be the worst possible first-round matchup looming in a couple of weeks, to be concerned about how this spring is going to go.

The expectation is something different, and better, and franchise altering. But there are a lot of signs that it could still be more of the same.

That would not be kind to anyone in Toronto.

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: McDavid, Crawford should’ve given spoiler alerts

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Three Stars

1. Corey Crawford leads a group of spoiler goalies

Quite a few goalies made life miserable for teams in desperate situations, and Crawford topped the list. He generated an impressive (and, for the Canadiens, deeply annoying) 48-save shutout on Saturday, absolutely stealing a win for the Blackhawks. Even with Chicago now on a five-game winning streak, it would be surprising if we look back at that shutout as anything more than the Blackhawks spoiling a chance for Montreal to improve its playoff chances.

Again, that was in the air on Saturday.

Red Wings fans are likely reading through prospect rankings and wondering who will run the team in the future right now, but getting wins at this time of year? They might be rooting for the opposite, at least those who cross their fingers for higher draft lottery odds.

With that in mind, Jonathan Bernier wasn’t just a spoiler for the Islanders in making 41 out of 42 saves; he was, to an extent, a spoiler for his own team … depending upon how you look at things.

Blues goalie Jordan Binnington is doing the opposite of spoiling the Blues’ season, but he certainly robbed the Penguins often, making 40 of 41 saves. (Also of note: Anders Nilsson generated 35 saves as the Senators upset the Maple Leafs.)

2. Alex Killorn

It’s difficult to differentiate some strong three-point performances from Saturday, except one stands out as pretty tough to deny. Killorn generated a hat trick as the Lightning beat the Capitals in a testy game.

Killorn now has 16 goals in 2018-19, leaving him three behind his career-high of 19.

If you want to bring it back to playing spoiler again: the Lightning have basically everything locked up right now, so they messed up the Capitals’ chances of fattening their lead for the Metropolitan Division title.

3. Connor McDavid

Again, this is tough. Among other candidates, two Panthers (Evgenii Dadonov and Aleksander Barkov) enjoyed three-point games.

Like Dadonov, McDavid generated two goals and one assist for his three points (Barkov had thre assists).

McDavid gets the edge in some ways, and no, it’s not just that he’s Connor McDavid. For one thing, McDavid nabbed a game-winning goal with his overtime-winner. For another, McDavid scored this way for his other goal, generating arguably the highlight of the night:

So, slight advantage: number 97.

(Oh yeah, and the Oilers beat the Coyotes in OT, spoiling Arizona’s efforts to get a full two points.)

Highlight of the Night

Actually, I’m call it: that McDavid goal was the highlight of the night. So, with that, enjoy a bonus: the latest Hurricanes win celebration goes the “curling” route.

Question: does this mean they’re only getting more ingenious with their celes, or are they running out of ideas?

Factoids

  • McDavid now has multiple points in seven-consecutive games. Only two other Oilers have done that: Wayne Gretzky (15 times!) and Mark Messier (once). McDavid’s seven-game streak ties two other players for the longest run in 2018-19: Nikita Kucherov and Auston Matthews.
  • Connor Hellebuyck hits the 30-win mark once again. This makes for a nice feat for him, and quite the indictment on those who came before him, as he’s the only Thrashers/Jets goalie to post consecutive 30-win seasons.
  • Jordan Staal scored his 500th point, allowing him to join his brother Eric Staal on a select list of siblings:

Scores

STL 5 – PIT 1
DET 2 – NYI 1
FLA 4 – LAK 3
WIN 2 – CGY 1
BOS 2 – CBJ 1 (OT)
CHI 2 – MTL 0
OTT 6 – TOR 2
TBL 6 – WSH 3
CAR 4 – BUF 2
MIN 5 – NYR 2
EDM 3 – ARI 2 (OT)
NSH 4 – SJS 2

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.

Lightning’s Sergachev shaken up after hard Tom Wilson hit

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If recent history repeats itself, the Capitals and Lightning may once again meet in a high-stakes series, this time during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Perhaps that thought explains why tensions seem pretty high on Saturday?

Then again, maybe it’s just a matter of the gravitational pull that Tom Wilson‘s physicality provides, whether the hits are legal, illegal, or in a gray area in between.

One way or another, the Lightning didn’t seem pleased with Wilson after he landed a hard hit on promising defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. Sergachev clearly looked shaken up, although he was able to leave the ice under his own power:

Wilson was not penalized for the hit, and by Wilson standards, this wasn’t too controversial. Do you think it was over the line, though?

Later on in the game, Sergachev was able to return, so that’s a good sign.

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.