Logjam at top of Pacific makes for intense playoff push

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Pacific Division is proving to be the wild, wild west of the NHL this season.

Vancouver beat defending champion St. Louis on Monday night to move to 60 points in 50 games. Edmonton (57 points in 49 games), Calgary (57 points in 50 games), Arizona (57 points in 51 games) and Vegas (57 points in 52 games) all follow right behind.

”It’s pretty surreal,” Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano said. ”I’ve never seen anything like that with this amount of time left in the season. It’s going to be a great finish, we’re right there right in the mix, we’re in a good spot.”

The logjam at the top is creating a 30-plus game sprint to the finish. The stakes will get higher as the NHL’s scheduling goes heavy on inter-divisional games late in the season.

”I don’t know if I was alive when it has been this close in the division,” Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom said. ”It’s great. It’s great for everybody. Obviously you want a 10 or 20 point cushion at this point but that’s not the case and it’s pretty much every team is right there inside a couple of points. It’s going to be fun hockey and pretty much playoff hockey is going to start here after the break.”

The tight race places a premium on regulation wins, allowing a team to grab two points without allowing its rival to get one.

While Vancouver and Edmonton appear to have the edge in games played, there is no margin for error.

”You can go from first to last, from last to first the next night and we’re all going to play each other coming up right at the end of the year,” Vegas forward Max Pacioretty said. ”It’s going to be a fight to the end and we’re expecting these last 30 games to be really intense. But on the bright side if you’re able to get in and you’re able to get through these games, that should prepare you for the playoffs and we’re looking forward to that challenge.”

All of the teams can find inspiration from the Blues’ run last season. The Blues were last in the entire league on Jan. 3 only to catch fire and ride that momentum to the Stanley Cup.

Like those Blues, the Golden Knights made a mid-season coaching change replacing Gerard Gallant who led the team to the finals in their first season, with former Sharks coach Peter DeBoer.

Pacioretty said the All-Star break came at a good time for Vegas. He believes it will allow him and his teammates to emotionally reset and come back ready to perform for their new coach.

”That’s kind of like a fresh wound right now and you kind of take responsibility whenever a coach gets fired,” Pacioretty said. ”You look at yourself in the mirror and say what could I have done better?”

Arizona finds itself in a different position after sitting at or near the top of the division for most of the season.

”We were always the hunters,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. ”We were always, ‘Hey, how are we going to get back into this thing?’ Now teams are below us and they’re the hunters on us. The old day of playing the backup goalie against the Coyotes, they’re not doing that anymore. They’re playing their starters. That’s what guys have to understand now. You’re going to get the best.”

The race doesn’t allow Tocchet and the other coaches the luxury of managing workload. Tocchet, who isn’t a big morning skate fan, believes it’s all about consistency.

He doesn’t remember a race this tight in his 18 years as a player or in his five years as a coach.

”You have to embrace the pain and all that stuff because if you look at those standings there’s five teams right in there,” Tocchet said. ”One week you’re either in first place or fifth place. Everything the coach does now is for the players and for their psyche and to make them feel comfortable.”

Raising the stakes even higher is that not all five teams are guaranteed to make the postseason as wild cards. Winnipeg, Chicago and Nashville from the Central Division are in the mix for those two spots as well.

Giordano said it’s all about peaking at the right time.

”We have great players and it’s just about putting it together at the right time,” Giordano said. ”I feel like last year we had a great start and an unbelievable first half and sort of lost that confidence we had down the stretch and it carried over for us in the playoffs. Hopefully this year is the complete opposite.”

PHT Morning Skate: Blues looking for top-6 winger; Pacific Division race

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• General manager Doug Armstrong says the St. Louis Blues could be in the market for a top-six forward. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Canucks, Oilers, Flames prime for mad dash in crowded Pacific Division. (TSN)

• Five reasons for fans to be concerned about the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Sportsnet)

• General mangers on the hot seat as the NHL trade deadline approaches. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Has Valeri Nichushkin been Joe Sakic’s best offseason addition for the Colorado Avalanche? (Mile High Hockey)

Matt Dumba‘s good deed went viral, even if he wished it did not. (Pioneer Press)

Matthew Tkachuk‘s chippy controversy is no surprise to Blues players that watched him growing up. (Sporting News)

• Commitment to team defense driving Penguins’ success. (The Point)

• Ex-Penguin Mark Johnson has made his own impact on women’s hockey. (Tribune-Review)

• What the Chicago Blackhawks have done and what they still need to do. (Daily Herald)

• The New York Rangers have officially loaned forward Lias Andersson to HV71 of the Swedish League. (Blueshirt Banter)

• Looking back at the Capitals’ history winning streak a decade later. (NOVA Caps Fans)

Jakub Vrana gives the Washington Capitals something they have not had in more than a decade. (Japers’ Rink)

• Demanding remaining schedule awaits the Nashville Predators. (On The Forecheck)

• NWHL responds to comments about league on Sportsnet. (The Ice Garden)

• The New York Rangers have been the best investment for hockey bettors. (New York Post)

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: Big milestone night for Patrick Marleau

Big night for Patrick Marleau the buzzer
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Three Stars

1. Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks

All due respect to J.T. Miller‘s two goals, but Demko powered the Canucks to their ninth home win in a row.

The Blues generated a significant 37-26 shots on goal advantage on Tuesday, yet could only beat Demko once. Demko’s save against Jaden Schwartz warrants consideration for highlight of the night.

It’s unclear if the 24-year-old will pan out as the Canucks goalie of the future. Demko’s stats really have been all that impressive over the past couple seasons. Then again, as his creasemate Jacob Markstrom shows, sometimes goalies mature at unpredictable rates.

Either way, Demko looked legit on Tuesday.

2. Marcus Hogberg, Ottawa Senators

Placing Hogberg’s night ranks as challenge.

On one hand, Hogberg’s Senators lost to the Devils in a shootout. Hogberg also allowed three goals (not counting the shootout), which seems like a lot when you try to split hairs regarding best players of the night.

But Hogberg managed 50 saves against New Jersey. NHL PR notes that Hogberg established a Senators record for saves by a rookie goalie in a regular season game. That’s impressive, as was this save of the night contender.

3. Patrick Marleau (San Jose Sharks) enjoys a big night

Marleau deserves his own section, as he qualifies as the third star, provided one of the highlights of the night, and earned his own mini-factoids collection.

Marleau scored two goals on Tuesday. While his first one was the more symmetrical milestone (his 1,100 point with the Sharks), the second one was prettier.

The pass was brilliant (and lucky). The call was great. Marleau burned the Ducks defense for that goal. That also marked his 109th career game-winner.

There was a lot to like, and even without further context, Marleau reaching 10 goals at age 40 was already impressive. Especially since Marleau played his first game of 2019-20 on Oct. 10. Then add context and it’s a very pretty way to join rare company.

Marleau became just the fourth player in NHL history to score 10+ goals for at least 22 consecutive seasons. NHL PR shared the list: Gordie Howe (24), Mark Messier (22), Alex Delvecchio (22), and Marleau (22).

Just a big night overall by Marleau:

One more option for highlight of the night

Remove historical impact and Jamie Benn‘s two goals might stand taller than Marleau’s duo. Check out both of Benn’s impressive goals from the Stars’ OT win against Tampa Bay:

Factoids beyond Marleau having a big night

  • Marleau’s teammate Erik Karlsson generated the 600th point in his 730th regular-season game. NHL PR points out that Karlsson became the 11th defenseman to reach 600 points in 730 games or less.
  • Steven Stamkos reached 20 goals for the 11th season. Sportsnet Stats notes that Vincent Lecavalier owns the Lightning’s most seasons with 20+ at 12. While Stamkos looks poised to set a new franchise record, Nikita Kucherov would need to hustle, as his 22 this season “only” give him six such seasons.
  • The Capitals reached 73 standings points in their 50th game. That’s Washington’s second-best point total through 50 GP, with 2015-16 (78) standing at number one, according to NHL PR.
  • Capitals winger Jakub Vrana scored a goal and an assist to push his point streak to nine games. NHL PR notes that Vrana now holds the league’s third longest active streak.

Scores

WSH 4 – MTL 2
NJD 4 – OTT 3 (SO)
TOR 5 – NSH 2
DAL 3 – TBL 2 (OT)
VAN 3 – STL 1
SJS 4 – ANA 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.

NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup contenders entering second half

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In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we take a look at where things stand around the league as the second half of the 2019-20 NHL season is set to begin.

The top Stanley Cup contenders, the teams making a big move to climb the standings, the teams still on the playoff bubble, and the teams that are already looking ahead to next season (and probably beyond).

Where does every team currently sit? To the rankings!

TOP CONTENDERS

The teams that stand out above the rest as Stanley Cup Contenders right now…

1. Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin and Co. are in position to win another Presidents’ Trophy and have all the ingredients to win another Stanley Cup.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning. They are flat out dominating teams again. Two years ago the Capitals finally broke through after years of disappointment. Last year it was the Blues. Maybe this year it is the Lightning.

3. St. Louis Blues. Winning it all two years in a row is an extremely difficult task in the NHL (it has only happened three times in the past three decades) but this Blues team looks just as good as the championship version from a year ago, and is doing it without its best offensive player (Vladimir Tarasenko).

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. They simply look and play like the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017 and they still have some key players to get back in the lineup.

5. Boston Bruins. One of the best lines in the league and two outstanding goalies. Could use a tweak or two to their depth lines and a little more from Charlie McAvoy and some of their defensemen, but they will be there when it counts.

6. Colorado Avalanche. They are positioned for a run of dominance in the Western Conference for years to come.

TEAMS MAKING A BIG MOVE RIGHT NOW

Maybe not Stanley Cup contenders at the moment, but these are some of the hottest teams in the league …

7. Columbus Blue Jackets. Superb goaltending can mask a lot of flaws and carry a team to places no one expected it to be.

8. Florida Panthers. The highest scoring team in the league and one that could be a real sleeper in the Eastern Conference if they can just get a little more out of their goalies and defense.

9. Vancouver Canucks. One of five teams separated by just one point in the Pacific Division, but also probably the hottest with 11 wins in their past 14 games.

THE MIDDLE GROUND AND PLAYOFF BUBBLE

10. Dallas Stars. Ben Bishop is playing his way toward another top-three finish in the Vezina Trophy voting. He might even win it this season. He probably should.

11. New York Islanders. They had an amazing start with a 17-game point streak but have struggled ever since. They should still be a playoff team, and a good one, but they still need another scorer.

12. Chicago Blackhawks. Even with their great play recently they are still three points out and there is no guarantee they keep playing at this pace. I’d say it’s more likely they miss the playoffs than make it, but if they get in they are the type of team that could cause problems due to their top-line talent and goalie situation.

13. Edmonton Oilers. A few weeks ago they looked like they were falling out of it, but a 6-1-1 in their past eight has brought them right back into the Pacific Division race. It would be nice to see Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl play meaningful hockey games.

14. Philadelphia Flyers. Still the hardest team in the league to get any kind of a feel for. Not even sure they know what they have or what they are.

15. Carolina Hurricanes. This is a great young team with a bright future, but they slumped going into the break and losing Dougie Hamilton is going to be a big problem in the short-term.

16. Toronto Maple Leafs. How big of a hole did the start under Mike Babcock put them in? They are 16-7-3 since the coaching change — the sixth-best record in the league during that stretch — and one of the hottest teams in the league, and they are still four points out of a playoff spot at the moment. October and November games count, too. A lot more than people realize.

17. Calgary Flames. A big second half from Johnny Gaudreau could swing this mess of a division in their favor.

18. Vegas Golden Knights. I would expect this team to make a big push and rapidly climb the standings over the next month or two, especially if Marc-Andre Fleury gets on a roll (and he can). They are too good and too talented not to.

19. Arizona Coyotes. Taylor Hall has been just what they needed, but the wins haven’t been there very consistently. At least not yet.

20. Winnipeg Jets. They are hanging on as best they can given the state of the defense, but eventually the lack of talent on the blue line is going to be too much to overcome.

21. Nashville Predators. Their biggest advantage in the playoff race right now is the number of games they still have remaining. The key is going to be actually winning those games.

THE PLAYOFFS ARE AN ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE LONG SHOT

These teams are not totally out of it, but are close to it…

22. Montreal Canadiens. They played a little better going into the break, and could get some top players back in the lineup soon, but they have way too much ground to make up. Right now no team in a playoff position in the East is on pace for less than 100 points. Montreal needs 49 points in 32 games to reach that.

23. Buffalo Sabres. Another year of Jack Eichel‘s prime on the verge of being wasted with absolutely nothing to show for it. 

24. New York Rangers. On the plus side, Artemi Panarin is on pace for one of the best offensive seasons in franchise history.

25. Minnesota Wild. The big question here is how bold Bill Guerin gets at the trade deadline. Does he move players with term still on their contracts (Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin)?

START PLANNING FOR NEXT SEASON

26. San Jose Sharks. The single biggest disappointment in the NHL this season, and no other team is even close. Doug Wilson will get a chance to fix this, but he has his work cut out for him.

27. New Jersey Devils. Nico Hischier getting a chance to shine at the All-Star Game is probably the bright spot for the Devils this season.

28. Ottawa Senators. If you squint really hard and look really closely you can see a path for a successful rebuild here. Some good young players, no long-term commitments of any kind that creates some flexibility.

29. Anaheim Ducks. The lack of anything resembling an offense here is staggering.

30. Los Angeles Kings. Not even a bounce back season from Anze Kopitar could make a difference here.

31. Detroit Red Wings. Instead of planning for next season, planning for 2022 and beyond might be a more reasonable and realistic goal.

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 All-Star Game 2020: Pacific wins, Pastrnak MVP, Laila shines

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The Pacific Division edged the Atlantic in the NHL All-Star Game final for 2020, with Connor McDavid setting up Tomas Hertl for the game-winner in St. Louis.

There was quite a bit else beyond that game though.

Fan-favorite Laila Anderson introduced the hometown Blues players, while Patrick Kane even got some cheers from Blues fans. There’s a complete rundown of the feel-good and exciting moments here.

As for the first two games of the night, the Atlantic beat the Metropolitan, while the Pacific ran away from the Central.

Format, rules for NHL All-Star Game

Four teams (one representing each of the Atlantic, Central, Metropolitan, and Pacific Divisions) square off in a two-round tournament. The three 20-minute games will be played 3-on-3.

In round one, the two Eastern Conference teams (Atlantic vs. Metropolitan) face off, while the two West teams (Central and Pacific) meet in the other bracket. The winners face off in round three.

Teams change ends at the 10-minute mark of each game. Shootouts decide any games that are tied after 20 minutes.

NHL All-Star Game jerseys

The NHL publicized those a few weeks ago. The goal was “to pay homage to the original sweaters of the St. Louis Blues and to transform the city’s acclaimed rhythm and blues history into a tangible form, the 2020 Honda NHL® All-Star Game jersey’s striping mimics a musical staff along the front and sleeves of the jersey. As another nod to the host city, the stitching elements are conducted in an eye-catching silver thread, inspired by the iconic Gateway Arch.”

Anyway, here’s what they look like:

All-Star Skills event

That was Friday night and, it seems a good time was had by all. Click here for a recap of the event, or watch the video below.

Recent NHL All-Star Game history: MVPs and winners

This represents the fifth time an NHL All-Star Game will go with this 3-on-3 format. Before that, the most recent format involved an entertaining (but maybe too embarrassing?) “fantasy draft” format. Since 1947, the NHL has gone with several other formats including Stanley Cup champions versus All-Stars, your typical clash of conferences, and North America vs. “The World.”

Here are the All-Star Game-winning teams in recent years. The events haven’t happened every season, as the Olympics and lockouts sometimes intervened.

2019: Metropolitan 10 – Central 5
2018: Pacific 5 – Atlantic 2
2017: Metropolitan 4 – Pacific 3
2016: Pacific 1 – Atlantic 0
2015: Team Toews 17 – Team Foligno 12
2012: Team Chara 12 – Team Alfredsson 9
2011: Team Lidstrom 11 – Team Staal 10
2009: East 12 – West 11 (OT)
2008: East 8 – West 7
2007: West 12 – East 9

Also, consider recent All-Star Game MVPs:

2019: Sidney Crosby
2018: Brock Boeser (quite memorably)
2017: Wayne Simmonds
2016: John Scott (also very memorably)
2015: Ryan Johansen
2012: Marian Gaborik
2011: Patrick Sharp
2009: Alex Kovalev
2008: Eric Staal
2007: Daniel Briere

NHL All-Star Game rosters

Here are the latest rosters from the league, which account for injuries and other absences.

Atlantic Division

David Pastrnak, BOS (2nd appearance) — captain

Tyler Bertuzzi, DET (1st)

Anthony Duclair, OTT (1st)

Jack Eichel, BUF (3rd)

Jonathan Huberdeau, FLA (1st)

F Mitchell Marner, TOR (1st)

Brady Tkachuk, OTT (1st)

Victor Hedman, TBL (3rd)

D Shea Weber, MTL (7th)

Frederik Andersen, TOR (1st)

Andrei Vasilevskiy, TBL (3rd)

Tuukka Rask, BOS, has chosen not to play. F Auston Matthews, TOR, will attend but not participate in on-ice activities because of a wrist condition.

Metropolitan Division

Kris Letang, PIT (6th appearance) — captain

Mathew Barzal, NYI (2nd)

Nico Hischier, NJD (1st)

Travis Konecny, PHI (1st)

T.J. Oshie, WSH (1st)

Chris Kreider, NYR (1st)

John Carlson, WSH (2nd)

Jaccob Slavin, CAR (1st)

Seth Jones, CBJ (3rd)

Braden Holtby, WSH (5th)

Tristan Jarry, PIT (1st)

Jake Guentzel, PIT, F Kyle Palmieri, NJD, D Dougie Hamilton, CAR, G Joonas Korpisalo, CBJ, and F Artemi Panarin, NYR, were replaced because of injury. F Alex Ovechkin, WSH (captain), has chosen not to play.

Central Division

F Nathan MacKinnon, COL (4th appearance) — captain

Patrick Kane, CHI (9th)

Ryan O’Reilly, STL (3rd)

David Perron, STL (1st)

Mark Scheifele, WPG (2nd)

Tyler Seguin, DAL (6th)

Eric Staal, MIN (6th)

Roman Josi, NSH (3rd)

Alex Pietrangelo, STL (2nd)

Jordan Binnington, STL (1st)

Connor Hellebuyck, WPG (2nd)

Pacific Division

F Connor McDavid, EDM (4th appearance) — captain

Leon Draisaitl, EDM (2nd)

Tomas Hertl, SJS (1st)

Anze Kopitar, LAK (5th)

Max Pacioretty, VGK (1st)

Elias Pettersson, VAN (2nd)

Matthew Tkachuk, CGY (1st)

Mark Giordano, CGY (3rd)

Quinn Hughes, VAN (1st)

Jacob Markstrom, VAN (1st)

David Rittich, CGY (1st)

Jakob Silfverberg (personal), ANA, F Logan Couture (injury), SJS, and G Darcy Kuemper (injury), ARI, were replaced. G Marc-Andre Fleury, VGK, has chosen not to play.

Elite Women’s 3-on-3 breakdown, rosters

The two teams will feature nine skaters and one goalie made up of U.S. and Canadian players who are part of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association — a group that is boycotting playing this season as they push for a sustainable professional league. The game will go by IIHF women’s rules and feature two 10-minute periods with running time. Penalties will result in penalty shots for the fouled team.

Here are the rosters:

American All-Stars (Coach: Cammi Granato)
F Alex Carpenter
F Kendall Coyne Schofield
F Brianna Decker
F Amanda Kessel
F Hilary Knight
F Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson
F Annie Pankowski
D Kacey Bellamy
D Lee Stecklein
G Alex Rigsby Cavallini

Canadian All-Stars (Coach: Jayna Hefford)
F Meghan Agosta
F Mélodie Daoust
F Rebecca Johnston
F Sarah Nurse
F Marie-Philip Poulin
F Natalie Spooner
F Blayre Turnbull
D Renata Fast
D Laura Fortino
G Ann-Renée Desbiens

Referees Kelly Cooke and Katie Guay and lineswomen Kendall Hanley and Kirsten Welsh will officiate the game.

The 2020 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 24 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2020 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 25 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE NHL ALL-STAR GAME COVERAGE:
• All-Star Game rosters
• NHL All-Star Game captains
• All-Star Game coaches
• Pass or Fail: 2020 All-Star Game jerseys
• Alex Ovechkin will not play in 2020 All-Star Game
• NHL Skills Competition to feature women’s 3-on-3, pucks shot from stands

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.