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The Buzzer: Islanders still hot; Oshie still a shootout wizard

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Three Stars

1. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators

What has gotten into this guy? Is he trying to make it so we can’t call him just a pest any longer, like a lower-tier Brad Marchand, or something?

Either way, Pageau’s absolutely on fire. While, yes, one of his goals did come on an empty-netter, it’s still impressive that he generated the first hat trick of his career on Wednesday, especially without any time on Ottawa’s power play. JGP (who might need some sort of J.C. Penny-inspired nickname at this point?) was responsible for the game-winner to boot.

Pageau now has eight goals in his last six games, and at least one point (eight goals, one assist) in six of his last seven contests. Overall, he has 11 goals and 15 points through 18 games this season, although it’s this recent torrid pace that’s especially impressive. More on that in the factoids …

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Pageau’s career-high for goals is 19, and points is 43, both recorded in 2015-16.

2. Derick Brassard, New York Islanders

It’s been a nightmare for Brassard basically from the moment he was part of the trade that sent Mika Zibanejad to the Rangers (and a higher draft pick to the Rangers than to the Senators, oh my). The once-useful forward couldn’t find his footing while bouncing around the NHL.

When the Islanders made a $1.2 million investment in Brassard for 2019-20, it felt like a low-risk move with the potential for a heartwarming turnaround. That seemed like a slim possibility when Brassard managed just a single assist through his first eight games for the Isles, but now he’s really picking up steam.

Brassard has 10 points in his last nine games after generating a one-goal, two-assist night as the Islanders thwarted John Tavares and the Maple Leafs on Wednesday. Avoiding the “we don’t need you” debate regarding Tavares, allow this: any team could use a resurgent player at just $1.2M in AAV.

3. Dylan Strome, Chicago Blackhawks

Speaking of inspirational stories. Strome just never could really find his footing — or true opportunities, depending upon your perspective — as the third pick of the 2015 NHL Draft by the Arizona Coyotes. He’s found a new lease on life with Chicago, and while he’s suffered through some dry spells as the bounces slowed down a bit in 2019-20 vs. his 2018-19 run, Strome is hot again.

He scored two goals and one assist for three points on Wednesday, helping Chicago stun Vegas. Strome now has eight points (one goal, seven assists) in his last four games, representing a significant chunk of his 12 points in 17 games overall in 2019-20.

Strome’s teammate Patrick Kane ranks among other players with three goals (Kane also had 1G, 2A), if you prefer other choices.

Highlight of the Night

The Devils suffered another painful loss, but it will be more difficult to ignore Wayne Simmonds‘ sneaky-strong start to the 2019-20 season after he scored a goal like this:

Also, with Carter Hart vs. Braden Holtby being the focus of the Flyers – Capitals recap, there was the risk of this runner-up getting lost in the shuffle.

Factoids

  • Remember T.J. Oshie‘s epic shootout performance for the U.S. during the 2014 Winter Olympics? It turns out he still rules at that skill. The Capitals note that Oshie has scored on 44 of his 83 attempts, giving him the highest percentage (about 53) of any player with at least 60 shootout attempts.
  • Casey Cizikas is the 11th different Islanders player to record a game-winning goal so far this season (they have 13 wins overall). NHL PR notes that such a figure (11 different players with GWGs) leads the NHL at the moment in 2019-20. It’s a nice stat that drives home how everyone is pitching in for the Isles, right?
  • The Stars congratulated Corey Perry for his 1,000th NHL regular-season game. Not sure how many goalies he’s “bumped into” or people he’s angered during that span, but I’d wager “more than a few.”
  • Both the Islanders and Capitals pushed their point streaks to 13 games on Wednesday. Via NHL PR, this is the sixth such streak in Washington’s history, while the Isles have managed it five different times.
  • Sportsnet points out that Toronto’s special teams (17.6 PP percentage; 75.3 on the PK) have been far, far worse than recent years. Could that come down to coaching, bad luck, or other factors?
  • Pageau’s nine goals ties with Leon Draisaitl for most in the NHL since Oct. 23, according to Sportsnet.

Scores

OTT 4 – NJD 2
NYI 5 – TOR 4
WSH 2 – PHI 1 (SO)
DAL 3 – CGY 1
CHI 5 – VGK 3

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Blackhawks add to Golden Knights’ troubles

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During a hectic stretch during an overall hectic game, it looked like the Vegas Golden Knights might end their losing streak by beating the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday.

The game turned on its head during a dizzying second-period sequence during what was overall a pretty dizzying game. Ultimately, the biggest takeaway is that the Blackhawks won 5-3, pushing the Golden Knights’ losing streak to four games.

Rough night/nights for the Knights

The Golden Knights opened up the game with a 2-0 goal lead 6:29 into Wednesday’s contest, but it (obviously) ended up being insufficient.

Things really tumbled out of control during what had to be a maddening sequence in the second period.

3:54 in: It seemed like Alex Tuch expanded Vegas’ lead to 3-1, only a review determined that the goal was not over the line. So the score remained 2-1 in Vegas’ favor.

4:09: About 15 seconds later, Calvin de Haan tied the game up 2-2.

4:54: One minute after that Tuch goal didn’t count, Erik Gustafsson gave Chicago a 3-2 lead.

If that wasn’t enough to make things miserable, the Golden Knights’ fear of a messy goalie situation – particularly if something happens to their starter – came to the forefront when Marc-Andre Fleury was shaken by a collision with Alex DeBrincat. It seems like MAF was OK, although it’s tough to overlook Vegas losing so convincingly despite generating a 42-26 shots on goal advantage.

Again, this pushes Vegas’ losing streak to four games in a row, and the headaches extend beyond that. The Golden Knights have only won one in their past seven games (1-3-3). Getting some charity points could end up being crucial if these struggles persist (and it’s worth mentioning that they’ve only won twice in their last nine, going 2-4-3).

[More on the Golden Knights’ worries in net.]

Scraphawks

With an eight-game homestand to begin the season, it seemed like the Blackhawks had a chance to start 2019-20 on fire. Instead, they limped to a 2-4-2 record during that span.

That’s bad, but they’ve been reasonably scrappy since then, as they’re now 7-7-4 after following that homestand with a fairly tough schedule. No, it’s not world-beating stuff, and this franchise probably isn’t comfortable shooting for “respectable” … but, hey, the Blackhawks might at least be a tough out at times this season. Five of the Blackhawks’ next seven games take place in Chicago, so maybe this time they can take advantage of some home cooking?

Young guns

Perhaps the most exciting development for Chicago is the work of developing players.

Yes, Corey Crawford was great (39 saves), as was Patrick Kane (one goal, two assists), but hopeful forwards of the future factored heavily in this win, too. Kirby Dach authored his first multipoint game with a goal and an assist. Dylan Strome is heating up; he generated three points on Wednesday, and now has eight points (one goal, seven assists) in his last four games. DeBrincat also pitched in two assists.

***

While the Blackhawks have the weapons to at least occasionally put up a decent fight, you could probably still mark this as an upset for the Golden Knights. That said, it will be upsetting for MAF & Co. if Vegas cannot right the ship soon.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Golden Knights’ Theodore talks about cancer diagnosis (Video)

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It was a turbulent summer for Vegas Golden Knights defender Shea Theodore.

It all started with his team being eliminated in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in crushing fashion, blowing a three-goal third period lead in Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks, and continued with a shocking testicular cancer diagnosis following the World Championships where he represented Team Canada and won a Silver medal.

[COVERAGE OF BLACKHAWKS-GOLDEN KNIGHTS BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Theodore sat down with NBC Sports and opened up about his diagnosis, his recovery, and the support he received from his Golden Knights teammates.

You can watch the entire segment in the video above.

The 24-year-old Theodore has come back and appeared in all 19 games for the Golden Knights this season, scoring one goal with six assists.

Theodore and the Golden Knights host the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night on NBCSN.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Darren Dreger. John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk  and Pierre McGuire will have the call from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.

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.

Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

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Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”

Goaltending at center of Golden Knights’ slump

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Vegas Golden Knights will go as far as Marc-Andre Fleury is able to take them this season.

Not only in terms of how he plays, but also how often he plays.

It has been a very simple recipe for the team dating back to the start of last season, and it goes exactly like this: When Fleury plays, and plays well, the Golden Knights look like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender that can stack up against any team in the league.

When he does not play, or when he does not play well, the team has had virtually no chance of winning on any given night.

They have a deep group of forwards with impact players carrying the top lines, their defense may not have any potential Norris Trophy winners on it, but it is a capable group, and in general the team plays a winning brand of hockey.

Even so, goaltending is the make-or-break position on this team and it all relies on the health and play of Fleury.

Their recent 10-game stretch entering their Wednesday Night Hockey matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks is a perfect illustration of the importance of their starting goalie. They have won just three of those games, and even though the offense has cooled off and had its own share of struggles, the goaltending has not always given them a chance to win. They have consistently fallen behind early, often times by several goals, and have had to play catch-up almost every night.

Fleury has slumped a little recently (an .897 save percentage in his past six starts), but the bigger problem remains the fact the team has absolutely no one behind him that can give him some regular time off and give the team a chance to win. On this most recent 10-game stretch backups Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk have started four games, all of them losses, and allowed 15 goals with a combined save percentage of just .881. Not good enough.

[COVERAGE OF BLACKHAWKS-GOLDEN KNIGHTS BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

For the season, the Golden Knights are one of just four teams that have yet to get a win from their backup goalies, and dating back to the start of last season they are just 8-14-4 in games that Fleury has not started. Their backups have a combined save percentage of .896, which is a completely terrible number even as far as backup goalies are concerned.

This is a potentially big problem for two reasons.

First, it means when Fleury does not play the Golden Knights points percentage dips down to lottery team levels. Even if you assume that Fleury is able to play 60-65 games that is still 20 or so games where they are  just giving away points in the standings, something that could force them to play Fleury more than they need to. Or should.

That leads to the second problem, which is Fleury’s workload and how many games the Golden Knights actually want him to play during the season. For as durable as he has been throughout his career (and still is; keep in mind he played 61 games a year ago), you have to consider the reality that he turns 35 years old later this month. In the history of the league there have only been seven instances of a goalie in their age 35 season (or older) starting more than 60 games in a season, and only two of them — both Martin Brodeur seasons — ended up making the playoffs that year. In both cases he completely bombed in the opening round, losing each series in five games.

Even when taking age out of the equation the sweet spot for No. 1 goalies in today’s NHL seems to be somewhere around the 55-60 game mark. It cuts down the injury risk and keeps the starter fresh for the grind that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but Fleury’s three best postseasons — when looking at individual success and length of postseason run — came in years where he started 35, 38, and 46 games during the regular season, while his three worst performances came in years where he started more than 65 games. Granted, no one is going to suggest his playing time should be limited to 35 or 40 games, but keeping him under 60 might be very beneficial in the long run. The problem is Golden Knights don’t have anyone on their roster behind Fleury that should inspire enough confidence to give them 25-30 starts without seriously hurting the team’s spot in the standings and playoff race.

It is a big problem and one that needs to be addressed because they can’t rely on Fleury to play every night, and their current backups haven’t proven to be good enough to give him a break.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Darren Dreger. John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk  and Pierre McGuire will have the call from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.

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.