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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

Oilers’ Lucic ejected after dangerous cross-check to Blues’ Sundqvist

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Milan Lucic is paid a lot of money for a lot of nothing these days, but he may have some of his $6 million per season salary taken away from him after a nasty cross-check on Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues.

With the Blues holding a 6-2 lead with just over five minutes left in the third period — garbage time, as they say — Lucic made his presence felt as he drilled Oskar Sundvist from behind long after he had shot the puck on Anthony Stolarz.

The needless hit sent Sundqvist flying into the boards, who needed some assistance from the trainers before leaving the game. He did not return after favoring his right arm as he skated off hunched over.

Lucic was assessed a five-minute major for cross-checking and given a game misconduct on the play. The senselessness of the hit is likely to land him in hot water with the NHL, too.

The Oilers still have four more years of this to endure, too.

Meanwhile, it’s not the first time this season (if you count preseason games) that Sundqvist has been on the receiving end of a bone-headed and dirty hit.

Tom Wilson got the book thrown at him for this awful shot.

Earlier in the game, Zack Kassian and Patrick Maroon — good friends — went toe-to-toe in a friendship-testing heavyweight tilt.

There were some haymakers thrown in this one.


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

Key players getting healthy for Bruins, Penguins, Blues

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The Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, and St. Louis Blues have managed to hang in there when it comes retaining spots in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but help appears to be on the way for all three teams.

It’s not clear if that help will arrive by Tuesday’s games for each team, yet it seems like each outlook is fairly promising, which is huge because some star players are involved. Let’s go in alphabetical order.

Boston Bruins: Head coach Bruce Cassidy said that it “looks like” David Pastrnak will play against the New York Islanders, although Pastrnak’s considered a game-time decision. As you can see from the Morning Skate, Pastrnak has been hard on himself for missing time with a thumb injury related to a fall off the ice. (Although it might have happened on ice, just not on a rink.)

Pastrnak has been sidelined since Feb. 10. The Bruins have been able to manage a slew of injuries in recent years, so this is no different, but Pastrnak could really help Boston take those extra steps to ensure that they’ll get home-ice advantage in the first round against the Maple Leafs.

It also seems like Torey Krug might be getting closer to a return. Imagine how dangerous this Bruins team might be if everyone’s at, or near, full-strength?

Pittsburgh Penguins: Kris Letang has been sidelined since Feb. 23, and it seems like he’s another game-time decision after practicing in a normal full-contact jersey on Tuesday.

You’d have to think that Letang would have been a serious Norris candidate if he didn’t miss so much time this season, as he boasts great possession stats to go with 53 points in just 60 games. (Even missing all those games, Letang ranks seventh in scoring among defensemen.)

Letang probably suffered his latest injury during the Penguins’ loss to the Flyers outdoors, when he was tangled up with Shayne Gostisbehere:

With two consecutive losses and a prominent (though, with Montreal fading out of contention, not really “must-win”) game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, it might be tempting to push the elite defenseman back into action. The Penguins would be wise to consider his unfortunately bumpy health history, though, and try to delicately walk the line between getting him back up to speed while reducing the risks of re-injury.

The Penguins recently got Bryan Rust back, so this team’s getting healthier as the postseason approaches. At least, they hope so.

St. Louis Blues: When the Blues announced that Vladimir Tarasenko would be “re-evaluated” about 10 days after March 10, it sure seemed ominous.

Instead of merely being looked at again, Tarasenko’s set to return for the Blues during Tuesday’s (March 19) game against the Edmonton Oilers. Hockey players, right?

“He will be in tonight. That’s really good news for us,” Craig Berube said. “He’s fine, he obviously never had a lot of practice time, but he looks fine. He’ll be alright.”

With a middling 4-4-2 record in their last 10 games, St. Louis will welcome the shot in the arm. They also only have a two-point edge on the Dallas Stars for the Central’s third spot (both with 10 games remaining), so there’s added incentive to bring Tarasenko back, and heat up once again.

More: Find out where these teams rank in the Push for the Playoffs.

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.

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.

Predators’ top line is dominant when you look deeper

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It’s never been a better time for those of us who want to know every little thing that we can about hockey. From in-depth features on the nuances of the game, to increasingly insightful “fancy stats,” you can go deep down that hockey rabbit hole.

Even with all of that information in mind, it’s still easy to miss things. Take, for example, how the Nashville Predators’ top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg really isn’t that far behind the best combinations in the NHL.

If you merely look at season totals, you’ll think reasonably highly of the trio, but maybe not fully absorb how dominant they’ve been.

Johansen has 58 points, and that’s reasonably reflective of his season, as he’s played in 71 of 73 games.

His wingers have been outstanding, especially since they’ve missed quite a bit of time with injuries.

Arvidsson on a 50-goal pace

Perennially underrated, constantly-moving Swedish scorer Arvidsson might be having the most impressive season. He’s also tied his career high of 31 goals … in just 49 games. If Arvidsson maintained that .63 goals-per-game pace through 73 games, he’d have about 46 goals right now. Over an 82-game season, he’d have between 51 and 52 (51.66).

Now, sure, the bounces would start to even out in a less positive way for Arvidsson, as his shooting percentage is by far at a career-high of 19.3 percent.

Yet, it still all points to career-best work. Arvidsson’s up to 19:16 TOI per game, a significant jump from last season’s career-high of 17:45 per contest.

Taking the ball and running with it

In general, the Predators realize that they need to lean on this trio for their offense, and it shows beyond ice time. After being closer to fifty-fifty with zone starts previously, the top line has been leveraged for offense more than ever, beginning 64.9 to 67 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone.

Speaking of those meatier numbers, one of the most promising developments is that Johansen is sure looking like a true top-line center. Johansen’s enjoying some of the best possession numbers of his career, and his .82 points-per-game average in 2018-19 ranks as the second-best of his career.

For a while, Johansen’s $8 million cap hit seemed like a mild problem for the Predators. Now it seems perfectly fine, and only really pales in comparison to the obscene discounts for Forsberg ($6M) and Arvidsson ($4.25M).

Forsberg is probably the player most widely acknowledged as a star, likely in part because of his penchant for scoring highlight-reel goals. He’s also the player who has probably been most shortchanged by injuries over the years. Forsberg has 25 goals in just 55 games this season, after managing 26 while being limited to 67 contests in 2017-18.

(Much like his linemates, Forsberg’s been more than opponents can handle possession-wise, too.)

Now, we can tussle about where the Predators’ top line ranks among the best of the best. But the point is that they’re really not that far behind the upper-most of the elite, making Nashville a team with an interesting ceiling.

Because, for the most part, the Preds have pieces that only a few other contenders also have.

Their defense is much-hyped, and rightfully so. They not only have a veteran starter in Pekka Rinne, but an increasingly proven backup/goalie of the future in Juuse Saros.

Still searching for scorers beyond the big three — and that defense

But, yes, there is an issue: are the Predators something of a one-line team?

It’s telling that a) the top line players lead all other forwards, despite Arvidsson and Forsberg missing so much time and b) three of the Predators other top-six scorers are defensemen, with Roman Josi‘s 55 points sitting not that far behind Johansen’s 58 for the team lead.

(Mattias Ekholm has 42 points, while Ryan Ellis is at 37.)

Craig Smith‘s the highest-scoring forward after that trio with 33 points. Being that 19 of those points are goals, Smith’s been a useful player – as usual – for the Predators.

The key, then, is to get his would-be linemates on track by the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

While Johansen’s been justifying his price tag, Kyle Turris hasn’t exactly looked like a $6M center this season. Turris’ already-rough season hit a new low with a recent healthy scratch, but maybe he can start to get things back on track, beginning with a likely return to the lineup during Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs?

(Granted, he’s currently slated for fourth-line duty, so it might be an uphill battle.)

[More in the Morning Skate]

Mere ripples after from splashy moves

The Predators were aggressive during the trade deadline, but the returns haven’t been astronomical.

Mikael Granlund‘s four points in seven games can be considered acceptable, yet not exactly mind-blowing. Through eight games, Wayne Simmonds hasn’t scored a single goal, managing just an assist during that span.

Some of these results must be frustrating, no doubt. At least there’s time to find offense beyond that explosive top line, though.

Peter Laviolette could always at least tinker with seeing how it would work to spread the wealth, although too much movement might be messing with a good thing. Granlund could easily slide into a role as center, where he often played with the Wild.

The Predators haven’t enjoyed great results from forwards beyond Forsberg – Johansen – Arvidsson, but there are at least plenty of options. Hey, maybe this would be a good time to see if Eeli Tolvanen can finally stick in the lineup, too?

Even if none of those other options work out, the NHL’s shifted to being a league that’s heavy with teams who depend largely on their top lines, and the good news is that the Predators’ trio can hang with most of them.

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.