Howling success: Coyotes’ Smith dominating since return from injury

It's only been five games, but Mike Smith has been playing at an incredibly high level since returning to game action for the Arizona Coyotes.

The veteran goalie, who was sidelined for over three months with a core muscle injury, has posted a record of 4-1-0, with a save percentage of .965.

Date Opponent Result Saves
March 12 @ Edmonton W 4-0 44
March 17 San Jose W 3-1 27
March 20 @ San Jose L 0-3 33
March 22 Edmonton W 4-2 27
March 26 Philadelphia W 2-1 34

Yes, two of those games came against lowly Edmonton, but San Jose is a playoff team, and Philadelphia is desperate to be one, which adds credence to the majority of those starts.

Considering Smith is the team's highest-paid player and remains under contract for three more seasons at a cap hit of $5,666,666, it must be heartening for the Coyotes to see some value being squeezed out of a major investment.

Keep in mind, backup Louis Domingue, who more than admirably held down the fort in Smith's absence, is set to become a restricted free agent at season's end, meaning more cap dollars will be slotted at the one position for the young, building club.

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Sabres rookies combine to make team history

The future is bright in Buffalo.

Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Hudson Fasching, all key pieces in general manager Tim Murray's rebuilding plans, combined to make Sabres history during Saturday's game against Winnipeg.

All three forwards scored in the 3-2 comeback win over the Jets, marking the first time in franchise history that three different rookies accounted for all of Buffalo's goals in a single game, according to NHL public relations.

For Fasching, it was his first at the NHL level after signing with the Sabres out of the University of Minnesota less than a week ago. It's kind of becoming an old habit for Eichel and Reinhart at this point, however, as both have already eclipsed the 20-goal mark, now with 23 and 21 respectively.

With 72 points through 75 games, the Sabres have already improved by 18 points in the standings over last season, and at this time next year, they could very well be talking playoffs in Buffalo.

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Super Structure: Wild’s Parise typifies 2-way system preached by coach Torchetti

John Torchetti has been preaching the same thing over and over since becoming interim head coach of the Minnesota Wild, and what he clearly wants to see out of his players is a solid, responsible, two-way game.

Perhaps Allan Muir of Sports Illustrated described it best:

Torchetti's system demands tempo and accountability on both sides of the puck, but it also allows his players more freedom to make something happen at even strength. The mentality is attack the opposing net, rather than simply defend their own at all costs.

That philosophy was on full display early in Saturday's massive win over Colorado, courtesy of Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund.

During the second period of what was a scoreless game up to that point, the Avalanche started moving the puck out of the defensive zone off of a somewhat ill-advised backhand pass from winger Mikkel Boedker to center Mikhail Grigorenko.

Rather than retreating, Parise challenged the breakout, aggressively pursuing the puck.

Having forced a turnover, and with Colorado's defensemen on their heels, Parise (11) looked cross ice and dished the puck to an eager and expectant Granlund.

As Granlund appeared to wind up for a slapshot - which Francois Beauchemin (32) was more than willing to block - and with Wild center Mikko Koivu surrounded by both Grigorenko and defenseman Erik Johnson in the slot, Parise slid behind a previously sprawled out Blake Comeau (14) and positioned himself to the right of goaltender Semyon Varlamov.

Granlund wisely elected to fire a slap pass Parise's way, and the winger was able to open the scoring on a simple tap-in into a wide-open net, with Comeau and Johnson both helplessly watching on.

Context is huge here. Heading into this game, only three points separated these two teams. And with the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference on the line, no one would have questioned a conservative, defensively-minded approach in this situation, especially more than halfway through a scoreless contest.

Instead, Parise's aggressive play forced a turnover that led directly to a game-winning goal, giving his team a five-point lead over the Avalanche with six games remaining on the schedule.

He would add a power-play goal later in the game, giving his teammates a perfect example of what's expected from them under Torchetti's watch.

(Images courtesy: NHL)

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On the Fly: 4 players worth watching in Stanley Cup Playoffs

On the Fly, theScore's NHL roundtable series, continues. This week, we look at four players we're looking forward to watching in the playoffs.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

Craig Hagerman: The Washington Capitals will enter the playoffs with the best record in the NHL, and while eyes will mostly be on Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, let's not forget the team's leading scorer.

Kuznetsov is having a breakout season with the Capitals, leading the team with 53 assists and 73 points, and was named a NHL All-Star. His rookie campaign last year was rather unimpressive, seeing him manufacture just 37 points. But then the playoffs happened.

The 23-year-old shared the team lead with five goals in 14 games during the postseason while giving a sneak peak of his pure offensive skill with an incredible solo-effort goal that would hold up as the game-winner in the first round against the New York Islanders.

One year later such pretty goals have become the norm for Kuznetsov, and who can forget that deadly no-look pass he seems to have mastered.

The Capitals will be a fun team to watch this spring, and you can thank the new kid on the block for that.

Robby Fabbri

Josh Gold-Smith: It's going to be very interesting to see how St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock uses Fabbri in the playoffs.

The 20-year-old rookie has really started to produce like a pro with 11 points in his last 12 games. He's shown he belongs at the NHL level, scoring 18 goals and chipping in 19 assists, while earning his minutes on the second line and the second power-play unit.

The playoffs are a different beast, though, and the pressure is squarely on Hitchcock and the Blues, who've been ousted in the first round in each of the last three seasons.

Alex Steen should be back for the playoffs, but St. Louis' additional forward depth should continue to allow Fabbri to succeed in a supporting role. While much will be expected of the Blues, Fabbri won't be held to the same standard as his veteran teammates in his first postseason experience, and that lack of pressure could help him extend his recent success into the playoffs.

Andrew Ladd

Ben Whyte: After being traded by the Winnipeg Jets in late February, Ladd started his second stint with the Chicago Blackhawks at an impressive pace with points in four of his first five games, but his play - and the team's - has since gone sour.

Prior to his three-point night Saturday, the forward had just one point in six games, which came in the Blackhawks lone win over that stretch.

The reigning Cup champions remain at risk to drop into a wild-card position if their struggles continue. If the Blackhawks hope to defend their title, and the 30-year-old hopes to take a second drink out of Lord Stanley's Mug in the Windy City, he will need to be a key contributor come playoff time.

Phil Kessel

Ian McLaren: Kessel certainly hasn't blown up during his first season with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yet, at least.

While many expected him to push for 40 goals while playing wingman to either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, he's sitting on a modest 22 through 74 games, and is on pace for his lowest point total since his first year in Toronto back in 2009-10.

The potent winger leads the Penguins in total shots (242), but his shooting percentage sits below his career average and is well down from the success rate posted during his two 37-goal seasons with the Maple Leafs.

The 28-year-old has scored an impressive 13 goals in the 22 playoff games on his NHL resume, and he will be called upon to step things up in the first round especially, to make up for the absence of the injured Evgeni Malkin.

Kessel, who carries a hefty $8-million cap hit (part of which is still being paid by Toronto), broke out in a big way with a five-point game Saturday against Detroit, and can write a new story about his first year with the suddenly rolling Penguins by making an impact when it matters most.

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Sunday NHL Rumor Roundup – March 27, 2016

Latest on Steven Stamkos, Travis Hamonic, Loui Eriksson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and more in your Sunday roundup of NHL rumors.  Coyotes won’t swap Ekman-Larsson for first-overall pick. AZCENTRAL.COM: At a recent town hall meeting with Coyotes fans, GM Don Maloney shot down recent speculation suggesting his club could offer up defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to whatever team […]

Predators marking territory with NHL’s best record over past 6 weeks

With only two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Nashville Predators are taking a serious bite out of the competition.

Over their past 21 games, the Predators have posted a record of 14-2-5, the best among all NHL teams since Feb. 12. And after grabbing at least a point in 19 of those 21 games, they're now only two behind the Chicago Blackhawks in the Central Division, thereby rising from the ranks of wild-card hopefuls to legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

That they remain wholly underrated is just fine with forward James Neal.

"That's OK with us," he said of the Predators' status as apparent playoff prey, according to Adam Vingan of The Tennessean. "We don't need to ruffle any feathers, I guess you could say. We're going to make noise here, and we'll just continue to keep playing good hockey. Eventually, teams will catch on. Don't want to jinx anything, just want to keep getting better as a team and continue to build our confidence."

As things stand, the Predators have a strong hold on the first wild-card spot, which would mean an opening-round matchup with the Los Angeles Kings. But after beating those Kings by a score of 5-2 less than a week ago as part of this current run of success, the Predators aren't too concerned about entering the postseason as underdogs.

So confirms defenseman Roman Josi, who set a single-season team record for most assists by a defensemen during Saturday's win over Columbus.

"I think it's good to fly under the radar," Josi said. "We know what we can do and we have a lot of confidence right now and we know how we can play. It doesn't bother us too much if we don't get the national attention."

Winning a playoff round or two would certainly change that.

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Ryan Johansen had fun taking 2 points from Blue Jackets

The reunion was nice, but the win was better.

Nashville Predators center Ryan Johansen took to Twitter following Saturday's win over the Columbus Blue Jackets to express his feelings in regards to facing his former team for the first time since being traded for defenseman Seth Jones.

Johansen recorded an assist in the 5-1 decision, and now has seven goals and 26 points in 35 games since arriving in the Music City.

And as a Predator, one of the hottest teams in the league, Johansen will get the opportunity to build on the point per game average he posted in six playoff appearances with the Blue Jackets two years ago.

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25 years later, Jaromir Jagr outpacing rookie numbers

Jaromir Jagr literally feels 19 again.

Or at least that's what the 44-year-old's production numbers with the Florida Panthers this season would suggest.

Related: Jagr becomes 2nd in history to score 25 goals in 18 seasons

With seven games remaining on the schedule, Jagr is on pace to eclipse his goal and point totals from his rookie year with the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 1990-91.

Jagr added an assist during Saturday's win over Tampa Bay, following the posting of those stats, bumping him to 25 goals and 58 points. His 0.81 points per game eclipses the 0.71 mark posted as a rookie, and adds to his ever-growing legend as the ageless wonder.

He now sits only 27 points behind Mark Messier for second on the NHL's all-time points leader board.

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NHL Morning Coffee Headlines – March 27, 2016

Recapping a busy day in the playoff race in today’s collection of notable NHL headlines.  NHL Playoff Race. SUN-SENTINEL.COM: Jaromir Jagr had a goal and an assist and Roberto Luongo made 33 saves as the Florida Panthers defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2 to regain first place in the Atlantic Division. Jagr reached the 25-goal mark […]

Remember, we are all Canucks!