Even if the Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t the most-watched team in hockey, all eyes would be on Auston Matthews these days.
When you’re scoring goals at a clip not seen since Mario Lemieux was dancing through blue lines in the mid-90s, you deserve all the attention you get. Matthews is having a sublime moment while entering each game basically at the peak of his powers as a 24-year-old firmly in the early prime of his career. Even the legion of Leaf haters have to be shaking their heads at what Matthews – two more goals on Saturday night to give him 58 on the season – is doing right now.
But, as this weekend highlighted, there are some other high-end players – all at different spots in their own careers – who deserve some shine, too.
Starting at the experienced end of the spectrum – it’s actually more like the legend-in-his-own-time end – Sidney Crosby scored an overtime winner on Sunday to give his Pittsburgh Penguins a much-needed 3-2 victory over the Nashville Predators .
It was classic best-fourth-liner-in-the-NHL Crosby, coming in hard on the forecheck and stripping the puck away from Mikael Granlund to start a play that ended with No. 87 re-directing home a nice feed from Rickard Rakell for his second tally of the day.
The extra-time goal gave Crosby an even 1,400 points in 1,100 career contests.
It’s easy to forget that, when he played his 1,000th game early last year, the Penguins had just undergone a management change and it didn’t feel completely insane to wonder about Crosby’s long-term future there given team’s flat playoff showings and apparent downward trajectory. Flash forward about 14 months and, while Pittsburgh needed Sunday’s win to snap a four-game losing skid, the Penguins are certainly a team to watch as we roll toward the playoffs.
Recall, Sid missed the first month or so of the season with a wrist ailment and a bout of COVID. It took him seven games to get his skates under him, but since Nov. 26, the 34-year-old (I know, I know) has 73 points in 54 outings, more than everyone in the league save Matthews, Jonathan Huberdeau and Johnny Gaudreau. You’ll also be shocked to learn the Penguins’ two highest goal-scoring wingers are Crosby’s linemates, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust.
At this point, hockey fans basically have a 20-year history with Crosby. We certainly don’t go back that far with Kirill Kaprizov, but I think it’s safe – in the follow up to his rookie-of-the-year performance last year – to declare the 24-year-old one of the very brightest stars in the game.
Kaprizov scored in both games he played on the weekend, giving him goals in three straight contests, 10 in his past 10 and 42 on the year. He’s on pace for 49 this season and if he gets there, he’ll have the third-best single-campaign goal total for a fifth-round pick in NHL history, trailing only the 76- and 55-goal years put up by his countryman, Alex Mogilny. Since March 16, Kaprizov has 12 tallies, just one fewer than Matthews.
If Kaprizov can already be minted with certified stud status, Robert Thomas may not be there quite yet – give it about two more weeks, though. The 2017 first-rounder was always highly touted and things have come to a boil in the second half of what is proving out to be a serious breakout campaign in Year 4.
It was Thomas who ruined Friday night for Kaprizov and the Wild with a wicked one-timer of an OT winner. Twenty-four hours later, the center was picking up three more points in a 6-1 smashing of the New York Islanders to make it a five-point weekend for the 22-year-old who has also found the net in three straight and has 23 points in 13 games since March 10.
Matthews is the man, no doubt. These three men, though, have scored their way into any conversation you want to have right now about the most dangerous players on skates.
• Just a quick note to acknowledge that, while he was held off the scoresheet in two weekend contests, you can’t talk about crooked numbers these days without mentioning Nashville’s Roman Josi. Since March 2,
the highly skilled center DEFENCEMAN (!) Is tied for the league scoring lead with Matthews at 34 points. C’mon!
• It’s going to be fascinating to see if the Kings can get this surprise season over the finish line. Kaprizov and the Wild downed Los Angeles 6-3 on Sunday to hand the Kings their third straight L. Los Angeles has five regulation-time wins in its past 21 games and is playing without Drew Doughty for the second extended stretch of the season.
The Kings are clinging to third place in the Pacific, but Vegas is coming hard. One potential positive: seven of their eight remaining games are against teams already out of the playoff chase or ones who figure to be by the time the Kings see them.
• Darcy Kuemper was brought in last summer to help Colorado get over the playoff hump and the goalie made more saves (49) in a single game than he’s made all year during Saturday’s 2-1 shootout victory over the Edmonton Oilers. First, off – good as they are – the Avs might want to think about cutting back on the shots against.
Since early March, Colorado is allowing 35.9 shots per game, more than everybody except basement-dwellers Montreal, Arizona and Detroit. That said, Kuemper has been increasingly sharp as the year has gone on: he’s turned in a .954 save percentage in his past nine games and his .942 mark since Jan. 20 is the top in the league. Prior to that date, Kuemper had put up a .908 while adjusting to life in the “Mile High City.” We know nothing matters until the second season for Colorado, but it’s nice to head into the playoffs with the guy in the crease cruising.
Weekend Warrior (s)
Congrats to another Denver squad, the Denver Pioneers, on their Frozen Four win. Things did not look good for the Pioneers after 40 minutes of the final against Minnesota State, as Denver trailed 1-0 and put just eight shots total on Hobey Baker winner Dryden McKay. But DU dug deep in the final frame and wound up winning 5-1 thanks to a couple empty-netters to close it out.
Red and White Power Rankings
1. Toronto Maple Leafs (47-19-6) If Matthews can pot his third straight two-goal game on Tuesday, he’ll become the first guy with 60 in a season since Steven Stamkos did it 10 years ago. Are you betting against him?
2. Calgary Flames (44-19-9) Michael Stone – who’s watched a lot a hockey this season as a squeezed-out depth guy – scored for the second time in three outings on Saturday, popping a power-play marker as the Flames closed out a California-plus-Seattle roadie 4-0-0 thanks to a 4-1 win over the Kraken.
3. Edmonton Oilers (42-25-6) Saturday was a streak-snapping night for the Oilers, as the club’s nine-game home winning run came to an end in the very competitive loss to Colorado. Connor McDavid was also held off the scoresheet for the first time in 16 games.
4. Winnipeg Jets (33-28-11) Nikolaj Ehlers – three goals in two weekend games – is basically scoring at a 40-goal pace, while Kyle Connor is almost netting them at a 50-goal clip, yet the Jets are likely going to miss the post-season.
5. Vancouver Canucks (35-28-10) Alex Chiasson scored the game-winner on Saturday during the 4-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks and, it goes without saying, they’re all must-haves for Vancouver now. Chiasson has five points in his past two outings.
6. Ottawa Senators (26-39-6) Though it came in a losing cause to Winnipeg on Sunday, the 2-1-3 showing for Brady Tkachuk continues a nice stretch for him; the captain has 12 points in his past nine games.
7. Montreal Canadiens (20-41-11) Since Feb. 10, Cole Caufield – who scored again on Saturday night – leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (30).
The Week Ahead
• It could be a big week for debuts. Carey Price may play his first game since last year’s Stanley Cup final very soon, while 2021 first-overall pick Owen Power will draw into the Buffalo Sabers’ lineup for his first NHL game on Tuesday in Toronto.
• The Rangers and Hurricanes are slugging it out for top spot in the Metro; they’ll meet Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden with Chris Kreider – after bagging a pair versus Ottawa on Saturday – sitting one goal shy of 50 and five back of Jaromir Jagr’s single-season franchise record of 54.