January 3, 2016

by Ian Gooding on January 3, 2016

Crosby and Letang finally coming through, what to think of Virtanen, plus more from Saturday night…

Jack Eichel was at it again on Saturday. Eichel scored two goals in the Sabres’ 4-3 loss to Detroit on Saturday afternoon. A short time ago we mentioned that the rookie of the year might not be named Eichel or Connor McDavid. It still might not be. But Eichel has moved back into the race with points in six of his last seven games and 11 points (4g-7a) over that span.

A question that has been discussed before on this site is whether Eichel is worth owning in standard single-season leagues. I think we can start putting that debate to bed, as Eichel is now on pace for around 50 points and could easily top that.

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If you’re a Jordan Eberle owner, pickings have been slimmer than normal. So Eberle’s two goals against Arizona on Saturday were a welcome sight for his owners. Over his last four games Eberle has five points, and he has also reached 20 minutes of icetime in each of his last three games.

In this week’s Looking Ahead, Mike Schmidt lists reasons that you should sit Eberle at the moment. But he also points out that Eberle’s PDO is still very low, the team’s shooting percentage has been lower than what it normally is when he’s on the ice, and the Oilers have a fairly easy schedule coming up. These all look like signs that a turnaround is near. Eberle might not be on the Oilers’ de facto number one line, but Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is still a pretty decent center. Buy low if you can (I snagged him off the waiver wire in one league). Eberle should be in for a much better second half.

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Jonathan Quick and the Kings are on quite a run. I’ll gloat a little bit because I told everyone to start Quick in my Sportsnet article. Maybe he’s a no-brainer to you, but with Saturday’s win Quick has won five games in a row, including four wins this week. You couldn’t ask for anything more from your goalie. Since the end of November, Quick is 12-2-0, while the Kings are running away with the Pacific Division after a slow start.

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In the Blues/Leafs game, a goalie that you shouldn’t start at the moment (Jonathan Bernier) won over a goalie that you usually should start (Jake Allen). Someone out there might have been desperate for goaltending and could only find Bernier, yet managed to strike gold.

Bernier has cobbled together two quality starts in a row, stopping 39 shots in each while allowing only three combined goals. His goals-against average still sits north of 3, and the Leafs still give up 30 shots per game, so I’m still kind of leery. But he has wins in five of his last seven starts and could make the Toronto goaltending situation interesting once James Reimer returns to health.

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I had to check to make sure Zach Parise is a Band-Aid Boy. Ah, he’s a trainee right now. Why do I think Parise should be a Band-Aid Boy? He has missed at least eight games over each of the past three seasons due to injury. I’m not sure if that meets the official criteria, but I’m putting in my vote.

Parise returned to the lineup after a one-game absence, which had me worried that he suffered a setback in the injured knee that caused him to miss most of November. He scored a goal in his return, but the goal was later disallowed due to a goalie interference challenge.

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On to the World Juniors for a moment. Jake Virtanen received a sizable portion of the blame for Canada’s tournament-ending loss to Finland, and rightfully so. The wheels came off for Canada after his two consecutive minor penalties took Canada off the power play in the third period. When combined with Joe Hicketts’ puck-over-glass penalty, Canada’s fate was sealed.

The knee-jerk reaction for the Canucks would be to assume Virtanen is not ready for the NHL and send him back to the WHL. However, the Canucks were bringing Virtanen along slowly prior to the World Juniors, and they would probably continue to do so, using the World Junior experience as a teachable moment for in-game self-management. Virtanen brings an energetic physical quality, which can be both a player’s greatest weakness and greatest strength.

Before assuming that Virtanen is too undisciplined for the NHL game, remember that he is only 19 years old. Steve mentioned awhile back about selling high on players who grab the spotlight during the World Juniors. What about doing the opposite and using this opportunity to buy low on Virtanen? Goal-scoring power forwards are valuable in league formats that count penalty minutes or hits.

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Back to the NHL, where the Florida Panthers have now won eight games in a row. I caught a bit of this game on the Florida feed, where their announcers seemed absolutely giddy about it all. The Panthers are the top cats in the Atlantic Division, coach Gerard Gallant has been signed to an extension, Aleksander Barkov is working on one, and Jaromir Jagr is one of the all-star captains. Even Kevin Spacey is in on the action, commenting on a sweatshirt with his face that the Panthers hand out to their player of the game (more on these types of awards later). Good times.

And hello, old friend Roberto Luongo. There probably aren’t many complaints about his contract in the Miami area at the moment. Lu is on a personal seven-game winning streak while currently holding a better goals-against average (2.09) and save percentage (.929) than he ever held in any one season with the Canucks (although it’s close). I know, scoring is down yet again in the NHL, but is Lu not deserving of some Vezina Trophy votes if it took place right now?

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Mike Cammalleri missed Saturday’s game against Dallas with an upper-body injury. So here’s how the Devils’ lines looked, if you happen to own any Devils.

26.07%  EV           PALMIERI,KYLE – TLUSTY,JIRI – ZAJAC,TRAVIS

16.59%  EV           HENRIQUE,ADAM – KENNEDY,TYLER – STEMPNIAK,LEE

13.27%  EV           FARNHAM,BOBBY – GIONTA,STEPHEN – TOOTOO,JORDIN

12.32%  EV           KALININ,SERGEY – MATTEAU,STEFAN – SISLO,MIKE

Just in case you’re wondering if Jiri Tlusty is getting a fair shake with the Devils, he appeared on the top line in this game. However, he was held without a point in just under 16 minutes of icetime. With a meager four points in 27 games, I wouldn’t even recommend him as a speculative short-term add if Cammy misses more time.

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So are the Pittsburgh Penguins we have been waiting for finally here? Sidney Crosby scored two goals on seven shots on goal in a 5-2 win over the Islanders, the second 5-2 win for the Pens in three days. Your patience with Crosby is finally being rewarded, as he has scored five goals in his past five games and goals in each of his past three games.

Kris Letang is having a week. The Tanger posted his second consecutive three-point game, adding three assists on Saturday. When his head isn’t being targeted and when he’s not sidelined with something, Letang can be pretty good for fantasy teams. Letang didn’t play scared in this game either, issuing seven hits. Keep him rolling until the next injury.

And yes, Marc-Andre Fleury returned on Saturday, stopping 38 of 40 shots he faced. So Matt Murray is back to the AHL.

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Some teams hand out a special hat or shirt or belt or other award for their team’s hero of the game. Since John Tortorella took over as Blue Jackets’ coach, should that award be a shin guard in honor of his love of shot blocking?

If there actually were such an award, it would have gone to Jack Johnson on Saturday. Johnson not only led the Jackets with six blocked shots, but he also filled the stat sheet with two goals, one assist, and five shots on goal in nearly 27 minutes of icetime.

Honorable mention to Anton Forsberg, who entered the game in overtime and earned the win. He was the first NHL goalie to record his first NHL win in a game he entered after regulation.

Speaking of icetime-eating Blue Jackets defensemen, prior Geek of the Week David Savard returned from injury, recording an assist in 22 minutes of icetime.

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All that I’ll say about this John Scott business is that his vote-in as all-star captain is a reflection of how seriously fans take the All-Star Game. So who will be voted in next season, someone’s pet rock? It’s time to either remove fan balloting (or at least write-in votes), or get rid of the All-Star Game completely (which won’t happen because the corporate sponsors won’t be happy). This sort of nonsense does nothing to sell the game.

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Even though it was an empty-net goal, Nikolaj Ehlers bumped the slump on Saturday. The goal was his first point in 12 games and first goal in 14 games. He is still a must-own in keeper leagues, but it’s just not happening for him this season.

One young Jet who is ready is Connor Hellebuyck. After a few speed bumps in mid-December, Hellebuyck has wins in three of his last four games. And my keeper league rules finally allow me to activate him next week. Yay!

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Jarome Iginla couldn’t score goal number 600 against his longtime former team on Saturday. That’s because Karri Ramo stopped all 26 shots he faced in a 4-0 shutout. Ramo started his ninth consecutive game, making me think that Jonas Hiller is the goalie that will be shopped aggressively before the deadline. Hiller is a UFA this summer and could be a nice backup for a team with the cap space to carry his $4.5 million hit.

Enjoy your Sunday! Follow me on Twitter @Ian_Gooding