5 players who could have a huge impact on the NHL’s second quarter

Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno thinks he has enough room to tuck in a goal but Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price gets his pad there just in time to make a great save.

The first quarter of the NHL season is in the books and we’re past the American Thanksgiving bookmark which for years has been an important playoff-related date on the NHL calendar, though some believe that doesn’t hold water any more in 2017-18.

On we venture into the second quarter of the NHL season, which will take us in towards the all-star break and to a point in the season where the playoff picture becomes crisper and end-of-year individual award contenders set themselves apart. Today, we look at a list of players who either didn’t perform up to their standards, or were injured in the first quarter, who could follow it up with a more impactful second quarter to helps their teams.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

There are a lot of players in the NHL who would be happy with 13 points in 19 games and being in the top 65 in NHL scoring. But when we’re talking about Crosby in that light, the discussion is all about how much he’s struggling, or if there’s anything wrong with him.

The Pens as a team have generally struggled to score at even strength this season, where they rank 27th league-wide. They’ve heavily relied on their No. 2-ranked power play (26.3 per cent) and the fact they’ve snuck in four short-handed goals.

Crosby is already starting to turn a corner production-wise with nine points in his past four games, but six of those came on the man advantage. Look at Crosby’s career and you’ll see a player who, more often than not, scores at least twice as many even-strength goals than he does power-play goals by the end of the season. Right now, his count is four at even strength and six with the advantage.

So as No. 87, now 20th in league scoring, heats up for the Penguins we can see there is still room for improvement at 5-on-5 and an historical precedent to believe in that turnaround. And how can you bet against him?

When his production at evens gets going, it could be a catalyst to propel all of the Penguins’ 5-on-5 offence in gear. Crosby is 71st in the NHL with just 12 even-strength points so far — he was fourth with 64 points last season and second with 61 points in 2015-16 at even strength. In fact, every year in which Crosby has been healthy in his career, he’s finished as a top 10 scorer at 5-on-5.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

The best story of the first quarter is the expansion Golden Knights, who have shocked just about everybody as they sit first in the Pacific Division with a 15-6-1 record — that’s certainly been helped by a 9-1-0 performance at home.

The most incredible part of this story, though, has been that they’ve accomplished this without their “face of the franchise” and No. 1 goaltender.

The Golden Knights have used five goaltenders this season, four of which have earned wins, and Maxime Lagace has been the de facto No. 1 with an .870 save percentage, .500 record and 12 games played. With a roster put together through the expansion draft, you can look at this situation and say instantly that it’s unsustainable over the long term.

The wild card, though, is Fleury.

The former Penguin has been on the long-term injury reserve since Oct. 15 after he sustained a concussion on a play in which Fleury’s head was struck by Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha’s knee. Up until then, Fleury was 3-1 with a .925 save percentage and appeared comfortable as a clear-cut NHL No. 1 again.

If he can return in the coming days or weeks, the impact Fleury could potentially have on Vegas’ fortunes is massive. Stable, consistent and above-league-average goaltending would go a long way towards keeping Vegas in the race, and even separating them from most teams in a wide-open Pacific Division that lacks a powerhouse.

Andrej Sekera, Edmonton Oilers

The 31-year-old defenceman hasn’t played a game for the Oilers yet this season as he’s recovered from a torn ACL sustained in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. And Edmonton has really missed his presence, especially as Oscar Klefbom struggles to play up to the standard he set last season in a career year.

Sekera has been travelling with the team to get practice time in, but he’s not expected to return until some time in December. Well, we’re almost in December.

He was second to Klefbom in TOI and points last season and led the Oilers defence in even-strength scoring in 2016-17. Now, Edmonton is struggling to get secondary scoring up front, and Kris Russell is the scoring leader on the blue line, so Sekera will be a huge addition when he returns — and if his presence gives Klefbom a boost, all the better.

Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks

For the past four weeks on Hockey Central Saturday, we’ve been waiting to mention that Pavelski scored the 300th goal of his career — but four weeks in a row, it hasn’t happened.

In talking about Crosby earlier in this piece, we mentioned the Penguins’ struggles to score at 5-on-5, but the Sharks are the worst at it in the league. Their 24th-ranked power play has helped them up a bit to where they have the 28th-best overall offence in the NHL (2.59 GPG), but San Jose is fourth in the Pacific and hanging around a playoff spot because of its goaltending, plain and simple.

Pavelski, a four-time 30-goal scorer, has just four this season and hasn’t netted one since Nov. 1. He’s not the only one struggling in San Jose’s offence: Brent Burns has one goal on the season, Joe Thornton is on pace for another 50-point season, and youngsters Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier aren’t taking any steps forward. The team is certainly missing Patrick Marleau right now and can’t afford to keep going on with their top scoring forward from a year ago struggling this much.

If the 33-year-old American finds his touch and becomes the reliable 70-point scorer he’s been the past few seasons, the boost it would give the Sharks in front of their impeccable goaltending would be monumental.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

We know Price was not good at all before an injury kept him out kept him out for three weeks in December, but if the Habs get the good Price back it could launch them back into playoff contention.

With an .883 save percentage in October, Price was the worst performing goalie in the league so a bounce back of some sort can be expected for one of the top goalies in the NHL. And the early signs are positive that he is back, after Price shut out the Sabres, and limited the Blue Jackets to one goal in back-to-back starts post-injury.

As Price goes, so go the Habs. The defence is slower and thinner than it has ever been and the scoring has been inconsistent and certainly can’t be counted on as a driver of the team’s destiny. This group is built with the assumption that Price will be playing a difference-making role, and anything short of that will leave the Habs failing to live up to expectations.

As of Nov. 28, the Canadiens are just two points back of Detroit for third in the Atlantic and a playoff spot in the East. So as poor as their start has been, the hole isn’t all that big. And with a healthy Price at his best, the Habs are by no means out of it.

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