2010-11 NHL season preview: Phoenix Coyotes

tippettwithtrophy.jpgLast season: (50-25-7, 107 points, 2nd in Pacific Division, 4th in Western Conference) Only the most optimistic, pie-in-the-sky Coyotes fans expected the team to be so successful last season. Amid ownership squabbles and the hasty addition of new coach Dave Tippett, the Coyotes nearly took the Pacific Division before pushing the Detroit Red Wings to a Game 7 in a captivating (if sloppy) first-round series. It will be a difficult season to top, that’s for sure.

Head coach: Tippett earned the Jack Adams Award as the top NHL coach for good reason. He took an unshaped mass of a team left behind by befuddled coach Wayne Gretzky and made a playoff team out of them. He doesn’t have the most-talented team in front of him, but if anyone can get an encore performance out of this group, it’s Tippett. I just wish he would grow his mustache back.

Key departures: F Matthew Lombardi, D Zbynek Michalek, D Mathieu Schneider, F Robert Lang, D Jim Vandermeer. Michalek is the biggest loss since he logged big defensive minutes last season, but he received a pretty staggering deal from Pittsburgh. Lombardi’s speed and skill will be missed. Schneider, Lang and Vandermeer were somewhat marginal veterans by the end of last year.

Key arrivals: F Ray Whitney, F Eric Belanger. Whitney might be an underrated pickup. The Coyotes need a pure point producer, and when he’s healthy, Whitney is just that. Belanger might be bitter toward the Capitals, but he’s a solid two-way center who should fit in well with Phoenix.

Thumbnail image for bryzgalovandtheyotes.jpgUnder pressure: Ilya Bryzgalov had a near-Vezina-worthy campaign last season and the Coyotes will need that kind of season from him again to maintain their momentum. The wacky Russian goalie has the added pressure/incentive of being in a contract year.

Protecting the house: Bryzgalov was one of the best goalies in the NHL last season — and like I wrote before — he’ll need to be great again next year. My instinct is to say that Jason Larbarbera is an exceedingly mediocre goalie, but he put up great numbers last season. In 17 games, Labarbera boasted a 2.13 GAA and a .928 save percentage. It seems like both goalies are going to struggle to match last season’s work.

The Coyotes will miss Michalek dearly, as their next best defensemen are Keith Yandle, Adrian Aucoin and Ed Jovanovski. You have to wonder if they’ll regress a bit, but perhaps Tippett’s system will help to mask some of those blemishes.

Top line we’d like to see: Whitney-Wojtek Wolski-Shane Doan. The Coyotes aren’t loaded with flashy talent, but this trio would put up some nice offensive numbers. Lee Stempniak is another player who could be in consideration for such a top line.

Oh captain, my captain: After years of being the only good player on an abysmal team, Doan is now the heart-and-soul captain of a group that gets it done by committee. He didn’t score very often in the series against the Red Wings, but his physical play helped the Coyotes make life very difficult for Detroit.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for paulbiznastyfalling.jpgStreet fighting man: Their fighter is the man who goes by Paul Biznasty 2point0 on Twitter, otherwise known as Paul Bissonnette. He hates PT cruisers, speaks his mind and punches people for a living. Hard to argue with a guy like that.

Best-case scenario: Instead of struggling to match last year’s output, the Coyotes show that last season was just a transitional phase since Tippett received a full training camp to work with this summer. Bryzgalov tops last year with a Vezina-winning season, while Stempniak and Wolski prove that their trade deadline hot streaks were just a sign that they needed a change of scenery. The Coyotes win a slightly weakened Pacific Division and get to the Western Conference finals.

Worst-case scenario: Much like the Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues last season, the Coyotes fail to match their Cinderella season. Bryzgalov comes back to earth, the Coyotes’ offense cannot produce by committee and their defense misses Michalek badly. The Coyotes finish last in the Pacific division and (ugh) leave town with their tails between their legs.

Keeping it real: The Coyotes are a well-coached team with a quirky but talented goalie that should stay with most teams. They made solid, subtle moves all summer long but lack much in the way of scoring punch. Nothing will come easily for the Coyotes, but I think Tippett will help them take third place in the Pacific and a low seed (probably 8th place) in the West to squeak into the playoffs.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Coyotes deserve a 3. Scrappy teams with good goalies and even better coaching can go a long way. They have great leadership, plenty of two-way players and a lot of mojo. Still, as that Red Wings series showed, they struggle against more talented teams and are a long shot to actually win it all.

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    Andersen, Maple Leafs shut down Bruins to force Game 7

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    The formula for the Toronto Maple Leafs in their first-round series against the Boston Bruins has been a simple one: When Frederik Andersen is great, they win. When he is not, they get blown out.

    In the past two games, both with the Maple Leafs facing elimination, they have been fortunate enough to get the “great” Andersen. His 32-save effort in Toronto’s 3-1 Game 6 win on Monday night is a big reason this series is now headed for a winner-take-all Game 7 in Boston on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

    The Maple Leafs have leaned on Andersen a ton all season, not only giving him a massive workload that saw him have to play in 66 games (second most in the league, just one shy of the NHL lead), but also forcing him to face the most shots of any goaltender in the NHL.

    Nearly 200 more than the next closest goalie, to be exact. That reliance has continued in this series.

    He may not have finished the season with the best numbers in the league, but there is a lot to be said for a goalie that can play that many games, face that many shots, and give his team above average goaltending the way Andersen did.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    The combination of a young, offensive-minded team with a suspect defense that bleeds shots against the way the Maple Leafs do can put a ton of pressure on the goalie. If that goalie is not on his game, things can get ugly in a hurry, just as they did early in the series when Andersen struggled and Toronto was absolutely crushed on the scoreboard and looked to be on their way to a rather quiet and unimpressive postseason exit.

    But in the three Maple Leafs wins, Andersen has been a difference maker, especially over the past two where he has stopped 74 of the 78 shots he has faced to help keep their season going.

    It is not as if the Bruins haven’t had chances in those games, because they have. Andersen has simply been up to the task.

    It would be hard to argue that the Maple Leafs have been the better team at any point in this series because the Bruins have looked downright dominant at times. But in a short series there are a lot of variables that can completely turn things upside down. Goaltending is always at the top of that list.

    Over the past two games the Maple Leafs have been getting it.

    But it was not just the goaltending on Monday that helped give Toronto another game. They also received big contributions from two of their young stars as William Nylander and Mitch Marner scored goals, with Marner’s goal — his second of the series — going in the books as the game-winner.

    Veteran center Tomas Plekanec, a trade deadline acquisition that has at times struggled mightily since coming over from Montreal, also looks to have some new life as this series has progressed and helped put the game away with his second goal of the series late in the third period.

    Then there was the penalty kill. With just under seven minutes to play in regulation, the Maple Leafs clinging to a one-goal lead, Marner was sent off for delay of game for shooting the puck over the glass in the defensive zone. The ensuing penalty kill was clinical by Toronto as they completely shut down the Bruins’ power play and nearly scored a shorthanded goal when Kasperi Kapanen broke in alone on Tuukka Rask, only to have Rask just get enough of his shot to send it wide.

    Now it all comes down to one game on Wednesday night.

    The big question for the Maple Leafs will be the same one that has existed this entire series: Which Frederik Andersen is going to show up? If it is the one they had over the past two games, they might actually pull off this comeback and move on to the second round for the first time since 2003. If it is the one that showed up in the three losses, it might be another ugly result if the Bruins keep generating shots and chances the way they have in the first six games.

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    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    WATCH LIVE: Bruins, Capitals look to advance to Round 2

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    Game 6: Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (Bruins lead series 3-2)
    NBCSN
    Call: Mike Emrick, Pierre McGuire, Eddie Olczyk
    Series preview
    Stream

    Game 6: Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET (Capitals lead series 3-2)
    CNBC
    Call: John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk, Joe Micheletti
    Series preview
    Stream

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    Holtby has been lights out for Capitals

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    Heading into this season, Braden Holtby‘s calling card was consistency. Maybe he didn’t churn out the absolute best campaign every time, but in winning at least 41 games and generating at least a .923 save percentage from 2014-15 to 2016-17, Holtby put in elite work like clockwork for the Washington Capitals.

    The 2017-18 season, meanwhile, has been more like a roller coaster ride.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division once again, but sometimes that success came despite Holtby. He managed 34 wins, yet Holtby struggled with a backup-level .907 save percentage, confessing to fatigue when things really slipped.

    Things hit their lowest point toward the end of 2017-18, as impressive backup Philipp Grubauer outright won the Capitals’ starting job, suiting up as the top goalie for Washington’s first two playoff games against Columbus. Of course, both of those games ended in losses, and ultimately opened the door for Holtby to redeem himself.

    So far, Holtby’s done more than that. Rather than merely grabbing the starting job, the 28-year-old is looking a lot like the elite goalie we’ve almost come to expect in a time when goalie output can be downright erratic.

    Holtby stepped in for Grubauer in Game 2, giving up a goal on eight shots as the Blue Jackets won 5-4 in overtime. Things have picked up since Holtby was in net from the start, which really makes sense since the Capitals netminder is known for his focus.

    The Capitals won three straight games to take their current 3-2 series lead, and Holtby’s been outstanding, holding up to the pressure of having little room for error. Two of the past three wins have been in overtime, while only one of Holtby’s appearances didn’t involve a game going beyond regulation (five of the series’ six games hit OT overall).

    So far through four games and three starts, Holtby’s stopped 102 out of 109 shots for a splendid save percentage of .936.

    Maybe the standout moments came during the third period of Game 5. While a deft Oliver Bjorkstrand deflection eluded Holtby early on in the third, Holtby was the reason Washington was able to survive into overtime, as the Blue Jackets generated an absurd 16-1 shots on goal advantage during that span.

    It’s easy to consider the Capitals’ history of playoff disappointments and assume that Holtby’s failed to convert regular season brilliance to strong postseason goaltending, yet Holtby’s long been a dependable presence when the games matter the most.

    Despite a 32-31 career playoff record, Holtby’s given the Capitals a chance to win on most nights, sporting a fantastic .932 save percentage so far during his playoff career. That’s the best mark for goalies who’ve played in at least 30 postseason games since 2011-12, and the gap widens when you zoom out to netminders who’ve played in at least 50 during that same span.

    Playing at such a high level clearly takes its toll, and you wonder if recent setbacks might serve as a blessing in disguise for Holtby.

    Most directly, he got a breather down the stretch, which is significant considering the workload he’s carried the past few seasons.

    Beyond that, watching playoff games from the bench had to light a fire under him, possibly reminding him of the earlier days of his career when little was certain. After all, Holtby had to earn his spot as a fourth-round pick (93rd overall in 2008).

    Goalies might be creatures of habit who prefer getting the most reps and knowing when their starts are coming, but perhaps it’s human nature to fall into a routine and not be at your very best, particularly when you’re serving as a workhorse goalie.

    Whatever the case may be, Holtby’s playing some of his best hockey, and that’s making the Capitals a tough team to beat. If the Blue Jackets want to avoid elimination tonight, they’ll need to get the best of Holtby. That appears to be a far tougher task in April than it seemed to be mere months ago.

    Game 6 airs on CNBC at 7:30 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

    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.

    Pittsburgh funeral home celebrates Flyers’ playoff exit with custom prayer cards

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    Any time one of the Battle of Pennsylvania participants can get one up on the other, they celebrate having bragging rights loudly and proudly.

    The Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday in six games in their first-round matchup and as you can imagine, the Steel City faithful have been enjoying it. On top of winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, they’ve also been able to relish winning three of the last four series that these teams have played.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    Adding to the chorus of chirps is the Patrick T. Lanigan Funeral Home and Crematory in East Pittsburgh, who said goodbye to the dearly departed Flyers in their own unique way with prayer cards.

    Via Facebook:

    Patrick T. Lanigan Funeral Home & Crematory

    “Help us send our condolences to the Philadelphia Flyers and their fans, with these custom prayer cards memorializing their run in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Share for all of our friends in Philly!” read the caption of their Facebook post.

    The Flyers have lost six times in the Stanley Cup Final since winning back-to-back titles in 1974 and 1975. The Penguins, meanwhile, have won five championships in six Final appearances since 1991, something that’s certainly never been lost on the city in their battles with Philadelphia over the years.

    Now Flyers fans can root for their second favorite hockey team: “Anyone playing the Penguins.”

    Stick-tap Benstonium

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    Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.