Around the rink – March 5; Key battles in Philly, Boston, and Phoenix highlight busy day

All times Eastern

1:00 p.m.

Buffalo @ Philadelphia

Two teams in need of a win to get off the schneid and two teams with a long history of disliking each other immensely. I’m not sure it gets better than that for an afternoon game. Philly’s lost four of their last six and two in a row and their grip on the top spot in the East is slipping away. The Sabres are in the midst of a seven game road trip which they’re 1-0-1 on so far after beating the Rangers and losing in overtime to Carolina. Buffalo is three back of Carolina for the eighth spot in the East.

St. Louis @ NY Islanders

Two teams on the wrong side of the ledger when it comes to the playoffs. The Blues have all but slipped away completely out west while the Isles have never really been in it at all in the East. The Isles are playing better hockey of late though, something that should worry the Ben Bishop-led Blues. The Blues are losers of six of their last seven and three in a row and they’ve scored just two goals in their last three games. Not fun. The Isles are hoping to capitalize on their 4-1 win over Minnesota in their last game and get a winning streak going.

4:00 p.m.

Vancouver @ Los Angeles

Not a bad game for a matinée matchup out west. The West leading Canucks pay a visit to old friend Willie Mitchell and the Kings. L.A. are winners of four of their last five games and a win today gets them back up into a tie for fourth with Chicago. The Canucks have been kind of pedestrian lately alternating wins and losses since early February. Not going on the consistent tear they were on earlier in the season is proving to be a bit annoying for them and it’s allowed Detroit to creep up on them for the top spot in the West. If they want to get home ice throughout the playoffs, it wouldn’t hurt to snap out of it.

7:00 p.m.

Pittsburgh @ Boston

As happens all the time when these two get together, fans keep an eye on Matt Cooke but that shouldn’t even be a story in this one so much as it is Pittsburgh stumbling of late and the Bruins rolling looking to extend their winning streak to eight. During the Bruins’ run scoring on them has been very difficult. Unfortunately for the Pens scoring has been an issue for them of late too. Unlike their 2-1 OT loss to New Jersey last night, if the Penguins aren’t careful, Boston can blow them out.

Chicago @ Toronto

A few weeks ago, this would’ve been Kris Versteeg and Viktor Stalberg getting to play against each other and their former teams. Instead, only Stalberg will get a chance to stick it to the Maple Leafs as the red hot Blackhawks take on the shockingly improved Leafs. Chicago’s won seven in a row and they’ve done it by scoring heaps of goals. They’re averaging four goals per game during their win streak and Jonathan Toews has been lights out during that stretch scoring seven goals and adding five assists. That’s how you end up a captain. For Toronto, they’ll be hoping James Reimer can continue his outstanding play in goal to shut down the Hawks. Toronto is just four points behind Carolina for a playoff spot in the East.

Florida @ Atlanta

This is the game of sadness tonight. Florida’s mailed in their season already while Atlanta is in such a tailspin they’re now just one point ahead of the surging Devils for 11th place in the East. After so much hope early on for the Thrashers they’re buried in the East and essentially out of it unless they can start winning now and not stop the rest of the way. Beating a lowly Florida team would be a smart way to start that.

Montreal @ Tampa Bay

A huge game for both teams as Montreal looks to move up towards the fourth spot in the East as they’re five behind Pittsburgh for that. Tampa Bay is just one point ahead of Washington for the lead in the Southeast. For Lightning coach Guy Boucher it’s yet another great opportunity for him to show the Habs organization what they ended up losing out on. Tampa’s lost two in row, however, and their last four games have been decided by 2-1 scores (2-2-0). If you twisted our arm, we’d say we’ll see the same thing again tonight.

8:00 p.m.

Detroit @ Phoenix

Last year’s playoff rivals square off in Glendale and for Phoenix they need a win badly. The Coyotes have dropped five in a row and with a Wings team that’s playing some really good hockey of late, tonight figures to be a struggle again. The Wings are coming off a frustrating loss to Anaheim the other night in which they lost thanks to a Bobby Ryan penalty shot goal in overtime. If the Wings want to avoid frustration tonight, doing better than 1-9 on the power play the way they did against the Ducks would be a good way to do it.

10:00 p.m.

Edmonton @ Colorado

No Taylor Hall to dazzle us in this game as he’s done for the year with a high ankle sprain. So what is there to watch for in this battle between the two bottom teams in the West? Uh, well… How about Matt Duchene for Colorado and Jordan Eberle for Edmonton. These young centers are at least well worth watching to see what they’ll do next. If the game goes to a shootout then you’ll have Linus Omark to thrill you there. That’s about the best we can do for you to keep you interested in this one.

10:30 p.m.

Dallas @ San Jose

After a heartbreaking loss to the Ducks last night, the Stars are rewarded with facing off against the scorching hot Sharks. San Jose is hoping to extend their win streak to nine in a row while helping keep the Stars down just the same. How the Stars respond tonight will be important to see how they bounce back psychologically as well as physically. After all, playing on back-to-back nights hurts as it is but doing so after a gut-punch of a loss provides its own test. Meanwhile, the Sharks have opened up a six point lead in the Pacific Division.

PHT Morning Skate: McAvoy needs to step up; 2018 mock draft

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Keelan Moxley (the young girl that Brett Connolly had a hard time getting a puck to last week) finally got to meet the Capitals forward. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• Overtimes between the Capitals and Blue Jackets have made this series exciting, but it’s starting to take a toll on players and fans, too. (The Hockey Writers)

• Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy needs to find a way to be more involved in this first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. (WEEI)

• There’s a few reasons why the Winnipeg Jets managed to dispose of the Minnesota Wild in five games. Their play on home ice and Connor Hellebuyck are right at the top of the list. (NHL.com)

• Now that Tomas Hertl is completely healthy, the Sharks are expecting him to take his game up another notch. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Even though the second round is on the verge of beginning, the Vegas Golden Knights are as healthy as they’ve ever been. (SinBin.Vegas)

Andrei Vasilevskiy is a man of few words, but he made quite the statement in Tampa’s first-round series against the New Jersey Devils. (Tampa Bay Times)

• NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke discussed the challenges and next steps his group has to undertake in order to get a team running by 2020-21. (MyNorthWest.com)

• Finding a general manager might not be so easy for the Carolina Hurricanes, but Rod Bring’Amour is definitely willing to serve as a head coach. (Raleigh News & Observer)

• The St. Louis Blues invited their season ticket holders to paint the ice, so one fan took the opportunity to mock a controversial offside decision. (The Sports Daily)

• Blackhawks forward Anthony Duclair reached out to a youth hockey player in Nova Scotia that was the victim of a racial slur. (Chicago Sun-Times)

• The Sporting News came up with a first-round mock draft for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. There’s no surprise at no. 1, as Rasmus Dahlin is the pick, but things get interesting after that. (Sporting News)

• Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper has added the Golden Knights’ logo to the end of his bats. (Sports Logos)

• Ellen DeGeneres paid tribute to the victims of the tragedy in Humboldt at an event in Calgary last week. (CBC)

• Boston University head coach David Quinn will serve as the bench boss for Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championship next December. (College Hockey News)

• One year after leaving the NHL, Andrei Markov took home the KHL’s Gagarin Cup with AK Bars Kazan. (Associated Press)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Penguins, Predators advance; West second round set

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2017 Stanley Cup Finalists move on

Penguins 8, Flyers 5 (Penguins win series 4-2)

Despite Evgeni Malkin missing Game 6 and Sean Couturier playing through a torn MCL, these two teams still provided plenty of fireworks including big goal totals, some controversial/nasty moments, and ultimately the end of the series. Jake Guentzel ended up scoring four consecutive goals to erase the Flyers’ lead and then give the Penguins enough of a cushion to close things out.

After beating their in-state rivals, the Penguins await another familiar foe, whether that ends up being the Blue Jackets or the Capitals. The Penguins have to breathe a sigh of relief that they avoided a Game 7, as that was far from a foregone conclusion for much of Sunday (despite the odd final score).

See for yourself:

Predators 5, Avalanche 0 (Predators win series 4-2)

While there was plenty of drama before the Penguins advanced, the Predators turned Game 6 into a formality pretty early on. Former Penguins forward Nick Bonino scored a goal and two assists, Austin Watson continued his strong postseason, and some usual suspects (Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson) put the game out of reach. Pekka Rinne only needed to make 22 saves to earn a shutout.

Read more about Nashville’s Game 6 win here.

West second round is set:

Nashville Predators [Central first seed] vs. Winnipeg Jets [Central second]

Vegas Golden Knights [Pacific first seed] vs. San Jose Sharks [Pacific third]

PHT will provide schedule and TV information when it becomes available.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins – At one point, the Flyers were up 4-2 during the second period. Patric Hornqvist made it 4-3, then Guentzel went on a dizzying tear where he scored four unanswered goals. Guentzel also grabbed an assist on that Hornqvist goal, so the 23-year-old generated four goals and one assist to help Pittsburgh advance (and thus avoid a Game 7 against Philly). He was a +5 in Game 6, too.

Guentzel’s clutch credentials continue to climb; he now has 19 goals and 34 points in just 31 career playoff games. Wow.

2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers – You could make a very strong argument that Couturier deserves the first star, but the tie goes to the runner/guy whose team won. If the regular season didn’t serve as a convincing coronation for Couturier to go from a very good player to a bonafide star, then this postseason should remove any doubt.

Generating a hat trick and two assists with your team’s season on the line is already a ridiculous accomplishment. To do so with a torn-up knee is jaw-dropping. And, hey, Couturier drew penalties, and probably should have drawn another one on what ended up being Guentzel’s game-winner:

3. Nick Bonino, Nashville Predators – Sidney Crosby deserves an honorable mention, as both Crosby and Bonino generated one-goal, two-assist games in helping their teams advance to the second round.

Bonino collected assists on the first two goals for Nashville, then he found the net for his first goal of the night/second tally of the series. This marks the first three-point game of Bonino’s postseason career, which is really something considering how much success he enjoyed with Crosby, Guentzel, and the Penguins during his two Cup runs with Pittsburgh.

Factoids

Guentzel’s night was special in many ways. Here’s one historical angle:

The Predators aren’t the only team going for their first Stanley Cup. But you already knew the Golden Knights haven’t won one yet, of course:

Monday’s games

Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET (CNBC)

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.

Predators hammer Hammond, close out Avalanche

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Andrew Hammond hamburgled a Game 5 win for the Colorado Avalanche, but the Nashville Predators ended Colorado’s Cinderella season in rancid way by a score of 5-0 on Sunday.

The Presidents’ Trophy winners flexed their muscles in Game 6, and it must be a huge relief to avoid a Game 7. That’s especially true since the scary-good Winnipeg Jets await them in the second round as a rested bunch.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Early on in Game 6, a toss-up of a goalie interference call didn’t go Nashville’s way. That ended up being a mere footnote, however, as Mattias Ekholm made it 1-0 about 16 seconds later. Ekholm’s goal ended up standing as the game-winner, though the Predators eliminated any doubt about the outcome pretty quickly on Sunday.

After channeling the magic of his “Hamburglar” run with Ottawa in 2014-15 thanks to a 44-save performance in Game 5, Hammond suffered in Game 6. The journeyman goalie might lose some sleep over some of the Predators’ goals, including a deflating 3-0 tally by Filip Forsberg.

Credit the Avalanche for making the Predators sweat overall, even if Nashville made things look pretty easy in Game 6.

It would have been prettier for Nashville to dispatch Colorado casually via a sweep or a quick five-game series, but the Predators may get some value from being tested. They also won games in different ways:

  • Nashville advanced despite a disappointing showing from its second line, with Kyle Turris (just one assist in six games) and Kevin Fiala (one goal, one assist in series) being especially quiet. That’s mostly a bad thing, but it also shows that the team can withstand a cold spell from some notable players.
  • The Predators enjoyed some strong work from supporting cast members including Austin Watson and Colton Sissons. Both players generated at least a point-per-game against the Avs, with Watson contributing four goals (including a key tally in Game 6). Nick Bonino was also fantastic in support for Nashville, generating his first three-point playoff game with a goal and two assists. Depth is a calling card for the Predators, and that came through in the first round, although the specific supporting cast standouts might surprise some.
  • Pekka Rinne experienced ups and downs, yet he seems to be heating up lately.

While the Avalanche’s season ended with a whimper in Game 6, they gave the Predators a tougher fight than many expected. There’s a lot of room to improve, but this scrappy bunch has something to build on during the summer.

That said, the Predators showed their higher gear during the last two games in particular, and Hammond could only steal one game for the Avs.

This was a solid squabble to warm Nashville up for the postseason, but the Predators will need to play at a very high level if they want to cool the Jets. After holding off the underdog Avs, the Preds must steel themselves for a heavyweight bout against Winnipeg.

It should be fun … at least for those of us who get to watch. For those on the ice, the second round is expected to feel more like the main event.

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.

Flyers’ once-deadly power play wilted against Penguins

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No doubt about it, Flyers fans have a beef about the goal that really set the stage for the Penguins to put Game 6 – and the series – out of reach on Sunday.

Perhaps Sean Couturier would have received an embellishment infraction during the exchange, but either way, it sure seemed like Kris Letang took another penalty on Couturier just moments after leaving the penalty box for a different infraction. No call was made, and just moments later, Jake Guentzel scored to push the score to 6-4.

Things got weird after that as the Penguins eliminated the Flyers via an 8-5 score in Game 6, but plenty of Philly fans probably wonder “What if?” on that goal. Flyers players seem to agree that Letang deserved a penalty.

You can debate that call and different breaking points until you’re blue in the face, but the real “What if?” question might revolve around special teams. To be specific, the Flyers’ power play really let them down in that just-expired series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Flyers were held without a power-play goal in five of the six games during this series. The lone exception was Game 2, when the Flyers went 2-for-3 in a 5-1 win.

Philly went 2-for-21 overall during the series, generating a pitiful power-play percentage of 9.5. Only the Kings and Golden Knights were less productive with the man advantage, and that was during a skin-tight four-game sweep where goals were incredibly hard to come by (that series featured 10 goals total, three fewer than the Flyers and Penguins scored in Game 6 alone).

It’s especially remarkable that the Flyers also went 0-for-13 on the power play at home during this series. With their season on the line, that unit only managed two power-play shots on goal in three opportunities in Game 6, looking especially indecisive despite also receiving a 4-on-3 opportunity.

Now, heading into this series, the Penguins were expected to hold an advantage on special teams because of what could be a historically potent PP unit of their own. Still, it’s troubling that the Flyers rarely exploited what was a far from spectacular Penguins penalty kill. Pittsburgh’s PK unit was in the bottom third of the NHL percentage-wise since February, setting the stage for two strong power plays to trade blows. That didn’t happen as much as expected, with the Flyers’ failures ending up being fatal.

A question of personnel?

If you want to point to one factor, ponder Wayne Simmonds‘ lack of involvement.

The fantastic front-of-the-net presence implied that he might be undergoing surgery soon, which probably explains both his limited usage and limited production. Simmonds failed to score a single goal during this series, finishing with two assists in six games.

(Strangely, that matches his production from his last playoff appearance in 2015-16: zero goals, two assists in six games.)

Blame it on struggles or a lack of health, but either way, the Flyers were turning to different players when a man up.

It’s no surprise to see big PP TOI numbers for Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Shayne Gostisbehere. The notable swap is Nolan Patrick, who joins those Flyers in the four minutes per game range, while Simmonds was only logging about two minutes per night.

Patrick has come a long way as his rookie season goes along, yet Simmonds is one of the NHL’s true wizards in the dirty areas right in front of the net. Simmonds has generated at least 11 power-play goals for five straight seasons with the Flyers for a reason.

Would things have been different if Simmonds was truly healthy? It’s a fair question, but you also wonder if the Flyers didn’t make enough adjustments to get their once-potent power play back on track.

***

In looking back at this series, the Flyers will certainly want to solidify their goalie situation, a seemingly eternal conundrum for this franchise.

Sometimes it comes down to getting the right players and goalies in place, something that GM Ron Hextall must wrestle with during the summer. Still, there are also questions about putting the right players in the right situations, and in many cases that comes down to coaching.

Ultimately, a lukewarm power play hurt the Flyers’ chances of trading haymakers with the prolific Penguins. Maybe it’s a mere matter of small sample sizes, yet Philly’s failings in that area should at least prompt some soul-searching over the summer.

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.