Alex Pietrangelo evolving into a top pairing defenseman

Tonight’s game between the St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes may not mean much for the Blues. Most fans in St. Louis kissed the playoffs goodbye a week or two ago as they currently sit in 13th place with 73 points. In the short-term, these games may not mean much—but in the long-term, these are the games where the franchise will build its new foundation. The well-publicized trade between the Avalanche and Blues signified a change in direction for the organization when they sent former #1 overall pick Erik Johnson to the Rockies. In a few years though, the biggest part of the trade may not be the players who were involved, but a player who was given the opportunity to blossom into a cornerstone defensemen in his own right: Alex Pietrangelo.

One of the main reasons the Blues were able to part with a player of Johnson’s potential and stature is because of the way they felt about Pietrangelo. Since drafting him with the fourth overall pick in 2008, he’s been groomed slowly in the OHL to make sure he was able to fully reach his potential once he became an everyday player in the NHL. He tore up the OHL with both Niagara and Barrie, he dominated the World Junior Championships last year, and finally was given the chance to permanently stick with St. Louis this season. Needless to say, he’s made the most of his opportunity.

This season he’s already collected 10 goals and 29 assists for 39 points in 69 games. To add to those boxcar numbers, he’s chipped in four goals on the power play and he’s notched an impressive +15 rating. He was playing well enough that as the deadline neared, the Blues felt comfortable enough to send both Eric Brewer and Erik Johnson packing—in essence handing the keys over to Pietrangelo.

Since the two trades in February, he’s been on the top defensive pairing with Carlo Colaiacovo. Only Eric Brewer (22:14) and Erik Johnson (22:07) were averaging more time than him before the moves. He was averaging 21:46 over the season, but his average ice-time has been bumped up to 24:15 since the trade. Over the course of the season, he’s been playing almost three minutes per game on the power play and two minutes on the penalty kill. Now, he’s seeing even more time on both the power play and the penalty kill; he’s posted 8 points (4 goals, 4 assists) in 15 games since the February 19th trade with a +1 rating against the oppositions’ best lines. He’d certainly be on the shortlist for the Calder Trophy if it weren’t for the obscure rules governing the rookie of the year.

He’s giving the Blues exactly what GM Doug Armstrong hoped he would:

“He’s played well enough now to be one of our primary, top-four (defensemen). He’s going to be a leader for us the rest of this year, and then it’s going to be a very important summer for him. It’s going to be very important for him to stay focused, but he seems to have the mindset and professionalism to not take a step back — and also take a step forward.”

 

The fact that Pietrangelo is thriving now that he’s been given a chance to shine shouldn’t surprise many hockey fans. In St. Louis, he’s been compared to Erik Johnson all season (and since the day he was drafted). But before he heard his name called by the Blues, he’s been compared to guys like Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers, and Zach Bogosian that were also selected in the 1st round in 2008. Not bad company to keep.

In addition to the Pietrangelo, the Blues have had one of the best prospect systems over the last five years. But for all the strength they have in their pipeline, their greatest asset has been the volume and quality of prospects they have on the backend. Ian Cole, Nikita Nikitin, Pietrangelo, and now the newly acquired Kevin Shattenkirk have the potential to be a great defensive core for years to come. They were able to parlay that organizational strength into a package that was able to fill a need today—and will fill the need for years to comewith Chris Stewart.

Blues’ president John Davidson’s comments were telling:

“When you get into that position, you go, ‘Is there somebody out there we can get and really enhance a different need on our club, knowing that we can get something without killing us back there? You look at needs, and we need a power forward and scoring. We’ll see where it goes. There are no guarantees.”

It’s interesting that he’d say they could trade a former #1 overall pick and it wouldn’t kill them back there. He was quick to point out that the trade was not an indictment on anyone, which leads us to believe they’re excited about the young players they have coming up on the blueline.

After the trade deadline, headlines will always explain how new players are playing a huge role for their new teams. But just as often, someone will need to step up and fill a void when a big name player is shipped out of town. It was the trust in Pietrangelo that allowed the Blues to make this kind of splash. Assuming he’s able to continue to develop into the player the organization projects him to be, Pietrangelo will reward St. Louis with the cornerstone defenseman they’ve wanted for the next decade.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

Getty
Leave a comment

Two games on Thursday

Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 3-1)

The Boston Bruins continue to show that they can survive – if not thrive – with key players out of the lineup. They don’t get much more “key” than Patrice Bergeron, who was unable to suit up for Game 4. Even so, Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and the Bruins connected on two 2-on-1 rushes to snag a 3-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs must grapple with a lot of uncomfortable questions as they see their season slip to the brink of elimination.

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

This game was all about patterns continuing, or breaking.

Continuing: The road team winning. The away team has won all four contests during this series, so this one returns to Washington with the two teams now tied up 2-2. It’s also another instance of Alex Ovechkin being sneaky-clutch, although many people will disagree because of team results. Washington’s starting to pull away in terms of puck possession during the series, and that continued on Thursday, too.

Breaking: For the first time in the series, the game ended in regulation. It wasn’t all that close, either, as the Caps won 4-1 and were safe even considering one empty-netter.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – There will be talk of Bergeron, Auston Matthews not being able to score, Mike Babcock’s decisions, and other factors from Game 4. Rask helped to push those discussions to the forefront – rather than talk about which team has the edge if they ended up tied – as he was sharp on Thursday. Rask stopped 31 out of 32 shots, factoring heavily in Boston building a 3-1 series lead against Toronto.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – After scoring two goals in Game 1, Kuznetsov had been held silent by the Bruins in Games 2 and 3. The Russian center made up for lost time in Game 4, scoring an empty-netter and two assists in that 4-1 win. Both of his assists were primary helpers, while he checked many other boxes by winning more than half of his draws (10 of 18), generating a +3 rating, and firing four shots on goal.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – Ovechkin fired a shot on Sergei Bobrovsky, which created a rebound opportunity for T.J. Oshie during a Washington power play, a goal that ended up being the game-winner. Ovechkin also scored from the right face-off circle for an important insurance goal. Ovechkin fired five SOG and was a +1 in Game 4.

Factoids

There’s plenty of focus on Bergeron being out and Marchand scoring/agitating, but don’t forget about David Pastrnak‘s brilliance.

Again, Alex Ovechkin is more clutch than people realize. By scoring the 49th playoff goal of his career, Ovechkin tied Henri Richard for 60th in NHL history. You may remember Henri as a) Maurice Richard’s brother and b) the guy who won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

Friday’s games

Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network
Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

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.

Capitals tie series with Blue Jackets

2 Comments

In Game 4, the Washington Capitals showed their heart by not working overtime.

The Capitals dropped both of their home games to start their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, opening the floodgates for people to dust off their favorite, cruel jokes about this team. They’ll return home with those one-liners drying up, though.

After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Capitals flipped the script to tie it up 2-2 after beating the Blue Jackets both times in Columbus. The symmetry wasn’t complete, however; while Washington continued the series trend of overtime nail-biters by winning beyond regulation in Game 3, they made no mistake about winning Game 4 by a score of 4-1.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This wasn’t a case where the Bruins got the bounces and the finishes to win. The Capitals have shown signs of dominance even in defeats during this series, but they really smothered the Blue Jackets in Game 4.

The Capitals generated a 33-24 shots on goal edge, won about two-thirds of the faceoffs, and generally carried the play by every metric.

Tom Wilson making it 1-0 was valuable, and jokes about blown 2-0 leads aside, T.J. Oshie‘s eventual game-winner was important during the second period. Alex Ovechkin‘s goal from his opposite office widened the gap too much for an overmatched Blue Jackets team, even with Boone Jenner scoring and giving Columbus a brief boost.

With a goal and an assist in Game 4, this is yet another reminder that Ovechkin is a playoff performer, even if his team isn’t always there with him. After Washington went down 2-0 against Columbus, Ovechkin said “it’s going to be fun when we bounce back and tie the series,” and that’s exactly the situation Washington is in after … whatever the opposite of “holding serve” is.

Of course, people will quickly forget this triumph-within-the-series if the Capitals ultimately bow out of the first round, anyway.

The Caps must feel really good about their collective play as they aim to become the first team to win at home in this series in Game 5. Their power play has been productive, playing tight defense, getting scoring from Ovechkin/others, and Braden Holtby looks poised in regaining his usual spot in net. It’s the sort of stretch that changes the Capitals’ narrative from “here we go again” to “could this be the year we finally make a run?”

With this series now essentially becoming a best two-out-of-three clash, the disposition could easily go from sunny back to gloomy, but give this beleaguered group credit for keeping cool heads and making this anyone’s game once again.

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.

Bruins push Leafs to brink

8 Comments

The Boston Bruins found themselves on the wrong end of plenty of stats in Game 4, but even with Patrice Bergeron on the shelf, they won 3-1 to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination.

Boston took a 3-1 series lead with tonight’s win despite Toronto generating a 32-21 shots on goal advantage, hogging the puck, and holding home-ice advantage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Goaltending was one big area of advantage for the Bruins. Tuukka Rask was forced to make some tough saves as Mitch Marner and other Leafs players created plenty of chances. One cannot help but wonder if fatigue is a bit of a factor for workhorse Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, as he’d likely love to have this Torey Krug goal back:

That early 1-0 lead provided a cushion for the Bruins to adjust to life without Bergeron (again), although Tomas Plekanec did tie things up. Ultimately, the Bruins were able to cash in on two 2-on-1 rushes, with Brad Marchand burying a tremendous setup by David Pastrnak for the game-winner and Jake DeBrusk finding the net after a great feed by David Krejci (who has absorbed some criticism for his play lately).

The two goals were remarkably similar in exhibiting the Bruins’ smarts and finish, along with the Maple Leafs lacking in a few areas on defense, as Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were exposed (among others). Here’s that Marchang GWG:

Game 5 shifts back to Boston on Saturday. You can watch that game on CNBC, with puck drop slated for 8 p.m. ET.

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.

Bruins without Bergeron vs. Leafs in Game 4

1 Comment

The Boston Bruins rolled through much of the regular season despite injuries, even to key players like Patrice Bergeron. The fact that they’re unfortunately experienced playing without Bergeron is probably the only silver lining regarding his late scratch heading into Game 4.

The Bruins announced that Bergeron is day-to-day with what they’re deeming an upper-body injury, so Riley Nash slips into Bergeron’s spot between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This stands as an obvious opportunity for Auston Matthews to roam more freely against the Bruins and a chance for the Maple Leafs to tie this series in front of their home fans.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty makes a good point that Bergeron missing Game 4 is especially troubling since the Bruins played Game 3 on Monday, gaining an extra off day between contests.

Bergeron generated five assists through the first three games of this series, including four helpers in Game 2. He was limited to 64 regular-season games in 2017-18, falling just short of a point-per-game with 63. Naturally, his all-around game goes beyond goals and assists, so this hurts badly for the Bruins, whether they had some experience playing without him or not.

As of this writing, the two teams are tied up 1-1. Click here for the livestream link.

This news comes not that long after news surfaced that Bergeron’s once again been named a finalist for the Selke.

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.