Flyers looking for Meszaros to step up

There’s no doubt the Flyers will be looking to get back on track in New Jersey after last night’s lackluster failure against the Thrashers at Wells Fargo Center. They’ll look to get back on the winning side of things as they take on the rival Devils and try to eliminate them once and for all from postseason consideration. The game will be the Flyers’ 12th since Chris Pronger left the team with a hand injury—an injury which will keep him out of the lineup until the start of the playoffs. In his place, the entire defensive corps for Philadelphia has stepped up to pick up the slack. Andrej Meszaros has been asked by head coach Peter Laviolette to fill the void that was created when Pronger’s 22:29 of ice-time was sent to the press box. Kimmo Timonen has played the underrated effective game he’s played for the better part of a decade. Braydon Coburn has stepped up to play even more of a shutdown role and Matt Carle is proving he can play with just about anyone.

This isn’t the first time Pronger has missed time this season; and this isn’t first time the Flyers have thrived in his absence. Even before the news was announced that Chris Pronger would miss the rest of the regular season, CSN Philly’s Jim Jackson was already looking at the type of team the Flyers have been without Captain Hook.

“He has missed 25 games this season with three different injuries. The Flyers have more than held their own without him, going 14-6-5 in games he’s been out of the lineup. Still, though, his absence is felt, especially late in games, whether the Flyers are leading or trailing.”

More recently, Philadelphia is 6-2-3 since the latest Pronger injury that has cost the assistant captain 11 games. After feeling out his roster for the first two games after the injury, head coach Peter Laviolette handed Meszaros more responsibility. Whether it was because he trusted the Slovak or because he was looking for anything after blowing a 3-goal lead in the 3rd period against the Thrashers, Meszaros has grabbed onto the opportunity and made the most of it. In the 9 games since, he’s a +10 with five assists and is averaging 26:20 per game. In games against Dallas and Washington, he played at least 40 shifts in both games on his way to playing almost half of each. His new defensive partner Matt Carle is used to that kind of workload (by playing with Pronger), but Andrej Meszaros has taken the increased ice-time and proven to the coaching staff that he can be trusted with important minutes at critical points of the game. Sure, that helps now—but it’ll help even more if the Flyers are able to make a deep run into the playoffs like fans in Philadelphia expect.

To be honest, Meszaros has done a fantastic job in the limited role the Flyers have put him in for most of the season. The plus/minute will get people’s attention, but all season he’s just been a really good third pairing defenseman. He has 6 goals and 21 assists while playing just a hair under 21 minutes per game. Then again, “good third pairing defenseman” is usually a back-handed compliment; if he was that good, he wouldn’t be a bottom pairing guy. For those who thought he wasn’t getting the fair credit he deserved, this is the moment we’ll find out if they were onto something.

It’s not like we’re talking about an undrafted kid who is just now finally getting his shot to show what he’s worth. A quick history lesson: Meszaros is a former 1st round pick (23rd overall) of the Ottawa Senators. After the 2008 season, it was clear the young restricted free agent was going to get a serious raise—but not from the Sens. They dealt the promising blueliner to the Lightning; who promptly signed him to a 6-year, $24 million contract. It was validation, but also added a ton of expectations with his new team. After a pair of disappointing seasons in Tampa, the Lightning were more than willing to part with him (and his contract) in exchange for a 2nd round pick.

After last season, the Flyers were looking for a defensemen who could help alleviate the workload of their top 4 blueliners. There’s no question that Pronger, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, and Kimmo Timonen played well during Philadelphia’s Stanley Cup Finals run last season, but all four players ended up logging a ton of ice time. Unfortunately, the coaching staff had zero confidence in their 5th and 6th defenseman—and eventually it caught up with them. In the offseason, GM Mike Holmgren knew the biggest hole in his roster that prevented his team from winning the Cup was depth on the blueline. Between the trade for Meszaros and signing unrestricted free agent Sean O’Donnell to a one-year deal, Holmgren had put together a defensive corps that the team could depend on for both the regular season and the playoffs.

With the injuries the Flyers have encountered this season, the depth has been more important than they could have imagined. O’Donnell has played much more than Philadelphia probably wanted—and was exceeding all expectations before he sustained a knee injury last month. Combined with Meszaros, the pair of newcomers has given the Flyers the depth they so noticeably lacked last season in the playoffs. Assuming Pronger came get himself healthy for the first round, the team will only be that much stronger when the it needs the bottom-pairing guys to step up.

After all, they’ve proven all year they’re capable.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

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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

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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

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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

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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.