Western Conference playoff field all set – Familiar faces get reacquainted

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After the Wild disposed of the Dallas Stars and put the Chicago Blackhawks into the playoffs as the eighth and final seed, it set the table for the Western Conference playoffs to have a familiar feel to it all. While there’s some new flavor in some of the pairings, there’s a couple match-ups that will look really familiar to fans from last year.

1. Vancouver Canucks vs. 8. Chicago Blackhawks

For the third straight season these two teams will meet in the playoffs. This time it’s in the first round and this time it comes with Vancouver in a much more dominant position. They’re the Presidents’ Trophy winners, they’ve been killing it all season long and now they have destiny set things up nicely for them so they can exorcise the demons of playoffs past right off the bat. Should Vancouver get over this psychological mountain in the form of a Blackhawks team living like they’ve been granted a new life, they’ll be very dangerous to deal with throughout the playoffs.

Chicago will instead hope to get in the Canucks heads like they have in the past and pull off a tremendous upset in their effort to retain the Stanley Cup. For Vancouver, this series has a Ric Flair feel about it: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

2. San Jose Sharks vs. 7. Los Angeles Kings

An all-California playoff series is something we’ve been rooting for to happen for all season long and with all three California teams in the playoffs, things broke down perfect to get these two to face off against each other. The Sharks have the “playoff choker” thing still following them around but that doesn’t apply to this team. Antti Niemi has been lights out, they’ve got a host of new blood in the form of Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski to go along with the quietly monstrous year from Patrick Marleau as well as his running crew of Joe Thornton, Devin Setoguchi, and Dany Heatley. The Sharks are firing on all cylinders now and very dangerous.

Los Angeles meanwhile is hurting without Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. Their offense isn’t as lethal as it once was without them and it’ll be up to Ryan Smyth and Dustin Brown to score goals while Jon Quick will need to be lights out to keep the Kings involved. One thing they’ll really need is for Drew Doughty to once again look like the Norris Trophy finalist he was last year. He’s been off a bit and they could really use big production at both ends of the ice from him.

3. Detroit Red Wings vs. 6. Phoenix Coyotes

They meet yet again. Last year it was Detroit ending Phoenix’s dream season in Game 7 in the desert during the first round of the playoffs. These two teams are more than familiar with each other and they’ll get to dance once again, this time with Detroit having home ice advantage. Detroit’s been a bit erratic to close out the year and they’ll start their series without Henrik Zetterberg. They’ll have a fully healthy defensive corps with Niklas Kronwall returning but they’ll need to be tough offensively to deal with the tough Coyotes defense.

Phoenix has been similarly hot and cold going into the end of the season and matching up against a skilled veteran squad like Detroit means they’ll have to be especially sharp. It’s a dangerous draw for both teams as they each have parts of their game that the opponent can struggle with. Phoenix’s physicality can give Detroit fits and the Wings’ savvy in big moments frustrates the Coyotes. If Shane Doan can break out his “DoanFace” a couple more times, the Coyotes might be able to finally make the second round.

4. Anaheim Ducks vs. 5. Nashville Predators

What a brawl this one should be. Both teams play overtly physical hockey. Anaheim comes in with offense to burn with Rocket Richard trophy winner Corey Perry and old man dominator Teemu Selanne scoring tons of goals. Not to mention Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan along with defensemen Cam Fowler and Lubomir Visnovsky, these Ducks aren’t like the Ducks from 2007 that won the Cup and would mug your grandmother to do it. The Predators are going to have to add that kind of snarl to the series if they’re going to win their first playoff series in franchise history.

Goaltender Pekka Rinne will need to be the best player for Nashville while they try to generate offense from Mike Fisher, Patric Hornqvist, and Steve Sullivan. The Preds have been here before and at some point they’re going to get through. Whether or not captain Shea Weber can rally his team to do it this time against a Ducks squad that’s been uber-dangerous the last two months should make for some great drama and even better hockey.

The Buzzer: Bolts send Devils packing, Caps jump ahead, Leafs extend series

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Three games on Saturday

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, New Jersey Devils 1 (Lightning win series 4-1)

The Devils were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season, but their 2017-18 campaign officially came to an end on Saturday. They’ll be disappointed, but this season was a success for the group. As for the Bolts, they’ve punched their ticket to the second round after a terrific regular season. The Lightning received point-per-game production from Nikita Kucherov (1o points), Steven Stamkos (6 points) and Alex Killorn (5 points), but they also had 14 different players pick up a point during the series.

 Washington Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT) (Capitals lead series 3-2)

Four of the five games in the series have gone to overtime. Game 5 was a typical back and forth affair, as the Jackets scored first before the Capitals went up 2-1. Columbus tied the game, Washington went ahead, again, 3-2, but a dominant third period led to the Blue Jackets forcing overtime. Nicklas Backstrom tipped-home the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Capitals the first home win of the series. This has clearly been the best first-round series of the playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 3 (Bruins lead series 3-2)

The Maple Leafs jumped out to 2-0 and 4-1 leads, but the Bruins managed to make things interesting in the third period. Boston had a number of power play opportunities, but they couldn’t cash in. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they’ll have to go back on the road to try to put the Leafs to bed. The Leafs managed to keep Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand off the scoresheet on Saturday. Replicating that two more times won’t be easy.

Three Stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

Backstrom scored two goals, including the overtime winner against the Blue Jackets in Game 5. He also added an assist on T.J. Oshie‘s go-ahead goal late in the second frame. The win gave the Caps a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. The 30-year-old has two goals and eight points in five games this postseason.

2. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

The Capitals had a one-goal lead heading into the third frame, but they were badly outplayed in the third period. Holtby is the biggest reason why Washington was able to make it to overtime at all. The Blue Jackets outshot the Capitals 16-1 in the third frame. Holtby had a rough season, but his play in Game 5 was very encouraging.

3. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs had to kill a number of penalties during their Game 5 win over the Bruins, and Andersen was one of the key reasons they were able to do so. The Leafs netminder faced at least 40 shots for the third time in five games (he’s 2-1 in those contests). If Toronto wants to force a seventh game, they’ll need him to turn in another fantastic performance on Monday night.

Factoid of the Night

Sunday’s Schedule

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 3:00 p.m. ET

Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche, 7:00 p.m. ET

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.

Leafs chase Rask, hold on to win Game 5

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The Toronto Maple Leafs came into Saturday’s game facing elimination, but they managed to force a sixth game, thanks to a 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins.

The Maple Leafs built up a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission with goals from Connor Brown and Andreas Johnsson. They would increase it to a 4-1 lead in the second period. That’s when the Bruins pulled Tuukka Rask in favor of backup Anton Khudobin.

After the goalie swap, Sean Kuraly managed to cut the deficit to 4-2 before the end of the frame.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Toronto did their best to blow their lead, as they took penalty after penalty in the second half of the game. The Leafs took the final four penalties, but the Bruins failed to convert on their opportunities on the man-advantage. They even gave the Bruins a 5-on-3 power play for over 1:30 before Kuraly scored moments later.

Goalie Frederik Andersen turned aside 42 of 45 shots. This was the third time in five games that he faced at least 40 shots in this series.

The Leafs will now return home for Game 6 on Monday night. They’ll need to perform more like they did in the first half of Saturday’s game if they want to force Game 7 in Boston.

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.

Backstrom provides OT winner as Capitals take 3-2 series lead

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The Washington Capitals are on the verge of the second round.

Yes, the Capitals, who began the series with back-to-back losses in Game 1 and 2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, are now on the brink of eliminating Ohio’s team after Nicklas Backstrom‘s deft deflection in overtime gave the Capitals their third straight win and a 3-2 series lead.

It was the fourth time in the series both clubs played to a tie in regulation. After Columbus won the first two in OT, Washington replied with a win in double-overtime in Game 3 before Backstrom ended Game 5 at the 11:53 mark of the first frame of free hockey.

Backstrom scored his first goal of the series to open the scoring for the Caps and assisted for the sixth time in the series on the go-ahead goal in the second period before Oliver Bjorkstrand tied it in third.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Braden Holtby had to be sharp, especially in the third period as, inexplicably, the Caps were outshot 16-1. At home. Holtby made 40 saves when it was all said and done.

Two-hundred feet away, Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task, making some silly stops including a big one on Alex Ovechkin earlier in overtime and a bigger one in regulation time off the same man’s stick.

Game 6 of this series is slated for Monday in Columbus, with a start time still to be determined.

In his post-game comments, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said, twice, that his team will be back in the capital for Game 7.

The promise has been made.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kucherov, Vasilevskiy shine as Lightning eliminate Devils in 5

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One’s up for the Hart as the NHL’s best player while the other is up for the Vezina as the league’s top goaltender. Both combined their talents to eliminate the New Jersey Devils with a 2-1 win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday.

Nikita Kucherov was once again on point for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Saturday’s matinee. Leading 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov scored a clutch goal — his fifth of the series — to put the Lightning from just inside the blue line to put the Bolts up two with seven minutes and change remaining.

It proved vital, Kucherov’s goal, as the Devils attempted a late comeback with Kyle Palmieri scored with three minutes remaining after Devils pulled Cory Schneider for the extra attacker 30 seconds earlier.

Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall in the final 180 seconds, stopping 26-of-27 to help usher the Lightning into the second round.

Tampa, the Atlantic Division winners in the regular season, will face the winner of the series between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, who play later on Saturday in Game 5. The Bruins lead the series 3-1.

Kucherov was as immense for the Lightning as he was oppressive for the Devils, adding five assists to bring his series total to 10 points. His usual scoring touch was supplemented by his play in the physical department, including this bone-crushing hit on New Jersey defenseman Sami Vatanen.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For the Devils, it was hard-fought series from a young team still trying to find its way in the playoffs.

The Devils abandoned goalie Keith Kinkaid after dropping the first two games. Cory Schneider, who hadn’t won a game in 2018 before Game 3, came in and provided the spark in goal, one that seemed to get the Devils going at the other end of the rink as well as they rolled to a 5-3 win.

But that well ran dry in Game 4 as the Devils produced just one goal in a 3-1 loss. Game 5 was much the same, production-wise, with the Devils only managing one goal.

Fellow Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall provided two goals and six points in the series after a 93-point regular season. Rookie Nico Hischier managed just a goal after scoring 20 in his rookie campaign.

For Vasilevskiy, after looking far more human in the second half of the season, finding his mojo again can only be mean bad things for future playoff opponents.

The young Russian finished with a .941 save percentage in the series.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck