Let it begin: 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs get under way tonight with five games

It’s time.

The playoffs begin tonight and to make sure that your excitement levels are at their absolute highest, five series drop the puck tonight with Game 1 of the first round.

Versus will have up to three games to bring you on the air tonight starting off with Detroit-Phoenix from Joe Louis Arena in Detroit before joining the Capitals and Rangers in progress upon its completion. Then late tonight it’s Chicago and Vancouver from Rogers Arena in Vancouver to cap off the night at 10 p.m. ET. Here’s the rundown of tonight’s action. All times are Eastern.

Tampa Bay @ Pittsburgh – 7 p.m.

No Sidney Crosby in the lineup as expected as he continues his rehab, but Pittsburgh kicks off the playoffs with their own most important player in goal in Marc-Andre Fleury. Can the Penguins and coach Dan Bylsma win the chess match against Tampa Bay and coach Guy Boucher in what they hope turns into a low scoring affair? The Pens will need wingers James Neal and Alex Kovalev to step up their games and help Jordan Staal from having to carry the full load.

Tampa Bay will look to their stars to step up in a big way, in particular Steve Stamkos whose torrid goal pace early in the season slowed down dramatically as the year rolled along. Now would be a great time to snap out of it. The real question for Tampa Bay is which version of Dwayne Roloson do they get? Do they get the guy who inspired the Lightning’s surge and stabilized them in goal or the guy who’s prone to fits of poor play. The Penguins surely won’t make it easy on him.

Phoenix @ Detroit – 7 p.m. (Versus)

One of the playoffs more intriguing match-ups is a rematch of last year’s first round. Detroit goes into Game 1 without Henrik Zetterberg out with a knee injury and without Mike Modano who is a healthy scratch. They’ll likely get Niklas Kronwall back in on defense and they’ll need that physicality against the Coyotes. Goals should be at a premium for Detroit with Ilya Bryzgalov in goal for Phoenix but they’ll be down a defenseman as Derek Morris is out with an upper body injury. Either David Schlemko or Oliver Ekman-Larsson will take his spot.

If there’s a game Phoenix would want to seize control of it’s this one. The Wings are more susceptible without Zetterberg and depending on how much longer he’s out, the Coyotes would be wise to win the games he’s not playing in because Detroit is that much better with him.

NY Rangers @ Washington – 7:30 p.m.  (Versus – Joined in progress)

The Capitals will be hoping to put the memories of last year’s first round failure fully behind them now and doing that against a Rangers team that has no quit in them and an all-world goalie to back them up will make that task difficult. The Caps dedication to defense should at least look nice against the Rangers as New York has a hard enough time scoring goals as it is. Alexander Ovechkin will get to bring his high scoring playoff tendencies to the forefront tonight all while Michal Neuvirth gets the call in goal for Game 1. The Rangers will be bringing some magic of their own starting Mats Zuccarello over Sean Avery as well as Matt Gilroy over Steve Eminger. Opting for offensive ability over defensive toughness and annoyance? We’ll see how long that lasts in this series.

Chicago @ Vancouver – 10 p.m. (Versus)

A series that starts off and makes it well worth the time to stay up late and check it out as there’s enough intrigue here to put a novelist to shame. Vancouver is the top team in the playoffs while Chicago took the back door into the postseason. Add that to Chicago having owned Vancouver the last two years in the playoffs and the pressure being immense on Roberto Luongo and the rest of the Canucks to win it all and it’s almost too much to handle.

Almost.

How the Canucks handle things tonight and whether or not they allow Chicago to dictate the pace and their presence on the ice will be watched closely. There’s no reason for Vancouver to be timid in this game and while they’ll have to handle those first ten minutes while Chicago looks to start twisting the psychological knife early the Canucks will have to hold strong if they want to prove us right and win the Stanley Cup this year.

Nashville @ Anaheim – 10:30 p.m.

We like this series to be the nastiest one of the first round and with the kind of snarl both teams play with it’s not a surprise. While the Ducks have the advantage in the offensive department with Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne doing their thing, the Predators have a distinct advantage in goal with Pekka Rinne going up against (most likely) Dan Ellis. The underrated feature of this series is the comparison of top defensemen. Anaheim rolls with offensive studs like Cam Fowler and Lubomir Visnovsky while Nashville has crushers like Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. For a series that’s not getting a lot of attention, there’s more than enough star power here to keep your eyes locked on to it. Look for both teams to come out explosive tonight in Anaheim.

No suspensions, just fines for Dustin Brown, Evgeni Malkin

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At least one things seems consistent when it comes to the NHL’s fines and suspensions: Dustin Brown sure has a knack for avoiding supplemental discipline.

The hard-hitting Los Angeles Kings forward agitates and frustrates, and sometimes he hurts with polarizing hits. Yet, even with a resume full of debatable checks, Brown only has one suspension to his name.

Many expected that toll to rise to two today after an ugly looking cross-check on Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz, but that was not the case. Instead, the Department of Player Safety is only giving Brown a $10K fine.

Evgeni Malkin was also fined $5K for spearing Brown (video isn’t available at the moment, but many claim that Malkin speared Brown in the groin).

The Penguins ended up winning last night 3-1, adding to their recent upswing and extending the Kings’ losing streak to five games.

You can see the Brown incident, which drew a match penalty, in the video above this post’s headline. Brown explained his side of the story, as you can see in this post, and maybe that hearing ended up going in his favor?

“I’m going to close on him. He stumbles, toe picks. I don’t drive him into the wall or anything,” Brown said afterward via LA Kings Insider. “Also, closing on the play, at the most it’s probably a two, I think. I mean, who knows because of the protocol and all that, but it’s one of those plays where I’m going to close and he’s in an unfortunate spot.”

The bright side is that Schultz at least seems OK.

Even so, plenty of people are upset with this drawing a mere fine instead of forcing Brown to miss time, particularly in the backdrop of Andrew Cogliano seeing his ironman streak end thanks to a two-game suspension.

This isn’t just a matter of Penguins fans griping, either, as Brown tends to draw wider ire from observers in moments like these.

The Department of Player Safety is no stranger to handing out head-scratching rulings, but we’re no longer in the Brendan Shanahan days in which there would be more widespread explanations for decisions. The league seems responsive when it comes to complaints about spin-o-ramas and lengthy offside reviews, but when it comes to suspensions and fines, it seems like fans and media are still on for an uphill battle.

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.

Ryan Ellis hasn’t missed a beat for Predators

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For much of this season, people have been wondering how much higher the Nashville Predators’ ceiling might be with a healthy Ryan Ellis. Of course, we’ve seen plenty of instances in which a player comes back, but isn’t quite himself for a while, especially when a knee injury is involved.

It’s early, yet through six games, it looks like Ryan Ellis is … indeed, Ryan Ellis.

Last night’s 3-2 shootout win against the Coyotes was maybe the strongest statement so far in that regard, as Ellis scored a goal and an assist, bumping his season totals up to four points in six games.

In the process, he’s impressed his teammates and coaches, as Brooks Bratten of the team website reports.

That said, the best is yet to come, if you as head coach Peter Laviolette.

“He’s catching a moving train,” Laviolette said. “I’m sure he’d tell you he feels good. Every time we talk to him he says he feels good, but I think his game will continue to get better as he plays more and gets more ice time.”

You can see that Laviolette’s confidence is increasing in Ellis being Ellis by checking his game log. In his first three games back from injury, Ellis received 18:43 or less in time on ice. In the past three games, he’s received at least 21 minutes of ice time, with last night’s 22:33 representing a season high.

So far, Ellis’ possession stats are where you’d like to see them, another heartening sign that he can help Nashville much like he did before: on both ends of the ice.

There’s still an element of being eased into the mix, mind you. Through his first six games, Ellis began 61.6 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, a huge bump from last season’s 47.7 percent and his career average of 52.1 (via Hockey Reference).

It should be fascinating to see how Ellis’ deployment tracks through this season. If Laviolette feels like he needs to be sheltered a bit all throughout 2017-18, it might not be such a bad thing, as P.K. Subban is putting up Norris-worthy all-around numbers, Mattias Ekholm is trusty in his own zone, and Roman Josi might benefit from an offensive-minded deployment himself.

Few teams enjoy the sort of luxuries the Predators enjoy on defense, at least when Ellis is available.

Even with their top line of Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, and Filip Forsberg all somewhere between banged-up and actually injured, the Predators are currently on a four-game winning streak and play five of their next six games in Nashville.

Things are looking up for this Predators team, as they’re in a strong position to take the Central Division, and just seem to get stronger as each month goes along.

If Ryan Ellis being Ryan Ellis is legit instead of being a mirage, then the rest of the NHL better beware.

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.

Nugent-Hopkins’ injury: blessing in disguise for Oilers

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In the short term, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins being sidelined for five-to-six weeks with cracked ribs is awful news for the Edmonton Oilers, especially since the initial outlook was more positive.

Let’s be honest, though: only the most delusional Oilers observers really give them much of hope of salvaging the 2017-18 season. They’re basically in “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” territory by just about every measure.

So, allow me to be optimistic about the bigger picture while burying the current: RNH’s injury could be a blessing in disguise, at least if the Oilers receive the bat signal about their lost season.

This would be how it could be beneficial.

The Oilers probably won’t be able to bungle an RNH trade

Look, it’s plausible that Nugent-Hopkins could be part of a trade that helps the Oilers at some point. They can’t totally disregard that notion, not when they’ve made some cap mistakes and the solid center carries a $6 million cap hit.

That said, does anyone trust GM Peter Chiarelli with an RNH trade at this point? (We might need to hide your car keys if you do.)

It almost feels like every day or so is another slap in the face for Chiarelli, as Mathew Barzal tears it up for the Islanders and Taylor Hall is enjoying an All-Star season for the Devils. RNH being out might just save the Oilers from themselves, especially if Edmonton sees front office changes this summer. Might as well hit the “pause” button on trading actual core pieces after losing that game over and over, right?

Inflate Ryan Strome?

OK, this category might give the Oilers too much credit, but maybe they’d consider it.

It seems like Ryan Strome might be the beneficiary of RNH’s lost opportunities, particularly on the power play. As a pending RFA, there’s concern that this might actually hurt Edmonton.

What if the Oilers do a “pump and dump” with Strome, instead, driving up his value and then trading him to a contender? If Strome went on a hot streak, maybe a team would want him as a rental considering his cheap $2.5 million cap hit would be even cheaper at the deadline (he’s already down to about $1M according to Cap Friendly).

Get the memo: you’re a seller

Maybe RNH’s injury stands as that final push for the Oilers to sell at the trade deadline.

Chiarelli’s track record of player for player trades is … not great. That said, he’s done OK with smaller deals, buying low on the likes of Cam Talbot.

The Strome example might be too outside of the box, but moving an affordable, productive player like Patrick Maroon is very conceivable. Mark Letestu is another expiring contract that might bring at least moderate interest from around the NHL.

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As bad as things are for the Oilers, they don’t necessarily need to panic and blow everything up. If this eliminates the chance of RNH being moved, it might not be such a bad thing, as the franchise might as well get its ducks in a row before they make that decision.

In the meantime, they can undergo less of a rebuild and more of a spring cleaning.

With the right moves on the peripheral, they might just be glad that RNH is still around. By not dodging an injury, the Oilers may have just dodged another bullet.

After all, they keep shooting themselves in the foot.

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.

Kings’ Dustin Brown earns hearing for boarding Justin Schultz (Video)

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Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings will speak with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety on Friday following his game misconduct for boarding Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz.

The hit occurred midway through the third period of the Penguins’ 3-1 win Thursday night. Brown was handed a major for boarding and ejected from the game.

“I’m going to close on him. He stumbles, toe picks. I don’t drive him into the wall or anything,” Brown said afterward via LA Kings Insider. “Also, closing on the play, at the most it’s probably a two, I think. I mean, who knows because of the protocol and all that, but it’s one of those plays where I’m going to close and he’s in an unfortunate spot.”

Schultz did not return to the game but head coach Mike Sullivan said he was in the locker room afterward and it seemed like he was going to be fine.

Brown sees Schultz is on his knees by the boards and it isn’t like the Kings forward’s momentum takes him into the Penguins defender. He gets his hands raised as he cross-checks Schultz into the boards. As Jim Fox said during the broadcast, the DoPS wants players to avoid or minimize contact along the boards. This hit was completely avoidable.

“I fell, I’m facing the wall and then all of a sudden my face gets driven into the dasher there,” Schultz said via the Post-Gazette. “I don’t know why. There was plenty of time to not do that.”

The NHL has suspended Brown only once in his career, so he’s not considered a repeat offender here. Still, he’s going to be sitting for at least one game, possibly two, beginning Friday night in Anaheim.

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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.