New system, same results? Caps new defense-first approach under scrutiny if they lose

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From the moment Bruce Boudreau took over the Capitals they were a team that exemplified the excitement that NHL hockey could be all about. They were free wheeling, run-and-gun hockey and with Alex Ovechkin leading the way and scoring upwards of 50 goals per season, that brand of hockey reinvigorated Washington, D.C. The Caps were winning games, winning big, and winning in a way that drove the fans wild.

After seasons of coming up short in the playoffs and fans eager for the team to go deep but the Caps seeming unable to get over the hump in the postseason playing firewagon hockey, coach Bruce Boudreau made a change this season to switch things up to a more defensively responsible approach. Now with the Caps down 2-0 heading into Tampa Bay for Game 3, some are wondering what good it was for the team to make a change up like that only to end up with the same results.

With Boudreau’s tactical abilities being put under the microscope with the team being in such a hole, John Keeley of On Frozen Blog points out the area of the Capitals’ game that’s their undoing so far in these playoffs.

Behind the bench, there is the obvious subplot related to Bruce Boudreau. All seemed reasonably well for Gabby a week ago, but when his club was gifted a lengthy break with which to rest and repair, they came out of it unable to meet the underdog’s challenge. That story is growing old here. Boudreau’s beaten an under-manned John Tortorella set of Ranger clubs twice in the postseason over the course of four springs . . . and no one else. Losing to the rookie, Guy Boucher? At some point (potentially soon) Capitals’ fans are going to ask: where is our Bylsma, our Tortorella, our Babcock, our . . . Boucher?

The team’s power play futility is a flashpoint in this discussion of tactical leadership. Its cumulative results last postseason and this are beyond nightmarish and nauseating: four for sixty. That’s four goals . . . in 60 opportunities. Tampa would bank in 9 or 10 off our dmen with 60 extra man opportunities. The power play personnel is a mish-mash of a mess, their attack ethos uncertain. Confusion and hesitancy reign supreme. The team had all of last week to work on it and get it fixed. Instead, it’s regressed. The head coach has to get it fixed, pronto. The Capitals will either achieve a competent power play this series or they will lose it. Tampa took out the Pens by achieving a glaring special teams discrepancy.

The Caps’ inability to generate anything on the power play isn’t on the same level of failure as the Bruins, but they’re setting the bar lower and lower with each game. These Caps could use a boost and a change in strategy on the man advantage. They could also stand to see some other players standing out and playing to their potential.

One such guy is Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom was a sensation last year, but with the Caps transition to more defensive hockey he’s looked lost this season and he’s disappeared completely in the playoffs. Through seven playoff games, Backstrom has zero goals and just two assists. It’s not that he’s been bad, he’s been non-existent and a non-threat both against the Rangers and more so against the Lightning.

The focus on offense is always going to be on Ovechkin regardless of what happens. He’s the captain and that’s all part of the territory, but he’s got to get help elsewhere on the ice. Mike Knuble’s rapid return to action was a boost but they need their top playmaking center to play to the best of his abilities and he’s not doing that. If the Caps don’t get it figured out tonight, they’re staring a summer of hard questions right in the face and there’s a lot of answers that won’t be readily available. After all, if they’re not winning it all when their offense is given free will to do as they please and they’re not winning when they’re buckling things down defensively as a playoff team is supposed to, then what’s next? Those answers could end up pretty grim.

The Buzzer: Rinne hits 300, glorious Gaudreau, Matthews scare

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Players of the Night:

Barzal scored a goal and two assists in this game, pushing him to 65 points in 62 games during this sensational rookie campaign. He’s been all-or-nothing lately, generating three points in two of five games and then zero in the three other contests.

Going to go out on a limb and say the Islanders will take it …

  • Johnny Gaudreau matched Barzal’s output on Thursday, collected a goal and two assists as well. Gaudreau moved to second in the NHL in points with 73, a distant-but-impressive second to Nikita Kucherov‘s 80 points. Gaudreau is on pace to clobber his previous career-high of 78 points, set in 2015-16. Kinda staggering to realize he’s just 24.

Gaudreau’s surely had a hand in Sean Monahan rapidly changing his descriptor from “boring” to “clutch.”

Pekka’s 300th

Sure, the Predators probably didn’t need a ton from him on Thursday, what with a 7-1 caging of the Sharks, but Pekka Rinne‘s great work – not to mention great season – includes another milestone in his 300th win. Apparently he’s the eighth European-born goalie to hit that mark.

Tough to blame Rinne for becoming emotional when you consider his path to the NHL. Nashville selected him in the eighth(!) round in 2004, making him the 258th overall pick that year and the last pick of that round.

(Remarkably, there were some very solid NHLers who went in the ninth round of that draft: Mark Streit, Daniel Winnik, and Jannik Hansen.)

Good and bad for Matthews

Auston Matthews helped the Toronto Maple Leafs grab an eventual shootout win against the Islanders, continuing a run of even-strength dominance that really cements his beyond-his-years play:

Unfortunately, late in regulation, Matthews was sandwiched by two Islanders players and did not return, with people wondering if he suffered a shoulder injury.

Highlights of the Night

Hey, the Oilers aren’t gearing up for a playoff run during this trade deadline, but at least Leon Draisaitl reminded people of his profound skills.

Twice. The first move is flashier, but the second likely makes defenders feel just as hopeless.

Speaking of large hockey humans doing preposterous things, I give you Victor Hedman and the Lightning:

Scores

Maple Leafs 4, Islanders 3 (SO)
Wild 4, Devils 2
Flyers 2, Blue Jackets 1
Canadiens 3, Rangers 1
Lightning 4, Senators 3
Sabres 3, Red Wings 2 (OT)
Panthers 3, Capitals 2
Predators 7, Sharks 1
Oilers 3, Avalanche 2 (OT)
Flames 5, Coyotes 2
Stars 2, Kings 0

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.

Rangers trade Michael Grabner to Devils

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The New York Rangers signaled that they’re still open for business – and aren’t taking injury chances – by making Ryan McDonagh, Michael Grabner, and Rick Nash healthy scratches in Thursday’s eventual loss to Montreal. It wasn’t long before they showed why.

The Rangers, daringly, traded with local rivals in the New Jersey Devils for the first time ever. Grabner serves as another significant forward the Devils have added via a trade.

The Trade: Devils acquire Michael Grabner from the Rangers; Rangers receive a second-round pick and prospect Igor (Yegor) Rykov.

Why the Devils made this trade: New Jersey is battling hard for playoff positioning, and things have been a little dicey lately, with two straight losses, even as Taylor Hall continues his red-hot scoring streak.

[Get up to date on a busy night on the ice for the Metro division]

Grabner gives the Devils more scoring punch, and considering his speed, he could really fit in well with the way New Jersey has been converting to the sort of attacking system that was once almost unthinkable.

Maybe New Jersey needs defense more, but is it that easy to come by? “Out-scoring your problems” is a fun strategy, either way. Grabner, 30, currently boasts a “Cy Young” stat line of 25-6 (25 goals, six assists) so far this season. Really, he might be the biggest winner of all; the pending unrestricted free agent could enjoy an even bigger raise from his bargain-basement $1.65 million cap hit if he powers the Devils during a playoff push.

Why the Rangers made this trade: Grabner’s contract expires after this season. Getting a second-round pick and a prospect is a nice return for a mid-level “rental.” The Rangers have made no mistake about being in liquidation mode, as Grabner continues the work they already began by moving Nick Holden. There could be quite a bit more coming for the Rangers.

It’s unclear if Rykov will be much more than a throw-in.

Some like the defenseman’s two-way game, and he’s maturing in the KHL. That said, the 20-year-old wasn’t drafted in 2015, while the Devils selected him in the fifth round (132nd overall) in 2016. All About the Jersey provided interesting instant feedback on Rykov when he was selected.

This is most likely about the second-rounder for the Rangers, although …

Who won the trade?

This is a straightforward deal. The Devils gamble a bit, but not enormously, to try to further their playoff push. There’s always the chance that Grabner would be a big hit in Newark and re-sign, but so far this sure looks like a short-term fix.

The Rangers get a fabulous return for what might just be a few months of Grabner’s services, which weren’t going to do them any good with their season going down the tubes. This could really get the ball rolling on a wave of moves, whether this franchise goes “full rebuild” or leans more toward a “reset.”

(Ah, sporting terminology …)

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.

Metro movement: Flyers gain on Capitals, Penguins

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Every now and then, it’s convenient to group the highly competitive Metropolitan Division’s games into a lightning round post. That was especially true here, but it seems reasonable enough tonight, too.

Let’s start at the bottom: the New York Rangers are just short of waving the white flag, as they lost to the Montreal Canadiens. The most relevant thing they did on Thursday was to make Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, and Michael Grabner healthy scratches, a nod to the trade deadline. They’re stuck at 59 points in 61 games.

[BREAKING: Rangers reportedly send Grabner to the Devils(!)]

Now let’s rattle off the relevant results, going from the first-ranked Capitals and stepping down the ladder.

Inactive on Thursday: Penguins (74 points in 61 games played), Hurricanes (64 points in 60 GP)

Capitals drop emotional loss to Panthers, and (barely) in regulation

It seemed like Washington would shake off Roberto Luongo‘s much-see speech and grab a win during an emotional night in Florida. They had a 2-1 lead fairly deep into Thursday’s game.

The Panthers wouldn’t be denied. They ended up tying the game with less than four minutes remaining, and then Vincent Trocheck won it with just 20 seconds left in regulation. Leaving this one empty-handed stings for the Caps, although in the grand scheme of things, it was nice for Florida to get to W.

[Luongo’s speech, Panthers’ emotional ceremony.]

Flyers virtually tie second-ranked Penguins, beat Blue Jackets in regulation.

On paper, this wasn’t a pretty 2-1 win for the Flyers. Prevailing in regulation against a divisional opponent, thus limiting at least one threat from chipping away at their buffer? Now, that’s beautiful for Philly.

If you want a summary of how rapidly fortunes can change in the NHL, consider this: the Flyers have a very real chance to win this division mere months after losing 10 games in a row. Sports, everyone.

Both teams only managed 20 shots on goal, making for a pretty friendly way for Petr Mrazek to make his Flyers debut. Claude Giroux (goal, assist) and Shayne Gostisbehere (two assists) really powered the victory, too, as they were involved in both goals.

The Flyers are showing that they can win a variety of games … and with a variety of goalies. They’re now on a four-game winning streak, and are even better when you zoom out, going 8-0-2 in their past 10 games.

Mrazek got the Ric Flair treatment:

The bright side for the Blue Jackets is that they’re currently in the final wild-card position, even with frustrations piling up. Still, this was an opportunity to create some distance from opponents that are breathing down their necks …

Islanders fall to Maple Leafs, but it was in a shootout

… as the Islanders grabbed a “charity point.”

While the Blue Jackets are at 65 standings points in 61 games played for that final wild-card spot (and fifth in the Metro), the Islanders are close by with 65 points in 62 GP.

It was a thriller in Toronto, and while Doug Weight’s bunch deserves some kudos for hanging in there, they did see 2-0 and 3-2 leads dissolve.

The brightest side is probably that they might be making modest gains on defense, as they’ve limited opponents to 32 and 31 shots on goal during the past two contests. That’s progress for a team that recently saw goalies make 45 and 50-save shutouts.

Taylor Hall remains hot, but not enough for a win (again)

The New Jersey Devils fired 40 shots on goal, and Taylor Hall kept his remarkable scoring streak going. (Officially, his 26th goal of 2017-18 pushed him to 13 games, while others believe it’s 20 in a row.)

You’d think that would be a winning combination, but not exactly the quietly climbing Minnesota Wild, who ended up winning 4-2.

Still, that Hall kid is going to be OK, eh?

***

So, here is how the Metro looks after all of that action.

Capitals: 75 points in 61 games played (31 ROW)
Penguins: 74 points in 61 GP (33 ROW)
Flyers: 74 points in 61 GP (31 ROW)
Devils: 70 points in 61 GP (27 ROW)
Islanders: 65 points in 62 GP (26 ROW)
Hurricanes: 64 points in 60 GP (24 ROW)
Rangers, if you must: 59 points in 61 GP (24 ROW)

The Penguins also have 35 vanilla wins, while the Flyers are at 32.

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.

Panthers’ Luongo gives emotional speech about Florida school shooting

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Prior to Thursday’s game against the Washington Capitals, the Florida Panthers honored victims of last week’s shooting Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, which claimed the lives of 17 people.

Being that the high school is located about 14 miles from the Panthers’ BB&T Center, it’s not surprising that many players were highly emotional during the ceremony. Remarkably, Roberto Luongo gave an outstanding speech about his love for the Parkland area, where he’s spent 12 years of his life, and how the shootings affected his family and the community at large.

You can see a full transcript of Luongo’s emotional speech here and watch it in the video above this post’s headline.

NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika noted earlier today that Luongo’s son experienced a scare last week:

That’s just one of Cotsonika’s tweets about this emotional night; his full feed is worth your time.

The Panthers projected names of the victims on the ice during the pre-game ceremony, and also provided this beautiful tribute:

It says a lot about the composure of Luongo and the Panthers to go from such an emotional ceremony into a game against the Capitals, especially considering moments like these:

For more information, particularly how to support those affected, the Panthers’ website is a great place to start. You can also find out more about the Panthers’ tribute in this earlier PHT post.

Sadly, nights like these have been far too common lately, but credit the NHL and its teams for heartfelt responses to tragedies. Much like the Vegas Golden Knights opening their inaugural season without ads on the boards and with an emotional presentation, the Panthers handled this situation with class.

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.