Five Thoughts: Change is coming for the Caps; Now you can blame Philly goaltending

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After the first round of the playoffs was so wonderful and exciting, it just makes sense that the second round would turn into a complete bore. One sweep, two other series that could be sweeps, and Vancouver playing Nashville. Making things less boring, Caps failure, Flyers goaltending, and the Sharks playing like superstars.

1. The Capitals are the most perplexing team in the NHL and for all the wrong reasons. They’re teeming with talent year after year, they’ve got tremendous young players, they’re a regular season wrecking ball. Seeing them fail in different and unbelievable ways in the playoffs each season is becoming an unreal exercise in failure. Four years in a row now the Caps have bowed out in the first or second round thanks to being swept out by the Lightning last night. The last three years they’ve done so as the Southeast Division champions. The last two they’ve done so as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. That all makes for one horrible track record and a climate of losing that’s bordering on toxic.

Changes will happen in one form or another in D.C. Bruce Boudreau could be out of work, George McPhee could overhaul the roster to rid themselves of the players that just aren’t working out. With the amount of talent they have in Washington, these playoff failures cannot continue. With a team this talented they should, at the very least, be making the Eastern Conference final consistently. Instead they’re checking out early while lower seeded teams make hay on them. Things can’t stay that way.

2. We’ve been pretty good about not throwing all the blame on Flyers goaltending in their series against Boston. After all, hockey’s a team game and sometimes the guys playing in front of the goalie make life miserable on them through poor play. Last night’s 5-1 loss to Boston to go down 3-0 in the series though for Brian Boucher and Philadelphia? That one’s on him. Two goals allowed in the first 1:03 of the game on shots that should’ve been stopped. Two more bad goals allowed later on and getting pulled from the game being down 4-0 instills zero confidence in anyone.

Yes, Philly’s had problems with nagging injuries but the way they’re playing points to no one trusting anyone else to do the right thing and what you get is a gigantic circus of failure. While the Flyers offense was good enough against Buffalo to make up for mistakes made defensively or in goal, they just don’t have that ability right now against a much more difficult Bruins team. If you’re thinking Boston will be revisited by the ghosts of last year’s huge collapse against Philly, think again. This one seems destined for a sweep.

3. If you’re a Red Wings fan and looking for positive spin out of going down 3-0 in the series against San Jose, you can say your team is only losing one-goal games and that’s a slim enough margin for error where any game could’ve been turned in their favor. Sure, that works but it’s not quite so true. Detroit has played the Sharks tough but the Sharks are playing better. They’ve been able to force the Wings into making mistakes and the Sharks power play has taken advantage of a poor Wings kill.

Game 3 was Detroit’s best effort of the series and while Jimmy Howard thinks they should’ve won they didn’t. The Sharks are outworking Detroit and while this series seemed destined to be a classic, it’s setting up to be another second round sweep. Don’t expect Detroit to bow out quietly the way Washington did in their Game 4.

4. We touted Steve Downie’s abilities last week in his efforts to help the Lightning win games by racking up points but what Sean Bergenheim is doing for Tampa Bay is stunning. Bergenheim has seven goals in the postseason, tying him with James van Riemsdyk and Daniel Briere for the top spot in the playoffs for goals. Everyone’s been busy rightfully touting the Lightning’s defensive abilities in shutting down both the Penguins and Capitals, but their offense has been stunning.

While Bergenheim and Downie are getting the “unknown hero” treatment, their big guns of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are making it look like their 2004 run to the Stanley Cup all over again. St. Louis leads the playoffs in points with 13 while Lecavalier and Downie are right behind him with 12 points. Getting production like that from your best players and getting huge performances from guys like Bergenheim make Tampa Bay a legitimate threat to beat anyone in the playoffs the rest of the way.

5. Should Vancouver beat Nashville in Game 4, the possibility that we could see all the second round series done by Saturday night is very possible. With the Sharks and Bruins on the verge of pulling sweeps, the Lightning already sweeping out the Caps, Vancouver could make it so the start of the conference finals gets here a lot sooner than expected. We’re thinking the Predators will have a lot to say about that. Unless Vancouver totally figured out how to beat Nashville, we don’t envision the Preds laying down easily or quietly for them.

Boyle, Luongo, Staal are 2018 Masterton Trophy Finalists

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Brian Boyle of the New Jersey Devils, Roberto Luongo of the Florida Panthers and Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes have been named finalists for the 2017-18 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.

The award, which is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association is given to the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

PHWA chapters in each NHL market nominate a player for the award each year and the top three vote-getters are then designated as finalists.

The winner will be announced at the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas on June 20.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Brian Boyle’s story – via the NHL:

Before Boyle set foot on the ice as a New Jersey Devil, he faced his biggest test. At the start of training camp the 33-year-old was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, a type of bone marrow cancer. He worked his way back into the lineup by Nov. 1 and notched 10 goals over his first 25 games, including a memorable goal on the Devils’ Hockey Fights Cancer Night at Prudential Center, a 3-2 win over Vancouver on Nov. 24. Boyle missed just three games after his season debut and represented the Devils at the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Tampa Bay. While handling his own illness, his family and his career, Boyle has approached every day with the same optimistic attitude and perseverance that has inspired and lifted the Devils’ locker room.

Roberto Luongo’s story – via the NHL:

Luongo, 39, overcame hand and groin injuries during the season and backstopped the Panthers’ drive for an Eastern Conference Playoff berth. Sidelined by injury since early December, the franchise’s all-time leader in wins, shutouts and appearances returned on Feb. 17 to help the Panthers defeat Calgary 6-3 and ignite a Florida rally in the East’s Wild Card race. In a 13-game span, Luongo went 9-3-1 with a 2.44 GAA and .928 SV%. On Feb. 22, Luongo delivered a heartfelt, unscripted speech to the crowd at BB&T Center prior to Florida’s game against Washington. The 12-year resident of nearby Parkland, Fla., addressed the recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting during the Panthers’ pregame ceremony to honor the victims.

Jordan Staal’s story – via the NHL: 

Showing leadership and strength amidst a family tragedy, Staal was a key component of the Hurricanes throughout the season. In late February, Staal and his wife, Heather, announced their daughter, Hannah, was delivered stillborn due to a terminal birth defect previously diagnosed by doctors. Staal, who had assumed a bigger leadership role with the young Hurricanes by being named co-captain before the season, missed just three games following the tragedy. He registered 46 points (19 goals, 27 assists) in 79 games, the second-highest goal and point totals in his six seasons with Carolina. The 29-year-old skated in his 800th NHL game on Dec. 27 against Montreal and scored his 200th goal on Jan. 12 against Washington.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Calder Trophy (Sunday)
Lady Byng Trophy
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy


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

Kings shift focus to extending Doughty, addressing offense

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) The Los Angeles Kings believe they are still Stanley Cup contenders, even after being swept by the upstart Vegas Golden Knights in the first round. How close they are to that goal might be reflected in how negotiations go with defenseman Drew Doughty this summer.

General manager Rob Blake said Friday that working out a contract extension with Doughty is the team’s top priority. The Kings and Doughty can begin holding talks on July 1, with his current deal set to expire at the end of the 2018-19 season.

“I always wanted to be an LA King and I want to stay an LA King,” Doughty said.

Doughty is one of three finalists for the Norris Trophy presented to the league’s top defenseman after winning it in 2016. He had 10 goals and 50 assists in his most productive NHL season yet, but Doughty believes he can still improve his scoring output.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

“I wasn’t too happy with my goal totals this year,” Doughty said. “I think I only maybe scored one or two one-timer goals, which in my career probably half of my goals are one-timer goals, so I was pretty disappointed about that this year. I can definitely improve on that and have an even better season and hopefully set some new career-highs.”

The Kings scored just three goals in four games against the Golden Knights. Developing a more reliable offense is the one glaring weakness that needs be addressed, and lifting the Stanley Cup for the third time is a reasonable goal provided it gets solved going into next season.

“Everybody is still here that was here in ’14 and almost in ’12 for that matter, too, so we’re not that far off,” center Anze Kopitar said. “It’s going to take a lot of work, yes, but we’re not far off.”

CAREER YEARS

Kopitar set personal bests with 35 goals and 57 assists while averaging a career-high 22:05 of playing time. His 92 points represented a 40-point improvement over his lackluster 2016-17, leading Kopitar to joke he is “aging like wine.” Dustin Brown had 61 points to top his previous high of 60 set in 2007-08, his fourth season in the league. Doughty broke free with 60 points after reaching the 50-point plateau once in the previous seven seasons. Doughty’s usual defensive partner, Jake Muzzin, had 42 points. Even depth forward Trevor Lewis got into the act with 26 points and 14 goals in his most productive campaign.

FORWARD THINKING

Rookie Adrian Kempe was fourth on the team with 16 goals despite not finding the back of the net in the final 29 games of the regular season. Stepping in at center when Jeff Carter missed 55 games following surgery to repair a cut tendon in his ankle, Kempe showed a surprising toughness to go along with his natural quickness. If Kempe can continue to develop, he could decrease the reliance on Kopitar, who will be 31 when next season starts, and the 33-year-old Carter.

“I’m pretty sure he’ll be the first one to tell you he can offer more, and that’s a learning process,” Kopitar said. “That’s his first full year in the league. Speaking from experience, it takes a little bit of time to figure out your routines and what’s working for you and what’s not.”

LOOKING FOR DEPTH

Short of dealing in the offseason, the Kings should return essentially the same roster next season. Speedy forward Tobias Rieder is a restricted free agent, and Torrey Mitchell is an unrestricted free agent. The 25-year-old Rieder showed some chemistry with Carter, posting four goals and two assists in 20 games. Defensemen Christian Folin and Kevin Gravel are both unrestricted free agents.

HOME IMPROVEMENT NEEDED

The Kings went 23-15-3 at home, the second-fewest wins by a playoff team. It seemed like they were getting better as the season went on, going 9-4-0 down the stretch, only to lose both home playoff games and fall to 0-5 at Staples Center in their last two postseasons. Their 118 goals at home in the regular season was tied for 21st in the NHL. The power play contributed 25 percent of that output, underscoring the need for 5-on-5 improvement.

COMING ATTRACTION

Clearly in need of more contributors on offense, center Gabriel Vilardi could be an option for the Kings next season. Selected No. 11 overall in the 2017 draft, Vilardi has been a force in the OHL playoffs with 11 goals and nine assists in his first 12 postseason games. Vilardi also has the size and 200-foot game that fit a Kings team that still emphasizes defense.

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Big saves, more saves: Top goalies starring in key moments

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Bruce Cassidy watched from afar as Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stoned Travis Zajac on a breakaway and knew that was the kind of save teams need in the playoffs.

One night later, the Boston coach saw up close how Tuukka Rask got his blocker on Mitch Marner‘s breakaway attempt on the way to another Bruins victory.

”Every team needs goaltending,” Cassidy said. ”On the road, you’re going to need a little extra at some point. We got it.”

The Bruins aren’t the only team getting great goaltending at crucial moments as the first round wraps up. While Rask has them up 3-1 on Toronto, Vasilevskiy is the biggest reason Tampa Bay has the New Jersey Devils on the brink of elimination and Braden Holtby has stabilized the Washington Capitals to tie their series against Columbus going into Game 5 Saturday (3 p.m. EDT, NBC/NBCSN).

After a high-scoring start to the Stanley Cup playoffs, netminders are making spectacular saves when called upon. A lot of the routine stops, too. Even though postseason scoring is up 7 percent from last year, Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury and San Jose’s Martin Jones combined to allow just seven goals in eight games – two four-game sweeps – to set up a second-round showdown. Rask and Vaslievskiy have each given up just nine through five games and Holtby has stopped 63 of 67 shots since replacing Philipp Grubauer in goal.

”Your job obviously every game as a goaltender is to limit bad goals,” Holtby said Friday. ”Your goalie’s there to calm things down at the right minutes – make a big save here and there.”

Big saves are a bigger deal this time of year than volume, considering how many harmless shots are flicked at the net from long range. Sometimes those go in, like when Boston’s Torrey Krug floated a weak shot past Frederik Andersen in Game 4 Thursday night.

Few of those have happened in these playoffs against Rask, Holtby and Vasilevskiy, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, the NHL’s top goalie award. Rask’s 2.27 goals-against average and .926 save percentage are indicative of just how solid he has been in giving the Bruins a chance to close out the Maple Leafs on Saturday (8 p.m. EDT, NBC).

”He’s one of the best goalies in the world and gives us an opportunity to win every night,” Bruins winger Brad Marchand said of Rask, who won the Vezina in 2014.

Rask might be salty that he wasn’t one of the three Vezina finalists, finishing behind Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy, who get a postseason trip to the awards show in Las Vegas. Vasilevskiy earned it with a strong first half of the season, struggled late and is back in form with Atlantic Division-champion Tampa Bay able advance with a win Saturday (3 p.m. EDT, NBC/NBCSN).

Lightning coach Jon Cooper doesn’t think Vasilevskiy played poorly in the final quarter of the regular season as much as his team’s defensive game sagged. That has changed against the Devils, though Vasilevskiy has bailed out Tampa Bay on a few occasions.

”When your team’s playing better defense it helps your goaltender out and he doesn’t have to make as many highlight-reel saves,” Cooper said. ”I think what you’re seeing in the playoffs is a group that’s been determined to play both ends of the ice, and in turn that’s helping Vasilevskiy out.”

Game 4 Thursday was Holtby’s first time allowing fewer than two goals in a start since Nov. 18. But the 2016 Vezina winner insists he doesn’t feel any different than before his time off to reset his game in March.

He just looks like his old self.

”I think it’s got him to a place where he feels like Braden Holtby again, like he trusts his game, he trusts what he’s put in,” coach Barry Trotz said. ”He’s focused on the right things and it’s allowed him to get to a place where I think he feels very comfortable.”

STEPPING UP

When Bruins star Patrice Bergeron‘s streak of 104 consecutive playoff games ended because of an undisclosed injury, unheralded Riley Nash excelled centering the top line of Marchand and David Pastrnak in Game 4 in Toronto.

”He plays a two-way game,” Bruins center David Krejci said. ”He’s got good skills as well, so he fit well on that line.”

Cassidy said a decision on Bergeron playing in Game 5 won’t come until Saturday. Toronto center Nazem Kadri will return from a three-game suspension for boarding Tommy Wingels.

Lightning winger Ryan Callahan is a game-time decision against the Devils, who are likely to be without top defenseman Sami Vatanen.

Columbus center Alexander Wennberg skated Friday and could return after missing three games after a hit to the head from Tom Wilson. Washington won’t have winger Andre Burakovsky for the rest of the series because of an upper-body injury that Trotz said requires ”minor” surgery.

Without Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson earned the promotion to the Capitals’ top line and has thrived with significant ice time alongside Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.

”It’s something you only dream of,” Stephenson said. ”Growing up watching them and then finally playing with them, it’s quite the special feeling.”

CLOSE THE DEAL

Going through a grueling run to the 2015 Cup Final taught Cooper a lesson about the benefits of finishing a team off in elimination games. The same goes for the banged-up Bruins because they’re on a crash course to face the Lightning in the second round.

”If you have a chance to win a series early, do it,” Cooper said. ”Just to get the mental and physical rest, and then (have) all the other series go deep.”

AP Sports Writers Jimmy Golen in Boston, Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio, and Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed.

The Buzzer: Jets move on, Flyers stay in it, Hammond steals one for Avs

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Three games on Friday night

Winnipeg Jets 5, Minnesota Wild 0 (Jets win series 4-1)

Technically the original Winnipeg Jets advanced a few times, but these are the new Winnipeg Jets. And the new Winnipeg Jets, after spending nearly two decades without a postseason win, let alone a series win, finally moved on to round two with a rout over a shorthanded, undermanned, and completely overmatched Minnesota Wild team. The Jets now await the winner of the Nashville Predators-Colorado Avalanche series. This game was never close, never competitive, and the Jets look like they are going to be a force to deal with.

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 2 (Penguins lead series 3-2)

Sean Couturier returned, Michal Neuvirth got the start in goal, and together they helped shut down the Pittsburgh Penguins to send the series back to Philadelphia for Game 6 on Sunday afternoon. Couturier did not play his normal workload but he was incredible on the penalty kill and scored the game-winning goal with 1:18 to play in regulation.

Colorado Avalanche 2, Nashville Predators 1 (Predators lead series 3-2)

The Colorado Avalanche are not going away. Thanks to an unbelievable and unexpected performance from, of all people, Andrew Hammond. After the Predators struck first with just under 10 minutes to play in regulation, the Avalanche scored two goals in the final five minutes of regulation. Sven Andrighetto scored the winner with just a minute-and-a-half to play.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Andrew Hammond, Colorado Avalanche. He barely played the past two years, but man did he come through in a big way on Friday night. He stopped 44 of the 45 shots he faced — and the only goal he allowed was a controversial overturn on a Nick Bonino redirection with his skate — to help the Avalanche fight off elimination. It was Hammond’s first ever playoff win.

2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers. How could he not be in here for the game he played? The whole storyline that you want is there. Returning from injury, playing a great game, doing a lot of little things that do not always get noticed, then scoring the game-winning goal to keep his team’s season going for at least one game.

3. Mark Schiefele, Winnipeg Jets. A lot of stars for the Jets on Friday night. Their goalie, Connor Hellebuyck, recorded his second consecutive shutout (more on that in a minute), Paul Stastny and Dustin Byfuglien each had a pair of assists, Jacoub Trouba started everything with all the offense they would need just 31 seconds into the game, but let us go with Mark Schiefele as one of the stars. He set up Trouba’s early goal, scored a goal of his own, and finished with a game-high four shots on goal and six total shot attempts

 

Factoid of the night

The Winnipeg Jets can score goals with the best of them and they also, finally, have a goalie.

Saturday’s schedule

New Jersey Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 3 p.m. ET
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Washington Capitalas, 3 p.m. ET
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m ET

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.