PHT Predicts the Western Conference finals

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For the second year in a row, the Western Conference finals features the top two seeded teams and once against the San Jose Sharks are one of those two teams. This time around they come in as the second seed up against the first seed and Presidents’ Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks.

The star power in this series is off the charts with Roberto Luongo, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, and Ryan Kesler leading the way for the Canucks against the Sharks’ power of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, and Dan Boyle. Vancouver won the season series between these two teams going 3-0-1 and winning one of those in the shootout. What’s our take on things? Well we’ve got a lot to say.

James says:

Much like the Lightning-Bruins series, these two teams made it to the conference finals in remarkably similar ways. The Canucks and Sharks played in 13 games in which their intestinal fortitude came into question, particularly in nearly “blowing” 3-0 series leads. Yet all the knee-jerk negativity overshadows the strong possibility that they’re the two best teams in the NHL. Choosing a winner is a daunting task.

Simply put, both sides haven’t dealt with anything like each other. The Canucks are a more complete (and mean-spirited) team than the Kings and Red Wings. The Sharks are deeper than the Blackhawks and far more dangerous than the Predators.

With almost a week off, the Sedin twins will be as close to 100 percent health as they can reasonably be in the playoffs. I’m concerned that Henrik Sedin has been playing outright injured, but either way, I think those dynamic duplicates will produce at a higher rate in Round 3. To some extent, it will just be the law of averages correcting itself. Yet one cannot ignore the tough matchups the ginger twins faced in the previous two rounds. I think they’ll get more room against San Jose.

That being said, the law of averages may frown upon Ryan Kesler a bit. That’s not to say he won’t play well; my guess is just that he won’t be able to beat the Sharks on his own like he seemingly did against the Predators. The Sharks offense is astoundingly dangerous, with the usual suspects Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley emboldened by the secondary help provided by Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Devin Setoguchi. That stupefying Sharks attack is – in my opinion – the best reason to pick San Jose.

The Canucks lack a signature blueline superstar but might have the deepest top-to-bottom group in the NHL. I think that will be helpful against the pick-your-poison Sharks. Meanwhile, the Sharks clearly boast the best defenseman of either team in Dan Boyle, a remarkably efficient one in Marc-Edouard Vlasic and a terrifying hitter in Douglas Murray, but things get a bit shaky after that. The goalie matchup is very close, as Antti Niemi’s unflappable nature fits the star-crossed Sharks perfectly while people forget that Roberto Luongo remains one of the best netminders in the NHL. Far too much focus revolves around a few flukey goals when the fact of the matter is that Bobby Lou has allowed little else since Game 6 against Chicago.

There’s a lot of moving parts here, but ultimately, I’ll just go with the answer that’s on the tip of my tongue.

Vancouver wins it in 7.

Joe says:

This will be a fascinating series. The two most skilled teams in the West and two teams that are itching to win their first Stanley Cup. Vancouver hasn’t been to the Stanley Cup finals since 1994 and San Jose has never made it that far before. There’s a lot at stake for both teams and I have no doubts that these two are going to be bringing it as crazy as they did during the regular season. Expect things to be fast-paced and a lot of “choker” labels will disappear here as this is a series both teams have been dying to be in for a long time.

If you’ve been waiting for the time when the Sedins would show up, given how they performed against the Sharks this season this could be it. Of course, Ryane Clowe has had some huge games against the Canucks this season as well and he’s been on fire in the playoffs. In the end, this boils down to which way the goaltending falls and Roberto Luongo has been out of his mind good. Not that Antti Niemi has been bad, both guys had rough first rounds, but I look at it playing out the way the Sharks series with Detroit went. There, Jimmy Howard was great but couldn’t quite match up to Niemi. This time Niemi will be good, but not on the same level as Luongo.

Vancouver in 6.

The Buzzer: Auston Matthews’ late-game heroics; Pens move into top spot in Metropolitan

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Players of the Night:

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers: Giroux notched a goal and two assists in Sunday’s win over the New York Rangers. The goal was the 200th of his career. He’s been incredible this year. The Flyers forward is up to 69 points in 59 games, which puts him on pace to score 96 points. Giroux now has four multi-point performances in his last six outings.

Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers: Like his teammate Giroux, Konecny also picked up a goal and two assists. He’s now accumulated 18 points in 15 games. Konecny is currently riding a four-game point streak.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: Even though the Oilers are struggling this season, McDavid has found a way to remain productive. His hat trick in Sunday’s tilt against the Avalanche was his third of the season. After scoring 100 points last year, he’s on pace to hit 98 right now.

Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins: Guentzel’s three-point night helped propel the Penguins to victory against the Blue Jackets. Guentzel now has five points in his last four games.

Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks: Pavelski had a three-point night of his own against the Dallas Stars. If you scroll a little lower, you’ll see his spin-o-rama goal. The veteran isn’t having his best season, but he’s managed to pick up nine points in his last six games.

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets: The Jets are an offensive machine that not many teams can stop right now. Connor picked up a pair of goals against the Panthers, which means he’s already scored 19 times in his first full NHL season.

Highlights of the Night:

Taylor Hall comes up clutch against the Hurricanes:

If you like spinning backhanders, Joe Pavelski has you covered:

How about this save from Semyon Varlamov:

The hand-eye coordination from Evgenii Dadonov is pretty ridiculous:

Sometimes it takes two to keep the puck out of the net:

Connor Hellebuyck made a sweet save of his own against the Panthers:

Factoids of the Night:

Auston Matthews‘ late-game heroics against Detroit:

The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions are in top spot in the Metropolitan Division:

Hall is en fuego:

Scores:

Flyers 7, Rangers 4

Oilers 4, Avalanche 2

Devils 3, Hurricanes 2 (OT)

Penguins 5, Blue Jackets 2

Maple Leafs 3, Red Wings 2

Sharks 5, Stars 2

Jets 7, Panthers 2

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.

Golden Knights don’t want to focus on big picture

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LAS VEGAS (AP) The Vegas Golden Knights have done an excellent job of not looking too far ahead in their inaugural season.

It has served them well during their amazing run as an expansion team, all the way to the top of the NHL standings.

After Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Golden Knights lead the NHL with 82 points.

According to the league, Vegas is the first expansion team in its inaugural season to hold the outright lead in the standings this late into a season – 58 games played – besting the 1967-68 Kings, who led the league through 19 games on Nov. 24, 1967.

But as veteran goalkeeper and three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury said, there is a point in the season every team is either trying to get into the playoffs or stay positioned where they are for the postseason.

“Right now, we’re in good shape,” Fleury said. “We are aware where we are, but we can’t just sit back. We have to keep chasing those points night after night.”

The cliche of “one game at a time” has transitioned into playing with a sense of urgency with seven weeks left in the regular season.

Four games into a seven-game homestand, Vegas has won three straight since losing to Philadelphia on Feb. 11. The Golden Knights responded with wins over Chicago, Edmonton, and the Canadiens, outscoring the three by a combined 15-6.

“We’re in a good spot right now, we’re happy where we are, but we’re a team that’s always going to have something to prove,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said.

“I think everyone probably watches the standings, a little more closer in the West than the East. It’s one thing about having a lot of points early and being in first place in the West.

“It’s a little different with this group, we all have something to prove still. We’re an expansion team, no one ever thought we’d be here, where we are right now.”

Nevertheless, McNabb said coach Gerard Gallant has done a good job of keeping his players focused, ensuring they’re performing their best each game.

“The whole point of taking it day by day is you’re not focused on the big picture and I feel like that’s a good approach for our team to have,” defenseman Shea Theodore said.

“You can’t look too far ahead, it’s just kind of how we’re rolling and we’re doing a good job with that. I feel like we’ve done a good job of showing the league we’re for real.”

Even team owner Bill Foley has gotten in on the act of not looking too far ahead. After Saturday night’s win, Foley expressed concern over Theodore’s recent throat infection that kept him out of the lineup, he spoke about Pierre-Edouard Bellemare getting injured during the game and said while he is happy with his team’s success it’s important not to become complacent.

“But it is fun, it’s great,” Foley said. “One thing we did when we did the expansion draft, it was a lot of hard work, and we put a lot of planning into it. We had five mock draft sessions in the expansion draft. We knew other teams as well or better than they knew themselves. So, we knew what we were getting. And (general manager) George (McPhee) did a phenomenal job in making some key deals. The result is what we have.

“We have guys that have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder and they want to play hard, and they really play hard against their former teams.”

With Saturday’s win over one of the NHL’s Original Six teams, Vegas improved to 22-4-2 at T-Mobile Arena, matching the 1979-80 Hartford Whalers (22-12-6) for the most home wins by a team in its first season.

It doesn’t get any easier for Vegas, which is 14-1-1 against Pacific Division teams, and faces key games this upcoming week against Anaheim on Monday, Calgary on Wednesday and Vancouver on Friday.

“The schedule is going to be tough with a lot of games coming up,” Fleury said. “We gotta find a way to be consistent all those nights and keep fighting. We still gotta focus playing one game at a time. You don’t want to think too far down the road. Every game is important.”

Veteran defenseman Deryk Engelland agreed.

“We’ve been doing a good job all year of taking it one game at a time and treating every game as a must win. It’s a tight division, it’s a tight conference and we just have to take it one game at a time.

“Come April 8, we can maybe gear up from there, but from now `til then it’s one game at time and get ready for the next one.”

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Should Zach Hyman’s goal on Petr Mrazek have counted?

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There may or may not have been a controversial call in Sunday’s game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.

With the score tied at zero in the first period, Zach Hyman appeared to have opened the scoring for the Leafs, but the goal was waved off because Red Wings netminder Petr Mrazek‘s mask came off.

As you can tell from the video below, Auston Matthews‘ shot catches Mrazek in the mask. Right before Hyman buries the buck into the net, Mrazek shakes his mask off because a strap snapped out of place. It’s definitely not an easy call to make in the moment.

Take a look for yourself:

Here’s what rule 9.6 of the NHL rulebook says about these kind of plays:

When a goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask and his team has control of the puck, the play shall be stopped immediately to allow the goalkeeper the opportunity to regain his helmet and/or face mask. When the opposing team has control of the puck, play shall only be stopped if there is no immediate and impending scoring opportunity. This stoppage of play must be made by the Referee. When play is stopped because the goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask, the ensuing face-off shall take place at one of the defending team’s end zone face-off spots.

When a goalkeeper deliberately removes his helmet and/or face mask in order to secure a stoppage of play, the Referee shall stop play as outlined above and in this case assess the goalkeeper a minor penalty for delaying the game. 

It’s clear that Mrazek removed his helmet intentionally, but he only did so because at least one of the straps snapped off. Also, the referee could have blown the play dead because he assumed that one of the two Red Wings in the slot would take control of the puck. Instead, both Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi whiffed on it.

But according to the rule, the play can only be stopped if the opposing team doesn’t have an immediate or impending scoring opportunity. Was Hyman’s chance an immediate or impending scoring opportunity? It sure looks like it, but that’s at the official’s discretion.

There’s a bit of a grey zone with this rule, so it’s hard to say if the referee applied the rule correctly or not.

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.

Connor McDavid spoils Nathan MacKinnon’s return

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Sunday’s game between the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche was supposed to be all about Nathan MacKinnon‘s return to the lineup, but Connor McDavid had other ideas.

The Oilers might be struggling, but McDavid had some individual success this month. On Sunday, the Oilers captain picked up his second hat trick of the month in Edmonton’s 4-2 win over Colorado.

In eight games this month, the 21-year-old has accumulated an impressive 11 goals.

Here’s his first tally of the game:

McDavid finished the game with a plus-3 rating, five shots on goal and a huge save in 19:52 of ice time. That’s right, a huge save. With the Avs leading 1-0 in the first period, McDavid prevented the opposition from going up by two.

His second tally tied the game at two, while his hat-trick goal was scored into an empty-net.

According to NHL Public Relations, He’s the first Oiler to score three hat tricks in a season since Petr Klima in 1990-91.

Meanwhile, MacKinnon returned the lineup after missing eight games with an upper-body injury. He had a minus-2 rating, four shots on goal and one hit in 22:20 of ice time. Only Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen had more ice time among Avalanche forward.

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.