PHT Predicts: Who will win the Stanley Cup?

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You’ve waited for far long enough for the Stanley Cup finals to start and tonight at 8 p.m. ET on NBC Game 1 will drop the puck in Vancouver. Finally we’ll see Tim Thomas and Roberto Luongo square off in a Vezina Trophy-worthy battle in goal while Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, and Ryan Kesler get to square off with Zdeno Chara, Nathan Horton, and Vancouver boy Milan Lucic.

You know the matchups by now, but you don’t know how we here at PHT are picking things to go down. Buckle in as we give it to you as straight as we can. Remember, back when the playoffs began we picked the Vancouver Canucks to win it all over the Washington Capitals. Will we stick to our guns or jump on the Bruins bandwagon? All will be revealed.

Matt Reitz says:

The Canucks look like they’re getting better with every passing round.  Once they were able to get past their personal nemesis from Chicago, they’ve gone 8-3 and looked every bit like the team that won 54 games and earned 117 points.  For people who think special teams are a big deal in the playoffs, try this on for size: the Canucks had the best power play in the regular season and have continued the strong play into the playoffs.  On the other hand, the Bruins have a PK that looked like they couldn’t stop a bantam team in the Conference Finals.

Tim Thomas is the kind of goaltender who can steal a couple of games and Patrice Bergeron has been one of the most impressive players in the playoffs, but the Canucks just have too much depth.  They have more defensemen who can play big time minutes, more forwards who can score, more forwards who can shutdown opponents, just more of everything.

Canucks in 6.

James O’Brien says:

The Bruins showed a lot of moxie to get this far. They fought off tough starts in their first and third round series but managed narrow victories against the Canadiens and Lightning in Game 7 showdowns. Boston also shook off a serious 2010 demon in the form of the Philadelphia Flyers, sweeping one of the most powerful (if uneven) teams in the Eastern Conference.

That being said, their defense was exposed regularly by the Lightning’s talented forwards and their power play has been bad enough to become a running joke all around the Internet. The Canucks stumbled here and there, but they were the most complete squad in the NHL in 2010-11. Their offense is explosive and aggressive, their deep defense can provide plenty of offense and Roberto Luongo remains one of the best goalies in the league.

Tim Thomas has been so brilliant, it’s reasonable to imagine him stealing a game or two, especially if the Canucks give in to Boston’s likely urge to play this one close to the vest. While the Sedin twins + Alex Burrows line is one of the best in hockey and Ryan Kesler might rank as the best two-way forward in the game, the Bruins have a nice top line of Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton and an impressive Kesler facsimile (minus the snarl) in Patrice Bergeron.

I could see the Bruins putting up a solid fight, but I could also see the Canucks blowing them out of the water. What I cannot see is a Bruins championship in 2011, though.

Vancouver wins it in 5.

Joe Yerdon says:

Boston’s looked impressive at times through their playoff run while Vancouver has gotten better as the playoffs have gone on. Boston’s resilience against both Montreal and Tampa Bay are a credit to their team but they haven’t faced a team like Vancouver yet in these playoffs. Boston’s playing tough and hard hockey but the Canucks are like a Voltron-type of team that’s the best parts of all the teams they’ve faced and a little bit extra on top of it all. Vancouver can score, they’ve got tremendous depth at all positions, and they’re tough both physically and mentally. Throw in their ability to delve into theatrics when needed to get the heel-like edge and you’ve got yourself a series in which the Bruins have to play absolutely perfect in four games to have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup. I don’t like those odds.

If the Bruins can contain the Sedins, then there’s Ryan Kesler to deal with. If they can’t contain the Sedins, they’ve got much bigger problems on their hands. Asking Tim Thomas to be out-of-his-mind good for a long series might be tough. Boston’s going to have to find ways to get Luongo off his game and while that’s entirely possible, the Luongo we’ve seen since after the Chicago series has been beyond solid. The Bruins defense is going to need to be nearly flawless to win this series and I fear that the Canucks speed is going to catch up to them.

Vancouver wins in 6.

The Buzzer: Penguins dominate, Sharks sweep

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Wednesday’s scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Philadelphia Flyers 0 (Penguins lead 3-1):

Pittsburgh dominated from pillar to post in this one. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel each had three points nights. Matt Murray, meanwhile, grabbed his second shutout of the playoffs in the win, which puts the Flyers on the brink of a playoff exit. Philly has just six goals in four games now and five of those came in Game 2.

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, New Jersey Devils 1 (Lightning lead 3-1):

Nikita Kucherov was a force in this one, scoring the twice and adding an assist while laying a massive (and controversial) hit on Devils’ defenseman Sami Vatanen, which knocked the latter out of the game. J.T. Miller tied the game in the first period and assisted on both of Kucherov’s goals for a three-point night of his own. Andrei Vasilevskiy, up for the Vezina this year, turned aside 27-of-28 shots.

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

The Predators held off a late comeback attempt by the Avalanche to take a 3-1 series lead back to Nashville. Colton Sissons and Craig Smith scored in the second period, following Filip Forsberg‘s highlight-reel first-period marker to give the Preds a 3-0 advantage going into the third. Gabriel Landeskog and Alexander Kerfoot brought the Avs back to within one, but that was as far as they’d get. The Avs lost more than just the game as goalie Jonathan Bernier left after the second period with a lower-body injury and did not return.

San Jose Sharks 2, Anaheim Ducks (Sharks win 4-0):

Tomas Hertl scored 1:16 after Andrew Cogliano tied the game 1-1 in the third period to give the Sharks their second sweep in franchise history (they previous swept the Vancouver Canucks in 2013). The Ducks looked better than their Game 3 effort (just showing up would likely do that), but still only managed a single goal (and just four in the series). Martin Jones made 30 saves for the win. The Sharks will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round after Vegas swept the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday.

Three stars

Matt Murray, Penguins: Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby each had three-point nights, but Murray’s 26 saves made sure the Flyers came nowhere near the Penguins as he picked up his second shutout of the series, sixth playoff shutout of his career and fourth in his past six playoff games. Those are some ridiculous numbers from the Pens’ No. 1.

Nikita Kucherov, Lightning: Two goals — the game-winner and the dagger into the empty net to ensure victory — capped off a big night for Kucherov, who has scored in all four of the series’ games thus far. Kucherov added an assist on the game-tying goal in the first period and laid a massive hit on Sami Vatanen (which could earn him a call from the league).

Filip Forsberg, Predators: Got the Predators off on the right foot with his first-period marker which, as you will see below, was from another world. He also assisted on Colton Sisson’s tally that gave the Preds a 2-0 lead in the second period. Forsberg now has five points through four games in the series.

Highlights of the Night

Forsberg’s theatrics:

Jones was a huge problem for the Ducks, as seen here:

Man deposited into bench:

Vezinalevskiy:

Factoids of the Night

Thursday’s schedule

Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN) — Bruins lead series 2-1
Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET (USA, NBCSWA) — Blue Jackets let series 2-1


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

Sharks advance after sweep of hapless Ducks

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Few figured the San Jose Sharks would have had it this easy against the Anaheim Ducks.

Anaheim came roaring into the postseason, winners of five straight and eight of their past 10 as they worked their way into second place in the Pacific Division

Perhaps they just ran out of gas or, perhaps, the Sharks are quite good at Duck Hunt. Either way, the Sharks made quick work of their California rivals, recording the sweep after a 2-1 win on Wednesday in Game 4.

The truth is the Sharks were far and away the better team in the series and the Ducks — outside of John Gibson — were horribly inept offensively and couldn’t handle the Sharks’ offensive attack, or solve Martin Jones.

After being shutout in Game 1, the Ducks lost a close 3-2 decision in Game 2 only to follow that up with an incredibly embarrassing effort in an 8-1 loss in Game 3.

In Game 4, and on the cusp of being swept, the Ducks managed just a single goal as they went crashing out of the playoffs.

That’s four goals in four games.

Poor John Gibson. The Ducks’ No. 1 faced a combined 69 shots in Games 1 and 2 and then 24 in Game 3 before being pulled, mercifully, in favor of Ryan Miller. In Game 4, Gibson faced a further 24 shots and once again received next to no run support.

The Ducks’ veteran core of Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry combined for four points in the series. Perry was shutout entirely and the trio failed to combine for a single goal.

The Sharks were very much the opposite.

Captain Joe Pavelski had a goal and four assists. Logan Couture had two goals and five points. Evander Kane, acquired at the trade deadline, scored three times and added an assist.

And then there was Marcus Sorensen, who in 32 regular season games only scored five times but had three goals and an assist in four games in the series.

Jones got all the run support Gibson didn’t and was equally as good, turning aside 131 of the 135 shots he faced during the four game.

The Sharks will play the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round after Vegas swept the Los Angeles Kings in four games on Tuesday.


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

Avalanche’ Jonathan Bernier forced out of Game 4 loss

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Bad news hit the Colorado Avalanche’s playoff hopes on Wednesday.

The Avs’ woes in the crease suffered another blow when the team announced that Jonathan Bernier would not return for the third period because of a lower-body injury.

It’s not known when Bernier got hurt. Andrew Hammond, the team’s No. 3, replaced the Avs’ starter for the final frame.

Colorado is already without Semyon Varlamov, who was ruled out the playoffs after a late-season injury after a collision with Chicago Blackhawks forward Tomas Jurco.

The Predators lead the best-of-7 series 3-1 after taking Game 4 with a 3-2 win.

Nashville had a scare of their own during the second period when Avs forward Gabriel Landeskog went to hit forward Ryan Johansen with an open-ice hit. As Landeskog approached, Johansen looked up and tried to duck out of the way but took what appeared to be Landeskog’s knee to his head.

Johansen had a tough time getting back to his feet and headed down the tunnel and out of the game once he did.

Johansen was not on the bench to start the third but eventually returned around the mid-way point of the period and played five shifts.


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

Penguins follow Matt Murray’s lead, take Game 4 over Flyers

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PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Flyers came up short in what head coach Dave Hakstol called the “biggest game of the series, so far.” It was another night where the Pittsburgh Penguins’ offense could not be stopped and their 5-0 victory in Game 4 means they take a 3-1 series lead back home with a chance to close things out Friday night.

It could have been a different game if not for the play of Matt Murray, who stopped 26 shots for his second shutout of the series and fourth shutout in his last seven playoff games. One of the bigger opportunities for the Flyers was a period of extended offensive zone time late in the first, but Murray stood tall, and when the pressure subsided the Penguins transitioned the other way resulting in a Phil Kessel goal.

 

“That’s what’s going to happen in the playoffs,” said forward Carl Hagelin. “There’s going to be momentum swings. You’re going to get pinned in your zone for an extended time and that’s what happened there. But we didn’t give up many Grade A chances.”

That cool demeanor of Murray’s isn’t just effective for him, it also positively affects his teammates.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

“It helps. He’s a confident guy. He calms us down,” said Hagelin. “He’s always a calm guy. It’s one of those things we have a lot of faith in him. He trusts his ‘D’ and his forwards to do the job in front of him.”

“He [makes] saves at key times, too. That’s huge,” said defenseman Jamie Oleksiak. “Not just here and there, but early in the game or when we’re down a goal, he does a good job switching momentum. He’s definitely a special goalie that way.”

Through four games, Murray, who became the fastest goalie in NHL history to reach 25 career playoff wins, is rolling with a .958 even strength save percentage and has allowed only three goals at five-on-five in the series. A hostile Philadelphia crowd wasn’t going to faze the 23-year old goaltender. Before helping the Penguins to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016, he was thrown into the fire for his first playoff start on the road in Game 3 of their first-round series against the New York Rangers. He’d win both those games at Madison Square Garden and the rest was history.

So with the first period nearing a conclusion and Travis Konecny on a breakaway after leaving the penalty box, the Penguins had no cuase for concern. Murray would make the save and his teammates would add to the lead in the second period, putting the game, and potentially the series, out of reach.

“When you get those types of saves it certainly helps your team’s chances of winning,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “But that’s what Matt does for our group. I thought he was locked in all night long. He made the timely saves for us when we needed him to. Those are big points in the game, but you have to get that save if you’re going to win at this time of year.”

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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.