Greed could be good for Winnipeg Jets goalies next season

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When people imply that the Winnipeg Jets are playing with house money this season – or, in other words, that they can have a rough season on the ice but will be spared because of the mere presence in Winnipeg – they’re mostly correct. Of course, those statements cover the team at the box office and in the hearts of fans, but the actual players suiting up during games will face a season-long audition to prove to new GM Kevin Cheveldayoff that they’re a part of the club’s future.

That might be especially true when it comes to their duo of goalies: Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason.* They’d be facing enough pressure just by the regime change alone and their own up-and-down moments during the 2010-11 season, but the interesting thing this is that both goalies are in contract years, so next season will determine their future with the Jets and the NHL overall.

Pavelec’s pressure

Pavelec will go into the 2011-12 season as the probable No. 1 goalie, but he might face more pressure since this is his chance to prove that he has the chops to be a top guy. As you may remember, Pavelec’s season started in a scary way with his out-of-nowhere fainting spell. Amazingly, he played his best hockey shortly after that frightening episode, but his play tapered off toward the end of the season to match the Atlanta Thrashers’ own struggles.

Still, he put up a solid .914 save percentage and 2.73 GAA while going 21-23-9, the best individual numbers of his short NHL career. Pavelec definitely showed some potential during last season, but he’ll need to put together a consistently strong 2011-12 season to convince the Jets’ brass to keep him in the fold.

Mason’s place

Mason has been one of the league’s most underrated 1b/backup goalies the last few seasons, but he fell on his face pretty badly in 10-11, sporting ugly individual numbers (.892 save percentage and 3.39 GAA) with a mediocre 13-3-3 record.

The stakes are probably lower for the journeyman goalie who can grow an all-world beard, although another .892 save percentage-type year might convince many that his days of being NHL-relevant are over. It wouldn’t be surprising if Mason finds himself in another uniform next season, because his main goal is simple: secure an NHL job.

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For what it’s worth, Mason seems confident that the duo will have a strong season in 2011-12.

Mason, who is in Winnipeg training, says fans can expect goaltending to be a strong point.

“I really think we can be a top-notch talent,” he said after skating with local NHL players at the MTS IcePlex Tuesday. “Pav’s an unbelievable talent, a good young goaltender and a great guy. I really enjoyed playing with him last year and this summer I worked a lot on my strength conditioning and I plan to try to push him.”

(snip)

“Last year (Pavelec) had a two-month stretch where, in my opinion, he was a top goaltender in the league,” Mason said. “The last half of the season was different for our whole team … we kind of fell off … but he definitely has the potential to be a great goaltender in this league.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that every year you never know what’s going to happen. I’ve played as little as 10-11 games to 60-some games. I just have to work on performing when it’s my turn.”

Ultimately, I think the dangling carrot of a contract year should propel at least one (if not both) goalies to reach their highest potential. When you consider the fact that they’ll be playing in a hockey hotbed like Winnipeg instead of a struggling market like Atlanta, it’s quite possible that the sheer excitement might help carry them on tougher nights as well. (Of course, the heightened pressure might break them down, instead.)

Either way, it’s one of the more interesting goalie duos to watch since the Jets rank as one of the few teams who haven’t determined their mid-to-long-term future in net just yet. We’ll have to see if greed is good for those goalies.

* This is assuming that David Aebischer doesn’t pull off a serious upset by stealing one of the jobs during a training camp tryout, of course.

Sean Couturier returned and helped save the Flyers’ season

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PITTSBURGH — After four straight blowouts to open their first-round series, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers finally played a close game on Friday night. Thanks to a goalie switch that saw Michal Neuvirth replace Brian Elliott, and a couple of smaller lineup changes, as well as the return of one of their best players — Sean Couturier — the Flyers were able to keep their season alive with a 4-2 win to force a Game 6 in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

Couturier missed Game 4 due to a lower-body injury, but was able to return to the lineup on Friday to play the role of hero, scoring the game-winning goal with 1:18 to play in the third period.

The goal came after the Penguins were sloppy with the puck in their own zone and failed to clear on two different occasions, allowing the puck to come to a wide open Couturier at the blue line. From there, he fired a long-distance shot that deflected off of Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin and into the back of the net.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Given that he was limited to just 16:55 of ice-time and did not play on the power play at all, it was pretty clear that he was not anywhere close to 100 percent. Just consider that during the regular season he averaged more than 21 minutes per game and was playing more than 24 minutes in the first three games of the series. He refused to say after the game how he was feeling (he was twice asked to put a percentage on it and refused both times) but it was obviously enough to make an impact in what was to this point the biggest game of the Flyers’ season.

“I was just trying to take it one shift at a time, win your one-on-one battles, keep it simple,” Couturier said when asked what his mindset was. “Don’t want to overdo things or overthink the game. That was kind of the mentality I had, just keep it simple, keep my shifts short, make sure I was ready to go and fresh for the next shift.”

While his game-winning goal will be the moment that everybody remembers until puck drop on Sunday, it was his play on the penalty kill — and the Flyers’ penalty kill as a whole — that was probably the difference in the game.

Heading into this series the special teams matchup was going to be an important one to watch because the Penguins had the NHL’s best power play during the regular season. The Flyers, conversley, had one of the league’s worst penalty kills. Throughout the first four games when the Penguins power play clicked — and when the Flyers gave them ample opportunity to allow it to click — the Penguins won decisively.

On Friday, it most definitely did not click. And just as was the case in Game 2, the Flyers were able to win based on the strength of that penalty kill.

More than 40 percent of Couturier’s ice-time on Friday night came with the Flyers shorthanded. During that time he helped the Flyers not only go a perfect 5-for-5, but also score a shorthanded goal and completely shut down the Penguins’ power play, limiting the unit to just four shots on goal. At one point in the second period the Penguins had a 4-on-3 power play for more than a minute-and-a-half and not only failed to score, they failed to get a shot on goal and only attempted one (it was blocked, naturally, by Couturier). Couturier was the lone Flyer forward on the ice for almost the entire situation.

“We did a good job, but they had a lot of chances,” said Couturier of the Flyers’ PK. “[Neuvirth] bailed us out a few times, and we have to be more disciplined. That is too many penalties. We put ourselves in trouble because they can take over the game when they go on the power play. It’s tough to gain momentum. Tonight we fought hard, found a way to win.”

From almost the minute he arrived in the NHL at the start of the 2011-12 season Couturier has been one of the league’s top defensive forwards, even if he wasn’t always recognized for it in awards voting. Even though it is a defensive award, it still almost always goes to a player that also has huge offensive numbers. After getting elevated to the team’s top-line this season and playing alongside Claude Giroux, he went on to have a breakout year offensively that saw him shatter all of his previous career highs, scoring 31 goals and recording 76 total points. On Wednesday, it was announced that he is, for the first time, a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward.

“Him being in the lineup gives a boost to everybody just because of what he means to our hockey team,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol. “At the end of the day it comes down to going out and doing the job. He did that. Obviously he played a few less minutes tonight than he normally does, but I thought he did a heck of a job, especially on the PK, where was a huge factor for us. His play down the stretch was great, not just on the game-winning goal.”

It was not just Couturier’s return to the lineup that made an impact for the Flyers on Friday.

Hakstol also made a number of lineup changes (Dale Weise and Robert Hagg in; Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom out) including the decision to go with Neuvirth in net after he had played just 59 minutes of hockey over the past three months.

It turned out to be a huge call.

After getting horrendous goaltending in three of the first four games, Neuvirth stopped 30 of the 32 shots he faced on Friday. The two goals he did allow were not great (a bad wraparound goal to Bryan Rust; a shot through the five-hole by Jake Guentzel off the rush) but he did end up making the save of the night in the final minute of regulation, just moments after Couturier’s goal to give the Flyers the lead, when he robbed Sidney Crosby on the doorstep.

With that, a series that has been defined by blowouts and lopsided scores is now a little more interesting as the Flyers return home and look to push it to a seventh game.

If they get goaltending and penalty kill work like they did on Friday, they will.

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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.

Jets chase Dubnyk, eliminate Wild in Game 5

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Friday’s Game 5 against the Winnipeg Jets was do-or-die for the Minnesota Wild. It turned out someone may have forgotten to tell the Wild.

Despite not having Josh Morrissey, Dmitry Kulikov, Toby Enstrom, Mathieu Perreault and Nikolaj Ehlers in Game 5, the Jets roared out to a 4-0 start through 20 minutes, chasing Devan Dubnyk, en route to a 5-0 win to advance to the second round.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Dubnyk lasted just 11:59, as he allowed four goals on 10 shots and was replaced by Alex Stalock.

Jacob Trouba started the party in Winnipeg scoring just 31 seconds into the game:

Bryan Little, Brandon Tanev and Joel Armia also found the back of the net for the Jets. Mark Scheifele added a power-play tally early in the third frame to extend their lead to 5-0.

The Wild were better in the second period, but they still couldn’t figure out Connor Hellebuyck, who ended up making 30 saves for his second straight shutout.

This is the third year in a row that Minnesota has been bounced in the opening round. In 2016, they were eliminated in six games by the Dallas Stars and last year they watched St. Louis take them down in five.

Even though they finished the year with over a 100 points, it’s another disappointing end for Bruce Boudreau’s squad. It’s tough to envision them making major changes to the roster because Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are under contract for six more years. It’ll be interesting to see what they can do to shake up this roster or their staff. General manager Chuck Fletcher has some work to do this summer.

As for the Jets, they move on to face the winner of the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche series. Winnipeg definitely looked explosive in Game 5, and they’ll need to keep rolling if they want to reach the Western Conference Final.

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.

Michal Neuvirth gets Game 5 start for Flyers; Couturier returns to lineup

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With their season on the line on Friday night the Philadelphia Flyers are making a change in goal.

Michal Neuvirth, who has played just 59 minutes of NHL hockey since Feb. 18, will get the Game 5 start in goal when they take on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Neuvirth replaced Brian Elliott in Philadelphia’s Game 4 loss on Wednesday night after Elliott gave up three goals on 17 shots, the second time he was benched in the first four games. The Flyers have already used three goalies in this series with Elliott, Neuvirth, and Petr Mrazek all getting playing time. None of them have played well.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

When healthy Neuvirth had the best numbers out of the group during the regular season, but health has been a constant battle for him the past few years.

The other big lineup news for the Flyers on Friday will be the fact that center Sean Couturier will be returning after sitting out Game 4 with a lower body injury. He may not be 100 percent, however, given that he took pregame line rushes on the team’s third line between Scott Laughton and Wayne Simmonds. Valtteri Filppula was skating on the first line alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.

Among the other changes for the Flyers: Robert Hagg will replace Travis Sanheim on defense, while Dale Weise will play on the fourth-line instead of Oskar Lindblom.

Related: Penguins will not have Patric Hornqvist in Game 5

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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.

Barkov, Karlsson, O’Reilly are 2018 Lady Byng Trophy finalists

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Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights, and Ryan O’Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres have been named as the three finalists for the 2018 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, the NHL announced on Friday. The award, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, is given “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

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

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Aleksander Barkov: The Panthers center certainly has the “high standard of playing ability” part down with a season that saw him lead the team with 78 points and finish tied for third in goals with 27. Barkov played the fifth-most minutes (1,743:32) among NHL forwards and only picked up seven minor penalties. This is the second time he’s been named a finalist in the last three seasons.

The Case for William Karlsson: Karlsson had a monster of a season with 43 goals and 78 points during the Golden Knights’ historic first year. In playing 1,534:47, the 25-year-old forward racked up only 12 PIMs. Should Karlsson win, he would become the first player to win an end-of-season trophy for a team in its inaugural season since Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers won the Byng and Hart Trophy and in 1979-80.

The Case for Ryan O'Reilly: O’Reilly missed one game this season and logged 1,686:10 of ice time for the Sabres. He recorded only one penalty all season, way back on Oct. 24 versus Detroit, a slashing call. His one penalty is the fewest among NHL players who suited up for at least 41 games this season. He’s a previous winner having taken home the trophy in 2014 while a member of the Colorado Avalanche.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Bill Masterton Trophy (Saturday)
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

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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.