Eric Staal discusses falling short of playoffs, Erik Cole’s departure and Canes’ changes

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Considering the NHL’s lengthy 82-game seasons, it’s a bit surprising how often a playoff berth can come down to a team’s final contest. The Carolina Hurricanes stared that situation straight in the eyes in April – and ultimately blinked – as the Tampa Bay Lightning handed them an embarrassing 6-2 defeat.

When you get walloped like the Canes did in such a big game, the loss probably lingers for everyone involved with the team. That being said, the heaviest burden might have fallen on the shoulders of the team’s best player and captain, Eric Staal. Staal assisted on one of Carolina’s two goals while registering a -4 rating in that decisive game, a performance that must have left a bitter taste in the former Stanley Cup champion’s mouth. Whether it’s fair or not, that pressure comes with the territory when you’re a four-time All-Star making $7.5 million (with an $8.25 million annual cap hit).

Staal admits that he will allow that feeling to linger a bit for motivational purposes, but also noted that there will be some new faces in Carolina next season. While the Hurricanes will probably maintain their image of being an attacking offense with a shaky defense that leans heavily on the underrated work of goalie Cam Ward, there’s no denying that the team will be a little different.

The Charlotte Observer’s Chip Alexander caught up with Staal to discuss the departure of his successful linemate Erik Cole along with some of the team’s off-season additions including forwards Anthony Stewart and Alexei Ponikarovsky.

“He’s been a good friend and a guy I got to know real well, coming in at a young age in this league,” Staal said of Cole. “It was a lot of fun. But that’s the way this business works. He’s gotten a great opportunity in Montreal and great security for his family. I’m excited for him.”

(snip)

Then there were the free-agent acquisitions: Stewart, Ponikarovsky, center Tim Brent and goalie Brian Boucher. Finally, there was defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup last season after being traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“We picked up some good players, including some who might have been a little under the radar like Anthony Stewart,” Staal said. “Obviously, Ponikarovsky has had a lot of good seasons under his belt although he was injured last season. Brent had a good strong season with the (Maple) Leafs as a fourth-line center and played his role to a T, which is what we’re looking for. And Boucher is a quality goaltender and quality guy.”

The Canes are investing $12.75 million over three years in Kaberle. Staal called him a proven player who “has a great presence on the blue line” and should help improve the power play.

Skeptics will point to Kaberle’s ineffectiveness when it came to improving the Boston Bruins’ power play, but the former Toronto Maple Leafs PP quarterback might benefit from having more time to build chemistry with his teammates (rather than learning on the fly after being traded at the deadline). If recent trends continue, an improved power play could make a significant difference for Carolina; they’ve received more man advantage opportunities than any team in the NHL since the lockout.

An improved power play would be wonderful, but it’s hard to argue against the notion that the Canes took a step back during the summer. It’s understandable that they balked at matching Montreal’s hefty contract for Cole, but they’re essentially swapping that rejuvenated power forward and Cory Stillman for Stewart and Ponikarovsky. It’s hard to picture that being anything but a downgrade and there’s also the worry that Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner might have trouble matching his fantastic first season.

Staal scored 76 points last season, which is about what you can expect from the big and talented center since he hasn’t come very close to his breakthrough 100-point campaign in 05-06. Carolina will probably need quite a bit more than that from their captain if they hope to make the playoffs in 2011-12, though.

Ovechkin shrugs off Caps’ Game 1 loss in very Ovechkin way

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You know, it happens. Maybe not always in those exact words.

The Washington Capitals carried the play during portions of their 3-2 Game 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and even down 1-0 in the series, just about every player seemed happy with their overall game.

(Granted, Braden Holtby picked apart two of the three goals he allowed, and so on.)

Still, Alex Ovechkin shrugged off the disappointment in a way that wasn’t quite Rated R, but probably ranks in the PG-13 range:

The penalty element is interesting, though.

When asked after the loss about the lack of power plays, Matt Niskanen merely offered a “no comment.”

The Penguins experienced some sprawling moments, yet they avoided taking a penalty each time. Often, when a team carries long sequences of play, they’ll go on the PP (especially with home-ice advantage) … but not the Capitals in Game 1.

via Natural Stat Trick

It’s a situation to watch as the Capitals hope to even the series against the Penguins with Game 2 coming on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. (You can watch online, via the NBC Sports App and follow the livestream here).

Holtby takes blame for two big goals in Caps’ loss to Pens

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It’s just about a consensus that the Washington Capitals believed that they generally played a strong game despite falling 3-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Braden Holtby‘s teammates likely wouldn’t agree with his assessment that the Game 1 loss is on his shoulders, but the perennial Vezina candidate took the blame for Sidney Crosby‘s first goal of the night and Nick Bonino‘s game-winner.

Noting that the Penguins are a dangerous rush team – making them a different threat than the Toronto Maple Leafs – Holtby believes that he should have had his glove in position to stop the 1-0 goal. He said he’s capable of making such a stop and “will next time.” Check out Crosby’s two goals below, with Holtby having a beef with the first one:

It’s really difficult to place too much blame on Holtby for giving up Nick Bonino’s game-winner, as it seemed like a great rush play that few goalies would be able to stop.

Judge for yourself in the highlights:

The Penguins were ultimately able to take a 1-0 series lead, but the Capitals seem capable of shrugging off questions about frustrations, even with naysayers starting to gain confidence in claiming that there will be more than the same.

If Washington’s going to get over this big hurdle, Holtby is likely to be a big part in doing so.

Fleury, Penguins hang on for Game 1 win against Capitals

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The Pittsburgh Penguins pulled off a 3-2 Game 1 win against the Washington Capitals, but Thursday’s thriller probably prompted a sigh of relief.

(Washington, meanwhile, might have uttered a sigh at such unpleasantly familiar feelings.)

The first period ended 0-0 in part thanks to Jake Guentzel‘s sprawling “kick save.” Business really picked up in the second after Sidney Crosby raced off to two quick goals, only for Alex Ovechkin to give Washington a shot thanks to a booming goal and some physical play.

It sure felt like this one might head to overtime, especially after Evgeny Kuznetsov was tying things up and flapping his arms like wings. That was not to be, however, as Nick Bonino took advantage of a pretty area pass to beat Braden Holtby for the decisive tally.

Now, it was only decisive because Marc-Andre Fleury was at the top of his game. Oh, and also because the Penguins did a collective Guentzel impression in frantically denying a tying tally.

Makes you want to wipe some sweat from your brow, eh?

The Capitals dominated by just about every statistical measure … except, of course, goals on the scoreboard. Pittsburgh will gladly take that 1-0 series lead, then.

Expect a desperate Washington team in Game 2, which airs at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday. You can watch it online and via the NBC Sports App (click here for the livestream link).

Karlsson makes difference for Senators vs. Lundqvist, Rangers

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Swedish superstars Henrik Lundqvist and Erik Karlsson were both stupendous in Game 1 between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators.

Still, it was Karlsson’s game-winning goal (from a seemingly impossible angle) against Lundqvist that made the difference as the Senators beat the Rangers 2-1 on Thursday. With that, the Senators are up 1-0 in the series.

That Karlsson goal really deserves a special look.

Whether you blame that 2-1 tally on Lundqvist or not, the Rangers would be foolish to do anything but praise their red-hot franchise goalie. He stopped all 21 Senators shots in the first period and ultimately made 41 out of 43 stops in defeat.

Craig Anderson was strong in his own right, mind you, stopping 34 out of 35 shots (including all 28 at even-strength) to help Ottawa take that tight contest.

Anderson’s strong play highlights the fact that Rangers – Senators doesn’t merely come down to Lundqvist vs. Karlsson … but even so, both Swedish superstars really did stand out in this one.

Game 2 airs on NBC at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday. You can also watch online and via the NBC Sports App; click here for the livestream link.