Kopitar brings his all-around game back to the Kings

Anze Kopitar doesn’t look like a guy who is recovering from the first serious injury of his career. These days he looks like a normal, healthy hockey player. He’s taller than most, he’s visibly stronger than most, and his mop top is curlier than most. The little tell-tale signs that clue outsiders that he’s an imposing professional athlete. Just looking at him—is this really the guy who suffered a gruesome injury towards the end of the regular season last year?

He looks exactly as you’d expect a professional athlete to look. Yet simple visuals don’t tell the entire story of the last six months of his life, the lost expectations that followed him to the locker room on that fateful Saturday afternoon last March, or the expectations that now sit on his healthy, broad shoulders.  By all accounts, Anze Kopitar is just another healthy NHL player this preseason looking to get his season started on the right foot (no pun intended). Kings head coach Terry Murray has said that Kopitar has put in the offseason work that the organization expected as he recovered from his injury:

“Kopitar is coming back off of a very serious injury and he looks great,” he said. “He spent a hard summer again with the conditioning program. He looks good in the first few days of the training camp. He’s a great player and he just keeps getting better as he gets more mature and experienced in the game.”

Despite seeing his season cut short, Kopitar still managed to score 25 goals and 72 points in 75 games. The seven games he missed at the end of the season were the first games he had missed since his rookie year in 2006-07. But it wasn’t just the games he missed—it was the timing of his injury.

Kopitar recently spoke about watching his team perform in the playoffs without him. “Yeah, that was definitely tough. The timing of my injury was bad and obviously missing the playoffs was [bad]. Just not being able to help them on the ice, it was tough to watch.”

The casual observer sees Kopitar, the flashy offense, and the point-per-game stats and understands that losing their #1 center created a huge void in the Kings lineup. But people around the team will tell you that it wasn’t the offense that the Kings missed the most during their first round series against the San Jose Sharks. In the six playoff games without their star center, the Kings still managed 20 goals. Instead, it was Kopitar’s two-way ability and presence in the important moments of a game that the Kings missed most.

“Last season was probably the best season I’ve had as a two-way player,” Kopitar said. “The stats came out a little better than previous years. I just want to build on that. I don’t want to be just pushing the offensive side right now because we have Mike [Richards] coming in and [Jarret] Stoll being our third guy. But the game isn’t going to change for me.”

He has the skill of a small, talented player. He has the defensive awareness of a man with half his skill. And has the maturity of players twice his age.

Over the course of the preseason, Kopitar will look to regain the timing that made him an all-star last season. Management and the coaching staff have both acknowledge that he’s 100% and Murray has explained that he has no hesitation to put him out in any situation. The head coach went on to admit that, instead of protecting Kopitar in the preseason, he expected to push him a little harder to “get him back into it.”

For the Kings to accomplish all of their lofty goals this season, they’ll need a healthy Kopitar to continue to grow into the true #1 center that he’s shown signs of becoming. The team is deep down the middle with new acquisition Mike Richards and the versatile Jarret Stoll, but Kopitar still sits at the head of the class. As far as 1-2 punches go, the Kopitar/Richards duo is as formidable as any in the Western Conference.

The next step is to show the league they as good on the ice as they are on paper.  A healthy Kopitar will go a long way towards exhibiting their strength for the entire league to see.

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.

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.