Trendy Sabres vs. defending champion Bruins: Who’s the favorite in the Northeast?

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When it comes to making playoff predictions or choosing players in fantasy hockey, it’s just so much more fun to side with a trendy pick. Sure, it was probably the right move to select Ray Rice in the first round in fantasy football, but it didn’t provide the visceral thrill of a riskier move.

Many hockey pundits are locked in debates regarding the Northeast Division favorite: is it wiser to side with the defending champion Boston Bruins or the Buffalo Sabres (the champions of splashy off-season moves)? From what I gathered, a startling amount are going chic with the Sabres. (A few might even lean toward the Montreal Canadiens, which is batty if you consider their defense but intriguing when you ponder their easier schedule.)

It’s tough to figure out why people are discounting the Bruins after they won the 2011 Stanley Cup. Maybe it’s because the focus of that championship round shifted toward Roberto Luongo’s meltdowns rather than Tim Thomas’ brilliance. Perhaps the problem is that the Bruins were good during the 2010-11 season, but they weren’t overwhelming favorites like the last three champions. The Bruins’ biggest stars are a huge defenseman and an unorthodox goalie, so maybe the hunger for marquee offensive talent has something to do with it.

Either way, it is a tough race to call.

The case for the champs

The Bruins feature the best defenseman in Zdeno Chara. You can generate hours of debate about which team has the better American star in net, but the Bruins’ combined duo gets the nod because Tuukka Rask is more proven than Jhonas Enroth. Boston’s group of centers is impressive even with Marc Savard hurtling toward retirement; one assumes that the hockey world will give Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci more respect sooner or later. Derek Roy should be outstanding if he is 100 percent, but the Sabres’ pivots don’t seem quite as sturdy – especially if Ville Leino ends up being their second line center, as many expect. (That’s not to say that Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe lack talent if they’re in center spots this season – it’s just that they’re likely to get pushed around defensively.)

Depth is the key in Buffalo

That’s not to say that Buffalo goes into this battle without any weapons, though. Their advantage can be summarized with one word: depth. Their defense is much more versatile now that they added Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr. Leino complements an offense that has a plethora of dangerous wingers, from Thomas Vanek to Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford.

The depth argument does make some sense in the regular season, but it’s still surprising to see so many people brush off the Bruins’ hardware – mainly because people usually follow champions like lemmings.

In a way, this is battle between change and stability. The Sabres seem radically different while the Bruins only made minor alterations to a team that won three seven-game series and their first Cup since the days of Bobby Orr. Picking Boston isn’t as fun as siding with Buffalo, but if you ask me, it’s the best bet.

Vegas jumps all over Sharks with four first period goals

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The Vegas Golden Knights magic does not appear to be running out.

After stunning the hockey world by winning the Pacific Division in their inaugural season, Vegas easily dispatched the Los Angeles Kings in the first-round with a clean four-game sweep, setting the stage for a second-round matchup with the San Jose Sharks.

That second-round matchup opened on Thursday night and Vegas continued to do what it has done all season — jump all over teams early and with no mercy.

The Golden Knights opened the game with four consecutive goals in the first period from four different players as Cody Eakin, Erik Haula, Jonathan Marchessault, and Alex Tuch all scored goals.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Tuch’s goal was especially beautiful as he effortlessly cut through four Sharks defenders

Just in case you have forgotten, the Golden Knights ended up getting Tuch because the Minnesota Wild gave him to them to convince them to take Haula in the expansion draft, and they were able to get Marchessault from the Florida Panthers for taking on Reilly Smith‘s contract. A lot of general managers around the NHL made bad decisions to help build this team.

Along with the offensive outburst, Marc-Andre Fleury stopped all 15 shots he faced in the period.

Related: Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM

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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.

Penguins stun Capitals with Game 1 comeback

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With the Pittsburgh Penguins entering Game 1 of their second-round series without Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, it looked like a great opportunity for the Washington Capitals to jump on them early.

Through 45 minutes it seemed like that was going to happen.

Braden Holtby was stopping everything in net. Alex Ovechkin scored 25 seconds into the third period to give the Capitals a two-goal lead. They were in a great position to take the first game of the series.

Then, for already the third time this postseason, the Capitals allowed a two-goal lead to turn into a loss when the Penguins scored three consecutive goals in four minutes to storm back for a 3-2 win.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Pittsburgh comeback started with a Patric Hornqvist deflection of a Justin Schultz shot to finally beat Holtby.

Then the Sidney CrosbyJake Guentzel connection took over.

Crosby tied the game just three minutes after Hornqvist’s goal when he one-timed a shot off the rush that beat Holtby through the five-hole, and then Guentzel gave the Penguins the lead when he was able to get his stick on a Crosby shot to beat Holtby. Both Crosby and Guentzel have seven goals on this postseason, while Guentzel has factored into eight of the Penguins’ past nine goals over the past two games. He has scored five of them. Overall this postseason he has 15 total points (seven goals, eight assists) in seven games. This after after leading the league in postseason goal-scoring a season ago.

The Penguins have now won consecutive games without Malkin after taking Game 6 in Philadelphia on Sunday. That game also saw the Penguins erase a two-goal deficit thanks to four third period goals. Malkin traveled with the team to Washington, skated with the team on Thursday, and could be available for Game 2 on Sunday afternoon. The extra day off between games could be helpful for him.

Meanwhile, Penguins goalie Matt Murray was tremendous when he needed to be on Thursday night and played a huge role in the comeback, even if it might get lost in the third period goal-scoring outburst. The two goals he gave up were on odd-man rushes following defensive breakdowns in front of him (including one just 17 seconds into the game when Evgeny Kuznetsov was able to walk in alone), but other than that he was nearly flawless the rest of the way, stopping 32 of the 34 shots he faced.

Game 2 is Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.

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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.

NHL reportedly asked Brad Marchand to stop licking opposing players

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Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman regals readers with many great nuggets in his regular “31 Thoughts” column, but this bit on how the NHL reportedly responded to Brad Marchand‘s obnoxious kissing/licking of Leo Komarov from Game 1 (see the video above) might just take/taste the cake:

22. After Game 1 of the Toronto/Boston series, the Bruins got a, “We’d prefer if you could tell Brad Marchand to stop licking people” phone call from the NHL.

Seems fair enough?

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

That said, you wonder if the NHL might have sent the Boston Bruins pest a better message by, say, handing him a fine for unsportsmanlike conduct? The league could have attached a helpful message, such as: “There are better ways to tell Leo Komarov that you like his cologne.”

(One can only imagine how harsh the discipline might have been if Sean Avery was the one committing this … infraction.)

As a reminder, Marchand addressed his actions after that Game 1 win, not exactly apologizing for his actions:

You could say that Marchand had the last laugh being that the Boston Bruins ended up winning the series in Game 7 thanks to last night’s 7-4 win. Then again, Komarov didn’t get to dress for that game, so it doesn’t seem totally fair.

The bottom line is that Marchand revels in this sort of controversy, even as he’s gone from a good player with bad habits to an elite one who still makes questionable decisions.

Even last night’s Game 7 was an example of the kind of competitor he is. While Kasperi Kapanen shook him off for a memorable shorthanded go-ahead goal, Marchand got the last laugh, celebrating after an empty-netter that sapped any remaining drama from the game.

While Marchand surely gives the Bruins headaches with his antics and sometimes suspensions – don’t forget that there were years of rumors that his behavior might get him traded, at least before he jumped another level or two – he’s a huge part of a dominant line with Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. For all we know, Marchand wouldn’t be the same player if he avoided some of the uglier stuff. Hockey is a violent, emotional sport, after all.

Still, if you’re the Tampa Bay Lightning, you must be wondering: “Could we be the team to get the better of Marchand?” Few teams have the firepower to match that top line (not to mention a defender to make life tougher for them in Victor Hedman), so maybe the Bolts will find a way to push Marchand closer to becoming a net-positive?

One thing’s for sure: the NHL will be keeping an eye on what Marchand does, so he better … watch his mouth.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hall, MacKinnon, McDavid are 2018 Ted Lindsay Award finalists

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Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, and Connor McDavid were named the three finalists for the 2017-18 Ted Lindsay Award.

This award often stands as a fascinating alternative (or supplement) to the Hart Trophy, as this is essential the players’ choice. The NHLPA votes on who is “most outstanding player in the regular season,” while hockey media (The PHWA) determines the Hart based on wording (“player judged most valuable to his team”) that fuels many obnoxious debates.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Taylor Hall: Hall carried the Devils on his back this season, with the most obvious evidence being the gulf between his point total (93) and the second-best total on the team (Nico Hischier‘s 52). That might carry a bit more weight in Hart discussions, but it’s still very impressive.

Hall didn’t just hit 30 goals for the first time in his career, he nearly hit 40 at 39. His 54 assists also mark a new career-high, and it’s not as though he didn’t light up scoreboards even when he was scapegoated in Edmonton.

Hall brought his team up with him, certainly making life easier for Hischier during his rookie season.

The Case for Nathan MacKinnon: Nathan MacKinnon was right there (1.31) with Connor McDavid (1.32) in putting up point-per-game numbers relative to this era of scoring, generating 97 points in just 74 games. He mixes McDavid’s per-game brilliance with Hall’s “carrying his team to a playoff spot” factor.

The speedy center tied Brayden Point for the NHL’s most game-winning goals at 12.

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar rightfully gets kudos for turning the Avs around, but MacKinnon is the guy who made it easier to say goodbye to Matt Duchene (and move on from a historically bad 2016-17 season).

The Case for Connor McDavid: For the second straight season, McDavid broke 100 points, setting a new career-high with 108 (41 goals, 67 assists). Consider how he scored those points, too; while other 100+ point men Claude Giroux (103) and Nikita Kucherov (100) both scored 36 of their points on the power play, McDavid only generated 20 that way.

McDavid instead was an even-strength maestro, and even threw in four shorthanded points on top of that.

Much like Crosby and other star athletes adding wrinkles to their skill sets as time goes along, McDavid keeps getting better. That’s a frightening thing for the league, as he’s already the best.

McDavid was last year’s winner, by the way.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Jack Adams Award
Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award
King Clancy Trophy
Calder Trophy

Bill Masterton Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.