Top 10 NHL stories to watch…once the All-Star break is over

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The NHL All-Star break, which begins Thursday, is the last deep breath everyone gets to take before the playoff stretch drive. So with that in mind, here are 10 stories we’ll be covering closely in the coming months, once everyone’s filled up their lungs this weekend.

Will Sidney Crosby be back this season?

We’ve covered Crosby’s battle with concussions from time to time on PHT (and by “time to time,” we mean “obsessively”), and don’t expect that to change. He’s the best player in the world, and at just 24 years old, it’s not being overly dramatic to say his career is in jeopardy. Not to mention, if he can return in time for the playoffs, the Penguins go from probable Stanley Cup contenders to definite contenders.

The Feb. 27 trade deadline

This one has the potential to be epic, and we’re not just saying that because the trade deadline is great for the blogging business (though it is). Combine a ton of cap space for a number of Cup contenders (Chicago and Detroit leap to mind) with an unusually high supply of big names that have come up in trade speculation – from Bobby Ryan to Jeff Carter to Ryan Suter – and we could be in store for some blockbuster deals.

Teams that were expected to make the playoffs, but might not

The Washington Capitals, for example. Just imagine for a minute if they don’t make it. Would GM George McPhee have any hope of keeping his job? Would a new GM come in and blow things up? How would Alex Ovechkin handle it? Would Penguins fans ever stop laughing? Another team to watch is Los Angeles. The Kings still have the worst offense in the NHL, though things have gotten slightly better under new coach Darryl Sutter.

Teams that were expected to miss the playoffs, but might not

Ottawa, Florida, Minnesota, Colorado, Dallas, Calgary – all remain in the mix. To address just one of those teams, nobody expected the Senators (27-19-6) to be where they are right now, and that includes their owner. But while the Sens head into the break with a five-point lead over eighth-place New Jersey, we’ve seen already how quickly surprise teams can fall in the standings. (Ahem: Wild.)

The pursuit of a top seed

A quick glance at the standings and some fairly unexceptional teams occupy the seventh and eighth spots in each conference. Unexceptional compared to last year at least, when Vancouver won the Presidents’ Trophy and was rewarded with a first-round matchup against defending champion Chicago. The Blackhawks, who were treading water for most of the regular season, kicked it into gear once they got their hate on and took the Canucks to overtime of Game 7. While still possible, a scenario like that seems less likely this time around, meaning a first or second seed could be a significant advantage. Third and fourth? Not so much.

Will the Leafs finally make the playoffs?

The richest team in the league in the capital of the hockey world (self-anointed, but probably true) hasn’t played a postseason game since 2004. Miss the playoffs again and it would make seven straight seasons. Which when you think about it, is pretty pathetic. GM Brian Burke’s job is likely safe regardless, but coach Ron Wilson, contract extension and all, would have to be out the door. (Right?) Expect Toronto to be active prior to the trade deadline to boost the top six forwards. The Leafs are one of the rare clubs with a surplus of defensemen, a commodity that’s always in heavy demand heading into the playoffs.

A new CBA needs to be negotiated

The current agreement expires in September, with talks between the league and players’ union expected to start after the All-Star break. For certain, the NHL is in better shape financially compared to the 2004-05 lockout that cost an entire season. However, if the owners try to cut the players’ share as we saw recently in the NBA, things could get…tense. New union leader Donald Fehr is no pushover, and by blocking realignment he’s already sent a message to Gary Bettman that the players won’t be bullied.

The race for the Hart Trophy

The league’s leading scorer, Evgeni Malkin, is the current top candidate, having put the Penguins on his back minus Crosby and a host of other key Pittsburgh players that have suffered long-term injuries. But remember what Corey Perry did down the stretch last year. Anything can happen (including an injury to Malkin.) Claude Giroux, Marian Hossa, Pavel Datsyuk, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews are all in the MVP conversation. Shea Weber should be too, but the Hart rarely goes to defensemen.

Supplemental discipline as the games become more important

OK, let’s say the Capitals have five games left, they’re neck and neck with two other teams for the final playoff spot and, uh-oh, Ovechkin leaves his feet again to hit a guy. What does Brendan Shanahan do? Throw the book at Ovi? Go easy on him? Hide under some jackets? Not saying it’ll involve Ovechkin, but something like this is bound to happen in some shape or form.

The final days of the Phoenix Coyotes?

When the deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg was announced in May, the playoffs were still underway. And chances are, that deal didn’t come together overnight. So that gives you an idea of how much time is left for the league to find an owner that will keep the Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena. That is, assuming the NHL isn’t willing to give status quo another season in Arizona, which would likely necessitate the city of Glendale covering millions and millions more of the team’s losses. This really does seem like the last stand for the franchise in its current location. Granted, it’s felt like that before. Many times actually. But this really, really feels like it.

WATCH LIVE: Bruins, Capitals look to advance to Round 2

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Game 6: Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (Bruins lead series 3-2)
NBCSN
Call: Mike Emrick, Pierre McGuire, Eddie Olczyk
Series preview
Stream

Game 6: Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET (Capitals lead series 3-2)
CNBC
Call: John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk, Joe Micheletti
Series preview
Stream

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Holtby has been lights out for Capitals

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Heading into this season, Braden Holtby‘s calling card was consistency. Maybe he didn’t churn out the absolute best campaign every time, but in winning at least 41 games and generating at least a .923 save percentage from 2014-15 to 2016-17, Holtby put in elite work like clockwork for the Washington Capitals.

The 2017-18 season, meanwhile, has been more like a roller coaster ride.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division once again, but sometimes that success came despite Holtby. He managed 34 wins, yet Holtby struggled with a backup-level .907 save percentage, confessing to fatigue when things really slipped.

Things hit their lowest point toward the end of 2017-18, as impressive backup Philipp Grubauer outright won the Capitals’ starting job, suiting up as the top goalie for Washington’s first two playoff games against Columbus. Of course, both of those games ended in losses, and ultimately opened the door for Holtby to redeem himself.

So far, Holtby’s done more than that. Rather than merely grabbing the starting job, the 28-year-old is looking a lot like the elite goalie we’ve almost come to expect in a time when goalie output can be downright erratic.

Holtby stepped in for Grubauer in Game 2, giving up a goal on eight shots as the Blue Jackets won 5-4 in overtime. Things have picked up since Holtby was in net from the start, which really makes sense since the Capitals netminder is known for his focus.

The Capitals won three straight games to take their current 3-2 series lead, and Holtby’s been outstanding, holding up to the pressure of having little room for error. Two of the past three wins have been in overtime, while only one of Holtby’s appearances didn’t involve a game going beyond regulation (five of the series’ six games hit OT overall).

So far through four games and three starts, Holtby’s stopped 102 out of 109 shots for a splendid save percentage of .936.

Maybe the standout moments came during the third period of Game 5. While a deft Oliver Bjorkstrand deflection eluded Holtby early on in the third, Holtby was the reason Washington was able to survive into overtime, as the Blue Jackets generated an absurd 16-1 shots on goal advantage during that span.

It’s easy to consider the Capitals’ history of playoff disappointments and assume that Holtby’s failed to convert regular season brilliance to strong postseason goaltending, yet Holtby’s long been a dependable presence when the games matter the most.

Despite a 32-31 career playoff record, Holtby’s given the Capitals a chance to win on most nights, sporting a fantastic .932 save percentage so far during his playoff career. That’s the best mark for goalies who’ve played in at least 30 postseason games since 2011-12, and the gap widens when you zoom out to netminders who’ve played in at least 50 during that same span.

Playing at such a high level clearly takes its toll, and you wonder if recent setbacks might serve as a blessing in disguise for Holtby.

Most directly, he got a breather down the stretch, which is significant considering the workload he’s carried the past few seasons.

Beyond that, watching playoff games from the bench had to light a fire under him, possibly reminding him of the earlier days of his career when little was certain. After all, Holtby had to earn his spot as a fourth-round pick (93rd overall in 2008).

Goalies might be creatures of habit who prefer getting the most reps and knowing when their starts are coming, but perhaps it’s human nature to fall into a routine and not be at your very best, particularly when you’re serving as a workhorse goalie.

Whatever the case may be, Holtby’s playing some of his best hockey, and that’s making the Capitals a tough team to beat. If the Blue Jackets want to avoid elimination tonight, they’ll need to get the best of Holtby. That appears to be a far tougher task in April than it seemed to be mere months ago.

Game 6 airs on CNBC at 7:30 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

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.

Pittsburgh funeral home celebrates Flyers’ playoff exit with custom prayer cards

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Any time one of the Battle of Pennsylvania participants can get one up on the other, they celebrate having bragging rights loudly and proudly.

The Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday in six games in their first-round matchup and as you can imagine, the Steel City faithful have been enjoying it. On top of winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, they’ve also been able to relish winning three of the last four series that these teams have played.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Adding to the chorus of chirps is the Patrick T. Lanigan Funeral Home and Crematory in East Pittsburgh, who said goodbye to the dearly departed Flyers in their own unique way with prayer cards.

Via Facebook:

Patrick T. Lanigan Funeral Home & Crematory

“Help us send our condolences to the Philadelphia Flyers and their fans, with these custom prayer cards memorializing their run in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Share for all of our friends in Philly!” read the caption of their Facebook post.

The Flyers have lost six times in the Stanley Cup Final since winning back-to-back titles in 1974 and 1975. The Penguins, meanwhile, have won five championships in six Final appearances since 1991, something that’s certainly never been lost on the city in their battles with Philadelphia over the years.

Now Flyers fans can root for their second favorite hockey team: “Anyone playing the Penguins.”

Stick-tap Benstonium

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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.

Can Bill Peters find NHL success with Flames?

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The search for a new head coach lasted less than a week with Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving having interest in hiring only one man — Bill Peters.

It was six days ago that Treliving canned Gulutzan and said his next head coach would have NHL experience. Peters would decide on Friday to opt-out of the final year of his deal with the Carolina Hurricanes, which also meant walking away from a guaranteed $1.6 million salary for 2018-19. He immediately became favorite and the only candidate for the job.

“This is an individual I’m familiar with. This is the individual at the time once we made a change I was focused upon,” Treliving said on Monday. “I was very familiar with the field that was out there. There’s some great candidates. I was focused on Bill.”

Peters, who is an Alberta native and worked with Treliving at the 2016 IIHF World Championships, comes with four seasons of experience as an NHL head coach having led the Carolina Hurricanes since 2014-15. Those four seasons weren’t very successful, however, as the team finished with a combined 137-138-53 record and zero playoff appearances.

That lack of success wasn’t enough to deter Treliving from making the hire. The decision was based more on their brief time together on Canada’s staff two years ago and intel the GM has gathered over the years.

“He’s prepared. I think he’s a student of the modern game. I think he’s relationship-driven with players,” Treliving said. “He’s honest and direct, and as you’ll quickly come to realize, he’s going to be a tremendous addition to our staff.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

With Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton locked up long-term, Peters arrives in Calgary with a roster that has plenty of talent on both ends of the rink. The Hurricanes were a good possession team under him, and that’s one thing the new head coach wants to continue to see with his new roster.

“We’re going to play a game that’s puck possession, ‘D’ active. Face-offs are important — that’s your first 50/50 battle of your shift is a face-off,” Peters said. “I want to have the puck, I want to possess the puck. I want to make sure we have value on the puck when we have it, make good plays, strong plays with it, be hard on it, be a hard team to play against, take advantage of playing on the good ice at the Saddledome.”

While Carolina’s offensive numbers were fine under Peters, the defensive side did not improve. Yeah, there was some terrible goaltending that was a hindrance but the shot suppression did not get better with the Hurricanes allowing an average of 2.02 even strength shots more per game from Year 1 to Year 4.

Peters takes over a Flames team that saw a second half swoon destroy their playoff hopes and lead to the dismissal of their head coach. In Carolina, there was hope in the early days for growth with a young roster, but after a lack of progress as expectations increased during his tenure, it was clear what he was implementing wasn’t working and he could not get through to his players.

Wanting to be a top-10 team in primary statisical categories, the expectations are even higher now for Peters to succeed with the Flames. Will he get a different response here in Calgary compared to Carolina?

“I want to be a team that gets off to a good start, sustains that quality start and has a playoff spot wrapped up and you’re fighting for home ice,” Peters said. “That’s what I would love to see.”

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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.