‘Universally respected’ Nill named new Stars GM

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The Dallas Stars officially announced today that Jim Nill is their new general manager.

Nill, the longtime assistant GM in Detroit, will take over a Stars side that’s missed the playoffs five straight seasons.

“Jim Nill, along with Ken Holland, has been at the core of the Detroit Red Wings front office for nearly two decades and we are extremely excited to secure him as our new general manager,” said Dallas owner Tom Gaglardi in a release. “Jim’s record in Detroit speaks for itself, contributing to four Stanley Cup championships, as well as drafting and developing some of the league’s best players.

“Jim is universally respected throughout the hockey world and we are very fortunate to have him as our general manager. We are confident that his leadership, expertise, work ethic and direction will position the club for consistent success once again.”

Nill also released a statement: “I am honored and very excited at this opportunity to be the Dallas Stars general manager and I want to thank Tom Gaglardi and [Stars president] Jim Lites for believing that I am the right person for this job. There have been a few other openings out there that have been presented to me in the past, but I was waiting for the right one to take, and coming to Dallas was that right one. I am eager to get started building on the pieces that already exist and helping return this team to the playoffs.”

Related: Ex-GM Joe Nieuwendyk: ‘I’m very proud of what we accomplished’

Ovechkin powers Capitals to another second-round series vs. Penguins

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When the Washington Capitals lost the opening two games of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets on home ice — including a Game 2 loss that seemed to only add to their playoff torment — it seemed as if they were headed for another bitterly disappointing exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Then they changed goalies.

Then Alex Ovechkin promised they were going back home tied at two.

Then they finally got a playoff bounce to go their way.

Then they won four games in a row, including Monday’s 6-3 Game 6 decision in Columbus, to eliminate the Blue Jackets and move on to the second-round where they will meet a very familiar nemesis — the Pittsburgh Penguins. For the third year in a row.

For now, though, the focus remains on what the Capitals accomplished in Round One and the way Ovechkin helped put the team on his back and lift them to the series win.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Do not let anybody ever tell you that Ovechkin doesn’t come through in the playoffs. If they try to, they are wrong. Horribly wrong. Laughably wrong. After his two-goal effort on Monday, he is now up to 51 goals and 98 total points in 103 career postseason games.

His 0.49 goals per game average is the second-highest among active NHL players that have played in at least 50 playoff games, trailing only Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

His 0.96 points per game average is sixth among that same group, trailing only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kucherov, Patrick Kane, and Ryan Getzlaf.

He has never had a postseason series in his career where he did not score at least one goal. Don’t think that sounds impressive? Consider that out of the top-25 active postseason goal-scorers in the NHL, all of them — except for Ovechkin — have had at least one postseason series where they were held without a goal. Only four of those players have had fewer than two postseason series without a goal. Scoring goals in the modern day NHL is difficult. It is even more difficult in the playoffs. There is something to be said for that level of consistency.

He brought it in the first-round against the Blue Jackets scoring five goals and adding three assists. He had at least two points in four of the six games, including three of the Capitals’ wins.

On Monday, those two goals were massive for the Capitals, scoring them just six minutes apart in the second period to help them open up a 3-1 lead. The second goal was a vintage Ovechkin power play goal that he scored from his office on top of the circle.

The greatest sign of dominance in professional sports is when the other team knows exactly what you are going to do, where you are going to do it from, and how you are going to do it, and they are still powerless to stop  you. That is Alex Ovechkin on the power play.

That power play unit was 9-for-27 in the series.

Now the Capitals move on to the second round where they have to play the team they’ve had issues trying to solve. The Penguins and Capitals have met in the playoffs 10 times before. The Penguins have won nine of them, including in the second-round in each of the past two seasons and all three times in the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin era.

Will this be the year the Capitals get over that hump? They are not quite as deep as the teams that could not do it the past two years, but Braden Holtby appears to be locked in in net after regaining his starting job and Ovechkin is playing great. Both are great signs. If the past three matchups between these two franchises are any indication it is sure to be an amazing series that probably goes the distance.

Get ready for it.

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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.

Andersen, Maple Leafs shut down Bruins to force Game 7

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The formula for the Toronto Maple Leafs in their first-round series against the Boston Bruins has been a simple one: When Frederik Andersen is great, they win. When he is not, they get blown out.

In the past two games, both with the Maple Leafs facing elimination, they have been fortunate enough to get the “great” Andersen. His 32-save effort in Toronto’s 3-1 Game 6 win on Monday night is a big reason this series is now headed for a winner-take-all Game 7 in Boston on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Maple Leafs have leaned on Andersen a ton all season, not only giving him a massive workload that saw him have to play in 66 games (second most in the league, just one shy of the NHL lead), but also forcing him to face the most shots of any goaltender in the NHL.

Nearly 200 more than the next closest goalie, to be exact. That reliance has continued in this series.

He may not have finished the season with the best numbers in the league, but there is a lot to be said for a goalie that can play that many games, face that many shots, and give his team above average goaltending the way Andersen did.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The combination of a young, offensive-minded team with a suspect defense that bleeds shots against the way the Maple Leafs do can put a ton of pressure on the goalie. If that goalie is not on his game, things can get ugly in a hurry, just as they did early in the series when Andersen struggled and Toronto was absolutely crushed on the scoreboard and looked to be on their way to a rather quiet and unimpressive postseason exit.

But in the three Maple Leafs wins, Andersen has been a difference maker, especially over the past two where he has stopped 74 of the 78 shots he has faced to help keep their season going.

It is not as if the Bruins haven’t had chances in those games, because they have. Andersen has simply been up to the task.

It would be hard to argue that the Maple Leafs have been the better team at any point in this series because the Bruins have looked downright dominant at times. But in a short series there are a lot of variables that can completely turn things upside down. Goaltending is always at the top of that list.

Over the past two games the Maple Leafs have been getting it.

But it was not just the goaltending on Monday that helped give Toronto another game. They also received big contributions from two of their young stars as William Nylander and Mitch Marner scored goals, with Marner’s goal — his second of the series — going in the books as the game-winner.

Veteran center Tomas Plekanec, a trade deadline acquisition that has at times struggled mightily since coming over from Montreal, also looks to have some new life as this series has progressed and helped put the game away with his second goal of the series late in the third period.

Then there was the penalty kill. With just under seven minutes to play in regulation, the Maple Leafs clinging to a one-goal lead, Marner was sent off for delay of game for shooting the puck over the glass in the defensive zone. The ensuing penalty kill was clinical by Toronto as they completely shut down the Bruins’ power play and nearly scored a shorthanded goal when Kasperi Kapanen broke in alone on Tuukka Rask, only to have Rask just get enough of his shot to send it wide.

Now it all comes down to one game on Wednesday night.

The big question for the Maple Leafs will be the same one that has existed this entire series: Which Frederik Andersen is going to show up? If it is the one they had over the past two games, they might actually pull off this comeback and move on to the second round for the first time since 2003. If it is the one that showed up in the three losses, it might be another ugly result if the Bruins keep generating shots and chances the way they have in the first six games.

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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.

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.