Five Q’s: Capitals-Rangers preview

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Will a happy Alex Ovechkin translate into team success?

Last year, when the Capitals faced the Rangers in the second round, Alex Ovechkin — one of the NHL’s biggest stars — played just 13:36 in a 3-2 Game 2 victory. The reason? Then-Washington coach Dale Hunter didn’t trust his captain defensively, often leaving Ovechkin on the bench when the Caps held a lead. This year, Ovechkin has thrived under new coach Adam Oates, moving from the the left wing to the right and leading the league in goals, with 32. But Ovechkin has gone into the playoffs as the league’s top sniper before, and it hasn’t translated into anything better than a second-round defeat.

Will Rick Nash make his mark?

Rick Nash has scored lots of goals in his career, but he’s still only played four playoff games. In his first season with the Rangers after being traded from Columbus, Nash had 21 goals in 44 games. Now comes the opportunity for the 28-year-old to make his mark in games that count. “It’s something all the great athletes have done,” he said. “It’s time to step up now.” With his big body and ability to shield defenders, Nash will also be key for a New York side that will want to control the puck in the Washington end as much as possible.

Will Marc Staal be back?

The Rangers’ defenseman has been out of the lineup since being struck in the eye with a puck in early March. It’s unlikely he’ll be ready for Game 1, but the fact he’s been practicing with the team is a sign he may be ready to play soon. Not only is Staal a good defensive defenseman, his return would mean fewer hard minutes for Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. Last year, two of the seven Caps-Rangers games went to overtime. By the time New York met the Devils in the conference finals, fatigue appeared to be a factor, even if John Tortorella refused to admit it.

Can the Rangers stay out of the penalty box?

Because the Capitals have the NHL’s best power play. Washington — armed with the likes of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green — scored on an impressive 26.8 percent of its man advantages during the regular season. Meanwhile, the Rangers’ had only an average penalty kill (15th, 81.1%). Of course, the best way to negate a good power play has always been to avoid taking penalties. New York is normally a disciplined team, and would be advised to remain that way.

Can Braden Holtby match Henrik Lundqvist?

Holtby was rock-solid in goal for the Caps down the stretch. In April, the 23-year-old had nine wins against just one regulation loss, registering a save percentage of .937. Still, he only has one postseason of experience compared to Lundqvist’s six. What does he think about that? “There are things that you can gain from experience in terms of your play but when it comes down to it that stuff is thrown out the window,” said Holtby. “You just have to perform, you have to believe that we’re the better team and you go from there. You throw experience out the window and you just play.”

For all the first-round playoff previews, click here.

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.

Barkov, Karlsson, O’Reilly are 2018 Lady Byng Trophy finalists

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Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights, and Ryan O’Reilly of the Buffalo Sabres have been named as the three finalists for the 2018 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, the NHL announced on Friday. The award, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, is given “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

The winner will be announced during the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas on June 20.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Case for Aleksander Barkov: The Panthers center certainly has the “high standard of playing ability” part down with a season that saw him lead the team with 78 points and finish tied for third in goals with 27. Barkov played the fifth-most minutes (1,743:32) among NHL forwards and only picked up seven minor penalties. This is the second time he’s been named a finalist in the last three seasons.

The Case for William Karlsson: Karlsson had a monster of a season with 43 goals and 78 points during the Golden Knights’ historic first year. In playing 1,534:47, the 25-year-old forward racked up only 12 PIMs. Should Karlsson win, he would become the first player to win an end-of-season trophy for a team in its inaugural season since Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers won the Byng and Hart Trophy and in 1979-80.

The Case for Ryan O'Reilly: O’Reilly missed one game this season and logged 1,686:10 of ice time for the Sabres. He recorded only one penalty all season, way back on Oct. 24 versus Detroit, a slashing call. His one penalty is the fewest among NHL players who suited up for at least 41 games this season. He’s a previous winner having taken home the trophy in 2014 while a member of the Colorado Avalanche.

2018 NHL Award finalists
Bill Masterton Trophy (Saturday)
Norris Trophy
Selke Trophy
Vezina Trophy

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins, Jets, Predators look to advance

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Game 5: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET (Penguins lead 3-1)
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Call: John Forslund, Pierre McGuire
Series preview
Stream here

Game 5: Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET (Jets lead 3-1)
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Call: Dave Randorf, Louis Debrusk
Series preview
Stream here

Game 5: Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET (Predators lead 3-1)
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Call: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Brian Boucher
Series preview
Stream

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Leafs ‘under the gun,’ especially Matthews and Kadri

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Nazem Kadri told reporters that he didn’t apologize to his teammates about the three-game suspension he received for a hit on Tommy Wingels, explaining that he was sticking up for Mitch Marner.

An apology might not be necessary, but the bottom line is that Toronto Maple Leafs fans likely expect a lot from Kadri – not to mention star center Auston Matthews – as this team tries to fight back from down 3-1 in their series against the Boston Bruins.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Letdowns

The Maple Leafs dropped two of three games with Kadri out of the lineup, prompting plenty of “What if?” questions, even if people merely wondered how different things would be if it was just a one-game suspension.

Regardless, when it came to last night’s 3-1 loss in Game 4, Mike Babcock didn’t mince words about Toronto failing to exploit the Bruins’ absence in the form of Patrice Bergeron.

“I’m assuming that he thought he was going to come tonight and dominate the game. That’s what I thought,” Babcock said of Matthews. “That didn’t happen …”

Auston not scoring often

Ultimately, Matthews has been limited to one point (the game-winner in Game 3) through the first four games of this series. That’s a disappointment for the NHL’s biggest jersey seller, especially since he showed nicely during his first playoff series, collecting five points during that memorable first-round bout with the Washington Capitals during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It’s easy to throw Matthews under the bus, and Babcock essentially admits that not enough was there last night.

Still, quite a bit of this comes down to bounces. Matthews has generated more than four shots on goal per game (17 overall) so far in this series, suffering with a Rick Nash-like 5.9 shooting percentage during this postseason. Such numbers tend to balance out over time; note that Matthews scored four goals in six games during that Capitals series on 16 SOG, good for a 25-percent shooting rate that would be unsustainable during an 82-game regular season.

There’s also at least some reason to wonder if Matthews is at least somewhat limited by the injury that cost him 10 games from Feb. 22 until his return to the lineup on March 22. As brilliant as he was (six goals, seven assists for 13 points in nine games), maybe he’s missing a few mph on his fastball against unforgiving competition like Zdeno Chara?

Either way, Matthews (and William Nylander) have struggled while the Bruins’ top-line forwards Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak find ways to feast upon the Maple Leafs’ mistakes.

Kadri has plenty to prove

Expectations will be high for Kadri, too, and his offensive numbers have been modest over a small sample size of playoff appearances.

So far, Kadri has generated two goals and six assists in 14 career playoff games, piling up 35 penalty minutes. At minimum, Toronto would like to see his finishing touch pay off a bit more in the postseason after the agitating center generated 32 goals in each of the past two regular seasons.

Much of that can be filed under “easier said than done,” particularly when Tuukka Rask is on his game.

Under the gun

That said, Babcock believes that players like Matthews and Kadri should “embrace and enjoy” the pressure.

” … No pressure means you have no chance. Go to the Olympic games, if you’ve got no chance for a medal there’s no pressure,” Babcock said during Friday’s press conference.

“Do you want to be that person or the person under the gun? I want to be under the gun. We want to build our program so big that we’re under the gun, we’re supposed to win. Like I said, I talked about those fans, we’ve got an unbelievable fan group. They expect us to be good. We want to be good. Let’s be good.”

Kadri, Matthews, and the Maple Leafs will get their chance to “be good” enough to keep this series alive in Game 5 on Saturday. You can tune in on NBC, with puck drop scheduled for 8 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.