Playoffs Today: Penguins, Islanders look for series edge

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We got back-to-back doubleheaders today, starting with two afternoon games on NBC before the action moves to NBCSN in the evening.

All of the games can be watched on NBC Sports Live Extra in addition to the channels mentioned below.

Game 3: New York Islanders host Pittsburgh Penguins (12:00 p.m. ET, NBC)
Series tied at 1-1

Sidney Crosby made his return in Game 2 on Friday and led the Penguins to a 3-1 lead through 20 minutes. Pittsburgh had already taken Game 1 by a score of 5-0, so it looked like they might be too much for the eighth seed Islanders. Instead the Islanders scored three unanswered goals in the last two periods to even the series.

“For us being in the playoffs and losing the 1st game the way we did, this game was a little bit of a statement game,” Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov said.

But can the New York Islanders build off of that victory? They were just 10-11-3 at home this season, including two losses against Pittsburgh. At the same time, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma doesn’t want to underestimate the boost the Islanders will get in Nassau Coliseum during the playoffs.

“Our players have not seen this building like the way it’s going to be tomorrow,” Bylsma said in a Newsday report. “It’s going to be loud and it’s going to be a pretty crazy building.”

Brian Engblom will join play-by-play commentator Dave Strader.

Game 3: Minnesota Wild host Chicago Blackhawks (3:00 p.m. ET, NBC)
Blackhawks lead series 2-0

Going into this season, we saw three of the last four Presidents’ Trophy winners get booted from the playoffs in the first round. So far the Chicago Blackhawks have managed to defy that trend.

They were dominant from start to finish in the regular season, winning frequently in both blowouts and one-goal contests. That ability to compete in all situations should serve them well in the postseason and it certainly has so far.

All the same, Wild coach Mike Yeo isn’t giving up hope.

“Because we’re down 2-0, it doesn’t mean this series is over,” Yeo said. “I’ve been a part of series where we’ve come back from being down 2-0 and I know there’s other people on our team who have as well.”

Analysts Eddie Olczyk and Pierre McGuire will be on hand for NBC, as will play-by-play commentator Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick.

Game 3: Ottawa Senators host Montreal Canadiens (7:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Series tied at 1-1

This series has been emotional on and off the ice, from controversial hits to verbal brawling.

Both teams have taken a game, which means the Montreal Canadiens will need to win at least one game in Ottawa in order to advance past the first round.

Montreal has a fantastic 15-7-2 road record while the Senators might have some trouble keeping the Habs’ faithful out of Scotiabank Place.

Randy Hahn will be the play-by-play guy for NBCSN’s doubleheader and he’ll be joined by Brodie Brazil, Bret Hedican, and Drew Remenda.

Game 3: San Jose Sharks host Vancouver Canucks (10:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Sharks lead series 2-0

The Sharks took Game 2 in dramatic fashion with Patrick Marleau netting the tying goal with just 56 sec remaining in regulation time. Raffi Torres then completed the comeback at 5:31 of the overtime period.

“We’re a bunch of veterans,” Sharks’ captain Joe Thornton said. “All of us have played in so many playoff games, the calmness is scary sometimes.”

Thornton has never won the Stanley Cup before and he’s running out of chances, but the same can be said for Vancouver’s Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

The Canucks have the same veteran presence as the Sharks, both have been dominant forces in the regular season for years, and neither franchise has ever won the Stanley Cup. Neither team wants to see another year end in failure as their core players gradually head towards the decline of their careers.

Zacha should be ready for big step forward for Devils

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This post is a part of Devils day at PHT…

Ever since Ray Shero took over as the team’s general manager the New Jersey Devils have tried to add a lot of offensive punch to their lineup. They have traded for Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson. They signed Brian Boyle this summer. They drafted Nico Hischier with the No. 1 overall pick this summer and are hoping that 2015 third-round pick Blake Speers can make the leap to the NHL on a full-time basis this season.

But their top pick in that 2015 class might be one of the most important players on the roster this season when it comes to whether or not the Devils can show significant signs of improvement in their rebuild. That pick, of course, was No. 6 overall selection Pavel Zacha.

After spending all but one game of his draft year back in the Ontario Hockey League playing for the Sarnia Sting, Zacha got his first full-time look in the NHL during the 2016-17 season and it was a bit of a mixed bag, something that is to be expected for a 19-year-old, especially one that bounced around between two different position — seeing time at both center and wing — and started the season recovering from a hip injury.

With just seven points in his first 37 games it was looking like his rookie season was going to be a bit of a disappointment.

He was able to salvage it in the second half, however, with a strong finish that saw him record a very respectable 17 points over the final 33 games. He also seemed to fit in more comfortably on the wing and took more of a shoot-first mentality with the puck, getting more shots on net as the season progressed. All of that is a good indication that he was starting to figure it out at the NHL level and could be poised for a big step forward in year two. He spent the offseason training in New Jersey working firsthand with the team’s trainers and coaches to help get there.

The Devils are going to need him to for a couple of reasons.

Not only because he is a top draft pick from just two years ago, making him a central part of the team’s ongoing rebuild, but also because of the injury suffered by Travis Zajac that is going to sideline him for at least four-to-six months. That is a pretty massive blow to an already thin Devils lineup. It’s not yet known where the Devils see Zacha on a full-time basis, but the center position was kind of turned upside down over the past couple of months with the additions of Marcus Johansson and Brian Boyle along with the injury to Zajac. He played his best hockey last season on the wing, but they might have a need down the middle. No matter where he fits in the lineup if the Devils are going to become a better offensive team both now and in the future players like Zacha are going to have to play a key role in it.

Kings seem to have no interest in adding Jagr

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The Los Angeles Kings are in need of offense, and Jaromir Jagr, the No. 2 scorer in NHL history, is still in need of a new team for the 2017-18 season. Despite that potential match the Kings have no interest in adding the 45-year-old future Hall of Famer to their roster for this upcoming season.

General manager Rob Blake said as much during a question and answer session with Kings fans this past week, via Lisa Dillman of NHL.com.

Here is Blake talking about the possibility of adding Jagr…

“Obviously [Jagr] is a tremendous player, been a tremendous player for a number of years, a [future] Hall of Famer,” Kings general manager Rob Blake said during a Q&A session with season ticket holders on Thursday. “When you get to a certain age, you have to be a certain fit on a team.

“We’ve looked at lot of different free agents in the summer and where it fits in in our projections. … There was also the equation of the salary cap and how things fit in. We didn’t go in the direction of Jagr this year. But again, he’s a tremendous player and I’m sure he’ll surface somewhere.”

Goal scoring was a major issue for the Kings in 2016-17 (they were 25th in the NHL) and in recent years they have not been afraid to add older, veteran players to their roster. They still have 35-year-old Marian Gaborik, they added 35-year-old Mike Cammalleri this summer on a one-year deal and even traded for Jarome Iginla late last season. Still, Jagr doesn’t seem to be the “certain fit” the Kings are looking given his age.

Jagr didn’t look quite as good as he had in recent year this past season but he was still able to finish with 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) while playing in all 82 games.

Even though Jagr has remained in peak physical shape and has maintained a high level of production, he is still going to turn 46 this season, and while he has remained durable enough to play in at least 77 games in every season after turning 40 he has shown signs of really starting to slow down as each season has progressed. He can still be a useful asset on the power play and he still has the hands to make plays and contribute offensively. The best scenario for him might be on a team that paces out his workload over the course of the season with occasional nights off (like in back-to-back situations) and limits his minutes to where he can really excel offensively. But that doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing Jagr would be interested in. So it might take him a little longer to find a team that is willing to give him the salary, and playing time, that he desires.

Under Pressure: Cory Schneider

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This post is a part of Devils day at PHT…

During his first three years with the New Jersey Devils starting goalie Cory Schneider was one of the few bright spots on the team.

At times, he was the only bright spot.

He was one of the best goalies in the league and probably the only thing that kept them even reasonably competitive at times. He never had a save percentage lower than .920 in any of the three seasons and finished in the top-six two different times.

Had he played on a better team that could have given him more offensive support he probably would have been given more consideration for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie (and even without that offensive support he probably should have been given more consideration for it).

But this past season everything sort of fell apart for him, and by extension, the Devils.

He ended up finishing with a .908 save percentage, a mark that was not only the worst of his career, but also one of the worst in the NHL. For a Devils team that was dependent on its goaltending due to a lack of offense and a shaky defense his down year was pretty much the worst possible scenario and it helped result in one of the NHL’s worst records and a fifth consecutive non-playoff season.

Given Schneider’s track record in the NHL it is pretty clear that the 2016-17 season was a massive outlier when it comes to his performance. He has consistently been one of the best goalies in the league. But if the Devils are going to show any sign of meaningful improvement in 2017 they can not have a repeat performance from Schneider. Even with the addition of Marcus Johansson and the drafting of Nico Hischier with the No. 1 overall pick the Devils are still going to be a team that struggles to score goals (even if they improve), especially with Travis Zajac being sidelined for the next four-to-six months. He is also playing behind a defense that surrendered close to 32 shots on goal per game this past season and did not undergo any significant changes.

Given that expected workload and will almost certainly be another year without much goal support the Devils won’t have a chance if Schneider doesn’t return to his previous form.

It would also be beneficial for the Devils given that they still have $30 million committed to him over the next five seasons. He is their best player, their highest paid player, and their most important player. His overall body of work would seem to indicate he is capable of bouncing back, and he very likely will. If he doesn’t, it is going to be another long season for the Devils.

Looking to make the leap: Blake Speers

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This post is a part of Devils at PHT…

It already seems like a given that top pick Nico Hischier is going to have a spot on the New Jersey Devils’ roster this season, so let’s focus a little bit on another Devils prospect that will be looking to make a full-time leap to the NHL after spending almost all of the 2016-17 season still playing for his junior team.

That would be 2015 third-round pick Blake Speers, who was able to get a brief three-game look with the team early in the season and received some high praise from the coaching staff before being sent back to the Ontario Hockey League.

Speers impressed at the Devils’ development camp this summer and said he is on a mission to make the roster this season. There are certainly plenty of openings for a team that is looking to rebuild its offense. General manager Ray Shero has done a pretty decent job adding talent to the forward group over the past couple of seasons adding Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri and  Marcus Johansson, then getting the good fortune of winning the draft lottery this offseason to add Hischier into the mix.

During the team’s development camp coach John Hynes talked about Speers and his relentless style of play and the way he “attacks everything he does.” Over the past three years he has been one of the most productive players for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, averaging more than a point per game in each season. If he can successfully make the jump to the NHL this season and translate his game to the next level it would be another great add for a Devils team that has been one of the worst offensive — and least exciting — teams in the league for several years now.

Shero has already added some potential impact players, and getting a No. 1 overall pick is the type of good fortune that can help turn a franchise around, but teams also need to hit on the occasional mid-round pick like Speers to build a complete, balanched team from top-to-bottom.