The Chip ‘n’ Chase: Sabres’ shakeup, Yakupov versus Eakins, Jocks versus Nerds, and more

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This is a new thing we’re trying. Every Wednesday, we’ll publish a little back-and-forth we have via email. We’re calling it the Chip ‘n’ Chase. Yes, it’s a terrible name. Enjoy.

Jason Brough: Hey buddy, so major changes today in Buffalo. Still trying to wrap my head around everything, but looking back on the past couple of seasons, it seems to me the Sabres went off the rails as soon as Terry Pegula came in with his blank checkbook. Which is kind of odd when you first think about it, since the best teams are typically the ones that spend right up to the salary cap. But on the other hand, it’s totally predictable. The Sabres actually remind me of a regular Joe who one day wins a massive lottery and has no idea what to do with all the cash. He buys a huge mansion with mismatching furniture; he starts investing in all his friends’ dumb business ideas; he basically loses all self-control when it comes to money. Which I suppose makes Ville Leino the unused jet ski in the Sabres’ driveway?

Mike Halford: What does that make Tyler Myers then — the 1,000-volume LaserDisc collection? “There’s no way these depreciate in value!” I agree things went off the rails when Pegula arrived with his bags of money, and call me skeptical that these latest moves will get things back on track. I mean, Nolan and LaFontaine aren’t exactly dialed in to the NHL anymore. Nolan has been coaching the Latvian national team for the last two years and LaFontaine wasn’t involved anywhere prior to taking a gig with the league last month. LaFontaine also said at today’s presser that he’s “not ready to be a GM because I lack experience,” which sort of stood out for me, given he’ll be the new GM’s boss.

JB: I’m a little more optimistic. Nolan was only hired on an interim basis, so if he doesn’t work out the Sabres can always choose a new coach in the summer. The key will be LaFontaine’s choice for GM. Whoever it is, he needs to — well, he needs to do a lot of things — but at the top of the list I’d put player development. Case in point, Mikhail Grigorenko. That kid is completely lost out there. He really shouldn’t be in the NHL. The Sabres have a ton of draft picks in 2014. Making the right selections is only the first step. They have to figure out a better way to bring them along.

Speaking of lost kids, did you see that Nail Yakupov media scrum yesterday in Edmonton? It was a bit…how-you-say-my-English-no-so-good…awkward. Listening to Yakupov, it really doesn’t sound like he’s on the same page with Dallas Eakins. Not sure who to blame for that. I guess I respect that the kid wants to play more and help his team win, but I tend to have sympathy for the coach when I see plays like this:

And Yakupov wonders why Eakins has trust issues with him. He wonders why he’s played “lower and lower minutes” in the past few games. Maybe next time put two hands on the stick when you take a pass in your own end and Steven Stamkos is on the ice.

MH: I know we’re focusing on Yakupov here, so I’ll ignore Devan Dubnyk getting beat on a long wrister. Actually, forget that — I wanna focus on Eakins. When he got hired, the words “master” and “communicator” were thrown around so much I thought he actually had a Masters of Communication from a fine online college. So, what happened? The Oilers now have Yakupov saying “I’m not talking about anything with Dallas” and Eakins saying “I won’t search him out, but my door is open.” There are broken pagers that do a better job of communicating than these two. On the subject of trust, do you have any that Eakins can turn this thing around?

source:  JB: Honestly, I don’t. In hindsight, if the Oilers were intent on firing Ralph Krueger, I think they might’ve been better off hiring an experienced NHL head coach to lead their inexperienced group of players, not a first-timer who got constantly talked up by the Toronto media because he was in, you know, Toronto. I don’t mean to discount Eakins’ success with the Marlies, because he definitely had some, but do you think he’d be the Oilers’ head coach today if he’d done the same things he did with the Marlies but he’d done them with, say, the Lake Erie Monsters? I feel like he wouldn’t have received as much positive press coverage in Cleveland. Whatever. He’s not going to get fired, so it’s not worth spending too much time dwelling on whether he should have been hired in the first place. You’re right about the “master communicator” stuff though. It’s pretty funny actually. The way Eakins was talking in June — e.g. “The way you coach players now is you get them one on one. You’ve got to know them inside out” — I figured the Oilers would be getting daily encouragement notes in their cubbyholes. Wait, do they have cubbyholes? Maybe they need some cubbyholes.

MH: I could see Nugent-Hopkins liking the cubbyhole idea. Give him a place to store his Pokemons. You know what’s crazy? We haven’t even mentioned Ilya Bryzgalov yet. That’s how many other issues the Oilers have. I don’t want to get into the whole “Mr. Universe” thing or how he’ll react to the Edmonton media… but I do want to talk about all the flawed logic and, frankly, blatant denial in that move. Bryz and his agent ripped the Flyers for having a weak defensive system, right? So now he’s going to Edmonton, which doesn’t exactly have an Iron Curtain on the blue line and is giving up a league-worst 3.90 goals per game. What’s more, the Oilers had to dump a pretty useful d-man in Ladislav Smid just to make room for Bryz’s contract! That might be best part in all of this, though I’m reserving judgment until reporters can ask about his “November months, minus-32!” remarks.

Okay, that’s enough about the Oilers. Let’s talk about tonight’s game between Toronto and Minnesota. I’m calling it Jocks versus Nerds. The Leafs, who are skeptical of advanced statistics, taking on the Wild, who apparently are not. All I know is this — whoever scores more Corsis is going to win.

source:  JB: I’m pretty pumped, too. Tonight may be the most talked-about jocks-nerds showdown since the Alpha Betas battled the Tri-Lambs in the Greek Games. Although I have to admit I’m having a bit of trouble picturing Dave Nonis in the cool fraternity. Or Chuck Fletcher drunkenly riding a tricycle. In all seriousness, I really don’t get the Leafs’ skepticism — if not downright disdain — for hockey’s new stats. Unless they’re playing coy, which I don’t think they are. Based on his comments, it seems like Nonis is searching for some magical statistic he can use to break the code, and until that magical stat is presented to him on a silver platter, everything else is useless. Is Corsi perfect? No, it’s not. A team can win games without having the puck more than its opponent. But here are the top five teams in that stat: Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Jose and Minnesota. You’re telling me that’s a coincidence? Now here are the bottom five: Washington, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, and Buffalo. Hmmm. Maybe I get the Leafs’ problem with it now.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

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Two games on Thursday

Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 3-1)

The Boston Bruins continue to show that they can survive – if not thrive – with key players out of the lineup. They don’t get much more “key” than Patrice Bergeron, who was unable to suit up for Game 4. Even so, Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and the Bruins connected on two 2-on-1 rushes to snag a 3-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs must grapple with a lot of uncomfortable questions as they see their season slip to the brink of elimination.

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

This game was all about patterns continuing, or breaking.

Continuing: The road team winning. The away team has won all four contests during this series, so this one returns to Washington with the two teams now tied up 2-2. It’s also another instance of Alex Ovechkin being sneaky-clutch, although many people will disagree because of team results. Washington’s starting to pull away in terms of puck possession during the series, and that continued on Thursday, too.

Breaking: For the first time in the series, the game ended in regulation. It wasn’t all that close, either, as the Caps won 4-1 and were safe even considering one empty-netter.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – There will be talk of Bergeron, Auston Matthews not being able to score, Mike Babcock’s decisions, and other factors from Game 4. Rask helped to push those discussions to the forefront – rather than talk about which team has the edge if they ended up tied – as he was sharp on Thursday. Rask stopped 31 out of 32 shots, factoring heavily in Boston building a 3-1 series lead against Toronto.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – After scoring two goals in Game 1, Kuznetsov had been held silent by the Bruins in Games 2 and 3. The Russian center made up for lost time in Game 4, scoring an empty-netter and two assists in that 4-1 win. Both of his assists were primary helpers, while he checked many other boxes by winning more than half of his draws (10 of 18), generating a +3 rating, and firing four shots on goal.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – Ovechkin fired a shot on Sergei Bobrovsky, which created a rebound opportunity for T.J. Oshie during a Washington power play, a goal that ended up being the game-winner. Ovechkin also scored from the right face-off circle for an important insurance goal. Ovechkin fired five SOG and was a +1 in Game 4.

Factoids

There’s plenty of focus on Bergeron being out and Marchand scoring/agitating, but don’t forget about David Pastrnak‘s brilliance.

Again, Alex Ovechkin is more clutch than people realize. By scoring the 49th playoff goal of his career, Ovechkin tied Henri Richard for 60th in NHL history. You may remember Henri as a) Maurice Richard’s brother and b) the guy who won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

Friday’s games

Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network
Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

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.

Capitals tie series with Blue Jackets

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In Game 4, the Washington Capitals showed their heart by not working overtime.

The Capitals dropped both of their home games to start their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, opening the floodgates for people to dust off their favorite, cruel jokes about this team. They’ll return home with those one-liners drying up, though.

After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Capitals flipped the script to tie it up 2-2 after beating the Blue Jackets both times in Columbus. The symmetry wasn’t complete, however; while Washington continued the series trend of overtime nail-biters by winning beyond regulation in Game 3, they made no mistake about winning Game 4 by a score of 4-1.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This wasn’t a case where the Bruins got the bounces and the finishes to win. The Capitals have shown signs of dominance even in defeats during this series, but they really smothered the Blue Jackets in Game 4.

The Capitals generated a 33-24 shots on goal edge, won about two-thirds of the faceoffs, and generally carried the play by every metric.

Tom Wilson making it 1-0 was valuable, and jokes about blown 2-0 leads aside, T.J. Oshie‘s eventual game-winner was important during the second period. Alex Ovechkin‘s goal from his opposite office widened the gap too much for an overmatched Blue Jackets team, even with Boone Jenner scoring and giving Columbus a brief boost.

With a goal and an assist in Game 4, this is yet another reminder that Ovechkin is a playoff performer, even if his team isn’t always there with him. After Washington went down 2-0 against Columbus, Ovechkin said “it’s going to be fun when we bounce back and tie the series,” and that’s exactly the situation Washington is in after … whatever the opposite of “holding serve” is.

Of course, people will quickly forget this triumph-within-the-series if the Capitals ultimately bow out of the first round, anyway.

The Caps must feel really good about their collective play as they aim to become the first team to win at home in this series in Game 5. Their power play has been productive, playing tight defense, getting scoring from Ovechkin/others, and Braden Holtby looks poised in regaining his usual spot in net. It’s the sort of stretch that changes the Capitals’ narrative from “here we go again” to “could this be the year we finally make a run?”

With this series now essentially becoming a best two-out-of-three clash, the disposition could easily go from sunny back to gloomy, but give this beleaguered group credit for keeping cool heads and making this anyone’s game once again.

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.

Bruins push Leafs to brink

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The Boston Bruins found themselves on the wrong end of plenty of stats in Game 4, but even with Patrice Bergeron on the shelf, they won 3-1 to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination.

Boston took a 3-1 series lead with tonight’s win despite Toronto generating a 32-21 shots on goal advantage, hogging the puck, and holding home-ice advantage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Goaltending was one big area of advantage for the Bruins. Tuukka Rask was forced to make some tough saves as Mitch Marner and other Leafs players created plenty of chances. One cannot help but wonder if fatigue is a bit of a factor for workhorse Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, as he’d likely love to have this Torey Krug goal back:

That early 1-0 lead provided a cushion for the Bruins to adjust to life without Bergeron (again), although Tomas Plekanec did tie things up. Ultimately, the Bruins were able to cash in on two 2-on-1 rushes, with Brad Marchand burying a tremendous setup by David Pastrnak for the game-winner and Jake DeBrusk finding the net after a great feed by David Krejci (who has absorbed some criticism for his play lately).

The two goals were remarkably similar in exhibiting the Bruins’ smarts and finish, along with the Maple Leafs lacking in a few areas on defense, as Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were exposed (among others). Here’s that Marchang GWG:

Game 5 shifts back to Boston on Saturday. You can watch that game on CNBC, with puck drop slated for 8 p.m. ET.

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.

Bruins without Bergeron vs. Leafs in Game 4

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The Boston Bruins rolled through much of the regular season despite injuries, even to key players like Patrice Bergeron. The fact that they’re unfortunately experienced playing without Bergeron is probably the only silver lining regarding his late scratch heading into Game 4.

The Bruins announced that Bergeron is day-to-day with what they’re deeming an upper-body injury, so Riley Nash slips into Bergeron’s spot between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This stands as an obvious opportunity for Auston Matthews to roam more freely against the Bruins and a chance for the Maple Leafs to tie this series in front of their home fans.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty makes a good point that Bergeron missing Game 4 is especially troubling since the Bruins played Game 3 on Monday, gaining an extra off day between contests.

Bergeron generated five assists through the first three games of this series, including four helpers in Game 2. He was limited to 64 regular-season games in 2017-18, falling just short of a point-per-game with 63. Naturally, his all-around game goes beyond goals and assists, so this hurts badly for the Bruins, whether they had some experience playing without him or not.

As of this writing, the two teams are tied up 1-1. Click here for the livestream link.

This news comes not that long after news surfaced that Bergeron’s once again been named a finalist for the Selke.

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.