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Penguins and Blue Jackets on track for what could be epic first round matchup

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PITTSBURGH — It is not one of the NHL’s biggest rivalries, but every time the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets get together it becomes increasingly clear that the two teams simply do not like each other very much. Or at all.  This is especially true when it comes to forwards Sidney Crosby and Brandon Dubinsky because there always seems to be something that happens in their games.

That was the case again on Friday night in Pittsburgh where the Penguins were 4-3 overtime winners against the Blue Jackets — after letting a two-goal third period lead slip away — thanks to a two-goal night from Phil Kessel, including the winner.

For the Penguins, it was a big response following the first meeting of the season when they were blown out in Columbus when the Blue Jackets were on their way to 16-game winning streak.

Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist admitted that game was on their mind a little bit heading into Friday.

“For sure.” Hornqvist said. “That does not feel good to lose 7-1 to one of your big rivals, and they have been playing really well. It was a big test for us but I think we came out really strong tonight, stuck with it the whole game and got the two points.”

They still have two more meetings during the regular season (including one in two weeks) and remain on track to meet in the first round of the playoffs. After Friday’s game they remain solidly positioned in the second and third spots in the Metropolitan Division.

When asked after the game if he wants to play the Blue Jackets in the playoffs, Hornqvist simply responded by saying, “Oh, we probably will.”

Indeed. With both teams at least four points ahead of the Rangers for the fourth spot in the division (with each having a game in hand), and both being a few points back of the Washington Capitals for the top spot this seems to be a matchup that is destined to happen.

Given the way recent games have unfolded, it would be one heck of a series.

Even though Friday’s game only featured one power play between the two teams (Columbus’ Cam Atkinson was called for hooking in overtime to set up Kessel’s second goal of the game) it at times resembled a law-less society on the ice where pretty much anything went.

Extra shots away from the puck. Chris Kunitz and Boone Jenner trying to fight at center ice after a whistle. Whatever-it-takes defense. Yet another altercation between Dubinsky and Crosby.

Ever since Dubinsky joined the Blue Jackets a few years ago that has been the preferred matchup for them in games against the Penguins, and it almost always seems to result in things reaching a boiling point, whether it was that fight fight a year ago, Dubinsky getting suspended for repeatedly cross-checking Crosby in the neck in front of the net, or just random physical play.

It happened again on Friday when in the second period the two forwards became tied up in the middle of the ice. After Crosby fell to the ice, Dubinsky gave him another shove to the back.

After the game Dubinsky was asked if he felt Crosby was trying to buy a call on the play, to which he replied, “I’m sure everybody else can make their own decision on that one.”

Dubinsky ended up playing a significant role in the game beyond that by scoring a goal and adding an assist, while also being guilty of a turnover at the blue line in overtime (at the hands of Crosby) that resulted in Atkinson’s hooking penalty to set up the winning Pittsburgh goal. If these two teams do end up meeting in the playoffs, it will be one of the individual matchups that gets the most attention.

“Crosby is one of the best players in the game, and I think Dubi, people that have been around Dubi know how he is. He is so competitive and so wants the challenge, he just thrives in that,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said after the game.

“He makes mistakes, but I live with more of his mistakes because they are always effort mistakes. It is never a lazy play. It is never an in-between play. I thought him and his line were outstanding.”

Along with the obvious dislike between the two teams the other factor that would make a first-round matchup so appealing is the simple fact these are, quite literally, two of the four best teams in hockey right now and are separated by just two points in the standings.

Because of the NHL’s divisional playoff format, and because nobody in the Metropolitan Division ever seems to lose this season with three of the top-four teams in the division all residing in the division, we could be guaranteed to see one of the top teams in the NHL be finished after the first round.

The Buzzer: Bolts send Devils packing, Caps jump ahead, Leafs extend series

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Three games on Saturday

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, New Jersey Devils 1 (Lightning win series 4-1)

The Devils were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season, but their 2017-18 campaign officially came to an end on Saturday. They’ll be disappointed, but this season was a success for the group. As for the Bolts, they’ve punched their ticket to the second round after a terrific regular season. The Lightning received point-per-game production from Nikita Kucherov (1o points), Steven Stamkos (6 points) and Alex Killorn (5 points), but they also had 14 different players pick up a point during the series.

 Washington Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT) (Capitals lead series 3-2)

Four of the five games in the series have gone to overtime. Game 5 was a typical back and forth affair, as the Jackets scored first before the Capitals went up 2-1. Columbus tied the game, Washington went ahead, again, 3-2, but a dominant third period led to the Blue Jackets forcing overtime. Nicklas Backstrom tipped-home the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Capitals the first home win of the series. This has clearly been the best first-round series of the playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 3 (Bruins lead series 3-2)

The Maple Leafs jumped out to 2-0 and 4-1 leads, but the Bruins managed to make things interesting in the third period. Boston had a number of power play opportunities, but they couldn’t cash in. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they’ll have to go back on the road to try to put the Leafs to bed. The Leafs managed to keep Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand off the scoresheet on Saturday. Replicating that two more times won’t be easy.

Three Stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

Backstrom scored two goals, including the overtime winner against the Blue Jackets in Game 5. He also added an assist on T.J. Oshie‘s go-ahead goal late in the second frame. The win gave the Caps a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. The 30-year-old has two goals and eight points in five games this postseason.

2. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

The Capitals had a one-goal lead heading into the third frame, but they were badly outplayed in the third period. Holtby is the biggest reason why Washington was able to make it to overtime at all. The Blue Jackets outshot the Capitals 16-1 in the third frame. Holtby had a rough season, but his play in Game 5 was very encouraging.

3. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs had to kill a number of penalties during their Game 5 win over the Bruins, and Andersen was one of the key reasons they were able to do so. The Leafs netminder faced at least 40 shots for the third time in five games (he’s 2-1 in those contests). If Toronto wants to force a seventh game, they’ll need him to turn in another fantastic performance on Monday night.

Factoid of the Night

Sunday’s Schedule

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 3:00 p.m. ET

Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche, 7:00 p.m. ET

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Leafs chase Rask, hold on to win Game 5

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The Toronto Maple Leafs came into Saturday’s game facing elimination, but they managed to force a sixth game, thanks to a 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins.

The Maple Leafs built up a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission with goals from Connor Brown and Andreas Johnsson. They would increase it to a 4-1 lead in the second period. That’s when the Bruins pulled Tuukka Rask in favor of backup Anton Khudobin.

After the goalie swap, Sean Kuraly managed to cut the deficit to 4-2 before the end of the frame.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Toronto did their best to blow their lead, as they took penalty after penalty in the second half of the game. The Leafs took the final four penalties, but the Bruins failed to convert on their opportunities on the man-advantage. They even gave the Bruins a 5-on-3 power play for over 1:30 before Kuraly scored moments later.

Goalie Frederik Andersen turned aside 42 of 45 shots. This was the third time in five games that he faced at least 40 shots in this series.

The Leafs will now return home for Game 6 on Monday night. They’ll need to perform more like they did in the first half of Saturday’s game if they want to force Game 7 in Boston.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Backstrom provides OT winner as Capitals take 3-2 series lead

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The Washington Capitals are on the verge of the second round.

Yes, the Capitals, who began the series with back-to-back losses in Game 1 and 2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, are now on the brink of eliminating Ohio’s team after Nicklas Backstrom‘s deft deflection in overtime gave the Capitals their third straight win and a 3-2 series lead.

It was the fourth time in the series both clubs played to a tie in regulation. After Columbus won the first two in OT, Washington replied with a win in double-overtime in Game 3 before Backstrom ended Game 5 at the 11:53 mark of the first frame of free hockey.

Backstrom scored his first goal of the series to open the scoring for the Caps and assisted for the sixth time in the series on the go-ahead goal in the second period before Oliver Bjorkstrand tied it in third.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Braden Holtby had to be sharp, especially in the third period as, inexplicably, the Caps were outshot 16-1. At home. Holtby made 40 saves when it was all said and done.

Two-hundred feet away, Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task, making some silly stops including a big one on Alex Ovechkin earlier in overtime and a bigger one in regulation time off the same man’s stick.

Game 6 of this series is slated for Monday in Columbus, with a start time still to be determined.

In his post-game comments, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said, twice, that his team will be back in the capital for Game 7.

The promise has been made.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kucherov, Vasilevskiy shine as Lightning eliminate Devils in 5

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One’s up for the Hart as the NHL’s best player while the other is up for the Vezina as the league’s top goaltender. Both combined their talents to eliminate the New Jersey Devils with a 2-1 win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday.

Nikita Kucherov was once again on point for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Saturday’s matinee. Leading 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov scored a clutch goal — his fifth of the series — to put the Lightning from just inside the blue line to put the Bolts up two with seven minutes and change remaining.

It proved vital, Kucherov’s goal, as the Devils attempted a late comeback with Kyle Palmieri scored with three minutes remaining after Devils pulled Cory Schneider for the extra attacker 30 seconds earlier.

Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall in the final 180 seconds, stopping 26-of-27 to help usher the Lightning into the second round.

Tampa, the Atlantic Division winners in the regular season, will face the winner of the series between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, who play later on Saturday in Game 5. The Bruins lead the series 3-1.

Kucherov was as immense for the Lightning as he was oppressive for the Devils, adding five assists to bring his series total to 10 points. His usual scoring touch was supplemented by his play in the physical department, including this bone-crushing hit on New Jersey defenseman Sami Vatanen.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

For the Devils, it was hard-fought series from a young team still trying to find its way in the playoffs.

The Devils abandoned goalie Keith Kinkaid after dropping the first two games. Cory Schneider, who hadn’t won a game in 2018 before Game 3, came in and provided the spark in goal, one that seemed to get the Devils going at the other end of the rink as well as they rolled to a 5-3 win.

But that well ran dry in Game 4 as the Devils produced just one goal in a 3-1 loss. Game 5 was much the same, production-wise, with the Devils only managing one goal.

Fellow Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall provided two goals and six points in the series after a 93-point regular season. Rookie Nico Hischier managed just a goal after scoring 20 in his rookie campaign.

For Vasilevskiy, after looking far more human in the second half of the season, finding his mojo again can only be mean bad things for future playoff opponents.

The young Russian finished with a .941 save percentage in the series.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck