Who’s going to win the Stanley Cup? PHT staffers make their picks…

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Sixteen teams out of 30 make the playoffs, but only one can win. Now that we know those 16 teams, we’re making our Stanley Cup picks again. Has anything changed our minds from the preseason? 

Jason Brough: Washington Capitals

(Preseason pick: Penguins over Blackhawks)

I would’ve stuck with the Penguins, but Kris Letang‘s injury swung the pendulum towards Washington. I just don’t see Pittsburgh winning four series with that defense. The Capitals, on the other hand, have three very capable, right-shot d-men in John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk. They’re obviously deep up front as well, with a much improved third line. Plus, they’ve got an excellent goalie. Bottom line: this really feels like Washington’s time. Granted, I said the same thing last year and was wrong, but only because the Caps ran into Pittsburgh. I don’t think the Pens will trip them up this year.

Mike Halford: Chicago Blackhawks

(Preseason pick: Lightning over Blues)

“That energy, that ambition and motivation is back,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said earlier this week. “We have that feeling again.” Without reading too much into a fairly stock quote, I’m buying what Toews is selling. Getting bounced by St. Louis in Round 1 last year might’ve been a good thing — it made the ‘Hawks hungrier, not unlike when they lost to Arizona in the opening round in 2012, then came back to win it all the season following. The energy angle is interesting, because it comes on two fronts: One is from all the young guys (Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, Tanner Kero) that’ve never had a deep playoff run before, and are all playing vital roles. The second? The old guys, back for another shot at glory — Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya, specifically.

Adam Gretz: Washington Capitals

(Preseason pick: Predators over Lightning)

Simply put, I think the Capitals are the best team in the NHL. They don’t really have any glaring weakness, they have elite forwards, are the best defensive team in hockey and only made themselves better after adding Kevin Shattenkirk, and they have a Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltender behind all of that. Yes, they have been the best team in the league before and it has not yet brought them a Stanley Cup, but sooner or later things have to break their way in the playoffs, don’t they? They can’t run into a hot goalie every year, can they? Their obvious challenge in the Eastern Conference is going to be if they have to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round again, but even that should be different than a year ago simply because the Penguins will not have Kris Letang in their lineup, which is a total game-changer.

James O’Brien: Washington Capitals

(Preseason pick: Stars over Penguins)

Much of what others have said about Washington’s depth and favorable luck (the Caps being healthy, peers such as the Penguins not so much) applies here. But allow me to add another wrinkle: the Capitals have some hungry players chasing raises. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky, Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov are the standouts among a slew of pending free agents who can boost their bank accounts via playoff heroics. “Greed is good” in sports, and it’s yet another feather in the Capitals’ … cap.

Cam Tucker: Washington Capitals

(Preseason pick: Capitals over Predators)

I am sticking with the Capitals. This is it. This is the year the Capitals get beyond the second round and win the Stanley Cup. And they’re going to do so by getting by Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in the second round. It’s simple: The Capitals have just too many weapons. Look beyond the starting point of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Eleven different players reached double digits in goals scored and 11 different players had 30 points or more. They are stacked. If they remain healthy, they should get it done. Not only are they among the best scoring teams in the league, behind only Pittsburgh and Minnesota, but they allowed the fewest goals against. They’re among the best in the league on the power play and penalty kill. They have Braden Holtby in net. This is their time.

Joey Alfieri: Chicago Blackhawks

(Preason pick: Lightning over Stars)

The ‘Hawks got off to a decent start this season, but they really turned it on after their bye week in mid-February. Their 13-3-1 stretch allowed them to blow by Minnesota for top spot in the Central Division. The Blackhawks might not be as deep as a team like the Capitals, but they still have seven players (Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Marian Hossa, Artem Anisimov, Richard Panik, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Hartman) that scored at least 19 goals in 2016-17. Add a group of veteran defensemen like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya, and a star goalie in Corey Crawford and you have a pretty solid team.

Anders Lee on getting new arena, importance of John Tavares (PHT Q&A)

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The New York Islanders have one of the more dynamic offenses in the NHL this season. Many will point to the fact that they have super rookie Mathew Barzal and franchise center John Tavares as the reason for their offensive success, but they’ve also received solid contributions from guys like Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee.

Through 45 games, Lee has found the back of the net an impressive 25 times, which puts him on pace to score 46 goals. If he hits that number, that would be a career-high for him (his current high is 34).

Pro Hockey Talk was able to catch up with Lee prior to Monday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens (you can watch the highlights of that game by clicking the video at the top of the page).

Enjoy!

Q. Doug Weight was saying that one of the reason’s that you’re producing so much is that you’ve been given a lot of opportunity. Is that what’s been the key for you or did you also add something else to your game?

“You have to earn the opportunity and then when you get it, you have to keep it. You’ve got to hold on to that. I think it’s a combination of both. Just putting in the time and effort to strive to be better every night and in the offseasons to get better. At the same time, when you do have those opportunities and you’re at the front of the net, earning your keep, then you’re going to have more chances to score for sure. It’s definitely a combination, I totally agree.”

Q. Did you do anything different in your offseason training? 

“The last few years I’ve done a lot of studying of my game, like in regards to video and stuff during the offseason. That’s just honing in on little areas that you can develop in and making plays and holding on to the puck. I think that’s helped my game a lot. I’ve been working with a skating coach and a skills coach in the summer. I think that’s really given me a lot of confidence. And then I see it in the regular season. You can kind of pick apart what you’ve worked on and you can find those areas that you can continue to challenge yourself and become better in.”

Q. I know playing with John Tavares must be fun, but what’s the most challenging part of playing with him?

“I think we all, as a line, expect a lot from our position as the top line. Johnny is obviously a top player in the league and the space that he creates and the plays that he makes are awesome and ridiculous. I think for us, we just expect a lot from each other, so overcoming tough games here and there and just sticking with it and accepting the challenge that we’re going to have top matchups every night. But we want to be the guys on the line that the team turns to.”

Q. You guys have heard all the rumblings about Tavares and how he can become a free agent this summer, but what does he mean to this franchise?

“Johnny has the best character and work ethic. He’s the leader of this team and he’s been the head of this franchise since as long as he’s been here. He’s not just a great hockey player, he’s a great person, and guys care about him and he cares about us. So, he means a tremendous amount. He’s taken his time and thankfully it hasn’t been a distraction at all. I think both sides have handled it well. For us, as a team, it hasn’t been an issue at all. We just hope it goes the right way for us.”

Q. You guys haven’t felt the added attention surrounding his contract and all that?

“Not yet, no. We’ll see how that turns. But no, not at all. I think both sides see both sides of each other. They kind of see where he stands and where they stand. A lot of things need to happen-or I don’t know if they need to happen- but things like the arena situation and stuff like that I’m sure are in his head. I haven’t really pried him on it at all, it’s his thing to deal with. We support him either way. He’s been our captain since I’ve been here.”

Q. So you haven’t picked up a few more tabs along the way (laughs)? 

“Maybe I should start (laughs). After the next few months, I think he should be picking up the tabs.”

Q. What did it mean for you guys to get the wheels in motion when it comes to a new arena? 

“It’s awesome for the organization, I think it’s great for the fans. Barclays has been our home, but obviously it’s not the ideal situation. Right now it is our home and we take pride in it. Yea, travel on game day is a little bit different, but we’re used to it by now there’s no more of that excuse or anything like that. But the Belmont Arena is going to be incredible for the organization. It’s going to be our true home and something that’s going to be built especially for us, and for the fans and the experience of having a hockey game. I think that’s when home ice advantage will really start to kick in and pick up where it left off in the Coliseum days.”

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Eastern Conference team needs; Ovechkin’s interesting bye week

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Up top, check out the highlights from the Islanders’ big overtime win over the Canadiens.

• TSN’s Frank Seravalli breaks down each Eastern Conference team’s needs. Some need help for their playoff push, while others need to maximize their lottery odds. (TSN.ca)

Alex Ovechkin has been keeping busy during the Capitals bye week. He fed seagulls and lied down on a bed at Bed Bath and Beyond. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• The Chicago Blackhawks are dealing with an identity crisis and they need to straighten it out right away. (Blackhawk Up)

• Here are four positives from the first half of the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Editor in Leaf)

• Former Blues owner Mike Shanahan passed away at the age of 78. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• The Buffalo Sabres haven’t had a lot of things go their way this season, but Casey Mittelstadt’s performance at the World Junior Championship was positive enough. (Associated Press)

• Claude Julien will head to Boston for the first time since being fired last February. It should be an interesting. “I’m looking forward to it, but I’ll also be happy when it’s over.” (NHL.com)

• With Semyon Varlamov on the shelf for the next two weeks, the Avs don’t need to trade for a goalie because Jonathan Bernier is rolling. (Denver Post)

• Even the most hardcore of Ducks fans realizes that the NHL got it right when they Andrew Cogliano a two-game suspension. (Anaheim Calling)

• The Predators’ schedule sets up pretty well between now and the end of the regular season. (Predlines)

• Wild captain Mikko Koivu hasn’t been as productive as he was last year, but that doesn’t mean he’s having a bad season. (Hockey Wilderness)

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.

The Buzzer: Tavares gets back to scoring ways

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Players of the Night: 

Jonathan Bernier, Colorado Avalanche: Bernier made quite the save on Ryan Kesler, using his paddle to stop a backhand shot after sprawling across his crease in an attempt of desperation. He also stopped 33 pucks and won his sixth straight game in the process.

Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks: Jones made 29 out of 30 saves in the second and third periods in a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. His 35-save effort was a nice rebound after allowing three goals on six shots and getting yanked on Saturday.

John Tavares, New York Islanders: Tavares scored a shorty in regulation on an unassisted breakaway and then the game-winner in overtime to lead the Isles past the Habs in Montreal.

Highlights of the Night:

Tyler Seguin provided some matinee magic with this overtime winner in Boston. What a goal:

Bernier made this incredible paddle save on a poor Ryan Kesler:

MISC:

Scores:

Stars 3, Bruins 2 (OT)

Avalanche 3, Ducks 1

Sharks 4, Kings 1

Islanders 5, Canadiens 4 (OT)


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

Barzal, Tavares shine as Islanders edge Canadiens 5-4 in overtime

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The scary thing about Mathew Barzal is that he may just be gaining steam.

Any time the New York Islanders play these days, it turns into Barzal Watch (in the Twitter world: #BarzalWatch). Even if the Islanders had plummeted as of late with five losses in their past six games heading into Monday, many are just tuning in to see what the dynamic rookie is going to do.

Indeed, Barzal has been lights this season, with 44 points in 44 games prior to Monday and coming off the buzz of a five-point game on Saturday — the second time he’s done that this season.

But John Tavares, who had just one goal in nine games coming into Monday, stole some of that spotlight back with a shorthanded goal in regulation and then the game-winner in overtime in a 5-4 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.

Tavares second of the game came 1:51 into over time and after Carey Price made quite the save to stop a redirected attempt by Tavares just before the latter scored the winner.

Barzal was at it again early in the first period as the Islanders jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead.

Barzal fed Anthony Beauvillier with a nice lead pass and the latter ripped home his eighth of the season just down the road from where he grew up in Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, beating Carey Price with New York’s first shot of the game.

It was Barzal’s 30th assist of the season and he followed that up with his 16th goal of the year on the Islanders just over five minutes later for the two-goal advantage. Barzal finished with three points and now has 10 in his past three games.

The Canadiens entered the game 2-0-1 in their past three games but were without Phillip Danault due to a puck to the head on Saturday and Andrew Shaw, who was injured in the same game.

Despite their recent success, things looked grim early on, with Price allowing two goals on four shots.

The Hab battled back, first by forcing a turnover in New York’s zone, allowing Jakub Jerabek to quickly find a wide open Nicolas Deslauriers out front to make it 2-1.

Another defensive breakdown by the Isles led to the tying goal as Paul Byron snatched his 12th of the year on a rebound.

Barzal grabbed his third point of the night early in the second period as the Isles restored the lead with Adam Pelech‘s first of the season at 2:37. And the Islanders led by two for the second time as John Tavares scored shorthanded 1:59 later on New York’s 10th shot.

The Canadiens, down two again, needed a second comeback and they put it together beginning with Jonathan Drouin‘s marker with 34 seconds left in the second period.

Montreal completed the comeback on the power play in the third, with Max Pacioretty scoring his 14th at 13:01.