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Caps hoping roster improvements can get them past Pittsburgh

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins arrive at their latest showdown looking very much like they did a year ago.

It’s the little things that might matter most this time around.

The Capitals added center Lars Eller and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk as a direct response to losing their second-round series last season, hoping the depth will help against the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Penguins have a different goaltender with Marc-Andre Fleury replacing injured Matt Murray and are without injured defenseman Kris Letang.

Aside from those changes and a few other tweaks, the teams that take the ice Thursday night for Game 1 in Washington are strikingly similar to those who played for six games last spring.

“This is a unique situation — both teams have a lot of guys back,” Penguins center Matt Cullen said. “It’s not often with the salary cap and everything that you bring a similar team back. It makes for an interesting matchup.”

The stars are again aligned for Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and the Capitals to face off against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and the Penguins. Familiarity should breed quick contempt, but Washington’s changes are what players think will flip the script.

“I feel better about our team going into it this year than I did last year, that’s for sure,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “We can attack from different ways, and we can find ways to score throughout the lineup. I just think a lot of guys are playing better than they did last year.”

That’s a shout out to second-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who struggled after March last year but played an essential part of the first-round series this season against the Toronto Maple Leafs by defending Auston Matthews. Defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt are also much improved after being scratched during the 2016 playoffs.

The Penguins are rolling again after eliminating Columbus, but the absence of Letang is significant after he logged 31:36 of ice time per game last year.

“Obviously they lost key player, Letang,” Ovechkin said. “It’s good for us, bad for them … (but) it doesn’t matter who’s in the lineup. We just have to pressure them, and we don’t have to give them any chances to get success.”

Pittsburgh exposed Washington’s lack of speed a year ago and has the potential to do so again even if winger Carl Hagelin isn’t ready to start the series. The Maple Leafs’ up-tempo style challenged the Capitals, something coach Barry Trotz called “a good warmup” for the Penguins, but it remains to be seen how his team will play faster this time.

Who’s better off after a year of no change? Watch and find out.

“I think I guess the series will show that more than anything,” Crosby said.

FLOWER POWER

Fleury went 4-1 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .933 save percentage against the Blue Jackets in the first round after replacing Murray because of a warmup injury prior to Game 1. The Capitals didn’t see him last year because Murray didn’t cede the net, but the Fleury has been so good there has been no drop-off.

OSHIE, PENGUINS KILLER

T.J. Oshie had five goals and an assist in last year’s series and three goals and seven assists in four games against the Penguins this season. Facing Pittsburgh’s top competition seems to get Oshie clicking.

“Typically we’re going against Crosby’s line and that’s a tough task, he’s a great player,” Oshie said. “You can get motivation from that and kind of the game within the game. Last few years, the puck found the net for me and hopefully it will be the same.”

PUT IT IN PENCIL

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan shifted his lines, putting Patric Hornqvist on right wing with Crosby and playoffs leading goal-scorer Jake Guentzel and dropping Conor Sheary down to skate with Nick Bonino and Scott Wilson. Pittsburgh again has four scoring lines with Malkin, Kessel and Bryan Rust together and Cullen centering Chris Kunitz and Tom Kuhnhackl.

“Sometimes when certain line combos have history of success together, we tend to give those lines a little bit more time to work through the challenges,” Sullivan said. “That’s something we have daily discussions about, (a) question I always ask, which combinations are going to give us the best chance to win.”

STOP, ELLER TIME

The Capitals sent two second-round picks to the Montreal Canadiens for Eller specifically for this kind of series. Pittsburgh got five goals at even strength from its third line of Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel and two more from Cullen and his fourth-line mates last year, while Washington’s bottom six combined for two goals.

Enter Eller, who is a good penalty killer and should be an offensive upgrade over Mike Richards.

“I can’t wait for that challenge,” Eller said. “I think a lot of guys in here have pictured that this is a spot we could end up being in, facing this team sometime in the playoffs and now is that time.”

Related: A rebuild third line has been key for Caps

Hextall’s patience, Elliott’s goaltending playing big roles in Flyers’ turnaround

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PHILADELPHIA — Step inside the Philadelphia Flyers dressing room, look to your right and you’ll notice above a clock on the wall is a sign that reads, “The Star Of The Team Is The Team Itself.” That message has been the thread through an interesting month for the team as they experienced the dregs of a 10-game losing streak before flipping the script and winning six straight.

That sixth win came Saturday night during a 2-1 overtime victory against the Dallas Stars making the Flyers the third team in NHL history (1967 Toronto Maple Leafs, 2005 San Jose Sharks) to reel off six victories in a row after a 10-game winless streak.

It wasn’t that long ago that fans were chanting for general manager Ron Hextall to fire the head coach and there was talk of shipping bodies out of town to shake things up. Those requests, however, were not in Hextall’s plans. The GM defended his team, defended his coach and was not going to make moves for the sake of change. That show of belief was well-received by his players.

“It means a lot. Obviously, Hexy has faith in us. He’s a very patient man, the coaching staff as well,” said forward Wayne Simmonds.

The front office wasn’t going to tear things apart and the players weren’t going to come unglued, even with the pressure of the losing streak growing with each defeat. They can look back now and see that as a takeaway from that experience.

“The most positive thing [was] we didn’t separate, we stuck together as a team and that’s why we’re winning games right now,” defenseman Ivan Provorov said.

The play of the five skaters on the ice has meshed well with the play of goaltender Brian Elliott, who’s been spectacular during this stretch. During this winning streak, he’s been named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week and has posted a .952 even strength save percentage.

“Our team has confidence in him. That’s a real position of strength for our bench, for the guys that are out on the ice,” Hakstol said. “It’s not just the things that you see on a nightly basis on game nights. He does such a real good job on a daily basis of approaching his day of work and that’s something that guys can feed off. They know he does the work. He’s prepared and I think that gives everyone a level of confidence coming into the game.”

It’s been a two-way effort for the Flyers during the streak. They haven’t allowed more than two goals a game and just grinded out a pair of 2-1 victories.. After averaging only two goals scored per game during that 10-game slide, which included being shutout three times, the offense has pumped in 3.5 goals per night. The power play is also cooking at 27.3 percent and their team shooting percentage is moving in the right direction going from 6.45 percent during their November slide to 9.23.

Adding to Provorov’s positive note about what came from the losing streak was also their standing in the Metropolitan Division. You’d think a team that did as poor as they did in November would see themselves with a major hole to dig out of by Christmas, but picking up five loser points helped keep the Flyers a bit above water. And now after picking up 12 out of a possible 12 points, they currently reside four points out of a wild card spot and six points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for third in the division.

Hakstol doesn’t care if you want to call it confidence or swagger, but the Flyers are carrying themselves in that manor. Winning cures all, right? A 10-game streak could have really done damage to the team’s psyche and affected them going forward, but as Hextall said last month, they believed — despite the losses piling up — they weren’t playing bad hockey. It was just a matter of time before they started digging up again.

“You can be playing really well, but when you’re going good you just have that mentality that you’re not going to take less than finding a way to win a game. I can tell you, when you’re on the other end of close losses, tight losses, it starts to wear at you,” said Hakstol.

“But you have a couple of good things happen, along with working hard, paying attention to detail and really sticking together, you get that little injection of adrenaline that helps push you in the right direction.”

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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.

The Buzzer: Job of the Hutton

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Players of the Night

  • Carter Hutton has quietly been playing well when used (sparingly) by the St. Louis Blues, but he stepped into the spotlight on Saturday, guiding his team to a 2-0 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

The high-powered Jets fired 48 shots on goal in this one, yet none beat Hutton, who nabbed the ninth shutout of his solid career. The 31-year-old bumped his save percentage up to a whopping .949 so far in 2017-18. He set a Blues record in doing so.

  • On Friday, Jack Eichel collected a hat trick and an assist in a losing effort. Gabriel Landeskog upped the ante one night later – literally – by scoring three goals and two assists in a game his Avalanche managed to lose anyway.

As much attention as Nathan MacKinnon is grabbing (rightfully, as he added two goals to his impressive season so far), this marks the second hat trick of the season for Landeskog. Not bad with it still being 2017, and all.

This was a pretty nasty game between the Avalanche and Lightning, at least at times.

Some key highlights

Technically, you can spell overtime without Alex Ovechkin

(Ovechkin’s already in select GWG company.)

Shayne Gostisbehere scored both of Philly’s goals, but the antics between Wayne Simmonds and Ben Bishop were the real highlight here:

Speaking of Nathan MacKinnon, this is something else:

Mathew Barzal to Jordan Eberle a combination that torments Darcy Kuemper in overtime and Peter Chiarelli, always:

Finally, Jonathan Gibson flashes the glove in defeat:

Factoids

The Lightning keep piling up different milestones and accomplishments, with Mikhail Sergachev ranking among those today (as Tampa Bay won its seventh in a row):

The cold weather didn’t slow Erik Karlsson down (more on that outdoor game here):

Pekka Rinne‘s really been rattling off some milestones lately.

Scores

Oilers 3, Wild 2
Rangers 3, Bruins 2 (OT)
Blues 2, Jets 0
Islanders 4, Kings 3 (OT)
Hurricanes 2, Blue Jackets 1
Flyers 2, Stars 1 (OT)
Senators 3, Canadiens 0
Capitals 3, Ducks 2 (OT)
Penguins 4, Coyotes 2
Lightning 6, Avalanche 5
Predators 2, Flames 0

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.

Fight video: Brouwer makes Watson pay for Hathaway hit

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Austin Watson nodded with recognition after landing a questionable hit on Garnet Hathaway on Saturday, as he understood why Troy Brouwer demanded immediate retribution.

And, as you can see from the video above the headline, Brouwer got that bloody payback after beating Watson in a fight.

Watson (who isn’t that far removed from a two-game suspension) was ejected for his hit. It wasn’t the only nasty moment between the Nashville Predators and Calgary Flames, either, as the toxic exchanges included Anthony Bitetto‘s ugly cross-check on Sam Bennett.

(Video or a GIF of Bitetto’s hit will be added if it becomes available.)

Some other penalties reduced some of the advantage for the Flames, but they ultimately still received serious man-advantage opportunities amid all of the violence, and they weren’t able to convert.

The best news is that Hathaway might end up being OK after a scary-looking check. He returned to the game during the third period.

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.

Should Erik Johnson be suspended for ugly play on Namestnikov?

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Vladislav Namestnikov has been the Mikael Renberg equivalent on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Legion of Doom with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov for much of this season, complimenting those two scorers with strong work of his own.

The Lightning were lighting up the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night, perhaps frustrating Erik Johnson and others. Whatever the explanation might be, it was a pretty ugly sight when Johnson slashed and then boarded Namestnikov, earning those two penalties plus a game misconduct.

Plenty of people believe that supplemental discipline would be merited for Johnson’s actions. For what it’s worth, “Names” did return to action in the third period. We’ve seen instances where players return only to be hurt anyway, so we’ll see if the nifty winger sees any delayed issues.

Johnson, 29, was suspended for two games by the NHL back in 2014, but has a generally clean history otherwise.

The Lightning ultimately ended up beating the Avalanche 6-5, as Nathan MacKinnon almost led a rally with two power-play goals.

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.