Caps hoping roster improvements can get them past Pittsburgh


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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

The Buzzer: Shutouts for three, Dubnyk gets win No. 200

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Players of the Night:

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins, Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey Devils and Curtis McElhinney, Toronto Maple Leafs: Where do we begin on the night of the shutout? Rask didn’t have a particularly busy night making 23 saves, but when you’re facing names like Kucherov and Stamkos, it’s always dangerous. Still, Rask kept rolling along. He is 27-3-2 in his past 32 starts. That’s just silly. … Kinkaid, meanwhile stopped 38 — including 19 in the first period — in a 3-0 win against the Kings for his fourth career shutout. … No Frederik Andersen for Toronto? No problem. McElhinney stepped in and pitched a 33-save performance as the Leafs down the Montreal Canadiens 4-0.

Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: The Blues defenseman scored twice in regulation and then assisted on Brayden Schenn‘s overtime winner to cap off a three-point night.

Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild: While he didn’t get a shutout, Dubnyk did stop 30 of 31 en route to his 200th career NHL win. The win was also important for the Wild, who moved to within five points of the Winnipeg Jets for second place in the Central Division, and moved five points ahead of the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche for third place.

Highlights of the Night:

Filthy pass:

First-goal celebrations are always the best:

Voracek with a slick move in front:

Save of the year candidate:

Factoids of the Night:

Home is where the wins are:

A legend passes a legend:

Believe in McJesus:

Scary Scenes of the Night:


Sabres 5, Blackhawks 3

Oilers 4, Panthers 2

Devils 3, Kings 0

Maple Leafs 4, Canadiens 0

Bruins 3, Lightning 0

Flyers 4, Hurricanes 2

Blue Jackets 2, Senators 1

Blue 4, Rangers 3 (OT)

Wild 3, Coyotes 1

Sharks 5, Canucks 3

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

Senators’ Ryan Dzingel drilled in the head with a puck (video)

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We already saw one lacerated leg, and now we have a one-timer drilling a player in the back of the helmet.

Saturday night hasn’t been so kind.

Ottawa Senators forward Ryan Dzingel was forced to leave the game after some friendly fire against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 2-1 loss.

Dzingel was drilled in the back of the head from teammate Mike Hoffman‘s one-timer of the back of his helmet around the mid-way point of the third period.

Dzingel remained down for a time but was able to skate off the ice with some assistance from Ottawa’s trainers.

He did not return to the game.

If you watch this closely, you will see Dzingel’s No. 8 on the back of his helmet fly off after contact with the puck.


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

Bruins’ David Backes suffers leg laceration in collision (video)


A scary scene unfolded in the first period between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the visiting Boston Bruins on Saturday night.

David Backes and Yanni Gourde came together in the Lightning crease, with Gourde’s skate appearing to cut Backes on the outside of his right leg.

Backes was able to make his way to the Bruins bench on his own, but he was clutching the back of his leg before getting some help down the tunnel.

Backes did not return to the game.

The Bruins said that Backes suffered a laceration above his right knee, which required several stitches to close.

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

Dundon, Hurricanes suspend search for new GM: report


The Carolina Hurricanes’ search for a general manager is on hiatus.

Sportsnet’s John Shannon reported Saturday that the process of replacing former GM Ron Francis is being put on hold for the time being, citing that owner Tom Dundon needs more time.

“Tom hasn’t had the time he needs to do face to face interviews and feels that waiting will pay off,” Shannon wrote in a tweet.

Francis was removed from his post as GM on March 7 and “promoted” to a new role as president of hockey operations. There was only one catch: whoever replaced Francis would bypass the Hurricanes’ legend and report directly to Dundon.

The search, thus far, hasn’t been going that well, with three potential targets already withdrawing any interest they were thought to have had.

Part of that problem could be how hands-on Dundon appears to want to be. Part of it could just be timing. Fenton, for instance, could be on his way to a Stanley Cup ring this year in Nashville.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman touched on the situation in a recent 31 Thoughts column.

“I think what I’m looking for, is we have to be comfortable with each other. That’s the most important thing,” Dundon told Friedman when asked what he wants in a new GM. “I actually like to disagree and argue. I don’t want someone to come in and just do what I say, and I don’t want to make decisions. Someone to create a structure of how something is a good idea, and now we are going to get it done.”

You can add Pittsburgh Penguins assistant GM Bill Guerin to the list:

I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that Dundon wanting his hands all over the team — including whatever the GM is doing — isn’t the best selling point.

There’s some good, young talent on the Hurricanes for a new GM to come in and build around, but there’s also some dead weight, including what’s turned into a bad contract with goalie Scott Darling.

No GM wants to play puppet for an owner.

TSN’s Pierre LeBrun said the Hurricanes will suspend their search until the summer when a larger crop of candidates reveals itself.

Still, you have to wonder who’ll be willing to take that plunge. Someone will, of course, but people haven’t exactly been lining up to fill the role.

UPDATE: On Headlines on Saturday, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that the salary being offered to a prospective GM in Carolina is $400,000, to which he said he doesn’t see any GM taking as it’s too low. Friedman, meanwhile, believes the search for a new GM is not on a complete hiatus.

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