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NHL contenders hope late-signing prospects are playoff ready

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The ink was barely dry on his contract when Ryan Donato played his first professional game.

Three days after his junior season at Harvard ended, Donato joined the Boston Bruins’ lineup in the middle of a playoff chase in a top-six role with a spot on the power play.

No pressure, kid.

”I definitely had to learn quickly,” Donato said. ”Every game is important, so it had to click right away. I really didn’t have a choice.”

Such is the task for Donato and a handful of other young prospects joining contenders in the eleventh hour of the NHL season. It has become common for teams with no postseason hopes to sign players out of school and play them late in the regular season like Vancouver did with Brock Boeser and Arizona with Clayton Keller a year ago.

This season, some top teams are taking the chance, too.

Just as the Bruins added Donato, Minnesota signed Jordan Greenway after his season at Boston University, Anaheim signed Troy Terry after the University of Denver was out of the NCAA Tournament and Nashville brought over Eeli Tolvanen from Europe after a full year in the Kontinental Hockey League – young talent added for the playoffs without the teams giving up anything, though coaches must now integrate a new player late in the season.

”It’s tough if the kids aren’t good,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. ”With our team right now in the midst of this race, every little defensive situation has got to be done right.”

Every shift is magnified this time of year, adding to the burden of trying to learn a team’s system. Donato, Greenway and Terry went right from college to the NHL, and Tolvanen had to adjust on the fly from the wider, European ice as Nashville tries to shore up home ice throughout the playoffs.

”It’s kind of tough to come in the middle of the season and just jump in and you don’t know all the guys,” Tolvanen said. ”You have to do it at some point, so I think it’s a pretty good spot that I came a couple games before the playoffs.”

Tolvanen benefited from two rounds of KHL playoffs with Jokerit and carried that intensity across the pond, while Terry and Greenway got a taste of playoff action in the NCAA Tournament. Donato’s season playing for his dad and former NHL forward Ted ended, and he suddenly had to ramp things up to carry a big load for Boston amid injuries to Rick Nash and others.

Donato knew he couldn’t take a shift or a game off and has stepped up with seven points in his first nine games. Coach Bruce Cassidy wasn’t worried about getting the soon-to-be 22-year-old up to speed as much as seeing if Donato could handle the size, speed and pace of the NHL.

”Most of these kids that come in are offensive-minded guys, so are they going to be able to make their plays and handle a man’s game?” Cassidy said. ”And he’s shown he’s able to do that.”

Donato certainly had a body of work coming in, including leading the United States and tying for the tournament lead with five goals at the Olympics without NHL players. The other three young, late-season additions – all of whom also stood out at the Olympics – are being eased in.

”We didn’t really do anything at the trade deadline because we knew that we were going to get Jordan Greenway,” Boudreau said. ”He’s gone through the Olympics and the world juniors all in the last year, so he knows what a little bit of pressure is all about. Playing at BU, he’s always (on) one of the better teams playing in important games. We pretty well thought he could handle all this.”

Nashville is betting Tolvanen can handle it, too. The impressive Finnish winger set a KHL record with 36 points as an 18-year-old and looked increasingly more comfortable in his first three games for the Predators, who have their sights set on a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

”It’s important for him to see ice time before the playoffs,” coach Peter Laviolette said. ”The playoffs are a long haul. I think we learned that last year that you need a lot of people and a lot of parts and it’s important to get him involved in the game, with the team, in the systems.”

Predators general manager David Poile recalled making one trade too many at a previous deadline and messing with his team’s chemistry.

”You have to be careful on both sides because you don’t want to put a young player in a position to fail,” Poile said. ”You want to put him in a position to succeed. You also are very respectful of the players that have been with you all season long. It’s also OK to have depth but you don’t want to move everybody’s cheese too much.”

In Boston, it helps that Donato is filling a spot vacated by injuries and showing immediately he belongs. In Nashville, Tolvanen’s reputation preceded him for anyone who saw what he did as one of the leading scorers at the Olympics.

”It’s a special situation when somebody comes in this late and joins the team and under different circumstances, but it’s been great,” starting goaltender and fellow Finn Pekka Rinne said. ”Certainly it adds a new, special element to our team. I think it’s going to be beneficial down the road.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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

Blue Jackets’ Matt Calvert scores unusual breakaway goal

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We’ve all see some breakaways go horribly, horribly wrong in the past.

Patrik Stefan reigns supreme here. Devin Setoguchi didn’t fare too well on this one. And then there was this gaffe by Dennis Wideman once upon a time.

But sometimes one screws up, only to rebound quickly and turn a near-blunder into a nice-ish goal.

Columbus Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert did that today, in what’s already being called the best/worst breakaway attempt of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As you can see in the video above, Calvert gets a nice clean breakaway. As he attempts to first a wrist shot, he whiffs on the attempt but manages to corral the puck back, doing the whole spin-o-rama thing, and deposit the puck past Braden Holtby for his second goal of the game.

Sometimes it just all works out.


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

WATCH LIVE: Lightning, Bruins try to move on to Round 2

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Game 5: New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning, 3 p.m. ET (Lightning lead series 3-1)
NBC/NBCSN*
Call: Gord Miller, Joe Micheletti
Series preview
Stream

Game 5: Columbus Blue Jackets at Washington Capitals, 3 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
NBC/NBCSN*
Call: Chris Cuthbert, Ray Ferraro
Series preview
Stream

Game 5: Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins, 8 p.m. ET (Bruins lead series 3-1)
NBC
Call: Mike Emrick, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire
Series preview
Stream

*Regionalized coverage – Florida markets and WNBC in New York metro area will air NJ-TB on NBC and CBJ-WSH on NBCSN; all other markets will receive CBJ-WSH on NBC and NJ-TB on NBCSN

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]