Should the Flyers stick with Brian Elliott for Game 2?

8 Comments

PITTSBURGH — Well that was emphatic.

The Pittsburgh Penguins sent quite a message in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night with a 7-0 win that featured a Sidney Crosby hat trick, a highlight reel goal from Evgeni Malkin, a four-point night from Jake Guentzel, and, completely sliding under the radar in the midst of the offensive onslaught, a third consecutive playoff shutout for starting goalie Matt Murray.

While the Penguins were lighting up the scoreboard, the Flyers were searching for answers.

One of the questions they have to find answer for before Game 2 on Friday is a familiar one for anyone that has followed Flyers hockey for the better part of the past three decades: Just what in the heck are they going to do in goal?

It would be unfair to pin all of the blame for the Game 1 loss on goalies Brian Elliott and Petr Mrazek because the Flyers … well … they weren’t good.

Captain Claude Giroux called it “one of the worst games” he had ever been a part of.

Still, goaltending was a big part of the story and Elliott was not sharp on Wednesday, resulting in coach Dave Hakstol pulling him after giving up five goals on 19 shots. Some of the goals were a bit out of his control.

On one, Carl Hagelin was left alone in front of the net to perfectly redirect a Patric Hornqvist shot into the net.

On another, Crosby scored on a no-look mid-air swat that is just one of those things that happens when Sidney Crosby is on the ice. Not much a goalie can do about that stuff.

But the first goal was the result of a juicy rebound Elliott left for Bryan Rust in the middle of the ice, and while Malkin cut through the Flyers’ defense for the third goal in spectacular fashion, the shot itself was one that Elliott should probably stop.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The reason it is such a debate is because the Flyers are once again in a position without a clear-cut No. 1 starter with Elliott, Michael Neurvith, and Mrazek all splitting the time this season, and all providing equal levels of mediocre play.

It is a vicious cycle that keeps repeating itself every single year. The names change. The story stays the same.

For Elliott, it was an up-and-down season when he was healthy. A brutal month of October was followed by him being one of the bright spots for the team in November and December, before his play dropped off significantly in January and early February. Then an injury sidelined him for 25 games only to have him return to the lineup for the final two games against teams well out of the playoffs to close out the season.

Then he had to face Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

Quite a change in competition.

Elliott was not interested in using that layoff as an excuse and didn’t want to chalk his Game 1 struggles up to still trying to get up to speed.

“It’s always hard when you miss a lot of time,” said Elliott after the game. “But everybody is dealing with stuff this time of year so there’s no excuses in the playoffs.”

But it still leaves Hakstol with a big decision for Friday’s game.

[Related: Penguins, Crosby blow out Flyers, Elliott in Game 1]

Does he go back to Elliott after benching him just 30 minutes into Game 1, or does he make a change and go with Petr Mrazek who gave up two goals on the 14 shots he faced in relief?

Hakstol was asked about a potential change after the game and seemed to have confidence in going back to Elliott.

“Right now my first instinct is yeah,” Hakstol said. “It’s always different as you get into the playoffs, things are elevated a little bit. But coming back with Moose when he was coming off the injury, he’s our guy. He’s a huge reason why our team was able to put ourselves in a  position to be in the playoffs. In terms of his presence in our dressing room and the trust we all have him in that’s a pretty big factor. Like everything else we’ll look hard at it, but right now my first gut instinct is he that he is our guy and I don’t see a reason why we would go away from him.”

The other reason to potentially stick with Elliott: The alternative may not be any better.

Neuvirth is still listed as day-to-day with a lower body injury and has played just 28 minutes of hockey since Feb. 18.

That leaves Mrazek as the only other potential option for the time being. Since being acquired in a trade from the Detroit Red Wings (entirely due to injuries to Elliott and Neuvirth) Mrazek has had a .891 save percentage as a member of the Flyers. Since the start of the 2016-17 season is at .901 in 89 games. Not exactly the level of goaltending you want against one of the best offensive teams in hockey and one that just put a seven-spot on the scoreboard.

Not exactly a great spot to be in, and with everything being as it is, he may not have much of a choice but to stick with Elliott.

Then again, if the Penguins play like they did on Wednesday night it may not even matter who the goalie is.

————

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

Getty
Leave a comment

Two games on Thursday

Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 3-1)

The Boston Bruins continue to show that they can survive – if not thrive – with key players out of the lineup. They don’t get much more “key” than Patrice Bergeron, who was unable to suit up for Game 4. Even so, Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and the Bruins connected on two 2-on-1 rushes to snag a 3-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs must grapple with a lot of uncomfortable questions as they see their season slip to the brink of elimination.

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

This game was all about patterns continuing, or breaking.

Continuing: The road team winning. The away team has won all four contests during this series, so this one returns to Washington with the two teams now tied up 2-2. It’s also another instance of Alex Ovechkin being sneaky-clutch, although many people will disagree because of team results. Washington’s starting to pull away in terms of puck possession during the series, and that continued on Thursday, too.

Breaking: For the first time in the series, the game ended in regulation. It wasn’t all that close, either, as the Caps won 4-1 and were safe even considering one empty-netter.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – There will be talk of Bergeron, Auston Matthews not being able to score, Mike Babcock’s decisions, and other factors from Game 4. Rask helped to push those discussions to the forefront – rather than talk about which team has the edge if they ended up tied – as he was sharp on Thursday. Rask stopped 31 out of 32 shots, factoring heavily in Boston building a 3-1 series lead against Toronto.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – After scoring two goals in Game 1, Kuznetsov had been held silent by the Bruins in Games 2 and 3. The Russian center made up for lost time in Game 4, scoring an empty-netter and two assists in that 4-1 win. Both of his assists were primary helpers, while he checked many other boxes by winning more than half of his draws (10 of 18), generating a +3 rating, and firing four shots on goal.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – Ovechkin fired a shot on Sergei Bobrovsky, which created a rebound opportunity for T.J. Oshie during a Washington power play, a goal that ended up being the game-winner. Ovechkin also scored from the right face-off circle for an important insurance goal. Ovechkin fired five SOG and was a +1 in Game 4.

Factoids

There’s plenty of focus on Bergeron being out and Marchand scoring/agitating, but don’t forget about David Pastrnak‘s brilliance.

Again, Alex Ovechkin is more clutch than people realize. By scoring the 49th playoff goal of his career, Ovechkin tied Henri Richard for 60th in NHL history. You may remember Henri as a) Maurice Richard’s brother and b) the guy who won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

Friday’s games

Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network
Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

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.

Capitals tie series with Blue Jackets

3 Comments

In Game 4, the Washington Capitals showed their heart by not working overtime.

The Capitals dropped both of their home games to start their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, opening the floodgates for people to dust off their favorite, cruel jokes about this team. They’ll return home with those one-liners drying up, though.

After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Capitals flipped the script to tie it up 2-2 after beating the Blue Jackets both times in Columbus. The symmetry wasn’t complete, however; while Washington continued the series trend of overtime nail-biters by winning beyond regulation in Game 3, they made no mistake about winning Game 4 by a score of 4-1.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This wasn’t a case where the Bruins got the bounces and the finishes to win. The Capitals have shown signs of dominance even in defeats during this series, but they really smothered the Blue Jackets in Game 4.

The Capitals generated a 33-24 shots on goal edge, won about two-thirds of the faceoffs, and generally carried the play by every metric.

Tom Wilson making it 1-0 was valuable, and jokes about blown 2-0 leads aside, T.J. Oshie‘s eventual game-winner was important during the second period. Alex Ovechkin‘s goal from his opposite office widened the gap too much for an overmatched Blue Jackets team, even with Boone Jenner scoring and giving Columbus a brief boost.

With a goal and an assist in Game 4, this is yet another reminder that Ovechkin is a playoff performer, even if his team isn’t always there with him. After Washington went down 2-0 against Columbus, Ovechkin said “it’s going to be fun when we bounce back and tie the series,” and that’s exactly the situation Washington is in after … whatever the opposite of “holding serve” is.

Of course, people will quickly forget this triumph-within-the-series if the Capitals ultimately bow out of the first round, anyway.

The Caps must feel really good about their collective play as they aim to become the first team to win at home in this series in Game 5. Their power play has been productive, playing tight defense, getting scoring from Ovechkin/others, and Braden Holtby looks poised in regaining his usual spot in net. It’s the sort of stretch that changes the Capitals’ narrative from “here we go again” to “could this be the year we finally make a run?”

With this series now essentially becoming a best two-out-of-three clash, the disposition could easily go from sunny back to gloomy, but give this beleaguered group credit for keeping cool heads and making this anyone’s game once again.

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.

Bruins push Leafs to brink

8 Comments

The Boston Bruins found themselves on the wrong end of plenty of stats in Game 4, but even with Patrice Bergeron on the shelf, they won 3-1 to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination.

Boston took a 3-1 series lead with tonight’s win despite Toronto generating a 32-21 shots on goal advantage, hogging the puck, and holding home-ice advantage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Goaltending was one big area of advantage for the Bruins. Tuukka Rask was forced to make some tough saves as Mitch Marner and other Leafs players created plenty of chances. One cannot help but wonder if fatigue is a bit of a factor for workhorse Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, as he’d likely love to have this Torey Krug goal back:

That early 1-0 lead provided a cushion for the Bruins to adjust to life without Bergeron (again), although Tomas Plekanec did tie things up. Ultimately, the Bruins were able to cash in on two 2-on-1 rushes, with Brad Marchand burying a tremendous setup by David Pastrnak for the game-winner and Jake DeBrusk finding the net after a great feed by David Krejci (who has absorbed some criticism for his play lately).

The two goals were remarkably similar in exhibiting the Bruins’ smarts and finish, along with the Maple Leafs lacking in a few areas on defense, as Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were exposed (among others). Here’s that Marchang GWG:

Game 5 shifts back to Boston on Saturday. You can watch that game on CNBC, with puck drop slated for 8 p.m. ET.

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.

Bruins without Bergeron vs. Leafs in Game 4

1 Comment

The Boston Bruins rolled through much of the regular season despite injuries, even to key players like Patrice Bergeron. The fact that they’re unfortunately experienced playing without Bergeron is probably the only silver lining regarding his late scratch heading into Game 4.

The Bruins announced that Bergeron is day-to-day with what they’re deeming an upper-body injury, so Riley Nash slips into Bergeron’s spot between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This stands as an obvious opportunity for Auston Matthews to roam more freely against the Bruins and a chance for the Maple Leafs to tie this series in front of their home fans.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty makes a good point that Bergeron missing Game 4 is especially troubling since the Bruins played Game 3 on Monday, gaining an extra off day between contests.

Bergeron generated five assists through the first three games of this series, including four helpers in Game 2. He was limited to 64 regular-season games in 2017-18, falling just short of a point-per-game with 63. Naturally, his all-around game goes beyond goals and assists, so this hurts badly for the Bruins, whether they had some experience playing without him or not.

As of this writing, the two teams are tied up 1-1. Click here for the livestream link.

This news comes not that long after news surfaced that Bergeron’s once again been named a finalist for the Selke.

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.