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Punishment for hits to head prevalent early in NHL playoffs

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George Parros is a busy man early in the Stanley Cup playoffs thanks to a rash of questionable hits around the NHL.

The vice president of player safety’s department suspended Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri three games for boarding Boston forward Tommy Wingels in what the league called a hit made in the name of retribution and Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty one game for an illegal check to the head on Vegas forward William Carrier.

With two suspensions, two misconduct ejections for boarding that resulted in injuries, plus Capitals winger Tom Wilson‘s hit to the head that knocked Columbus center Alexander Wennberg out of the game, it has been a rough start to the playoffs – and there have only been eight games played. In 1,271 regular-season games, there were a total of 37 game misconducts and 22 suspensions.

The NHL has made a concerted effort to rid its game of fighting and questionable hits, wanting to keep skilled players on the ice and boost scoring. In the postseason, goals are usually harder to come by and the adrenaline of the moment brings hard hits that cross the line; a year ago, Penguins star Sidney Crosby missed a game with a concussion after a cross-check to the head from the Capitals’ Matt Niskanen.

Kadri was tossed from Toronto’s Game 1 loss at Boston for boarding Wingels, and Blue Jackets winger Josh Anderson was thrown out of their overtime victory at Washington for a hit from behind that injured Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny.

A game misconduct will likely suffice for Anderson, but Kadri wasn’t as fortunate and will miss Games 2, 3 and 4.

”I certainly wasn’t trying to hit him when he was down like that,” Kadri said after Thursday night’s game. ”Obviously, if he’s still standing up, I think there’s nothing wrong with that, but he ended up falling and reaching for the puck, and I’m not sure what happened after that.”

What happened was another Bruins goal on the ensuing power play that made it 5-1 in the first game between the bitter rivals. Down the East Coast, Wilson’s hit on Wennberg allowed the Blue Jackets to tie the score in a game they won in overtime. Wilson blamed himself for costing Washington Game 1 by taking a bad penalty at a critical moment.

”I’ve got to be better and maybe pass up on that hit,” Wilson said. ”We’ve got the lead there so maybe a big hit’s not needed. It’s the playoffs. Trying to finish your checks, and unfortunately I took a penalty.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Wilson was suspended two preseason games for interference and then for the first four regular-season games for boarding but had cleaned up his game since. Part of that stemmed from meeting with Parros in Calgary in the fall and educating himself on what’s acceptable and what the NHL looks for.

”We had a meeting, me, him and Parros, and went over videos and just what they were looking at when he was being considered for suspensions and fines and other examples throughout the league,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said.

Parros spent almost a decade as an NHL enforcer and finished his career with 159 fights and 1,127 penalty minutes. When he took over the league’s player safety department last September, he said he intended to crack down on ”non-hockey plays” that have nothing to do with affecting the course of the game.

Some of the hits may alter series because of the resulting injuries.

Carrier, Kempny, Wennberg and Wingels are all day-to-day with ”upper-body” injuries – the customarily vague description in the NHL – with their statuses legitimately uncertain moving forward. Columbus general manager Jermo Kekalainen called Wennberg ”doubtful” for Game 2 Sunday at Washington and considered it a ”dangerous hit” by Wilson that the league deemed wasn’t worthy of further punishment.

Doughty, a Norris Trophy contender and Los Angeles’ top defender, was suspended for Friday night’s Game 2 against Vegas for what the league called an avoidable hit to Carrier’s head. Kadri’s hit came after Wingels crushed Toronto forward Mitch Marner, but the timing and force of the hit made it worse.

”The bottom line is, you always have to be disciplined at all times and emotions are a part of the game, but it’s got to be controlled,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said.

Kekalainen disagreed with officials giving Anderson a five-minute major and a game misconduct for his hit on Kempny, which was definitely a minor penalty but seemed less egregious than Wilson’s later. That didn’t stop Capitals coach Barry Trotz from voicing his displeasure with Anderson’s play.

”I thought there’s clearly numbers there,” Trotz said. ”Trying to get that out of the game.”

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]