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

The Buzzer: Penguins dominate, Sharks sweep

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Wednesday’s scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Philadelphia Flyers 0 (Penguins lead 3-1):

Pittsburgh dominated from pillar to post in this one. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel each had three points nights. Matt Murray, meanwhile, grabbed his second shutout of the playoffs in the win, which puts the Flyers on the brink of a playoff exit. Philly has just six goals in four games now and five of those came in Game 2.

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, New Jersey Devils 1 (Lightning lead 3-1):

Nikita Kucherov was a force in this one, scoring the twice and adding an assist while laying a massive (and controversial) hit on Devils’ defenseman Sami Vatanen, which knocked the latter out of the game. J.T. Miller tied the game in the first period and assisted on both of Kucherov’s goals for a three-point night of his own. Andrei Vasilevskiy, up for the Vezina this year, turned aside 27-of-28 shots.

Nashville Predators 3, Colorado Avalanche 2 (Predators lead 3-1): 

The Predators held off a late comeback attempt by the Avalanche to take a 3-1 series lead back to Nashville. Colton Sissons and Craig Smith scored in the second period, following Filip Forsberg‘s highlight-reel first-period marker to give the Preds a 3-0 advantage going into the third. Gabriel Landeskog and Alexander Kerfoot brought the Avs back to within one, but that was as far as they’d get. The Avs lost more than just the game as goalie Jonathan Bernier left after the second period with a lower-body injury and did not return.

San Jose Sharks 2, Anaheim Ducks (Sharks win 4-0):

Tomas Hertl scored 1:16 after Andrew Cogliano tied the game 1-1 in the third period to give the Sharks their second sweep in franchise history (they previous swept the Vancouver Canucks in 2013). The Ducks looked better than their Game 3 effort (just showing up would likely do that), but still only managed a single goal (and just four in the series). Martin Jones made 30 saves for the win. The Sharks will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round after Vegas swept the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday.

Three stars

Matt Murray, Penguins: Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby each had three-point nights, but Murray’s 26 saves made sure the Flyers came nowhere near the Penguins as he picked up his second shutout of the series, sixth playoff shutout of his career and fourth in his past six playoff games. Those are some ridiculous numbers from the Pens’ No. 1.

Nikita Kucherov, Lightning: Two goals — the game-winner and the dagger into the empty net to ensure victory — capped off a big night for Kucherov, who has scored in all four of the series’ games thus far. Kucherov added an assist on the game-tying goal in the first period and laid a massive hit on Sami Vatanen (which could earn him a call from the league).

Filip Forsberg, Predators: Got the Predators off on the right foot with his first-period marker which, as you will see below, was from another world. He also assisted on Colton Sisson’s tally that gave the Preds a 2-0 lead in the second period. Forsberg now has five points through four games in the series.

Highlights of the Night

Forsberg’s theatrics:

Jones was a huge problem for the Ducks, as seen here:

Man deposited into bench:

Vezinalevskiy:

Factoids of the Night

Thursday’s schedule

Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN) — Bruins lead series 2-1
Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET (USA, NBCSWA) — Blue Jackets let series 2-1


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

Nikita Kucherov hit forces Sami Vatanen from game; worthy of suspension?

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Here we go again.

Another night in the Stanley Cup Playoffs produces another questionable hit that will certainly be debated.

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov crushed Sami Vatanen with a hit in the first period of Game 4 between the Lightning and New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night.

At game speed, the hit looked clean, with Kucherov making initial contact with Vatanen’s shoulder. But when slowed down, it sure looks like Kucherov’s shoulder made contact with the left side of Vatanen’s head.

The latter clutched his head before struggling to get back to his feet. He headed straight down the tunnel and did not return to the game.

Kucherov was not penalized on the play and finished the game with two goals, including the game-winner, and an assist as the Lightning took a 3-1 series lead with a 3-1 win.

The series shifts back to Tampa for Game 5 on Saturday.

Do you believe Kucherov deserves supplemental discipline for the hit? Or do you think the hit was clean?

Let it be known.


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

Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM

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After completing their four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights began Wednesday as the new favorites to win the Stanley Cup, at least according to the folks at Bovada.

Whether they actually do it doesn’t really matter at this point because this season is already one of the most stunning stories in North American sports history. A first-year expansion team finishing the regular season as one of the best teams in the league, winning its division, and then blowing through an organization in the first round that just a couple of years ago was one of the elite powers in the league is the stuff that gets turned into movies.

The popular consensus on how this all happened always seems to go back to the expansion draft and the rules that opened Vegas up to more talent than any first-year team in league history.

In all fairness to the teams that preceded them, Vegas certainly had an advantage in that area.

It still should not have resulted in a team this good, this fast.

The fact it happened is not an indictment on the rules the league put in place to aid Vegas in becoming an immediate success.

It is an indictment on the NHL’s 30 other general managers, the way they build their teams, the way analyze and value their own talent, and what they value.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The NHL begins to make a lot more sense if you just go into every season with the mindset that nobody really understands what they’re doing, what will happen, or why it will happen, and that everything is just random.

Maybe that’s overstating things. Maybe it’s unfair. Maybe there a lot of variables that go into moves that get made (or do not get made), but every year otherwise smart people that have been around the game forever make inexplicably dumb transactions that just look like a mistake the second they get completed. The 2017-18 season was a treasure trove for this sort of thing. Look no further than the Artemi Panarin trade, or the fact that Taylor Hall is probably winning the MVP one year after being run out of Edmonton.

The expansion draft also exposed a lot of the sometimes backwards thinking that goes on around the NHL.

To be fair, there were some teams that were stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to protecting assets in the expansion draft. A lot of teams were going to lose a good player through no fault of their own, other than the fact they had too many good players to protect.

Nashville comes to mind as one. The Predators needed to protect four defensemen (P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis) which meant a really good forward was going to be left exposed. Maybe you can quibble with the fact they chose to protect Calle Jarnkrok over James Neal, but their decision makes sense. Jarnkrok is $3 million cheaper under the cap this season (that extra cap space would come in handy for moves that followed — signing Nick Bonino, trading for Kyle Turris) and signed long-term, while Neal was probably going to leave after this season anyway as an unrestricted free agent.

Pittsburgh was definitely going to lose a good goalie (it turned out to be Marc-Andre Fleury).

Washington was definitely going to have to lose a good defenseman or a good goalie (it turned out to be Nate Schmidt).

Anaheim was kind of stuck because it had to protect Kevin Bieksa (no-move clause) which meant it had to leave Josh Manson and Sami Vatanen exposed. So the Ducks gave Vegas Shea Theodore to entice them to take Clayton Stoner, leaving Manson and Vatanen in Anaheim. That was a lot to give up, but Manson is a really good player and Vatanen was used as the trade chip to acquire Adam Henrique from the New Jersey Devils when the Ducks quite literally ran out of centers.

Vegas was able to get a solid foundation out of that. Fleury has been everything they could have hoped for him to be and probably more. Had he not missed so much time due to a concussion, he might have been a Vezina Trophy finalist (he probably could have been anyway), and he just dominated the Kings in the first-round. Neal scored 25 goals in 71 games, while Theodore and Schmidt look like solid young pieces to build their blue line around.

Those players alone weren’t enough to turn Vegas into an overnight Stanley Cup contender. Other than Fleury, none of them were really the most important pieces on this year’s team.

So who is most responsible for what happened in Vegas?

[Related: Golden Knights sweep Kings, becomes first team to advance to second round]

Let’s start with the St. Louis Blues, a team that has seemingly escaped criticism for the way they handled the expansion draft which resulted in them losing David Perron.

In his first year with the Golden Knights, Perron went on to finish with 16 goals and 50 assists in 70 games and was one of their top offensive players. While his production increased from what it was in recent years, Perron has still been a 20-goal, 50-point player in the NHL with a really high skill level. He’s a good player. Sometimes a really good player.

The Blues decided that it was more important to protect Ryan Reaves and Vladimir Sobotka over him. Why? Who knows. Maybe the Blues soured on Perron because he had a bad playoff run a year ago (which would be dumb). Maybe they figured they weren’t going to re-sign him after this season and he was going to leave as a free agent (more sensible). But even if it was the latter, protecting Sobotka, and especially Reaves, over him just seems like misplaced priorities.

“But Adam,” you might be saying. “The Blues had to protect Reaves so they could trade him a week later at the draft to the Penguins to move up 20 spots in the draft where they selected Klim Kostin, and he’s a really good prospect! It worked!”

Fair. Fair point.

But do you really think Vegas was going to select Reaves over the other players the Blues had exposed? I know Reaves later ended up in Vegas, but that was mostly due to the Penguins having to send a warm body their way in an effort to re-work that convoluted Derick Brassard trade. Reaves barely played once he arrived in Vegas and may never see the ice in the playoffs. And beyond that, St. Louis traded Jori Lehtera to Philadelphia three days after the expansion draft for Brayden Schenn and didn’t feel the need to protect him in order to preserve that trade.

It was just bizarre asset management to protect two bottom-six players over a top-six winger.

Then there’s Minnesota, who ended up trading Alex Tuch — who was a 2014 first-round pick — to Vegas in exchange for the Golden Knights selecting Erik Haula.

Where teams like Minnesota come away looking bad is that, 1) They may have given up more than they had to in an effort to protect other players, and 2) Not really realizing what they had in previous years.

Tuch, playing in his first full NHL season at age 21, scored 15 goals for Vegas while Haula went on to score 29 goals in 76 games, nearly doubling his previous career high.

Minnesota was another team in kind of a tough spot. It had to protect Jason Pominville (no-trade clause) and one of the players left unprotected as a result was Eric Staal, who went on to score 40 goals this season in Minnesota. They also left a couple of solid defensemen exposed.

Back in November, The Athletic’s Michael Russo wrote about the anatomy of the deal that sent Tuch and Haula to Vegas and the thought process for both teams. According to Russo, general manager Chuck Fletcher’s approach was to clear salary cap space (which was necessary) while also protecting his defenseman so he could trade one for forward help.

All of that ended up happening. Vegas didn’t take a defenseman, and the Wild eventually traded Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville to the Buffalo Sabres for Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis. When combined with losing Haula (who ended up signing for $2.75 million per season) the Wild definitely cleared a lot of salary cap space. They also ended up getting the short-end of the trade-off talent wise when you consider what Haula and Tuch did. Together Foligno and Ennis scored 16 goals this season.

Tuch scored 15 on an entry-level contract and Haula scored 29.

Here’s where Minnesota is deserving of some criticism: Why wasn’t Haula scoring 29 goals for them? Why didn’t they realize what they had in him, and maybe given themselves a reason to keep him instead of giving him away to protect someone else? Or, perhaps having a trade asset that could have actually brought them something meaningful in return if they had to lose him. Over the past two years Haula was getting third-or and at times fourth-line minutes for the Wild and still scoring 15 goals.

On a per-minute basis he was consistently one of their most productive players. Before you write off his 29-goal season this year as a fluke, just look at what he was doing individually during 5-on-5 play.

Kind of the same. The big difference this season is that in Vegas he had the opportunity to play 18 minutes per night instead of 12 minutes per night. Keep in mind that last year Minnesota had Haula on their roster and decided it had to trade for Martin Hanzal (giving up first-and second-round draft picks) and then gave him more minutes than Haula over the final 20 regular season games and playoffs.

It’s your job as a GM to know what you have. The Wild had Haula and wasted him, then willingly gave him away plus another pretty good young forward.

Then there is Columbus, who traded William Karlsson and a first-round draft pick in an effort to rid itself of David Clarkson‘s contract and to protect Josh Anderson and their backup goalie. Karlsson, of course, went on to score 40 goals. I’m skeptical that Karlsson will ever come close to duplicating this season, and I’m a little hesitant to really fault them too much here because nobody should have expected this sort of a breakout from Karlsson at this point in his career. But the optics are certainly bad when you look at who Columbus was trying to protect.

That, finally, brings us to Florida’s contribution to the Golden Knights roster, and with every passing day and every goal that Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith produce it becomes more and more indefensible.

And it was never really defensible.

The Panthers were looking to shed Smith’s $5 million per year contract and were able to trade him to Vegas for a fourth-round pick. In return, Florida would also leave Marchessault, quite literally their leading goal-scorer from a year ago, unprotected as payment for taking Smith’s contract. Wanting to get out of Smith’s contract on its own wasn’t a terrible thought. It was pricey and he was coming off of a down year. But there had to be a better way to do it than by trading a player as good as Marchessault (no contract is untradeable).

Especially when Florida only protected four forwards and instead opted to protect Alex Petrovic and Mark Pysyk on the blue line.

Vegas was always going to get some solid players out of the expansion draft, but where would it be this season without Perron, Marchessault, Smith, Haula, Tuch, and Karlsson, players that their former teams all willingly gave away when they did not need to? They would not be playing in the second round of the playoffs, that is for certain.

But that’s not the only thing that Vegas exposed this season.

They went into the big, bad Pacific Division where all of the big, bad big boy hockey teams play and basically skated circles around them.

How many times have you heard somebody say that you need to be big and tough to compete with those teams in the Pacific and their brand of heavy hockey?

Edmonton, for example, has spent three years trying to build a team in that image, wasting Connor McDavid‘s entry-level contract in the process.

Now, look at the roster Vegas assembled.

They entered the year in the bottom-10 of the league in both height and weight and were the smallest team in the Pacific Division.

Of the top-200 tallest players in the NHL, only four of them played in Vegas this season.

Of the top-200 heaviest players in the NHL, only six of them played in Vegas this season.

Even those numbers are a little misleading because a lot of the Vegas players on that list barely played. Reaves was in both the top-200 in height and weight and played 20 games for them. Jason Garrison was in there, and he played eight games, as did Stefan Matteau.

It’s a speed game today and with a clean slate, able to build their team in any way they saw fit, Vegas smartly embraced where the league is and where it is going.

The Golden Knights were definitely given a pretty good hand in the beginning, and they deserve credit for taking advantage of that.

They also exposed one of the biggest market inefficiencies in the NHL. That inefficiency being that nobody really knows what they’re doing.

————

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.

Lightning vs. Devils: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The Tampa Bay Lightning locked up a playoff spot before April even began, and the only real drama they faced boiled down to whether or not they’d win their division. The New Jersey Devils, meanwhile, scratched and clawed their way to their last game of the season.

Maybe that lack of urgency and Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s fatigue conspired to make the Bolts’ finish to 2017-18 a little less than inspiring? Tampa Bay went 5-4-1 in its last 10 games, as just one example, with Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov losing significant ground in their respective trophy races.

The Lightning still finished atop the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, going 54-23-5 for 113 standings points. The Devils finished one point ahead of the Florida Panthers for the East’s final wild card, generating 97 standings points on a 44-29-9 record.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Even with a less-than-spectacular finish to the season, the Lightning are heavy favorites. Tampa Bay ranks among the biggest favorites of any team in the first round on account of its strengths and the Devils’ perceived weaknesses.

Beyond the momentum angle, the Devils might pin their hopes on sweeping the season series against the Lightning. They won once in a shootout and twice in regulation. Maybe New Jersey matches up well with Tampa Bay?

Let’s break this series down.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Lightning: It’s easy to look at the Lightning as just the one-two punch of a successfully returning Steven Stamkos (27 goals, 86 points) and Kucherov, who hit the 100-point mark for the first time in his wildly underrated career. The frightening part is that it’s not even just about them, nor J.T. Miller in Vladislav Namestnikov‘s old spot.

This series might clue in casual hockey fans that Brayden Point is a rising star. He scored 32 goals and 66 points this season, doing so in sometimes spectacular ways:

Yanni Gourde would also receive way more Calder Trophy buzz in a normal season, as he scored 25 goals and 64 points. The Lightning also have some other nice forwards, including Tyler Johnson (21 goals, 50 points), Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat. It should be noted that, while Palat only scored 35 points, he was limited to 56 games.

The biggest injury question revolves around Stamkos, who missed some late-season games. Will he be 100 percent either by Game 1 or merely sometime in this series?

Devils: It’s well-publicized but true: the drop off from Taylor Hall (93 points) to the second-best Devils scorer (Nico Hischier, 52 points) is drastic.

Hall deservedly gets Hart Trophy buzz, and he’s the single player who could will the Devils to upset victories against the Bolts in his first-ever visit to the postseason.

It’s unfair to say that he’s the only weapon for New Jersey. Despite being limited to 62 games, Kyle Palmieri continues to be an under-the-radar gem, scoring 24 goals and 44 points. Patrick Maroon has been a boon via the trade deadline, collecting 13 points in 17 games with the Devils. Michael Grabner‘s been quiet, but his speed and skill could be useful in a short series, especially with the motivation of a contract year hanging over his head.

AdvantageLightning. Few teams possess the arsenal that Tampa Bay boasts.

DEFENSEMEN

Lightning: Victor Hedman may very well win the Norris Trophy this season. You can argue until your face turns blue over who deserves that nod, but he certainly earned the right to be in the discussion, generating 63 points in 77 games while playing great defense.

Mikhail Sergachev might be a work in progress, yet his offense is already formidable, as the rookie collected 40 points this season despite modest ice time (15:21 minutes per game). They can enjoy the best of both worlds as they protect him and then deploy him for scoring situations.

Ryan McDonagh is still adjusting to Tampa Bay. This is the time they got him for, as he could be a key piece in matchups. He’s joined by other former Rangers Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi, though the Lightning probably want to limit Girardi’s exposure (even after a relatively decent season).

Devils: New Jersey still looks weak on defense on paper, but credit the Devils with adding some talent in that area.

Sami Vatanen is developing into a workhorse for the Devils, averaging 22:44 per game while scoring 28 points in 57 games. Will Butcher has a ways to go in his own end, but he already generated 44 points in his first NHL season.

Damon Severson, Andy Greene, and John Moore are among those blueliners who can prove that they’re worth more of a look with a strong playoffs.

Advantage: Lightning, by a significant margin.

GOALIES

Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy may still be a Vezina finalist, and it’s easy to see why with a 44-17-3 record, .920 save percentage, and eight shutouts. He’s also proven himself in postseason play before, generating that same .920 save percentage in 12 career playoff appearances.

His recent play is the elephant in the room, as he admitted himself to fatigue late in 2017-18. Consider that he generated a brilliant .931 save percentage in 41 games before the All-Star break, only to slide to a bad-backup-level .902 save percentage in 24 games after the break.

Louis Domingue hasn’t really inspired any confidence as his backup.

Devils: With Cory Schneider seemingly at a career crisis, the Devils turned to Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid proved unexpectedly sturdy for New Jersey, producing a four-game winning streak to help them lock down that playoff spot, and also generating a .913 save percentage over 41 appearances.

AdvantageLightning, even though Vasilevskiy’s energy comes into question.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Lightning: The Bolts’ power play ranks among the NHL’s deadliest, boasting a 23.9-percent success rate on 66 power-play goals and just three shorthanded goals allowed. Their penalty kill struggled, however, with a PK% of just 76.1 percent, fourth-worst in the NHL (64 PPGA, nine shorthanded goals for).

Devils: New Jersey connected on 21.4 percent of its power plays, good for 54 PPG and six SHGA. They excelled on the PK, tying for seventh in the NHL by killing 81.8 percent of their penalties (47 power-play goals allowed, 12 shorthanded goals scored).

Advantage: Devils, as they mix a very nice power play with one of the better PK units, especially when you consider how dangerous they are with 12 shorthanded goals. That said, the Lightning’s power play is so dominant, it might make that balance irrelevant.

X-FACTORS

Lightning: Is Vasilevskiy going to be anywhere close to his best self or his tank truly empty? This Lightning team is balanced and dangerous at the top, but bad goaltending can submarine even the strongest teams.

Devils: Taylor Hall in his first playoff series. It’s a great story, and there’s a solid chance that he’ll be the best player on the ice. Could he be such a force that he tilts this series in New Jersey’s favor?

PREDICTION

Lightning in five games. The Bolts possess the top-heavy talent to nullify Taylor Hall, and even if they lose that battle, they’re likely to dominate from a depth perspective. Vasilevskiy also gives them an advantage in net … at least on paper.

If you’re a Devils fan grumbling right now, consider this: New Jersey seems to thrive on defying the odds. Why not do it in the first round, too?

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.