Capitals finally get playoff bounce as Lars Eller saves their season

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Nobody would blame you if expected the worst for the Washington Capitals as Game 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets went to overtime on Tuesday, the third time in as many games the teams needed sudden death to decide a winner.

After all, this is the Capitals. This is the playoffs. This is a team that over the past two games seemed to invent new ways to crush the spirit of both themselves and their fans.

It seemed inevitable that something, somehow, was going to go wrong in overtime, especially as Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin turned into a one-man highlight reel every time he touched the ice. The Capitals had no answer for him, and he seemed destined to destroy the Capitals’ hopes and dreams on Tuesday.

Then, halfway through the second overtime period, something unexpected happened.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

 A bounce — several of them, actually — went the Capitals’ way in a playoff game to help them pick up a 3-2 double overtime win.

After Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was unable to cleanly snag an innocent looking shot off the rush, Zach Werenski attempted to clear the rebound away from the front of the net only to have it bounce directly to Capitals forward Lars Eller.

Eller then simultaneously swatted it back off of Werenski’s leg, where it then bounced off of Eller’s skate and into the wide open net to give the Capitals their first win of the series.

You can see the entire sequence in the video above.

With that, we now have a series.

Even with everything that has happened through the first three games to put the Capitals in the 2-1 deficit they are facing they should be feeling pretty good about themselves. They did enough to build a two-goal lead in each of the two games they lost before stupid mistakes helped things unravel.

Braden Holtby, their No. 1 goalie, is back in net and has looked pretty good since replacing Phillipp Grubauer, stopping 40 of the 43 shots he has faced (that is a .930 save percentage) over the past six periods of hockey.

Do they have enough to come back and win three of the next four games? That remains to be seen. But the fact they were able to get one on Tuesday night and avoid falling into what would have likely been an insurmountable 3-0 hole is a huge start.

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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.

Why the Johansen-for-Jones trade has become one of NHL’s best moves

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When we think of great trades we almost always seem to look for the ones where somebody ended up getting ripped off.

We frame it as a “great trade” for the team that ended up getting the better end of it. After all, it is just more fun to marvel at one team making out like bandits, completely changing the fortunes of the franchise, while laughing at the other for looking like a bunch of goobers for giving away a future MVP, or something.

But if we are being honest here the whole point of a trade is for both sides to get something out of it, and for both teams to come away thinking, “this helped us.”

There is perhaps no better example of that sort of trade than the Jan. 6, 2016 deal that saw the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators swap Ryan Johansen and Seth Jones.

A simple one-for-one trade. A “hockey trade” as they might say where two teams took players they could afford to give up and used them to fill other areas of weakness.

Try to think of a better one-for-one trade in recent NHL history.

Think back to where both teams were at the time of the deal.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Predators were a pretty good team, but had not yet taken the big step toward being one of the NHL’s elite. They had an embarrassment of riches on defense but one of the biggest things holding them back was the lack of a true top-line center. An essential ingredient in making any team a contender.

The Blue Jackets on the other hand were still a struggling, seemingly directionless franchise that had made the playoffs just once in the previous six years and were leaning on the likes of Jack Johnson, David Savard and Ryan Murray to be their top defenders. They had a need for somebody that could be a top-pairing defenseman, move the puck, chip in offense, and play big minutes in all situations. And while Johansen was coming off two outstanding years, his long-term fit with the team seemed bleak given his unsettled contract situation.

He had clearly become a trade chip.

From the moment the trade went down it just seemed like one that made sense for everybody.

That is exactly how it has played out in the two-plus years since.

Jones, along with the arrival of Zach Werenski, has helped form one of the NHL’s best young defense pairings in the league. Over the past two years Werenski and Jones have played more than 2,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey alongside each other. During that time the Blue Jackets have controlled more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts and outscored teams by a 95-69 margin (that is plus-26). They are as good of a pairing as there is in the NHL right now, and are a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ return to the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

On Thursday, Jones was spectacular in the Blue Jackets’ Game 1 victory over the Washington Capitals by playing over 30 minutes and sending the game to overtime with a rocket of a shot on the power play late in the third period. Both Jones and Werenski will probably get Norris Trophy consideration this season (Jones, for what it is worth, was in the top-five on my ballot).

Meanwhile, for Nashville, they were able to turn their ridiculous surplus of defenseman into the top-line center that the team had needed for years. And years and years and years.

It also says something about the depth that the Predators have accumulated on their blue line that they could trade a player as good as Jones and still have the best top-four in the league. Johansen may not be a top-line center in the sense that he is going to put 100 points on the board or score 30-goals, but there is a lot to be said for a 60-point, two-way player that can drive possession the way Johansen does.

Especially when that player is paired up with a winger like Filip Forsberg. They complement each other perfectly.

Since Johansen’s arrival in Nashville he has played mostly alongside Forsberg to help form a dynamic top-line.

In their two-and-a-half years alongside each other the Predators are a 56 percent shot attempt team and have outscored teams 79-52 during 5-on-5 play with them on the ice together. They were especially dominant in the Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago (57 percent Corsi and 13-4 in goals) and continued that level this season.

Johansen had an assist in Nashville’s win on Thursday over Colorado.

(The only negative to his game on Thursday was a controversial hit on Tyson Barrie, but he avoided any supplemental discipline from the league on Friday).

What makes the trade stand out even more is it came just months before two other significant one-for-one trades that completely backfired for at least one team, when Nashville swapped Shea Weber for P.K. Subban and Edmonton sent Taylor Hall to New Jersey for Adam Larsson. Those trades turned into laughers for one team (New Jersey and Nashville) and turned the others (Montreal and Edmonton) into punch lines.

Those types of trades are great to look back on in amazement as one general manager gets praised for pulling off such an amazing deal.

The Jones-for-Johansen swap is the bizarro world version of those two.

The best deals are the ones where both general managers come out looking great, and there has been perhaps no trade over the past decade that accomplished that more than the Johansen-for-Jones swap.

Both teams got exactly what they wanted and needed out of it and both are significantly better for it today.

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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.

PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Teams under pressure, sleeper picks

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1. Which Round 1 series are you most looking forward to and why? 

SEAN: The obvious is Penguins/Flyers, but I’m real interested in seeing how the Vegas Golden Knights respond to their first playoff series. They have plenty of postseason experience on the roster but over the last month of the season they haven’t been playing their best hockey. But that’s the good thing about the playoffs, it’s clean slate and the focus is solely on one team. LA, meanwhile, is back and we’ve seen before how the likes of Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty can propel this team to success. Kopitar had a wonderful bounceback season and Doughty is in the Norris Trophy discussion. But will the Kings’ roster overall be able to handle the speed that Vegas will throw at them?

JAMES: Penguins/Flyers is almost always thrilling, and not just from a rubber-necking standpoint. Kings/Golden Knights should be a ball when you consider the absurdity of Vegas winning the Pacific in its inaugural season and the clash in styles at play.

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Those are just two other examples of great series, but for my money, Bruins/Maple Leafs has it all. You have two bitter rivals with plenty of history, some of it scarring. The Bruins aren’t just a great defensive team, as even with buckets of injuries, they only scored seven fewer goals (270) this season than the high-flying Buds (277). This series could be an instant classic between two blindingly talented teams.

Also, this series likely to produce at least once epic Mike Babcock scowl per game. Consider that the tie-breaker.

JOEY: Boston/Toronto should be a whole lot of fun. Both teams have a lot of good, young players that can play fast. But the most intriguing matchup in this series will take place between the pipes. I have no idea how the Frederik Andersen vs. Tuukka Rask matchup will play out. Both guys have had strong years for the most part, but it’ll be interesting to see what they can accomplish in the playoffs.

Obviously, having Auston Matthews and Patrice Bergeron go head-to-head is every hockey fan’s dream (or at least it should be). Having Brad Marchand and Nazem Kadri lighting fires all over the ice doesn’t hurt either.

ADAM: Penguins/Flyers just because I really have no idea what is going to happen in that series. It’s set up to be really high scoring because neither team has great goaltending, they both have high-end players up front, and they both can score a ton of goals. They are also both capable of completely blowing the other one out. And while neither team really plays a physical style it’s still the Penguins and Flyers, it’s still the playoffs, and it is almost certain that it is going to turn into complete chaos at some point. Sign me up for it.

SCOTT: Many will say Toronto/Boston. It’s a great Original Six, I hate you, you hate me series, but for me, it’s Pittsburgh/Philadelphia. There’s simply more hate for each other in this one. And it’s not as much Sidney Crosby vs. Claude Giroux this time around as it is Crosby vs. Sean Couturier, which will be intriguing. Not to mention the Penguins are going in search of the three-peat. 

2. What team in each conference is feeling the most pressure to succeed this postseason?

SEAN: This is the one title the Capitals can claim. Another postseason filled with pressure to win. It was 20 years ago this spring that they last got past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since 2009, they’ve been knocked out of the playoffs three times by the Pittsburgh Penguins and they could meet yet again in Round 2. First, however, they need to slay the Columbus Blue Jackets which won’t be an easy task and getting the first crack in goal is Philipp Grubauer, who’s been playing like a No. 1 for most of the season.

In the West, the Predators are built to win the Stanley Cup. They earned valuable experience in their run last year, but now anything short of a championship is a disappointment. GM David Poile bolstered his roster by adding Nick Bonino, Mike Fisher, Kyle Turris and Eeli Tolvanen up front, while Pekka Rinne is having a Vezina Trophy-type season in goal. Can he keep his play up for another two months?

JAMES: Compared to previous seasons, the Capitals probably feel like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders … yet it still comes down to Washington or the Lightning. Consider this a vote for D.C., as the baggage of multiple letdowns and Barry Trotz’s uncertain future make for quite the pressure cooker. At least they’re used to it, though, right?

Out West, the Jets could very well win the Stanley Cup, yet things could get really awkward if they struggle early against Minnesota. After all, the Thrashers/Jets haven’t won a playoff game, let alone a playoff series.

JOEY: I have to go with the Capitals in the East and the Predators in the West. Washington is an obvious one because they’ve iced a lot of good teams, but have failed to get past the second round of playoffs. This year, they didn’t come away with a Presidents’ Trophy, but they’re still one of the top teams in the league. Failing to get out of the second round would be seen as another disappointing end.

The Predators made it to the Stanley Cup Final last year and they were pretty dominant this year. Failing to make another run will be seen as a disappointment. Nashville didn’t have much pressure last year as an eight seed, so it’ll be interesting to see how they respond to being top dog in the Western Conference.

ADAM: The easy answer in the East is Washington because, well, it’s Washington and at some point they have to get through that glass ceiling. If they don’t do it this year you have to wonder if Barry Trotz gets another chance or what sort of changes they make. But honestly, I think Toronto might be facing a lot of pressure simply because it’s Toronto and now that they are back in the playoffs for the second year in a row, and because the Toronto media is always out for blood, I feel like expectations are a lot higher this year and if they don’t get out of the first-round (remember, a Mike Babcock coached team has not gotten out of the first-round since 2013, and only once since 2011) I feel like the knives could be out a little. In the Western Conference I think it comes down to either Winnipeg just because they still haven’t won a playoff game yet, or Nashville simply because expectations are so high at this point. It almost seems like it is expected the Predators will be in the Stanley Cup Final again and anything less than that would be a disappointment.

SCOTT: In the East, surely it’s the Washington Capitals. They once again one the Metropolitan Division but once again, it doesn’t matter unless they can show up in the playoffs finally. Can Philipp Grubauer do what Braden Holtby hasn’t been able to do? Will the Capitals figure out a way to keep scoring? They’ve made the playoffs 10 times in the last 11 seasons. Their longest run in any of those 10 times? The second round. The pressure to prove they belong couldn’t be any higher.

In the West, I believe it’s on the Nashville Predators. Last year, they were the second wildcard. With no pressure, they made an improbable run to the finals. This year, reaching the same stage wouldn’t be surprising in the least. The Predators appear to have all the tools and they’re well-versed in using them. Anything other than a return trip to the Stanley Cup finals would be a disappointment.

3. Give me one sleeper team in each conference and why?

SEAN: Don’t sleep on the Columbus Blue Jackets. Good possession numbers, balanced scoring up front and a power play that improved eight percent since the trade deadline. Sergei Bobrovsky needs to be his regular season self unlike the past where he’s posted .929 and .898 even strength save percentages in his two previous postseason experiences. They have the right Round 1 matchup with the Capitals, a team facing plenty of pressure to win and hoping they made the right choice in goal with Grubauer.

The San Jose Sharks know how to win this time of year. It was only two years ago they pushed the Penguins to six games in the Final before falling short. While the focus in the West is on Nashville, Winnipeg and Vegas — rightfully so — San Jose is sitting there with a stingy defense, a balanced offense (with a big boost from Evander Kane) and good special teams. Their question mark is in goal and making us wonder which Martin Jones we’ll see. It wasn’t the best of regular seasons for him. How long is he leash considering how well Aaron Dell played behind him?

JAMES: Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets generated a fantastic 13-4-2 record. The only East team with a better record during that span is the Panthers, who fell a stride short of the playoffs.

With Artemi Panarin on a roll, the Seth Jones/Zach Werenski combo on defense, some nice depth players, and an elite goalie desperate to prove himself in the playoffs in Sergei Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets check a lot of the boxes for a dark horse candidate.

Honestly, all three California teams could feasibly make a run out West. If forced to pick just one, let’s go with the Ducks … at least if John Gibson can heal up soon. If not, pretend we never spoke of this.

JOEY: At one point, it looked like the Columbus Blue Jackets were never going to win another hockey game again, but they managed to right the ship. After a slow start, Cam Atkinson finally came around. He’s a big reason why the Blue Jackets are in the position they’re in. Facing the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions won’t be an easy task though. If they’re going to go on a run and surprise a few people, they’ll need Sergei Bobrovsky to steal the show. He’s certainly capable of doing that.

In the West, the San Jose Sharks seem to be a bit of an afterthought. Evander Kane, who they acquired at the deadline, has fit in perfectly to his new surroundings and he’s added another dimension to this team. After going through a rough patch last season, Martin Jones has also bounced back in the second half of the year. If Jones can give the Sharks some solid goaltending, they’ll have a chance to go a round or two. Obviously, having Brent Burns firing on all cylinders doesn’t hurt.

ADAM: I gave them the lowest chance to win the Stanley Cup in my pre-playoff Power Rankings but even if they do not win the whole thing I could see New Jersey causing some headaches. They have the (most likely) MVP, they play a fast, aggressive game, and they are getting a Tampa Bay team that kind of limped into the playoffs. Will it happen? Probably not, but I could see the Devils maybe upsetting the apple cart a bit. In the West I kind of want to say San Jose just because I feel like they are lurking under the radar quite a bit, had a surprisingly good season, and seem to have exceeded expectations all year.

SCOTT: In the east, it’s the New Jersey Devils. It’s the typical team that has nothing to lose and everything to gain against the team that placed tops in the Eastern Conference. We saw the same scenario play out last year with the Predators. The Devils finished the year on a 7-2-1 clip in their last 10-games and they have Taylor Hall, who may just be the hottest player in the league at the moment.

In the West, it’s tough to count out the Anaheim Ducks. They finished second in the division on the back of an 8-1-1 stretch to close out the regular season, including a five-game winning streak. The Ducks are far from favorites, but they ice one of the most underrated goaltenders in the NHL in John Gibson, give up fewer goals than most as a result and have playoff experience oozing from every pore. There’s nothing the core of the Ducks hasn’t seen in the playoffs.

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4. How far can the Vegas Golden Knights go?

SEAN: They’ve been doubted all season, and already fueled by being cast off by their previous teams, why not have something else to motivate them after an historic season? Despite a final few weeks where they were a tad inconsistent, playoff time is wakeup time. Getting out of the Pacific Division poses a challenge, but their speed can help them get by the Kings in the first round and then you wonder how beat up the Sharks/Ducks will be coming out of their series. 

Marc-Andre Fleury is a goalie who’s had his issues in the postseason, but in this situation, with his experience, is certainly someone you want in net. But will those who produced in the regular season see that continue in the playoffs? Can William Karlsson sustain his 23 percent shooting percentage? Can Erik Haula, Jonathan Marchessault and James Neal find time and space to continue their scoring prowess? Can the special teams hold up and take advantage of situations when presented?

Vegas has already answered a ton of questions through 82 games. Now comes an entirely new set.

JAMES: Well, according to my own predictions, they’re most likely to see the dream end against Los Angeles.

Still, the Golden Knights get to see if their home-ice advantage extends to the playoffs when their opponents should be on their best behavior. And, while it’s conceivable that the other Pacific teams could catch fire (see question 3), there’s also a reason why they rank as sleepers: this division has been far weaker than the Central in 2018-19.

With that in mind, it’s not that outrageous to picture the magic lasting until the Western Conference Final. Even if the Central teams mash each other into paste, it’s tough to picture Vegas outlasting Nashville or Winnipeg, in particular.

So, if the stars align, they can win two rounds. I’d wager that they fall short against the Kings, which shouldn’t diminish this magical run.

JOEY: That’s a tough one. I can see the Golden Knights getting past the Kings, but I can also see them lose out to an experienced group that has Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick and many others. But I’ve learned my lesson from the regular season, so I won’t doubt them. Still, I can’t see them getting further than the second round. I don’t think a trip to the conference final is in the cards for Vegas just yet.

ADAM: Honestly, I could see them in the Western Conference Final. The Pacific Division is a favorable field for them, I think they match up well with the teams in the division because of their speed, and they have that four-line recipe offensively that can be tough to match up with. A fast, high-scoring team with a suspect defense and Marc-Andre Fleury in net. Not like we have not seen that recipe go on a postseason run before.

SCOTT: When is reality going to catch up with this team? Is there even a reality other than the one they currently exist in? Vegas has defied all the odds in the regular season and now there’s a chance for them to continue to re-write the history books again. They face a tough Los Angeles Kings team that knows a thing or two about playoff hockey. Vegas took the season series 2-1-1, but L.A. scored more goals, 11-10 in those matchups. It was a close season series and that won’t likely change come puck drop in their first-round matchup. Personally, if think the Golden Knights could make the conference finals. They have a three-time Stanley Cup champion in goal and an uncanny ability to come back from deficits. I stopped betting against this team a long time ago.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

PHT’s 2018 Stanley Cup playoff previews

Lightning vs. Devils
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets
Penguins vs. Flyers

Predators vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Wild
Golden Knights vs. Kings
Ducks vs. Sharks

Biggest contract years for NHL playoff teams

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Technically speaking, NHL players only get paid for the 82-game regular season, aside from the pocket change that comes from certain bonuses for playoff wins.

In reality, a player can make a living off of a magical postseason run or two.

A strong couple of months could end up being costly in contract negotiations, yet greed can also be good in helping a team in the short run. Let’s take a look at the biggest contract year situations for all 16 of the teams that made the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In several cases, it’s not as much about deals that will expire after this season, but instead core players lining up for their first cracks at extensions in July.

It only seems fair to begin with the Presidents’ Trophy winners, even if their concerns are minor …

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

West

Nashville Predators

Biggest contract year: Nashville’s biggest concerns come down to the guys whose contracts end after 2018-19: Ryan Ellis and Pekka Rinne.

Still, there are a couple of RFAs who could mop up. Ryan Hartman needs to prove his value after being traded from the Blackhawks, while Juuse Saros could break the bank if something happens with Rinne and he goes on a big run.

Colorado Avalanche

Biggest contract year: Jonathan Bernier is at quite the fork in the road in his career.

The 29-year-old played a key role in keeping things going for the Avalanche earlier this season when Semyon Varlamov went down with an injury, to the point that he probably did enough to earn another backup role. If he can author a big playoff run, then who knows what sort of offer he might be able to command?

With Varlamov’s own deal expiring after 2018-19, a red-hot run from Bernier could even force questions about a changing of the guard.

Winnipeg Jets

Biggest contract year: Connor Hellebuyck is a pending RFA who just broke the single-season wins record for an American goalie, going 44-11-9(!) with a fantastic .924 save percentage. If the Jets make a long-awaited but easy-to-imagine deep run, Hellebuyck will inspire many “buck”-related headlines.

The Jets also have Jacob Trouba and Paul Stastny to consider, while this playoff run will play a role in Patrik Laine‘s extension. Tough to imagine Winnipeg going through the summer without a new deal for Laine, whose rookie deal ends next season.

Minnesota Wild

Biggest contract year: Jason Zucker blew away career-highs in goals (33) and assists (31) this season, generating 64 points. He doesn’t have a huge body of work of scoring at this level (Zucker’s 47 points from 2016-17 were easily his best before this season), so proving it in the postseason could help him earn even more of a boost.

Matt Dumba generated a sneaky-great season of his own, scoring 14 goals and 50 points. The Wild are very lucky that these two players are RFAs.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Vegas Golden Knights

Biggest contract year: The Golden Knights cleared up some concerns, such as handing Jonathan Marchessault a team-friendly extension. Even so, the Golden Knights may lead in greed.

William Karlsson is a pending RFA after leading the Golden Knights in scoring. Some of their biggest names are soon to be UFAs, including James Neal and David Perron. This team has a lot to prove and a lot to gain in the postseason.

Los Angeles Kings

Biggest contract year: For better or worse, most of this Kings team is locked in place. Tobias Rieder could be one of those “flavor of the month” types if he rides some high percentages.

Anaheim Ducks

Biggest contract year: Depth youngsters are looking to earn new contracts in Ondrej Kase and Brandon Montour.

Really, John Gibson might be the guy shooting for the most money in Anaheim. His dirt-cheap $2.3 million cap hit expires after 2018-19, so the Ducks will get their first shot at extending the underrated goalie in July. If he can get healthy and lead a surge, Gibson could drive up his price.

San Jose Sharks

Biggest contract year: Evander Kane generated 14 points in 17 games since being traded to the Sharks, and that includes a three-game drought at the end of the season. Few players had as much to gain or lose as Kane did coming into 2017-18, and that remains true entering the postseason.

Tomas Hertl also approaches free agency as an RFA.

[Want to follow the action? Here’s the full schedule, including where to watch.]

East

Tampa Bay Lightning

Biggest contract year: J.T. Miller could really market himself if he can produce alongside Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

The Lightning stand out as one of the teams with the most interest in how this might grease the wheels for extensions, though. Kucherov’s due for an enormous raise over his almost-insulting $4.767M cap hit, while Ryan McDonagh‘s similar mark also runs out after 2018-19.

New Jersey Devils

Biggest contract year: There are quite a few depth players on expiring deals in New Jersey, yet the most interesting names are imports from the trade deadline in Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon.

So far, Maroon has been especially useful since being traded to the Devils, as he has 13 points in 17 games with New Jersey. It could really help him to prove that he can score without Connor McDavid‘s help.

(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Boston Bruins

Biggest contract year: “Ri-Nash needs cash.” Both Rick Nash and Riley Nash are in contract years, with each forward set to be UFAs. Rick Nash probably grades out an “Incomplete” so far in Boston, as he’s only scored six points with the B’s, yet he’s been limited to 11 games played.

Considering how snakebitten Rick Nash has been, it would be pretty funny if he went on a tear in the playoffs. The Bruins wouldn’t mind, even if it would mean that his time would be short with Boston.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Biggest contract year: The Maple Leafs decided to keep rather than trade James van Riemsdyk, even though a lot of signs point to JVR moving on after this season.

For the second time in his career, he passed the 30-goal mark, collecting a career-high 36 goals. Still, this has been far from a fluke, as he’s scored 29 and 27 during other campaigns and has been a reliable 50+ point guy when healthy.

It’s anyone’s guess what kind of deal he’ll command, and that’s doubly true if he helps the Maple Leafs beat the Bruins.

There are other notable names (Tyler Bozak, Tomas Plekanec, and Leo Komarov especially), but JVR is the contract year player to watch for Toronto.

Washington Capitals

Biggest contract year: John Carlson‘s long been a solid scorer for Washington, generating 37 points three times and even hitting 55 once. His contract year’s been one to note, though, as he topped all NHL defensemen with a whopping 68 points, including a career-high of 15 goals.

Carlson is poised for a big raise over his near-$4M cap hit. Piling on big postseason numbers would inflate that even more.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Biggest contract year: Boone Jenner fits the mold of a guy who could blow up for a playoff run, as right now, it’s really tough to truly gauge the value of a one-time 30-goal scorer who only managed 32 points this season.

Thomas Vanek and Jack Johnson both have a lot to play for, even though they’re in supporting roles for CBJ.

The biggest situations to eye are players whose deals run through 2018-19. Sergei Bobrovsky and Zach Werenski both could get extensions during the off-season.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Biggest contract year: Some of the bigger concerns fall after 2018-19, although Jamie Oleksiak might be the latest member of The Justin Schultz Club: players who landed with Pittsburgh and then revitalized their careers (and paychecks). Bryan Rust and Riley Sheahan also need to earn some dough.

Philadelphia Flyers

Biggest contract year: None of the Flyers’ goalies are locked up for all that long. Petr Mrazek‘s deal is expiring this summer, while Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth both see their contracts run out after 2018-19. Philly’s goalies pose plenty of questions, yet you’d think that motivation won’t be lacking.

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 vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The matchup between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets will see a pair of teams that have failed to make long playoff runs in recent history. The Jackets have never made it out of the first round, while the Caps haven’t made it further than the second round in the “Ovechkin era”.

For the first time in three seasons, the Capitals didn’t come away with the Presidents’ Trophy. That might not be a bad thing considering they got knocked off in the second round each of the last two years they took home the regular-season award. Even though they didn’t finish with the best record in the league in 2017-18, the spotlight will still be bright if they fail to make a run again this year.

They already lost a number of key free agents over the last couple of years and potentially losing John Carlson would be another devastating blow to their Cup window. Saying it’s a do-or-die year for the Capitals is probably a little excessive, but they aren’t getting any younger, that much is clear.

Washington finished the year with a Metropolitan-best 49-26-7 record. That was good enough to give them 105 points in the standings, which was sixth-best in the entire NHL.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

As for the Blue Jackets, they had an up-and-down year. They won some games early in the year, despite not playing good hockey, per their head coach John Tortorella. They hit a major bump in the road in the middle of the year before finally getting back on track at the end of the season. Of course, having Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes certainly helps smooth over some of the rough patches that occur during a season.

Have they peaked too early? That remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that they saved their best hockey for the end of the regular season. Although they didn’t finish in the top three in the Metro, they’re probably happy to avoid the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions, who have knocked them out of the playoffs each of the last two times they were in them.

Despite having three more wins than the Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus finished in the first Wild Card spot in the East while the Flyers were third in the Metro (Philadelphia lost 14 games in OT/shootouts). The Blue Jackets had a 45-30-7 record, but three of those losses came against the Capitals. They only managed to take down Washington once in their four meetings with their division rival.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Washington: The Capitals have one of the most dynamic forward groups in the league. Led by Rocket Richard winner Alex Ovechkin (49 goals, 87 points), they have the ability to put the puck in the net as regularly as any other team in the playoffs. Outside of Ovechkin, the Caps also have solid depth down the middle with Nicklas Backstrom (21 goals, 71 points), Evgeny Kuznetsov (27 goals, 83 points), Lars Eller (18 goals, 38 points) and Jay Beagle. That doesn’t even include the likes of T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson (14 goals, 35 points) and Andre Burakovsky (12 goals 25 points). The Caps are set up front. Oshie missed the final game of the season, but he’s expected to be ready for the start of the playoffs.

Columbus: Cam Atkinson (24 goals, 46 points) got off to a rough start this season, but he emerged as one of the key figures in the Blue Jackets’ turnaround late in the season. They may not have a superstar like Ovechkin, Backstrom or Kuznetsov, but they have more than enough depth to help them get by. Atkinson, Artemi Panarin (27 goals, 82 points), Nick Foligno (15 goals, 33 points), Boone Jenner (13 goals, 32 points), Pierre-Luc Dubois (20 goals, 48 points), Oliver Bjorkstrand (11 goals, 40 points) Alexander Wennberg (eight goals, 35 points) and Thomas Vanek (15 points in 19 games with Columbus) can all help facilitate offense.

Advantage: Capitals. They’re superior down the middle and the overall quality and depth is simply better than what Columbus has at their disposal. Oh, and that Ovechkin guy makes a big difference, too.

DEFENSE

Washington: The Capitals have a quality number one defenseman in Carlson (15 goals, 68 points), but there’s a steep drop off after that. Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Dmitry Orlov have the experience of being in the playoffs before, while Michal Kempny, Christian Djoos, Jakub Jerabek and Madison Bowey will attempt to serve as more than just depth pieces at this crucial time of year.

Columbus: Zach Werenski (16 goals, 37 points) and Seth Jones (16 goals, 57 points) arguably make up the best pairing in the NHL. Matchups will be key in this series, and Tortorella being able to lean on those two could be the difference between winning the round and going home early. Those two are elite, there’s no denying that. Don’t be surprised if you see them log close to 30 minutes per game in the postseason. Columbus also has Markus Nutivaara, Ryan Murray, David Savard and Stanley Cup champion Ian Cole on the back end.

Advantage: Columbus. It’s clear that the Capitals don’t have a pairing that comes close to what Jones and Werenski can do. The duo have the ability to be game-changers in this series. But don’t sleep on Nutivaara, either. He’s another useful asset for this team.

GOALTENDING:

Washington: Under normal circumstances, the Capitals would have an advantage between the pipes because they have Braden Holtby, but the veteran has struggled throughout the year (2.99 goals-against-average, .907 save percentage). He managed to play better down the stretch, which is encouraging if you’re a Caps fan. But Philipp Grubauer has been named the starter in Game 1. It’ll be interesting to see if they utilize both in the series.

Columbus: Sergei Bobrovsky (2.42 goals-against-average, .921 save percentage) has probably been the most consistent Blue Jacket all year. When their stars weren’t performing early on, it was Bobrovsky that bailed them out. There’s no denying it, as good as some of the forwards and defensemen are on this team, he’s the backbone of the operation. The Russian netminder has the ability to steal a game, a series and potentially a Cup. Solving him won’t be easy.

Advantage: Columbus. The Capitals may have two capable goaltenders, but the Blue Jackets have “the” goaltender. That’s not to say that Grubauer or Holtby can’t get hot, but if you look at the body of work that each of these three players put in this season, you can’t deny that Bobrovsky is the best of the bunch. He has the ability to push the Blue Jackets over the top.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Washington: As you’d imagine, the Capitals finished the regular season with the seventh best power play in the NHL at 22.5 percent. Ovechkin led the way with 17 goals on the man-advantage. The Caps rely heavily on their top five players when it comes to power-play production. Carlson (32), Ovechkin (31) Kuznetsov (30), Backstrom (26), Oshie (18) led the Caps in points on the power play. The sixth best forward in that category was Lars Eller, and he only had six.

The Caps were in the middle of the pack when it came to the penalty kill during the regular season. At 80.3 percent, they were the 15th-best PK unit in the league.

Columbus: The Blue Jackets power play was near the basement of the NHL for most of the early part of the season, but a slight improvement allowed them to jump up to 25th in the league at 17.2 percent. Typically, power play goals are harder to come by in the playoffs, so the Jackets have to make sure that they get some kind of production from that unit.

Believe it or not, they were even further down the list when it came to the penalty kill, as they ranked 27th in the league at 76.2 percent. Only Tampa, Philadelphia, Montreal and the New York Islanders were worse. Ironically enough, two of those four teams are in the playoffs.

Advantage: Washington. The numbers couldn’t be any clearer.

X-FACTORS

Washington: Yes, Grubauer is starting Game 1, but the Caps’ X-factor still has to be Holtby. If he can regain his Vezina Trophy-winning form, he’ll make the Capitals that much more of a force this postseason. If he goes back to being the mediocre goalie he was throughout the 2017-18 regular season, it’ll be tougher for them to get through to the next round. That’s not to say that Grubauer can’t get the job done, but the Caps are a better team when Holtby is on his game.

Columbus: Atkinson managed to find his game, thankfully, but he’s going to have to keep it going right through the postseason. He finished the year by collecting 25 points in his final 20 games, which was huge for Columbus because it gave them another red-hot option behind Panarin.

PREDICTION

Capitals in seven games. Both teams will be eager to put their lackluster playoff track records behind them, but the Capitals’ star-power will push them over the edge. Even though Washington is a better team overall, it still won’t be easy for them to dispose of the Blue Jackets.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.