Jason Brough

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Caps hoping roster improvements can get them past Pittsburgh

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins arrive at their latest showdown looking very much like they did a year ago.

It’s the little things that might matter most this time around.

The Capitals added center Lars Eller and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk as a direct response to losing their second-round series last season, hoping the depth will help against the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Penguins have a different goaltender with Marc-Andre Fleury replacing injured Matt Murray and are without injured defenseman Kris Letang.

Aside from those changes and a few other tweaks, the teams that take the ice Thursday night for Game 1 in Washington are strikingly similar to those who played for six games last spring.

“This is a unique situation — both teams have a lot of guys back,” Penguins center Matt Cullen said. “It’s not often with the salary cap and everything that you bring a similar team back. It makes for an interesting matchup.”

The stars are again aligned for Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and the Capitals to face off against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and the Penguins. Familiarity should breed quick contempt, but Washington’s changes are what players think will flip the script.

“I feel better about our team going into it this year than I did last year, that’s for sure,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson said. “We can attack from different ways, and we can find ways to score throughout the lineup. I just think a lot of guys are playing better than they did last year.”

That’s a shout out to second-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who struggled after March last year but played an essential part of the first-round series this season against the Toronto Maple Leafs by defending Auston Matthews. Defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt are also much improved after being scratched during the 2016 playoffs.

The Penguins are rolling again after eliminating Columbus, but the absence of Letang is significant after he logged 31:36 of ice time per game last year.

“Obviously they lost key player, Letang,” Ovechkin said. “It’s good for us, bad for them … (but) it doesn’t matter who’s in the lineup. We just have to pressure them, and we don’t have to give them any chances to get success.”

Pittsburgh exposed Washington’s lack of speed a year ago and has the potential to do so again even if winger Carl Hagelin isn’t ready to start the series. The Maple Leafs’ up-tempo style challenged the Capitals, something coach Barry Trotz called “a good warmup” for the Penguins, but it remains to be seen how his team will play faster this time.

Who’s better off after a year of no change? Watch and find out.

“I think I guess the series will show that more than anything,” Crosby said.

FLOWER POWER

Fleury went 4-1 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .933 save percentage against the Blue Jackets in the first round after replacing Murray because of a warmup injury prior to Game 1. The Capitals didn’t see him last year because Murray didn’t cede the net, but the Fleury has been so good there has been no drop-off.

OSHIE, PENGUINS KILLER

T.J. Oshie had five goals and an assist in last year’s series and three goals and seven assists in four games against the Penguins this season. Facing Pittsburgh’s top competition seems to get Oshie clicking.

“Typically we’re going against Crosby’s line and that’s a tough task, he’s a great player,” Oshie said. “You can get motivation from that and kind of the game within the game. Last few years, the puck found the net for me and hopefully it will be the same.”

PUT IT IN PENCIL

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan shifted his lines, putting Patric Hornqvist on right wing with Crosby and playoffs leading goal-scorer Jake Guentzel and dropping Conor Sheary down to skate with Nick Bonino and Scott Wilson. Pittsburgh again has four scoring lines with Malkin, Kessel and Bryan Rust together and Cullen centering Chris Kunitz and Tom Kuhnhackl.

“Sometimes when certain line combos have history of success together, we tend to give those lines a little bit more time to work through the challenges,” Sullivan said. “That’s something we have daily discussions about, (a) question I always ask, which combinations are going to give us the best chance to win.”

STOP, ELLER TIME

The Capitals sent two second-round picks to the Montreal Canadiens for Eller specifically for this kind of series. Pittsburgh got five goals at even strength from its third line of Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel and two more from Cullen and his fourth-line mates last year, while Washington’s bottom six combined for two goals.

Enter Eller, who is a good penalty killer and should be an offensive upgrade over Mike Richards.

“I can’t wait for that challenge,” Eller said. “I think a lot of guys in here have pictured that this is a spot we could end up being in, facing this team sometime in the playoffs and now is that time.”

Related: A rebuild third line has been key for Caps

Green will be judged on progress of Canucks’ youngsters

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Expectations have officially changed in Vancouver.

Whereas the last few years the Canucks have tried to stay competitive and make the playoffs (failing miserably the last two seasons), the plan now is to develop their youth with an eye towards the future.

“I’m not sitting up here and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to win the Stanley Cup next year,'” new head coach Travis Green said today.

“But I will tell you we’re going to get better.”

Green was hired after four seasons as head coach of Vancouver’s AHL affiliate in Utica. He understands that the Canucks need to keep injecting youth into their lineup. He knows that’s why he was hired, despite his lack of coaching experience in the NHL.

“We need to get younger, that’s no secret,” he said.

So, for Green, it will not be wins and losses that he’s judged on for the next year or two. Instead, it will be the progress of Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi, Markus Granlund, Jake Virtanen, Brock Boeser, Nikolay Goldobin, Ben Hutton, Troy Stecher, Brendan Gaunce, Olli Juolevi, Jonathan Dahlen, and any other youngsters in the organization.

A veteran of over 1,000 NHL games as a player, Green is not expecting this to be a smooth ride. Young players make mistakes. They are inconsistent. They can be immature. Sometimes they progress, only to regress.

“You have to let them learn on the fly, some of them,” said Green. “You have to give them rope. You want them to swim, you don’t want them to sink. (But) you want them to go through adversity as well. I think it’s good for young players to go through adversity.”

Green started his coaching career in the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks. Combined with his AHL experience, he believes he’s learned a thing or two about getting through to younger players.

Not that he’ll be Mr. Nice Guy all the time. He intends to push his players. He’s more than willing to make them uncomfortable, if that’s what he thinks is required.

“I want my players to be accountable,” he said, “in what they do, how they prepare, how they practice. But I think if you build relationships and you communicate with players, they appreciate it — especially today’s player. I don’t play a lot of mind games. They always know where they stand. At the end of the day, when I was a player, you always wanted to know where you stood.”

The end goal — whether it’s two years down the line, or even three or four — is to produce a winning team that can compete for a championship.

“We know where we’re at,” said Green. “I know the management group understands that, I feel confident in that. But hey, I want to win. No one likes winning more than me. I want to see our team get better. I want to start the process and push the envelope with these players, and see improvement.”

Related: Trading Burrows and Hansen represents significant ‘shift’ for Canucks

Canucks announce Travis Green as new head coach

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The Vancouver Canucks made it official today, announcing Travis Green as their new head coach.

Green replaces Willie Desjardins, who was fired after three seasons on the job.

The past four years, Green has been the head coach of the Canucks’ AHL affiliate in Utica.

“Travis is a talented head coach who’s played a key role in the development of our young players through four seasons with the Comets,” said GM Jim Benning in a statement. “He has an intense desire to win and build a team identity that is hardworking, responsible on both ends of the ice and competitive. He has an excellent understanding of where we are as an organization and we’re confident in his ability to help build our team and develop a winning culture.”

Green, a former forward who played over 1,000 NHL games including the playoffs, will take over a transitioning Vancouver roster. He was hired in large part to develop the club’s young players.

“You need young players, and you need them to play,” Green said in an interview with the Canucks’ website.

Of course, the need for youth in the lineup doesn’t mean Green will be gifting anything to anyone.

“I expect a lot out of my players,” he said. “I’m demanding. Expectations will be high. But players want that. They want to be held accountable. There’s going to be a lot of communication between myself and the players. I believe in it. I want them to trust me. I want the best for my players.”

It’s going to be a tough job for Green, who’s never coached in the NHL. While the Canucks do have some promising youngsters, they still need to accumulate more as they move on from the Sedin era.

“I want to start to develop a culture that breeds winning,” said Green. “You know, that’s a process. That takes some time. But that starts today.”

Kesler will have his hands full with McDavid, and vice-versa

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“It’s not me against McDavid,” says Ryan Kesler. “It’s the Anaheim Ducks against the Edmonton Oilers.”

OK, fine. But when one team has the NHL’s leading scorer, and the other a five-time Selke Trophy finalist, that’s a matchup that people are going to talk about.

Especially when the Ducks have last change, like they will tonight in Game 1 at Honda Center (10:30 pm ET on NBCSN or the NBC Sports app). Expect to see plenty of Kesler whenever Connor McDavid hits the ice.

Stream Ducks vs Oilers Here

“Kes takes it personally when he plays against the top players,” said Ducks teammate Kevin Bieksa, per the O.C. Register. “He’s just very competitive. He has the will. I keep hearing he gets inside people’s heads but I just think you do that by outplaying them.”

Kesler and Bieksa were also teammates in Vancouver, where Kesler became the Canucks’ first-ever Selke winner in 2011.

McDavid, meanwhile, will receive his first Art Ross Trophy in June. He’ll probably get his first Hart, too. Yet he knows it won’t be easy against Kesler, whose combination of speed and tenacity makes him such a great checker.

“He’s been up for the Selke for how many years in a row,” said McDavid. “That obviously speaks for itself. He obviously understands his defensive role.”

In case you’re wondering, McDavid played five games against the Ducks this season. He had two goals and five assists, and the Oilers went 3-2-0.

Kesler played all five of those games, too. He had two goals and no assists, and the Ducks went 2-1-2.

Flames ‘likely’ to leave Brouwer unprotected: Calgary Herald

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He turns 32 in August, and he’s got three years left on his contract with a sizable cap hit of $4.5 million.

He didn’t have a great playoffs either.

So we shouldn’t be too surprised to read that the Calgary Flames are “likely” to leave winger Troy Brouwer unprotected in the expansion draft.

From the Calgary Herald:

The acquisition of Curtis Lazar at the trade deadline for a second round pick came with a public assurance from GM Brad Treliving that Lazar was a reclamation project he planned to protect.

Thus, the list of seven forwards protected will likely include Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, Micheal Ferland, Sam Bennett and Lazar. First and second-year players like Matthew Tkachuk are exempt.

Brouwer had just 13 goals in 74 games for the Flames this season. He signed in Calgary on July 1, leaving the St. Louis Blues as an unrestricted free agent.

As the Herald notes, there’s no guarantee that Vegas will select him. But certainly, his old general manager from their days together in Washington, George McPhee, will give it some consideration.

McPhee gave Brouwer a three-year extension in 2012, calling him “a physical and versatile power forward who can play both wings. … He is a Stanley Cup winner and a great leader.”