As Southeast rivals make big changes, the Hurricanes are left twisting in the wind

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everythingisonstaalandward.jpgOne of the easiest questions for most hockey people – aside from the least objective Washington Capitals fans, perhaps – was “which division is the weakest in the NHL?” Any puckhead worth his or her salt would swiftly choose the Southeast Division as the league’s worst.

The fact of the matter is that the SE might still be the weakest in the NHL, but the once-middling lightweights are building up resources to knock off Ted Leonsis’s heavyweight gorilla in DC.

The Atlanta Thrashers are bulking up with former Chicago Blackhawks including Dustin Byfulgien, the Tampa Bay Lightning are experiencing a shrewd makeover thanks to new GM Steve Yzerman and the Florida Panthers are trading a little success today for potential payoffs tomorrow with multiple draft picks and younger players. Despite those moves, you’d have to be quite the Kool-Aid drinker to handicap anyone as the division winner over Ovechkin & Co. and GM George McPhee can probably point to the natural internal improvements that come with having a young team to explain his lack of splashy moves.

For years, the Capitals would run away with the division while one other team was lucky to even make the playoffs (if there even was a second team; one year the Atlantic sent four teams, the Northeast sent three and only the Capitals represented the Southeast). If there was one team that gave the Caps at least a token effort, it was former Stanley Cup winner Carolina. With a talented goalie in Cam Ward and a great young forward named Eric Staal, the team would experience some of the most dramatic peaks and valleys of any in the NHL.

But what now? The team lost Ray Whitney (via free agency) and the rapidly declining Rod Brind’amour (retirement) while doing very little to improve their team outside of signing the strange “in one year and out the other” defenseman Anton Babchuk and another retread in Joe Corvo. Even in a top heavy league like the NHL, it cannot make Hurricanes fans too comfortable to realize that Staal, Ward and defenseman Joni Pitkanen account for one third of the team’s meager $44 million salary structure.

You can’t completely blame GM Jim Rutherford since owner Peter Karmanos wants to make the team cheaper and therefore easier to buy, but who can the Hurricanes even hope to step up this season? Aside from Brandon Sutter, I don’t know many go-to guys once you get past Staal and Ward. Considering that injuries and inconsistent play doomed a more credible Canes roster last season, it would require quite the coaching job by Paul Maurice for this team to make an impact, even in a decidedly soft Eastern Conference.

While all four of their divisional cousins can point to an improving short-term and an even better long-term future, the Hurricanes must see nothing but clouds and uncertainty on the horizon.

Full Schedule: 2018 Stanley Cup Final

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The 2018 Stanley Cup Final matchup is set and it will be the Washington Capitals against the Vegas Golden Knights.

So many different storylines to consider. George McPhee vs. his old team. Alex Ovechkin going for his first ever Cup ring. Former Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury against the Capitals. And the obvious one with the Golden Knights and their inaugural season success. It should be a fun one.

Here’s the full schedule:

Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 5* Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

MORE:
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Ovechkin, Capitals headed to Stanley Cup Final after Game 7 triumph

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Alex Ovechkin will get his chance.

The Great 8 will contest for the Stanley Cup after his Washington Capitals defeated their past demons and the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday.

Yes, the Capitals — a team that had to overcome a horrific playoff record against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round and then had to deal the disappointment of beginning the Conference Final with wins in Games 1 and 2 only to drop three straight to trail 3-2.

They took care of business in Game 6, and that train kept chugging along into Game 7.

Ovi put his stamp on Game 7 just 62 seconds in as he wired a one-timer past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The first period was a wild affair, filled with scuffles, a fight and stolen jersey.

And then Andre Burakovsky arrived.

Burakovsky missed the first 12 games of the plays because of injury and then followed that up with seven games without a point.

He revealed earlier in the series that he lays a mental beating on himself too often. So Game 7 must have felt pretty good.

Burakovsky scored on two separate breakaways in the second period.

The first came off a brutal giveaway from Dan Girardi in his own zone. His second came after the Lightning got caught on a bad change.

Tampa looked like a shell of their former selves. They dusted themselves off after dropping the first two at home, but simply stopped scoring after the 33-second mark in the second period of Game 5.

[PHT’s Three Stars]

Braden Holtby showed up at precisely the right moment in the series, posting consecutive shutouts to close out the series.

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, meanwhile, were far from brilliant. No one over the last seven periods and change was on the Lightning.

The Lightning went 159:33 without scoring. Ouch.

You can’t win games when you don’t score, something the Lightning will have all summer to ponder. They led the NHL with 296 goals this season, all of which means sweet nothing now.

And now the attention turns to one of the more intriguing Cup Finals in a long time.

One of the greatest players of all-time with a chance to win his first Cup silence his critics after years of disappointment against the best story in sports, period.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final begins Monday, May 28 at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

In the words of Bart Scott, “Can’t wait.”

MORE:
NHL Playoffs 2018: Stanley Cup Final TV Schedule

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

PHT’s Three Stars: Burakovsky’s goals push Capitals into Stanley Cup Final

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1st Star: Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals

After being benched earlier in the series, Burakovsky responded in a big way in Game 7 scoring twice as the Capitals moved on to the Stanley Cup Final with a 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

2nd Star: Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

Holtby finished the Eastern Conference Final in a strong way, posting a second straight shutout while making 29 saves. The Capitals netminder has not allowed a goal since 33 seconds into the second period of Game 5.

3rd Star: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

The captain only needed 62 seconds to open the scoring and quiet the AMALIE Arena crowd.

[Ovechkin, Capitals headed to Stanley Cup Final after Game 7 triumph]

Highlight of the Night:

A wild first period included a tilt between Tom Wilson and Braydon Coburn:

Factoid of the Night:

Stanley Cup Final schedule
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 5* Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Brooks Orpik leaves Game 7 after Paquette’s hit from behind

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While the Washington Capitals built up a lead in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday, they lost two players before the end of the second period.

First, Devante Smith-Pelly blocked a Ryan McDonagh shot with the back of his neck in the first period. After returning to the game, he would leave the Capitals’ bench late in the second period.

Joining him would be Orpik, who took a big hit from behind along the boards from Lightning forward Cedric Paquette. As Orpik was being tended to, the officials got together and determined that there would no penalty on the play, which is an odd decision.

As Orpik goes to get the puck in the corner, he does peek over his shoulder and sees Paquette a ways away, but he doesn’t change his body position as Paquette drills him. He’s probably not expecting to get hit even with the Lightning forward in the area. That would have easily been at least a major, maybe even a game misconduct (Remember Steve Bernier?).

The Capitals would respond to the hit two minutes later. On the scoreboard. Andre Burakovsky potted his second goal of the night to give Washington a commanding 3-0 lead heading into the third period.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.