Washington’s young goaltending thriving while offense struggles to find its way

It’s been talked almost to death how much the Capitals offense isn’t the same high-flying, run-and-gun brand of hockey that many of us grew up seeing in the 80s. After all, in past seasons we grew accustomed to seeing Alex Ovechkin score 50 or more goals in a season and figured that that trend could continue for years to come.

Fast forward to this year and with the Caps becoming a bit more focused on the defensive side of things, their offense is drawing attention to itself all over again. The difference being that it’s getting noticed for not being the prolific juggernaut it was in seasons passed. There is one part to their game that is decidedly better and yet it’s still not getting its proper amount of respect.

Goaltending.

Going into this season, the Caps and GM George McPhee steered clear of going after an experienced goaltender because they felt comfortable with who they had in place already. With Semyon Varlamov and up and coming fellow youngster Michal Neuvirth, fresh off back-to-back Calder Cup victories in the AHL, the Capitals management felt that investing precious cap space in a veteran goaltender was money poorly spent. Even in spite of injuries to both Neuvirth and Varlamov at different points this season, leading to the emergence of another youngster in Braden Holtby, their play is making Caps management look very smart.

We’ve seen Neuvirth and Varlamov essentially split duties this season. Neuvirth carried the Caps for the first two months of the season putting up a 15-6-4 record with a 2.55 goals against average and a .911 save percentage and earning one shutout. That win total still leads the team and his other numbers are solid for a NHL starter.

Where Neuvirth seems to get the offensive support, Varlamov is putting up the flashier numbers. He’s got a 9-7-4 record, which is decidedly unimpressive but it’s not totally his fault. Varlamov has team leading goals against numbers 2.13 and save percentage with .928 as well as two shutouts. Varlamov since getting healthy has been outstanding for the Caps and evidence that their dedication to defense is paying off. If the offense was a bit better for him in his starts, that record would look a little nicer.  Even Braden Holtby’s limited action this year has yielded solid results with Holtby going 4-2-2 with a 2.47 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Caps carousel of goaltending has done its job to this point in the season. They’re young (Neuvirth and Varlamov are 22 years-old, Holtby is 21) and they’re going to be prone to having the occasional bad game, but one area that Caps coach Bruce Boudreau seems to be handling well is how to juggle time and performances from his goalies.

It’s still a high-risk venture for the Caps to be counting on guys this young in goal to carry them deep into the playoffs and to win a Stanley Cup, but if last year’s playoffs showed us anything it’s that unknown goalies have as good of a chance to go deep as the franchise guys do. Look at the starting goalies that have been in the Stanley Cup finals the last few seasons:

2010: Michael Leighton, Antti Niemi

2009: Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood

2008: Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood

2007: Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Ray Emery

2006: Cam Ward, Dwayne Roloson/Ty Conklin/Jussi Markkanen

Out of that list Fleury, Giguere, and Ward are the only big names and at the time, Cam Ward was but a young guy still relatively unproven. Osgood was a famous name but in 2008 he was playing backup to Dominik Hasek before seizing the starting job during the playoffs in 2008. We’re not about to say the playoffs are a crap shoot, but the Capitals plan of letting youth be their guide isn’t one without past results to back them up.

For now, Varlamov and gang are making life easier on the Caps and if they can continue to do that in the playoffs it’ll be a load off the minds of everyone in Washington.

Lightning vs. Stars: 3 keys to Game 4 of Stanley Cup Final

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After winning Games 2 and 3 earlier this week, the Tampa Bay Lightning have an opportunity to grab full control of the Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars on Friday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream).

Captain Steven Stamkos will miss his third game of the series, but the Lightning still have their top-line and a roster full of All-Stars to help make up for his absence.

The Stars, meanwhile, have to hope that their top line can rediscover its scoring touch before the series starts to slip away from them.

Now let’s get you ready for Game 4 by taking a look at three keys to the game.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Stars have to stay disciplined

One of the biggest issues the Stars have had so far in this series is they have not only allowed themselves to get into some early penalty trouble over the past two games, but they have also allowed the Lightning’s power play to start clicking again.

With all of that talent they have on the ice you had to know it was only a matter of time until they broke out of that slump, and they have in a big way in Games 2 and 3 with three power play goals.

The power play unit helped jumpstart the Lightning’s Game 2 win early in the first period, and then took away any momentum the Stars had began to build in Game 3 when Jason Dickinson cut two-goal deficit in half.

Now that the Lightning power play is starting to find its game again there is really only one surefire way to shut it down.

Keep it off the ice entirely.

2. Two top lines going in two different directions

On one side you have the Lightning top line of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat continuing to dominate.

The trio has already combined for five goals in the first three games of the series, while Kucherov and Point have been separating themselves as Conn Smythe contenders all postseason. It is not just the goal-scoring that sticks out about them, either. The line is just an offensive steamroller that crushing everything that dares to get in its way.

Kucherov has been especially dominant this postseason with an unmatched consistency that is helping him redeem himself after a forgettable 2019 postseason.

On the other side, Dallas’ top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov has yet to score a single goal in this series, and it sounds like coach Rick Bowness is at least considering the idea of maybe splitting them up in Game 4 on Friday. Whether he splits them up or keeps them together, the Stars have to figure out a way to get their big-three going to at least try and match up with Tampa Bay’s top line.

3. The Stars getting the Western Conference Final version of Anton Khudobin

I am not going to blame Khudobin for the past two games. It would be unfair, it would be insane, it would be wrong. The Stars have taken penalties, they have given up chances, they have had breakdowns in front of him, and there have been a couple of fluke goals that have been able to sneak behind him.

But, those same things happened in the Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights and the biggest reason the Stars were able to overcome them was the fact that Khudobin played at an incredibly high level for those five games. He matched that level in Game 1 against Tampa Bay as well.

Goaltending was always going to be the X-factor in this series, and Dallas’ best chance was going to sit with Khudobin playing the way he did in the previous round. So far, it has not happened. Nothing would get this series going back in Dallas’ favor faster than that.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

MORE: Conn Smythe Watch: Victor Hedman makes his move

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.

Canadiens re-sign Jeff Petry to 4-year, $25 million extension

Jeff Petry extension
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The Montreal Canadiens are making sure one of their most important defenders is going to be sticking around.

The team announced on Friday that it has re-signed Jeff Petry to a four-year, $25 million contract extension that will run through the end of the 2024-25 season.

That comes out to an annual salary cap hit of $6.25 million. Petry is currently entering the final year of a contract that pays him $5.5 million per season. He would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency after next season without a new contract.

He has been with the Canadiens since the middle of the 2014-15 season when he was acquired for two draft picks and become one of their best all-around players. It has turned out to be a wildly one-sided traded in the Canadiens’ favor. He is a possession-driving defenseman that can play a solid defensive game and also make a significant contribution offensively. He has scored at least 10 goals and 40 points in each of the past three seasons.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It makes sense that the Canadiens would want to keep him around.

Just about the only risk here is age. Petry turns this December and will be 34 when the new contract actually kicks in. Right now Petry is without a question a $6.25 million dollar per year player, and he has not really shown any signs of an immediate decline. But will he still be that good of a player between the ages of 34 and 37?

Starting with the 2021-22 season the Canadiens will have $24.5 million in cap space going to the trio of Petry, Shea Weber, and Carey Price, all of whom will be over the age of 33. And that does not include the $4.6 million that then-33 Karl Alzner‘s contract has (assuming he is still on the team). That is a lot of money and a significant chunk of your salary cap space going to players that are closer to the end of their careers than their primes.

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-Stars stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final

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NBC’s coverage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs continues with Friday’s Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Lightning and Stars. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Lightning-Stars stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Boosted by the long-awaited and “inspirational” return of Steven Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning got goals from all three of their first-line forwards, their top defenseman and their captain in a threee-goal win to move within two wins of the franchise’s second Stanley Cup. For the second straight game, Tampa jumped out to a multi-goal first-period lead before the Stars got on the board. The Dallas Stars cut the deficit to one entering the second period, but the middle frame was all Lightning, outscoring Dallas 3-0 in large part thanks to a 21-4 shot differential.

After Game 2, Kevin Shattenkirk said, “when we play our best game it’s hard for teams to win.” In Game 3, Tampa played one of its best games this postseason, getting major contributions from its usual suspects in the top line trio and Hedman and also a quantifiable (one goal from Stamkos) and unquantifiable lift from the return of its captain.

The top line of Palat, Point and Kucherov carried the day once again, combining for three goals and six points in Game 3, their second straight game with four-plus points. Point leads all players this postseason with 11 goals and with Palat and Hedman also reaching double-digit goals in Game 3, the trio make Tampa the first team in a decade to have three players with 10-plus goals in the same postseason.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Tyler Seguin has struggled mightily in the 2020 playoffs. The 28-year-old has now gone 12 consecutive games without a goal and has just one assist over that span (which was six games ago). His last goal came in Game 3 of the Second Round vs. Colorado

Along with Seguin, some of Dallas’ other forwards have been quiet recently as well:

Jamie Benn: Zero points this series after ending West Final on a three-game goal streak
Denis Gurianov: Zero points, three shots this series (OT goal and assist in series-clincher vs. Vegas)
Alex Radulov: Zero goals, three assists this series

Tampa can become the first team in the NHL expansion era (1967-present) to win the Stanley Cup the season after being swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Friday, September 25, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
ON THE CALL: Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

Stars need to find way to get their top line going

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While the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top line spent the past two games filling the back of the net, the Dallas Stars are still waiting for theirs to make a noticeable impact in the Stanley Cup Final.

Entering Game 4 on Friday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream), the Stars’ top trio of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov has combined for zero goals in the series, while only Radulov (three assists) has recorded a single point.

Seguin’s scoring funk this postseason has already been well documented. He has just two goals (both early in their Second Round series against Colorado) since the playoffs began and has managed just a single assist over his past 12 games. But while his offense has gone cold, Radulov and Benn had continued to help drive the offense.

Benn entered the series as one of the Stars’ most productive forwards, while Radulov hasn’t been far behind and had already scored four game-winning goals.

But so far against Tampa everyone on that line has gone cold.

There are a few factors at play.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For one, this is the best team that Dallas has had to play this postseason and the Lightning present several matchup problems. While they are known for their offense and have been the highest scoring team in the league for three consecutive years, they are also a fierce defensive team and one of the best lockdown teams in the league.

Victor Hedman is on the short list of best all-around players in hockey and is going to play close to half the game every night. He presents a challenge.

The Lightning have two forwards lines at the top of their lineup that have dominated in very different ways. The Nikita KucherovBrayden PointOndrej Palat duo is a tidal wave of talent that has overwhelmed every team they have faced this postseason. Behind them, the Lightning have the Blake ColemanYanni GourdeBarclay Goodrow line that has been a brick wall defensively.

Even if Stars coach Rick Bowness wants to try and pick and choose his matchups he can’t keep his top line off the ice forever waiting for one of those two lines to leave. At some point they are going to have to play against one of them.

Then in the event that the Stars do break through one of those lines, and do get by Hedman, they still have to deal with an elite goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

So the matchup is part of it.

One way to potentially get around that is to split up the top line and spread them throughout the lineup. That way you could potentially get one or two of them into a more favorable matchup. Bowness was asked about that possibility on Friday afternoon, but would not commit to it one way or the other.

[Lightning vs. Stars: 2020 Stanley Cup Final schedule]

One option that might be worth looking at would be to put Seguin alongside Denis Gurianov in an effort to get the former going again. They haven’t spent a lot of time together the past two seasons, but when they have they mostly dominated during the regular season. They did play 22 minutes together earlier this postseason with less success, but I wouldn’t let that small sample size stop me from trying something new in an effort to jumpstart things. Especially when Gurianov probably deserves more ice-time anyway.

There is also an element of puck luck at play here because it’s not as if the trio hasn’t been able to generate shots. Together they have combined for 23 shots on goal through the first three games of the series with zero goals between them. Given their shot rates during the regular season they would have been expected to score at least two goals as a group on that same number of shots. Nobody wants to hear about luck and bad bounces in the Stanley Cup Final, but to ignore it would be ignoring reality. Sometimes the puck just doesn’t go in the net for you.

One of the biggest problems the Stars have had in recent years was always the fact they had a great top line and little secondary scoring behind them. With the addition of Joe Pavelski, as well as the emergence of players like Gurianov and Roope Hintz they have definitely helped address that. And it has paid off in a big way this postseason.

Now they need that top line to find a way to get rolling again. It has not happened yet in this series, but it only takes one game to help change that narrative in their favor.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

MORE: Conn Smythe Watch: Victor Hedman makes his move

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.