Western playoff picture: Predators magic number 1, Stars gain ground on 8th place Blackhawks

Western Conference playoff race

z – 1. Vancouver – 113 pts
y – 2. San Jose – 103 pts
y – 3. Detroit – 102 pts
4. Nashville – 97 pts
5. Phoenix – 96 pts
6. Los Angeles – 96 pts
7. Anaheim – 93 pts
8. Chicago – 93 pts
9. Dallas – 91 pts
10. Calgary – 91 pts

z – clinched conference title
y – clinched division title
x – clinched playoff spot

Dallas 3, Columbus 0

The Stars are at the point in their season where every game is a must-win. On Tuesday night, not only did they do their part by blanking the Blue Jackets 3-0, but they got a little help when the Canadiens beat the Blackhawks in overtime. Of course, the Stars and their fans would have preferred a Habs win in regulation, but Dallas still managed to gain a point in the standings with their win. It was a good team effort as Steve Ott scored the first goal (eventual game winner) and Kari Lehtonen only needed 23 saves for his third shutout of the season. Not only did the win pull them to within two points of the 8th place Blackhawks, but they’re also only two points behind the Anaheim Ducks. At this point, no one in Big D cares which team they catch.

On a more somber note, Jackets’ defenseman Kris Russell broke his ankle in one of the uglier injuries hockey fans will see. Tough to see a good player go down in a game when the season is, for all intents and purposes, over for his team.

St. Louis 3, Colorado 1

The good news for the Blues is that they were finally able to beat the Colorado Avalanche. After they’d lost seven straight games dating back to the 2008-09 season, the Blues finally picked up a win by beating the Avs 3-1 in St. Louis. David Backes scored his 30th goal of the year, Andy McDonald scored his 20th, and Kevin Shattenkirk picked up his 41st and 42nd points of the year. Not bad for a rookie defenseman who was traded halfway through his freshman campaign.
Of course, the bad news is that this game meant absolutely nothing to the Blues. On the other hand, the loss for Colorado just solidified that top 3 pick in next year’s draft. So yet again, the Avs actually won the night against the Blues.

Nashville 6, Atlanta 3

Going into the night, the Predators were able to clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Thrashers and a Stars loss to the Blue Jackets. Nashville took care of their business early by scoring three 1st period goals, but they didn’t get any help from Columbus. Mathematically, the Predators’ magic number is down to 1. Practically, the win helped solidify the Preds playoff spot and launched them all the way to the 4th seed. Interesting how with only three games left in the season, the 4th seed in the Western Conference still isn’t guaranteed a playoff spot.

Montreal 2, Chicago 1 (OT)

From a Blackhawks perspective, it would be nice if they could start scoring some goals. However, they were able to fire 42 shots on Carey Price and if it weren’t for stellar goaltending from the Montreal netminder, they probably would have scored enough to win. Captain Jonathan Toews was upset after the game for a tripping call that went against him in OT:

“I don’t really know what to say right now. We worked our butts off and you don’t want to blame it on one little thing and say it comes down to a call but that’s obviously what happened. You can argue the call, especially when you feel there are a lot of stick penalties that don’t get called against you out there. And then the game’s decided on something like that, it’s pretty damn frustrating.”

The fact remains that the single point pulls them into a 7th place tie with the Anaheim Ducks with three games remaining. They may be frustrated tonight, but the reality stays the same: if they win the rest of their games, they’re in.

Edmonton 2, Vancouver 0

If people thought the Blues/Avs game was meaningless, they had no idea the Canucks and Oilers were renewing pleasantries. The best team in the league that has already wrapped up the President’s Trophy (and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs) battling the last place team in the league that has almost locked up the top spot for the draft lottery isn’t the type of match-up to get hockey fans in a frenzy. The Oilers were able to best the high flying Canucks for the second time in as many games between the teams—which is great inside the Edmonton locker room. Unfortunately, that’s the only place in the world that it matters.

The game was given a little more juice when Raffi Torres decided to push the limits of the NHL’s headshot tolerance on Jordan Eberle. He received a 5-minute elbowing major and a game misconduct for his transgressions. But unless the league goes “Matt Cooke suspension” on Torres, the worst thing that could happen is that he gets a few unpaid days off before the playoffs.

Braden Holtby dominated when the Capitals needed him most

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WASHINGTON — The Washington Capitals weren’t ready for their season to come to an end.

By playing what might have been their most complete game of the playoffs, they were able to force a Game 7 (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in the Eastern Conference final with a 3-0 win in Washington on Monday night, picking up their first home win of the series in what was a total team effort.

While the Capitals were playing a relentlessly physical game and getting big performances from T.J. Oshie (two goals) and Devante Smith-Pelly, it was starting goalie Braden Holtby playing what might have been his best and biggest game of the season to help drive it the win and extend their season to a winner-take-all game in Tampa on Wednesday.

After the game Capitals coach Barry Trotz called Holtby “the backbone” of their team, and there were times on Monday night where they needed him to be exactly that.

[Related: PHT Three Stars]

While he didn’t have to face a ton of shots (Tampa Bay managed just 24 shots on goal for the game) he was still tested by a powerful Lightning attack and needed to be called upon to make some massive saves to record his first shutout of the season, a rather stunning stat considering he led the league in shutouts a year ago with nine.

“The only reason is it is good is you know you won,” said Holtby when asked about not recording a shutout this season until Monday. “Aside from that it’s just another statistic for you guys to write about. For us it is just that ‘W’ that matters.”

Well, they got that W in large part because of Holtby’s play. Even though they ended up with a three-goal edge on the scoreboard at the end of the night, it could have easily shifted in another direction numerous times.

With the game still scoreless in the second period, for example, he made a huge pad save on Anthony Cirelli when he broke in all alone on an odd-man rush.

In the third period he helped preserve what was at the time a one-goal lead when he made an incredible glove save on a wide open Nikita Kucherov as he flew down the middle of the ice after coming off the bench on a perfectly timed line change.

Holtby downplayed that save after the game.

“I think that save probably looks better than it actually is,” Holtby said.” There are some that are more difficult than that. I think it was just the positioning and where the puck was. I was just trying to stay in the moment, focus on the puck, and make the save.”

It turned out to be a massive save because just a few minutes later Smith-Pelly delivered what was probably the knockout punch for the game the when he scored his fourth goal of the playoffs to give the Capitals a two-goal lead.

Until that second goal was scored the Capitals had spent most of the period leaning on Holtby to stand tall and he was more than up to the task.

Overall this has been a bizarre season for Holtby.

In terms of his overall statistics it was probably his worst one since he became the Capitals’ starting goalie. After a so-so start he struggling mightily over the last two months and then ended up starting the playoffs on the bench in Games 1 and 2 of the first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in place of Philipp Grubauer.

But after Grubauer struggled and the Capitals were facing a two-game deficit, Holtby reclaimed his starting spot and has done what he has done throughout his career in the playoffs — give his team a chance just about every single night.

Given how well Holtby has played in his career in the postseason it is downright staggering that his team hasn’t had more success in the playoffs. His career save percentage in the playoffs is the second best all-time and he’s rarely, if ever, had a poor showing over an entire series. It has just always come down to there at times being a goalie at the other end of the ice that has been just a little bit better.

Goaltending has been the big story of this series and even if it’s oversimplifying things to say, the team with the best goalie has won every game.

After dropping three games in a row and sending their season to the brink of what could have been another soul-crushing end the Capitals needed their goalie to be the better one on Monday night.

He was.

Now they need him to do it one more time on Wednesday.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Capitals force Game 7 vs. Lightning with all-around effort

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The Washington Capitals needed the best version of themselves to force a deciding game in the Eastern Conference Final, and that’s exactly what they got at home on Monday.

Hockey fans will be treated to a Game 7 (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to determine who will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final, which will begin Monday, May 28.

And if that game is half as good as Game 6 was, a treat is exactly what fans will get.

Yes, Game 6 between the Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning might have been the most exciting game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs so far — not bad for a 3-0 final score.

The scoreline was far from indicative of what happened on the ice. Washington was desperate, but not reckless. Calm and composed, they controlled much of the game and were finally rewarded in the second period via T.J. Oshie‘s power-play marker from the slot — Oshie’s first of two in the game as he added an empty-netter to seal the win late in the third.

The Capitals probably should have won by more, but Andrei Vasilevskiy was in the zone for most of the night.

Down 3-2 coming into Monday, and losers of three straight after taking a 2-0 series lead, the Capitals needed a hero to avoid another humiliating exit from the playoffs.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Holtby, Smith-Pelly help Capitals force Game 7]

Oshie stepped up, for sure.

Braden Holtby looked determined, evidenced by his 24-save shutout with the stakes never higher.

And while Alex Ovechkin looked like a man-possessed in early on — finishing with five shots on goal, one of three Capitals players to do so — it was Devante Smith-Pelly who really shined.

Smith-Pelly put on a physical masterclass early — finishing the game with five hits, including the massacre above.

Then, Smith-Pelly helped the Caps out on the scoresheet.

Chandler Stephenson won a race to beat out the icing call. The puck made its way around the back of Tampa’s net, and Jay Beagle pushed it back to Stephenson, whose backhand pass from behind Vasilevskiy found a streaking Smith-Pelly for a 2-0 lead.

And man, did that goal mean something to DSP. Watch the celly:

It was a heroic effort from Smith-Pelly, Oshie and Holtby, and they’ll need one more before they can truly say they’ve exorcised their playoff demons.

They’ll have 48 hours from now to figure out their course of attack for Game 7, and Tampa will have the same amount of time to pick themselves back up again after the beating they took in the game.

Bring on Game 7, we’re all ready.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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: Holtby, Smith-Pelly help Capitals force Game 7

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1st Star: Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

The Capitals netminder played outstanding Monday night as they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-0 to force a Game 7. Holtby made 24 saves for his first shutout of the season and fifth career in the postseason.

2nd Star: Devante Smith-Pelly, Washington Capitals

Smith-Pelly had himself a game. First, he took out two players, including Jay Beagle, in a big hit behind the Tampa net. Later, he scored the Capitals’ second goal after Chandler Stephenson negated an icing and sent a sweet pass to the front of the net to find a charging DSP.

3rd Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

In keeping the game close, the Lightning netminder did all he could as his offense tried to find a way to beat Holtby. Vasilevskiy stopped 31 shots in a losing effort.

[Capitals force Game 7 vs. Lightning with all-around effort]

Highlight of the Night: Like we said, Vasilevskiy did what he could:

Factoid of the Night: The 2018 Stanley Cup Final will begin Monday, May 28 in either Las Vegas or Tampa Bay. Here’s the full schedule as we await the matchup:

Game 1 Monday, May 28
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30
Game 3 Saturday, June 2
Game 4 Monday, June 4
Game 5* Thursday, June 7
Game 6* Sunday, June 10
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13
* = If necessary

Wednesday’s schedule: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 3-3)

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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.

Andrei Vasilevskiy robs Evgeny Kuznetsov (Video)

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Surely, the Washington Capitals should be leading Game 6.

They came out on fire, led by Alex Ovechkin, and stayed that way throughout the first period.

Their only problem? Andrei Vasilevskiy and the wall he put up.

Vasilevskiy needed to be solid to stop on the Capitals’ onslaught and he was, write down to the final moments of the period and his best save, a sprawling glove-hand effort to stop Evgeny Kuznetsov in his tracks on the doorstep to keep the game tied 1-1.

Fatigued? Vasilevskiy wasn’t showing any of that in the first period.

After two sub .850 outings in Games 1 and 2, Vasilevskiy has stormed back to spark the Lightning to three straight wins behind his strong play.

• Stream here
Series preview
Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team

Capitals have to conquer postseason demons one more time
Lightning ready for a ‘desperate’ Capitals team in Game 6
Vasilevskiy turns East final around for Lightning

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub


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