Five Thoughts: Tim Thomas’ glory, Philly’s bounce back, and Milan’s missing

2 Comments

With just one game to give us plenty of fodder today, we’ll also give some thoughts on what we might see go on with a pair of very curious Game 3s on the way tonight from the south in Nashville and Tampa Bay.

1. We know that Tim Thomas has been outstanding all season long but one thing that pockets of Bruins fans have wanted out of him is to see him steal them a playoff game. After getting down 2-0 in the first period last night, it seemed like the Flyers were about to get their revenge on Boston for their Game 1 drubbing. After all, James van Riemsdyk was playing like a man possessed and the Flyers were playing intense hockey all game long.

Thomas slammed the door shut though stopping 46 straight shots on his way to making 52 saves on the night and giving the Bruins the time and opportunity they needed to tie the game later in the first and go on to win in overtime 3-2. Sure it’s not a shutout and yeah things started roughly, but given the way the Flyers played being so aggressive and desperate all at once Thomas closing it all down the rest of the way was exactly what the Bruins needed. Consider that game stolen and perhaps more importantly, a severe shot to the confidence of the Flyers as the series shifts to Boston for the next two games. Ghosts from last year’s playoffs won’t be waiting for the Bruins this time around.

2. If there’s an upside out of last night’s loss for Philadelphia, however, it’s that the team that showed up to play last night looked vastly improved from the team that laid a stink bomb in Game 1. The Flyers were aggressive, they kept things tight defensively for the most part, James van Riemsdyk had his “arrival” game, and they got inspired goaltending from Brian Boucher.

Boucher left the game in the second period for a time as he hurt his hand catching a Johnny Boychuk slapshot in the wrong part of the trapper. With a shot like that coming at over 100 miles per hour your hand might sting too. While Sergei Bobrovsky held down the fort for the rest of the second period, Boucher returned to play the third and overtime and looked stronger and more focused after the injury scare. While Boucher’s abilities in goal will be questioned by virtually everyone as long as the Flyers are losing games, his guts for coming back into the game are never in doubt.

3. We’re still waiting for Milan Lucic to arrive in the playoffs. While his linemates David Krejci and Nathan Horton are having outstanding playoff performances already, the only mark Lucic has made in the playoffs is the greasespot he turned Jaroslav Spacek into in the first round series against Montreal that got him kicked out of the game. Lucic has zero goals and two assists so far in the playoffs. Compare that with Krejci and Horton who each have four goals and two assists you’ve got quite the conundrum. Lucic was a 30-goal performer this year and while the Bruins are still winning games in spite of him, they’ll need him to be a force to win the Stanley Cup.

4. I don’t usually care to look at Game 3’s as “must win” games but that’s just what the Capitals have on their hands today. They’re in Tampa and down 0-2 in the series. We’re not saying that the Caps aren’t capable of getting out of a 0-3 hole in a series, but asking them to get out of that against the Lightning is asking for miracles to happen. The Caps have to be desperate tonight and they’ve got to be smart. The dumb penalties, the bad line changes, and the egregious turnovers have to end. Tampa Bay has too much of a veteran presence to go making mistakes like that against them and it’s been the savvy guys that have made them pay.

What’s psychologically intimidating for the Caps is that Tampa was able to beat them in Game 2 without Pavel Kubina and Simon Gagne while the Caps were able to get Mike Knuble back early only to see that quick return not pay off. Expect Washington to come out firing on all cylinders in Game 3.

5. For all the grief Roberto Luongo earned in Round 1 against Chicago, the work he’s done in Round 2 has been unreal. Sporting a .970 save percentage, 1.00 goals against average anyone accusing Luongo of playing poorly against the Predators is crazy. Only downside to that is that Pekka Rinne has been equally as good. Rinne is also sporting a 1.00 goals against average and has a .968 save percentage.

Vancouver has the superior offensive talent and while Rinne has been out of his mind good, the Canucks are the ones rolling out a lineup with last year’s MVP, an MVP finalist this year, a 40-goal scoring second line center, and Alex Burrows who’s been their lone offensive stud in the playoffs. Time for the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler to start playing like stars.

Can Ken Hitchcock save the Oilers?

Getty
1 Comment

Continuing a staggering run of coaching changes around the NHL this month, the Edmonton Oilers put Todd McLellan out of his misery on Tuesday, replacing him with … Ken Hitchcock?

No, it’s not surprising to see McLellan out of a job; yes, it’s a little bewildering to see Hitchcock come out of “retirement” to get this shot with the Oilers. Will the gamble pay off, though?

Band-Aid solution?

At the moment, it seems like a short-term fix, which makes sense since Hitchcock is 66 years old.

Actually, it’s amusing to see several of the positive spins revolve around “hey, the Oilers put themselves in a great position to maneuver in the likely event that GM Peter Chiarelli gets fired.” It’s yet another painful reminder of how low the expectations have sunk for a team that employs hockey superhuman Connor McDavid.

In trotting out a longer argument for why Hitchcock was a smart hire, Sportsnet’s Mark Spector hit on a lot of the notes you’d expect, such as experience, which makes sense since Hitchcock is third all-time in coaching wins.

Of course, Hitchcock’s willingness to ruffle feathers is maybe the standout quality of this decision:

Discipline: Hitchcock isn’t in this thing for the long term, so he has nothing to lose, and no friends to make.

Then again, one person’s “experience” is another person’s clue that someone might be behind the times. Being a “strict disciplinarian” can also mean that you’re making players miserable, and failing to connect.

Those who respond with something along the lines of “tough luck” or “rub some dirt on it” should consider that Hitchcock crashed and burned with the Dallas Stars, and saw his Blues teams mostly disappoint in the postseason. His lone Stanley Cup win came in 1998-99. McDavid was born in 1997. It’s tough to imagine many key Oilers being in awe of Hitchcock’s accomplishments if he’s barking at them over and over again.

Inconsistency mixed with incompetence

Let’s not forget, either, that many of these Oilers have been given a long span of instructions over the years.

To recap this run of ineptitude and misery, ponder this list of Oilers head coaches since 2009-10:

  • Pat Quinn (2009-10)
  • Tom Renney (2010-11 to 2011-12)
  • Ralph Krueger (2012-13)
  • Dallas Eakins (2013-14 to 2014-15)
  • Todd Nelson (remainder of 2014-15)
  • Todd McLellan (2015-16 until Tuesday)
  • Ken Hitchcock

That list is almost as embarrassing as Peter Chiarelli’s record of trading, or the Oilers’ run of biffing just about any prospect who isn’t a no-brainer. (That trembling you felt to the point of almost hearing was Jesse Puljujarvi‘s anxiousness regarding inevitable trips to Hitchcock’s doghouse.)

Diminishing returns?

The thing is, the disciplinarian angle might be where all the gains are made, because it’s really difficult to imagine that Hitchcock can get much more out of this team from a schematic standpoint.

The Oilers haven’t been an outright-terrible team from various puck possession standpoints, as you can see from sites like Natural Stat Trick. For the most part, Edmonton’s slightly positive in areas like shots for versus against, Corsi For %, and have generated a bit more high-danger chances for than against.

Could Hitchcock goose those numbers up a bit? Sure, but it’s difficult to imagine Edmonton making a quantum leap.

In other words, this isn’t exactly like the Penguins going from a stuck-in-quicksand nightmare of a bland team under Mike Johnston to an attacking team that accentuated its strengths (and survived its weaknesses) during Mike Sullivan’s best moments.

Instead, this feels like the Oilers are replacing a quiet, defensive-minded, somewhat old-school guy in Todd McLellan to … a defensive-minded, old-school guy who has a reputation for yelling a lot in Hitchcock. How much of a difference will that really make, aside from allowing people to soundtrack sad Connor McDavid moments with Simon & Garfunkel?

Bright coach, but more of the same?

Look, Hitchcock is a bright hockey mind. He really deserves credit for adapting to the game as much as anyone could reasonably expected, as he did particularly well when he experienced a lull between his time with the Blue Jackets and taking over the Blues.

Hitchcock had some fascinating things to say about the game back in 2012, as you can see from this piece in The Globe & Mail.

“You’re trying to get 22 and 23 year olds playing like 27 year olds, so you’re trying to get some sort of order in your game but you’re doing it with much younger players, and I think that’s why, for me, the biggest change I’ve had to adjust to is the next day,” Hitchcock said. “Not the game day, the next day.”

Again, it’s possible that Hitchcock could be a nice tactical upgrade over McLellan, for all we know.

Sometimes you’ll also see teams get a quick burst from making a coaching change, something that might be easier to see in a younger, seemingly less-optimized team such as the Oilers than an older team that might just be out of gas, like the Kings.

A bump for goalies?

One thing that could be intriguing: maybe Hitchcock could get Jake Allen on the right track?

Say what you will about the old coach, but several goalies have enjoyed their best years under his watch. Steve Mason was a sensation. Pascal Leclaire had nine shutouts during one season.

(No, you didn’t just dream that back in 2008-09.)

Could this be a boon for Cam Talbot and/or Mikko Koskinen? Stranger things have happened, and if nothing else, Edmonton’s goalies should be motivated.

Chia’s growing mistakes

While it’s plausible that Hitchcock might find solutions where McLellan could not, this also feels like an organization stuck in its ways. Saying all the right things really rings hollow when Kevin Lowe is still receiving a high-level paycheck, and Chiarelli’s actions aren’t those of someone who’s learned from mistakes.

“I’m certainly not absolving myself of any responsibility on the player personnel and this isn’t just an indictment of Todd or the players,” Chiarelli said, via TSN’s Frank Servalli. “This is a collective thing. It’s our job to get to the playoffs. We owe it to our fans and I felt this was the right move for it”

That sounds reasonable enough, but Chiarelli is allowed to keep swinging despite strikeout after strikeout. That defense that can’t pass well? He signed them, let Jeff Petry go, and believed guys like Kris Russell were the solution. Chiarelli hired McLellan. He thought Milan Lucic was worth adding, even if it meant trading away Taylor Hall. And on and on.

Now, Chiarelli’s gambling that a sage-like (but also sage-aged) coach can swoop in and save Edmonton’s season. Oh yeah, it also feels like a pretty slap-dash solution:

[Can the Oilers keep going on like this?]

Hitchcock’s walked into rocky situations before, and in several instances, he left them better than when he came in.

The Blue Jackets were a mess, and Hitchcock brought them to their first-ever playoff berth. He seemed to provide a nice boost to the Blues, at least in a brief way. He’s forgotten more about hockey than we’ll likely ever know.

This Oilers gig seems like mercenary work, and might be the toughest bounty this old hand has ever experienced. Hitchcock is bright enough to possibly make it work, but it all still feels like a longshot.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Brutal NHL injury news, including for Bruins’ Bergeron

Getty
3 Comments

The bad hockey news just keeps pouring in lately … well, unless you’re Ken Hitchcock, Craig Berube, Willie Desjardins, Jeremy Colliton, and Joel Quenneville’s accountant.

It’s not just about coaches getting fired, either. We’ve experienced a rough couple of weeks of injuries around the NHL, and Tuesday’s updates didn’t exactly add much sunshine to the mix.

To review, on Nov. 15, PHT rattled off a troubling list including Sidney Crosby, Andrei Vasilevskiy, P.K. Subban, Zdeno Chara, Viktor Arvidsson, and various Capitals. About a week before that, it was noted that John Klingberg ranked among some NHL players who are still recovering from ailments.

The hits just keep coming for a dark November.

  • Bruins fans should scold those among them who whimpered: “Can it get any worse?” The injury demons (let’s not credit them as gods, honestly) replied: “Hold my pitchfork.”

Bruins star Patrice Bergeron is no stranger to dealing with injuries that sound downright frightening, from early career-threatening struggles with concussions to dealing with a concussion and a hole in his lung.

Add another ailment to the list, as the Bruins announced that Bergeron will be re-evaluated in about four weeks after suffering a “a rib and sternoclavicular injury” on Friday. The perennial Selke candidate appeared to suffer that injury during a collision with dark horse Selke candidate Radek Faksa of the Dallas Stars:

If you’re like me, you probably blinked at your screen a few times at “sternoclavicular,” wondered if it’s just the word sternum + clavicle, and then had that confirmed after some Googling. That sure is more specific than just calling it an “upper-body injury,” eh, Bruins?

Hockey players often beat these diagnoses, yet it’s worth repeating that Bergeron will be re-evaluated in four weeks, so this could possibly linger even longer than that.

Bergeron’s just about certain to move to IR, joining Chara, who is also expected to miss at least four weeks with his knee injury.

The Bruins are less big and more bruised these days, as their defense is ravaged by injuries beyond Chara, with Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and John Moore all considered day-to-day.

Boston has shown a pretty good knack for fighting through injuries, as Bergeron missed his fair share of time last season. That said, the B’s are pretty top-heavy these days, so losing big names is discouraging.

Also discouraging: the Atlantic Division looks ferocious right now; the Bruins are ranked fifth in the division with 25 points. While they have a halfway decent lead for the East’s second wild card spot (three points ahead of the Islanders, though New York has a game in hand), that could evaporate during this depleted month.

If Bruce Cassidy can guide the Bruins through this stretch relatively unscathed, then he deserves even more credit as an underrated NHL head coach.

Do note that the Panthers haven’t confirmed or denied that report just yet. Considering how nasty the injury looked, it’s no surprise that he’ll need surgery. Here’s hoping he can return to NHL action eventually as the same player – or close to his peak level – because he’s been an underrated gem for Florida for some time.

Speaking of Florida, it’s fair to wonder what the Panthers should do in response to this awful bit of news.

The Athletic’s George Richards brings up a good point (sub required) that the Panthers might want to call up Henrik Borgstrom, a promising former-first rounder (23rd overall in 2016). In all honesty, it was surprising that:

A) Borgstrom had such a short leash with Florida to begin with, as he only received four games of NHL action, only averaging 12:40 in ice time.

And B) that it would even take an injury for him to get another look. The 21-year-old’s been fantastic in the AHL, scoring 14 points in as many games.

There aren’t many silver linings to Florida losing Trocheck, but perhaps Borgstrom can pick up some of the slack?

The Stars should probably work on being more aggressive, yet losing Bishop might hit the brakes on such an idea. They’re currently averaging 29.8 shots on goal per game, the eighth-lowest mark in the NHL, while averaging about one more allowed per night.

  • The Capitals largely avoided injuries – for some unknown or at least unspoken reasons – under Barry Trotz. The bill seems to be coming now that Todd Reirden is in control.

Washington got Braden Holtby back in its thrilling win against Montreal on Monday, yet T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov are still banged-up. Add Brooks Orpik to that injured list, as the team announced that he’ll miss four-to-six weeks after undergoing “a successful outpatient arthroscopic surgical procedure on his right knee.”

Orpik, 38, appeared in 10 games so far in 2018-19, although he hasn’t suited up for the Capitals since Oct. 27. It’s a tough break for the veteran defenseman, although some might argue that he’s at the point in his career where losing him isn’t much of a deficit for Washington.

  • Canadiens defenseman Noah Juulsen is out indefinitely with a facial fracture after taking two pucks to the face against the Capitals on Monday. About the only good news there is that he won’t need surgery, according to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Ken Hitchcock returns to coaching, replaces McLellan in Edmonton

10 Comments

Ken Hitchcock’s retirement lasted a whole 221 days.

On Tuesday morning, the Edmonton Oilers announced what we’d all been waiting for: that head coach Todd McLellan had been fired. What we didn’t expect to hear was the 66-year-old Edmonton native getting back behind the bench to replace him.

McLellan’s days were numbered in Edmonton. After making the playoffs in 2017, we all expected that that was the beginning of the Oilers taking steps to being a respectable team again. Well, last season they crashed back back down and returned to having an early offseason.

In parts of four seasons in Edmonton, McLellan led the team to a 123-119-24 record. There was only so much Connor McDavid could do.

Saddled with some bad contracts (Milan Lucic, Kris Russell) and a few bad trades later (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle), general manager Peter Chiarelli was unable to build a support system around McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. It’s resulted in a 9-10-1 Oilers team that is heading for another summer of hoping to win yet another lottery.

There’s no light at the end of the tunnel right now for the Oilers and it’s going to take some serious re-shaping to turn things around. But will Chiarelli be the one in charge of that?

“I’m certainly not absolving myself of any responsibility on the player personnel and this isn’t just an indictment of Todd or the players,” Chiarelli said Tuesday. “This is a collective thing. It’s our job to get to the playoffs. We owe it to our fans and I felt this was the right move for it.”

As for Hitchcock, whose status will be evaluated at the end of the season, he announced in April that he would be retiring after a season back with the Dallas Stars and has been a consultant with the team since. While the NHL’s third-winningest head coach has been able to find success from a number of stops in his career, it’s hard to imagine him pulling a miracle in Alberta and steadying what looks to be a sinking ship.

MORE: How much longer can Oilers go on like this?

————

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.

Blues GM on team’s core group: ‘They have to get us out of this’

2 Comments

Craig Berube has been through this before. Three games into the 2013-14 NHL season he replaced Peter Laviolette in Philadelphia. He may have been fired 18 months later, but immediately he helped turn around the Flyers’ season and led them to a playoff berth.

The mandate is the same now in St. Louis where Berube, who had been an associate coach with the Blues since last season, takes over a team that’s once again underachieving and in next-to-last place in the Western Conference with a 7-9-3 record. A look at the various statistical categories and you’ll see that they’re middle of the road. Nothing great, nothing terrible — they just… are. And that’s why Yeo is out of a job. He couldn’t take a roster that was upgraded over the summer and bring them to a level beyond mediocre.

Four months after being fired by the Minnesota Wild in 2016, Yeo was hired as the successor to Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis. That plan was sped up after Hitchcock’s firing in Feb., 2017 and the Blues went 22-8-2 down the stretch and eventually were dumped out of the playoffs by the conference champion Nashville Predators in the second round.

What helped that revival was balanced scoring and Jake Allen posting a .941 even strength save percentage in his final 24 starts that regular season. But that number wasn’t sustainable and since the end of the 2016-17 season Allen has a .914 ESSV% in 73 appearances. 

[Blues fire Yeo, name Berube interim head coach]

This season it’s not just on Allen. The possession numbers could be better. Vladimir Tarasenko is shooting 4.26 percent at 5-on-5. David Perron is goalless in November. Patrick Maroon is goalless all season. We’re still waiting on rookies Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas to make an impact.

Ryan O’Reilly’s back must be hurting from carrying the team through 19 games.

Good goaltending can mask many things, and it will also make you wonder if allowing Carter Hutton to walk was the best idea. It should also up the pressure on GM Doug Armstrong, who’s now hired another coach to try and fix a mess. (At least he top-10 protected that 2019 first that went to the Sabres in the O’Reilly trade.)

When Armstrong met the media on Tuesday, he honed in on his team’s core group, and was fed up with how their output.

“We’re not good enough,” he said. “As a general manager, the wins and losses fall on hockey operations and as the president of hockey operations and the general manager of the team there’s things that need to be addressed. We’ve stayed patient with the core group of players and that patience now is at its thinnest point.”

The head coach is gone. The boss, for now, remains. There won’t be a handful of trades coming to re-shape the roster. Armstrong is putting this season directly on his top players.

“The core group’s equity that built up is gone,” he said. “We transferred into a different group. That group isn’t three people; that group’s eight or nine people in my opinion. They have to get us out of this.”

***

If Berube’s not the answer long-term, then who do the Blues turn to? The obvious candidate is Joel Quenneville, who’s clearly been enjoying his unemployment.

But Quenneville won’t come cheap and is still under contract to the Blackhawks through the end of the 2019-20 season. The Blues would need to seek permission from Chicago to go about hiring him and then they’d have to work out a big money contract. Would owner Tom Stillman be open to ponying up the cash for a fix?

Hey, Todd McLellan’s available now and comes with a cheaper price tag.

***

Here’s a fun fact: Since Armstrong took over from Larry Pleau in 2010 the Blues are tied with the Boston Bruins for the third-most regular season wins (365). That’s pretty good considering the Central Division can tout two Stanley Cup champions, two Presidents’ Trophy winning teams and three Western Conference playoff titles over that span.

Of course, during that same period the Blues have only advanced out of the second round once.

Digging deeper into the NHL’s records and you’ll find that Armstrong’s Dallas Stars teams had the fourth-most regular season wins during his 2,118 days as the team’s GM. The end result? One second round appearance, 2002, during the year he took over the gig midseason.

Davis Payne, Hitchcock and now Yeo have taken the fall for their underperforming teams. How much longer does the architect get to keep building them?

————

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.