James Neal is finally an All-Star

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Thanks to Alex Ovechkin deciding to sit things out, James Neal can finally say he’s going to the All-Star Game.

Neal was named as the replacement for Ovechkin to head to Ottawa to be part of the All-Star festivities in Canada’s capital and he heads there as a more than deserving candidate.

Neal has 27 goals at the break, tying his career-high total. His goal total is best on the Penguins, even beating out potential MVP front-runner and fellow All-Star Evgeni Malkin. Malkin does have the edge in points, however. For Neal, missing out on being named in the first place was a bit of a surprise, but with Ovechkin opting to not go because of his three-game suspension, Neal gets the very deserving call to play.

Neal joins up with Malkin and Kris Letang as All-Star Penguins in Ottawa and is the fourth player named as a replacement for the game. Letang replaced Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien, Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle replaced Minnesota captain Mikko Koivu, and Philly’s Scott Hartnell is taking the place of Chicago captain Jonathan Toews.

 

WATCH LIVE: Game 7s with Maple Leafs-Bruins, Golden Knights-Sharks

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Game 7: Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins, 7 p.m. ET (Series tied 3-3)
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Call: Mike Emrick, Brian Boucher, Mike Milbury
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Game 7: Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks, 10 p.m. ET (Series tied 3-3)
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Call: Gord Miller, Ray Ferraro
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Tonight’s pre-game coverage on NBCSN begins at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Where it went wrong for Predators, and how they could fix it

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There has been a changing of the guard in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins? Out without winning a single game between them.

The Winnipeg Jets, a Western Conference Finalist a year ago and a popular Stanley Cup pick this season? They are finished.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Now the Nashville Predators, one of the top teams in the Western Conference for a couple of years now, have joined them. Just like the Jets, it probably should not be a huge surprise to see them go out as early as they did because something just seemed to be off with this team for much of the season, and especially in the second half.

It’s not hard to find the biggest culprit in their demise this season, either, and it begins with an inconsistent offense that was dragged down by the league’s worst power play unit. It was a unit that hit rock bottom in their Round 1 loss against the Dallas Stars.

To say it was bad would be an understatement.

It wasn’t just bad, it was historically bad. The type of performance that would make even an objective third party with no rooting interest scream at the TV at its overall incompetence.

After finishing the regular season converting on just 12.9 of their power play opportunities, one of the worst marks the NHL has seen over the past 15 years, the Predators went 0-for-the-series against Dallas, failing to score on even one of their 15 power play attempts. This is not something that just happens. The NHL has tracked power play success rates as far back as the 1933-34 season, and the Predators were just the 11th team during that time to get at least 15 power play opportunities in the playoffs and fail to score a single goal. You probably will not be shocked to learn that none of those 11 teams advanced beyond Round 1. You don’t need a great power play to win the Stanley Cup, but you need to get something out of it on occasion.

The Predators got nothing, continuing what turned out to be a season-long trend.

Dallas’ PK deserves a lot of credit here, and especially starting goalie Ben Bishop, but Nashville’s struggles on the power play weren’t a new thing in this series, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest it wasn’t just a run of bad luck — it was simply a bad unit that needs drastically improved.

Not only did they have the NHL’s lowest success rate, but they were only 19th in the league at generating shot attempts on the power play and even worse (24th) at actually getting those attempts on net. If you can’t generate shots, and if you can’t get them on net when you do, you’re not going to score many goals.

Now comes the question on how to address it.

Injuries were a big problem for the Predators throughout the season, with Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, P.K, Subban, and Kyle Turris all missing significant action, and when Turris was on the ice, his production took a cliff dive. It is worth wondering if they are in need of another big-time forward. Forsberg and Arvidsson are outstanding, but they might still need another impact player up front. Maybe a full season from Mikael Granlund will help (he was mostly silent after coming over from the Minnesota Wild in a pre-deadline trade), but even he is not really a player that is going to put the fear of God in an opposing defense. He is very similar to what the Predators’ forward group is already made of — really good and really productive players, but not really a game-changing, impact talent.

If there is one thing to be said about general manager David Poile it is that he is not afraid to swing for the fences in trades. He has made several blockbusters over the past few years and it has played a significant role in building the roster the Predators have today. Would he be willing to make another one, and would he consider dipping into his pool of star defenders and flipping one for another impact talent up front to help strengthen an offense that went stale this year and a power play unit that collapsed on itself from the very beginning of the year?

He already did it once when he traded Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Ryan Johansen, and it might be worth at least considering again. It is a delicate balance to strike because the Predators’ defense, especially their top-four of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm is a huge part of what has made the team so good. But it is also a very clear strength and could be used to maybe help address what is now looking like a pretty significant weakness.

The other option is to keep your All-Star defense, shed salary elsewhere on the roster (Turris, if you think he is done as a top-six performer; maybe a Craig Smith or Nick Bonino?) and try to position yourself for a run at an Artemi Panarin or Jeff Skinner in free agency.

Whatever path they choose, it would be awfully difficult to come back next season with the same collection of forwards after they struggled so much this season and helped assemble such a dreadful power play unit. They simply need another finisher somewhere on the roster that can bring a level of consistency to the offense and improve a power play that failed the team all season.

Related: Stars eliminate Predators in overtime thriller

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.

Gallant responds to ‘clown’ DeBoer for ‘chirping’ comment

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The war of words in the Vegas Golden Knights-San Jose Sharks series has now extended to the coaches, and friends, things are getting spicy.

On Monday Sharks coach Peter DeBoer was critical of his counterpart, Gerard Gallant, for “chirping” at Sharks players during the series, saying: “I don’t know if it works in our favor. I mean, there’s still chatter. Their coach is chattering. He’s probably doing the most chattering. He’s talking to our players constantly during the game, which I haven’t seen before.”

DeBoer went on to call the chatter, “ridiculous.”

On Tuesday, just hours before the decisive Game 7 (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live Stream), Gallant was asked about DeBoer’s comments and responded not only in great detail about the incidents, but by also calling DeBoer a clown.

“I really don’t want to talk about that, but I think I’m going to have to a little bit,” said Gallant. “For that clown to say that in the paper yesterday, it’s not right.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

From there, Gallant explained when and why he was chattering from the bench.

“There might have been two incidents that happened, and I’ll tell you both incidents,” Gallant began.

Logan Couture, I thought it was an embellishment, so I’m yelling at the referee. Not Logan Couture. The other one, in Game 2, Evander Kane, he is yelling at Ryan Reaves between the bench. Evander yells at me, he says, ‘hey coach, when are you going to send your big guy out on the ice and play him more than four minutes?’ I said, ‘he’s played 10 minutes every game and he’s going to play a lot more.’ Those are the two times. If I’m going to be a chirper and a loudmouth, I think people know me as a coach and respect me as a coach. If he’s going to yap about that, that’s a little unclassy for me.”

The trash talking in the series began with Reaves and Kane having a very public back-and-forth, complete with Kane referring to Reaves as “the muffin man” after their Game 3 fight and Reaves cracking jokes about Joe Thornton‘s age and vision.

This is only the Golden Knights’ second year in the NHL, but having already played the Sharks in the playoffs each year, and having some wild regular season matchups in between, it is very clear they have their first true rival.

The handshake line on Tuesday night, no matter who wins, should be an interesting one.

Related: Trash talk between Reaves, Kane almost as good as their fight

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.

Pressure once again on Babcock, Maple Leafs in Game 7

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Trying to pick the winner of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is completely futile. It is there that one of the most random sports, at its most random time of year, descends into its most random madness where anything and everything can happen. That unpredictability is a big part of what makes it so great and captivating.

It doesn’t really matter what happened in the previous six games of the series, or at any other point in the season because Game 7s usually come down to which goalie plays the best game for 60 minutes, or which team gets the right bounce at the right time. Those are things that are just impossible to predict before the game begins. You just have to watch and see how it all plays out.

With that said, I have no idea what is going to happen between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) , but I do know this much — the Maple Leafs better win.

Don’t care how. Don’t care why. Don’t care what the score is. They just need to win.

They better win for the short-term reputation of their core, and they better win for the long-term reputation of their head coach.

I’m not going to go as far as to say Mike Babcock is coaching for his job on Tuesday night, because there is literally no indication of that. Plus, deciding the fate of your coach based on one game is kind of a foolish thing to do anyway. At this point he is either your coach, or he is not.

But at some point these people have to win something.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

And I’m not even talking about the Eastern Conference or the Stanley Cup itself.

Just something.

A playoff round, for example, would be a huge place to start for an organization that hasn’t played in the second round since before the salary cap era began (2004), and has built a roster that has championship aspirations right now. This isn’t a team whose window is still a couple of years away from opening. They are in it right now, and with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins (and maybe Washington Capitals after Wednesday?) out of the picture this season the field is wide open for every team in the Eastern Conference.

But again, let’s just start with a round.

It would be huge for the best collection of young forwards in the NHL that was only strengthened this summer with the addition of John Tavares. At some point Round 1 exits — and a loss on Tuesday would be the third in a row — will not be enough for this core.

It would be huge for the highest paid head coach in the NHL whose actual results-based resume has not matched his reputation and league-wide standing in quite a while. At some point third place finishes (a Babcock coached team has not finished higher than third in its division since 2010-11) and Round 1 exits (he has not been out of Round 1 since 2012-13, and only once since 2010-11) will not be enough. I again go back to the fact that 25 different NHL head coaches have won a playoff series since Babcock last won one. If you’re the Maple Leafs, you’re not paying more than $6 million per season for those results.

It would be huge for Nazem Kadri, an incredibly valuable player, who once again failed his team by doing something completely reckless and senseless to take himself out of a playoff series. It would be an awfully bad look to have your team go out early, again, while you’re sitting in the press box for a significant chunk of the series for a totally avoidable reason. This will be the 14th playoff game between the Bruins and Maple Leafs the past two years, and Kadri has made himself available for only six of them. Would you be able to bring him back after that?

It is a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the pressure is on everyone to win.

If Boston loses it would no doubt be disappointing for the organization and the fans. But this Bruins’ core at least has a championship to fall back on, and has at least made some kind of a run at some point in the past decade. It would be frustrating, but it wouldn’t be something that would make the organization take a long look at itself in the mirror and try to figure out why this sort of thing keeps happening.

But Toronto? A loss on Tuesday night would sink them into a sea of questions regarding their core, their coach, and just why in the hell they can’t get through this Boston Bruins team.

That will not be fun — or good — for anyone.

Anything can happen in a Game 7, but Toronto needs this one more than any other team playing in a Game 7 in this round.

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.