Hitchcock won’t determine Blues’ starter until playoffs begin

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Despite Brian Elliott’s unlikely All-Star bid, paycheck politics and a hot run under Ken Hitchcock implied that the St. Louis Blues’ starting job would go to Jaroslav Halak. Yet after back-to-back shutouts, Elliott pushed that positive goalie “controversy” to the forefront again, but Hitchcock told Jeremy Rutherford that he’s in no rush to name a No. 1.

“I don’t know if it’s a good problem to have, but it’s one that I’m putting off until the last possible moment,” Hitchcock said. “To me, I’m going to wait until the playoffs start before I make that determination. I just feel like I owe it to both guys to continue to play both guys.”

“I expected a month ago that this thing would kind of air itself out and we’d figure out something. But it has not. I wouldn’t say it’s more complicated, it’s a good complication. But they’re making it hard on me because both guys are playing so good.”

Let there be no doubt about that.

Elliott is atop the NHL in GAA with 1.52 and is also leading everyone in stats nerds-approved save percentage with a stunning .941 mark. Halak’s overall numbers aren’t as out-of-this-world, but he’s easily been in stride with Elliott since Hitch came along after struggling before the coaching change.

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Deep down, it seems like most NHL teams generally prefer to start their big money guys. It makes the GM feel all warm and fuzzy (and smart) while that guy tends to come in with bigger credentials – whether it be a higher draft pedigree, a more impressive resume or both.

Still, Elliott’s done just about anything a person can do to earn a starting job this season, so which guy would you go with if you were Hitchcock? Is he making the right move by waiting to name a No.1 netminder? Do tell.

Ovechkin mocks Hamilton, Hurricanes with chicken gesture

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Did Dougie Hamilton “bail out” on a would-be Alex Ovechkin check, thus letting Ovechkin retrieve the puck for a dagger 3-0 goal in Game 5? Was it a mental mistake by Hamilton, which would still be a gaffe, but not bring into questions of “toughness?”

Whatever the true answer might be, that moment reverberated through the Capitals – Hurricanes Round 1 series, and was referenced early in Game 6 on Monday (currently airing on NBCSN; Stream here). After Ovechkin missed a check on Hamilton, Ovechkin did a “chicken flapping its wings” motion at Hamilton and/or the Hurricanes bench.

You can watch the mocking gesture in the video above this post’s headline, and judge for yourself on that 3-0 goal from the Capitals’ eventual 6-0 win in Game 5 in this clip. Jeremy Roenick provided his take, too.

(Personally, I think Hamilton was confused, not frightened, but perhaps we’ll never truly know.)

Ovechkin’s not shy about trash talk, including in the playoffs – you may remember him jawing at Henrik Lundqvist in 2015 – and the Hurricanes must respond on the scoreboard. Alex Ovechkin let his play do some talking along with that taunting, as he scored a 2-1 goal for a Capitals lead moments after Petr Mrazek was bumped hard in an accidental collision by his own teammate, Justin Williams.

Tune into Game 6 on NBCSN and/or stream it here to see the taunting, heavy-hitting, and tense action.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Hurricanes, Predators attempt to force Game 7s

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Game 6: Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 3-2)
NBCSN
Call: Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Game 6: Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET (Stars lead 3-2)
CNBC
Call: Chris Cuthbert, Joe Micheletti, AJ Mleczko
Series preview
Stream here

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

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

Holtby has been ultimate closer for Capitals

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With a win on Monday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live streamthe Washington Capitals will advance to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth year in a row.

It is a pretty impressive streak when you remember just how often they were a postseason punchline before finally winning the Stanley Cup last season. Especially since no other team in the league has an active streak of more than three years (if the Nashville Predators come back to beat the Dallas Stars, it will be their fourth consecutive year advancing to Round 2, but they still need to win two games in a row to make that happen).

It is not easy to get out of Round 1 that regularly.

One of the biggest reasons they have been able to do so pretty much every year has been the consistently great postseason play of starting goalie Braden Holtby.

He is also a big reason why you have to like their chances of winning just one more game against the Carolina Hurricanes in this series.

Especially since these are the games he tends to really excel in.

Monday’s Game 6 against the Hurricanes will be the 19th time in Holtby’s career he will play a game where the Capitals have a chance to eliminate an opponent.

In the previous 18 games, he has a .932 save percentage in potential knockout games (slightly higher than his career postseason mark of .929 — which is significantly higher than his career regular season mark of .918), and has won seven of hits past 10 including each of his past five.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That includes a perfect 4-for-4 mark in the playoffs a year ago on the Capitals’ run to the Cup when he only allowed one goal in a Game 6 series-clinching win on the road in Pittsburgh in Round 2, and then shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning in a decisive Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final (after also shutting them out in Game 6).

Of the three games he lost during that stretch, he didn’t allow more than two goals in any of them, and has allowed more than two goals in just five of the 18 games where he has had a chance to knock out an opponent out of the playoffs.

In other words: Even when the Capitals lose and fail to move on in the playoffs, it has rarely — if ever — been due to the play of their goalie.

For his career he has been one of the best postseason goalies in NHL history, and when he has a chance to finish the job in a series, he almost always plays well enough to do it.

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.

Zuccarello is perfect complement for Stars’ top line

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The Dallas Stars had a problem for much of the 2018-19 season, and it was always a very easy one to identify.

Even when the team was at its lowest point, their top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn was doing what it had always done in carrying the team’s offense.

When Seguin and Benn came under irrational fire from their own CEO in the middle of the season, they were far from the biggest issue on the team. In fact, they weren’t even an issue at all and just five seconds of objective research should have made that clear. When they were on the ice the Stars were carrying the play, dominating the opposition, and performing exactly as you would want your franchise players to perform. Maybe the individual numbers weren’t what we have come to expect from them, but they were consistently outplaying and outscoring their opponents.

The problem was that they didn’t have any other forwards that could do the same thing. Their forward depth was so thin that only one other forward outside of the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio topped topped the 30-point mark this season (Radek Faksa had exactly 30 points in 81 games). That is not anywhere near good enough. It wasn’t a “star” problem; it was a problem with players around the stars.

But because the top trio was so good, and because they received Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ben Bishop (and don’t forget about the play of backup Anton Khudobin, either) they were able to stay in playoff contention in a watered down Western Conference and continue playing their way toward the postseason. If they were going to do anything once they got there they were going to need somebody outside of their top line to provide some kind of a threat offensively.

This is where Mats Zuccarello comes in.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He has only played seven games with the team entering Game 6 of their Round 1 series against the Nashville Predators on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), but his impact has already been noticeable.

The Stars acquired Zuccarello from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline and in his first game with the team made an immediate impact with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win. It was exactly what the Stars needed for the stretch run. But because he was also injured in that game and missed several weeks they never really had an opportunity to see exactly what he could provide. They are seeing it in the playoffs where he has already tallied three goals (second only to Radulov) and has given them an additional threat offensively.

It’s even more impressive when you remember he is still finding his way with a new team and still probably isn’t all the way back to 100 percent.

In other words, he probably has room to get better.

When you look at his individual shot and scoring chance numbers he hasn’t created a ton of them, and so far is riding a short-term spike in shooting percentage to carry his postseason production. It would be fair to point to that as somewhat of a red flag for what it might mean in the future.

You have to keep in mind, though, that the injury not only took him off the ice, it also robbed him of an opportunity to develop chemistry with a new set of linemates. Getting thrown into what is still a new lineup, when you may not be totally healthy, and right in the middle of the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not an easy thing to do. There is still probably a bit of an adjustment period taking place here.

What is important for the Stars, though, is that he is another high-level player that has the ability to capitalize on the chances he does get, and that is an element the team had been lacking all season.

He is a threat with a proven track record of production.

Zuccarello has been a criminally underrated player for quite some time now and has always been a lock to finish with 50-60 points over a full season. That may not seem great or anything that instantly jumps off the page at you, but it is top-line production, and top-line players are not always easy to acquire.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the year Zuccarello became a full-time player in the NHL, his 0.72 point-per-game average puts him 67th out of more than 570 players that have appeared in at least 200 games during that stretch.

Outside of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov there is not another forward currently on the Stars’ roster that sits in the top-100 out of that group.

Jason Spezza is the only other one in the top-200.

You have to go all the way down to Faksa at No. 296 to find the next one.

There just wasn’t enough impact talent elsewhere on the roster to help support the Stars’ top players.

Zuccarello gives them one, and his presence, along with the emergence of Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz in this series, is a big reason they have been able to put themselves in a position to advance.

MORE: Hintz becoming important part of Stars’ lineup

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.