Everyone (in New Jersey) loves Ilya Kovalchuk

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Ilya Kovalchuk has had a big year and a big playoffs, so far, for the New Jersey Devils. While many Russian players have been getting a bad rap during the playoffs for one reason or another, Kovalchuk is viewed as being a prince among men in the Devils’ locker room.

Tom Gulitti of Fire & Ice hears it from a few different Devils players about what Kovalchuk has meant to the team and their locker room. Coach Peter DeBoer was particularly thoughtful about what Kovalchuk means to the team.

“This guy’s a good person and a good teammate,” DeBoer said. “Superstars often get bad raps, especially Russian superstars.  That couldn’t be further from the case. This guy could be born in Canada or the United States and you wouldn’t know the difference other than his accent. He’s here to win. He’s a team-first guy. He’s very unselfish. He’s just a great person.

“I don’t think that’s common knowledge around the league.”

Most people think of Kovalchuk and his awkward exit from the Atlanta Thrashers as well as his previous playoff failures. Now with the Devils in the Eastern Conference finals and him being a big part of it, Kovalchuk is winning people over as well as games on the ice.

Foligno, Lehner, Thornton are the 2019 Masterton Trophy finalists

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On Friday, the NHL and the Professional Hockey Writers Association announced the three finalists for the 2019 Masterton Trophy, which is awarded “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders, and Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks have been voted the three finalists after the PHWA’s local chapters submitted nominations at the conclusion of the regular season, with the top three vote-getters getting the trip to Las Vegas in June..

The trophy was presented by the NHL Writers’ Association in 1968 to commemorate the late Bill Masterton, a player with the Minnesota North Stars who exhibited to a high degree the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey and who died on Jan. 15, 1968.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Nick Foligno’s story: Foligno helped Columbus earn a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third consecutive year by scoring 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) in 73 games, while simultaneously attending to health issues affecting two of his three young children. The Blue Jackets captain, 31, is skating in his seventh season with Columbus and ranks third on the club’s all-time goals (125) and assists (162) lists.

“I feel like we’ve become a stronger family and that’s how I’m always going to look at it. I think it’s made me a better person, a better player and a better leader, hopefully, for this team,” Foligno told the Columbus Dispatch. “I’m going to take it all in stride, but my family is my most important thing in my life and (the Blue Jackets are) my second family.”

Robin Lehner’s story: Lehner (25-13-5 record, 2.13 goals against average, .930 save percentage, six shutouts) and teammate Thomas Greiss won the 2018-19 William M. Jennings Trophy as the goaltenders on the team allowing the fewest regular-season goals, helping the Islanders post their highest regular-season points total (103) since 1983-84. His best NHL season on the ice came on the heels of revealing addiction and mental health issues in a self-penned article for The Athletic during training camp.

“I am not sharing this story to make people think differently of Robin Lehner as a professional goalie,” Lehner wrote. “I want to help make a difference and help others the way I have been helped. I want people to know that there is hope in desperation, there is healing in facing an ugly past and there is no shame in involving others in your battle.”

Joe Thornton’s story: Thornton, 39, overcame major injuries from the prior two seasons, suffering a torn ACL and MCL in both his left knee (2017) and right knee (2018). His rehabilitation work, detailed in the San Jose Mercury News, served as an inspiration to his teammates and coaches. The leader among active NHL players in career assists and points (413 goals, 1,065 assists, 1,478 points in 1,566 games), Thornton concluded his 21st NHL campaign with 51 points (16 goals, 35 assists) in 73 games, helping the Sharks qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 14th time in the past 15 seasons.

Thornton scored his 400th career goal on Nov. 13 and passed a pair of NHL legends on April 4, leapfrogging Nicklas Lidstrom (1,564) into 12th place on the all-time games list and Steve Yzerman (1,063) into eighth place on the all-time assists list.

A $2,500 grant from the PHWA is awarded annually to the Bill Masterton Scholarship Fund, based in Bloomington, Minn., in the name of the Masterton Trophy winner.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
Selke Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy

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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.

Held at bay, Gaudreau hopes to ignite Flames in Game 5

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DENVER (AP) — Summoning Johnny Hockey! His scoring prowess is required ASAP.

After a 99-point regular season, Calgary All-Star forward Johnny Gaudreau has been held to a single assist and just 12 shots against Colorado. It is a big reason why the top-seeded Flames trail the Avalanche 3-1 in a first-round series that heads back to Calgary for Game 5 on Friday night (10 p.m. EDT, NBCSN).

Gaudreau’s linemates, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm, have been held in check, too, with a goal apiece. Even more, captain and Norris Trophy candidate Mark Giordano has two assists in the series. This after finishing second in scoring among defensemen during the regular season.

No panic, though. Just action.

”Everyone has to look at their own games and be better,” Gaudreau said. ”We’ve got to get back to the way we were playing all year.”

Either that, or summer starts early. The Flames are on the brink of being knocked out in the first round, just like Tampa Bay – the top seed in the East.

Dating to the expansion in 1967-68, there have been various playoff formats in the NHL from division-based, conference-based and for two seasons, ’79-80 and ’80-81, the top 16 teams being seeded by regular-season points. At no point over that time have the top two teams in each division or conference – or the teams with the two best records – been eliminated in the first round, according to the league.

”It will be tough. Obviously we’d rather be 2-2 than 3-1,” Lindholm said. ”Go back to Calgary, we have a good crowd there for us, try to come back and play even better than (Wednesday) and hopefully get a win. Then it’s game on again.”

The Flames don’t have a monopoly on vanishing stars in this postseason. Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov had one goal and three assists between them in being swept by the Blue Jackets; while Sidney Crosby only had an assist as Pittsburgh lost four straight to the New York Islanders.

Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen have been as advertised for Colorado. They have a combined six goals and five assists.

”Our depth,” MacKinnon said, ”is very underrated.”

In particular, J.T. Compher (two goals) and Matt Nieto (two short-handed tallies).

”They don’t get enough credit for what they’ve done all season, how much they’ve contributed,” MacKinnon said of Colorado’s supporting cast. ”It’s very encouraging that we can flip the switch. You don’t have to play a perfect game to win.”

Game 5 can’t get here soon enough for Flames center Mikael Backlund , who had a forgettable final flurry in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Avalanche on Wednesday. He took a late tripping penalty that led to Rantanen’s tying goal in regulation. In overtime, Backlund had a perfect view on Rantanen’s winning shot soaring right past him.

No time to hang their heads, though.

”We have nothing to lose now,” Backlund said. ”I don’t think a lot of people think we can do it but we can. We’ve faced a lot of adversity and if there’s any group I believe in and know they can do it, it’s this group right here.”

It starts with Gaudreau, who’s been bottled up in the series with Colorado clogging the middle of the ice. Gaudreau and his teammates just can’t seem to break free.

”We’ll regroup,” Giordano said.

Keeping them in games is goaltender Mike Smith , who’s stopped 99 of 108 shots over the last two contests.

”I’m just one little cog,” Smith said. ”It’s nice to have personal success but when you don’t get the results it doesn’t matter. You need to do more.”

TORONTO at BOSTON (7 p.m. EDT, NBCSN)

The Bruins threw a wrinkle at the Maple Leafs by shuffling their lines. It did the trick during a 6-4 win Wednesday to tie the series at 2-2. David Pastrnak had two goals, while Brad Marchand added a goal and an assist.

Just the sort of boost the team was hoping for with Game 5 on Friday in Boston.

”We got some bounces” Wednesday, Marchand said. ”Hopefully we get them next game.”

The changes by the Bruins didn’t bother the Maple Leafs as much as miscues.

”I thought our matchups were fine. That, to me, wasn’t it,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. ”We just made some mistakes. Gave up some opportunities that we didn’t need to give up.”

Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen has already set aside the loss in which he surrendered five goals on 30 shots.

”Short memory,” Andersen said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Wraparound: Goaltending hasn’t been an issue for Flames

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

Even though the Calgary Flames finished right at the top of the Western Conference standings, many hockey fans doubted whether or not they were a serious Stanley Cup contender. The reason for the doubt was pretty obvious, too. No one seemed to believe in either of their goaltenders.

Mike Smith and David Rittich both had difficult stretches at various times throughout the season. In the end, the Flames decided to roll with Smith in the postseason. The 37-year-old finished the campaign with 23-16-2 record, a 2.72 goals-against-average and a .898 save percentage in 42 games.

The belief heading into the series was that if Calgary’s best players could score enough, they could compensate for the shaky goaltending. After all, the Flames had five players surpass the 70-point mark during the regular season. Johnny Gaudreau (99), Sean Monahan (82), Elias Lindholm (78), Matthew Tkachuk (77) and Mark Giordano (74) so offensive production wasn’t a worry.

But after four games against the Colorado Avalanche, the Flames now find themselves on the brink of elimination, and it’s not for the reason we all thought. They have to find a way to stay alive in Game 5 (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream)

Smith hasn’t been the issue at all. He’s actually been really good between the pipes throughout the entire series and if anything, he’s kept them in games. It’s their high-end offensive guys that have let them down. Gaudreau has one assist through four games and Monahan has a goal and a helper. That’s it.

Over the last two games, Smith has stopped 99 of 108 shots the Avalanche have fired his way. The fact that he’s faced that much rubber over the last two games is insane. Yes, that’s a lot of goals to give up over two games, but the team in front of him checked out in Game 3 and they blew a 2-0 lead in Game 4.

“It’s nothing personal,” Smith said after Game 4, per the team website. “It’s about the team winning. I’m just one little cog.

“It’s nice to have personal success, obviously, but when you don’t get the results it doesn’t matter. You need to do more.”

The Flames are in must-win mode. We’ve already seen one no. 1 seed go down, so it wouldn’t be too shocking to see the top team in the West go down, too.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 5: Maple Leafs at Bruins, 7 p.m. ET (series tied 2-2): It’s been a fierce battle between the top line of both teams. John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron have gone head-to-head a lot. In Game 3, the Leafs trio got the better of that matchup, but in Game 4 the Bruins’ top players took their game to another level. Who comes out on top tonight? (NBCSN, Live stream)

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

Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

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

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Penguins and Lightning exits show playoff hockey differences

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Scotty Bowman had already coached six teams to the Stanley Cup championship when his high-powered Detroit Red Wings that won 12 of their first 14 playoff games couldn’t get the puck away from the New Jersey Devils and got swept in the 1995 final.

”They just shut us right down,” Bowman said. ”We were shocked, but it happens.”

The coach with the most Stanley Cup rings in NHL history wasn’t as shocked to see the Tampa Bay Lightning get swept out of the first round this postseason after tying the single-season wins record set by his 1995-95 Red Wings and finishing 21 points ahead of the rest of the league. He wasn’t surprised, either, when the same thing happened the same night to the Pittsburgh Penguins after they won two of the past three championships.

If the Calgary Flames can’t come back from a 3-1 series deficit against Colorado, it will mark the first time each conference’s top seed is eliminated in the first round.

More than any other sport, playoff hockey is a much different animal than the regular season because of increased emphasis on scouting and preparation, fewer penalties and even-strength goals, and more all-out shot-blocking and sacrificing. The way games are coached, played and officiated changes enough that the Lightning can go from being the best team for seven months to gone in seven days.

”The ice shrinks and you have less time, less space, the hits are harder, guys are not preserving energy over the course of a game,” said NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp, who won the Cup in 2003 with New Jersey. ”You’re exhausting it every shift.”

Tampa Bay looked so exhausted after winning 62 of 82 regular-season games that it lost four in a row to eighth-seeded Columbus, which didn’t even clinch a playoff spot until game 81. The Blue Jackets were by far the better team, and Bowman – who lives in Florida and frequents the Lightning’s press box – saw a totally different Tampa Bay team without top defensemen Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman because it couldn’t move the puck up ice without a strain on the top forwards.

Bowman compared it to what Detroit would’ve been like without Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom, who hardly ever made a mistake with the puck and made everything happen. The Lightning ran into a tough John Tortorella-coached forecheck, struggled to control the game against the disciplined Blue Jackets and all their star power couldn’t dig them out of a deep hole.

”During the season, Tampa would have the puck so much, the other team would get four, five or six penalties and, boom, their power play was at 28 percent and had the most goals in the league,” Bowman said. ”They were so hard to play against all year because they forced the other teams to take penalties. (Hedman and Stralman) are bringing the puck up, they’re in the (offensive) zone. The game changes.”

Star players also get much more attention in the playoffs. Tampa Bay’s top scorers, presumptive MVP Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, combined for five points against Columbus after averaging 1.3 a game during the regular season.

That problem isn’t limited to the Lightning. Two-time playoff MVP Sidney Crosby was limited to one point in the Penguins’ sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders, and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau has one point through four games against Colorado.

Tampa Bay, Calgary and Pittsburgh all ranked in the top six in the league in scoring during the regular season. When Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens does an autopsy on the Lightning and Penguins’ quick playoff exits, he sees fundamental problems in other areas.

”I saw two teams that don’t defend very well, really don’t have a lot of structure in their D-zone and they didn’t have anything to fall back on,” said Stevens, who won the Stanley Cup three times with the Devils and now is an NHL Network analyst. ”They weren’t able to score goals, and they weren’t able to defend and therefore they’re not playing anymore.”

Belying a common misperception, scoring isn’t down much in the postseason so far: an average of 5.8 goals over the first 31 playoff games compared to 6.0 in the regular season. But after 77.8 percent of regular-season goals came at even strength, that number is 59.4 percent so far in the playoffs, which means each power-play goal is all the more important.

”You want to stay out of the penalty box,” Stevens said. ”There’s teams that their power play might’ve been average during the year but they find a way to get a few in the playoffs and make a difference and that can win a series for you.”

Or lose a series. Pittsburgh went 1 for 11 on the power play, and Tampa Bay went 1 for 6.

Of course, there are fewer penalties called this time of year. The NHL has said it wants officials to call games the same way in the playoffs, but referees don’t want to overreach when games are so tight.

”I was always told that penalties are like money and it’s like other people’s money in that you should be frugal with them unless the action demands a call,” said retired referee Paul Stewart, who worked 49 NHL playoff games during his career.

Stewart likens the first two rounds of the playoffs to a guy being so excited for a date that he gets a speeding ticket on the way, and because of that officials need to take extra care to rein in players. It’s easy for him to understand why players feel like there’s less room on the 200-by-85-foot ice surface than during the regular season because he has seen it up close.

”Players tend to cover a lot more ice because their speed level and their intensity level is up and where they might’ve dogged it a step or two here or there, they seem to put a little more churn in the butter,” Stewart said. ”They’re getting from point A to point B a lot faster and then they’re going to point C and point D where during the regular season they might only get to point C and now they’re hitting D, E and F because they’re all jacked up and they want to make sure that every 45-second shift is momentous for them.”

Stevens said a great regular-season team’s confidence can evaporate quickly and lead to a long summer of reflection.

”The teams that are undisciplined, the teams that get away from their game quickly and can’t stay with their game tend to get in trouble because you become a little reckless, you don’t manage the puck and then they feed the other team’s offense and then they tend to find themselves chasing,” Stevens said. ”They just have no answer and it’s frustrating for that team that can’t find their game, has no answers, the adjustments don’t work and you’re still working hard, you’re trying hard but you can’t find a way to win.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports