Five Q’s: Canadiens-Senators preview

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1. Can Carey Price pull it together?

Price got off to a fantastic start this season, but has been on the decline ever since. Among goaltenders that got at least eight starts in April, only two finished with worse GAA’s than Price’s 3.49. No team can get particularly far in the playoffs without good goaltending — just ask the 2012 Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers — and Montreal isn’t above that. On the plus side, no playoff team scored fewer goals in the regular season than the Sens, and Price was strong against them in the regular season. Perhaps this series is just what he needs to bounce back.

2. What should we expect from Erik Karlsson?

Karlsson playing just two months after cutting his Achilles tendon was surprising, but the fact that he logged over 27 minutes in all three of his games since his return was miraculous. The Sens’ defenseman had four assists over that span. It’s worth noting that New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac, who suffered a similar injury, urged Karlsson not to return so soon while another player that’s been through the same thing, Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Sami Salo, predicted that Karlsson would come back stronger than ever. Either way, the Senators aren’t putting any meaningful limits on his playing time and they’re a far more dangerous team now that he’s back.

3. Will Ottawa need Craig Anderson to be brilliant?

Even with the return of Karlsson, the Senators aren’t a team that can win a lot of high-scoring affairs. The Senators were an anemic 27th in the NHL when it came to goals scored per game. Still, if Anderson plays anything like he did in the regular season, that might not be an issue. He missed 18 games in the middle of the season due to a sprained ankle, but stayed strong in his return, finishing first among netminders with a 1.69 GAA and .941 save percentage. The wild card in all of this is goaltender Robin Lehner. The ideal for the Senators would be for the 21-year-old rookie to just observe this series from the bench, but Lehner has been great this season and if Anderson falters, he should be seen as a viable Plan B.

4. Montreal PP or Ottawa PK?

The Ottawa Senators are one of the most undisciplined teams in the NHL, but they could get away with that in the regular season because they also killed penalties better than any other team. When they play Montreal though, they might pay for those mistakes. The Canadiens have gone from one of the worst power-play teams in 2011-12 to the fifth best this season. Getting defenseman Andrei Markov back for a full season after battling knee problems was a huge boost. Markov and fellow Canadiens blueliner P.K. Subban have been two of the league’s most successful players with the man advantage.

5. Will the Sens actually get an advantage at home?

When the Senators hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 20, Senators coach Paul MacLean joked that his goal was to “take the crowd out of it” early, according to The Globe and Mail. The Senators have long struggled to keep fans of opposing loyalties out of their stadium for home games. Given the relative proximity of Montreal, you can bet there will be plenty of Habs fans invading Scotiabank Place to cheer passionately for the visitors.

For all the first-round playoff previews, click here.

Kadri hat trick extends Capitals losing streak to seven games

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The Washington Capitals gambled on this one.

With one game remaining prior to the all-star break and their mandated week off, the Caps were looking to end their six-game losing streak and head into the mini-holiday on a winning high.

Alex Ovechkin, who could have chosen to sit this one out and serve his one-game suspension for missing the NHL All-Star Game, decided to play. The team decided to go back with Braden Holtby, 24 hours after he coughed up seven goals in a 7-6 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday.

Neither choice paid off, thanks in no small part to Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri in a 5-3 win for the host Leafs.

You see, Kadri didn’t seem all that interested in allowing the Caps to end their streak against an equally struggling Leafs team. Sure, the Leafs didn’t have the six-game losing streak entering Wednesday, but both teams each only had three wins in their past 10.

His hat trick (and four-point night) sealed Washington’s fate.

Ovechkin tried to do his part.

He scored in the game, his fourth goal in the past two nights after his 23rd hat trick on Tuesday, to put the Caps ahead 2-1 in the second period. The goal was historic as it was the Great 8’s 1,179th NHL point, tying him for first among Russia-born players with fellow legend Sergei Fedorov.

Nicklas Backstrom gave the Caps a 1-0 lead on the power play in the first, a goal that was answered by Kadri’s first of the game.

Ovi’s goal regained the lead in the second, but two goals 3:08 apart gave the Leafs their first lead of the night.

The go-ahead goal was of particular importance, given that it was Auston Matthew who fired it home, ending a seven-game goalless drought. It was just his second goal in 14 games.

Kadri rattled off his second and third of the game in the third to give the Leads a 5-2 lead before Matt Niskanen made it 5-3.

Frederik Andersen had another solid game, stopping 41 shots.

The Leafs moved three points up on the idle Boston Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division.

Washington, despite all the losing, sits second in the Metropolitan, three points back of the leading New York Islanders.


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

WATCH LIVE: Predators at Golden Knights on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Predators and Golden Knights represented the Western Conference in the 2017 and 2018 Stanley Cup Final series, and each team looks primed to contend the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, to boot.

With that in mind, Wednesday’s game should be a lot of fun.

While Pekka Rinne is expected to get the night off, the goalie matchup of Juuse Saros and Marc-Andre Fleury should still be an interesting contrast of rising star and ageless wonder. The Predators’ defense boasts the likes of P.K. Subban and Roman Josi, while Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson are back in the swing of things. Speaking of that, after some early season stumbles, the Golden Knights rank as one of the NHL’s hotter teams.

Considering how Vegas pushes the pace, expect an exciting affair to wrap up Wednesday’s doubleheader on NBCSN.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Nashville Predators at Vegas Golden Knights
Where: T-Mobile Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Predators-Golden Knights stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PREDATORS

Filip Forsberg — Ryan Johansen — Viktor Arvidsson
Kevin FialaColton SissonsCraig Smith
Calle JarnkrokNick BoninoAustin Watson
Ryan HartmanColin BlackwellRocco Grimaldi

Roman Josi — P.K. Subban
Mattias EkholmRyan Ellis
Dan HamhuisMatt Irwin

Starting goalie: Juuse Saros

GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Brandon PirriWilliam KarlssonJonathan Marchessault
Max PaciorettyPaul StastnyAlex Tuch
Oscar LindbergCody EakinRyan Carpenter
Tomas NosekPierre-Edouard BellemareRyan Reaves

Brayden McNabbNate Schmidt
Shea TheodoreDeryk Engelland
Nick HoldenColin Miller

Starting goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Eddie Olczyk (analyst) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Nev.

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: Capitals – Maple Leafs on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Yes, every team hopes to enter the All-Star break on a high note, but the Capitals rank among those with the most incentive to churn out another win.

They’ve lost six consecutive games, and since it looks like Alex Ovechkin‘s playing on Wednesday (thus meaning he’s suspended for a game on Feb. 1), falling to the Maple Leafs would really make for a dour way to begin a little hockey vacation.

With the Bruins and Canadiens not all that far behind the Maple Leafs for second place in the Atlantic, don’t expect Toronto to take it easy on Wednesday. Considering all of these factors, it should be fascinating to watch these two teams duke it out.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs
Where: Scotiabank Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Capitals – Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin — Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Dmitrij JaskinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Chandler StephensonTravis BoydAndre Burakovsky

Dmitry OrlovJohn Carlson
Michal KempnyMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikJonas Siegenthaler

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

MAPLE LEAFS

Patrick MarleauAuston MatthewsMitch Marner
Zach HymanJohn TavaresKasperi Kapanen
Connor BrownNazem KadriWilliam Nylander
Par LindholmFrederik Gauthier — Trevor Moore

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Travis DermottNikita Zaitsev
Martin MarincinIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

Gord Miller (play-by-play), Brian Boucher (analyst) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call.

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.

Looking at Oilers’ future after firing Chiarelli

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A “be careful what you wish for” scenario emerged late on Tuesday night, as the Edmonton Oilers finally fired Peter Chiarelli as GM.

The following morning, Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson addressed the future, mixing the reassuring (not wanting to blow everything up) with uncomfortable feelings of “same old, same old.” For many who’ve seen this movie before, there’s legitimate concern about sad history repeating itself.

So, what should the Oilers do? Let’s consider the good, the bad, and the Puljujarvi.

First, a quick summary of their cap situation

Thanks to the always-handy Cap Friendly, we know that: the Oilers are basically right up against the ceiling in 2018-19, and are slated to devote about $73M to 15 skaters next season. Yeah, that’s not great.

The most prominent pending free agent is goalie Cam Talbot, who’s almost certain to be gone after the Oilers signed Mikko Koskinen to that baffling extension.

Fresh voices

Keith Gretzky is serving as interim GM, while Ken Hitchcock’s been given very little indication that he’ll be coach beyond next season.

Maybe that’s a good thing. This team needs fresh voices, not situations like the front office being littered with relics from the failed past, like Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish.

Nicholson said that the Oilers will take their time when it comes to such future moves, so here’s hoping they get with the program. After years of attempting “heavy” hockey and getting humiliated in trades, how about being forward-thinking, whether that means playing to Connor McDavid‘s speedy strengths, or finding a savvy GM who will sell-high, buy-low, and actually be ahead of the curve for once? Just a thought.

Assessing the good

As The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis aptly mentions, the Oilers do have a lot going for them. Willis mentions:

So, that list includes two stud centers, one nice forward in RNH, and Klefbom, a 25-year-old defenseman who’s been very effective when healthy.

Let’s consider a few other intriguing players who could provide the Oilers with cheap, useful production in the not-too-distant future. If you’re noticing an omission, that’s because a certain Finn is getting his own little section in this piece.

  • Kailer Yamamoto, the 22nd pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. A promising, smaller forward, even if he’s struggled at the top level this season.
  • Evan Bouchard, the 10th pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, could be a building block defenseman for a team that needs help at that position.

Your mileage will vary on other players, but you could do worse than to start with that mix of proven talent and decent prospects.

Now to what they need to get right, starting with another young player whose future is pivotal for Edmonton, whether he sticks with the Oilers or not:

The Jesse Question

Considering the Oilers’ history of bold moves, it’s tempting to just rubber stamp the word “DON’T” on any talk about trading away Jesse Puljujarvi, the troubled fourth overall pick of the 2016 NHL Draft.

But, as Sean “Down Goes Brown” McIndoe detailed in-depth recently for The Athletic (sub required), sometimes it actually is smart to move a Puljujarvi-type. The key can be filed under “easier said than done,” as it’s all about getting the right trade, if Edmonton chooses to do that.

And, as McIndoe notes, there is some risk in waiting too long.

If your trade bait doesn’t happen to have met expectations, timing is key. Move a guy too soon, and you risk seeing him turn into an Andrew Ladd or Rick Vaive, and you could be left with regrets. But wait too long and he’ll be Andrei Zyuzin or Stanislav Chistov, and you won’t get much of anything in return.

The Oilers have their own painful history when it comes to arguably waiting too long to move on from Nail Yakupov. Could they have gotten more than the weak deal from the St. Louis Blues if they punted sooner?

Look, there are times when I’d trot out advice that should seem obvious, but isn’t. The Oilers have been burned badly not just in trading away skill, but selling low on ice-cold players who were likely to rebound.

Puljujarvi is a little different because it’s difficult to separate his struggles from the Oilers’ own miscues, and to gauge what his ceiling might be. Few can credibly say they know for sure what kind of player he’ll become, but it’s crucial for the Oilers to get this situation right.

Net questions haven’t stopped

It would be irritating but acceptable if the Oilers merely overpaid a bit for Mikko Koskinen, if he was more of a sure thing.

Handing a three-year extension at $4.5M per year gets more reckless when you consider Koskinen’s unsightly combination of unprovenness (just 32 NHL games) and age (he’ll be 31 when the extension kicks in). His .910 save percentage this season doesn’t exactly kick down doors, either, even if Koskinen’s been respectable enough.

That previous paragraph is a procession of bummers, but the Oilers can at least do their best to put themselves in a position to succeed. It’s perfectly plausible that Koskinen could end up a great bet – he’s had his moments, and also goalies are extremely unpredictable – yet Edmonton would be wise to arm themselves with Plans B and on.

Keep an eye on prospects, in the draft and otherwise. Try to identify a free agent bargain, even if you’re unlikely to hit a grand slam like the Islanders managed with Robin Lehner.

Messing up with goalies can sometimes be luck of the draw, but Edmonton should look at, say, the Blues with Jake Allen and realize that contingency plans are crucial.

Shedding dead weight

Let’s be honest: barring a trip to the LTIR, it’s unlikely that the Oilers will get relief from Milan Lucic‘s $6M cap hit anytime soon. (Question: does Lucic have any rashes?)

Keith Gretzky or the Oilers’ next GM should do everything in their power to find creative ways to get rid of any bad contracts other teams might take off their hand, even if it means giving up a little bit of a bribe in return.

Would someone take Kris Russell (31, $4M through 2020-21) or Andrej Sekera (badly injured, $5.5M through 2021-22) off their hands? Maybe a rebuilding team would throw away Brandon Manning‘s $2.25M next season to try to reach the floor?

Sometimes an incumbent GM won’t admit past mistakes, which means bad contracts rot on their rosters for too long. With Chiarelli gone, the Oilers could at least make greater efforts to shake that Etch-a-Sketch. We’ve seen a ton of examples of seemingly untradeable contracts being moved, so it wouldn’t hurt to try.

Bargain hunting

If there’s an area where Chiarelli was passable, it was occasionally targeting some quality, cheap scorers.

To varying degrees, players like Alex Chiasson, Tobias Rieder, and Ty Rattie have served their purpose, at least for stretches. Even if the Oilers alleviate some cap concerns, chances are, they’ll need to be wizards of the bargain bin. On the bright side, McDavid is the sort of guy who should fatten the bank accounts of the Chiassons of the world, so that’s a workable aspect of this team.

One of those “fresh voices” might be especially adept at gauging who might be a diamond in the rough.

Pulling a reverse-Chiarelli

That brings up another point: maybe the Oilers can do to other teams what savvier GMs constantly did to Chia?

By that I mean: a) trading for players who are slumping, but are almost certain to get it together and/or b) determining supposed “lack of character” guys who can help them win.

It’s not just the Oilers who’ve done this with Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall. The Hurricanes traded Jeff Skinner after a cold shooting season. Dougie Hamilton may once again be an underappreciated asset.

Buying low on a talented player won’t necessarily be easy for the Oilers, considering their cap predicament, so this advice may be more pertinent if they can shed some of the Russells and Mannings. But if the opportunity arises, the Oilers could really start to turn things around.

***

Again, this isn’t the easiest situation. Chiarelli (and others?) really made a mess of this situation after getting the Lottery Ticket on Skates that Connor McDavid is.

Yet, even considering the cavalcade of mistakes this franchise has made, they’re not that far from being a more balanced and competent team.

It might be awkward to ask powerful front office executives to change the way they do business, but winning is worth more than a few ruffled feathers.

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.