Under Pressure: Carolina’s blue line

“Under Pressure” is a preseason series we’ll be running on PHT. For each team in the NHL, we’ll pick one player, coach, GM, mascot or whatever that everyone will be watching closely this season. Feel free to play the song as you read along. Also feel free to go to the comment section and tell us we picked poorly.

For the Carolina Hurricanes, we pick…. their defense.

All of it.

The ‘Canes are one of the league’s most uniquely constructed teams. GM Jim Rutherford has built a quality top-six forward group — Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Alex Semin, Jeff Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu and Jiri Tlusty — and locked up goalie Cam Ward (though to be fair, Ward could easily be Carolina’s candidate for Under Pressure this season).

Then, there’s the blue line.

It’s arguably one of the weakest and thinnest in the league and is now without its best asset in Joni Pitkanen, gone for the season after suffering a serious heel fracture.

As a stopgap measure, the ‘Canes inked veteran Ron Hainsey to a one-year, $2 million deal last week. While it’s not a bad signing (and decent value, given Hainsey made $22.5 million on his old contract) it was reflective of a larger theme — Carolina relying on guys with question marks.

Like, for example, Mike Komisarek. He barely played in Toronto last year, got bought out, then signed with Carolina and was pegged as a potential solution to the team’s penalty kill (ranked 28th last year, at 77 percent) by head coach Kirk Muller.

“All he has to do is worry about playing hockey, helping the penalty kill. He can play physical against teams we’re going to have to play against, bring his experience and attitude,” Muller told NHL.com. “I think [Komisarek’s] going to fit in great. He’s going to bring so much fun energy to the room that I think that’s going to be awesome.”

Another issue is Carolina’s lack of offense from the back end. Last year’s leading d-man scorer, Joe Corvo, walked in free agency. (Corvo set a dubious distinction in 2013 by leading with just 17 points. Only Colorado’s Tyson Barrie, with 13 points, led his team’s blueliners with fewer.)

With Pitkanen gone, there’s hope 21-year-old Justin Faulk can emerge as a 35-40 point guy, but he’s never scored more than 22 in a season.

In analyzing the D, we’d be remiss without mentioning Carolina’s longest-serving defenseman, Tim Gleason, who has been a good foot solider but might’ve already played his best hockey. Gleason, who’s been with the team since ’06, has seen his minutes dropped steadily over the last few years. Last season marked the first time since 2009 he averaged less than 20 minutes per night.

All this said, the ‘Canes do have some bright spots.

One is Ryan Murphy. The 20-year-old, taken 12th overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, is one of the most highly-touted prospects from a coveted defensive class that included New Jersey’s Adam Larsson, Boston’s Dougie Hamilton, Minnesota’s Jonas Brodin and Dallas’ Jamie Oleksiak.

Murphy actually made the ‘Canes out of his first NHL training camp, but failed to appear in a game before Carolina re-assigned him to OHL Kitchener.

From there, Murphy suffered a serious concussion while playing for the Rangers, but recovered sufficiently enough to be named Kitchener’s captain, earn a spot on Team Canada for the 2013 World Junior tournament and play four games for the ‘Canes last season, averaging over 21 minutes per.

For the ‘Canes D to succeed this year, Murphy will need to play beyond his years. They’ll also need their offseason pickups — Hainsey, Komisarek and ex-Sabre Andrej Sekera — to improve upon their 3.31 goals per game allowed last season, second-worst in the NHL.

Asking a lot? Probably. But that’s likely what it’ll take for the ‘Canes to get back to the postseason for the first time in four years.

Braden Holtby dominated when the Capitals needed him most

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WASHINGTON — The Washington Capitals weren’t ready for their season to come to an end.

By playing what might have been their most complete game of the playoffs, they were able to force a Game 7 (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in the Eastern Conference final with a 3-0 win in Washington on Monday night, picking up their first home win of the series in what was a total team effort.

While the Capitals were playing a relentlessly physical game and getting big performances from T.J. Oshie (two goals) and Devante Smith-Pelly, it was starting goalie Braden Holtby playing what might have been his best and biggest game of the season to help drive it the win and extend their season to a winner-take-all game in Tampa on Wednesday.

After the game Capitals coach Barry Trotz called Holtby “the backbone” of their team, and there were times on Monday night where they needed him to be exactly that.

[Related: PHT Three Stars]

While he didn’t have to face a ton of shots (Tampa Bay managed just 24 shots on goal for the game) he was still tested by a powerful Lightning attack and needed to be called upon to make some massive saves to record his first shutout of the season, a rather stunning stat considering he led the league in shutouts a year ago with nine.

“The only reason is it is good is you know you won,” said Holtby when asked about not recording a shutout this season until Monday. “Aside from that it’s just another statistic for you guys to write about. For us it is just that ‘W’ that matters.”

Well, they got that W in large part because of Holtby’s play. Even though they ended up with a three-goal edge on the scoreboard at the end of the night, it could have easily shifted in another direction numerous times.

With the game still scoreless in the second period, for example, he made a huge pad save on Anthony Cirelli when he broke in all alone on an odd-man rush.

In the third period he helped preserve what was at the time a one-goal lead when he made an incredible glove save on a wide open Nikita Kucherov as he flew down the middle of the ice after coming off the bench on a perfectly timed line change.

Holtby downplayed that save after the game.

“I think that save probably looks better than it actually is,” Holtby said.” There are some that are more difficult than that. I think it was just the positioning and where the puck was. I was just trying to stay in the moment, focus on the puck, and make the save.”

It turned out to be a massive save because just a few minutes later Smith-Pelly delivered what was probably the knockout punch for the game the when he scored his fourth goal of the playoffs to give the Capitals a two-goal lead.

Until that second goal was scored the Capitals had spent most of the period leaning on Holtby to stand tall and he was more than up to the task.

Overall this has been a bizarre season for Holtby.

In terms of his overall statistics it was probably his worst one since he became the Capitals’ starting goalie. After a so-so start he struggling mightily over the last two months and then ended up starting the playoffs on the bench in Games 1 and 2 of the first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in place of Philipp Grubauer.

But after Grubauer struggled and the Capitals were facing a two-game deficit, Holtby reclaimed his starting spot and has done what he has done throughout his career in the playoffs — give his team a chance just about every single night.

Given how well Holtby has played in his career in the postseason it is downright staggering that his team hasn’t had more success in the playoffs. His career save percentage in the playoffs is the second best all-time and he’s rarely, if ever, had a poor showing over an entire series. It has just always come down to there at times being a goalie at the other end of the ice that has been just a little bit better.

Goaltending has been the big story of this series and even if it’s oversimplifying things to say, the team with the best goalie has won every game.

After dropping three games in a row and sending their season to the brink of what could have been another soul-crushing end the Capitals needed their goalie to be the better one on Monday night.

He was.

Now they need him to do it one more time on Wednesday.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Capitals force Game 7 vs. Lightning with all-around effort

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The Washington Capitals needed the best version of themselves to force a deciding game in the Eastern Conference Final, and that’s exactly what they got at home on Monday.

Hockey fans will be treated to a Game 7 (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to determine who will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final, which will begin Monday, May 28.

And if that game is half as good as Game 6 was, a treat is exactly what fans will get.

Yes, Game 6 between the Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning might have been the most exciting game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs so far — not bad for a 3-0 final score.

The scoreline was far from indicative of what happened on the ice. Washington was desperate, but not reckless. Calm and composed, they controlled much of the game and were finally rewarded in the second period via T.J. Oshie‘s power-play marker from the slot — Oshie’s first of two in the game as he added an empty-netter to seal the win late in the third.

The Capitals probably should have won by more, but Andrei Vasilevskiy was in the zone for most of the night.

Down 3-2 coming into Monday, and losers of three straight after taking a 2-0 series lead, the Capitals needed a hero to avoid another humiliating exit from the playoffs.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Holtby, Smith-Pelly help Capitals force Game 7]

Oshie stepped up, for sure.

Braden Holtby looked determined, evidenced by his 24-save shutout with the stakes never higher.

And while Alex Ovechkin looked like a man-possessed in early on — finishing with five shots on goal, one of three Capitals players to do so — it was Devante Smith-Pelly who really shined.

Smith-Pelly put on a physical masterclass early — finishing the game with five hits, including the massacre above.

Then, Smith-Pelly helped the Caps out on the scoresheet.

Chandler Stephenson won a race to beat out the icing call. The puck made its way around the back of Tampa’s net, and Jay Beagle pushed it back to Stephenson, whose backhand pass from behind Vasilevskiy found a streaking Smith-Pelly for a 2-0 lead.

And man, did that goal mean something to DSP. Watch the celly:

It was a heroic effort from Smith-Pelly, Oshie and Holtby, and they’ll need one more before they can truly say they’ve exorcised their playoff demons.

They’ll have 48 hours from now to figure out their course of attack for Game 7, and Tampa will have the same amount of time to pick themselves back up again after the beating they took in the game.

Bring on Game 7, we’re all ready.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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

PHT’s Three Stars: Holtby, Smith-Pelly help Capitals force Game 7

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1st Star: Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

The Capitals netminder played outstanding Monday night as they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-0 to force a Game 7. Holtby made 24 saves for his first shutout of the season and fifth career in the postseason.

2nd Star: Devante Smith-Pelly, Washington Capitals

Smith-Pelly had himself a game. First, he took out two players, including Jay Beagle, in a big hit behind the Tampa net. Later, he scored the Capitals’ second goal after Chandler Stephenson negated an icing and sent a sweet pass to the front of the net to find a charging DSP.

3rd Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

In keeping the game close, the Lightning netminder did all he could as his offense tried to find a way to beat Holtby. Vasilevskiy stopped 31 shots in a losing effort.

[Capitals force Game 7 vs. Lightning with all-around effort]

Highlight of the Night: Like we said, Vasilevskiy did what he could:

Factoid of the Night: The 2018 Stanley Cup Final will begin Monday, May 28 in either Las Vegas or Tampa Bay. Here’s the full schedule as we await the matchup:

Game 1 Monday, May 28
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30
Game 3 Saturday, June 2
Game 4 Monday, June 4
Game 5* Thursday, June 7
Game 6* Sunday, June 10
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13
* = If necessary

Wednesday’s schedule: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 3-3)

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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.

Andrei Vasilevskiy robs Evgeny Kuznetsov (Video)

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Surely, the Washington Capitals should be leading Game 6.

They came out on fire, led by Alex Ovechkin, and stayed that way throughout the first period.

Their only problem? Andrei Vasilevskiy and the wall he put up.

Vasilevskiy needed to be solid to stop on the Capitals’ onslaught and he was, write down to the final moments of the period and his best save, a sprawling glove-hand effort to stop Evgeny Kuznetsov in his tracks on the doorstep to keep the game tied 1-1.

Fatigued? Vasilevskiy wasn’t showing any of that in the first period.

After two sub .850 outings in Games 1 and 2, Vasilevskiy has stormed back to spark the Lightning to three straight wins behind his strong play.

• Stream here
Series preview
Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team

Capitals have to conquer postseason demons one more time
Lightning ready for a ‘desperate’ Capitals team in Game 6
Vasilevskiy turns East final around for Lightning

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub


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