PHT’s Season Preview: 30 questions, 180 answers

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We made a list of 30 questions ahead of the 2013-14 NHL season, then we tried to answer those questions. Enjoy:

1. Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, or Alex Ovechkin: Who will have the best season, with individual and team success taken into account?

Jason Brough: Crosby. Assuming he can stay healthy, he’s the best player of the three, on the best team of the three.

Mike Halford: Crosby. Plenty of motivation after losing the Hart to Ovechkin (Ovi now leads Sid 3-1 in that category) and another disappointing playoff exit.

Joe Yerdon: Crosby, and it won’t be close unless he’s injured again. He was on a record pace last year before his jaw got smashed.

Ryan Dadoun: Sidney Crosby. His injury history is obviously a concern, but if he can finally stay healthy, then he could surpass his career high of 120 points.

James O’Brien: At some point, Crosby has to shake his Forsbergian injury luck, so why not 2013-14? This team is loaded and Sid remains almost unstoppable.

Cam Tucker: Alex Ovechkin. He’ll be extra motivated to have a good season in part because the Olympics are in Russia.

2. The biggest worry for the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks is…

JB: Motivation. Some of them struggled with it last time they won the Cup. One of the many reasons repeat champions have been rare.

MH: Getting worn down. One, this was an unusually short offseason. Two, almost all their key players look to figure prominently in the Olympics. And three, they’re the champs. Everybody’s going to be gunning for them.

JY: The Los Angeles Kings. The Blues will knock them around in the division, but the Kings are built to win the Cup again as well.

RD: Whether or not their young complimentary players can perform as advertised to give them a solid bottom six and, to a lesser extent, general fatigue.

JO: Injuries. Marian Hossa is the most obvious example, but the 2013 run put tough miles on everyone.

CT: Health. With an even shorter offseason than normal, the wear of last season’s playoff run may still take its toll early on.

3. True or false: the Red Wings have a better chance to win the Cup than the Senators. (A.k.a. was Daniel Alfredsson right?)

JB: True. The biggest concern remains the defense, but it grew leaps and bounds last season, thanks to a masterful coaching job from Mike Babcock.

MH: True, based purely on experience. The likes of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen and Kronwall know what it takes to win a Cup; Ottawa’s talented, but lacks the veteran know-how.

JY: Can I say “push?” No? I’ll say true then, as they return a team that was a win away from beating Chicago.

RD: Neither team strikes me as much more than a second-round squad this season. If I had to pick though, I’d go with Detroit; the presence of Alfredsson is the thing that tips the scales.

JO: True, but by a very slim margin.

CT: True. Ottawa will be tough in the East, but the Sens don’t yet have players on their roster with that championship experience.

4. Of all the teams that missed the playoffs last season, the most likely to make the playoffs this season is…

JB: Philly. Too many good players on the Flyers, and I have more confidence in Ray Emery than I had in Ilya Bryzgalov.

MH: Dallas, which greatly improved its two main areas of need — defense and center. The Stars will also benefit from new head coach Lindy Ruff, who has nearly 600 career wins.

JY: It’s hard to not like the Oilers for this role. Yes, early injuries, but that youth has to evolve eventually…right?

RD: The Philadelphia Flyers. They have so much talent and I think their goaltending will be less of an issue this season.

JO: New Jersey. Losing Ilya Kovalchuk hurts a lot, but this team was better than its record in 2013 and added some enticing pieces, especially Cory Schneider.

CT: Hard to imagine the Flyers missing the playoffs again, although with goalies like Ray Emery and Steve Mason, making them is no guarantee.

source: Getty Images

5. The Edmonton Oilers have the longest playoff drought in the NHL, at seven straight seasons. Will they finally make it this year?

JB: Yes. So long as they can tread water early in the season with Sam Gagner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the sidelines.

MH: Nope. Still too many question marks on the blueline and, perhaps more pressingly, in goal. Devan Dubnyk’s never won more than 20 games in a single season.

JY: Looks like I just answered this question. Yes, they’ll make it as the fourth seed in the Pacific Division.

RD: No, but they’ll be close. They still have depth and defensive issues to work through.

JO: No. Big injuries to start and will probably struggle defensively.

CT: Yes. Young crop of talented forwards is augmented by an improved group of veteran players. Time to take the next step.

6. Of all the teams that made the playoffs last season, the most likely to miss the playoffs is…

JB: Anaheim. It’ll be a long fall for the Ducks, from second in the West to out of the top eight.

MH: Toronto. Last year feels like it was a bit of smoke and mirrors, as the Leafs were routinely out-possessed and had unsustainable shooting percentages.

JY: I’m coming out of left field here a bit and saying Anaheim. Their defense is nerve-racking. Luckily they can score a bit.

RD: The New York Islanders. Losing Mark Streit hurts and I’m not sure how much longer Evgeni Nabokov can be heavily leaned on.

JO: The Isles. There’s a lot to like about what Garth Snow is building, but it looks like they’re sleeping on goaltending until Brooklyn.

CT: Montreal Canadiens. There is an awful lot riding on goaltender Carey Price, who didn’t have the best season in 2013.

7. Will the Toronto Maple Leafs make it back to the playoffs?

JB: Yes, they’ll sneak in. Two capable goalies makes it doubly possible one of them gets hot.

MH: No. See above.

JY: They’re close. They could be the team that steals a spot from the Metropolitan Division. Right now, I’m leaning towards no.

RD: Just barely, but yes. I didn’t like much of what they did this summer, but I like their goaltending a lot and I think their offensive core is solid.

JO: Despite a circus-like offseason, my gut says Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf contract years will squeeze this odd bunch in.

CT: Yes. After the disappointment of collapsing in Game 7 of the first round against Boston, they’ll be hungrier to prove they belong in the postseason.

8. The worst team in the NHL will be…

JB: Everyone’s going to say Calgary, so I’ll say Nashville. How is this team going to score?

MH: Calgary. Did anybody answer differently?

JY: The Calgary Flames, and it won’t even be close.

RD: The Calgary Flames. At least they’ve taken steps to build for the future.

JO: Calgary.

CT: The Tampa Bay Lightning. This isn’t a bad thing. Finishing at the bottom gives them more of a chance at selecting first overall in 2014.

9. The winner of the Presidents’ Trophy will be…

JB: Chicago. I said earlier that the ‘Hawks may struggle with motivation, but I meant more in the playoffs, when the intensity really picks up and prices have to be paid.

MH: The Blues. Ken Hitchcock has racked up the regular season wins (.670 winning percentage) since coming to St. Louis in 2011. Expect that trend to continue.

JY: Chicago Blackhawks. They’re still the team to beat and still have a ridiculously loaded roster.

RD: The Chicago Blackhawks. It helps that the Central Division is, in my mind, the weakest in the NHL.

JO: The super-deep Blues, at least if they can hold off Chicago in a cozier version of the Central Division.

CT: The Pittsburgh Penguins. Too much talent and it will come to the forefront as the season progresses. But the Penguins are judged by playoff performances.

10. The biggest wildcard team (i.e. could be good, could be awful) in the NHL is…

JB: Edmonton. So much talent there, but we said that last year, didn’t we? The “we’re too young” excuse has expired.

MH: Ottawa. There’s potential for the Jason Spezza-Bobby Ryan combo to rack up huge numbers…but it’s also possible Alfie’s departure is too much to overcome.

JY: Montreal. Does Carey Price bounce back? How does their defense hold up? Do their young forwards improve? I like them, but I wouldn’t throw money on them.

RD: Columbus. I don’t have a ton of confidence in Sergei Bobrovsky being better than solid, but if he plays like he did in the second half of the 2013 campaign, they could be good.

JO: Colorado. That offense could be deep and explosive but the D remains porous and their goalies are a huge coin flip.

CT: Columbus. Narrowly missed playoffs in lockout-shortened 2013. But that that Metropolitan Division appears highly competitive.

source: Getty Images

11. True or false: Roberto Luongo will prove he’s still an elite goalie in the NHL.

JB: False. For me, elite is in Vezina Trophy consideration, so this isn’t a huge slap in the face. He’ll probably be above average. I’m just not loving the vibe in Vancouver these days.

MH: True. Luongo will get massive playing time this year as there’s literally nobody challenging him (all apologies to Eddie Lack). Could be like his first season in Vancouver, when he played a career-high 76 games and earned a Vezina nomination.

JY: True. The fans were on him hard and now he’s won them over showing what a great guy he is on Twitter. Like in “Gladiator” you win the crowd, you win your freedom.

RD: You mean statistically or in the eyes of public? Statistically, I think he’ll be an elite goaltender, but every cold stretch he has will scare people.

JO: True (after a rocky start).

CT: True. He may start slow, because that’s what he does. But after Oct. 31, he’ll settle into a groove.

12. True or false: Tim Thomas will prove he’s still an elite goalie in the NHL.

JB: False. I think he’ll help the Panthers quite a bit though. Which says a lot about the goaltending they got last year.

MH: False. Too much time away from the game, and he’s playing on a Florida team filled with inexperienced players.

JY: False. He won’t be elite, but he’s not going to be bad either. Florida just needs competency in goal. He will do that.

RD: False. At best, I think he’ll be above average, but I don’texpect him to carry the Florida Panthers in his comeback season at the age of 39.

JO: False, but he could be above average.

CT: True. He should be, if nothing else, refreshed from his sabbatical from hockey. And Thomas has always had a knack for proving his critics wrong.

13. If the Devils make the playoffs, their starting goalie will be…

JB: Martin Brodeur, because he’s Martin Brodeur. Schneider will have the better regular season though. I don’t think the Devils will make it anyway.

MH: Cory Schneider.

JY: Cory Schneider. The team will do right by Martin Brodeur until it starts costing them games. Schneider will bring the consistency they need.

RD: Martin Brodeur, even if Schneider has a better season.

JO: Cory Schneider, and it’s not even close.

CT: Cory Schneider. Martin Brodeur has had a fine career but he’s also 41 years of age.  Schneider’s entering his prime.

14. The team that should be most concerned about its goaltending is…

JB: Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury has been awful the past two postseasons; Tomas Vokoun is 37 and dealing with a pretty serious health issue.

MH: Minnesota. Niklas Backstrom turns 36 in February and missed last year’s playoffs with a groin injury. If he falters, the gig falls to Josh Harding, who filled in admirably during the postseason but has significant health concerns of his own.

JY: It’s cliché but it’s Philadelphia. Steve Mason and Ray Emery could split to be great, but last season’s sample sizes were pretty small.

RD: I’ll cheat and go with Columbus. Not because I think Bobrovsky is the worst starter out there by any stretch of the imagination, but because Columbus is extremely dependent on Bobrovsky, who is in turn a big X-Factor.

JO: The Flames, unless they actually want to lose.

CT: The Vancouver Canucks. What do they do if Roberto Luongo gets injured or doesn’t perform? Eddie Lack, their current back-up, has never played in an NHL game.

source: AP

15. A young player who you expect to burst onto the scene is…

JB: Charlie Coyle in Minnesota. Seems like he has a great attitude. Zach Parise’s been raving about him.

MH: Boone Jenner. Big, physical forward that will open the season on Columbus’ top line with Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky.

JY: There are so many choices here that I’m going to pick two: Seth Jones and Valeri Nichushkin.

RD: Aleksander Barkov. He’s talented, has already played against men, and should get his fair share of opportunities in Florida.

JO: Mark Scheifele in Winnipeg, especially if he’s lining up with Evander Kane and Devin Setoguchi.

CT: Morgan Rielly. Will begin the season in Toronto. Presence of young defensemen can come with a high number of mistakes. But can’t deny the talent.

16. Will Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller re-sign with the Sabres?

JB: No. I see Vanek in particular as a chip the Sabres can turn into some assets at the deadline.

MH: No. Buffalo will at the center of about 1,983 rumors heading into the trade deadline.

JY: I think they’re both elsewhere next year. Both guys could fetch huge returns for what will be one of the youngest teams in the league this year.

RD: No, I think Vanek will be traded by the deadline and Miller might end up walking as a free agent. I wouldn’t completely rule out Miller getting traded too, but trading a starting netminder midseason is rare.

JO: Vanek stays, Miller goes.

CT: No. In Miller’s case, it would appear his past few seasons in Buffalo have produced a fractured relationship with teammates, the franchise and fans.

17. Will Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf re-sign with the Leafs?

JB: Phaneuf, yes. Kessel, I’m not so sure. Does he really like playing in a market like Toronto? I don’t get the sense he does.

MH: Yes. Can’t envision a scenario where Toronto loses its captain and leading scorer.

JY: Kessel will stay and the Leafs will pay up huge for him to do so. Phaneuf should stick around but I suspect he’ll be gone after this year.

RD: Phaneuf should, but I’m not as confident about Kessel. I think what Kessel does will be partially dependent on what kind of season Toronto has.

JO: Yes, both do.

CT: No. Even with the salary cap expected to go up, the Leafs may have to turn in another direction if both are asking too much.

18. Will Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau re-sign with the Sharks?

JB: I’ll say yes, but Thornton will have to take a hometown discount after the Sharks locked up centers Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski.

MH: Yes, and so will Dan Boyle. Sharks GM Doug Wilson said he’s already spoken — and will continue to speak — with all three about extensions.

JY: Yes they will. The Sharks don’t really do “change” and they’re still top players in the league. They won’t get giant, long-term deals however.

RD: I think they both will end up finishing their careers in San Jose.

JO: Both take less money to stay in sunny San Jose.

CT: Yes. Patrick Marleau has never played for another NHL team so it’s easier to believe he would stay so as to potentially finish out his career in San Jose.

19. One big-name player that will get traded before the deadline is…

JB: Mike Cammalleri. No reason for Calgary to give the 31-year-old a big extension at this point in the rebuild.

MH: Paul Stastny. The Avs have an embarrassment of young riches at center in Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon, and Stastny’s a UFA at season’s end.

JY: Keith Yandle. Coyotes GM Don Maloney has been dying to add another top-six forward and they’re loaded with defensive depth. Gotta give to get.

RD: I already said Vanek, but I’ll throw Marian Gaborik in the mix too. Like I said, Columbus is a wild card and if things don’t go as planned for them, I think they’ll put Gaborik on the block.

JO: Ryan Miller. Bonus guesses: Brad Richards and Dan Boyle.

CT: Does Steve Ott count as a big-name player? Entering final year of his contract, and other teams would love his toughness.

source: AP

20. The player with the most to prove is…

JB: Kris Letang. Got absolutely shredded by the critics for his playoff performance, and deservedly so. The Pens then gave him a $58 million contract extension. A lot of people thought they’d be better off trading him.

MH: Alex Pietrangelo. He played hardball with the Blues and was rewarded with a massive contract — now, the pressure’s on to prove he’s worth $45.5 million (and deserves a spot on the Canadian Olympic team).

JY: Claude Giroux. He didn’t have a great season last year and the Flyers missed the playoffs. He’ll have a lot of weight on his shoulders to get them back.

RD: Roberto Luongo, but I want to give an honorable mention to Ray Emery. After all the setbacks he’s endured, he’s slowly worked up to the point where he can fight for a starting job on a talented team. That opportunity is there now and it might never come again if he has a bad season.

JO: Marc-Andre Fleury could maintain his spot as Pittsburgh’s franchise goalie or land on the trading block based on his performance.

CT: Martin St. Louis. He’s small, he’s skilled and he’s getting older. But should be motivated to try and make Canada’s Olympic team.

21. True or false: Tyler Seguin will have a big year for the Dallas Stars.

JB: True. I’m expecting at least 70 points out of the 21-year-old. (Yes, remember, he’s still only 21.)

MH: True, because of an increased opportunity and role with the Stars. Remember that Seguin only averaged 17 minutes a game last year, and that was his highest TOI average in three seasons with the B’s.

JY: True. He was on pace for a 30-goal season last year in Boston even in spite of being a supposed party hound. He’ll flourish in Dallas.

RD: I think he’ll largely meet expectations, which in my mind translates to about 70 points.

JO: True, just make sure to give Jamie Benn credit, too.

CT: True. He got traded from a Stanley Cup contender because of his act off the ice. If that doesn’t wake him up, what will?

22. The best offseason signing (player joining a new team) will turn out to be…

JB: Brenden Morrow. He’s not what he used to be, but he’s perfect for the Blues.

MH: Jarome Iginla in Boston. Never gets hurt, is a perfect replacement for Nathan Horton and, despite talk of his demise last season, still managed to score 23 points in 28 games for the Penguins.

JY: Mikhail Grabovski in Washington. Mike Ribeiro gave them a taste of what it’s like to have a really good No. 2 center last year. Grabovski will be even better in Washington.

RD: Vincent Lecavalier. This free agent class wasn’t stunning overall, but Lecavalier is a great forward at a fair price.

JO: The Washington Capitals grabbing Mikhail Grabovski for peanuts.

CT: Mike Ribeiro. Re-united with former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett. Seem to have a good rapport together.

23. The worst offseason signing (player joining a new team) will turn out to be…

JB: Nathan Horton. Don’t trust him to stay healthy.

MH: Valtteri Filppula in Tampa Bay. In seven NHL seasons, he’s only scored more than 40 points once. He’s also got to deal with the weight of heightened expectations (you know, signing for $25 million) and the inevitable “replacing Vinny” narrative.

JY: Considering how much Ryane Clowe has already been banged up in training camp, looking ahead to five seasons of that in New Jersey seems ominous.

RD: Valtteri Filppula. One good season – and not even his contract season – was apparently good enough to warrant $25 million.

JO: David Clarkson.

CT: Dustin Penner. At a price of $2 million this season, it’s not a terrible signing. But he’s underachieved in each of the last four regular seasons.

24. The first head coach to be fired will be…

JB: Claude Noel in Winnipeg. I thought he’d get the axe last season, so let’s go double or nothing.

MH: Claude Noel. Just seems like a matter of time.

JY: Mike Yeo in Minnesota. Some Wild fans were crowing to have Yeo sacked this summer even after making the playoffs. Tough crowd there and lots of pressure to win.

RD: Kirk Muller. This is a team that needs to be a serious contender for a playoff spot and if the Hurricanes underperform, I think they’ll change coaches rather quickly.

JO: Claude Noel, even though his GM isn’t providing him with much. Particularly in goal.

CT: Claude Noel. Jets are entering their third year back in Winnipeg and if they struggle, expect public outcry. And coaches are expendable.

25. True or false: Alain Vigneault’s first season as head coach of the New York Rangers will be successful.

JB: True, the Rangers will respond to a different voice. But can we stop acting like he’s the nicest guy in the world and the NHL’s version of Mike D’Antoni? He can still be hard on players, and he’s hardly a run-and-gun coach.

MH: True, if only because they respond to a new voice in the room. The Rangers looked burnt out under Tortorella last season.

JY: True. He’s not the offensive God-send some are making him out to be, but the culture change there will do wonders for the Rangers.

RD: True. The Rangers are a good team with some gifted forwards and a great goalie that should find success under Alain Vigneault.

JO: True, a smashing success.

CT: True. He’s a good coach, for starters. The team on the ice isn’t bad, either. And they have a top goalie in Henrik Lundqvist.

source: Getty Images

26. True or false: John Tortorella’s first season as head coach of the Vancouver Canucks will be successful.

JB: False. The Torts hiring reminds me of the time the Capitals tried to change their style. I think the entire Canucks organization is a bit lost right now.

MH: False, though it probably won’t be Tortorella’s fault. The window looks like it’s been closing on Vancouver in each of the last two seasons.

JY: True, to a point. He’ll get the accountability from the players the front office wants but if they can’t stay healthy it’ll look like a failure.

RD: False. I think Luongo will have a statistically great season and Vancouver is a capable team, but I don’t see Tortorella taking them very deep into the playoffs, which is what he was brought in there to do.

JO: True, at least if making the playoffs is the standard. (Though I guess if AV got fired after making them, it isn’t.)

CT: False. What counts as success in Vancouver is, at the very least, a berth in the Western Conference final. Seems beyond that team’s capabilities.

27. The Canadian team with the best chance to win the country’s first Stanley Cup since 1993 is…

JB: Vancouver. Considering what I said in my previous answer, this says a lot. But if Torts can help the Canucks get their swagger back, they’ve got the forwards, defensemen, and goalie to make another run.

MH: Ottawa. Which probably says more about the state of Canadian teams than it does the Senators.

JY: Ottawa. They’ve got the goaltending, offensive depth, and defensive skill to make a deep run. Their biggest issue will be escaping their division.

RD: Vancouver by default. I don’t think there will be a Canadian team in the conference finals.

JO: The Vancouver Canucks, even though they’re treading water.

CT: The Ottawa Senators. Nice run last year and they have solid goaltending in Craig Anderson.  But the team might not be at that level yet.

28. True or false: Phoenix Coyotes fans will show up to support their team.

JB: False. This will take some time. The Coyotes’ brand has been badly damaged in that market.

MH: True. It’s amazing what, you know, actually having an owner can do for club morale.

JY: True. Things can’t really get worse there and the new ownership seems dedicated to making the fans happy. Team-supported tailgating? Heck yes.

RD: False. I don’t think they will see a huge jump in interest compared to 2013.

JO: False, at least unless they make the playoffs.

CT: True. But only in the playoffs, provided the Coyotes make it that far.

29. True or false: the NHL will announce at least one expansion team in the next year.

JB: False. Seattle is coming relatively soon though.

MH: False, though it could happen during the 2014-15 campaign.

JY: False. I can’t see this happening for at least two years.

RD: False. But maybe in a couple years.

JO: A Supersonic truth.

CT: True. The Pacific Northwest is intriguing to the NHL, as per deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Lots of smoke there. Has to be fire.

30. Finally, make a crazy prediction that probably won’t happen, but on second thought, you never know…

JB: The Florida Panthers will go from worst to, well, not first, but the playoffs. Tim Thomas wins the Vezina, then retires to run for President.

MH: Poor weather conditions lead to the first-ever canceled outdoor game.

JY: Hyrbid icing becomes such a raging success that the NHL adopts a “Beat the Icing” event at the All-Star Skills Competition in 2015. Somehow, Tim Thomas will win it.

RD: We’ll have two players that reach the 60-goal mark this season.Stamkos and Ovechkin have done it before and look great going into this season.

JO: Jarome Iginla will score more goals than years he’s lived (36).

CT: An all-Canadian Stanley Cup Final. No Canadian team appears to be at a championship level and even if it were the case, in a numbers game alone, the odds are still stacked against this happening. But dare to dream for this Canadian.

Vegas looks to continue fairy tale with conference title

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Just saying the Vegas Golden Knights are one win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final has a magical ring to it.

But what’s even more mystical is thinking the Knights are a mere five wins from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in its inaugural season.

Five more wins, over a potential 10 games.

And while this might be a first-year team writing a fantastical Hollywood screenplay nobody could’ve scripted last summer when the roster was constructed, the NHL playoffs are nothing new to a core of characters in this cast.

Everybody knows about three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, a key figure during Pittsburgh’s reign the last two years, and 10-year veteran James Neal, who was with Nashville for last year’s run to the final against the Penguins.

But between guys such as David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Deryk Engelland, Ryan Reaves, Reilly Smith, Cody Eakin and Tomas Tatar, the Golden Knights aren’t as new to the playoffs as people may believe.

The players’ individual postseason pedigree could be part of the reason the team is one game from clinching the Western Conference. Another reason is the eagerness of Fleury and Neal’s co-stars in this feel-good story.

”We don’t see ourselves as an expansion team for a long time now,” said Perron, a 13-year veteran who is playing in his seventh postseason. ”But at the same time, it’s always nice to keep proving people wrong and we know that even at this point, I don’t feel like people believe we’ll close it out. So, we’ve got to find a way.”

Coach Gerard Gallant has shown he has confidence in all his players, as they’ve all experienced pressure situations and performed well in all three round of the playoffs, including seven one-goal games. Not including Fleury’s 129 career playoff games, or Neal’s 94, the players who skated in Friday night’s 3-2 Game 4 victory now have a combined 489 games of postseason experience to their credit.

”It’s not new for those guys, I don’t think you get here if you don’t use your hockey players,” Gallant said. ”We’ve done it from Day One and there’s no reason not to use them because everybody competes, everybody battles and everybody’s a part of our team. That’s what we do. Guys work hard and compete hard and do your job and you’ll play. I feel comfortable putting most of our guys on the ice. There’s no issues there.”

And that’s because the Golden Knights have always done a good job of living in the moment, and not looking past each game.

Erik Haula spent his first four seasons in Minnesota and went to the playoffs every year, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he was with a special group of players.

”We got off to a great start, won two on the road (to open the season),” said Haula, who has three goals and four assists in the postseason. ”Right after that first home game, that was special. It was a special night for the whole community. Right there, I think we came together as a community, as a team. We never looked back. We just kept going.

”We just have a close group. We respect every single person in here. We need every single person in here.”

Luca Sbisa has been in the league nine years and been to the postseason five times. His presence on defense has bolstered the crew on the blueline, helping to neutralize Winnipeg’s depth on offense.

”Coming in I just wanted to help this team and do what I could, especially on the ice,” said Sbisa, who went to the playoffs in four of the five seasons he was with Anaheim. ”I wanted to give our team a chance to win every night and here we are. We can’t look too far ahead, you gotta take it one game at a time. If you think about the next game you’re probably going to shoot yourself in the foot. We just have to find the balance of being aggressive and being smart. It’s been a long and fun ride so far.”

The fun continues Sunday, when the Jets host Game 5 and will look to stay alive against the fairy tale Knights from Vegas.

”I would say that winning and having fun go hand-in-hand,” said Eakin, now in his seventh year and playing in his third postseason. ”I’ve been on a few teams that have been pretty good, won a few times. We know we got to play our best hockey. Especially this time of year, there’s not a team that is going to roll over and die.”

Maurice wants Jets to stay loose ahead of elimination game

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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (AP) — Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice wants the Jets to focus on fun, not the magnitude of Sunday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights.

The expansion Golden Knights are up 3-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference final and could eliminate the Jets and reach the Stanley Cup Final with a victory.

”These are the best games, always are, when everything is on the line,” Maurice said Saturday. ”Everybody will be at their most excited. You have to find a way, and it shouldn’t be very difficult, to love every minute of it. … This has to be your finest hour. Before the puck drops, I’m not talking about the play, be able to get your mind that this is the most fun game of the year now.”

The Jets have accomplished more in the playoffs than the Atlanta Thrashers franchise did before relocating to Manitoba in 2011. They’ve also surpassed the achievements of the original NHL Jets franchise that moved to Arizona in 1996.

As the current Winnipeg team eliminated the Minnesota Wild in the first round in five games and then bounced the Predators in a Game 7 in Nashville, fans from across the country have cheered on the only Canadian team left in the championship run.

Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot and his teammates have seen the adoration, particularly in Winnipeg with their white-clad crowd inside Bell MTS Place and thousands more outside at ”whiteout” street parties around the rink.

Now, though, isn’t the time to let the hopes of hockey fans weigh them down, he said.

”I don’t think you can think about that, how many people we have watching us,” Chiarot said.

”It’s a little daunting when you think of a whole province, or even the whole country, watching us play. So you just focus on what you do and the guys in the room and that’s all we focus on.”

Winnipeg won the first game against the Golden Knights at home.

The Jets had an NHL-best home record of 32-7-2 in the regular season and finished with nine straight victories at home. They added four more in the playoffs, but have lost three of their last four games at home.

In the last two losses to Vegas, the Jets gave up the first goal. When they did tie it up in both matches, the Golden Knights responded with goals in under a minute to regain their lead.

”It’s going to be really important, not only just to score the first, but just to have a good start,” Jets forward Andrew Copp said. ”We felt like we actually started OK last game, just kind of got in penalty trouble early. That can determine how it looks like you start.”

If the Jets can pull out a victory Sunday, Game 6 is Tuesday night in Las Vegas. A Game 7 would be Thursday night in Winnipeg.

Maurice wants his players to approach the do-or-die game like their Game 7 victory in Nashville.

”I want them to take their experience from Game 6 and 7 and create the environment they created there where they came out with an excitement and smile on their face,” he said. ”Going into Game 7, there’s as much pressure in that game as there was here, right? It’s the exact same game. This one is at home. We’ll need that crowd. They’ve been great for us.

”Both teams, all four teams now (left in the playoffs), there’s not quite as much in the tank as there was before. You’re looking to draw on that and go out with an excited smile.”

PHT’s Three Stars: Vasilevskiy, Callahan lead Lightning in Game 5

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1st Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

Vasilevskiy’s great play continued in Game 5 after a bit of a stumble to start the series. In making 28 saves, he helped the Lightning beat the Washington Capitals 3-2 to take a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final. He’s now stopped 100 of the last 106 shots he’s faced. Tampa can clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Final with a win Monday night in Game 6 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

2nd Star: Ryan Callahan, Tampa Bay Lightning

Callahan had his biggest game of the playofs with a goal and an assist in the Tampa win. He first assisted on Cedric Paquette‘s opening goal 19 seconds into the game and followed that up with an early tally himself in the second period. His goal, which would end up standing as the game-winner, came just 33 seconds into the middle period.

3rd Star: Dan Girardi, Tampa Bay Lightning

The blue liner logged 19:34 during Game 5 and blocked a game high four shots, including one in the final minute on Alex Ovechkin to help preserve the lead.

[Quick-striking Lightning on verge of Stanley Cup Final berth]

Highlight of the Night:

John Carlson might have nightmares about this save by Vasilevskiy with seconds to go:

Factoid of the Night:

Sunday’s schedule: Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets, 3 p.m. ET, NBC, live stream (Vegas leads series 3-1)

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

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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.

Quick-striking Lightning on verge of Stanley Cup Final berth

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You can’t spot a team a 3-0 lead and expect to win in the playoffs.

And while the Washington Capitals tried desperately to not fall victim to their own undoing earlier in the game, they simply ran out of time in a 3-2 loss on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning now lead the best-of-7 series 3-2 as the series shifts back to D.C. for Game 6 on Monday. Tampa is 7-0 all-time in Washington in the playoffs and has now won three straight in the series after falling behind 0-2.

In the first period and into the second, the Capitals appeared to be the same old disappointing playoff team — they just delayed their arrival this season for an extra round.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Vasilevskiy, Callahan lead Lightning in Game 5]

This does look like vintage Capitals collapse, no?

Giving their opponents a 3-0 lead in just over 20 minutes, including allowing goals at 19 seconds of the first period (Cedric Paquette) and 33 seconds of the second period (Ryan Callahan), isn’t a winning formula.

Nor is your superstar getting exactly zero shots on goal for the first 58 minutes of the game.

Sure, Alex Ovechkin hit the bar earlier in the third period, and once he did get shooting, he found twine on his second shot of the game with 1:36 left and the net empty, but it was all too late in the end.

Tampa is now a team on the verge of a berth in the Stanley Cup Final and the Capitals on the brink of their yearly disappointing exit from the postseason.

A silver lining: Evgeny Kuznetsov keeps producing. But you’re not winning a conference final riding on the back of one player, as Washington is figuring out.

The urgency displayed in the third period from the Caps would be better used spread out over all three periods.

But perhaps most concerning for the Capitals is how Tampa found their stride 5-on-5.

They didn’t manage to win the puck possession battle (as per usual in this series) but they did have a nearly 3-to-1 edge on high-danger scoring chances for at 15-6.

All three of their goals came at 5-on-5 and they didn’t have to rely on their power play to get their offense rolling.

That will be interesting to watch in Game 6. Giving the Lightning a man-advantage was a death sentence. But if they’re scoring 5-on-5 as well, Washington is going to be in a world of hurt.

This isn’t helping either:

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