Who’s going to win the Stanley Cup? Here are PHT’s picks…

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We didn’t so well with these last season, with not one of us predicting the Chicago Blackhawks would win the Stanley Cup. We’re going to blame the lockout for that and try again for 2013-14. No excuses this time around. Unless there are injuries. Then there are excuses. We may also think up other excuses.

Jason Brough: Los Angeles Kings over Detroit Red Wings

I look for three major things when I pick a Cup winner. First is goaltending. Second is a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman that can log big minutes. Third is at least one, preferably two, top centers. The Kings have all these things. I’m a little concerned about their ability to create offense, but if Willie Mitchell can stay healthy, that may allow Drew Doughty to get a bit more involved in that area. Picking a team out of the East was tough because there’s only one that unequivocally meets my criteria, the Bruins, and it’s really hard to put together back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup Final. Meanwhile, I don’t like the Pens’ goaltending, and the Rangers, Caps, and Flyers don’t have that one great d-man. I ended up taking the Wings, but that back end will have to keep improving, and Stephen Weiss can’t be a free-agent bust.

Mike Halford: Los Angeles Kings over Boston Bruins

After winning it all two years ago and going back to the Western Conference finals last season, the Kings spent the summer tweaking what was already a pretty solid roster. They turned a backup goalie into another backup and arguably their fastest player (Matt Frattin); they added by subtracting Dustin Penner (who was mediocre at best last year) and, perhaps most importantly, got a clean bill of health for Willie Mitchell, the veteran defenseman that was a key cog on the Cup-winning side of ’12. The Kings are talented, deep, experienced and still bitter about getting dumped by Chicago in five games.

Ryan Dadoun: St. Louis Blues over New York Rangers

These are two teams I’ve liked for a couple of years now and it obviously didn’t pan out for me last season. Still, the Blues have what I believe to be the best group of defensemen in the NHL from top to bottom. They also have strong goaltending, especially if Jaroslav Halak can stay healthy during the playoffs. Their offense isn’t comparatively as impressive, but it’s well-rounded. While it includes some rising youngsters like Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, its core has largely matured at this point.

James O’Brien: St. Louis Blues over New York Rangers

With parity reigning supreme in the NHL, depth is increasingly important, and the Blues might be the deepest of them all. Not many teams boast such a variety of scoring options (adding Derek Roy was shrewd), 2-4 top pairing-quality defensemen and 2-3 viable goalies. Each of the Blues and Rangers have the motivation (key contract years, bright coaches) and talent to get it done, but the Blues edge the Rangers. And, no, I’m not just picking them because EA Sports’ supercomputers did, either.

Joe Yerdon: Los Angeles Kings over New York Rangers

The Kings are one of a handful of teams that can hang with Chicago in the West. Their skill, toughness, and goaltending are as good as it gets. The Rangers shake out as a team that seems to have it more put together. If not having Torts in their ears makes the difference, and I think it will, they’ll be right there.

Cam Tucker: Washington Capitals over Chicago Blackhawks

Alex Ovechkin should be extra motivated considering what’s at stake for him personally. I do worry about a potential emotional letdown for No. 8 after the Sochi Olympics, but the Blackhawks didn’t have that problem in 2010 when Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook played for Canada in Vancouver. The Capitals should also enter the season fully adjusted to Adam Oates and his system. At some point, this team has to break through in the playoffs. Washington isn’t perfect, but what team is? Particularly in the East.

So there you have it. PHT has the Kings (thrice), the Blues (twice), and the Caps (once). Sorry about that, those three teams. There’s always next season.

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