Under pressure: Mike Johnston

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The Pittsburgh Penguins fired coach Dan Bylsma because claiming division titles isn’t good enough for a franchise trying to win more than one championship while Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still in their prime. Mike Johnston was hired to do better, but that’s not what happened in 2014-15. Penguins executive David Morehouse claimed that the team never seriously considered firing Johnston after that, but will that change if Pittsburgh fails to live up to expectations again?

Johnston’s Penguins were effective for much of the regular season, but a late season collapse nearly ended their playoff berth streak and they dropped four out of five games against the New York Rangers in the first round. Internally, injuries were reportedly viewed as a primary cause for the Penguins’ 2014-15 shortcomings and it certainly is true that they didn’t have Kris Letang or Pascal Dupuis during that first round series.

At the same time, the team’s scoring depth was a big problem too and it’s one GM Jim Rutherford hopes he addressed this summer with the additions of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr, and Matt Cullen. Adding a player of Kessel’s caliber in particular raises expectations, but it also emphasizes the immediacy of the Penguins’ window for a few different reasons.

First and foremost, the Penguins gave up a top prospect in Kasperi Kapanen and a conditional first-round draft pick to get him, further depleting their pool of prospects. Secondly, Phil Kessel will turn 28 in October and while that’s not old even by NHL standards, it is roughly in line with the ages of Malkin, Crosby, Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Of that group, Fleury was the first to enter his 30s and as the rest of them follow suit, diminishing returns will become an increasing concern that’s compounded by the fact that they’re all signed to expensive long-term contracts that consume a lot of Pittsburgh’s cap space.

Which is to say that Pittsburgh can’t afford to be squandering seasons and if Johnston isn’t the guy to lead them to a Stanley Cup championship, then the Penguins have to make a change sooner rather than later. That’s not to suggest that Johnston shouldn’t be the coach in 2015-16, but it does mean that the pressure on him to deliver the best possible outcome couldn’t be higher.

The Wraparound: Hurricanes keep believing as they eye series lead vs. Caps

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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.

Winning breeds confidence and the Carolina Hurricanes’ success this season has continued into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As they seek to take a 3-2 series lead on Washington Capitals Saturday night (8 p.m. ET; NBC; Live stream), they’ve envisioned this possibility since earlier this season as the chemistry in the dressing room and on the ice developed.

“There’s always been a belief with our group from day one that we could be in this situation. If the fans and the people are starting to believe, that’s great,” said head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “The most important thing is the guys believe.”

That belief was reinvigorated after their 2-1 win in Game 4. The Hurricanes had lost six straight to the Capitals before taking both games at PNC Arena. Now heading back to D.C., it’s a best-of-three series now and both teams will be missing key pieces with Andrei Svechnikov and T.J. Oshie out.

“We’ve always believed [we could win], right?” said Hurricanes captain Justin Williams. “We had lost six straight games to them after Game 2, close ones albeit, but lost them. So winning that one in Game 3 was big, this one is big, and they just keep getting bigger.”

Carolina knows that winning two in a row won’t cause the defending Stanley Cup champions to panic. They realize they need to continue their dominant possession play and timely scoring to keep the momentum going as they hit the road.

“A team that’s that experienced, I don’t think they get frustrated,” said Brind’Amour. “You might a little bit, but I don’t think they’re sweating it too much.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 5: Stars at Predators, 3 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2): The Stars exploded in Game 4 scoring five times, chasing Pekka Rinne and winning the only game in the series that wasn’t decided by a single goal. After scoring on their first two shots of the game, Dallas kept the pressure on and quickly built up a 4-0 lead with three of them coming via the power play. “It hurt us, so discipline is definitely something that is on the plate,” said Predators head coach Peter Laviolette. “We’ve got to play a cleaner game.” (NBC, Live stream)

Game 6: Jets at Blues, 7 p.m. ET (Blues lead 3-2): If this series tells us anything, the Jets should have a grand old time seeing as how the home team has been unable to win in their own building through five games. Jaden Schwartz broke some hearts on Thursday night and put the Blues on the verge of advancing to Round 2. “We’ve been down before and I’m sure the guys will come back, regroup tomorrow, watch some film and get ready for Game 6,” said Jets forward Kevin Hayes. “We have to stay positive in this room.” (NBCSN, Live stream)

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

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

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

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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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Wilson’s brace helps Avalanche through; Andersen bounces back

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  • Auston Matthews and Kasperi Kapanen scored 2:12 apart in the third to push the Bruins to the brink
  • Avalanche trample Flames, sending Calgary crashing out of the playoffs

Maple Leafs 2, Bruins 1 (TOR leads 3-2)

A game where neither team gave the other much time through two periods ended in a bit of a flurry as Toronto, led by Auston Matthews, (controversially) found two goals in 2:12 in the third. It would prove to be enough, with the Bruins scoring with less than a minute left and their net empty. Toronto has a chance now to finally oust the Bruins on Sunday.

Avalanche 5, Flames 1 (COL wins 4-1)

Colorado fanned the Flames right out of the playoffs with an impressive, and surprisingly easy Game 5 win. Calgary didn’t provide much resistance facing elimination and are now the second top-seed team in the playoffs to be sent packing. Mike Smith could only do so much with the lack of scoring he received. And Calgary could only watch as Colorado’s top line of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog trampled all over them.

Three stars

1. Colin Wilson, Colorado Avalanche

Two goals, one assist and a second-period effort that put the Flames down 4-1. Wilson first two goals of the series helps the Avs put their foot on the throats of the Flames. Wilson also assisted on Mikko Rantanen’s first of the night, a goal that stood as the game-winner.

2. Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs 

Auston Matthews’ goal may be tainted by a controversial non-call on a goaltender interference challenge. There was no doubt about Kapanen’s goal, however, and it proved to be the deciding marker in a close game. Kapanen had a great game and nearly scored shorthanded earlier in the game on a breakaway. He’ll sleep soundly knowing his first of the playoffs was a crucial one. Kapanen added an assist on Matthews’ goal and had three shots on goal.

3. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

After allowing five goals on 30 shots in Game 4, Andersen surrendered just one in Game 5 to put the Boston Bruins on the brink of elimination.

Highlight of the night

Tic-tac-toe:

Controversy of the night

Factoids

  • Never before had both top seeds from their respective conferences been eliminated in the first round. (Frank Seravalli)
  • The Maple Leafs are 19-5 when leading a best-of-seven series 3-2. (NHL PR)

Thursday’s Games
Game 5:
Stars at Predators (Series tied 2-2), 3 p.m. ET, NBC (Live Stream)
Game 6: Jets at Blues (STL leads 3-2) 7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, (Live stream)
Game 5: Hurricanes at Capitals (Series tied 2-2), 8 p.m. ET, NBC (Live Stream)


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

Avalanche douse Flames as Calgary fanned from playoffs

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It’s taken just nine games for both No. 1 seeds from their respective conferences to be ousted from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Nine. And the team that tied an NHL record for wins in a regular season went out in four. The 107-point Calgary Flames resisted for an addition game as the eighth-place Colorado Avalanche dispatched them in five games after a 5-1 win on Friday.

In the NHL’s storied history, over 100 years of existence, never have the top seeds from each conference from the regular season been put out in the first round.

After the Columbus Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world earlier this week, the Avalanche sent similar tremors when they fanned the Flames, Colorado’s first series win in 11 years

It’s hard to imagine.

Maybe Colorado was burned out a bit after clinching the final playoff spot just a few days earlier. Maybe it was Smith’s solid outing after he was given the vote of confidence heading in as the starter despite his struggles down the stretch

Maybe it was all a facade.

Game 1 seemed more like what many thought this series would resemble as Mike Smith and the Flames shutout the Avs 4-0.

Colorado made a third-period comeback in Game 2 and then won the game in overtime. The momentum carried into Game 3, where Colorado scored six to take the series lead. Finding themselves down once again in the third, the Avs erased a 2-0 deficit to tie the game and then one once again, emphatically, in overtime.

Game 5 was just a continuation of Colorado playing better and finding a way.

The Avs built a 2-0 lead, allowed a goal with six seconds left in the first, and then took over in the second and third.

Colin Wilson scored a brace in the middle frame and Mikko Rantanen scored this fourth and fifth of the series just 57 seconds into the third to really put this series to bed.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for teams playing meaningful games down the stretch. The Avalanche did so every night until Game 82. An off-night could have spelled disaster, so there was that heightened sense of urgency and ability to play at a high level right out of the gate, even if Game 1 didn’t suggest that.

Calgary, better rested, took advantage in Game 1, but Colorado’s pace was just too much after that.

Smith, who had all sorts of question marks dragging in the tin cans behind him. But he put a lot of that to rest in Game 1, and then was solid the rest of the series. His problem was lack of run support.

Johnny Gaudreau? One assist.

Sean Monahan? One goal, one assist.

Elias Lindholm? One goal, one assist.

Matthew Tkachuk? Two goals, one assist

The Flames found just seven goals in the final four games. That won’t do it in the playoffs, even with Smith playing well. .

Calgary led the lead with a league-low 28.1 shots allowed per game in the regular season. They entered Friday’s game allowing a league-high 43.3, over 15 more per game (and eight more than the next most-peppered team in the playoffs this year.

And, most importantly, they couldn’t stop Mikko Rantanen (five goals, four assists) or Nathan MacKinnon (three goals, five assists.

Colorado’s top line came as advertised. In fact, they combined (along with Gabriel Landeskog) for 21 points in the series, more than all of the Flames’ 12 forward combine.

Calgary’s regular-season offense proved more false advertising.

“Calgary didn’t _____” will be a popular fill-in-the-blank question in southern Alberta for the days and weeks to come as try to figure out what went wrong in the postseason.

Aside from Tampa’s epic exit, Calgary’s is not far behind in terms of unlikelihood. If nothing else, both series show that all a team needs to do is get into the playoffs. From there, the sky’s the limit.


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

Maple Leafs turn it on late, take 3-2 series lead against Bruins

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Heading into Friday’s Game 5 between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was the latter that needed to make a few tweaks to their game after a 6-4 loss a game earlier that evened the best-of-seven series.

Stopping the Bruins from scoring six goals would be a good start, of course. Quelling their solid power play would also prove wise.

A 2-1 win where Boston’s only goal came with an empty net with 43 seconds left in the third? I’d say the tweaks worked.

More proof needed? How about a renewed penalty kill? The Bruins came into the game 5-for-11 (45.5 percent) but was held at bay in each of their three man-advantage opportunities in the game, one that was so tightly contested that a goal allowed could have changed the outcome entirely.

The first two periods of the game resembled hockey that’s played in overtime. It was hesitant, a byproduct of two teams knowing what was at stake. Nearly 80 percent of the teams that take Game 5 in a series that is tied 2-2 go on to progress to the next round. A tight game was expected, and it delivered.

Both teams seemed reluctant to take any risks, and it wasn’t until Auston Matthews broke the ice at 11:33 of the final frame that some urgency seemed to set in. Kasperi Kapanen took advantage of a Bruins team now in chase mode, giving the Leafs a 2-0 lead 2:12 later.

Matthews’ goal came with some controversy. Zach Hyman appeared to impede Tuukka Rask from getting across the net. He wasn’t in a position to make a save when Matthews one-timed the puck past him.

The NHL Situation Room said the play wasn’t conclusive in terms of overturning the call of a good goal on the ice.

“After reviewing all available replays and consulting with the Referees, the Situation Room confirmed the Referee’s call on the ice,” an email from the league said. “The decision was made in accordance to Rule 78.7 that states in part, ‘If a review is not conclusive and/or there is any doubt whatsoever as to whether the call on the ice was correct, the original call on the ice will be confirmed.’ “

Bruins fans aren’t going to like that one, and they certainly have an argument. Rask was clearly impeded on the play.

Frederik Andersen was solid in the game, stopping 28 shots in a bounce-back effort after allowing five on 30 in Game 4.

Toronto can now take the series at home on Sunday, which would exorcize their demons against the Bruins, who beat them in Game 7 of Round 1 last year (and in 2013).

Game 6 of this series goes on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC


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