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Under Pressure: Jim Benning

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This post is part of Canucks Day on PHT…

It was only an online survey, and barely 200 people responded. But the results did not flatter Vancouver general manager Jim Benning. Out of all 30 NHL teams, readers of The Hockey News had the least confidence in the front office of the Canucks.

It did not help that the survey’s findings were released just a few days after the Canucks had been fined for tampering. At the draft in Buffalo, Benning had spoken about Vancouver’s interest in Steven Stamkos and P.K. Subban, two players who were property of other NHL clubs. While the league accepted that Benning had “intended no harm with his comments,” it still cost the club $50,000, not to mention a good amount of embarrassment.

Of course, Benning’s biggest sin, if you ask his critics, has nothing to do with talking too much. No, his biggest sin is an unwillingness to accept that the Canucks are no longer a playoff team. An unwillingness, essentially, to tank.

Since Benning arrived in the summer of 2014, Vancouver has not gone through a tear-it-down rebuild like we’ve seen in places like Toronto and Buffalo. Instead, the Canucks have tried to remain competitive while getting younger at the same time.

And though they were far from competitive last season, finishing 28th overall — their worst season since the Mike Keenan era — Benning insisted that injuries were the biggest reason for all the losing.

“In my heart, I really believe if we’d had Brandon Sutter the whole year and Alex Edler didn’t get hurt, we’d be right there,” he told the Vancouver Sun in late February, at which point the Canucks were all but officially eliminated.

And so Benning went to work. His two biggest offseason moves were acquiring defenseman Erik Gudbranson in a trade with Florida and signing winger Loui Eriksson in free agency.

While Gudbranson is still young, just 24 years old, and Benning has said he expects the former third overall draft pick to be in Vancouver for the next decade, the fact the Canucks surrendered well-regarded 20-year-old forward in Jared McCann plus the 33rd overall pick in the 2016 draft was more evidence of the club’s reluctance to bottom out.

“I come from a scouting background, so to trade second-round picks away, it kills me,” Benning said. “But where we’re at right now, I think we owe it to our fans to try to field the most competitive team that we can right now.”

The key phrase there: “right now.”

Certainly, Eriksson was not signed for three or four years down the line. He just turned 31 and is expected to skate with the Sedin twins, who turn 36 in September and have two years left on their contracts. The decision to not trade a player like Jannik Hansen, who just turned 30, is another one that a rebuilding club might not make.

“We’re not moving Jannik,” Benning told The Province recently. “I thought he was excellent for us last year and with the way the game is going with speed and skill, he fits that description perfectly. And we have him under a good (cap) number the next couple of years, so we’re not looking to do anything.”

Whether you agree or disagree with the direction that Benning has chosen (and there’s something to be said for trying to maintain a culture of winning), there’s no denying he’ll be under considerable pressure next season. If the Canucks don’t improve — and they’ll need to improve rather dramatically to get back into the playoffs — it will be a lot harder to justify his “right now” moves.

At least with tanking, losing is part of the plan.

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

NHL Playoffs 2018: Conference Finals TV Schedule

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The conference finals are now set with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals meeting in the East and the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets facing off in the West. The round to determine who will play for the 2018 Stanley Cup will begin Friday.

Here’s the full Round 3 schedule:

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Washington Capitals (Lightning lead series 3-2)

Friday, May 11, 8pm: Capitals 4, Lightning 2
Sunday, May 13, 8pm: Capitals 6, Lightning 2
Tuesday, May 15, 8pm: Lightning 4, Capitals 2
Thursday, May 17, 8pm: Lightning 4, Capitals 2
Saturday, May 19, 7:15pm: Lightning 3, Capitals 2
Monday, May 21, 8pm: Lightning @ Capitals | NBCSN
*Wednesday, May 23, 8pm: Capitals @ Lightning | NBCSN

Vegas Golden Knights vs. Winnipeg Jets (Golden Knights lead series 3-1)

Saturday, May 12, 7pm: Jets 4, Golden Knights 2
Monday, May 14, 8pm: Golden Knights 3, Jets 1
Wednesday, May 16, 9pm: Golden Knights 4, Jets 2
Friday, May 18, 8pm: Golden Knights 3, Jets 2
Sunday, May 20, 3pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBC
*Tuesday, May 22, 9pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN
*Thursday, May 24, 8pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBCSN

MORE:
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Paquette sparks quick-start Lightning in Game 5

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It took the Tampa Bay Lightning all of 19 seconds to get themselves into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals.

Yes, the Lightning scored on their first shot on goal as Cedric Paquette took advantage of a neutral-zone giveaway and then some questionable defending by the Capitals in response (and a nifty play by Ryan Callahan).

Tampa has been plagued by slow starts in this series, so getting a goal within the first thirty seconds of the game couldn’t have been scripted much better.

Ondrej Palat scored later in the period to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes.

Both of Tampa’s goals also came 5-on-5, which hasn’t exactly been their strong suit in the Eastern final.

Neither team has won at home in this series, but Tampa took two big steps in the right direction in Game 5.

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

Capitals’ Burakovsky will be Game 5 scratch
Lightning survive barrage to even series with Capitals
• Baseball team to wear Washington Capitals-inspired jerseys (Photos)
Capitals confident in ability to continue road advantage vs. Lightning
Lightning power play, Capitals penalty kill will make or break series

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