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Offseason changes to Capitals, Penguins could make the East wide open

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A handful of Pittsburgh Penguins players whose names are on the Stanley Cup, some of them twice or even three times, are gone.

The same goes for core players from the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals.

The goliaths of the East haven’t fallen apart, but maybe they’ve lost just enough to make the conference winnable for just about anyone. Pittsburgh no longer has forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen, defensemen Trevor Daley or goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Washington couldn’t afford to keep Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk.

The Penguins and Capitals are still favored to finish 1-2 in the brutal Metropolitan Division, but improvements made by the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and a return to health for members of the Tampa Bay Lightning have cracked the Eastern Conference wide open.

“The competition level is as high as ever,” Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “There’s a lot of teams that have a chance to win the Cup. Making the playoffs, it’s very tough nowadays. I think we’re not the only team when we always say, `We want to make the playoffs and then we’ll see what happens’ because you just want to make the playoffs and then anything can happen. There’s no real favorites.”

Pittsburgh is still the betting favorite, and if Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co. make it happen they’d become the first NHL team with three consecutive titles since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty. Then again, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is healthy after a knee injury ended his 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes got a top goaltender in Scott Darling and the Toronto Maple Leafs are only expected to get better now that Auston Matthews and the kids have some playoff experience.

“Toronto obviously made a big step forward, Columbus is a team that has tremendous upside, made a big move this summer, and then you look at a team like Carolina who’s going to be knocking on the door in the next few years,” said Shattenkirk, who signed with the revamped Rangers.

In a league with considerable playoff turnover from year to year, there’s no rest for the eight teams that made it last year: the Penguins, Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Bruins and Maple Leafs. But Fleury, now the starter for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, believes his old team has a chance to three-peat, and Alex Ovechkin said the Capitals will be good.

“Our goal is still to go out there and be the best team in the regular season and be the best team in the postseason,” Washington winger T.J. Oshie said. “It’s not a very far-fetched goal.”

Some things to watch in the Eastern Conference this season:

YOUTH IS SERVED

Matthews is only 20, but now there’s a whole new crop of potential teenage stars, including the New Jersey Devils’ No. 1 pick , Nico Hischier, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ No. 2 pick, Nolan Patrick. The Swiss-born Hischier turned heads with some big-time plays in the preseason and in the process ratcheted up expectations.

PRICE IS RIGHT

The Canadiens lost defenseman Andrei Markov and winger Alexander Radulov and traded their top defensive prospect for forward Jonathan Drouin. Montreal probably should make the playoffs despite all the changes because of goaltender Carey Price, who won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2014-15 and missed most of the 2015-16 season with a knee injury.

“He is the best goalie in the NHL,” Drouin said. “He’s proved it for a lot of years now.”

Price has some competition in Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington’s Braden Holtby, the past two Vezina winners. The play of those three and Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray will likely determine the order of finish in the East.

C’MON, CROSBY

After leading the league with 44 goals in the regular season and the playoffs with 27 assists, there’s no doubting Crosby has another MVP season in him. Teammates and opponents always expect him to sharpen another skill, though he could just keep scoring goals better than anyone else.

“He was always, I think, a passer a little more – always looking for other guys,” Fleury said. “But he doesn’t have a crazy hard shot. It’s just how quick the release is. He’s skating, he’s looking around and the shot comes (from) any angle. His backhand is good too, probably as hard as anybody.”

BRIGHT LIGHTS ON BIG CITY

The Rangers added Shattenkirk, re-signed Brendan Smith and traded Derek Stepan to retool while goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is still in his prime. Across town, the Islanders are hoping to re-sign captain John Tavares before he can become a free agent next summer New York is where it’s at, and there’s no shortage of drama.

SUNRISE REDUX

Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has gone to great lengths to undo some of the moves made in the summer of 2016 when he was shifted out of a position of power. Defenseman Jason Demers and forward Reilly Smith are gone, Bob Boughner is the new coach and big things are expected in South Florida.

“We’ve got to go in one direction and never look back,” winger Jonathan Huberdeau said. “That’s what we want to do, and Dale Tallon knows that. We want to build something with Bob and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”

 

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