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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.”

 

Islanders-Panthers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Islanders-Panthers stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Friday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Islanders and Panthers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Islanders-Panthers Game 4 stream at 12 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Panthers scored two goals in the third period and fought off a late push by the Islanders to avoid elimination and force a Game 4. Sergei Bobrovsky stepped up in net and made 20 saves just one day after allowing four goals on 34 shots in a 4-2 loss in Game 2.

Only seven times out of 57 has a team forced Game 5 after trailing 2-0 in a best-of-five. The only team of those seven to complete the comeback was the Islanders, who defeated the Capitals in a 1985 series.

The Panthers did have three separate three-plus game winning streaks this season (3, 3, 6). Florida has not won a playoff series since 1996 – the longest active drought in the NHL.

WHAT: New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Friday, August 7, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Mike Tirico, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Islanders-Panthers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers (NYI leads series 2-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Islanders 2, Panthers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Islanders 4, Panthers 2 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Panthers 3, Islanders 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Penguins turn to Tristan Jarry in net for critical Game 4 vs. Canadiens

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Mike Sullivan wouldn’t say why, but he has decided to start Tristan Jarry in goal as the Penguins face elimination in Game 4 Friday vs. Montreal (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream)

The Penguins head coach, while stressing he has “complete trust and confidence in both of our guys,” has made the change with Pittsburgh down 2-1 in their best-of-five series. The Canadiens scored three times in the final 30 minutes of the game to move a win away from advancing.

Jarry’s last start came March 8, a 6-2 win over the Hurricanes. This will be his NHL postseason debut.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

There were plenty of arguments that Jarry should have been the No. 1 from the beginning, but Sullivan went with experience. Murray, who backstopped the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017, has struggled in the series. He’s posted an .899 even strength save percentage, putting him 16th among goalies with at least 60 minutes played at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick.

It’s now Jarry’s turn to try and help the Penguins force a Game 5 on Saturday.

“He’s much more mature in his daily approach every day,” Sullivan said. “His work habits in practice have been terrific all year and consistent. I think those types of habits transfer to a game environment. Tristan deserves a lot of credit for how hard he’s worked on his game and where he’s at today. He’s a real good goalie.”

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (MTL leads 2-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Penguins 3, Canadiens 1 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Canadiens 4, Penguins 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*

*if necessary

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

————

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.

NHL Return to Play: Round-robin standings, scenarios

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While the 16 teams in the qualifying round play for the right to move on, the No. 1 seeds in the Eastern Conference and Western Conference are still up for grabs in the round-robin format of the NHL’s return to play.

The round-robin schedule resumes on Saturday with a pair of games (Lightning vs. Flyers and Golden Knights vs. Avalanche) and here we take a look at the impact those games can have on the standings.

Below is a look at the current round-robin standings and everything at stake on Saturday.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Current standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

Tampa Bay Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Philadelphia Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Boston Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3
:
Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5:
Lightning 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6:
Flyers 3, Capitals 1 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8:
Flyers vs. Lightning, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9:
Bruins vs. Capitals, TBD

• Winner of TB/PHI will be #1 seed; the loser will be #2
• Winner of BOS/WSH will be #3 seed; the loser will be #4

• Carolina will face either Boston or Washington in First Round.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

Colorado Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Vegas Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Dallas Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, TBD

• Winner of COL/VGK will be #1 seed; the loser will be #2
• Winner of STL/DAL will be #3 seed; the loser will be #4

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule


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.

The Wraparound: Six NHL teams face elimination on Friday

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2020 NHL Return to Play. We’ll break down the NHL playoff games today with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

• The NHL Bubble Wrap has your nightly roundup of all the postseason action.

• Sheldon Keefe was not pleased with the way the Maple Leafs played Thursday night.

• The Jets joined the Rangers in heading home from their bubble after losing to Calgary in Game 4.

There are six games on the NHL slate Friday, and all of them could end with handshakes … or fist/elbow bumps in this age of coronavirus. Beginning at 12 p.m. ET with Islanders-Panthers and ending at 10:45 p.m. ET with Canucks-Wild, the First Round picture could become much clearer if some of these series conclude.

According to the NHL, only one day in league history has featured more than six elimination games. On April 13, 1985, the Rangers, Blues, Red Wings, and Kings all saw their seasons end, while the Sabres, Islanders, and Flames kept their playoff hopes alive in the best-of-five format. (The Islanders won the first of three straight to complete a comeback from 0-2 down in the series against Washington.)

One year later, the Nordiques, Bruins, Islanders, Blackhawks, Canucks, and Jets were part of a record-setting day. On April 12, 1986 those six teams were eliminated, the highest number of series to end in a single day in NHL history.

Today, two series that would have a quick turnaround for a Game 5 are Canadiens-Penguins and Blackhawks-Oilers, who would finish out their matchups on Saturday should the Penguins and Oilers win. The other four series would finish up Sunday if the Panthers, Predators, Maple Leafs, and Wild win.

NHL GAMES TODAY

Game 4: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (NYI lead 2-1): The Panthers scored two goals in the third period and fought off a late push by the Islanders to avoid elimination and force a Game 4. After receiving just four power plays through the first two games of the series, the Panthers earned five in Game 3. Florida capitalized on their opportunities by converting twice with the man- advantage (2/5). The Panthers were successful on the PK as well, killing off all three of the Islanders power plays. Florida has not won a playoff series since 1996 – the longest active drought in the NHL.

Game 4: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream – (ARZ leads 2-1): Will we see Pekka Rinne with the Predators’ season on the line? Perhaps. “It’s going to be tough decision,” said John Hynes. “The good part is you can’t go wrong with either guy. Both of them give us a chance to win. … It’s not a decision you take lightly.” Darcy Kuemper, meanwhile, has been solid in net for Arizona, posting a .923 even strength save percentage through three games.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Game 4: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (MTL leads 2-1): Jeff Petry scored from a sharp angle by banking it off Matt Murray’s helmet early in the third period, which proved to be the game-winner once again in this series for the Habs. The Penguins has now lost eight of their last nine playoff games dating back to the 2018 Second Round.

Game 4: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 6:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (CHI leads 2-1): Trailing 3-2 with under six minutes to go in regulation, the Blackhawks tied the game on rookie Matthew Highmore’s goal and then captain Jonathan Toews scored his second goal of the game with 1:16 remaining in the third period which gave Chicago the comeback win. Mikko Koskinen got the nod in Game 3 for the second straight outing, letting in four goals on 25 shots. Game 2 was Koskinen’s first career postseason start after his relief effort of Mike Smith in Game 1 was Koskinen’s playoff debut. Dave Tippett has not announced who will start Game 4.

Game 4: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream – (CBJ leads 2-1): Pierre-Luc Dubois completed Columbus’ comeback with an overtime goal to finish off his hat trick. The win pushed the Blue Jackets to the verge of a second straight postseason with a series victory. Prior to the 2019 playoffs, the franchise had not won a series.

Game 4: Canucks vs. Wild, 10:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (VAN leads 2-1): Vancouver could end its playoff series win drought with one more victory over Minnesota. Having not closed out a series since 2011, the Canucks shutout the Wild 3-0 on Thursday to inch closer to the First Round.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

SATURDAY‘S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Round-robin: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, TBD – NBCSN
Round-robin: Flyers vs. Lightning, TBD – NBCSN
Game 5: Canadiens vs. Penguins, TBD* – NBCSN
Game 5: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, TBD* – NBCSN
*if necessary

Round-robin standings (ties broken by regular-season points percentage)

EAST
Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

WEST
Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

PHT’s 2020 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Eastern Conference top seed round-robin preview
Penguins vs. Canadiens
Islanders vs. Panthers
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

Western Conference top seed round-robin preview
Oilers vs. Blackhawks
Predators vs. Coyotes
Wild vs. Canucks