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Jaden Schwartz driving Blues’ early season success

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When the 2017-18 season began the St. Louis Blues looked like a team that was going to be in some trouble for no other reason than a significant chunk of their lineup was hammered by injuries. They lost Robby Fabbri for the season before it even began, while players like Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, Jay Bouwmeester have all missed significant time. Being without that many key players can be a significant blow to a team’s depth and could quickly put a team in an early season hole.

Could being the key word.

That has not been the case for the Blues, however, is they enter the weekend with a 10-3-1 record that is the second-best mark in the league. They are a top-10 team in goals scored and goals against, they have been a strong 5-on-5 team and other than some goaltending that might see a little bit of a regression in the coming weeks and months there is not much to indicate that this start is unsustainable. They have simply been a really, really, really good hockey team even without some key players.

Working in their favor is the fact they still have one of the top-10 players in the league in Vladimir Tarasenko. With a point-per-game average through the first month of the season he is doing what should be expected.

The player that is driving the bus for the Blues to this point, however, has been forward Jaden Schwartz.

As of Friday Schwartz was not only the leading scorer on the Blues with eight goals and 17 points, he is also one of the top scorers in the league. He has recorded at least point in 11 of his first 14 games and has been the most consistent player in the lineup … at both ends of the ice.

Part of Schwartz’s success this season is due to a pretty large jump in his shooting percentage (currently at 25 percent), but even if that regresses a bit the way he is playing is still going to produce some pretty strong results that are, at worst, right in line with what he has done throughout his career.

Playing on a team that has Tarasenko it can be easy for a player like Schwartz to get kind of lost in the shuffle a little bit and perhaps not get the respect he deserves. When you look at Schwartz’s career he has been an outstanding top-line player for several years now, averaging between 50 and 60 points per 82 games while consistently posting possession numbers better than 53 percent.

It would be easy to call Schwartz underrated, but his Blues teammates really don’t want to hear that word connected to him.

Here is Tarasenko talking about it, via Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Maybe for you it doesn’t seem like this,” said Tarasenko, sticking up for his teammate. “‘Schwartzy’ has always been a great player. We all know this, and whenever guys say something about him, that’s their own opinion. Let them talk.

 “We all know what kind of player Jaden is. For us, he’s unbelievable. He has an unbelievable personality. I don’t think he’s ever been underrated. They can talk whatever they want. We all know who ‘Schwartzy’ is.”
This is all great timing for the Blues.
First, Schwartz is at a point in his career where he should be at his statistical peak as a point producer. Historically forwards tend to produce their best numbers between the ages of 23 and 26 (Schwartz is 25 this season). The Blues were able to get him locked up to a long-term contract right at the beginning of that phase, and it is going to make him what should be a bargain under the salary cap.
It’s also important for the Blues if he can maintain this sort of a pace because it would give them another elite scoring option to complement Tarasenko.  It’s not just about Schwartz helping to pick up the slack to help make up for the early injuries.
Over the past two seasons the Blues have not had another forward that has finished within 20 points of Tarasenko. There is a pretty significant gap between him and the rest of the team, and while the Blues have always had a pretty deep, solid roster, having another elite scorer can be the difference between a deep postseason run and just another playoff team that gets bounced in the first-or second-round.
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.

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