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NHL Power Rankings: The Penguins are better than they were a year ago

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There seems to be some concern around the Pittsburgh Penguins as the playoffs start to get closer. Their penalty kill has stunk for about a month now, they give up too many odd-man rushes and scoring chances, and sometimes because of that they give up more goals than you would like to see from a Stanley Cup contender.

All of that would seem to be concerning at this time of year. Then you look at the fact they are still 7-2-2 in their past 11 games and you start to remember, hey, these guys are pretty good and they gave up a lot of chances a year ago, too.

There is something else that needs to be kept in mind: They are still playing better right now than they were a year ago heading into the playoffs, where they ended up winning the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row.

The fact they actually won the Cup a year ago seems to overshadow the fact they didn’t exactly go into the playoffs last season like a dominant powerhouse. They lost eight of their final 15 games (including six of their final 10), finished the season 22nd overall on the penalty kill, and allowed the fourth most shots on goal per game.  They didn’t exactly play great in the first two rounds, either, getting through Columbus and Washington thanks largely to great goaltending carrying them.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

So let’s take a look at their recent performance this season where they are actually playing really well down the stretch, even if it can look a little sloppy at times.

Even with their recent slump on the PK they are still better than they were at the end of last season (17th this season vs. 21st this year) and are giving up the sixth fewest shots per game.

But let’s take a look at a more isolated stretch of games, specifically the past 11, and what they were doing at the same time a year ago.

Offensively they are averaging a full goal per game more, recording more shots, giving up fewer shots, and are one of the best possession teams in the league as opposed to being one of the worst.

The two drops are a slight increase in goals against and a worse penalty kill. It’s easy to blame the penalty kill slump on losing Ian Cole as part of the Derick Brassard trade, but that would also be kind of lazy. The Penguins played without Cole for 15 games earlier this season when he was on the team and never saw that sort of a drop in their play (while using mostly the same players).

The big change is in net where Matt Murray has been up and down at times when he has been healthy, while backups Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry have simply not played well. It is probably not a coincidence that the PK started to fall apart recently when Murray went down with an injury and missed nearly a month and the Penguins had to turn to a career minor leaguer and a pretty good prospect that probably is not quite ready for full-time NHL action.

If Murray is healthy and playing the way he was before his most recent injury (he was 8-0-1 with a .926 save percentage in nine starts before missing a month) they are going to be a force to deal with in the playoffs.

It should not be a total shock that they are potentially better team this season when you consider the fact they did not have Kris Letang — their No. 1 defenseman — at this time a year ago, and that they were able to add Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan to fill the third-and fourth-line center spots and fix the depth problems they entered this season with.

The question is whether or not all of this is going to be enough to get them another chance at the Stanley Cup.

A year ago it was pretty obvious going into the playoffs that the Penguins and Washington Capitals were probably going to be the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference.

That is not the case this season.

This season there are probably six teams that all have a legitimate shot to come out of the Eastern Conference, whether it be Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, the suddenly surging Blue Jackets and, yes, still the Capitals, too.

The East is absolutely loaded and significantly better than it was a season ago. The Penguins might be better. But so is their competition. Not by a little bit, either.

On to the rankings for this week…

The Elites

1. Boston Bruins — Patrice Bergeron and Torey Krug are back in the lineup. The scary thing is they were still winning without them. Just wait until they get Charlie McAvoy and Zdeno Chara back.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning — It almost feels like we’ve forgotten about them a little bit. They are 12-3-1 in their past 16, still have the most points in the NHL, two of the best offensive players in the league, and made two huge additions at the trade deadline.

3. Nashville Predators — They’ve dropped three in a row since their 10-game winning streak came to an end. Nothing to worry about. Still the favorites in the west and one of the best teams in the NHL.

4. Winnipeg Jets — Starting to peak at the right time? A potential second-round matchup between them and Nashville might be the best series of the playoffs. If it happens.

The rest of the contenders

5. Columbus Blue Jackets — For the second year in a row they won at least 10 games in a row. Even better than the results is the fact they are also playing at an extremely high level. Their reward for all of this will probably be another first-round matchup with Pittsburgh.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs — They really didn’t do anything to drop a spot this week, but there’s just so many good teams at the top right now that it almost just kind of happened by default. A scary good offense that has Auston Matthews back.

7. Washington Capitals — Feeling some pressure from the rest of the Metropolitan Division the Capitals have gone on a 7-1-0 run to strengthen their grip on the division.

8. San Jose Sharks — The best team right now that no one is talking about? Firm grasp on second place in the Pacific Division, 10-2-0 in their past 12 games, entering the week on a seven-game winning streak. And they still might get Joe Thornton back at some point.

9. Pittsburgh Penguins — It is all going to come down to goaltending.

10. Vegas Golden Knights — With wins in just six of their past 14 games they are still sliding a bit. That potential first-round matchup with Colorado seems dangerous for them.

The middle ground

11. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon has kind of overshadowed the fact that Mikko Rantanen is also one of the top scorers in the league this season. Of course, MacKinnon probably deserves a lot of credit for that but having two elite scorers on a line is never a bad thing.

12. Minnesota Wild — They are a pretty good team and should be capable of winning a round in the playoffs, but do they have the firepower to keep up with Winnipeg or the defense and goaltending to shut them down?

13. St. Louis Blues — These guys looked done one month ago, now here they are making a serious run at that eighth playoff spot in the West. Jake Allen is getting hot in net at the right time for them.

14. Anaheim Ducks — One of the great “what ifs” of this season will be what the Ducks would have been capable of with a reasonably healthy roster for most of the year.

15. Philadelphia Flyers — Sean Couturier has officially become a force down the middle. That defense with 30-goal, 70-point offense is one hell of a player.

16. New Jersey Devils — With nine points in his past six games Taylor Hall is still trying to drag this team to the playoffs.

17. Florida Panthers — The games in hand are still their biggest asset in the race for a playoff spot. Still have to win them.

18. Los Angeles Kings — They have not won or lost consecutive games in nearly a month. This perfectly illustrates what this team is at the moment: Mediocre and dull. Neither great, nor bad.

Better luck in the lottery

19.  Edmonton Oilers — It took them most of the season and until they were all but eliminated from the playoffs, but they finally started to play at least a little bit like the team a lot of people thought they could be this season.

20. New York Rangers — Jesper Fast has an eight-game point streak heading into Monday’s game. There is not much else going on here.

21. Carolina Hurricanes — Let’s just say it now: Nobody gets to pick them as their sleeper team next season.

22. Calgary Flames — To make matters worse, their first-round draft pick is going to the New York Islanders as a result of the Travis Hamonic trade.

23. Dallas Stars — How do you bring back Ken Hitchcock and Jim Nill after this? Too much money to spend on an average team that has tanked down the stretch.

24. Chicago Blackhawks — Just about the only positive from this season is that young players like Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz have had really nice seasons. Given the long-term salary cap situation they need young talent to come through.

25. Arizona Coyotes — Derek Stepan has been outstanding lately with 11 points in his past eight games. This young team is still showing a ton of improvement as the season goes on.

26. Ottawa Senators — Everywhere Guy Boucher has gone, whether it is in the NHL or in Europe, his system has worked wonderfully for one season. Then it stops working. Every. Single. Time.

The basement

27. Vancouver Canucks — Brock Boeser, a rookie, is going to miss 20 games and still has a very good chance to finish as the team’s leading scorer. The only reason we moved them up this week is because they have won two out of three and the four teams below them … well…

28. New York Islanders — They have two wins in their past 15 games. During those 15 games they have given up at least six goals four times. Twice they have given up seven goals. Woof.

29. Montreal Canadiens — Their only wins in the month of March have come against the New York Islanders (who have gone in the tank), the Dallas Stars (who have gone in the tank) and the Buffalo Sabres (who have never gotten out of the tank).

30. Buffalo Sabres — During their four-game losing streak entering Monday they have the following goal totals: 0, 1, 0, 1.

31. Detroit Red Wings — They did snap that 10-game losing streak with a shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Then they lost two more in a row. They have not won a game in regulation since February 24. In their past 18 games they have one regulation win, one overtime win, one shootout win. That is it. Two of those wins were against the Carolina and the rebuilding New York Rangers.

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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.

NHL players’ favorite Stanley Cup memories as fans

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Not every player has photos of themselves as young fans in team-appropriate jammies like John Tavares with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so it can be fun and surprising to hear about their memories. Sometimes you’d be surprised to learn more about a players’ roots, and rooting interests.

In the fun video above, a variety of NHL players share some of their favorite Stanley Cup memories. You’ll see some expected moments, such as Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson recalling Mark Messier and the 1994 New York Rangers lifting that curse. The video also reminds us of how dominant the Colorado Avalanche were, as evidenced by a reminiscent Ryan Reaves. And, shield your eyes, Sabres fans, as a foot is, again, in the crease.

There are some other interesting touches. One mildly sad aspect is that Canadian NHL’ers P.K. Subban and Tyler Seguin point to a Doug Gilmour wraparound goal … even though it wasn’t associated with a Stanley Cup win.

You also might be intrigued to learn who mentioned Chris Pronger battling Dustin Byfuglien during the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, which player pointed to Teemu Selanne’s tearful Stanley Cup win, and some other moments. You may also notice a much younger Gary Bettman during certain moments.

It’s good stuff overall, so enjoy.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins’ Chara cements towering legacy with Stanley Cup Final run

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

While Boston sports fans have been spoiled by a wave of championships across several leagues, you could make a similar argument for Boston Bruins fans when it comes to watching great defensemen.

Most obviously, they had Bobby Orr in all of his statue-worthy glory. People who were lucky enough to be alive to see his too-brief prime still often rank him as the greatest player – not just defenseman – to ever lace up the skates, and it’s not outrageous to have that debate.

Plenty of other names come to mind, with Ray Bourque enjoying a transcendent, high-scoring career in his own right.

It’s time to place Zdeno Chara‘s name in that select group.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For such a tall player, it makes sense to consider the highest heights of his career, of which there have been many:

  • Chara has served as captain of the Bruins since 2006-07, becoming one of just three European-born captains to win a Stanley Cup when Boston won it all in 2010-11.
  • This marks the Bruins’ third trip to a Stanley Cup Final during Chara’s time, as they also came within two wins (and suffered through 17 wild seconds) of another championship when they fell to Chicago in 2012-13.
  • Chara won the 2008-09 Norris Trophy, and was a finalist on five other occasions. Personally, I believe that Chara should have won at least one other Norris during his splendid career.
  • Overall, Chara’s played in 1,485 regular season games, and an impressive 175 playoff contests.
  • While Chara probably would’ve won another Norris or two if he was a more prolific scorer, he’s a guy who’s been able to contribute offensively, too, collecting 10 seasons of 10+ goals, including 19 in 2008-09.

The numbers can get pretty mind-boggling with Chara, yet the story becomes even bigger (almost larger than life?) when you zoom out.

Sustained greatness

As tough as it’s always been to miss a 6-foot-9 fitness freak, there have been moments in his career where his brilliance was overlooked, or at least misjudged. Infamously, the New York Islanders traded away Chara before they really knew what they had, but the Ottawa Senators also let him walk in free agency, possibly choosing Wade Redden over Chara.

Betting against Chara was clearly a bad idea, but then again, it’s easy to forget just how much of an anomaly he truly is.

Alongside Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton, Chara’s managed astounding longevity, as he remains a key part of the Bruins even at age 42.

Sure, Chara isn’t playing almost half of every Bruins playoff game like he did during his gaudy peak, but he’s still important. It’s almost unthinkable that Chara is basically breaking even at five-on-five (via Natural Stat Trick), especially since he’s still called upon in tough situations, as he saw plenty of John Tavares and Mitch Marner during the Maple Leafs series, for example.

Tall tales

Chara isn’t just an impossibly huge defenseman who can still, somehow, keep up enough with young skaters that he remains a useful player for Boston to this day. He’s also someone who probably set expectations too high for plenty of players who’d come after him.

Would players like Tyler Myers, Rasmus Ristolainen, or even Colton Parayko have gotten the same looks in today’s NHL if Chara didn’t show teams that a huge defensemen could find ways to keep up, whether that meant leveraging an outrageous reach or the natural intimidation factor that comes with such size? In breaking the mold, Chara also set a high bar: just about any skyscraper-type prospect could be compared to Chara, especially since “The Big Z” is considered a late bloomer.

While others show that bigger guys can still play (Parayko, Dustin Byfuglien, and so on), there’s really only one Zdeno Chara.

When you think about it, in a less media-saturated age, Chara would probably inspire Paul Bunyan-like stories.

After all, this isn’t just a large dude, it’s also the player whose 108.8 mph slapshot may not be matched for years. He’s scaled mountains. Chara seems to project the typical “Aw, shucks” hockey attitude, yet it’s clear that his ambition separates himself from the rest, and elevates him to a special place among Bruins legends.

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While Chara can be a punishing presence, and maybe blurs the line from time to time, he doesn’t have the mean streak of another elite, gigantic defenseman like Chris Pronger. “Gentle giant” might be too much, but Chara rarely resembles the bully he easily could be. To an extent, his towering presence does the bullying for him.

***

The Bruins have enjoyed a strong run of goalies as Tim Thomas passed the torch to Tuukka Rask, but who knows how successful those goalies would have been without the combination of Chara and Patrice Bergeron?

Adding young players like Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak breathed new life into this Bruins’ core, but remarkably enough, Chara remains a huge part of that foundation, and not just literally.

This run cements a thought that probably already should have been present: Chara belongs on the short list of Bruins legends. Winning another Stanley Cup would only make it tougher to deny — and it would also tie Chara with a certain No. 4.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: X-factors for Bruins, Blues

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

With all of this time off until Round 4 begins, PHT’s covering all the skirmishes of Bruins – Blues.

Of course, the danger in drilling deep into the numbers and potential matchups is that you might obsess over “on paper” and forget certain human factors that might swing things as much as a hot power play or a shutdown defensive performance.

Let’s consider some of the X-Factors of this series, and no, mutant superheroes are not involved … although Patrice Bergeron might have Wolverine’s healing powers.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The inevitable rest vs. rust question

Most of the time, I’d roll my eyes and make other dismissive gestures about rest vs. rust.

In many cases, rust is merely used as an easy way to explain a defeat that has more complex, existential explanations. After all, it’s easier to cope with thinking “Ah, if only we were on the top of our game” rather than considering the possibility that the other team just mopped the floor with your team.

The Bruins’ 11-day rest does kind of push the envelope, though.

Chiefly, will Tuukka Rask cool off after not tracking pucks in a playoff situation for almost two weeks? He was absolutely on fire, and all the scrimmages in the world can only do so much to prepare you for a Blues team that’s looked like a buzzsaw at times during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

All that tape

Maybe rest vs. rust should morph into three r’s, as you can add another factor: research.

While the Bruins didn’t know if they’d face the Blues or Sharks until Tuesday, May 21, Bruce Cassidy and his crew have had all that extra time to scout for weaknesses and tendencies regarding their opponents. If their video staff is really on point, you’d think that Boston may enjoy some subtle schematic advantage from getting extra opportunities to break down tape.

Interestingly, while rust might be a challenge for Bruins goalie Rask, that additional research could present a hurdle for rookie Blues netminder Jordan Binnington.

Rookies face challenges in adapting to the NHL, yet the reverse is worth noting: opponents haven’t had as many reps to expose weaknesses. That’s especially true in the exhausting grind of the postseason. If Binnington has some flaws to his game, the Bruins have had the rare luxury of gaining more opportunities to find those issues. For all we know, a few quirks could equal a tide-turning goal or two; maybe the Bruins can score on a wraparound where Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz barely didn’t in Game 7 of Round 2?

Health

All things considered, the Bruins and Blues seem as healthy as anyone can reasonably expect after three rugged rounds of playoff hockey.

Still, the best reasonable expectation for playing at this level into June is that you’re basically wearing so many ice packs it looks like you’re in a full suit of armor.

Frankly, teams aren’t particularly eager to divulge injury information, so we can only speculate about how healthy Zdeno Chara really will be if he can play in Game 1, and so on. So, yes, it’s interesting to see a sparse list of injuries beyond, say, Vince Dunn, but we really don’t know who’s playing at a level far below full-strength.

And, yes, 11 days provides a lot of time to heal — relatively speaking. Plenty of injuries suffered this time of year require longer than that, however, if they don’t demand surgery altogether. For two physical teams, the behind the scenes work of training staffs could be pivotal, even if they do everything they can to keep the rest of us oblivious about such ups and downs.

Bruins’ power play

Click here for a full breakdown of special teams, but it needed to be said: Boston’s power play is so powerful, it could swing the entire series.

Shenanigans

One thing that could bleed into the special teams discussion is if/when the teams get under each others’ skin.

Will Brad Marchand bait the Blues into taking foolish penalties, or might he shoot himself in the foot in trying to do just that? Does David Backes have some zingers regarding the team he once captained?

It seems like the Blues’ power play has gotten back on track, with at least one power-play goal in three straight games, and four during that span. So while Boston’s man advantage is the most dangerous, St. Louis could also make the Bruins pay if Marchand’s antics become a double-edged sword.

***

Ultimately, the 2019 Stanley Cup Final will come down to which players deliver, and if the coaches can put those players in the right situations to succeed. Rask and Binnington both have the capability to turn the series on its head with great play, too.

Don’t be surprised if the above X-factors make an impact, too, though. I mean, what’s really even the point if there are no shenanigans?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better goaltending?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Heading into the Stanley Cup Final, it’s pretty clear that the goaltenders on both sides are the front runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Both Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington have been terrific in the postseason, so don’t be surprised if goals are hard to come by for the Bruins and Blues.

But as good as both goalies have been, one of the two has to have an advantage. So let’s take a deeper look.

Boston Bruins: 

It’s nice to see Rask have so much success in the playoffs because the fans in Boston haven’t been easy on him this season or throughout his career. Yes, following Tim Thomas was never going to be easy, but Rask hasn’t been as bad as a lot of Bruins fans make him out to be. Whenever the Bruins have needed him most, he usually comes through. Now, he hasn’t delivered a Stanley Cup title but that’s not all on the goalie. And during this year’s playoffs, he’s been amazing.

In Game 6 against Toronto, he was outstanding. His team was facing elimination on the road and he managed to turn in such a strong performance to shut the Leafs down. That really set the tone for their Game 7 victory on home ice. After they went down 2-1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round, Rask became virtually unbeatable. He clearly got into the Blue Jackets shooters’ heads and the Columbus power play which was so good in the first round against Tampa, went ice cold because they couldn’t figure out how to beat Rask.

Since Game 5 of the first-round series against the Leafs, Rask has held the opposition to two goals or fewer in 11 of 13 games. That’s incredible. So if Boston scores two or three goals, they pretty much win 85 percent of the time.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The 32-year-old has a 12-5 record with a 1.84 goals-against-average and a .942 save percentage during the playoffs. He won’t be easy to beat for the Blues.

And something else we have to consider is goaltending depth. If something were to happen to Rask, the Bruins can turn to Jaroslav Halak, who had a terrific season and who’s gone on a long playoff run of his own. A one-two punch of Rask and Halak probably can’t be beat.

St. Louis Blues:

It’s amazing to think that Binnington spent a portion of last season with the Bruins’ farm team in Providence. It’s also incredible to think that he wasn’t even in the NHL at the start of this season. But Binnington is one of the major reasons why the Blues were able to go from last place on Jan. 2 to the Stanley Cup Final almost five months later.

The Blues have had terrific teams before, but goaltending has always been an issue for them. Roman Turek, Chris Osgood, Jake Allen and many others have all failed in an attempt to get the Blues their first championship. Binnington is a different story. Whether they win this series or not, general manager Doug Armstrong can confidently say that he’s finally found a goaltender that’s capable of carrying his team on long playoff runs. Yes, it’s a really small sample size, but it’s tough to imagine Binnington completely falling on his face in this series or even next season.

After the controversial ending to Game 3 of the Western Conference Final against San Jose, Binnington held the Sharks to two goals over the final three games of the series. That’s impressive against any team but even more so against a team with that kind of firepower.

The 25-year-old has 12-7-0 record with a 2.36 goals-against-average and a .914 save percentage this postseason. The Bruins may just be the biggest challenge he’s faced, but he’s already knocked out a great Jets team, a hungry Stars team and a talented Sharks team.

Again, for the purpose of this article, we have to check out the depth at the Blues’ disposal. Jake Allen has been a starter in the NHL, but he always seems to fall apart at the wrong time. In my mind, it’s impossible to give Allen the advantage over Halak.

Advantage: Boston Bruins

If both starting goalies were unavailable for this series, you’d have to give the edge to Boston. But if we put that aside, I still think Rask has to have a slight edge on Binnington. He’s been more dominant and he has the advantage of having Stanley Cup Final experience. There isn’t a big gap between the two players right now, but it’s impossible to overlook what Rask has done.

What do you think?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.