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Bruins getting all of their top players back at just the right time

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One of the most incredible parts of the Boston Bruins’ return to the top of the Eastern Conference standings this season is the fact they have been able to do it while dealing with so many significant injuries.

The list of man-games lost is an impressive one.

Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci have both missed 18 games.

Brad Marchand — sometimes due to injury and sometimes due to suspension — has missed 14. Charlie McAvoy has missed 19.

Zdeno Chara has missed nine.

David Backes has missed 25.

Torey Krug has missed six.

• Trade deadline acquisition Rick Nash has missed the past eight games.

Brandon Carlo is now sidelined indefinitely after a nasty looking leg injury over the weekend. At times several of those players have been sidelined at the same time.

Through it all the Bruins enter Monday’s huge game in Tampa Bay (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) with a two-point lead over the Lightning (as well as still having a game in hand) for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and still have a small chance at potentially winning the Presidents’ Trophy.

Now they are starting to get healthy just in time for the playoffs.

The Bruins spent the past couple of weeks playing without Bergeron, Chara and McAvoy, their top-two defenseman and one of the league’s best two-way centers. With Bergeron returning a little more than a week ago, and after Chara returned to the lineup on Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers, coach Bruce Cassidy announced on Tuesday morning that McAvoy will be returning on Tuesday night against the Lightning.

[Related: Bruins, Lightning battle for top spot in Atlantic Division on NBCSN]

Let’s start with the return of the top-two defensemen: How big is it to have those two back in the lineup together? Not only are they the Bruins’ top-two leaders in ice-time this season, they have spent a significant amount of that time (nearly 800 minutes of 5-on-5 play) on the ice together.

During those 800 minutes the Bruins have controlled more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts and outscored their opponents by a 38-21 margin.

And it’s not necessarily the veteran (Chara) that has been driving that success.

When McAvoy is on the ice without Chara, the Bruins are still controlling 56 percent of the shot attempts and still outscoring their opponents by a 15-7 margin. In other words, McAvoy, in his first full season as an NHL blue-liner, has not only been a top-pairing player on one of two or three best teams in the league, he has been a difference-maker for that team.

But it’s more than just the two of them.

When the Bruins have all five of Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci, Chara, and McAvoy in the lineup (something they have only had in 25 games this season) they own a 17-5-3 record, which would be good enough for a 121-point pace over an 82-game season.

Three of those losses, including two of the regulation losses, came without Tuukka Rask in net.

It is a scary team when their top players are all in the lineup. And right now, all of them are healthy at just the right time. That has to be a terrifying thought for the rest of the Eastern Conference.

They may soon be getting even more help. Along with the return of McAvoy on Tuesday, Cassidy also announced that Nash started skating again back in Boston as he continues his recovery from what the team has called an upper-body injury. If he is able to return at any point in the playoffs that is another top-six winger being added to the mix.

Before Tuesday Nash had not skated since March 19.

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

The returns of Chara and McAvoy, as well as the word that Nash is back on the ice is all great news for a Bruins team that has not only overtaken a slumping Lightning team for the top spot in the Division and Conference, but has a chance to continue to build on that lead.

Even with all of that there are still some minor injuries to deal with at the moment.

Carlo remains sidelined indefinitely and it does not sound like his return is imminent. They will also be without Tommy Wingels on Thursday night while Sean Kuraly and Riley Nash are also sidelined. But as long as the Bruins have their big guys all in the lineup (which they now do) they are going to be absolute force to deal with.

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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.

Ovechkin mocks Hamilton, Hurricanes with chicken gesture

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Did Dougie Hamilton “bail out” on a would-be Alex Ovechkin check, thus letting Ovechkin retrieve the puck for a dagger 3-0 goal in Game 5? Was it a mental mistake by Hamilton, which would still be a gaffe, but not bring into questions of “toughness?”

Whatever the true answer might be, that moment reverberated through the Capitals – Hurricanes Round 1 series, and was referenced early in Game 6 on Monday (currently airing on NBCSN; Stream here). After Ovechkin missed a check on Hamilton, Ovechkin did a “chicken flapping its wings” motion at Hamilton and/or the Hurricanes bench.

You can watch the mocking gesture in the video above this post’s headline, and judge for yourself on that 3-0 goal from the Capitals’ eventual 6-0 win in Game 5 in this clip. Jeremy Roenick provided his take, too.

(Personally, I think Hamilton was confused, not frightened, but perhaps we’ll never truly know.)

Ovechkin’s not shy about trash talk, including in the playoffs – you may remember him jawing at Henrik Lundqvist in 2015 – and the Hurricanes must respond on the scoreboard. Alex Ovechkin let his play do some talking along with that taunting, as he scored a 2-1 goal for a Capitals lead moments after Petr Mrazek was bumped hard in an accidental collision by his own teammate, Justin Williams.

Tune into Game 6 on NBCSN and/or stream it here to see the taunting, heavy-hitting, and tense action.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Hurricanes, Predators attempt to force Game 7s

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Game 6: Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 3-2)
NBCSN
Call: Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Game 6: Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET (Stars lead 3-2)
CNBC
Call: Chris Cuthbert, Joe Micheletti, AJ Mleczko
Series preview
Stream here

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Holtby has been ultimate closer for Capitals

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With a win on Monday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live streamthe Washington Capitals will advance to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth year in a row.

It is a pretty impressive streak when you remember just how often they were a postseason punchline before finally winning the Stanley Cup last season. Especially since no other team in the league has an active streak of more than three years (if the Nashville Predators come back to beat the Dallas Stars, it will be their fourth consecutive year advancing to Round 2, but they still need to win two games in a row to make that happen).

It is not easy to get out of Round 1 that regularly.

One of the biggest reasons they have been able to do so pretty much every year has been the consistently great postseason play of starting goalie Braden Holtby.

He is also a big reason why you have to like their chances of winning just one more game against the Carolina Hurricanes in this series.

Especially since these are the games he tends to really excel in.

Monday’s Game 6 against the Hurricanes will be the 19th time in Holtby’s career he will play a game where the Capitals have a chance to eliminate an opponent.

In the previous 18 games, he has a .932 save percentage in potential knockout games (slightly higher than his career postseason mark of .929 — which is significantly higher than his career regular season mark of .918), and has won seven of hits past 10 including each of his past five.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That includes a perfect 4-for-4 mark in the playoffs a year ago on the Capitals’ run to the Cup when he only allowed one goal in a Game 6 series-clinching win on the road in Pittsburgh in Round 2, and then shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning in a decisive Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final (after also shutting them out in Game 6).

Of the three games he lost during that stretch, he didn’t allow more than two goals in any of them, and has allowed more than two goals in just five of the 18 games where he has had a chance to knock out an opponent out of the playoffs.

In other words: Even when the Capitals lose and fail to move on in the playoffs, it has rarely — if ever — been due to the play of their goalie.

For his career he has been one of the best postseason goalies in NHL history, and when he has a chance to finish the job in a series, he almost always plays well enough to do it.

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.

Zuccarello is perfect complement for Stars’ top line

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The Dallas Stars had a problem for much of the 2018-19 season, and it was always a very easy one to identify.

Even when the team was at its lowest point, their top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn was doing what it had always done in carrying the team’s offense.

When Seguin and Benn came under irrational fire from their own CEO in the middle of the season, they were far from the biggest issue on the team. In fact, they weren’t even an issue at all and just five seconds of objective research should have made that clear. When they were on the ice the Stars were carrying the play, dominating the opposition, and performing exactly as you would want your franchise players to perform. Maybe the individual numbers weren’t what we have come to expect from them, but they were consistently outplaying and outscoring their opponents.

The problem was that they didn’t have any other forwards that could do the same thing. Their forward depth was so thin that only one other forward outside of the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio topped topped the 30-point mark this season (Radek Faksa had exactly 30 points in 81 games). That is not anywhere near good enough. It wasn’t a “star” problem; it was a problem with players around the stars.

But because the top trio was so good, and because they received Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ben Bishop (and don’t forget about the play of backup Anton Khudobin, either) they were able to stay in playoff contention in a watered down Western Conference and continue playing their way toward the postseason. If they were going to do anything once they got there they were going to need somebody outside of their top line to provide some kind of a threat offensively.

This is where Mats Zuccarello comes in.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He has only played seven games with the team entering Game 6 of their Round 1 series against the Nashville Predators on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), but his impact has already been noticeable.

The Stars acquired Zuccarello from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline and in his first game with the team made an immediate impact with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win. It was exactly what the Stars needed for the stretch run. But because he was also injured in that game and missed several weeks they never really had an opportunity to see exactly what he could provide. They are seeing it in the playoffs where he has already tallied three goals (second only to Radulov) and has given them an additional threat offensively.

It’s even more impressive when you remember he is still finding his way with a new team and still probably isn’t all the way back to 100 percent.

In other words, he probably has room to get better.

When you look at his individual shot and scoring chance numbers he hasn’t created a ton of them, and so far is riding a short-term spike in shooting percentage to carry his postseason production. It would be fair to point to that as somewhat of a red flag for what it might mean in the future.

You have to keep in mind, though, that the injury not only took him off the ice, it also robbed him of an opportunity to develop chemistry with a new set of linemates. Getting thrown into what is still a new lineup, when you may not be totally healthy, and right in the middle of the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not an easy thing to do. There is still probably a bit of an adjustment period taking place here.

What is important for the Stars, though, is that he is another high-level player that has the ability to capitalize on the chances he does get, and that is an element the team had been lacking all season.

He is a threat with a proven track record of production.

Zuccarello has been a criminally underrated player for quite some time now and has always been a lock to finish with 50-60 points over a full season. That may not seem great or anything that instantly jumps off the page at you, but it is top-line production, and top-line players are not always easy to acquire.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the year Zuccarello became a full-time player in the NHL, his 0.72 point-per-game average puts him 67th out of more than 570 players that have appeared in at least 200 games during that stretch.

Outside of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov there is not another forward currently on the Stars’ roster that sits in the top-100 out of that group.

Jason Spezza is the only other one in the top-200.

You have to go all the way down to Faksa at No. 296 to find the next one.

There just wasn’t enough impact talent elsewhere on the roster to help support the Stars’ top players.

Zuccarello gives them one, and his presence, along with the emergence of Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz in this series, is a big reason they have been able to put themselves in a position to advance.

MORE: Hintz becoming important part of Stars’ lineup

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.