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Penguins vs Flyers: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The last time these two teams met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs it was 10 days of insanity as everybody involved with the series — from the players, to the coaches, to the fans, to the media — completely lost their minds.

Lost. Their. Minds.

Neither goalie could stop the puck. Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov opened the series talking about his fear of bears in the woods. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was driven to a sports psychologist a year later because of playoff series like this one. Elsewhere, everybody on the ice forgot how to play defense. There were fights. There were suspensions. The Flyers got themselves banned from getting ribs from a bar-b-que place in West Virginia (yes, this in-state rivalry crosses state lines).

Stanley Cup Playoffs streaming, schedule and more

When it was all said and done it even produced one of the most scorching hot takes in recent hockey media memory in a Tweet that still lives on and will never die.

We did not even get into the Jaromir Jagr playing for Philadelphia aspect of it, or the fact a missed offside call helped change the outcome of a game!

Obviously, it was quite a series, and it is sure to be referenced more than once over the next couple of weeks as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers meet in the first-round of the Metropolitan Division playoffs.

Only eight total players (three from the Penguins, five from the Flyers) and none of the coaches remain from that series, and most of the people responsible for turning it into a gong show have moved on. So it is probably not going to be as hectic this time around. I only say probably because you never really know what these two teams are capable of. The Penguins have been prone to getting their doors blown off on any given night this season, while the Flyers … well … the Flyers are capable of winning 10 in a row or losing 10 in a row at any given time.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Who knows which team on which side will show up when the puck drops.

While the potential for violence isn’t what it was in 2012, the potential for boatloads of goals is certainly on the table.

Six of the NHL’s top-27 point producers play for these two teams, while their goalies finished 22nd and 23rd in the league in save percentages, combining for only a .904 mark.

The two teams met four times during the regular season with the Penguins winning all four — two of them in overtime — and scoring five goals in each game.

What does that mean now? Nothing.

Here is what does matter.

Schedule

Forwards

Pittsburgh: This has always been the Penguins’ strength and they might be even better than they were the past two years, assuming Derick Brassard is healthy and ready to go. Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Sidney Crosby were all among the league’s top-10 scorers this season (first time since 2003-04 a team had three top-1o players) and they can still go four lines deep when they are healthy. Patric Hornqvist, one of the best net-front players in the league, is playing some of the best hockey of his career heading into the playoffs.

Philadelphia: Like the Penguins the Flyers boast three of the NHL’s top scorers in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier, and also like the Penguins, they have one of the league’s best net-front players in Wayne Simmonds. Giroux and Voracek both had massive bounce-back seasons after down years in 2016-17, with each of them setting new career highs all over the board. Giroux topped the 100-point mark for the first time in his career, finished second in the league in total points, and led the league in assists. He should be an MVP finalist.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. Simply because they seem to have more depth. The Flyers’ top-line can match up with the Penguins’ top-line (or any top line in the league for that matter), but as noted in the pre-playoff Power Rankings the Flyers really tend to struggle when the Giroux and Couturier duo is not on the ice. The Penguins’ have won the past two years because Crosby can cancel out the other team’s top line allowing the Malkin and Kessel lines to do damage. Can the Flyers match up with that?

Defense

Pittsburgh: The good news for the Penguins is they won the Stanley Cup a year ago without Kris Letang. He is back in the lineup this year. The bad news is he really has not been himself and has been one of the most volatile players in the league, being equal parts brilliant and disastrous on a game-to-game — and sometimes even shift-to-shift — basis. From an analytics standpoint the Penguins did a lot of things well defensively during 5-on-5 play and were one of the best teams in the league when it comes to suppressing shots on goal and shot attempts at 5-on-5 play (top-10 in both). But they make a lot of glaring mistakes at times that just look bad. That, combined with some shoddy PK play and goaltending results in them entering  playoffs having given up more than three goals per game, the worst mark of any team in the playoffs.

Philadelphia: Here is a fun fact about Flyers 20-year-old defenseman Ivan Provorov — no defender in the NHL this season scored more goals than he did. With him, Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, and Robert Haag they have the long-term foundation of their blue line in place, and it looks like a really bright future. Like the Penguins they have strong shot-metrics during 5-on-5 play but are only a middle of the pack team in terms of goals against.

Advantage: Philadelphia. Neither of these teams are really great defensively and both have big question marks that could be exploited (whoever wins the Chad Ruhwedel/Matt Hunwick lineup spot in Pittsburgh; Philadelphia still plays Andrew MacDonald 20 minutes per night), but I think the Flyers, as a group, get a slight edge because they have succeeded in not being quite as bad as the Penguins have been at times.

Goaltending

Pittsburgh: As great as their offense was the Penguins probably would not have been able to get out of the first-round of the playoffs a year ago without great goaltending. Or the second round. They have not received that same level of goaltending this season and that has to be a concern. Matt Murray has shown flashes of being that player at times, but he’s also had stretches where his play has struggled.

Philadelphia: Stop me if you have heard this one before, but the Flyers have a question mark in net. Brian Elliott seems to alternate good years and bad years (the Flyers got him on one of the down years), Michal Neuvirth has been injured off and on, and Petr Mrazek has been a disaster since coming over in a trade from Detroit.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. As mentioned above the Penguins and Flyers were both in the bottom-10 in the league in save percentage this season and had virtually identical numbers. But Pittsburgh’s potential upside at the position seems to be higher given that Murray has a pretty recent track record of excelling in the playoffs.

Special teams

Pittsburgh: The Penguins’ power play is lethal to opponents and enters the playoffs as the best unit in the NHL. You simply can not take penalties against this team. On the other side the Penguins penalty kill has, very recently, been lethal to them. They simply can not take penalties.

Philadelphia: Given the talent they have the Flyers’ power play seems like it should be better than it was during the regular season, only finishing 15th in the NHL. But that’s not the concern. The concern is that their penalty kill was 29th in the league at only 75 percent.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. Both teams have been bad on the penalty kill this season, and the Flyers have managed to actually be worse than the Penguins. Given how dominant the Penguins’ power play is that has to be a concern.

X-Factors

Pittsburgh: Bryan Rust is probably the most underrated player on this team. He can play anywhere in the lineup and on any line, he brings that speed element that the Penguins love, and he is one of those players that seems to have a knack for scoring big goals in big situations.

Philadelphia: The Flyers have some All-Star level talent at the top of their roster but what makes them so intriguing long-term is the wave of young talent that has started to hit the NHL. We already talked about their young defenders, but they have a pretty nice collection of young forwards as well. No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick is a big part of that, but let’s not ignore Travis Konecny. The 20-year-old finished third on the team in goals (24) this season and was one of the team’s top overall point producers.

Prediction

Penguins in six games. Both teams have similar strengths, similar weaknesses, and similar question marks. But the Penguins just seem to be a deeper team that is going to be difficult for the Flyers to match up 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.

The Buzzer: Elvis, Ovechkin, and others who rocked

Elvis Ovechkin three stars pht buzzer
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Three Stars beyond Elvis and Ovechkin

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago blowing out Toronto will lead to some hand-wringing, no doubt. Yet, as much as that was on a tough night for Frederik Andersen, give the Blackhawks some credit. Toews topped all in that game with an outstanding four-point performance (two goals and two assists).

Saturday continued what’s been one heck of a month for Toews. The Blackhawks captained pushed his January total to 15 points (5G, 10A). Toews reached that total in just eight games, scoring at least one point in seven contests.

Scratch that. Toews has been on fire for a while now. He started off ice-cold with only two points in 11 October games. Toews took off after that, and has generated an impressive 41 points in his past 28 contests.

Underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik contributed to Chicago’s win, too, with three points (2G, 1A).

2. Riley Sheahan, Edmonton Oilers

Sheahan scoffs at Toews’ slow start. The journeyman forward failed to score a point in 12 October games, and managed one in 11 November contests. Sheahan went and matched his December points total (four in 14 GP) in one contest on Saturday.

That’s right, he generated four points, scoring an empty-netter plus three assists. Connor McDavid dominated in his own right with two goals, but Sheahan helped the Oilers rout the Coyotes. Josh Archibald generated three points (1G, 2A) as well.

This just in: the Oilers have a lot of “that guy’s still around?” forwards. It’s honestly cool to see some of them have such a strong day, and maybe take a bit of the pressure off McDavid here and there.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s as though Atkinson never missed any time. After scoring a goal and an assist in his first game in almost one month on Thursday, Atkinson generated three points (2G, 1A) on Saturday. This gives Atkinson seven points (4G, 3A) in his past four contests.

Others give Atkinson a run for his money, even beyond the next section. Jason Zucker (1G, 2A) and James van Riemsdyk (1G, 2A) both contributed to their respective teams’ blowouts. Atkinson’s extra goal gives him the edge.

OK, now let’s consider Elvis and Ovechkin

Saturday featured enough strong performances that it feels better to give these two a mention. After all, they already received their own posts. Yes, these two probably rank as the “real” third and fourth stars of Saturday, or higher, depending upon your personal taste.

Highlight of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury is suffering through a tough season, big-picture wise. “The Flower” keeps adding to his resume of breathtaking saves, though:

Comic relief

Jamie Benn provides us with a reason to laugh. At least those of us who aren’t immediately transported to our own memories of hilarious blunders.

That video summarizes the Stars’ night succinctly, as the Wild beat them 7-0.

Factoids

  • Ovechkin nabbed consecutive hat tricks to push his career goals total to 692. He passed Mario Lemieux (11th all-time, 690) and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time (692). Mark Messier sits just two goals away at eighth with 694. Ovechkin also generated consecutive hat tricks for the third time in his career. In doing so, Ovechkin joined Joe Malone (four times) and Wayne Gretzky (three) as the only players to generate consecutive hat tricks three or more times, according to NHL PR. Again, this post delves deeper into Ovechkin’s latest accomplishments.
  • Ovechkin’s teammate John Carlson reached 60 points. Carlson managed the feat in just 49 games, getting to 60 faster than any Capitals defenseman; Mike Green held the previous mark with 60 by game 57. Opinion: Green deserved better treatment from hockey folks during his peak years.
  • Merzlikins authored the 18th instance of a rookie goalie getting a shutout of at least 41 saves, via NHL PR.
  • Cale Makar scored his 11th goal, setting a new record for goals by a rookie Avalanche defenseman.
  • Dominik Kubalik reached 20 goals in his 47th game. NHL PR points out that Kubalik ranks among sixth Blackhawks to reach 20 goals in 50 games or less.

Scores

WSH 6 – NYI 4
COL 5 – STL 3
EDM 7 – ARI 3
OTT 5 – CGY 2
CHI 6 – TOR 2
MTL 5 – VGK 4 (SO)
FLA 4 – DET 1
PHI 4 – LAK 1
CBJ 5 – NJD 0
NSH 2 – BUF 1
MIN 7 – DAL 0
VAN 4 – SJS 1

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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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.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.