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Predators vs. Avalanche: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The Nashville Predators’ record speaks for itself — they simply have everything in place to win a Stanley Cup.

They led the league with 117 points, garnering them the Presidents’ Trophy, and had the least number of regulation losses and the best away record in the NHL. They were simply dominant during the regular season and deserve the title as Stanley Cup favorites just hours before the first puck drops to start the 2017-18 postseason.

Nashville enters the playoffs with a 53-18-11 record. They were third in the NHL in terms of goal differential at +56.

While the Preds clinched weeks ago, the Avalanche needed to do so in their last game of the regular season — a thrilling 4-1 in a win-and-in against the St. Louis Blues (which featured a very close call on an offside review that ultimately stood as a goal).

Colorado finished the season with 43-30-9, good for 95 points – lowest among the 16 teams that made the dance.

In four games between both clubs, Nashville showed their might with a 4-0-0 record (three regulation wins and one win in overtime), while managing 17 goals for and just eight against.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Nashville shouldn’t have any issues in this series. They’re healthy, have the likely Vezina winner between the pipes, two candidates for the Norris on the blue line and a forward contingent that only got more dangerous as the season wore on with the additions of Kyle Turris (via trade), Mike Fisher (who came out of retirement) and Eeli Tolvanen (who Nashville signed after this KHL postseason ended last month).

The Avalanche, despite closing out the season 2-4-1 in their last seven games, still found a way to get two points when they needed to. Sure, they’ll be riding that high and will have the benefit of having to have played several playoff-style games down the stretch, but it’s a tough ask for a team to go toe-to-toe with the best team in the NHL without their starting goalie Semyon Varlamov and top-pairing defenseman Erik Johnson, both lost for the season due to separate injuries.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Nashville: The Preds have the luxury of icing four lines that can put up points. It’s not just Filip Forsberg (26 goals, 64 points) and Viktor Arvidsson (29 goals and 61 points), the team’s top two scoring leaders. Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith finished up with 20-plus goal seasons and Scott Hartnell and Nick Bonino had 10-plus. In 5-on-5 situations, the Predators sit ninth in shot share at 51.5 percent and second in goals-for percentage at  56.7 percent. Hint: that’s good.

Colorado: Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon (39 goals, 97 points), Mikko Rantanen (29 goals, 84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (25 goals, 62 points) combined for 36 percent of the team’s goal production this season. They were simply a force and a big reason why MacKinnon is a Hart Trophy candidate and the Avalanche are in the playoffs. That line absolutely has to produce to win, but the Avalanche need their other three lines to contribute. The analytics suggest the Avs struggle in 5-on-5 situations sitting in 27th in shot share with 47.6 percent. Even with their stacked top line, their goals-for percentage sits 15th at 52.1 percent.

Advantage: Predators. If it was top line vs. top line, Colorado would have the edge. But all four Predators lines can score, and do.

DEFENSE

Avalanche: Losing Erik Johnson for the playoffs is a massive blow, let that be known. Sure, Tyson Barrie plays a pivotal role on the backend in all three phases of the game, but Johnson isn’t a guy you can replace and his presence — 25:26 TOI per night — will be missed. Some of that extra ice time will fall to Samuel Girard. The rookie defenseman has been impressive this season and anchors the second-unit power play.

Predators: Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are a formidable duo, and then teams have to deal with P.K. Subban and Matthias Ekholm. Nashville’s defense is as stout as there is in the NHL. They can also produce: Subban had 16 goals and 59 points this season and finished in the top-10 in d-man scoring. Josi, meanwhile, was no slouch either with his 14 goals and 53 points, putting him in the top-15.

Advantage: Predators. Only the Los Angeles Kings (202) allowed fewer goals than the Predators (204).

GOALTENDING

Avalanche: This matchup would be closer with Varlamov in net, but injuries derailed that late in the season. Bernier isn’t a bad goalie by any means, but asking him to carry the Avalanche in the same way the man 200 down ice from him can is nigh impossible. Bernier’s .913 save percentage won’t move the needle, but his 19-13-3 record helped propel this team to the playoffs, and when Varlamov missed time earlier this season, Bernier won nine straight amid a mid-season 10-game winning streak for the Avs that took them from the depths of the Central Division into a playoff fight they eventually won.

Predators: Pekka Rinne. Need we say more? He’s likely the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy this season with 42 wins, a .927 save percentage and eight shutouts. He also has one the best — if not the best — defenses playing in front of him. Rinne is one of the league’s elite.

Advantage: This one isn’t close unless Bernier goes on a heater. It’s the team with the likely Vezina winner. It’s Nashville. Both teams give up a lot of shots (both are in the lower third in the league). Advantage to the team with the guy better at stopping them.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Predators: The Preds loved trips to the penalty box – they were the most penalized team in the NHL this season, putting themselves shorthanded a whopping 299 times, 18 more than any other team. What helped them was a solid penalty kill, ranking sixth in the league at 81.9 percent. That will be crucial going forward — the penalty kill bit — but some discipline would be a welcomed addition to an already-formidable team. On the power play, the Preds finished with a respectable 21.2 percent conversion rate with the man-advantage. Subban led with way with 25 power play points while Forsberg kicked in 21 of his own.

Avalanche: The Avs were a whole seven-tenths of a percentage point better than the Predators on the power play at 21.9 percent, scoring 65 times this season. When you’re top unit consists of the same guys who play on your top line, it’s a pretty safe bet that production will happen. Rantanen led the Avs with 35 power-play points, with MacKinnon a close second with 32. Tyson Barrie, manning the point with MacKinnon, pitched in 30. The second unit got 17 points for Alexander Kerfoot and 12 from Samuel Girard. On the penalty kill, Colorado finished fourth in the league at 83.3 percent despite finishing with the ninth most number of times shorthanded.

Advantage: The numbers don’t lie — gotta give this one to the Avalanche, although it’s very close.

X-FACTORS

Avalanche: Jonathan Bernier. With Varlamov done for the season with a lower-body injury, Bernier will be looked to for stellar goaltending against one of the top goal-scoring teams in the NHL this season. Bernier put up pedestrian numbers this season backing up Varlamov but owns a career 9-4-0 record with a .917 save percentage against the Predators.

Predators: The Avs own a good power play and the Predators like to take a lot of penalties. It’s not a winning concoction if you’re the Predators, even if your penalty kill is above average. In games that will be tight from pillar to post, toning down the number of trips to the sin bin could give the Predators another advantage in the series.

PREDICTION

Nashville in four games. Nashville dominated the season series, sweeping the Avalanche. The Predators have only gotten stronger while the Avs are dealing with key injuries. This should go quick.

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

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Bruins on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Two of the NHL’s top teams meet for the second time in four days as the Bruins head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins. Sunday’s matchup will be the third and final game between these two this season. Boston won the first two meetings

After losing in Boston Thursday, the Penguins had a chance to get right back to it with a game against the Red Wings Friday night. Pittsburgh started slow, trailing 1-0 to the league’s worst team through two periods. But early in the third Bryan Rust scored his 20th of the season on the power play to even the score. And in overtime it was the captain Sidney Crosby who netted the game-winner on the power play to help Pittsburgh escape with a win.

Since returning from his 28-game absence, Crosby has 6 points (3G-3A) and has scored a goal in each of his three games.

With All-Star goalie Tuukka Rask (concussion) on injured reserve, the Bruins are now relying on Jaroslav Halak as their primary goalie. After starting the season on a tear, Halak has not been as sharp over the past six weeks.Halak has started (and won) both games against the Penguins this season. Over his career, he is 11-8-2 in 21 starts against Pittsburgh, with a 2.53 GAA and .921 SV%.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

WHAT: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 19, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Bruins-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskCharlie CoyleAnders Bjork
Danton HeinenPar LindholmKarson Kuhlman
Joakim NordstromSean KuralyChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
John MooreMatt Grzelcyk

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Dominik KahunEvgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Alex GalchenyukAndrew AgozzinoPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Jusso Riikola – Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

NHL on NBC: Bruins want to be more than ‘teddy bears’ vs. Penguins

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Considering the Bruins’ comfortable lead atop the Atlantic Division, most teams would gladly take on Boston’s “problems.”

Still, for the Bruins — and few other teams, but yes, also the Penguins, their opponents on Sunday afternoon — it’s about more than division titles. After falling a Game 7 shy of winning the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, this group boasts lofty aspirations.

The Bruins aim to fine-tune during this stretch of the 2019-20 season, and to some, that means reestablishing their identity.

Bruins try to shed ‘Teddy Bears’ criticism

The B’s didn’t just lose Tuukka Rask to an injury on Tuesday when Emil Bemstrom delivered an errant elbow during Columbus’ 3-0 win. Their perceived lack of a response meant that some lost respect for this group.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty went as far as to call the Bruins “teddy bears.”

The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa also opined (sub required) that “The Big, Bad Bruins are dead.”

Bruins players seemed to get the memo in beating the Penguins 4-1 on Thursday. Haggerty and others praised the team’s physical response, including a rare Torey Krug fight against Patric Hornqvist.

“It’s not about going out there and trying to run them out of the rink. Looking at our roster, we don’t have that kind of group anymore,” Krug said after that win, via Haggerty. “But we talked about sticking together and competing harder and sacrificing a little more. That doesn’t mean putting a guy through the glass, but it means going into the corner and having the willingness to get hit, or to hit somebody else, in order to come out of there with the puck. I think that desperation was lost there for a few games, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction and we can kind of grasp that concept again. It’s been part of our DNA for years, so as long as we can get back to that [we’ll be good].”

Some lingering questions for Bruins

Again, you could argue there’s some mild soul-searching going on for Boston.

Blame it on a drop in physicality, or perhaps some other factors, but I’d personally be a little more concerned about dipping underlying numbers.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

Looking at sites like Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference, there’s been a dip in key categories. They’ve hogged the puck less often, and have been on the wrong end of high-danger chances (owning just 45.6 percent of that category, via Hockey Reference).

These numbers shouldn’t make anyone pull a fire alarm. It’s not that the Bruins have been terrible. Instead, there are some red flags that the Bruins should improve their play. Sean Tierney (Charting Hockey)’s expected goals share chart captures the sometimes middle-of-the-pack feel to the Bruins’ stats:

Bruins xg

Would the Bruins dominate the puck if they add more edge? Maybe, but either way, there are signs that the B’s have room to improve.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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.

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.