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Bruins vs. Maple Leafs: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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A year ago the Toronto Maple Leafs took a big step in their rebuild by returning to the playoffs for just the second time in the salary cap era (and the first time in a full 82-game season in the salary cap era) and held their own against the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals. It did not result in a series win, but it was a good stepping stone year and an important box to check off in the organization’s return to relevance as a contending team.

They came back this season and improved their record by 10 points, set a franchise record with wins, and qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons.

Now it is time to try and take the next step and check off the next box: Do something with that playoff appearance.

The Maple Leafs haven’t played in the NHL’s second round since the 2003-04 season (and while we’re on the subject, a Mike Babcock coached team has played in the second-round just once in the past seven years — and that was six years ago) so there has to be some pressure to be more than just a team that is good enough to get into the playoffs.

They have the high-end talent at the top of their roster, the scoring depth to complement them, and the goaltending to do just that.

Standing in their way this time: The Boston Bruins, a team that has been demolishing the rest of the NHL for most of the past five months and a familiar playoff foe for the Maple Leafs. You will no doubt remember that 2012-13 series that saw Toronto completely implode in Game 7 when the game seemed to be completely in their control — only five players remain from that Toronto team, but it is a great chance for redemption from a fans perspective.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This Bruins team can score, it can defend, it has a great power play and a penalty kill that can shut yours down. It has Stanley Cup winning experience and it has talented, fast, skillful youth. It is a team that really does not have a glaring weakness.

Given that both teams finished the regular season among the top-eight in the entire NHL, played a pretty tight season series, and are fairly evenly matched on paper it has the potential to be a heck of a series.

Let us see how the two teams stack up.

Schedule

Forwards

Boston: Brad Marchand has become one of the best all-around forwards in the NHL and is a big part of what has been one of the league’s best lines this season alongside Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. When that trio was on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Bruins controlled an almost unbelievable 59 percent of the shot attempts and outscored teams by a 28-16 margin. Bergeron gets a lot of credit for being the driving force behind that success but when Pastrnak and Marchand were together without him the Bruins were still 54 percent on the shot attempts and outscored teams by an 18-9 margin. They are all just great players. If Rick Nash is healthy and ready to go for the playoffs this group of forwards gets that much better. David Krejci can still produce in a secondary role and the Bruins suddenly have an influx of young talent in Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen, and Jake DeBrusk all producing.

Toronto: They finished the regular season as the NHL’s third-highest scoring team and did not have their best player — Auston Matthews — for 20 games. When he was in the lineup Matthews was a beast, scoring 34 goals in 62 games, putting him on a pace that would have exceeded his 40-goal output from his rookie season. It is an embarrassment of riches up and down the lineup when it comes to young talent and they still have a couple of 30-goal veterans in James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri, plus a 27-goal season from Patrick Marleau.

Advantage: Toronto, but it’s close. These are two of the best offensive teams in the league and both have really deep rosters that can get production from all over. Toronto has eight forwards this year that topped the 40-point mark and nine that scored at least 10 goals. That is a deep group of forwards.

Defense

Boston: A couple of years ago the Bruins defense got old, slow, and struggled to replace a lot of the talent that had moved on. That has since changed, and while the defense may not be quite what it was in 2011 or 2012 when Zdeno Chara was closer to his prime, it is still very good. Chara is still playing 23 minutes per night and rookie Charlie McAvoy has stepped into the lineup and become an immediate impact player. Torey Krug had a huge year offensively

Toronto: Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly both had big years offensively with each of them topping the 50-point mark, the only set of teammate defenders in the NHL to accomplish that this season. The problem for the Maple Leafs defensively is that they give up a lot in the defensive zone. At 33.9 shots on goal against per game the Maple Leafs were the fourth-worst shot suppression team in the league this season and by far the worst among the playoff teams. Kind of a concern.

Advantage: Boston. With Gardiner and Reilly the Maple Leafs obviously have some talent on their blue line, but when it comes to all-around defensive play Boston is simply the better team and pretty much every piece of objective evidence you can look at illustrates that.

Goaltending

Boston: Tuukka Rask had an absolutely miserable start to the season, losing 10 of his first 13 starts with a .896 save percentage to go along with that horrendous record. It was not great! Since then the Bruins have been almost unbeatable with Rask in the lineup, going 31-6-3 in his 40 decisions since then. He also has a .923 save percentage in those starts.

Toronto: Frederik Andersen might be the most important player for the Maple Leafs. Not the best player, but the most important. Given how many shots and chances they give up it is imperative for them to get quality goaltending, and Andersen has provided that almost all season. It’s largely because of him that a team that gives up the fourth-most shots in the league was only 11th in goals against. The Maple Leafs gave him a huge workload this season, not only by starting him in 66 games (second most in the league) but by also making him face the most shots on goal. The 2,211 shots he faced were nearly 200 more than the next closest goalie.

Advantage: Toronto. Rask can be great and has the superior record but a lot of that comes from playing behind a better team. Just looking at it from the perspective of how much the Maple Leafs have had to rely on Andersen this season and how well he has stood up to that makes me want to give him a slight edge.

Special Teams

Boston: Part of what makes the Bruins such a scary team is they not only dominate during 5-on-5 play, but they have incredible special teams, entering the playoffs with the league’s fourth-best player (23.5 percent) and third-best penalty kill (83.7 percent). They are the only team in the league to be in the top-five in both categories.

Toronto: Like the Bruins the Maple Leafs have been great on special teams this season and boast the league’s second-best power play and an above average penalty kill. The player that really makes the Maple Leafs’ power play click and probably does not get enough attention for it: Mitch Marner.

Advantage: Boston. Both teams are pretty similar in the sense that they are top-10 in both categories, but the Bruins get an edge for having the slightly better penalty kill. They will get a challenge in this series, though.

X-Factors

Boston: The Bruins are a team that has two separate cores of players. At the top of the lineup they have the veterans that have been through the Stanley Cup run multiple times with Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci, and Chara. Then they have this younger wave of players led by Pastrnak, Heinen, DeBrusk, McAvoy and the latest addition to the group, Ryan Donato. Donato joined the Bruins just after the Winter Olympics and made an immediate impact down the stretch run and gives an already loaded roster just one more scoring threat for other teams to deal with.

Toronto: With so much focus on the young talent it’s sometimes easy to forget about the veterans like James van Riemsdyk. The Maple Leafs made the (smart) decision to keep him at the trade deadline and were rewarded down the stretch run as he scored 11 goals in the final 18 games of the regular season to help set a new career high with 36 goals.

Prediction

Bruins in five games. This feels like it should be a pretty close series because the teams do seem to be pretty evenly matched in a lot of areas (forwards, goaltending, special teams) but the Bruins are simply a better defensive team and have been the best team in hockey since early November. They keep that rolling in this series. The Maple Leafs did win the season series, but two of those wins came just before the Bruins really started to hit their stride. They are a different team now than they were in the first month.

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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.

Rangers vs. Blackhawks: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

With just over six weeks to go in the regular season, the Rangers and Blackhawks find themselves on the wrong side of the playoff dividing line with several teams ahead of them in the Wild Card race. New York currently has three teams to jump ahead of to get into a playoff spot, while Chicago has four

New York’s season-high four-game win streak was snapped on Sunday at MSG against Boston, 3-1, as the Rangers now hit the road for away games in five of their next six contests. Overall, Chicago has lost six of its last seven games (1-4-2) with its sole win coming two games ago at Calgary, an 8-4 affair on Saturday – the Blackhawks most goals scored this season.

New York’s high-priced offseason acquisition, Artemi Panarin (7-year/$81.5M), leads the team in goals (29), assists (49), points (78 – fifth in NHL)– to name a few. The Russian playmaker, who set a career high in pts (87) last season with the Blue Jackets, is on pace to set new highs in goals, assists and points. The 28-year-old began his career with the Blackhawks (undrafted), winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2015-16 before being traded to Columbus after two seasons

Chris Kreider has come on of late with 29 pts in the last 29 games after just 13 points in his first 28 games. Kreider, who is on pace for his first career 30-goal season, is set to become a free agent after this season. There were reports last week that Kreider’s agent and the Rangers have been discussing a possible contract extension, while he has also been linked with a possible trade to his hometown Bruins (from Boxford, Mass.). Kreider was drafted 19th overall by New York in 2009 and has spent his entire career with the Blueshirts.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: New York Rangers at Chicago Blackhawks
WHERE: United Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Rangers-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Artemi Panarin – Ryan StromeJesper Fast
Phil Di GiuseppeFilip ChytilKaapo Kakko
Brendan LemieuxBrett Howden – Julien Gauthier

Brady SkjeiJacob Trouba
Tony DeAngeloMarc Staal
Ryan LindgrenAdam Fox

Starting goalie: Igor Shesterkin

BLACKHAWKS
Dominik KubalikJonathan ToewsDrake Caggiula
Brandon SaadRyan CarpenterPatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatKirby DachDylan Strome
Matthew HighmoreDavid KampfAlex Nylander

Duncan KeithAdam Boqvist
Erik GustafssonConnor Murphy
Slater KoekkoekOlli Maatta

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call the action from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Ahmed Fareed will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

The Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary, featuring Al Michaels, who called the momentous matchup in 1980, and Mike Tirico, will premiere on Wednesday night at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. 40 years to the month, this 30-minute special will feature Tirico’s wide-ranging conversation with Michaels about the buildup to the game, his iconic call, as well as the legacy of the moment that became bigger than sports and still resonates today.

NHL Trade Deadline primer: Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens

Tomas Tatar Trade
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With the NHL trade deadline getting close (February 24, 3 p.m. ET) the Pro Hockey Talk crew will be taking a closer look at some individual players that could be on the move. Today we focus on Montreal Canadiens forward Tomas Tatar.

Player: Tomas Tatar
Current Team: Montreal Canadiens
Position: Forward
Contract: One year remaining after this season with a $5.3 million salary cap number.

Why the Canadiens might trade him. If you squint really hard and give it your best effort you can maybe find a decent argument for why it makes sense for the Canadiens to keep Tatar.

He is an excellent player, and a very underrated one. He is signed through the end of next season and is not in danger of leaving as a free agent after this season. He has also been a great fit in Montreal since joining the team at the start of the 2018-19 season after coming over from Vegas in the Max Pacioretty trade. There is also the fact that the Canadiens might still believe they could be a playoff team next season, so it would make sense to keep your good players.

But all of that kind of goes out the window when you look at the current situation and the harsh reality that this team just is not very good.

The Canadiens are on track to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. They are completely going down the tube this season with five consecutive losses, including a dreadful 4-3 loss to Detroit on Tuesday where they blew a 3-1 lead to go 0-4 for the season against a team that currently has just 15 wins for the season and might be single the worst NHL team of the modern era. On top of that, the Canadiens are going to have a ton of contractual decisions to make over the next two seasons regarding Max Domi, Brendan Gallagher, Philip Danualt, and Jeff Petry.

With Carey Price and Shea Weber signed to monster contracts, they can’t keep everyone.

And given the current situation, why would they keep everyone?

There is also the fact that the price for players with term remaining on their contracts is sky high right now. Pounce while you can.

Teams that could/should be interested. Colorado Avalanche, Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, New York Islanders

What he provides. Whether it is traditional box score numbers or a more analytical look, Tatar stacks up extremely well with other top-line two-way wingers around the league. He is on track for a career year offensively this season (close to 30 goals, more than 70 points) and in a normal year is still going to give you 25 goals and 50 points.

His possession numbers have always been strong no matter what team he has played for, and this year they have reached an elite level.

Maybe you have a sour memory of him as a trade deadline acquisition after what happened with him Vegas two years ago, but small sample size decisions lead to mistakes. He is a good player and could be a great addition for a contender.

The Colorado Avalanche would be an intriguing option because they have the salary cap space to take him on and could be in the market for a winger with Mikko Rantanen sidelined (and just to give themselves a better chance to win).

Worth noting that Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin is in Denver on Wednesday night to watch the Avalanche-Islanders game in person.

Predicted Destination. A team like the Avalanche has a lot to offer and the flexibility to do it, but I have a suspicion that Bergevin is going to set an extremely high price, not get the offer he wants, and stand pat with the belief this team is closer to contending than it actually is.

More NHL Trade Deadline:

• Trade Deadline primer: Chris Kreider
Trade Deadline Primer: Ilya Kovalchuk
• Trade Deadline Primer: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
• Trade Deadline Primer: Joe Thornton
• Trade Deadline Primer: Robin Lehner
• Teams that need to be active at trade deadline

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.

FORE-1-1 podcast: ‘Miracle on Ice’ 40th anniversary with Jim Craig

Miracle on Ice celebration Al Michaels
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Jim Craig, goaltender for the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey team, joined Golf Channel’s Chantel McCabe to discuss hockey, his love of golf and his new book, “We Win!”.

This Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice,” the stunning upset by the U.S. Olympic hockey team over the heavily-favored Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. The Americans would go on to top Finland in their next game to win the gold medal. Craig led all goaltenders in the tournament with a .916 save percentage, 419:36 minutes played, and 163 saves in seven games played.

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/fore-1-1-with-chantel-mccabe/id1481635240

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/fore11-with-chantel-mccabe

Golf Channel: https://www.golfchannel.com/fore-1-1-chantel-mccabe

NBC Sports: https://art19.com/shows/fore-1-1-with-chantel-mccabe

Join Golf Channel’s Chantel McCabe each month as she catches up with personalities from the golfing world and beyond.

The Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary, featuring Al Michaels, who called men’s hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics, and Mike Tirico, will premiere tonight at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, following Wednesday Night Hockey coverage of Rangers-Blackhawks.

Caps hope trade for Dillon, adjustments solve struggles

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — For the first time since October, the Washington Capitals took the ice for practice as something other than a first-place team.

Defensive lapses and a glaring lack of structure have added up to losses in six of nine games and a .500 record over the past 10. It’s a struggle for the Capitals right now, but they hope a trade for defenseman Brenden Dillon and a few adjustments will shake them out of their midseason doldrums.

”The hard things to do, the defensive things to do, are always kind of the things that go first when you get into these kind of lulls in the season or whatever because they’re not the fun things to do,” goaltender Braden Holtby said Wednesday. ”Bringing a guy like him in, just an energy, a guy that’s been known to do those things – the hard things – and be a leader that way is good.”

Dillon could play as soon as Thursday night against Montreal, but he can’t solve all everything by himself. Even with Holtby finding a groove, the Capitals have allowed almost 3.5 goals per game during this stretch and not looked like a group that led the NHL for much of the year.

General manager Brian MacLellan said he probably would have sought Dillon from San Jose regardless of the recent drop in play, but the level of urgency to turn things around has increased.

”I think our team game is off, and that results in poor defensive efforts,” MacLellan said. ”I don’t think we’re playing the right way. … The forwards contribute to it, defense contributes to it, and we got to get all on the same page here and play a tighter game.”

Defensemen are getting the bulk of criticism and the blue liner certainly haven’t played up to expectations. Beyond John Carlson, who’s on pace for more than 90 points this season, the play of the likes of Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen and Jonas Siegenthaler has been inconsistent at best.

Carlson said the Capitals have been ”a little disjointed.”

”I think some other holes have crept into our details and systems that we all know we are capable of doing,” said Carlson, who could soon be Dillon’s defensive partner. ”Just simple things, whether it is mental or execution or just being out of position a little bit, matters a lot.”

Much of the chatter lately has been helping captain Alex Ovechkin score two more goals to reach 700 for his career. Ovechkin, MacLellan and others don’t think chasing that milestone has been a distraction, but Washington is 1-4-0 since he reached 698.

”We know exactly what we have to do,” Ovechkin said. ”It’s not a panic. It’s just a slump (that) every team goes through all seasons. Some teams go (through it) the beginning of the year. Somebody goes (though it) right now. It’s a good thing it’s happening now than in the playoffs.”

The Capitals are less than two years removed from their run to the Stanley Cup. They got knocked out in the first round last year and have retooled some things to try to win it all again.

Dillon brings the kind of physical play that is valued most in the playoffs. The 29-year-old has plenty of postseason experience and at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds blends right in with Washington’s big, heavy identity.

”When you’re standing in front of the net with him, it’s going to be a battle,” winger Tom Wilson said. ”That’s something we’ve tried to have with our team. When teams come into D.C., you want them to be like, ‘Oh, here we go, it’s going to be a tough game,’ and he’s just another piece that can really add to that.”