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Capitals vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The matchup between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets will see a pair of teams that have failed to make long playoff runs in recent history. The Jackets have never made it out of the first round, while the Caps haven’t made it further than the second round in the “Ovechkin era”.

For the first time in three seasons, the Capitals didn’t come away with the Presidents’ Trophy. That might not be a bad thing considering they got knocked off in the second round each of the last two years they took home the regular-season award. Even though they didn’t finish with the best record in the league in 2017-18, the spotlight will still be bright if they fail to make a run again this year.

They already lost a number of key free agents over the last couple of years and potentially losing John Carlson would be another devastating blow to their Cup window. Saying it’s a do-or-die year for the Capitals is probably a little excessive, but they aren’t getting any younger, that much is clear.

Washington finished the year with a Metropolitan-best 49-26-7 record. That was good enough to give them 105 points in the standings, which was sixth-best in the entire NHL.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

As for the Blue Jackets, they had an up-and-down year. They won some games early in the year, despite not playing good hockey, per their head coach John Tortorella. They hit a major bump in the road in the middle of the year before finally getting back on track at the end of the season. Of course, having Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes certainly helps smooth over some of the rough patches that occur during a season.

Have they peaked too early? That remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that they saved their best hockey for the end of the regular season. Although they didn’t finish in the top three in the Metro, they’re probably happy to avoid the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions, who have knocked them out of the playoffs each of the last two times they were in them.

Despite having three more wins than the Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus finished in the first Wild Card spot in the East while the Flyers were third in the Metro (Philadelphia lost 14 games in OT/shootouts). The Blue Jackets had a 45-30-7 record, but three of those losses came against the Capitals. They only managed to take down Washington once in their four meetings with their division rival.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Washington: The Capitals have one of the most dynamic forward groups in the league. Led by Rocket Richard winner Alex Ovechkin (49 goals, 87 points), they have the ability to put the puck in the net as regularly as any other team in the playoffs. Outside of Ovechkin, the Caps also have solid depth down the middle with Nicklas Backstrom (21 goals, 71 points), Evgeny Kuznetsov (27 goals, 83 points), Lars Eller (18 goals, 38 points) and Jay Beagle. That doesn’t even include the likes of T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson (14 goals, 35 points) and Andre Burakovsky (12 goals 25 points). The Caps are set up front. Oshie missed the final game of the season, but he’s expected to be ready for the start of the playoffs.

Columbus: Cam Atkinson (24 goals, 46 points) got off to a rough start this season, but he emerged as one of the key figures in the Blue Jackets’ turnaround late in the season. They may not have a superstar like Ovechkin, Backstrom or Kuznetsov, but they have more than enough depth to help them get by. Atkinson, Artemi Panarin (27 goals, 82 points), Nick Foligno (15 goals, 33 points), Boone Jenner (13 goals, 32 points), Pierre-Luc Dubois (20 goals, 48 points), Oliver Bjorkstrand (11 goals, 40 points) Alexander Wennberg (eight goals, 35 points) and Thomas Vanek (15 points in 19 games with Columbus) can all help facilitate offense.

Advantage: Capitals. They’re superior down the middle and the overall quality and depth is simply better than what Columbus has at their disposal. Oh, and that Ovechkin guy makes a big difference, too.

DEFENSE

Washington: The Capitals have a quality number one defenseman in Carlson (15 goals, 68 points), but there’s a steep drop off after that. Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Dmitry Orlov have the experience of being in the playoffs before, while Michal Kempny, Christian Djoos, Jakub Jerabek and Madison Bowey will attempt to serve as more than just depth pieces at this crucial time of year.

Columbus: Zach Werenski (16 goals, 37 points) and Seth Jones (16 goals, 57 points) arguably make up the best pairing in the NHL. Matchups will be key in this series, and Tortorella being able to lean on those two could be the difference between winning the round and going home early. Those two are elite, there’s no denying that. Don’t be surprised if you see them log close to 30 minutes per game in the postseason. Columbus also has Markus Nutivaara, Ryan Murray, David Savard and Stanley Cup champion Ian Cole on the back end.

Advantage: Columbus. It’s clear that the Capitals don’t have a pairing that comes close to what Jones and Werenski can do. The duo have the ability to be game-changers in this series. But don’t sleep on Nutivaara, either. He’s another useful asset for this team.

GOALTENDING:

Washington: Under normal circumstances, the Capitals would have an advantage between the pipes because they have Braden Holtby, but the veteran has struggled throughout the year (2.99 goals-against-average, .907 save percentage). He managed to play better down the stretch, which is encouraging if you’re a Caps fan. But Philipp Grubauer has been named the starter in Game 1. It’ll be interesting to see if they utilize both in the series.

Columbus: Sergei Bobrovsky (2.42 goals-against-average, .921 save percentage) has probably been the most consistent Blue Jacket all year. When their stars weren’t performing early on, it was Bobrovsky that bailed them out. There’s no denying it, as good as some of the forwards and defensemen are on this team, he’s the backbone of the operation. The Russian netminder has the ability to steal a game, a series and potentially a Cup. Solving him won’t be easy.

Advantage: Columbus. The Capitals may have two capable goaltenders, but the Blue Jackets have “the” goaltender. That’s not to say that Grubauer or Holtby can’t get hot, but if you look at the body of work that each of these three players put in this season, you can’t deny that Bobrovsky is the best of the bunch. He has the ability to push the Blue Jackets over the top.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Washington: As you’d imagine, the Capitals finished the regular season with the seventh best power play in the NHL at 22.5 percent. Ovechkin led the way with 17 goals on the man-advantage. The Caps rely heavily on their top five players when it comes to power-play production. Carlson (32), Ovechkin (31) Kuznetsov (30), Backstrom (26), Oshie (18) led the Caps in points on the power play. The sixth best forward in that category was Lars Eller, and he only had six.

The Caps were in the middle of the pack when it came to the penalty kill during the regular season. At 80.3 percent, they were the 15th-best PK unit in the league.

Columbus: The Blue Jackets power play was near the basement of the NHL for most of the early part of the season, but a slight improvement allowed them to jump up to 25th in the league at 17.2 percent. Typically, power play goals are harder to come by in the playoffs, so the Jackets have to make sure that they get some kind of production from that unit.

Believe it or not, they were even further down the list when it came to the penalty kill, as they ranked 27th in the league at 76.2 percent. Only Tampa, Philadelphia, Montreal and the New York Islanders were worse. Ironically enough, two of those four teams are in the playoffs.

Advantage: Washington. The numbers couldn’t be any clearer.

X-FACTORS

Washington: Yes, Grubauer is starting Game 1, but the Caps’ X-factor still has to be Holtby. If he can regain his Vezina Trophy-winning form, he’ll make the Capitals that much more of a force this postseason. If he goes back to being the mediocre goalie he was throughout the 2017-18 regular season, it’ll be tougher for them to get through to the next round. That’s not to say that Grubauer can’t get the job done, but the Caps are a better team when Holtby is on his game.

Columbus: Atkinson managed to find his game, thankfully, but he’s going to have to keep it going right through the postseason. He finished the year by collecting 25 points in his final 20 games, which was huge for Columbus because it gave them another red-hot option behind Panarin.

PREDICTION

Capitals in seven games. Both teams will be eager to put their lackluster playoff track records behind them, but the Capitals’ star-power will push them over the edge. Even though Washington is a better team overall, it still won’t be easy for them to dispose of the Blue Jackets.

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.

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.