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Jets vs Wild: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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A rivalry that needed a playoff meeting to really cement its status will finally add that chapter when the puck drops between the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild on Wednesday.

The Jets and Wild have been divisional rivals for a few years now and the bad blood has grown during that time, but this will be the first time both teams meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — a chance for the hatred to grow.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The series will feature a team heavy with playoff experience and another with a bunch of excited players who’ve seen limited time in the postseason.

The Wild boast a roster with a combined 748 playoffs games, that compares to the Jets’ 265. Several of Winnipeg’s roster, including 44-goal man Patrik Laine, 32-goal rookie forward Kyle Connor and 44-game winner Connor Hellebuyck, will make their playoff debut on Friday. So while the Jets are favorites to take the series in the end, it may take a period or two for half the team to settle into a new style of hockey.

Winnipeg enters the postseason relatively healthy, although they’ll be missing Toby Enstrom (ankle) and Dmitry Kulikov (back) on the blue line to start the playoffs (with Kulikov much further away from returning than Enstrom). The addition of Paul Stastny at the trade deadline has been instrumental for the Jets, who have a centre that has figured out how to play with Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.

The Wild, meanwhile, won’t have Ryan Suter for the entirety of their playoff run after the defenseman needed surgery to fix a fractured ankle. Suter averaged 26:47 of ice time per game during the regular season, second only to Drew Doughty‘s 26:50. Simply put, it’s a big hole to fill against one of the league’s hottest offensive teams.

The Jets took the season series 3-1-0, beating the Wild twice in October in one-goal wins before pounding them 7-2 in November. In their final meeting back in January, the Wild picked up a 4-1 decision.

There are several storylines attached to this series, so let’s dive right in.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Jets: Winnipeg’s bread and butter. The Jets finished second to the Tampa Bay Lightning in goals-for with 273 and boasted a lineup with a 44-goal scorer in Laine, a 31-goal scorer in Connor and 29 markers from Ehlers. Blake Wheeler tied for the NHL-lead with 68 assists in a career-year. And the Jets found secondary scoring throughout, with eight of their 12 forwards in double-digits in goal-scoring. As you’d expect, a team that put up as much offense as the Jets would also look good in the analytics department. And they do. Winnipeg finished 10th in terms of shot share at 51.5 percent and fourth in goals-for percentage at 54.6 percent.

Wild: Minnesota is no slouch in the goal-scoring department. Eric Staal turned back the clock this season and scored 42 times and Jason Zucker tallied 33 times. The Wild finished 11th in goal scoring and averaged over three goals per game, but lacked when it came to shot share, finishing 29th in the league with 47.2 percent. They were 12th in goals-for percentage, however, at 52.2 percent. Zach Parise has been a force since the beginning of March.

Advantage: Jets, but this is closer than one might think given one team hs a guy named Laine.

DEFENSE

Jets: The Jets are missing Enstrom and Kulikov to start and will depend on Joe Morrow (a trade deadline acquisition) and Ben Chiarot to keep up their solid play in relief. The top pairing of Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey will be tasked with shutting down the Wild’s offense. Despite significant injuries to the aforementioned Kulikov, Enstrom and Trouba throughout the season, the Jets still managed to fifth least goals-against in the league.

Wild: We talked about Suter in the introduction and his absence will be felt, but the pending return of Jared Spurgeon who missed 12 games to close out the regular season, is a welcome addition and should soften the blow, even if only slightly. The Wild finished 11th in fewest goals-against this season and have an offensive weapon with Matt Dumba, who recorded 50 points. That said, Carson Soucy and Nick Seeler are in tough if Spurgeon isn’t ready to go.

Advantage: Give it to the Jets as they’re not missing a top-pairing defensemen. It’s close, but Suter’s skates are impossible to fill.

GOALTENDING

Jets: The Jets signed Steve Mason in the offseason in hopes he’d be the teams No. 1. But 82 games later and it was Hellebuyck who had taken the No. 1 role and never gave it back in a Vezina-worthy campaign where he posted a .924 save percentage while setting a new franchise-high with 44 wins. Hellebuyck had six shutouts on the year and became the winningest American born goaltender and tied a league record with 30 wins at home.

Wild: Dubnyk posted 35 wins in 59 starts and put up a .918 save percentage and has 21 games of playoff experience to his name. Dubnyk had his struggles at times this seasons, but was effective nonetheless, especially at home where he only lost six games in regulation.

Side note: Hellebuyck and Dubnyk share the same trainer, Adam Francilia, at NET 360 in Kelowna, British Columbia. Both trained together in the summer and are good friends. But Dubnyk said this week that their friendship will go out the door for this series. 

Advantage: Hellebuyck, at least on paper. Dubnyk has the benefit of playoff experience while Hellebuyck has the luxury of home-ice advantage. Give it to the sophomore, but this is close.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Jets: They call him a cheat code on the power play, a near-exact replica of Alex Ovechkin with all the same lethality from Ovi’s office. Laine led the league with 20 power play goals to help the Jets to the fifth-best power play in the NHL at 23.4 percent. Winnipeg’s much-improved penalty kill, meanwhile, saw them finish ninth with an 81.8 percent success rate.

Wild: The Wild do not have have a cheat code, but Staal chipped in with 11 power play goals this season. That said, Minnesota’s power play ranked 18th in terms of its success rate at 20.4 percent. On the penalty kill, the Wild only trail by half a percent, or as near as makes no difference.

Advantage: Jets. Laine tips the scales here with both penalty kills virtual identical.

X-FACTORS

Jets: Hellebuyck. He’s played the most minutes out of any other goaltender in the NHL this season yet was as steady as they come. He’s brushed aside questions of fatigue and got some rest down the stretch. Hellebuyck has been calm, cool and collected in the lead up to Wednesday’s opener. He lacks playoff experience, but if he plays the way he did this season, it shouldn’t matter.

Wild: Spurgeon’s health. He softens the blow in the wake of Suter’s season-ending injury and provides the Wild with another scoring threat on the blue line. The Jets own arguably the best offense in the league and Minnesota is going to need all the help it can get trying to contain it.

PREDICTION

Jets in six games. The loss of Suter can’t be understated, nor can the skill of the Winnipeg Jets.

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

‘Canes surge into summer with confidence after playoff run

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes enter the offseason confident of one thing: They shouldn’t have to wait another decade to return to the playoffs.

They hope their nucleus will make postseason appearances an every-year thing.

The Hurricanes made their first playoff berth since 2009 last much longer than most expected, advancing to the Eastern Conference final before they were swept by the Boston Bruins.

After getting a taste of postseason hockey, this largely young team wants to do it again.

”I think we all know now what it takes first of all to get to the playoffs, and to go through those tough series,” forward Sebastian Aho said Monday. ”Now we’re even more hungry.”

There’s reason to believe this group has staying power.

The entire defensive corps – including young stars Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – is under team control for next season, with six of them signed and Haydn Fleury a pending restricted free agent.

Key winger Teuvo Teravainen is locked up through 2023-24. Promising forward Andrei Svechnikov oozed with promise during his rookie season. Aho, who also will be a restricted free agent, looks to be a candidate to receive a long-term deal. He declined to discuss his contract status.

This core was responsible for turning the franchise around and bringing entertainment – both during and after games – to the rink.

They brought back those beloved Hartford Whalers uniforms for a couple of games. They broke out the ”Storm Surge” celebrations, those choreographed on-ice parties after regular-season victories at home. They wore the jabs from curmudgeonly commentator Don Cherry as badges of honor – plastering his ”Bunch of Jerks” insult onto T-shirts that sold for $32 at the team shop. They welcomed a live pig named Hamilton into the building for home playoff games.

And, of course, they played winning hockey – especially after the calendar flipped to January. Their record of 31-12-2 was third-best in the league and propelled them from last place in the division to the top wild-card berth.

”As the year went on, as the record shows, it was a lot of good results, and coming to the rink was a lot of fun,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said.

A few things to watch entering the offseason:

THE CAPTAIN’S FUTURE

The big question is whether 37-year-old Justin Williams will return for a second season as team captain with his two-year contract expiring this offseason. The three-time Stanley Cup winner known around the league as ”Mr. Game 7” for his exploits in those final games brought credibility and leadership to the dressing room and helped steer the young team’s midseason turnaround. ”I put everything I had into it this year, and if I have everything again, then I’ll be here,” Williams said. ”I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

THE GOALIES

The Hurricanes have some decisions to make with both goalies – Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney – facing free agency. Mrazek accepted a one-year, $1.5 million deal last offseason to prove he’s worthy of a starter’s job, and the team snatched the 35-year-old McElhinney off the waiver wire when Scott Darling was hurt. They both played well enough to make Darling an afterthought, and now the question is whether either or both will wind up sticking around.

FREE AGENCY

The only other unrestricted free agents on the roster are forwards Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg. Ferland provided a strong physical presence on the ice, but he didn’t score any goals after February and had a single assist in the playoffs. The Hurricanes should have some money to spend when July 1 rolls around. According to salary tracking website CapFriendly.com, Carolina had the most room under the salary cap ($16.2 million) of any team in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS FIX

Carolina has plenty of work to do on its power play, which led to the team’s undoing against Boston. The Hurricanes scored on less than 10% of their postseason chances with the man advantage – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. During the regular season, they scored on nearly 18% of their chances to rank 20th in the league.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Comeback, OT goal helps Great Britain avoid relegation at Worlds

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Ben Davies’ name will be sung forever in hockey circles around Great Britain.

The 28-year-old forward scored the overtime winner in a 4-3 victory over France Monday at the 2019 IIHF World Championship that will keep the Brits, who were facing relegation, in the top flight for next year’s tournament.

With the loss, the French move down to Division I-A for the 2020 event in Switzerland after an 11-year run. Great Britain will compete in back-to-back- top tier IIHF World Championships for the first time since 1950-51.

The historic game started very poorly for Great Britain, who entered the the tournament 22nd in the IIHF world rankings, as they fell behind 3-0 midway through the second period. But the turnaround began with a strong end to the middle frame when Robert Dowd and Mike Hammond scored 3:05 apart to cut France’s lead to 3-2.

The momentum stayed with Great Britain, who had been outscored 38-5 heading into the game, following the intermission as Robert Farmer tied the game with 14:46 to go, forcing overtime.

It was in the 3-on-3 overtime period that captain Jonathan Phillips was knocked to his feet after chasing down a loose puck in the French zone and found a streaking Davies for the winner.

“It’s pretty surreal right now,” Davies said afterward. “We were three down and everything seemed against us but it’s not our character to give up and we stuck with it. Things started going our way and the goals started to go in while [goaltender Ben] Bowns was incredible. I’ve never scored a bigger goal than that and I’ll remember it forever.”

The celebrations featured plenty of hugs and one humorous chant from the British players knowing they’ll be back in the top division for the 2020 tournament.

Great Britain, which hadn’t been in the top division since 1994, finished the tournament with one win in seven games after competing in a group that featured the U.S., Canada and Finland. The roster is made up of mostly players who ply their trade in the Elite Ice Hockey League, as well as Liam Kirk, the Arizona Coyotes’ seventh-round pick in last year’s draft who is attempting to become the first British-raised player to make it to the NHL. In 63 games this season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes, he scored 26 and recorded 47 points.

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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.

Karlsson’s health will dictate Sharks’ chances

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If you are a San Jose Sharks fan the current situation might seem a little bleak.

Your team was just dominated on home ice on Sunday afternoon and is heading on the road, facing elimination in the Western Conference Final, and needing to win the next two games to continue its Stanley Cup pursuit.

The odds, it would seem, are stacked against you.

If you are looking for something to be optimistic about it should be the fact Sharks have already been in a worse position this postseason and managed to overcome it. In Round 1 they trailed the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 in the series, needed to win three games in a row, and then found themselves with a three-goal deficit in the third period of Game 7 after crawling back to tie the series. Sure, they needed one of the biggest breaks in Stanley Cup playoff history to complete the comeback, but they still found a way to do it and take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself.

There is one very big difference this time around that might hold them back, and it is the health of top defender Erik Karlsson.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Karlsson is one of the many Sharks players that exited Sunday’s game due to injury, logging just 10 minutes of ice-time in the team’s 5-0 loss as he continues to deal with a nagging groin injury that has limited him all season. Head coach Peter DeBoer refused to offer any update on his status (as well as the status of injured forwards Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski) or if he would travel with the team.

His health is going to be a major determining factor in what happens for the Sharks over the next two games.

The Sharks acquired Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators just before the start of the 2018-19 season with the hope that he would be the missing piece on a Stanley Cup contender. When he is healthy and at his best, he is one of the best players in the world and on an elite tier of superstars. He is a difference-maker, and when the Sharks have had him at anything close to full health this season he has played like it.

Putting him on a defense that already has Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic gives the Sharks one of the best defensive groups in the league.

When the Sharks overcame their Round 1 deficit against the Golden Knights, Karlsson was a huge factor in that result.

He played more than 92 minutes (more than 40 percent of the total ice-time in those games), had four assists (tops on the team), and was on the ice for nine of the 12 goals the Sharks scored in their Games 5, 6, and 7 wins. Only two other players on the team (Hertl and Logan Couture) were on the ice for more than six goals in those three games. He had at least two points in every game the Sharks won in that Round 1 series. He was at the center of everything and one of the biggest reasons they came back to win.

Unfortunately for the Sharks, the groin injury has resurfaced and he has been obviously limited over the past few games. Not only in terms of his lack of ice time and early exit in Game 5 (as well as the extended stretch in Game 4 where he did not see the ice), but just in watching him play. He is clearly not where he — or the Sharks — want him to be from a health standpoint.

That is going to be a problem because even if he does play in Game 6, there is no guarantee that he is going to make the kind of impact we are used to seeing from him.

The Sharks have overcome the absence of key players in these playoffs, whether it was Joe Thornton‘s suspension in Round 1 or the Pavelski injury that sidelined him for all but one game in their Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche. But for as good and important as those players are, having to replace a player like Karlsson is an entirely different animal.

The Sharks have other forwards that can step up and impact a game if they lose a player like Pavelski, or Hertl, or Thornton.

But a No. 1 defender does so much more on the ice given the minutes they play, the number of times they touch the puck, and the way they can control the pace of the game and where it is played. Everything starts with the blue line, and you need those players on the back end that can move the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone. When he is healthy, there is nobody in the NHL that is better at that than Karlsson. It is not just his point production that makes him a superstar and a top-tier player — it is the way he can essentially be a one-man breakout coming out of the defensive zone and skate the puck out of danger when there are no passing options available.

There is nobody else stepping into his spot and doing that.

Yes, they still have a Norris Trophy winner (and a finalist for the award this season) in Brent Burns on the roster, but having Burns and Karlsson is what makes the Sharks such a fierce team to contend with.

Take one of them out of the lineup, or at least limit their ability to make an impact, and there is a major drop in how the team performs.

We have seen that over the past two games with Karlsson.

If the Sharks are going to come back in another series there may not be a bigger determining factor than Karlsson’s health and what he is able to do. It is going to require a significant turnaround from what we have seen over the past two games.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Bruins seek balance between enjoying rest, staying sharp ahead of Cup Final

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When the puck drops next Monday for Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final (8 p.m. ET; NBC), the Boston Bruins will have had 11 days of rest.

Following their seven-game Round 1 series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bruins have only needed nine games to reach their third Cup Final since 2011. All that rest will certainly bode well for a team with an average age of 27.3 and seven players north of 30 years old. 

But will it be too much time off?

The Bruins and Tuukka Rask have won seven in a row and played dominant hockey over the last two rounds. They would love to maintain that level of sharpness, but that will be difficult to do so with a week and a half between games. Bruce Cassidy gave his players Friday and Saturday off following their sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final, but it’s since been back to business as they await to find out their Cup Final opponent.

“We have a plan on how we’re going to go through this week, balancing practices with days off,” Cassidy said on Sunday. “We are going to meet with the veteran guys who’ve been through it. We talked about scrimmaging. Will we do it at night? Prepare like a game or have it in the morning? We’ll talk to people outside the organization.”

Some of those outside people include the New England Patriots, who know a thing or two about winning championships after dealing with lots of downtime between games.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Zdeno Chara, who missed Game 4 due, was back at practice on Monday with “no issues,” per Cassidy. While he keeps himself in great shape, his 41-year-old bones certainly have welcomed the extended time off. Cassidy said the injury that forced him to sit wasn’t serious, which was a relief for a Bruins team that has relied on him to play over 22 minutes a night this postseason.

A nine-day break between Rounds 1 and 2 allowed John Tortorella to organize a full scrimmage for his Columbus Blue Jackets players after they earned the time off by sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning. That could be an option for the Bruins to not lose their edge.

“In the short term, it’s really beneficial for our group,” Cassidy said. “We’ve been pedal to the metal here, mentally and physically, for a while. I do believe in the short term it will help us a lot. Then it’s incumbent upon us to simulate the best we can with what’s going to be required going forward.”

One player the Bruins desperately need to maintain his sharpness is Tuukka Rask, who’s posted a .945 even strength save percentage and two shutouts in 17 games this spring. They longest he’s gone between starts this season was from Jan. 19 to Jan. 31 after suffering a concussion against the New York Rangers. His recovery time was aided by the fact that the Bruins had their bye week right after the injury occurred, so the 31-year-old goaltender only missed one game.

The Conn Smythe frontrunner has been locked in this postseason and playing at a level that is reminiscent of the Bruins’ 2013 run to the Cup Final.

“When he was concussed, I think he missed quite a bit of time then came back and played well,” said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “He’s in a really good place, a really good place mentally and physically and his routines. He’s gone out game days. In the past, he hasn’t. He’s gone out for specific reasons. I think he’ll continue to do those things. It’s just the game, to get into the flow of the game and speed of the game you can’t ever simulate, so there will be challenges, certainly. Tuukka is in a really good place, and I expect him to return there.”

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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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.