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Lightning vs. Devils: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The Tampa Bay Lightning locked up a playoff spot before April even began, and the only real drama they faced boiled down to whether or not they’d win their division. The New Jersey Devils, meanwhile, scratched and clawed their way to their last game of the season.

Maybe that lack of urgency and Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s fatigue conspired to make the Bolts’ finish to 2017-18 a little less than inspiring? Tampa Bay went 5-4-1 in its last 10 games, as just one example, with Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov losing significant ground in their respective trophy races.

The Lightning still finished atop the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, going 54-23-5 for 113 standings points. The Devils finished one point ahead of the Florida Panthers for the East’s final wild card, generating 97 standings points on a 44-29-9 record.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Even with a less-than-spectacular finish to the season, the Lightning are heavy favorites. Tampa Bay ranks among the biggest favorites of any team in the first round on account of its strengths and the Devils’ perceived weaknesses.

Beyond the momentum angle, the Devils might pin their hopes on sweeping the season series against the Lightning. They won once in a shootout and twice in regulation. Maybe New Jersey matches up well with Tampa Bay?

Let’s break this series down.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Lightning: It’s easy to look at the Lightning as just the one-two punch of a successfully returning Steven Stamkos (27 goals, 86 points) and Kucherov, who hit the 100-point mark for the first time in his wildly underrated career. The frightening part is that it’s not even just about them, nor J.T. Miller in Vladislav Namestnikov‘s old spot.

This series might clue in casual hockey fans that Brayden Point is a rising star. He scored 32 goals and 66 points this season, doing so in sometimes spectacular ways:

Yanni Gourde would also receive way more Calder Trophy buzz in a normal season, as he scored 25 goals and 64 points. The Lightning also have some other nice forwards, including Tyler Johnson (21 goals, 50 points), Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat. It should be noted that, while Palat only scored 35 points, he was limited to 56 games.

The biggest injury question revolves around Stamkos, who missed some late-season games. Will he be 100 percent either by Game 1 or merely sometime in this series?

Devils: It’s well-publicized but true: the drop off from Taylor Hall (93 points) to the second-best Devils scorer (Nico Hischier, 52 points) is drastic.

Hall deservedly gets Hart Trophy buzz, and he’s the single player who could will the Devils to upset victories against the Bolts in his first-ever visit to the postseason.

It’s unfair to say that he’s the only weapon for New Jersey. Despite being limited to 62 games, Kyle Palmieri continues to be an under-the-radar gem, scoring 24 goals and 44 points. Patrick Maroon has been a boon via the trade deadline, collecting 13 points in 17 games with the Devils. Michael Grabner‘s been quiet, but his speed and skill could be useful in a short series, especially with the motivation of a contract year hanging over his head.

AdvantageLightning. Few teams possess the arsenal that Tampa Bay boasts.

DEFENSEMEN

Lightning: Victor Hedman may very well win the Norris Trophy this season. You can argue until your face turns blue over who deserves that nod, but he certainly earned the right to be in the discussion, generating 63 points in 77 games while playing great defense.

Mikhail Sergachev might be a work in progress, yet his offense is already formidable, as the rookie collected 40 points this season despite modest ice time (15:21 minutes per game). They can enjoy the best of both worlds as they protect him and then deploy him for scoring situations.

Ryan McDonagh is still adjusting to Tampa Bay. This is the time they got him for, as he could be a key piece in matchups. He’s joined by other former Rangers Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi, though the Lightning probably want to limit Girardi’s exposure (even after a relatively decent season).

Devils: New Jersey still looks weak on defense on paper, but credit the Devils with adding some talent in that area.

Sami Vatanen is developing into a workhorse for the Devils, averaging 22:44 per game while scoring 28 points in 57 games. Will Butcher has a ways to go in his own end, but he already generated 44 points in his first NHL season.

Damon Severson, Andy Greene, and John Moore are among those blueliners who can prove that they’re worth more of a look with a strong playoffs.

Advantage: Lightning, by a significant margin.

GOALIES

Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy may still be a Vezina finalist, and it’s easy to see why with a 44-17-3 record, .920 save percentage, and eight shutouts. He’s also proven himself in postseason play before, generating that same .920 save percentage in 12 career playoff appearances.

His recent play is the elephant in the room, as he admitted himself to fatigue late in 2017-18. Consider that he generated a brilliant .931 save percentage in 41 games before the All-Star break, only to slide to a bad-backup-level .902 save percentage in 24 games after the break.

Louis Domingue hasn’t really inspired any confidence as his backup.

Devils: With Cory Schneider seemingly at a career crisis, the Devils turned to Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid proved unexpectedly sturdy for New Jersey, producing a four-game winning streak to help them lock down that playoff spot, and also generating a .913 save percentage over 41 appearances.

AdvantageLightning, even though Vasilevskiy’s energy comes into question.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Lightning: The Bolts’ power play ranks among the NHL’s deadliest, boasting a 23.9-percent success rate on 66 power-play goals and just three shorthanded goals allowed. Their penalty kill struggled, however, with a PK% of just 76.1 percent, fourth-worst in the NHL (64 PPGA, nine shorthanded goals for).

Devils: New Jersey connected on 21.4 percent of its power plays, good for 54 PPG and six SHGA. They excelled on the PK, tying for seventh in the NHL by killing 81.8 percent of their penalties (47 power-play goals allowed, 12 shorthanded goals scored).

Advantage: Devils, as they mix a very nice power play with one of the better PK units, especially when you consider how dangerous they are with 12 shorthanded goals. That said, the Lightning’s power play is so dominant, it might make that balance irrelevant.

X-FACTORS

Lightning: Is Vasilevskiy going to be anywhere close to his best self or his tank truly empty? This Lightning team is balanced and dangerous at the top, but bad goaltending can submarine even the strongest teams.

Devils: Taylor Hall in his first playoff series. It’s a great story, and there’s a solid chance that he’ll be the best player on the ice. Could he be such a force that he tilts this series in New Jersey’s favor?

PREDICTION

Lightning in five games. The Bolts possess the top-heavy talent to nullify Taylor Hall, and even if they lose that battle, they’re likely to dominate from a depth perspective. Vasilevskiy also gives them an advantage in net … at least on paper.

If you’re a Devils fan grumbling right now, consider this: New Jersey seems to thrive on defying the odds. Why not do it in the first round, too?

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: Bruins blow big lead; Troubling Crosby report

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Uh oh

The Athletic’s Rob Rossi reports (sub required) that Sidney Crosby is considering undergoing surgery for a sports hernia, among other treatment options.

Rossi reports that Crosby recently aggravated the injury, but it was something that had been bothering throughout 2019-20. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ host of injuries explained why Crosby didn’t undergo a procedure sooner.

If Crosby undergoes such a surgery, Rossi explains that the typical recovery window is four-to-six weeks, although Crosby’s been told it may only sideline him for a month. There are other possibilities to try to avoid surgery, as Rossi outlines, although delaying the inevitable could lead to aggravating the issue again.

Personally, I’d bite the bullet and have Crosby go under the knife now, rather than risking losing him during an even more important time of the year. We’ll see how it goes, whether Crosby opts for surgery or tries alternate options. It doesn’t seem like the rosiest update overall, though.

Three Stars

1. Andrew Werner, Colorado Avalanche

This post goes into greater detail, but in short, Werner made his NHL debut after Pavel Francouz was injured seconds into Tuesday’s game against the Jets. Not only did the 22-year-old Werner win for Colorado, he also stopped all 40 of Winnipeg’s shots on goal.

Technically, Werner won’t get a shutout, as Francouz started the contest and played for about one minute. It was a functional shutout in every other way, though — Werner even stopped all eight of Patrik Laine‘s shots on goal — so he nabs the top star of Tuesday.

2. Nathan MacKinnonalso of the Colorado Avalanche

… Unless you think his teammate is more deserving.

With Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog still on the shelf, MacKinnon showed that he can still generate high-level offense, as he factored into all four Avalanche goals (2G, 2A).

It’s been a little all-or-nothing for MacKinnon lately. Along with Tuesday’s four points, he also generated a four-point game (1G, 3A) on Nov. 7. Yet, in three of his five most recent games, MacKinnon was held pointless. Eight points in five games still rocks, mind you, but maybe that feast-or-famine pattern shows where MacKinnon might miss his partners in crime.

Either way, it’s been a superstar-status-affirming start to 2019-20, as MacKinnon has 11 goals and 26 points in 18 games.

3. Keith Yandle, Florida Panthers

The Panthers missed out on a Mike Hoffman power-play opportunity when the lights went out temporarily in Boston, and to make matters worse, were behind 4-0 during the third period. Instead of folding, Florida scored four goals during that third period, then beat the Bruins 5-4 via a shootout.

Yandle played a big role in that rally (1G, 2A). The high-scoring defenseman collected primary assists on two Panthers goals, and also scored the goal that sent the game to overtime.

There were other players who generated three points on Tuesday, including Yandle’s teammate, Jonathan Huberdeau. The importance of Yandle’s goal, or primary nature of Yandle’s assists, made his night stand out, though. (Huberdeau’s assists were secondary, and Tanner Pearson‘s goal was an empty-netter, as two examples. Oh, and Huberdeau is now tied for first in Panthers history with 249 assists, alongside Stephen Weiss.)

Highlight of the Night

Brendan Lemieux‘s tremendous pass + Kaapo Kakko‘s great move to finish things off for a goal already received plenty of attention, but sorry, it’s the clip of the night.

Factoids

  • Tuesday marked just the third time in Bruins history where an opponent tied the game after Boston carried a four-goal lead into the third period, via Mike Biergard of the NHL. The Bruins lost 7-6 in OT to the Maple Leafs in 1989, and won 5-4 against the Kings in 1981.
  • From the Panthers’ perspective:

  • Erik Karlsson was another player who authored a three-point game, generating three assists as San Jose beat Edmonton. That’s his 37th three-point game, the most of any defenseman since Karlsson entered the league in 2019-20, via NHL PR.
  • One more from NHL PR: Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar joins Larry Murphy (Kings, 1980-81) as the only two rookie defensemen to generate at least one point in 14 of their first 18 regular season games.

Scores

FLA 5 – BOS 4 (SO)
MTL 3 – CBJ 2 (SO)
NYR 3 – PIT 2 (OT)
ARI 3 – STL 2 (SO)
COL 4 – WPG 0
VAN 5 – NSH 3
DET 4 – ANA 3 (OT)
LAK 3 – MIN 1
SJS 6 – EDM 3

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Oilers were not happy with Hertl’s hit on McDavid

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Even in late 2019, it’s a little bit odd to see Brandon Manning stand up for Connor McDavid. You know, after that.

The two have been Edmonton Oilers teammates for a while now, and Manning did just that on Tuesday, dropping the gloves with Barclay Goodrow of the San Jose Sharks after Tomas Hertl delivered a controversial neutral zone hit on McDavid.

You can watch Hertl’s hit, McDavid’s reaction, and the ensuing fight in the video above this post’s headline.

The early signs are that McDavid avoided an injury (at least one significant enough to make him miss immediate action), as he finished the game. McDavid logged four third-period shifts after that incident in the second period, so that’s a decent sign that the Oilers my have avoided the bullet of a lower-body injury.

Then again, he seemingly left in a hurry after the Sharks beat the Oilers 6-3, so we’ll see.

What do you think of Hertl’s hit, though? For what it’s worth, Hertl received a minor penalty for interference on the play.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Avalanche stumble upon new hero after another startling injury

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The Colorado Avalanche’s list of injuries was already pretty ridiculous, particularly for mid-November, and things got worse on Tuesday. Even so, they found a way to beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-0.

Less than a minute into the game, Jets star Mark Scheifele fell into Avs goalie Pavel Francouz, who was already taking over for an injured Philipp Grubauer. It was a hard collision, as you can see from the video above. Scheifele received a justifiable interference penalty for the exchange, and was seen apologizing.

Francouz would not return to the contest, and it’s unknown if he’ll miss additional time. If you want an indication of how much injuries are piling up even just in Colorado’s net, realize that the Avs had to call upon a fabled emergency goalie. In this case, it was Byron Spriggs.

The Avalanche would never need Byron Spriggs.

Nope, instead, Adam Werner came in cold for his first NHL start — and managed an outstanding shutout in everything but its name.

(Technically, Werner didn’t play the full contest, so he’ll have to accept that it’s a shutout only in our hearts and minds, not to mention between the Jets’ expletives.)

Werner didn’t just get propped up in a 4-0 win; he made a resounding 40 saves for that basically-it’s-a-shutout.

The Avalanche did an OK job protecting Werner from the toughest of opportunities — via Natural Stat Trick, Winnipeg’s expected goals was 2.41, with nine high-danger chances — but 40 shots on goal are 40 shots on goal. Patrik Laine fired eight SOG alone.

Now, it’s not fair to call Werner an unbeatable unknown.

The 22-year-old Swede was at least drafted, as the Avalanche selected Werner in the fifth round (131st overall) in 2016. While his AHL stats haven’t been anything to write home about, there are indications here and there that he might be more than a guy who stumbled upon a lucky night.

But … he also might be a guy who stumbled upon a lucky night. Either way, it was one great out-of-nowhere performance, and it’s easy to see why he looked so stunned after the win.

(Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Remarkable stuff, and beyond this coming out party for Adam Werner and Adam Werner Google searches, it was another reminder that Nathan MacKinnon is ridiculously explosive. Despite the Avs missing Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog (among others), the speedy center was involved in all four of Colorado’s tallies, scoring two goals and two assists.

Maybe that’s the formula for the 10-5-2 Avalanche, at least while they’re riddled with injuries: “MacKinnon being MacKinnon plus some random hero popping up out of the blue/fifth round of 2016.”

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Rangers beat Penguins in OT thanks to Kakko’s big night

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Kaapo Kakko looked dominant, at times, against men before he was drafted, including versus some NHL talent during the 2019 IIHF World Championship. The feeling was that he could make an immediate and successful jump from being the second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft to becoming an instant impact player for the New York Rangers, possibly outshining top pick Jack Hughes for the Devils.

A little more than a month into his career, it’s been up-and-down for Kakko, but we might just look at Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins as a breakthrough moment.

Rangers start strong

Kakko took advantage of a bodacious Brendan Lemieux pass to score the first goal of Tuesday’s game, then ended up collecting the game-winner in overtime as the Rangers beat the Penguins 3-2 (OT). You could call it a big night not just for Kakko, but the Rangers’ youth in general, as Adam Fox set up Kakko’s OT game-winner, and also scored the Rangers’ second goal off of a great feed by Artemi Panarin.

Here’s that OT-winner for your viewing pleasure:

The Rangers dominated the first period, ending in 2-0, and credit to Matt Murray for keeping it from being any worse. Natural Stat Trick’s period-by-period graph provides another way of showing how dramatic the bad start was for Pittsburgh:

Penguins roll with the punches, and break a slump

The point’s been made that the Penguins have had a knack for rallying lately, and they did again on Tuesday — just not for the win.

Pittsburgh scored two goals in the second period to tie things up. Maybe the biggest sigh of relief came on the second tally, and not just because it made the game 2-2 at the time. After going 0-for-28 in their last power-play opportunities and failing to score on the man advantage for almost a month, Jared McCann finally ended that drought.

That second-period effort was enough for the Penguins to secure a standings point despite falling behind 2-0 early on, but Fox and Kakko combined for the game-winner.

Kakko is now at six goals and eight points over his first 16 NHL games, while this also marks his first point streak (he scored a goal against the Panthers on Sunday). With that goal and assist, Fox generated his first multi-point game, but the defenseman has already been a quick study (insert Harvard joke), as this pushes his own point streak to five games (two goals, four assists for six points during that span). Fox also has eight points in 16 games this season.

Recent play of both teams

The Penguins will get a dose of the top two picks of the 2019 NHL Draft this week, as their next game is against Hughes and the Devils on Friday. After that, the Penguins play five of their next six games at home from Nov. 16-27, so maybe they’ll get some confidence in breaking that PP drought and at least getting a point with Sidney Crosby on the shelf for an unclear duration of time. Pittsburgh’s record sank to 10-6-2 for 22 points.

The Rangers, meanwhile, continue to quietly build up steam. They’ve gone 4-0-1 in their last five games, five of their last seven (5-1-1) to improve to 8-6-2 overall.

If young players like Kakko and Fox keep improving, the Rangers might just manage more hot stretches down the road in 2019-20.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.