What can Devils do to slow down Lightning offense?

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Even though they finished the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference and the third best record in the entire NHL there didn’t seem to be a ton of optimism surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs. At least compared to what you might expect from a top seed. A lot of that was probably due to the fact that they kind of backed into the playoffs with a 6-6-1 record to end the regular season.

After two games in their first-round series against the New Jersey Devils it is starting to look like any concern with this team may have been a little overstated.

None of it matters now.

With their 5-3 win on Saturday afternoon the Lightning have taken control of their first-round series and own a 2-0 series lead as it shifts to New Jersey for Monday night.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

What had to be especially frustrating for the Devils is they didn’t really play a terrible game and, despite what the final score might tell you, did a lot of things well.

At times they were able to limit the number of chances the Lightning were able to generate.

Nico Hischier, their prized 19-year-old rookie, scored his first career playoff goal.

They were able to apply a little bit of pressure, especially in the third period, and create some chances on Andrei Vasilevskiy. Even if a lot of that may have simply been the result of the Lightning sitting back with a three-goal lead entering the period, New Jersey still didn’t go away without a fight and made things a little tense for home crowd.

But for all of the things they may have done well they just simply did not — and do not — have the talent to match up with what the Lightning have throughout their lineup, and that is going to be the problem going forward in this series. When the score was closer early in the game the Lightning were controlling the puck and scoring goals at will.

Trying to figure out how to match that depth and slow down what Tampa Bay has throughout its lineup almost seems impossible for the Devils at this point.

All year depth was a concern for this team.

One of the biggest arguments in support of Taylor Hall‘s MVP bid was that he finished the season with 41 more points than any other player on the roster and had a hand 38 percent of their goals. That is great for him and shows just how dominant he was offensively and how special his season was. It also speaks to the lack of depth the Devils’ lineup had beyond their top player.

Through the first two games of this series against Tampa Bay has already scored 10 goals with contributions from players all over the lineup. Not just the big guys at the top. Sure, Nikita Kucherov has four points already, but look at what the other lines and players are doing. Alex Killorn has three goals.  The Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat line has already combined for four goals. The fourth line hasn’t provided any offense, but they have at least controlled the puck and kept the Devils off the board, which is probably the best you can hope for from the fourth line.

It’s a ridiculously balanced lineup and for as much pressure as the Devils were able to put on late on Saturday (starting when the game was already 5-1 on the scoreboard) they just don’t have the firepower to consistently match that.

The first thing the Devils have to do: Stay out of the penalty box.  The Lightning had the second best power play unit in the NHL this season and it has already burned the Devils four times in this series. That can not continue.

Then there is the goaltending question.

Keith Kinkaid probably exceeded expectations this season when filling in for Cory Schneider and played exceptionally well during the stretch run of the regular season. He has struggled through the first two games and ended up getting pulled on Saturday after surrendering five goals on 15 shots.

Schneider only faced 10 shots in relief and stopped them all.

Even so, the fix for the Devils in this series probably isn’t as simple as a goaltending change, especially when Schneider has not been the same goalie over the past two years. Their best hope is to slow the pace of the game down as much as possible at 5-on-5, stop taking dumb penalties (like the Kyle Palmieri unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that resulted in another Tampa Bay power play goal), and hope that their second-third-and-fourth lines can keep things even long enough for Hall to take over when he gets on the ice.

If that seems like it’s asking a lot, that is because it is. That is just the talent gap that exists between these two teams.

For as much talk as there was down the stretch about the Lightning’s struggles, they still went 13-6-2 in their final 20 games. Sure, only seven of those wins came in regulation, but they still scored 73 goals and averaged 3.65 goals per game during that stretch. Even when they were “struggling” they were still lighting up the scoreboard unlike any other team in the league. They are still a force to be reckoned with. And even on a day where the Devils did a lot of good things and played reasonably well it still wasn’t enough.

That has to be frustrating. And concerning for where this series goes from here because it doesn’t seem like the Devils really have another level to go above what they did at times on Saturday. It still was not close to enough.

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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.

The Buzzer: Gallagher’s dagger

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Three Stars:

1. John Carlson

Alex Ovechkin scored two goals in Washington’s overtime win, but we have to dock him some imaginary three star points for collecting both tallies from his “office” on the power play. Besides, Carlsson generated more points in the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime win, generating a goal and two assists. He also fired five shots on goal and logged a hearty 26:02 time on ice.

(Neal Pionk ranked as a strong honorable mention for the Rangers, offering up three assists and four blocked shots.)

2. Michael Frolik

Frolik heralded the reunion of “The 3M Line” with a difference-making performance, scoring two early goals in Calgary’s victory against Boston. The defensively responsible forward came very close to collecting a hat trick, sending a shorthanded breakaway attempt just a little too high against Tuukka Rask.

He ended up with a +3 rating, three shots on goal, and even won his two draws.

3. John Gibson

You could easily give the third star to Ryan Kesler, who turned back the clock to score two goals (and was Frolik-close to nabbing a hat trick while barely missing an empty net from way downtown).

Gibson’s been the motor for the Ducks’ defiantly strong start to 2018-19 season, though, and the fantastic goalie fell just 34 seconds short of a shutout, stopping 34 out of 35 shots. The American-born netminder is now on a four-game winning streak.

Highlights of the Night:

OK, it’s probably the lowlight of the night, as Colton Parayko caught up an absolutely brutal turnover in the closing moments of regulation, opening the door for Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher to combine for a stunning Habs game-winner, as you can see in these highlights:

Yeesh.

Patrice Bergeron can do it all.

Factoids

Alex Ovechkin scored two goals from his “office” on the power play, and while not every multi-goal night has been as easy as that looked, it certainly comes easier to Ovechkin than anyone else:

Johnny Gaudreau hit a nice milestone by scoring his 100th goal in his 318th NHL game. He’s not far from hitting 200 assists, either.

Scores

Capitals 4, Rangers 3 (OT)
Canadiens 3, Blues 2
Flames 5, Bruins 2
Ducks 4, Islanders 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Flames extinguish Bruins’ hot streak

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For a while there, it looked like the Boston Bruins were going to being 2018-19 with a “feast or famine” approach. Would they exchange blowout losses and impressive winning streaks?

Instead, the Bruins got back into Wednesday’s game after the Flames stormed to a 3-0 lead in the first period, but Calgary ultimately prevailed 5-2.

To start things off, the Flames enjoyed some sensational work from Michael Frolik, who celebrated the reunion of “The 3M Line” with two early goals. Frolik nearly netted at hat trick during a stretch where the Flames generated two semi-breakaways on the penalty kill, but he settled for the sort of night that should make another healthy scratch unlikely.

Frolik’s face was almost as entertaining as the tic-tac-toe goal that inspired it:

There were stretches where the Bruins seemed like they might do more than save face.

Most notably, the Bruins began the third period with a healthy 5-on-3 opportunity, yet Boston failed to even register a shot on goal. (To be fair, David Pastrnak found the post, but it was still a weak showing considering the Bruins’ firepower.)

While it was a night Tuukka Rask would like to forget, the veteran goalie deserves some credit for gathering hits wits after a tough first period. One of his better bounce-back moments came when he denied Johnny Gaudreau‘s attempt to score his 101st NHL goal (he scored number 100 during a first-period flurry), a save that preceded a vicious hit by Charlie McAvoy:

Generally speaking, the two teams’ impressive top lines delivered in this one.

Gaudreau hit that 100-goal milestone, and while the Bruins roughed him up quite a bit (even beyond that McAvoy hit), created a lot of chances as usual. Patrice Bergeron scored a sweet goal and an assist, Brad Marchand found the net, and Pastrnak collected a helper to go with a disallowed tally from the first period.

The Flames’ struggles have been confounding, at times, because they’ve fallen short quite often even though they combine Gaudreau-Sean Monahan with that “3M Line” of Frolik, Mikael Backlund, and Matthew Tkachuk. In this case, that second line made the difference.

Thanks to this result, Calgary’s won four of its last five games, while Boston’s four-game winning streak comes to an end.

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.

Day at Ovechkin’s office: Capitals edge Rangers in OT

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The Washington Capitals outlasted the New York Rangers in what was largely a game of inches and lethal power-play units.

Matt Niskanen ultimately notched the difference-maker in Washington’s 4-3 overtime win as the Capitals ended a losing streak at two games. The rebuilding Rangers provided a pretty spirited showing, holding their own as the Capitals generated a modest 38-32 shots on goal advantage.

Here’s that Niskanen game-winner:

Each power-play unit went 2-for-4 on Wednesday, with the Capitals taking advantage of the “Death and Taxes” certainty of Alex Ovechkin scoring from “his office.” Both of Ovechkin’s power-play goals came from almost the exact same spot, with the main difference being that the second one caught Henrik Lundqvist a bit more by surprise (in part because he shot low).

John Carlson ranked as one of the Capitals’ standout performers in this win, generating one goal and two assists.

The Rangers enjoyed strong nights from their own first line, as both Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider authored one-goal, one-assist performances while creating plenty of other chances. (Jesper Fast was also busy, although he failed to generate any points.)

Circling back to that “game of inches” point, consider that Washington barely avoided a goal, as Christian Djoos saved the day early on:

While Ovechkin was close to nabbing yet another hat trick:

The Rangers and Capitals approach the 2018-19 season with very different expectations, yet each team saw their veteran goalies manage some nice stops, enjoyed strong nights from their top guns, and generally put on a nice show on NBCSN.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Will NHL reduce Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension?

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Tom Wilson will get a chance to state his case to reduce his 20-game suspension via an appeal hearing with the NHL on Thursday, a process Bob McKenzie discusses in the video above this post’s headline.

To catch you up to speed, note that this is part of the appeal process where Wilson brings his case to Gary Bettman. After that, Wilson also has the option to bring his case to an independent arbitrator.

Wednesday’s New York Rangers – Washington Capitals game represents the sixth of 20 games. Note that Wilson loses more than $60K for every game he’s suspended for, so a reduction in his sentence could mean a lot of dough for the polarizing hitter.

What are his chances of getting a lighter punishment, then? As McKenzie notes, they aren’t great, particularly when it comes to Bettman cutting down a suspension.

That said, there are two cases worth noting:

  • Raffi Torres’ hit on Marian HossaIn July 2012, Wilson-like hitter Torres saw a 25-game suspension fall to 21 games for his check on Marian Hossa. This is probably the most directly comparable situation, at least when you consider the types of hits and the rap sheet for the players involved.
  • In June 2014, Dan Carcillo saw an “abuse of official” suspension reduced from 10 games to six.

Now, a neutral arbitrator might be more likely to ease the duration of Wilson’s suspension. Consider these two cases, which aren’t necessarily directly comparable:

All things considered, it’s easy to see why Wilson would go through this process. It’s quite plausible that he’ll get back into the lineup sooner and lose less money from the suspension, even if it’s not fair to call the possibility “likely.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.