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: Elvis, Ovechkin, and others who rocked

Elvis Ovechkin three stars pht buzzer
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Three Stars beyond Elvis and Ovechkin

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago blowing out Toronto will lead to some hand-wringing, no doubt. Yet, as much as that was on a tough night for Frederik Andersen, give the Blackhawks some credit. Toews topped all in that game with an outstanding four-point performance (two goals and two assists).

Saturday continued what’s been one heck of a month for Toews. The Blackhawks captained pushed his January total to 15 points (5G, 10A). Toews reached that total in just eight games, scoring at least one point in seven contests.

Scratch that. Toews has been on fire for a while now. He started off ice-cold with only two points in 11 October games. Toews took off after that, and has generated an impressive 41 points in his past 28 contests.

Underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik contributed to Chicago’s win, too, with three points (2G, 1A).

2. Riley Sheahan, Edmonton Oilers

Sheahan scoffs at Toews’ slow start. The journeyman forward failed to score a point in 12 October games, and managed one in 11 November contests. Sheahan went and matched his December points total (four in 14 GP) in one contest on Saturday.

That’s right, he generated four points, scoring an empty-netter plus three assists. Connor McDavid dominated in his own right with two goals, but Sheahan helped the Oilers rout the Coyotes. Josh Archibald generated three points (1G, 2A) as well.

This just in: the Oilers have a lot of “that guy’s still around?” forwards. It’s honestly cool to see some of them have such a strong day, and maybe take a bit of the pressure off McDavid here and there.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s as though Atkinson never missed any time. After scoring a goal and an assist in his first game in almost one month on Thursday, Atkinson generated three points (2G, 1A) on Saturday. This gives Atkinson seven points (4G, 3A) in his past four contests.

Others give Atkinson a run for his money, even beyond the next section. Jason Zucker (1G, 2A) and James van Riemsdyk (1G, 2A) both contributed to their respective teams’ blowouts. Atkinson’s extra goal gives him the edge.

OK, now let’s consider Elvis and Ovechkin

Saturday featured enough strong performances that it feels better to give these two a mention. After all, they already received their own posts. Yes, these two probably rank as the “real” third and fourth stars of Saturday, or higher, depending upon your personal taste.

Highlight of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury is suffering through a tough season, big-picture wise. “The Flower” keeps adding to his resume of breathtaking saves, though:

Comic relief

Jamie Benn provides us with a reason to laugh. At least those of us who aren’t immediately transported to our own memories of hilarious blunders.

That video summarizes the Stars’ night succinctly, as the Wild beat them 7-0.

Factoids

  • Ovechkin nabbed consecutive hat tricks to push his career goals total to 692. He passed Mario Lemieux (11th all-time, 690) and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time (692). Mark Messier sits just two goals away at eighth with 694. Ovechkin also generated consecutive hat tricks for the third time in his career. In doing so, Ovechkin joined Joe Malone (four times) and Wayne Gretzky (three) as the only players to generate consecutive hat tricks three or more times, according to NHL PR. Again, this post delves deeper into Ovechkin’s latest accomplishments.
  • Ovechkin’s teammate John Carlson reached 60 points. Carlson managed the feat in just 49 games, getting to 60 faster than any Capitals defenseman; Mike Green held the previous mark with 60 by game 57. Opinion: Green deserved better treatment from hockey folks during his peak years.
  • Merzlikins authored the 18th instance of a rookie goalie getting a shutout of at least 41 saves, via NHL PR.
  • Cale Makar scored his 11th goal, setting a new record for goals by a rookie Avalanche defenseman.
  • Dominik Kubalik reached 20 goals in his 47th game. NHL PR points out that Kubalik ranks among sixth Blackhawks to reach 20 goals in 50 games or less.

Scores

WSH 6 – NYI 4
COL 5 – STL 3
EDM 7 – ARI 3
OTT 5 – CGY 2
CHI 6 – TOR 2
MTL 5 – VGK 4 (SO)
FLA 4 – DET 1
PHI 4 – LAK 1
CBJ 5 – NJD 0
NSH 2 – BUF 1
MIN 7 – DAL 0
VAN 4 – SJS 1

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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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.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.