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Big saves, more saves: Top goalies starring in key moments

Bruce Cassidy watched from afar as Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stoned Travis Zajac on a breakaway and knew that was the kind of save teams need in the playoffs.

One night later, the Boston coach saw up close how Tuukka Rask got his blocker on Mitch Marner‘s breakaway attempt on the way to another Bruins victory.

”Every team needs goaltending,” Cassidy said. ”On the road, you’re going to need a little extra at some point. We got it.”

The Bruins aren’t the only team getting great goaltending at crucial moments as the first round wraps up. While Rask has them up 3-1 on Toronto, Vasilevskiy is the biggest reason Tampa Bay has the New Jersey Devils on the brink of elimination and Braden Holtby has stabilized the Washington Capitals to tie their series against Columbus going into Game 5 Saturday (3 p.m. EDT, NBC/NBCSN).

After a high-scoring start to the Stanley Cup playoffs, netminders are making spectacular saves when called upon. A lot of the routine stops, too. Even though postseason scoring is up 7 percent from last year, Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury and San Jose’s Martin Jones combined to allow just seven goals in eight games – two four-game sweeps – to set up a second-round showdown. Rask and Vaslievskiy have each given up just nine through five games and Holtby has stopped 63 of 67 shots since replacing Philipp Grubauer in goal.

”Your job obviously every game as a goaltender is to limit bad goals,” Holtby said Friday. ”Your goalie’s there to calm things down at the right minutes – make a big save here and there.”

Big saves are a bigger deal this time of year than volume, considering how many harmless shots are flicked at the net from long range. Sometimes those go in, like when Boston’s Torrey Krug floated a weak shot past Frederik Andersen in Game 4 Thursday night.

Few of those have happened in these playoffs against Rask, Holtby and Vasilevskiy, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, the NHL’s top goalie award. Rask’s 2.27 goals-against average and .926 save percentage are indicative of just how solid he has been in giving the Bruins a chance to close out the Maple Leafs on Saturday (8 p.m. EDT, NBC).

”He’s one of the best goalies in the world and gives us an opportunity to win every night,” Bruins winger Brad Marchand said of Rask, who won the Vezina in 2014.

Rask might be salty that he wasn’t one of the three Vezina finalists, finishing behind Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck and Vasilevskiy, who get a postseason trip to the awards show in Las Vegas. Vasilevskiy earned it with a strong first half of the season, struggled late and is back in form with Atlantic Division-champion Tampa Bay able advance with a win Saturday (3 p.m. EDT, NBC/NBCSN).

Lightning coach Jon Cooper doesn’t think Vasilevskiy played poorly in the final quarter of the regular season as much as his team’s defensive game sagged. That has changed against the Devils, though Vasilevskiy has bailed out Tampa Bay on a few occasions.

”When your team’s playing better defense it helps your goaltender out and he doesn’t have to make as many highlight-reel saves,” Cooper said. ”I think what you’re seeing in the playoffs is a group that’s been determined to play both ends of the ice, and in turn that’s helping Vasilevskiy out.”

Game 4 Thursday was Holtby’s first time allowing fewer than two goals in a start since Nov. 18. But the 2016 Vezina winner insists he doesn’t feel any different than before his time off to reset his game in March.

He just looks like his old self.

”I think it’s got him to a place where he feels like Braden Holtby again, like he trusts his game, he trusts what he’s put in,” coach Barry Trotz said. ”He’s focused on the right things and it’s allowed him to get to a place where I think he feels very comfortable.”

STEPPING UP

When Bruins star Patrice Bergeron‘s streak of 104 consecutive playoff games ended because of an undisclosed injury, unheralded Riley Nash excelled centering the top line of Marchand and David Pastrnak in Game 4 in Toronto.

”He plays a two-way game,” Bruins center David Krejci said. ”He’s got good skills as well, so he fit well on that line.”

Cassidy said a decision on Bergeron playing in Game 5 won’t come until Saturday. Toronto center Nazem Kadri will return from a three-game suspension for boarding Tommy Wingels.

Lightning winger Ryan Callahan is a game-time decision against the Devils, who are likely to be without top defenseman Sami Vatanen.

Columbus center Alexander Wennberg skated Friday and could return after missing three games after a hit to the head from Tom Wilson. Washington won’t have winger Andre Burakovsky for the rest of the series because of an upper-body injury that Trotz said requires ”minor” surgery.

Without Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson earned the promotion to the Capitals’ top line and has thrived with significant ice time alongside Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.

”It’s something you only dream of,” Stephenson said. ”Growing up watching them and then finally playing with them, it’s quite the special feeling.”

CLOSE THE DEAL

Going through a grueling run to the 2015 Cup Final taught Cooper a lesson about the benefits of finishing a team off in elimination games. The same goes for the banged-up Bruins because they’re on a crash course to face the Lightning in the second round.

”If you have a chance to win a series early, do it,” Cooper said. ”Just to get the mental and physical rest, and then (have) all the other series go deep.”

AP Sports Writers Jimmy Golen in Boston, Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio, and Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed.

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    Golden Knights enjoying ride to Stanley Cup Final, but remain unsatisfied

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    When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Eastern Conference Final in 2008, captain Sidney Crosby and his teammates decided to stick to superstition and not touch the Prince of Wales Trophy. It didn’t work as they fell to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. A year later, as well as in 2016 and 2017, they put their mitts all over it and success followed in those Cup Finals.

    So after the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 to claim the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl in their first year of existence, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who was a part of those Penguins teams, told de-facto captain Deryk Engelland to pick up the trophy.

    This entire Golden Knights season has been unbelievable, so might as well tell superstition to be damned, right?

    ***

    The ride continues for the “Vegas Golden Misfits,” as they so affectionately have dubbed themselves. It’s May 20, 2018 and an expansion franchise will be competing for the Stanley Cup within the week. No one saw this coming. Not after the expansion draft last June. Not after the team finally started playing together during training camp. Not even after their hot start in October.

    When did the Golden Knights starts believing this year could be something special?

    “I think once we hit Christmas we had the belief in the room,” Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt told NBCSN afterward. “We knew we had the guys, it was whether or not we could continue to do it. We believed that we could do that. We believed in that room, all the guys it took, and however many lineup changes, that we had the guys in there that could pull something like this off.”

    [Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final]

    Head coach Gerard Gallant started to believe during a back-to-back road trip to Nashville and Dallas in early December. 

    A 2-0 lead against the Predators on Dec. 8 evaporated with Nashville firing off three straight and taking the lead with 5:04 to play. Doubting Vegas would be a mistake all season, which explains Erik Haula tying the game with 40 seconds to play and Reilly Smith winning it in the sixth round of the shootout. The following night was another tough win, with the Stars keeping things tight until the very end and the Golden Knights coming out on top 5-3.

    “We come out of those games, we outplayed both of those teams, played great hockey,” Gallant said. “That’s when I said to myself, this is a special team, the character on this team, they believe they can beat anybody. Going into those two buildings at that time was a big, big boost for us. It was a confidence builder for me, too.”

    Those two victories were part of an 11-1-1 month to close out 2017 as the questioned about the Golden Knights’ legitimacy began to disappear.

    ***

    “There’s no partying with me,” Gallant said after Game 5 when asked if he’s going to celebrate this accomplishment.

    The quest isn’t over. The Vegas Golden Knights have evolved from bunch of expansion “misfits” to a nice story to a playoff team to a legit Stanley Cup contender over the course of six months. No one saw this coming, but the players inside the dressing room developed a belief over that period of time and that belief has manifested in reality. 

    Vegas will now have a few days off as they await the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. After 82 regular season games and 15 playoff games, it’s time for some rest as the mission is far from accomplished.

    “It’s been an awesome ride so far. We’ve won three series. We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final, but this isn’t what we want,” Gallant said. “We want to win.”

    MORE:
    • Conference Finals schedule, TV info
    • NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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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.

    PHT’s Three Stars: Reaves’ goal helps Golden Knights reach Cup Final

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    1st Star: Ryan Reaves, Vegas Golden Knights

    A year ago, “Ryan Reaves scored the goal that helped send the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final” is totally the sentence we all expected to read in May 2018. Well, here we are after Vegas eliminated the Winnipeg Jets in Game 5 with a 2-1 victory.

    2nd Star: Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

    Fleury continued his march toward the Conn Smythe trophy with a 31-save effort as he helped ensure his chance to win a third straight Stanley Cup.

    [Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final]

    3rd Star: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

    After a tough couple of games, Hellebuyck did all he could to keep the Jets in Game 5. He finished with 30 saves, including  a pair late in the third period that helped keep the Jets’ deficit to one goal.

    Highlight of the Day:

    Thank you, Deryk Engelland, for touching the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl:

    Factoid of the Day:

    Monday’s schedule: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitals, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Lightning lead series 3-2)

    MORE:
    • Conference Finals schedule, TV info
    • NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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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.

    Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final

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    Want to capture the unlikely story of the Vegas Golden Knights advancing to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in their first season? Consider that Ryan Reaves was the person who scored the goal to punch their ticket.

    (It’s OK if you need a second just to stare at your screen in disbelief.)

    Remarkably, the Golden Knights only needed one chance to dispatch the Winnipeg Jets, who sported the NHL’s second-best record (and who eliminated the top team, Nashville, in the previous round). With a 2-1 win in Game 5, Vegas beat Winnipeg 4-1 in the series.

    [PHT’s Three Stars.]

    Quite a few storylines carried over from earlier games in the 2018 Western Conference Final.

    As usual, Marc-Andre Fleury‘s work was just about spotless. Fleury won his fourth consecutive game, and he needed to make 30+ saves for the fourth time in a row as well, stopping 31 out of 32 shots.

    It says a lot about how excellent Fleury has been that Connor Hellebuyck‘s absorbed all sorts of heat during this series, as Hellebuyck’s rarely allowed bad goals, even amid relative struggles during this third round. Hellebuyck made some key saves down the stretch of Game 5, but it wasn’t enough.

    Game 5 felt a little different than Winnipeg’s last few losses because Fleury didn’t need the same Herculean effort during the third period. You can get away with making a bad joke about the Jets running out of gas/fuel, because at least compared to previous pushes, it seemed like Winnipeg sputtered a bit after that Reaves tally.

    Winnipeg had generated a shots on goal advantage for six straight periods (the last two of Game 3, all three in Game 4, and the first in Game 5), yet the two teams were tied at 32 shots on goal by the end of this one, as Vegas took the final 40 minutes from that standpoint. You wonder if Fleury’s excellent play truly “broke” Winnipeg, at least once it became clear that they’d need to fight back from another deficit following that Reaves-winner.

    The Jets were dominant at times during this series, yet it’s sobering for this mighty group to realize that they didn’t just drop four games in a row … they also failed to grab a single lead after Game 1.

    Speaking of remarkable stats, consider this: the Golden Knights still haven’t faced elimination during this Cinderella run. They swept the Kings in the first round, beat the Sharks in six games, and then passed by the Jets in five. Now they’ll get to watch Game 6 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final to see if the Tampa Bay Lightning advance or if the Washington Capitals force a Game 7 (thus giving Vegas a nice rest advantage, as well).

    The Golden Knights may root a little extra for that East series to go the distance if Fleury’s a bit hampered by injury issues, as some speculated during Game 5. Fleury wasn’t bothered enough to allow Winnipeg to get back in the contest, and chances are, he’s not too worried about that right now.

    Really, the biggest concern is trying to top Elliotte Friedman’s joke:

    Ante up.

    MORE:
    • Conference Finals schedule, TV info
    • NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

    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.

    NHL Playoffs 2018: Conference Finals TV Schedule

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    The conference finals are now set with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals meeting in the East and the Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets facing off in the West. The round to determine who will play for the 2018 Stanley Cup will begin Friday.

    Here’s the full Round 3 schedule:

    Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Washington Capitals (Lightning lead series 3-2)

    Friday, May 11, 8pm: Capitals 4, Lightning 2
    Sunday, May 13, 8pm: Capitals 6, Lightning 2
    Tuesday, May 15, 8pm: Lightning 4, Capitals 2
    Thursday, May 17, 8pm: Lightning 4, Capitals 2
    Saturday, May 19, 7:15pm: Lightning 3, Capitals 2
    Monday, May 21, 8pm: Lightning @ Capitals | NBCSN
    *Wednesday, May 23, 8pm: Capitals @ Lightning | NBCSN

    Vegas Golden Knights vs. Winnipeg Jets (Golden Knights win series 4-1)

    Saturday, May 12, 7pm: Jets 4, Golden Knights 2
    Monday, May 14, 8pm: Golden Knights 3, Jets 1
    Wednesday, May 16, 9pm: Golden Knights 4, Jets 2
    Friday, May 18, 8pm: Golden Knights 3, Jets 2
    Sunday, May 20, 3pm: Golden Knights 2, Jets 1

    MORE:
    PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
    PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
    NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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    Sean Leahy is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.