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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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    Kyle Palmieri, the other forward Ray Shero stole for the Devils

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    When the New Jersey Devils hired Ray Shero to be their new general manager back in 2015 he was facing a rather daunting task of rebuilding what was, at the time, one of the league’s dullest teams. It was not a totally lousy team, but it was not a particularly good one, either.

    It was coming off of its third consecutive non-playoff season, it seemed to have zero impact players anywhere in the organization (nobody had scored more than 45 points at the NHL level the year before), and it just seemed to be a team going nowhere.

    In the years that followed Shero has rebuilt the Devils into a playoff team thanks in large part to a couple of significant trades (and a little luck in the draft lottery), with the most significant of those deals being the one that brought them Taylor Hall, the 2017-18 NHL MVP, from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for defenseman Adam Larsson.

    In terms of one-for-one trades it has turned out to be one of the most lopsided deals in recent NHL memory and has completely altered the direction of the Devils’ franchise.

    It was not the only Shero trade that has gone in the Devils’ favor by an overwhelming margin.

    One of his first moves with the Devils was to acquire Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a second-round draft pick in 2015 and a third-round draft pick in 2016. It, too, has turned out to be a steal.

    At the time, Palmieri was coming off of his age 23 season and even though his overall numbers didn’t exactly jump off the page at you, he had flashed some legitimate top-line potential during his limited with the Ducks. He was consistently scoring at a15-goal pace over 82 games even though he was only playing between 11 and 14 minutes per night.

    On a per minute basis he was one of the team’s most productive goal-scorers and seemed to be the type of player that was worth giving an increased role. As soon as he arrived in New Jersey he received that increased role and immediately broke out with a 30-goal season, earning himself a five-year, $23.25 million contract extension.

    He has not stopped producing since.

    So far this season he has been one of the driving forces behind the Devils’ 4-0-0 start, having already scored seven goals. That includes three consecutive two-goal games to open the season, and at least one goal in every game the team has played.

    While there is an element of luck and circumstance to that start — including a 38.9 percent shooting percentage and the fact four of those goals have come on the power play — he has certainly established himself as a legitimate top-line player with the Devils.

    The production speaks for itself. In his first three full seasons with the Devils he has scored at least 24 goals every year, while his .357 goals per game average comes out to a 30-goal pace over 82 games.

    Keep in mind he scored 24 goals in only 62 games a season ago which was, once again, a 30-goal pace.

    He may not be on quite the same level as Hall or get as much attention, but he has still be a significant addition to the organization, especially when you consider how little the Devils had to give up to get him.

    Even if you ignore his ridiculously fast start this season he has been one of the most productive wingers in the NHL since joining the Devils.

    Between 2015-16 and 2017-18 his .357 goals per game average was 32nd among all forwards in the league, and placed him directly between Max Pacioretty and Artemi Panarin, and ahead of notable players like Jack Eichel, Joe Pavelski, James Neal, and Phil Kessel.

    He is one of just 20 players in the league to score at least 24 goals in each of those seasons, and one of only 30 to average a 30-goal and 55-point pace over 82 games.

    By pretty much every objective measure he has been one of the top-30 most productive forwards in the NHL since arriving in New Jersey. And all they had to give up was two draft picks that will probably never be as good as he is.

    Going back to last season the Devils have found a pretty spectacular top line with him, Hall, and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier, a trio that has spent more than 350 minutes of ice-time together at 5-on-5 play and been nothing short of dominant.

    During that time the Devils have controlled more than 53 percent of the shot attempts and outscored teams by a 23-11 margin.

    All of them have been difference-makers for the Devils.

    All they needed to acquire them was an okay second-pairing defenseman (for Hall), what amounted to two long-shot lottery tickets (for Palmieri), and a little luck from some lottery balls (Hischier).

    Given where the Devils were at when Shero took over he need to pull off a little bit of magic to find some impact players and turn the team around. He somehow managed to do it twice without giving up anything of significance.

    MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

    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.

     

    ‘It’s just a matter of time’ for Sidney Crosby to get going offensively

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    PITTSBURGH — When you think of Sidney Crosby at his absolute best, you probably think of him as more of a playmaker and puck distributor, making his wingers better and more productive and making defenders look completely helpless along the walls or below the goal line because, well, that is what he does best.

    All of that has made his ability as a goal scorer probably one of his more underrated skills, and it seems easy to forget that not only has he been a dominant goal scorer throughout his career (he is 37th all-time in goals per game and fourth among active players and players that started their careers after 1995 — the beginning of the “dead puck era”) but that he has actually finished as the league’s leading goal-scorer on two different occasions, something only 24 players in league history have done (and only 11 in the post-Original Six era). In short, on top of everything else he’s a pretty darn good goal scorer, too.

    But like every other great goal scorer he is not immune to the occasional drought, and he has hit one at the start of the 2018-19 season by going the first five games without finding the back of the net. While he has had his share of slower starts throughout his career, this is only the third time in 14 years that he has gone at least five games to open a season without scoring a goal, with the 2008-09 and 2015-16 seasons being the other two.

    (The 2015-16 season was the year he opened the season without a point of any kind in five games and only tallied a point in nine of his first 10 games.)

    Even though the chances are starting to present themselves, the results have not yet followed.

    One of the big problems has been the shots that he is taking aren’t actually getting to the net, let alone in the net. Of Crosby’s 24 total shot attempts so far only 12 have actually been on goal. Small sample size that it is, that is still only 50 percent. Just for comparisons sake, over the past five years he has managed to get more than 60 percent of his total attempts on goal. Can’t score if the puck isn’t hitting the target.

    In the first period of Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks he had a good look in the first period only to have Bo Horvat block it, and he had a similar miss during Saturday’s overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

    Those near-misses have been happening to him so far this season.

    “I thought he had some grade ‘A’ chances tonight,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said on Tuesday night. “He had a couple of real high-quality chances. He seemed to have a few in the last couple of games. The pucks just won’t seem to go in the net for him right now. He’s too good a player to keep off the scoresheet. I think it’s a matter of time we just have to stay with it. Just like our team, I think one of the things we are trying to encourage Sid to do is shoot the puck a little more and simplify his game. He’s just too good of a player to not break out of this. We just have to stay with it, keep working through it and not get discouraged. I think once he gets that first one things will start going in for him.”

    The Penguins have tried a couple of things to get him going, from shaking up his linemates and dropping Patric Hornqvist to the third line and moving Derick Brassard, a natural center, up to the wing alongside Crosby and Jake Guentzel, to a sit-down chat and film study session between him and head coach Mike Sullivan.

    So what did Sullivan and Crosby take out of that meeting, and what does the coach want to see?

    More of what makes Crosby at his best: Working below the hashmarks, hanging on to pucks, and wearing defenders down.

    “When Sid is at his very best, I think he’s the best player in the game underneath the hashmarks. He might be the best player that ever played underneath the hashmarks. He’s that good with the way he protects pucks and creates offense from below the goal line. We have high expectations when it comes to that aspect of his game, and his line’s game for that matter. He tends to thrive with players that are good in those areas.”

    He continued: “Sid and I sat in my office yesterday after practice and we looked at a lot of the offensive zone stuff. He is such a student of the game, it sometimes gives you another vantage point. It’s a great learning opportunity to watch yourself in those situations. One of the things that I think came out of the conversation was just hanging onto pucks a little bit more. Sid is such a physically fit guy, he can wear players down by hanging onto pucks, and when they get tired, he doesn’t. He tends to have another gear because he’s so physically fit, and a lot of times that gives him a huge competitive advantage, so the longer he hangs on to pucks, and the longer his line hangs onto pucks, I think it’s a huge advantage for us, so we are trying to encourage all of our guys to force our opponents to have to defend us a little bit more.”

    The Penguins haven’t yet found their game yet as a team, and that includes Crosby and the top line.

    But Sullivan is right; Crosby is too good to get held off the scoresheet forever, and history does indicate that once he does get that first goal he probably will go on a run where he looks unstoppable. He followed up his five-game drought in 2008-09 with a three goal in four game stretch (that included nine total points) and when he finally got rolling in the second half of the 2015-16 season he helped carry the team to a championship.

    We sometimes overreact to outlier performances at the start of a season because there is nothing else around them for any sort of perspective. You see a zero next to a player like Sidney Crosby’s name for a few games more games than you are used to and it seems like a big deal. And while there are definitely areas he and his linemates need to be better in, it’s also not something to be too overly concerned with.

    MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

    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.

    Capitals strong favorites on Wednesday Night Hockey

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    Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals will need to beat a division rival by a healthy margin to provide betting value on Wednesday.

    The Capitals are a -300 favorite on the Wednesday NHL odds with the New York Rangers, who are on the second leg of back-to-back games, coming back at +240 at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The total is set at 5.5 goals.

    This is only the fourth time in the last nine seasons that the Capitals have been this deep into minus money on home ice. They are 10-3 in their last 13 games as a moneyline favorite of -250 or deeper, with six of those victories by at least two goals.

    The Rangers, who are 2-4 on the season, have a quick turnaround after a 3-2 shootout win at home against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday. New York peppered Colorado with 43 shots on goal, an encouraging sign for a team that takes an offense-by-committee approach with lines led by centers Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and Brett Howden, but it is 2-6 in its last eight games when it played the previous day.

    Special teams can be a X-factor in an underdog win, but the Rangers are tied for 24th in both power-play and penalty-killing efficiency. New York are 4-16 in their last 20 away games against Metropolitan Division opponents according to the OddsShark NHL Database.

    Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who had an extended outing on Tuesday, is 21-12-5 with a 2.66 goals-against average, .909 save percentage and four shutouts against Washington. Backup goalie Alexander Georgiev lasted fewer than nine minutes in his only career appearance against the Capitals last season, getting pulled after allowing three goals on six shots.

    The Capitals, who are 2-2-1 on the season, have had three days off to freshen up and fine-tune their game since their last outing. In the here and now, Washington has scored just two goals over the course of two consecutive losses, but they are 10-4 in their last 14 regular-season home games against Metropolitan Division counterparts.

    While Washington has elite forwards such as Ovechkin and his linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov, they are struggling to keep the puck out of their own net (3.8 goals against per game, 26th in the 31-team NHL). This could be the type of the game where they focus on becoming more shipshape in the defensive zone, especially since they have a long road trip with limited practice time starting next week. The Capitals come into the contest with the league’s fourth-best power-play, but share 24th spot in penalty killing with the Rangers.

    Washington goalie Braden Holtby is 10-9-1 with a 2.42 goals-against average, a .920 save percentage and one shutout against the Rangers.

    The total has gone UNDER in five of the Rangers’ last seven road games. The total has gone UNDER in four of the Capitals’ last six home games in October. The has gone UNDER in eight of the Capitals’ last 13 home games as a moneyline favorite of -250 to -500.

    For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

    Senators lose prized rookie Tkachuk for one month due to torn ligament

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    It seems the Ottawa Senators are not allowed to have nice things right now.

    After entering the season with zero expectations due to the complete teardown of the roster over the past year, the team has actually gotten off to a better-than-expected start with a 3-2-1 record through their first six games, collecting seven out of a possible 12 points.

    They have also been, perhaps even more shockingly, kind of fun to watch.

    At the center of that start has been prized rookie Brady Tkachuk, the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft, having already tallied three goals and three assists in his first four games.

    Now he will be sidelined for at least the next month.

    Senators coach Guy Boucher confirmed on Wednesday morning that Tkachuk will be out of the lineup due to a torn ligament in his leg that he suffered in Monday’s win over the Dallas Stars when he attempted to deliver a check. According to Boucher, the injury will not require surgery.

    Tkachuk is an important player for the Senators not only because he was a top-five pick and should be a centerpiece for the ongoing rebuild, but also because of what he represents from an asset management perspective.

    As a result of the Matt Duchene trade at the start of the 2017-18 season the Senators had the option of sending either their 2018 first-round pick or their 2019 first-round pick to the Colorado Avalanche to complete the trade. It put them in a difficult position because they knew the 2018 pick was the fourth overall selection, but given the nature of the rebuild and what the roster was expected to look like this season there was always a chance the 2019 pick could be even higher.

    There was an argument to be made (one that was made here) that the Senators should probably sent the 2018 pick to Colorado.

    They did not, and instead opted to keep it and select Tkachuk. As of Wednesday he is third among NHL rookies in total points with six, trailing only Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson and Tkachuk’s teammate, defenseman Maxime Lajoie. Both players have played in more games than Tkachuk.

    Overall it has been a tough week for the NHL’s best rookies.

    Along with Tkachuk’s injury, Pettersson is also sidelined for at least the next week under the NHL’s concussion protocol after he was body-slammed to the ice by Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson over the weekend, a play that resulted in a two-game suspension from the league.

    MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

    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.