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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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    Connor McDavid took over and stole win for Oilers by himself

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    The Edmonton Oilers wrapped up their season-opening four-game road trip on Tuesday night with a stunning come-from-behind 5-4 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

    On the surface this looks to be an awesome and much-needed victory for the Oilers.

    And it is. It is all of that because not only did it come against the team with the second best record in the NHL a season ago, but wow did they just flat out need this.

    They still have not played a home game after opening the season in Sweden, they had won just one of their first three games of the season and looked relatively poor in doing so, and after two periods on Tuesday night in Winnipeg looked to be getting their doors blown off by a Jets team that had stormed out to a 4-1 lead.

    In the standings, this will go in the books as a big win for the Edmonton Oilers.

    But let’s be serious here about what this really was: This was all about Connor McDavid single-handedly refusing to allow his team to drop another game, putting the entire squad on his back, and driving it to a win.

    That is not an exaggeration as to what happened on the ice.

    This game wasn’t about the Oilers rallying. This was about McDavid being the best and most dominant player in the world and showing just how unstoppable he can be when he is at his best.

    On Tuesday, he was at his best.

    He finished Tuesday’s game with four points (two goals, two assists) including three in the third period as the Oilers erased the three-goal deficit.

    After winning each of the past two scoring titles he has already recorded nine points (four goals, five assists) in the Oilers’ first four games.

    Nine points.

    The Edmonton Oilers have only scored 10 goals. You don’t need to be a math whiz to figure out what that means.

    They have, quite literally, been a one-line team this season and given the makeup of the roster, as well as the way things went for them a season ago, there does not seem to be much hope that will change as the season goes on.

    Darnell Nurse‘s overtime goal on Tuesday night was the first goal the Oilers scored this season that McDavid did not factor into the scoring on. That nine-goal stretch even set a NHL record for most consecutive goals for a player to factor in on to open a season, breaking the previous record of seven that had been set by Adam Oates.

    McDavid, for the record, seemed to have no interest in it.

    “You know what, it’s whatever,” McDavid said. “I’m not overly proud of it. I don’t think it’s a stat we should be proud of either. It is what it is but we found a way to get a goal there at the end so we don’t ever have to talk about it again.”

    How important has McDavid been so far: When he is on the ice they are outscoring teams by a 9-4 margin. When he is not, they have been outscored 10-1. If you go back to the end of the 2017-18 season McDavid had factored into 13 consecutive Oilers goals before Nurse’s overtime winner.

    And that is pretty much what the Oilers have been for the better part of McDavid’s tenure with the team.

    As he goes; they go. And they will only go as far as he is able to take them. The problem with that is hockey is not really a sport that is tailored for one player to carry a team very far because the best players — unless it is a goalie — only play about a third of the game. There has to be more. A lot more. And it remains to be seen if this team has it or if the management team in charge is capable of providing it.

    McDavid is going to give them a chance to win on any given night because he is capable of having games like this. He is going to be worth the price of admission every night because he can do this.

    “Each and every night, and especially tonight,” said Nurse, when asked about McDavid’s ability to carry the team. “Going into the third we could have gone two different ways, and 18 seconds in his line makes a huge play. When you have a leader like hat everyone feeds off that. For him to be able to set the tone every single game? It’s incredible.”

    At some point, though, they are going to have to find a way to give him some support because while this sort of thing might work on a handful of individual nights over the course of a season, it is not a long-term recipe for success because this sort of superman effort is not possible every game. Not even for Connor McDavid.

    We saw how true that is for the Oilers just this past season.

    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.

    Coyotes historically bad offensive start continues in loss to Wild

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    Even though they were one of the hottest teams in the league over the final month-and-a-half of the 2017-18 season the Arizona Coyotes still finished with one of the NHL’s worst records. That was largely because they put themselves in what was an insurmountable hole early in the season by winning just one of their first 14 games.

    It pretty much ended the season before it even had a chance to start. Still, that strong finish, as well as a pretty good young core of players, should have been a source of optimism heading into this season.

    Unfortunately for them they are coming close to putting themselves in another early hole for the 2018-19 season.

    With their 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, the Coyotes fell to 1-4-0 on the season and are still being plagued by a stunning lack of offense.

    Eric Staal‘s goal with just under 14 minutes to play in the third period proved to be the game-winner for the Wild while Devan Dubnyk made 31 saves to secure the win.

    But let’s talk about the Coyotes’ lack of offense here because this is starting to become a story.

    How bad has it been from a goal-scoring perspective? Historically bad.

    Following Tuesday’s loss the Coyotes have scored three goals in their first five games (we are not counting the shootout “goal” that gave them their 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks — when it comes to actual hockey during regulation and overtime they have scored three goals).

    That includes the fact they have already been shutout three times on the season, making them just the eighth team in NHL history to be shutout at least three times in their first five games, and only the second such team in the post-Original Six era (2015-16 Anaheim Ducks).

    That isn’t all.

    There have only been 12 other teams in league history to score four goals or fewer in their first five games, with only two others (the 1970-71 Buffalo Sabres and 1995-96 Montreal Canadiens) coming in the post-Original Six era. Eight of them came before the 1940 season.

    They also have yet to score an even-strength goal this season with their goals either coming on the power play (two) or shorthanded (one).

    That is rough.

    Are there any positives that can be taken away from all of this and offer any sign of short-term hope? Well, yes. There are. As bad as the offense has been there is also an element of bad luck to it as they are getting crushed by the percentages. They are averaging more than 36 shots on goal per game and had 32 on Tuesday. At some point some of those will start finding the back of the net. Enough to make them a competitive team? That remains to be seen. But there is more offense in there than what we have seen.

    Getting Alex Galchenyuk back will help, too.

    And for as much as the offense has struggled they have been very good defensively as they have — so far — been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league and are in the top-six in terms of goals against.

    It is obviously not the start they wanted, and things definitely look bleak right now, but there are some signs that maybe — maybe — things can still turn around this season.

    They just can not let this slow start get out of control the way it did a year ago.

    (Historical goal data via Hockey-Reference database)

    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.

    WATCH LIVE: Coyotes visit Wild on NBCSN

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    NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

    As they look to stop their slow start to the season, the Arizona Coyotes received good news on Tuesday. Alex Galchenyuk, who’s get to play this season since being acquired over the summer from the Montreal Canadiens, practiced with his teammates for the first time since suffering an injury during preseason.

    Galchenyuk will likely take over No. 1 duties when he’s completely healthy. For now, he’s been cleared for contact but there’s no timetable for a return.

    The Wild traveled home after Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Nashville Predators staring at a 1-2-2 record and last place in the Central Division. Head coach Bruce Boudreau emphasized the imporatance of putting together a few wins together, especially with a weekend back-to-back away at Dallas and at home against Tampa Bay.

    “If you look at our schedule, we have to get to .500 quick, and then you have to start moving above .500 if you want to stay in this race,” he said.

    What: Arizona Coyotes at Minnesota Wild
    Where: Xcel Energy Center
    When: Tuesday, October 16th, 8 p.m. ET
    TV: NBCSN
    Live stream: You can watch the Coyotes-Wild stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

    PROJECTED LINEUPS

    Coyotes
    Richard PanikDerek StepanClayton Keller
    Lawson CrouseDylan StromeChristian Fischer
    Michael GrabnerBrad RichardsonNick Cousins
    Brendan PerliniJosh ArchibaldVincent Hinostroza

    Oliver Ekman-LarssonJason Demers
    Alex GoligoskiJordan Oesterle
    Kevin ConnautonNiklas Hjalmarsson

    Starting goalie: Darcy Kuemper

    [WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

    Wild
    Jason ZuckerEric StaalJordan Greenway
    Zach PariseMikko KoivuMikael Granlund
    Nino NiederreiterEric FehrCharlie Coyle
    Marcus FolignoMatt HendricksJ.T. Brown

    Ryan SuterMatt Dumba
    Jonas BrodinJared Spurgeon
    Nick SeelerGreg Pateryn

    Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

    MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

    David Quinn bringing ‘different energy’ to Rangers

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    If you ask New York Rangers forward Kevin Hayes what’s different from last season now that new head coach David Quinn is in charge, he’d tell you there’s a “different energy” around the team.

    “It’s very positive, hard working energy,” Hayes told Pro Hockey Talk recently.

    The new energy includes plenty of communication from the coach. Quinn is vocal and open with his players. They may have only been with him for a month, but already players know where they stand with him. That’s an important detail, and one that can help a roster like the Rangers’ develop into what general manager Jeff Gorton imagines.

    ***

    The rivalry between Boston College and Boston University is well-documented in the college hockey world. So when asked if he would be able to play for a coach with BU ties, Chris Kreider jokingly responded, “Begrudgingly. They brought in a BC assistant coach (Greg Brown), so it evens out.”

    Kreider has been with the Rangers since the 2013 NHL season, John Tortorella’s final year in New York. One season later, and under head coach Alain Vigneault, they reached the Stanley Cup Final. That was followed up by a second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Final, where they would fall in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    It’s trended downward since then for the Rangers, and the decision last February by Gorton to look toward the future signaled a new era for the team and the end of Vigneault’s time in New York. Over that time Kreider has watched the identity of the team disappear and understands that there’s a first step that can be taken in order for a turnarond to begin.

    “We need to fall in love with hard work as a group,” he said. “I think that needs to become our identity. We’re not going to get outworked on pucks; we’re not going to get outworked at any point in a game at any position on the ice. Practice habits have to be improved upon I think our details have to be there. I think we gotta lean on each other and trust each other that everyone’s gonna do the job to the best of their abilities.”

    If you’re going to be outworked or not give full effort, then you’re not going to see the ice. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known the coach for over a decade, either through hometown ties (Hayes) or you played for him before arriving in New York and even invited him to your wedding (Kevin Shattenkirk). Effort is non-negotiable to Quinn. Hayes was benched during the game against Buffalo and Shattenkirk’s recovery from knee surgery saw him take a seat in the press box last Thursday against San Jose. Not easy decisions, but ones that align with the coach’s vision for how he needs to help the Rangers succeed.

    After going through the experience is playing for Quinn, knowing his coaching style and how he connects with people, his former players have the utmost confidence his jump from the NCAA to the NHL will be a successful one.

    “You know, it’s not easy to make a transition, by any means, from college to professional level,” said Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who played for Quinn at BU during the 2014-15 season. “But I think more than anything you have to be a good person, and have people skills, and I think probably his biggest asset is how well he’s able to relate to players, relate to people. I think he’ll do a great job building relationships to players away from the ice, and in turn I think that’s how they’ll gain his trust and they’ll believe in him.”

    Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller played one season at BU under Quinn and found him to be a player’s coach, one who finds the right buttons to push to maximize talent. He credited the coach with a successful freshman season that saw him lead the Terriers in goals (21) and points (45).

    Shattenkirk, who played for Quinn at BU and with the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters, is a product of the impact Quinn can have on a player.

    “I was always the skilled player who came in and in his mind will probably say didn’t want to work and didn’t want to defend,” said Shattenirk. “He did so much for me as a player in college and really turned me from a raw talent into a well-rounded player to be able to succeed at the next level… He was so driven in developing players and coaching players that it meant a lot to me.”

    Asking around about Quinn and “good communicator” comes up often from those that have been around him. Kreider described his initial talks with his new coach as “kind of disarming” in regards to how approachable he is. This first season is going set a foundation for what the franchise is hoping are many successful years ahead.

    Quinn takes over the Rangers in a transition year. Gorton’s eye is on the future, and no one will mistake them for Cup contenders this year. But they still have Henrik Lundqvist playing at an elite level and just under $19 million in cap space (before a potential rise in the cap ceiling) to play with next summer.

    As soon as next season, if Quinn’s influence ends up being a positive one, a return to being a perennial playoff team is not out of the question. Reaching that point requires achieving small steps along the way — steps that can be taken this year with a new voice behind the bench. The desire to get back to that point and prove the doubters wrong are what fuel this Rangers team.

    “When people don’t expect you to do well it’s obviously a little chip on your shoulder,” said Hayes. “We still have Hank in net. He’s a Hall of Fame goalie… I think if you buy into the system and you work as hard as you can when you’re on the ice, it’s a pretty good way to create wins.”

    MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.