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PHT Second Round Preview: 10 things to know about Penguins vs. Capitals

If three consecutive Pittsburgh Penguins – Washington Capitals series translate to the original “Star Wars” trilogy, then Caps fans might look at 2017 as “The Empire Strikes Back.” All that promise ended with darkness … although at least no one lost a hand.

Could this be the year that we see the Capitals celebrating surreally, as if surrounded by ewoks?

After winning the Presidents’ Trophy two seasons in a row only to fall to the Penguins, Alex Ovechkin & Co. still managed to win the Metro. Even so, this team lost a bunch of supporting cast talent during the 2017 off-season, and it showed in many of their stats.

This is as close as we’ve gotten to the Capitals being an underdog on paper, not just in the narratives. Will this group finally be able to overcome the hurdle of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the dynastic (empire?) Penguins?

In other words, with lowered expectations, could there be a new hope?

We won’t need to wait long for the next chapter to begin, as you can watch Game 1 on NBCSN tonight. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. ET; here’s the livestream link.

Schedule

Surging Players

Penguins: Jake Guentzel‘s Game 6 outburst was such a surge, he’d make a great spokesman if they rebooted Surge Cola again. He scored four consecutive goals to turn that contest on its head, and totaled five points just in that contest. It’s not like that was a one-night thing, either; Guentzel and Sidney Crosby sport matching outputs so far: six goals, seven assists for 13 points in just those six games. (They even have identical shooting percentages: their six goals came on 17 SOG, giving them 35.3 shooting percentages, which even make William Karlsson blush.)

To a lesser but still impressive extent, guys like Kris Letang are showing up for Pittsburgh, too. Letang collected three assists in Game 6, and six of his seven playoff points came in the last four contests of the Philly series.

Capitals: The most important surge is probably that of Braden Holtby, who’s been playing at a high level since getting his starting job back.

Other big names were productive against Columbus. John Carlson continues to inspire John Carl$son jokes, as he followed up a career-best regular season by leading the Caps in points with nine (one goal, eight assists). Alex Ovechkin scored twice in Game 6 and had a great series with eight points overall. Nicklas Backstrom did Nicklas Backstrom things.

The most heartening sign might be the assertive play of Evgeny Kuznetsov. Beyond the nice production (four goals, four assists), Kuznetsov wasn’t shy about firing the puck, registering 28 SOG, second only to Ovechkin’s 33. Barry Trotz must be pleased.

Struggling players

Penguins: Sometimes it’s difficult to separate cold streaks from “not playing on the same line as stars” in Pittsburgh.

With that disclaimer out there, Conor Sheary (zero goals on 11 SOG) and Tom Kuhnhackl (zero points, just three SOG) have been quiet. Jamie Oleksiak seems to be in low regard lately. After averaging 17:24 TOI since being traded to Pittsburgh during the regular season, Oleksiak is averaging just 11:51 minutes per night during the playoffs.

Capitals: Washington received some nice contributions from depth guys Devante Smith-Pelly and Chandler Stephenson, making quiet series from Brett Connolly and Jakub Vrana more glaring. Both players generated 27 points during the season and just one assist apiece versus the Blue Jackets.

If something happens to Holtby, you have to wonder where Philipp Grubauer‘s head is at, too.

Goaltending

Penguins: Let’s not forget that it was Marc-Andre Fleury, gestures and all, who played incredibly well in helping the Penguins best the Capitals during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Matt Murray‘s experienced an up-and-down season as the unchallenged top goalie, and those peaks and valleys carried over to the playoffs. Murray only managed a .907 save percentage during the regular season and .911 in the postseason. Not great.

On the other hand, he’s been a big-game performer essentially from day one. If nothing else, his resume argues that he can be counted upon.

Capitals: Holtby is off to a fantastic start to the postseason, going 4-1-0 with a phenomenal .932 save percentage. Of course, he briefly lost his job due to an unusually stormy regular season, so it’s dangerous to pencil in “Best Holtby” even after that strong showing.

Fair or not, people will ask if the Penguins are “in his head,” particularly if the series gets off to a high-scoring start. Holtby really wasn’t awful in his previous duels with the Penguins, but he nonetheless fell short both times. Pittsburgh’s offensive arsenal can make just about any goalie flounder, let alone one who has some baggage of past defeats.

(Grubauer had a great regular season and a rocky postseason, so he’s basically the opposite of Holtby. For all we know, a cleaner slate could be an asset … but the Capitals don’t want it to get to that point.)

Special teams

Penguins: During the season, the Penguins had a possibly historically lethal power play and a mediocre PK.

They connected on a healthy 20 percent of their opportunities against Philly, but it was Pittsburgh’s penalty kill that really came through, as the Flyers PP really let them down.

Both of these teams have managed dangerous power play units, both during 2017-18 and during their recent histories.

Capitals: John Tortorella & Co. had no answer for Ovechkin’s trips to “his office,” and the other weapons on Washington’s still-mighty power play. The Capitals (easily) topped all playoff teams with nine power-play goals, converting on one-third of their opportunities. They won the special teams battle handily, as they only allowed four PPG and were perfect through the final four games of the series.

During the regular season, Washington was middle-of-the-pack on the PK and ranked seventh with a power play success rate of 22.5 percent.

Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Fancy stats

Penguins: The Penguins have, essentially, been a possession juggernaut since Mike Sullivan took over. During the bleaker moments of the 2017-18 season, Pittsburgh was doomed by bad luck, whether it was poor shooting, Swiss-cheese goaltending, or both.

Those numbers leveled out, and with that, the Penguins took off since the calendar turned to 2018. Pittsburgh hogged the puck on a healthy level against the Flyers, too. The Penguins stand as the more impressive possession team on paper.

Capitals: By a variety of possession metrics, the Capitals were underwhelming, if not downright bad, during the regular season. That said, they showed some signs of improvement late in 2017-18, and were neck-and-neck in possession stats with Columbus, especially if you correct for when the score was within one goal.

The bottom line, though, is that Washington is not a Corsi monster. Ideally, Holtby will continue to play well, and Washington will manufacture high-danger shots. They managed an above-average PDO (save percentage plus shooting percentage, which is viewed as a decent shorthand for luck) during the regular season, even with hit-or-miss goaltending.

Injuries

Penguins: This is the Penguins we’re talking about; of course there are significant injury concerns. Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin have already been ruled out for Game 1, with Malkin’s health being an enormous concern. Pittsburgh’s dealt with a real scare for Kris Letang (he seems fine, or at least playoff-fine?) and also saw Patric Hornqvist miss some reps against the Flyers.

With Pittsburgh aiming for a “threepeat,” they are likely dealing with plenty of wear and tear that doesn’t keep people out of the lineup. All things considered, avoiding a Game 7 was a real bonus.

Capitals: Generally speaking, the Capitals remain flabbergastingly sturdy. Washington’s training staff might actually be wizards. They continued their amazing run of health for another season:

That said, this is a hockey team, so of course there are issues. Andre Burakovsky‘s out week-to-week, likely missing the remainder of the postseason. T.J. Oshie appears to be banged up, too.

X-Factor for Penguins

How can it not be Malkin’s health?

If the star center is only going to miss Game 1, or even just the first two games in Washington, the Penguins might be able to steal a win or two on the road. If he misses significant time or simply can’t play anywhere near an optimal level, the Penguins might fall short of the Caps’ firepower.

X-Factor for Capitals

Most of the time when people bring up “the yips” and “clutchness,” I roll my eyes. Sometimes it’s downright fun to play on those tropes/misconceptions.

The Capitals are a pretty special case, here, so you have to wonder if they’ll maintain morale if things get hairy.

This team has been lampooned for much of Ovechkin’s prime for falling short in the postseason, particularly against the hated Penguins. Washington fought back from a 2-0 deficit against Columbus, and they actually fought back from 3-1 to push their last series with Pittsburgh to a heartbreaking Game 7. So they aren’t “quitters,” yet you wonder if the sheer volume of letdowns might make them fragile.

What happens if this series starts off with some poor play and/or bad luck? Could things really go off the rails?

The narrative could go from “No one expects anything from this version of our team” to “Uh oh, it’s happening again” in dizzying speed.

Prediction

Penguins in 7: In many cases, breakthroughs happen after you give up on a sports team. Dirk Nowitzki’s title run happened after many gave up on the Mavericks in the NBA. The Sharks absorbed year after year of disappointments before making it to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. It’s a common joke that this could be the Capitals’ year because that’s just how weird the playoffs are, and it’s not as though the Caps are a bad team. They won the Metropolitan Division for a reason.

Still, the Penguins boast a deep, scary offense. They seem capable of finding that “extra gear” and still haven’t lost as series under Mike Sullivan. Here’s a reluctant vote for history repeating itself instead of the law of averages winning out.

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
10 things to know about Golden Knights vs. Sharks

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.

Brothers from the Congo flourishing on the ice

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NBC Sports celebrates Hockey Day in America this Sunday with an NHL tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

Over 10 years ago Steve and Molly Seidl of Stillwater, Minnesota, adopted two brothers, Sawyer and Simon, from an orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At the time, they were three and five years old, and after settling in their new home the two brothers began to play hockey, garnering attention with skills few would have anticipated.

While this hockey family has dealt with some unwelcome attention due to the color of Sawyer and Simon’s skin, that has not affected their passion and love for the game.

In fact, it has motivated them to push forward. The brothers hope to be an example for others, removing labels and barriers to allow everyone an opportunity to play.

Now 13 and 15 years old, they are dominating their age groups and playing in youth tournaments all over the world.

You can check out their story in the video above.

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.

Blues-Ducks game rescheduled for March 11; Blues-Panthers game also moved

Blues Ducks Game
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The NHL announced on Sunday that the postponed game between the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks from this past week has been rescheduled for March 11 in Anaheim.

That game was initially postponed just seven minutes into the first period when veteran Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester collapsed on the team’s bench due to a cardiac episode.

The two teams will replay the full 60 minutes, but the game will begin with a 1-1 score, which was the score at the time of the postponement.

As a result of this rescheduling, the NHL also announced that the Blues game against the Florida Panthers, originally scheduled for March 10, will now be played on March 9 at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.

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.

Bruins hold off Rangers, improve lead atop Atlantic, NHL

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The Bruins and Rangers both came into Sunday playing good hockey. It makes sense, then, that Boston needed to work hard to beat the Rangers 3-1. By persevering, the Bruins improved their lead over Tampa Bay for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, and thus the entire NHL.

Charlie McAvoy opened the scoring with a strange goal. Charlie Coyle collected a shorthanded game-winner, while Mika Zibanejad scored New York’s lone goal. Patrice Bergeron iced the win with a remarkably fancy empty-netter.

Jaroslav Halak continues to be a strong backup for the Bruins, stopping 25 out of 26 shots. Alexandar Georgiev took the loss for New York, allowing two goals on 33 SOG. It was likely a frustrating game for Chris Kreider, who didn’t score despite four SOG and suffered a -4 rating.

Bruins – Rangers special teams battle

New York’s power play failures told the early part of the story.

Through the first two periods, the Rangers man advantage went 0-for-4. That number only tells part of the story, really. New York squandered a four-minute power play after Ryan Lindgren was bloodied by a high stick. Coyle dug the knife in deeper with that shorthanded goal later in the middle frame.

This Rangers team boasts some dangerous scorers, though, and Mika Zibanejad made that clear by breaking through. Zibanejad scored a power-play tally to tighten things up, with assists from usual suspects Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome.

Bruins bolster Atlantic lead, Rangers see streak ended

Again, these two teams had been playing well lately.

Boston clearly hears the footsteps of the hard-charging Lightning. The Bruins extended their winning streak to three games, and have won nine of their last 10 games (9-1-0). This updated look at that battle for the top spot in the Atlantic reminds that this was a valuable, hard-fought win for the B’s:

Bruins: 86 points in 60 games played
Lightning: 83 points in 59 GP

The Bruins fattened their lead in the Atlantic, which also ranks as the current Presidents’ Trophy race. Of course, the Lightning can slim that right back down to one point with by winning their game in hand.

Meanwhile, the Rangers suffered a painful blow to their shaky playoff hopes, falling to 64 points in 58 GP. This loss ended the Rangers’ season-long four-game winning streak; it’s also merely the Rangers’ third loss in 10 games (7-3-0).

NBCSN Hockey Day in America remaining schedule

Blues at Predators – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Predators vs. Blues on Hockey Day in America

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game is the second of a back-to-back home-and-home between these clubs, with the Predators winning 4-3 on Saturday afternoon in St. Louis. Nashville led 2-0 after the first period and 3-1 in the second before the Blues came back to tie the game at 3-3. Mikael Granlund then scored the game- winner on the power play in the third period. Jake Allen started in goal for the Blues (23 saves on 27 shots).

The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues have hit their first major slump of the season, having lost four straight games and nine of their last 11 games (2-6-3). The Predators, on the other hand, have weathered a slow start to the season and are now very much in the playoff mix, just one point outside a Wild Card spot.

The Predators have won two straight games, beating the Islanders 5-0 on Thursday and the Blues 4-3 on Saturday. They have only won three straight games once this season with a four-game winning streak in October.

Despite leading Nashville to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons, the sluggish start to the 2019-20 season was enough for the Predators to move on from Peter Laviolette, their second-ever head coach, and bring in John Hynes, whose head coaching experience consisted of leading the Devils for four-plus seasons (2015-16 to 2019-20) before being fired on December third after New Jersey lost 17 of its first 26 games.

The Blues have been one of the league’s best home teams this season but have lost more than half of their road games (14-10-5). They have lost eight of their last nine road games, including each of the last three.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: St. Louis Blues at Nashville Predators
WHERE: Bridgestone Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Feb. 16, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blues-Predators stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUES
Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennTyler Bozak
Zach SanfordRyan O'ReillyDavid Perron
Alex SteenRobert ThomasJordan Kyrou
Mackenzie MacEachernIvan BarbashevSammy Blais

Carl GunnarssonAlex Pietrangelo
Colton ParaykoJustin Faulk
Vince DunnRobert Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

PREDATORS
Mikael Granlund – Ryan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Filip ForsbergMatt DucheneKyle Turris
Rocco GrimaldiNick BoninoCraig Smith
Calle JarnkrokColton SissonsAustin Watson

Roman JosiYannick Weber
Jarred TinordiMattias Ekholm
Dan HamhuisDante Fabbro

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

Host Liam McHugh and analysts Keith Jones, Anson Carter, and Brian Boucher will anchor pre-game, intermission, and post-game coverage throughout the day. Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.