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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.

Maple Leafs end skid in first Babcock-less game

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If it weren’t for Vinnie Hinostroza spoiling Frederik Andersen‘s shutout with 17 seconds left, Thursday would have been just about perfect for the Toronto Maple Leafs during their first game post-Mike Babcock.

Most importantly, the Maple Leafs ended their six-game losing streak with a win. (Yes, that makes brand-new head coach Sheldon Keefe 1-0-0.)

The symmetry starts to go up a notch when you consider that, on this night, Tyson Barrie finally scored his first goal of the 2019-20 season, which is also his first with the Maple Leafs. Barrie is up there when you picture Leafs with relief of Babcock grief, so scoring here almost feels on-the-nose:

That Barrie goal gave the Maple Leafs a coveted 1-0 lead, and that’s quite a reversal from how things could have felt if Andersen didn’t make this great glove save (which would have stood out even more if Tuukka Rask didn’t give Marc-Andre Fleury competition with an absolutely ludicrous stop).

The underlying numbers are promising, too. In particular, it has to be uplifting to see that the Maple Leafs managed an impressive 18-7 advantage in high-danger chances at all strengths, according to Natural Stat Trick.

There’s a lot to like for the Leafs, but there’s also no denying that the Maple Leafs have a lot of work to do — and a hole they need to dig out of. That win merely brought them back to “.500,” as they’re now 10-10-4 for 24 standings points in 24 games. They wouldn’t make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they began on Thursday night, and Toronto’s ninth place standing is even inflated when you realize that teams right behind them hold games in hand. (Toronto’s 24 games played ties for the most in the NHL, while teams like the Lightning [22 points in 19 GP] loom large.)

Ultimately, though, the Maple Leafs can only control what they’re doing on the ice. So far, so good then, when you consider how they’re playing with Keefe pulling the strings instead of Babs.

More on Babcock, Leafs:

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.

Blues’ Dunn levels Flames’ Mangiapane with huge hit

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These are painful times for the Calgary Flames … sometimes literally.

By falling 5-0 to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday, the Flames have now dropped six consecutive games. It’s hard not to think a little bit about the Toronto Maple Leafs firing Mike Babcock amid their slump when considering the Flames’ own struggles, both now and in their own disappointing showing in Round 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Talk of big changes (to coaching, Johnny Gaudreau, the GM, or anything else) can wait for another day … maybe one soon? For now, let’s bask in the fearful glow of Vince Dunn‘s hit on Andrew Mangiapane, as you can witness in the video above this post’s headline.

Is that hit symbolic of the Flames’ pains lately, or could you best embody that agony by comparing the team to its most snakebitten player, Sam Bennett?

Either way, these are uncomfortable times for the Flames, and not just Mangiapane.

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.

Islanders’ point streak hits 16 games, a new franchise record

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The Penguins spoiled the Islanders’ 10-game winning streak, but not the Islanders’ point streak, back on Nov. 7. The Islanders really haven’t slowed down since then, as Thursday’s 4-3 OT win against Pittsburgh extended their latest winning streak to five games, and allowed them to set a new franchise record.

By going 15-0-1 in their last 16 games, the Islanders set a new franchise mark for longest point streak. Yes, that means Barry Trotz’s odds-defying group has accomplished something the dynastic Mike Bossy-powered ’80s group never did.

At this rate, the Islanders might just bank enough standings points that it might not matter much when/if they “come back to Earth.”

In the spirit of Derek Jeter wedging his jersey number into a word where it only kinda sorta works, the Islanders embraced the history of the 16-game streak:

When you’re winning (or at least getting a point) as often as the Islanders have been, you’ll need to win in different ways. After some comeback wins recently, Thursday’s game against the Penguins was a back-and-forth affair where the two teams traded leads, and the Penguins needed a last-minute goal to even get the game to overtime. Brock Nelson‘s two goals were key, including his OT-winner:

There’s been a “cardiac kids” element to this run, especially lately. Thursday’s win marks the third consecutive game where the Isles’ action went beyond regulation, and six of the Islanders’ wins (plus their lone OT loss to the Penguins) have come via either a shootout or overtime goal.

This also marks the best 20-game start in franchise history for the Isles, according to The Athletic’s David Staple.

Just resounding stuff.

It says a lot about the Capitals’ own hot start (16-4-4, 36 points in 24 games played) that the Islanders still aren’t in the lead in the Metro. Of course, the Islanders could close a ton of ground considering their games in hand, as they’re 16-3-1 for 33 points in just those 20 games played.

Looking ahead, the Islanders will go on the road quite a bit as they try to extend this point streak even beyond 16 games. To start, they’ll take a California road trip, and the away-heavy stretch doesn’t end there.

Nov. 23: at San Jose
Nov. 25: at Anaheim
Nov. 27: at Los Angeles
Nov. 30: vs. Columbus
Dec. 2: at Detroit
Dec. 3 :at Montreal
Dec. 5: vs. Vegas
Dec. 7: at Dallas
Dec. 9: at Tampa Bay
Dec. 12: at Florida

As you can see, the Islanders face a run where eight of their next 10 games are on the road. You’d think that maybe there will be stumbles (dare I wonder, *gasp* maybe even a single regulation loss?) along that way, but the Islanders keep buzzing along, and they’re 6-1-0 on the road thus far this season … so who knows?

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.

Bruins’ Rask gives Fleury competition for save of the week/year

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When Marc-Andre Fleury flashed the glove for a ridiculous save, PHT’s Adam Gretz was right in wondering if calling it a save of the year candidate was an understatement. And then Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask came along and gave Fleury competition for save of the week.

Buffalo Sabres forward Evan Rodrigues had so much net to aim for, but also needed to get his shot off quickly. As much as the Bruins swarmed the situation — making for an even better visual — Rask ended up having to save the day, and that he did.

This would have been an amazing glove save, but Rask managing the feat with his blocker hand is just … wow. Watch in awe in the video above.

It sounds like even Rask was impressed.

Again, wow. Let’s take a paragraph break to just mutter wow a few times.

Now, let’s compare and contrast: was it more or less amazing than Fleury’s save? Don’t say it was a tie, cheaters.

Now, what do I think is the better save? Uh …

(Tries to throw a smoke bomb and run away, but Rask and Fleury keep batting it around between each other.)

The save ended up being important, as the Bruins narrowly beat the Sabres 3-2 on Thursday.

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.