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Stanley Cup Playoffs: PHT predicts NHL’s Second Round

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Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Boston Bruins

SEAN: Lightning in 6. The bump that Tampa hit towards the end of the season had some thinking that it could result in the New Jersey Devils giving them issues in the first round. That didn’t happen, and now healthy and with a likely less-tired Andrei Vasilevskiy in net, we’ll see a Lightning team that’s going to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins are coming off a tough seven-game series, and Tuukka Rask isn’t playing great, but the scoring depth that helped get them by the Toronto Maple Leafs will allow them to make this a series.

JAMES: Lightning in 6. As a perpetually groggy human, I put great value on rest. The Lightning basically got a bye week while the Bruins needed to grind out a seven-game series. Zdeno Chara is 41 and almost logged 30 minutes of ice time in Game 7, and it ended in regulation. The Lightning boast a comparable top line, better depth, their own behemoth star blueliner in Victor Hedman, and less wear and tear.

(Plus I might as well maintain some pick consistency, right?)

ADAM: Bruins in 6. There was a little too much made of the Lightning’s struggles down the stretch run, and winning round one in five games — even if some of the games were tight and close — was a pretty emphatic statement that they are still great. Still, there is just something about this Bruins team that seems a little better. I think the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak line is going to be too much and for as great as Tampa Bay is I still think there are some areas that can be exploited there in a short series to be the difference, especially on defense. Don’t like the thought of Dan Girardi, for example, trying to match up with those forwards from Boston.

JOEYLightning in 6: The Bruins have the best line in the series with David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, but the Bolts are deeper up front. Tampa is also better on defense with Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev and co. And after watching Boston’s first-round series against Toronto, it’s pretty clear that Andrei Vasilevskiy is playing better than Tuukka Rask right now.

SCOTTBruins in 7. I’m basically staying the course here. I picked the Bruins as my representative in the Stanley Cup Final out of the Eastern Conference, and while they had to grind out a series win in seven games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, I just feel, when running right, no one can beat them in the East — the Atlantic Division champions included. It’s probably less likely given that the Lightning had a week off and the Bruins will get only a couple days of rest. But I dug my grave and now I will lay in it. 

Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

SEAN: Penguins in 6. Every time these teams meet in the postseason we do mental gymnastics to find ways to make ourselves believe the Capitals will finally do it. Every time they come up short, and we realize we should have known better. Here we are again. Penguins win until the Capitals break the spell.

JAMES: Penguins in 7Pick consistency helps again here, which is nice because this is a tough call, especially with Evgeni Malkin missing at least Game 1.

It’s tough to pick against the law of averages. Don’t forget that the three Sidney CrosbyAlex Ovechkin series were all close, with one series ending in six games and the other two going the full distance for seven. The Penguins also looked more than a bit leaky against Philly.

Still, the Penguins inspired doubt during the 2016 and 2017 runs, and they still got things done. They tend to create more chances than they allow and enjoy the luxury of rolling out multiple lethal scorers.

ADAM: Capitals in 7. I don’t know, man. They have to win at some point, don’t they? This Capitals team is not as good as the past two Capitals teams that could not do it, but they are still good! Everything seems like it is just there for them this season. Evgeni Malkin is hurt. Carl Hagelin is hurt. I do not think Phil Kessel is 100 percent healthy. Matt Murray has not played as well as he has the past two years. Everything is there on the table for them. The door is open. Just go through it!

JOEYCapitals in 7. Yes, I’m going to be that guy. The Capitals have exceptional depth down the middle, while Evgeni Malkin is banged up for Pittsburgh. He won’t play in Game 1, so he’s clearly hurting. If Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller continue playing well, the Caps will get the job done this time around.

SCOTTPenguins in 7. I took the Pens in six in the first round and they obliged me, and I’m taking them again (don’t let me down). 

Pittsburgh is the better team, despite what the standings suggested at the end of the regular season. Matt Murray is on his game (so is Holtby to a lesser extent, but he worries me). Evgeni Malkin missing Game 1 is a tough pill to swallow, but the Pens have own the Capitals, historically, in their playoff meetings. I don’t see that changing, even if the Caps push them to the limit. 

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Nashville Predators vs. Winnipeg Jets

SEAN: Predators in 7. They were my pick in the West and I’m sticking with it, even as they face their toughest test of the season. Last year’s run to the Final helped the Predators this season. They learned what it takes to go on a deep run and now that they’re healthy — for now! — and GM David Poile added depth in Nick Bonino, Kyle Turris, Ryan Hartman and Mike Fisher, they can handle what Winnipeg offer, which is a scary offense with Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheiefele and Paul Stastny, among others.

JAMES: Predators in 7. Ah, now here is where leaning on past picks is especially helpful, as the Predators were my pre-season, mid-season, and pre-playoffs pick as champs. The Predators hold home-ice advantage and a coach I’m personally more confident in. Nashville doesn’t really have any major flaws, at least with Pekka Rinne playing at a high level. Winnipeg’s top-end talent is pretty scary, but this is the one opponent with the defensemen to potentially slow them down. A bit.

This should be an especially fun series, as you could argue this is a clash between the two best teams in the NHL.

ADAM: Predators in 6. They have been my pick in the Western Conference from day one and I just do not see any reason to change it. The Jets are awesome and should continue to be awesome for a long time with the young talent they have, but this Predators team just seems completely loaded and does not really have a significant weakness.

JOEYPredators in 7. The two best teams in the NHL are going head-to-head in the second round, which should make for an incredible series. The Predators arguably have the best defense in the league, while the Jets have one of the more explosive forward groups. There’s not much separating these two teams on the ice, but experience is on Nashville’s side.

SCOTTPredators in 7. Here’s hoping that his series goes the distance because everyone who loves watching hockey deserves that. The matchup is mouthwatering. High-powered offenses, Vezina-caliber goaltending and physicality for days. I picked the Predators to win the Cup this year, so I won’t pivot from that initial pick, but watching the Jets put on a masterclass in the first round has me second-guessing myself. The Jets, outside of Game 3, were simply dominate all over the place. The Predators, on the other hand, looked somewhat pedestrian in their series outside of their series-clinching Game 6 performance. This one is honestly a toss-up. I’m sticking with my initial pick, but wouldn’t be surprised to see the Jets move on either in the same number of games. 

Vegas Golden Knights vs. San Jose Sharks

SEAN: Sharks in 6. I think the magic run ends here. Marc-Andre Fleury needs to post that .981 even strength save percentage during their sweep of the Los Angeles Kings because the Golden Knights only averaged 1.75 goals per game in the first round and all four games were decided by a single goal. The Vegas offense that averaged 3.27 goals per game during the regular season will need to find itself again going up against a Sharks team that destroyed the Anaheim Ducks. San Jose received contributions from up and down the lineup, and that’s with Joe Thornton missing the entire series. Add in the stellar play of Martin Jones (.979 ESSV%) and it could spell the end for Vegas.

This, according to my predictions, will result in a Jets-Sharks conference final, which will bring back all those playful jabs San Jose players threw Winnipeg’s way earlier this season.

JAMES: Sharks in 6. That stuff about consistency carries over here: I keep doubting the Golden Knights, they remain a blast to watch and prove me wrong. Why stop now? The Sharks have been a locomotive lately, rolling over the Ducks in impressive fashion. San Jose has the defenders to inhibit the Jonathan Marchessault line, top scorers who are lighting it up, and a unique weapon in Brent Burns.

ADAM: Sharks in 6. This Sharks team is really underrated and they are going to be a challenge for Vegas in a way that Los Angeles was not. They are fast, they can score, they have some youth, I don’t know if Marc-Andre Fleury can stop every single shot he faces again (well, almost every single shot he faces). I think the Sharks take it and continue to make surprising runs in the playoffs long after everyone gave up on them as a Stanley Cup contender.

JOEYGolden Knights in 7. The Golden Knights’ run will not come to an end in the second round. This doesn’t mean I’m selling the Sharks short, I just believe that the depth that Vegas has up front will make the difference. Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Martin Jones have been great for their respective teams, and that’s why this will be a tight series.

SCOTT: Golden Knights in 6. I picked both of these teams — Vegas and the San Jose Sharks — to lose in seven games in the first round. What a mistake that was. Given how well Vegas managed to play in their own zone and how dominate they were in goal to shutdown the Kings, if all stays the same, there’s no reason to think they can’t stop the Sharks in the same manner. The Golden Knights gave up the least number of high-danger scoring chances and Marc-Andre Fleury stopped all of them when they did. That’s a hell of a recipe and another addition to the history books. 

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Slowing the Sharks, X-factors

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better coaching?

NBC Sports
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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Barry Trotz doesn’t have a contract beyond the conclusion of this current season. He entered the year with no job security, no sense of what his future would hold and still steering his troops to the top of the heap in the Metropolitan Division, and now, the Stanley Cup Final.

Washington’s start to the season didn’t help and rumors of Trotz’s pending axing swirled. But the man who sits fifth all-time in coaching wins turned his team around.

Trotz has found another gear behind the bench and has guided the Caps with calmness during these playoffs. It’s paid off. The Capitals were able to exercise their demons against the Pittsburgh Penguins and then come back from being 3-2 down against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Oh, and he did this:

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

There isn’t a world where Gerard Gallant doesn’t win the Jack Adams this year for top bench boss in the NHL. He’s simply done the unthinkable with a team no one expected to be competing, never mind being one of two teams set to do battle for the Stanley Cup.

Look, Gallant was given a bunch of players from all over the league and a mandate to try and figure out how they all fit together, who plays on what line. Who pairs with who on defense. What the power play and penalty kill look like. It was a tall task to begin with, but Gallant has nailed it every step of the way.

There’s been lots of talk of how poorly the Panthers fared when they lost both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith in the expansion draft. But one of Florida’s biggest losses was firing Gallant and leaving him on the side of the road.

That decision paved the way for Gallant to join the Golden Knights and smash nearly every record by an expansion team ever.

Gallant has given his players the controls. Mistakes don’t mean less ice time. Gallant has inspired his team and doesn’t have them playing scared. It’s a perfect approach and one that’s evidently paid off.

Advantage: Golden Knights

Trotz is a great coach, but there’s just something about the spirited way Gallant has Vegas playing that simply cannot be denied. We’ve seen it all season and all playoffs.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?
• Who has better special teams?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better special teams?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

There is no team with a better weapon on the power play than Alex Ovechkin (sorry, Patrik Laine). The fact of the matter is Washington has clipped along at damn-near 30 percent (28.6%) in the playoffs on the power play through three rounds. The only team better is the Boston Bruins, and well, they were ousted in the second round.

And it’s not just Ovi producing on the power play (he has nine points). Defenseman John Carlson leads the team with 10 power play points. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has been simply sensational in the playoffs, has nine, as does T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom.

One of the X factors in this series is going to be special teams, and for Washington, specifically, they’re going to need to tighten up on the penalty kill. They allow one goal every four opportunities they give to an opposing team on the power play. Couple that with the fact that they’re the most penalized team in playoffs (61 times shorthanded), and you can see where this all could go wrong. Perhaps the good news for the Caps here is that their road PK percentage (79.3%) is better than their home numbers (71.9%).

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

Vegas’ pedestrian 17.6 percent power play success rate is a full 11 percent behind the Capitals, so Washington has them beat in this regard. Vegas is the second-most shorthanded team in these playoffs (57). Forward Erika Huala leads the team with 12 power-play points while William Karlsson (8), Reilly Smith (7), and Jonathan Marchessault (6) round out their top-four point producers.

The Golden Knights could use a spark on the power play away from home, where they take advantage of just 13 percent of their man advantages.

Vegas has been much better than the Caps when shorthanded, however, at 82.5 percent. Given how many penalties the Golden Knights have taken — and the fact they played Patrik Laine and the Jets in the Western Conference Final — that’s pretty impressive. They muzzled the Jets all over the ice, but were particularly good at keeping Laine and Mark Scheifele off their game on the power play.

Vegas’ PK has been good both on the home and away from T-Mobile Arena — much like everything they’ve done this season.

Marc-Andre Fleury owns a .909 save percentage on the penalty kill, compared to Braden Holtby‘s .857.

Advantage: Capitals (ever so slightly)

Washington’s power play pushes them just over the top here, especially against a team that gives up so many opportunities. It has to be said though that this battle is very close on paper. Vegas has the better goalie in shorthanded situations and they have a better penalty kill all-around.

Special teams is certainly an x-factor in this series and should be fun to watch given the talent on both teams. 

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:

• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

No contract, no problem: Trotz guides Caps into Cup final

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) One of the lasting images from the Capitals’ playoff run came the morning of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference final.

Usually Alex Ovechkin hustles around the rink in a hot lap prior to the morning skate. Only this time it was 55-year-old coach Barry Trotz, who answered the call from his players to do the lap.

“I was worried about the turns,” Trotz said. “The rudders haven’t been sharpened all year. … I almost bit it at the end there trying to imitate Ovi.”

The Capitals beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 that night to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final, but they might’ve won Game 7 at that moment. Rarely in previous postseasons had Trotz been that relaxed, the result of an unusual situation.

Trotz went into the season without – and still doesn’t have – a contract for next season, a circumstance that almost never happens to an experienced coach of a team with legitimate postseason hopes. But in a strange way, being a lame-duck coach might’ve helped Trotz not feel the pressure of past early exits and played a positive role in getting this far.

“I think it could be the same effect on a player, too, that’s becoming a free agent,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Friday. “He’s basically becoming a free agent as a coach, and what effect does that have? Do you have your best year when you’re a free agent?”

Trotz has. Even with the fifth-most victories of any coach in NHL history, until this spring he hadn’t made it past the second round in 18 previous seasons with the Nashville Predators and Capitals. He called it “luck of the draw,” running into championship-bound teams from Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

This improbable Capitals run that continues with Game 1 of the Cup Final on Monday in Las Vegas is not luck. It’s parts Ovechkin and goaltender Braden Holtby, and also the right moves by Trotz. He called on Philipp Grubauer to start the first round in goal before switching to Holtby in Game 2 against Columbus and watching him get on a roll. He put Jakub Vrana on the top line not long before the rookie scored the winner in Game 5 against the Penguins and pushed all the right buttons on rest and preparation.

Teams tend to read cues from a head coach, and those have been positive.

“I think his demeanor has changed a little bit,” MacLellan said. “He seems a little lighter, a little looser, a little less pressure, maybe a little more freedom in terms of how he goes about things.”

Despite back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies, MacLellan and Capitals management didn’t offer Trotz an extension.

Before the playoffs, Trotz said he hadn’t lost any sleep over his status and referred questions to MacLellan and owner Ted Leonsis. In March, Leonsis said he doesn’t talk about contracts, and MacLellan has repeatedly stated that any talks would wait until after the playoffs. There are currently no vacancies in the NHL.

Toronto’s Mike Babcock is the highest-paid coach at $6.25 million, Chicago’s Joel Quenneville is next at $6 million and Montreal’s Claude Julien comes in at $5 million. Those three have combined to win the Cup five times.

Trotz’s price tag has gone up however the Final goes against the Golden Knights.

“He’s probably going to benefit from this, too,” MacLellan said. “I think he’s done a good job managing it. To come in this year with so many questions – not from my point of view the lineup questions were that a big deal – but just the emotional state of our team coming in to start the year and how to handle that, I think he’s done an outstanding job.”

Trotz survived a 10-9-1 start that culminated with 6-3 and 6-2 losses at Nashville and Colorado, and the Capitals winning 12 of their next 14 games might have saved his job. Players’ response to Trotz reading them the riot act showed he certainly hadn’t lost the room.

But a journey of self-discovery last summer went beyond not having a contract.

“It gave me just some clarity on what defines me, what defines us, what defines you,” Trotz said. “If you don’t win any awards or anything, I’m not going to look at you any different. If you’re a good person and you treat people right and you live your life right, then I’m going to think really highly of you. If you don’t, I’m not going to think so much of you. And I started getting that clarity that everybody looks for the wrong in people rather than the right and it gave me a lot of clarity. And some things happened in my life that allowed me to see that and it’s been good.”

Happy, relaxed Trotz has made more appearances in these playoffs than buttoned-down, terse Trotz. He hasn’t soured amid the road bumps this postseason.

The Capitals have followed Trotz’s even-keeled approach and even been upbeat following losses. Like his players, he’s enjoying the ride.

“Playoffs are fun,” Trotz said. “They are a grind. But they’re fun. And they should be treated as fun. They’re sort of all the hard that you have to put in just to get there and it takes even more hard work to go farther, but it is fun. I’m finding I’m having a blast during the games.”

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SWhyno

Golden Knights success raising stakes for next NHL expansion

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SEATTLE (AP) — From his office about 1,000 miles away from T-Mobile Arena, Tod Leiweke has watched the Stanley Cup playoffs with a growing appreciation for what is taking place in Las Vegas.

He was keeping an eye on the Golden Knights even before he became president of Seattle Hockey Partners LLC, the group looking to bring an expansion NHL franchise to the Pacific Northwest. Once he took charge of Seattle’s efforts , Leiweke’s interest intensified, just as Vegas began its run to the upcoming Stanley Cup Final.

”They’re playing the game with great joy and they’re having fun and it’s just inspirational to watch,” Leiweke said. ”We’re absolutely loving it and living vicariously through them.”

The Golden Knights’ success in their inaugural season has been unprecedented as Vegas prepares for Game 1 on Monday night against the Washington Capitals. It’s also seemed to have heightened the expectations for the next wave of NHL expansion.

Seattle is on deck. If the NHL awards the city a franchise, it could be on the ice as early as the 2020 season. It would require a $650 million expansion fee and a renovated arena. There’s also talk of future growth, with Houston mentioned regularly as a possible destination for the league.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has met with new Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, who is certainly more open to acquiring an NHL franchise for Houston than former owner Les Alexander. Seattle is certainly further ahead in the process by showing interest, but Houston has the arena and a potential owner already in place for the near future.

For now all the focus is on what’s happening in Seattle. And if Leiweke is feeling any additional pressure for his potential franchise given Vegas’ success on and off the ice, he’s not showing it.

”Well, to tell you the truth, I guess someone could interpret it that way that there’s all of a sudden this unusual pressure on us but in fact all they’re doing is helping us,” Leiweke said. ”They’re showing us how successful this league could be, the brilliance of the game, they’re showing us what happens when a team comes together and plays inspired hockey. We don’t at all see it as anything other than just a great thing for the National Hockey League. Those that come before us will set the table for us. When I think about what they’ve done my endorphins go off and I have such admiration and we’re truly inspired by it.”

The indications about six weeks ago, when Leiweke was hired, led those involved in the expansion process to believe some type of conditional approval would be granted by the NHL Board of Governors during their June meeting, to be followed by full approval in September. The staggered approach was to make certain construction on the arena would begin in late October as scheduled.

That has changed. Bettman told The Associated Press this week that the Seattle expansion won’t be formally addressed next month.

”What we have said to the people – David Bonderman’s group – is we’re on your timetable. There’s information that needs to be gathered after information is submitted. We have to finish doing our due diligence and our homework. We need to have the timetable understanding as to when the building’s going to get done. We can move as fast or as slowly as you want. There’s no rush,” Bettman told the AP. ”We’re in the middle of the process. They’re doing their homework, and they’re proceeding on two fronts because they’ve got to renovate a building and they’ve got to pursue the team and they’re doing both very nicely. They’re working with the city, they hired Tod Leiweke.

”Is it going to be on the June agenda? No. After that, could it be September? Could it be the annual meeting in December? It’s possible.”

Leiweke was hoping to have a true rooting interest in the finals, but the Tampa Bay Lightning were ousted in the Eastern Conference finals by the Capitals. Leiweke was the CEO of the Lightning from 2010-15 and was part of the group that turned around the organization, both with its on-ice success and in the stands, rejuvenating a fan base that had slumped following Tampa Bay’s title run in 2004.

The experience in Tampa Bay gave Leiweke an understanding of what it’ll take for Seattle to have a successful franchise. And while it may not be on par with what Vegas is accomplishing, Leiweke sees no reason why Seattle won’t have a chance to be a contender from the start.

”I won’t be foolish enough to say we’re going to make it to the Stanley Cup (Final) in our first year but I believe that we can absolutely build a team that is long-term competitive here,” Leiweke said. ”So when we think about this we don’t say look, we’re resetting a goal and our goal is to make the Stanley Cup in year one. But our goal is to replicate a good part of what they’ve done by building an incredibly competitive program where those players are proud to pull on that sweater.”

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule