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High-scoring top lines dominating best defenders in playoffs

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Each time Boston’s top line jumps over the boards, the Tampa Bay Lightning are on red alert.

Make a mistake and Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak can make you pay. They have.

”You think it’s going all right and you’re playing well, and they only need one look,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. ”We knew that. That’s no surprise. They’re a good line.”

Top lines are lighting up opponents all over the playoffs, ratcheting scoring up to a pace not seen in more than two decades. Top trios from the Capitals, Golden Knights, Penguins, Jets and Predators are having their way against top opposing defensemen. Goals are supposed to be harder to come by in the playoffs, but after years of NHL rule changes to get goals, goals and more goals, that is exactly what’s happening.

”Every line, every group of forwards, give different challenges for defensemen,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. ”It’s the types of reads and the tendencies of the group and as a series goes on there’s going to be more and more deception happening from a forward group to our group of defenders and vice versa. It’s the constant reads and the constant communication and the constant positioning that you have to have against really dynamic people who are good collectively or individually.”

Especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s not easy being D.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

A total of 332 goals were scored through the first 54 playoff games, the most at that point since 1996 (338). Elite goaltenders are putting on a show, yet top lines like Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist (Pittsburgh); Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson (Washington); Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg); Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith (Vegas): and Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson (Nashville) are taking advantage of their opportunities.

Top lines have been on the ice for 42 of the 78 goals scored through Tuesday in the second round, a showcase of skill that shows great offense is beating great defense. So many of the game’s best defensemen are now counted on as much for their offense as the play in their own end, yet even those tasked with stopping the stars haven’t been able to do it.

”We’ve got a game plan, but I don’t think we’ve completely executed it yet,” Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon said of containing the Golden Knights’ top line. ”We’re kind of doing it in bits and pieces.”

The Penguins trail the Capitals 2-1 in their second-round series in part because they haven’t gotten much offense beyond Guentzel, Crosby and Hornqvist, plus the goals that top line is giving up to Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.

”They’re pretty aggressive, so there’s some open ice heading the other way against them,” top Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. ”You’ve got to defend hard when they have it and make your plays and have confidence to make plays when you do have it. If you’re only playing defense against them, it’s going to be a long night. You have to go on the attack, as well.”

That’s the risk-reward for elite defenders in the playoffs: knowing when to counterattack. It has worked some for the Bruins, who so far have limited the damage from Tampa Bay’s J.T. Miller, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and put up some goals against them.

Bruins defensemen Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy corralled Auston Matthews and Toronto’s top offensive performers in the first round and continue to draw the toughest assignments against the Lightning.

”The guys on the ice, that’s their assignment for 15, 18 minutes, whatever they play at even strength that night,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”There’s no magic formula about following them around or any particular structure other than Z and Charlie have done a good job of not getting caught up ice, giving them odd-man rushes for the most part.”

Pittsburgh’s biggest hole through three games defensively – outside of Matt Murray‘s apparently vulnerable glove hand – has been defending the Capitals on the rush.

”They’re a very skilled team,” defensemen Justin Schultz said. ”You’ve got to have numbers back and keep your head on a swivel because they’re very talented.”

It’s not just rush goals, though, as the Jets’ Connor, Scheifele and Wheeler showed in helping lead a comeback from down 3-0 to beat the Predators 7-4 to take a 2-1 series lead. Winnipeg and Nashville have combined for 25 goals despite two Vezina Trophy finalists in net and some of the best defensemen in hockey. It’s a blueprint for how the NHL wanted to crank up offense.

”I think the mindset is definitely to play well defensively,” Predators captain Roman Josi said. ”Both teams want to play a good game defensively, and for some reason these two teams seem to bring the best out of each other and they’re always high-scoring games.”

AP Sports Writers Josh Dubow in San Jose, California, and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and freelance reporter Matt Kalman in Boston contributed.

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

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Torey Krug putting together impressive postseason

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Over the last few seasons, there’s been a lot of uncertainty surrounding Torey Krug‘s long-term future with the Boston Bruins. It appeared as though they weren’t sure whether or not to give a smaller offensive defenseman a long contract extension. But his performance this postseason may make this picture a lot clearer.

We know that Krug can move the puck and create offense from the back end. Over the last three seasons, he’s put up 51, 59 and 53 points (his points-per-game number has improved in each season). There’s not many defenders that are capable of putting up numbers like that at this level.

Krug has also had a ton of success in the playoffs throughout his career, as he’s posted 40 points in 55 career games in the postseason. Last year, he managed to be a point-per-game player in the playoffs with 12 points in 11 contests. This year his numbers are down slightly (he has 12 points in 17 games), but this year feels different (in a good way).

The Bruins are four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup, and Krug has been a big part of that. Not only has he contributed offensively, but his pairing, with Brandon Carlo, has acted as a shutdown duo for the Bruins. So Krug isn’t just being used in an offensive role.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In 219 minutes of ice time with Carlo this postseason, the 28-year-old has a CF% of 53.62 percent, a HDCF% of 54.17 percent and a SF% of 52 percent. Those are some solid individual numbers for Krug. He’s also had an incredibly positive influence on his young defense partner. Carlo’s overall CF% in the postseason is 51.54 percent. With Krug, that number climbs up to 53.72 percent. When he’s not on the ice with Krug, the number drops to 45.93 percent. So as valuable as Carlo’s been during this run, it’s clear that he’s much more effective when he’s next to Krug (all numbers provided by Natural Stat Trick).

No matter what happens in the Stanley Cup Final, Krug has opened some eyes around the league. Now, can the Bruins get him signed to a long-term deal? He has one year remaining on his current deal before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020. If he’s making $5.25 million on this deal, you’d have to think that he’s going to get a raise on the next deal.

Both McAvoy and Carlo will need new deals this offseason (McAvoy will make more than Carlo), so it’ll be interesting to see how much money they’ll have left over for Krug.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: How Blues turned season around; Questions for Hurricanes

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• How much does sweeping your opponent in the conference final help the team heading to the Stanley Cup Final? (The Hockey News)

• Ryan Dadoun breaks down what went wrong for the Detroit Red Wings this season. (Rotoworld)

• ESPN sheds some light on who the biggest winners of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs are as of right now. (ESPN)

• The St. Louis Blues were in last place as of Jan. 2, but here’s how they were able to turn things around. (Sportsnet)

• The Bruins have to find a way to deal with this long break they have before the Stanley Cup Final. (WEEI)

• The Montreal Canadiens should try to sign Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner to an offer sheet this summer. (Montreal Gazette)

• Should the Washington Capitals give Andre Burakovsky a qualifying offer? (Washington Post)

• Many teams should go after Golden Knights defenseman Colin Miller including the Philadelphia Flyers. (Broad Street Hockey)

• Here are five big questions surrounding the Carolina Hurricanes this offseason. (News & Observer)

J.T. Miller has emerged as an important piece of the Ryan McDonagh trade. (Tampa Times)

• The TSN Trade Bait board has plenty of potential targets for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Leafs Nation)

• The Rangers have a lot of depth on defense, so they have to figure out how to break up that logjam. (Blue Shirt Banter)

• What can the Penguins get for Olli Maatta? (Pensburgh)

• If a team decides to offer sheet a restricted free agent, it could easily be the Colorado Avalanche. (Mile High Hockey)

• Taking a goalie in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft usually isn’t a wise move. (Sinbin.Vegas)

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Playoff Buzzer: Hats off (again) to Jaden Schwartz

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  • Jaden Schwartz records his second hat trick of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • Vladimir Tarasenko keeps producing.
  • Jordan Binnington records his first career postseason shutout to help bring the St. Louis Blues one step closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

St. Louis Blues 5, San Jose Sharks 0 (Blues lead series 3-2)

This game was every bit as lopsided as the 5-0 final score would have you believe. The St. Louis Blues were simply the better team in every single phase of the game and put together what might have been their best performance of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs to this point. They now return home on Tuesday night with a chance to clinch their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970 and have to be confident given how well they have played over the past two games. Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko both had multi-point games in the win (Schwartz recorded his second hat trick of the postseason), while Oskar Sundqvist started things off early in the first period to continue his strong playoff run. The Sharks were not only on the wrong end of the score, but they also now have some major injury questions heading into Game 6, especially regarding top defender Erik Karlsson who played just 10 minutes on Sunday as he continues to deal with his lingering injury. Blues goalie Jordan Binnington recorded his first shutout of the playoffs in net.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. His incredible postseason continues. After a disappointing regular season performance that saw him score just 11 goals in 69 games, one of the worst offensive outputs of his career, Schwartz has been a constant force in these playoffs and recorded his second hat trick on Sunday. He is now up to 12 goals for the playoffs, exceeding his regular season total, and is now just one goal away from tying Brett Hull’s franchise record for a single postseason.

2. Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues. After a fairly quiet (by his standards, anyway) start to the playoffs the Blues needed their best player to shine in the Western Conference Final. He has. He extended his current point streak to five games on Sunday with a goal and two assists. He now has two goals and five assists in the series, and is up to seven goals and 12 total points in the playoffs. He has always been a big-time performer for the Blues in the playoffs, and he is shining just when they need him most.

3. Jordan Binnington, St. Louis Blues. He did not need to be great on Sunday, especially over the second and third periods when the Blues completely took over the game and dominated, but a shutout in a Western Conference Final game is still a big deal. It his first career shutout in the playoffs.

Highlights of the Day

Sundqvist got things started for the Blues when he capitalized on a bad turnover by Karlsson. It is his fourth goal of the playoffs.

This was just a terrible play by Sharks goalie Martin Jones and it resulted in an easy goal for Schwartz, his first of the game.

Tarasenko’s penalty shot goal in the second period was the first playoff penalty shot goal in Blues franchise history, and it came on a shot that looked to be pretty unstoppable.

Factoids

  • Schwartz became just the third player in Blues franchise history to score at least 10 goals in a single playoff run and the first since Brett Hull during the 1991 playoffs. [NHL PR]
  • The St. Louis Blues have won more games this postseason than in any other postseason in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Vladimir Tarasenko scored the first postseason penalty shot goal in St. Louis Blues history in the second period of Sunday’s game. It was only the second postseason penalty shot the team has ever had. [NHL PR]
  • The Blues have won seven of their first nine road games this postseason, something only 17 other teams have accomplished. [NHL PR]
  • Schwartz is the first player in Blues history to have two hat tricks in a single postseason and the first player for any team since Johan Franzen did it for the 2008 Detroit Red Wings. [NHL PR]

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

GM Armstrong’s roster overhaul has Blues on verge of Stanley Cup Final

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After blowing out the San Jose Sharks on Sunday afternoon in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, the St. Louis Blues moved one step closer to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in nearly 50 years. Given where this team was just a few months ago (when it was at the bottom of the Western Conference standings) it is one of the more stunning stories in what has already been a wild and unpredictable postseason.

But don’t be fooled by where this Blues team was in mid-January. They are good, and they absolutely deserve to be in the position they are in.

They were always better than their first half record would have had you believe, and once they solidified the goaltending position with the arrival — and ensuing emergence —  of Jordan Binnington, as well as the improved defensive play after the coaching change from Mike Yeo to Craig Berube, they have played and looked like a Stanley Cup contender.

While it’s easy to point to the hiring of Berube and the call-up of Binnington as the turning points, general manager Doug Armstrong also deserves a ton of credit for the moves he has made over the past two years for getting this team to where it is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Since the summer of 2017, Armstrong has completely overhauled the forward depth of his roster, adding Ryan O'Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Patrick Maroon, David Perron, Tyler Bozak, and Oskar Sundqvist from outside the organization, while also using one of his two 2017 first-round draft picks on Robert Thomas, who has shown flashes of brilliance during these playoffs as a 19-year-old rookie.

That group of forwards represented four of the Blues’ top-six scorers this season (and four of the top-five among the forwards) and have all made their presence felt in the playoffs at one time or another.

The key for the Blues is not just that they added them, but how they were able to get them many of them.

Let’s start with the trades.

Going back to the summer of 2017, Armstrong made four significant trades that involved all of this.

  • Trading two-first round draft picks (the Blues’ own 2018 first-round pick, as well as a 2017 first-round pick they had previously acquired from the Washington Capitals in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade) and Jori Lehtera to the Philadelphia Flyers for Schenn.
  • Trading Ryan Reaves and a 2017 second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Sundqvist and a 2017 first-round pick.
  • Trading Paul Stastny‘s expiring contract to the Winnipeg Jets for a package that included a 2018 first-round pick.
  • Trading Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for O’Reilly.

What have the Blues gained from all of that? Well let’s just take a look at what each player involved has done from the time of their trade through the end of the 2018-19 regular season.

Look at the difference in production. While Armstrong gave up more assets, he got significantly more production back in return and did so for a cheaper price against the salary cap (even if you subtract the Stastny cap hit out of that since he was leaving as a free agent anyway).

He shed a bunch of contracts he probably didn’t want (Lehtera, Sobotka, Berglund) and some draft picks to get top-line players (O’Reilly and Schenn) and a good young forward (Sundqvist) that has emerged as an effective bottom-six player.

[Blues rout Sharks in Game 5]

Even though he gave up three first-round picks and two second-round picks, he still managed to get two first-round picks back in return. Even if you look at that as a net-loss in terms of assets, the success rate of mid-to-late first-and second-round picks is more than worth it when you look at just how much the Blues were able to get back in their lineup.

Especially if it ends up resulting in a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and especially since the NHL assets he sent away aren’t really anything special (Stastny being the exception — and even he wasn’t guaranteed to be back had he not been traded).

His free agent acquisitions this summer have also, for the most part, panned out.

Perron returned for his third different stint with the Blues and finished with 23 goals and 46 total points even though he played in only 56 regular season games.

Maroon signed a bargain-basement contract and gave the Blues a solid, two-way, possession-driving forward that also happened to score one of their biggest postseason goals when he scored in double overtime of Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the Dallas Stars.

The addition that has probably given them the least bang for their buck is probably Bozak ($5 million per year for three years), but even he has been a solid secondary producer.

Overall, pretty much every roster move Armstrong has put his fingerprints on over the past two years has worked out about as well as he and the Blues could have hoped. He is a deserving finalist for the NHL’s general manager of the year award, and is a big reason his team is on the verge of what could be a historic season for the franchise.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.