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Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team

Lightning

1. How will Tampa’s penalty kill neutralize the Washington power play? Only three teams had a worse penalty kill rate (76.1 percent) during the regular season than the Lightning. Those struggles disappeared in the first round against the New Jersey Devils (84.2 percent), but the Boston Bruins made mince meat out of the unit in the second round, with Tampa only killing off 58.3 percent of power plays.

The PK needs to figure itself out with the match-up against the Capitals ahead. As you’d expect, Washington’s power play has been strong all season. They were seventh in the regular season (22.5 percent) and boast the best success rate of any of the four remaining teams (30.9 percent). John Carlson netted two goals, but the Penguins managed to keep Ovechkin off the board and hold him to only one shot, mainly by attaching a forward to his hip as he tried to find space in his favorite spot in the face-off circle.

2. Can their success at even strength last? Only the Vegas Golden Knights have been better at keeping goals out of their net at 5-on-5. Through two rounds, just 12 of their 25 goals against have come at even strength. The Capitals, meanwhile, have seen 21 of their 32 goals against occur at 5-on-5. Tampa limited their two opponents to a combined 390 shot attempts at even strength, compared to the 612 that Washington has allowed, via Corsica.

3. Will Jon Cooper be able to spread out the forward minutes? Rest is a weapon, as Guy Boucher likes to say, and the Lightning have used rest to their advantage — both in-between series and in games. Cooper has been able to divvy out minutes to his forward group strategically and not going heavy with any one line. In fact, Tampa is the only team of the final four that doesn’t have a forward who’s played over 200 minutes through two rounds. Their four lines have done their jobs and that’s allowed for fresher bodies and more production. When you’re playing an extra month of hockey, that rest helps through the grind of the playoffs.

Capitals

1. Will the #Brademption continue? It wasn’t the best of regular seasons for Braden Holtby. His play earned him a spot on the bench for the first two games of the playoffs as Philipp Grubauer got the start against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. But Grubauer failed to take hold of the No. 1 job and head coach Barry Trotz decided to go back to Holtby, who proceeded to help the Capitals win four straight to advance. 

Against the Penguins, Holtby’s play did not diminished and he posted a .931 even strength save percentage over six games. Continuing the positivity, his high-danger save percentage is .857 through 11 games, which is the highest of his career in the regular season or playoffs (via Corsica). That’s up from .745 a year ago. Also improved are his stops on low-dangers chances, .982 this year compared to .979 in the 2017 playoffs. Tampa has had success creating high-danger scoring chances through two rounds and was much better at scoring in close against Boston than versus New Jersey at even strength.

2. Can the rookie production keep up? Against the Blue Jackets, it was Chandler Stephenson putting up four points. Against the Penguins, it was Jakub Vrana’s turn. He took advantage of a turn on the top line in Tom Wilson’s absence and succeeded. With a few minutes of power play time, he contributed a goal in their 4-1 victory in Game 2. Stephenson was also one of three Capitals forwards to play more than 10 minutes on the penalty kill in the second round.

With Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky missing games, the kids took on some extra responsibility and contributed. Depth will get you far in the playoffs, and the Capitals benefited from those not named Ovechkin, Kuznetsov or Backstrom, among a few others, to chip in when needed.

3. Was the series win over the Penguins enough? You could see the elation in the faces of the Capitals after Evgeny Kuznetsov’s series-winning overtime goal in Game 6. They had finally slayed the dragon and killed two birds with one stone in eliminating the Penguins and advancing to the conference final. It was almost like their own Stanley Cup victory, which was a theme since Tuesday as talk about the series victory continued. But while many on this team have experienced the disappointments over the last decade, it will be hard to imagine them coming out flat against a better opponent in the Lightning. Ovechkin’s desire to win a Stanley Cup will not allow them to be complacent with just getting this far.

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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.

Puck and player tracking gets TV test at All-Star Weekend

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Twenty-three years after Fox’s glowing puck made its debut, the NHL’s next big technological advancement will be on display this weekend during All-Star festivities.

NBC will showcase puck and player tracking as part of its broadcast of the skills competition Friday night and then as the centerpiece of a digital-only broadcast of the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament Saturday night. It’ll be the first chance for American hockey fans to get an up-close look at the system that could be in place as soon as next season.

With each player and puck fitted with a microchip, the amount of available information could be overwhelming. Look for everything from NASCAR-like bubbles over players’ heads to skating and shot speed to ice time and even a small trail behind the puck as NBC takes tracking technology in hockey for a test drive.

”Eventually it’ll go to possession time and more advanced (data), but right now it’s mainly focused on speed, shift time, distance traveled, mph on the shot and virtually connecting players on a goal,” NBC Sports producer Steve Greenberg said. ”We’re scratching the surface here, and what we’re able to display this weekend is not what we’re going to be able to display next year and in the future, but it’s going to be able to be a really good first look at what these chips are going to be able to give us.”

The NHL privately tested puck and player tracking in two regular-season games in Las Vegas earlier this month, but this will be the first time the data is available for public consumption. While other types of tracking technology were tested at previous All-Star Games and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, this is something of a dry run for the radio frequency system the NHL has been working with developers to perfect.

Much like the glowing puck was criticized by purists, there’s the danger of overloading fans with too much, too fast. So this is as big a test for NBC as anyone to experiment with how much puck and player tracking data can and should fit onto a TV broadcast.

”It’s a balancing act,” NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said. ”Think about years ago when the yellow line came in for the first down in football. It’s now universal. There are going to be elements that’ll become universal in hockey telecasts based on what we learn over the next period of time.”

Kenny Albert, who will call the puck and player tracking-heavy telecast available on NBC Sports’ app and online, likens this to the kind of ball-tracking technology that has become ubiquitous in golf coverage. He was with Fox in the 1990s when the glowing puck was perhaps ahead of its time but thinks fans are ready for puck and player tracking on TV.

”We live in an age of information overload and people want stuff like ice time and the mph on a shot for example or how fast a player’s skating,” Albert said. ”I have two teenage daughters and I don’t think anybody in that generation now just sits there and watches TV. They want information, whether it’s looking at their phone, their iPad, their computer, and there’s so much information out there.”

Eventually, once the NHL implements player and puck tracking, fans will be able to take a deep dive into all the numbers and there will be an element of real-time sports gambling. But Commissioner Gary Bettman and other league executives have pointed out that the first goal was always to make it TV-ready.

Puck and player tracking is ready for its close-up this weekend with a focus on showing how fast hockey is.

”The most obvious thing that (viewers will) probably notice is just sort of the correlations tied to speed,” NHL senior vice president of business development David Lehanski said. ”It’s kind of the thing everybody talks about: how fast the game is, how fast the players are, how fast the puck moves.”

KARLSSON CONUNDRUM

Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson missed the final three games before the break with a lower-body injury, but there’s somehow still a chance he takes part in All-Star Weekend in San Jose. Obviously, coach Peter DeBoer said, the organization would love to have Karlsson on the ice in its home arena, but not at the risk of making it worse.

”If there’s more damage to be done, no one in their right mind would play,” DeBoer said. ”So I think it’s pretty simple.”

Karlsson returned to California for tests, and defenseman Brenden Dillon said it’s a positive for the team to play it safe with the two-time Norris Trophy winner. Karlsson has fit in well with San Jose after an offseason trade from San Jose and gives the Sharks the look of a Stanley Cup contender with the deepest blue line in the league.

”He’s an unbelievable talent and a guy that’s fit in our locker room great too,” Dillon said. ”It’s something where collectively as a group we realized that it was going to be a little bit less whether that’s in minutes or situations … I think for everybody it’s kind of been a little bit less is more and understanding the kind of common goal. So far, so good.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Buffalo Sabres get an early test in the second half of the season when they visit the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday in each team’s first game after the All-Star break.

LEADERS (THROUGH MONDAY)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 33; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 56; Points: Kucherov, 78; Ice Time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:41; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 27; Goals-Against Average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.02; Save Percentage: Jack Campbell (Los Angeles), .931.

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

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

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Wednesday Night Hockey: Golden Knights try to stay strong at home vs. Predators

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Predators enter the final game before the All-Star break two points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the Central Division lead and powered by the goal scoring efforts of Viktor Arvidsson.

Arvidsson leads the team with 19 goals despite playing just 27 games. He missed three games in November with a lower-body injury, and then in his return to the lineup, he broke his thumb which led to a 21-game absence. He’s currently on pace for a 40-goal season despite missing 24 games to injury. After scoring against Colorado on Monday, he has 11 goals in his last 14 games and is tied with Evander Kane for the NHL lead in goals scored (10) since the calendar turned to 2019.

“He’s the man. I’ve said it a lot, he’s the Energizer Bunny for our team,” said Ryan Johansen. “Every game, he brings it, and it’s contagious for our group. It’s evident when he’s going, our team’s going.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Like last season, the Golden Knights are one of the best home teams in the NHL, though they have lost two of their past three at T-Mobile Arena. They’re 16-5-3 at home this season compared to 13-13-1 on the road. Offensive and defensively their game has been much better in Vegas as they’ve scored 3.29 goals per game and allowed 2.17 goals per game compared to 2.81 goals for and 3.15 goals against on the road.

Some of that goal scoring has come off the stick is the team’s leading scorer, Alex Tuch. His goal on Monday against his old team, the Minnesota Wild, gave him 16 on the season, surpassing his total from 2017-18. Tuch has recorded 39 points in 43 games this season after missing the first eight games in October with a lower-body injury. The production he’s provided so far helped earn him a seven-year, $33.25M extension, which kicks in next season.

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Eddie Olczyk (analyst) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Nev.

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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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Capitals look to end six-game slide vs. Maple Leafs

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Capitals would like to head into their All-Star/bye week break with a victory, but one against the Maple Leafs would be a big relief.

Entering Wednesday, Washington is winless (0-4-2) in their last six games and are coming off an entertaining 7-6 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks. They haven’t dropped seven straight since Jan. 2014, and before losing Tuesday night had been 22-0-0 when Alex Ovechkin recorded a hat trick.

Ovechkin is playing against Toronto, which means he’ll sit for their Feb. 1 game against the Calgary Flames for deciding to skip the NHL All-Star Weekend for rest. The Capitals will be eager to use a full-power squad to end the first half on a winning note.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

“The only way we’re going to get out of it is to get back to work,” said head coach Todd Reirden. “The only way we are getting out of this is if we work our way out of it, because that’s where you are really going to gain something as a team. If we would have won that game 6-5, it still isn’t the right way to play hockey. It’s great because we feel good because we got the win, but to trade chances, that’s not how we are going to have success and we know that doesn’t bring you long term gain.

“So it’s disappointing. We’re going to work through it [Wednesday vs. Toronto]. It’s not going to stop there. [Wednesday] we are going to come out and I’m expecting us to work as hard as we possibly can to improve in the areas that we’re not. But it’s not stopping there. It needs to be worked on. That was certainly a tough way to lose.”

While the Capitals look to right things before the break, so too are the Maple Leafs, who have won three of their last 10 games and have hit an offensive skid with only 24 goals over that stretch. They’ve lost their last four games at Scotiabank Arena and watched as the Tampa Bay Lightning have extended their lead in the Atlantic Division.

“I think we’re going through some adversity as a team and we want to get out of it as soon as possible,” said forward Auston Matthews. “Hopefully in the long run this is something good for us and we learn from it. It just seems like night after night, it’s little things that are costing us goals and ending up costing us important points. For us, we need to be consistent for a full 60 minutes.”

Gord Miller (play-by-play), Brian Boucher (analyst) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call.

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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.

Injured Karlsson could still take part in All-Star Weekend

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

WASHINGTON (AP) — There is still a chance San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson takes part in NHL All-Star Weekend despite missing the final three games before the break with an injury.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer says Karlsson went back to California for more tests on what the team is calling a lower-body injury. DeBoer didn’t have any further update on Karlsson before his team faced the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals.

”I guess it’ll all be depending on what those results are,” DeBoer said. ”I know he wants to play. If there’s a possible way that he can play without hurting himself, then he’s going to play.”

Karlsson is one of three Sharks players picked for the All-Star Game, which is being held in San Jose. Captain Joe Pavelski and defenseman Brent Burns were also selected to represent the Sharks.

DeBoer says Karlsson wants to take part in the skills competition Friday and the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament Saturday night but won’t risk making the injury worse.

”He’s going to make that decision with our doctors,” DeBoer said. ”If he can’t do any more damage, I know he wants to play in the game. I’m sure the organization would love him in the game. If there’s more damage to be done, no one in their right mind would play. So I think it’s pretty simple.”

Karlsson is in his first season with the Sharks after they acquired him in a trade from the Ottawa Senators, and he’s set to be a free agent this summer. The 28-year-old two-time Norris Trophy winner has three goals and 40 assists in 47 games this season with San Jose.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

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