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PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Tampa’s advantage, underrated Gallant

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1. What do the Capitals need to improve upon from Round 2 against the Lightning?

SEAN: Barry Trotz should certainly realize the Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line experiment should never happen again. Tom Wilson is back from suspension, but should there ever be a need for a tweak, he can’t consider that option again. Another improvement would be staying out of the penalty box. The Capitals have been shorthanded the most of any NHL team this postseason and their penalty kill has only been successful 79.1 percent of the time through two rounds. Now they’re facing a Lightning power play that’s been clicking at a 26 percent rate in each of the first two rounds. Discipline will be key.

JAMES: Honestly, the Capitals have performed far better than expected during these playoffs, with Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby standing out as being particularly effective. That said, Barry Trotz might need to be a little more willing to make in-game tweaks. The standout example is sticking with Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line during Game 4 despite that clearly not working. Trotz eventually relented, but the Lightning are probably more capable of exploiting such stubbornness. (At least Tom Wilson’s suspension is over, so that specific lineup problem might not be an issue. Of course, the Stamkos – Kucherov line could force some maneuvering, too.)

ADAM: There is not a lot because they have played well so far, but discipline maybe? Discipline in the sense that Tom Wilson needs to stop hitting people in the head when he returns, and discipline in the sense that they need to just stay out of the penalty box. They’ve already been shorthanded 43 times this postseason, most in the NHL in the playoffs, and have had been shorthanded at least four times in eight of their first 12 games. And their penalty kill has not exactly been great, converting on just 79 percent of their opportunities. It has not hurt them yet, but that can swing a series. Especially against a team like Tampa Bay.

JOEY: They have to find a way to do a better job of neutralizing the opposition’s top line. Sure, the trio of Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist was tough to stop, but one of the main reasons they moved on to the Eastern Conference Final was because Pittsburgh got to secondary scoring. This time, they can’t let Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Miller dominate because the Bolts are deep and they have other players that can hurt the opposition. Tampa managed to advance to this point without getting much from their top performers, which is pretty scary. The Capitals have to make sure that the Lightning’s best players don’t dominate. Easier said than done.

SCOTT: Washington was good in the second round. Their power play has been clicking all playoffs. Braden Holtby has found his stride again and they’re a confident bunch after beating the Pittsburgh Penguins finally. But they need someone not named Alex Ovechkin and Evegny Kuznetsov to carry the offensive burden. Both are capable at doing so, surely, and we saw it against the Penguins. But secondary scoring could use a boost, for sure. 

2. What is the biggest advantage the Lightning hold over the Capitals?

SEAN: You might say depth, but Washington got contributions from the likes of Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana and Brett Connolly. Heck, even Alex Chiasson potted a big goal. If that continues, that category can be marked as even. I’d give them an edge on the blue line. Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh can play heavy minutes and Braydon Coburn has been excelling with fewer minutes compared to the regular season. The Capitals will look to give their third pairing of Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos favorable minutes, but that’s something Tampa can try and exploit with home-ice advantage.

JAMES: The Lightning boast a better defense. All due respect to John Carlson on that contract year tear and the underrated Matt Niskanen, but Washington has no Victor Hedman, and Ryan McDonagh seems like he’s settling in. If Nicklas Backstrom can’t play, Tampa Bay’s two lines could be another big edge, as Brayden Point‘s showing that his strong regular season play has been no fluke. If Point isn’t a star, he’s awfully close.

ADAM: There seems to be a belief that the Lightning are just going to roll through the Capitals, but I just do not see it. I think these two teams are pretty evenly matched in the sense that they each have superstar forwards, they each have elite goalies, and they each have some pretty deep offenses. I think if Tampa Bay has one thing going for it over Washington it’s that it has a legitimate No. 1, elite-level defenseman in Victor Hedman and the Capitals don’t. John Carlson is good, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not Victor Hedman. And having that guy that can play half of a game and follow around a top player and shut him down is a pretty big advantage to have.

JOEY: The Lightning are clearly superior on the blue line. Sure, the Capitals have John Carlson, but there’s a steep drop off after him. The Bolts have Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman and Mikhail Sergachev. Even Dan Girardi has been relatively useful during this run. If McDonagh can kick it up a notch, that can put even more distance between these teams. The two sides are pretty evenly matched after that. They both have multiple lines that can score and goaltenders that can play at a high level.

SCOTT: Experience. Tampa has a combined 273 games of Conference Final experience to Washington’s measly 28. Washington has three players who’ve reached the penultimate round whereas the Lightning have nearly their whole roster with 18 players. This is new territory for most of these Capitals players.

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3. What’s been the most impressive part of this Winnipeg run?

SEAN: I hope the hockey world is taking note of what Mark Scheifele is doing. Seven of his 11 goals came on the road in Nashville in the second round. He’s blossomed into an elite level player over the last several year and has been nearly a point-per-game player since the 2015-16 NHL season. He’s a hockey nerd, even if he’s not a fan of that description. He’s worked with Adam Oates for the last few years, which has greatly improved his skills and made him a better 200-foot player. Now we’re finally getting to see all that work on display on a grander stage.

JAMES: This feels like a team that’s “been here before,” or maybe an Exhibit A for why people frequently make too big of a deal about “experience.” The Jets were down 3-0 and wouldn’t be denied in a comeback win. Connor Hellebuyck has been steadier than most veterans would be. They’ve played well enough to turn something that would dominate headlines (Patrik Laine struggling to score, at least by his standards) into a footnote. This team has few discernible weaknesses.

ADAM: I knew the Jets had an amazing offense and that Mark Scheifele was one of the driving forces behind it, but I wasn’t quite prepared for him to have a playoff run like this. He has been simply outstanding and seems to have two points every single night. He has quietly been one of the most productive players in the league the past few years and this postseason has been a pretty big statement from him to make a name for himself across the league.

JOEY: Their ability to win games on the road has been nothing short of remarkable. Through two rounds, Winnipeg has gone 4-2 away from home, including three wins at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Mark Scheifele scored seven road goals during their second-round series, which is now an NHL record. In their three road wins against the Predators, Winnipeg won by a total of 11 goals. Going into Vegas won’t be easy, but if there’s a team that can get the job done there it’s the Jets.

SCOTT: Their ability to face compartmentalize each game, specifically losses, and bounce back the next night. The Jets lost in double-overtime in Game 2 in Nashville bounced back to win Game 3 despite the heartbreak two nights earlier. In Game 6, when they laid an egg in a 4-0 loss with a chance to clinch the series, the Jets again regrouped and put in perhaps their best performance of the playoffs in a 5-1 win in Game 7. That game had all sorts of pressure riding on it and the Jets handled it in stride.

4. Despite a Jack Adams Award nomination, is Gerard Gallant an underrated head coach?

SEAN: When the success of the Golden Knights is brought up, worthy praise goes to Jonathan Marchessault, Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, among others. But Gallant’s name is sometimes left out that discussion. In his second chance as an NHL head coach he helped turn the Florida Panthers around only to be dumped 22 games into last season. Then he gets thrown behind the bench of an expansion team and has to figure out the best line combinations for a group of players who have never played together. Vegas’ success wasn’t something that was gradually built up — they’ve been a good team since the start of the season. Credit to Gallant and his staff for what they’ve done. He’ll win coach of the year by a landslide, but probably still not get enough credit for the job done this season, no matter how it ends.

JAMES: Being that he’s a lock to win the Jack Adams by an enormous margin, I’d say he’s rated just fine. Now, if there are people who are saying that Vegas is running on luck alone, then Gallant would be underrated. Sure, he’s enjoyed outstanding goaltending, but this team kept humming along even when their netminders were barely luckier than Spinal Tap drummers early in 2017-18. This team also plays an exciting, and most importantly, fitting style. Other coaches might think “I need to follow Jacques Lemaire’s lead and make this expansion team be slow and boring to limit chances.” Gallant should be credited for taking a courageous and entertaining approach, and lauded for it actually working.

And, really, the best tests of how he should be rated are yet to come. Between the remainder of this run and avoiding a sophomore slump next season, we’ll get an even better idea of the guy pulling the strings.

ADAM: I never really understood all of the fuss when the Panthers fired him last year. I thought a new front office had the right to bring in their guy and Gallant didn’t really have a track record that made it seem like an obvious mistake. But man, what a job he’s done this year. Coaching is one of those things that is difficult to evaluate, but I think the way he’s kind of turned his players loose and has them playing a fast, quick game that never lets up no matter what the score is in the third period is the right choice. I think he also deserves a ton of credit for getting the most out of some players on the roster, and I’m not necessarily talking about a player like William Karlsson. I mean more specifically a player like Deryk Engelland becoming a useful, regular, 25-minute per night defenseman.

JOEY: Coming into this season, he was definitely underrated, but now that the Golden Knights have had so much success, I feel like he’s been getting a decent amount of love from the hockey world. GM George McPhee did a great job of selecting players, but Gallant has really brought them together as a unit and he has them playing a style that fits them perfectly. This whole year has been a Gallant/Vegas love fest (rightfully so), so I don’t think he’s overrated anymore. Getting a cab on the streets of Vegas probably isn’t an issue for him.

SCOTT: I think you might have said this before the start of the season. Let got in Florida for no good reason, Gallant was quickly snatched up by George McPhee and the Golden Knights. But to see what he’s been able to do as he glued together pieces from teams around the NHL is remarkable, and a testament to his abilities as a head coach. He’s getting the credit he is due now, when before he didn’t. He’s underrated no more.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Berube’s Blues playing well enough to make run at playoffs

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

This is not Brayden Schenn‘s first rodeo with a lot of things this season.

It is his second time playing under Craig Berube as an interim coach and the third time his name has been prominent in trade speculation. For Schenn and the St. Louis Blues, those things are related.

A bad start to the season cost coach Mike Yeo his job in November and started talk that just about anyone from Schenn to star winger Vladimir Tarasenko to young defenseman Colton Parayko could be dealt away. But over the past two month as interim coach, Berube has turned things around – so much so that the Blues could make a run at the playoffs and keep general manager Doug Armstrong from selling ahead of the Feb. 25 trade deadline.

”Guys are playing hard right now and (Berube) obviously commands a lot when it comes to the work ethic side of the game,” Schenn said Monday in Washington. ”We’ve had high expectations right from the beginning, we didn’t meet them, then there’s tons of rumors about everyone. That’s kind of how it goes when you’re not winning and you’re not meeting expectations.

”Now we’re in a position – closer, anyways – to make a playoff push, and we feel like we can in this locker room. Now it’s up to us to try and save ourselves, each other, from getting traded and staying here together.”

Berube has pulled the Blues together by getting them back to basics. They’ve gone 5-2-1 in their past eight games to move within four points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and can now think about the postseason.

”This is such a good team here, and we’re starting to get back to our game,” leading scorer Ryan O'Reilly said. ”We can get into the playoffs. We can make a difference.”

After trading for O’Reilly and signing forwards David Perron, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon last summer, the Blues were expected to make the playoffs and contend for the Stanley Cup. Twelve losses in their first 19 games led to the coaching change, and Berube has instilled some badly needed consistency.

”He’s one of those guys that wants you to make plays, but he demands a lot,” captain Alex Pietrangelo said. ”He wants you to work. And we’re working right now. That’s what we’re doing. That’s how we’re winning hockey games.”

Berube, who also was interim coach for Schenn and the Philadelphia Flyers in 2013-14, has helped the Blues win games by changing their mentality to become more of a north-south team. There was never a shortage of talent, but now the direction of the action is straight toward the net with the kind of direct style more suited to the group’s size.

”We control the puck in the offensive zone a lot,” Berube said. ”We shoot the puck and get to the net. That’s our game.”

It helps that the Blues are getting stellar goaltending from rookie Jordan Binnington and veteran starter Jake Allen of late. Binnington is 3-1-0 with a 1.55 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in his first four NHL starts after getting called up at age 25 and being asked to steady the ship.

”With a little bit of pressure comes opportunity,” Binnington said. ”You try to do your best to feel confident and prepared for the moment, so you just work hard off the ice and on the ice in practice, and when the moment finally comes, hopefully you’re prepared. That’s kind of how I looked at it.”

Blues skaters look at their rough start not as a case of subpar goaltending but disastrous play in front of the net. Schenn said it was ”ugly” early on, and Pietrangelo said the team has done a better job cutting down on rush chances against, which has made life easier for the goalies.

”We’re playing more of a 60-minute hockey game,” said Allen, who has a .910 save percentage this season under Berube (it was .879 under Yeo). ”We were finding ways to shoot ourselves in the foot prior to that. We’d play 20 minutes of good hockey, 20 minutes of bad hockey, 20 minutes of mediocre hockey and sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. But right we’re getting goals and we’re hunkering down, but at the same time we’re still finding a way to capitalize on opportunities.”

More than anything, the Blues need to pile up the points to go from last place in the Central Division at the time of Yeo’s dismissal to the playoffs after missing by one point last season. Berube gets a lot of credit within the locker room for establishing a foundation of success.

”He’s just brought some stability to the group,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. ”He’s definitely made an emphasis on character and compete. I think that’s something we all needed as a group and something we’re going to need night in and night out.”

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

‘Dinosaur’ defensemen like Orpik survive in NHL by adapting

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

When John Tortorella compares Brooks Orpik to a creature that went extinct 65 million years ago, he means it affectionately.

”He’s a little bit of a dinosaur because he hits, and there isn’t a lot of hitting in this game,” Tortorella said.

Orpik, who helped the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup last season and played his 1,000th NHL regular-season game Tuesday, is certainly a rarity. Big, rugged, defensive defensemen are going the way of prehistoric animals, mask-less goaltenders, helmet-less skaters and enforcers, except the ones like Orpik who have adapted to keep pace with the speed of modern hockey.

”I think if you don’t adapt to where the league’s going, then you’re pushed out,” Orpik said. ”If you weren’t willing to adjust how you trained or maybe shed some weight, that would push you out of the league. … There’s that and there’s obviously more of an emphasis on being able to move the puck up quickly.”

NHL teams are looking for the next Erik Karlsson or Thomas Chabot, smaller, more mobile defenseman who can lead the rush and pile up the points. Slower, play-it-safe defensemen like 6-foot-7, 245-pound Hal Gill don’t roam the ice anymore, and those players must approach the game differently.

”I’ve heard people come up and say, ‘Hey, my kid plays just like you,”’ Gill said. ”And I’m like, ‘Well, you better change quick.”’

Tortorella, who coached Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup in 2004 and is in his fourth season with Columbus, sees value in big ”miserable” defenders who can play a tough game. He believes the loss of that kind of player has contributed to an increase in scoring over recent years – which is what the NHL wants at the expense of old-school muscle.

Players like Orpik and St. Louis’ Robert Bortuzzo are far less prevalent than when Gill stayed in the NHL for 16 years from the late 1990s through 2013. Bortuzzo thinks the term ”stay-at-home” doesn’t apply anymore; even slow defensemen have to do more than just sit back, hit and defend like they used to.

”’Defensively conscious’ would probably be a better term nowadays and one that fits the game,” the 6-4, 216-pound Bortuzzo said. ”At this stage of the game, you need to be able to join the rush, you need to be able to move pucks. … The days of a defenseman not being able to skate and keep up with the pace of play is done. Guys are too fast and moving too quick.”

No one’s confusing Orpik, Bortuzzo, Vegas’ Deryk Engelland or Buffalo’s Zach Bogosian for speed demons, but puck moving helps those players stay in the NHL. Bortuzzo said his focus has always been on his skating, and similarly Orpik and Boston’s Zdeno Chara have worked with skating coach Adam Nicholas to adapt.

Even if they can’t get markedly faster, they can better manage their skates and sticks and use their size as an advantage.

”What I work on with those guys a ton is just always giving them good footwork-type drills and suggestions to allow them to still be able to control space and tempo,” Nicholas said. ”What we talk a lot about is continuing to be puck-moving machines and how to always stack decks in your favor to have time and space, control it and transition pucks very quickly.”

Todd Reirden, during his time as a Penguins assistant, helped Orpik evolve from a hit-seeking missile to a defensive stalwart. Orpik began picking his spots for hits and using his stick more to defend.

”That has allowed him to still have the physical element when he needed to around the net front against some of the skill guys,” said Reirden, who now coaches Orpik with the Capitals. ”He’s been able to really change his game to fit into today’s hockey.”

Orpik cites former Pittsburgh teammate Kelly Buchberger as the greatest influence on him as a young player. Buchberger hasn’t played since in 2004 but has since seen Orpik become an example for younger players of the same ilk.

”Players have to adjust to the new rules in the game. He’s adjusted very well,” said Buchberger, a retired winger who coaches the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans. ”If you have players like that, you don’t want to get rid of those players.”

Coaches and teammates all love guys who save goals with blocked shots, big hits and provide some snarl. Gill sees value in the kind of simplicity Hall of Fame Nicklas Lidstrom played with, and having contrasting styles on the blue line allows skilled, jump-up-in-the-play defensemen to take some more risks and score goals.

”They’re a real good safety valve a lot of time for D-men who do want to get up the ice and move the puck,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. ”You can’t just have offensive defensemen throughout your lineup. You want to have guys who will take care of the back end. You need guys that can play both ends of the ice.”

BOB BACK IN BLUE

The Columbus Blue Jackets made quick work of an ”incident” involving goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky last week after he was pulled from a game at Tampa Bay, punishing him by making him miss a game, meeting with him and getting him back with the team the next morning. Captain Nick Foligno said the leadership group, coaching staff and front office are adept at pushing aside distractions – which is important given that Bobrovsky and scoring winger Artemi Panarin could be free agents this summer.

”No matter who it is, it’s all right, we’re going to handle the situation and get back to what really matters and that’s trying to win hockey games,” Foligno said. ”We’re trying to win hockey games, trying to become a Stanley Cup champion and nothing’s going to get in the way of that. That’s kind of the message for everybody.”

POWERFUL PACIFIC

The first-place Calgary Flames have won five in a row, the San Jose Sharks seven in a row and the Vegas Golden Knights eight of their past 10. Move over, Central Division, the Pacific is where the power is out West, especially with San Jose rolling behind Erik Karlsson.

”Our game’s in a good spot,” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski. ”The standings are tight. You see Calgary winning every night, you see Vegas winning every night. You throw us in there. We’ve been on a good stretch.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Winnipeg Jets visit the Nashville Predators on Thursday night in a matchup of the top two teams in the Central Division.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 33; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 53; Points: Kucherov, 75; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:42; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 26; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.16; Save percentage: Jack Campbell (Los Angeles), .930.

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

NHL on NBCSN: Rangers look to continue to build off Quinn’s challenge

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Well, that was one way to respond.

After a postgame tongue lashing through the media following Sunday’s 7-5 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, David Quinn’s team responded with a 6-2 victory on Tuesday. 

The stars maybe aligned for that New York Rangers win when you considered the motivation they had after getting publicly called out by their head coach, plus the fact that the Carolina Hurricanes hadn’t won at Madison Square Garden in 15 tries (before Tuesday), dating back to Jan. 5, 2011.

“I think we had played three good games before the debacle in Columbus,” Quinn said after the win. “I think we built off that and moved past what happened in Columbus. Guys took ownership of it and righted a wrong.”

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

All that changed against the Hurricanes as the Rangers came out and scored 76 seconds into the game and would score twice more in the first period for a solid start. Any time a team has a horrible game, there’s a desire to get right back out there to fix what went wrong. New York only had to wait 48 hours.

“Thank God we had a game this quickly after that one, get a chance to redeem ourselves,” said forward Mika Zibanejad. “We knew what we had to do. We talked about it. The way we play and the system we have, we didn’t really have that against Columbus. I thought we did a better job with that, and it showed.”

With games against Chicago and Boston before a break consisting of their bye week and the All-Star break, building off that rebound win will be at the top of their minds. Playoffs aren’t in the plans for this season, but strides taken by some of their younger players is what general manager Jeff Gorton will want to see. With a little over a month until the Feb. 25 trade deadline, there are a good number of decisions still to be made. Every game from here on out is an evaluation.

John Walton (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher will have the call from Madison Square Garden.

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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.

Off the Ice: Brad Marchand makes cannoli, explains licking opponents

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This week’s edition of Off the Ice with Kathryn Tappen featured Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins. The two headed to Mike’s Pastry in Boston to make some cannoli and talk about his career.

The topic of licking opponents came up and Marchand explained why he took a taste of Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Callahan‘s face during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“His visor was in my face and I was like ‘this will probably piss him off,’ so I tried to do it, tried to get him to hit me and draw a penalty and it kind of went the other way,” he said. “Yeah, that was definitely a decision that [you] go back in time and you would play out a little differently.”

Check out the episode above as Tappen and Marchand also talk about where his edge on the ice comes from and his penchant for pranks. Episodes will premiere exclusively on NBCSports.com/OffTheIce and YouTube each week.

Previous Off the Ice episodes:
Duncan Keith
Mika Zibanejad

Off the Ice with Kathryn Tappen takes viewers away from the rink and behind the scenes with some of the NHL’s most intriguing players, as they share their personal lives and unique hobbies with NBC Sports’ Emmy Award-Winning host and sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen.

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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.