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Stanley Cup Playoffs 2018: PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals

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Capitals vs. Lightning

SEAN: Lightning in 6. This might be a common thought, but I can see the Capitals’ victory over the Penguins being the round they left it out on the ice. It was an emotional victory, but now they’re facing a much better team. The Lightning have the depth, defensive structure and goaltending that will help them advance to the Final once again. How will Washington find the answer to the waves of offensive threats that are currently still producing that Tampa can send over the boards?

JAMES: Lightning in 6. A solid-but-unspectacular finish to the regular season blunted some of the optimism for the Lightning, but after tearing through the first two rounds in 10 games, they look like the contender we saw earlier in 2017-18. They’re refreshed, have two very dangerous scoring lines, some strong defensemen, and Andrei Vasilevskiy back in near-Vezina form. The Capitals must feel incredibly loose after being the Penguins, and their top guys could conceivably steal this series. (Braden Holtby‘s back in form and Alex Ovechkin looks closer to 22 than 32 right now.) My money’s on the Bolts, and not just because they were my East Finalist heading into the playoffs.

ADAMCapitals in 7. The Lightning are probably the better team on paper and they are playing outstanding in the playoffs, and I think there is still the possibility of a letdown from the Capitals are finally knocking off the Penguins, so there is every reason in the world to pick the Lightning. But … I am still picking the Capitals. Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin are both playing outstanding and it just seems like everything is going their way right now. The Capitals get it done. Somehow.

JOEY: Capitals in 7. I predicted that the Capitals would be heading to the Stanley Cup Final when the playoffs started so I’m sticking with it. The fact that Braden Holtby has figured things out makes me even more confident that they’ll be able keep advancing. Also, Washington’s best players have continued to be their top performers through two rounds and that shouldn’t change in the Eastern Conference Final. Getting Nicklas Backstrom back healthy would obviously be a big plus.

SCOTT: Capitals in 6. It just feels right, doesn’t it? The Capitals finally get past their arch-nemesis in the playoffs by taking out the Pittsburgh Penguins only to come up short in the Conference Finals? Nah. That’s a boring story. I think Alex Ovechkin and Co. breathed new life into themselves after getting over that psychological hurdle in the second round. There’s no doubt that Tampa is a good team, great even. But Ovi has beaten up the Lightning over his career. Tampa is probably the smart choice, I just can’t bring myself to be wise. 

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Golden Knights vs. Jets

SEAN: Golden Knights in 7. Look, we’ve doubted them since last June when the team was put together. They answered every question, overcame every obstacle. So of course I felt the Sharks would get the better of them in the second round, but when Marc-Andre Fleury is playing like he is, no one was going to top them. Winnipeg presents a whole sort of different challenges. As they showed, they won’t be nervous to play on the road. But the Golden Knights’ top players have continued to step up as well as their depth. Hellebuyck vs. Fleury will be fun to watch, but in the end that Vegas magic will continue.

JAMES: Jets in 6. The tough thing about picking against a team is that it gives the impression that you’re dismissing them altogether. That’s not the case with Vegas; they have a legitimate top line, some fleet-footed defensemen, and Marc-Andre Fleury at his absolute best. Their next opponent is a different animal, though. The Jets boast two lines that can hang with just about anyone else, a remarkably deep group of defensemen, and a remarkably reliable young goalie in Connor Hellebuyck.

ADAM: Jets in 6. Vegas’ run has been amazing but they’ve also played the 11th and 12th best teams in the league in the playoffs so far, and two teams that aren’t great offensively. They’ve had the easiest path of the four teams in the Conference Finals by far. Now they get a Jets team that is a juggernaut offensively and can actually keep up with them skating wise. 

JOEY: Jets in 6. I’ve picked the Golden Knights to win in the first and second round, but I think their run comes to an end in the conference final. The Jets will be tough to stop. They managed to beat the Predators in Nashville three times and they did it a number of different ways. Winnipeg has solid goaltending, a steady defense and a number of offensive weapons that can get the job done on a nightly basis.

SCOTT: Jets in 6. Did you watch their series against Nashville? Did you see how good they were against the team with the supposed best goalie and best defense in the league? That offense in Winnipeg is just unstoppable. Marc-Andre Fleury has been stellar so far, but he hasn’t faced at Jets onslaught yet this postseason. There’s a good chance that this series turns into a track meet at times. It’s going to be fast and furious without the terrible acting. The Jets are on a tear, however, and Vegas, the best story in all of sports, likely won’t have the ability to stop it. 

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

Trade deadline buyers should beware of Ferland

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Despite plenty of their fans wanting to keep the bruising pending free agent, the Carolina Hurricanes are likely to trade Micheal Ferland, according to Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic.

LeBrun places a potential price tag for a Ferland trade as a first-round pick and a prospect.

On paper, that’s a totally sensible move for a contender to make, with LeBrun adding the Pittsburgh Penguins to the list of potential suitors.

For one thing, Ferland is super-cheap in 2018-19. The 26-year-old only carries a $1.75 million cap hit, so a contending team could easily make Ferland merely part of a shopping spree, at least from the perspective of being under the $79.5M upper limit.

Depending upon the quality of the prospect, that potential trade is pretty reasonable for a solid rental. Ferland is coming off of a 21-goal season from 2017-18, and with 13 goals in just 40 games, is on an even better pace (.33 per game) in 2018-19. Just as enticingly, Ferland is the sort of rugged presence that teams believe they need for the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Considering some of the prices in previous years – the Predators giving up their first rounder for Ryan Hartman, the bucket of picks Vegas sent for Tomas Tatar – Ferland could be a nice find.

But this is a “buyer beware” situation, at least depending upon the potential plans of a would-be buyer.

Tom Wilson money”

Yes, Ferland is dirt-cheap today, but a team would be wise not to sign Ferland to an extension before seeing him play.

For one thing, there’s a Tom Wilson comparison that might inflate his market value. During a recent edition of Hockey Night in Canada, Nick Kypreos reported that Ferland is looking for Wilson-type money for his next deal. That would mean a six-year contract in the $31M range, or at least something coming in around a $5.167M cap hit.

There’s no denying that Wilson is having a career season, even with that hefty suspension in mind. His 13 goals puts him one behind last season’s career-high of 14 in 78 games, even though Wilson’s only played in 29 this year. Even so, Wilson’s on a five-game pointless drought, and his 20.6 shooting percentage indicates that he’ll be cooling down a bit more.

So, the market’s already inflated for a physical winger who can score. There’s also slight concern over Ferland’s scoring.

Nature vs. nurture

One thing certainly helping Wilson rise up the scoring ranks is his linemates, as he’s been regularly skating with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom.

That alignment makes great sense for the Capitals for a number of reasons, including the fact that they already paid Wilson, anyway.

But a would-be buyer should be cautious about extending Ferland for the simple reason that he’s basically had nothing but outstanding linemates during the past two seasons, when he’s generated far and away his best numbers.

Last season, he was glued to Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, a pairing that’s boosted Elias Lindholm to easily the best work of his career. As you can see from Natural Stat Trick, he’s frequently lining up on Carolina’s best line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, too.

Now, it says a lot about Ferland that he can hang with such high-level forwards. Plenty of other players have squandered opportunities with players like Gaudreau and Aho.

Still, if a team is investing in Ferland beyond 2018-19, it’s fair to wonder how Ferland would handle being the top guy on a lesser line, or otherwise show that he’s worth that Wilson-type money.

After all, it’s not as though Ferland’s lighting opponents on fire. Generating 25 points in 40 games this season, and 21 goals (and 41 points) in 2017-18 is promising, and fantastic value at $1.75M per season.

Would he really be worth something in the $5M range?

That question might only really matter when the free agent frenzy kicks in during July, but there’s no guarantee that a trade partner wouldn’t also be eager to keep Ferland around longer term.

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There are risks involved even in giving up that first-round pick and prospect, but it’s easy to see why someone would want to at least rent Ferland. A longer lease option could be quite costly, though, so potential teams should really be careful here.

Considering how things have gone for the likes of James Neal, Patrick Maroon, and Milan Lucic, sometimes it’s dangerous to invest in power forwards, even when they’re well-marketed like Ferland seems to be.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Time to feel old: NHL players take ’80s, ’90s quiz

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If you’re trying to get NHL players to show some personality, you could do worse than to bring up TV and movies. Especially if you’re not allowed to ask them to do “The Floss.”

Of course, you do run the risk of feeling like a nerd. Actually, scratch that: you’ll probably end up feeling like an old nerd.

Luckily, it’s worth the risk and such feelings, at least in the case of the NHL’s “Puck Personality” video, where players of various ages are quizzed on pop culture from nostalgic TV shows and movies.

A few stray thoughts:

  • Vladimir Tarasenko, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Chris Kreider seemed to do quite well.
  • “Older” players stood out, too. Nicely done, Eric Staal.
  • Max Domi‘s plus/minus on this one: not great.
  • The “I was born in 199x” segment was painful, and that’s only going to get worse once kids from the 2018 NHL Draft end up in more of these. Actually, that’s my only beef with this vid: why not ask Rasmus Dahlin if he knows any of those references?
  • The “Full House”-style interstitials and effects were a great touch. Wonderful work overall from the NHL. Speaking of that, this extended credits sequence is great, and evokes a little bit of “Too Many Cooks.”

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Here they go again: Panthers hoping for late-season surge

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By Time Reynolds (AP Sports Writer)

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Panthers are hoping for deja vu.

Sort of.

A year ago, the Panthers shook off a disastrous start to the season and caught fire after the All-Star break – only to miss the playoffs by a single point. This year, they’re heading into the break on a three-game winning streak and playing perhaps their best hockey of the season after spending the first three months of the year sputtering near the bottom of the NHL.

So here they go again, trying for another late and improbable playoff push.

”We have that confidence back, that swagger,” goaltender Roberto Luongo said after a 6-2 win over San Jose on Monday night.

They’ll need more than swagger.

The Panthers were 24-8-2 in the final 34 games last season, getting 50 of a possible 68 points down the stretch. This year, with 34 games left when they return to the ice on Feb. 1, they’ll need a similar run. Florida is 10 points out of the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, and 11 points from catching Boston for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot out of the Atlantic Division.

”I think we are starting to turn the corner,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. ”We have a long way to go.”

As unlikely as it seems – especially for the Panthers, an often-woebegone franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996 – there is a potential path to the postseason.

Florida (20-20-8) has 12 games between Feb. 1 and Feb. 23, and 11 of those are on home ice. That’s the good news. The flip side is this: Of those 12, eight are against teams that are currently in the top half of the NHL, including matchups with Tampa Bay, Nashville, Washington, Pittsburgh and Vegas quickly after the All-Star break ends.

”It’s nice to be back to feeling the way I like to feel and the confidence is there,” said Luongo, who has won consecutive starts for the first time in more than a month. ”The guys are playing well in front of me. It’s a two-way street. When the guys play well I feel good and when I feel good the guys play well.”

There is a clear urgency, and it started last week with the team on what was then a seven-game losing skid.

Florida was without Vincent Trocheck for 27 games after he broke his right ankle in November. When he returned to practice last week, the Panthers’ plan was to keep him out until after the break in order to make sure he was fully ready to go.

Trocheck successfully argued otherwise. Not only did he play in three games since returning to practice – in a four-day span, no less – the Panthers went 3-0-0 in those games, clearly sparked by his comeback.

”We’re having fun,” said Trocheck, who has two goals and two assists since returning. ”It’s fun to win some hockey games. It’s been tough for us this year in that department. To go into a break like this with a little bit of momentum, having some fun, it’s going to make a big difference for the second half.”

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Bruins look to stay healthy after mid-winter break

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By Matt Kalman (Associated Press)

BOSTON (AP) — The Boston Bruins almost made it into their mid-winter break completely healthy.

Forward Joakim Nordstrom is recovering from a fractured lower leg and goaltender Tuukka Rask is dealing with a concussion sustained against the New York Rangers on Saturday. Otherwise, the Bruins’ lineup from the start of the season was on the ice when they completed their 49th game with a 3-2 loss to the Rangers.

A nearly full complement of players had the Bruins excited about what they could accomplish after the break. They’re in third place (27-17-5) behind Tampa Bay and Toronto in the Atlantic Division despite fighting injuries throughout the first half.

”I think we can continue to build on some of the success we had in the beginning of the season,” said defenseman Kevan Miller, who missed 26 games because of injuries. ”We think we still have some areas in our game that we need to work on. But I think the break will help a little bit, some guys get their legs.”

The eight-day vacation, which combines the NHL-mandated break and the NHL All-Star break, possibly came at just the right time because of Rask’s head injury. He was bowled over by Rangers forward Filip Chytil in the midst of the wing scoring a goal on an end-to-end rush in the first period on Saturday.

Rask is 14-8-3 with a .919 save percentage and 2.43 goals-against this season and has formed an impressive goaltending tandem with Jaroslav Halak. He signed as an unrestricted free agent last summer and is 13-9-2 with a .919 save percentage and 2.47 GAA. When Rask struggled early in the season and took a four-day leave of absence to attend to a personal matter, Halak carried the load. Rask has returned the favor after Halak struggled in the weeks leading up to the break.

Their performances were a big reason the Bruins overcame their injury issues, including a 16-game absence of four-time Selke Trophy-winning center Patrice Bergeron and 19 games without captain Zdeno Chara. The Bruins are tied for second place in the NHL at 2.61 goals allowed per game.

”Our goaltending . they’ve been healthy, a balanced workload,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”You look at the numbers, they’re almost identical now. So you’re getting a chance to win every night.”

Cassidy noted their back-to-back record has been good – finishing 6-1-1 in the second game.

”Guys pick each other up around here,” he said. ”So they understand if someone, a major part of the lineup is out, they’ve got to pick it up.”

More than a week off between games could give Rask and others a chance to heal up for the stretch run and could prevent an unfortunate slide in the standings. The Bruins followed a 6-1-0 stretch with a 1-2-1 record before the break, including regulation losses to the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, teams 10 points or more behind them in the standings.

Boston ranks just 17th in goals scored per game (2.90) and leans a bit too much on its second-ranked power play (27.2 percent).

”I thought we had some really good games,” Chara said. ”You know we had some games we could’ve played better, but overall I think we’re in a good position going into the break. It’s always very important to play better and keep improving the closer you get to the playoffs. You demand to play the best hockey.”