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Jets vs. Golden Knights: PHT’s Western Conference Final preview

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If you were to tell me your Western Conference Final pick at the start of the season would have involved the Winnipeg Jets and the Vegas Golden Knights the only logical response would be to tell you that you are a rotten liar and nobody believes you.

A first-year expansion team. A team that until this season had never won a single postseason game and had made the playoffs just once in the previous 10 years. Each on their own an improbable success story this season. Yet here they are together, each just four wins away from a completely unexpected trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

It may not be the matchup we expected at this point, but given the way these two teams play and are built it could be a fast-pace, back-and-forth series. They both have great offenses, they both have great goalies, and they both offer an incredible storyline with Vegas trying to reach the Stanley Cup Final as a literal expansion team, and the Jets trying to bring Winnipeg its first ever Stanley Cup.

Here is how the matchup looks as the series begins on Saturday night.

Schedule

Saturday, May 12, 7pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBC
Monday, May 14, 8pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBCSN
Wednesday, May 16, 9pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN
Friday, May 18, 8pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN
*Sunday, May 20, 3pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBC
*Tuesday, May 22, 9pm: Jets @ Golden Knights | NBCSN
*Thursday, May 24, 8pm: Golden Knights @ Jets | NBCSN

Offense

Jets: The Jets have been one of the top offensive teams in the league over the past two years and are absolutely loaded with top-line talent. Then they added to at the trade deadline by picking up Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues, and he has been absolutely incredible in the playoffs. The scary thing about them right now in the playoffs? They are still scoring goals and really haven’t gotten Patrik Laine (three goals in 12 games) and Nikolaj Ehlers (zero goals in 11 games) going yet. They have front-line talent, they are deep, they are fast, they have skill. They pretty much have it all up front.

Golden Knights: Even though they had a bunch of players have great years — including a couple of career years — they don’t really have the superstar individual talent the Jets have. That doesn’t mean they are not a threat. They are fast, they play fast, and they don’t really have a glaring weakness as pretty much all four of their lines is legitimate first or second line NHL quality. No matter who is on the ice they can hurt you. They got a lot of help from the NHL’s other general managers in the expansion draft process (Hello, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Erik Haula, Alex Tuch, David Perron, and William Karlsson) and they were able to take advantage of that by building an exciting, fast team that head coach Gerard Gallant has been more than happy to turn loose. The most dangerous thing about them? They never let up depending on the score.

Advantage: The Jets, but it is close. These are two of the top-five offenses in the league and they can both go three-and four-lines deep when it comes to getting balanced scoring. The Jets get a little bit of an edge because they have more of the front-line superstar talent that can take over a game (Laine and Mark Scheifele specifically).

Defense

Jets: They’ve been missing some key players at different times this postseason, but this is a pretty good unit with Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, and Tobias Enstrom leading the way. Byfuglien is the one that is playing truly outstanding right now  with 13 points in 12 games and logging more than 26 minutes of ice-time per night. So much was made of their offense during the season it was maybe easy to overlook the fact they were also a top-five team in goals against.

Golden Knights: Entering the season this was probably expected to be the weakest part of the Golden Knights’ roster, and while a lot of their goal prevention success comes from the goaltending they did do an excellent job during the season of limiting shots and chances against. A lot of the young players (Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Colin Miller) have taken a pretty big step forward right away. Still, the goaltending is what drives this team defensively and they’ve actually given up quite a bit of shots in the playoffs.

Advantage: The Jets. These are two of the three best goal prevention teams in the playoffs (and the other team in the top-three only played four playoff games … so let’s just say they are the two best) but the Jets have the higher end talent and I don’t think they are as dependent on their goalie to keep teams off the board as the Golden Knights have been.

Goaltending

Jets: The Jets were probably good enough as a team to make the playoffs in recent years more than they have only to be completely sabotaged by bad goaltending. This year they finally had the goaltending to go with everything else and it has not only made them a great team, it has made them what is right now the leading favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Connor Hellebuyck finally solidified the position and turned in a performance that earned him a top-three spot in the Vezina Trophy voting.

Golden Knights: Then there is Marc-Andre Fleury. He has been downright dominant all season for Vegas and has to be considered the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy at this point. For a few years in Pittsburgh he was objectively one of the least productive playoff goalies in the NHL and probably the biggest liability standing in front of his own team. The past few years, however, he has probably been his team’s greatest strength in the playoffs.

Advantage: Golden Knights. Another close one, but this one probably goes to Vegas. Hellebuyck got a top-three spot in the Vezina Trophy voting but Fleury could have easily been there alongside him had he not missed so much time due to injury earlier in the year.

Special Teams

Jets: The Jets’ power play has been lethal in the playoffs, converting on 25 percent of its chances, continuing what was a strong regular season performance. They were also a top-10 team on the penalty kill during the season but have seen that number drop a bit in the playoffs.

Golden Knights: Vegas’ power play has been very hit-and-miss this postseason. It has had games where it has dominated (a 3-for-10 game in Game 1 against the Sharks; a 2-for-6 game later in the series) but has also had lengthy stretches without scoring. Their penalty kill has been one of the best units in the playoffs, though a lot of that probably comes from the fact they also have the best goalie in the playoffs.

Advantage: The Jets, simply because their power play has been a bit more consistent and they might be able to get to Fleury and the Vegas penalty kill in a way that the Kings and Sharks were totally incapable of doing. The Jets are by far the most talented team Vegas will have faced this postseason.

X-Factors

Jets: Nikolaj Ehlers has become one of the key building blocks for the Jets organization, and even though he just turned 22 years old a few months ago already has a pair of 25-goal seasons in the NHL on his resume. He is an outstanding player but has been mostly quiet for the Jets this postseason, having yet to find the back of the net. If the Jets can get him going along with everyone else there may be no stopping them.

Golden Knights: Like Ehlers with the Jets, David Perron has been a huge part of Vegas’ success this season, and like Ehlers has yet to score a goal in the playoffs. His line is still producing (he does have seven assists, after all) but he has managed just eight shots on goal in eight games. He has another level he can get to offensively.

Prediction

Jets in 6. Vegas’  year one success has been one of the most improbable stories in North American sports history, but this is where it comes to an end. The Jets are going to be by far the best team they have played in the playoffs and will present a challenge unlike the ones San Jose and Los Angeles presented (they 11th and 12th best teams in the league, giving Vegas what was by far the easiest path to the Conference Finals round). The Jets are just on a roll right now and look like they can carry that all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

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

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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.

Under Pressure: Pekka Rinne

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

It’s not every day that you read about the defending Vezina Trophy winner being under pressure heading into the hockey season, but that’s the case in Nashville with Pekka Rinne. He was brilliant during the regular season (that’s why he won the Vezina). He posted a 42-13-4 record with a 2.31 goals-against-average and a stellar .927 save percentage in 59 games.

So, why is the 35-year-old under pressure coming into 2018-19? Let’s take a look.

FIrst, Rinne is coming off a terrible performance in the playoffs. In what should have been a great head-to-head matchup against Winnipeg, the veteran stood out because of his lackluster play.

This wasn’t his finest moment:

The Preds were expected to compete for the Stanley Cup, instead they were bounced in the second round and Rinne’s below-average play was a big reason why they didn’t get by the Jets.

“I obviously feel very much responsible for our season ending at this point,” Rinne said after his team was eliminated from the playoffs. “Tough. Tough to swallow. Tough to understand.

[2017-18 review]

“And obviously, you know, the biggest moment of the season, it’s a terrible feeling. You let your teammates down, and that’s what happened tonight.”

A few weeks of poor hockey doesn’t undo everything he accomplished throughout the regular season, but it certainly puts his future in question (at least a little bit). The Predators will probably be fine whether Rinne is dominant or not. They’re blue line is stacked and they have enough quality forwards to make them one of the better teams in the NHL. Getting stellar goaltending would obviously help.

Secondly, Rinne is entering a contract year. After he makes $7 million this year, he has the potential to become an unrestricted free agent. And it’s not like they don’t have someone that could potentially replace him. Juuse Saros has been terrific in limited duty.

The 23-year-old will be entering his third year as an NHL. In 26 games last season, he posted an 11-5-7 record with a 2.45 goals-against-average and a .925 save percentage. He’s been solid. We don’t know how he’ll respond to potentially being a number one goalie (we’re not even there yet), but the Preds would be wise to give him a heavier workload in 2018-19 so they can find out what he’s capable of doing.

They also signed Saros to a three-year, $4.5 million contract extension, which means he’ll be on a very reasonable contract for the foreseeable future.

If he continues to play as well as he has and they increase his number of appearances, he could be pushing Rinne out the door sooner than later. Again, we’re a far cry from that actually happening, but it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

Starting next season, the Predators will have over $25 million committed to seven defensemen, which means they might opt to spend less money between the pipes. So, the success of the team probably won’t depend on Rinne, but the pressure on his shoulders stems from the fact that he could be on his way out the door next summer.

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.

It’s Nashville Predators day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

2017-18:

53-18-11, 117 pts. (1st Central Division; 1st Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-3 vs. the Winnipeg Jets, second round

IN:

Dan Hamhuis
Zac Rinaldo
Connor Brickley

OUT:

Mike Fisher
Alexei Emelin

RE-SIGNED

Ryan Ellis
Juuse Saros
Mikka Salomaki
Ryan Hartman

It was supposed to be their year.

A year removed from the Stanley Cup Final. An intact team from the previous year that had a wealth of playoff experience under their belt, one of the best defensive cores in the league and one the NHL’s best goalies.

And by all accounts, the Predators lived up to their expectations in during the regular season with the top record in all of the NHL and the Presidents’ Trophy to show for it.

But that all came crashing down in the second round against the Winnipeg Jets.  The Predators were stretched to the limit against the speedy Jets. They forced a Game 7 at home, but couldn’t repeat the magic they had shown the year before.

The loss rendered the Predators’ season an abject failure. A team oozing with talent managed shoulder bear the expectations that were levied upon them, by outsides sources, and their own lofty standards given their makeup.

Nashville showed just how difficult it is to get back to the Cup Final. And how being the best team in the regular season hardly translates to being the best team in the postseason. Their regular season showing was a bit of a foregone conclusion. Their playoff run was not.

Now, the Predators press on with, once again, largely the same squad.

They added some talent to the back end in Dan Hamhuis, who replaces Alexei Emelin, who became an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Pekka Rinne, who won the Vezina Trophy, but struggled in the playoffs, will give it another go. And the team locked up the future heir to Rinne’s throne — Juuse Saros — in case there’s a big regression in the elder’s game.

And we’re not forgetting that Ryan Ellis is going to be on that back end for the next eight years.

This season should see the emergence of Eeli Tolvanen after he completed the world hockey hat trick last season, playing in the world juniors, the world hockey championships and the Olympic Games.

Make no mistake: The Predators are primed for another run. They’ve suffered defeat in the in the 11th hour now, and also learned what it feels like not to live up to expectation.

The question now is, can they add those two negatives together and get a positive: a Stanley Cup banner.

Prospect Pool:

• Eeli Tolvanen, RW, 19, Jokerit (KHL) – 2017 first-round pick

Tolvanen looked the part in the KHL this past season, scoring 19 times and adding 17 assists in 49 games as a rookie. He was named the KHL’s player of the week six times, its player of the month twice and attended the KHL All-Star Game, along with stints with Finland at the junior, senior and Olympic levels throughout the season. He’s a gifted skater, a saavy sniper and still can be disciplined defensively. The Predators have a budding superstar in Tolvanen.

• Dante Fabbro, D, 20, Boston University (NCAA) – 2016 first-round pick

Fabbro will head back to Boston University for his junior season after putting up nine goals and 29 points in his freshman year. Fabbro helped Canada win gold at the world juniors and the Preds felt he was ready to make the jump to the pro game, but Fabbro decided another year in college was worth it.

“We feel that he’s ready to play pro hockey,” said Predators assistant general manager and director of scouting Jeff Kealty. “That’s a personal decision on his end. On our end of things, we feel that he’s ready to be a pro hockey player.”

Preds fans will be worried they have another Jimmy Vesey on their hands. That wound still stings. That said, Fabbro progressed well in his first season in Boston and another year there isn’t a bad thing. There’s still time for him to move to the AHL next season, or perhaps right into an NHL role.

• Emil Pettersson, C, 24, Milwaukee Admiral (AHL) – 2013 sixth-round pick

Pettersson’s stock took a nice bump due to a solid first season in the American Hockey League, with 13 goals and 33 assists in 72 games, and the fact that Nashville dealt prospect Vladislav Kamenev to the Colorado Avalanche in the trade that brought them Kyle Turris last November. Another good showing in Milwaukee could offer him some opportunities with the big club this season. Nashville has a great spine at center, so breaking into it will require an injury or an outstanding performance during training camp.


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

PHT Morning Skate: Sens being patient with Karlsson; Berard suing NHL

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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.

• Antoine Bibeau will be sporting this sweet Jaws mask, which was painted by artist Sylvie Poitras of Airbrush Zap. [In Goal Mag]

• Where did all those Erik Karlsson rumors go? The Ottawa Senators and Pierre Dorion are waiting for the right deal to come along. [Ottawa Sun]

Patrik Laine isn’t feeling the pressure to sign an extension anytime soon. “I really don’t care. There’s no rush, really. I can do it next summer or this summer. I don’t mind.” [NHL.com]

• An interesting look at how the NHL’s best forwards score. Brad Marchand loves the backhand. [TSN]

• With Andrej Sekera out indefinitely should the Edmonton Oilers have Torey Krug on their radar? [NBC Boston]

• Former NHLer Bryan Berard is suing the league. “The time has come for the NHL to not only care for those former players on whose backs and brains the League reaped billions of dollars, but also finally to put long-term player safety over profit.” [TMZ]

• Eric Lindros on concussion awareness in all sports: “We can do so much better than this. In terms of coming up with solutions, I don’t think we’ve come all that far from the mid-90s. We’re so far behind.”  [National Post]

• Hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser on why she’s donating her brain for research: “So when people ask me why I have donated my brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, that story is part of the answer. I don’t want athletes to suffer if we can help it. Female athletes have a higher risk of concussion and slower recovery time than male athletes. There are few professional female athletes in contact sports to study, and even fewer who have donated their brains to the cause. I hope this inspires more to do the same. After all, when you are gone, ya kinda don’t need it anymore!” [CBC]

• How will Randy Carlyle juggle his lineup this season? [Anaheim Calling]

• What will Travis Konecny‘s next contract with the Philadelphia Flyers look like? [Flyers Nation]

• It’s time for a full-on youth movement in Detroit. [The Hockey News]

• The Calgary Flames will likely be looking for a new starting goalie next summer. Here are three options. [Matchsticks and Gasoline]

• An in-depth chat with Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn, featuring: “Q. If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be? Benn: I don’t really want to be a tree.” [Stars]

• How the Carolina Hurricanes plan to sell their major changes to the fan base. [News and Observer]

• Former NHLer Joe Vitale moves into the role of analyst on St. Louis Blues radio broadcasts. [Post-Dispatch]

• What milestones can Alex Ovechkin achieve this coming season? [Capitals Outsider]

• How will this season turn out for New Jersey Devils forward Marcus Johansson? [All About the Jersey]

• A look at the bench bosses around the league and who might be on the hot seat heading into 2018-19. [Featurd]

• Finally, Eric Staal reveals the secret to a 42-goal season:

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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.

Three questions facing Montreal Canadiens

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens.

Some questions to ponder for the 2018-19 Montreal Canadiens…

[Canadiens Day: Looking back | Breakthrough | Under Pressure

1. Who is going to score the goals?

As we wrote about earlier on Canadiens day, their success or failure this season will largely depend on what Carey Price is able to do in net. The reason they are going to be so dependent on goaltender — or one of the main reasons? They are probably not going to score a lot of goals.

The Canadiens finished the 2017-18 season as one of the worst offensive teams in the league and really did not do much of anything to address that over the summer.

Their biggest offseason acquisition was Max Domi and that came at the expense of Alex Galchenyuk whose goal total this past season exceeded Domi’s total from the previous two years combined. Other than that this is mostly the same roster, minus a few minor tweaks, that could not score goals this past season.

Max Pacioretty should have a better season than he did in 2017-18, but given his contract situation it seems possibly, if not likely, that he will not finish the season with the team.

[Related: Expect huge year from Max Pacioretty no matter where he plays]

Jonathan Drouin was expected to be a major core player after being acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay, and while his performance was mostly okay and similar to what he did with the Lightning, he did not take a big step forward and did not match the hype that came along with his arrival. There is still another level that he can get to, and at age 23 he should be ready to enter his peak seasons in the NHL. A breakthrough season from him would definitely be helpful.

Beyond that, though, it seems likely that goal-scoring is going to be a major weakness for this team.

2. What will Shea Weber be able to give them?

The P.K. Subban-for-Shea Weber trade is already setting up to be a disaster for the Canadiens. It’s not that Weber is bad, it’s just that he’s not quite as impactful as Subban currently is. He is also older, has a worse contract, and is starting to reach a point in his career where he may be starting to break down physically. After being limited to just 26 games this past season, the veteran defenseman will not be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason knee surgery. This, obviously, is bad news for the Canadiens.

When he is healthy Weber can still be a really good player, and he is just one year removed from finishing sixth in the Norris Trophy voting. The concern, though, is that he is now entering his age 33 season, is coming off an injury-shortened campaign and will be starting this season on the shelf.

He is still the Canadiens’ best defenseman, but they need him to be healthy, playing at a high level to be competitive.

3. Will Marc Bergevin be the general manager after the season?

The reality with the Canadiens is this: They have not been out of the first-round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the 2014-15 season and they have missed the playoffs entirely in two of the past three seasons. During that stretch players have changed, the head coach has changed, while the only thing that has remained a constant is the general manager, the person responsible for assembling the talent on the roster.

It stands to reason that if things do not get drastically better in the very near future that, too, could end up changing.

While the Canadiens experienced some success in the early parts of the Marc Bergevin era, the past few years have been highlighted by questionable (and bad) roster decisions and a lot of disappointment. There is an argument to be made that his tenure with the team has made the franchise worse than it was when he took over six years ago.

The long-term future of the team is riding entirely on some of the big decisions that Bergevin has made and will have to make in the coming months, including but not limited to…

  • How the Jonathan Drouin acquisition pans out.
  • The fact the team is now built around two players (Price and Weber) over the age of 30 that will account for more than $18 million in salary cap space through the end of the 2026 season.
  • The Alex Galchenyuk-for-Max Domi trade.
  • What they are able to get out of a potential Max Pacioretty trade.

Those are a lot of big decisions that are going to end up determining not only the long-term success of the Canadiens on the ice, but also the future of their general manager.

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.