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Lars Eller emerging as unexpected playoff star for Capitals

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This is not the start to the Eastern Conference Final that anybody expected when the series began.

The Washington Capitals now seem to be in complete control of the series and will take a 2-0 lead back home to Washington on Tuesday night after routing the Tampa Bay Lightning, 6-2, on Sunday night.

In the two games the Capitals have completely dictated the pace and style of the game, outscoring the the Lightning by a 10-4 margin so far. They have been especially dominant during 5-on-5 play, with the Lightning’s only two goals on Sunday coming on the power play after they capitalized on a couple of breaks in the first period.

On Sunday night it was a lot of the usual suspects for the Capitals doing the damage.

Alex Ovechkin scored his 10th goal of the playoffs.

Evgeny Kuznetsov had three points, including a buzzer-beating power play goal late in the second period to help take over the game.

Braden Holtby continued to be great in net and ran his record to 10-2 in these playoffs since replacing Philipp Grubauer in the first-round.

But a big part of what makes the Capitals’ lead in this series so impressive is they have done it without the services of Nicklas Backstrom as he sat out his third consecutive game with a hand injury. The Capitals have won all three of those games, and also came-from-behind in the third period of the game he was injured in.

A big reason for that success has been the emergence of Lars Eller as he has slid into Backstrom’s spot on the second line and been nothing short of brilliant for the Capitals.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Eller leads the way for Capitals]

He scored another goal on Sunday night, breaking a 2-2 tie with a minute to play in the third period, to give him his fifth goal of the playoffs. He added two assists after that to finish with three points and now has six points in the past four games. His three-point game on Sunday was also his second of the postseason as he now sits with 12 total points (five goals, seven assists) in the Capitals’ first 14 playoff games.

This is probably an unexpected development for the Capitals.

It’s not that Eller hasn’t been a good player for them. He has been. He has been a quality depth player in the NHL for a few years now, can play a bit of a two-way game, and can chip in 25-30 points in any given season. All of that was enough to get him a five-year contract extension during the season, a season in which he set career highs in goals (18) and total points (38) for the Capitals.

But for him to emerge as a difference-maker offensively in these playoffs has been a decisive development for the Capitals, especially since they spent so much of the playoffs without several of their top forwards (Andre Burakovsky missed a large chunk of the playoffs, Tom Wilson missed three games due to a suspension, Backstrom has not played since early in the third period of Game 5 of the second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins).

Teams that end up winning the Stanley Cup always need some unexpected performances like this. They still need the superstars to make an impact and score, but those players are not going to score every single night. Sometimes it comes down the depth players finding a way to make an impact. The Capitals’ big problem in recent playoff runs has been that they would get goals and offense from Ovechkin, but would always have something else fall apart, whether it was their own goaltending or the depth scoring. Now they are getting all of it.

The Capitals now return home with a chance to actually clinch the series if they can take Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Thursday of this week. Is it likely to happen that way? No, probably not likely. Despite the way they have played the first two games the Lightning were still the top-seed in the Eastern Conference for a reason and they still have some players that can change a game or a series at any moment. But that possibility is on the table, and the Capitals are now just two wins away from their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1998.

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

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.

Day at Ovechkin’s office: Capitals edge Rangers in OT

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The Washington Capitals outlasted the New York Rangers in what was largely a game of inches and lethal power-play units.

Matt Niskanen ultimately notched the difference-maker in Washington’s 4-3 overtime win as the Capitals ended a losing streak at two games. The rebuilding Rangers provided a pretty spirited showing, holding their own as the Capitals generated a modest 38-32 shots on goal advantage.

Here’s that Niskanen game-winner:

Each power-play unit went 2-for-4 on Wednesday, with the Capitals taking advantage of the “Death and Taxes” certainty of Alex Ovechkin scoring from “his office.” Both of Ovechkin’s power-play goals came from almost the exact same spot, with the main difference being that the second one caught Henrik Lundqvist a bit more by surprise (in part because he shot low).

John Carlson ranked as one of the Capitals’ standout performers in this win, generating one goal and two assists.

The Rangers enjoyed strong nights from their own first line, as both Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider authored one-goal, one-assist performances while creating plenty of other chances. (Jesper Fast was also busy, although he failed to generate any points.)

Circling back to that “game of inches” point, consider that Washington barely avoided a goal, as Christian Djoos saved the day early on:

While Ovechkin was close to nabbing yet another hat trick:

The Rangers and Capitals approach the 2018-19 season with very different expectations, yet each team saw their veteran goalies manage some nice stops, enjoyed strong nights from their top guns, and generally put on a nice show on NBCSN.

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.

Will NHL reduce Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension?

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Tom Wilson will get a chance to state his case to reduce his 20-game suspension via an appeal hearing with the NHL on Thursday, a process Bob McKenzie discusses in the video above this post’s headline.

To catch you up to speed, note that this is part of the appeal process where Wilson brings his case to Gary Bettman. After that, Wilson also has the option to bring his case to an independent arbitrator.

Wednesday’s New York Rangers – Washington Capitals game represents the sixth of 20 games. Note that Wilson loses more than $60K for every game he’s suspended for, so a reduction in his sentence could mean a lot of dough for the polarizing hitter.

What are his chances of getting a lighter punishment, then? As McKenzie notes, they aren’t great, particularly when it comes to Bettman cutting down a suspension.

That said, there are two cases worth noting:

  • Raffi Torres’ hit on Marian HossaIn July 2012, Wilson-like hitter Torres saw a 25-game suspension fall to 21 games for his check on Marian Hossa. This is probably the most directly comparable situation, at least when you consider the types of hits and the rap sheet for the players involved.
  • In June 2014, Dan Carcillo saw an “abuse of official” suspension reduced from 10 games to six.

Now, a neutral arbitrator might be more likely to ease the duration of Wilson’s suspension. Consider these two cases, which aren’t necessarily directly comparable:

All things considered, it’s easy to see why Wilson would go through this process. It’s quite plausible that he’ll get back into the lineup sooner and lose less money from the suspension, even if it’s not fair to call the possibility “likely.”

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.

WATCH LIVE: Bruins visit Flames on NBCSN

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The NBCSN Wednesday night doubleheader continues with the Calgary Flames hosting the Boston Bruins at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

Two hot teams face off to wrap up tonight’s NBCSN games, as the Bruins carry a four-game winning streak into Calgary (facing a Flames squad that’s won three of four).

This contest shouldn’t be short on star power, as these squads pit two of the best top lines in the NHL against each other, while each team also has some nice complimentary pieces. If that wasn’t enough, Brad Marchand and Matthew Tkachuk are almost certain to ruffle feathers with their obnoxious, antagonistic ways.

The Flames and Bruins don’t meet all that often, so it should be a treat to watch these two interesting teams on Wednesday.

What: Boston Bruins at Calgary Flames
Where: Scotiabank Saddledome
When: Wednesday, October 17th, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Bruins-Flames stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Projected Lineups

Boston Bruins

Brad Marchand — Patrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Joakim NordstromDavid KrejciJake DeBrusk

Ryan DonatoDavid BackesAnders Bjork

Chris WagnerSean KuralyNoel Acciari

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

John MooreBrandon Carlo

Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting Goalie: Tuukka Rask

[WATCH LIVE – 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Calgary Flames

Johnny GaudreauSean MonahanElias Lindholm

Matthew Tkachuk — Mikael BacklundMichael Frolik

Sam BennettMark JankowskiJames Neal

Garnet HathawayDerek RyanAustin Czarnik

Mark GiordanoTJ Brodie

Noah Hanifin — Rasmus Andersson

Juuso ValimakiMichael Stone

Starting goalie: Mike Smith

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Contract talks: Nylander and Leafs meet; Rinne’s future with Predators

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Update: The Ducks announced a three-year contract for Nick Ritchie tonight, so scratch one name off the list.

***

Hockey insider Bob McKenzie swung by the NBCSN studio on Wednesday, covering multiple bases. As you can see in the video above this headline, McKenzie provided an array of contract-related updates from around the NHL, so let’s dive in:

William Nylander and the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs are scoring goals like a glutton piling a plate high at a buffet, yet they’re missing quality top-six winger William Nylander. It’s far from a simple situation for either side. From Nylander’s perspective, he doesn’t want to leave too much money on the table, considering that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner may raise the bar with their own second contracts. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs must worry about maintaining enough cap space beyond those three young forwards and John Tavares‘ new deal, plus a big investment in Nylander is especially risky since he doesn’t have the largest sample size of work at the NHL level.

Phew.

As much as Kasperi Kapanen‘s strong early work has eased some of the burden of Nylander’s absence, the bottom line is that the two sides want to get something done. With that in mind, McKenzie and others report that Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas met with Nylander in Switzerland.

It remains to be seen if the two sides made any real progress in these high-stakes contract negotiations, although if nothing else, McKenzie notes that Dubas’ visit could at least ease some of the tensions that come with (literal and figurative) games of telephone.

Plenty of people believe that a “bridge” deal would ultimately be the most likely route for a compromise, but that could change with time, for all we know.

Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Dec. 1 deadline: That’s the NHL deadline for an RFA to sign a contract. If a deal isn’t reached, that player cannot play in the NHL during the 2018-19 season. It’s tough to imagine that being the outcome, although Nylander could conceivably play in the KHL or another league if things get truly nasty.
  • Nylander would be eligible for salary arbitration in the unlikely event that the Maple Leafs only sign him for 2018-19.
  • Nylander, 22, is five seasons away from being eligible for UFA status. That’s worth considering when you ponder how long a “bridge” deal might be.
  • The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun discusses the circumstances (sub required) that could make a trade more likely. (Personally, it’s tough to imagine, but it’s also surprising that the situation keeps dragging on.)

It’s a tough situation – with a lot of ins and outs – yet if the two sides can hammer something out, it could also be worth the headaches.

Nick Ritchie and the Anaheim Ducks

McKenzie provides an update to a far-less-pressing RFA situation, with the tone being optimistic about a deal being struck.

It’s been interesting to see how the beginning of the 2018-19 season could conceivably provide more leverage for both sides. On one hand, the Anaheim Ducks have been able to manufacture wins and standings points with Ritchie on the shelf. On the other, injuries have really left Anaheim with a pretty threadbare group of forwards.

Again, the stakes are profoundly lower there, as Ritchie’s been merely a modest scorer at the NHL level.

Key situations for the Nashville Predators

There were two fascinating situations for Nashville discussed in the video, with two players essentially in opposite phases of their careers.

Pekka Rinne: Some might expect the Predators to accelerate the “passing of the torch” in net from Rinne to Juuse Saros. After all, Saros is 23, has shown serious promise so far in the NHL, and is dirt-cheap at $1.5M per year through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could provide the Predators with a quality starter at a backup cost, possibly opening up room to keep Nashville’s depth intact. That’s not a terrible concept considering that Roman Josi‘s due a big raise from $4M (which expires after 2019-20), Kevin Fiala‘s rookie deal ends after this season, and Ryan Ellis‘ extension kicks in starting next season.

Reasonable ideas all around, but that might not be Nashville’s path.

McKenzie reports that the Predators hope to get an extension done, and interestingly, it might even be a long-term deal.

The numbers matter, then, from both a financial and years standpoint. Rinne is already 35, so it would be a 35+ deal, making an already risky proposition that much riskier. Such a commitment could really make you sweat if Rinne’s extension carries a cap hit anywhere near his current $7M.

Bringing Rinne back seems fair enough, but we’ll see if the Predators make a shaky gamble.

Eeli Tolvanen: From an established 35-year-old goalie to a still-quite-raw first-rounder from 2017, we have 19-year-old Eeli Tolvanen.

As PHT discussed when Tolvanen was demoted, the Predators prospect has a clause that would allow him to escape to Europe (KHL or otherwise) after he plays in 10 AHL games. McKenzie notes that Tolvanen is playing in his fifth AHL game tonight.

Read more here about the conundrum Nashville faces. Should they bite the bullet and just keep him with the big club, even with some work to be done? If he goes to the KHL, he wouldn’t be able to play in the NHL again this season, according to McKenzie.

***

Again, you can get that rundown in the video above this post’s headline, while this article aims to provide additional insight. McKenzie also discussed Jake Dotchin’s situation with Anaheim (and Tampa Bay), so it’s worth your time to check it out.

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.