Vasilevskiy turns East final around for Lightning

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Jon Cooper didn’t blame Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Tampa Bay Lightning digging a deep hole early in the Eastern Conference final.

Two games and two losses brought plenty of criticism of the young Russian goaltender. Cooper wasn’t thrilled about that.

”The questions were coming from the other side of the table, and I felt it was the questioning of Vasilevskiy,” the Tampa Bay coach said. ”We don’t. He’s been the guy for us.”

Vasilevskiy is the guy who turned the series around for the Lightning, who now lead the Capitals 3-2 and can eliminate Washington on the road in Game 6 on Monday night and move on to the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights. After a 6.00 goals-against average and .839 save percentage in Games 1 and 2, he has a 2.00 GAA and .943 save percentage since as the series’ biggest difference-maker.

”Just tried to stay positive and play my game,” Vasilevskiy said last week. ”It’s very important, especially in the playoffs. Good or bad game, doesn’t matter. Turn the page, start over again and again. That’s how you get success.”

Vasilevskiy has found plenty of success this season, his first as a full-time NHL starter. The 23-year-old is a Vezina Trophy finalist after leading the league with 44 wins and eight shutouts.

But Vasilevskiy hasn’t made it easy on himself. He rarely does.

Cooper saw it during the 2016-17 season when Vasilevskiy struggled during a stretch of 10 consecutive starts when Ben Bishop was hurt and then again late this season when a swoon by him and the entire team almost cost Tampa Bay the East’s top seed. Vasilevskiy bounced back strong each time.

”His ability to be able to turn the page now and understand, ‘You know what there might be a tough night for you, but I’m going to go out the next night anyway and I’ve got to be there for my team,’ – I think that’s where his growth process has really come in,” Cooper said.

The same happened between Games 2 and 3 in this series. The shy Vasilevskiy who has been reluctant to do interviews told a pool reporter he didn’t make any adjustments from his worst games against the Capitals to his best.

Somehow, he has looked like an entirely different goalie. Chants of ”Vasy! Vasy!” filled Amalie Arena in Game 5 on Saturday night when he stopped 28 of 30 shots, and the highest praise was reserved for inside the Lightning’s locker room.

”He’s a world class goaltender, that’s what he does,” defenseman Braydon Coburn said. ”He battles hard every day in practice all season long, and he’s raised his game in the playoffs here.”

No doubt his teammates have improved their play in front of Vasilevskiy, with defenseman Anton Stralman saying: ”We always feel like we owe him.” But against a star-studded Capitals team led by countrymen Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vasilevskiy had to raise his game to give Tampa Bay any chance.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said confidence in Vasilevskiy never wavered, and he has showed them on the ice evidence of what they’ve seen all season.

”He just expects a lot,” Stamkos said. ”You see his work ethic every day in practice. You guys don’t get to see what goes on in the room, but his mental preparation, his physical preparation, he wants to be the best all the time. He doesn’t want to give up a goal at all, including in practice. That’s the mentality he has and that’s why he’s so good.”

If the Capitals can crack Vasilevskiy like they did the first two times, there will be a Game 7 on Wednesday night at Tampa Bay. But they’d better figure that out and get an even better game from Braden Holtby because the Lightning are 11-0 in the playoffs when scoring three-plus goals.

That record is thanks to Vasilevskiy, who doesn’t like cameras but loves playoff hockey.

”It’s definitely a fun time,” he said. ”Lot of emotions. Different hockey. It’s pretty fun to play. Just excitement level is pretty high. A different season.”

AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.

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

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

All-Rookie, All-Star Teams and rest of 2018 NHL Awards

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Let’s recap the remaining winners from the 2018 NHL Awards. Before we do so, here are the other big winners and corresponding links.

Hart Trophy

Taylor Hall

GM of the Year

George McPhee

Vezina Trophy

Pekka Rinne

Selke Trophy

Anze Kopitar

Jack Adams Award

Gerard Gallant

Norris Trophy

Victor Hedman

Calder Trophy

Mathew Barzal

Bill Masterton Trophy

Brian Boyle

Ted Lindsay

Connor McDavid

Lady Byng

William Karlsson

Also:

P.K. Subban named cover star for “NHL 19.”

Humboldt Broncos reunite to honor late coach Darcy Haugan (Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award).

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Now, let’s jump into the remaining awards and honors.

Mark Messier Leadership Award

Deryk Engelland (see video above this post’s headline)

King Clancy

Daniel and Henrik Sedin

William Jennings

Jonathan Quick with Jack Campbell

Of course, Alex Ovechkin won the Maurice Richard Trophy and Connor McDavid took the Art Ross.

First NHL All-Star Team

Left Wing: Taylor Hall
Center: Connor McDavid
Right Wing: Nikita Kucherov
Defense: Drew Doughty and Victor Hedman
Goalie: Pekka Rinne

Second NHL All-Star Team

Left Wing: Claude Giroux
Center: Nathan MacKinnon
Right Wing: Blake Wheeler
Defense: Seth Jones and P.K. Subban
Goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

All-Rookie Team

Forwards: Clayton Keller, Brock Boeser, and Mathew Barzal
Defense: Charlie McAvoy and Will Butcher
Goalie: Juuse Saros

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.

Humboldt Broncos reunite to honor late head coach

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Ten members of the Humboldt Broncos reunited on Wednesday night during the 2018 NHL Awards in Las Vegas. The survivors of the April 6 bus crash that killed 16 players and staff were on stage to help give out the first Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award to their late head coach Darcy Haugan.

The award, presented “to an individual who – through the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society,” was voted on by the public after fans submitted candidates, and the field was then narrowed down to three finalists.

From the NHL:

Haugan left a lasting impact in Humboldt, Sask., as well as every other community that was fortunate enough to have him as a resident or involved in junior hockey. He changed the lives of many of his players, always being there for each one of them and never hesitating to give them a second chance. He fought for his team and had their backs – he was the coach and mentor everybody wanted. Haugan believed strongly that the game is not about making hockey players; it is about making amazing human beings. He did just that, building up young leaders who also developed strong hockey skills along the way. His presence would fill the room and his love for the game was undeniable. Haugan died doing what he loved, surrounded by the young people he dedicated his life to. Haugan left behind, in all of those he touched, his spirit and passion for the game, his love for his beautiful family, and his example of dedication to his community.

Haugan’s wife, Christina, accepted the award in his honor.

The other finalists were Debbie Bland of the Etobicoke Dolphins Girls Hockey League and Neal Henderson of the Fort Dupont Hockey Club.

The NHL Foundation is donating $10,000 in Haugan’s memory to the Saskatchewan Brain Injury Association, a charity important to the coach.

On Tuesday, the NHL and NHLPA announced that Washington Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson will bring the Stanley Cup to Humboldt on Aug. 24 that will involve a skills competition at the Broncos’ home rink.

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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.

Hall beats MacKinnon for first Hart Trophy

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Being that Art Ross and Ted Lindsay winner Connor McDavid wasn’t even a finalist, it’s clear that being indispensable to your team factored heavily into the 2017-18 Hart Trophy voting.

With those unspoken parameters in mind, it makes sense that the MVP race ended up being so close between runner-up Nathan MacKinnon and winner Taylor Hall. Anze Kopitar ranked a distant third, but he could take comfort in being a finalist and also taking home his second Selke.

Sometimes you need to dig deep into “With or Without You” stats to realize how much a player stands above his teammates. You merely need to glance at the gap between Hall’s scoring (93 points, sixth-best in the NHL) and the next highest-ranked Devil (Nico Hischer with 52). Hall clearly dragged the Devils to an unlikely playoff berth, scoring that many points in just 76 games.

Nathan MacKinnon, meanwhile, finished with 97 points in 74 contests, yet he enjoyed a bit more help as Colorado’s top line was rounded out by fantastic wingers in Mikko Rantanen (84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (62).

Now, the trickier part is figuring out if McDavid deserved to either win it or at least be a finalist. Ultimately, the PHWA viewed Hall as the “player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team,” no doubt weighing a playoff appearance in their decision:

As you might expect, the deeper voting is quite interesting. Kopitar narrowly edged Claude Giroux for third place, while there’s an interesting list of players who managed a single vote: Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Victor Hedman, and Eric Staal. Drew Doughty got a fourth place vote while Hedman receive one fifth, yet Hedman ended up the Norris winner.

During certain seasons, the Hart Trophy is an easy call. This was one of the tougher years to truly pinpoint a top season, but the beauty for hockey fans was because there were so many great choices.

However you feel about who should have been the actual winner, Taylor Hall generated an absolutely brilliant season.

For a player who was traded for flawed reasons and blamed far too often for his teams’ failings, it must be awfully sweet to receive such high recognition. It can’t hurt that this award came after his first-ever postseason appearance, either.

Naturally, Hall has his eyes on the sort of celebration that Alex Ovechkin is enjoying right now, but Hall’s 2017-18 season was “a long time coming” in its own right.

And, yes, the Oilers must weep at the thought that they voluntarily gave up an opportunity to deploy the 2018 Hart winner (Hall) and the 2018 Art Ross winner (McDavid) on the same team.

GM of the Year George McPhee adds another award for Golden Knights

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George McPhee of the Vegas Golden Knights continued a big night for the franchise as he was named 2017-18 General Manager of the Year during Wednesday’s NHL Awards show in Las Vegas. Earlier, Gerard Gallant won the Jack Adams Award for top coach, William Karlsson was named winner of the Lady Byng and captain Deryk Engelland took home the Mark Messier Leadership Award.

The NHL’s 31 GMs and a panel of League executives, print and broadcast media voted on the award following the conclusion of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Using the NHL’s expansion draft rules to his advantage, McPhee made shrewd deals to add draft picks and impact players while creating the franchise’s first-ever roster. Success came right off the bat and the Golden Knights ended their inaugural season by becoming the first modern-era expansion team from the four major North American professional sports league to win its division. By advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, Vegas became the third team in NHL history to win multiple playoff rounds in their first season.

McPhee was presented with the award by actress Lynda Carter and Nicklas Backstrom, the player he drafted in fourth overall 2006 while GM of the Washington Capitals.

Kevin Cheveldayoff of the Winnipeg Jets and Steve Yzerman of the Tampa Bay Lightning were the other finalists this year.

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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.