George McPhee’s strategic moves help Vegas reach Cup Final

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — George McPhee’s endgame has always been about making the Golden Knights contenders.

Strategic moves to keep winning.

The veteran general manager has ridden his savvy all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, a stirring run by the first-year franchise and the first major sports team in Las Vegas. While the expansion draft gets most of the attention in attempts to explain the unusual success, the moves made by McPhee in late February, when the trade deadline came along, have proven just as important.

”I wanted to wait as long as we could to determine what we had as a team,” McPhee recalled. ”At the trade deadline we felt it was a very good team. But it was getting thin, we were getting banged up, guys out of the lineup, we had other guys playing hurt. We wanted to do the very best we could for this team that was playing its guts out, to help it.”

He began moving pawns across the NHL chessboard, starting with the acquisition of forward Tomas Tatar from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for three draft picks: a first-round pick in 2018, a second-round pick in 2019 and a third-round pick in 2021. Tatar brought with him a contract worth $15.9 million through the 2020-21 season.

While the Golden Knights did send Brendan Leipsic to Vancouver for Philip Holm, perhaps the biggest trade was the one for bruising forward Ryan Reaves from Pittsburgh, a move that included the Golden Knights acquiring 40 percent of Derick Brassard‘s contract. Brassard going to Pittsburgh from Ottawa meant the talented center would not be going to Winnipeg – the team Vegas just beat in a rugged Western Conference final.

Many wondered whether the trade would be worth it given Reaves’ notoriety for physical play. But Reaves brought some brawn to the Golden Knights and scored the game-winning goal in Game 5 at Winnipeg.

”We just thought when we get into the games down the stretch and we’re in the playoffs, we can have a guy that can play the game right,” McPhee said. ”Ryan did a good job of providing the line and getting us good, hard, safe minutes on some nights. Even though they’re not scoring like some of the other lines, they’re one of our better lines because they’re playing the game right. The other team isn’t getting chances, we’re keeping it deep on them and playing physical on them.”

McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant also wanted to make sure the chemistry built over the first five months of the inaugural season wasn’t disrupted. And that meant keeping most of the lineup intact.

That included unrestricted free agents David Perron and James Neal, both of whose names swirled in trade rumors, and at the beginning of the season were perceived as rentals until the deadline. Nobody saw the Golden Knights doing as well they did, so it was conceivable guys like Perron and Neal could’ve been sent to playoff contenders for future draft picks or younger, up-and-coming players by the deadline.

As it turned out, Perron and Neal were already on a playoff contender and on their way to stellar seasons. Perron registered a career-high 66 points in the regular season, while Neal piled up 25 goals, scoring at least 20 in each of his first 10 NHL seasons. The only other current players to do the same: Jaromir Jagr, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews and Thomas Vanek.

”We knew that we weren’t moving anybody out,” Gallant said. ”We were happy with our lineup, we were happy with the group of players we got. We talked about adding players to our team, to make our team better and we definitely did that. But there was no thought about moving any of players out at that time. We had a great season, everything was going good and we wanted to make sure we had enough security for a playoff run and that’s what they did.”

The Golden Knights await the winner of the East final between Tampa Bay and Washington, with Game 7 set for Wednesday night. The Stanley Cup Final begins Monday.

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Turnabout for Stars, Blues complete with Round 2 showdown

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DALLAS (AP) — When first-year Dallas Stars coach Jim Montgomery called out his team over a “culture of mediocrity” in January, the St. Louis Blues weren’t too far removed from having the worst record in the NHL.

Now the Central Division rivals will meet in the second round of the playoffs – and Montgomery is ready to move on from his scathing critique, while declaring that the culture has changed.

”If you’re in that locker room, you see the culture now,” Montgomery after the Stars beat Nashville 2-1 in overtime in Game 6 on Monday to finish off the first-round series. ”You see how much more professional we are. We work efficiently. We work effectively. And we work together.

”We’re going to be eight of 31 teams left, right? We’re doing something right. But we hope not to be done. But we know we’re facing a really good team next, again.”

The Blues went from having a league-worst 34 points on Jan. 2 to becoming the first team that was last in the NHL at the beginning of the calendar year to advance in the postseason.

Montgomery’s blunt assessment came after a 3-1 loss to St. Louis when the Blues were beginning to dig out of their hole. The Dallas turnaround started a week later with the beginning of a five-game winning streak that bridged the All-Star break.

A year after collapsing late in the regular season with an eight-game losing streak that started with six straight losses on the road, the Stars picked up seven of eight possible points on a four-game Canadian swing late in the season to all but wrap up their first playoff berth in three years.

That most recent playoff trip in 2016 ended with a Game 7 loss in the second round to the Blues in Dallas.

”We had a lot of changes this year and a lot of uncomfortable conversations throughout the year,” said Tyler Seguin, the high-scoring forward who was injured when the Blues and Stars met three years ago. ”Guys came out of their comfort zones and that’s made us a closer team and that’s why we’re here tonight.”

The last rookie coach to win his first playoff series was Dale Hunter with Washington seven years ago. And Montgomery is the second Stars coach to do it, following Dave Tippett in 2003.

An NCAA championship winner at the University of Denver two years ago, Montgomery was also the third coach in three seasons for the Stars. He followed Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock, who returned to Dallas and missed the 2018 playoffs, 19 years after leading the franchise to its only Stanley Cup title.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

”I think the journey through the year toughens you up, hopefully,” Montgomery said. ”And it definitely did for us. You have to face adversity to get better as a group, especially when it’s your first time together. And we have. And the trust has grown.”

Ben Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist who had a playoff career-high 47 saves to finish off the Predators, will be facing his hometown team, and the one that drafted him 14 years ago.

”I’ve been trying not to think about it, obviously trying to worry about this series,” Bishop said. ”It kind of gets a smile.”

The Blues and Stars were the lower seeds in their first-round matchups. St. Louis beat Winnipeg, also in six games. If Vegas wins Game 7 at San Jose in the remaining first-round Western Conference series Tuesday night, all four lower seeds will have advanced.

”If you look around the league, I think everyone who gets into the playoffs has a really good chance to go win,” said John Klingberg, who scored the clincher 17:02 into overtime . ”You see a lot of top seed teams that are out right now.”

A couple of weeks before Montgomery’s frustration boiled over, Seguin and captain Jamie Benn were profanely ripped by CEO Jim Lites. The longtime team executive also used words such as ”terrible” and ”embarrassing” to describe the play of the high-priced forwards.

The concern for Lites, who said he was echoing the frustration of owner Tom Gaglardi, was that the Stars would end up in danger of missing the playoffs for the ninth time in 11 years. Instead, they wrapped up a series on home ice for the first time since 2008.

”We are very excited about this, and you can tell the crowd is too,” Klingberg said. ”We’ve been playing some good hockey here at the end. It’s going to be a quick turnaround here. We all know how the Blues are playing, how good they are.”

Neither team was saying that when the calendar turned to 2019.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Healthy Vlasic making huge impact for Sharks

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The Vegas Golden Knights haven’t found getting shots on Martin Jones to be particularly difficult over the last two games. The problem is that Good Martin Jones returned just in time for the San Jose Sharks to help force a Game 7 Tuesday night at SAP Center (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

In Game 5, the Golden Knights fired 32 shots towards Marc-Andre Fleury, only beating him twice during a 5-2 defeat. During Sunday’s double overtime loss, Vegas outshot San Jose 59-29 and couldn’t put the puck past Jones more than once. They’ve dominated possession in the last two games (60-39 Corsi percentage advantage at 5-on-5) but goaltending, which was the Sharks’ Achilles heel earlier in the series, has rebounded and brought us to this Game 7 scenario.

The other problem for their Golden Knights? Their dynamic second line has been held in check.

Mark Stone, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty were extraordinary during the first four games of the series. The trio combined for 12 goals and 28 points, 10 of which came on the power play. They were unstoppable. Then Marc-Edouard Vlasic got healthy.

The Sharks defenseman, who was injured early in Game 2, returned for Game 5, the start of the San Jose comeback. Vlasic has spent a lot of time against that Golden Knights’ second line, and done a good job of limiting their chances. The trio is pointless in the last two games, managing a combined seven shots at even strength, per Natural Stat Trick.

“Shutting down the top line. That’s my job,” Vlasic said. “You look at the last two games, if I keep them off the scoresheet I did my job.”

Game 5 was a good example of what Vlasic can do when fully healthy. He broke up a 3-on-1 chance for the Golden Knights in the second period with the score tied 1-1 and later sent a one-touch pass to Tomas Hertl out of the Sharks’ zone in double OT, which resulted in the winning goal.

“He’s just always in the right place at the right time,” Sharks defenseman Justin Braun, who’s been a consistent partner of Vlasic’s, told Pro Hockey Talk earlier this season. “He’s got one of the best sticks in the league knocking down passes, breaking up plays. He’s got the ability to jump up into the play and finish. It’s what you want in a partner. He’s never outside of his game, pushing the pace too much. He makes every guy around him better.”

Vlasic has been an underrated defenseman for most of his career. He’s averaged 32 points a season through 965 NHL games and been a consistent positive possession player. Despite strong numbers at both ends of the ice, he’s never been a finalist for the Norris Trophy having finished 12th, 20th, 21st, and 11th in the voting in four of the past five seasons.

While 2018-19 was a tale of two halves for Vlasic, he’s returned to good form of late, which is something the Sharks have needed from their blue line.

Vlasic doesn’t stand out like a Brent Burns or an Erik Karlsson, he just does his job steadily, and Braun gets a close-up view of  those little impactful things that can easily missed.

“Just how many plays he breaks up,” said Braun. “Two-on-one, in the corner, shutting guys down. You’re talking about the best players in the world that can’t get away from him. He’s keeping them off the scoresheet every night. That’s the biggest thing. You don’t really see who’s breaking up the passes every time, but he’s right there. Good gap, making guys dump it in, you don’t notice that on TV.”

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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.

The Wraparound: Round 2 picture gets clearer with pair of Game 7s

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

Round 1 is reaching its conclusion as we get to enjoy three Game 7s over the next two days. The fun begins tonight as the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Boston Bruins (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) and then the Vegas Golden Knights visit the San Jose Sharks (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream). We finish this dizzying opening round on Wednesday when the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals try to defend home ice against the Carolina Hurricanes (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

The Maple Leafs and Bruins meet yet again in a Game 7 in Round 1. The Bruins prevailed last season as well as that memorable final game in 2013. They currently own a five-game playoff series winning streak over Toronto, who have not won a round since 2004.

Per the NHL, the Bruins and Maple Leafs are the seventh set of franchises in league history to require a Game 7 in consecutive years, joining the Canadiens-Red Wings (1954 SCF, 1955 SCF), Blackhawks-Red Wings (1964 SF, 1965 SF), Avalanche-Stars (1999 CF, 2000 CF), Avalanche-Kings (2001 CSF, 2002 CQF), Capitals-Rangers (2012 CSF, 2013 CQF) and Kings-Sharks (2013 CSF, 2014 R1).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Another fun stat: When Zdeno Chara hits the ice, he’ll play in his 13th career Game 7, tying Patrick Roy and Scott Stevens for most all-time.

When the puck drops at SAP Center, the Golden Knights will be playing in their first ever Game 7. The Sharks, meanwhile, are veterans in this do-or-die scenarios, entering Tuesday with a 6-4 record in such playoff games.

Martin Jones, whose 58-save performance in Game 6 is a big reason why we’re here, is one of six different San Jose goaltenders to have won a Game 7. A victory tonight would make him the first netminder in franchise history with multiple wins in a Game 7. His opponent at the other end, Marc-Andre Fleury, has three career Game 7 wins, all coming on the road.

Henrik Lundqvist, Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur hold the NHL record with six Game 7 victories.

Here are three trends via the NHL to keep an eye on over the next two days:

Of the 172 all-time Game 7s in the Stanley Cup Playoffs…
• The team that scores first is 128-44 (.744)
• Home teams own a 100-72 record (.581)
• Forty-one have required overtime (23.8%). Home teams have a 21-20 edge.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Leafs need more from Marner; questions for Predators

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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.

Here’s the NBC Sports Stanley Cup playoff update for April 23

• “Bruins notify NHL about Maple Leafs’ ‘skate bump’ tactics” [Boston Globe]

• The Toronto Maple Leafs have been in this situation before, but they’re not looking at the past. [TSN via CP]

Mitch Marner is one player who needs to bring his ‘A’ game tonight. [Leafs Nation]

• Don’t expect any changes for the Boston Bruins in Game 7. [WEEI]

• What the San Jose Sharks need to do to win… and lose Game 7 vs. the Vegas Golden Knights. [NBC Bay Area]

• Smiling Tomas Hertl on his winning shot in Game 6: “If you don’t try, you never know.” [Mercury News]

• “For those who abide by the gospel of concepts like series momentum, Vegas is damned. Luckily for Golden Knights’ fans, those factors tend to be overstated.” [Las Vegas Sun]

• Why the Golden Knights will come out of top in Game 7. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• There are plenty of questions to be answered for the Nashville Predators in the wake of their first-round exit. [Tennessean]

• Another obstacle cleared for the Dallas Stars. [Dallas Morning News]

• “Right call, bad rule: Ovechkin’s disallowed goal shows the ridiculous standard of goalie interference” [NBC Washington]

• Patrik Laine says he dealt with a back injury and groin injury for most of the 2018-19 season. [NHL.com]

• Over 5,000 Columbus Blue Jackets fans showed up Monday to watch the team play an intrasquad scrimmage as they await their Round 2 opponent. [Dispatch]

• Jaden Schwartz found his scoring touch at the right time for the St. Louis Blues. [NHL.com]

• Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are few of the sentimental favorites to win the Stanley Cup/ [The Hockey News]

• How climate change is affecting hockey. [Sports Illustrated]

• Kris Versteeg has signed a one-year AHL contract with the Rockford Ice Hogs. [Ice Hogs]

• A look at what’s ahead for Connor McDavid as he recovers from an injured PCL. [ESPN]

• Finally, here’s episode 4 of “Puckland” as the ECHL’s Maine Mariners’ scrimmage against Worcester has some big consequence for cut day”

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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.