Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has the better forwards?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

At the start of the season, no one in their right mind would have put the Caps’ forward depth and Golden Knights’ forward depth in the same galaxy, but nine months later, here we are.

So, which of these two teams has the better group of forwards? Let’s take a look.

CENTERS

Washington is loaded with so much depth down the middle, it’s scary. Assuming Nicklas Backstrom is healthy, that would give them a dynamic one-two punch of Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is currently riding a 10-game point streak. Both players would clearly be number one centers on most of other teams in the NHL. They both have dynamic offensive ability and they have the ability to make their linemates better.

On the third line, the Caps have the luxury of having a complete player like Lars Eller at their disposal. The 29-year-old scored 18 times during the regular season and he’s amassed five goals and 13 points in 19 postseason games this year. For a third-line player, his touch in the offensive zone is pretty good and he’s fully capable of killing penalties, too.

Jay Beagle continues to serve as the Caps’ fourth line center. He’s not the flashiest player on the roster, but he’s a smart veteran that is capable of playing a sound defensive game. He can also chip in offensively every so often, but that’s not his speciality.

By comparison, the Golden Knights have used a couple of centers that were flying under the radar coming into the season. Not only have William Karlsson and Erik Haula been two of the biggest surprises on the team, they’ve arguably been the biggest surprises in the entire league.

Karlsson has been centering Vegas’ top line with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. That trio has established themselves as one of the best lines in hockey. The chemistry that they formed has been incredible. They were so good that Karlsson ended up scoring 43 goals and 78 points in 2017-18. He’s added six goals and 13 points in 15 playoff games.

As for Haula, he managed to put up 29 goals and 55 points during the regular season. No one saw that coming when he left Minnesota (it probably cost GM Chuck Fletcher his job). Things have been a little more quiet for him in the playoffs, as he’s racked up seven points in 15 games. For the Golden Knights to go all the way, they’ll need him and some of the other secondary scorers to step up.

Cody Eakin and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare round out the centers on Vegas’ roster. Both players bring a physical element to the game and they’re both sound when it comes to the defensive side of the puck.

Advantage: Caps. As good as the Golden Knights have been, it seems pretty clear that Washington has the superior centers heading into the Stanley Cup Final. What does that mean? Maybe something, maybe nothing. After all, the Winnipeg Jets probably had a better group of centers and they still couldn’t take down Vegas.

WINGERS

Comparing the wingers on these two teams is pretty interesting.

Most people would agree that Alex Ovechkin is the best forward on either side (stop being friends with whoever disagrees). The 32-year-old is second on the team in points (22) behind Kuznetsov and he racked up 49 goals during the regular season. The Golden Knights don’t have anyone that can compare. Again, that doesn’t mean they can’t win the series, it just means that they’ll likely have to do it by committee.

As you’d imagine, there’s a significant drop off on Washington’s depth chart after Ovechkin. They have everyone’s favorite player, Tom Wilson, and they have skilled wingers like T.J. Oshie, Jakub Vrana, Game 7 hero Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly. That’s far from a terrible group of forwards, but there’s an argument to be made that after Ovechkin, the Golden Knights have more quality wingers than the Caps.

Marchessault might just be the second best winger in the series after Ovechkin. After a disappointing performance in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, the 27-year-old stepped up and led his team to a berth in the final. Through 15 playoff games, he’s racked up an impressive 18 points.

Smith has just two goals this postseason, but he’s been the set up guy for his team. The 27-year-old has piled up 14 helpers this postseason and he does a lot of the heavy-lifting defensively for his line.

David Perron has been in and out of the lineup because of injuries, so that could be one of the reasons why he has no goals this postseason. Maybe the extra time off before the start of the final will help him recover from whatever’s bothering him.

James Neal is another forward capable of putting up offensive numbers for Vegas. The pending unrestricted free agent nine points in 15 games while playing on his team’s second line.

Vegas also has Tomas Tatar, Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves, Alex Tuch and Ryan Carpenter that can also contribute to varying degrees.

On the wing, it’s advantage: Golden Knights.

OVERALL

When you look at both groups of forwards as a whole, there isn’t a huge gap between the two sides. But the fact that Washington arguably has the three best forwards in Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Ovechkin has to separate them from Vegas.

That’s not meant to disrespect the Golden Knights in any way, but giving them an advantage in this department just isn’t possible. Not only are the Capitals better down the middle, which is crucial, they also have the best winger in the series.

Advantage: Capitals. 

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

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.

The Buzzer: Greiss shutout gives Trotz win in return to Washington

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Three stars

1. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders

There was probably a little pressure inside the Islanders dressing room prior to this one. Sure, it was just another game in the 82-game slog that is the regular season, but for their head coach, it was a bit more special than that.

Barry Trotz made his return to Washington for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup as the Capitals bench boss last June. They gave him a classy tribute and then he and his Islanders made sure they wouldn’t forget him in a 2-0 win.

Greiss was instrumental in that, stopping all 19 shots he faced as the Islanders leapfrogged both Washington and Columbus to move into first place in the Metropolitan Division.

John Tavares who?

2. Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers

Sticking with goalies and their help in big wins… Luongo stopped 20 of the 21 shots he faced in a 3-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It’s not a 40-save night, but consider that the Panthers came into the game with a seven-game losing streak as a heavy anchor. They needed something, and Luongo provided the near-perfect game to end the longest active streak in the NHL.

3. Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames

Bennett usually gets lost in the Johnny Gaudreaus and the Sean Monahans of the Calgary world.

Some nights the other two don’t light it up, allowing other Flames to shine. Bennett provided that spark, scoring twice and adding an assist in the game.

Bennett’s second of the came with under four minutes left and broke a 4-4 deadlock in a 6-4 Calgary win over the Detroit Red Wings.

Highlights of the night

Bennett’s winner came off a nice pick up on a not so nice pass:

Kuemper the keeper:

A nice tribute to Brooks Orpik, who played his 1,000th game on Friday:

When you celly too hard:

Factoids

Scores

Panthers 3, Maple Leafs 1
Canadiens 4, Blue Jackets 1
Islanders 2, Capitals 0
Senators 4, Hurricanes 1
Flames 6, Red Wings 4
Penguins 3, Coyotes 2 (OT)
Canucks 4, Sabres 3


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

Caps give Trotz, coaching staff classy tribute in return to Washington

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They helped build a team that would eventually win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup last June, so when Barry Trotz, Lane Lambert and Mitch Korn returned to Washington to face their former team on Friday, it was only fitting that the Capitals made sure to give the trio a classy salute.

And classy it was.

A 1:35-long video played on the jumbotron at Capital One Arena, while a packed house stood and showed their admiration for the coaching staff that led the Capitals to four consecutive 100-point seasons, 205 wins, a .677 points percentage and back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies.

Trotz was named the winner of the Jack Adams Award for the best coach in 2016 and, of course, led the Capitals past the Vegas Golden Knights in five games last season to capture hockey’s greatest prize.

Here’s the video tribute:

Trotz is now the head coach with the New York Islanders, with Korn and Lambert also by his side once again, and they have already put their stamp on that team, helping them get past the loss of John Tavares over the summer and still be a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference.

That’s just the Trotz way.

You can read more about Trotz, his return, why he left and what he’s done on Long Island in this story from PHT’s Sean Leahy.


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

Matt Dumba’s ‘anger’ led to indefinite stint on sidelines

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Chalk one up for those who are staunch supporters of their star players not engaging in fisticuffs.

Fans of the Minnesota Wild would have wished that Matt Dumba wouldn’t have thrown a “wild punch” at Matthew Tkachuk in a game against the Calgary Flames on Dec. 15.

The fight happened just 40 seconds into the first period. The result? A torn pectoral muscle, surgery, and an indefinite timeline for return.

Dumba, who led the NHL in defenseman scoring prior to the injury, told the Star Tribune’s Sarah McLellan that he was “angry.”

“I was angry and threw a wild punch that didn’t connect,” Dumba said Friday. “I had a bunch of stitches in my face and I think he rubbed those, had hit those a couple times, and it made me pretty angry.”

Dumba, wearing a brace around his right arm, told reporters that he didn’t feel the pain of the injury until he had a chance to calm down in the penalty box.

Dumba’s surgery came on Dec. 26 and along with it, a three-month timetable to return. On Friday, Dumba didn’t have a firm return date.

“It’s pretty slow to start here,” he told NHL.com. “Everything is just letting it heal, letting it get the rest that it needs. That’s our focus right now. I’ve been doing that and making sure this repairs the right way.”

Dumba will be stuck in that brace for a few more weeks before he can start rehabilitating the injury.

The Wild could sure use their best defenseman in the fight for a playoff spot. They could use that scoring — the Wild are 25th in goals-for this season. It appears that if he’s to play again this season, it might not be until the playoffs begin in early April.


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

Plunging Panthers get a break: Trocheck is back

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About two months since fracturing his ankle in a frightening on-ice accident, Florida Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck is back. He’s suiting up against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner makes it sound like Trocheck essentially kicked down the door to get back in the lineup, as Jameson Olive of the team website reports.

“He came in pounding the table. You know Troch, he wants to be back in so bad,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “The doctors reaffirmed he’s back to 100 percent, so now it’s just our decision … we’ll see.”

Getting the 25-year-old back is a big deal, so it’s not surprising to see the Panthers celebrate this positive development.

You can firmly plant this under the heading “hockey players are tough.” It was perfectly reasonable to expect Trocheck to miss the remainder of the season. Instead, Friday’s game against Toronto is merely the Panthers’ 46th game of 2018-19.

Uncomfortably enough, it’s fair to wonder if Trocheck’s return will still be a matter of “too little, too late.”

The Panthers are carrying a bruising seven-game losing streak into Friday’s action, and it’s not as though the Toronto Maple Leafs will make things particularly easy on them.

Just about all the prognostications look dour. Money Puck gives them a 3.05-percent chance to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, less than their odds for the Los Angeles Kings. Corsica’s projections put Florida at 2.6-percent, this time tying the lowly Kings, but lower than the Devils and Flyers. Woof.

Now, let there be no doubt that the Panthers could be a highly formidable opponent if Trocheck returns at anywhere near “100 percent.”

Even the Trocheck boost likely won’t be enough for Florida to earn just its third postseason trip since 1999-2000, yet with plenty of questions swirling about Boughner’s job security, perhaps a more fully-formed effort could earn the current Panthers regime another swing in 2019-20? However you feel about Boughner and GM Dale Tallon, this franchise’s history is littered with more reboots than “The Fantastic Four” and “Spiderman” movies combined (and with box office receipts that lean more toward The Invisible Woman than webslingers). A little stability could be good for the Panthers.

The worst-case scenario is scary, mind you. What if the Panthers end up hitting the reset button and it’s shown that Trocheck rushed back from injury too soon, possibly aggravating issues?

Such worries hover in the background, but regardless, it’s impressive that Trocheck has been able to return so soon.

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.