PHT Stanley Cup Final Roundtable: Vegas’ speed, X-factors

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How will the Washington Capitals be able to counteract the Vegas Golden Knights’ speed?

SEAN: Physicality helps, but the Capitals have also found themselves susceptible to an odd-man here and there, so smart decision-making on that end will be important. The Capitals won neutral zone battles against other fast teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, so if they’re able to successfully slow Vegas down in the middle of the ice and force them to adjust, that will result in fewer successful zone entries and the potential turnover or two.

JAMES: There may be an olden times Star Wars meme for this answer. The thing is, the Capitals don’t necessarily need to slow things down and gum up the works to win. For the sake of our collective moment-to-moment entertainment, let’s hope that such measures are viewed as nuclear option, not the default.

Take a moment to ponder how dangerous the Capitals looked when things went wide open during their various series. The Penguins won Game 1 in round two, yet early on, it seemed like Washington might author a blowout based on their scary work on the rush. The Capitals have the horses to out-chance the Golden Knights, if they want to.

ADAM: Speed has been one of Vegas’ biggest advantages all season and that has been especially true in the playoffs. They overwhelmed Los Angeles and San Jose and at times made Winnipeg — a pretty fast team! — look slow. The thing is, I’m not really sure there is much Washington can do to combat that. At this point the two teams are what they are and play the way they do. You’re not going to get faster at this point. I think the key for Washington is to be disciplined, not take penalties, get continued strong goaltending from Braden Holtby to keep them in games, and capitalize on their power plays and win the special teams battle.

JOEY: The Kings, Sharks and Jets weren’t able to stop Vegas’ speed, so it’s unlikely that the Capitals will be able to do so. One thing the Caps did well in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final was limit dangerous scoring chances. The Lightning got their looks, but it appeared as though the Caps were able to keep them to the outside. I think that’s the key more than anything else. The Golden Knights are fast. Preventing them from using their speed will be tough. That doesn’t mean Washington can’t win the series anyway.

SCOTT: By doing the same sorts of things they did against the Penguins and the Lightning: be physical, win the game in the neutral zone and get an early lead. Vegas is nearly unstoppable once they score first. Make them chase the game. The Capitals are no slouches either in the speed game. They were able to work off the counterattack against the Lightning and they have some speedsters that can catch Vegas’ so-so defense looking. Question then becomes: Can they beat Marc-Andre Fleury

Can the Golden Knights win without their depth forwards making an impact?

SEAN: No. Six of their 30 goals from forwards have come from their bottom six. It’s worked through three rounds, but eventually they’ll need some contributions from others, right? The thing is, the goals from Ryan Reaves, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Nosek were pretty meaningful. So while their depth may not score in bunches, they have a timely way of making a mark.

But Gerard Gallant probabty doesn’t want to continue to rely on his top six, especially his first line, to carry the offensve load. The Capitals have received scoring from a number of contributors, and that’s played a big role in their success. That will likely continue into the Final. Vegas will need to counteract that.

JAMES: No, this time around, they need to add to their recent formula of “Fleury and the Jonathan Marchessault line will do almost everything.”

The bright side is that it’s conceivable that others might step up. The long break from the 2018 Western Conference Final gives David Perron as good a chance to be healthy as just about anything. James Neal only has four goals during this postseason, yet with 56 shots (just a 7.1 shooting percentage), the pending free agent could be poised for a breakout. Let’s also remember that Erik Haula offered a 29-goal, 55-point regular season. And, hey, maybe Gerard Gallant and Tomas Tatar squeezed in a heart-to-heart during the long layover?

ADAM: If I have a concern with the Golden Knights heading into this series it is probably the fact that their top-line has been carrying them offensively lately. That can work in the short-term as long as that top-line is scoring, but there is going to come a point where that trio stops scoring two or three goals every game. Who is going to pick up the slack at that point? One of the things that powered Vegas’ offense all season isn’t just the fact that it had that great top-line, but that it didn’t really have a weakness on any of its lines. It was pretty much one first line and two second lines and maybe a third line. That has kind of dried up a little bit in the playoffs. The good news: It is the same cast of players, so the potential is still there for it return. But if it doesn’t that is going to be an awful lot of pressure on one line to keep carrying the offense and that is not always a great recipe for success.

JOEY: Their depth scoring has been lacking throughout most of the postseason and they’ve managed to make it to the Stanley Cup Final so clearly they can do it. If James Neal, Erik Haula, David Perron and others don’t produce more, it just means that there’s more pressure on the top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Marc-Andre Fleury will have more pressure on their shoulders. If those guys continue to play lights-out, Vegas will have a chance. But getting some of the other forwards to contribute will help take the pressure off those guys.

The Capitals can get offensive contributions from their top three lines, so staying step-for-step with them will be tough for Vegas if only one line is clicking. But again, the Jets had plenty of firepower and that didn’t stop the Golden Knights from taking them out in the Western Conference Final without a huge contribution from their depth forwards. It’s not ideal, but it can happen.

SCOTT: No. Sure, Vegas’ top line has done much of the heavy lifting but their scoring falls off starting with their second line.

Erik Haula and James Neal on the second line have combined for seven goals in 15 games and their other linemate, David Perron, is still nursing that goose egg.

Alex Tuch has been a godsend at times in these playoffs, but he’s not carrying this team by any means. Nor is Ryan Reaves, and Tomas Nosek, who both scored perfectly timed goals but can’t be expected to produce much.

I expect Washington to pay special attention to Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, so Vegas’ second line needs to start rolling.

[How Golden Knights were built | How Capitals were built]

What is the biggest X-factor in the series for both teams?

SEAN: Special teams.

The Capitals’ power play is very, very dangerous having scored on 28.8 percent of their opportunities this postseason. The Golden Knights’ man advantage unit has been fine, but only scoring at a 17.6 percent rate in eight fewer power play opportunities compared to Washington. Vegas’ penalty kill unit, meanwhile, has been strong with a 82.5 percent success rate, compared to that of Washington’s, which sits at 75.4 percent.

Both teams have played eight one-goal games in these playoffs, so you can imagine how important it will be to capitalize on special teams chances.

JAMES: The coaches.

Will Barry Trotz be willing to unleash the hounds if it looks like Vegas is giving up more chances than it is creating? As fantastic as Gerard Gallant has been in letting these Golden Knights play an aggressive style and seemingly not harping on every little mistake, I wonder if some Bad NHL Coach tendencies are starting to crop up. There were too many third periods against the Jets where Vegas went into turtle mode, and Fleury was able to stem the tide. I’m not so sure that will work when Washington has the luxury of going to “Ovechkin’s office” when they really need a goal.

More and more, in the modern NHL, a winning coach is one who’s willing to trust his players. If either bench boss leans too heavily toward risk aversion, that might just swing this championship series.

ADAM: Honestly I think the biggest X-factor here is simply Marc-Andre Fleury. Yeah, goaltending is always the biggest thing in a playoff series, but with the way Fleury is playing right now he might be what ultimately decides this. If he keeps playing the way he has through the first three rounds it may not matter what Braden Holtby does at the other end of the ice or what the Capitals do as a team. It is awfully difficult to bet .950 goaltending in a best-of-seven series, and that is pretty much what Fleury is doing right now. But what if he regresses just a little? If he has even a little bit of a slip up with the way Vegas is only getting offense from one line at the moment that could shift it all back to Washington. So basically I think the X-factor for both teams is simply how Fleury plays.

JOEY: I’m going with goaltending.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been terrific throughout the postseason and Braden Holtby has really turned it on over the last two weeks. Beating either goaltender isn’t going to be easy, so whichever team gets the better play between the pipes will likely take care of business. These teams are so evenly matched that a mistake here, or a bad goal there can be the difference between winning the Stanley Cup and going home empty-handed.

If Fleury’s save percentage continues to hover around .950, there’s a very good chance that the Golden Knights will win it all. If Holtby continues to play like he did in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Final (he’s also been very good for more than two games), the Caps will be tough to stop. The pressure is on these two goaltenders to continue playing at a high level.

SCOTT: It’s 100 percent Marc-Andre Fleury.

If he continues his near-.950 save percentage (.960 in 5-on-5 situations), I don’t think it matters what Washington does. Teams simply can’t take four games against a team that’s getting, historically, some of the best goaltending in the playoffs. The Capitals have gotten to the Cup Final on the back of Holtby’s .924 (.939 in 5-on-5 situations). That’s a good number, but it’s not God-like and is beatable.

If Fleury regresses, however, all bets are off. Washington has a bevy of shooters and the best power-play specialist in the league. Fleury was able to muzzle the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Final. If he can do it against Ovechkin and Co. we’re going to see some crazy history being made.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?
Who has better goaltending?
• Who has better special teams?

• Who has better coaching?

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

 

Red Wings need Larkin to step up in new era

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DETROIT (AP) — Dylan Larkin has suddenly become a veteran at the age of 22 for the Detroit Red Wings.

”It could be the first time I’m not the youngest guy on the team,” Larkin said. ”That’s why I’m growing out this beard.”

The rebuilding Red Wings are desperately hoping the talented, two-way center can quickly become a leader on and off the ice. They suffered a setback before the season even started when captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s back injury ended his career.

”It’s a massive loss,” general manager Ken Holland acknowledged. ”No one person is going to be able to replace one of the greatest Red Wings of all time.”

Larkin is likely the one player who can come closest to filling the void this season. He signed a $30.5 million, five-year deal last summer after leading the team with career highs in assists (47) and points (63) in his third season.

Detroit did not make the playoffs last year for the second straight year after earning a spot in the postseason 25 straight times. A lot will have to go right for the Red Wings to avoid missing out on the playoffs again, a three-year drought that would be their longest since 1979-83.

Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman led the franchise’s resurgence after being named captain in 1986 at the age of 21 until his retirement in 2006. Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom then wore the ‘C’ for the next several seasons before ending his career and starting Zetterberg’s run as captain.

”(Larkin) has a drive like those guys no doubt about it,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said as he prepared for his 15th season with the Red Wings. ”He stays on the ice late. Sometimes he’s on the ice before skates. And sometimes, he skates with Little Caesars (youth) teams because he just loves being on the ice.”

While Larkin seems like a likely candidate to become the next captain, he may have to wait.

”My guess is we would be we’d go with three alternates this year,” Kronwall said. ”Then over the next year or two, things will naturally have their way and the next guy will be the Red Wings’ captain for a long time. Larkin is a natural leader and hopefully he’ll take more steps to grow even more into that role and I would not be surprised if that happened down the road.”

UP FRONT

Detroit is retooling around a trio of promising, young forwards: Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou. All three signed multiyear contract last summer. Filip Zadina may not make an impact in the NHL right away, but teammates say the Czech winger taken No. 6 overall this year won’t take long.

”You can tell how he handles the puck and skates that he’s going to be something special,” Kronwall said.

THE D IN THE D

Defense appears to be the weakest part of the team. The back end is led by the 37-year-old Kronwall and Trevor Daley. Mike Green is expected to miss the season-opening game and it out indefinitely with a virus. Green signed a two-year contract worth $10-plus million after he had a season-ending surgery on his spine last spring.

IN NET

Detroit appears to have a solid tandem in goal: Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier. Howard, who made his Red Wings debut nearly 13 years ago, was 22-27-9 last season with a 2.85 goals-against average. He may not have to play 60 games again because Bernier has 10 years of experience and played in at least 37 games the previous three years for three teams: Colorado, Anaheim and Toronto.

”We think we have a solid 1-2 punch in net,” Holland said. ”That should help us stay in games and be competitive.”

COACHING CONTINUITY

Coach Jeff Blashill enters the final year of his contract with a 104-105-37 record over three years.

”The team played hard for him and we lost 27 games by a goal,” Holland said. ”There’s no doubt he’s a better coach than he was a year or two ago because of the experience.”

CAPTAIN COMEBACK?

Yzerman stepped down as Tampa Bay Lightning general manager earlier this month to become a senior advise and speculation swirled that the move paved the way for the former Detroit star known as ”The Captain,” to return to run the Red Wings. Holland has two years left on his contract.

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

Follow Larry Lage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/larrylage

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

PHT Morning Skate: Smith-Pelly’s conditioning; Replacing Lundqvist

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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.

• Up top, a highlight package from Wednesday’s Hockeyville game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Buffalo Sabres.

• Devante Smith-Pelly’s absence from preseason games is conditioning related. (Washington Post)

• Take some makeup, a little creativity and a love for hockey and you get this. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• A review of each Carolina Hurricanes’ headshot for this season. (Section 328)

• Here’s an in-depth look at the players that are tasked with bringing the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh Current)

• The Washington Capitals’ black owners say their Stanley Cup win is helping them expand their reach to minorities. (The Color of Hockey)

• Will Ryan Murray ever be healthy enough for Columbus? (The Hockey News)

• A look into the task of replacing Henrik Lundqvist. (The Trentonian)

• Mike Keenan is battling prostate cancer. (TSN)

• A look back on the career of Brian Gionta. (The Hockey Writers)

• A decision must be made on who is going to be the backup to Fredrik Andersen in Toronto, just not yet. (Sportsnet)

• Ranking every starting goalie in the NHL. (Yardbarker)


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

Kings hope to get over 1st-round playoff hump with Kovalchuk

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Kings made one significant addition during the offseason, but the question is whether it was enough to help them advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

While the top teams in the Pacific Division were busy, the Kings mostly stood pat. Their only major move was signing Ilya Kovalchuk, who returns to the NHL after five seasons playing in Russia.

The 35-year old left winger fits a familiar blueprint for the Kings – he’s over 30, has a big body and can control the puck but lacks quickness in getting up ice. Kovalchuk joins what is one of the oldest rosters in the league with nine players who are 30 or older. He will be paired on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.

Kovalchuk’s addition should add some punch to an offense that has struggled to score goals. The Kings averaged 2.89 goals per game last season, which was 16th out of 30 teams, and their 155 goals in 5-on-5 situations was the third lowest of a team that made the playoffs. They had only four skaters score 16 goals or more. Only Arizona and Edmonton had fewer skaters with three apiece.

Coach John Stevens said at the start of training camp that he was happy with some of the improvements made last year, which included creating more in the middle of the ice and scoring off the rush, but that more progress needs to be made.

”I don’t know if I want to say we want to do a whole lot of things different, but we want to do some things a whole lot better,” he said.

With the addition of Kovalchuk, Kopitar thinks the Kings can continue to build on some of the progress they made last season. He said early in training camp that last season was the best hockey they’ve played in the regular season since winning their second Stanley Cup in three years in 2014.

”I thought we showed more positives than negatives,” he said. ”We’re trying to look forward, draw on the positives and go about our business.”

Here are some other things to watch as Stevens begins his second season in charge:

KOPITAR’S ENCORE: Kopitar finished third in the Hart Trophy voting last season with a career-best 35 goals, 57 assists and 92 points. It is unlikely that he will repeat those numbers, but he shouldn’t revert to the form of 2016-17, where he struggled and had 52 points, which was the second-lowest of his 12-year NHL career.

SCORING BEYOND THE FIRST LINE: The Kings are hoping some of that comes from center Jeff Carter, who missed 55 games last season due to a lacerated ankle tendon.

Forwards Alex Iafallo (six goals, 11 assists) and Tyler Toffoli are expected to take another step. Toffoli (24 goals, 23 assists) was the only player not on the top line who had more than 16 goals.

COUNTING ON QUICK: Jonathan Quick was one of the league’s top goaltenders down the stretch last season with two shutouts and a 1.99 goals-against average in his last 11 regular-season starts. Managing Quick’s workload will be more of a priority this season as he usually ranks in the top 10 in minutes played.

Jack Campbell has emerged as Quick’s backup. He earned at least a point in all four of his starts last season and had a 2.47 goals-against average.

THE SCHEDULE: The Kings begin the season with home games against San Jose and Detroit before heading on the road for six of their next nine. They face Southern California rival Anaheim only once before March 9.

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

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Blue Jackets aim for playoffs with future of stars in doubt

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — So what’s going on with ”Bob” and ”Bread”?

That question dominated the off-season discussion around the Columbus Blue Jackets, overshadowing everything else surrounding a team coming off consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history.

A legitimate inquiry for sure, considering Bob and Bread – otherwise known as goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and forward Artemi Panarin – are major pieces of a team that should be a solid playoff contender again this season.

The two Russians are playing out the final year of their contracts, and Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s primary goal this summer was to lock up both superstars with multiyear deals. Neither of the deals got done.

Panarin has said he isn’t sure he wants to commit to Columbus for the long haul. Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets haven’t been able to get together on numbers.

”They’re our best players, no question about it,” veteran forward Cam Atkinson said. ”We’re going to treat it as business as usual. I’m not going to look at them any differently, because at the end of the day it’s their decision. There’s only so many times in your career where you’re in the driver’s seat.”

WINDOW IS OPEN

If Panarin and Bobrovsky play to their capabilities, and some other Blue Jackets who battled injuries or otherwise struggled last year can bounce back, the team should be playoff contenders again. Columbus was eliminated in the opening round by the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the past two years.

”I think we’ve crossed the bridge as a team hoping to win,” said coach John Tortorella, who signed a two-year contract extension before camp opened.

”I think we crossed that bridge, I think we know we can win,” he said. ”The players’ mindset, I think they know they can win. I think we showed that the past couple years. We’ve stumbled in the playoffs, and that’s what we have to take note of here.”

Panarin set a franchise record with 27 goals and 55 assists (82 points) in 81 games. The second-highest scorer among forwards was rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who had 20 goals and 28 assists (48 points).

The Blue Jackets grabbed the first wildcard in the rugged Metropolitan Division despite subpar years from usually reliable forwards Atkinson (46 points), Alexander Wennberg (37 points), Boone Jenner (32 points) and Nick Foligno (33 points). Injuries definitely played a part.

THS STATE OF ZACH

Defenseman Zach Werenski is getting healthy again after playing much of last season with a bum shoulder. He started hitting last week and is hoping to be ready to go by the Oct. 4 opener in Detroit.

Werenski suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder in the 12th game last season. The rest of the way he wore a cumbersome brace that wrapped around his chest and arm to keep his shoulder from separating. His movement was restricted, which affected his defensive skills, but he still managed to finish with 16 goals.

”It’s awful hard for a defenseman to play all those games that he played and put up the numbers he put up and do some of the things he did with that shoulder the way it was,” Tortorella said. ”He’s one that we’re certainly going to watch very closely.”

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The Blue Jackets added some help at center by signing center Riley Nash, the 29-year-old former Boston Bruin who put up career numbers last year. Nash had 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points in 76 games, besting his previous high by 16 points.

The team also signed 22-year-old forward Anthony Duclair, who had 11 goals and 12 assists in 56 games with the Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes last season,

The Blue Jackets bid farewell to longtime players Jack Johnson (Pittsburgh) and Matt Calvert (Colorado), as well as to Ian Cole (Colorado), a defenseman who played valuable minutes down the stretch after being acquired at the trade deadline last season.

Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

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

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