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

 

Wednesday Night Hockey: Sharks look to stay perfect in 2019

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes. Coverage begins at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

2019 has been good to the Sharks. They’ve managed to play five of seven games on home ice, which means they haven’t had to travel too much, and they’ve been able to win every single one of their contests. They took down Colorado, Tampa, Los Angeles, Edmonton, Vegas, Ottawa, and Pittsburgh.

They’re seven-game winning streak will be tested starting tonight, as the Sharks will begin a four-game road trip in Arizona. They’ll also head to Tampa, Florida and Washington.

“We’re a confident group,” forward Evander Kane said. “We feel if we show up to play and play our best game we have a good chance to win every night. We’re confident in that. This is how you continue to climb in the standings. You put wins together consecutively. We need to continue to do that because it’s real tight right now.”

This recent run has allowed the Sharks to climb into second place in the Pacific Division. They’re now one point behind the Flames for top spot, but Calgary still has a game in hand.

This hot streak started well before Jan. 1. San Jose has been the second-best team in the league since Dec. 2 (their 16-3-2 record trails only Tampa Bay). In those 21 games, the Sharks have received some balanced scoring from most of their top players.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns have led the way, as they’ve accumulated 27 and 25 points respectively since then. Tomas Hertl, who had a hat trick against Pittsburgh last night, has 23 points, Kane has 21 points, and Joe Pavelski has 19 points.

“It’s just the balanced scoring,” said veteran Joe Thornton. “It seems like a lot of guys are going at the same time. I credit a lot of that to great defense, too. The defense is giving the pucks to forwards and they can go. The team is playing real well right now.”

The Sharks have also received some strong goaltending from Martin Jones. The 29-year-old has been between the pipes for six of the seven consecutive victories and he’s won each of his last eight decisions. He’s also given up two goals or fewer in five consecutive games. It’s incredible to think that he has just two regulation losses since Dec. 2.

Even though Jones has been terrific of late, he probably won’t start on a second consecutive night. So don’t be surprised if Aaron Dell gets the start against the Coyotes.

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz.

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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Flyers need more from Nolan Patrick

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It’s been a miserable year season for the Flyers, as they’ve accumulated just 40 points in 46 contests. Only the Ottawa Senators are below them in the Eastern Conference standings right now. Many players have failed to live up to their potential, including second-year forward Nolan Patrick.

The Flyers made Patrick the second overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. He was able to crack the lineup in his first year, but he put up a modest 13 goals and 30 points in 73 contests. Coming into this season, the Flyers expected him to take a big step forward.

The 20-year-old has gone through some lean times this season. Heading into last Monday’s game against the Minnesota Wild, Patrick had gone 24 games without a goal. During that stretch, he managed to pick up just two assists. But on Monday night, he came up with a huge performance, as he managed to score two goals and he added two helpers in 14:02 of ice time.

“To be honest, it weighs on you quite a bit,” Patrick said after the game. “It’s something you think about when you go through a slump like that. You just have to believe in yourself and do things to help the team if it’s not scoring…I was just trying to play a good two-way game. I knew it would eventually come. I didn’t think it would take that long, but it happens.”

Even though the Flyers are out of the playoff picture, they can use the second half of the season to lay the groundwork for 2019-20. Patrick, Travis Konecny, Carter Hart, Ivan Provorov are just a few of the younger players that need to have strong performances down the stretch.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Interim head coach Scott Gordon may have to win to keep his job, but leaning on his young center should be one of his priorities. Assuming he can build off of his last performance, Patrick should start seeing more ice time. Through 39 games, he’s averaging just 14:35 of ice time.

“I think the biggest change for him will come as soon as he identifies, and he actually said the term, get to fifth gear,” Gordon said, per NBC Sports Philadelphia. “A lot of times he’s playing in third gear. He’s got another speed and we saw that. When I show him video or we talk about his game, let’s make sure we’re playing in fifth gear tonight.”

In his short career, Patrick has picked up a goal and an assist in four games against the Bruins.

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk, and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Top NHL-affiliated prospects; Rookie dinner stories

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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.

• TSN hockey analyst Craig Button released his list of top 50 NHL-affiliated prospects. A couple of Russians are at the top of this list. (TSN.ca)

• Find out of Devils defenseman Damon Serverson became a fan of rodeo and bull-riding. (NJ.com)

• The Islanders have received some solid contributions from their fourth line, which is made up of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, and Cal Clutterbuck. (Newsday)

• Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt did a little digging to find out what some players’ rookie dinner looked like. (Sports Illustrated)

• Coming into this season, Rasmus Dahlin was expected to be the top rookie defenseman in the NHL. Let’s just say that Miro Heiskanen is giving him a run for his money. (The Score)

• Where do the Minnesota Wild go from here? (The Hockey News)

• NHL.com had a sit down with Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois. (NHL.com)

• The Nashville Predators should look into trading for Panthers forward Mike Hoffman. (Predlines)

Patrick Maroon going home to St. Louis was a nice story, but it hasn’t worked out for either side. (St. Louis Game-Time)

• Over the course of the 1,000 games Brooks Orpik has played in his career, he’s had to adjust his game. (NBC Washington)

Jake Gardiner and Larry Murphy have a few things in common. First of all, they’ve both been booed by their home crowd in Toronto. (Canadian Press)

Matt Duchene plays “What’s in the Box” against Paul Bissonnette:

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: Pro Niemi; Odd night for the Blues

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Three Stars

1. Antti Niemi

After floundering with the Stars and flopping briefly with the Penguins, it sure seemed like last season would be Niemi’s last in the NHL.

Niemi even played two forgettable games for the Panthers team he frustrated tonight, so you can forgive his former teammates for wondering where this guy was. (Stars management might be doing that, too, if they’re not cursing Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin for losing to the Lightning.)

Niemi set a new career-high with 52 saves against Florida, with only Mike Hoffman‘s Forsberg-like goal beating him.

That performance stands taller than some other great goalie performances that should get at least honorable mentions. Andrei Vasilevskiy pitched a 35-save shutout against Benn and those Stars. Laurent Brossoit continued his brilliant work as Winnipeg’s gem of a backup, making 43 out of 44 stops. But Niemi’s 52 saves fell one short of tying a franchise record for the NHL’s most storied franchise. Seems fair to give him the top spot.

Not bad for a guy who legitimately seemed to be done last season.

2. Mika Zibanejad

As much as the Rangers’ opponents from Carolina rank as a team to watch at the trade deadline, the Rangers are no slouches themselves in sell mode.

It would be surprising to see Zibanejad go in such a liquidation, at least if the Rangers don’t want this to be a lengthy rebuild. He’s a prime-age scorer, with Tuesday’s two goals and two assists pushing his season total to an impressive 41 points. Zibanejad only had 47 points all of last season, and 2015-16’s 51 represent a career-high, so he could really set a new bar for himself. The talent’s seemingly always been there, so it’s pretty exciting to see such growth, and it must be painful to compare his work to that of trade partner Derick Brassard.

Mats Zuccarello collected three assists in this one as well, including a truly brilliant one to set up one of Z’s goals. Zuccarello now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game run.

The Rangers really dominate the Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden, apparently.

3. Viktor Arvidsson

Arvidsson was one of two players to collect a hat trick on “National Hat Day,” with Tomas Hertl being the other. Arvidsson gets the nod for two reasons: 1) one of Hertl’s three goals included an empty-netter and 2) Arvidsson managed a GWG in his efforts.

(Joe Thornton scored the game-winner in what was his 1,000th game with the Sharks.)

Some of those Arvidsson goals included some great moments from his teammates, much like Zibanejad was boosted by Zuccarello. You can see a great outlet pass from Mattias Ekholm and a falling helper from Ryan Johansen in the highlights of Nashville’s one-sided win against Washington.

Strange, tough night for St. Louis

The Blues lost in overtime to the Islanders, with Jordan Binnington suffering his first defeat. But that wasn’t what made this an unusual night.

Early in the game, Oskar Sundqvist continued his unlucky 2018-19 by losing his edge and falling into an on-ice official, needing help off of the ice. Luckily, he would come back later in the game.

It wasn’t the only unusual reaction between a Blues player and someone other than an Islanders player, as a trainer helped a struggling Zach Sanford to the bench:

Here’s hoping Sanford ends up OK. David Perron extended his point streak to 12 games, but that’s about where the good news ended for St. Louis on Tuesday.

One more great highlight

Click here for that Hoffman goal. It was pretty ridiculous.

Also ridiculous: Hertl’s effort on this tally. The Czech winger grew up idolizing Jaromir Jagr, so it must have felt great to emulate number 68 in overpowering Evgeni Malkin on his way to this tremendous goal:

Apparently Hertl’s hat-trick goal pushed him to 100 career tallies. So not a bad consolation prize for Hertl.

Factoids

Another sign that, yes, scoring is way up this season.

The Islanders are the first team since the 2011-12 Flyers to have eight players score at least 10+ goals through 45 games.

PHT’s Scott Billeck notes that Laurent Brossoit’s 26 saves in the second period set a new Jets franchise record for saves in a single period. So, yeah, Brossoit has a strong argument for a three stars nod, along with quite a few others from a busy Tuesday.

Scores

NYI 2 – STL 1 (OT)
NYR 6 – CAR 2
CBJ 4 – NJD 1
MTL 5 – FLA 1
DET 3 – ANA 1
NSH 7 – WSH 2
MIN 3 – LAK 2 (SO)
WPG 4 – VGK 1
TBL 2 – DAL 0
SJS 5 – PIT 2

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.