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

 

Bruins’ Pastrnak back skating in familiar spot following injury

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It looks like the Boston Bruins are on the verge of getting one of their top players back from injury. On Monday morning, winger David Pastrnak was back on the ice with his teammates, according to NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty. He was skating on the right side of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, which means one of the top lines in hockey could be reunited as soon as tomorrow night.

Pastrnak has missed the last 16 games with a thumb injury he suffered after a team function in Boston. The 22-year-old was having a career year before going down, as he had 31 goals and 66 points in 56 contests with the Bruins in 2018-19.

The scary thing is that the Bruins hardly missed him while he was out of the lineup. Without Pastrnak, Boston went 12-3-1, and all three of those regulation losses came last week.

“We’re in a good stretch, but that doesn’t mean it can’t go the other way,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said earlier this month, per Boston.com. “We have to work hard to get our goals and to feel that we’re consistently a threat to get a good number of goals, but we need to stick with it and make sure we don’t get away from it. Some of it has to do with Jake [DeBrusk] getting hot and hopefully we get a few other guys going and we’ll go from there.

“You know, Pasta [Pastrnak] should add offense. He’s done it consistently in the league. He did it last year in the playoffs. So you know, when he comes back we hope he finds it quickly, but again that’s not an automatic either.”

Assuming Pastrnak returns to the lineup tomorrow against the Islanders, that will give him 10 full games of action before the start of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Haggs also had an update on some of the Bruins’ other injured players:

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.

Push for the Playoffs: Coyotes look to continue impressive stretch

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The Arizona Coyotes have overcome several hurdles this season. They’ve been hit hard by injuries, but that hasn’t stopped them from being in a playoff spot during the final stretch. Heading into tonight’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the ‘Yotes have a one-point lead and a game in hand on the Minnesota Wild in the race for the final Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.

They could have given up when they lost their starting goalie, Antti Raanta, back in late-November, but they didn’t. They also traded away Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini to Chicago earlier this season for Nick Schamltz, who has been out since the start of 2019, and only recently has Jason Demers returned to their lineup from a knee injury.

The Coyotes are 10-2-1 in their last 13 contests, which has increased their odds of making the playoffs by a wide margin. As well as they’ve played lately, they’re going to have to sustain that during a tough upcoming road trip that will see them travel to Tampa, Florida, New Jersey and New York (Islanders).

“McDavid is an elite player, and anything can happen 3-on-3. I’m proud of the guys, with five games in the last (eight) nights,” head coach Rick Tocchet said after Saturday’s OT loss to Edmonton, per NHL.com. “I thought the guys gave us juice (on Saturday). We’re fine. We got a point. We’re OK.”

They’ll have their work cut out for them tonight, but they’ve been playing so well that it’s difficult to count them out, even against the best team in the league.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Islanders vs. Hurricanes
Capitals vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Coyotes
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Coyotes at Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET
Canucks at Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Jets at Kings, 10:30 p.m. ET
Golden Knights at Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET

TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIOS
• The Lightning (55-13-4, 114 points) will clinch the Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference and Presidents’ Trophy if they defeat the Coyotes in any fashion.

• The Sharks (43-21-8, 94 points) will clinch a playoff berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs if they get at least one point against the Golden Knights.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 99.9 percent
Capitals — 99.6 percent
Islanders — 99.6 percent
Penguins — 98.5 percent
Hurricanes — 92.8 percent
Blue Jackets — 81 percent
Canadiens — 23 percent
Flyers — 4.6 percent
Panthers — 1 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Out
Red Wings — Out
Senators — Out

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey-Reference)
Flames — Clinched
Jets — 100 percent
Sharks — 100 percent
Predators — 99.8 percent
Golden Knights — 99.7 percent
Blues — 98.1 percent
Stars — 87.3 percent
Coyotes — 61.2 percent
Wild — 25..9 percent
Avalanche — 14.7 percent
Blackhawks — 11.7 percent
Oilers — 1.2 percent
Canucks — 0.4 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Out

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Ducks — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Canucks — 6.5 percent
Sabres — 6 percent
Oilers — 5 percent
Avalanche — 3.5 percent
Blackhawks — 3 percent
Wild — 2.5 percent
Panthers — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent
(*Senators pick belongs to the Colorado Avalanche)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lighting — 117 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 103 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 99 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 92 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 91 points
Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames — 91 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche — 91 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 40 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 38 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — 38 goals
Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — 38 goals

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.

Joel Quenneville looking to offseason before deciding on NHL return

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Speaking for the first time since he was fired in November by the Chicago Blackhawks, Joel Quenneville said that while there’s an “appetite” to get back behind an NHL bench, he’s “in no hurry right now.”

Quenneville spoke to WGN TV’s Dan Roan during a Blackhawks alumni charity event on Sunday. The former head coach, who was replaced by Jeremy Colliton after a 6-6-3 start, said he wasn’t too surprised by the decision and appreciated his decade in Chicago.

“I think in our business there’s not too many surprises anymore,” said Quenneville, who led the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups during his tenure. “I was privileged to be in Chicago for 10 years. It’s part of the business, I understand all that. I know when I exited other places, the bitterness and the animosity was at a different level. And here the memories are so special and so good, and the people here are so special to me and our family that it was tough… I never [had the opportunity to] thank the fans since I left, but I’ve got nothing but appreciation and [I] admire all they’ve done and supported our team and our experience here in Chicago.”

The Blackhawks have gone 26-24-6 under Colliton and still cling to hopes of grabbing one of the two Western Conference wild card spots. As of Monday, they sit five points out with 11 games to go.

Quenneville said he doesn’t find himself watching his old team as much anymore, but has enjoyed their turnaround.

“I try to not watch as much Blackhawks as I used to, but I watch most of the games,” he said. “It’s been a great race and it’s going to be fun to see how it all plays out.”

Since Quenneville’s firing, five NHL head coaching jobs have opened up. He was rumored to be the one to replace Dave Hakstol in Philadelphia, but that never materialized. Still under contract to the Blackhawks through the end of next season with a $6M salary, once the offseason arrives and head coaching jobs open up, he’ll ponder his future.

“We’re in no hurry right now,” he said. “We’ll see how things transpire in the offseason. I think we’ll have to think about it and we’ll see.”

————

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: Kane using hockey as distraction; impact of DeBrincat, Strome

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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.

Carey Price got to meet Jacques Plante’s son over the weekend. (NHL.com)

Evander Kane is using hockey as a distraction from the heartbreaking situation he and his wife are going through. (Mercury News)

• The Sharks probably want to avoid playing the Golden Knights in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Now that Nikita Kucherov and Connor McDavid have hit the 100-point mark, The Hockey News looks at which other players can reach that number. (The Hockey News)

• The Canadiens will likely miss the playoffs, but at least they’re heading on the right track. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Even though the Devils have taken a step back this season, their fans need to be patient with Ray Shero. (Pucks and Pitchforks)

• The Golden Knights are one of the more aggressive teams when it comes to pulling their goaltender. (Sinbin.Vegas)

Josh Anderson continues to be one of the key contributors on the Columbus Blue Jackets roster. (The Cannon)

• The Boston Bruins really embraced the aura of Conor McGregor on Saturday night. (Bruins Daily)

• Shane Wright is embracing the challenge of being an exceptional player. (Canadian Press)

Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome have changed the path the Blackhawks are on. (Sportsnet)

• Finally, here’s Lee Stecklein with the OT goal to give the Minnesota Whitecaps the 2019 NWHL Isobel Cup: (The Ice Garden)

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.