Will Stanley Cup Final continue to be tough on Fleury, Holtby?

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The Washington Capitals scored more goals on Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 1 (four) than the Los Angeles Kings managed in getting swept by Vegas (three), yet the Golden Knights won 6-4.

The thing is, while you can quibble with a goal here or there (the optics on this one weren’t great), it’s tough to pin the high-scoring nature of that Game 1 on Fleury or his counterpart Braden Holtby. Game 1 featured the sort of frenetic, thrilling pace that can transform casual hockey fans into fanatics, yet it certainly must not have been easy on the goalies or coaches.

NBC Sports Washington delves into some of the Capitals’ specific defensive issues, but to keep it simple, Holtby can only do so much when players like Reilly Smith receive chances like these.

And, frankly, there were some breakdowns that didn’t result in goals. Fleury’s save in tight on Alex Ovechkin early in Game 1 was easily forgotten, yet crucial.

Ultimately, the Golden Knights beat Holtby five times (adding an empty-netter for insurance) on 33 shots on goal, while Fleury made 24 of 28 saves. To quickly summarize how unusual this must have felt for both netminders, consider how they played before Monday: Fleury allowed just six goals in his last four games (now 10 in five, all wins), while Holtby generated two consecutive shutouts to eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning.

So, the question is: will the rest of this series be as unkind to the goalies as Game 1 was? Let’s ponder the arguments for and against such thoughts while realizing that we’re unlikely to see many more 10-goal games.

Energy

The significant layoff between the Capitals’ Game 7 against Tampa Bay (Wednesday, May 23) and especially the Golden Knights closing out Winnipeg in a Game 5 (Sunday, May 20) meant that both teams had the sort of fresh legs you rarely see four rounds into the postseason. An electric Vegas crowd ratcheted that energy up another level.

Chances are, as this series goes along, the energy will ebb and flow. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference certain breaks make, too; while Game 1 and 2 feature the usual one-day break between contests, that’s not uniform across the remainder of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Such gaps could be a godsend for the Capitals, who’ve played four more games than the Golden Knights and have been asking a lot of 32-year-old Alex Ovechkin. That said, those gaps in the schedule may, conversely, make it that much easier for the Golden Knights to maintain their often-relentless style.

Interestingly, both teams managed to limit chances off the rush in Game 1, despite the otherwise chaotic nature of that contest.

It’s not just fatigue that might slow this series down to the goalies’ liking.

Both coaches will get more familiar with each team as this series goes along, from additional video of their opponents’ structure to a deeper understanding of which matchups to exploit and which ones to avoid. Barry Trotz is one of the NHL’s great defensive thinkers, while Gerard Gallant’s team showed that they can grind through a low-scoring series against Los Angeles, so expect adjustments.

Settling down vs. irresistible forces

Beyond those tweaks, it’s simply likely that Fleury and Holtby will flat-out play better.

Consider how “The Flower” has responded recently to relative “off” nights. After allowing four goals in a Game 4 loss and three in a Game 5 win against San Jose, Fleury shut out the Sharks to eliminate them in Game 6. The Jets scored four goals in a Game 1 win against Vegas, then Fleury allowed two or fewer goals in four consecutive victories.

Holtby’s shown resilience in general in 2017-18, bouncing back from a rare rough regular season to produce some of the best playoff work of his career (which, despite Washington’s disappointments, is saying something).

Still, there are some reasons to expect additional lows with potential highs.

[Fleury’s playoff work against Washington, Ovechkin isn’t as good as you think]

Consider this: only one of Game 1’s 10 goals came on the power play. When you note how big a factor special teams has been for Washington in particular (17 power-play goals for, 16 against in 20 games; Vegas has given up and generated 10 PPG), that could offset schematic improvements.

And, yes, Ovechkin shooting from “his office” makes for a unique threat, but maybe Vegas has the best training one can ask for after limiting Patrik Laine in the Western Conference Final?

Ovechkin will probably get his goals, which he didn’t in Game 1 (he did nab an assist, though). Vegas’ vaunted top line generated plenty of offense, even beyond goals for Reilly Smith and William Karlsson. Depth players are already making their presences felt, so it’s easy to see that both teams sport the sort of supporting casts you usually need to make it this far.

On the other hand, Trotz and Gallant will surely try to clean up all of those high-danger chances. These shot charts probably raise their blood pressure (via Natural Stat Trick):

***

To the relief of the coaches and goalies, some of that manic energy will subside. Rusty mistakes will turn to safe plays. We might even see a shutout or two.

For those of us who loved just about every minute of Game 1, let’s hope it doesn’t slow down too much.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

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.

Wild get crucial, tough win against Kings

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It wasn’t always pretty against the Kings on Tuesday, but if Bruce Boudreau was looking for some fight from his team, the Wild showed quite a bit of it.

Ultimately, Minnesota gritted out a 3-2 shootout win against Los Angeles, improving to 23-20-3 in 2018-19. The Wild are currently ranked as the West’s second wild-card team with 49 points in 46 games, managing a two-point edge against the idle Canucks and Oilers, and also two points ahead of the sprawling Ducks.

[Who has the edge in these races?]

If you’re scrolling through the scoreboard alone, a 3-2 (SO) win against lowly Los Angeles doesn’t seem so impressive, and that’s fair enough.

But for the Wild, it’s encouraging. After all, Minnesota was closing out a back-to-back set after a painful 7-4 loss to the Flyers on Monday.

Fatigue must have been weighing Minnesota down, and it must have been frustrating early on, as Jonathan Quick did not make things easier. The Wild weren’t able to score in the first period despite a 14-8 shots on goal edge, and they ended up needing a shootout despite a SOG advantage of 42-33 overall.

Both teams showed a lot of effort on each of their regulation goals, with Alex Stalock stopping 31 of 33 shots, as he’s playing in place of a quietly struggling Devan Dubnyk, who’s not necessarily putting up All-Star numbers.

The Wild got goals from some key players who’ve struggled this season. First, Nino Niederreiter finally broke through midway through the second period on a nice second-effort:

Not long after being the target of Boudreau’s ire, Eric Staal was credited with the Wild’s second goal after Ryan Suter‘s shot/pass/shot-pass bounced off of him:

Grinding out a win like this won’t really “wow” many people, and it is unlikely to silence the Wild’s critics.

[Pondering Boudreau’s future in Minnesota.]

Still, it says quite a bit about this team that, instead of giving in to frustration and fatigue, they found a way to eke out this win. As much as postseason runs hinge on beating other bubble teams and contenders, it’s also important to win against teams that are languishing lower in the standings, and the Wild put the work in to do just that on Tuesday.

For all we know, getting those extra two points could end up making all the difference as these tight races go along.

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.