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Capitals’ suffocating pressure is frustrating Golden Knights

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Of all the ways the Washington Capitals have tried to win in the playoffs, none has been as effective as this.

They pushed the pace with speed and skill when Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were part of the ”Young Guns.” They made every game a coin flip with tight, Dale Hunter hockey. Each time, an early exit followed.

This year is different. Suddenly, the Capitals are a suffocating defensive team that clogs the middle of the ice and makes even the fastest of opponents look slow.

The Vegas Golden Knights are the latest to get frustrated by Washington’s neutral-zone pressure that took a toll on Columbus, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, paving the way for this run to the Stanley Cup Final. After cruising through three rounds with ease, nothing looks easy right now for Vegas because the Capitals have mastered the art of frustration, and are two wins away from hoisting the Cup for the first time.

”Offensive teams have certain tendencies, certain routes that they take through the neutral zone, plays they like to make, so if you can be on top of them and turn over some pucks, stifle them, make it hard for them to gain entry with possession, that frustrates skilled players,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said Sunday. ”If you can be in their face, just standing in the way, it’s amazing what that does.”

It’s amazing the transformation the Capitals have made since coach Barry Trotz challenged players late in the regular season to embrace this approach. It was clear as early as Game 4 of the first round that the 1-1-3 trap in the neutral zone had the ability to essentially shut down the opposing attack, and since the first two playoff games Washington is 10-2 when scoring first.

The Golden Knights have found how difficult it is to try to come back against the Capitals and need to adjust quickly down 2-1 in the Cup Final going into Game 4 Monday night. They have to make some adjustments before it’s too late.

”Our guys who have a lot of speed can go back deeper, gather some speed,” winger David Perron said. ”Then the defensemen can try to freeze the first forechecker, kick it wide. These guys coming with speed, if they’re confronted, which they will be most times at the blue line, you can put it in and go on the forecheck. You can have guys hang close to the right wing or up top, and as the puck is coming your way, win the one-on-one battle with support. … We also have to try to not let them set up, so if there’s a turnover, a quick one, we can punt it up, go back on offense.”

The Penguins and Lightning tried that and couldn’t crack the Capitals well enough to advance.

”They’re really good at slowing you down,” Lightning forward J.T. Miller said during the Eastern Conference final. ”Right when you want to just chip it and go, there’s a guy, there’s a wall there, and guys are ready to go back and get it on the other side. … It’s just their ability to stand up and make you force plays because it looks like there’s more ice than there is, and then all of a sudden they do a good job of staying in front and retrieving pucks.”

Vegas is built on speed, but it’s hard to harness it if players can’t get blue line to blue line with the puck to create any offense. When the Capitals took a lead in Game 3, they went into their now-patented scheme.

”It’s just kind of a group mentality to make life difficult on them,” winger Tom Wilson said. ”I think that’s when we’re at our best as a team is when we’re playing physical, we’re taking away time and space, making it difficult on their top guys.”

That difficulty wears on a team, and Trotz said it’s noticeable when an opponent tries to change its game and manage the puck differently to counterbalance the trap. When it works effectively, not only does it limit changes against, but it creates the kind of odd-man rushes that have paced Washington’s offense this postseason.

”It’s important to recognize moments when you can pressure, and we don’t want to get away from that, where we can send two guys and try to force teams into mistakes,” Niskanen said. ”If you can hold either the red line or the blue line with layers of support, you can force teams into turnovers, and we’ve done a good job of that.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Karlsson, Hertl out for Game 6; Pavelski game-time decision

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If the San Jose Sharks are going to force a Game 7 in the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues they are going to have to do it on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live Stream) without a couple of their most important players.

Coach Pete DeBoer announced after the morning skate that defender Erik Karlsson and forward Tomas Hertl are not available for Game 6 against and that they did not even accompany the team on the road trip to St. Louis.

Both players exited the Sharks’ Game 5 loss on Sunday due to injury.

Karlsson has been hampered by a nagging groin injury that has resurfaced in the playoffs, while Hertl had to leave the game after he was on the receiving end of a high hit from Blues forward Ivan Barbashev. There was no penalty called on the play and Barbashev was not disciplined by the league.

Captain Joe Pavelski also exited Sunday’s game with an injury and did not take part in the morning skate on Tuesday but is a game-time decision according to DeBoer.

Pavelski had previously missed the first six games of the Sharks’ Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche after he was injured in their Game 7 win against the Vegas Golden Knights. He has five points (two goals, three assists) since returning to the lineup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

While Pavelski at least seems like a possibility to play, the losses of Karlsson and Hertl are going to be significant for the Sharks.

Even though Karlsson has been limited by injury for much of the season he has still been an impact player and played a huge role in the team’s Round 1 comeback against the Golden Knights. He has 16 total points in 19 games and is the league’s fifth-leading scorer in the playoffs. It was obvious he was struggling in the Sharks’ Game 4 loss but still attempted to play in Game 5. It did not go well as he was clearly unable to play up to his normal level and logged just 10 minutes of ice time, with only three of those minutes coming after the first period.

Hertl, meanwhile, has been one of the Sharks’ most dynamic forwards and has scored some of their biggest goals this postseason, including a game-winning shorthanded goal in double overtime to help the team fight off elimination in Round 1, and one of the power play goals in their come-from-behind Game 7 win against the Golden Knights.

He has 10 goals (third among all players in the playoffs) and 15 total points.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canes’ Martinook, de Haan have offseason surgeries

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Carolina Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook and defenseman Calvin de Haan have had offseason surgeries.

General manager Don Waddell said Tuesday that Martinook had a procedure on a core muscle while de Haan’s surgery was on his right shoulder.

Martinook is expected to recover in 4-6 weeks while de Haan will be out 4-6 months.

The 26-year-old Martinook had a career-best 15 goals with five game-winners, and was in and out of the lineup during the playoffs due to injuries. The 28-year-old de Haan injured his shoulder against Pittsburgh on March 31 but returned for Game 4 of the first-round playoff series against Washington.

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

Blues seeking a shot at redemption as they try to close out Sharks

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A lot has happened in the past 49 years.

Cell phones, Instagram, selfies and, for the purposes of this story, a whole lot of hockey. What hasn’t happened in nearly half a century, however, is a St. Louis Blues team opposite another in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Blues could get with the times if they’re to find a way past the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream).

Some history…

It was 1970 when St. Louis made their third straight appearance in the Cup Final, their most recent. Having been swept in their previous two attempts, both at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, the Blues were now coming up against another Original Six team with Bobby Orr’s Boston Bruins.

Different team, different legends, same result.

The Bruins snatched the broom from the Canadiens and repeated the process against the Blues thanks, in part, to one of the most iconic goals in NHL history that Number 4 scored in overtime to clinch the Stanley Cup.

The Blues are one win away from a chance at redemption, nearly 50 years in the making.

“It’s probably tough to put into words,” Blues forward Jaden Schwartz said. “It’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream come true.”

The Sharks are treading familiar water heading into the game, something the Blues are acutely aware of.

“We’re close. We’re very close right now,” Blues forward Patrick Maroon said. “I think the guys know that. It’s in the back of their heads, but we know that that’s a good hockey team over there too and they’re not going to give up.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Some, even, won’t talk about it just yet.

“We will talk about it when we get there,” Alexander Steen said.

No team has been to more Stanley Cup Playoffs than the St. Louis Blues and not hoisted hockey’s holy grail at some point in June. Their 42 playoff appearances is far and away the most by any team (Buffalo is second with 29). A win Tuesday would also end the second-longest Cup Final drought in NHL history (behind only Toronto).

“It’s gonna be a lot of emotion and it’s important our players keep it in check,” head coach Craig Berube said. Our players have done a pretty good job of … focusing. I don’t expect anything different. It’s important at the start of the game you’re simple and direct. Keep your emotions in check and not let them get out of control.”

MORE: Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

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

The Wraparound: Sharks find themselves in familiar waters ahead of Game 6 vs. Blues

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

The San Jose Sharks have been here before.

In Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Sharks faced elimination in three straight games after falling behind 3-1 in that series. They rallied, of course, including a 2-1 overtime win in Game 6 in hostile territory at T-Mobile Arena.

“We’re still alive,” said playoff leading scorer Logan Couture. “We’ve been in this spot before, going to Vegas down 3-2 in a very difficult building. St. Louis is similar, it’s a tough building against a good team. A structured team. We scored one goal in the last two games, that’s not going to cut it. We’re not doing enough around their net or creating enough opportunities on second chances.”

It may sound a tad odd, but the Sharks may have the Blues exactly where they want them ahead of a pivotal Game 6 matchup on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream).

San Jose is a dreadful 0-6 when leading a series this postseason but is 10-3 when trailing or tied, including a perfect 4-0 record when facing elimination. We probably shouldn’t get this twisted — the Sharks tempting their own demise isn’t exactly ideal. But if anyone thinks the Sharks are dead in the water, their record speaks for itself.

And if you’re the superstitious-type, the Sharks lost 5-0 to the Golden Knights in Game 4 of Round 1 to be put on the verge golf-course duty and then never lost again in that series.

“We’ve been here before,” Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer said. “Had to go on the road and win in Vegas in order to get to a Game 7. You’re never comfortable when your back’s against the wall like that, but we have been here before and found a way and I’m confident we can do that again.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

To “do that again” the Sharks will have to overcome their 3-5 record on the road in the postseason (St. Louis is 4-5 at home, conversely). More importantly, however, they may have to do it with some of their best stuck in the infirmary.

Erik Karlsson did what he could in Game 5, but could only play 10:32 with a groin injury that he aggravated in Game 4. With the way Game 5 went, and with the type of injury Karlsson has, resting him was the right choice but it’s still to be determined whether EK65 can do much — or anything — in Game 6.

Tomas Hertl took a hit to the head from Ivan Barbashev in the first period of Game 5 — one that went uncalled — and missed the entirety of the third period. His status, too, is up in the air.

And then there’s captain Joe Pavelski, who was hit by Alex Pietrangelo in the later stages of the third and he, too, left the game.

DeBoer offered no updates on the status of three of his best players on Monday, and we may not really know the status of the trio until pre-game line rushes.

Martin Jones didn’t have his best game last time out but has been a rock when the Sharks have faced elimination.

  • Round 1 Game 5: 30 saves on 32 shots
  • Round 1 Game 6: 58 saves on 59 shots
  • Round 1 Game 7: 34 saves on 38 shots
  • Round 2 Game 7: 27 saves on 29 shots

This all adds up to a 4-0 record with a 1.87 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage when the pressure is on.MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info


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