Three-goal first period helps put Capitals one win away from Lord Stanley

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There are moments that define every Stanley Cup Final for the team that gets to hoist Lord Stanley’s mug.

In Game 2, it was Braden Holtby’s paddle save. In Game 3, it was Evgeny Kuznetsov’s one-goal, one-assist performance after being a question mark heading into the game with an undisclosed injury.

But Game 4’s defining moment had nothing to do with the Washington Capitals at all, at least not initially.

With the Washington Capitals taking a 3-1 series lead in the best-of-7 back to Vegas after a 6-2 win on Monday, it was James Neal‘s first-period gaffe on a wide-open net that might haunt the expansion Golden Knights for a while to come.

The miss rattled the Capitals to attention and the ensuing a three-goal outburst by Washington only illuminated further the magnitude of Neal’s near-miss.

T.J. Oshie got things started on the power play, Tom Wilson made it worse and Devante Smith-Pelly twisted the dagger on a bad turnover as the Capitals took a 3-0 lead into the first intermission.

Vegas never recovered.

They struck iron three times in the first period and heard that familiar ‘ping’ sound twice more in the second frame.

John Carlson hit a post, too, only his shot caromed off the inside of it and hit mesh not long after to make it 4-0 as Washington’s lethal power play kept its reign of destruction (they’re 4-for-12 in the series now after going 3-for-5 in Game 4). Washington has 20 goals on the power play in the playoffs.

Evgeny Kuznetsov provided the cross-ice pass to Carlson, giving him a hat-trick of assists in the game and his 30th point of the playoffs. Kuznetsov added another late in the game for a four-point night.

Did someone say Conn Smythe?

That trophy could be in the hands of Kuznetsov as early as Thursday night (although let’s not kid ourselves — it’s probably going to be given to Alex Ovechkin) in Vegas as the series shifts back to Nevada for Game 5.

Vegas managed to find two goals (Neal with a hint of redemption and Reilly Smith found twine, too) in the third period, but it was all just a little too late.

If there was hope of a comeback, it was ripped apart by Michal Kempny‘s one-timer with just over six minutes left to make it 5-2 and then cemented by Brett Connolly‘s 6-2 marker as Washington enjoyed a two-man advantage.

For Vegas, it’s win or bust now. Everything that got them this far seems to have fled the vicinity.

Marc-Andre Fleury continues to struggle, putting up his fourth consecutive sub-.800 save percentage performance. Vegas’ treasure trove of goals has imploded and their speed has run out of gas.

Vegas scored six goals in Game 1 but has just five in the three games that followed.

And they now own the most daunting of tasks: win three in a row.

The math isn’t good.

Stanley Cup Final schedule
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Golden Knights 6, Capitals 4
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 1 
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Capitals 6, Golden Knights 2 (Washington leads series 3-1)
Game 5 Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)

* = If necessary

MORE:

• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide


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

PHT Morning Skate: Golden Knights turnaround; How Hitchcock changed Oilers

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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.

• The Hockey News breaks down five potential trade destinations for Alex Pietrangelo. (The Hockey News)

• TSN’s Travis Yost examines whether or not NHL teams have become better at combating score effects. (TSN)

• The Edmonton Oilers have been really good since Ken Hitchcock took over behind the bench. What has he done to change them? (Sportsnet)

• Frank Seravalli has his updated Trade Bait board. A Blues defensemen tops the list, but it’s not Pietrangelo. (TSN)

• After getting off to a sluggish start, the Vegas Golden Knights have finally turned their season around. (NHL.com)

• Sabres forward Jeff Skinner has been able to fill up the net this year, so the Buffalo News looked at his family and figure skating background to see how they’ve helped him. (Buffalo News)

• Find out how a 2004 conversation with Todd McLellan changed everything for Todd Reirden. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Dani Probert was able to look back at the documentary about her husband, Bob, but it wasn’t easy. “I’m glad I’ll be with all my people,” said Dani. “I’ll have all my close friends and family around me for the support, thank goodness. I’m going to need it.” (Ottawa Sun)

Casey DeSmith is an undersized goalie, but he found a way to play big. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• The Bruins have been searching for secondary scoring, and they’ve finally got some from Ryan Donato, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Danton Heinen. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

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: Big nights for McDavid, Vasilevskiy

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Three Stars

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy

On paper, Thursday seemed like a rough draw for Vasilevskiy.

A foot injury sidelined him since Nov. 10, so you’d expect some rust. This was also a much-hyped game against a high-powered opponent in the Maple Leafs, and Toronto didn’t ease Vasi in, firing 49 shots on goal.

Only one of those attempts beat Vasilevskiy, however, as he returned to action to make 48 saves, a new career-high. The Lightning have now won eight in a row, and while seven came without Vasilevskiy, he absolutely earned this one.

Click here for more on that game, and Vasi’s big night.

2. Nino Niederreiter

Niederreiter ranked among three players who scored three points on Thursday, with Wild teammate Ryan Suter (three assists) also included.

The winger enjoyed the best all-around statistical night of the three, scoring two goals and one assist, generating a +4 rating, getting the game-winner, and firing four SOG.

Minnesota just seems to find ways to win under Bruce Boudreau, and maybe a hot streak from Niederreiter will power the latest surge. This strong night extended his goal streak to three games (four goals), giving him five points during that span. As is often the case with the underrated forward, Niederreiter stood out from a possession standpoint, too.

3. Mark Scheifele

Rounding out that trio of three-point nights, Scheifele scored one goal and two assists as the Jets narrowly edged the Oilers in overtime.

Scheifele logged quite a bit of ice time (23:55), enjoying a +2 rating and generating two SOG. He’s even hotter than Niederreiter lately, as Scheifele is now on a three-game multi-point streak, giving him two goals and six assists for a batty eight points in the past three contests.

While Niederreiter’s been up-and-down this season, Scheifele remains an elite point producer. He now has 40 points in just 31 games. tying Scheifele with his wingman Blake Wheeler for eighth in NHL scoring.

Highlights of the Night

This Vasilevskiy save is great enough to be worth another look (it originally appeared in this post):

This face is highlight-reel-material.

Speaking of other posts, Andrei Svechnikov‘s nice goal is probably worth your time. He might not have the best power-move-type goal in that game, judging by this Artturi Lehkonen tally:

Put your paws together for Barclay:

Ouch

Basically, James Reimer suffered through the opposite of that amazing Vasilevskiy stop.

Factoids

Connor McDavid hit 300+ career points before reaching age 22. Click here for a lot more perspective on his first 240 regular-season games.

Speaking of history, more astounding Patrik Laine fun:

Patrick Marleau‘s a machine.

Scores

BUF 3 – ARI 1
CBJ 4 – LAK 1
MTL 6 – CAR 4
TBL 4 – TOR 1
NSH 4 – VAN 3 (OT)
MIN 5 – FLA 1
WIN 5 – EDM 4 (OT)
SJS 3 – DAL 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Where Connor McDavid ranks after racing past 300 points

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The Edmonton Oilers saw their four-game winning streak end 5-4 in overtime against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday, but they should feel some satisfaction in hanging with such a great team, and getting a standings point for their troubles.

Sometimes thoughts like those can soothe the irritation of a close loss. If that doesn’t work, the Oilers should find perspective in remembering how special superstar Connor McDavid truly is. Reaching a big milestone can do that.

With two assists in that 5-4 OT loss, McDavid crossed the 300-point barrier, finishing the night at 301 points in just 240 career regular-season games. As you might guess, the 21-year-old ranks among the best in league history in that regard:

If you’re like me, you muttered “imagine what McDavid could have done if his rookie season didn’t end with that unlucky shoulder injury?”

Interesting to see how closely McDavid’s work is paralleling that of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin, eh?

Let’s consider a few other enticing and impressive things about what McDavid has accomplished, and what might still come.

  • McDavid could probably argue that he’s been the best scorer since the moment he entered the league.

Using Hockey Reference’s fancy season tools, you can see that Patrick Kane (308 points) is the only player with more points since McDavid entered the NHL in 2015-16. That shoulder injury muttering comes into place here, though, as Kane hit 308 in 278 games, versus 240 for McDavid.

McDavid’s 1.254 points-per-game average easily ranks as the best in the NHL during that span.

  • If healthy, McDavid should compile three consecutive 100-point seasons. He scored 100 in 2016-17, while setting a career-high with 108 last year. With 45 points in 31 games this season, with one contest missed, McDavid could play 50 more games this season. He’d easily hit 100 at this pace, as he’d hit about 117-118 at this rate.
  • McDavid remains a premiere playmaker (Alex Chiasson‘s accountant is nodding so hard right now), as you can see most clearly with 28 assists in 31 games. But he’s becoming a more dangerous goal-scorer, too.

Sometimes that comes down to being more assertive as you spend more time in the NHL, and become more confident in your abilities. Sidney Crosby seemed to enjoy a similar growth in making defenses and goalies respect both his shot and his passing more or less equally.

With 111 SOG in 31 GP so far in 2017-18, McDavid’s averaging 3.58 SOG per contest. That’s a significant jump from last season’s 3.34 SOG per game, and he’s fired the puck more frequently in every season of his NHL career. It wouldn’t be one bit surprising to see him enjoy closer to a 1:1 ratio in goals to assists after collecting 104 goals and 197 assists for his first 301 points.

That’s not the most pleasant thought in the world for opposing goalies and defensemen.

  • It probably wouldn’t hurt if the Oilers get it together.

The Ken Hitchcock Era is off to a booming start, but that should inspire Edmonton to continue to make shrewd decisions, rather than rest on its laurels. At minimum, it can’t hurt McDavid’s spirits – and numbers – if he’s playing competitive hockey deep into the season, and ideally into the playoffs. Still, things could be even merrier if there was more help around number 97.

Imagine what McDavid can do with higher-quality teammates beyond Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?

Other NHL Teams: “We’d rather not.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Did Svechnikov make big gains in Hurricanes’ loss?

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The Carolina Hurricanes are justified in their search for a top-six forward/sniper, but whenever a team goes shopping for a trade, they should also ask if they’re taking advantage of the ingredients at hand.

That’s a long way of saying that the Hurricanes possess at least one player who could score more goals for them: Andrei Svechnikov.

Looking at certain underlying numbers (as PHT did earlier in December), it seems fair to wonder if Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour should take the training wheels off of Svechnikov, and just let him fly. Yes, there are risks when it comes to really unleashing rookies – particularly in Svechnikov, who’s made an immediate jump after being the second pick of the 2018 NHL Draft – but the rewards can often be worth it.

After all, this is a young man’s game. Besides, Svechnikov frequently looks fully-grown on the ice, even this early in his NHL career.

Sometimes advanced stats don’t slap you in the face like highlight-reel work, though. Svechnikov scored two goals in Carolina’s 6-4 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, and his first one was absolutely gorgeous:

Might that demand Brind’Amour’s attention? There’s some reason to hope for even more.

“We did have a coming out party, for me, out of Svechnikov,” Brind’Amour said, via Sara Civian of The Athletic.

It’s not like Svechnikov is getting totally buried in the Hurricanes’ lineup, yet here’s a pushy request: just keep ramping up his minutes and opportunities, seeing how much he can handle. Carolina needs goals, and maybe they’d get more with more Svechnikov, risks and all. Brind’Amour could even do so selectively, by handing him more reps on the power play, preferably on a top unit that hasn’t exactly been lightning the world on fire, based on full-season stats.

As of Thursday night, the Canadiens are where the Hurricanes want to be (comfortably in a playoff spot), while Carolina’s sitting in Montreal’s expected position (searching for answers, seven points out of the wild card). You can chalk that up to a lot of things – Carey Price has now won four games in a row – but it’s worth noting that the Canadiens are embracing speedy and/or skilled young players like Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, while shrugging their shoulders and just letting Jesperi Kotkaniemi play. There are quite a few stories of immediate successes this season, with Elias Pettersson and top 2018 pick Rasmus Dahlin also coming to mind.

So why not see what Svechnikov can do? For all we know, rolling the dice might just help the Hurricanes break out of this frustrating funk.

Here’s Svechnikov’s other, nice goal from Thursday:

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.