Why Kuznetsov has been a nightmare to stop during playoffs

The NHL’s best playmakers can also double for the most frustrating forwards for a simple reason: they love to pass.

Sometimes that drive to make that “pretty play” can drive a coach mad, particularly when that translates to vetoing more of a sure-thing in the form of a shot. As Russian Machine Never Breaks’ Ian Oland noted back in November, Barry Trotz sometimes got frustrated with Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s bias toward setting up his teammates.

Which, to be fair, is pretty understandable when Alex Ovechkin is usually on your left wing.

” … I think what it does when he does shoot, it will open up his wingers for him, too, because everyone is shading to the wingers right now because they think he’s just looking for his wingers,” Trotz said in November. “He’s just got to shoot a little bit more. Be more of a threat. He’s a threat gaining the zone. He’s a threat when he gets to the top of the circles and then he’s looking to dish a little bit. And he can shoot the puck. I use his stick, I know. He’s learned from me. No, he can really shoot it and he’s accurate.”

Well, Kuznetsov takes those lessons to heart during the most important time of the year, as he really ramps up his shooting during the postseason. That’s been most abundantly clear during a 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs run where Kuznetsov’s already set a new Capitals franchise record for points with 27 (including 12 goals).

Via Hockey Reference, Kuznetsov averaged 2.37 shots per game during the 2017-18 regular season, which already stands as an improvement compared to his career regular season average (2.06). Kuznetsov’s almost like a different player during this postseason run, however, generated a lethal 85 SOG over 22 games (3.86 SOG per contest).

Despite playing with an apparent injury, Kuznetsov decided to shoot on this 2-on-1 during Game 3, and scored with the sort of accuracy you’d expect from a top-flight sniper … which maybe he’s becoming?

Whenever people ponder stopping Alex Ovechkin from firing in goals from “his office,” they often forget that the threat of that bread-and-butter shot opens up a lot of opportunities for other players. You can see that in how deadly T.J. Oshie has been on the power play.

Kuznetsov being just about as apt to shoot as he is to pass makes for a goalie’s nightmare, and he really seemed to be making all the right calls during Game 3. Considering how nice this setup was, only for Marc-Andre Fleury to make a highlight reel save on Ovechkin:

Usually, Alex Ovechkin ranks far ahead of any other Capitals forwards when it comes to firing shots on net, yet during this run, Kuznetsov isn’t far behind him. Ovechkin leads the postseason with 90 SOG, only five more than Kuznetsov. (John Carlson is fourth with 76, while Jonathan Marchessault comes in at third with 82 despite playing 18 games to 22 for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. More on Marchessault here.)

While Kuznetsov’s increased trigger-happiness seems to be in part a transformation, it’s interesting to note that he ramps up his shooting as something of a springtime tradition.

2014-15: 42 SOG in 14 GP (five goals, 3 SOG per game) after 1.59 SOG per game in the regular season.

2015-16: 39 SOG in 12 GP (one goal, 3.25 SOG per game) after 2.35 in regular season.

2016-17: 43 SOG in 13 GP (five goals. 3.3 SOG per game) after 2.07 in the regular season.

Perhaps Kuznetsov kicks things up another notch when every contest matters that much more. After all, an 82-game regular season is a serious grind. Maybe some of this comes down to matching up against the same players for about two weeks. Defenders may key on Ovechkin that much more, making the on-ice calculus that much more obvious for Kuznetsov. You’d have to think that some of it comes down to his confidence going through the roof lately.

Then again, it might just boil down to Kuznetsov really wants to break out that “eagle flapping wings” celebration.

Whatever the explanation may be, defenders can’t just clog up passing lanes when Kuznetsov carries the puck in dangerous situations. Not during the playoffs.

As much as the Capitals’ run has revolved around Ovechkin looking as spry and mobile as we’ve seen in years, the dominance of the top line also comes down to Kuznetsov being a dual threat more than ever before.

The Golden Knights, like others, haven’t exactly enjoyed this rendition of “pick your poison.” There might not be an easy answer for it, either.

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.

NHL Bubble Wrap: Stunning Game 3 upsets for Penguins, Oilers, and more

Game 3 upsets NHL scores Penguins Canadiens Shea Weber Blackhawks Round Robin standings
Getty Images
Leave a comment
  • There were some serious NHL Game 3 upsets, and even the way the upsets happened must have been extra-upsetting for the favorites.
  • It wasn’t always pretty, but the Panthers live to fight another day.
  • Breaking the underdog trend, powerful round-robin teams the Avalanche and Lightning won. (Then again, the Presidents’ Trophy winners won’t be the East’s top seed, so maybe that underdog trend still tracks …)

NHL Scores

Panthers 3, Islanders 2 (NYI leads series 2-1)

For the first time in more than four years, the Panthers won a playoff game. They avoided being swept by the Islanders in the process, riding some quick strikes in the third period. Florida protected Sergei Bobrovsky reasonably well, and may feel a little more confident after Wednesday. Of course, it would help if Jonathan Huberdeau can play in Game 4 after being shaken up by a collision with a Panthers teammate.

Coyotes 4, Predators 1 (ARI leads series 2-1)

Despite carrying much of the play — especially when the “JOFA” line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson were on — the Predators could only beat Darcy Kuemper once. Kuemper bounced back from a bumpy Game 2 to hold down the fort for Arizona. Taylor Hall ended up scoring the insurance goal and added an assist to give the Coyotes a chance to advance in Game 4.

Lightning 3, Bruins 2 – Round Robin Game

After losing their first two games of the Eastern Conference Round Robin, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins won’t be able to secure the top seed in their conference. Tough break for the only NHL team to reach 100 standings points, but that’s the nature of the beast as COVID-19 disrupts both life and sports. The Lightning, meanwhile, won their first two of three round-robin games, so they have a strong chance to take the top seed.

Avalanche 4, Stars 0 – Round Robin Game

Following a buzzer-beater win against the defending champion Blues, the Avalanche didn’t leave their second round-robin game to chance. Cale Makar kicked off the scoring with a power-play goal 3:19 into the game, and the Avalanche never really looked back. So far, the Avalanche look as speedy and scary as hockey diehards were hoping.

Canadiens 4, Penguins 3 (MTL leads series 2-1)

This time around, this wasn’t about Carey Price standing on his head (or nearly doing so). In a dramatic affair, the Penguins built a 3-1 lead early in the second period. That lead, and the Penguins themselves, would absolutely fall apart. The Canadiens surged back to win Game 3, and did so convincingly. Yeah, wow.

Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3 (EDM leads series 2-1)

The Oilers and Blackhawks raise that “Yeah, wow” to … I don’t know, a “Super wowzers?” Wednesday featured some lower seeds stunning favorites, and while the Penguins carry far more clout than the Oilers, Edmonton still lost in a more staggering way. In another game of swings, Connor McDavid gave the Oilers a 3-2 lead in the dying seconds of the second period. The Oilers protected that lead for a decent portion of the third, until it all fell apart with two late Blackhawks goals. Just like that, Edmonton is on the brink of elimination. Hockey can be pretty wild, gang.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

NHL Round Robin Standings

Eastern Conference Round Robin Standings

Tampa Bay Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Philadelphia Flyers (1-0-0, 2 points)
Washington Capitals (0-0-1, 1 point)
Boston Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

Western Conference Round Robin Standings

Colorado Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Vegas Golden Knights (1-0-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-1-0, 0 points)
Dallas Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

NHL’s Three Stars from Wednesday

1. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes

As Wednesday went along, NHL Game 3 upsets became a pattern, and the results became increasingly shocking. A higher seed Predators team falling to the Coyotes feels less jarring when you compare it to the other stunning NHL Game 3 upsets of the day.

Still, this was the standout effort.

Kuemper helped the Coyotes author a familiar version of this one, an upset far more typical than the Blackhawks and Canadiens more or less matching the Oilers and Penguins respectively. In the case of the Coyotes beating the Predators, much of the result had to do with a goalie standing on his head.

After a tough Game 2, Kuemper stopped 39 out of 40 shots to snare Game 3 from the Predators. Kuemper’s best work came early, as the Coyotes took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission despite Nashville managing a 19-9 SOG advantage.

2. Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens

You can definitely ding Weber a bit when he might have let up a bit during a delayed penalty, which would have been called on him if Patric Hornqvist didn’t bury a beautiful assist by Evgeni Malkin. But, overall, Weber was fantastic in Montreal’s flabbergasting 4-3 win against the Penguins. Along with scoring one goal and two assists for three points, Weber was stout defensively. That included two goals for and zero against at even-strength. Weber likely played a prominent role in the Habs making sure the Penguins’ third-period comeback attempt was generally, shockingly feeble.

3. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

If you feel like Jonathan Toews should get the nod, that’s understandable. Toews scored two goals, and played a big role in the Blackhawks’ win. (So did a torrent of deflections, but still, Toews was great.)

Toews will feel fine taking the win and being a victory away from the formal 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Yet, Leon Draisaitl looked like the 2020 Art Ross winner out there. Draisaitl factored into all three Oilers goals (two goals, one assist) and carried the sort of underlying stats he doesn’t always generate.

Hockey Twitter might want to “free Connor McDavid,” but some sympathy should be saved for Draisaitl, too.

2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers — top highlights from Monday

Honestly? It’s probably wise to plunk down those Oilers – Blackhawks highlights, wholesale:

If you need a single highlight, the decisive goal from Predators – Coyotes could do the trick. Derek Stepan made a fantastic pass, then Conor Garland completed the highlight-reel-game-winner by stupefying the Predators:

What a fabulous, unexpected breakout season from Garland …

Factoids

  • By grabbing an assist in Game 3, Sidney Crosby broke a tie with Doug Gilmour and Joe Sakic for eighth all-time in scoring with his 190th playoff point. Telling him that after Game 3 would probably mainly earn you a frown, though.
  • Jeff Petry already has two postseason game-winning goals for the Canadiens. Via NHL PR, he’s the sixth Canadiens defenseman to generate at least two in a single playoff run.
  • Avalanche goalie Pavel Francouz carried his sneaky-strong regular season into the Round Robin. By pitching a 27-save shutout, Francouz is the first Avalanche goalie in franchise history to earn a shutout in their playoff debut. Take that, Peter Budaj.

Thursday NHL schedule:

Game 3: Canucks vs. Wild, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

Round-robin: Capitals vs. Flyers, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Round-robin: Golden Knights vs. Blues, 6:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Game 3: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

Game 4: Flames vs. Jets, 10:30 p.m. ET, CNBC (CGY leads 2-1)

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.

Blackhawks take 2-1 series lead by stunning Oilers late in Game 3

Leave a comment

For much of Blackhawks – Oilers Game 3, it seemed like the story would be Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl using their star power to overcome Edmonton’s sloppiness, and Chicago’s veteran savvy. Instead, the old dog still has tricks, and Chicago’s magic stunned Edmonton. The Blackhawks shocked the Oilers with a late surge to win Game 3 by a score of 4-3, and push Edmonton to the brink of elimination via Chicago’s 2-1 series lead.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

McDavid and Draisaitl not enough for Oilers vs. Blackhawks in Game 3

Yes, you could throw the word “sloppy” around for every game in this Blackhawks – Oilers series so far, but Edmonton teetered on the edge of self-destruction early in Game 3. Then, after seemingly righting the ship, the Oilers instead saw it sink in a shocking stretch.

From late in the first period to early in the second, the Oilers kept going to the penalty box. Edmonton took four straight penalties, and five of six, during a span that could have derailed them. In particular, Kailer Yamamoto made some potentially lethal unforced errors.

But Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were there to bail their teammates out.

Draisaitl scored Edmonton’s first two goals, helping the Oilers stay in the portions of Game 3 where the Blackhawks seemed primed to pull away.

Then, after Alex DeBrincat bafflingly received an additional penalty after a scrum with Matt Benning, McDavid scored a huge 3-2 goal in the dying seconds of the second period.

For a significant stretch in the ensuing third period, it seemed like the Oilers might actually protect a lead. There was the impression that, for once, this series wouldn’t be about merely “outscoring your problems.”

Oops.

Toews, Blackhawks win Game 3 with late goals

To start the last collapse, the Blackhawks made it 3-3 with less than six minutes remaining in the third period when Matthew Highmore tipped a hard Slater Koekkoek shot. Then, with 1:16 left, Jonathan Toews was credited with a shocking 4-3 goal when a puck deflected off of the stick of Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear and past goalie Mikko Koskinen.

(Even if Toews might have been lucky to get credit for the game-winner, the Blackhawks captain was a beast in Game 3. He finished with two goals, and Toews came close to scoring on other opportunities. In other words, the star power isn’t just on Edmonton’s side.)

It was stunning enough for the Oilers to see the Blackhawks potentially push Game 3 into overtime. Obviously, they didn’t even make it that far. Just like that, the Oilers’ season is on the line.

So much for the Penguins dealing with the most stunning Game 3 loss from Wednesday, eh?

Scary injury for Ennis?

After two games full of wild scoring, Game 3 of Blackhawks – Oilers was close enough that tensions were able to climb.

There was some of that playoff nastiness, for sure. That nastiness may climb after Tyler Ennis appeared to suffer a rough-looking leg injury awkwardly bracing for a hard Kirby Dach hit.

Later on, Dach was shaken up by a Josh Archibald hit, but was able to return to Game 3.

If Ennis is out, consider that a tough injury loss stacked upon the Oilers’ gut-punch Game 3 defeat. In Game 4 on Friday, the Blackhawks get a chance to deal the final blow to a season that at times seemed special for the Oilers.

If patterns hold, the Oilers will once again call upon McDavid and Draisaitl — while Toews and the Blackhawks are sure to make things interesting.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (CHI leads series 2-1)

Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 6:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers (if necessary), TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.

Canadiens push Penguins to brink of elimination after Game 3 stunner

Leave a comment

The Canadiens keep giving the Penguins all they can handle, and in Game 3, Pittsburgh couldn’t merely shake their heads and shrug their shoulders at a dominant Carey Price. Instead, after squandering a 3-1 lead, the Penguins must look inward, and get things together quickly, as the Canadiens lead the series 2-1 following a 4-3 win in Game 3.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Canadiens take 2-1 series lead against Penguins after a Game 3 of twists and turns

If you enjoy twists and turns — and maybe chaos? — then Penguins – Canadiens Game 3 was your tonic.

To start things, Shea Weber showed some aggression to give the Canadiens a 1-0 lead. Special teams worked out well for the Penguins early, as Pittsburgh not only killed a delay of game penalty from challenging that Weber goal, but also caught the Habs flat-footed.

In less than a minute, Patric Hornqvist fired home a 1-1 power-play goal thanks to a beautiful pass by Evgeni Malkin. Jason Zucker then connected on another power-play goal 59 seconds later:

Once Teddy Blueger made it 3-1 early in the second period, the Penguins looked like they might be headed toward a big, authoritative win.

Maybe it would have stayed that way in a less dramatic contest, but not Game 3 of Penguins – Canadiens. Maybe a hard, un-penalized hit by Brandon Tanev on Jack Evans gave the Habs the righteous anger to rally:

Or maybe the Canadiens merely took advantage of some sloppiness from the Penguins, from Matt Murray to Jack Johnson. Either way, the Canadiens stunned the Penguins with two quick second-period goals to enter the intermission 3-3, and then Jeff Petry scored yet another huge goal in this best-of-five series.

Even with a late power-play opportunity, the Penguins couldn’t get much going once they fell behind 4-3.

Tough Game 3 for Penguins defense; Murray struggles vs. Canadiens

So, again, the main story doesn’t boil down to the Penguins vs. Carey Price, but that doesn’t mean goalies weren’t a talking point in Game 3. To be more exact, the Penguins might need to wonder a bit about Matt Murray.

Earlier in the Penguins – Canadiens series, it seemed like Matt Murray shook off some of his profound struggles from 2019-20. Mike Sullivan or others have more reason to worry about Murray after Game 3, though. Goals like another big Jeff Petry tally will leave people wondering if the Penguins might be wise to turn to Tristan Jarry now that they’re on the brink of elimination.

It wasn’t all on Murray, mind you. Other Penguins struggled, including polarizing defenseman Jack Johnson.

While Weber got caught on that Malkin-to-Hornqvist goal, he enjoyed one of the best performances of any Canadiens player, collecting a goal and two assists. But Game 3 was very much a team effort, and team win, for the Canadiens against the Penguins.

The Canadiens generally acquitted themselves very well against the Penguins at even-strength. Two of the Penguins’ three goals came on the power play, while the Canadiens scored all four of their Game 3 goals at even-strength. Plenty of storylines will revolve around the 12th-seed Canadiens being underdogs pushing the Penguins, and understandably so. But the Habs haven’t always played like traditional underdogs. At times during Game 3, they absolutely outplayed the Penguins.

For better or worse, this isn’t one of the recent back-to-back game situations, so the Penguins get until Friday to shake off the shock of this Game 3 loss to the Canadiens. They might need that time to find some answers against the Habs, too.

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (MTL leads series 2-1)

Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*

* – If necessary

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.

Blackhawks-Oilers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Blackhawks-Oilers stream
Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Wednesday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blackhawks and Oilers. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blackhawks-Oilers Game 3 stream at 10:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Connor McDavid scored his first career playoff hat trick, including two goals in the game’s opening five minutes, to lead the Oilers to a 6-3 win over Chicago in Game 2. McDavid scored with all three of his shots on goal. Edmonton scored twice in each period and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had three assists to even up the series.

After finishing the regular season with the league’s best power play (29.5%), the Oilers have continued to impress on the man advantage. Connor McDavid scored on the power play in Game 2 to take their PP up to 44.4% in this series (4/9).

Even without fans, the Oilers continued to sell raffle tickets for their 50/50 draw. In Game 2, the total pot grew to more than $3.2 million, reportedly a new world record for a raffle. One lucky fan took home the jackpot of $1,629,722.50.

WHAT: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Edmonton Oilers
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Wednesday, August 5, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Brendan Burke, AJ Mleczko, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blackhawks-Oilers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (Series tied 1-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN (Livestream)
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 6:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule