How James Neal’s miss swung Game 4

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WASHINGTON — Maybe the Vegas Golden Knights would have still lost.

Maybe it would have still been a blowout.

Maybe they will still shock the world — again! — and run off three consecutive wins and make everybody forget about their 6-2 loss in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

But when James Neal had the puck on his stick early in the first period, staring at a wide open net, and then proceeded to fire it off the inside of the far post it felt like one of those moments that would be a turning point in the game, in the series, and ultimately, in their season.

At that point Vegas was in complete control of the early stages. They were dictating the pace. They finally looked like the team that had started fast in just about every game this postseason. They were finally, after three games of spotty, inconsistent, and sloppy play in the Stanley Cup Final, giving the Capitals their absolute best shot.

Then everything unraveled for them.

[Related: James Neal’s miss leads to Capitals’ offensive eruption]

Five minutes after Neal’s miss defenseman Colin Miller was sent off for tripping Lars Eller in the neutral zone.

Just 30 seconds after that play T.J. Oshie cashed in on his look at an empty net and from there the first period Capitals blitz was on, giving Vegas what would prove to be an insurmountable three-goal deficit.

The entire sequence was just another reminder as to just how fine of a line there is between winning and losing in the NHL and what a significant factor luck plays in all of this.

Heading into Game 5 in Vegas on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, NBC) the Golden Knights find themselves facing elimination for the first time this postseason with their entire season and Stanley Cup dreams on the line. It is incredible to look at how they got here.

After taking Game 1 of the series they were a miracle Braden Holtby save away from sending Game 2 to overtime where anything could have happened.

Then in Game 4, they hit two posts in the first five minutes including Neal’s wide open miss before everything started to go wrong.

“It was a perfect play,” said Neal after the game. “At the start I thought he was going to shoot it, then he held on to it and it was great. Holtby was kind of over there, he gave it to me, Niskanen laid down for a second so I wanted to wait a half a second and just shot it off the post.”

“It changes the game for sure if I score there,” Neal added. “But now we have to win a game at home that is what we will focus on. I like the way we played, you take the positives from tonight because there were a lot of parts of our game that we liked tonight.”

The latter part is what has to be a cruel twist for the Golden Knights as they finally seemed to be getting back to playing their brand of hockey, and then for the first time this postseason seemed to not have everything go their way.

“It was frustrating because of the score,” said Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant when asked how he felt after the first period. “I thought we played our best period of the Final so far. We hit two posts, we had some good chances, and we got nothing out of it. After the first period we came in here and said let’s keep going, let’s keep working hard, let’s keep playing well because things can change in a hurry so we wanted to keep going. Thought we played a pretty good game for the most part.”

“There was a lot of moments it was our game for sure. We played a lot of the game the way we wanted to play it.”

Here is where that becomes a concern for Vegas: After splitting the first two games of the series on home ice they came into Washington for Game 3 and got what was probably Marc-Andre Fleury‘s best game of the series (and he was pretty great for most that game).

It still was not enough to win.

In Game 4 they had their best start of the series, played what was perhaps their best game of the series, and still ended up getting blown out on the scoreboard and dropped their third game in a row.

It has to be crushing to give a team your best shot and still end up having that sort of a result on the scoreboard.

This all feels very similar to the way the Capitals’ second round series went against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In Game 5 of that series the Penguins played what they thought was their best game of the series. It still resulted in a loss. When both teams came out for Game 6 two nights later they both played like they knew it as the Penguins were suddenly the team that looked tight and the Capitals finally looked like they had the weight of the world lifted off of their shoulders. That seems to be where everything changed for this Capitals team. Every step of the way after that has looked the same as they finally seem to be exorcising all of the postseason demons that have haunted them for years.

In postseasons past Alex Tuch‘s shot late in Game 2 gets roofed under the crossbar and the game goes to overtime where they probably lose on some stupid play. Marc-Andre Fleury probably steals Game 3. James Neal probably buries his wide open look in the center of the net and Vegas is the team that goes on a roll to start Game 4.

Not this year. Because this year the breaks are finally going their way.

The common theme after Game 4 was that teams make their own breaks and create their own luck. Maybe to a point that is true, and it is not meant to discredit what the Capitals have done to this point to say they are finally getting a little puck luck.

No team has ever won the Stanley Cup — or any other championship — without a lot of luck going their way. It is an essential ingredient in winning, almost as much as talent, coaching, health, or whatever other factor you want to talk about.

For the previous 42 years it almost always seemed to work against the Capitals.

In year 43 it finally is not.

There was perhaps no better example of it than James Neal, with the first strike of a pivotal Game in the Stanley Cup Final sitting on his stick, firing it off the post for no reason at all.

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 (Capitals leads series 2-1)
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Capitals 6, Golden Knights 2 (Capitals lead 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

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.

Sharks should still go bold after failing to land Tavares

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No doubt about it, landing John Tavares was the best-case scenario for the San Jose Sharks this summer. They showed as much with what was reported to be a generous offer, but it was not to be.

The question, then, is what is Plan B?

So far, Sharks GM Doug Wilson has been content to lock up some noteworthy in-house talent, and that’s really soaked up a lot of that would-be Tavares money. After signing Joe Thornton for one year, extending Evander Kane to a big deal, and giving term to Tomas Hertl, the Sharks knocked off one of the final items on their to-do list by avoiding salary arbitration with Chris Tierney via a two-year deal.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the cap hit comes in at $2.9375 million per season.

As it stands, the Sharks aren’t actually all that flush with money. According to Cap Friendly, they’re only about $4.4M under the ceiling with all 23 roster spots covered.

Does that mean that Wilson can go tan on a beach for the rest of the summer? Maybe that’s the call now that Tavares is off the table, but allow some advice: the Sharks should instead go for it … in 2018-19.

There are a slew of interesting trade options for players with expiring contracts right now, and for many teams, that’s the stumbling block. Why give up assets just for a guy who can walk in free agency next summer? Such a thought process might explain the lack of an Erik Karlsson trade, in particular, right now.

The funny thing is, the Sharks might get protected from themselves by such a barrier.

Simply put, the Sharks’ core is aging, a point we’ve made plenty of times at PHT. Even beyond the obvious (Joe Thornton at 39), Brent Burns is already 33, Joe Pavelski is 34 and entering a contract year, Marc-Edouard Vlasic is 31, and even recently extended Logan Couture is 29. Adding another risky long-term contract could make for a scary situation in San Jose, especially when you consider that Max Pacioretty – one of the optimal targets – is 29 himself.

(Jeff Skinner would theoretically be a more palatable risk since he’s 26, yet just about any long-term contract carries risks for an aging team such as the Sharks.)

Let’s list off the reasons why the Sharks should make big commitments, but mainly for 2018-19, since this is theoretically a great time to poach someone on an expiring contract.

  • Again, this team’s window could close soon. The Sharks might as well swing for the fences while they still can.
  • The free agent market is too shallow for a shark to swim.
  • Beyond the worrisome miles on key players (and the possibility that they might have to let Pavelski walk after this coming campaign), the Sharks are simply formatted for this. They’re already heading into 2019 without their first and fourth-round picks, while their two second-rounders could help them put together the sort of trade package that might be acceptable for a Skinner or Pacioretty.
  • Pacioretty would work under the cap, as his $4.5M cap hit essentially matches the room San Jose currently possesses. They’d either demote someone to the AHL or include some salary in a hypothetical trade to make it actually fit. Skinner’s a little pricier at $5.725M, but moving around deals or some salary retention would alleviate those concerns.
  • Both Skinner and Pacioretty could really give the Sharks that extra boost as scoring wingers. Pacioretty would play with the best center of his career – whether he’d land with Couture or Thornton – while Skinner would be shooting for his first-ever postseason bid. Naturally, both would carry contract motivations, which never hurts one’s ambition.
  • And, hey, maybe a player like Skinner or Pacioretty would earn such rave reviews during an audition that the Sharks decide to re-sign them anyway? The cap could always rise for 2019-20, and such a player could serve as a Pavelski replacement.

That’s a pretty decent list, right?

Now, naturally, the Canadiens and Hurricanes might just want to keep those players for themselves, or perhaps their asking prices will be too steep for San Jose. From here, it sure seems like the right strategy for the Sharks.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it would just be flat-out fun to watch Thornton set up Pacioretty for goal after goal …

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.

Trouba, Jets millions apart as arbitration date nears

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With less than 48 hours to go before his arbitration date, Jacob Trouba and the Winnipeg Jets are reportedly millions apart in valuation for the top-pairing defenseman.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Wednesday that Trouba is looking for $7 million per season while the Jets, at the moment, are sitting at the $4-million mark instead.

This isn’t unusual for a team to be low-balling ahead of an arbitration case while a player shoots for the moon — it’s an oft-used strategy.

Trouba’s underlying numbers suggest he’s among the league’s best rearguards, but when it comes to goals and assists, he doesn’t show as well. And with Trouba, there’s always the question about his durability, having completed 81 games just once in his career and never playing more than 65 in a season in his four other seasons in the NHL.

Arbitration is no fun for either side, where the dirty laundry is aired and teams tell players why they don’t deserve the money they think they do. But it appears increasingly likely that Trouba’s July 20 date will come to fruition in what would be a first for the Winnipeg Jets and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff since the team relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.

The Jets also have forward Adam Lowry (July 22), Brandon Tanev (July 25) and Marko Dano (July 30) with scheduled arbitration hearings. Last week, the Jets handed Vezina runner-up Connor Hellebuyck a six-year, $37 million contract, avoiding a potential arbitration hearing with him as well.

Looking at the comparables likely doesn’t favor Trouba and his current valuation of himself.

Take for instance Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He’s in the third year of a six-year deal that sees him pocketing $5.4 million per season.

Jones had 57 points last year, including a career-high 16 goals.

Trouba finished the season with three goals and 24 points and has eclipsed 30 just once (33) in his five-year career.

Colton Parayko also comes to mind.

The St. Louis Blues d-man signed a five-year, $27.5 million deal last summer after a 35-point season and put up the same total in 2017-18.

Another deal that can be used as a comparison is Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators. Josi signed a seven-year, $28 million deal prior to the 2013-14 season.

In the two years before signing the deal, Josi’s numbers were comparable to Trouba’s and Josi is now likely going to get a significant pay raise after hovering around the 50-point mark for the past four seasons.

The end game, at least this season, likely results in a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $5 to $5.5 million for Trouba. The Jets have the option to give Trouba two years, but he would become an unrestricted free agent following the 2019-20 season, so a one-year deal makes sense for the Jets and will put both sides in the same scenario next season if a long-term deal isn’t hashed out before then.

Both sides have said they’d like to commit to one another long-term. The Jets would like to see Trouba’s production go up, and if he can hit the 45-50-point window this season, there’s a good chance there wouldn’t be a second arbitration case but rather a long-term deal to stick in Winnipeg.

Trouba has been given everything he wanted after initially wanting out of Winnipeg two years ago. He’s on a contender playing on one of the league’s best shutdown tandems and commanding big minutes every night.

If he wants to get paid like an elite defenseman, he needs to score like one and will have every opportunity to earn the raise next summer, assuming the Jets hand him a one-year deal after their arbitration hearing on Friday.


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: How much, how long for Wilson?; What if Panarin pulls a Tavares?

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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.

Tom Wilson needs a new contract. Said contract is likely to be signed with the Washington Capitals. The question is: how much and for how long? (The Washington Post)

• Assessing the cost if Artemi Panarin pulls a John Tavares and leaves in free agency next summer. (The Dark Blue Jacket)

• The Liquor Control Board of Ontario is investigating after one of its workers made a homemade sign calling for the ousting of Eugene Melnyk. (Ottawa Citizen)

• The New York Rangers coaching a staff is going to have a distinct Boston University feel to it next season. (College Hockey News)

• Should the Boston Bruins make any more moves this offseason? (WEEI)

• The New York Islanders should leave the Barclays Center and Brooklyn behind after next season. (IslandersPointBlank)

• After signing Connor Hellebuyck, is it possible for the Winnipeg Jets to afford the rest of their core? (The Score)

• The Nashville Predators have managed to widen the window they have to win the Stanley Cup. (Pred Lines)

• The Florida Panthers have one prospect, Henrik Borgstrom, who stands as their best and brightest, and maybe their key to pulling the trigger on a trade to bring in a big name. (The Puck Under the Sun)

• A quick check on the rebuild happening in Detroit shows that while it’s not without its flaws, it appears to be moving in the right direction. (The Sporting News)

• Is Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford done dealing this summer? (Penguin Poop)

• Marred by the gong show that is Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, here’s a look at the least evil owners in the NHL. (Welcome to your Karlsson Years)

• A new NHL team in Seattle means a new AHL team to keep all the kids on the farm. Where will that farm be? (NHL To Seattle)

• With James Neal and Elias Lindholm added to the mix in Cow Town, will the Calgary Flames breakup the 3M line? (Puck Daddy)

• Flames GM Brad Treliving has finally filled a hole that has existed in Calgary’s lineup for seven years. (Flames from 80 feet)

• A look at if NHL contracts should include an opt-out option. (Devils Army Blog)

• With Kyle Dubas now steering the ship, is there a way back into the good graces of Mike Babcock for some out in the doghouse? (Editor in Leaf)

• Should the NHL start up a summer league? (Gotham Sports Network)


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

Rangers pay small price to watch Vesey for two more years

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During this time of year, you’re going to see plenty of modest, low-risk signings that usually work out nicely for the teams involved. To an extent, that’s just how restricted free agency works.

Of course, there’s also the notion that players and teams want to avoid salary arbitration hearings, as tears and hard feelings often happened as executives would sometimes ruthlessly argue against someone making extra money.

(Seriously, those discussions might as well have been sponsored by Kleenex.)

It’s nice when you can describe these deals as a win for both sides, and that seems to be the case as the New York Rangers agreed to a two-year “bridge” deal with forward Jimmy Vesey. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports that the cap hit will be $2.275 million per season.

All things considered, that’s perfectly fine.

Vesey, 25, hasn’t exactly justified the hype from “#VeseyWatch,” although considering how slow things can be around the time that sweepstakes heat up for unsigned college free agents, should we really complain?

Predators fans probably shouldn’t complain all that much about Vesey opting against signing with Nashville after they drafted him in the third round (66th overall) in 2012, as he hasn’t exactly been lighting the NHL on fire.

In 2017-18, Vesey scored 17 goals and 28 points in 79 games, numbers that were virtually identical to his 2016-17 stats (16 goals, 27 points in 80 contests). Considering that his highest TOI average was 14:20 per night so far during his NHL career, there’s some reason to believe that Vesey could be a more prolific scorer if given additional opportunities.

The problem is that possession stats indicate that the ice tilts in the wrong direction when Vesey is on the ice, though. He’s been a negative influence in that regard, even relative to Rangers teammates.

On the other hand, the Rangers’ issues were likely at least partially systemic, so Vesey could end up thriving thanks to a coaching change that sees David Quinn replace Alain Vigneault.

And that’s where this contract really makes a lot of sense.

The Rangers get to find out if Vesey should be part of the foundation for their rebuild. If not, the term is manageable and the price tag is very fair for a player who – for whatever faults – almost scored 20 goals despite marginal ice time.

From Vesey’s perspective, he gets a chance to prove that he’s worth a heftier, longer-term contract.

It’s all pretty sensible stuff. It’s up to Vesey to show that the Rangers should’ve tried to lock him down for more years, and also to silence anyone who might gripe about all the attention he received not too long ago.

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.