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Capitals’ shot blocking part of all-in mentality fueling Stanley Cup run

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LAS VEGAS — Since Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby has been one of the many issues that the Vegas Golden Knights have been unable to solve.

Vegas has found it difficult to create chaos in front of Holtby’s net and the Washington netminder has been able to see many of the shots he’s faced. 

Those shots that don’t get through to Holtby are one of those issues facing the Golden Knights.

Through four games, the Capitals have blocked 86 shots to Vegas’ 42. Even Alex Ovechkin, who blocked 21 shots during the regular season, has blocked four in the Final.

“If you want to win, you gotta do the not-so-sexy things and that’s one of the things,” said Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly. “It’s not exactly fun, but you gotta do if you really want to win. Everyone is on board with doing those things.”

It’s not just a simple act of dropping to the ice. Positioning plays a big part in a player deciding whether to get in the way of a shot. You don’t want to screen your own goaltender, but it’s a split-second decision, one that should you decide against it, could end up with a goal against. That’s why Holtby and Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray have focused a lot on seeing around screens from opponents and teammates this season.

“Obviously it’s tough sometimes when you get three or four guys in front, but we just want to get the guys confident who are out there to block a shot that we’re going to fight to see around them and that we’re working together as a unit,” Holtby said.

The inability to get shots through on net due to the Capitals’ commitment to blocking everything should cause the Golden Knights to alter their offensive zone tactics a bit. Getting shots off quicker, fakes and better puck movement are ways to improve in that area. Or, you could take Alex Tuch’s advice.

“If you shoot hard it doesn’t feel too good to block it, so maybe they’ll think twice about blocking it next time,” he said.

A collective effort to sacrifice the body and block shots is another way that the Capitals’ have bought into an all-in mentality under head coach Barry Trotz. It’s a big reason why they’re one win away from capturing their first Stanley Cup.

“If I’m being honest, it’s always all in. We’ve just executed it better than we have in the past,” said defenseman John Carlson. “There’s a big trickle down effect with things like that. Everyone’s doing it and everyone’s leading by example. The more leaders you can slot into the top of the totem pole that are doing whatever it takes, that’s big for the rest of the guys and the effect that it has in terms of confidence and togetherness.”

Previous Capitals teams may have had a similar mentality, but the end result wasn’t a positive. Here they are, still doing those same things and it’s worked through two extra months of hockey and put them on the cusp of a championship. This season wasn’t an easy one for Washington, which has made each victory a little more satisfying.

“I remember at the beginning of the everybody was saying we would struggle to make the playoffs. Even halfway through the year we really hadn’t gotten much traction in terms of a lineup or some guys were still trying to figure out where they fit in and what their role was,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “I think the last couple of years winning came a lot easier to us and we were supposed to win. I think maybe we didn’t enjoy winning as much as we did this year because it came easier. This year, when it was more of a struggle to grind out wins, it was more enjoyable for the guys. 

“The last couple of years we had a lot of pressure on us to win because we were supposed to win and it probably affected us in a negative way at times.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide
• Stanley Cup Final schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Push for the Playoffs: Coyotes’ losing streak putting playoff hopes in danger

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

Despite a rash of injuries throughout the season the Arizona Coyotes have managed to stick around in the Western Conference playoff race longer than anyone expected them to at the start of the year.

Now that surprising run is in danger of falling apart at the end as they carry a five-game losing streak into Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, a game that begins a crucial three-game stretch against teams competing for the second Wild Card spot in the West.

The biggest issue for the Coyotes recently has been the fact that their offense has completely abandoned them at the worst possible time of the season. They have struggled to consistently score all year, but have managed just six goals during their current skid and are coming off of a 2-0 shutout loss against the New York Islanders over the weekend (which came after a shootout loss against a bad New Jersey Devils team). That drought has squandered what has been more sensational goaltending from Darcy Kuemper, who has been thrust into the starter’s role as he continues to fill in for the injured Antti Raanta. He has stopped 56 out of 59 shots over the past two games, a stretch where the Coyotes managed just one out of a possible four points.

Arizona enters the day two points back of the Colorado Avalanche for the second Wild Card spot and three points ahead of the Blackhawks.

A Coyotes win on Tuesday would at least tie them with Colorado and all but eliminate the Blackhawks, who are running out of time to make a move and barely hanging on to their postseason chances.

After hosting Chicago on Tuesday, the Coyotes’ next two games are against the Avalanche and Wild, the two biggest competitors they have for that playoff spot.

How they perform in those three games will pretty much dictate what happens to their season.

In the Eastern Conference on Tuesday night the Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets are both in action for what is another pivotal day in their race. The playoff race in that conference is pretty much just down to those two teams fighting for one spot. Depending on Tuesday’s results, the Blue Jackets could either find themselves tied with Montreal in the standings (a Montreal regulation loss to Florida and a Columbus win against the Islanders) or four points out (a Columbus regulation loss and a Montreal win).

That is a huge potential swing for one day, especially since Columbus only has six games remaining on its schedule after Tuesday.

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Hurricanes vs. Capitals (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream)
Islanders vs. Blue Jackets (7 p.m. ET)
Panthers vs. Canadiens (7 p.m. ET)
Blackhawks vs. Coyotes (10 p.m. ET)

TODAY’S PLAYOFF CLINCHING SCENARIOS

  • Washington Capitals clinch a playoff spot if they win and the Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets both lose in regulation.
  • The St. Louis Blues clinch a playoff spot if the Arizona Coyotes lose.
  • The Vegas Golden Knights clinch a playoff spot if the Arizona Coyotes lose.

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — Clinched
Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Capitals — 100 percent
Penguins — 100 percent
Islanders — 99.8 percent
Hurricanes — 98.7 percent
Blue Jackets — 51.1 percent
Canadiens — 50.8 percent
Flyers — Out
Panthers — Out
Sabres — Eliminated
Rangers — Eliminated
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Flames — Clinched
Jets — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Predators — Clinched
Blues — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Stars — 96.3 percent
Avalanche — 68.3 percent
Coyotes — 20.8 percent
Wild — 9 percent
Blackhawks — 4.3 percent
Oilers — 1.3 percent
Canucks — Out
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Rangers — 8.5 percent
Sabres — 7.5 percent
Ducks — 6.5 percent
Canucks — 6 percent
Oilers — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Panthers — 3 percent
Wild — 2.5 percent
Coyotes — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Blue Jackets — 1 percent**
(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)
(**OTT owns CBJ’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 121 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 108 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 102 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 95 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 94 points
Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins — 94 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 45 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning — 41 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Kings’ bizarre handling of Kovalchuk situation

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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.

•  Ilya Kovalchuk is one year into a three-year, $18 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings and things are not going well between him and the organization at the moment. Right now the Kings’ handling of the situation just seems bizarre. (Los Angeles Times)

• The Ottawa Senators are looking to add a director of hockey operations for what owner Eugene Melnyk calls, “another voice.” (Ottawa Citizen)

•  The NHL’s current playoff format is definitely controversial because of some of the early round matchups it creates that eliminate some of the best teams in the league earlier than they otherwise would be. (TSN)

• Like Connor McDavid a year ago, Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane is having an MVP caliber season, but one with an asterisk. Mainly because his team is not very good and will miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (The Hockey News)

• This year’s Philadelphia Flyers team has been an analytics nightmare. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

Patrik Laine had a chance to snap out of his goal-scoring drought but decided to set up a teammate instead, an unselfish act that was a smooth move. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• There are some signs of health for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ injured defense. (Sportsnet)

•  The Boston Bruins have been crushed by injuries for most of the 2018-19 season but they are starting to get some reinforcements back. (Bruins Daily)

• ACHA looks to lose “club hockey” label at Texas tournament. (NHL.com)

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.

The Buzzer: Campbell steals Tkachuk – Doughty show; Four for Tavares

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Three Stars

1. John Tavares

For the first time in his NHL career, Tavares scored four goals in one game. His four tallies were a mix of luck and skill, with all of them coming from very close in on net.

You can rank Tavares with the likes of Sidney Crosby as a star who tends to score a lot of his goals like grinders: in the dirty areas of the ice, cashing in on rebounds and quick reactions. None of this is to say that Tavares lacks skill, just that he sometimes applies those skills in subtler, more grinding ways.

This post goes into great detail on his great night in specific, and his fantastic first season with Toronto in general.

2. Jack Campbell

There were plenty of bitter moments involving Drew Doughty and Matthew Tkachuk, sometimes sniping and swiping each other, sometimes with just one of those players involved. But this was the closest they got to a fight, which is kind of a bummer:

Instead, Campbell basically stole the show, pitching a 42-save shutout to help the Kings upset the Flames.

This is the second shutout of Campbell’s career, and it’s increasingly looking like the former (mostly disappointing) first-rounder might just find his niche as a backup goalie. Nice story developing here, even if it’s in relative anonymity considering the low quality of this Kings team.

3. Steven Stamkos

Tavares was the free agent who left for Toronto after Steven Stamkos didn’t, so there’s a fun symmetry to the two high-scoring number 91’s generating four points during the same night.

In the case of Stamkos, he got to those four points with two goals and two assists. Stamkos is now tied for fourth in the NHL with Patrick Kane with 41 goals on the season, leaving him four behind Tavares. Stamkos has the edge in total points, however, as his 93 ranks seventh overall.

Highlights of the Night

Mark Scheifele is known for being a “student of the game,” so maybe he’s studied the best ways to sweep would-be goals out of his own net? Does he moonlight as a goalie?

Starting with a great save by Andrei Vasilevskiy, this is a fun watch (unless you’re a Bruins fan), as Nikita Kucherov tied things up for the Lightning. They eventually stunned the B’s in regulation, reminding the hockey world that they’re way, way ahead of everyone else.

Factoids

  • Four players have scored at least 30+ goals in three seasons before reaching age 21: Wayne Gretzky, Jimmy Carson, Dale Hawerchuk, and now Patrik Laine.
  • As tough as this season has been, and as embarrassing as that center-ice goal was, Cory Schneider had a fantastic overall game on Monday. You can make an argument that stopping 45 out of 46 saves ranks as three stars material. Schneider became the second goalie in Devils franchise history to earn multiple wins of at least 45 saves. Glenn “Chico” Resch was the other goalie to do it.
  • This post details the Predators clinching a playoff spot for the fifth season in a row, and perhaps most importantly, Devan Dubnyk, 32, having the same throat guard since he was 17.
  • The Flames hadn’t been shut out at home since March 21, 2018.
  • The Sharks lost in regulation to the Red Wings, which marks San Jose’s sixth consecutive loss. Cause for concern? Cause to gently nudge Erik Karlsson to get back in the lineup?

Scores

TOR 7 – FLA 5
NJD 3 – BUF 1
PIT 5 – NYR 2
TBL 5 – BOS 4
STL 3 – VGK 1
NSH 1 – MIN 0
DAL 5 – WPG 2
LAK 3 – CGY 0
DET 3 – SJS 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.

Predators clinch spot, deal major blow to Wild’s playoff hopes

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The Minnesota Wild’s offense is starting to stink almost as much as Devan Dubnyk‘s teenaged throat guard.

The Nashville Predators only needed Ryan Johansen‘s shorthanded goal to beat the Wild 1-0 on Monday, as Juuse Saros collected a 29-save shutout. With that, the Predators clinched a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the Wild’s postseason hopes look that much grimmer.

With Zach Parise and others out of the lineup of a team that’s already lacking in firepower, it’s easy to understand Bruce Boudreau going for a “clog everything up” strategy. It almost worked, too, as the Wild generated a 29-19 shots on goal advantage, giving the Predators very little room to work with. This wasn’t an easy win for the Predators.

Minnesota simply wasn’t able to generate any margin for error, however, so that Johansen shorthanded goal just 4:32 into the game ended up being the decisive tally.

With the game turning into a grind that felt like a more skilled version of a slugfest from “The Dead Puck Era,” there was time to focus on other things … such as Devan Dubnyk’s throat guard, which might qualify as a biological weapon at this point:

Yes, gross.

The Wild struggled so badly to create offense, Dubnyk seemed to go over his teammates’ heads by trying to earn the equivalent to a delayed penalty advantage … that resulted in Minnesota taking a late penalty.

The Predators failed to score on the ensuing power play, yet the Wild had to kill that penalty fairly late in the game, rather than continuing to push to the same level of aggression for that tying goal.

While the Predators gave themselves a better chance to earn home-ice advantage for the first round (and maybe a shot at the division title), the Wild are at a disadvantage in the West’s bubble races. Take a quick look at how things look as of this writing:

WC 2: Avalanche: 81 points in 76 games, 33 regulation/OT wins

9: Coyotes: 79 points in 76 games, 32 ROW
10: Wild: 79 points in 77 games, 34 ROW
11: Blackhawks: 76 points in 75 games, 31 ROW

Not good.

If Monday’s efforts serve as any indication, the Wild seem likely to keep putting forth a dogged effort to try to earn a playoff berth. They just have to hope they don’t fall painfully short in these races like they did during this 1-0 loss to the Predators.

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.