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Stanley Cup Finalists Capitals, Golden Knights are heating up

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Following up a run to the Stanley Cup Final is never really easy, but it seemed like an especially big challenge for the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights.

After all, the Capitals partied enough to kill a small town’s worth of brain cells, while the Golden Knights went on the sort of run we’ve never really seen for a contemporary expansion team in professional sports.

Yet, as we enjoy the final leftovers of Thanksgiving weekend, the two 2018 Stanley Cup Finalists seem to be rounding into form.

A familiar spot

By beating the New York Rangers 5-3 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, the Capitals rattled off their fifth consecutive win. With that, the Capitals regained what almost feels like their rightful place atop the Metropolitan Division by way of nabbing 29 points in 23 games.

It’s not a huge lead, mind you. The persistent Columbus Blue Jackets are a mere standings point (28) behind the Capitals in the same number (23) of games played.

As far as what’s working, it also feels like much of the familiar. The Capitals’ 80 goals leads the Metro Division, helping them generate a +7 goal differential. Perhaps the least surprising element of all is Washington’s dangerous power play, as the Capitals’ 27.8-percent success rate slightly leads the Lightning for fourth-best in the NHL.

Capitals’ success and a keyed-in Braden Holtby tend to go together, too. Holtby’s now on a three-game winning streak, only allowing three goals overall during that span. After a tough October, Holtby generated an impressive .934 save percentage over eight November games.

It’s unclear if the Capitals will be able to finish ahead of the Blue Jackets and other rivals to win another division title, but overall, you can file this start under “so far, so good.” And you can mostly dismiss notions about a Stanley Cup hangover.

Digging the Golden Knights

Vegas isn’t in the same cushy spot that Washington is, at least not yet.

If the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs began as of this writing, the Golden Knights would not be in the mix. They’re currently ranked ninth in the West, as their 12-12-1 record for 25 points leaves them just behind the Anaheim Ducks for third (the Ducks have 25 points too, but in one fewer game played) in the paltry Pacific.

Sure, it’s been a slightly disappointing start through a quarter-and-change of this second season in the NHL, particularly since Vegas made some significant investments in free agency.

But the good news is that the Golden Knights clearly aren’t very far out of the playoffs, and they’re finally starting to get the sort of bounces that were (amusingly, from afar) weren’t there in 2018-19 after very much being there in 2017-18.

After battering the San Jose Sharks by a sobering score of 6-0 on Saturday, the Golden Knights have won three games in a row, with all of those victories coming against Pacific rivals. This small winning streak isn’t the only thing that’s promising, either; the Golden Knights can be especially heartened by who is heating up.

Most obviously, Marc-Andre Fleury is looking a whole lot more like the guy who stood on his head basically all of last season (until he ran into the Capitals in that 2018 Stanley Cup Final). After stopping 33 shots against the Sharks, “MAF” has now rattled off consecutive shutouts. Fleury’s won four straight games overall, only allowing five goals during his hot streak.

As Vegas’ starting goalie (and taking into account Malcolm Subban‘s considerable struggles), Fleury is the most important single element of the Golden Knights’ rise. Even so, it’s almost as refreshing to see Max Pacioretty seemingly shaking off his slow start.

“Patches” generated two goals in that rout of the Sharks, extending his point streak to five games (six goals, one assist for seven points). Pacioretty also has nine points in his last seven contests. That’s an enormous burst of energy when you consider that Pacioretty staggered through his first few weeks with the Golden Knights, starting off his stay with a troubling two points through his first 12 games.

Rattling off three straight wins won’t transform an 82-game season, but it’s worth noting because the Golden Knights have actually been arguing for their legitimacy with their work on the ice, only to not exactly reap the rewards.

Via Natural Stat Trick, the Golden Knights rank third in shot-share numbers like Corsi For and Fenwick For Percentage (not to mention actual shots for percentage). They only trail the puck-hogging Carolina Hurricanes as far as hogging the greatest number of scoring chances, and have had similar success in creating more high-danger chances than they’ve allowed.

They simply hadn’t been getting those precious, precious bounces. Their 6.8 even-strength shooting percentage ranks sixth-worst in the NHL, and their team save percentage (90.08) is third-worst at even-strength.

In other words, the underlying stats have argued for a while that the Golden Knights have actually been quite good in 2018-19, but they weren’t getting the saves and the luck.

It stands to reason, then, that the Golden Knights could be a very tough opponent if they merely enjoy league-average luck. With that in mind, Fleury heating up is a very good sign, unless you’re a West team trying to grind out a playoff spot.

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Does all of this point to a rematch for the Capitals and Golden Knights in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final?

It would be foolish even to call that the league’s most likely matchup. With teams like the Jets, Predators, Lightning, and Maple Leafs standing in the way, both Washington and Vegas would face huge barriers in making deep runs once again.

That said, there were fears that both the Capitals and Golden Knights would stumble badly in attempting encores to their rousing performance last season. While there have indeed been challenges – and almost certainly will be more during what often feels like marathon NHL campaigns – both teams are bolstering arguments that they must be taken seriously once again.

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.

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


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

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.

PHT Morning Skate: Penguins need summer miracle again; Devils begin new chapter

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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 Pens need to make another mid-summer magical change. (Pensburgh)

• Maple Leafs almost certain to lose any trade involving Mitch Marner. (Editor In Leaf)

Zack Kassian to get his chance to play alongside Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Spooner heading to Switzerland next season. (Sportsnet)

• The RFA waiting game for big-name players is the norm now, in Winnipeg and the rest of the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Each team’s worst contract heading into the 2019-20 season. (Puck Prose)

• Biggest fantasy winners thus far in the offseason. (Yahoo Sports)

• Devils begin a new chapter with additions of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

• Oft-Overlooked Hurricanes On the Rise. (Featurd)

• The oddsmakers are taking the Colorado Avalanche seriously, and so should you. (The Hockey News)

• NHL Network analyst believes Andre Burakovsky will score ‘a minimum’ of 20 goals next season. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• The Nashville Predators should go all-in and trade for William Nylander. (Pred Lines)


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

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.