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The Buzzer: More Ovechkin history; Blue Jackets end skid

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League-changing contract?

In case you missed it, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed superstar Auston Matthews to a beefy five-year extension. Should you be worried about the salary cap implications?

Three Stars

1. Brendan Gallagher

If the dwindling Ducks struggled in part because of the fatigue that comes with closing off a back-to-back, then credit Gallagher and the Habs for taking advantage of that waddling with a strong start.

Gallagher and fellow top-three star Jonathan Drouin did much of their damage in the first period of Tuesday’s 4-1 win. Gallagher scored a goal and two assists, with a goal and an assist in the opening frame, and then a secondary assist early in the third.

The rambunctious winger generated a +3 rating, two shots on goal, and two assists in that win. Gallagher now has 21 goals this season, building off a tremendous 31-goal campaign from 2017-18, when he was one of Montreal’s few bright spots. Things are sunnier these days.

[The Ducks’ nightmare continued on Tuesday thanks to the Canadiens.]

2. Anze Kopitar

While Gallagher and Drouin did their damage early, Kopitar was the catalyst of a dominant third period for Los Angeles.

All three of Kopitar’s assists came during the final frame, transforming a tied 1-1 game to a 5-1 laugher. Speaking of laughers, Kopitar set up a revenge goal for Ilya Kovalchuk. It also helps that Kopitar’s three assists were all primary ones.

[Read more about Kovalchuk’s return to New Jersey in this post.]

3. Jonathan Drouin

Like Kopitar, Drouin’s three assists were all of the primary variety. This thought gives him a slight advantage over another three-point performance in Roman Josi, as the Predators standout enjoyed a one-goal, two-assists output … but his goal was an empty-netter.

(You have to split hairs with the three stars most nights.)

Drouin now has seven points in his past five games, giving him 39 points in 53 contests overall in his second season with Montreal.

Highlights of the Night

Patrice Bergeron had already scored a goal in his 1,000th game, but David Pastrnak earned serious Good Teammate Points by dropping this pass to him for an empty-netter. If you’ve had a bad Internet day or night, this might be precious enough to raise your spirits.

This is what scientists would call “trickeration.”
Some of the best goals happen when players combine in downright harmonic ways.
In this one, Sergei Bobrovsky makes a tough save on an aggressive Tyson Barrie. From there, Artemi Panarin fires off the sort of breakout pass that would inspire Erik Karlsson to tip his cap. After that, Cam Atkinson makes a fantastic move to score his 29th goal of the season.
Brent Burns and the San Jose Sharks have been killing it in OT lately. This time, Burns set up Joe Pavelski for the clincher:
Factoids

Scores

BOS 3 – NYI 1
BUF 5 – MIN 4 (SO)
STL 3 – FLA 2
LAK 5 – NJD 1
CAR 4 – PIT 0
WSH 3 – VAN 2
MTL 4 – ANA 1
VGK 3 – TBL 2 (SO)
NSH 5 – ARI 2
SJS 3 – WPG 2 (OT)
CBJ 6 – COL 3
CHI 6 – EDM 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.

Long-suffering Duchene gives Blue Jackets playoff punch

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Matt Duchene is having a splendid time these days. It showed when he skated up to the glass to greet his wife, Ashley, and 3-month-old son Beau during warmups before the Columbus Blue Jackets won their third straight playoff game.

Nothing but smiles and ”aaaws,” a sweet moment for mom and dad shared with thousands of others via social media.

That night the 28-year-old Canadian center scored the first goal of the game for Columbus , a sweet backhander off a rebound to break a scoreless tie in the second period. The Blue Jackets went on to a 3-1 win in building a 3-0 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team hardly anyone thought they could beat.

Duchene added an empty-net goal two nights later in the series-clinching 7-3 win, finishing the four-game sweep as the Blue Jackets’ top scorer with three goals, four assists and a plus-5 rating.

Duchene, acquired by the Blue Jackets from Ottawa at the trade deadline, is having fun.

”It’s a blast, man,” he said Friday. ”A great group of guys, and from day one I felt so comfortable. It’s awesome to see our hard work, and these guys’ hard work, and everything come together at the right time.”

The contributions to the shocking sweep also pried a playoff monkey off the back of the 12-year NHL veteran. He tasted the postseason twice before while playing with Colorado but wasn’t a major factor, finishing with no goals and six assists in eight games. The Avs were bounced in the first round both times, in 2010 and 2014.

Duchene yearned not only to get back to the playoffs, but to contribute and advance. He thought that could happen this season when Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen rescued him and winger Ryan Dzingel from the sinking ship in Ottawa at the trade deadline.

Duchene had been told the Blue Jackets also were hanging on to stars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky – both will be unrestricted free agents after the season and have declined to re-sign with Columbus – to make an ”all in” run at the playoffs. They needed another top center, and Kekalainen had been after Duchene for a couple years.

There wasn’t instant symbiosis. Duchene had just four goals and eight assists in 23 regular-season games after being a point-per-game guy with Ottawa. The Blue Jackets finally began a surge that would see them win seven of their last eight and slip into the playoffs in the 81st game. Duchene then blasted off.

”I think that’s the hardest part when you come to a new team, and you’re used to be being a go-to guy on your old team,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. ”Now there’s a lot of go-to guys on this team. You’ve got to find your way, and I think he’s done a good job of that.”

Coach John Tortorella said that while it didn’t show up on the score sheet, Duchene was a major contributor in the last month of the season. He is Torts’ kind of player. Hard worker, a thinker who loves to talk and understand hockey.

”I think (he’s) come in from the get-go, no matter if he’s put up numbers or not in certain situations, has played hard (and) has been very coachable,” Tortorella said. ”I’ve asked him to work away from the puck, and I’ve watched that every game, the concentration he’s putting into playing away from the puck. He hasn’t missed a beat with me.”

Said Duchene: ”Everyone wants to look at numbers and think it’s all about that. We all played at a different level in the playoffs.”

Columbus awaits the winner of the Boston-Toronto series.

Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Jets’ season, lost in April, began spiraling downward months earlier

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To pin an exact date on the calendar where the Winnipeg Jets’ season started to head south is a bit of an exercise in futility. But here we are.

Did the downfall begin on Dec. 1, when Patrik Laine entered the final month of 2018 on the back of an 18-goal, record-setting November? He’d scored just nine goals in the remaining five months of the regular season.

Maybe it was Dec. 29, when Dustin Byfuglien would begin a stretch of 39 games in which he missed 34 due to two ankle injuries?

What about a stretch from Feb. 7 to Feb. 26 where the Jets lost twice to the Ottawa Senators, twice to the Colorado Avalanche and once each to the Montreal Canadiens, Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild? A woeful string of seven losses in 10 games against some of the worst teams in the NHL at the time.

What about that fateful day on Feb. 24 where Vinnie Hinostroza caught Josh Morrissey with a hit as Morrissey was stretched out reaching for a puck? Morrissey would miss the next 20 games and wouldn’t appear in a game until Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues.

Feb. 26 brought with it the first of four games in the final month and change where the Jets surrendered a third-period lead that cost them two points. Minnesota, San Jose, the New York Islanders and Avalanche also preyed on Winnipeg’s sudden inability to hold third-period leads, something they did on 42 of 44 occasions a year earlier.

Maybe it wasn’t one specific date at all, but a collection of unfortunate happenings that, when cobbled together, began to weigh down the Jets until they couldn’t bear the load any longer.

via MoneyPuck.com

An initial investigation seems to show the wheels began loosening on this train around the holiday season.

Winnipeg’s expected goals differential began to sink right as the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, which when looking back, is a pretty solid centerpiece in a tale of two teams.

By that point, Byfuglien had already begun his first extended stint on the shelf. Winnipeg’s defensive depth began to show some cracks, ones that were further uncovered when Morrissey’s injury struck.

Here’s some of the math:

Jets from opening night through Dec. 31
• 50.91 CF% (10th)
• 50.73 xGF% (14th)

Jets from Jan. 1 to the final day of the regular season
• 47.22 CF% (25th)
• 45.01 xGF% (30th)

It’s a dramatic change. But why?

Laine was on pace for 50 or so goals after his November outburst, but by the end of 2018, worries surrounding his scoring drought were growing. The Jets spent game after game trying, at first, to let Laine work through his issues. That didn’t work. They then tried to give him some new linemates. It worked on a couple of occasions with different pieces but in the end, it would always revert to Laine struggling to find interest when he couldn’t score at will.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff brought Kevin Hayes in at the trade deadline in an effort to aid in several areas.

First and foremost, Hayes was supposed to fit in as the team’s second line center, one who might play nice with Laine and jumpstart his stick back to life.

Hayes’ arrival also brought hope that he could be used to alleviate ice time being handed in droves to Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Hayes could play on the penalty kill and the power play, so the plan was he would help give some rest to Winnipeg’s topmost point producers and minute munchers on forward.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That never really came to fruition. Hayes didn’t build chemistry with Laine. Scheifele and Wheeler still commanded big minutes because of their trustworthiness in all situations. And by the end, the wear and tear was evident.

Hayes wasn’t the savior that Paul Stastny had been a year earlier and Winnipeg suffered because of it.

Coaching decisions, too, made for some perplexing times in Winnipeg.

Paul Maurice refused to break up Scheifele and Wheeler in an effort to spread out the depth and scoring. He broke up Winnipeg’s top possession line, however, in an attempt to do what he wouldn’t do with his top-line duo.

With Byfuglien and Morrissey both inactive, Maurice didn’t try Sami Niku as an anchor on the power play.

When Morrissey returned for the playoffs, the decision was made to keep Dmitry Kulikov in over Nathan Beaulieu, a trade deadline deal that worked very well for the Jets as the former Buffalo Sabres product jumped right into the top pairing with Jacob Trouba and earned his keep.

Kulikov’s familiarity with Tyler Myers came first and Beaulieu sat. Maurice placed his trust in players that, according to the analytics, shouldn’t have been trusted in the situations they put in.

In many ways, this stubbornness to even move pieces around to see if they fit played a factor in the downfall. Giving Matt Hendricks games down the stretch made little sense unless you buy into the “heavy” game mantra that the Western Conference presents. But Hendricks was nowhere to be found in a “heavy” series against St. Louis, so why play him at all when a player like Jack Roslovic — who played in all five playoff games — could have benefitted with more ice-time down the stretch?

Holes in the team’s defensive structure could be a post in and of itself. Simply, the Jets weren’t the same defensive team from the year previous, falling 10 spots from the fifth fewest goals allowed to 15th.

This leads to the question of if Maurice’s job is in jeopardy. While the Jets couldn’t put it together in Round 1, they’ve won nearly 100 games over the past two seasons under Maurice’s watch with a young, inexperienced team. The gut feeling, then, is no, he’s likely to stick around next season. Assuming that’s the case, however, the pressure and expectation will only be greater and his leash may get much shorter.

And it will be harder for the Jets to succeed next year with their pending cap crunch.

Winnipeg’s Stanley Cup window may have been widest this year. Coming off a trip to the Western Conference Final and with many of the same pieces still in place (and still only making a pittance of what they’ll start to see next year), the Jets had perhaps the widest range of talent they could have before the likes of Laine and Kyle Connor get paid this summer.

The window is by no means closed but there’s a big chunk of salary coming next year to those two prominent players. Wheeler’s big extension kicks in, too, and they may lose Trouba if they can’t hash out an extension, meaning a top pairing defenseman is also lost. And it all means they’ll have to make do with some of their youth pieces that have been marinating in the system.

The talk around Winnipeg last summer was one of locking up several pieces to take another stab at the Cup. This summer is that much more massive for Cheveldayoff and Co., who need to figure out how to improve the current lineup while paying a couple of their brightest young stars handsomely and dealing with the pending cap crunch because of it.

Gone is the hype train of that conference final run. Questions of leadership, on-ice structure (both offensively and defensively), killer instinct and coaching will take its place.

It should be noted that it sure seemed troubling when the Jets brought Hendricks back into the fold in a late deal on trade deadline day. His leadership qualities are what was lauded by Cheveldayoff. But why did the team need an injection of Hendricks’ tangibles in the first place? Why couldn’t the current core of veterans sort out issues?

That’s a crucial question moving forward.

Was there a division in the room? And if so, why wasn’t it squared away at the moment the leak was spotted?

Blame can be pointed in myriad directions, ultimately.

There will be no repeat of a summer filled with the fuzzy feelings of a team seemingly on the cusp of greatness. Only more stories like this one, autopsies of a failed season.

Another couple of questions added to a pile that is in need of answers this offseason.

And to tie this back in with dates, there’s only one that’s certifiably certain: April 20.

It’s the final etching on Winnipeg’s tombstone for the 2018-19 season, wherein their final hours, they produced one of their poorest, if not altogether worst, efforts of the season when only the opposite would do.

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

AP/CP Survey: 48 percent of NHLPA reps favor playoff change

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Hockey players are conditioned to think that winning the Stanley Cup means going through the best teams to be the best team.

That doesn’t mean they are blind to some of the inequalities of the NHL’s current divisional playoff format. An Associated Press/Canadian Press survey of NHLPA representatives from all 31 teams shows that almost half favor changing the format – and most of those support going back to seeding the Eastern and Western conferences 1 through 8, the structure that was used from 1994-2013.

This is the sixth playoffs where each division’s top three teams and a wild card are bracketed together with no reseeding by round. A year ago, Nashville and Winnipeg finished first and second in the league in points and met in the second round. The same thing happened with Washington and Pittsburgh in 2017.

”It’s kind of tough the fact that a lot of good teams are going out first or second rounds,” Columbus defenseman David Savard said. ”I think maybe we need to look back at maybe 1 against 8 and play that format.”

Savard was among 15 player representatives (48.4%) who said the divisional format should be changed. Seven (22.6%) others said it should stay the same and the other nine (29%) were noncommittal. The players were surveyed March 7-April 4, before the playoff matchups for this year were fully set.

The NHL went to back to a divisional structure similar to what it used from 1982-93 in large part to create or revive rivalries. Toronto and Boston are going to a Game 7 in the first round for the second consecutive year, while the Capitals and Penguins met in the playoffs three times in a row with each series going at least six games.

”I think it’s good for the rivalries,” said New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider, who supports the current format. ”I think it’s good for the teams seeing each other year after year. You can cry what’s fair or not fair, the two best teams meeting in the second round, but it’s going to be great hockey one way or another. I think that’s the best part about the playoffs is that it’s a two-month gladiator event where everyone just beats the crap out of each other.”

Presidents’ Trophy winner Tampa Bay losing in the first round to eighth-seeded Columbus is more of a Lightning problem than a format problem. If the Lightning had gotten past the Blue Jackets, a potential second-round series against the Bruins would have guaranteed to knock out one of the top three teams in the league before the conference finals.

Travel is the biggest concern among players when it comes to a playoff format, and it’s much more of an issue in the spread-out West. Grouping by divisions is designed to limit those issues, but the wild-card system means a team like Nashville could face a team from California, Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary in the first round if it lines up that way.

”The biggest issue is probably the travel for the Western Conference,” said Predators defenseman Yannick Weber, who did not indicate a preference either way for changing the format. ”If we have to go to California for each round and Eastern teams have a little bit of an easier schedule, I think that’s the only downside from it.”

The most equitable format is seeding playoff teams 1 through 16, which the NHL tried in 1981 and 1982. The potential for cross-continent travel in each round is the biggest impediment to making that leap.

The Southern Professional Hockey League has tested a ”challenge round” format where the top three seeds in each conference get to pick their first-round opponent from seeds 5-8. Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle suggested that for the NHL in a recent interview with Sportsnet in Canada.

A pick-your-opponent format would create plenty of bulletin-board material for lower-seeded teams. But in a sport where matchup advantages, injuries and momentum matter more than the results of an 82-game regular season, it could silence complaints that the current format devalues everything from October through March.

”It almost gets to a point that the regular season doesn’t really mean anything because you see those divisions, there’s such a big difference between them,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. ”If you have to cross over and now you’re facing an easier division because you’re a wild card, doesn’t seem to be fair for me. The whole regular season needs to have a bigger effect on the playoffs.”

That’s where the argument comes in that the NHL should move to a play-in system like baseball, perhaps where the Nos. 7 and 10 seeds and Nos. 8 and 9 seeds in each conference play once to see who gets in. That would theoretically give more of a boost to the top two teams in the East and West.

But this format is locked in through at least next season.

Colorado’s Ian Cole, who played twice in the recent Penguins-Capitals playoff trilogy, supports the division rivalry format because it’s doing what it intended: generate interest.

”We were actually talking about it the other day in the locker room: As much as you’d like to see one through eight or one through 16, then you’re having Calgary playing Florida, for instance, in the first round,” Cole said. ”Does that move the needle, as opposed to Boston versus Montreal, which certainly does move the needle?

”I think there was some good thought behind it and yeah, sure, there are going to be some divisions stronger than others. Some teams are going to get left out because of that or get in because of that. It’s one of those things that this is the current format and we work with it the best we can.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Wraparound: Hurricanes look to stave off elimination

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

This might be it for the Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators. Both teams are facing elimination heading into their respective games tonight. Will we see two Game 7s on Wednesday? Will we even get one? We’ll find out soon enough.

The ‘Canes have the luxury of playing this do-or-die game at home, as they’ll look to bounce back against the Washington Capitals (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream). But in order for them to extend this series, they’re going to have to turn in a much better effort than they did in Game 5 on Saturday night.

“We were bad from start to finish, really,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said after Game 5, per the News & Observer. “It was tough to pick out a guy I thought had a good game. This time of year you need everybody on-board and for whatever reason we were all just a step behind and the score was indicative of the game.

“In every aspect of the game we were outplayed. Their best players were their best players and ours were not. We weren’t beating anybody (in Game 5).”The first thing the Hurricanes are going to have to fix, is their penalty kill, which allowed the Capitals to score three times on four attempts. If they can’t find a way to improve in that area, their chances of living to fight another day will be close to nothing.On a positive note, the home team has won every game in this series. So, either that trend continues or a team is due to win a game on the road. One thing is certain, Carolina will have to win a game on the road if they’re going to advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Getting some kind of production from Sebastian Aho would also increase the Hurricanes’ odds of forcing a Game 7. The 21-year-old, who led the team in scoring with 83 points in 82 games during the regular season, has a respectable three points in five games in this series. But if you take a closer look at Aho’s numbers, you’ll see that he only has one assist in the three games that have been played on the road.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 6: Predators at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET (Dallas leads 3-2): As we mentioned before, the Predators have everything to lose tonight. In order to extend this series, they’ll have to find a way to win in Dallas. Nashville needs to find a way to stop Dallas’ top line if they want any chance of winning tonight. Getting the ideal matchup on the road is easier said than done, which means Peter Laviolette will have his work cut out for him in Game 6. (CNBC, live stream)

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

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.

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