Islanders already on track for some history

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As the smoke from burning John Tavares sweaters plumed into the clouds across Long Island last July, nobody, not even the most optimistic and ardent Islanders supporter, would have predicted this.

Here in mid-February, the Tavares-less New York Islanders sit atop the Metropolitan Division and in second place overall in the Eastern Conference. Barry Trotz is without question the front-runner for the Jack Adams Award and the team could very well be hosting playoff games in April. So how have the Islanders gotten it done?

One of the best stories in the league has been the resurgence of Robin Lehner, who publicly discussed his struggles with mental health earlier in the season. Lehner has gone 13-2-1 since mid-December and leads the NHL in both save percentage (.930) and goals against average (2.05). Any idea who ranks second in both categories? That would be the Isles’ other goaltender Thomas Greiss (.927 SV%, 2.28 GAA). Only once in the Expansion Era (since 1967-68) has a goalie tandem finished first and second in both categories. That would be Hall of Famers Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall, who did so for the 1968-69 St. Louis Blues.

Of course, the defense in front of both goaltenders has been exceptional. Last season, the Islanders gave up a league-worst 293 goals, which was the most allowed by any team since the Flyers surrendered 297 in in 2006-07. That Flyers team finished last in the NHL with just 56 points. This year, the Islanders have allowed only 128 goals, the fewest in the league. For perspective, only once in NHL history has a team had the most goals allowed followed by the fewest goals allowed the following season. It happened over 100 years ago around World War I, when the 1917-18 Ottawa Senators (114 GA) turned things around in 1918-19 (53 GA). Who could forget that?

Another surprising aspect of this year’s Islanders club has been the team’s depth at center, especially after Tavares walked in free agency. Mathew Barzal (48 points), Brock Nelson (36), Valtteri Filppula (22) and Casey Cizikas (22) have combined for 128 points and 56 goals. Production from Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy last season with 85 points, was to be expected. But Nelson is on pace for a career-high 53 points and has already exceeded his 35 from last season. Cizikas, meanwhile, already has a career-best 12 goals on the fourth line and Filppula is on track for 33 points for the second consecutive year.

The Islanders have one other peculiar chance at history, as they are an unblemished 9-0-0 in the second half of back-to-backs. The best perfect record in the second game of back to backs is 4-0-0, by the 1935-36 Black Hawks (two words back then).

If the Isles manage to stay in the playoff picture, perhaps the most intriguing storyline of all will be where they will host their postseason games. The team has split their home games this year between Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Their game against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday will be the final one at Barclays Center during the regular season, with 12 more games still left to play at the Coliseum, where they are 6-1-2 thus far. Commissioner Gary Bettman will reportedly decide where the Isles will host their playoff games and politicians from Nassau County have petitioned him to pick the Coliseum. If the choice ends up being Long Island rather than Brooklyn, the Isles could have one of the more significant home ice advantages in the league. If you want a preview for how loud the old barn can get, tune in when the Islanders host Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 28 and April 1. The last time Nassau Coliseum hosted a playoff game was Game 6 of the First Round in 2015, when New York defeated Trotz and the Washington Capitals 3-1. They would go on to lose Game 7 in D.C.

Still, with all of the optimism following the team this season, Islanders players do not sound satisfied. Not with 27 games left to go.

“We’re still hunting,” forward Anthony Beauvillier told Newsday. “We don’t really look back. We just want to look forward and keep rising and climbing. Early in the year, everyone doubted us. We’re trying to prove people wrong. We haven’t accomplished anything. We want to make the playoffs and have a good run. There’s a little bit more in us, I think.”

The Islanders will continue to have their doubters come playoff time, especially with the Tampa Bay Lightning in line for the Presidents’ Trophy and the championship pedigree of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins lurking in their own division. But the Isles have a bit of their own pedigree now with Lou Lamoriello in the front office and Trotz behind the bench. Nobody thought the Vegas Golden Knights would make the Stanley Cup Final last season either. Who knows where this year’s surprising Islanders squad could wind up?

The Wraparound: Goaltending hasn’t been an issue for Flames

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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.

Even though the Calgary Flames finished right at the top of the Western Conference standings, many hockey fans doubted whether or not they were a serious Stanley Cup contender. The reason for the doubt was pretty obvious, too. No one seemed to believe in either of their goaltenders.

Mike Smith and David Rittich both had difficult stretches at various times throughout the season. In the end, the Flames decided to roll with Smith in the postseason. The 37-year-old finished the campaign with 23-16-2 record, a 2.72 goals-against-average and a .898 save percentage in 42 games.

The belief heading into the series was that if Calgary’s best players could score enough, they could compensate for the shaky goaltending. After all, the Flames had five players surpass the 70-point mark during the regular season. Johnny Gaudreau (99), Sean Monahan (82), Elias Lindholm (78), Matthew Tkachuk (77) and Mark Giordano (74) so offensive production wasn’t a worry.

But after four games against the Colorado Avalanche, the Flames now find themselves on the brink of elimination, and it’s not for the reason we all thought. They have to find a way to stay alive in Game 5 (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream)

Smith hasn’t been the issue at all. He’s actually been really good between the pipes throughout the entire series and if anything, he’s kept them in games. It’s their high-end offensive guys that have let them down. Gaudreau has one assist through four games and Monahan has a goal and a helper. That’s it.

Over the last two games, Smith has stopped 99 of 108 shots the Avalanche have fired his way. The fact that he’s faced that much rubber over the last two games is insane. Yes, that’s a lot of goals to give up over two games, but the team in front of him checked out in Game 3 and they blew a 2-0 lead in Game 4.

“It’s nothing personal,” Smith said after Game 4, per the team website. “It’s about the team winning. I’m just one little cog.

“It’s nice to have personal success, obviously, but when you don’t get the results it doesn’t matter. You need to do more.”

The Flames are in must-win mode. We’ve already seen one no. 1 seed go down, so it wouldn’t be too shocking to see the top team in the West go down, too.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 5: Maple Leafs at Bruins, 7 p.m. ET (series tied 2-2): It’s been a fierce battle between the top line of both teams. John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron have gone head-to-head a lot. In Game 3, the Leafs trio got the better of that matchup, but in Game 4 the Bruins’ top players took their game to another level. Who comes out on top tonight? (NBCSN, Live stream)

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
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.

Penguins and Lightning exits show playoff hockey differences

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Scotty Bowman had already coached six teams to the Stanley Cup championship when his high-powered Detroit Red Wings that won 12 of their first 14 playoff games couldn’t get the puck away from the New Jersey Devils and got swept in the 1995 final.

”They just shut us right down,” Bowman said. ”We were shocked, but it happens.”

The coach with the most Stanley Cup rings in NHL history wasn’t as shocked to see the Tampa Bay Lightning get swept out of the first round this postseason after tying the single-season wins record set by his 1995-95 Red Wings and finishing 21 points ahead of the rest of the league. He wasn’t surprised, either, when the same thing happened the same night to the Pittsburgh Penguins after they won two of the past three championships.

If the Calgary Flames can’t come back from a 3-1 series deficit against Colorado, it will mark the first time each conference’s top seed is eliminated in the first round.

More than any other sport, playoff hockey is a much different animal than the regular season because of increased emphasis on scouting and preparation, fewer penalties and even-strength goals, and more all-out shot-blocking and sacrificing. The way games are coached, played and officiated changes enough that the Lightning can go from being the best team for seven months to gone in seven days.

”The ice shrinks and you have less time, less space, the hits are harder, guys are not preserving energy over the course of a game,” said NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp, who won the Cup in 2003 with New Jersey. ”You’re exhausting it every shift.”

Tampa Bay looked so exhausted after winning 62 of 82 regular-season games that it lost four in a row to eighth-seeded Columbus, which didn’t even clinch a playoff spot until game 81. The Blue Jackets were by far the better team, and Bowman – who lives in Florida and frequents the Lightning’s press box – saw a totally different Tampa Bay team without top defensemen Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman because it couldn’t move the puck up ice without a strain on the top forwards.

Bowman compared it to what Detroit would’ve been like without Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom, who hardly ever made a mistake with the puck and made everything happen. The Lightning ran into a tough John Tortorella-coached forecheck, struggled to control the game against the disciplined Blue Jackets and all their star power couldn’t dig them out of a deep hole.

”During the season, Tampa would have the puck so much, the other team would get four, five or six penalties and, boom, their power play was at 28 percent and had the most goals in the league,” Bowman said. ”They were so hard to play against all year because they forced the other teams to take penalties. (Hedman and Stralman) are bringing the puck up, they’re in the (offensive) zone. The game changes.”

Star players also get much more attention in the playoffs. Tampa Bay’s top scorers, presumptive MVP Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, combined for five points against Columbus after averaging 1.3 a game during the regular season.

That problem isn’t limited to the Lightning. Two-time playoff MVP Sidney Crosby was limited to one point in the Penguins’ sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders, and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau has one point through four games against Colorado.

Tampa Bay, Calgary and Pittsburgh all ranked in the top six in the league in scoring during the regular season. When Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens does an autopsy on the Lightning and Penguins’ quick playoff exits, he sees fundamental problems in other areas.

”I saw two teams that don’t defend very well, really don’t have a lot of structure in their D-zone and they didn’t have anything to fall back on,” said Stevens, who won the Stanley Cup three times with the Devils and now is an NHL Network analyst. ”They weren’t able to score goals, and they weren’t able to defend and therefore they’re not playing anymore.”

Belying a common misperception, scoring isn’t down much in the postseason so far: an average of 5.8 goals over the first 31 playoff games compared to 6.0 in the regular season. But after 77.8 percent of regular-season goals came at even strength, that number is 59.4 percent so far in the playoffs, which means each power-play goal is all the more important.

”You want to stay out of the penalty box,” Stevens said. ”There’s teams that their power play might’ve been average during the year but they find a way to get a few in the playoffs and make a difference and that can win a series for you.”

Or lose a series. Pittsburgh went 1 for 11 on the power play, and Tampa Bay went 1 for 6.

Of course, there are fewer penalties called this time of year. The NHL has said it wants officials to call games the same way in the playoffs, but referees don’t want to overreach when games are so tight.

”I was always told that penalties are like money and it’s like other people’s money in that you should be frugal with them unless the action demands a call,” said retired referee Paul Stewart, who worked 49 NHL playoff games during his career.

Stewart likens the first two rounds of the playoffs to a guy being so excited for a date that he gets a speeding ticket on the way, and because of that officials need to take extra care to rein in players. It’s easy for him to understand why players feel like there’s less room on the 200-by-85-foot ice surface than during the regular season because he has seen it up close.

”Players tend to cover a lot more ice because their speed level and their intensity level is up and where they might’ve dogged it a step or two here or there, they seem to put a little more churn in the butter,” Stewart said. ”They’re getting from point A to point B a lot faster and then they’re going to point C and point D where during the regular season they might only get to point C and now they’re hitting D, E and F because they’re all jacked up and they want to make sure that every 45-second shift is momentous for them.”

Stevens said a great regular-season team’s confidence can evaporate quickly and lead to a long summer of reflection.

”The teams that are undisciplined, the teams that get away from their game quickly and can’t stay with their game tend to get in trouble because you become a little reckless, you don’t manage the puck and then they feed the other team’s offense and then they tend to find themselves chasing,” Stevens said. ”They just have no answer and it’s frustrating for that team that can’t find their game, has no answers, the adjustments don’t work and you’re still working hard, you’re trying hard but you can’t find a way to win.”

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

PHT Morning Skate: Hurricanes changing hockey culture; What’s going on with Bruins?

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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 Team USA roster for the World Hockey Championship is loaded with superstars like Patrick Kane. (NBC Olympics)

• The Toronto Maple Leafs should consider using their best players on their struggling penalty kill. (The Hockey News)

• No one seemed to know what was wrong with the Bruins heading into Game 4 against Toronto. (Yahoo)

• The Flames have to figure out how to put this fire out or they’ll be going home early. (Sportsnet)

• The Stars aren’t known for their defensive prowess, but they’ve improved in that area. (The Point)

• Find out how the Hurricanes changed the hockey culture in Carolina. (ESPN)

• Columbus waited a while to see their team win a playoff round, but it was totally worth it. (1st Ohio Battery)

• Pens GM Jim Rutherford is going to try to find some added chemistry with his roster going into next season. (Pittsburgh Tribune)

• How will Todd McLellan’s experience behind the bench with San Jose impact what he can do with the Los Angeles Kings. (Jewels from the Crown)

• McLellan knows that the Kings’ immediate future isn’t necessarily bright. There’s a lot of work for him to do. (LA Times)

• The Flyers wanted Joel Quenneville, but they did just fine by hiring Alain Vigneault. (NBC Sports Philly)

• Isles defenseman Ryan Pulock‘s journey to the NHL was fuelled by tragedy. (Sports Illustrated)

• Speaking of the Isles, their GM, Lou Lamoriello, finally admitted that his team isn’t better off without John Tavares. (TSN)

• What are the New Jersey Devils’ off-season needs? (All About the Jersey)

• The Oilers will have to get creative if they want to create salary cap space this summer. (Oilers Nation)

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.

Seattle NHL arena not expected to open until middle of 2021

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SEATTLE (AP) — The arena for Seattle’s new NHL franchise won’t be completed until late spring or summer of 2021 but that shouldn’t have any impact on the expansion team’s first season.

Team President Tod Leiweke said Thursday the delay could end up affecting some other plans for the franchise, including the hopes of hosting the 2021 NHL draft. After being awarded the league’s 32nd team last December, Seattle officials were hoping to have the building open by early spring 2021, but design delays and a change in general contractors has delayed the project.

Leiweke said Mortenson, the new contractor, has been provided with incentives to try to have the arena ready by June 1, 2021, in the hope of having the building host the team’s expansion draft, the NHL draft and a full home slate for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.

”We have had discussions with the NHL, they’re open to that idea, where we would host not only the expansion draft in the building but the full league draft,” Leiweke said. ”That would be a heck of a way to start a franchise. We are fully motivated.”

Getting the Storm back into the building is a major priority, Leiweke said. Coming off winning the WNBA title last season, the Storm will play this season and the next in temporary homes around the Seattle area.

Ken Johnson, construction executive with Oak View Group, said they should have a more detailed construction timeline by next spring.

”The Storm will play in this building and they’re not really a tenant, they’re a partner,” Leiweke said. ”We have deep admiration for them and what they do. We have a deep admiration for their championships. Hopefully, some of that will rub off on other teams in the building.”

The price of the privately funded project, which is being built on the site of the former KeyArena, has grown to between $900 million and $930 million, Leiweke said. The price was originally expected to be about $650 million.

Mortenson has agreed to a guaranteed price for the project and Leiweke said there are contingencies built in should unexpected issues arise.

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