Bruins vs. Maple Leafs: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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Let’s do it all over again.

The Toronto Maple Leafs will battle the Boston Bruins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second year in a row. Last year, the series was decided over seven games, with the Bruins eventually winning on home ice in the seventh contest, 7-4.

The biggest difference between the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs and 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, is that the Leafs now have John Tavares in their lineup. The 28-year-old added 47 goals and 88 points in 82 games with his hometown team. Will that be enough to push the Leafs over the top this time around? Probably not.

Getting some added production from Auston Matthews would also help. Matthews posted just one goal and one assist in the seven-game series. He has to take his game to another level in the postseason if the Leafs are going to get by this talented Bruins team.

“It’s going to be a challenge but I think everybody in the locker room is hungry,” Matthews said. “We want to go in and be ready from the very first game and definitely send a message early.”

Sending a message early is probably a good idea. The Leafs dropped the first two games of the series in Boston last year. Toronto was able to win the first game at home to cut their series deficit to 2-1, but they ended up going back to Boston down 3-1. They were able to fend off elimination twice before eventually losing the series.

As Matthews mentioned, the Leafs have to get off to a better start if they’re going to cause an upset.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 7 p.m.: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 8 p.m.: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | NBC, CBC, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 7 p.m.: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN
Wednesday, April 17, 7 p.m.: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | CBC, TVA Sports, NBCSN
*Friday, April 19, TBD: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | TBD
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Bruins @ Maple Leafs | TBD
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Maple Leafs @ Bruins | TBD

FORWARDS

MAPLE LEAFS: The Leafs are blessed with some of the best firepower in the league. Matthews, Tavares, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, Kasperi Kapanen, William Nylander, Andreas Johansson and Patrick Marleau have all the ability to create offense. If Toronto is going to go on a run, they’ll need their offense to click from the get-go. It’s the only way they could make up for the defensive lapses in their own end. Of all the teams in the league, only Tampa Bay, Calgary and San Jose scored more goals than Toronto (286). Stopping this talented group of forwards isn’t going to be easy for the Bruins.

BRUINS: Even though the Leafs may be deeper up front, the Bruins have one of the best lines in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. All three players averaged better than one point per game this season, and Marchand hit the 100-point mark for the first time in his career. The key for Boston will be for them to continue to get secondary scoring from the likes of David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk and a few others. The Bruins ranked 11th in goals scored this year, with 259.

ADVANTAGE: Maple Leafs. I’ll give the Leafs the slight advantage here only because they’re deeper group of front, but we’re splitting hairs here. Both groups have high-end forwards that can break a game wide open.

DEFENSE

MAPLE LEAFS: This is where the Leafs will have to find answers immediately. From an offensive perspective, the Leafs had one of the top point-producing defenders in the league in Morgan Rielly, who had 72 points in 82 games. Acquiring Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings was a significant move, but it still didn’t fix the defensive zone issues that have plagued the Maple Leafs all season. Veteran Ron Hainsey has seen better days, but head coach Mike Babcock still likes to use the 38-year-old quite regularly (he averaged over 20 minutes per game). The good news for Toronto, is that Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott are back from injury.

BRUINS: Zdeno Chara isn’t as dominating as he was years ago, but the 42-year-old still averages 21:05 of ice time. Charlie McAvoy has become one of the young leaders on that blue line, while Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo round out the top four. Kevan Miller will miss the opening round of the playoffs because of a lower-body injury he suffered in the final week of the regular season. Miller brings a level of physicality that the Bruins will miss against Toronto.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. The Bruins don’t have anyone that can post individual offensive numbers like Rielly, but there’s no denying that they’re way deeper on the back end than the Maple Leafs are. This is as clear of an advantage as you’ll get at any position between this two teams.

GOALTENDING

MAPLE LEAFS: Frederik Andersen has had his share of struggles down the stretch. In order for him to be sharp for the playoffs, Babcock decided that Andersen would start the final two games of the regular season. The 29-year-old finished the regular season with a 36-16-7 record with a 2.77 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage this season. He ended the season with 6-5 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens, which isn’t an ideal way to go in the playoffs. The Leafs struggle with in-zone coverage, which means they’ll need their goalie to stand on his head at times if they’re going to advantage to the second round.

BRUINS: Like Andersen, Rask has struggled down the stretch, too. The 32-year-old won just one of his last four games and he allowed at least three goals or more in all three of those defeats. The Bruins have a capable backup goalie in Jaroslav Halak, but they need Rask to take his game to another level at this crucial moment. Rask finished the year with a 27-13-5 record with a 2.48 goals-against-average and a .912 save percentage this season.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. Both goalies are struggling heading into the playoffs, so whichever one can find their game the quickest will give their team the best chance to win. But heading into the series, it’s hard not give the advantage to Rask. He has more experience and playoff success than Andersen. But this should be an even battle.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Will the Maple Leafs’ in-zone coverage hold up?

As much as the coaching staff has tried to solve this issue, they still haven’t been able to figure it out. The Leafs tend to make critical mistakes in their own end. They might be able to get away with during the season, but they can’t keep making the same errors in April. Is there any way they can straighten themselves out now? They may just have outscore the Bruins every night?

Can Rask get the job done for the Bruins?

Again, the Bruins have the luxury of having a quality backup in Jaroslav Halak (the Leafs have no such luxury), but if they’re going to go on a run they’ll need their number one goalie to help carry the load. If he struggles against a potent offense like Toronto’s, Boston could be in tough.

PREDICTION

BRUINS IN 5. The Bruins have been playing incredible well for a long time. I can’t see them dropping this series. I think they’ll finish the Maple Leafs off in five games.

MORE PREVIEWS:
Islanders vs. Penguins
• Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes

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.

Blues’ recipe for success hasn’t changed in quest for Cup repeat

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ST. LOUIS — There was one thing Craig Berube wanted to focus on during his first training camp leading the Blues. With his players going deep into June en route to winning the Stanley Cup, the head coach wanted to keep his practices short. After playing 108 games last season, he was aware of the effects of two extra months of hockey.

Instead of longer skates to shake out the summer rust, Berube and his staff kept them short, fast and intense.

Berube also did not place any special attention on hammering home one particular message: avoiding a Stanley Cup hangover. A short off-season that featured plenty of celebrating the franchise’s first championship wasn’t one of his major concerns.

“I don’t think we went into camp with that focus,” Berube told NBC Sports. “We went into camp with getting going again and getting the skating and working. I thought our guys came in great shape and I thought we had really good practices in training camp.”

Roster consistency — Patrick Maroon was the only face gone from the Cup-winning team when camp opened — was also a key that helped drive the Blues off to a strong start to the 2019-20 season. (Joel Edmundson exited week later in a trade that brought Justin Faulk to St. Louis.)

The players walked into that dressing room and saw the same faces that were on the ice that Gloria-ous night in Boston. The way the Blues put a forgettable first few months of last season behind them and started a run in January that ended with a title showed how the chemistry finally came together. Keeping the roster pretty much intact ensured little need to get across an understanding of what made them successful.

“That helps a lot. That really helps us get to our identity,” said forward Ryan O’Reilly. “We kind of know what our best game looks like. We know as individuals what guys can do. It’s easy to have the communication and talk to each other and make the adjustments when we need to and lean on each other in certain ways at those crucial times.”

The Blues entered the NHL All-Star Break with 30 wins in 49 games and the second-best record by points percentage (.643) in the league. Their biggest skid happened right off the bat with losses in five of their first eight game of the season — three of which came in overtime or the shootout. That was followed by a stretch of nine wins in 10 games, setting them on the right course to a first half of dominance in the Western Conference.

Stanley Cup champions can fall prey to a hangover as they begin their defense, but that didn’t hit the Blues for too long. The 29 points earned in their first 20 games is the third-best start for any defending champion since 2006-07. Only the 2008-09 Red Wings (32 points) and 2013-14 Blackhawks (29 points) had better starts.

Defending Stanley Cup champions in their first 20 games since 2006-07 NHL season.

“Over that whole process of last year, of starting with the low point and building our way back up, finding our identity, getting in the playoffs, keep building from there, we really found something in ourselves that we kind of knew how to turn on when we needed to,” said O’Reilly. “That carried over into this year where we know it’s not going to be the same thing. We’re going to have to do this thing a different way. It’s going to be tough because teams are gunning for us, but we just have to find a way to always keep reinventing ourselves — get to our identity, playing hard, build our game from there. We just really paid attention to the details when we needed to.”

The Blues have gone from being the hunter to the hunted now. Every team wants to beat the defending champs, especially their Central Division rivals who are looking to make up ground in the playoff race. Berube’s hammered home the fact that they have targets on their backs and complacency is not an option. They don’t want to waste such a good first half and they understand there’s still a lot of hockey left to play.

“We haven’t had any easy games. We really haven’t,” said Berube, who noted he’s not thinking beyond the regular season at all. “There’s been tough games, no matter who we play, it always a hard game. I think our guys have bought into that and they’re understanding that more and more as it goes along. We’ve got a long way to go yet, we’ve got a lot of hockey to play and we’re going to have to play good hockey. Everybody’s going to be fighting now. Everybody’s going to be dialed in, fighting for a playoff spot, positioning, all that. All these games coming down the stretch are going to be tough.”

The messages Berube delivers every day continue working. He took over a team in Nov. 2018 that was lacking confidence, something he pointed out in his opening press conference. Slowly the turn around began and the players bought in big time. It paid off, as we know, so it’s no surprise that the success has continued into this season. The plan was put in place long ago and no one has deviated it from it. That’s why the Blues are a serious threat to repeat.

“What worked for him last year works for him this year,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo. “That’s been pretty much the recipe for our entire group. We found something that works from the coaching staff all the way down and we’ve stuck with it.”

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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.

Penguins give Marcus Pettersson a 5-year, $20.1 million contract extension

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The Pittsburgh Penguins locked up a key piece of their defense on Tuesday by signing Marcus Pettersson to a five-year contract extension. The deal runs through the end of 2024-25 season and is worth a total of $20.1 million. That comes out to a salary cap hit of just a little more than $4 million per season.

This deal was a long-time coming for the Penguins after they wanted to sign him to a long-term deal this past summer when he was still a restricted free agent. But the team’s salary cap situation at the time prohibited that from happening, resulting in the one-year contract he is playing on this season.

As of Tuesday he has one goal and 15 total points in his first 50 games this season, while also posting strong possession numbers. It is a pretty fair deal for both sides and falls right in line with what a solid, second-pairing defenseman is worth. That is exactly what Pettersson has become for the Penguins.

The Penguins acquired him in the middle of the 2018-19 season in the trade that sent Daniel Sprong to the Anaheim Ducks.

Pettersson and standout rookie John Marino have helped bring mobility and puck-moving ability back to the Penguins’ blue line. That improvement has turned what was a pretty significant weakness a year ago into a real strength.

The Penguins now have a significant part of their defense signed to long-term deals, while Marino still has one more full season remaining on his entry-level contract. That would seem to make it increasingly unlikely that Justin Schultz, a pending unrestricted free agent this summer, will get re-signed.

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.

Logjam at top of Pacific makes for intense playoff push

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Pacific Division is proving to be the wild, wild west of the NHL this season.

Vancouver beat defending champion St. Louis on Monday night to move to 60 points in 50 games. Edmonton (57 points in 49 games), Calgary (57 points in 50 games), Arizona (57 points in 51 games) and Vegas (57 points in 52 games) all follow right behind.

”It’s pretty surreal,” Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano said. ”I’ve never seen anything like that with this amount of time left in the season. It’s going to be a great finish, we’re right there right in the mix, we’re in a good spot.”

The logjam at the top is creating a 30-plus game sprint to the finish. The stakes will get higher as the NHL’s scheduling goes heavy on inter-divisional games late in the season.

”I don’t know if I was alive when it has been this close in the division,” Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom said. ”It’s great. It’s great for everybody. Obviously you want a 10 or 20 point cushion at this point but that’s not the case and it’s pretty much every team is right there inside a couple of points. It’s going to be fun hockey and pretty much playoff hockey is going to start here after the break.”

The tight race places a premium on regulation wins, allowing a team to grab two points without allowing its rival to get one.

While Vancouver and Edmonton appear to have the edge in games played, there is no margin for error.

”You can go from first to last, from last to first the next night and we’re all going to play each other coming up right at the end of the year,” Vegas forward Max Pacioretty said. ”It’s going to be a fight to the end and we’re expecting these last 30 games to be really intense. But on the bright side if you’re able to get in and you’re able to get through these games, that should prepare you for the playoffs and we’re looking forward to that challenge.”

All of the teams can find inspiration from the Blues’ run last season. The Blues were last in the entire league on Jan. 3 only to catch fire and ride that momentum to the Stanley Cup.

Like those Blues, the Golden Knights made a mid-season coaching change replacing Gerard Gallant who led the team to the finals in their first season, with former Sharks coach Peter DeBoer.

Pacioretty said the All-Star break came at a good time for Vegas. He believes it will allow him and his teammates to emotionally reset and come back ready to perform for their new coach.

”That’s kind of like a fresh wound right now and you kind of take responsibility whenever a coach gets fired,” Pacioretty said. ”You look at yourself in the mirror and say what could I have done better?”

Arizona finds itself in a different position after sitting at or near the top of the division for most of the season.

”We were always the hunters,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. ”We were always, ‘Hey, how are we going to get back into this thing?’ Now teams are below us and they’re the hunters on us. The old day of playing the backup goalie against the Coyotes, they’re not doing that anymore. They’re playing their starters. That’s what guys have to understand now. You’re going to get the best.”

The race doesn’t allow Tocchet and the other coaches the luxury of managing workload. Tocchet, who isn’t a big morning skate fan, believes it’s all about consistency.

He doesn’t remember a race this tight in his 18 years as a player or in his five years as a coach.

”You have to embrace the pain and all that stuff because if you look at those standings there’s five teams right in there,” Tocchet said. ”One week you’re either in first place or fifth place. Everything the coach does now is for the players and for their psyche and to make them feel comfortable.”

Raising the stakes even higher is that not all five teams are guaranteed to make the postseason as wild cards. Winnipeg, Chicago and Nashville from the Central Division are in the mix for those two spots as well.

Giordano said it’s all about peaking at the right time.

”We have great players and it’s just about putting it together at the right time,” Giordano said. ”I feel like last year we had a great start and an unbelievable first half and sort of lost that confidence we had down the stretch and it carried over for us in the playoffs. Hopefully this year is the complete opposite.”

PHT Morning Skate: Blues looking for top-6 winger; Pacific Division race

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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.

• General manager Doug Armstrong says the St. Louis Blues could be in the market for a top-six forward. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Canucks, Oilers, Flames prime for mad dash in crowded Pacific Division. (TSN)

• Five reasons for fans to be concerned about the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Sportsnet)

• General mangers on the hot seat as the NHL trade deadline approaches. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Has Valeri Nichushkin been Joe Sakic’s best offseason addition for the Colorado Avalanche? (Mile High Hockey)

Matt Dumba‘s good deed went viral, even if he wished it did not. (Pioneer Press)

Matthew Tkachuk‘s chippy controversy is no surprise to Blues players that watched him growing up. (Sporting News)

• Commitment to team defense driving Penguins’ success. (The Point)

• Ex-Penguin Mark Johnson has made his own impact on women’s hockey. (Tribune-Review)

• What the Chicago Blackhawks have done and what they still need to do. (Daily Herald)

• The New York Rangers have officially loaned forward Lias Andersson to HV71 of the Swedish League. (Blueshirt Banter)

• Looking back at the Capitals’ history winning streak a decade later. (NOVA Caps Fans)

Jakub Vrana gives the Washington Capitals something they have not had in more than a decade. (Japers’ Rink)

• Demanding remaining schedule awaits the Nashville Predators. (On The Forecheck)

• NWHL responds to comments about league on Sportsnet. (The Ice Garden)

• The New York Rangers have been the best investment for hockey bettors. (New York Post)

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.