2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 16 questions for every team

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So here we are. The Stanley Cup Playoffs have arrived and 16 teams enter this week with dreams of playing into June and being the only ones to win 16 games over the next two months. There are contenders, pretenders, surprises, and usual suspects.

But as the chase for the Cup begins, there are plenty of questions to be answered. Here is one question for every team in the 2019 postseason.

1. Will the Capitals repeat?

Only one franchise — the Pittsburgh Penguins — has won back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Detroit Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998. It’s difficult to repeat. There’s roster turnover to deal with, bounces not going your way for another season, injuries to overcome, and just the pressure of winning 16 playoff games. There’s a reason why it hasn’t happened a lot. The Capitals had little change in personnel since last season, but losing Michal Kempny for the season will be a big blow to their blue line.

2. Which Martin Jones will show up for the Sharks?

Jones enters the playoffs coming off the worst regular season since he became an NHL No. 1. His .896 even strength save percentage, which was dead-last among goaltenders with at least 45 appearances. That pales in comparison to the .925 ESSV% he posted entering the 2016 playoffs when he helped the Sharks reach the Cup Final. San Jose has all the tools to be a contender in the West, but it’s goaltending that could hinder any chance at making a deep run.

3. Can anyone stop the Lightning?

62 wins, 128 points, the Presidents’ Trophy, the probable Hart Trophy winner, and three 40-goal scorers. Tampa is the overwhelming favorite to win the Cup, and with all that comes the pressure to complete an historic season by winning that elusive 16th playoff game. The Lightning have reached three Eastern Conference Finals since 2015 and dropped the 2015 Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks. They’ve been building to this type of season since promoting Jon Cooper. Now it’s a matter of finishing the job.

4. How long will the Blues’ resurgence last?

The story’s been told a thousand times. Last in the NHL on Jan. 3, St. Louis was revived after Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo and Jordan Binnington took over the starter’s job from Jake Allen. They finished a point out of the Central Division crown and now face a Jets team that isn’t the unbeatable force some imagined they would be. The confidence in that room has gone from wondering who might get dealt away as the season wasted away to pulling together and seeing a path toward a deep Western Conference run.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

5. What kind of goodbye will Panarin and Bobrovsky give the Blue Jackets?

It’s no secret that Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky will likely leave Columbus when their contracts expire this summer. That is one of the reasons why GM Jarmo Kekalainen was aggressive at the NHL trade deadline. The idea behind it? Load up and make your best shot before your two biggest stars walk in the summer. Facing the best team in the league in Round 1, there won’t be any pressure on the Blue Jackets, which could be a positive for them.

6. Who will emerge as the Flames’ No. 1?

Who do you trust more: Mike Smith or David Rittich? Calgary were the regular season champions of the Western Conference, and while their offense is dynamic and their defense is strong, goaltending could be their undoing. The Flames are quite good at shot suppression (NHL-best 28.1 shots allowed per game), they were a middle .918 at 5-on-5 save percentage. Smith is the expected starter for Game 1 against the Avalanche.

7. Are the Bruins’ being overlooked in the East?

The East has plenty of storylines with the Capitals looking to repeat, the Lightning trying to continue an historic season, the Islanders aiming to keep a surprise turnaround going, and those “jerks” in Carolina hoping Cinderella’s slipper fits. Meanwhile, the Bruins are sitting there as sleepers — a team clearly capable of winning the Cup. Since firing Claude Julien in Feb. 2017, Boston has the second-most wins (117) and points in the NHL under Bruce Cassidy (256). His message has gotten through and the top line of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron has been dynamite. They’ll need more from their depth if they’re to get through three rounds and make the Cup Final.

8. Will the Golden Knights make another deep run?

General manager George McPhee wasn’t satisfied after last season’s memorable run to the Cup Final. Vegas’ success in their first year changed the gameplan for the franchise, so McPhee went out and strengthened his team by adding Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty before the season and then Mark Stone at the February trade deadline. The depth up front is there, as is a strong defensive unit. Add in a healthy Marc-Andre Fleury and those are the ingredients for a viable contender.

9. How will the Penguins find consistency?

While they finished the regular season strong with a 12-4-4 record since the trade deadline, the Penguins have had plenty of ups and downs. They managed to drop nine of 10 games at one point, feature a power play that, while dangerous, allowed the shorthanded goals (15) in the NHL, and had a knack for blowing leads late in games. The talent is all there for another Cup run, and a number of players on their roster were on the 2016 and 2017 championship teams, it’s just a matter of not digging holes for themselves.

AP Images

10. Can Ben Bishop stay healthy to lead the Stars?

Injuries limited Bishop to 45 starts this season, but he was phenomenal posting a .938 even strength save percentage and seven shutouts. If he can stay healthy, following notable injuries in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and 2016 playoffs, Dallas is more than capable of knocking off the Nashville Predators in Round 1.

11. How hot is Mike Babcock’s seat in Toronto?

They brought John Tavares home and traded for Jake Muzzin. The Maple Leafs are stronger than last season but by no means are they the Cup contender many thought they’d be entering the postseason. There are plenty of issues affecting the team and they once again face a difficult Round 1 matchup against the Bruins. If they fail again, how does this change the conversation about Babcock’s future in Toronto? The expectations are sky high, and falling short yet again will only up the noise about whether he can lead them over the hump.

12. Are the Jets primed for an early exit?

Winnipeg brought the “White Out” to the Western Conference Final last season before being dropped by the Golden Knights. This season, they face a tough Round 1 matchup against the Blues and enter the series with a 14-14-3 record in their final 31 games. Not the look of a contender. They blew a chance to win the Central Division and now face one of the best teams in the second half of the season. Healthy additions to the blue line in Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien will help them try to slow a Blues offense that’s averaged three goals per game since January.

13. Can the Islanders’ defense cool the Penguins?

We knew that Barry Trotz’s defensive magic would work eventually after arriving on Long Island, but this quickly? The work of Piero Greco and Mitch Korn with their goaltenders earned the duo the Jennings Trophy this season, and the blue line has been stout ending the year with the 10th fewest shots allowed at even strength. The Penguins have the fourth-most shots at 5-on-5 and feature a dangerous power play. The Isles’ defense will be busy, but have shown their up to the task of slowing any opposing offense.

14. Do the Avalanche have enough to make some noise?

The top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen combined for 106 goals this season. The rest of the Avalanche team scored 152 combined. Championships are won with depth and Colorado will need others to step up and contribute in order to have a chance against a strong defensive unit in Calgary.

15. Can the Hurricanes find quality in their quantity of shots?

Carolina were third in the NHL in even strength shots on goal, but finished 15th in 5-on-5 goals for. It all added up to a 7.17 shooting percentage, per Natural Stat Trick. Braden Holtby faced the seventh most shots at EV this season, so he’s used to being busy in net and will be well-prepared for the Hurricanes’ shooting prowess. But facing a team with as many offensive weapons as the Capitals employ, Rod Brind’Amour’s team will have to make their shots count.

16. Will Kyle Turris show up for the Predators?

The last time Turris scored fewer than 10 goals and played more 11 games in a season was 2008-09, his first full NHL season. This season has been one to forget as injuries and inconsistent play limited him to seven goals in 55 games. He was a ghost last spring scoring zero goals and recording three assist as Nashville exited in Round 2. If the Predators are to have a formidable second line, they’ll need him to find his production again. By the way, he has five years and $30 million left on his contract.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets

Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
• 
Roundtable: Goaltending issues, challenging the Lightning
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

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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.

Bruins coach Cassidy has some harsh words for his defense

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PITTSBURGH — For the third time this season and the second time this week the Boston Bruins lost a game after holding a three-goal lead. On Sunday, it was a 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After scoring three first period goals, the Bruins allowed the Penguins to climb back into the game and eventually tie it on a Jack Johnson shorthanded goal early in the third period. That set the stage for Bryan Rust to score the game-winner with just over seven minutes remaining.

That goal is the one that really seemed to draw the ire of Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy after the game. Especially since it is the type of thing he has been seeing too much of lately. He used that goal as an opportunity to criticize the play of his defensemen and the type of hockey they are playing.

It all started with Penguins center Evgeni Malkin forcing a turnover on the forecheck thanks to a heavy check on Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy. McAvoy gave up the puck to Malkin, Malkin found Rust wide open inside the faceoff dot, and Rust deposited in the net before Bruins goalie Jaroslav Halak could figure out what happened.

This game had to be especially frustrating for the Bruins after losing a three-goal lead in Philadelphia earlier this week.

“We saw some poor defending, poor goaltending I think in Philly. Tonight I thought it was more the same to be honest with you,” said Cassidy on Sunday. “Not so much on the goalie, they were good goals. But we get beat off the wall on the first one. The last one I can’t tell you what happened to be honest with you. It’s a rimmed puck goalie needs to get out and stop. The D need to communicate.

“You need to make a play. You can’t turn the puck over there. There’s too much of that going on. Guys that have offensive ability have to start playing to their strength a little more on our back end, or we have to seriously consider what type of D corps do we want? We are supposed to be mobile, we are supposed to be able to move the puck, break pucks out and add to our offense. Right now that is a challenge for us.”

Cassidy never mentioned anyone by name there, but it’s not hard to figure out who he is talking about.

McAvoy is the one that was guilty of the turnover on the game-winning goal, and it is probably fair to say that he is one of the players Cassidy wants to see playing to their strength more offensively. McAvoy spoke to the media after the game and admitted he needed to be stronger on that puck.

Aside from the turnover, McAvoy has been having an underwhelming season based on the standard he set for himself over his first two seasons. His possession numbers are down, and as of Sunday he has yet to score a goal in 46 games. He scored seven goals in 54 games a year ago, after scoring seven in 63 games during his rookie season.

It should also be noted that veteran John Moore was the one that got beat on the first goal that Cassidy mentioned. Moore, normally a 17-18 minute per game defenseman, was pretty much benched after that play. He finished the game with just 10 minutes of ice-time, only six of which came in the second and third periods after that goal was scored.

Cassidy was asked if he thought the team let up a little bit after getting the early lead. He did not see it that way, instead focussing on the type of goals they allowed.

“We got out-chanced in the second, but I don’t think it was to the point where they were bombarding us,” said Cassidy. “They were better, but we lose a battle low on the second goal, and our forward swings away. These are correctible mistakes, but the goals we are giving up against this good team like tonight. What is it? Is it lack of focus? Did we lose our urgency? Because they are gifts a little bit. Little bit of gifts. You can get out played, you will by good teams in stretches, but they were gifts.”

This Bruins team — and especially their defense — had their toughness questioned by the Boston media in the wake of their response to the hit that sidelined starting goalie Tuukka Rask.

Now they are facing public criticism from the person whose opinion matters most — their own coach — for a far bigger problem.

Their actual play on the ice.

Related: Penguins score four consecutive goals to beat Bruins

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.

 

Penguins rally from 3-goal deficit to stun Bruins: 3 takeaways

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins erased a three-goal first period deficit against the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon to pick up a 4-3 win. The Penguins have shown an ability to rally all season, but their first period performance on Sunday, combined with the dominance of the Bruins, made it seem like this one might be a little too much to overcome.

It was not.

Here is how they did it.

1. Matt Murray and Jack Johnson bounced back

Murray and Johnson were at the center of the Penguins’ early struggles on Sunday as Boston jumped out to a 2-0 lead just two minutes into the game.

The first goal came just 11 seconds into the game when Johnson got caught out of position and left Patrice Bergeron wide open for a shot that he buried behind Murray. Two minutes later, Anders Bjork took advantage of another defensive breakdown to score his eighth goal of the season.

Just after that Murray received a mock cheer from the sellout crowd when he stopped a rolling puck from the neutral zone.  Things only got worse when David Pastrnak scored his 37th goal of the season thanks to some help from Johnson who accidentally knocked Pastrnak’s centering attempt into his own net.

“I had a feeling [Pastrnak] was going to throw it across the goal line to the guy on the backside,” said Johnson. “You have to try and stop it and lay it in the pads. You can’t let it go through or deflect it into the slot. It’s a tough bounce.”

It would have been easy for Penguins coach Mike Sullivan to make a goaltending change at that point but he decided to stick with Murray. He was rewarded for it. Murray was not only perfect for the remainder of the game, he actually finished with a very strong .918 save percentage and made some huge saves in the second and third period to keep the Penguins in it.

He has been relegated to backup duty for most of the past two months behind All-Star Tristan Jarry. But the Penguins know they will need both goalies this season and have tried to get Murray more playing time recently to get him back on track. He has now won each of his past four starts with strong numbers.

While Murray was bouncing back in net, Johnson made up for his first period own goal by scoring the game-tying goal early in the third period with a booming shorthanded slap shot.

2. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin dominated

The Penguins’ superstar center duo did not finish with huge numbers (Crosby had two assists; Malkin had one assist) but there was no denying the impact they had on this game.

Crosby helped start the Penguins’ rally late in the first period when he set up Dominik Simon for the Penguins’ first goal.

Just 33 seconds into the second period he added another ridiculous pass to his highlight reel when he did this.

Crosby now has eight points in four games since returning to the lineup.

Malkin, meanwhile, was a constant threat all day and finally made an impact on the scoreboard when he set up Bryan Rust on this play late in the third period.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan praised Malkin’s effort and the message it sends to the rest of the team.

“Malkin made a great play on the game-winner.” said Sullivan. “He gets in on the forecheck, it’s just a hard-working goal. When you have one of your best players and a leader like that step up, it speaks volumes for the leadership of the group.”

The bad news for the Penguins’ forwards on Sunday is that Simon and Dominik Kahun both exited the game with injuries.

3. The Bruins lost another three-goal lead

This is something that just does not happen to the Bruins.

Consider this stat from NHL.com’s Wes Crosby when the Bruins jumped out to their three-goal lead.

 

The concerning thing here is three of those now eight losses (one regulation and two overtime) have come since Nov. 1 of this season.

They lost in a shootout to the Florida Panthers on Nov. 12 after holding a 4-0 lead. This past week they had a 5-2 second period lead over the Philadelphia Flyers before allowing that to slip away, again losing in a shootout. Then on Sunday they turned a 3-0 first period lead into a 4-3 regulation defeat.

The Bruins are still in a good position in the Atlantic Division with a six-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but there are some issues here. For one, Tampa Bay is gaining ground fast. There is also the fact that Boston has cooled off considerably over the past couple of months and is just 8-7-7 in its past 22 games.

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.

Gerard Gallant on coaching future: ‘I’m far from done’

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The Vegas Golden Knights decision to fire coach Gerard Gallant this past week came as a shock to pretty much everyone across the NHL, and that of course includes Gallant himself.

Gallant told his hometown paper, the Journal Pioneer on Saturday that he was “quite surprised” by the Golden Knights’ decision and that it isn’t too popular with him.

“You don’t see something coming like that when you have two-and-a-half years in. I was disappointed and surprised, but I understand the hockey business and things have to change sometimes. They made a tough decision and I’m sure it was tough on them, but that’s the way hockey is.”

Given the nature of the NHL’s coaching carousel it seems to be a given that Gallant will be back behind a bench at sometime in the near future. He told the Journal Pioneer that he “definitely” still wants to coach and that he is “far from done.”

Under Gallant’s watch the Golden Knights were the most successful NHL expansion team of the modern era with a 118-75-20 regular season record in two-and-a-half seasons. They made the playoffs in each of his first two full seasons and made a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Even though they were on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture at the time of the coaching change they were still just one point out of a playoff spot and only three points out of first place in the Pacific Division.

The Golden Knights are 1-0-1 in the two games since the coaching change. Given the way they have played at 5-on-5 this season there is every reason to believe they can turn their season around after a slow start as long as they get more consistent goaltending.

Perhaps the most interesting comment from Gallant in his interview was how he and the NHL were going to handle the 2020 All-Star Game. Gallant had initially been announced as the head coach for the Pacific Division team, but his dismissal from the Golden Knights put that into question. Gallant said he and the league talked about how to handle the situation and that the NHL left it up to him on whether or not he wanted to participate. In the end he decided he would not have been comfortable going.

The NHL named Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet as the replacement.

You can read Gallant’s entire interview here.

More on Gerard Gallant

Golden Knights fire Gallant, hire Peter DeBoer
Golden Knights’ Gallant firing seems like short-sighted, knee-jerk reaction
Gallant replaced by Rick Tocchet at 2020 NHL All-Star Game

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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Bruins on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Two of the NHL’s top teams meet for the second time in four days as the Bruins head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins. Sunday’s matchup will be the third and final game between these two this season. Boston won the first two meetings

After losing in Boston Thursday, the Penguins had a chance to get right back to it with a game against the Red Wings Friday night. Pittsburgh started slow, trailing 1-0 to the league’s worst team through two periods. But early in the third Bryan Rust scored his 20th of the season on the power play to even the score. And in overtime it was the captain Sidney Crosby who netted the game-winner on the power play to help Pittsburgh escape with a win.

Since returning from his 28-game absence, Crosby has 6 points (3G-3A) and has scored a goal in each of his three games.

With All-Star goalie Tuukka Rask (concussion) on injured reserve, the Bruins are now relying on Jaroslav Halak as their primary goalie. After starting the season on a tear, Halak has not been as sharp over the past six weeks.Halak has started (and won) both games against the Penguins this season. Over his career, he is 11-8-2 in 21 starts against Pittsburgh, with a 2.53 GAA and .921 SV%.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

WHAT: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 19, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Bruins-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskCharlie CoyleAnders Bjork
Danton HeinenPar LindholmKarson Kuhlman
Joakim NordstromSean KuralyChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
John MooreMatt Grzelcyk

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Dominik KahunEvgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Alex GalchenyukAndrew AgozzinoPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Jusso Riikola – Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.