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.

Schwartz, Tarasenko have Blues close to Cup Final

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Jaden Schwartz is on a scoring run that has the St. Louis Blues dreaming big.

Schwartz’s hat trick in Game 5 on Sunday helped give the Blues a 3-2 series lead against the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final and set the single-season franchise record for playoff wins.

The Blues could advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970 when they host Game 6 Tuesday night.

”It’s probably tough to put into words,” Schwartz said. ”It’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream come true.”

Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko have played huge roles in the Blues’ playoff success. Just not necessarily in the way that was expected.

Tarasenko has come up with more big assists than goals against the Sharks.

Meanwhile, Schwartz has found a scoring touch that eluded him during the regular season. After scoring 11 goals in 69 regular-season games, Schwartz has 12 goals in 18 playoff games.

”He’s obviously a tenacious player, a hard-working player,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”I know, goal-wise, he didn’t have a good regular season, but the work ethic was there and other things besides not producing with the goals.

”He’s a 200-foot player for us and he’s around the net for us, that’s where he scores. His hard work, being relentless and staying with it is paying off.”

Schwartz’s scoring run began on a quick pass from Tyler Bozak with 15 seconds left in regulation to snap a 2-2 tie in Game 5 in the first round against Winnipeg. He followed that up with a hat trick in Game 6 to send the Blues to the second round.

Schwartz is the first player to have two hat tricks in the same playoffs since Johan Franzen did it for Detroit in 2008 and he is the first to do it for the Blues.

Not bad for a guy who went 23 games without a goal during the regular season.

”He’s obviously been kind of our engine and a guy that’s scored huge goals for us throughout every series,” Bozak said.

”Pucks weren’t going in as much as he probably wanted in the regular season, but he was still playing really good hockey I thought and getting a lot of chances. And obviously what he’s done in this playoffs so far has been incredible. We’re pretty lucky to have him and we know he’s just going to keep getting better and keep doing those things for us.”

Tarasenko is the only player to get a point in every game of the Western Conference Final. But just two of his seven points in the series are goals.

Instead he has become a potent playmaker, setting up Bozak’s eventual game-winning goal in Game 4 and assisting on two of Schwartz’s goals in Game 5.

”Every time he gets the puck he puts them on edge,” Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Having such a shot like he does, teams are scared when he gets the puck and obviously they maybe will overcompensate for that and other things come available. Having played with him throughout the year, you see how dangerous he is whether it’s taking that shot or just being that threat that opens so much up.”

Tarasenko’s unselfish play was evident on Schwartz’s third goal. Carrying the puck on the power play, he could have taken a shot. But with San Jose playing the shot, he found Schwartz cutting towards the net for a one-timer into a wide-open net.

”Vlady is a good passer, he makes plays,” Berube said. ”He’s got his head up a lot, sees the ice well. His hard work is paying off. He’s working hard without the puck, and he’s a powerful guy.”

Tarasenko has led the Blues in goals in each of the past five seasons. Though he has taken a back seat to Schwartz in goal-scoring, the Blues are thriving in the postseason as never before from his playmaking ability.

And they are one win away from playing for the Stanley Cup, which many thought would have been impossible on Jan. 3 when the Blues were at the bottom of the NHL standings.

”Everyone knows we have a lot of work to do and we’re going to get their best game,” Schwartz said. ”They’re going to have the most desperation they’ve had in this series. We’ll enjoy it tonight, but we know there’s a lot of work yet.”

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

Bruins’ Chara says he’s on track for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara returned to practice and worked out with the full squad Monday, his first such workout since sitting out Boston’s Eastern Conference-clinching victory over Carolina with an undisclosed injury.

Chara had skated prior to practices over the weekend but didn’t participate in any full sessions. He said he felt good after the Bruins’ 45-minute workout on Monday and is on track to play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 27.

Chara was the first player on the ice Monday. Forward David Krejci also returned to practice. Coach Bruce Cassidy said Krejci was given a ”maintenance day” on Sunday.

Being a spectator for a series-clinching victory was difficult for the 42-year-old Chara. He was a member of the Bruins, who defeated Vancouver to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and lost to Chicago in the Cup Final in 2013.

”It was, I’m not gonna lie,” Chara said. ”Watching games are not fun. You want to play them, you want to be involved in them. It was that feeling of an anxiousness to play. But the guys did a great job.”

But Chara was easy to spot following the Game 4 win over the Hurricanes, when he suited up to shake hands with Carolina and celebrate on the ice with his teammates.

He has one goal and two assists in 16 games this postseason.

Patrice Bergeron said having Chara paired back up with Charlie McAvoy provides a major boost to the blue line.

”I think they complement each other really well,” Bergeron said. ”Obviously the experience that ‘Z’ has is something that he shares. And Chuck is the type of young guy that wants to learn and listen to everything that ‘Z’ has to share.”

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

Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

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It was only a matter of time until Vladimir Tarasenko started to get on a roll for the St. Louis Blues.

Not only has he been the team’s best and most impactful player for the past five years, he has been one of the most dangerous postseason goal-scorers the league has ever seen. As we wrote at the start of the series, he was going to be one of the biggest keys for the Blues in the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks, especially if his puck luck started to change a little bit.

It has definitely changed for the better, and the Blues are greatly benefitting from it.

First, just a reminder as to how good Tarasenko has been in the playoffs during his career. Before this season his 0.50 goals per game average in the playoffs was second among all players that had appeared in at least 40 playoff games since 2010-11 (trailing only Jake Guentzel), and was among the top-20 in NHL history. The only other players in the top-20 that played in the NHL after 2002 are Alex Ovechkin and Mike Cammallerri.

If you want to call him “clutch,” or a “big-game player” that is entirely up to you, but even more than any of that it is really just a matter of him being an outstanding talent that has always been a great finisher. Get him the puck and enough chances, and he is going to score a lot of goals no matter what the situation is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That is what made his production through the first two rounds of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs a little surprising. He was definitely not playing poorly, but his overall numbers were down a little bit, he was relying almost entirely on the power play to score goals (four of his first five goals in the first two rounds were power play goals), and he had yet to record a single assist. Obviously power play goals are worth the same as any other goal, but with penalties and power plays not always being available come playoff time due to the “let them play” mindset that takes over at this time of year, even-strength scoring becomes even more important.

Despite all of that were still plenty of signs that Tarasenko was due to break out. He had 47 shots on goal in 13 games (more than 3.5 per game) and the Blues were dominating the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers at even-strength. He was doing everything right except consistently putting the puck in the back of the net. But when you have an all-world talent like Tarasenko does, it is only a matter of time until those attempts, shots, and chances start to turn into goals.

You might limit players like him for a little bit, but you are not going to be able to shut them down forever.

Starting with Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, Tarasenko’s luck started to turn a bit.

After his three-point effort on Sunday in the Blues’ 5-0 win, a performance that included his nearly unstoppable penalty shot goal in the second period to help put the game away, he is now riding a five-game point streak and has at least one point in every game of the series.

He was probably the Blues’ best player in their Game 2 win when he finished with a game-high six shots on goal and set up Jaden Schwartz‘s goal early in the first period, and then assisted on Tyler Bozak‘s game-winning goal in Game 4 to even the series. He followed that up by playing his best game of the playoffs on Sunday with three points (his second multi-point game of these playoffs) in the win that brought the Blues one game closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

His seven points in the series are two more than any other player on the team while he has been on the ice for nine of the Blues’ 18 goals (literally half of them) in the series.

If the Blues were going to put themselves in a position to win this series — which they have if they can win just one of the next two games — they were going to need Tarasenko to be one of their best and most productive players.

He has been with what has been his best five-game stretch of these playoffs.

The timing could not have been better for the Blues.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

‘Canes surge into summer with confidence after playoff run

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes enter the offseason confident of one thing: They shouldn’t have to wait another decade to return to the playoffs.

They hope their nucleus will make postseason appearances an every-year thing.

The Hurricanes made their first playoff berth since 2009 last much longer than most expected, advancing to the Eastern Conference final before they were swept by the Boston Bruins.

After getting a taste of postseason hockey, this largely young team wants to do it again.

”I think we all know now what it takes first of all to get to the playoffs, and to go through those tough series,” forward Sebastian Aho said Monday. ”Now we’re even more hungry.”

There’s reason to believe this group has staying power.

The entire defensive corps – including young stars Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – is under team control for next season, with six of them signed and Haydn Fleury a pending restricted free agent.

Key winger Teuvo Teravainen is locked up through 2023-24. Promising forward Andrei Svechnikov oozed with promise during his rookie season. Aho, who also will be a restricted free agent, looks to be a candidate to receive a long-term deal. He declined to discuss his contract status.

This core was responsible for turning the franchise around and bringing entertainment – both during and after games – to the rink.

They brought back those beloved Hartford Whalers uniforms for a couple of games. They broke out the ”Storm Surge” celebrations, those choreographed on-ice parties after regular-season victories at home. They wore the jabs from curmudgeonly commentator Don Cherry as badges of honor – plastering his ”Bunch of Jerks” insult onto T-shirts that sold for $32 at the team shop. They welcomed a live pig named Hamilton into the building for home playoff games.

And, of course, they played winning hockey – especially after the calendar flipped to January. Their record of 31-12-2 was third-best in the league and propelled them from last place in the division to the top wild-card berth.

”As the year went on, as the record shows, it was a lot of good results, and coming to the rink was a lot of fun,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said.

A few things to watch entering the offseason:

THE CAPTAIN’S FUTURE

The big question is whether 37-year-old Justin Williams will return for a second season as team captain with his two-year contract expiring this offseason. The three-time Stanley Cup winner known around the league as ”Mr. Game 7” for his exploits in those final games brought credibility and leadership to the dressing room and helped steer the young team’s midseason turnaround. ”I put everything I had into it this year, and if I have everything again, then I’ll be here,” Williams said. ”I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

THE GOALIES

The Hurricanes have some decisions to make with both goalies – Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney – facing free agency. Mrazek accepted a one-year, $1.5 million deal last offseason to prove he’s worthy of a starter’s job, and the team snatched the 35-year-old McElhinney off the waiver wire when Scott Darling was hurt. They both played well enough to make Darling an afterthought, and now the question is whether either or both will wind up sticking around.

FREE AGENCY

The only other unrestricted free agents on the roster are forwards Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg. Ferland provided a strong physical presence on the ice, but he didn’t score any goals after February and had a single assist in the playoffs. The Hurricanes should have some money to spend when July 1 rolls around. According to salary tracking website CapFriendly.com, Carolina had the most room under the salary cap ($16.2 million) of any team in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS FIX

Carolina has plenty of work to do on its power play, which led to the team’s undoing against Boston. The Hurricanes scored on less than 10% of their postseason chances with the man advantage – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. During the regular season, they scored on nearly 18% of their chances to rank 20th in the league.

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