2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: 16 questions for every team

6 Comments

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

————

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.

2020 NHL All-Star Skills: Winners, fun moments, Hertl as Bieber

Leave a comment

All-Star Skills competitions bring about memorable moments in plenty of years. Yet, when Tomas Hertl donned a Justin Bieber mask, fans received something truly unusual: nightmare fuel.

Luckily, that (honestly chilling) vision was just one memorable image from the 2020 NHL All-Star Skills competition. Let’s go over the events, winners, and other fun stuff.

Keeping the St. Louis (and surrounding areas) faithful happy

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Ryan O'Reilly rocked a Chiefs helmet during warm-ups, while Jordan Binnington also supported the Super Bowl-bound team. The Chiefs did the Blues a solid during their Stanley Cup run, so why not pay it forward? Most importantly: it looked funny.

Matthew Tkachuk also went for a cheap pop from the St. Louis crowd by taking off his jersey to reveal St. Louis Cardinals garb during the Shooting Stars competition.

The greatest fan service came during appearances by big names of old. Wayne Gretzky — announced, accurately if amusingly, as a former Blue — really kicked things off. Brett Hull took a shot during the Shooting Stars event, and Keith Tkachuk also joined in alongside Matthew and Brady Tkachuk.

Personally, though, the best moment of all of those cameos came when Al MacInnis showed that he could still provide one of the hardest shots of any human.

Dude is 56. Allegedly.

Shea Weber ended up reclaiming his Hardest Shot title, while Patrick Kane won Shooting Stars.

Hertl wears the Bieber mask, creates nightmare fuel

As great as Hertl was at playing off of Jordan Binnington’s feud/friendly wager with Jordan Binnington (the Blues can fill you in on that), the actual execution of the mask makes me think of Michael Myers. You know, the creepy-masked slasher movie villain guilty of untold fictional executions in the “Halloween” series.

It’s still funny stuff, so enjoy the video above. Just maybe don’t let those images of Hertl as Bieber sink into your soul.

*Shudders*

Hertl explained after the Skills competition that the mask slipped, which made it difficult for him to put a decent shot on Binnington. That slip might also explain why it made it look like Bieber was the face for the rebooted “Shape,” which would make Bieber the next William Shatner.

Anyway, Binnington made that save, and also made the St. Louis crowd happy by winning save relay with 10 saves.

Binnington also got to chirp “Biebs,” saying he expected more. Nicely done.

Who won 2020 NHL All-Star Skills events, including Elite Women’s 3-on-3

So, the strangeness was mostly contained in those moments above. Granted, the Shooting Stars seems like it needs some fine-tuning, and I personally prefer styrofoam or otherwise breakable targets to the digital ones in this year’s accuracy competition.

But beyond those quibbles, the rest of the action was straightforward enough that we can breeze through the winners in one convenient spot.

Winners of Elite 3-on-3 Women’s Hockey: Canada 2-1

Hardest Shot: Shea Weber (106.5 mph)

Fastest Skater: Mathew Barzal (13.175 seconds) upset Connor McDavid (13.215)

Accuracy Shooting: Jaccob Slavin (9.505 seconds)

Save Streak: Jordan Binnington (10 saves)

Shooting Stars: Patrick Kane (22, then 2 in tiebreaker)

Itching for more All-Star Skills fun? Check out the 2019 edition.

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.

NHL All-Stars enjoy ‘really hard’ and ‘unique’ Shooting Stars event

Leave a comment

ST. LOUIS — If it were up to Patrick Kane the NHL All-Star Skills would bring back events like the Puck Control Relay. So despite winning the first ever Shooting Stars challenge Friday night, he yearned for the past.

“I’m a fan of the original Skills stuff, like Puck Control Relay and the actual [Accuracy] targets, the foam targets that blow up,” Kane said. “But I understand where they’re is trying to go with it, where they’re trying to create something different and use technology to their advantage. I think it was a pretty fun night all around.”

The 10 players stood on a platform behind one of the nets in the lower bowl of Enterprise Center. Their goal was to hit targets on the ice, including one that was in the shape of The Gateway Arch. Kane and Mitch Marner each scored 22 points before the Blackhawks forward won after a tiebreaker.

“It’s a little gimmicky, but at the same time you try to have fun with it and enjoy the event,” Kane said. “I think we all had a little pact between that we were going to shoot for the Arch and try to get as many points as we can. It was fun to win it.”

[NHL All-Star Game 2020: Rosters, schedule, jerseys, how to watch]

“Bad preparation by me. I never practiced that,” joked Bruins forward David Pastrnak, who finished with 10 points. “Should’ve built a 30-feet high [platform] and practiced that before All-Star. Unfortunately, I was a bad pro and didn’t do it. That way I can’t deserve a win.”

Now that NHL players got a taste of how the event works they’ll know what to expect next year if they’re All-Stars again. Some, like Pastrnak, can even build a platform in their backyards to practice if they desire.

“I don’t remember them being that small yesterday when we just had a few practice shots,” said Matthew Tkachuk. “Today, it was tough. You can see the winner had 22. So at 22 that means you hit two of the arches — put two in the netting — and then you probably miss the Arch and you get two points. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard, but it’s fun.”

The crowd was engaged and not just because Matthew Tkachuk wore a Yadier Molina Cardinals jersey or that Keith Tkachuk had a try. It was a fun, new event introduced by the NHL. Yes, some tweaks are definitely required before the 2021 event in South Florida — adjust the points system, start the targets at center ice — but it definitely beats previous events that killed the energy in the rink.

“It was a little different. Pretty unique,” said Sabres captain Jack Eichel. “It seems like the crowd had a good time with it. They were trying to do something new to try and spark the fans’ interest a little bit. I thought it was cool.”

————

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.

Patrick Kane beats Mitch Marner in tiebreaker to win first Shooting Stars event

Leave a comment

To jeers from the St. Louis faithful, Patrick Kane won the first rendition of the “Shooting Stars” competition at the 2020 NHL All-Star Skills Event.

Now, the crowd wasn’t booing just because Kane plays for the Blues’ rival Blackhawks in the Central Division. Some might have been grumbling because of some rules confusion. In particular, shooters going for 10 points often felt like they hit the mark, only to realize that they were foiled by the arc. That happened most dramatically when Mitch Marner thought he hit 10 during the tiebreaker round against Kane (and Ryan O'Reilly?). Once it was clear Marner got nothing, Kane pulled off the equivalent to getting a field goal to win in NFL overtime.

Shooting Stars brings some fun. It also is the sort of activity where you can get a pop from the crowd by bringing in retired stars. The audience received two such treats, as Keith Tkachuk joined his ragamuffin sons Brady and Matthew Tkachuk for an attempt. Brett Hull also took to the stage on behest of Ryan O’Reilly.

People worked the crowd beyond that. As often as Matthew Tkachuk plays the role of pro wrestling villain, he drew some easy cheers by showing off a Cardinals jersey. (To be fair, Matthew spent plenty of time in the area, so he might be a “shoot” Cardinals fan, to use pro wrestling parlance.)

So … maybe this one needs some fine-tuning, but it was really fun, including strong showings from Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight. Hockey combining Dude Perfect trick shot videos with Skee-Ball seems like a winner. Now they just need to print out tickets so people can earn worthless nicknacks.

Results

Patrick Kane – 22, “2” in tiebreaker

Mitch Marner – 22, narrowly missed 10 in tiebreaker
Matthew Tkachuk – 20
Marie-Philip Poulin – 15
Hilary Knight – 14
Ryan O’Reilly – 14
David Perron – 14
Tyler Seguin – 14
David Pastrnak – 10
Brady Tkachuk – 6

Shea Weber reclaims NHL Hardest Shot title

Leave a comment

ST. LOUIS — Shea Weber won the 2020 Hardest Shot title with a slap shot of 106.5 mph during Friday’s NHL All-Star Skills event.

“I think I knew all along that we were all just a part of the show,” said defending champion John Carlson, who finished second with a 104.5 mph shot, about going up against Weber.

The Montreal Canadiens captain won the event three straight times from 2015-2017 but did not participate the last two years. Weber topped the field of six players, which also included Elias Pettersson, Mark Giordano, Seth Jones, and Victor Hedman, with a 105.9 mph first shot.

Weber then topped his first attempt with the 106.5 mph blast.

Weber’s two best results in his Hardest Shot career remain the 108.5 mph from 2015 and the 108.1 mph the following year in Nashville.

Before the event got under way Blues legend and seven-time Hardest Shot champion Al MacInnis stepped on the ice, wood stick and all, and blasted one 100.4 mph. That shot tied his best result from the 1998 event, which he won.

FINAL RESULTS
Shea Weber 106.5 (winner)
John Carlson 104.5
Elias Pettersson 102.4
Mark Giordano 102.1
Victor Hedman 102.1
Seth Jones 98.8

————

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.