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.

Maple Leafs’ Muzzin out for rest of series vs. Blue Jackets

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There’s some good news for Jake Muzzin.

The defenseman has left a local Toronto hotel after leaving Game 2 on a stretcher following a collision late in the third period. Muzzin was cross-checked by Columbus forward Pierre-Luc Dubois and sent off-balance, causing his head to collide with Oliver Bjorkstrand‘s knee.

According to the Maple Leafs, Muzzin will miss the rest of the series and remain in quarantine until he’s ready to return.

“No question, seeing one of your teammates go down, especially a guy like ‘Muzz,’ you know the type of warrior he is.” said Maple Leafs captain John Tavares. “I think what he brings to our team is unmeasurable, obviously very tough. All signs are very positive being around him, and nice to close it out for him. But certainly tough to see, especially just how much we love that guy.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

When Muzzin is ready to return, the Toronto Hub Medical Director will decide quarantine/testing protocols before he’s allowed to practice and play again.

“He does a big part for this team, penalty kill, even strength against the best players against the other team,” said Mitch Marner said. “He really does mean a lot to us. So being beside when he did go down and stayed down, obviously it’s a little worrisome. And when you see the stretcher come out, a lot of things run through your mind. We’re all on his side and all praying for him. We just want to make sure that when he does come back he’s 100 percent, and there’s a lot bigger things than hockey.”

The series is tied 1-1 with Game 3 Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 1-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets*, TBD
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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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.

Aye Captains: Crosby, McDavid provide Penguins, Oilers spark

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TORONTO (AP) — The C’s have it: Crosby and Connor, that is.

It didn’t take long for the two captains – Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid – to make their presence felt three days into the NHL’s expanded playoffs.

With each of their teams facing 1-0 deficits, and both to their respective conference’s 12th- and last-seeded opponents no less, Crosby and McDavid provided much-needed sparks to even their best-of-five preliminary round elimination series, which resume Wednesday.

First, it was Crosby giving the Penguins a lift by beating Carey Price on a partial break to open the scoring in a 3-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens in Toronto on Monday night.

A few hours later in the league’s other playoff hub city, Edmonton, Alberta, McDavid put on an eye-popping display – even by his standards – with his first three-goal playoff performance in a 6-3 win over Chicago.

”I’ve seen it for years with Sidney Crosby. I mean, he dictates the work ethic and pace of the game. Last night Connor was the guy to do that for us,” Oilers coach Dave Tippett said Tuesday.

”Connor’s not a big ‘Rah-rah’ guy, but he inspires players by how he plays,” he added. ”And last night, he certainly led the way for us, and the rest of our team followed suit.”

In Sid, the Penguins trust, veteran defenseman Kris Letang said.

”When Sid is leading your team, you know you’re in good hands,” Letang said. ”If it was not the case, right now we would be in trouble.”

The Penguins and the Oilers aren’t out of trouble just yet, given how only 15 of 83 NHL teams which lost Game 1 of a best-of-five series have gone on to advance.

Both teams are back in prime-time, with the Penguins facing Montreal (8 p.m. EDT, NBCSN), and Edmonton facing Chicago (10:30, NBCSN), while breathing just a little easier.

”He comes out and he’s flying like that the first couple of shifts, you want to follow right along,” Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said of McDavid. ”We know he can do that at any given moment. And for him to do that in a huge game like last night, it raises your energy level.”

Islanders-Panthers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Islanders-Panthers stream
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Wednesday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Islanders and Panthers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Islanders-Panthers Game 3 stream at 12 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Florida opened the scoring, and led 2-1 midway through Game 2, but the Islanders scored three unanswered goals to put the Panthers on the verge of elimination.

“If there’s a team that’s able to do so, I think it’s us,” said Panthers forward Mike Hoffman on the Panthers’ chances of a series comeback.

After a difficult regular season, Sergei Bobrovsky hasn’t been able to deliver a win for Florida this postseason. He struggled in the exhibition game, allowing five goals to Tampa, and has come out on the losing end in both games this series. In Games 1 and 2, the goals that really seemed to change the momentum (Anthony Beauvillier’s game-winning goal in Game 1, Ryan Pulock’s game-tying goal in Game 2) were both scored five-hole from distance.

The Isles have been stingy defensively in their first two postseasons under the direction of Barry Trotz. They’ve now played 10 playoff games with him as coach, and allowed just 22 goals.

WHAT: New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Wednesday, August 5, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Mike Tirico, Keith Jones, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Islanders-Panthers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers (NYI leads series 2-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Islanders 2, Panthers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Islanders 4, Panthers 2 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

The Wraparound: Panthers keeping faith facing elimination

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2020 NHL Return to Play. We’ll break down the NHL playoff games today with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

• The NHL Bubble Wrap has your nightly roundup of all the postseason action.

James Reimer‘s goaltending and Sebastian Aho’s highlight-reel goal helped the Hurricanes complete the sweep of the Rangers.

• Here are the updated round-robin standings and scenarios as of Wednesday.

Facing elimination, Joel Quenneville isn’t learning towards making a change in goal for Game 3 (12 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream). “Very likely,” he said after Tuesdays’ loss to the Islanders about going back to Sergei Bobrovsky.

Bob was their big summer acquisition, a $10 million a season investment. Their season is on the line Wednesday and they’re going to ride with him. Chris Driedger played well in only 12 regular season appearances, but he’s inexperienced. Quenneville has never been one to have much confidence in throwing young players into the fire.

Beyond the goals allowed, the goals for haven’t been helping. Florida has just two even strength goals in two games. There’s also the discipline problem as the Panthers have handed New York 12 power plays, allowing three extra man goals.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Florida isn’t looking past Game 3, knowing there’s plenty of work to be done.

“This is the best time of my life,” said captain Aleksander Barkov. “You get to play playoff games. Our whole team is here. We want to win. We want to play our best game. Obviously, our last two games are not our best. We can do a lot better. We’re going to do a lot better in the next game.

“If I’m disappointed in being here? No. This is a great chance for us. I’ve seen so many teams coming back from 3-0, 2-0, 3-1. It’s not over until …”

“The fat lady sings,” chimed in teammate Keith Yandle.

NHL GAMES TODAY

Game 3: Predators vs. Coyotes, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream – (Series tied 1-1): A short memory is what Rick Tocchet is pounding home to his players. “We’ll move by this [loss to Nashville] in about two minutes,” he said after the Predators evened the series with a Game 2 win. Getting clean shots through on goal will be one of Arizona’s keys. They sent 26 Juuse Saros‘ way Tuesday, but Nashville blocked 21 shots.

Round-robin: Lightning vs. Bruins, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream: At the end of every round this postseason, teams will be re-seeded – so round robin standings are critical. If Boston loses, the Presidents’ Trophy winners would no longer have a shot at the first seed in the East. Tuukka Rask, who has been dealing with a fractured finger on his glove hand, is expected to start. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos did not take line rushes with the team on Tuesday and has been ruled out.

Round-robin: Avalanche vs. Stars, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live look-in stream: How do you top a buzzer beater? Colorado is going to try. As they look to try and claim the West’s top seed, the Avs take on a Dallas team eager to forget about Monday’s third-period collapse to Vegas. Jared Bednar has no named starting goalie, but Pavel Francouz is expected to play.

Game 3: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (Series tied 1-1): Sidney Crosby has two goals in this series, scoring in each of the first two games. With his goal in Game 2, Crosby tied Gordie Howe for 18th all-time with 68 playoff goals. The only active player with more postseason goals is Crosby’s teammate, Patrick Marleau. The goal also gave Crosby 188 career playoff points, tying Joe Sakic and Doug Gilmour for eighth-most in history.

Game 3: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream – (Series tied 1-1): Many expected this to be a high-scoring series, and it hasn’t disappointed. Nineteen goals have been scored through two games, with the winning team scoring six goals in each game. The big names on both teams have impressed, including Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who both have six points after consecutive three-point performances. Patrick Kane has three points in the series (1G-2A).

THURSDAY‘S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Game 3: Wild vs. Canucks, 2:30 p.m. ET – live look-in NBCSN
Round-robin: Flyers vs. Capitals, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Round-robin: Blues vs. Golden Knights, 6:30 p.m. ET – live look-in NBCSN
Game 3: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 4: Jets vs. Flames, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN

Round-robin standings (ties broken by regular-season points percentage)

EAST
Lightning – 2 pts. (.657)
Flyers – 2 pts. (.645)
Capitals – 1 pts. (.652)
Bruins – 0 pts. (.714)

WEST
Avalanche – 2 pts. (.657)
Golden Knights – 2 pts. (.606)
Blues – 0 pts (.662)
Stars – 0 pts. (.594)

PHT’s 2020 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Eastern Conference top seed round-robin preview
Penguins vs. Canadiens
Rangers vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Panthers
Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets

Western Conference top seed round-robin preview
Jets vs. Flames
Oilers vs. Blackhawks
Predators vs. Coyotes
Wild vs. Canucks