Lightning vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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Sometimes you can’t help but think that we’re all just writing off the Columbus Blue Jackets without one puck being dropped in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But then you give your head a smack, recompose yourself and realize that (insert deity here) might struggle against the behemoth that the Tampa Lightning have become.

Tampa is simply that good, and the reason why the secondary race (other than making the playoffs) was to finish in the first wildcard and avoid the unstoppable force in the first round. Sure, there might be that immovable object later down the line for Tampa, but Columbus certainly isn’t it. And that’s a bit of a shame given everything Jarmo Kekalainen did to improve his team (despite giving up nearly a full draft and a couple of nice farm pieces).

You see, John Tortorella can exclaim it from the top of Mount Everest that his team is up for the challenge. One, he has to. Two, well, he has to. But even then it’s a stretch.

There are levels to this, and Tampa is one that’s two or three floors above Columbus.

I mean, we’re talking about the far-and-away best offense in the NHL this year. We’re talking about a team with top point producer, a team with three guys with 40-plus goals, and a goalie that eats shooters for breakfast and snacks on the league’s best snipers.

Columbus needed to mortgage their future and take on massive risk by not trading pending unrestricted free agents in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the trade deadline.

Tampa didn’t set an alarm that day.

Oh, and Tampa won 62 games, tying for the most ever in an NHL season. They never lost more than two in a row all season, and that only happened twice itself. There might not be a taller order in sports at the moment than the one that lies before Columbus.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 7 p.m.: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | USA, SN360, TVAS
Friday, April 12, 7 p.m.: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | CNBC, SN360, TVAS
Sunday, April 14, 7 p.m.: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | NBCSN, SN360, TVAS
Tuesday, April 16, 7 p.m.: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | CNBC, SN360, TVAS
*Friday, April 19, TBD: Columbus @Tampa Bay | TBD
*Sunday, April 21, TBD: Tampa Bay @ Columbus | TBD
*Tuesday, April 23, TBD: Columbus @ Tampa Bay | TBD

FORWARDS

BLUE JACKETS: It seems almost unfair to compare the two.

The Blue Jackets accounted for 256 goals this season, 12th most in the NHL if you’re a glass-half-full type of person. Cam Atkinson had a lot to do with it as he tucked 41 himself. Artemi Panarin had 28, and Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Anderson each bagging 27 each. Oliver Bjorkstrand was fifth on the team and rounded out the 20-plus goal men with 23.

Columbus will continue to ride their top two lines (Panarin-Duchene-Atkinson and Dzingel-Dubois-Anderson) for consistent scoring, and they’ll likely have to produce even better to beat Columbus, and a lot of it may need to come five-on-five. Columbus had the 28th-ranked power play, which surprisingly isn’t the worst among playoff teams — it was better than both the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators.

LIGHTNING: Nikita. Kucherov. Say it with me now… Seriously though, Kucherov did things this season and no one had done in the salary cap era. Perhaps he felt snubbed that he didn’t get the Hart last season, and boy did he come with a vengeance. Kucherov scored 128 points to establish a new career mark, besting his previous total by 28 points in two more games played. He beat Connor McDavid by 12 points in the Art Ross race.

And we’ve only talked about one player so far

The Lightning had three players with 40-plus goals, with Kucherov and Brayden Point each scoring 41 and Steven Stamkos leading the pack with 45. Ten of their 12 forward had double-digit goals, with seven having more than 18 apiece. They led the league with 319 goals-for, 30 more than anyone else (and the only team to eclipse 300). They led the with a 12.2 percent shooting percentage. They led the league with a power play that ran at 28 percent. They just led the league. In everything that matters. It’s a brilliant offense.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. I mean, if there’s one series that this is most clear in, it’s this one. It’s the Lightning by miles upon miles. The best scorer, the best offense and the best power play. It almost seems unfair and barring something divine, the Lightning aren’t going to be held at bay.

DEFENSE

BLUE JACKETS: Seth Jones and Zach Werenski will be leaned upon heavily as they shoulder a massive task in trying to shut down Tampa. The pair are a formidable shutdown duo, for sure, but the depth starts to fall off after that.

Jones plays nearly 26 minutes a night, with Werenski at nearly 23. From there, every other defenseman on the team is under 20 minutes aside from the injured Ryan Murray.

Not having Murray stings. He’s missed the past 24 games with an upper-body injury and won’t be available for Game 1, at least. Murray had 29 points in 56 games prior to getting injured, so they’ll be missing some production back there, too.

LIGHTNING: Victor Hedman practiced on Monday and it appears he might be ready to play in Game 1 after suffering an injury on March 30, forcing him to miss the last week of action.

Hedman’s presence is crucial. His size, ability to play monster minutes and in all situations is a big key to this juggernaut of a team. But Tampa is deep, no doubt. They finished eighth in fewest goals-against and can also rely on some offensive production from their back end. If there’s a weakness, it might be in the third pairing of Mikhail Sergachev and Jan Rutta.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. They have better depth and better scoring from the back end, both things that are paramount in the playoffs.

GOALTENDING

BLUE JACKETS: This is where the series could be decided.

If Sergei Bobrovsky and play out of his mind, Columbus has a snowball’s chance in hell, which is an improvement. If struggles, shut off the lights and head home. It’s over.

Bob’s season one of the worst of his career, statistically, with a .913 save percentage — a number that was made to look respectable as he closed out the season with multiple shutouts. Those numbers just won’t cut it against an offense of Tampa’s ilk.

LIGHTNING: Vasilevskiy is in a league of his own.

Like it or not, Vasilevskiy is probably winning the Vezina this year and he’s simply an elite goaltender who got a lot more rest down the stretch than he did last year. That means a more fresh Vasilevskiy. A more sharp Vasilevskiy. A quicker Vasilevskiy. That’s a goalie that’s tough to beat.

ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING. Vasilevskiy brings it every night and hardly has a bad day at the office. He’s comfortable taking a lot of shots and he’s not going to be facing down a great power play. And Bobrovsky is hit or miss these days. And even if he hits, can he really deal with everything the Lightning will throw at him?

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can the Blue Jackets outgun the Lightning?

That’s really what it will come down to here. The Blue Jackets need to take advantage of every single opportunity they’re afforded and then play defense (tight gap, high pressure) like they’ve never done before.

Can they keep the status quo?

Basically, if the regular season Lightning shows up, this one is over before it begins. The Lightning need to remain the same team in the playoffs. They have a lot of pressure on them. They’ve earned it, given their season, and now need to respond to it.

PREDICTION

LIGHTNING IN 5. It’s possible the Blue Jackets catch the Lightning daydreaming. Tampa is just too good though.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Flyers’ Konecny out ‘indefinitely’ due to concussion

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The Philadelphia Flyers’ chaotic win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday afternoon proved to be a costly one as leading scorer Travis Konecny had to exit after he was rocked on an open-ice hit by Mark Borowiecki.

The team issued an update on Konecny’s status on Monday, and it is not good.

Konecny is going to be sidelined “indefinitely” after being diagnosed with a concussion. Here is a look at the play that knocked him out of the lineup. It was one of the turning points that saw the game devolve into a series of fights, trash talk, and a late cheap shot from Brady Tkachuk on Scott Laughton (you can read about all of that here).

“He’s been our best scorer and he’s found a way to contribute offensively and defensively,” said Flyers coach Alain Vigneault on Monday. “We were using him five-on-five and the PP. It’s going to give the opportunity to someone else to see more ice time and step up and contribute.”

The Flyers have been one of the hottest teams in the league over the past couple of weeks and have won seven of their past nine games to climb up to the third spot in the Metropolitan Division. The play of Konecny has been one of the driving forces behind their success as he leads the team in goals and total points during what has been — so far– a breakout season offensively. He is in the first year of a six-year, $33 million contract.

He scored in the first period of Saturday’s win, giving him three goals in the past four 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.

PHT Face-Off: Board of Governors tackle Code of Conduct; NHL’s best meet

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It’s the start of another week, so that means it’s time for the PHT Face-Off to look ahead to some of the trends and topics that will dominate over the next seven days.

• Board of Governors meets this week

The NHL’s Board of Governors will meet this week in Pebble Beach, Calif. with plenty to discuss. But one agenda item that was recently added was discussing a Code of Conduct in light of the Akim Aliu accusations and the other abuse allegations that have surfaced in the last two weeks.

Aliu met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly last week in Toronto and in a short statement afterward said that “big change is coming.” The league currently does not have a Code of Conduct in place for players, coaches and team officials, but one is certainly coming and we’re likely to hear this week what kind of policy could be implemented. Per TSN, “In order to encourage more diversity and inclusion in the sport and for fans, the NHL is aiming to ‘break the culture of silence,’ according to a person familiar with the discussions.”

If “big change” is to be implemented, the league would have to work together with the Players’ Association to add it to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement; so whatever comes out of this week’s BOG meetings likely won’t be instituted right away.

• NHL’s best meet on Wednesday Night Hockey

The Bruins and Capitals are the league’s top two point-getters as of Monday and both head into this week winners of eight of their last 10 games. They’ll meet on Wednesday Night Hockey (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN) in Washington. Boston has dropped their last two entering tonight’s game in Ottawa, and had their run of success playing from behind come to an end in their defeat to the Avalanche.

But Saturday’s loss to Colorado — who has handed them two of their four regulation losses this season — could be viewed as a good thing for the group, and act as a bit of a wake-up call.

“You can’t continue to get down by a couple goals, especially with really good teams,” said Brad Marchand. “Teams like that really know how to keep a lead, and regardless of how many times we’ve come back in the past, eventually it’s going to catch up to us like it did tonight. Unfortunately, it is good to lose every now and again, it’s good to be able to right the ship again, so maybe this is that game.”

Both teams will be getting back key pieces this week as Patrice Bergeron will return for the Bruins and Nicklas Backstrom re-enters the lineup Monday for the Capitals, who are riding a six-game winning streak.

NBC Sports has announced it has flexed into the Thursday, Dec. 19 matchup between the Islanders and Bruins (7 p.m.; NBCSN.)

Kevin Hayes used to ref, ya know?

What’s coming up this week?
• When Joe Thornton takes the ice Thursday against the Rangers he’ll become the 12th NHL player to play in 1,600 career regular season games. If he plays in each of San Jose’s final 50 regular season games he’ll move into the eighth spot all-time in the category. Jumbo’s teammate Marc-Edouard Vlasic will hit the 1,000-game mark Saturday when the Sharks host the Canucks.

• With a goal Saturday night in Detroit Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin moved to within one of 400 for his career. He’ll have three chances this week as Pittsburgh begins a three-game homestand against the Canadiens, Blue Jackets and Kings.

NHL ON NBCSN
• Blues at Sabres, Tues. Dec 10, 7:30 p.m. ET.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT HOCKEY
• Bruins at Capitals, Wed. Dec. 11, 7 p.m. ET
• Flyers at Avalanche, Wed. Dec. 11, 9:30 p.m. ET

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Best 3-on-3 producers; should Avs pay Hall price?

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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.

• An interesting look at the players who have been the the best at 3-on-3 overtime. [The Hockey News]

• Should the Avalanche pay what’s expected to be a hefty price to acquire Taylor Hall? [Mile High Hockey]

Andrei Svechnikov is showing that the dreaded “sophomore jinx” isn’t going to affect him. [NHL.com]

• “Ottawa Senators defenceman Nikita Zaitsev was not talking publicly Friday about allegations that he took his daughters from his ex-wife, Margo Gotovtseva, while in Russia last month.” [Ottawa Citizen]

• Penguins GM Jim Rutherford on Alex Galchenyuk‘s future as he struggles offensively: “The fact of the matter is, when we’re totally healthy he’s going to have to work very hard just to get in the top 12.” [TSN]

Anders Lee is finally coming around offensively for the Islanders. [Islanders Insight]

• “How To Improve The Lack Of Consistency In The NHL Department of Player Safety” [NoVa Caps Fans]

• Daniel Carcillo admits he was an abuser, a bully and worse, but the former NHLer has stories to tell and a past he wants to make amends for. [Toronto Star]

• The Blackhawks know what they are this season: inconsistent. [NBC Sports Chicago]

• Fun read on the man who many NHL superstars go to when they have equipment needs. [Sportsnet]

• “Mark Pavelich case is one of sadness and frustration” [LA Times]

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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.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Brodin, Tuch among this week’s top adds

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Sami Vatanen, Devils – D: Vatanen traditionally was a solid contributor offensively for a defenseman, but the 2018-19 campaign was rough for him. He had four goals and 17 points in 50 games, which was a steep drop from his 32-point showing in 2017-18 and ended his run of five straight campaigns with over 20 points. He’s bouncing back nicely in 2019-20 with four goals and 13 points in 25 contests. He’s also doing fairly well right now with four assists in his last four contests, so he’s a pretty good short-term pickup, but he’s also a solid enough contributor that he wouldn’t look out of place as a long-term depth defenseman on most standard fantasy league teams.

Alex Tuch, Golden Knights – LW/RW: Tuch took a big leap forward in his second full NHL campaign with 20 goals and 52 points in 74 contests. An upper-body injury kept him out until Oct. 31st though and he struggled to get going after that with a goal and an assist in his first 10 games. He seems to have shaken off the rust though with four goals and seven points in his last five contests. He’s a gamble to be sure, but he has the potential to be a fairly good contributor for the rest of the season.

Brandon Tanev, Penguins – LW/RW: The Penguins decision to sign Tanev to a six-year, $21 million contract over the summer drew some immediate critics, but so far it’s worked out well. He’s chipped in regularly offensively with six goals and 16 points in 30 games, which puts him on pace to comfortably surpass his previous career-high of 29 points in 80 contests. With eligibility for both wings, he’s a solid option for most teams in general and worthy of partial consideration right now because he’ll be going into Tuesday’s contest on a three-game point streak.

Phillip Danault, Canadiens – C: Danault set a career-high in 2018-19 with 53 points and he’s on pace to top it with seven goals and 23 points in 30 contests. He’s still only owned in 21% of Yahoo leagues though, which can be partially attributed to his center-only eligibility. Even with that limitation, he’s a pretty good pickup right now given how effective he’s been for the last little while. He has two goals and 13 points in his last 13 games and is on a three-game point streak.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Jonas Brodin, Wild – D: Brodin is a pretty okay defenseman offensively, but not good enough that he’s typically worth owning in standard leagues. Right now is a potential exception though given how effective he’s been lately. He has six assists in his last five contests. If you do grab him in the hopes of riding what’s left of his hot streak, don’t hesitate to drop him if he goes quiet for a couple games.

Ryan Graves, Avalanche – D: Cale Makar has obviously captured the spotlight in Colorado as far as young defensemen go, but Graves is slowly becoming a meaningful part of the Avalanche’s blueline too. After a quiet start to the campaign, he’s scored three goals and eight points in his last 14 games. It’s helped that he’s averaged 17:18 minutes over that span, up from 15:28 minutes per contest over his first 14 games. It’s worth adding that Makar unfortunately suffered an injury during Saturday’s game. At the time of writing, the extent of his injury isn’t known, but if he does miss time, then Graves’ responsibilities might increase further while he’s out.

Alex Killorn, Lightning – LW/RW: Although he’s owned in just 20% of Yahoo leagues, Killorn is having a great campaign with eight goals and 22 points in 25 games. It helps that he’s averaging 17:29 minutes, up from just 14:52 minutes in 2018-19 when he finished with 2018-19. He’s never recorded more than 47 points in a single season, so you might be worried about sustainability and that’s fair, but even as a short-term pickup, he’s worthy of consideration. He’s on a three-game goal scoring streak and is coming off a four-point game on Saturday. That’s all part of a longer-term run of six goals and 16 points in his last 12 contests.

Kevin Fiala, Wild – LW/RW: Fiala got off to a quiet start this season with just an assist in his first eight games, but since then he’s been great. He’s scored six goals and 14 points in his last 17 contests, putting him in a three-way tie for the Wild’s scoring lead from the start of November onward. He’s never recorded more than 48 points in a single season, but at the age of 23, it’s not unreasonable to believe that he’s capable of further growth. If nothing else, he’s a decent gamble while he’s hot. 

Matt Niskanen, Flyers – D: Niskanen saw his offensive contributions decline to 25 points in 80 games last season with the Washington Capitals, but the trade to Philadelphia seems to have done him some good. One big difference is that he was averaging just 0:35 power-play minutes in 2018-19 and that’s jumped to an average of 2:15 power-play minutes now that he’s in Philadelphia. He has 13 points in 30 games this season, with six of those points being scored with the man advantage in contrast to 2018-19 when he recorded all of two power-play points over the entire campaign. All this has made Niskanen a decent option in standard fantasy leagues this season and a good stopgap measure if you have any injured blueliners.

Clayton Keller, Coyotes– LW/RW: Keller had an amazing rookie campaign with 23 goals and 65 points in 82 games. He went through something of a sophomore slump, scoring 14 goals and 47 points in 82 contests last season, but he seems to be rebounding a bit in his third full season. He has five goals and 20 points in 32 contests, which doesn’t put him on pace to challenge his rookie showing, but it is still a step in the right direction. He’s also on a hot streak right now with a goal and five points in his last five games.

Players You May Want To Drop

Carter Hutton, Sabres – G: Hutton has basically had two different seasons in 2019-20. He couldn’t have asked for a better start to the campaign with a 6-0-0 record, 1.65 GAA, and .943 save percentage in six starts through Oct. 22nd. He hasn’t even won a single game since Oct. 22nd though. Instead he’s gone 0-5-4 with a 3.99 GAA and .875 save percentage in nine starts. Obviously, neither stretch is a full representation of what he is as a goaltender, but if you also take his 2018-19 campaign into consideration, then he hasn’t proven yet that he’s up for the task of being a starting goaltender. Keep in mind that he’ll turn 34 on Dec. 19th, so while he’s still relatively new to being a serious competitor for a starting gig, he’s in no way a young goaltender with upside. If you’ve been holding onto him since that hot start, you should look elsewhere.

Jared McCann, Penguins – C/LW: McCann had a terrific run from Nov. 4-27 with five goals and 12 points in 11 contests, but that hot streak is now firmly in the rear view mirror. He’s been limited to just an assist over his last five contests. McCann is still worth keeping an eye on, but given his relatively limited role in Pittsburgh – he’s averaging 14:34 minutes – the merit of keeping him on your team in a standard fantasy league when he’s not hot is still very much open to debate.

Derick Brassard, Islanders – C/LW/RW: There have been times in Brassard’s career where he’s been a solid contributor, but he hasn’t been reliable since being traded from Ottawa in the 2017-18 campaign. He went on an incredible run of six goals and 15 points in 12 games from Oct. 24-Nov. 21, but he did almost nothing offensively before that run and he’s been similarly cold since his hot streak ended. He’s not nearly consistent enough to warrant holding onto at all times.

Roope Hintz, Stars – C/LW: Hintz has 11 goals in 24 games, but that’s thanks to a 23.4 shooting percentage that he probably won’t be able to come close to sustaining. He’s already slowing down with just one goal in his last seven contests. Given that he doesn’t bring much to the table from a fantasy perspective beyond goals, there’s not much reason to keep him on your team at this time.

Tyson Barrie, Maple Leafs – D: I’m a little hesitant to suggest you should drop Barrie, but it’s certainly worth considering your other options. The Maple Leafs acquired Barrie over the summer and he was a huge disappointment early on with just five assists in his first 21 games. Then Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as the bench boss and it looked like the coaching change might have a positive impact on Barrie in particular. He went on a run of three goals and five points in Keefe’s first three games behind the bench. Since then though, Barrie has no points and a minus-four rating in five games. That’s not a huge slump, but given the overall scope of the season, it is discouraging to see him go cold again so soon after the coaching change. So far, Toronto just hasn’t been an ideal fit for him.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.