Predators vs. Stars: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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If you want to get cute with it, you can deem Predators – Stars as the battle of the team with a coach who worse a horse mask versus the team whose CEO called his own players, uh, horse-blank. And, hey, considering the “nontraditional” roots of both franchises, this also features teams with fans most likely to ride actual horses. It’s all enough to leave you hoarse.

But beyond all of that horsin’ around, the Predators and Stars truly are remarkably similar teams.

While the combination of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin has been far hotter this season, each squad boasts two goalies (Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros) who could conceivably be ridden to strong performances during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Most other West teams wish they merely had one such goalie.

Unfortunately, the Stars and Predators also need that great goaltending the most among West teams, at least judging by this season.

The Stars and Predators needed to rank in the top four in fewest goals allowed this season, as they weren’t setting scoreboards on fire.

Dallas scored just 209 goals this season, tied for third-worst, joining the Islanders as the only other playoff team in the bottom 10. The Predators weren’t that much better (236 goals, 13th-worst), and they languished with the NHL’s least efficient power play at a still-rather-shocking 12.9 percent.

Strange things can happen during hockey’s postseason, and goalies are a strange breed beyond that, but this sure seems like it’s going to be a tight-checking nail-biter of a series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 9:30 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | USA, SN1, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 6 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 9:30 p.m.: Predators @ Stars | NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 17, 8 p.m. Predators @ Stars | USA, SN, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Predators @ Stars | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD

FORWARDS

STARS: Despite Jim Lites’ criticisms, the Stars should thank the top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov for providing most of their scoring. Seguin (80 points) and Radulov (74 points) have the most points of any players in this series, and while Benn is no longer the player who once won the Art Ross Trophy, he ranked third among the Stars with 53 points, 27 of which were goals.

The drop off from the top forwards and everyone else is steep, as Radek Faksa is the fourth-highest scoring Stars forward with just 30 points. Faksa’s known for a strong defensive game more than anything else, so he’s not chopped liver, but the point is that this is a top-heavy bunch.

One interesting wild card is Mats Zuccarello, though. The poor soul got hurt blocking a shot in his first Stars appearance, but he’s slated to be in the lineup during Game 1, and the Stars are tinkering with a Zuccarello – Benn combination. Could a one-line team become a two-line team?

Of course, both Nashville and Dallas lean heavily on their defensemen to score, but that’s for the next section.

PREDATORS: At a quick glance, the Predators’ top line seems inferior, with Ryan Johansen‘s 64 points leading the way. Injuries cloud such judgments, though, as Viktor Arvidsson managed 34 goals in just 58 games (!) this season, while Filip Forsberg was his usual dynamic self with 28 goals and 50 points in 64 games. The gap between these two teams’ top line is small, if they aren’t outright even.

On paper, the Predators should boast better depth, but they really haven’t been able to click. Kyle Turris has suffered through a pretty miserable season, and Mikael Granlund‘s been mouse-quiet since being traded to Nashville. Meanwhile, Wayne Simmonds is struggling through an almost tragically rough contract year.

ADVANTAGE: Nashville, by a hair. While Faksa ranked fourth in Stars forward scoring with 30 points, the Predators had seven forwards who had 30+, and Turris almost certainly would have hit that mark if he wasn’t limited to 55 games. Granlund scored 54 points counting his superior totals with the Wild. Zuccarello makes the argument more fascinating, though.

DEFENSE

STARS: After Seguin, Radulov, and Benn, the Stars’ next three leading scorers were all defensemen: John Klingberg (10 goals, 45 points), Miro Heiskanen (12G, 33P), and Esa Lindell (11G, 32P). Klingberg managed to get that many points in 64 games, and as Stars fans will tell you until your ears are red, he’s very worthy of his hype as a future Norris hopeful.

Where the Stars’ top guys are grappling at least slightly with Father Time, the Stars’ trio is in their primes, with Klingberg at 26, Lindell 24, and Heiskanen somehow this great already at 19.

This is a modern group, and while they’re not as hyped or as well-compensated as the Predators’ blueliners, they’re gaining fast as far as on-ice effectiveness is concerned.

PREDATORS: For the standards of Nashville’s defensemen, you could count 2018-19 as a bit of an off-year, but they likely remain the deepest group in the NHL, or at least rank highly in that regard.

Much like Dallas, three of Nashville’s defensemen ranked in the top six in overall team scoring: Roman Josi (15 goals, 56 points), Mattias Ekholm (8G, 44P), and Ryan Ellis (7G, 41P). Despite being limited to 63 games played, P.K. Subban almost hit double digits in goals with nine, and finished with 31 points. Missing time likely exaggerated worries about Subban’s overall game, as he remains a strong two-way player.

It will also be interesting to monitor Dante Fabbro. He’s a fairly well-regarded prospect, but coaches are reluctant to trust rookies, especially late-arriving ones, and Laviolette is not really an exception. (See: Tolvanen, Eeli.) Fabbro could give Nashville’s third pairing a boost, and while that wouldn’t be a revolutionary change, it could matter in a series where the margin of error figures to be slim.

ADVANTAGE: Predators, but not by as much as some would think. Dallas’ defense is underrated, but Nashville’s group is among the most potent and polished in the NHL.

GOALTENDING

STARS: If Ben Bishop stayed healthy (an unfortunately common phrase for Bishop), he’d get some heavy Vezina hype. He generated a .934 save percentage this season, brilliant even compared to his very strong career average of .921. Bishop put together an absurd .969 save percentage over nine March games, with a league-best .959 save percentage since February (among anyone who played at least two games, sorry Christopher Gibson).

Anton Khudobin hasn’t been far behind, producing a strong .923 save percentage in 41 games.

Jim Montgomery’s system and some strong young defensemen helped, but this Stars team shut opponents down because of stellar goaltending.

PREDATORS: If you had to wager on the best goalie pairing heading into 2018-19, you could have done worse than the (“father – son”) combination of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros.

Goalies are about as easy to predict as cats are to herd, so they haven’t been the best … but they’ve still been fine. Rinne sported a solid .918 save percentage this season, and after a rough start, Saros ended up with a respectable .915 mark.

Of course, Rinne’s had his playoff nightmares, so people will wonder if those demons will crop again. Maybe the more interesting question is: if they do, will Laviolette go to Saros if needed?

ADVANTAGE: Stars, with mild concerns that Bishop isn’t 100 percent. Of all the West series, this is the one where you could be reasonably confident about both tandems. Again, though: they’re goalies.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

What if the Stars’ first line is horse manure?

One could imagine some Stars executive gloating about giving Seguin “tough love,” but this was really about Seguin finally getting the bounces that didn’t go his way, pre-horse-bleep. If that luck dries up once again, can other lines shovel in some goals?

(Note: yes, you could ask similar questions about the Predators’ depth, too.)

Can the Predators’ power play do something?

NHL officials are notorious for “putting away their whistles” during the playoffs, relative to the regular season, but special teams will still be prominent. Actually, considering how tight this series could be – and how much each team struggles to score goals – getting a few markers on the man advantage might just swing the series.

If nothing else, the Predators spent big to improve this weakness. Wayne Simmonds has slipped, but his resume as a PP specialist is robust. Brian Boyle‘s big body is useful in screening goalies, even a jumbo-sized one like Ben Bishop. Things have looked better at times recently, but overall, the power play looms as a potential problem for the Preds.

PREDICTION

NASHVILLE IN 6. These two teams are structured very similarly, so here’s betting that the Predators are just a little better at making this formula work.

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

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.

Avalanche-Golden Knights stream: NHL Return to Play round-robin game

Avalanche-Golden Knights stream
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NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Saturday’s round-robin matchup between the Avalanche and Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC. Watch the Avalanche-Golden Knights stream on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Two of the hottest teams so far in these playoffs will face off for a chance to earn the top spot in the West. The winner of this matchup will earn the West’s #1 seed; the loser will be 2.

Through two games, Vegas has scored 11 goals (by eight different players) while Colorado has allowed just one goal. The Golden Knights, even without their regular season leading scorer Max Pacioretty (undisclosed), has scored 11 goals in two round robin games. Seven have come in the third period.

Marc-Andre Fleury is playing in his 14th consecutive postseason, the longest active streak among the top four major professional sports leagues. New Orleans Pelicans guard J.J. Redick has played in 13 straight postseasons; the Pelicans are currently attempting to reach the NBA Playoffs, which begin on August 17.

In Jared Bednar’s first season in charge just over three years ago, Colorado finished last in the NHL with just 48 points. Now they boast Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon, Calder Trophy finalist Cale Makar and an enviable goalie tandem in Pavel Francouz and Philipp Grubauer.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Colorado Avalanche vs. Vegas Golden Knights
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Saturday, August 8, 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Avalanche-Golden Knights stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Standings (tiebreaker is regular-season points percentage)

Colorado Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Vegas Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Dallas Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

Western Conference round-robin schedule

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights vs. Avalanche, 3 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars vs. Blues, 3 p.m. ET – NBC

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Lightning-Flyers, Avalanche-Golden Knights play for top seeds

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Jon Cooper wants to stop the conversation now: Steven Stamkos isn’t fit to play until he says so.

The coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning ruled out Stamkos for his team’s final round-robin game Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers (8 p.m. EDT, NBC) that will determine the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia won’t have top-line right winger Jakub Voracek, so neither team is at full strength.

”Injuries are unpredictable,” Cooper said of Stamkos. ”As of right now, he’s out indefinitely until he’s not. And I’ll be the person to let you know when that is. But you should know that he’s working his tail off and he’s eager to come back.”

The Lightning beat Washington and Boston without Stamkos and will again turn to Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy as their starting goaltender. Carter Hart starts for Philadelphia, which is also 2-0-0 in round-robin play and will have rookie Joel Farabee on the first line in place of Voracek.

Coach Alain Vigneault would only say Voracek isn’t available to play against Tampa Bay.

”Jake’s got a unique skillset: a veteran guy that’s been around and has played in some big games,” Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen said. ”We’ll welcome him when he comes back and in the meantime keep chugging forward with the guys we have.”

Cooper said the Lightning have been focusing on peaking for Game 1 of their first best-of-seven series, which will be next week. Vigneault’s Flyers have been attempting to balance between winning and tuning up for when their season is on the line.

Tampa Bay-Philadelphia will decide which team faces Montreal after the Canadiens knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round.

”We know they got some top players that have a lot of skill and they got a really good power play,” Hart said of the Lightning

In the Western Conference, the Vegas Golden Knights set the goal of earning the No. 1 seed from the first day of training camp last month. That will be on the line Saturday when they face off against Colorado (3 p.m., NBC). The Golden Knights are going hard for home ice in the West even though there are no fans and all games are being played in Edmonton.

”The higher the seed, the easier path you get,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. ”When I say easy path, you get the lowest-ranked opponent, you get last (line) change, you get the benefit sometimes of a home dressing room over a visitor dressing room. There’s small benefits to it. I like the fact that our group thinks it’s important and we’ve played that way and prepared that way.”

Vegas isn’t 100% healthy yet with winger Max Pacioretty still not ready to play. DeBoer continues to say Pacioretty is close, though he’ll have to quarantine in Edmonton and produce four negative coronavirus test results before being eligible to practice or play.

The Golden Knights came back from deficits to beat Dallas and St. Louis, and look like a buzzsaw no matter who’s in goal between Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. The Avalanche similarly have a two-headed goaltending monster in Phillip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz, and coach Jared Bednar isn’t eager to tip his hand on which one he’ll go with in the next round.

The Avalanche are also healthy. Grubauer, Francouz, captain Gabriel Landeskog, winger Mikko Rantanen and star rookie defenseman Cale Makar all missed time with injuries during the season.

With the whole crew together, Colorado is undefeated in two round-robin games and living up to the expectations set internally to get the top seed.

”We want to try and get home ice,” Bednar said. ”It’s been a goal of ours and we want it and our guys are playing like they want it. I like the focus and the intensity from our group at this point. Hopefully it takes even another step here for Vegas so we know that we’re good to go coming out of it.”

Kraken hire Everett Fitzhugh as club’s first broadcaster

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken have hired Everett Fitzhugh as the club’s first broadcaster, the team announced Friday.

Fitzhugh is believed to be the first Black team broadcaster hired by an NHL franchise. He has spent the past five seasons as the director of media relations and broadcasting for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. Fitzhugh served as the play-by-play broadcaster for the club.

”As someone who’s worked in hockey for over a decade and who has a long-held passion for broadcasting hockey, to be named a part of the broadcast and content team for a brand-new NHL franchise – particularly one with an organization as strong as the Kraken – is a dream come true,” Fitzhugh said in a statement. ”Getting to the NHL has always been my goal.”

Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke said Fitzhugh came highly recommended by those the team consulted with in making the hire. Fitzhugh’s exact role will be determined at a later date.

Fitzhugh was one of three front-office hires announced by the team. Seattle also hired Jonny Greco as the senior vice president of live entertainment and game presentation, and Lamont Buford will serve as vice president of game presentation.

The Wraparound: First Round seeding up for grabs Saturday

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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 roundup of Friday’s wild postseason action.

• Friday was Elimination Day as the Oilers, Penguins, Predators, Panthers, and Wild all exited the postseason.

NHL GAMES TODAY

Round-robin: Avalanche vs. Golden Knights, 3 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream: Two of the hottest teams so far in these playoffs will face off for a chance to earn the top spot in the West. The winner of this matchup will earn the West’s #1 seed; the loser will be #2. Through two games, Vegas has scored 11 goals (by eight different players) while Colorado has allowed just one goal. Even without their regular season leading scorer Max Pacioretty (undisclosed), the Golden Knights have scored 11 goals in two round robin games. Seven have come in the third period. The Avs have been spreading the love on offense. Through two round robin games, each of Colorado’s six goals have been scored by a different player – two from defensemen (Cale Makar and Ryan Graves) and four from players in their first season with the Avalanche.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Round-robin: Flyers vs. Lightning, 8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestreamThe winner of this game will become the #1 seed in the East; the loser will be the second seed. Tampa, owner of the league’s best regular season offense (3.47 goals/game) has scored five goals in its first two games… and they’re without Steven Stamkos, who will not play against the Flyers after missing Tampa’s first two round robin games with a lower-body injury. He has been ruled out indefinitely. Carter Hart, who will turn 22 on Thursday, is expected to start after Brian Elliott got the nod in Philly’s last game vs Washington. Hart stopped 34 of 35 shots in their 4-1 win vs Boston last Sunday in his postseason debut, becoming the youngest Flyers goalie to win a playoff game.

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

EAST
Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Flyers (2-0-0, 4 points)
Capitals (0-1-1, 1 point)
Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

WEST
Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Golden Knights (2-0-0, 4 points)
Blues (0-2-0, 0 points)
Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

SUNDAY‘S NHL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE

Round-robin: Bruins vs. Capitals, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Round-robin: Stars vs. Blues, 3 p.m. ET – NBC
Game 5: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN