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.

Roundtable: Best NHL teams to not win Stanley Cup

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Which NHL franchise (team or one from a specific season) over the last 25 years are you most disappointed did not win a Stanley Cup and why?

JOEY: I know they made it to a Stanley Cup Final in 2016, but the fact that the Sharks have never hoisted the Stanley Cup is pretty disappointing. The other California teams (Anaheim and Los Angeles) have each won at least one, but the Sharks just couldn’t get over the hump.

How can you not feel sorry for Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and company? Those guys played at a high level for so long and it’s unfortunate that they could never win it all.

Since the start of the 2000-01 season, this is where the Sharks have finished in the Pacific Division standings: first, fifth, first, second, second, first, first, first, first, second, third, second, fifth, third, third, third and second. That’s a lot of good seasons. To have only one Stanley Cup Final appearance to show for it is just brutal.

Even the Vegas Golden Knights, who have turned into a bitter rival for the Sharks, have made it to one Stanley Cup Final and that was in their first year of existence.

What’s even more frustrating for San Jose, is that based on what we’ve seen from them in 2019-20, it looks like their window to win is pretty much closed. Can general manager Doug Wilson turn things around quickly? Maybe. But they don’t even have their own first-round pick this year.

There’s been some great Sharks teams over the last 25 years, but they’d trade all that regular-season success for a single Stanley Cup.

SEAN: I agree with Joey. You can count on two hands how many in the last 15 years that the Sharks have been my preseason Cup winner pick. But I’m going to go in a different direction. The 2010-11 Canucks were a team that conquered demons along the way to reaching Game 7 of the Cup Final.

That Canucks roster was a total package. There were some likable characters (Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Roberto Luongo) and others who played the heel role very well (Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Max Lapierre, Raffi Torres). There was also Kevin Bieksa, who could probably find a place in both groups.

Years of playoff disappointment were carried like baggage heading into the 2010-11 season. After back-to-back Round 2 playoff exits at the hands of the Blackhawks, the Canucks were again Cup contenders, and needed to finally finish the job. They did their part initially, becoming the first team that season to clinch a playoff spot and picking up the first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history.

Every Stanley Cup championship DVD has those flashpoint moments on the road to a title. The Canucks had that. From their regular season success to Burrows “slaying the dragon” with his overtime series clincher against Chicago in Round 1 to Bieksa ending the Western Conference Final against the Sharks in double OT to Vancouver winning the first two games of the Cup Final against the Bruins. It appeared as if the stars had finally aligned.

We know the rest of the story, but that team was both incredibly fun to watch with the talent on it and so easy to root against given the villains employed on the roster. All they needed was just one win in Boston to change history.

JAMES: Joey beat me to the Sharks, but honestly, I’m glad. In having to dig deeper, it conjured some great/tragic hockey memories and interesting thoughts.

For one: the last two Stanley Cup-winners emptied out metaphorical tonnage of angst. The Blues have been tormented by “almost” basically from day one, when they were pulverized in three straight Stanley Cup Final series (1967-68 through 1969-70) without winning a single game against the Canadiens or Bruins. There’d be ample angst if they didn’t win in 2019, and the same can be said for the Capitals. It’s difficult to cringe too hard at the Boudreau-era Capitals falling just short when Alex Ovechkin won it all, anyway.

My thoughts drift, then, to quite a few Canadian teams that rode high.

It’s tempting to go with the Peak Sedin Canucks, in and around that near-win in 2011; after all, while I didn’t grow up a Canucks fan, many were fooled into believing so because of my handle.

But, honestly, the team that might bum me out the most in recent years is the really, really good Senators teams that fell short of a Stanley Cup. (No, I’m not talking about the group that was within an overtime Game 7 OT goal of being willed to a SCF by Erik Karlsson and a few others.)

The 2005-06 Senators rank among the more galling “What if?” teams for me.

During the regular season, that Senators team scored more goals than anyone else (314) and allowed the third-fewest (211). Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson both enjoyed 103-point seasons, and Jason Spezza (90) probably would have hit 100+ if he played more than 68 games. This was a team that also featured Zdeno Chara, a Wade Redden effective enough to convince the Senators to choose Redden over Chara, and other talented players like Martin Havlat, Antoine Vermette, and Mike Fisher.

The biggest “What if?” there revolves around Dominik Hasek getting injured during the 2006 Winter Olympics, a groin issue that kept him out of the ensuing postseason. Even at 41, Hasek was dominant, posting a .925 save percentage. Ray Emery couldn’t get it done, and the Senators were bounced in the second round.

While the 2006-07 Senators were the rendition that actually made it to the SCF, they no longer had Chara or Hasek on their roster.

Instead of a possible Stanley Cup victory, the memorable images of those peak Alfredsson-era Senators teams were ugly ones. Marian Hossa lying, dejected on the ice after Jeff Friesen beat Patrick Lalime and the Devils won a Game 7 in 2003. Alfredsson snapping at shooting a puck at Scott Niedermayer. And then plenty of unceremonious exits.

For more casual hockey fans, that Senators’ surge will probably be all but forgotten, but it’s really stunning just how talented that team was.

(Side note on almost-Canadian champs: I’ll likely go to my grave believing that Martin Gelinas scored that goal for the Flames.)

ADAM: I want to see great players get their championship, especially when it is the one thing that their otherwise great resume is lacking. The Sedins are obviously in that discussion, as are those great Sharks teams with Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski.

I will add another name to that list: Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers. Especially that 2013-14 team that actually made it to the Stanley Cup Final only to lose to the Kings. I know they lost that series in five games but I still feel like it was a lot closer than that because they literally lost three games in overtime. Lundqvist was outstanding in that entire postseason — and that series — and it would have been the capper on his career.

On one hand, I feel like Lundqvist is absolutely respected for the goalie that he has been. But it still seems like there is a “yeah, but…” that always follows him around because he doesn’t have that championship that will keep him from being remembered as one of the all-time greats at the position. He has been a great goalie, a sensational playoff goal, and was always taking the Rangers to levels that they probably shouldn’t have been at.

So which team am I disappointed didn’t win? At least one team with Henrik Lundqvist on it.

SCOTT: The 2018-19 Lightning were an elite team that not only didn’t reach the Cup Final, they didn’t even win a game in the postseason.

The Blue Jackets won their first playoff series as a franchise in stunning fashion as they won four straight against a big Cup favorite.

The Lightning were a victim of their own regular-season success. With 14 games remaining in the regular season, Tampa Bay secured a playoff spot and had little to play for the rest of the way.

“In the end, it’s just we just couldn’t find our game,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told reporters after the disappointing finish. “That was it. It had been with us all year, and for six days in April we couldn’t find it. It’s unfortunate because it puts a blemish on what was a [heck] of a regular season.”

The Lightning won 62 games that season and finished the regular season with 128 points. The Bruins, who ended up representing the Eastern Conference in the 2019 Cup Final, finished with 107 points.

“You have a historic regular season doing what we did and have basically a historic playoff in defeat,” Jon Cooper said.

Tampa will always be one of the most successful teams to not win the ultimate prize.

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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.

Sharks GM gives Boughner ‘upper hand’ to take over as coach

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San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson isn’t ready to remove the interim head coach tag from Bob Boughner’s title yet.

Noting the Sharks’ season is not officially over with the NHL on hiatus due to the coronavirus, Wilson voiced his support by saying Boughner has the edge in taking over the job on a permanent basis.

“Does Bob know our group and have the upper hand in this process? Absolutely,” Wilson said during a conference call Thursday.

“But I think you have to be thorough in this process because we have the time and the opportunity,” he added. “And when you have time like this you need to utilize it.”

Wilson was pleased with the improved style of play and structure he saw in the Sharks in 37 games under Boughner, who took over after on Dec. 11.

Wilson, however, stressed there is plenty he wants to evaluate regarding a team that will likely miss the playoffs for only the second time in 16 seasons, and was last in the Western Conference when play stopped on March 12.

It’s unclear when play will resume, and whether the NHL will complete the final month of the regular season or go directly into the playoffs. The Sharks (29-36-5) went 14-20-3 under Boughner. The record was mostly a reflection of a rash of injuries sidelining San Jose’s top stars.

Wilson was more definitive in providing injury updates, saying and defenseman Erik Karlsson are on track to return next season.

Wilson said Hertl is ahead of schedule and can fully extend his left knee some two months after having surgery to repair two torn ligaments. He said Karlsson is nearly fully recovered after in February.

Wilson added forward Logan Couture is feeling no after affects after missing San Jose’s final game with a concussion caused when he was struck in the head by a puck.

Boughner spent his portion of the 40-minute session looking ahead to next season.

“Who knows what’s happening with the rest of the season here, but if we’re talking about training camp, that’s what excites me the most,” Boughner said.

“We’re going to treat training camp as crucial,” he added.

This is Boughner’s second stint with the Sharks. He spent two seasons as an assistant in San Jose before being hired to coach the Florida Panthers.

Fired last April after two seasons in Florida, Boughner was hired as an assistant to DeBoer’s staff.

“I think Boughy and his staff did a lot of good things and they were certainly hamstrung with a lot of our players out,” Wilson said.

Wilson also addressed the status of Joe Thornton, who is playing on a one-year contract and completing his 22nd NHL season, and 15th in San Jose.

“Everybody knows how we feel about Joe,” Wilson said, adding he has regular discussions with 40-year-old forward.

Wilson was non-committal when asked if there’s a place in next year’s lineup for Thornton, saying only: “He’s a special man.”

Looking at the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

Edmonton Oilers

Record: 37-25-9 (71 games), second in the Pacific Division
Leading Scorer: Leon Draisaitl 110 points (43 goals and 67 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves:

• Acquired Angus Redmond and a 2022 conditional seventh-round pick from Anaheim for Joel Persson.
• Traded a 2021 fifth-round pick to the Ottawa Senators for Tyler Ennis.
• Acquired Mike Green from the Detroit Red Wings for Kyle Brodziak and a 2020 conditional fourth-round pick.
• Traded Sam Gagner, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Detroit Red Wings for Andreas Athanasiou and Ryan Kuffner.

Season Overview: 

The Oilers are as top heavy as any team in the NHL. How top heavy? Well, the top two scorers in the league are on Edmonton’s roster. Draisaitl and Connor McDavid have combined to score over 200 points this season.

The Oilers have been rolling with these two guys for a while, but the new combination of general manager Ken Holland and head coach Dave Tippett have helped take the team to another level.

There aren’t many teams that got off to a better start than Edmonton did this year. They won their first five games and seven of their first eight. Obviously, they couldn’t keep that pace up, but they managed to stay within striking distance of top spot in the division thanks to their offensive capabilities.

Not only do they have those two top threats, they’ve also received solid contributions from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oscar Klefbom, Zack Kassian and James Neal. Also, calling Kailer Yamamoto up from the minors was a game-changer for them.

The 21-year-old had 26 games of NHL experience before this season (he had one goal and four assists during that stretch). He’s suited up in 27 games this year and he’s found a way to collect an impressive 26 points. This youngster has given the Oilers another dangerous weapon in their arsenal. Even though they’re ranked 18th in goals against in 2019-20, they can make up for their with the attack.

Did Edmonton have enough to go all the way? Probably not. But when you have multiple superstars like McDavid and Draisaitl on your roster and you find some interesting supporting pieces you just never know.

Highlight of the Season:

Ironically enough, the most memorable moment of the season for Edmonton probably wasn’t a spectacular goal or an incredible offensive outburst.

The highlight everyone will remember most was the battles between Kassian and Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk.

If the playoffs were to start today, the Oilers and Flames would go head-to-head in the first round. A seven-game series between these provincial rivals would’ve been must-see TV.

Hopefully we get to see that. For now, we’ll have to settle for this:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL’s pandemic response; Strange time to be a free agent

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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.

• Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt takes a deeper look at the NHL’s pandemic response. (Sports Illustrated)

• The Ottawa Senators have made some temporary staff reductions because of the covid-19 pandemic. (Ottawa Citizen)

• Stars announcer Jeff K is using his voice to raise money for the team’s foundation. (NHL.com/Stars)

• It’s a strange time for Taylor Hall and other potential unrestricted free agents. (Toronto Sun)

• If the NHL season resumes, Bryan Little could be healthy enough to play for the Jets. (NHL.com)

Alex Pietrangelo is looking forward to hockey starting again so that he could finally get some rest. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• The Penguins will get a healthy Brian Dumoulin and John Marino back whenever the NHL season starts again. (Pittsburgh Tribune)

• With development camps likely not happening, it may be more difficult for top prospects to make their respective clubs. (Mile High Hockey)

• The Hobey Baker Hat Trick results are out. (College Hockey News)

• Rotoworld’s Michael Finewax breaks down the top fantasy performances of the season. (Rotoworld)

• The Leafs should go after KHL free agent Alexander Barabanov. (Leafs Nation)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.