Capitals vs. Hurricanes: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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As far as storylines go, Capitals vs. Hurricanes is up there for Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. At minimum, no two teams do the epilogue/final scene celebrating with ewoks better than these two teams.

First, you have Washington, the favorites. They didn’t just finally break their playoff curse last year; they also celebrated to the point that you basically need to fill in the blanks with “scene missing” screens.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, basically had an on-ice party after every home win via the “Storm Surge,” to the point that broadcasts would linger in Carolina to find out what they’d cook up (or reel in) next. Eventually, the storm built to the point where they had to eventually shut it down, for some combination of wanting to looking serious and maybe they also ran out of ideas.

Can the hockey of the Capitals and Hurricanes top those things? Tall task, but it will be fun to watch them try.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 7:30 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Capitals | USA, SN360, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 3 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Capitals | NBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 7 p.m.: Capitals @ Hurricanes | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Thursday, April 18, 7 p.m.: Capitals @ Hurricanes | SN360, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Hurricanes @ Capitals | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Capitals @ Hurricanes | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Hurricanes @ Capitals | TBD

FORWARDS

CAPITALS: If you paid attention to last year’s run … or, really, hockey in general, you probably know most of the deal.

Alex Ovechkin is the headliner, and he didn’t disappoint in 2018-19, winning his eight Maurice Richard Trophy with 51 goals. He’s joined by two stellar centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, along with T.J. Oshie and professional disturber Tom Wilson. (Wilson, by the way, justified that fat extension with 22 goals and 40 points despite being limited to 63 games.)

The scary thing is that you can argue this is a deeper group. Jakub Vrana‘s had a nice year, scoring 24 goals and 47 points. Brett Connolly might be the bargain to target in free agency this summer, as he scored 22 goals and 46 points despite averaging just 13:20 TOI per game. Even frequent doghouse resident Andre Burakovsky cannot be disregarded as a former first-rounder (23rd overall in 2013).

As a team, the Capitals are a group that tends to shoot at high percentages, making middling possession stats easy to stomach — and this isn’t a fluke, they’ve been doing this for years. Which brings us to …

HURRICANES: A group that, from forwards to defense, always made “fancy stats” people swoon, yet could never break through to the playoffs. While the Capitals made the most of every shot to a near-extreme, the Hurricanes have been posterchildren for quantity over quality. At least, that’s how it seemed.

Things have really started to come together lately, though.

Nino Niederreiter seemed to tie the Hurricanes’ offense together like The Dude’s rug. In 36 games since being traded to Carolina, Niederreiter generated an impressive 30 points. The Hurricanes boast a mix of guys with numbers impressive enough that they shouldn’t sneak up on people any longer (Sebastian Aho‘s 83 points; Teuvo Teravainen getting 76) along with players whose value shines greatest when you consider their all-around games, such as Jordan Staal. Andrei Svechnikov‘s rise has been impressive as a rookie, too, and he should only become a bigger part of the mix as Rod Brind’Amour gains more trust in him.

Oh yeah, they also have “Mr. Game 7” and “Storm Surge” innovator Justin Williams.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals. The Hurricanes are more potent in this area than many might realize, but the Caps are in the upper tier.

DEFENSE

CAPITALS: John Carlson probably deserves more Norris buzz than he is receiving.

Last season brought some red flags, as he generated 68 points, with his 53 assists nearly matching a previous career-high of 55. Well, he topped all of that in 2018-19, scoring 13 goals and 70 points, the fourth-best total among NHL blueliners. Oh yeah, he also skyrocketed from a possession stats standpoint, so this was a great all-around year.

The rest of the group is less inspiring.

After being an important duo during that magical Stanley Cup run, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen have struggled this season, which is part of the reason the Capitals invested in Nick Jensen at the trade deadline.

All of this makes the loss of Michal Kempny tough to stomach. While the Capitals aren’t outright bad on defense, it could be an area of weakness.

HURRICANES: Carolina lost a similar understatedly-effective defenseman in Calvin de Haan to injury issues, but the difference is that they’re deep enough that they can handle the loss more gracefully.

Despite rarely getting the chance to be a top power play unit’s QB, Dougie Hamilton just keeps scoring, particularly goals. He generated 18 this season, and his 48 goals over the last three seasons ranks second to Brent Burns‘ 57 during that span.

Hamilton tends to be a strong play-driver, too, and he’s far from alone on Carolina’s stacked blueline. Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin can often dominate possession, and the duo of Justin FaulkBrett Pesce was effective this season, too. This group can move the puck up the ice, generally prospers in their own end, and can chip in offensively, too.

ADVANTAGE: Hurricanes. This could be a “coming out party” for one of the league’s better defensive groups. Carlson may be the best single blueliner among both teams, though.

GOALTENDING

CAPITALS: For the second straight season, Braden Holtby‘s stats have been modest — in the regular season.

That concludes about all the negative things I can muster about Holtby, and even his .911 save percentage is passable on a team that scores so proficiently, and doesn’t always win the possession battle. As you hopefully remember, Holtby was fantastic during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run, and he deserved credit for being a postseason beast before that, as his career playoff save percentage of .929 is just bonkers, and 82 high-pressure games count as a healthy sample size, too.

There’s some concern if Holtby gets hurt or melts down, and not just because Pheonix Copley‘s name is spelled Pheonix, but Holtby’s as close to a sure thing as you can get in the unpredictable realm of hockey goaltending.

HURRICANES: Curtis McElhinney‘s quietly built up a resume as a very very good backup over the years, making an argument to rise to the level of a platoon guy.

That’s exactly what’s happened lately, as Petr Mrazek went from a guy whose career was continuing to spiral out of relevance the first few months of this season (.894 save percentage in 23 games before the All-Star Break) to someone who generated a .938 save percentage in his last 17 games.

This unlikely duo has finally shown what Carolina can accomplish with good (or at least competent) goaltending: finally make the playoffs.

At the same time, McElhinney’s been a journeyman and Mrazek was trending in that direction, and a 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs matchup against a team full of sharpshooting scorers could really expose both of them.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals, by a healthy margin.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can the Capitals’ defense hold up?

Carolina’s defense and two-way forwards makes them a potentially tough matchup, and they’ve also been a strong penalty kill team. If these games end up being tight, low-scoring affairs, will Washington’s perceived weaknesses on defense get exposed?

Will Carolina’s goalies fall apart?

It’s fair to wonder if shabby netminding may dry out the “Storm Surge” before the thunder really gets cracking. There just aren’t a lot/any hockey humans who can shoot the puck like Ovechkin can, and the Capitals have other players who can make goalies look bad. Carolina’s goalies are as uncertain as Holtby is seasoned when it comes to postseason play (and playing the role of a No. 1 in general, really).

PREDICTION

Carolina in 6. Look, I know this is an aberrant pick, and most of the details above give me second, third, and 651st thoughts. But the Hurricanes’ playoff-friendly, two-way play make me feel better about going with my gut. Kinda.

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

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.

Penguins rally from 3-goal deficit to stun Bruins: 3 takeaways

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins erased a three-goal first period deficit against the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon to pick up a 4-3 win. The Penguins have shown an ability to rally all season, but their first period performance on Sunday, combined with the dominance of the Bruins, made it seem like this one might be a little too much to overcome.

It was not.

Here is how they did it.

1. Matt Murray and Jack Johnson bounced back

Murray and Johnson were at the center of the Penguins’ early struggles on Sunday as Boston jumped out to a 2-0 lead just two minutes into the game.

The first goal came just 11 seconds into the game when Johnson got caught out of position and left Patrice Bergeron wide open for a shot that he buried behind Murray. Two minutes later, Anders Bjork took advantage of another defensive breakdown to score his eighth goal of the season.

Just after that Murray received a mock cheer from the sellout crowd when he stopped a rolling puck from the neutral zone.  Things only got worse when David Pastrnak scored his 37th goal of the season thanks to some help from Johnson who accidentally knocked Pastrnak’s centering attempt into his own net.

“I had a feeling [Pastrnak] was going to throw it across the goal line to the guy on the backside,” said Johnson. “You have to try and stop it and lay it in the pads. You can’t let it go through or deflect it into the slot. It’s a tough bounce.”

It would have been easy for Penguins coach Mike Sullivan to make a goaltending change at that point but he decided to stick with Murray. He was rewarded for it. Murray was not only perfect for the remainder of the game, he actually finished with a very strong .918 save percentage and made some huge saves in the second and third period to keep the Penguins in it.

He has been relegated to backup duty for most of the past two months behind All-Star Tristan Jarry. But the Penguins know they will need both goalies this season and have tried to get Murray more playing time recently to get him back on track. He has now won each of his past four starts with strong numbers.

While Murray was bouncing back in net, Johnson made up for his first period own goal by scoring the game-tying goal early in the third period with a booming shorthanded slap shot.

2. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin dominated

The Penguins’ superstar center duo did not finish with huge numbers (Crosby had two assists; Malkin had one assist) but there was no denying the impact they had on this game.

Crosby helped start the Penguins’ rally late in the first period when he set up Dominik Simon for the Penguins’ first goal.

Just 33 seconds into the second period he added another ridiculous pass to his highlight reel when he did this.

Crosby now has eight points in four games since returning to the lineup.

Malkin, meanwhile, was a constant threat all day and finally made an impact on the scoreboard when he set up Bryan Rust on this play late in the third period.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan praised Malkin’s effort and the message it sends to the rest of the team.

“Malkin made a great play on the game-winner.” said Sullivan. “He gets in on the forecheck, it’s just a hard-working goal. When you have one of your best players and a leader like that step up, it speaks volumes for the leadership of the group.”

The bad news for the Penguins’ forwards on Sunday is that Simon and Dominik Kahun both exited the game with injuries.

3. The Bruins lost another three-goal lead

This is something that just does not happen to the Bruins.

Consider this stat from NHL.com’s Wes Crosby when the Bruins jumped out to their three-goal lead.

 

The concerning thing here is three of those now eight losses (one regulation and two overtime) have come since Nov. 1 of this season.

They lost in a shootout to the Florida Panthers on Nov. 12 after holding a 4-0 lead. This past week they had a 5-2 second period lead over the Philadelphia Flyers before allowing that to slip away, again losing in a shootout. Then on Sunday they turned a 3-0 first period lead into a 4-3 regulation defeat.

The Bruins are still in a good position in the Atlantic Division with a six-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but there are some issues here. For one, Tampa Bay is gaining ground fast. There is also the fact that Boston has cooled off considerably over the past couple of months and is just 8-7-7 in its past 22 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.

Gerard Gallant on coaching future: ‘I’m far from done’

Gerard Gallant
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The Vegas Golden Knights decision to fire coach Gerard Gallant this past week came as a shock to pretty much everyone across the NHL, and that of course includes Gallant himself.

Gallant told his hometown paper, the Journal Pioneer on Saturday that he was “quite surprised” by the Golden Knights’ decision and that it isn’t too popular with him.

“You don’t see something coming like that when you have two-and-a-half years in. I was disappointed and surprised, but I understand the hockey business and things have to change sometimes. They made a tough decision and I’m sure it was tough on them, but that’s the way hockey is.”

Given the nature of the NHL’s coaching carousel it seems to be a given that Gallant will be back behind a bench at sometime in the near future. He told the Journal Pioneer that he “definitely” still wants to coach and that he is “far from done.”

Under Gallant’s watch the Golden Knights were the most successful NHL expansion team of the modern era with a 118-75-20 regular season record in two-and-a-half seasons. They made the playoffs in each of his first two full seasons and made a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Even though they were on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture at the time of the coaching change they were still just one point out of a playoff spot and only three points out of first place in the Pacific Division.

The Golden Knights are 1-0-1 in the two games since the coaching change. Given the way they have played at 5-on-5 this season there is every reason to believe they can turn their season around after a slow start as long as they get more consistent goaltending.

Perhaps the most interesting comment from Gallant in his interview was how he and the NHL were going to handle the 2020 All-Star Game. Gallant had initially been announced as the head coach for the Pacific Division team, but his dismissal from the Golden Knights put that into question. Gallant said he and the league talked about how to handle the situation and that the NHL left it up to him on whether or not he wanted to participate. In the end he decided he would not have been comfortable going.

The NHL named Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet as the replacement.

You can read Gallant’s entire interview here.

More on Gerard Gallant

Golden Knights fire Gallant, hire Peter DeBoer
Golden Knights’ Gallant firing seems like short-sighted, knee-jerk reaction
Gallant replaced by Rick Tocchet at 2020 NHL All-Star Game

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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Bruins on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Two of the NHL’s top teams meet for the second time in four days as the Bruins head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins. Sunday’s matchup will be the third and final game between these two this season. Boston won the first two meetings

After losing in Boston Thursday, the Penguins had a chance to get right back to it with a game against the Red Wings Friday night. Pittsburgh started slow, trailing 1-0 to the league’s worst team through two periods. But early in the third Bryan Rust scored his 20th of the season on the power play to even the score. And in overtime it was the captain Sidney Crosby who netted the game-winner on the power play to help Pittsburgh escape with a win.

Since returning from his 28-game absence, Crosby has 6 points (3G-3A) and has scored a goal in each of his three games.

With All-Star goalie Tuukka Rask (concussion) on injured reserve, the Bruins are now relying on Jaroslav Halak as their primary goalie. After starting the season on a tear, Halak has not been as sharp over the past six weeks.Halak has started (and won) both games against the Penguins this season. Over his career, he is 11-8-2 in 21 starts against Pittsburgh, with a 2.53 GAA and .921 SV%.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

WHAT: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 19, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Bruins-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskCharlie CoyleAnders Bjork
Danton HeinenPar LindholmKarson Kuhlman
Joakim NordstromSean KuralyChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
John MooreMatt Grzelcyk

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Dominik KahunEvgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Alex GalchenyukAndrew AgozzinoPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Jusso Riikola – Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

NHL on NBC: Bruins want to be more than ‘teddy bears’ vs. Penguins

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Considering the Bruins’ comfortable lead atop the Atlantic Division, most teams would gladly take on Boston’s “problems.”

Still, for the Bruins — and few other teams, but yes, also the Penguins, their opponents on Sunday afternoon — it’s about more than division titles. After falling a Game 7 shy of winning the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, this group boasts lofty aspirations.

The Bruins aim to fine-tune during this stretch of the 2019-20 season, and to some, that means reestablishing their identity.

Bruins try to shed ‘Teddy Bears’ criticism

The B’s didn’t just lose Tuukka Rask to an injury on Tuesday when Emil Bemstrom delivered an errant elbow during Columbus’ 3-0 win. Their perceived lack of a response meant that some lost respect for this group.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty went as far as to call the Bruins “teddy bears.”

The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa also opined (sub required) that “The Big, Bad Bruins are dead.”

Bruins players seemed to get the memo in beating the Penguins 4-1 on Thursday. Haggerty and others praised the team’s physical response, including a rare Torey Krug fight against Patric Hornqvist.

“It’s not about going out there and trying to run them out of the rink. Looking at our roster, we don’t have that kind of group anymore,” Krug said after that win, via Haggerty. “But we talked about sticking together and competing harder and sacrificing a little more. That doesn’t mean putting a guy through the glass, but it means going into the corner and having the willingness to get hit, or to hit somebody else, in order to come out of there with the puck. I think that desperation was lost there for a few games, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction and we can kind of grasp that concept again. It’s been part of our DNA for years, so as long as we can get back to that [we’ll be good].”

Some lingering questions for Bruins

Again, you could argue there’s some mild soul-searching going on for Boston.

Blame it on a drop in physicality, or perhaps some other factors, but I’d personally be a little more concerned about dipping underlying numbers.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

Looking at sites like Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference, there’s been a dip in key categories. They’ve hogged the puck less often, and have been on the wrong end of high-danger chances (owning just 45.6 percent of that category, via Hockey Reference).

These numbers shouldn’t make anyone pull a fire alarm. It’s not that the Bruins have been terrible. Instead, there are some red flags that the Bruins should improve their play. Sean Tierney (Charting Hockey)’s expected goals share chart captures the sometimes middle-of-the-pack feel to the Bruins’ stats:

Bruins xg

Would the Bruins dominate the puck if they add more edge? Maybe, but either way, there are signs that the B’s have room to improve.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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.