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.

Blues All-Stars proud to represent franchise on home ice

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ST. LOUIS — After the cheers died down and the puck dropped, the Blues All-Stars wanted to give their fans inside Enterprise Center more reasons to make noise on Saturday night. But while they offered some hope coming back late in the first period of their semifinal with the Pacific Division, the Central Division team would ultimately fall 10-5 and see their All-Star Weekend come to a close earlier than desired.

“It’s not the result we wanted, but it was fun to be out there,” said Jordan Binnington, who was playing in his first All-Star Game. “I think the boys had fun and it was overall a fun weekend. But now it’s time to get back to business.”

Between Binnington, Alex Pietrangelo, David Perron, Ryan O’Reilly, and head coach Craig Berube, the hosts were well represented. That was on display during the opening face off when Berube put out a starting lineup featuring all four of his players.

“He asked me before the game [about the lineup],” Pietrangelo said afterward. “I said, you really have one job — it’s to start us. Don’t mess it up.”

That moment was just one of many on the night that highlighted the team, their fans and the organization. Celebrity fans Jenna Fischer and Jon Hamm, along with Blues alums Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull served as honorary coaches. Anthem singer Charles Glenn, who retired after last season as he battles multiple sclerosis, returned to a roaring ovation from the sold out crowd as he belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The energy would jump up a notch a little later when Laila Anderson, the team’s inspiring young fan, introduced the four Blues players.

“She was really good,” said Perron. “She had a good voice and was pretty loud. She had fun doing it, so it certainly was special for all of us.”

Hosting All-Star Weekend was another unforgettable moment in a year filled with them for the Blues. From the rollercoaster ride of last season ending with the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title, to the team getting off to a strong start in the 2019-20 season, there’s a lot of good momentum with the franchise.

“It’s pretty special,” Pietrangelo said. “Pretty fun to put on a show for our home crowd. We have good fans and we put on a show this weekend. Everybody saw that.”

MORE ALL-STAR COVERAGE:
Pacific wins close All-Star Game final
Best moments from 2020 NHL All-Star Game

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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.

Hockey’s young stars shine in NHL All-Star 3-on-3 tournament

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Young Laila Anderson delivered one of the most poignant moments of the weekend when she introduced the Blues’ four All-Stars. The players who stood out on the ice later weren’t all that much older.

Hockey’s youth was on grand display in the NHL All-Star 3-on-3 tournament on Saturday night, which was won by the Pacific Division. Whether it was Boston’s 23-year-old David Pastrnak earning MVP honors with six points or Vancouver’s 21-year-old Elias Pettersson scoring twice and trying a lacrosse goal, the fifth incarnation of 3 on 3 making up the All-Star Game was a showcase of the game’s present and future.

”It’s a young man’s game now in the NHL, and these guys, they’re superstars,” Dallas Stars forward Tyler Seguin said.

The night featured as many swear words during Green Day’s performance as saves by some of the goaltenders, who aren’t exactly in a good spot with more open ice than defense going on. Things tightened up and the final before the Pacific beat the Atlantic 5-4 and claim the $1 million prize.

”The second half, they turn it on and started to really play, which is good for the All-Star Game,” said Pastrnak, who gets a car for his four goals and two assists. ”We’re all having fun, but it comes to the end that we are all hockey players and it’s in our nature that everybody wants to win. Even if you’re playing and having fun, you still want to win.”

Along the way, there were plenty of opportunities for players to try things they ordinarily wouldn’t in a game that counts. Along with Pettersson, Chicago veteran Patrick Kane thought about celebrating his eighth NHL All-Star appearance by lifting the puck in lacrosse style before his hockey sense kicked in.

”I was thinking about it at that moment, and then I was kind of thinking that our team kind of needed a goal,” said Kane, who was cheered and booed in enemy territory. ”Then I gave away the puck anyway, so I should’ve just tried it.”

One of the most memorable parts of the night came when lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong swore multiple times during Green Day’s performance, words that could be heard in-arena but were bleeped on the TV broadcast.

”I heard a lot of F-bombs,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”I was like, is this OK?”

Before that, there were family friendly moments and reminders of the Blues’ Stanley Cup run last season. Anderson, the 11-year-old whose courageous battle with a rare immune disorder served as the team’s inspiration when winning its first Cup title, announced Blues All-Stars Ryan O'Reilly, Jordan Binnington, David Perron and Alex Pietrangelo.

”She was really good, too,” said Blues forward David Perron, who along with O’Reilly gave Anderson a hug when they were introduced. ”She had a good voice and was pretty loud and she had fun doing it, so it certainly was special for all four of us.”

St. Louis natives Jon Hamm and Jenna Fischer and Hockey Hall of Fame Blues alumni Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull spent time behind the benches as honorary captains. With less pressure and more pomp and circumstance, even usually intense Blues coach Craig Berube could relax.

”I didn’t do much coaching,” Berube said. ”I just stood there. It’s kind of nice, you just watch and watch the skill level and the talent out there and really just not have to engage too much. It’s stress-free.”

Blues fans who cheered Binnington’s success in the skills competition Friday didn’t get to see their players reach the 3-on-3 final because the Central Division lost the Western Conference semifinal 10-5 to the Pacific. Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk, who grew up in St. Louis, had two goals and two assists including the game-winner.

Pastrnak and Ottawa Senators forward Anthony Duclair each had a hat trick to help the Atlantic beat the Metropolitan in the Eastern Conference semifinal.

”I just wanted to show what I can do,” said Duclair, whose comeback season has been one of the best stories in the NHL thus far. ”When you’re playing with the best players in the world, you’re going to make some plays.”

Those plays came fast and furious and not without some drama. After some incidents during Oilers-Flames games this season left no love lost between the heated Alberta rivals, Draisaitl could be seen – perhaps jokingly – cursing at Tkachuk after setting him up for a goal.

”It was a nice play by him,” Draisaitl said with a laugh. ”We’re all here to have fun. We’re all here to have a good time and things like that, they happen in the game but this is not the time to be grumpy about anything.”

There’s plenty of time for that the rest of the NHL season.

Best moments from 2020 NHL All-Star Game

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After a fun skills competition on Friday, the Pacific Division beat the Atlantic 5-4 to win the 2020 NHL All-Star Game on Saturday. David Pastrnak won the MVP, while the Pacific split that $1 million. Those results don’t capture all of the best moments of the 2020 NHL All-Star Game, however.

Let’s consider some of the funny,  entertaining, and things that we’re more likely to remember than Pastrnak winning MVP (no offense, Pasta).

Laila Anderson introduces the Blues

Having Anderson introduce the Blues’ All-Star representatives was a delight. The Blues kind of owe her after Anderson was their “good luck charm,” right?

Blues fans … cheer for Patrick Kane?

Naturally, the St. Louis crowd was pulling for a Central Division team heavy on Blues. Of course, that meant they also occasionally felt the urge not to boo Patrick Kane of the rival Blackhawks. It made for a funny moment after a Kane goal:

Kane is no stranger to hearing boos at All-Star games, as Nashville fans let him have it (to John Scott’s delight) in 2016. After Saturday’s festivities, Kane explained why the boos don’t bother him that much.

“It’s all in good fun,” Kane said. “To be honest with you, sometimes you get booed, you kind of like it a little bit. It’s St. Louis and Chicago, it’s a huge rivalry. Not only in hockey, but pretty much every other sport they play against each other. I guess that’s only baseball, but… You know what? Had a lot of fun this weekend and I thought that was a pretty cool moment …”

Tkachuk to Draisaitl

“The Battle of Alberta” was put on hold (kind of?) being that Flames star-pest Matthew Tkachuk teamed up with Leon Draisaitl on the winning Pacific team.

The two engaged in an awkward exchange. Tkachuk sent a nice pass to Draisaitl in the opening game, leading to a goal. Draisaitl high-tailed it out of there, possibly while muttering a profanity at his frenemy. Afterward, Draisaitl claimed that he was just joking.

Regardless, nothing from All-Star weekend detracts from the billboard-worthy hype for the next “Battle of Alberta.” To refresh your memory, the Flames and Oilers will meet in what should be fascinating Jan. 29 and Feb. 1 games. Buckle up (and fasten your chinstrap/actually keep your mouthpiece in, Matthew).

Big weekend for Tomas Hertl

Casual hockey fans might know a lot more about Hertl. He brought laughs (and frightened chills) by wearing a Justin Bieber mask during the skills event.

Hertl followed up that style with substance. The Sharks forward scored four (often beautiful) goals in the first round, then managed the All-Star Game final’s clinching goal.

Overall, the 2020 NHL All-Star weekend provided plenty of fun, memorable moments, Tkachuk vs. Tkachuk, and a Mascot Showdown. Chalk that up as a success. If you want more information regarding the events, check the sections below.

Read up on the two first-round games:

Atlantic 9 – Metropolitan 5
Pacific 10 – Central 5

Celebrities, Skills, and more

Recent All-Star Game winners, MVPs

Winners:
2019: Metropolitan 10 – Central 5
2018: Pacific 5 – Atlantic 2
2017: Metropolitan 4 – Pacific 3
2016: Pacific 1 – Atlantic 0
2015: Team Toews 17 – Team Foligno 12
2012: Team Chara 12 – Team Alfredsson 9
2011: Team Lidstrom 11 – Team Staal 10
2009: East 12 – West 11 (OT)
2008: East 8 – West 7
2007: West 12 – East 9

MVPs:
2019: Sidney Crosby
2018: Brock Boeser (quite memorably)
2017: Wayne Simmonds
2016: John Scott (also very memorably)
2015: Ryan Johansen
2012: Marian Gaborik
2011: Patrick Sharp
2009: Alex Kovalev
2008: Eric Staal
2007: Daniel Briere

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.

All-Star MVP Pastrnak puts on a show for Atlantic Division

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ST. LOUIS — Bruce Cassidy is used to seeing what David Pastrnak did in the 2020 NHL All-Star Game every night. The Bruins forward put on a show on Saturday to earn MVP honors despite his Atlantic Division team losing the $1 million prize to the Pacific Division.

Pastrnak, who leads the NHL with 37 goals, scored three times in the Atlantic’s 9-5 semifinal win over the Metropolitan Division. He then added a goal and an assist in the final, but the Pacific Division finished on top 5-4.

“We had a good start. Obviously it was fun, but unfortunately came on the losing [end],” Pastrnak said afterward. “We wanted to win. Definitely a little bit painful.”

As is the thing with the three-on-three All-Star format, the two semifinals were a bit slow at points, but the final always sees the intensity pick up. The Atlantic stormed out to a 3-1 lead after the first half, but the Pacific roared back with four goals in the final 10 minutes.

“We all had fun but when it comes to the end we are all hockey players and it’s in our nature that everybody wants to win,” he said. “Even if you’re playing and having fun you still want to win.”

Along with MVP honors Pastrnak also gets to take home a 2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid, which he said he’s not sure what he’ll with just yet.

Pastrnak now joins Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque, and Bill Guerin as the only Bruins to take home All-Star Game MVP honors.

“It’s a huge honor, especially in an organization like the Bruins,” Pastrnak told Bruins TV. “Ray actually already texted me. It’s unbelievable.”

MORE ALL-STAR COVERAGE:
Pacific wins close All-Star Game final
Best moments from 2020 NHL All-Star Game

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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.