Blue Jackets surge sets tone for unpredictable NHL playoffs

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL’s best team, lost their first two playoff games at home to the Columbus Blue Jackets and are vulnerable without their top scorer for Game 3.

Winnipeg lost its first two at home, leaving the Jets fighting for their postseason relevance as that series shifts to St. Louis.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are loaded with stars who have years of playoff experience. The Pens are down 2-0 to the New York Islanders as their series moves to the Steel City.

So much for home-ice advantage and conventional thinking in these NHL playoffs.

The Blue Jackets have been in this heady position before in the postseason, just before they fell on their faces.

Now they have the Tampa Bay on the ropes and are enticingly closer to winning the first playoff series in franchise history. The series shifts to Columbus on Sunday night (7 p.m., NBCSN). The Lightning will be without 128-point scorer Nikita Kucherov , who was suspended for a game for boarding the Markus Nutivaara on Friday night.

Last year the Blue Jackets went up 2-0 in the first round against Washington on the road before the Capitals won four straight and rolled on a Stanley Cup championship. In other words, there’s a lot of hockey left to the play in the series, and the Blue Jackets players know it all too well.

”I think we should still have a sour taste in our mouth from last year,” said wing Cam Atkinson, who scored the first goal for Columbus in the 5-1 rout of Tampa Bay on Friday . ”It’s a series for a reason. They’re obviously the best team in the league. We just can’t take our foot off the gas pedal.”

Columbus has risen to the occasion and hasn’t backed down from their opponents.

”We’re in a hole, we’re in a tough position, but we are not going to quit,” Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. ”We have to take a page out of their book and go on the road and win a hockey game. We just have to focus on Game 3. It’s tough, it just hasn’t gone our way right now.”

Or, as coach Jon Cooper put it: ”This is a five-alarm fire.”

Islanders at Penguins, New York leads series 2-0 (noon EDT, NBC).

During their current run of 13 consecutive playoff appearances, the Pittsburgh Penguins lost in the first round three times. They’ll need to turn things around quickly to avoid a fourth.

Pittsburgh took its first lead in the series in the second period of Game 2 before the Islanders tied it minutes later and then pulled away in the third period for a 3-1 win.

The Penguins will look to regroup as they head home for the next two games. They know it’s not an insurmountable deficit.

”It’s the first team to win four games, not two,” coach Mike Sullivan said when asked about his message to the team after Game 2. ”We got to go back home, we got to control what we can. We got to win one game, and then we’ll go from there.”

The Islanders have held Jake Guentzel, who led the Penguins with 40 goals during the season, and star center Sidney Crosby (35 goals, 65 assists) off the scoresheet in the first two games.

Pittsburgh, sixth in the NHL in scoring during the season, has scored four times on 76 shots against an Islanders team that allowed the fewest goals in the league. After finishing fifth on the power play at 24.6 percent, the Penguins are 1 for 5 so far.

Jets at Blues, St. Louis leads series 2-0 (7:30 p.m. EDT, CNBC)

The Jets’ confidence is not shaken after losing each of the first two games of the series by one goal.

”For the most part, we’ve played two pretty solid games,” Winnipeg center Adam Lowry said after the Jets fell 4-3 on Friday night . ”It comes down to a couple breaks. I feel like we’re right there. I don’t think we’re frustrated. I don’t think you can let that creep into this room.”

Oskar Sundqvist scored twice, and Ryan O'Reilly broke the tie early in the third period to give the Blues the edge as the series shifts to St. Louis.

”They are going to give us their best game, Game 3 at home,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”And there’s no reason to get too high. You’ve got to stay ready and you gotta play even better than we’ve played.”

Jordan Binnington made 26 saves for St. Louis, becoming the second goalie in franchise history to win his first two playoff games.

Sharks at Golden Knights, series tied 1-1 (10 p.m. EDT, NBCSN)

Taking penalties against San Jose usually isn’t the right recipe for success, especially with the Sharks’ two potent power-play units led by dynamic defensemen Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson and a talented group of forwards.

Vegas survived that in Game 2 and even came out ahead when the Sharks had the man advantage. The Golden Knights committed eight minor penalties that gave San Jose power plays, including one minute of five-on-three action in Game 2.

But Vegas got the better of the play in those situations, scoring two short-handed goals and allowing just one on the power play, which proved to be pivotal.

”It’s hard to win this time of year if you don’t win special teams,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said.

San Jose is just 2 for 13 on the power play this series, with two goals allowed, a far cry from a unit that ranked sixth in the league in the regular season at 23.7%.

”I just didn’t think we shot the puck enough – myself included,” forward Logan Couture said. ”Too many times, we’d pass. We’ve got to get back to shooting it.”

Associated Press Sports writers Josh Dubow in San Jose, California; Vinay Cherwoo in New York; and Mark Didtler in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

PHT Morning Skate: Neely on Return to Play; NHLers on extended downtime

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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.

• Bruins president Cam Neely on the Return to Play format: “With what the team was able to accomplish in the first 70 games and then the point spread we had — not only with the teams in the league, but also with the teams in our division and conference — to kind of have three games dictate where we fall in the conference standings is somewhat disappointing.” [NBC Sports Boston]

• Why did St. Louis fail to land on the NHL’s list of potential hub cities? [Post-Dispatch]

• The NHL and NHLPA will be pushing back the June 1 signing date for players whose contracts begin next season. [TSN]

• NHL players look to manage uncertain injury risks after extended downtime. [Sporting News]

• This playoff will allow the Avalanche a real good chance to win the Stanley Cup. [NHL.com]

• Columbus’ strong defensive DNA will be important to slow the Maple Leafs’ offense. [Sportsnet]

• The expanded playoff format will only be “a one-time thing.” [The Hockey News]

• How USA Hockey hopes to bring kids back to the ice after the pandemic. [ESPN]

• When free agency opens, the Coyotes should be bold in improving their roster. [Five for Howling]

• Finally, here are the five worst players in EA Sports’ NHL series, according to Operation Sports:

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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.

Sabres fans are fed up with losing, and so is Jack Eichel

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While 24 NHL teams aim to return to play, the Buffalo Sabres will not. Despite seeing a league-leading playoff drought extend to nine consecutive seasons, the Sabres confirmed that GM Jason Botterill will be back. This all translates to deeply frustrating times for Sabres fans — not to mention star Jack Eichel.

And both Eichel and those Sabres fans made some waves with the way they aired their grievances.

Eichel and other Sabres are “fed up with losing”

Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, and other Sabres vented during recent days. In Eichel’s case, he admitted that he’s “fed up with losing.” When you listen to Eichel, you can hear that mixture of fatigue and anger.

Eichel carries a lot of the burden as the Sabres’ biggest star. Yet, as much as Eichel’s suffered through five years of failures, Rasmus Ristolainen absorbed even more over seven. Rumors circulated that Ristolainen wanted out last summer, and he only (kind of) calmed things down later on.

Maybe that sets the stage for some eyebrow-raising comments? Ristolainen told reporters that he realizes that if someone gets traded, he might be the first to go. The defenseman also acknowledged how comments about building toward the future must make everyone sound like a broken record.

No doubt, missing the postseason in such an embarrassing way has to sting Sabres players like Eichel and Ristolainen. The angst also makes it more awkward for Botterill to try to say all the right things.

With cap space opening up and huge needs still lingering, this is a huge offseason for the Sabres. It also could be a long one in a more literal way, if the 2020-21 season starts in, say, December. Clearly, plenty of Sabres players won’t be feeling very patient if the team suffers through another stretch of setbacks.

Fans share discontent — sometimes creatively

It’s clear — and it’s been clear for a while — that Sabres fans are out of patience, too. (Remember Duane?)

Sabres fan Jill Thompson put the team “up for sale” on Craigslist. While the listing was not very surprisingly removed, Thompson shared a screenshot of it on Twitter:

Thompson wrote this in the listing:

For Sale: NHL Hockey Franchise
Team: Buffalo Sabres
Available: ASAP

*Lost team with diehard fanbase looking for wealthy owner who actually understands hockey*

Organization on the cheap. Could be flipped. Major structural damage but few core pieces still in tact.

Non-Negotiable Terms:
-Franchise must stay in current city and is ineligible for relocation.
-Immediate family (i.e. wife) is not eligible for internal position within the organization
-Must provide “team puppy”

Not crazy about the “immediate family” barb personally, but otherwise? Pretty good. Really, all 31 NHL teams should have at least one puppy.

Thompson explained the listing to the Buffalo News, and capturing the mood of many Sabres fans in the process:

“When I post about the Sabres on Twitter, it’s sadly in a negative light and that is because I am upset for the level of disrespect/lack of accountability/neglect of everything down to the smallest details that we are shown from the owners,” Thompson wrote to the Buffalo News. “As one of the most loyal fan bases in all of sports, we deserve better.”

With serious questions lingering regarding goaltending, defense, and forward depth, the Sabres have a long way to go to turn things around. And they might not have a ton of time to win back fans like Thompson.

More on the Sabres

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.

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: Beleskey helps Ducks’ winning ways in 2015

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This week’s Hockey Happy Hour on NBCSN will feature four notable milestone and record performances.

In the first-ever playoff meeting between these two teams, the series was tied at two games apiece heading into Game 5. Jonathan Toews of Chicago forced an overtime period when he scored two goals with under two minutes left in regulation, but Anaheim’s Matt Beleskey scored the winning goal in overtime for the 5-4 win. With the victory, the Ducks improved to 11-3 in the 2015 postseason, tying the NHL record for the most consecutive games to begin the playoffs without a regulation loss.

Kenny Albert, Joe Micheletti and Brian Engblom had the call from Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Thursday, May 28 on NBCSN
• Blackhawks vs. Ducks (2015 Western Conference Final, Game 5) – 5 p.m. ET

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

LA Kings hope late-season surge indicates brighter future

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings were the NHL’s hottest team before the coronavirus pandemic ended the regular season prematurely. They’re hoping they can eventually build on that success whenever they get back on the ice.

The team with the NHL’s longest active winning streak won’t get a chance to extend it this season, thanks to the league’s decision this week to limit its playoff tournament to 24 teams. The Kings’ seven straight victories before the stoppage comprised the franchise’s best stretch since December 2017, and it had even pulled them out of last place in the Pacific Division.

The Kings haven’t lost a game since Feb. 23, and their 10-3-1 surge prior to the pause suggests coach Todd McLellan’s work was finally paying off after Los Angeles mostly struggled through the first four months of a rebuilding season. The Kings’ only public comment on the abrupt end came in a statement from team President Luc Robitaille.

”It’s unfortunate that our season has concluded, but we fully understand this was necessary and support the decision,” Robitaille said. ”At the time of the pause, we had made considerable progress in the second half and were seeing positive results and encouraging signs for the future. We’ll now turn our attention to the NHL draft and player development so that we can continue building our organization for long-term success.”

Despite their late success, the Kings already were all but certain to miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2009.

Even after two straight disappointing seasons, Robitaille, general manager Rob Blake and McLellan all appear to be secure in their jobs and locked in on a long-term plan to return the Kings to Stanley Cup contention.

Los Angeles won the trophy twice in three years before entering a slow decline caused by massive veteran contracts and unimpressive talent development, culminating in the struggles that finally showed signs of ending before the coronavirus upended everyone’s plans.

”If we had a chance to finish the season, we’d want to finish the season,” Robitaille said earlier this month. ”Especially the fact that we have a lot of young players, it’s always good experience for them to play.”

CORE GUYS

A championship-winning veteran core remains in Los Angeles, but the Kings must decide whether to keep it together for another year. Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter are all still-productive players locked into big contracts, but Blake knows it’s time to repair the foundation of his franchise to rebuild a winner. Blake values the leadership and experience of those veterans along with longtime depth forward Trevor Lewis, who is the Kings’ most noteworthy unrestricted free agent. Los Angeles already parted ways with stalwart supporting players Alec Martinez, Tyler Toffoli and Kyle Clifford in February, and while it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect big changes given the contract obstacles, Blake would be foolish not to consider more ways to get younger and more financially flexible.

FIND THE NET

The Kings were among the NHL’s lowest-scoring teams again this season, with Kopitar’s 21 goals and 41 assists easily leading the roster in both categories. Los Angeles had only five 10-goal scorers, while only Kopitar and Alex Iafallo topped 40 points. Despite their offensive struggles, Blake saw progress in the Kings’ implementation of McLellan’s system. ”Clearly we wanted to be a strong-shooting team, a team that got pucks to the net, recovered pucks well and generated offense off that,” Blake said. ”I think the year-end review showed that.”

PING PONG BALLS

The Kings have a 9.5% chance of winning the top pick in the complicated draft lottery this summer. For a franchise that hasn’t drafted a star since Doughty in 2008, a high pick would be an enormous boost. The Kings’ draft carries an added degree of difficulty with the departure of assistant general manager Michael Futa, whose contract expires in June. Still, Los Angeles is in prime position to add another elite talent to a solid pool of prospects including first-rounder Alex Turcotte, Gabe Vilardi, Arthur Kaliyev, Samuel Fagemo and Tyler Madden.

HIGHLIGHTS

Iafallo’s transformation from an undrafted free agent to a consistent NHL scorer in less than three years has been a rare bright spot for the Kings’ recent record of player acquisitions. Ditto for Sean Walker, an undrafted defenseman who played his way into a regular NHL role. Walker’s 24 points this season nearly matched the prolific Doughty, who had 28.

LOWLIGHTS

Carter has two more years left on his 10-year contract extension, but Blake said earlier this month that the 35-year-old veteran scorer wouldn’t have been able to return from his mysterious core injury even if the NHL season had continued for the Kings. And though Adrian Kempe was the Kings’ fifth-leading scorer, his inconsistency aggravated the front office and coaching staff. The Swede will strive for steadier production in the years ahead.