‘No easy shifts’ as first-round series get tight and nasty

It wasn’t long after celebrating Craig Smith‘s overtime goal that P.K. Subban zeroed in on the cold reality of Nashville’s playoff series against Dallas.

”There are no easy shifts out there, no easy games and no easy plays,” he said. ”It’s hand-to-hand combat out there.”

Subban and the Central Division-winning Predators needed to work overtime just to even things with the Stars at a game apiece, and the Colorado Avalanche got a sudden-death goal from Nathan MacKinnon to tie up their series against the Western Conference top-seeded Calgary Flames. In the East, the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals needed extra time to take a two games to none lead on the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Boston Bruins are going blow-for-blow with the Toronto Maple Leafs in series that’s all square and looking like it could be a classic.

”It’s nerve-racking, but it’s definitely fun,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said.

None of these first-round series are going to be easy – even for the Capitals, who will go into a madhouse Monday (7 p.m. EDT, CNBC) for the first Hurricanes home playoff game in a decade.

”Absolutely no quit in that team,” Washington coach Todd Reirden said Sunday about Carolina. ”They’re not going away.”

This isn’t a time of year for shrinking from challenges, and the Bruins showed in their Game 2 against the Maple Leafs that they’re not going anywhere. As the series shifts to Toronto, the Maple Leafs will be without center Nazem Kadri for at least Game 3 (7 p.m. EDT, NBCSN), who has an in-person hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety earlier in the day for cross-checking Jake DeBrusk in the face.

Kadri was suspended three playoff games for boarding Boston’s Tommy Wingels when these teams met in the first round a year ago and could be banned for the rest of this series, if not longer. It’s no surprise the tensions are high between the Bruins and Maple Leafs.

”Things were getting pretty amped up there towards the end of the game and a lot of emotions, and that’s what playoff hockey is all about,” Bruins agitator extraordinaire Brad Marchand said after Game 2. ”It’s going to happen on both sides. There’s going to be a lot of physicality the rest of the series.”

The Capitals will try to keep up the physicality against the small and quick Hurricanes, who have shown they can come back on Washington. Center Jordan Staal said, ”We’re right there,” and there’s no shortage of belief that they can make it a series.

”I don’t think we played our best game,” center Sebastian Aho said. ”It’s just trying to believe that when we play our best, we have a better chance to win.”

Stars-Predators is anyone’s series going into Game 3 Monday night in Dallas (9:30 p.m. EDT, NBCSN). Each of the first two games was decided by a goal, and players expect the low-scoring trend to continue as the series wears on.

”It’s not obviously open like the regular season,” Stars goaltender Ben Bishop said. ”Everybody finishes checks, everybody’s going 110 percent. It’s not going to be that up-and-down style that you’re used to.”

Bishop clearly isn’t watching Avalanche-Flames, which finally opened up in Game 2 after a shutout by Calgary’s Mike Smith in the series opener. Led by MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog and now-healthy Mikko Rantanen, Colorado looks like it can push the Flames with the series shifting to Denver for Game 3 (10 p.m. EDT, CNBC).

”We’ve always had the confidence in this room,” forward Matt Nieto said. ”Down late or running into a hot goalie, we know we can win games against this team. We’re thrilled to be going back 1-1 and get back in front of that Pepsi Center crowd and try to get a lead in the series.”

The Capitals know from their own experience in the first round last year that a 2-0 series lead doesn’t mean a whole lot. They came back from down 2-0 to beat Columbus on the way to winning the Cup and were pushed to seven games by Tampa Bay after leading the Eastern Conference final by that same margin.

They know better by now than to underestimate the Hurricanes.

”There’s a lot of desperation whether you’re down two or you’re starting the series, but there might be a little extra,” Washington winger T.J. Oshie said. ”feels good to be up 2-nothing, but I think we can still do a lot better job and we’re going to have to if we want to go get a win there.”

LATE ADDITIONS

The Avalanche could have top prospect Cale Makar in their lineup sooner than later after signing the 20-year-old defenseman to a three-year, entry-level contract Sunday. Makar, who won the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA player of the year, is fresh off a loss with UMass in the Frozen Four title game Saturday and could be a big boost for Colorado.

”It’s my job to make sure I’m putting him in a position to succeed,” Bednar said. ”I think he’s an elite talent and a real special player. So I have hopes he can come in and help us in this series.”

Colorado isn’t the only team adding a player with the playoffs underway. The Blue Jackets signed defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov to a two-year deal and the Vegas Golden Knights signed forward Nikita Gusev for the rest of the postseason after their seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League ended.

”Vladislav is an outstanding defenseman who excels at both ends of the ice,” Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. ”He is big, strong and mobile and has enjoyed a successful career in the KHL and in international competition, including winning an Olympic gold medal last year. We are very excited about his future with the Columbus Blue Jackets.”

AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Pat Graham in Denver, Joedy McCreary in Raleigh and Jimmy Golen in Boston and The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)

Nikita Kucherov’s postseason defined by redemption, consistency

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Like pretty much every other player on the Lightning roster, the 2018-19 playoffs ended up being a very forgettable experience for Nikita Kucherov.

During their four-game loss to the Blue Jackets, Kucherov managed just two points (both in their Game 4 loss), zero goals, and even missed a game due to a suspension for an ugly hit late in their Game 2 loss. It was a dreadfully disappointing end to a season where Kucherov had put together one of the finest regular season performances of the modern era for a record-setting team. He finished the season with 128 points (the most points the league had seen in 23 years) and took home the Hart Trophy (MVP) and Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player as voted by the players) on a team that won 62 regular season games.

But because of their inability to win even a single playoff against the No. 8 seed, it will mostly end up being a footnote to the season.

All of them — from Kucherov on down the roster — had to redeem themselves this postseason and flip the script on a team that was starting to become more known more for postseason shortcomings instead of for what it actually is — one of the league’s elite teams, driven by some of the best players in the world.

Entering Game 4 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final Friday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC; livestream), Kucherov and the Lightning are in the process of getting that redemption.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

They hold a 2-1 series lead and have looked like the far superior team these past two games.

Kucherov has been at the center of most of it.

His playmaking was on display in the Lightning’s Game 2 win by setting up a pair of power play goals to help power their fast start. In Game 3, he pounced on a Miro Heiskanen turnover in the neutral zone and buried a quick shot behind Anton Khudobin on a breakaway to help open the floodgates in a 5-2 win.

For the playoffs, he is already up to 30 points (seven goals, 23 assists) in 22 games, which is currently tied for the fourth highest total in a single postseason over the past 20 years, trailing only Evgeni Malkin (36) and Sidney Crosby (31) in 2008-09, and Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov (32) in 2017-18.

It’s not just that he is generating points that stands out.

He is driving the most dominant line in the league this postseason alongside Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat. His underlying numbers are also off the charts. Of the 98 skaters that have logged at least 200 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this postseason, Kucherov ranks second in total shot attempt share (63.6 percent), second in goals for percentage (76 percent), second in expected goals percentage (68 percent), fifth in scoring chance share, and second in high-danger scoring chances (67.9 percent). In most of those categories the only players that rank ahead of him are either Tampa defenseman Victor Hedman, or Palat, who is one of Kucherov’s current linemates.

Then we get to the consistency aspect of this, and just how steady his overall production has been.

There is no more overrated and overused word in hockey than “consistency,” at least as it relates to goal and point production. Every player in the league is inconsistent to a certain degree, and even the best players tend to score their goals and points in bunches. The season is a mountain range full of peaks and valleys. But Kucherov, for a few months now, has been residing on one of those mountains.

[Lightning vs. Stars: 2020 Stanley Cup Final schedule]

He has not gone more than two consecutive games without a point since the middle of January, and there was only one stretch of games this entire season where he went more than two games without finding the scoresheet — and even that was only a three-game stretch.

He also has eight multi-point games this postseason, and when you exclude the three Round-Robin games before the start of the playoffs that means he has recorded at least two points in more than 40 percent of his games this postseason.

That is a stunning level of production and dominance.

Just looking at recent Conn Smythe Trophy winners, Ryan O'Reilly had multiple points in only 20 percent of his postseason games for the Blues last season. Alex Ovechkin was at 33 percent in 2018. Sidney Crosby had multiple points in 33 percent (2016-17) and 20 percent (2015-16) in his most recent Conn Smythe seasons.

The Lightning have been one of the league’s best teams and Kucherov has been one of the best players for six years now. But because of the way their postseasons have ended there has always been that “yeah, but…” following them around, especially after last year’s dismal First Round showing.

They all needed to rewrite the story around themselves.

They are not exactly where they want to be just yet (they still have two more wins to get), but they have put themselves in a great position to finally accomplish their ultimate goal.

MORE: Conn Smythe Watch: Victor Hedman makes his move

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.

Trade: Penguins send Hornqvist to Panthers for Matheson, Sceviour

Trade Penguins Panthers Hornqvist Matheson
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After more than 24 hours of waiting, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Florida Panthers finally completed the rumored swap of forward Patric Hornqvist and defenseman Mike Matheson.

The trade breaks down as follows:

Penguins get: Matheson and forward Colton Sceviour

Panthers get: Hornqvist.

There is no salary retained in the trade, meaning the Penguins are actually taking on about $700,000 in salary for this season.

Hornqvist’s contract pays him $5.3 million per season through the end of the 2022-23 season.

Matheson, meanwhile, is under contract for six more seasons at a salary cap hit of $4.875 million. Sceviour’s deal has one more year remaining at a salary cap hit of $1.2 million.

The hold-up on the trade on Wednesday reportedly revolved around insurance on Hornqvist’s contract, as well as needing his approval for the deal due to his no-trade clause.

Breaking it all down

For the Penguins, it’s a pretty massive shakeup to the roster as Hornqvist had been one of their most fiery leaders and was a major contributor to two Stanley Cup winning teams. He was their most tireless worke, their most consistent high-energy guy, and as good of a net-front presence as there is in hockey. But he is also going to be 34 years old next season, and given his physically demanding style of play there comes a risk of him starting to decline and breakdown a bit. Given his salary cap number and the Penguins’ tight cap situation it is not a surprise that he was a candidate to be moved. Especially given the team’s desire to apparently shake things up after a second straight disappointing postseason exit.

This move does not save them any money, but it does help them achieve one of their stated offseason goals of getting younger and faster, two things that Matheson definitely brings to the table.

But he also creates a bit of a log-jam on defense where the Penguins already have a ton of money committed to the likes of Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson, and Jack Johnson. John Marino will also be due a raise after next season.

It seems likely that another move is coming at some point this offseason. This is already their third trade of the offseason.

The question for Florida is how much quality hockey Hornqvist still has remaining. He is the type of player that a perpetually disappointing team would look to acquire to change the culture of their roster. He will certainly bring effort and energy to the team, but it will still come down to what he can deliver on the ice.

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.

 

Marc-Andre Fleury wants to stay in Vegas, isn’t asking for trade

Fleury trade
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The biggest question for the Vegas Golden Knights this offseason is going to be how they handle their suddenly complex goaltending situation.

Marc-Andre Fleury, the face of the franchise, remains under contract for two more seasons, while the team seems determined to try and re-sign Robin Lehner, who had taken over the starting job during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs after he was acquired at the NHL trade deadline.

While keeping both players would seem to be an ideal set-up (having two goalies capable of being a high level starter is a good thing!) the financial and logistical circumstances around it would seem to be incredible difficult.

Not only would it require a substantial salary cap commitment to a position where only one player can play at a time, there is also the delicate balance of playing time. Both goalies are starters, both will want to start, and both have earned the right to start. That has resulted in speculation that the Golden Knights could trade, or perhaps even buy out, Fleury this offseason.

There was also the school of thought that Fleury might ask for an exit given the way the goaltending situation unfolded this postseason.

That does not seem to be the case.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Fleury told The Athletic’s Jesse Granger this week that while he realizes the potential of a trade, he has no intention of asking the team for one this offseason and that he is still committed to finishing his career in Vegas.

Even if it means potentially sharing the net.

Via the Athletic (subscription required):

“I want to stay in Vegas,” he told The Athletic Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I’ve loved every moment since I got here.”

Fleury emphasized that he is not seeking a trade, and if it were up to him he would finish his career in Vegas.

“This team means a lot to me, and the city has been so good to me,” Fleury said. “The fans, and (owner Bill Foley) have been so awesome. It’s a great team, and I thought when I came here that maybe I could retire here. I wanted to end my career here.”

Fleury added that he gets along great with Lehner, and that while his goal is to not be just a backup, he said he intends to “practice hard, try to play well, and hopefully get some games.”

The problem here is if Vegas is successful in re-signing Lehner it would probably carry a price tag similar to Fleury’s. That would mean Vegas would have somewhere in the neighborhood of $14-15 million tied up in net. The only team in the league this season that is slated to spend that much on goaltending is Montreal with the newly formed Carey PriceJake Allen duo.

Montreal has the salary cap space to make that sort of a commitment to the goalie position.  Vegas, on the other hand, may not. Not unless it makes a drastic cut somewhere else on the roster.

Even though the Golden Knights do not have any other significant free agents to deal with, they still have a handful of RFA’s to re-sign and are already crunched against the cap. Even if were to shed salary elsewhere to keep both goalies it would still probably prohibit the team from making any other outside addition via trade or free agency. It is a very good team, one of the very best in the league, but they are still going to want to make some improvements to the roster. That may be difficult, if not impossible, with both goalies on the roster.

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.