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

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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

Playoff lineup, injury notes: Islanders lose Boychuk; Flames scratch Neal

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There were quite a few noteworthy lineup notes surrounding teams in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Friday, so let’s rattle them off.

Thomas Hickey seems to be the most likely immediate replacement for Boychuk. While both defensemen have enjoyed some nice years in the NHL, both have been on the decline. Hickey was limited to zero goals and four assists in 40 games this season after generally coming in at 20-ish points during his previous five campaigns with the Isles, while Boychuk’s ice time was down to 16:16 minute per game during the Islanders’ Round 1 sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins. So the loss of Boychuk likely has more name value than on-ice impact.

Speaking of name value, allow a moment to dream. What if the Islanders instead turn to other Sebastian Ahoand the Hurricanes advance with far more famous Sebastian Aho? Would the Internet be forced to come up with something fresher than the Spiderman pointing meme for that? Might want to do some prep with all this time on your hands, Islanders fans.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

  • Maybe the Capitals feel like they need to bring back a playoff hero after seeing their 2-0 series lead against said Hurricanes dissolve into a 2-2 tie? They recalled Devante Smith-Pelly on Friday. Smith-Pelly scored eight points in 54 NHL games with the Capitals this season, and had been fairly productive (14 points in 20 games) with the Hershey Bears in the AHL. His seven goals during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run matched his seven goals from that 2017-18 regular season, so if DSP can carry over some of that playoff magic starting with Game 5 (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC [livestream]), the Caps would be very pleased. He’ll certainly be fighting to stay at the top level …
  • Could the Predators (another team locked in a 2-2 series tie) get some reinforcements back a lot sooner than anticipated? Both Brian Boyle and Wayne Simmonds were recently considered week-to-week, and perhaps that was always a nebulous descriptor, as they at least were able to practice on Friday.

Interestingly, each player was wearing regular practice jerseys, which bodes reasonably well for the future, as that indicates that they could take body contact. There’s an enormous gulf between being able to practice and being ready for the sometimes-traumatic damage of playoff hockey, yet this is all pretty promising for the Preds.

With the Flames down 3-1 to the Colorado Avalanche and facing elimination in Game 5 on Friday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream) this team badly needs a spark, and Neal really hasn’t been providing much of one basically since signing with the Flames. Neal failed to score a point through the first four games of this series, suffering through a -3 plus/minus, just 13:49 TOI on average, and not really excelling from a possession stats standpoint, either.

[To be fair, Neal is joined by Johnny Gaudreau and others as struggling Flames.]

One wonders if the Flames need to give Neal a pat on the back and say “We’ll get things back on track soon enough.” As mediocre as he’s been across the board, Neal also suffered from a terrible season luck-wise, managing just a five shooting percentage, way below his career average of 11.6. Maybe some of that is the aging curve, and maybe he’s depended upon some stellar linemates to grab his counting stats, but you’d have to figure that there’s some potential for a rebound … eventually. Perhaps just not this season?

Either way, it looks like Austin Czarnik is replacing Neal in the lineup. Hockey comes at you fast, gang.

For a rundown of Friday’s slate of playoff action, check out The Wraparound.

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.

Players demand say in women’s hockey future after CWHL folds

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Hilary Knight put aside the jet lag and fresh memories of helping the United States win its latest world hockey championship to begin looking ahead to next season.

Yes, the star forward intends on playing professionally in October. The only question Knight can’t answer is where.

”Yeah, exactly,” she told The Associated Press by phone this week, shortly after returning home to Idaho after a 2-1 shootout victory over host Finland in the gold-medal game Sunday.

With a laugh, she added: ”My mom would love to know that, too.”

Knight is suddenly one of some 100 players without a place to play after the six-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League last month abruptly announced it was ceasing operations as of May 1. Knight had just completed her first full season playing for the CWHL franchise in Montreal after spending two seasons with Boston of the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League.

Knight is in no hurry to rush back to the NWHL, acknowledging she left the league in part by how the league operated, including cutting players’ salaries in half a month into the 2016-17 season. With the CWHL’s collapse due to financial reasons, the 29-year-old said she prefers taking a contemplative step back before determining what’s best for her and the sport.

”I don’t think either model has it figured out, to be honest,” Knight said, referring to the CWHL, which operated as a nonprofit, and the private investor-backed NWHL.

”We want to be confident in something we’re endorsing, and that’s one of the reasons I moved to the CWHL,” she added. ”And now, there’s a lot of different open doors, and we just have to figure out which makes sense for the future.”

Knight isn’t alone.

The five-team NWHL swiftly announced its intention to expand to Toronto and Montreal next season, but players on both sides of the border are using the CWHL’s demise as a starting point for a big-picture discussion on the game’s future, and demanding they have a say in it.

”I think it’s kind of opened our eyes to something that we always knew was there, and to seize the opportunity to really ask for more for our sport,” said goalie Liz Knox, the CWHL Players’ Association co-chair.

”I see more often, women, especially female athletes, being told to be grateful for opportunity. And certainly we are,” she added. ”But at some point that line of being grateful has to be broken to ask for more or to demand for more. … There’s got to be better out there for us.”

Without going into detail, the 30-year-old Knox said there have already been ”a handful” of proposals kicked around in the three weeks since the CWHL announcement. Players and CWHL executives have been communicating via email and text, and Knox expects those discussions to ramp up now that the world championships are over.

Though time is an issue with NWHL teams preparing to restock their rosters next month, Knox said players need to present a united front in knowing they have leverage in determining their futures.

It’s a moment not much different than two years ago, when Team USA players won pay raises after threatening to boycott competing in the world championships being held on U.S. soil.

”Certainly, what the U.S. girls did was courageous to say the least,” Knox said. ”But that’s very much the situation we’re in.”

As for the NWHL, Knox said she doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of what the plusses or minuses might be in joining the rival league. She does question whether players will eventually find themselves having the same struggles making ends meet.

”The NWHL seems comfortable. And maybe some players want that,” Knox said. ”So I’m not saying, ‘No.’ But I’m also saying if given the opportunity for more, I think most players would take that.”

Ultimately, she said, the decision mostly rests on both countries’ national team players because they have the most invested in the game.

The NWHL released a statement to the AP saying it ”understands the players’ desire to consider all options, and we are in the process of communicating with them about our plans for the upcoming season.” The league is also open to addressing questions or ideas players might have.

The NWHL declined to provide any updates on its expansion plans into Canada, while noting the next season opens in less than six months.

”There is a lot of work to be done in a brief time,” the NWHL said. ”The opportunity for professional women’s hockey in North America is enormous, and the NWHL is committed to building the league that the players and fans deserve.”

In an email to the AP, U.S. national team member Jocelyne Lamoureaux-Davidson said players are on the same page. She added joining the NWHL ”is too simple to assume” but only time will tell.

Lamoureaux-Davidson also noted how players have been outspoken in having the NHL play a role in overseeing a pro league.

Though the NHL financially supports women’s pro hockey, it has been cautious in taking a larger role. Commissioner Gary Bettman previously said the league was hesitant about assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL or both because, as he put it, ”we don’t believe in their models.” He emphasized the importance of starting with a clean slate.

CWHL interim Commissioner Jayna Hefford believes the NHL stepping in is the ultimate answer.

Though disappointed by the CWHL’s demise, Hefford said the announcement has provoked serious discussion over the sport’s future.

”This certainly appears to be the end for the CWHL, but I’m extremely optimistic for what will happen down the road,” Hefford said. ”I think it’s time for change in women’s sports, and we don’t know what that change is yet. But I certainly believe the players need to be strong in what they want.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.

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

Foligno, Lehner, Thornton are the 2019 Masterton Trophy finalists

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On Friday, the NHL and the Professional Hockey Writers Association announced the three finalists for the 2019 Masterton Trophy, which is awarded “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders, and Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks have been voted the three finalists after the PHWA’s local chapters submitted nominations at the conclusion of the regular season, with the top three vote-getters getting the trip to Las Vegas in June..

The trophy was presented by the NHL Writers’ Association in 1968 to commemorate the late Bill Masterton, a player with the Minnesota North Stars who exhibited to a high degree the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey and who died on Jan. 15, 1968.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Nick Foligno’s story: Foligno helped Columbus earn a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third consecutive year by scoring 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) in 73 games, while simultaneously attending to health issues affecting two of his three young children. The Blue Jackets captain, 31, is skating in his seventh season with Columbus and ranks third on the club’s all-time goals (125) and assists (162) lists.

“I feel like we’ve become a stronger family and that’s how I’m always going to look at it. I think it’s made me a better person, a better player and a better leader, hopefully, for this team,” Foligno told the Columbus Dispatch. “I’m going to take it all in stride, but my family is my most important thing in my life and (the Blue Jackets are) my second family.”

Robin Lehner’s story: Lehner (25-13-5 record, 2.13 goals against average, .930 save percentage, six shutouts) and teammate Thomas Greiss won the 2018-19 William M. Jennings Trophy as the goaltenders on the team allowing the fewest regular-season goals, helping the Islanders post their highest regular-season points total (103) since 1983-84. His best NHL season on the ice came on the heels of revealing addiction and mental health issues in a self-penned article for The Athletic during training camp.

“I am not sharing this story to make people think differently of Robin Lehner as a professional goalie,” Lehner wrote. “I want to help make a difference and help others the way I have been helped. I want people to know that there is hope in desperation, there is healing in facing an ugly past and there is no shame in involving others in your battle.”

Joe Thornton’s story: Thornton, 39, overcame major injuries from the prior two seasons, suffering a torn ACL and MCL in both his left knee (2017) and right knee (2018). His rehabilitation work, detailed in the San Jose Mercury News, served as an inspiration to his teammates and coaches. The leader among active NHL players in career assists and points (413 goals, 1,065 assists, 1,478 points in 1,566 games), Thornton concluded his 21st NHL campaign with 51 points (16 goals, 35 assists) in 73 games, helping the Sharks qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 14th time in the past 15 seasons.

Thornton scored his 400th career goal on Nov. 13 and passed a pair of NHL legends on April 4, leapfrogging Nicklas Lidstrom (1,564) into 12th place on the all-time games list and Steve Yzerman (1,063) into eighth place on the all-time assists list.

A $2,500 grant from the PHWA is awarded annually to the Bill Masterton Scholarship Fund, based in Bloomington, Minn., in the name of the Masterton Trophy winner.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
Selke Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy

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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.

Roope Hintz becoming important part of Stars lineup

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If you didn’t know who Roope Hintz was before the start of the postseason, you probably weren’t alone. But the 22-year-old has already found a way to leave his mark on the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With his team trailing 2-1 in the best of-seven series against the Predators, the young Finn scored a pair of goals in Dallas’ 5-1 victory over Nashville in Game 4. Even before scoring his first two goals of the playoffs, he kept finding a way to stand out for all the right reasons.

“He’s generating chances, and in Game 1, I thought he was the one that dictated our drive play to their net,” Stars coach Jim Montgomery told NHL.com. “Game 2, he wasn’t as dominant, but last game he was very effective and (in Game 4) the puck goes in. It’s good for your confidence, but we know what he brings to our team.

“He’s a legitimate top six (forward) and he’s made our team have two lines.”

One concern surrounding the Stars is their scoring depth. Yes, they have Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov, but secondary scoring has been an issue in previous seasons. Hintz and veteran trade-deadline acquisition Mats Zuccarello have formed a nice partnership on the Stars’ second line. Together, they’ve combined to score five times in four games.

Hintz put up nine goals and 22 points in 58 games with the Stars during the regular season, but it became increasingly clear that he was getting more and more comfortable as the season wore on, as he managed to accumulate 17 of those points in the final 30 games.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But his journey to being a second-line player for the Stars had its fair share of bumps, especially in 2018-19. Between Oct. 20 and Jan. 20, he was assigned to the AHL’s Texas Stars three times. As disappointing as that must have been for him, it was probably for the best.

“You’ve got give credit to the staff there,” Montgomery said, per the Dallas Morning News. “Every time Roope went down, he came back a better player. … The last time he came up, he took his game to another level.”

The difficult part for him will be to maintain this level of play and production for the remainder of the playoffs, but he’s off to a very encouraging start. Even though the Predators are probably a deeper team, the Stars have found a way to make this a best-of-three series because of their power play and secondary scoring.

Let’s see if they can pull off the upset.

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.