‘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

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

Leave a comment

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

2018-19
48-27-7, 103 points (2nd in the Metropolitan Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in four games in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

IN:
Semyon Varlamov
Jared Coreau

OUT: 
Robin Lehner
Luca Sbisa
Dennis Seidenberg
Valtteri Filppula

RE-SIGNED: 
Tanner Fritz
Jordan Eberle
Tom Kuhnhackl
Anders Lee
Brock Nelson

2018-19 Summary

Did your team lose the captain/best player on the roster? Do you feel like you have no hope? Well if you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, look no further than the 2018-19 Islanders. After John Tavares walked to Toronto in free agency, many predicted that the Isles would be one of the bottom-feeders in the NHL. Instead, they ended up being one of the greatest stories of the year.

The Islanders’ top point-getter last season was sophomore forward Mathew Barzal, who picked up 62 points in 82 contests. They had four players hit the 50-point mark (Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee). They also had just three players surpass the 20-goal mark (Lee, Nelson and Casey Cizikas). Despite those limited offensive numbers, the Islanders found a way to finish second in the Metropolitan Division which, again, no one expected.

How did they do it? Structure, structure and more structure.

Bringing in Barry Trotz as head coach proved to be a wise move for a team without an offensive superstar. Trotz’s defensive-minded approach ended up giving the Isles an identity. They weren’t very fun to watch, but they found a way to get the job done on most nights.

They also found a way to sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.

Now, the question is whether or not they can do it all over again.

“We know other teams will take us maybe more serious than they did last year,” Lamoriello said, per NHL.com. “But that’s where we have to grow and that’s where our character that I have tremendous confidence in comes through, plus the coaching staff that we have.

“This is the first time that a lot of our players have ever gone through the playoffs, first time they experienced success, and then the lack of success in the second round and how it’s approached. You learn by experience. You never know what experience is until you acquire it.”

The Islanders brought back three core players in Eberle, Lee and Nelson. The biggest change will occur between the pipes, as they let Vezina Trophy nominee Robin Lehner hit free agency. Lehner had the best year of his career, as he posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage. Despite those awesome numbers, the organization wasn’t ready to commit to Lehner long term. Clearly, they felt that Trotz’s system helped the veteran netminder succeed (it probably did).

In fairness to the team, no other squad was willing to give Lehner a long-term deal, so he ended signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

With him no longer in the picture, Lamoriello had to sign a new starting goaltender. In the end, they settled on former Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (he inked a four-year, $20 million deal). The 31-year-old has struggled over the last couple of seasons, but playing in Trotz’s system could help revitalize his career like it did for Lehner.

Whether or not he fits in as well as Lehner did remains to be seen.

This whole group proved a lot of people wrong last year. Can they do it again?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 20 defensemen; Canucks believe in Benning

Getty
Leave a comment
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.

• NHL.com breaks down the Top 20 defensemen in the NHL right now. (NHL.com)

• The Hockey News projects ahead to who the Canucks will protect come the 2021 expansion draft. (The Hockey News)

• The fact that the Canucks are extending Jim Benning shows that they believe in his plan. (Sportsnet)

• How can every team’s jersey be improved? (Puck Prose)

• Can Evan Bouchard crack the Oilers’ defense this year? (Edmonton Journal)

Charlie McAvoy continued developing during a big 2018-19 season. (Stanley Cup Chowder)

• How much can the Predators expect from Dante Fabbro? (Predlines)

• Here’s a list of forwards the Vegas Golden Knights could opt to sign late in the summer. (SinBin.Vegas)

• What would the Penguins front office look like without Bill Guerin? (Pensburgh)

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.

Hughes has potential to take Devils to next level

Getty Images
3 Comments

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Given all the changes in New Jersey this offseason, there’s no shortage of x-factors heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

One could argue, for instance, that P.K. Subban‘s arrival on the blue line is the biggest change of the offseason. I would disagree and a team that gave up as many goals as the Devils did could use a boost on the backend to take the pressure off their goaltending situation, which is suspect at best heading into the season.

But, in this scribe’s opinion, it’s the arrival of Jack Hughes who has the potential to make the biggest difference.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The Devils need offense, plain and simple. Getting by on a leading point-producer who had just 50 points isn’t going to cut it in the NHL these days.

And while a healthy Taylor Hall will make a big difference as well, we know how big the gap can be between himself and the rest of the scoring on the team (see: 2017-18 season.)

With the potential for a breakout season for Nico Hischier — and one not limited by injuries — the addition of P.K. Subban to the power play and Nikita Gusev and Hughes to the forward contingent, the Devils should be miles ahead of their 25th-ranking in goals-for from last season.

And the expectation is Hughes will play a big role in that. He could start the season as the team’s second-line center and depending on usage, could easily hit the 20-goal mark, if not more.

“Jack’s play will determine to us what he can handle and how much,” coach John Hynes told NHL.com. “We’re not going to put pressure on him and we’re not going to put limits on him right away. We continue to put young players in situations they can handle while also challenging them in the right ways where they can have success but also see how they respond outside their comfort zone.”

Hughes does everything so well. His vision, speed and knack for scoring are all welcome additions to the Devils who sorely need more in each of those areas.

The key will be to find him the right linemates in training camp and let some chemistry develop. If it does, an 80-point season may take shape providing he’s healthy.

And, perhaps, a Calder Trophy for his efforts.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Hischier set to face pressures of contract year

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

The guys at the Spitting Chiclets podcast did an excellent interview last week with Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.

Why are we talking about MacKinnon on Devils Day at PHT? Just keep reading.

MacKinnon spoke about his sophomore season being a tough one with just 14 goals after winning the Calder Trophy a year before.

It took him two more seasons before he’d flip a switch in his head, one that would take him from a mid-50-point guy to the near-100-point player he’s been for the past two seasons.

MacKinnon said he was starting to feel like he was a bust after being taken first overall in the 2013 NHL Draft.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Now, I’m not saying that Hischier feels the same way. Both are different players. But both are first-overall picks with a tremendous amount of expectations levied upon them, ones that will last throughout their respective careers.

So if MacKinnon was battling mental demons, one could come to the conclusion that Hischier may do so at some point as well.

Hischier dealt with injury in his second year, much like MacKinnon, and was limited to 17 goals and 47 points — down from the 20 goals and 52 points in his rookie season. That said, his points per game rose in his second campaign even if the overall number didn’t.

And none of this is to say that Hischier has been a bust at all. He’s far from that and an excellent two-way center who, now given some tools around him, a great candidate to have a breakout season.

But the pressure is, nevertheless, going to be there for the Swiss kid. There’s a lot of money waiting on the table for him next offseason when his entry-level deal comes to a close.

Hischier remains a massive piece for the Devils moving forward.

The team now has him and Jack Hughes as their 1-2 punch down the spine of the team, a better defense with the addition of P.K. Subban and a greater supporting cast with Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds.

And while the point totals may not jump off the page, the fact is the Devils outscore opponents and create more high-danger scoring chances when Hischier is on the ice.

Hischier is far from being labeled a bust, much like MacKinnon was.

The pressure is on, however, as he enters a season where a big impact could lead to a bigger contract next summer.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck