Rookie coaches enjoying chess match that comes in playoffs

3 Comments

Rod Brind’Amour does not think what he is doing is anything special.

Brind’Amour not only has the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs in his first season as coach but has made the necessary adjustments to tie their series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals at two games apiece. Along with Washington’s Todd Reirden and Jim Montgomery in Dallas, Brind’Amour is one of the rookie NHL coaches in the playoffs whose decisions are playing major roles in the first round.

Just don’t tell him that.

”The coaching thing is fun. I think it’s a little overrated,” Brind’Amour said earlier this week. ”You open the door and you say, ‘Go play.”’

Brind’Amour’s Hurricanes are playing at their peak with the chance to put the champs on the brink of elimination if they win Game 5 Saturday night in Washington (8 p.m. EDT, NBC). Carolina has already dealt with a concussion to 19-year-old Andrei Svechnikov and an upper-body injury to big winger Micheal Ferland, and is expected to be without Jordan Martinook because of a lower-body injury that happened in a 2-1 Game 4 win Thursday.

The Capitals have a major injury concern of their own now after a hit from behind from Warren Foegele knocked winger T.J. Oshie out indefinitely. Devante Smith-Pelly was recalled from the minors and will go directly into the lineup. There could be more changes from Reirden after his team failed to score a 5-on-5 goal the past two games.

”That’s the game within the game,” Reirden said Friday. ”It’s up for me and our staff to decide how to fill those voids in different areas and put players in situations to succeed and if it’s not working you’ve got to also know when to stop and try something new.”

Craig Berube knew that moment had come in the middle of the St. Louis Blues’ Game 5 against the Winnipeg Jets. The interim coach who took over in November moved David Perron on to the top line in place of Brayden Schenn, and the savvy change helped the Blues come back from a two-goal deficit to win in regulation and take a 3-2 series lead going into Game 6 at home (7 p.m. EDT, NBCSN).

”Our team responded to it,” Berube said after the comeback win. ”You don’t score, you’ve got to change it up a little. It was a good time to make the change.”

Montgomery, who played with Brind’Amour for a brief time with Philadelphia in the 1990s, hasn’t had to make big-time changes but saw the Stars finally break through on the power play and find some offense in Game 4 against the Nashville Predators to tie that series. Dallas goes into Game 5 at Nashville (3 p.m. EDT, NBC) with the chance to put the Central Division champions on the ropes.

”They feel like we’re challenging them, for sure,” defenseman John Klingberg said. ”We’re giving them a tough fight.”

Montgomery instills that fight in his team after joining the ranks of college coaches to jump directly to the NHL. This isn’t the Frozen Four, where he led Denver twice and won a national title, but Montgomery is adjusting on the fly quickly in his first Stanley Cup playoffs.

”I’m like a baby learning how to walk right now,” Montgomery said. ”The downs have been like, ‘OK, how do we get better.’ The ups have been, ‘Let’s keep getting better.’ I feel we continue to get better in this series, which is a good feeling for all of us.”

Carolina has gotten better and better since allowing three goals on eight shots in the first period of Game 1. Brind’Amour credits his players, including goaltender Petr Mrazek for some timely saves, but he clearly made some tactical switches to turn the series around – even if he won’t say what.

”Can’t tell you that,” Brind’Amour said with a laugh. ”I think it’s just wet got to our game a little better.”

And there’s Brind’Amour, again, sounding like the veteran coach he already looks like.

BATTLE OF ATTRITION

Injuries played a role in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ shocking sweep of Tampa Bay, and they could tip the balance for Nashville-Dallas, too.

The Predators have been without forward Brian Boyle since Game 1 after an appendectomy, and forward Wayne Simmonds has been out since taking a one-timer from Roman Josi off the inside of his left knee. They’re considered week-to-week, but Boyle and Simmonds skated with the team Friday.

”I had my appendix out when I was in high school, you’re literally out for months and months,” Laviolette said. ”That was a long time ago. Now it’s somebody being able to be back and playing in less than a week is unbelievable. So he looked really good out there today. Wayne the same thing. When it first happened, we were thinking it might be that long and it’s never an exact science. But they’re both out there and they look good.”

Dallas could have forward Mattias Janmark back in the lineup after a lower-body injury caused him to miss the past two games.

The Capitals know they won’t have Oshie for a while. And while Brind’Amour quipped after Game 4 that the Hurricanes are dealing with more injuries, Oshie’s absence will take a chunk out of Washington.

”He’s a heart-and-soul guy,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. ”The thing with Osh is no matter what he’s going to find a way to have a positive impact on our team. … He’s a leader and he’s a guy that guys want to fight for.”

Whoever wins the Carolina-Washington series will face a shorthanded New York Islanders opponent in the second round. General manager Lou Lamoriello said defenseman Johnny Boychuk will miss three to four weeks with a lower-body injury.

AP Sports Writers Schuyler Dixon in Dallas, Teresa M. Walker in Nashville and Joedy McCreary in Raleigh contributed.

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

Beyond Benn and Seguin: Breaking down Stars’ hot streak

Getty Images
1 Comment

If it weren’t for the virtually unbeatable New York Islanders, the Dallas Stars would probably be considered the hottest team in the NHL.

About a week ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz chronicled the revitalization of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the Stars’ biggest stars (don’t mix up your capitalization there, gang). In particular, the strong work from Benn and Seguin stood out after yet another browbeating from management, in the latest case being head coach Jim Montgomery — who later apologized for throwing the two under the bus.

The numbers back up hot play from Benn and Seguin lately, but this video of Benn rampaging against Mark Scheifele and the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday presents the argument in a more violent and entertaining fashion:

Yet, in a team sport like hockey, you usually don’t go on a five-game winning streak without other players stepping up, and that’s especially true when you zoom out to Dallas’ 12-1-1 run since Oct. 19.

Truly, it’s remarkable to compare the Stars’ 2019-20 season through Oct. 18 (when they went 1-7-1) and this blistering run that’s improved the Stars to an overall record of 13-8-2.

Let’s take a look at the other forces driving Dallas’ success. Feel free to play the Stars’ cheesy and/or great Pantera-powered goal song while reading this post.

(Of course it’s called “Puck off.”)

As you’d probably expect, the goalies have been lights out

Last season, the Stars survived (and even thrived) on a steady diet of “Benn + Seguin + all-world goaltending from Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.” You might not be surprised to learn that they’ve all been key catalysts for this impressive run.

Through the Stars’ ugly first nine games of 2019-20, they allowed 29 goals and only scored 17. Remarkably, the Stars have allowed fewer goals (26) in the 14 games since, while generating 49. I’m no mathematician nor am I a goalie coach, but if you’re allowing less than two goals per game in the modern NHL, you’re probably going to win a lot.

Bishop sports an outstanding .942 save percentage during the hot streak, and Khudobin is right behind him with a .941 in that span.

Scoring variety

When the Stars handed Joe Pavelski a deal with a $7.5 million AAV, they likely expected the veteran forward to help them find scoring beyond Benn and Seguin — even if Pavelski landed with those two, and merely opened up easier matchups for the likes of Alexander Radulov.

After a bumpy start, Pavelski and others have provided offense beyond Dallas’ dynamic duo. Pavelski matches Benn’s 10 points during the past 14 games, and they’re both tied with seemingly defense-only forward Radek Faksa.

(If Faksa turns into the Stars’ answer to Sean Couturier — a defensive forward whose considerable scoring touch was eventually unlocked — then watch out.)

Right behind Seguin’s 15 points in 14 games is a player who basically deserves at least his own paragraph: Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old defenseman has 12 points in his past 14 games, and while he’s soaking up puck luck that probably isn’t sustainable, the bottom line is that he’s a star. He continues to average the ice time of a workhorse defenseman, and may not have to wait long for Norris hype. (It’s promising, too, in its own way that the Stars are thriving while John Klingberg‘s had a tough go of things.)

With Corey Perry gearing up (nine points during the 14-game run) and Roope Hintz back in the mix after dealing with injury issues, it sure seems like Dallas’ attack is more varied than last season. That could be scary, considering how tough they were to contain as Hintz gave them a bit more variety once he really broke through during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Promising metrics

Expecting long-term world-class goaltending is dangerous, especially with older goalies like Bishop (33) and Khudobin (also 33).

But the promising thing is that there are a lot of positives to take away from Montgomery’s system. During this hot streak, the Stars haven’t just been riding some positive bounces, they’ve also generated the third-best differential for high-danger scoring chances during that time, and look good to great by just about all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength measures.

Money Puck’s expected goals differential chart for the Stars really drives the point home in an aesthetically pleasing and almost blunt way:

Yes, the Stars are playing a bit over their heads … but maybe not so far that this isn’t a sign that they’re here to stay?

The truth about the Stars is likely somewhere in between their red-hot 14-game streak and the rough nine-game start to 2019-20. It will be fascinating to see where they end up once 2019-20 shakes out, and considering the mix of youth and veterans on this team, what kind of ceiling this group might have.

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.

Off Script: Eddie Olczyk opens up about his battle with colon cancer

AP Images
Leave a comment

NHL on NBC analyst and 2019 NHL Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador Eddie Olczyk discusses his career and fight with colon cancer in an interview with Kathryn Tappen in a 30-minute special.

Olczyk was named the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador earlier this month and November marks Hockey Fights Cancer Month throughout the league.

Olczyk was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in Aug. 2017 and after a long journey was deemed cancer-free seven months later. Since beating cancer, he has been dedicated to be an advocate for those fighting the disease and their families.

MORE: Book excerpt from Eddie Olczyk: Beating the Odds in Hockey and in Life

Subscribe to NBC Sports’ YouTube page

What’s wrong with the Predators?

3 Comments

When the Nashville Predators got off to an 8-3-1 start no one was really surprised. Most people expected them to be a good team this year, so why would those positive results be shocking? Well, on the flip side, this six-game losing streak they’re currently riding is pretty shocking. But why are they struggling so badly?

This slump started with an ugly 9-3 loss in Denver on Nov. 7. Since then, the Predators haven’t won a game and they’ve collected just one of a possible 12 points in the standings. As you’d imagine, they’ve been tumbling down the Western Conference standings. Only the Minnesota Wild (20 points) and the Los Angeles Kings (19 points) have fewer points than Nashville’s 21 (the Preds have a game in hand on both those teams though).

You don’t have to look far to see why they’re slumping so badly. They’ve given up at least five goals in four of the six losses. When they’ve held the opponent to two goals or fewer, they’ve only managed to score once. Yeah, that’s an issue.

The really strange thing about the boatload of goals that this team is giving up, is that they actually have lowest XGA in the league at 31.97, according to Natural Stat Trick. So the fact that they’re giving up so many goals while seemingly limiting their opponents’ quality scoring chances has to be concerning.

Pekka Rinne‘s been pulled in each of his last two starts and his individual stats aren’t flattering either. He owns a respectable 8-4-2 record, but his goals-against-average of 3.06 and his save percentage of .889 aren’t great by any means. Is the 37-year-old just showing his age or is this slide only temporary? Will they have to turn to Juuse Saros more often? These are all valid questions that need to be answered soon.

The goalies need to come up with some saves to bail out their team, but that doesn’t excuse the performance from everyone else on the team.

But blaming the goalie for Thursday night’s loss to the Canucks isn’t fair. The Predators surrendered five power play goals to Vancouver during the 6-3 defeat.

“Things aren’t bouncing our way right now, but at the same time, we’re not making it easy on ourselves either,” Matt Duchene said after the game, per NHL.com. “Whenever things are tough sledding like right now, you’ve got to do whatever you can to give yourself a chance. You take that many penalties, I don’t know how many we took, six or seven, I don’t know what it was. They got three or four great bounces on the power play and just put pucks to the net.”

Even though the Preds are 10th in the NHL in goals scored, they’ve seen a lot of their high-end offensive players go cold in the last few games. Here’s the statistical rundown for their top forwards:

— Matt Duchene: Six points in his last seven games, but he’s found the back of the net just once in his last five outings.
Filip Forsberg: No points in his last three games.
Ryan Johansen: One goal in his last 17 games.
Viktor Arvidsson: No goals in seven games and he’s scored just once in his last 12 contests.
Mikael Granlund: One goal in his last 16 games.

Those are some heavy offensive hitters that have gone cold in the goal department. You won’t win regularly if that many top players go quiet.

Overall, it’s quite clear that the Preds need some serious work in a lot of different areas. There’s no denying that the team is talented, but what happens if this drought lasts a little longer? Does head coach Peter Laviollette get the Mike Babcock treatment? For now, it looks like management will give everyone the benefit of the doubt before they make a major trade or a firing.

At least the group still seems to believe they can get this straightened out.

“We’ve got to stick together. It’s a tough time,” forward Rocco Grimaldi said after Tuesday’s loss to Winnipeg. “It’s a rough patch. But honestly everyone goes through it. You look at St. Louis last year and remember where they were, so it’s just something everyone goes through. And if you’re a great team, how do you respond to this? How do you guys grow closer together? How do you guys grow stronger together through this? So this is something we’ve just got to make it band us together and not break us apart.”

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.

Keefe: Toronto has enough talent for quick progress

Leave a comment

GLENDALE, Ariz. — New Toronto Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe spent a decent chunk of a 30-minute morning skate on Thursday teaching instead of running drills.

There’s a lot for his new team to learn and not much time to do it.

The 39-year-old Keefe is now in charge of the Maple Leafs after veteran coach Mike Babcock was fired Wednesday with the team mired in a six-game losing streak.

Keefe was officially introduced Thursday morning as the 31st head coach in Maple Leafs history. He’s got a long history with general manager Kyle Dubas, who hopes Keefe is the right choice to help Toronto bounce back from a disappointing 9-10-4 start.

Keefe believes it can be done.

”We’ve got a lot of talent and the ability to make life hard on the other team in a lot of ways,” he said. ”Focusing on that, we believe, will produce positive results. Because the players are good enough for that to happen.”

Keefe inherits a roster that includes talented forwards like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

Tavares said there were ”many mixed emotions” because Babcock was so dedicated and committed to the team. He said the team feels a burden because it hasn’t played up to expectations but is ”turning the page” and moving forward.

”Sheldon’s got a great mind for the game,” Tavares said. ”We’re excited about the energy and the things he’s bringing and trying to improve from where we’re at.”

Keefe will make his coaching debut during Toronto’s game against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night.

Dubas said the franchise must show patience as Keefe, a first-time NHL coach, embarks on the difficult task of taking over a team midseason and trying to quickly turn things around.

He’s confident the players understand there will be ups and down.

He’s also aware that outside perception might be a little less forgiving.

”It’s all part of what makes working and playing in Toronto great,” Dubas said. ”You can’t go anywhere in Toronto without people caring deeply about the team. I read the greatest quote this morning on the way here: ‘You can look at it as a burden or look at it as a trampoline.”’

Toronto is a team that needs quite a bounce.

The 56-year-old Babcock went 173-133-45 in his four-plus seasons with Toronto and made the playoffs the past three years, though the Maple Leafs lost in the first round each time. When the team started slowly this season, Dubas and team President Brendan Shanahan knew it was time for a change.

Shanahan flew to Arizona on Wednesday to break the news to Babcock, whom he hired in 2015.

He acknowledged it was a hard day. Some more hard days may follow as Keefe tries to quickly implement his system, though the franchise is confident it’s headed in the right direction.

Keefe was in his fifth season as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. He was 199-89-31 with the Marlies and helped the franchise win its first Calder Cup championship in 2018.

Several of the Leafs’ current players were coached by Keefe when he was with the Marlies, which is the franchise’s top minor-league affiliate.