Bruins vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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For the first time in franchise history the Columbus Blue Jackets will get to see what life is like in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After pulling off a stunning upset in Round 1, where they not only beat the NHL’s best team, but completely dominated them, the Blue Jackets get to see if they can shock the world once again when they take on the Boston Bruins.

The big thing to watch early in this series will be whether or not the lengthy, week-long layoff for the Blue Jackets will be something that helps or hurts them against a Bruins team that is coming off of a grueling seven-game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs where they had to win back-to-back games to fight off elimination.

From a big picture outlook the Bruins are the superior team on paper and based on their overall regular season performance, but the same thing was said about the Lightning in the previous round, and we all saw how that turned out.

Going back to March 24 the Blue Jackets are 11-1-0 in their past 12 games, with that only loss coming at the hands of the Bruins, a 6-2 defeat on April 2.

The two teams met three times during the regular season with each team winning once in a blowout, and the Bruins taking the extra game in a 2-1 overtime decision on March 16.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Schedule

Surging Players

Boston: It should be no surprise that the three-headed monster of of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak is leading the way offensively for the Bruins. They have been doing it for years, and they did it again in Round 1 against the Maple Leafs. What is really helping is they are getting a lot of contributions from players outside of that group. Charlie Coyle, one of the Bruins’ trade deadline acquisitions, scored three goals in Round 1, Brandon Carlo didn’t record a point but was outstanding at times defensively, and their Game 7 offense came from a lot of their unsung depth players. The Bruins are a team with superstars at the top of the lineup (all playing exceptionally well) and has found some depth to go with the. That is a dangerous combination.

Columbus: Instead of dealing away their pending free agents, the Blue Jackets went all in at the trade deadline with Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid, and it not only helped produce the first postseason series win in franchise history, it helped them pull off one of the biggest Round 1 upsets ever. Duchene was one of the driving forces behind that four-game sweep of the Lightning, recording seven points in the four games. Artemi Panarin was also an impact player throughout the opening round, while young players Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand started to make a name for themselves.

Struggling Players

Boston: Marcus Johansson had what could probably described as an “up-and-down” series for the Bruins. He scored a huge goal in Game 7, but it was his only point in the five games he played while he also finished as a team-worst minus-4 in the series. Jake DeBrusk also had a quiet round, but that was mostly due to poor shooting luck (only one goal on 20 shots) than anything that he was or was not doing.

Columbus: When you sweep the best team in the NHL in four games there probably are not many players on your roster that are struggling, and even if there are, you haven’t had enough time to figure out who they are. Still, the Blue Jackets would probably like to see a little bit more from Dzingel and Brandon Dubinsky in Round 2, as both were held off the scoresheet entirely in their first four games.

Goaltending

Boston: Bruins fans always seem to be waiting for an opportunity to criticize Tuukka Rask and make him the scapegoat for whenever the team falls short in the playoffs. While his regular season performance wasn’t consistently great, and there is reason to believe he is not the same goalie he was four or five years ago, he is still a very capable starter that has the potential to steal a game or two, and perhaps even an entire series should it come to that. He was outstanding in the first round with a .928 save percentage and was at his best in Games 6 and 7 when the Bruins needed him most.

Columbus: This was always going to be the big question for the Blue Jackets. For as good as Sergei Bobrovsky has been throughout his career he has been one of the least productive goalies in the NHL come playoff time, consistently melting down at the worst possible time. He did a lot of work in Round 1 to quiet the doubters in helping to shut down one of the greatest offenses the NHL has ever seen. The Blue Jackets dominated the series so much that they didn’t even need Bobrovsky to be great, and he still finished with a .932 save percentage in what has been — by far — the best postseason performance of his career.

Special Teams

Boston: The Bruins’ power play can be a game-changer for them. It was among the best in the NHL during the regular season, and then absolutely dominated the Maple Leafs in Round 1 by scoring seven power play goals in the seven games (and they didn’t even get a power play in Game 7). And it wasn’t just any one player during the damage. They received power play goals from six different players in the first round (only Bergeron scored more than one) while eight different players recorded at least one point on the power play. The only flaw the unit has — and it is a big flaw — is that it is sometimes vulnerable to shorthanded goals against, giving up 15 during the regular season and another one in Round 1. The Bruins’ PK unit, on the other hand, is a tough group to figure out. With Bergeron, Marchand, and the defense they have behind them it should be a good group, at least based on the talent they have at their disposal. But they were only middle of the pack during the regular season and were just “okay” against the Maple Leafs, though they did kill have six in a row to end the series, including all five in Games 6 and 7 when facing elimination.

Columbus: It’s not always about how many goals you score, but when you score them. That was the case for the Blue Jackets’ power play that was one of the worst in the NHL during the regular season, but went off in Round 1 by scoring on five of its 10 attempts against the Lightning. Nobody should reasonably expect them to continue clicking at 50 percent into Round 2, but if they can find a couple of goals on the man-advantage and continue their excellent penalty kill that could be a huge difference in the series — especially if they can keep staying out of the box. Columbus was tied for best PK unit in the league during the regular season and then followed that up by taking just six minor penalties in the four games against Tampa Bay. Their PK will probably get more use in Round 2, and they are going to be challenged by a Bruins power play that is not only good, but is white-hot right now.

X-Factor for Bruins

After scoring 27 goals in only 68 games during the regular season Jake DeBrusk had a mostly quiet series against the Maple Leafs, but he still showed some signs (like the fact he had 20 shots on goal) that he could be on the verge of breaking out in a big way at some point very, very soon. If he does that would give the Bruins just one more weapon that Columbus has to contend with and try to slow down. In his first two years in the league he has already shown that he can be a legit top-six forward and could be a huge X-factor in Round 2 for the Bruins.

X-Factor for Blue Jackets 

Alexandre Texier was a late addition to the Blue Jackets’ roster, and the 19-year-old has already made a sizable impact. He has only played in six NHL games (two at the end of the regular season, all four playoff games to this point) and has already scored three goals and an assist. That includes his two goals in the Blue Jackets’ series-clinching win over the Lightning where he opened the scoring with an early power play goal.

Prediction

Bruins in 6. The Blue Jackets are not going to be an easy out, and even though they entered the playoffs as the No. 8 seed the roster they have now is very different from the one they had for most of the regular season. And all of the new additions seem to have found their place in the lineup. They are legit. But so are the Bruins, and they not only have a trio of stars at the top of their lineup that are probably superior to Columbus’ top players, but they have also found some depth to complement them.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars
Avalanche vs. Sharks

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.

After year away, soldier surprises son during Rangers-Capitals

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It is often forgotten that sporting events serve as a form of entertainment. But on Wednesday Night Hockey, the Madison Square Garden crowd was reminded that life exists outside of the hockey bubble.

During the Rangers-Capitals game, a Staff Sergeant returned in surprising fashion. He had been deployed overseas for the past year and his son thought he was participating in a contest in which he won a Blueshirts jersey.

Instead of the sweater, Luke got to see his father and the emotional embrace delighted the crowd.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

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.

Capitals vs. Rangers livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington defeated the Rangers 5-2 on home ice earlier this season. Caps forward T.J. Oshie tallied two power play goals, while defenseman John Carlson notched three assists to help Washington continue their dominance over the Blueshirts.

The Capitals currently own the best record in the NHL (16-3-4 – 36 points) and have just one regulation loss in their last 16 games. Washington is averaging an NHL-best 3.74 goals per game and have scored the most goals in the league by far (86). They’ve been especially dominant on the road. Their only regulation road loss came on Oct. 10 in a 6-5 loss at Nashville, and they are currently on a nine-game road point streak. They own the best road record in the league (10-1-1).

The Rangers had an impressive 3-2 overtime win over the Penguins last week but followed that up with two disappointing losses in Florida. New York got obliterated by the Lightning on Thursday night, losing 9-3 in Tampa, and then blew a 3-2 second period lead against the Panthers on Saturday, falling 4-3 in regulation.

Mika Zibanejad will not suit up for Wednesday’s game as he is still recovering from an upper-body injury. Zibanejad has not played since suffering the injury on Oct. 27 against the Bruins. Wednesday will be his 10th consecutive game missed.

The Rangers will be getting their second-overall draft pick back after he missed the last two games with the flu. Kaapo Kakko was scratched prior to Thursday’s game against the Lighting and did not play in Saturday’s loss against the Panthers as he was still feeling ill. After a slow start to the season, Kakko has been one of New York’s top scorers as of late. The 18-year-old is coming off his first two-goal outing of his career in last week’s 3-2 overtime win over the Penguins, and he also tallied the first OT winner of his NHL career.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Rangers-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Jakub VranaLars Eller – T.J. Oshie
Richard Panik – Mike Sgarbossa – Travis Boyd
Beck Malenstyn – Chandler StephensonBrendan Leipsic

Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Dmitry OrlovRadko Gudas
Jonas SiegenthalerNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

RANGERS
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Chris KreiderFilip ChytilPavel Buchnevich
Brendan LemieuxBrett Howden – Kaapo Kakko
Tim Gettinger – Greg McKeggBrendan Smith

Libor HajekJacob Trouba
Brady SkjeiTony DeAngelo
Ryan LindgrenAdam Fox

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Rangers from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.

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 Wednesday at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN following Wednesday Night Hockey. Olczyk was named the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador earlier this month and November marks Hockey Fights Cancer Month throughout the league. You can watch it live here.

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

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The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

***

As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

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.