Roundtable: Round 1 surprising players; toughest road to Stanley Cup Final

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What player surprised you most (good or bad) in Round 1?

SEAN: Entering Round 1, there wasn’t a whole lot of confidence in the Calgary Flames goaltending. They had enough talent to get by the Colorado Avalanche despite the up and down play from Mike Smith and David Rittich during the regular season. While they went out in five games, you can’t place any blame on the play of Smith, who posted a .947 even strength save percentage and a .935 high-danger save percentage, via Natural Stat Trick.

JAMES: Johnny Gaudreau, and frankly, the Flames’ top players overall, Matthew Tkachuk included. It’s one thing for Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen to dominate – they tend to do that when they’re even remotely healthy – but Calgary must be stunned by just how severely the strength vs. strength matchups went in Colorado’s favor. The Lightning getting swept was the biggest upset of Round 1, but the Flames’ play was the most upsetting.

ADAM: I almost think I have to go with Warren Foegele, even though I hate — HATE! —  the play that knocked T.J. Oshie out of the series and thought he was fortunate to not get suspended for it. But if you would have told me at the start of their Round 1 series with the Washington Capitals that not only would the Hurricanes win, but it would be Foegele that ended up leading the team in goals I would have laughed in your face. He only had 10 goals and 15 total points all season and finished the first round with four goals and six points in only seven games. Totally out of nowhere for me.

JOEY: Jordan Eberle had a tough regular season, but he really came to play in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not only did Eberle get his name on the scoresheet at least once in every single game but his team also controlled nearly 54 percent of the shot attempts when he was on the ice. He was also on the ice for 21 high-danger chances for compared to just eight against. The Islanders forward picked a heck of a time to put it all together, as he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. They’ll need him to keep performing at this level if they’re going to make it through to the next round.

SCOTT: Oskar Sundqvist. For a long time, Sundqvist was just that got that got pasted by Tom Wilson in the preseason. After watching him for six games in the series against the Winnipeg Jets, you start to see more than just that nasty hit. Against Winnipeg, he was physical, he produced, adding two goals and two assists in the series, and he played meaningful minutes alongside Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn on the second line (including a five-shot effort in Game 6).

RYAN: Warren Foegele had 10 goals and just 15 points in 77 games in the regular season, but he managed to be a factor in the first round. He had two goals and an assist in Game 3, scored just 17 seconds into Game 4, and chipped in another goal in Game 6. With six playoff points, he’s tied for second place in the Hurricanes’ scoring race, though I don’t expect him to be nearly as effective going forward.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Which Round 2 team do you believe faces the toughest route to the Stanley Cup Final?

SEAN: The most immediate challenge for the Colorado Avalanche is facing a San Jose Sharks team coming off the emotional high of a 3-1 series comeback and an epic Game 7 to advance to Round 2. That could benefit them early on in the series if the Sharks are still riding those emotional waves. But if Good Martin Jones is what we’re going to see, then the Avs are in for a challenge. The Blues and Stars would pose a similar challenge in going up against stingy defense and good goaltending. Plus there’s the change in play at how the Blues have played since January and the Stars finally finding an identity under Jim Montgomery down the stretch.

JAMES: The Blue Jackets, by a hair. I don’t think you can emphasize enough how unlikely that Lightning sweep was. We can dig through reasons all day, yet Columbus played at a high level — and the Blue Jackets had to. Next, they face a focused, versatile, and dangerous Bruins team. While a would-be third-round opponent seems less foreboding on paper, Columbus still isn’t in a spot to take anyone lightly. The West is likely to provide a robust opponent in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, too. There are plenty of other arguments because there aren’t many easy outs in this tournament (if Colorado goes deep, they’ll have a case), but the Blue Jackets get my vote.

ADAM: Honestly it is still probably the Blue Jackets for me, just because I think they have to play the most complete team still standing in Round 2. This was always going to be their issue for me in the playoffs, the fact they got stuck in the hardest bracket and that even if they got through Tampa Bay, they were going to have to face another top team in the very next round. If they get through this they will have more than earned their spot in the Eastern Conference Final and it would probably be one of the most impressive postseasons runs we have seen in quite some time.

JOEY: I have to go with the Carolina Hurricanes. Yes, they knocked off the defending Stanley Cup Champions in the first round, but all that did was get them a date with one of the stingiest teams in the league. That’s not to say that Carolina can’t beat the Islanders over seven games, but their journey to the next round definitely won’t be an easy one. Also, if they do find a way to win their second-round series, they’ll have Columbus or Boston waiting for them in the next round. No matter what happens though, they’re playing with house money at this point.

SCOTT: Columbus. Sorry, but can lightning strike twice? The Bruins are going to grind much harder than Tampa, and they likely know that they’re the frontrunners now with Tampa gone and the rest of the division winners. That’s going to provide some extra steam in the engine. Can Columbus beat Boston? After Round 1, anything can be done. But if we’re talking toughest route to the Cup, it’s got to be the team that has to knock off the first- and second-ranked teams in the NHL to get there. It’s an incredible tale to tell if they do. 

RYAN: The Avalanche. Although Martin Jones continues to give me pause, I still believe the Sharks are ultimately going to win the Stanley Cup and the Avalanche will have to go through them to get any further. Even if the Avalanche manage to pull off that, they’ll have to face the winner of the Stars-Blues series. The Blues are a great all-around squad while the Stars have an elite offensive core supported by a Vezina Trophy finalist in goal, so either of those teams would make life very difficult for the Avalanche even if they do manage to get past San Jose.

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

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

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.