Stars vs. Blues: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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If you’re looking for a high-scoring second-round series, it might be best to find another game to watch.

That isn’t to say the hockey will be bad, but this has gigantic defensive battle written all over it in what should look a lot like a good game of chess rather than checkers.

And as good defensively both teams are, neither goalie will be giving up an inch either.

The Dallas Stars vs. the St. Louis Blues will be a battle of the upsetters after both teams ousted teams seeded higher than them in Round 1.

The Stars come into the series having handled the Nashville Predators with relative ease in six games. Dallas’ tight style of game stymied the Predators. And even though Nashville had the lion’s share of possession, they were faced with trying to solve Ben Bishop, which they couldn’t.

St. Louis, meanwhile, rode a wave of momentum that began in January into their series with the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg struggled down the stretch and the Blues took advantage, including winning all three games they played on the road. The Blues just kept coming. Deficits were no big deal as the Blues showed tremendous resiliency in sticking within their structure.

The series will also act as a rematch. Both teams collided in Round 2 in 2016, with the Blues edging the Stars in seven games. There’s a good chance we experience some deja vu, at least in that seven-game region.

Dallas went 3-1-0 against the Blues during the regular season.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Schedule

Surging Players

Stars: You look at the stats sheet and see all the regulars there for the Stars. Names like Alex Radulov, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin all perform well in the playoffs and this year is no exception. For Dallas, depth scoring is key. Outside of that top line, they need players who can step up and find the back of the net to alleviate some of the pressure that is placed upon that line merely because it’s so bloody dominant. Roope Hintz has taken a big step in these playoffs, both in terms of contributions (two goals, one assist) and the trust of coach Jim Montgomery, who played him nearly 20 minutes in the deciding Game 6. Hintz looks dangerous with the puck on his stick and is providing the Stars with a solid second-line center that has complemented Mats Zuccarello well.

Blues: Jaden Schwartz could have had a more memorable Game 6 to knock out the Jets. He scored a hat trick in the game, which was a follow-up performance after he scored the game-winning goal to cap off a third-period comeback in Game 5 with just 15 seconds remaining in the third period. After going the first four games of that series with a single assist, Schwartz has burst onto the scene and will be riding a wave of confidence heading into this series. St. Louis’ top line is going to had a tough task with their counterparts on the Stars. A continuation from the latter half of Round 1 would go a long way for Schwartz and the Blues.

Struggling players

Stars: Paging that fourth line. Tyler Pitlick, Jason Spezza and Justin Dowling (or whoever is placed there) would most certainly be welcomed if they wanted to add some offense to this series. The trio above was together for the final three games, for the most part, and were run over possession-wise, and contributing nothing offensively. It’s the fourth line, I get it. but in a series where scoring will be at a premium, they could use a little from some unexpected places.

Blues: Dare I say Vladimir Tarasenko? He scored two goals in the series vs. Winnipeg, with both markers coming on the power play. The Jets did a great job of neutralizing Tarasenko’s game-breaking ability in the first round and there wasn’t much the latter could do about it. Tarasenko finished the year with 33 goals and 68 points. We all know he has it in him. Tarasenko produced a team-high 23 shots in the series, so perhaps a few more well-placed ones could see a different result.

Goaltending

Stars: Bishop is a Vezina candidate this season and very deserving of the nomination. He paced the NHL with a .934 save percentage in the regular season and hasn’t skipped a beat — and really, has only gotten better — in the playoffs with a .945 mark in six games against the Nashville Predators, allowing just 12 goals in the series. Only Robin Lehner has been better statistically speaking.

The Stars’ backbone, Bishop will be relied upon once again. The thing he gives his team is confidence, especially if Dallas engages in a track meet at times.

Blues: Binnington has been the story of the season in the crease, and perhaps the entire NHL, given what he’s done to help turn around the St. Louis Blues.

Many (including myself) thought Binnington, although seemingly very good, was going to suffer from inexperience and a stout offense against the Winnipeg Jets. And it appeared after Game 3, that was going to be the case. But Binnington recovered, posting a .949 and a .935 in Games 4 and 5, respectively to put the Blues ahead. Binnginton is going to be called upon again to shut down a high-powered offense. He can do it, he’s proven. But can he keep it up?

What was interesting about Binnington in Round 1 was how tough getting that first goal by him was. That can be a soul-sucking endeavor. But if you can get to him, he’s shown some cracks.

Special Teams

Stars: You can’t do much better than going a perfect 15-for-15 on the penalty kill against the Central Division’s best team in the regular season. It would be something special for them to replicate that against the Blues, who were five-for-19 against the Jets. The power play for Dallas was less than ideal, scoring just four times on 22 attempts (and were just one-for-18 if you take away a three PP-goal first period in Game 4). The Stars could take a big edge here if they’re able to find the back of the net more when up a man.

Blues: This is potentially where the series could be won for St. Louis. Breaching the walls on the power play will be a good start, and then repeating a bit of what Nashville was able to do to keep the Stars power play at bay will be critical. The Stars top line was simply too good five-on-five to allow them to continue that on the man-advantage, where all three of them line up on the first power-play unit. Binnington has seen a stout power play from Winnipeg, so he knows what’s coming. He was their best penalty killer and will be tasked in that role once more.

X-Factor For Stars

Their top line. Radulov, Benn and Seguin came as advertised in Round 1, combining for seven goals and 18 points as Nashville struggled to deal with their pace. They’ll be called upon once again to produce at a similar rate. If Dallas has a flaw (and they do) it’s that scoring depth drops off a cliff outside of that line. Zuccarello has helped, and contributions have come from other spots in a timely manner, but if Dallas’ top line went cold, what would happen? Simply, they can’t afford that, even with how good Bishop has been.

X-Factor For Blues

Binnington. Take away a six-goal burst from the Jets in Game 3 and Binnington would be sitting pretty with a save percentage in the .930 range. What the Jets did well in that game was build off of each goal. It took just four minutes in the second period for the Jets to amass three goals as Binnington didn’t adjust well to Winnipeg’s pressure. This, of course, was just one game in a series where Binnington was otherwise very, very good. Like I said, take away this blip on the radar screen and you get a Binnington that looked calm and collected against a high-powered offense. Dallas doesn’t have the scoring depth of Winnipeg, either. Binnington stole the will from the Jets on multiple occasions and there’s no reason to think he can’t do so again vs. the Stars.

Prediction

Stars in 7. Dallas has grown on me since the start of the playoffs. They were meshing down the stretch and seemed to benefit from the meaningful games they had to play to secure their first wild-card spot. But it’s that goaltending that has me hooked. Bishop has looked infallible. Unless that changes, I think Dallas can once again withstand getting out-possessed again.

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
Avalanche vs. Sharks

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

Where Avs are at after re-signing J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.

Golden Knights make dream come true for young fan battling cancer

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He may not be on the payroll, but 13-year-old Doron Coldwell is a Vegas Golden Knight through and through.

But his story begins long before the Golden Knights stepped onto the ice for their inaugural season in 2017-18. As documented during a “My Wish” segment this summer on ESPN, Coldwell’s connection with the Golden Knights began with some heart-breaking news.

At first, the tests were inconclusive.

In June 2013, Coldwell’s mother Liat, a nurse, had noticed that his glands were swollen but a series of tests didn’t result in any concrete diagnosis of a problem.

“That started the rollercoaster ride for the next two years of he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this,” said Brett Coldwell, Doron’s father. “But he wasn’t getting any better.”

Liat feared the worst.

“I had a very bad feeling that we were dealing with cancer,” she said.

Those fears would become reality. The diagnosis would finally come: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His chemotherapy began in 2017.

Weakened by his treatments, Brett said that at one point Doron told him that “worst-case scenario, I guess I get to go be with Jesus.”

Instead, Doron, with a little help from the Golden Knights, began to heal.

“The chemo was working,” Doron said.

Gold being the color of pediatric cancer, Liat refers to her son as her ‘Golden Knight’.

And through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and with the help of the team that helped him heal — his cancer in remission — Doron recently became an official Golden Knight for a day.

Doron got a chance to meet the team. A locker bearing his name was in the team’s dressing room and for the first time, he got outfitted in goalie gear and received the full pre-game experience, including being introduced to an assembled crowd at City National Arena, the team’s practice facility.

With a little instruction of Marc-Andre Fleury, Doron was stopping Vegas’ top goalscorers with ease on an unforgettable day.

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

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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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.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


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

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE (AP) — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.

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