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

Schwartz, Tarasenko have Blues close to Cup Final

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Jaden Schwartz is on a scoring run that has the St. Louis Blues dreaming big.

Schwartz’s hat trick in Game 5 on Sunday helped give the Blues a 3-2 series lead against the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final and set the single-season franchise record for playoff wins.

The Blues could advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970 when they host Game 6 Tuesday night.

”It’s probably tough to put into words,” Schwartz said. ”It’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream come true.”

Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko have played huge roles in the Blues’ playoff success. Just not necessarily in the way that was expected.

Tarasenko has come up with more big assists than goals against the Sharks.

Meanwhile, Schwartz has found a scoring touch that eluded him during the regular season. After scoring 11 goals in 69 regular-season games, Schwartz has 12 goals in 18 playoff games.

”He’s obviously a tenacious player, a hard-working player,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”I know, goal-wise, he didn’t have a good regular season, but the work ethic was there and other things besides not producing with the goals.

”He’s a 200-foot player for us and he’s around the net for us, that’s where he scores. His hard work, being relentless and staying with it is paying off.”

Schwartz’s scoring run began on a quick pass from Tyler Bozak with 15 seconds left in regulation to snap a 2-2 tie in Game 5 in the first round against Winnipeg. He followed that up with a hat trick in Game 6 to send the Blues to the second round.

Schwartz is the first player to have two hat tricks in the same playoffs since Johan Franzen did it for Detroit in 2008 and he is the first to do it for the Blues.

Not bad for a guy who went 23 games without a goal during the regular season.

”He’s obviously been kind of our engine and a guy that’s scored huge goals for us throughout every series,” Bozak said.

”Pucks weren’t going in as much as he probably wanted in the regular season, but he was still playing really good hockey I thought and getting a lot of chances. And obviously what he’s done in this playoffs so far has been incredible. We’re pretty lucky to have him and we know he’s just going to keep getting better and keep doing those things for us.”

Tarasenko is the only player to get a point in every game of the Western Conference Final. But just two of his seven points in the series are goals.

Instead he has become a potent playmaker, setting up Bozak’s eventual game-winning goal in Game 4 and assisting on two of Schwartz’s goals in Game 5.

”Every time he gets the puck he puts them on edge,” Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Having such a shot like he does, teams are scared when he gets the puck and obviously they maybe will overcompensate for that and other things come available. Having played with him throughout the year, you see how dangerous he is whether it’s taking that shot or just being that threat that opens so much up.”

Tarasenko’s unselfish play was evident on Schwartz’s third goal. Carrying the puck on the power play, he could have taken a shot. But with San Jose playing the shot, he found Schwartz cutting towards the net for a one-timer into a wide-open net.

”Vlady is a good passer, he makes plays,” Berube said. ”He’s got his head up a lot, sees the ice well. His hard work is paying off. He’s working hard without the puck, and he’s a powerful guy.”

Tarasenko has led the Blues in goals in each of the past five seasons. Though he has taken a back seat to Schwartz in goal-scoring, the Blues are thriving in the postseason as never before from his playmaking ability.

And they are one win away from playing for the Stanley Cup, which many thought would have been impossible on Jan. 3 when the Blues were at the bottom of the NHL standings.

”Everyone knows we have a lot of work to do and we’re going to get their best game,” Schwartz said. ”They’re going to have the most desperation they’ve had in this series. We’ll enjoy it tonight, but we know there’s a lot of work yet.”

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

Bruins’ Chara says he’s on track for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara returned to practice and worked out with the full squad Monday, his first such workout since sitting out Boston’s Eastern Conference-clinching victory over Carolina with an undisclosed injury.

Chara had skated prior to practices over the weekend but didn’t participate in any full sessions. He said he felt good after the Bruins’ 45-minute workout on Monday and is on track to play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 27.

Chara was the first player on the ice Monday. Forward David Krejci also returned to practice. Coach Bruce Cassidy said Krejci was given a ”maintenance day” on Sunday.

Being a spectator for a series-clinching victory was difficult for the 42-year-old Chara. He was a member of the Bruins, who defeated Vancouver to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and lost to Chicago in the Cup Final in 2013.

”It was, I’m not gonna lie,” Chara said. ”Watching games are not fun. You want to play them, you want to be involved in them. It was that feeling of an anxiousness to play. But the guys did a great job.”

But Chara was easy to spot following the Game 4 win over the Hurricanes, when he suited up to shake hands with Carolina and celebrate on the ice with his teammates.

He has one goal and two assists in 16 games this postseason.

Patrice Bergeron said having Chara paired back up with Charlie McAvoy provides a major boost to the blue line.

”I think they complement each other really well,” Bergeron said. ”Obviously the experience that ‘Z’ has is something that he shares. And Chuck is the type of young guy that wants to learn and listen to everything that ‘Z’ has to share.”

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

Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

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It was only a matter of time until Vladimir Tarasenko started to get on a roll for the St. Louis Blues.

Not only has he been the team’s best and most impactful player for the past five years, he has been one of the most dangerous postseason goal-scorers the league has ever seen. As we wrote at the start of the series, he was going to be one of the biggest keys for the Blues in the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks, especially if his puck luck started to change a little bit.

It has definitely changed for the better, and the Blues are greatly benefitting from it.

First, just a reminder as to how good Tarasenko has been in the playoffs during his career. Before this season his 0.50 goals per game average in the playoffs was second among all players that had appeared in at least 40 playoff games since 2010-11 (trailing only Jake Guentzel), and was among the top-20 in NHL history. The only other players in the top-20 that played in the NHL after 2002 are Alex Ovechkin and Mike Cammallerri.

If you want to call him “clutch,” or a “big-game player” that is entirely up to you, but even more than any of that it is really just a matter of him being an outstanding talent that has always been a great finisher. Get him the puck and enough chances, and he is going to score a lot of goals no matter what the situation is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That is what made his production through the first two rounds of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs a little surprising. He was definitely not playing poorly, but his overall numbers were down a little bit, he was relying almost entirely on the power play to score goals (four of his first five goals in the first two rounds were power play goals), and he had yet to record a single assist. Obviously power play goals are worth the same as any other goal, but with penalties and power plays not always being available come playoff time due to the “let them play” mindset that takes over at this time of year, even-strength scoring becomes even more important.

Despite all of that were still plenty of signs that Tarasenko was due to break out. He had 47 shots on goal in 13 games (more than 3.5 per game) and the Blues were dominating the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers at even-strength. He was doing everything right except consistently putting the puck in the back of the net. But when you have an all-world talent like Tarasenko does, it is only a matter of time until those attempts, shots, and chances start to turn into goals.

You might limit players like him for a little bit, but you are not going to be able to shut them down forever.

Starting with Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, Tarasenko’s luck started to turn a bit.

After his three-point effort on Sunday in the Blues’ 5-0 win, a performance that included his nearly unstoppable penalty shot goal in the second period to help put the game away, he is now riding a five-game point streak and has at least one point in every game of the series.

He was probably the Blues’ best player in their Game 2 win when he finished with a game-high six shots on goal and set up Jaden Schwartz‘s goal early in the first period, and then assisted on Tyler Bozak‘s game-winning goal in Game 4 to even the series. He followed that up by playing his best game of the playoffs on Sunday with three points (his second multi-point game of these playoffs) in the win that brought the Blues one game closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

His seven points in the series are two more than any other player on the team while he has been on the ice for nine of the Blues’ 18 goals (literally half of them) in the series.

If the Blues were going to put themselves in a position to win this series — which they have if they can win just one of the next two games — they were going to need Tarasenko to be one of their best and most productive players.

He has been with what has been his best five-game stretch of these playoffs.

The timing could not have been better for the Blues.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

‘Canes surge into summer with confidence after playoff run

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes enter the offseason confident of one thing: They shouldn’t have to wait another decade to return to the playoffs.

They hope their nucleus will make postseason appearances an every-year thing.

The Hurricanes made their first playoff berth since 2009 last much longer than most expected, advancing to the Eastern Conference final before they were swept by the Boston Bruins.

After getting a taste of postseason hockey, this largely young team wants to do it again.

”I think we all know now what it takes first of all to get to the playoffs, and to go through those tough series,” forward Sebastian Aho said Monday. ”Now we’re even more hungry.”

There’s reason to believe this group has staying power.

The entire defensive corps – including young stars Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – is under team control for next season, with six of them signed and Haydn Fleury a pending restricted free agent.

Key winger Teuvo Teravainen is locked up through 2023-24. Promising forward Andrei Svechnikov oozed with promise during his rookie season. Aho, who also will be a restricted free agent, looks to be a candidate to receive a long-term deal. He declined to discuss his contract status.

This core was responsible for turning the franchise around and bringing entertainment – both during and after games – to the rink.

They brought back those beloved Hartford Whalers uniforms for a couple of games. They broke out the ”Storm Surge” celebrations, those choreographed on-ice parties after regular-season victories at home. They wore the jabs from curmudgeonly commentator Don Cherry as badges of honor – plastering his ”Bunch of Jerks” insult onto T-shirts that sold for $32 at the team shop. They welcomed a live pig named Hamilton into the building for home playoff games.

And, of course, they played winning hockey – especially after the calendar flipped to January. Their record of 31-12-2 was third-best in the league and propelled them from last place in the division to the top wild-card berth.

”As the year went on, as the record shows, it was a lot of good results, and coming to the rink was a lot of fun,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said.

A few things to watch entering the offseason:

THE CAPTAIN’S FUTURE

The big question is whether 37-year-old Justin Williams will return for a second season as team captain with his two-year contract expiring this offseason. The three-time Stanley Cup winner known around the league as ”Mr. Game 7” for his exploits in those final games brought credibility and leadership to the dressing room and helped steer the young team’s midseason turnaround. ”I put everything I had into it this year, and if I have everything again, then I’ll be here,” Williams said. ”I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

THE GOALIES

The Hurricanes have some decisions to make with both goalies – Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney – facing free agency. Mrazek accepted a one-year, $1.5 million deal last offseason to prove he’s worthy of a starter’s job, and the team snatched the 35-year-old McElhinney off the waiver wire when Scott Darling was hurt. They both played well enough to make Darling an afterthought, and now the question is whether either or both will wind up sticking around.

FREE AGENCY

The only other unrestricted free agents on the roster are forwards Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg. Ferland provided a strong physical presence on the ice, but he didn’t score any goals after February and had a single assist in the playoffs. The Hurricanes should have some money to spend when July 1 rolls around. According to salary tracking website CapFriendly.com, Carolina had the most room under the salary cap ($16.2 million) of any team in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS FIX

Carolina has plenty of work to do on its power play, which led to the team’s undoing against Boston. The Hurricanes scored on less than 10% of their postseason chances with the man advantage – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. During the regular season, they scored on nearly 18% of their chances to rank 20th in the league.

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