Islanders vs. Hurricanes: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff preview

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The Carolina Hurricanes ended a marathon of a series to upend the Washington Capitals, the defending champions. Meanwhile, the New York Islanders have been chilling after sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins, aka the team that won the two Stanley Cups before Washington grabbed theirs.

So, yes, you can call this a war of the underdogs, although in the upset-happy 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Islanders – Hurricanes has plenty of competition. (And some would argue the Hurricanes weren’t underdogs, but that’s a whole other thing.)

There are some other fun storylines, too. This could be the quintessential rest vs. rust test case, as the Hurricanes were pushed to the limit on Wednesday, while the Islanders haven’t played since April 16.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In true Carolina fashion, there’s another analytics experiment going on. The Islanders have defied the odds and possession metrics to keep winning games, while the Hurricanes finally seem to be benefiting from hogging the puck for years now. Winning this series won’t end the (often obnoxious) debates one way or another, yet you can bet that someone will claim as much on Twitter once the dust settles.

And, if you were tired of the same old teams in Round 2, you won’t get a much fresher matchup than Hurricanes vs. Islanders.

Schedule

Surging players

Islanders: With goalies getting their own section, there’s no reason to hesitate to mention Jordan Eberle first. He scored four goals in as many games against the Penguins, finishing that sweep with six points and a +6 rating, riding a red-hot 26.7 shooting percentage. Mathew Barzal was right there with him, generating five assists.

Brock Nelson scored three goals with a 25 shooting percentage, with two of his tallies being game-winners. Josh Bailey‘s three goals and one assist impress, and his luck was strong too (33.3 shooting percentage). Valtteri Filppula carried over his surprising work from the regular season, generating four assists. Anders Lee weighed in, too, with three points.

Hurricanes: Jaccob Slavin‘s gaining much-deserved mainstream attention, tying Erik Karlsson for the playoff lead in points for defensemen with nine (both with nine assists). Overtime work inflates things, but Slavin’s 26:59 TOI average remains robust.

Jordan Staal finished the series on a roll, scoring the goal that sent Game 7 to OT, while nabbing the game-winner in Game 6. Warren Foegele‘s four goals (along with two assists) came on just 12 SOG (33.3 shooting percentage), while Dougie Hamilton‘s six points flew under the radar because of that overblown talk about allegedly wincing at contact with Alex Ovechkin on a memorable goal. Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen don’t tower over others production-wise, but they really took over during key parts of the series, and remain the Hurricanes’ two aces.

Oh yeah, and Justin Williams continues to be Mr. Game 7, whether he likes it or not.

Struggling players

Islanders: Not many, what with this team riding a hot streak and managing a sweep.

After scoring easily a career-high with 20 goals (on an 18 shooting percentage) during the regular season, Casey Cizikas didn’t generate a point during that sweep. Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin didn’t score any, either, and Martin only averaged 12:42 TOI. Nothing too troubling, as the Isles generally count on those guys as physical presences, with any goals being a bonus. You can apply similar logic to modest-scoring defensemen, as they were pretty happy to limit the Penguins’ big guns in Round 1.

Hurricanes: Nino Niederreiter only managed an assist during that seven-game series against the Capitals, and it’s possible he might be banged-up (although that assist was gorgeous). Trevor van Riemsdyk didn’t generate a point during that series, and found himself planted on the bench a bit in key moments … which isn’t as big of an insult as it might seem, since Carolina has such outstanding defensemen to lean on when they want to shorten their bench. It’s tough to tell how much injuries factor into struggles of players like Micheal Ferland, who failed to score while being limited to three games.

Goaltending

Islanders: After a tremendous, redemptive regular season where he generated a fantastic .930 save percentage, Robin Lehner … somehow played even better? For all the hand-wringing about the Penguins, a near-impenetrable brick wall in net can really magnify your warts, and Lehner did that, producing an even-better .956 save percentage during that sweep. There’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument regarding how much Lehner’s numbers boil down to his own great play versus Barry Trotz’s defensive structure, but the results are so great, the debate feels moot (at least until it comes time for Lehner to get paid, as he’s in a contract year). Thomas Greiss‘ regular season numbers were nearly identical to Lehner’s, so few teams have a better option in case something happens with their starter.

(Unless Greiss reverted back to his 2017-18 form, in which case it would be a double-whammy.)

Hurricanes: Petr Mrazek‘s full season stats were just solid (.914 save percentage), but he really went on a tear down the stretch, generating a .938 save percentage in 17 games following the All-Star break. Mrazek’s .899 save percentage against the Capitals wasn’t so great, but Alex Ovechkin & Co. tend to generate high-danger chances, so he graded out reasonably well overall — just not dominant, like Lehner. Mrazek got bumped a bit late in that series, including a hard collision with teammate Justin Williams. He seems OK, yet it could be something to monitor. Like with Lehner and Greiss, Mrazek has a backup who produced similar results in the regular season in veteran Curtis McElhinney.

On paper, judging by this season alone, the advantage is the Islanders’, but we’ll see how it actually plays out.

Special teams

Islanders: The Islanders scored two power-play goals on 13 opportunities (15.4 percent), with both goals scored at home. Such a small sample size only tells you so much, so consider that, during the regular season, the Isles only converted on 14.5 percent of their chances, the third-worst total in the NHL. They were middle-of-the-pack on the PK in the regular season (79.9 percent), but only allowed the powerful Penguins’ power play a single PPG during that sweep. On paper, special teams is either neutral or a weakness for this team.

Hurricanes: The Hurricanes only killed 75 percent of their penalties against the Capitals, but is that really so bad against a singular man advantage menace like Alex Ovechkin, who scored three power-play goals during that series? Carolina ranked eighth in PK efficiency during the regular season, which isn’t shocking considering their strong defensive personnel. Carolina’s power play has been middling at best, and they will forever befuddle me by not putting Dougie Hamilton on their top unit. Hamilton scored two PPG against the Capitals despite that questionable deployment, so maybe the Hurricanes will finally change that up and reap some rewards?

As it stands, these two teams generally grade out as pretty strong on the PK, and mediocre on the PP. This seems to be a push overall, although maybe strong coaching/video work might swing this area during the actual series?

X-Factor for Islanders

Normally, in hockey, home-ice advantage is overblown.

The Islanders are an especially interesting case study, though. This is anecdotal, of course, but it’s really hard to believe that the Isles didn’t at least get a slight boost from an absolutely raucous crowd at Nassau Coliseum for Round 1. Now, with the scene changing to the less-fan-and-hockey-friendly Barclays for Round 2, will things be more tepid? A more muted crowd may only play into the “rust” factor, as maybe Nassau’s sheer volume might have been like a bucket of ice water to the head.

X-Factor for Hurricanes

Are the Hurricanes anywhere near 100 percent?

As much as rest is a worry (they just finished a double-OT game and multiple series/in-game comebacks that finished on Wednesday), my biggest concern is injuries. Andrei Svechnikov is still feeling the effects of losing that fight to Alex Ovechkin. Ferland’s hurt, and Jordan Martinook‘s injuries seem to be piling up. And that says nothing about players who are fighting through unreported ailments, stuff that piles up when you play three more games than your opponents, and get basically the bare minimum of rest.

(Again, I wonder at least a bit about Mrazek.)

I’m sure the Islanders have their own bumps and bruises, but they likely pale in comparison to the Hurricanes, who probably lived in ice baths for the last week.

Prediction

Islanders in 6. If everything was equal – rest, injuries, etc. – I’d probably go with the Hurricanes. Even if players like Svechnikov suit up in Round 2, I’m not so sure they’ll be full effective. It wouldn’t be surprising if Trotz gets at least a minor edge on Rod Brind’Amour, what with Trotz being one of the most experienced defensive-minded coaches in the game, and Brind’Amour being in his rookie coaching season. It’s a tough call, and I’d wager that the Islanders will start to see their luck cool off, but here’s saying the Isles’ unlikely run extends to at least Round 3.

(But, yeah, the Hurricanes have a lot going for 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
Blues – Stars
Bruins – Blue Jackets
Sharks – Avalanche

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.

The Buzzer: Blues edge Flames in shootout; Eichel sets new career high

The St. Louis Blues celebrate their 5-4 shootout win over the Calgary Flames
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Three Stars

1) David Perron, St. Louis Blues

After making the All-Star Game for the first time in his NHL career, Perron started the second half of the season with a two-game point streak. He added a goal, an assist and a shootout tally as the Blues defeated the Flames 5-4 in a back-and-forth battle that ended in the skills competition. The 31-year-old forward notched his 22nd of the season when he hammered home a loose puck in front to knot the game at 2-2 late in the first period. Perron also made a nifty pass to help St. Louis exit the zone before Zach Sanford tied the game early in the final frame. Additionally, the Blues snapped a three-game losing streak.

2) Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

The Flames alternate captain is still a bit behind his 82-point total pace from last year after surpassing his previous career-high by 18 points set the season before. Monahan remains a critical piece in the Flames’ lineup as they prepare for a playoff push in the tightly contested Pacific Division. The 25-year-old recorded his 400th career point when he snapped off a wrist shot from the slot at 15:43 of the first period to give Calgary a 2-1 lead at the time. He would go on to record his second of the game, another wrister from the slot, early in the middle frame to even the score at 3-3.

3) Mark Borowiecki, Ottawa Senators

It’s not often an empty-net goal helps an NHL player land on this list, but Borowiecki’s game-sealing tally late in the third period was quite the play in the Senators’ 5-2 win against the Sabres. Ottawa’s alternate captain willingly went down on one knee in order to block a one-timer from Marcus Johansson to help preserve a one-goal lead at the time. After the block, Borowiecki quickly gathered himself, collected a loose puck and fired it off the boards into the empty cage. The Senators lead the NHL with 11 shorthanded goals.

Highlights of the Night

Blues forward Robert Thomas feathered a beautiful cross-ice pass between a couple of Calgary Flames to set up Alexander Steen to open the scoring.

In his 500th NHL game, Jaden Schwartz recorded his 17th of the season when he redirected a pretty pass from Brayden Schenn.

[RELATED: Predators facing difficult road in playoff push | How the Canucks climbed to top of Pacific Division]

Blooper of the Night

Who should get credit for this empty-net goal?

Stat of the Night

Scores

Ottawa Senators 5, Buffalo Sabres 2

St. Louis Blues 5, Calgary Flames 4 (SO)

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Hall of Fame goalie Ed Belfour arrested on mischief, public intoxication charges

former Dallas Star and NHL alumnus Ed Belfour
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Hockey Hall of Famer Ed Belfour was arrested early Tuesday morning. The former NHL goaltender caused damage to a downtown Bowling Green hotel.

Police found the 54-year-old inside the Kentucky Grand Hotel and Spa around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Bowling Green Daily News said, citing the arrest report. He was arrested on charges of third-degree criminal mischief and alcohol intoxication in a public place, according to the citation. He was booked into the Warren County Regional Jail just before 3 a.m. Tuesday, according to the jail’s website.

According to report, he was “manifestly under the influence of alcohol to a point he was a danger to himself and others.”

Police responded to a complaint of an intoxicated person after Belfour tried to fight an employee and struck glass in anger. When cops arrived on the scene, they found Belfour on the second floor, kicking a spa door while “clutching a curtain rod that had been ripped out of the dry wall above a window next to him,” according to the report.

When detained, Belfour was not compliant with officers.

Belfour won the Stanley Cup in 1999 with the Dallas Stars and captured an Olympic gold medal during the 2002 Winter Games as a member of Team Canada. He currently sits in fourth place on the NHL all-time wins list.

How the Canucks climbed to top of Pacific Division

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For the first time in five years Vancouver Canucks fans have reason to be excited about their team. They are the hottest team in the NHL right now, and with their 3-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Monday night are 12-3-0 over their past 15 games. That run has helped them climb to the top of the Pacific Division and put them in a position where they have a very good chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

While it is true that the Pacific Division is very watered down this season — especially with the struggles of Vegas and San Jose — the Canucks still have something building here. They are exciting, they can score, and as of Monday have the third-best goal differential in the Western Conference.

Let’s take a look at what is driving their success so far this season.

Quinn Hughes has been better than advertised

Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are the young cornerstones at forward, but Hughes is the player that’s really helped get this rebuild running in the right direction.

He may not win the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year, but he is almost certainly going to be Vancouver’s third straight finalist (following Boeser and Pettersson) as he competes with fellow rookie defenseman Cale Makar (Colorado Avalanche) for that crown. He’s already a 20-minute per night defenseman and fills one of the single biggest needs the Canucks have had the past couple of years — a young, impactful, top-pairing defenseman to lead their blue line. He’s the type of player that as soon as you watch him you know he’s going to be a star with the way he skates, moves the puck, and contributes to the offense.

But what’s really made him such a valuable piece is that he is able to do all of that while still being the team’s best defensive defenseman as a 20-year-old rookie. When he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play this season the Canucks are allowing the following:

  • 52.3 shot attempts per 60 minutes
  • 28.2 shots on goal per 60 minutes
  • 2.24 expected goals against per 60 minutes
  • 27.4 scoring chances per 60 minutes
  • 2.24 goals against per 60 minutes

Those numbers not only place him first among all Canucks defenders in every category, he is first by a significant margin in all of them.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

J.T. Miller has been the perfect support player

It’s been no secret the past two years that Boeser and Pettersson were the two players driving the bus for the Canucks offensively, and they still are.

It’s also no secret that two players alone can not carry a team on their own. And while the Canucks still have some depth concerns, Miller has been everything the Canucks could have hoped for him to be and more.

They raised some eyebrows when they traded a future first-round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Lightning for him, but it’s hard to argue with the results right now.

He is in the middle of a career year and currently on pace for more than 30 goals and 70 points, while also being one of the best possession-driving forwards in the entire league.

They paid a steep price, and the trade definitely carried some risk, but he is signed long-term, at a fair price, and has been a perfect fit within the core, while also being young enough to be a part of that core in future seasons. I was not a huge fan of the move at the time, but at some point you have to start adding talent to make your rebuild actually get somewhere. The Canucks have done that here.

Jacob Markstrom has been a rock in net

Markstrom hasn’t been one of the league’s elites in net, but he has been a rock solid starter since taking over that position in Vancouver. He may not steal a ton of games, but he’s not losing many games for them, either. He’s been a steady, and durable goalie that has consistently given them better-than-league average play the past few years. He has been even better this season.

While Hughes has been an immediate sensation on the blue line, this team still has its flaws defensively and gives up its share of shots and chances. They’re not yet a championship-level defensive team, and that makes quality goaltending even more vital for their chances. Markstrom is giving them that, and in the process is playing his way toward what could be a pretty significant raise this offseason.

MORE:
NHL Power Rankings: Looking at top Stanley Cup Contenders
The 6 coaches and general managers that can impact NHL playoff race
The 10 players that can impact NHL playoff race

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.

Headache-plagued Stephen Johns finally back on ice for Stars

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FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Stephen Johns sometimes wondered if he would play hockey again while missing nearly 22 months with headaches that may or may not have been related to concussions.

The Dallas Stars defenseman just didn’t appreciate it when doctors suggested as much.

“That just kind of pissed me off because it wasn’t their decision to make,” Johns said after a week-plus break for Dallas that came after his first game since March 29, 2018.

“Obviously there were times when I thought I would never play again, but that was probably when it was the lowest of my lows. Obviously I climbed out of it. In the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t done yet and I still had a lot to prove.”

The Stars didn’t have much to celebrate on the ice in a 7-0 loss to Minnesota in Johns’ return Jan 18. They liked the ending of his first home game a lot more, a 3-2 overtime win over Tampa Bay on Monday night.

Either way, there’s still an aspect to Johns being back that has little to do with scores and stats. Even the 27-year-old feels it.

“Trust me, it’s not frustrating,” he said. “Now I know where my game is. It’s a breath of fresh air almost to have something to work towards again.”

After sitting the final four games of the 2017-18 season, Johns missed all of 2018-19, which ended with Dallas’ Game 7 loss to eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis in the second round of the playoffs.

When training camp opened, general manager Jim Nill declared Johns still wasn’t ready to return and wouldn’t discuss it further. For Nill, it was about protecting a player who had been dealing for more than a year with issues bigger than getting back on the ice.

Post-traumatic headaches — the official explanation — were part of the mystery, and Nill said doctors couldn’t know for sure whether Johns’ history of concussions played a role. Ultimately, Nill said, the cause paled compared to the recovery.

“In the end, we’re just happy he’s back playing and feeling good,” Nill said. “He can feel good about himself and he looks like himself again.”

Johns was a top prospect for Chicago when Nill got him in a trade, with Patrick Sharp the headliner when the Blackhawks were dumping salary in 2015.

Late in the first season after the swap, Johns made his NHL debut and ended up playing all 13 playoff games. Dallas lost a Game 7 in the second round to St. Louis that year as well. Johns had to watch when it happened again three years later.

“It’s hell. It’s very simple,” Johns said. “A couple of guys stood back and watched us lose 7-0 to Minnesota. I know exactly what they were thinking sitting on the couch watching. It sucks watching.”

Captain Jamie Benn tried to be mindful of Johns being stuck on the periphery of the team for the daily routine, “pretty much rub elbows with them on my way out and they’re on their way in,” as Johns put it.

For Benn, it was diversions such as playing golf, and other ways to try to keep the focus off his teammate’s injury.

“I’m sure the amount of times were endless that he got asked how he’s doing,” Benn said. “When I talked to him, I didn’t really ask him. We all knew he wasn’t doing very good. So the last thing he wants to hear is, ‘How you doing?’”

Much better now, after a two-game conditioning assignment with the AHL’s Texas Stars before joining Dallas. Johns is still looking for his first point after averaging about 16 minutes in two games.

Interim coach Rick Bowness said Johns was too eager to show his physical style against the Lightning, leaving himself and the team in some bad positions after delivering hits.

“We’ve got to give the kid a chance to play,” Bowness said. “We knew this going in that he’s going to be rusty and there’s going to be bad decisions and bad timing.”

Nill figures there’s plenty of time to work on the timing of a player who looked to be a key piece on the Dallas blue line before Miro Heiskanen emerged as a 19-year-old rising star as a rookie last season.

“I’m happy to see him around the dressing room, with his teammates, smile on his face, feeling good about himself,” Nill said. “We know he’s a good hockey player. He knows he brings a lot to this team. Now he can start working on that.”