Sharks vs. Avalanche: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff preview

The San Jose Sharks entered the season as one of the serious contenders for the Stanley Cup, but they are a team with a major concern and it nearly resulted in them losing to Vegas in Round 1. That concern is goaltender Martin Jones.

Certainly Round 1 wasn’t all bad for Jones. He was solid in Game 1 and stopped an incredible 58 of 59 shots in Game 6. In between that though, he was a disaster. Vegas chased Jones out of Games 2 and 4 and beat him six times in Game 3. One of the things that stretch also demonstrated is Sharks coach Peter DeBoer’s lack of faith in backup Aaron Dell, who struggled this season. If Dell was ever going to start in a playoff game this year, it would have been after those three ugly starts by Jones. For better or worse, the Sharks will stick with Jones.

Regardless, the Sharks deserve credit for rallying. They overcame a 3-1 series deficit against Vegas and had a Game 7 that will be discussed for years to come. With San Jose down 3-0 midway through the third period, Cody Eakin crosschecked Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, resulting in a scary injury and a five-minute major to Eakin. The Sharks scored four times during that power-play en route to a 5-4 overtime victory.

Colorado’s series against Calgary was far less dramatic. Although the Flames were regarded as the heavy favorites, the Avalanche surged to get into the playoffs and weren’t slowed down by Calgary. Colorado eliminated the Flames in five games thanks to hot goaltending and two very effective scoring lines.

Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon were everything the Avalanche could have hoped for in Round 1 while on the Flames side, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan combined to score just a single goal. Colorado has emerged as a great Cinderella story, but this is a year where there have been plenty of Cinderella stories to chose from.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Schedule

Surging Players

Sharks: Erik Karlsson was unavailable for most of the last third of the season due to a groin injury, but he has excelled in the playoffs. He’s tied with Jaccob Slavin for the league lead in assists with nine and has averaged 27:15 minutes per game in the postseason. Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture were also major factors in Round 1. Each forward finished with six goals and eight points and both are entering Round 2 on a three-game goal scoring streak.

Avalanche: As mentioned above, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon did everything possible for Colorado in Round 1. With the exception of Game 1 where the Avalanche were shutout, the Flames simply couldn’t contain them. Rantanen had five goals and nine points in the five-game series while MacKinnon finished with three goals and eight points. In Rantanen’s case, he’s also on a four-game multi-point streak.

Struggling Players

Sharks: Gustav Nyquist was fine in the regular season after being acquired by the Sharks, but he was quiet in Round 1. He had no goals and three assists in the seven-game series and was held off the scoresheet in Games 6 and 7. They could certainly use more from him going forward, especially if Pavelski’s injury ends up sidelining him for a significant amount of time.

Avalanche: Colorado was led by its star forwards in Round 1, but in Round 2 the Avalanche will likely need more from their supporting cast. Carl Soderberg and Alexander Kerfoot each had just one assist against Calgary. There were only nine forwards in Round 1 that averaged at least 17 minutes and finished with no goals. Of them, only four are playing on teams that advanced to Round 2 and Colorado has two of those four forwards in Soderberg and Kerfoot.

Goaltending

Sharks: Martin Jones has been the Sharks’ main weakness this season, but it wasn’t always that way. He was a solid netminder for San Jose from 2015-16 through 2017-18, but he was horribly inconsistent in 2018-19 and finished with a 2.94 GAA and .896 save percentage in 62 starts. Among goaltenders who started in at least 40 games, only Jonathan Quick on the Western Conference-worst Los Angeles Kings finished with a lower save percentage.

The Sharks continued to lean on Jones though because Aaron Dell was even worse. Dell, who had been a solid backup in his previous two seasons, finished 2018-19 with a 3.17 GAA and .886 save percentage in 25 contests.

As mentioned in the intro, those goaltending woes extended into Round 1 and are something the Avalanche will need to exploit in Round 2.

Avalanche A hot goaltender can take you far in the playoffs and right now Philipp Grubauer is very hot indeed. He’s certainly had rough patches this season, but he’s also a big part of the reason the Avalanche were even able to make the playoffs. From Feb. 23 onward, he posted a 9-2-2 record, 1.44 GAA, and .956 save percentage in 14 contests.

Grubauer proved to be a big problem for Calgary in Round 1 too. The best the Flames did against him was in Game 1 when he allowed three goals on 31 shots. After that, Grubauer surrendered just seven goals over the final four contests, giving him a 1.90 GAA and .939 save percentage in five postseason starts this year.

He also had a chance to lead the Capitals at the start of the 2018 playoffs, but struggled out of the gate, resulting in Braden Holtby taking over in Game 2 and leading Washington the rest of the way. Grubauer has taken advantage of this second chance to show that he can be a strong playoff goaltender.

Special Teams

Sharks: San Jose had eight power-play goals in Round 1, but four of them came on that major penalty to Eakin. While it was a dramatic way to end the series, it has also skewed their power-play numbers. That said, the Sharks ranked sixth in the regular season with a 23.6% power-play success rate and they’re certainly capable of continuing to be very effect with the man advantage going forward. Their ability to kill penalties is a far bigger question mark. The Sharks were a mid-tier team in that regard in the regular season with an 80.8% success rate and their PK was heavily exploited by Vegas in Round 1. Of the teams that advanced, San Jose has the worst playoff penalty kill percentage at 72.4%.

Avalanche: Colorado was 5-for-25 on the power play in Round 1. Unsurprisingly, it was MacKinnon and Rantanen leading the charge there too. The duo combined for four of the five markers and MacKinnon got a point on all five power-play goals. In the regular season, the Avalanche ranked seventh on the power play with a 22% success rate. The Avalanche killed only 78.7% of their penalties in the regular season though, making them one of the worst teams in that regard. Colorado wasn’t any better in Round 1, killing 77.3% of their penalties. It’s looking like this is going to be a series where both squads will be able to frequently take advantage of their power-play opportunities.

X-Factor For Sharks

Not to be a broken record about it, but their goaltending. There’s just so much else to love about this team. They have both star power and depth up front. They have two Norris Trophy winners on defense. They have veterans loaded with playoff experience and plenty of reason to be hungry. The one element that’s potentially missing here is goaltending.

Jones doesn’t need to be great, he might not even need to be good. It’s hard to see the Sharks getting through without him being at least passable though. San Jose managed to just barely recover from Jones’ meltdown from Games 2-4. The Sharks might not be able to survive if he endures a similar slump going forward.

X-Factor For Avalanche

Everything beyond the Avalanche’s big three. Rantanen and MacKinnon couldn’t have been asked to do more in Round 1 and while Gabriel Landeskog wasn’t as effective as that duo, he certainly contributed too with a goal and four points in five games. The larger question is if the Avalanche have the offensive depth to go deeper into the playoffs. If the Sharks manage to shutdown the Avalanche’s stars, can the supporting cast step up?

The Avalanche don’t have a lot of offensive weapons beyond their big three, which made Soderberg and Kerfoot’s quiet first round all the more alarming. They ranked fourth and fifth respectively in Colorado’s forwards scoring race in the regular season. They’re also the only two forwards on the Avalanche that recorded at least 40 points outside of the big three.

The silver lining is that the Avalanche did get some secondary scoring from other sources in Round 1. Matt Nieto, who had 23 points in the regular season, scored two goals and four points in five playoff contests. After finishing 2018-19 with 27 points, Colin Wilson came up big in Game 5 with two goals and an assist.

Prediction

Sharks in 6. I think I’ve made it clear at this point that Jones gives me pause and there’s also the question of Pavelski’s status, which at the time of writing is still unknown. Even with that though, San Jose is far closer to the complete package than Colorado. I can certainly envision scenarios where the Avalanche win this series — especially in what is becoming the year of the upsets — but if you’re asking for what I believe is the most probable outcome, it would have to be San Jose advancing.

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

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Penguins keep heating up; Struggling Stars sink lower

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Is it time for the Dallas Stars to throw Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn under the bus again?

We’re still in October, and things are looking unsettling for a team that navigated some serious highs and lows in 2018-19 to eventually drum up lofty expectations for 2019-20. So far, the Stars have flopped in their encore performance, like a band tripping over all of their instruments while the crowd raises its lighters.

On paper, you’d think it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins who were struggling against the Stars on Friday. After all, they are the team still dealing with injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad, and Bryan Rust, while the Stars recently got interesting offseason addition Corey Perry back in the lineup.

Instead, the two teams continued on their opposite trajectories. The Penguins keep finding ways to win, in this case riding two Kris Letang goals to a 4-2 win against the Stars, pushing Pittsburgh’s winning streak to five games. Dallas, meanwhile, lost its fifth game in a row (0-4-1), and the Stars saw their overall 2019-20 record sink to a deeply unsettling 1-7-1.

Former PHT editor Brandon Worley captured much of the mood among Stars fans after another dispiriting loss.

Most are shaking their heads in dismay, with some feeling like it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Like many, I didn’t expect Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, and other Stars goalies to combine for a .923 team save percentage like they did in 2018-19, which towered over last season’s league average of .905.

It absolutely was a red flag that the Stars only marginally outscored the opposition (209 goals for, 200 against) last season despite that Herculean goaltending.

Still, there were signs that Jim Montgomery’s system was putting Bishop and Khudobin in a situation to succeed, and there are elements of a modern puck-moving defense in place. One could picture another step for sizzling sophomore Miro Heiskanen, and the Stars made the playoffs despite dark horse Norris candidate John Klingberg being limited to 64 regular-season games. More Heiskanen, more Klingberg, another step for Roope Hintz, plus the additions of Joe Pavelski and, to a much lesser extent, Corey Perry? There were worse formulas for success heading into 2019-20, so fools like me wondered if the Stars might be able to rekindle that magic.

Luck should improve

And, to be fair, counting the Stars out just a little more than two weeks into 2019-20 would be hasty.

Hintz and Heiskanen are some of the only Stars off to the starts you’d expect, with Seguin parked at four points in nine games, Pavelski only managing one goal and one assist, and Klingberg being limited to a single point.

Things should regress in a positive way, even in the highly likely instance that neither Bishop nor Khudobin will rekindle that 2018-19 magic. Much like the slow-starting Wild, the Stars have played most of their games on the road (six of nine away from home) so far. After Saturday’s trip to Philly to play the Flyers, the Stars play six of seven games in Dallas from Oct. 21 through Nov. 5. The outlook could look quite a bit rosier by the end of that stretch.

It doesn’t change the fact that the Stars dug themselves a formidable hole. While the Stars have a hapless divisional neighbor in the Minnesota Wild, the bottom line is that the Central Division figures to be unforgiving.

A matter of philosophy?

Maybe it’s too early to panic, but it’s absolutely time to ask tough questions. The Stars aren’t that far removed from being one of the most electrifying teams in the NHL, only to turn their back on that formula at the first signs of pushback, instead going the “safer” route of becoming more defensive-minded under Ken Hitchcock and then Montgomery.

It was easier to watch that beautiful thing die when the Stars were winning, yet it’s debatable if dumbing things down by going all-defense is truly the “safe” route, especially with a team fueled by offensive talent from Seguin and Alexander Radulov on offense and skilled defensemen like Klingberg and Heiskanen on the blueline.

Maybe losing to a depleted Penguins teams at least provides another chance to do some soul-searching?

The Penguins carried the Stars’ outscore-your-problems torch once Dallas wavered, and Pittsburgh marched to two consecutive Stanley Cups despite defense that ranged from shaky to shabby. Then, for reasons even more perplexing, the Penguins began to lose confidence in that approach, and ended up losing some ground in the process.

As of Friday, the Penguins and Stars are moving in very different directions, and one can bet that they’ll see other dramatic shifts over an 82-game regular season. Maybe both can provide each other lessons about playing to your strengths and knowing who you are, though.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Nationals’ Scherzer drops ceremonial baseball before Capitals game

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The Washington Nationals have some time to kill before the 2019 World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals, so why not take in a Washington Capitals game … and maybe put a new knuckleball-like spin on a common hockey photo-op?

Instead of dropping the ceremonial first puck before Friday’s Capitals – Rangers contest, three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer elected to drop a baseball instead. You can watch video of that fun ceremony (which vaguely reminded me of Auston Matthews doing a little Globetrotter spin with a Raptors basketball) in the video above. Sports city synergy is fun, is what I’m trying to say.

As a baseball not-knower, this brings up a lot of questions — some I can answer, some not so much.

  • Was it one of those new-fangled “juiced” baseballs? Scherzer probably doesn’t like those, if they’re really a thing.
  • I was wondering about Scherzer’s (maybe somewhat intimidating) different-colored eyes. Apparently Scherzer was born that way, although one eye was blue and the other was green, originally. (The blue eye turned bluer, while the green one turned brown.) Dany Heatley is a hockey player who comes to mind with that, but his story is less fun and more upsetting.
  • CNN clears up the Nationals’ connection to “Baby Shark,” which I wondered about thanks to this:

(Even Capitals fans would probably admit that this is swimming a bit close to San Jose’s waters.)

  • In case you were wondering, that sports city synergy went both ways, as you can see from Alex Ovechkin hugging Scherzer before a Nationals game in June 2018 (via Getty):
(Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

As of this writing, the Capitals lead the Rangers 3-2 and the New York Yankees are trying to protect a 4-1 lead against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS. If the Astros win, they’ll face Scherzer’s Nationals.

… And that about concludes my baseball-knowing.

/chews imaginary tobacco/Major League Chew

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Devils, Hischier agree to seven-year, $50.75 million extension

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While the Devils don’t know yet if Taylor Hall will sign an extension to remain in New Jersey or find a new home next summer in free agency, GM Ray Shero has young locked down one of the team’s core pieces.

On Friday, Nico Hischier agreed to a seven-year, $50.75 million extension that carries a $7.25 million cap hit through the 2026-27 NHL season. The deal buys three unrestricted free agent years since the Devils forward has been playing since he was 18, per Cap Friendly.

“Nico is a special person who possess a team-first mentality combined with an inner drive to succeed,” said Shero in a statement. The entire organization is thankful to him and his family for believing in our future. We are excited that he will continue to play a prominent role with us for many years to come.”

According to the Devils, here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

2020-21: $7,000,000 (includes $3 million signing bonus)
2021-22: $7,250,000
2022-23:  $4,500,000
2023-24:  $7,750,000
2024-25:  $7,750,000
2025-26:  $8,000,000
2026-27:  $8,500,000

The extension also features a modified no-trade clause in the final three years.

In 157 NHL games, Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, has 37 goals and 101 points while averaging over 17 minutes a night. His offense has been just fine with a 20 and 17 goals in his first two seasons, but his two-way game is what’s really boosted his talent.

The 20-year-old center joins the list of NHLers who passed on restricted free agency in 2020 to put pen to paper on a new deal, joining the likes of Alex DeBrincat, Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Sam Girard.

Mathew Barzal, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Dylan Strome, and Mikhail Sergachev are some of the other potential 2020 RFAs who will be looking for extensions before next season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Helm fined $5K for slash on Flames’ Lindholm

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Darren Helm and Elias Lindholm had a little battle in the third period of Thursday’s 5-1 Flames win and it has resulted in a $5,000 fine for the Red Wings forward.

It all began during a face-off when Lindholm got taken down by Helm. The Flames forward took exception and skated after Helm as the puck entered the Calgary zone. The tiff continued on with Lindholm throwing an elbow at Helm, who responded by getting up off the ice and slashing Lindholm in the back of the leg.

“Their guy comes with an elbow that should have probably been called right away,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “Then Darren reacts to that as most guys would, you get an elbow to the face for no reason you’re going to react. We got to be more disciplined in those situations, but he slashed him. I don’t think the slash was that super-hard, but it sure looked hard the way he went down.”

The fine is the maximum amount allowable under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Helm was given a major for slashing and a game misconduct, while Lindholm got off with just an interference minor. Lindholm was helped to the dressing room and there’s been no update yet on his condition.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.