Stanley Cup Playoffs 2019: PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals

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BRUINS VS. HURRICANES

SEAN: Bruins in 6. You really want to see the Hurricanes advance and continue their memorable run this postseason, but in the end I think Boston’s top line and the play of Tuukka Rask will be what does them in. The Bruins got through the Blue Jackets with only a single goal from Brad Marchand, showing they can match the depth production of Carolina. The Hurricanes’ special teams have been abysmal through two rounds. They own the worst power play (10.5%) and penalty kill (75%) of the four teams remaining and are coming off a four-game series where the unit managed only one goal with the man advantage.

JAMES: Bruins in 7. The Hurricanes’ excellent defense, two-way depth, underrated talent, and fresh legs make them a tough opponent for anyone, Bruins included. Boston boasts the most complete team Carolina’s seen yet, with Tuukka Rask playing the best hockey of his career, improving supporting cast members picking things up well on the rare off nights for the Bruins’ ridiculous top line, and … oh yeah, that ridiculous top line.

And no, I’m not going to take the bait and make a bunch of jerks/Brad Marchand joke. Never. Not me.

ADAM: Hurricanes in 6. I do not think this run comes to an end. The Bruins are a great team and don’t really have a weakness anywhere on their roster, but I just love the way this Hurricanes team is playing. Their defense from top to bottom is better than Boston’s, I think their speed up front is going to give the Bruins fits, and as long as either Petr Mrazek or Curtis McElhinney doesn’t turn into a pumpkin I think they are getting enough goaltending to get through this. They don’t need whoever plays in net to steal this thing; they just need them to not lose it. And I think they can do that.

JOEY: Bruins in 6. Hurricanes fans should be thrilled. I didn’t pick Carolina in the first or second rounds and we all know how that turned out. I’m not trying to disrespect the ‘Canes, but I think their run ends here. The Bruins started getting production from David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron at the tail end of their second-round series against Columbus, and Tuukka Rask has been nearly unbeatable for a while now. The Hurricanes will need to be almost perfect if they’re going to cause another upset. I don’t see that happening.

SCOTT: Bruins in 6. You have to give Carolina credit here. They just walked through the New York Islanders and took down the defending Stanley Cup champions in the round prior. They keep getting it done despite an injury to Petr Mrazek (who may be back for Game 1). And they possess, possess, possess. And they grind like Rod Brind’Amour used to. But they’re coming up against a Bruins team that has found its stride. The ‘Big Three’ are scoring and Tuukka Rask is playing lights out. Boston is going to win the physical battle, and if Rask doesn’t let up, its the end of the line for these bunch of jerks.

RYAN: Bruins in 7. Boston already took down something of a Cinderella story in Columbus and I think that’s going to happen again.  The Hurricanes have really impressed in this playoff run and I think teams are going to look at them a lot differently next year.  However, the Bruins are the ones with the experience and star power to pushed past Carolina and into the Stanley Cup Final.  I do think that the Hurricanes will be able to at least frustrate the Bruins though and steal some games through their goaltending and defense.

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BLUES VS. SHARKS

SEAN: Blues in 6. “This will be the series Jordan Binnington is solved for good,” he says, probably regrettably. The Sharks getting their captain back in Game 7 was a huge boost for them — and that was before he scored the opening goal and added an assist. Fully healthy, San Jose can be a dominant team as long as Martin Jones is playing like Good Martin Jones, which he showed in Round 2. But Binnington has been unflappable — even when he’s “celebrating” a double overtime series-clinching goal. He won’t be rattled, even in high-danger situations as he’s shown in 13 starts. The Blues’ stars have stepped up, they’re getting balanced scoring, and they have  a goaltender who’s been consistently great since making his NHL debut at the age of 25 just four months ago. Play Gloria!

JAMES: Sharks in 7. It sure looks like San Jose is destined to do this the hard way. These two teams are pretty versatile – able to win games with scoring or defense, with the occasional night stolen by a hot goalie. The Sharks’ firepower just looms a little to large to me, much like the Bruins’ high-end pieces. It’s not just the obvious, like Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, and a recently rejuvenated Joe Pavelski. I expect Timo Meier to torment the Blues in much the same way as Roope Hintz did in Round 2. Tomas Hertl won’t be easy to handle. This should be a slugfest, and the Sharks’ haymakers simply hit a little harder.

ADAM: Blues in 6. The Blues were my pick to come out of the Western Conference at the start of the playoffs and I am sticking with them here. I just like the way they have been playing for the past few months — pretty much ever since the Jordan Binnington and Craig Berube duo showed up. They have been one of the best teams in the league since then defensively (it is not all Binnington) and while they may not have a lot of star power up front after Vladimir Tarasenko it is a deep, balanced group of forwards that can put pressure on you. I could easily see the Sharks winning this, especially if they keep getting the same Martin Jones they got in Round 2, but I think that is my concern. I have to see it from him again before I believe it.

JOEY: Sharks in 7. Yeah, another seven-game series for the Sharks. Jordan Binnington has received a lot of positive press for the way he’s played since the start of the new year, but Martin Jones has quietly bounced back in a big way. Also, it’s impressive that the Blues managed to get to the Western Conference Final without getting a goal from Brayden Schenn and Ryan O'Reilly in the second round, but they can’t have that happen against the Sharks. San Jose has many a lot of guys who can put the puck in net.

SCOTT: Sharks in 7. A Martin Jones that can stop pucks and Joe Pavelski back and reasonably rested? I don’t know what it’s going to take to stop the San Jose Sharks, who have all sorts of weapons. That said, Jones is no Ben Bishop, so the goals could come a little easier. But the Sharks just seem bloody determined at the moment. There’s so much motivation for them outside of just winning the Cup. Joe Thornton hoisting it finally. Pavelski, too. The Blues will put up a fight. Jordan Binnington has been special in these playoffs and the Blues have found ways to grind out teams have got contributions from everywhere. The Sharks just seem destined for this at the moment.

RYAN: Sharks in 7. San Jose was my pick to win the Cup and I’ll stick with that. Certainly I do like St. Louis a lot.  They’re a deep, well-rounded team and Jordan Binnington has done enough to push them this far.  Ben Bishop deserves a lot of credit for his Game 7 heroics, but Binnington faced back-to-back elimination games and held the competition to a single goal in each contest.  He’s been attracting a lot of attention for a reason.  Still, the Sharks seem to have everything a championship team needs with the possible exception of a goaltender they can depend on.  Martin Jones held his own against Colorado in Round 2, so maybe now they even have that.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
Hurricanes/Bruins series preview

PHT Roundtable

Will coaching change be enough to give Ducks’ goalies some help?

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Since becoming the Anaheim Ducks’ starter, John Gibson has become one of the best goalies in the NHL.

For the first part of the 2018-19 season he was almost single-handedly carrying the team and helping to keep it at least somewhat competitive. He was not only in the Vezina Trophy discussion, but as long as the Ducks were winning he was a legitimate MVP contender. But for as good as Gibson performed, the entire thing was a house of cards that was always on the verge of an ugly collapse.

The Ducks couldn’t score, they couldn’t defend, they forced Gibson to take on a ridiculous workload in terms of shots and scoring chances against.

Eventually, everything fell apart.

Once Gibson started to wear down and could no longer steal games on a nightly basis, the team turned into one of the worst in the league despite having a top-10 goaltending duo. That is a shocking accomplishment because teams that get the level of goaltending the Ducks received from the Gibson-Ryan Miller duo usually make the playoffs.

How bad was it for the Ducks? They were one of only three teams in the top-15 in save percentage this past season that did not make the playoffs.

The only other teams in the top-15 that missed were the Montreal Canadiens, who were just two points back in a far better and more competitive Eastern Conference, and the Arizona Coyotes who were four points back in the Western Conference and the first team on the outside looking in.

The Ducks not only missed, they were 10 points short with FIVE teams between them and a playoff spot. Again, almost impossibly bad.

It is a testament to just how bad the rest of the team performed in front of the goalies, and it continued a disturbing trend from the 2018 playoffs when the Ducks looked completely overmatched against the San Jose Sharks in a four-game sweep. It was clear the team was badly flawed and was falling behind in a faster, more skilled NHL.

The problem for the Ducks right now is that so far this offseason the team has remained mostly the same.

They bought out the remainder of Corey Perry‘s contract, will be without Ryan Kesler, and have really not done anything else to change a roster that has not been anywhere near good enough the past two seasons.

That means it is going to be another sink-or-swim season for the Ducks based on how far the goaltending duo of Gibson and Miller can carry them.

It is a tough situation because the Ducks have made an absolutely massive commitment to Gibson as he enters the first year of an eight-year, $51.2 million contract. T

hat is a huge investment in a goalie, and for the time being, the Ducks have not really done anything to support him. Even if you have the best goalie in the league — or just one of the best — it is nearly impossible to win based only on that. Great goalies can help, they can mask a lot of flaws, and they can even carry a mediocre or bad team to the playoffs if they have a historically great season (think Carey Price during the 2014-15 season). But that still puts a ton of pressure on the goalie, and it is nearly impossible to ride that all the way to a championship.

There is, however, one small cause for optimism.

A lot of the Ducks’ problems defensively last season seemed to be based around their system and structure in the early part of the season under then-coach Randy Carlyle.

Under Carlyle the Ducks were one of the worst teams in the league when it came to suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

They were 29th or worse when it came to shots on goal against, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, and 26th in total shot attempts against. This is something that always happened with Carlyle coached teams and they would always go as far as their goaltending could take them. In recent years, Gibson masked a lot of those flaws by playing at an elite level and helped get the Ducks in the playoffs. He was able to do it for half of a season this year before finally playing like a mortal instead of a goaltending deity.

But after Carlyle was replaced by general manager Bob Murray, the Ducks showed some massive improvement defensively, shaving multiple shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances per 60 minutes off of their totals.

They went from 26th to seventh in shots on goal against, from 29th to 19th in shot attempts, from 30th to 17th in scoring chances against, and from 29th to 17th in high-danger scoring chances against.

Still not great, but definitely better. Much better. So much better that even though Gibson’s overall performance regressed, the Ducks still managed to win games and collect points at a significantly better rate than they did earlier in the season. They were 14-11-1 from Feb. 10 until the end of the season under Murray.

That is a 91.3 point pace over 82 games. That would have been a playoff point total in the Western Conference this past season.

Under Carlyle, it was a 74.6 point pace. That would have been one of the four worst records in the league.

Coaching changes are very rarely a cure-all. It is still a talent-driven league, and if you do not have talent you are probably not going to win very much. But there are always exceptions and outliers, and sometimes a coaching change is a necessity and can help dramatically improve a team.

New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins has an incredibly short NHL head coaching resume so we don’t have much to go by when it comes to what he will do What we do have to go by came in Edmonton where it has become abundantly clear over the past 15 years that the problems go far beyond the head coach (because they have all failed there). The Ducks are still short on talent at forward and defense, but it should still be able to perform better than it did a year ago. And with a goalie as dominant as Gibson can be (with a great backup behind him) there is no excuse for them to be as far out of the playoff picture as they were.

The Ducks don’t need to be the 1995 Devils defensively to compete.

They just need to not be the worst shot suppression team in the league.

If Eakins can figure out a way to build on the momentum the Ducks showed over the final two months of the 2018-19 season, they might actually have a fighting chance.

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.

Calgary Flames set with arena plans to replace Saddledome

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a tentative agreement for a new arena to replace the Saddledome.

The city, NHL team and the Calgary Stampede have agreed in principle to terms. The Stampede, a rodeo exhibition, owns the land.

The deal was to be presented to the City Council on Monday and then put to a vote. Calgary citizens would then have a week to voice their opinion before a council vote next week to ratify the deal.

The Saddledome is almost 36 years old. The cost of the event center is $550 million to $600 million. It is to have a seating capacity of about 20,000 for sports and would be the heart of a larger revitalized commercial and residential district.

Penguins sign Zach Aston-Reese to 2-year deal

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Penguins and forward Zach Aston-Reese avoided arbitration on Monday, agreeing to a two-year deal that runs through the 2020-21 season.

The deal is worth $1 million annually. The two sides came together minutes before heading to arbitration.

”We were actually setting up for the meeting and kind of right before it started, right at nine o’clock, it got done,” Aston-Reese said. ”Right on time.”

Aston-Reese, 24, posted career highs in goals (eight) and assists (nine) despite being limited to 43 games because of a hand injury. Aston-Reese – who skated alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line but also put in work with the fourth line – gives the Penguins more options as they try to bounce back from a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders.

”Zach is a responsible player who plays a solid two-way game,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. ”He has a heavy style of play that is especially effective on the forecheck and penalty kill.”

Aston-Reese admitted he was relieved to get a new contract ironed out before going through arbitration.

”It’s a little bit awkward and I was just really happy to get the deal done before that meeting began,” he said. ”You hear stories of things like that and it’s no coincidence that only what, 5% actually go through with the meeting. I was happy to avoid that.”

How Phil Kessel can transform Coyotes’ offense

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The Arizona Coyotes made a significant splash this offseason when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins, adding a much-needed impact player to the top of their lineup. Getting him was a perfect confluence of events that involved the Penguins feeling desperate to shake up their roster, Kessel having almost full control over where he ended up going, and the Coyotes having a head coach (Rick Tocchet) the Kessel liked playing for in the past and wanted to play for again.

Despite an impossibly bad run of injury luck the Coyotes made a valiant push for a playoff spot only to fall just short, in large part because they did not have enough offense.

They finished the season 28th in goals scored, 20th in shots on goal, and 26th on the power play. None of that is promising.

One player alone can not fix all of that — especially a player that will be turning 32 at the start of the season — but adding a player like Kessel certainly helps.

A lot.

Acquiring Kessel is so significant because the Coyotes have simply not had a player like him in more than a decade. Maybe even longer.

A *bad* year for Kessel offensively is probably 25 goals and 60 points, while he is also still capable of being an 80-90 point player. Even the middle ground between those two is bonafide first-line production.

To put all of that that into perspective, just consider that since the start of the 2008-09 season the Coyotes have had only two players top the 70-point mark in a single season, and none since Ray Whitney did it during the 2011-12 season. No one has topped 80 points during that stretch.

Over that same stretch they have had only five 60-point performances (and only Clayton Keller has done it since 2011-12), only two 30-goal seasons (none since, again, 2011-12) and only three 25-goal seasons.

Twenty-five goals and 60 points are not huge numbers. Those are great second line numbers in today’s NHL and pretty good first line numbers. But even those have been almost unheard of in Arizona for the past decade. They just simply have not had anyone that is even close to being an impact forward.

Should Kessel be expected to be the same 80-or 90-point player that he has been the past two seasons? Probably not, not only because he will not have the luxury of Hall of Fame centers next to him, but also because he is also going to be another year older. There is a definite recipe for regression there, especially at even-strength. But he is still gifted enough of a player (and passer and playmaker, perhaps his most underappreciated skill) that he will still be one of the best and most productive offensive players to wear a Coyotes uniform in years.

But the area he should make the biggest impact is on Arizona’s dreadful power play.

The Coyotes have been one of the worst teams on the man-advantage for five years now, mostly because they just have not had anyone at forward that could really take over and run things.

The power play is where Kessel does a significant part of his damage.

Over the past three seasons Kessel is sixth in power play assists per 60 minutes (5.49), 11th in primary assists per 60 minutes (2.91), and third in total points per 60 minutes (7.47).

It is easy to write that off in recent years to playing alongside the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Kessel was often the one that unit ran through and it was far less dangerous when he was not on the ice. His passing, vision, and playmaking made him an elite weapon and one of the most productive players in the league on the man-advantage.

The Coyotes have had no one that even comes close to that level of performance over the past few years.

Kessel definitely has his flaws, and his defensive shortcomings are very real, but he remains an impact winger and a player that can still completely help transform a power play unit. He alone may not make them the best unit in the league, or even one of the best, but he is going to make them better. Very likely a lot better.

The Coyotes have been assembling a promising roster that is pretty good defensively and definitely has the potential to grow into a good team in the not too distant future. The biggest thing they have been lacking in this rebuild is a forward that can change a game and be a difference-maker offensively. Ideally, that player would be someone younger and still closer to the prime of their career and would better match up with some of their core players, but those players are nearly impossible to acquire without a lot of luck or a top-pick in the right draft year.

Kessel may not be perfect, but can definitely still help give them a lot of the elements they have been lacking offensively and help bring some firepower to an offense that has been one of the dullest and least dangerous in the league.

Combined with the addition of Carl Soderberg and, hopefully, some better injury luck and that should give the Coyotes a fighting chance to make up that ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference)

Related: Coyotes acquire Phil Kessel from Pittsburgh Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk

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.