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Why the Blues get better late in every series

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If we have learned anything about the St. Louis Blues through the first three full rounds of the playoffs it’s that they may just now be reaching the point in the Stanley Cup Final where they really start to find their game.

The Blues enter Game 5 against the Boston Bruins on Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC; Live Stream) tied at two games apiece thanks to their big Game 4 win on Monday night. Thursday’s game is obviously a pivotal one because it’s going to bring one of these teams to within one win of a championship.

All postseason the Blues have excelled in this exact position and have consistently gotten stronger in every series they have played.

So far they are 6-1 in Games 5 through 7 of each series, with the only loss in those games being a 2-1 defeat in Game 5 to the Dallas Stars in a game where the Blues still carried most of the play.

It is not just that they have won almost all of these late series games, it is that they have legitimately played better. It is a near perfect confluence of process and results.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For example, the table below shows the Blues’ 5-on-5 shot attempt (CF%), scoring chance (SC%), high-danger scoring chances (HDSC%) and goal differentials for Games 1-4 in each series versus their performance in Games 5-7 in each series.  There is obviously a pretty drastic difference in the two performances.

One argument for this could centered around the Blues’ style of play where they try to wear teams down over the course of a series. They do have some bigger forwards and a bigger roster and can play a grinding game with an aggressive forecheck.

“Heavy hockey” if you wanted to call it that.

“We just try to play a grinding style of hockey,” said center Brayden Schenn. “It’s not fancy. It’s not pretty. But when we’re chipping pucks and we’re forechecking and we have a good F3 and we’re back checking hard, and it allows the D to have good gaps. We feel it’s a pretty good recipe and hopefully we can keep that going and be effective.”

Team captain and top defender Alex Pietrangelo echoed that same sentiment.

“I think we can see it throughout games and throughout series,” he said. “It’s tough minutes to play against our forward lines when they’re playing the way they can. Not necessarily anything to look for, you can see the momentum we create by our line changes in the offensive zone, we’re just using all four lines. If I was a defenseman, that would be tough to defend against.”

There is always a common theme and talking point whenever a team with size goes far in the playoffs where the conventional wisdom is that they wear teams down. But this is the NHL, it is still at its core a contact and collision sport where every game is going to have its share of physical play and hits. Everyone gets worn down to a degree the deeper they go in a series and the playoffs. Is an extra 10-15 hits per game spread out throughout the roster really going to speed that up? The argument against the mindset is that some of the most successful teams of the salary cap era (Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, the 2006-2009 Detroit Red Wings, and even the Tampa Bay Lightning team that went to three of the past five Eastern Conference Finals) did it with rosters that weren’t big or overly physical (especially at forward). Old school hockey folks love to romanticize the physical aspect of the game and the blood and guts reputation of playoff hockey. But the most consistently successful teams of this era didn’t really fit that mold. At all.

There is also this: simply writing it off as the Blues winning a battle of attrition every series and advancing because they are bigger and stronger and overpowering teams does a disservice to their coaching staff and the talent they have on their roster, all of which are excellent. Especially when trying to overpower the Bruins physically may have gotten them into some trouble earlier in the series when it came to their discipline.

From the moment Craig Berube took over behind the bench the team’s style changed. It used a more aggressive forecheck, they opened up more offensively, they immediately become better defensively in all phases.

The thing about playoff hockey is that coaching can tend to make more of a difference that it sometimes does in the regular season as teams spend more time game-planning for opponents and trying to find and exploit their weaknesses.

There is only so much advance game-planning you can do for one game out of 82 in the regular season when you usually only have 24-48 hours to prepare for a team after playing a completely different team with a completely different style. You are obviously doing some prep work, but not anywhere near as in-depth or detailed as you do in the playoffs.

In a best-of-seven series where you play the same team, with the same personnel, with the same playing style every night you are going to be more in tune with what they are trying to do and better able to find what they can do. And perhaps even more importantly, what they can’t do.

“I think we finally realize that we have to get to our game,” said forward Patrick Maroon. “When we get to our game, we’re a good hockey team. It takes us some time, I guess. Figure out how they play, how we need to play, what we need to do. How we can focus on it every shift, every night.”

“Yeah, I think it’s pretty common,” said Schenn when asked if there is a feeling out process the team has gone through early in each series.

“You kinda see what the team is gonna give you, how they’re gonna play, what adjustments they’re gonna make. I’m sure Boston’s gonna make some adjustments as well and so are we.”

The Blues are one of the bigger teams in the NHL and they do play what can probably be described as a “grinding” style. Even their biggest superstar, Vladimir Tarasenko, is such a force with the puck because of his strength and how difficult he is to knock over. They will play physical and they will hit your defense on the forecheck. But they also have a lot of talent throughout their roster and a coaching staff that has consistently done a great job adjusting all season.

Without the latter points, none of the former would matter or be much of a factor.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs Thursday on NBC at 8 p.m. ET (stream here).

MORE BLUES-BRUINS GAME 5:
Bruins’ Chara to be game-time decision
Report: Chara has broken jaw
Blues vs. Bruins: Three keys to Game 5
The Wraparound: Bruins need more, especially from second line
Looking at Bruins’ potential defensive options

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.

Rangers beat Penguins in OT thanks to Kakko’s big night

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Kaapo Kakko looked dominant, at times, against men before he was drafted, including versus some NHL talent during the 2019 IIHF World Championship. The feeling was that he could make an immediate and successful jump from being the second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft to becoming an instant impact player for the New York Rangers, possibly outshining top pick Jack Hughes for the Devils.

A little more than a month into his career, it’s been up-and-down for Kakko, but we might just look at Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins as a breakthrough moment.

Rangers start strong

Kakko took advantage of a bodacious Brendan Lemieux pass to score the first goal of Tuesday’s game, then ended up collecting the game-winner in overtime as the Rangers beat the Penguins 3-2 (OT). You could call it a big night not just for Kakko, but the Rangers’ youth in general, as Adam Fox set up Kakko’s OT game-winner, and also scored the Rangers’ second goal off of a great feed by Artemi Panarin.

Here’s that OT-winner for your viewing pleasure:

The Rangers dominated the first period, ending in 2-0, and credit to Matt Murray for keeping it from being any worse. Natural Stat Trick’s period-by-period graph provides another way of showing how dramatic the bad start was for Pittsburgh:

Penguins roll with the punches, and break a slump

The point’s been made that the Penguins have had a knack for rallying lately, and they did again on Tuesday — just not for the win.

Pittsburgh scored two goals in the second period to tie things up. Maybe the biggest sigh of relief came on the second tally, and not just because it made the game 2-2 at the time. After going 0-for-28 in their last power-play opportunities and failing to score on the man advantage for almost a month, Jared McCann finally ended that drought.

That second-period effort was enough for the Penguins to secure a standings point despite falling behind 2-0 early on, but Fox and Kakko combined for the game-winner.

Kakko is now at six goals and eight points over his first 16 NHL games, while this also marks his first point streak (he scored a goal against the Panthers on Sunday). With that goal and assist, Fox generated his first multi-point game, but the defenseman has already been a quick study (insert Harvard joke), as this pushes his own point streak to five games (two goals, four assists for six points during that span). Fox also has eight points in 16 games this season.

Recent play of both teams

The Penguins will get a dose of the top two picks of the 2019 NHL Draft this week, as their next game is against Hughes and the Devils on Friday. After that, the Penguins play five of their next six games at home from Nov. 16-27, so maybe they’ll get some confidence in breaking that PP drought and at least getting a point with Sidney Crosby on the shelf for an unclear duration of time. Pittsburgh’s record sank to 10-6-2 for 22 points.

The Rangers, meanwhile, continue to quietly build up steam. They’ve gone 4-0-1 in their last five games, five of their last seven (5-1-1) to improve to 8-6-2 overall.

If young players like Kakko and Fox keep improving, the Rangers might just manage more hot stretches down the road in 2019-20.

If there are still growing pains as much as gains … well, at least Kakko & Co. have the ability to make plays like these:

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.

Lights went out during brief – but funny – moment in Bruins game

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The Florida Panthers were on the power play – and dangerous sniper Mike Hoffman had a chance to shoot from the slot – when the lights went out, briefly, at TD Garden on Tuesday night.

Now, this wasn’t like the blackout at Boston Garden during the 1988 Stanley Cup Final, when a Game 4 against the mighty Edmonton Oilers had to be replayed in its entirety in Edmonton because of such an outage. In that case, it went wrong for the Bruins, as they had managed a 3-3 tie during the second period of that nullified contest against that dynastic team.

In Tuesday’s case, you could imagine someone, somewhere – probably in Florida – claiming it was all a big conspiracy. For just a moment or two, the lights went out when the Bruins were killing a penalty. This screen grab of Sportsnet’s video (which you can watch fully above this post’s headline) gives you an idea of Hoffman’s location … if you squint a little. Actually, allow some help, as I fight the urge to go full John Madden in telestrator mode:

Apologies to conspiracy theorists, but these things happen. The brightest side is that it wasn’t a situation where a check was about to be delivered, as that could have made for a dangerous moment.

***

That wasn’t the only wild part of Tuesday’s game. The Bruins had a 4-0 lead in the third period against the Panthers, yet Florida ended up winning 5-4 via a shootout. Wow.

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.

Rangers’ Lemieux sets up Kakko for beauty vs. Penguins

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The New York Rangers ended the first period up 2-0 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday (watch live on NBCSN; stream here) thanks, in part, to some tremendous passing.

Most impressively, Brendan Lemieux sent a tremendous long bomb of a pass, beating multiple Penguins defenders, to Kaapo Kakko, who scored what might have been his best goal in the NHL so far by finishing the play with great moves.

This marks the first multi-game point streak for Kakko, 18, who also scored a goal against the Florida Panthers on Sunday. The second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft now has five goals and seven points so far in his rookie season, and still has two periods to add more during his 16th game.

The Penguins failed on two power plays in the first period, pushing them to 0-for-28. They haven’t scored a PPG since mid-October.

[More on the Penguins’ struggling power play]

To make matters worse for the Penguins, Artemi Panarin sent a tremendous pass to defenseman Adam Fox for the 2-0 goal with less than 10 seconds left.

Pittsburgh’s been a slow-starting team quite often in 2019-20, and in some cases have been able to rally for comeback wins. We’ll see if they can pull off another one on Tuesday, as it’s been a very weak start, and it’s possible it could have been more than a 2-0 lead for the Rangers after 20 minutes.

***

The Penguins ended up rallying back to tie the game 2-2, and sent it to overtime. Kakko scored again in OT, however, giving the Rangers the win. More here.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins meet Rangers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins are coming off a 3-2 (SO) win on Saturday – a game they trailed 2-0 midway through the second period. It was their third straight game rallying from a multi-goal deficit. Despite earning the win against Chicago, Sidney Crosby left in the third period with a lower-body injury. He has been ruled out for this game, and his status beyond that is unknown.

Pittsburgh enters this game on a massive power play drought. They have not scored a power play goal in their previous 11 games, going 0-for-25 in that span. The total drought actually extends to the game prior to that, when they failed on their final attempt, so the Pens are 0-for-their-last-26 overall.

Rangers No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad has missed the last six games with an upper-body injury, suffered on Oct. 27 on a hit from Patrice Bergeron. Zibanejad will reportedly not travel with the team to Florida, meaning he is out for at least the next three games. He was leading the team with 11 points in nine games prior to his departure from the lineup.

After alternating starts at the beginning of the season, the Rangers have spent the past few weeks giving chunks of consecutive starts to each of their netminders. Alex Georgiev will get the start in this game – his seventh of the season – after Henrik Lundqvist started the previous three.

[COVERAGE OF PENGUINS-RANGERS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Penguins-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Alex GalchenyukJared McCannJake Guentzel
Dominik SimonEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Dominik KahunNick BjugstadSam Lafferty
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Brian DumoulinJohn Marino
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Jack JohnsonJuuso Riikola

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

RANGERS
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Chris Kreider – Filip Chytil – Pavel Buchnevich
Brendan LemieuxBrett HowdenKaapo Kakko
Greg McKeggLias AnderssonBrendan Smith

Libor HajekJacob Trouba
Brady SkjeiTony DeAngelo
Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

MORE: Crosby out vs. Rangers, injury still being evaluated

Brendan Burke and Joe Micheletti will call the Penguins-Rangers showdown from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Paul Burmeister will anchor studio coverage with analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.