Lee’s lead-by-example captaincy garners results for Islanders

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The New York Islanders could have played it safe a year ago when John Tavares bolted for Toronto.

But head coach Barry Trotz recognized an obvious candidate to fill a leadership role and didn’t hesitate to follow his instincts.

Anders Lee was in position to leave the organization as he headed toward unrestricted free agency and could have been the second captain in as many seasons to walk out the door.

But that didn’t stop Trotz from announcing Lee as the 15th captain in franchise history and the team is benefiting today from that important decision last season.

Lee changed the direction of the game with a critical goal in the early part of the first period in the Islanders’ 5-3 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers Sunday. The team’s seven-game winning streak is the longest (in a single season) since they won nine straight in the 1989-90 season per team statistician Eric Hornick.

The 29-year-old power forward won a race to the corner to help the Islanders establish possession in the offensive zone, then beat Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim to the back post to even the score at 3:17 of the first period.

”He’s our leader,” fourth-line center Casey Cizikas said. ”When you see him and he plays like that, getting to pucks, taking the body, fight in those dirty areas, you want to follow him. That’s what you want in your captain and he has done a tremendous job at leading us.”

The Islanders followed in Lee’s footsteps, scoring four of the next five goals as the team climbed to second place in the Metropolitan Division on the back of a seven-game winning streak following a 1-3-0 start to the season.

“You always look to your leadership and they’re going to set the tone,” Trotz said. “His (Lee) goal was a great example of leadership. Leadership is, you don’t have a license to do less, you have a responsibility to do more. He knew it was a big game, and he did more.”

The culture surrounding the Islanders has changed radically since Lou Lamoriello and Trotz arrived on Long Island. The Islanders have posted a 55-30-7 record and won a round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for only the second time since the 1992-93 season.

[RELATED: In-depth look at Isles’ winning streak | Isles on the rise in Power Rankings]

The Islanders have established an identity over that time as a defensively sound team that frustrates opponents. But their mental toughness has been the team’s attribute that has seen the most significant improvement.

Take Sunday for example. Flyers forward Jakub Voracek scored 1:07 into the game and the Islanders didn’t blink.

”It didn’t affect us.” Trotz said of the early deficit. ”I thought our minds were in the right place. I don’t think it even fazed us.”

One of Lee’s most impressive traits is that he does a tremendous job creating a familial atmosphere that translates to success on and off the ice.

“We play for each other, it’s been a lot of fun,” said Derick Brassard.

Trotz and Lamoriello have played a large part in helping the Islanders form a new identity, but that message gets lost in the shuffle if a group of players is not able to relay the same information to their peers. Veterans Johnny Boychuk, Josh Bailey, Cal Clutterbuck have been able to assist, but they are clearly following in the footsteps of Lee.

The organization took a gamble naming Lee captain at the start of last season, a risk that is paying huge dividends today.

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.

Golden Knights rally again to beat Blues, will play for top seed

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For the second time in as many games the Vegas Golden Knights rallied from a two-goal deficit to win a Round-Robin game, keeping their chances for the top seed in the Western Conference alive.

On Thursday they stormed back for a 6-4 win against the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

The win gives the Golden Knights an opportunity to clinch the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference this weekend if they can defeat the Colorado Avalanche in a potential Western Conference Final preview.

Vegas had previously overcome a 3-1 deficit against Dallas in its first Round-Robin game.

The Blues fall to 0-2-0 in Round-Robin play after losing on a Nazem Kadri buzzer-beater in its first game.

Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch both scored a pair of goals for Vegas on Thursday, while Mark Stone‘s third period goal officially goes in the books as the game-winner.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

A few takeaways from Vegas’ win…

1. Do not let the relatively close final score fool you here. This was not a particularly close game as Vegas completely dictated the pace of play and controlled everything that happened on the ice. Simply put, this was domination. The Golden Knights finished the game with a 38-17 advantage on the shot chart and did not allow the Blues to record a shot on goal for the first 16 minutes of the third period. The only thing that kept it close was the fact starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury struggled in his first postseason action.

There is a strong argument to be made that this is the best, most complete team in the Western Conference and they have dominated the Round-Robin phase while they still wait for Max Pacioretty to get back into the lineup. They may not have a true superstar on their roster, but they have a rock-solid team from top to bottom that is full of outstanding two-way players with Stone, Pacioretty, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Peter Stastny and an underrated defense leading the way. The only thing that could potentially slow them down in the postseason is goaltending. That leads us to this…

2. Fleury was not good on Thursday. While Vegas controlled the pace of play, Fleury looked sluggish and was out of position on a handful of Blues goals to keep this game close. That brings us to a very big question: Is there any thought of using Robin Lehner in the first round of the playoffs? Fleury did not have a particularly strong season, he looked awful on Thursday, and the Golden Knights have one of the league’s top goalies sitting behind him after acquiring Lehner at the trade deadline from the Chicago Blackhawks.

There is a reason they made such a bold trade. Yes, it is a great insurance policy in case of an injury to Fleury. But it is also a great insurance policy in case Fleury does not play well. It is not a stretch to suggest that Lehner is the better player right now.

3. With their loss on Thursday this means the best the Blues can hope for is the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, which they can get if they defeat the Dallas Stars this weekend. That means the two Stanley Cup Finalists from a year ago, both of which were the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences at the time of the regular season pause, will finish no higher than third when the playoffs begin. At the end of the day you still have to beat the top teams to win the Stanley Cup, but they are going to have a significantly tougher Round 1 matchup than they were probably anticipating.

 

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.

Flames-Jets stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Thursday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Flames and Jets. Coverage of Game 4 begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on CNBC. Watch the Flames-Jets stream at 10:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Calgary scored three goals on the power play en route to a four-goal win. The Flames led 3-2 midway through the game before scoring the final three goals. Winnipeg played a second straight game without Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine – who were both injured in Game 1.

Calgary has not won a playoff series since 2015 when they defeated Vancouver in the opening round. Last postseason, the Flames were the top seed in the West but were upset in the opening round in five games by Colorado. Calgary could join Carolina as the first teams to win their series.

It’s been 33-year-old Cam Talbot outdueling Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck in this series. This is especially interesting because entering this matchup it wasn’t even clear whether Talbot would be Calgary’s starter. 27-year-old David Rittich started 48 of Calgary’s 70 games during the regular season.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Calgary Flames vs. Winnipeg Jets
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Thursday, August 6, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: CNBC
ON THE CALL: Brendan Burke, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flames-Jets stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets (CGY leads series 2-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Flames 4, Jets 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets 3, Flames 2 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames 6, Jets 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames vs. Jets, 10:30 p.m. ET – CNBC (livestream)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Jets vs. Flames*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

 

Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Thursday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs Game 3 stream at 8 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After being shutout in Game 1, Auston Matthews scored the Leafs’ first goal of the series with four minutes remaining in the second period of Game 2. This snapped Joonas Korpisalo’s 96-minute shutout streak to start the postseason. Captain John Tavares scored on a breakaway in the third period before Morgan Rielly’s empty-netter.

With less than two minutes to play in the third period, Jake Muzzin was taken off on a stretcher after colliding with Oliver Bjorkstrand. Muzzin was down on the ice for an extended period of time before being taken to a local hospital. He was discharged overnight and returned to the team hotel but has been ruled out for the remainder of this series.

Neither team has scored a power play goal in this series, with both teams going 0-for-6 on the man advantage through the first two games. Toronto went 0-for-5 on the PP in Game 2.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Thursday, August 6, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 1-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Flyers keep rolling, will play for No. 1 seed in East on Saturday

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The Philadelphia Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL when the 2019-20 season was paused, and they are not slowing down during the league’s restart.

They kept rolling on Thursday afternoon with a thoroughly convincing 3-1 win over the Washington Capitals in Round-Robin play to take another big step toward the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference.

After beating Boston on Sunday, the Flyers are now 2-0-0 in the Round-Robin phase and will have a massive game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.

The winner of that game will be the No. 1 seed in the East while the loser will be second.

The Capitals and Bruins will play for the No. 3 seed on Sunday.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

A few takeaways from the Flyers’ latest win…

1. The story for Philadelphia on Thursday was their depth, as it wasn’t their top stars driving the win.

Backup goalie Brian Elliott got the start in goal and stopped 16 out of 17 shots in the win, while Scott Laughton scored two more goals to give him three already in the return to play. That does not include the overtime winner he scored in the exhibition game against Pittsburgh. He also added an assist on Travis Sanheim‘s second period goal to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead.

Both goals were scored because of slick passing plays.

The first one was off a ridiculous no-look feed from Travis Konecny.

2. The Flyers raised quite a few eyebrows over the summer when they acquired the RFA rights to Kevin Hayes and then gave him a massive seven-year contract. Hayes is a good player, but it just seemed like a huge commitment for a player that probably wasn’t considered a core forward. Just one year into his contract and he is looking like a huge pickup in the short-term. After a strong regular season performance that saw him score 23 goals in 69 games, he already has four assists in the return to play and factored into all three goals on Thursday. It is still fair to wonder how that contract will look toward the end of it, but if he helps the Flyers bring a championship back to Philadelphia nobody is really going to be concerned about that.

3. And let’s be very clear about something: the Flyers bringing a championship to Philadelphia this season is not an outrageous thought. It could happen. This team looks like a legit contender right now and is still clicking on all cylinders. Before the NHL pause they had won 19 out of 26 games, and since returning to play have completely dominated the Boston Bruins and Capitals, outscoring them by a 7-2 margin in the two games.

There is little to suggest it is a fluke, either. During the regular season they had very strong underlying numbers at 5-on-5 (on the positive side when it came to shot attempts, scoring chances, expected goals), they finally have a solution in goal (Carter Hart), and they have very quietly assembled a strong group of depth players to complement the core of Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier. They were so dominant on Thursday that they limited the Capitals to just 17 shots on goals, including only two from Alex Ovechkin.

4. As for the Capitals, the absolute best they can hope for in seeding is the No. 3 seed in the East if they can beat the Bruins in regulation on Sunday. They had a little bit of a scare on Thursday when center Evgeny Kuznetsov took an awkward fall late in the first period. He was able to return to the game eventually. The Capitals are also still playing without top defenseman John Carlson who has yet to play in Round-Robin play.

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.