Lightning vs. Blue Jackets: 5 things to know about their First Round series

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The First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins August 11. Before the NHL postseason resumes play, PHT will preview each of the eight opening round matchups, including Lightning-Blue Jackets

1. Lightning get their chance at redemption

Depending on your outlook this is either the perfect matchup for the Lightning or some kind of cruel joke that will only further their postseason frustration.

A year ago the Lightning were the best team in the NHL, steamrolling the league on their way to a record-tying 62-win regular season that made them the clear Stanley Cup favorites entering the playoffs.

They responded by losing four consecutive games to the No. 8 seed Blue Jackets in what was one of the most stunning postseason upsets in recent memory. Even though this particular Tampa Bay core has yet to win a championship, they have not been total failures in the playoffs. They have consistently been one of the final four teams standing in the playoffs and have always been right on the verge of winning a championship only to let it slip right through their fingers. But last year’s postseason showing was an emphatic failure that is still kind of hard to believe.

Now they have a chance at redemption with a rematch against Columbus.

Make no mistake, the pressure is all on Tampa Bay in this series. This is still a team that is expected to win a championship and is the superior roster on paper. But as the Blue Jackets have shown over the past two years none of that really matters when it comes to their early postseason matchups.

2. The health of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman could be huge factor for Lightning

There are so many factors that go into winning a championship. Talent. Luck. Getting the right matchups. And, of course, health. That could be the biggest concern for the Lightning at the start of this series as the status of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman remains uncertain. Stamkos has not played in a game since Feb. 25, while Hedman was injured in the Round-Robin phase of the return to play.

Stamkos is an elite player and obviously makes the Lightning offense significantly more dangerous when he is in the lineup, but they have enough scoring depth up front that they could probably get through this series without him.

Hedman is an entirely different story, though.

Without Stamkos they have other top-line players that can carry the offense. They do not have another Hedman on their blue line. For as good as Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy may be, Hedman is the engine that drives this machine. He plays huge minutes, he is a force at both ends of the ice, and is one of the league’s best all-around players. There is a noticeable difference in Tampa Bay’s play when he is not there.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

3. Don’t sleep on the Blue Jackets

Even after their offseason free agency exodus that saw Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel leave town, there was still a lot of reason for optimism with this team. It is still a team capable of doing some damage. There is talent here, and in a lot of the right areas.

Let’s start with the strength of the roster and look at their blue line where they boast one of the league’s top defense pairings in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Individually each one is a bonafide top-pairing defender, but when you put them together it creates one of the most dynamic and productive duos in the NHL. Including the best-of-five series against Toronto, the Blue Jackets outscored teams by a 40-22 margin this season (it was 5-1 against Toronto) when they were on the ice together during 5-on-5 play. They can dominate a game.

At forward, Cam Atkinson has been one of the league’s most overlooked goal-scorers for several years. Since the start of the 2015-16 season his 139 regular season goals places him 25th in the entire league, sandwiched directly between Filip Forsberg and Patrik Laine. He had a quiet regular season, but had a big qualifying round performance against Toronto.

Then there is Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus’ hero from Game 3 against Toronto and one of their most promising youngplayers. He just turned 22 years old a little more than a month ago and is already blossoming into a top-line, two-way center. He is already a tank of a forward and is just now entering his prime years in the league.

4. Another big moment for Joonas Korpisalo

There was no bigger question mark in Columbus at the start of the season than goaltending. They had just lost what was one of the league’s best goalies (a two-time Vezina Trophy winner) and were replacing him with two unproven starters in Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

It would be an understatement to say they both exceeded expectations this season.

While the Blue Jackets are a stingy team defensively and boast an elite top-pairing, goaltending still played a crucial role in the team’s ability to stay in the playoff hunt and get through Toronto in the qualifying round. Even though Korpisalo was briefly sat down against the Maple Leafs he still finished the series with a .956 save percentage and two shutouts, including the deciding Game 5 series clincher. They may need him to be even better against Tampa Bay.

What makes his play even more important is they may not have Merzlikins to turn to if needed. He was injured in the Toronto series and it is not yet known how long he will be sidelined.

5. Prediction: Lightning in 6 games

The Blue Jackets are a good team, and were a great story this season to overcome all of the free agent departures and the injuries that could have sunk them even lower. But Tampa Bay is not going to let this happen again. They will find a way, get their redemption, and maybe start their run toward the championship that keeps eluding them.

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 13: Columbus at Tampa Bay, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Tampa Bay at Columbus – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

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    Spencer Carbery hired as Capitals coach after 2 seasons as Maple Leafs assistant

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    Spencer Carbery got his start in coaching in the minors with the Washington Capitals watching closely.

    They liked what they saw, and they brought him back to fill the job they envisioned he would get.

    The Capitals hired Carbery as their next coach, ending their search for Peter Laviolette‘s successor by landing on a favorite of the organization who in recent years had become one of the NHL’s most intriguing candidates. He now is tasked with getting Washington back in the playoffs with an aging roster and extending the organization’s run of success a few more years while Alex Ovechkin chases Wayne Gretzky’s goals record.

    “Spencer is one of the best young coaches in the game who’s had success at every level at which he has coached,” general manager Brian MacLellan said in a statement. “We feel his leadership, communication skills, ability to develop players and familiarity with our organization will be a tremendous asset as he makes this next step in his coaching career.”

    Carbery spent the past two seasons as an assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs, running the power play that ranked second in the league over that time. Before the Leafs hired him, he was considered the heir apparent to Laviolette because of his time with the Capitals’ top minor league affiliate, the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears.

    When Hershey VP of hockey operations Bryan Helmer was interviewing candidates for his head-coaching gig in 2018, he asked Carbery how long until he saw himself in that kind of role in the NHL. Carbery gave himself five years and nailed that projection.

    “He did an incredible job for us when he was here, and I knew that he would be an NHL coach at one point down the road,” Helmer told The Associated Press by phone. “He wanted to make sure that he was ready to make that step. He went through the steps, and I think he’s ready for the NHL.”

    Carbery coached Hershey for three years before getting the NHL promotion to Sheldon Keefe’s staff in Toronto. At the time, there wasn’t an opening for an assistant in Washington.

    There is now, and Carbery at 41 usurps Keefe as the youngest coach in the league after going from a Capitals’ homegrown prospect who began with their ECHL team in South Carolina to one of the hottest names on the market. He interviewed with the San Jose Sharks for their vacancy last year and multiple others this spring.

    The Capitals got him back before a rival team could scoop him up. They chose Carbery from a pool of candidates that also included former captain-turned-Tampa Bay assistant Jeff Halpern, Philadelphia associate coach Brad Shaw and others with more experience.

    “I would like to thank the Capitals organization for affording me the opportunity to lead this team,” Carbery said. “I look forward to working with this group of talented players and building upon the winning culture in place. I would also like to thank the Toronto Maple Leafs organization for all their support over the past two years.”

    Carbery’s job won’t be an easy one. Five years removed from Washington winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history, the team is coming off missing the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade and could be on the verge of changes beyond coaching.

    MacLellan must decide how much to shuffle the roster, but in no way is he beginning the process of rebuilding. With Ovechkin, the 2018 playoff MVP and longtime face of the franchise, about to turn 38 and sitting 73 goals away from breaking Gretzky’s career record, the organization from owner Ted Leonsis down has set a goal of continuing to contend while the Russian star is under contract for three more seasons.

    Helmer, who played with Ovechkin briefly in 2008-09, said Carbery’s relationships with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and other Leafs stars will only help him moving forward.

    “It’s going to be a great mix,” Helmer said. “Spencer really stays on top of it. He expects a lot out of his players and he holds them accountable, which is a great thing. I see big things coming from Spencer and what he can do with the Caps.”

    Golden Knights reach second Stanley Cup Final after Game 6 win over Stars

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    DALLAS — William Karlsson scored two goals and had an assist as the Vegas Golden Knights advanced to their second Stanley Cup Final with a 6-0 rout over the Dallas Stars, who had extended the Western Conference Final to six games after losing the first three.

    William Carrier, Keegan Kolesar and Michael Amadio each had a goal and an assist for the Knights, and Jonathan Marchessault had a goal. Carrier, Marschessault and Karlsson were all part of the inaugural 2017-18 Knights season that ended in their Cup Final.

    Adin Hill stopped 23 shots for his second career playoff shutout – both against the Stars. The other was 4-0 in Game 3 last Tuesday, when the Knights were already within one win of clinching the series before Dallas overcame 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in both Games 4 and 5.

    Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Florida will be Saturday night in Las Vegas.

    Vegas led the Western Conference in the regular season with 51 wins and 111 points. The Panthers completed a four-game sweep of Carolina in the East final last Wednesday, but their 40 wins and 92 points in the regular season were the fewest among the 16 teams that began these NHL playoffs.

    Instead of having to face a do-or-die Game 7 at home against the Stars, coach Bruce Cassidy and the Knights got off to another fast start and never left any doubt about the outcome of this series that included three overtime games.

    It was the most lopsided playoff loss for the Stars since the franchise moved south from Minnesota before the 1993-94 season.

    “You just expect more from yourself in a game like this,” said Stars forward Joe Pavelski, the 38-year-old veteran still without a Stanley Cup after 17 seasons.

    The Stars got captain Jamie Benn back after his two-game suspension for a cross-check to the neck area of Vegas captain Mark Stone early in Game 3. But Benn already had a minus-2 rating without a shot after playing only 3:46 in the first period, and finished minus-2 with only one shot his 12 1/2 minutes on the ice.

    Vegas led for good when Carrier scored 3:41 into the game after a puck poked from behind the net in the vicinity of three Dallas players. Carrier skated across the front of the crease and put a backhander in the net, the ninth time this postseason the Knights scored in the first five minutes of a game.

    Karlsson’s power-play goal came midway through the first period made it 2-0, and after a penalty that likely had prevented him from scoring.

    Nicolas Roy took a shot that deflected off Jake Oettinger’s glove and popped up in the air behind the goalie. Karlsson was charging into the crease when Stars defenseman Esa Lindell raised his stick and swatted the puck out of play, drawing a delay of game penalty.

    With the man advantage, Reilly Smith took a shot from the circle to the left, which was deflected in front by Roy and then off Oettinger’s extended skate before Karlsson knocked in the rebound.

    After Kolesar made it 3-0 in the first, and Marchessault scored his ninth goal in the second, Karlsson’s franchise record 10th goal for a playoff series extended the lead to 5-0 only two minutes into the third period.

    Oettinger had been 3-0 when the Stars were facing elimination this postseason, including Game 7 in the second round against Seattle before stopping 64 of 68 shots the past two games against the Knights.

    That was after Vegas had scored three goals on five shots in the first 7:10 to chase him from Game 3, which was the only lopsided game in the series until the finale. Two of their three regular season game went to shootouts.

    Dallas was only the fifth team to force a Game 6 in an conference final or NHL semifinal after being down 0-3, and the first since the Stars lost to Detroit in a sixth game in 2008. Only two teams got to a Game 7, which both lost – the New York Islanders to Philadelphia in 1975; and the New York Rangers to Boston in 1939.

    Vegas avoided a Game 7 at home against the Stars and coach Peter DeBoer, who is 7-0 in such do-or-die games, including the Seattle series finale two weeks ago. DeBoer was the Vegas coach for its only Game 7 wins – in the second round in 2020 against Vancouver and 2021 in the first round against Minnesota. But he was fired by the Golden Knights after they missed the playoffs last season for the only time in their short existence.

    Dellandrea scores twice in 3rd, Stars stay alive with 4-2 victory over Golden Knights

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    LAS VEGAS — With Dallas’ season on the line, the Stars got two critical goals from a player who was a healthy scratch the first two games of the Western Conference Final.

    Ty Dellandrea‘s goals came within a 1:27 span midway through the third period, and the Stars beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 to keep alive their hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final to face the Florida Panthers.

    “He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever played with,” said Stars goalie Jake Oettinger, who made 27 saves. “He deserves every opportunity he gets, and there’s no one happier for him than the guys in this room. It shows how special you are when you get taken out. He didn’t make it about him. He needed the opportunity to step up, and that’s what he did.”

    The Stars escaped elimination for the second game in a row and head to Dallas for Game 6 down 3-2. Dallas is attempting to become the fifth team in NHL history to win a series after being down 3-0.

    And look who’s back for the Stars? Captain Jamie Benn returns after a two-game suspension for his cross-check to the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in Game 3. That was the only game in this series that was decided early, and the Stars hadn’t even had a multigoal lead.

    “I know our group, and we weren’t happy about being in the hole we were in, and they decided to do something about it,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “And now we’re rolling.”

    The only problem for DeBoer was waiting two days to play Game 6.

    “Drop the puck,” he said.

    DeBoer said before the game if his team won, the pressure would shift to the Knights. Now it’s up to them to respond after twice being a period away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final and letting both opportunities slip away.

    “I don’t think we brought our best the last two games,” Stone said. “We were still in a good spot to win the game. We’ve got to bring a little bit better effort and start playing a little more desperate.”

    Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said “it’s a very good question” why his team didn’t play with more desperation, but he also wasn’t thrilled with the Knights’ execution.

    “We had 24 giveaways,” Cassidy said. “I’m not sure you’re beating the Arizona Coyotes in January with 24 giveaways. That’s no disrespect to Arizona, but it’s not the right way to play.”

    Dellandrea found the right way to play and put together the first multigoal playoff game of his career. Jason Robertson and Luke Glendening also scored, and Thomas Harley had two assists.

    Chandler Stephenson and Ivan Barbashev scored for the Knights, and Jonathan Marchessault had two assists to extend his points streak to four games. Adin Hill made 30 saves.

    Dellandrea scored from the right circle to put Dallas ahead, the puck deflecting off Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo with 9:25 left for a 3-2 lead. Then, Dellandrea scored from the slot with 7:58 remaining.

    Dellandrea said the older players kept him motivated when he was temporarily sidelined.

    “There’s no denying it’s hard,” he said. “I’m thankful for a good group of character guys, and you’ve just got to stay ready.”

    The teams traded goals in the first two periods.

    Jack Eichel battled two Stars players for the puck in Vegas’ offensive zone, and then Barbashev swooped in and made a fantastic move to glide past Oettinger and score with 6:24 left in the first period. The Stars wasted little time in answering when Glendening scored on a deflection less than two minutes later.

    Dallas was robbed of what looked like a sure goal when Hill snagged a point-blank shot from Roope Hintz, who then threw his back in disbelief.

    Like in the first period, the Knights had a goal in the second quickly answered by one from the Stars. Stephenson scored from the left circle at 16:40 of the period, and Robertson knocked his own rebounds 2:09 later to make it 2-2. Stephenson tied the Knights’ record with his eight playoff goal this year, and Robertson had his fifth of the series.

    Sabres sign Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnston to 2-year rookie contract

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres ended a lengthy wait by signing Ryan Johnston to a two-year, entry level contract more than a month after the defenseman completed his senior college season at Minnesota.

    Johnston will report immediately to the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, whose best-of-seven Eastern Conference final playoff series against Hershey is tied at 1.

    From Southern California, Johnston is listed at 6-feet and 170 pounds and was selected 31st in 2019 draft.

    His puck-moving skills fit Buffalo’s style of play, Johnston finished his college career with nine goals and 59 points in 143 career games, including four goals and 18 points in 40 games this year. He reached the NCAA’s Frozen Four in each of his final two seasons, with the Gophers losing in the semifinals last year, followed by a 3-2 overtime loss to Quinnipiac in the championship game last month.

    He also had a goal and three assists in seven games representing the U.S. team that won gold at the 2021 world junior championships.

    Johnston, who turns 22 in July, had the option to wait until August when he would’ve become an unrestricted free agent and eligible to sign with any team. Because Johnston was first-round pick, the Sabres would’ve been compensated with a 2024 second-round selection had he signed elsewhere.

    Both sides are banking on the player’s age and college experience to enable Johnston to make the jump to the NHL within the next two seasons. The Sabres will still control Johnston’s rights as a restricted free agent once his entry-level contract expires.