Golden Knights vs. Canadiens: 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinal preview

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Yes, the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs (and other NHL postseasons) are often about favorites vs. underdogs. Take one peek at the Vegas odds and you’ll realize just how strongly the Golden Knights are favored over the Montreal Canadiens in their Semifinal series.

Yet, when you break down how teams play — rather than how most people feel about their Stanley Cup chances — you can see clashes of styles.

Sometimes, you get too different-but-effective teams. You could argue that both the Golden Knights and Canadiens faced Second Round opponents who flipped the switch; where Vegas and Montreal own the quantity, Winnipeg, in particular, hoped to eke out just enough quality.

(Truthfully, when they’re buzzing, the Avs kind of nabbed both — just not against Vegas.)

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Beyond the don’t-bet-your-mortgage odds favoring the Golden Knights against the once-again-underdog Canadiens, this series is intriguing because of styles.

Broadly speaking, the Golden Knights and Canadiens play similarly. Both teams bombard opponents, hoping to create enough offense by force of will. These are two of the strongest even-strength teams you’ll find.

If you pay attention to “fancy stats,” you’ve likely noticed that Montreal’s been potent in that way for some time. So what’s changed? Well, you probably saw this coming: “Playoff Carey Price” entered the building.

Among all of the swirling considerations, the most important X-factor in the Canadiens – Golden Knights series remains if we’ll see “Playoff Carey Price” or the more troubling recent regular season version.

CANADIENS VS. GOLDEN KNIGHTSseries livestream link

Game 1: Mon., June 14: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 9 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 2: Wed. June 16: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 9 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 3: Fri. June 18: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (USA Network / Peacock)
Game 4: Sun. June 20: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
*Game 5: Tues. June 22: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 9 p.m ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
*Game 6: Thurs. June 24: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (USA Network / Peacock)
*Game 7: Sat. June 26: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 8 p.m ET (NBCSN / Peacock)

*if necessary

Offense

During the regular season, the Golden Knights scored 190 goals, the third-most in the NHL. Meanwhile, the Canadiens were slightly lower than middle-of-the-pack, generating 158 (17th overall, between the Blackhawks and Stars).

Even during these 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the name of Montreal’s game hasn’t exactly been offense. Memorably, the Canadiens upset the Maple Leafs in seven games even after Toronto actually scored more goals (18-14).

With essentially “two first lines,” and often the luxury of Alex Tuch on the third, the Golden Knights can throw out a truly intimidating offense. Not many teams would even try to trade haymakers with the Avalanche; the Golden Knights stood in there and actually knocked Colorado out.

Unlike many other powerful offenses, the Golden Knights can beat you with brute force. A ferocious forecheck helps Vegas wear down opponents, forcing turnovers and rush opportunities.

While the Canadiens’ offense hasn’t always been spectacular, you can’t totally dismiss them. As deep as Vegas is, Montreal’s a bit deeper. Josh Anderson‘s endured a quiet 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs (one goal, zero assists in 11 games), but is an example of Habs who could make a difference.

Watch out for the combination of Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. As Montreal’s trusted them more and more, they’ve added a dynamic dimension to the Habs’ offense. They might need some magic from those two against the vigorous Vegas attack.

(Oh, and no doubt, Max Pacioretty vs. his former team is a fun storyline.)

Advantage: Golden Knights

Defense

This one’s tricky.

If you conducted a “fantasy draft” of the defensemen in this series, you might pick Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore before you happen upon a Habs defenseman. With other options like Alec Martinez, the Golden Knights offer some depth, too.

You can’t credit offense and Marc-Andre Fleury alone for the Golden Knights beating the Avalanche. Their defense — and Peter DeBoer’s structure — made a big difference, too.

But if you go through the ways this series can play out in Montreal’s favor (think Dr. Strange calculating how Thanos could be defeated), it’s easiest to picture the Canadiens winning thanks to a bend-not-break structure.

We’ve certainly seen it in the past: an opponent allows the Golden Knights a ton of shots, but does a decent job limiting quality. If it comes down to that, Montreal won’t flinch at such a style.

But there’s an elephant in the room: Jeff Petry‘s health.

Yes, everyone’s banged up by the Semifinals of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But, as of this writing, it’s unclear if Petry can play in Game 1 on Monday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN), and maybe beyond that.

Even today, Shea Weber deserves hype, and could be Montreal’s best defenseman. Petry has some say in that argument, however, and he’s crucial to that team finding some balance. Joel Edmundson‘s been impressive for the Canadiens, but without Petry, might the cracks show in his foundation?

Advantage: Golden Knights

Fleury
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Goaltending

If we were looking at the regular season alone, Fleury would give the Golden Knights a huge advantage over Price and the Canadiens. (Honestly, considering how much Price wavered as the starter, it would’ve been tempting to phrase it as Jake Allen and the Canadiens.)

But people — especially Carey Price’s most eager boosters — might roll their eyes at talk of Price’s regular-season struggles at this point.

Whether you should throw out those numbers or not, there’s no denying that Price has been brilliant during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Frankly, the Canadiens needed that out of Price vs. the Maple Leafs. Maybe Price could have cooled off a bit vs. the Jets, but he was mostly keyed-in there, too.

Yet, while Price’s save percentage (.935) these playoffs is even better than Fleury’s (.923), you can’t dismiss degree of difficulty. If any team can make a goalie look bad, it’s Colorado. MAF passed those tests with flying colors, though.

In case injuries or struggles happen, both the Golden Knights and Canadiens boast strong backups. Again, Allen encroached on Price’s starting job, although neither were lights-out during the regular season.

If things went as Vegas drew things up, it would be Robin Lehner shutting the door this season and postseason. That could make for some awkward offseason decisions, but for now, Fleury – Lehner gives the Golden Knights the equivalent of two above-average (often elite) starters.

Advantage: Golden Knights

Special teams

As far as the four teams remaining in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs go, only one can really live off of its power play: the Lightning.

Neither the Canadiens nor the Golden Knights have been overwhelmingly powerful in that area. But Montreal has the edge in power-play efficiency in both the regular season (19.2-percent to 17.8) and 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs (18.8 to 14.3).

The key question might be about the PK. The Golden Knights were the best penalty-killing team in the regular season (86.8-percent vs. Montreal’s 78.5), while Montreal has been incredible during this run. The numbers get drastic because of the small sample size of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Montreal’s PK (90.3-percent) is eye-popping, while Vegas mainly survived (71.4).

Talent-wise, it’s not outrageous to imagine Vegas “turning it on” and producing on the power play for a series. It just hasn’t happened often enough to chalk it up as an advantage.

Advantage: Canadiens

Golden Knights – Canadiens prediction: Vegas in 7

In our staff predictions, the Golden Knights and Lightning were both unanimous choices. The biggest area of variation was how many games the Canadiens might push the Golden Knights to.

Simply put, the Golden Knights are huge favorites against the Canadiens. To the point where you … probably shouldn’t bet on it.

But, particularly during these playoffs, would it be that shocking to see Montreal win?

Overall, this Golden Knights team looks like it could very well make its second Stanley Cup Final trip, unless the Canadiens have more upset magic in them.

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.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

Mitch Marner
USA Today
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TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.