Roundtable: Surprises, NHL teams that need to make a move, bold predictions

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Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best NHL goals, saves, stories, players and more as we remember 2021.

Is the playoff picture already set in either conference? If not, which current non-playoff team do you feel will make the jump and why, and which current playoff team will fade?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Look, it’s dangerous to argue that anything is set in stone when teams are only (give or take) about 30 games into what the NHL hopes will return to an 82-game season.

However, the way I see it, the East’s top eight only see room for movement because of quirks in games played. Kudos to the Red Wings for heading into the NHL holiday pause technically in a wild-card spot with 33 points in 31 games played (.532 points percentage). I expect the Bruins (30 points in 26 GP; .577 points percentage) to overtake the Red Wings once the smoke clears.

Meanwhile, the West already established its haves and have-nots.

Don’t fret too much, though. For the sake of drama, there’s plenty of room for competition in division title/seeding/Presidents’ Trophy races, at least.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/EditorI think the Metropolitan and Central will stay the same but Boston will make it in the Atlantic as they should get Tuukka Rask back in the fold and are better than the Red Wings who currently are in fourth place. The play of the Ducks has surprised most who had them finishing last or second last in the Pacific as they are tied for first with Vegas but I think Edmonton and Calgary will pass them and either the Kings or Vancouver under new coach Bruce Boudreau will surpass them as well.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I’m not sold on Detroit as a playoff team yet. The Wings entered Christmas holding onto the second Wild Card spot, but their positioning is a bit misleading because they’ve played 5 more games than ninth-place Boston, who sits just three points behind Detroit. In the West, I do have some concern about Edmonton’s inconsistency. Since the red-hot start, the Oilers have come back to the pack and are right on the playoff bubble. I don’t feel overly confident in any one team from the outside surging to replace them, but I think it will be done. More on this below.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Not sure the playoff field is completely set, but it is pretty close. In the Eastern Conference I think there is a really good chance Boston overtakes Detroit for that second Wild Card spot, and I could see Winnipeg or Dallas putting something together in the Western Conference. Both teams have the goaltending to make that happen and I do think they have enough talent to make up that gap.

I like what Detroit has done so far this season, and I really like their future, but they are probably not ready for that big of a jump just yet.

In the West, I think the same is true for Anaheim. They finally seem to have some real long-term prospects, but can they sustain this? Edmonton’s bottom-six, defense, and goaltending is bad enough to make me have some pause with them as well.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I can think of only one team outside of a playoff spot currently in each conference that will find its way into the mix before the end of the regular season. In the East, the Bruins are better than they’ve showed. They have the NHL’s worst team shooting percentage, which you’d expect to rebound over time and they will soon bolster their goaltending when Tuukka Rask is ready to return.

Out West, the Jets lost their coach, but have the talent at positions you need to win. Their defense is improved, their goaltender is a Vezina Trophy candidate every year, and their offense can click when it’s on. They’ll miss Blake Wheeler, but their hole in the conference isn’t so deep that they can’t dig out.

The two teams I think will fall back are full of youth and rosters that will only improve are the Red Wings and Ducks. Both have received phenomenal goaltending and their kids are playing beyond their years. But is it sustainable over a second half of a season that could be disrupted by further postponements, COVID outbreaks, and higher outputs regressing?

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What’s been your biggest surprise/disappointment from the first two-plus months of the season?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Paul Maurice resigning was a big shock. His explanation for stepping away — that he has gotten as much out of the Jets as he could — was admirable, but you don’t really see NHL coaches step away like that, especially for reasons like he did. And it wasn’t like this was the final year of his contract, either. He’d improved the team since being hired and it will be interesting to see who GM Kevin Cheveldayoff brings on board to do what Maurice, in his own mind, couldn’t.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Really expected more from the Stars this season. They were so close a year ago while getting almost nothing from Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov. Really thought their return, combined with that defense and the goaltending that it would be enough to not only get them back in the playoffs, but maybe even be a sleeper Stanley Cup contender. Just has not worked out that way this season at all. At least not yet. Still think they have the goaltending to put it together in the second half.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/EditorThe biggest disappointment has been the play of two teams who went to the Stanley Cup semi-finals last season, the Islanders and the Canadiens. The Islanders have been a bigger disappointment as I pegged them for first place in the Metropolitan and they are struggling in last place as they are not getting the defensive play they had last season and are not scoring. Montreal has disappointed and none more so than Cole Caufield as the pre-season favorite for the Calder Trophy, has only one goal in 23 games to date.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: On the positive side, watching Alex Ovechkin continue his assault on the record books has been a treat. Ovi is squarely in the MVP discussion at age 36, which is remarkable considering the average age of the last 10 MVPs is 25.2. The biggest disappointment would be the recent (understandable) decision by the NHL to pull out of the Olympics. There will now be no less than a 12-year gap between an Olympic competition featuring NHLers, which means that a full generation of players will have missed that opportunity. Huge bummer.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Normally, I’d say the Olympics. After all, Gary Bettman made it abundantly clear that, at the league level, they didn’t want to go. But the overbearing omicron presence makes the lack of NHL Olympic involvement a larger relief.

From here, it sure looks like that lack of participation is more about a fear of extreme quarantine restrictions, rather than an abundance of caution. Because, in the NHL and other leagues, it sure feels like people are running with any opportunity to push through a pandemic and just get games played.

While I acknowledge that there is a lot we still don’t know about omicron and other variants, it makes me uneasy to hear so many comments about just rolling with it. It feels like we’ve seen this movie multiple times during this nightmarish pandemic: people try to skip some key steps in the process, only to set things back even further.

Maybe I’m wrong — I hope I’m wrong — and things end up easier to manage. Sports leagues haven’t earned much benefit of the doubt when it comes to handling this situation properly, though, and the NHL is not immune to such criticisms.

NHL Rink Wrap: Sabres lose, but Sharks stay undefeated
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Which contender or bubble playoff team needs to make a move in the new year?

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: It has to be Boston I think. Their entire offense is still all about that first line and they get so little after them. Losing David Krejci has been significant. Also have to wonder if a Tuukka Rask return is on the horizon. You could also look at Edmonton. Most teams never get two players like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl at any point in their franchise history, let alone two of them at the exact same time. You can not waste that gift and that bottom-six is just quite literally the worst in the NHL this season.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: A ton of teams seem worthy of a mention. For example: at some point the Avalanche need to make a deep playoff push, right? They can’t just be dreamy in highlight reels and on paper forever.

But the teams that really stand out are the ones who are especially time sensitive. The Penguins and Bruins rank among aging teams who might want to go for it before their top veterans truly age out. (Patrice Bergeron and Evgeni Malkin are both in contract years with uncertain futures. Just saying.)

Allow me to throw out an, um, wild card though. After this season, the Wild see the Parise/Suter buyout penalties go from about $4.74M to $12.74M next season, and then two seasons of $14.74M. Bill Guerin should dust off his Blockbuster card and go hog wild on rentals. Maybe buy some extremely old boxes of Sno Caps and long-expired microwave popcorn while he’s at it.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: If these Ducks are for real and a playoff-bound team, interim GM Jeff Solomon owes it to the roster to strengthen for a postseason push or, if they get in, a likely tough First Round matchup. It’s not just the kids leading the way as Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, and Kevin Shattenkirk have chipped in offensively. But could another impactful, top-six forward be the play?

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/EditorThe Edmonton Oilers need another goaltender as Mike Smith seems to be too old and injury-prone while the tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Stuart Skinner just won’t do it once the playoffs come around.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Rangers. I think they are still one impact forward away of being a threat to emerge from the Eastern Conference. They have the cap space and the assets to facilitate a deal.

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Give us one bold prediction for 2022

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: A World Cup of Hockey is planned for sometime in the next two seasons and will replace the All-Star Game for that year. The Olympics isn’t happening for at least another four years. The players want international play and a World Cup allows both the owners and players to make money off of it.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: The Oilers finish with the top two scorers in the NHL for the third year in a row, but this time they will miss the playoffs.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Nashville is going to make some kind of a big move at or near the trade deadline. They have exceeded expectations this season, they have the goalie, and they have a ton of salary cap space to work with. They also have a general manager that loves to make blockbuster trades and moves to build his team. Who is that player? No idea. But the Predators swing for the fences.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/EditorThe COVID scare will run its course in two-three weeks in the NHL and the only postponements the rest of the way will come in the way of a snowstorm. As well, Bruce Boudreau will lead Vancouver into the playoffs.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Maybe the NHL doesn’t reach 82 games played per team, but they’ll push very close to a full season. For better, and I fear often, for worse.

This league keeps stubbornly pushing through the pandemic, sometimes with surreal moments like packed nights turning into single-game evenings. Over and over, Bettman and others emphasized the importance of 82-game seasons, of getting “back to normal.”

After all these years, the NHL’s revenue still hinges a lot on the box office, and that means forcing through as many games as possible. I’m among those who value a full-fledged postseason as much as anything else, but if the NHL ends up with something along the lines of a 56-game season again, expect some glum people, especially those in expensive suits.

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.

Joe Pavelski scores on OT power play, Stars beat Golden Knights 3-2 to avoid West sweep

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DALLAS — Joe Pavelski admits that he probably appreciates the big playoff goals more the later he gets in his career. But they all still feel just as good, and his latest kept the season alive for the Dallas Stars.

“Just really living in the moment,” Pavelski said. “A tremendous feeling for sure, and glad we could play another game, and go from there and try to extend it.”

The 38-year-old Pavelski scored on a power play at 3:18 of overtime – a one-timer from the middle of the left circle to the far post – and the Stars avoided a sweep in the Western Conference Final with a 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

Jason Robertson scored twice for his first career multigoal playoff game for Dallas, which played without suspended captain Jamie Benn.

“We’re looking for goals and that’s kind of my responsibility I put on myself,” Robertson said. “I know these playoffs have been tough. … I was able to get the bounces that we needed tonight.”

Jake Oettinger had 37 saves, two nights after the 24-year-old Stars goalie was pulled 7:10 into Game 3 after allowing three goals on five shots.

The Stars had the man advantage in overtime after Brayden McNabb‘s high-sticking penalty on Ty Dellandrea. Fifty seconds into the power play, Pavelski scored on a pass from Miro Heiskanen. They won for the first time in their five OT games this postseason – Vegas won the first two games of this series past regulation.

It was only the second Vegas penalty of the game, both high-sticking calls against McNabb. His penalty on Pavelski late in the first period set up the power play when Robertson scored his first goal with some nifty stickwork.

Pavelski, in his 15th NHL season and still looking for his first Stanley Cup, scored his ninth goal in 12 games this postseason, but his first in five games. He has 73 career postseason goals – the most for U.S.-born players and the most among all active players.

“He’s ageless. … I’ve seen that movie over and over again. Never gets old,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “He lives for those moments and he wants to be in those situations. Always has, and delivers almost every time.”

Benn was suspended two games by the NHL on Wednesday for his cross-check with his stick landing near the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in the first two minutes of Game 3 on Tuesday night. Benn also will miss Game 5 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault scored for Vegas. Adin Hill had his five-game winning streak snapped. He made 39 saves, including a game-saver with his extended left leg without about two minutes left in regulation on rookie Fredrik Olofsson’s swiping try in his first career playoff game.

“Our effort wasn’t good enough. Closing a series is probably the hardest game in a series, right, so it just wasn’t good enough from our group,” Marchessault said. “It was still a one-goal game in overtime. It was right there for us.”

Karlsson and Marchessault are among six of the original Vegas players still on the team from the inaugural 2017-18 season that ended with the Knights playing for the Stanley Cup, though they lost in five games to the Washington Capitals after winning the first game.

Vegas missed a chance to complete a sweep, a night after the Florida Panthers finished off a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.

Vegas took a 2-1 lead midway through the second period when Marchessault, after whacking his stick on the back of Ryan Suter in front of the net, scored on a pass between the Stars defenseman’s legs from McNabb, another original Golden Knight.

Robertson’s tying goal late in that period came on a ricochet off the back board just seconds after he had another shot hit the post. That was the fourth goal of this series, and sixth in the playoffs, after this regular season becoming the first Dallas player with a 100-point season.

On his first goal late in the first that tied it 1-1, Robertson deflected Heiskanen’s shot from just inside the blue line up into the air. As Hill was trying to secure the puck into his glove, Robertson knocked it free and then reached around and swiped the puck into the net with his stick parallel to the ice.

With former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and wrestling great Ric Flair both in the building wearing Stars jerseys Dallas was avoided being swept in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 against St. Louis in the second round. This was the Stars’ 21st playoff series since then.

The Golden Knights scored first again – though not like those three quick goals in Game 3 that led to the earliest exit ever for Oettinger.

Karlsson pushed the puck up and skated to the front of the net after passing to Nicolas Roy, whose pass through traffic went off a Dallas stick before Reilly Smith got it just inside the right circle and took a shot. Karlsson’s deflection past Oettinger only 4:17 into the game was his eighth goal this postseason.

“There were a lot of rush chances,” said Smith, also with Vegas since the beginning. “I don’t think we did a good enough job of making it difficult on them. So we get another opportunity in two days.”

Tkachuk sends Panthers to Stanley Cup Final, after topping Hurricanes 4-3 for sweep

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SUNRISE, Fla. — Matthew Tkachuk delivered for Florida, again. Sergei Bobrovsky denied Carolina, again.

The wait is over: After 27 years, the Florida Panthers – a hockey punchline no more – are again going to play for the game’s grandest prize.

Tkachuk got his second goal of the game with 4.9 seconds left, lifting the Panthers past the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 after sweeping the Eastern Conference final.

The Panthers will play either Vegas or Dallas for the Stanley Cup starting sometime next week; Vegas currently leads the Western Conference title series 3-0.

“This was pure joy,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

Bobrovsky stopped 36 shots to cap his stellar series – four games, four one-goal wins, three of them basically in sudden death, a .966 save percentage after stopping 174 of the 180 shots he faced. The first two wins were in overtime, and this one may as well have been.

The Panthers scored 10 goals in the series, and Bobrovsky ensured those were all they needed. They were the No. 8 seed, the last team in, the longest of long shots – which is consistent with their history, after not winning a single playoff series in 26 years, a drought that ended last season.

And now, beasts of the East. Tkachuk arrived last summer saying he wanted to bring Florida a Cup. He’s four wins away.

“It’s amazing,” Bobrovsky said. “We showed the resilience … and we’re lucky to have Chucky on our side. He knows how to score big goals.”

NHL Senior Vice President Brian Jennings was the one tasked with presenting the Prince of Wales Trophy. After some photos, Aleksander Barkov – the captain who had two assists, one of them on the game-winner – grabbed it, and skated it away. Some teams touch it. Some don’t. A few of the Panthers did, but Barkov didn’t pass it around.

That’ll wait for the big prize.

“It’s hard to explain right now. Everything just happened so quick,” Barkov said. “It means a lot. It definitely does. … It hasn’t been easy and nobody said it’s going to be easy.”

Added Tkachuk: “We earned that thing, and definitely didn’t do it the easy way. We earned it.”

Ryan Lomberg and Anthony Duclair had the other goals for Florida, which swept a series for the first time in franchise history.

Jordan Staal – his brothers Eric and Marc play for the Panthers – took a tripping penalty with 57 seconds left in regulation, setting up the power-play that Tkachuk finished off after getting into the slot and beating Frederik Andersen to set off a wild celebration.

“Eastern Conference champions,” Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “It’s really cool. No doubt about it. But you know, at the end of the day, we have our eyes on something different.”

Toy rats – the Panthers’ tradition, a nod to the unwanted locker room guests from Florida’s old arena in 1996 – sailed down from the stands, and the goal needed to survive an official review. But the rats were picked up, the goal was deemed good, and 27 years of waiting was officially over 4.9 seconds later.

Jesper Fast seemed like he might have saved the season for Carolina, getting a tying goal with 3:22 left in regulation. Paul Stastny and Teuvo Teravainen had the first two goals of the night for the Hurricanes, while Brady Skjei and Jordan Martinook each had two assists. Andersen stopped 21 shots.

“Everyone’s going to say, ‘You got swept.’ That’s not what happened,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “I watched the game. I’m there. I’m cutting the games. We’re in the game. We didn’t lose four games. We got beat, but we were right there. This could have went the other way. It could have been four games the other way.”

That wasn’t sour grapes. He was right. A bounce here, a bounce there, a Bobrovsky not here, a Bobrovsky not there, and this series could have gone much differently.

But Bob was his best. Tkachuk was clutch, over and over. And Florida is as close to a Cup as it has ever been; the Panthers were swept by Colorado in the 1996 final.

Towels waved, strobe lights flashed, and the fans wasted no time letting the Panthers know that they were ready to a clincher.

Tkachuk made it 2-0 on the power play midway through the first. Carolina – a 113-point, division-championship-winning team in the regular season – made it 2-1 later in the first on Stastny’s goal, and Teravainen tied it early in the second.

Lomberg’s goal midway through the second gave Florida the lead again. It stayed that way until Fast got the equalizer with 3:22 left, and then Tkachuk finished it off – getting the Panthers to the title round in his first season.

“It’s been unbelievable since July since I got here,” Tkachuk said. “And hopefully we can cap off this amazing year.”


Panthers general manager Bill Zito was announced earlier Wednesday as a finalist for NHL GM of the year. … Tkachuk’s two goals gave him 21 points in the playoffs – extending his Florida single-season postseason record, which was 17 by Dave Lowry in 1996. … Slavin was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game after Bennett’s hit, with what the Hurricanes said was “an upper-body injury.” Slavin wobbled as he tried to get to his feet. … Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel – who has also been a regular at Miami Heat games during their playoff run this spring – banged the drum before the game. When done, without a mic to drop, he simply dropped the mallet instead.


Tkachuk’s goal midway through the opening period put Florida up 2-0 – and marked the first time, in nearly 14 periods of play to that point, that a team had a two-goal lead in this series. Every bit of action came with the score tied or someone up by one in the first 272 minutes (including all the overtimes) of the series.