Panthers have no answers for Capitals in Game 3

An impressive 6-1 Capitals win in Game 3 doesn’t automatically confirm that the Panthers can’t convert their high-octane regular season style to the playoffs. But it adds an unusual level of certainty after the Panthers absolutely tore through the regular season for their first-ever Presidents’ Trophy win.

If there’s an underrated part of the Florida Panthers’ stellar regular season, it’s how seamlessly Andrew Brunette took over after Joel Quenneville resigned in disgrace. Uncomfortably, this series represents the first real hiccup for the rookie head coach.

Brunette and the Panthers need to find answers, and fast. Fast is also not how you’d describe these Cats for significant chunks of this series.

Capitals contain, frustrate Panthers to win Game 3 handily

Scrolling through social media, you’d think that the Capitals just eliminated the Panthers from the playoffs. To be fair, it’s difficult not to feel some awe with how decisively the Capitals beat the Panthers to take a 2-1 series lead.

After Jonathan Huberdeau sprung loose for an early 1-0 lead, the Panthers rarely solved the Capitals mix of forechecking and trapping. During the rare moments when Florida did break through, Ilya Samsonov was sharp.

There were a few pivots where the Capitals really pulled away from the Panthers in Game 3:

  • Following a listless Panthers power play, the Capitals converted on a PP opportunity of their own with just 26 seconds left in the first period. The Panthers were then unable to score despite two power-play opportunities to start the second.
  • While Alex Ovechkin (1G, 1A) continues to play beyond his years, the Caps also enjoyed some contributions from less-usual suspects. Marcus Johansson scored a big goal and collected an assist, while Anthony Mantha generated two assists. Conor Sheary seemed like he could’ve produced more than one assist.
  • Midway through the second period, the Panthers finally looked like the overwhelming team they often were during the regular season. Samsonov made some big saves, while Johansson and other supporting members combined for two Washington goals.
  • Things frankly didn’t look that promising for Florida down 3-1 in the third. Still, Jonathan Huberdeau took a frustration penalty, and Ovechkin cashed in with a prototypical power-play goal from “his office.” It was basically elementary from there, with the Capitals adding an empty-net goal and a late 6-1 tally.

How worried should the Panthers be?

While the Panthers broke through in a Game 2 win, the Capitals did a good-to-great job locking things down in both Game 1 and 3. First, consider some 5-on-5 facts from Natural Stat Trick.

  • The Panthers generated more sheer volume to start the series, but lost the expected goals battle in Game 1. At 5-on-5, Washington generated a 9-7 advantage in high-danger chances.
  • Again, Game 2 looked more like many anticipated. The Panthers easily had more expected goals, and nearly doubled the high-danger chances (13-7).
  • Interestingly, the Panthers generated the same Fenwick For advantage in both Game 2 and Game 3 (41-27). The difference was that the Capitals limited the quality of the Panthers’ chances, as Washington generated nine high-danger chances to eight for Florida.

One can take a limited level of solace from the level of play being more even than Twitter hot takes might indicate.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 First Round schedule, TV info]

Then again, if things keep trending in this direction, the Panthers might need to truly dominate the Capitals at 5-on-5 to overcome a special teams disparity.

In Game 3, the Capitals went 2-for-6 on the power play, while the Panthers were 0-for-3. Through the series, the Panthers haven’t scored a power-play goal yet, while the Capitals have four.

During the season, Florida converted on 24.4% of their chances, while the Capitals’ power play was unusually tepid (18.8). Considering the weapon Ovechkin can be in that area, it’s not outrageous to expect that matchup to be closer than those regular season numbers suggest.

But for the Capitals to dominate it so far? That’s not as jarring as seeing the Panthers’ transition game slipping, yet it’s still a surprise.

If NHL playoff history teaches us anything, it’s that a 1-3-1 trap and similar tactics can simply be tough to crack when a team is operating at a high level. Just look at how much the Maple Leafs, Golden Knights, and Jets struggled to score against the Canadiens when they totally committed to protecting their zone at all costs.

In the event that Washington neutralizes Florida’s rush chances, the Panthers will need to at least draw even in that special teams battle.

Can the Panthers’ style of play really work in the playoffs? It’s way too hasty to say it cannot. That would probably be unfair even if Washington pulls off this upset. But the bottom line is that Florida has a lot to prove, and improve.

FLORIDA PANTHERS v. WASHINGTON CAPITALS (WSH leads 2-1)

Game 1: Capitals 4, Panthers 2
Game 2: Panthers 5, Capitals 1
Game 3: Capitals 6, Panthers 1
Game 4: May 9, 7 p.m. ET –  Panthers at Capitals (TBS, SN1, TVA Sports)
Game 5: May 11, 7:30 p.m. ET – Capitals at Panthers (ESPN2, TBD)
*Game 6: May 13, TBD – Panthers at Capitals (TBD)
*Game 7: May 15, TBD – Capitals at Panthers (TBD)

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.

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    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”