No Point, no problem? Kucherov, Lightning fluster Panthers in Game 1

No Point, no problem? Kucherov, Lightning beat Panthers in Game 1
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All things considered, the stage was set for the Panthers to beat the Lightning in Game 1. After all, Tampa Bay lacked star forward Brayden Point. Nikita Kucherov suited up for the Lightning, and he clearly made the difference for Tampa Bay in Game 1.

While Game 1 was closer than the 4-1 score, the bottom line is that the Lightning lead the Panthers in this series 1-0.

Kucherov stars as Lightning beat Panthers in Game 1

Heading into Game 1, the Lightning lineup looked a little thin against a relatively healthy Panthers with a deep lineup.

Personally, it feels like this will be one Florida regrets. An already-thin Tampa Bay offering eventually waded through a portion of this one thanks to an Erik Cernak injury. It’s unclear how serious Cernak’s issue is, but he didn’t return after a blocked shot.

The Panthers boast high-profile stars in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, trade deadline investment Claude Giroux, and defensemen like Aaron Ekblad. None of them made a difference like Kucherov did in Game 1.

Heck, sometimes Kucherov made those players look downright silly.

On the 1-1 goal, Nikita Kucherov juked Aaron Ekblad into oblivion, then set up Corey Perry for one of the easiest playoff goals you can achieve with a goalie in net.

Kucherov also used his elusiveness to draw the penalty before that goal, suckering in MacKenzie Weegar. Note that both Ekblad and Weegar have, at times, put up borderline-Norris-level stats during these past two seasons as the Panthers emerged as (at least a regular season) power.

Later on in Game 1, the Panthers gave Nikita Kucherov way too much room on a late power-play opportunity, and he put the Lightning up 3-1.

[2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs schedule, TV information]

Out of desperation, Panthers coach Andrew Brunette challenged the 3-1 goal for interference. The Lightning would score on the power play from that failed review.

So the actual final score of 4-1 was misleading. To give you an idea of how close it was, Anthony Duclair seemingly scored a 2-2 power-play goal in the third period. It didn’t stand, as officials correctly asserted that the puck left play before the PPG.

Now, while the game was closer than it looked, the Panthers really have a lot of thinking to do if they want to avoid losing another “Battle of Florida” against the Lightning.

Some adjustments for Panthers to consider against the Lightning after sluggish Game 1

More Verhaeghe; more speed?

As skilled as Nikita Kucherov is, the Bolts were likely hoping for a slower pace. Generally, when you dress one extra defenseman and one fewer forward, you’re probably not rooting for an affair full of dazzling skill, breakneck speed, and end-to-end rushes.

At times, people noted that the Panthers found ways to use their speed advantage over the Lightning in Game 1.

Generally speaking, there was a real lack of energy in this contest. Again, that probably plays to Tampa Bay’s advantage. (Especially when Kucherov can still find opportunities to burn Florida with extra space.)

Personally, the Panthers need to find ways to manufacture more of those situations.

From an eye test perspective, it sure seems like Carter Verhaeghe is one of the Panthers players most consistently breaking through the Lightning’s neutral zone defense (as Verhaeghe did against the Capitals).

This thread carries over from series to series so far, as it’s surprising that the Panthers only trotted out Verhaeghe for 16:54 in this one.

Pawing at Panthers’ power play problems

Whether it means more Verhaeghe on the top unit or some other adjustment, the power play is one area where the Panthers really need to find answers.

Sometimes, in the playoffs, small sample sizes can lead to overreactions. To me, that’s clear if a team is just not getting lucky breaks.

But there’s an element of “making your own luck,” and the Cats haven’t been intimidating in the postseason. It’s one thing to begin the postseason 0-for-21 on the power play. It’s another when you’re being kept to the perimeter and not really creating the chances that can break a slump.

So, what would help the Panthers improve their power play?

Maybe it’s a matter of mixing up tactics. That said, I’d ponder some experiments with personnel.

It’s important to remember that Claude Giroux is still new to this team. Beyond that, Aaron Ekblad missed a lot of time.

Normally, I’m all for specializing on the power play. Create familiarity, and also an area of options. Maybe that’s the situation Florida’s in.

But what if some of this is about chemistry? One thought I often have with truly dead power-play momentum is: why not act basically like business as usual? Throw out your typical top scoring lines, then give some room to experiment by going with one more forward, and a scoring defenseman such as Ekblad, Weegar, or even Gustav Forsling/Brandon Montour.

Carter Verhaeghe’s red-hot right now. Why not get him more PP reps? Patric Hornqvist is a nightmare in front of goalies. Maybe he can create havoc, even if he’s no longer the top-line winger he once was?

Other tweaks?

It may be worthwhile to explore a variety of elements to get Florida back to the relentless attacking team it was.

  • Ben Chiarot hasn’t been a disaster, like he was at times with Montreal. But he also may not be the sort of catalyst you want. Even if he’s the “defensive consciousness” for a right-handed defenseman such as Montour, Ekblad, or Weegar, I’m not sure if Chiarot should be starting about 60% of his shifts in the offensive zone. It’s basically the opposite of how Montreal used him. The best option may be somewhere in the middle.
  • Is Aaron Ekblad healthy? He missed time late in the regular season, opening up the question to start the playoffs. From receiving a big hit by Alex Ovechkin to other playoff bumps-and-bruises, maybe Ekblad’s blurring the line between hurt vs. injured.

During the regular season, Ekblad played the majority of his 5-on-5 minutes alongside MacKenzie Weegar. It’s very rare to put two right-handed defensemen together, but the two crushed it. The two haven’t been put together as often during the playoffs.

There are a variety of situations where two right-handed or two-left-handed defensemen can have some issues retrieving pucks, avoiding turnovers, and in other areas. It’s understandable if Brunette is afraid of those implications.

But would the rewards outweigh the risks?

If nothing else, the Panthers should at least ask these questions — or similar ones — after the Lightning beat them in Game 1. They’re not getting blown out (4-1 finish notwithstanding), yet they haven’t found the sort of pace that made them a terrifying offense in the regular season.

Chances are, it’s not just because things tighten up in the playoffs.


Game 1: Lightning 4, Panthers 1
Game 2 – May 19: Lightning at Panthers, 7 p.m. ET (TNT, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 3 – May 22: Panthers at Lightning, 1:30 p.m. ET (ESPN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports)
Game 4 – May 23: Panthers at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (TNT, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 5 – May 25: Lightning at Panthers, TBD
*Game 6 – May 27: Panthers at Lightning, TBD
*Game 7 – May 29: Lightning at Panthers, TBD

* if necessary
TBD – To Be Determined

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

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS – William Karlsson, William Carrier and Jonathan Marchessault are finally getting another chance in the Stanley Cup Final, after the first one that came so quick for the Vegas Golden Knights.

They are going back after making sure they didn’t need another game against the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final.

Karlsson scored two goals and had an assist while Carrier and Marchessault also scored for the Knights in a 6-0 rout Monday night over the Stars, who had extended the West final to six games after losing the first three.

“We’ve worked hard as a group. That was the goal since year one, to come back here,” Marchessault said. “Our best game is yet to come. That’s the mentality we need to have.”

Reilly Smith, Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore were also part of that inaugural 2017-18 Knights season that ended in a Cup Final, when they won Game 1 against the Washington Capitals before losing four in a row.

“That first year was a whirlwind and we maybe took it for granted,” said Karlsson, who like Marchessault and Smith has played in all 83 playoff games for the franchise.

Keegan Kolesar and Michael Amadio each had a goal and an assist for Vegas, which hosts Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Florida on Saturday night.

The Knights 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.

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.

“We kept them to the outside almost all night,” Hill said. “It was probably my easiest game of the playoffs so far tonight.”

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. They already had 16 of their 29 shots and a 3-0 lead after the first period.

“It was definitely our best game of the playoffs and it came at the right time,” Cassidy said. “You don’t want to let a team off the mat. After getting a 3-0 lead, there was some chatter about that.”

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 got only one shot on net in his 12 1/2 minutes and was on the ice for two of Vegas’ first three goals.

The Knights 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, 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. Karlsson’s franchise record 10th goal for a playoff series extended the lead to 5-0 only two minutes into the third period.

“Real disappointed for our group for the way our season ended,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “It was a case of Vegas going to another level.”

Notes: 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. … 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.

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

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

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

stars golden knights
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

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.”