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Capitals’ Burakovsky will be Game 5 scratch

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After losing back-to-back home games to allow the Tampa Bay Lightning to tie the Eastern Conference Final series at two games apiece, the Washington Capitals are making a lineup change for Game 5 on Saturday night.

Alex Chiasson will be returning to the lineup while Andre Burakovsky will be a healthy scratch.

Burakovsky missed a significant chunk of the playoffs in the earlier rounds due to injury and returned for the start of this series against the Lightning. He has yet to make an impact.

In his four games this series he has yet to record a point, has just two shots on goal, and has played less than nine minutes in each of the past two games. He had an especially tough game in Game 4 on Thursday night.

The 22-year-old Burakovsky is one of the Capitals’ best young players, finishing the regular season with 12 goals and 13 assists in 56 games.

On Saturday Capitals coach Barry Trotz said “it is a now business” and that the lineup they are putting on the ice is the best one to help them win Game 5.

Chiasson appeared in the Capitals’ first 15 playoff games before sitting in Game 4. He has one goal and one assist in the playoffs after finishing the regular season with nine goals and nine assists in 61 games.

MORE:
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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.

Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom set for return

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The Washington Capitals best center and one of the best set-up men in the NHL will make his debut in this season’s Eastern Conference Final on Thursday.

After taking the morning skate, getting rotated in on line rushes and working with the top power-play unit, Nicklas Backstrom will make his return to the Capitals lineup after a two-week layoff with a hand injury he sustained in Game 5 of second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Backstrom’s return comes at just the right time as the Capitals look to bounce back from a Game 3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and earn a split at home. The Capitals lead the best-of-7 series 2-1.

It appears Alex Chiasson will make way for Backstrom’s return.

Backstrom’s usage will be front and center in the game.

He didn’t skate with his familiar second line during line rushes and could get someone else to take faceoffs as to not put his hand through any more stress than it needs to, per the Washington Post.

Even without Backstrom in the dot, his return is only slightly less of a boost than it already was.

Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin together again on the power play could spell disaster for the Lightning if they’re undisciplined in the game. And Backstrom’s overall vision and passing skills, even at less than 100 percent, are elite.

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Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Lightning should take training wheels off Sergachev

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From the bold to the stodgy, just about every NHL coach feels skittish about trusting young players. That’s especially true when it comes to defensemen.

Sometimes it’s better to roll the dice with talent rather than going with a seemingly “safe” choice that might instead boil down to familiar failures. Down 2-0 in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final to the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper might need to bite the bullet.

He really should consider unleashing Mikhail Sergachev. That’s especially true if the Bolts find themselves down in Game 3 (and beyond), but you could make a reasonable argument that the 19-year-old deserves more reps even when it’s 0-0 or Tampa Bay is in the lead.

No doubt, there are risks.

[Lightning have much to ponder heading into Game 3]

Most obviously, he’s just 19. Even his proponents will admit that Sergachev still has things to learn. The Capitals aren’t going to be a kind tutor.

It’s also tricky if Cooper’s especially rigid when it comes to handedness for his top two pairings. Sergachev shoots left, much like Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, who join right-handed shot Anton Stralman as the Lightning’s three most prominent all-around options. (Dan Girardi rounds out that group as a righty; Braydon Coburn pairs with Sergachev as two lefties on the bottom pairing.)

Cooper hasn’t really given Sergachev a ton of “trial by fire” tests, either. During the regular season, Sergachev generated 40 points despite averaging a meager 15:22 TOI. Those minutes were arguably micromanaged, as he began a whopping 70 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone.

Sergachev’s possession numbers were strong, but again, it was a cushy assignment. That trend continued into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as Sergachev’s overall playoff numbers are lofty, and he’s one of the few blueliners who look good so far through the first two contests of the third round. Of course, the cushy trend continued as well; so far Sergachev’s most common forward opponents have been Jay Beagle, Devante-Smith Pelly, and Alex Chiasson.

So, basically, Sergachev’s been acing every test, yet he hasn’t exactly been taking the toughest classes. To Cooper’s eyes, elevating his role now would be a lot like forcing that student to take the SATs with zero notice.

The thing is, while there’s uncertainty with Sergachev, key Lightning defensemen in higher roles have been struggling. Victor Hedman’s numbers have been disappointing (especially since he hasn’t faced much of Alex Ovechkin or rising star Evgeny Kuznetsov), while Stralman, McDonagh, and Girardi have also struggled. Sure, there’s a chance that Sergachev would get exposed with tougher matchups and more minutes, but is it that outrageous to wonder if the Russian defenseman would serve as an upgrade over one or more of those players?

To be fair, Sergachev’s already seen jumps in ice time during certain spans, though that might come down to context (trailing frequently against Washington rather than pulling away from Boston, when he was used sparingly). The Lightning would be wise to think long and hard about really giving Sergachev a chance to sink or swim.

Sure, he’s likely to be better – possibly much better – in the future, maybe as early as next season. For all we know, this could be the Lightning’s best shot at a Stanley Cup under Cooper and GM Steve Yzerman. The Bruins, Leafs, and other division rivals could improve. Nikita Kucherov‘s bargain deal ends after 2018-19. We’ve seen how injuries can derail this team despite all of their impressive talent evaluation and smart coaching.

Maybe the Lightning are better off staying the course, but if they continue to crater at even-strength and fall in this series, there could be some regrets. “Should we have given Sergachev more of a chance?” could serve as a painful question.

And, hey, if the net result is literally even, we’d at least have better odds of seeing him break out this move again:

Just saying.

The Lightning face off against the Capitals in Washington at 8 p.m. ET tonight. You can watch Game 3 on NBCSN and also stream it here.

MORE:
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Conference Finals schedule, TV info
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NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Tampa’s advantage, underrated Gallant

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1. What do the Capitals need to improve upon from Round 2 against the Lightning?

SEAN: Barry Trotz should certainly realize the Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line experiment should never happen again. Tom Wilson is back from suspension, but should there ever be a need for a tweak, he can’t consider that option again. Another improvement would be staying out of the penalty box. The Capitals have been shorthanded the most of any NHL team this postseason and their penalty kill has only been successful 79.1 percent of the time through two rounds. Now they’re facing a Lightning power play that’s been clicking at a 26 percent rate in each of the first two rounds. Discipline will be key.

JAMES: Honestly, the Capitals have performed far better than expected during these playoffs, with Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby standing out as being particularly effective. That said, Barry Trotz might need to be a little more willing to make in-game tweaks. The standout example is sticking with Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line during Game 4 despite that clearly not working. Trotz eventually relented, but the Lightning are probably more capable of exploiting such stubbornness. (At least Tom Wilson’s suspension is over, so that specific lineup problem might not be an issue. Of course, the Stamkos – Kucherov line could force some maneuvering, too.)

ADAM: There is not a lot because they have played well so far, but discipline maybe? Discipline in the sense that Tom Wilson needs to stop hitting people in the head when he returns, and discipline in the sense that they need to just stay out of the penalty box. They’ve already been shorthanded 43 times this postseason, most in the NHL in the playoffs, and have had been shorthanded at least four times in eight of their first 12 games. And their penalty kill has not exactly been great, converting on just 79 percent of their opportunities. It has not hurt them yet, but that can swing a series. Especially against a team like Tampa Bay.

JOEY: They have to find a way to do a better job of neutralizing the opposition’s top line. Sure, the trio of Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist was tough to stop, but one of the main reasons they moved on to the Eastern Conference Final was because Pittsburgh got to secondary scoring. This time, they can’t let Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Miller dominate because the Bolts are deep and they have other players that can hurt the opposition. Tampa managed to advance to this point without getting much from their top performers, which is pretty scary. The Capitals have to make sure that the Lightning’s best players don’t dominate. Easier said than done.

SCOTT: Washington was good in the second round. Their power play has been clicking all playoffs. Braden Holtby has found his stride again and they’re a confident bunch after beating the Pittsburgh Penguins finally. But they need someone not named Alex Ovechkin and Evegny Kuznetsov to carry the offensive burden. Both are capable at doing so, surely, and we saw it against the Penguins. But secondary scoring could use a boost, for sure. 

2. What is the biggest advantage the Lightning hold over the Capitals?

SEAN: You might say depth, but Washington got contributions from the likes of Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana and Brett Connolly. Heck, even Alex Chiasson potted a big goal. If that continues, that category can be marked as even. I’d give them an edge on the blue line. Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh can play heavy minutes and Braydon Coburn has been excelling with fewer minutes compared to the regular season. The Capitals will look to give their third pairing of Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos favorable minutes, but that’s something Tampa can try and exploit with home-ice advantage.

JAMES: The Lightning boast a better defense. All due respect to John Carlson on that contract year tear and the underrated Matt Niskanen, but Washington has no Victor Hedman, and Ryan McDonagh seems like he’s settling in. If Nicklas Backstrom can’t play, Tampa Bay’s two lines could be another big edge, as Brayden Point‘s showing that his strong regular season play has been no fluke. If Point isn’t a star, he’s awfully close.

ADAM: There seems to be a belief that the Lightning are just going to roll through the Capitals, but I just do not see it. I think these two teams are pretty evenly matched in the sense that they each have superstar forwards, they each have elite goalies, and they each have some pretty deep offenses. I think if Tampa Bay has one thing going for it over Washington it’s that it has a legitimate No. 1, elite-level defenseman in Victor Hedman and the Capitals don’t. John Carlson is good, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not Victor Hedman. And having that guy that can play half of a game and follow around a top player and shut him down is a pretty big advantage to have.

JOEY: The Lightning are clearly superior on the blue line. Sure, the Capitals have John Carlson, but there’s a steep drop off after him. The Bolts have Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman and Mikhail Sergachev. Even Dan Girardi has been relatively useful during this run. If McDonagh can kick it up a notch, that can put even more distance between these teams. The two sides are pretty evenly matched after that. They both have multiple lines that can score and goaltenders that can play at a high level.

SCOTT: Experience. Tampa has a combined 273 games of Conference Final experience to Washington’s measly 28. Washington has three players who’ve reached the penultimate round whereas the Lightning have nearly their whole roster with 18 players. This is new territory for most of these Capitals players.

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3. What’s been the most impressive part of this Winnipeg run?

SEAN: I hope the hockey world is taking note of what Mark Scheifele is doing. Seven of his 11 goals came on the road in Nashville in the second round. He’s blossomed into an elite level player over the last several year and has been nearly a point-per-game player since the 2015-16 NHL season. He’s a hockey nerd, even if he’s not a fan of that description. He’s worked with Adam Oates for the last few years, which has greatly improved his skills and made him a better 200-foot player. Now we’re finally getting to see all that work on display on a grander stage.

JAMES: This feels like a team that’s “been here before,” or maybe an Exhibit A for why people frequently make too big of a deal about “experience.” The Jets were down 3-0 and wouldn’t be denied in a comeback win. Connor Hellebuyck has been steadier than most veterans would be. They’ve played well enough to turn something that would dominate headlines (Patrik Laine struggling to score, at least by his standards) into a footnote. This team has few discernible weaknesses.

ADAM: I knew the Jets had an amazing offense and that Mark Scheifele was one of the driving forces behind it, but I wasn’t quite prepared for him to have a playoff run like this. He has been simply outstanding and seems to have two points every single night. He has quietly been one of the most productive players in the league the past few years and this postseason has been a pretty big statement from him to make a name for himself across the league.

JOEY: Their ability to win games on the road has been nothing short of remarkable. Through two rounds, Winnipeg has gone 4-2 away from home, including three wins at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Mark Scheifele scored seven road goals during their second-round series, which is now an NHL record. In their three road wins against the Predators, Winnipeg won by a total of 11 goals. Going into Vegas won’t be easy, but if there’s a team that can get the job done there it’s the Jets.

SCOTT: Their ability to face compartmentalize each game, specifically losses, and bounce back the next night. The Jets lost in double-overtime in Game 2 in Nashville bounced back to win Game 3 despite the heartbreak two nights earlier. In Game 6, when they laid an egg in a 4-0 loss with a chance to clinch the series, the Jets again regrouped and put in perhaps their best performance of the playoffs in a 5-1 win in Game 7. That game had all sorts of pressure riding on it and the Jets handled it in stride.

4. Despite a Jack Adams Award nomination, is Gerard Gallant an underrated head coach?

SEAN: When the success of the Golden Knights is brought up, worthy praise goes to Jonathan Marchessault, Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, among others. But Gallant’s name is sometimes left out that discussion. In his second chance as an NHL head coach he helped turn the Florida Panthers around only to be dumped 22 games into last season. Then he gets thrown behind the bench of an expansion team and has to figure out the best line combinations for a group of players who have never played together. Vegas’ success wasn’t something that was gradually built up — they’ve been a good team since the start of the season. Credit to Gallant and his staff for what they’ve done. He’ll win coach of the year by a landslide, but probably still not get enough credit for the job done this season, no matter how it ends.

JAMES: Being that he’s a lock to win the Jack Adams by an enormous margin, I’d say he’s rated just fine. Now, if there are people who are saying that Vegas is running on luck alone, then Gallant would be underrated. Sure, he’s enjoyed outstanding goaltending, but this team kept humming along even when their netminders were barely luckier than Spinal Tap drummers early in 2017-18. This team also plays an exciting, and most importantly, fitting style. Other coaches might think “I need to follow Jacques Lemaire’s lead and make this expansion team be slow and boring to limit chances.” Gallant should be credited for taking a courageous and entertaining approach, and lauded for it actually working.

And, really, the best tests of how he should be rated are yet to come. Between the remainder of this run and avoiding a sophomore slump next season, we’ll get an even better idea of the guy pulling the strings.

ADAM: I never really understood all of the fuss when the Panthers fired him last year. I thought a new front office had the right to bring in their guy and Gallant didn’t really have a track record that made it seem like an obvious mistake. But man, what a job he’s done this year. Coaching is one of those things that is difficult to evaluate, but I think the way he’s kind of turned his players loose and has them playing a fast, quick game that never lets up no matter what the score is in the third period is the right choice. I think he also deserves a ton of credit for getting the most out of some players on the roster, and I’m not necessarily talking about a player like William Karlsson. I mean more specifically a player like Deryk Engelland becoming a useful, regular, 25-minute per night defenseman.

JOEY: Coming into this season, he was definitely underrated, but now that the Golden Knights have had so much success, I feel like he’s been getting a decent amount of love from the hockey world. GM George McPhee did a great job of selecting players, but Gallant has really brought them together as a unit and he has them playing a style that fits them perfectly. This whole year has been a Gallant/Vegas love fest (rightfully so), so I don’t think he’s overrated anymore. Getting a cab on the streets of Vegas probably isn’t an issue for him.

SCOTT: I think you might have said this before the start of the season. Let got in Florida for no good reason, Gallant was quickly snatched up by George McPhee and the Golden Knights. But to see what he’s been able to do as he glued together pieces from teams around the NHL is remarkable, and a testament to his abilities as a head coach. He’s getting the credit he is due now, when before he didn’t. He’s underrated no more.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Capitals eliminate Penguins, Ovechkin gets first taste of East final

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The Washington Capitals did it. They finally slayed the black and gold dragon known as the Pittsburgh Penguins.

To really sell how tough a mountain this was to climb, of course the Penguins forced the Capitals to end it via sudden death.

Evgeny Kuznetsov experienced plenty of frustrating moments on Monday, but the talented center ended Game 6 in overtime with a semi-breakaway 2-1 goal. It only makes sense that Alex Ovechkin was the one to send Kuznetsov on that breakaway, and for Sidney Crosby to be on the ice for that season-ending goal.

With that, the Penguins’ bid at a “threepeat” is over after the Capitals took this second-round series 4-2.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Game 6 feels like a decent microcosm of the series as a whole. There were plenty of sloppy moments, surprisingly tepid stretches, and Washington ended up scoring the majority of the big goals (aside from that bizarre Penguins win in Game 1).

For much of this series, the first period has been barren when it comes to goals, and this one followed suit with a 0-0 start. Alex Chiasson gave the Capitals a 1-0 goal on one that Matt Murray would like back, and there was a surprising amount of doom and gloom surfacing for some Pittsburgh fans. To be fair, the Penguins looked remarkably flat at times with their season on the line.

That doesn’t mean that they just rolled over and gave Game 6 up, mind you.

Kris Letang‘s 1-1 goal included a fortunate bounce, yet the Penguins’ play improved. Granted, the Capitals still seemed like the better team during much of the third period and overtime, yet Matt Murray helped the Penguins hang in there.

The Capitals ended up eliminating the Penguins with Nicklas Backstrom missing Game 6 with an injury and Tom Wilson wrapping up his controversial suspension. Washington likely would have taken a victory over the Penguins under any array of circumstances, but advancing this way has to be a true confidence-booster.

And, of course, an igloo-sized relief.

Ovechkin & Co. won’t exactly get eased into their maiden voyage in the third round, as the Tampa Bay Lightning stand as a fresh, formidable opponent. Chances are, the Lightning will be far less leaky than the Penguins appeared at times during this series, including tonight.

Despite some incredible play from Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel during this series, the Penguins couldn’t best their rivals this time around. After consecutive titles, they must lick their wounds following their first failure with Matt Murray in net and Mike Sullivan behind the bench.

(Yes, that’s quite the accomplishment, and one that might soothe some wounds in Pittsburgh.)

It’s up to management to make sure that this wasn’t the last gasp of a great era. That sounds tough to fathom, yet championship windows can slam shut with cold suddenness in sports. These Penguins aren’t spring chickens, after all, and Game 6 gave the impression that some key guys were fatigued, hurt, or both.

Wait, about the Penguins being a dragon or spring chickens… maybe they were more like Washington’s Bowser?

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.