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Have Minnesota Wild already hit their ceiling?

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Let’s talk about the Minnesota Wild for a few minutes because, well, I am still not entirely sure what to make this team under its current construction.

How do you feel about them? Do you think about them? When you hear the name “Minnesota Wild” do you think “that’s a team that I could see making some noise and going on a deep playoff run,” or do you just kind of say “meh” and not see them as much of a threat?

They have been, by definition, a pretty good team.

They finished with 101 points in 2017-18 and are one of just three teams to have made the playoffs in each of the past six seasons, joining the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks. That is also — if you can believe it — tied for the second longest active playoff streak in the NHL (behind only the Penguins’ ongoing 12-year run, and tied with the Ducks).

All in all, pretty successful — right?

The thing about that success is that the past few years have at the same time been kind of a disappointment because their ceiling seems to be that of a team that makes the playoffs and then quickly disappears without much of a fight. During the aforementioned six-year playoff run they have won a grand total of two playoff series and have not been out of the second round in any of those years.

They have not been out of the first round since 2014-15 and have managed to win a grand total of four playoff games in the three years since (that coming after they swept out of the second round in four straight games in 2015. That means in their past four postseason series they have won exactly four games).

The latest postseason exit resulted in a significant change in the team’s organizational leadership when long-time general manager Chuck Fletcher was fired and replaced by former Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton. Even with a team that recorded 100 points for the second year in a row it was still a tough year for Fletcher as the Wild were one of the many NHL teams that paid too much in the expansion draft process, giving up Erik Haula and Alex Tuch to the Vegas Golden Knights.

When a team that has not achieved much postseason success changes general managers, a change behind the bench can not be far behind if results do not change for the better. That means coach Bruce Boudreau almost certainly has to be on the hot seat heading into the 2018-19 season.

That leads to another pretty big question: Are the Wild, as currently constructed, good enough to keep Boudreau employed behind the bench? And if not, is he good enough to keep squeezing more out of this roster than it should be capable of producing?

There are a lot of red flags with this team that make it seem like the whole thing could be teetering on the edge of a full-on collapse, perhaps sooner rather than later.

From a shots and possession perspective, the Wild were one of the worst teams in the NHL last season controlling just 47 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts. That was the second-worst mark in the NHL and had them sandwiched between the dumpster fire that was the Ottawa Senators and a New York Rangers team that was beginning to sell off half of its roster.

In their five games against the Jets in the playoffs they were absolutely steamrolled in that department, attempting just 40 percent of the shot attempts in the five games (while getting outscored 16-9, including 7-0 over the final two games of the series).

Typically, teams that get decimated like this in the shots column do not make the playoffs, and when a team is that bad it usually does not paint a promising picture for the following season. Especially when the only additions to the roster are depth players like the ones added by Minnesota this summer (Matt Hendricks, J.T. Brown, Eric Fehr, Greg Pateryn).

The one area the Wild did excel in this past season was scoring chances.

While their share of the total shot attempts was among the league’s worst, their share of the total scoring chances was, shockingly, among the league’s best.

Usually when a team finds any sort of success with poor shot metrics the argument in their favor — or the one coming from the team itself — revolves around shot quality, and not quantity. Usually that argument is bunk and the team’s success is usually because a goalie played out of their mind to bail them out, or they had a few forwards have career years to carry the offense (which kind of happened in Minnesota last year, at least as it relates to Eric Staal and maybe Jason Zucker). Then everything falls apart the next season.

In the Wild’s case, though, there seems to be at least some evidence that this was the case. How repeatable that is not only remains to be seen, but will also go a long way toward determining whether or not they are going to remain competitive or if the bottom will fall out from underneath them.

Aside from the poor shot metrics, the other concern here is that this was the second oldest team in the NHL last season and while they have some young players in Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Luke Kunin, it still figures to be one of the oldest teams in the league this season.

At the top of that list will be Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, both of whom are not only entering their age 34 seasons, but are also coming off of significant injuries.

Parise has already been mired in a steady decline across the board for about five years now in all major areas (goal and point production, his ability to generate shots, and his overall possession numbers). Suter is still a workhorse that plays close to 27 minutes per night (and still at a reasonably high level) but given the mileage on those tires you have to assume he, too, is going to start to see his play begin to decline. The Wild still have more than $15 million tied up in those two for another seven years.

Their core players are still pretty good, but they are either in a decline (Parise), likely to regress (Staal), or could be on the verge of reaching a point in their career where they start to break down (all of Parise, Suter, and Staal). They have some okay young players, but nobody that really seems to be a potential game-breaker.

Given all of that it seems this team has hit its ceiling. They have already made the change in the front office. If things get off to a bad start in ’18-19 it might be time for him to just hit the reset button on the entire operation because it is difficult to see this group turning things around in a meaningful way.

[Shot attempt and scoring chance information via Natural Stat Trick]

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Ovechkin’s Stanley Cup celebration is even better than you imagined

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Alex Ovechkin made his remarkable run to that elusive first Stanley Cup (and Conn Smythe Trophy) that much more entertaining by wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Who could forget his adorable, like-all-of-us reaction to Braden Holtby‘s incredible save on Alex Tuch? Along with silencing his doubters with a truly outstanding playoff run, Ovechkin was as boisterous as the young sniper who captivated the NHL just about from day one of his career. That boyish spirit was there tonight, even with gray hair visible in his mountain man beard.

For lovers and haters alike, it was surreal to see Ovechkin and the Capitals finally break through and win the Stanley Cup via a 4-3 Game 5 win against the equally unlikely Vegas Golden Knights, and that unreal feeling showed in Ovechkin’s giddy displays when the Stanley Cup was secured.

“I don’t know what to say, it’s unbelievable,” Ovechkin told Pierre McGuire not long after winning it all.

(Watch that interview in the video above this post’s headline.)

Naturally, this playoff run was about more than Ovechkin, although you could do worse than to scroll the NHL on NBC Twitter feed to leaf through other fantastic Ovi reactions.

Ovechkin’s embrace with Nicklas Backstrom was one of those often-dreamed-about moments for the franchise. T.J. Oshie was moved to tears discussing what this run means to him and his father. Barry Trotz enjoyed his moment in the sun, and much more.

If you want a quick summation of the key players (from starts to starting to goalie to grinders), the team picture isn’t a bad place to start. There’s something fitting about Devante Smith-Pelly timing his arrival just right to be in the thick of things, too.

Naturally, Capitals fans were ecstatic, particularly those who’ve been through thick and very thin.

This young fan captured their mood in glorious fashion:

It really doesn’t get much better than that. Normally, we’d say “just ask Ovechkin,” but he’s probably a little busy right now.

Actually, maybe Barry Trotz wins it:

Want to watch Game 5 in its entirety? Click here.

MORE:

Capitals break D.C. drought, win Stanley Cup.

Ovechkin takes home Conn Smythe.

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.

Controversial Perron goal counts; Capitals brawl after Vegas gains lead

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Perhaps it’s fitting that the adrenaline is pumping big time and luck seems to be shifting dramatically moment to moment as the 2018 Stanley Cup Final shifted back to Vegas for Game 5.

There’s plenty of time for the script to flip, but the bounces were really going the Golden Knights’ way during the second period. (All five of the goals happened during a busy middle frame.)

The Golden Knights enter the third period of Game 5 with a 3-2 lead thanks to a power-play goal, but there’s room to debate if the 2-2 goal should have counted.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH GAME 5 LIVE]

The tally survived a review, even though the Washington Capitals unsuccessfully challenged David Perron‘s tying goal for goalie interference. Ultimately, the call on the ice stood, so apparently Christian Djoos contact was enough to get Perron off the hook for impeding Braden Holtby.

Here’s the official verdict from the NHL:

After reviewing all available replays and consulting with the Referee, the Situation Room confirmed that the actions of Washington’s Christian Djoos caused Perron to contact Holtby before the puck crossed the goal line. The decision was made in accordance with Note 2 of Rule 78.7 (ii) which states, in part, that the goal should be allowed because “the attacking Player was pushed, shoved or fouled by a defending Player causing the attacking Player to come into contact with the goalkeeper.”

Therefore, the original call stands – good goal Vegas Golden Knights.

Since the Coach’s Challenge did not result in the original call being overturned, the Washington Capitals forfeit their time-out.

Watch the replays in the video above this post’s headline and decide for yourself: should the 2-2 goal count or was the wrong call made?

So far, Washington has managed 1-0 and 2-1 leads, but Vegas has been able to respond. The Golden Knights have had their best success creating havoc in front of Holtby and getting some positive bounces. They’ve also avoided some near-goals by Washington before finally getting a lead thanks to a 3-2 goal by Reilly Smith thanks to a brilliant Alex Tuch feed.

After that 3-2 goal was scored, a wild scuffle ensued. With all the frenetic energy being created in front of Washington’s net lately, it’s not shocking that tensions boiled over:

Expect more fireworks during the third period. Will the Capitals rally to win their first Stanley Cup, or will the Golden Knights force a Game 6 in Washington?

Capitals’ shot blocking part of all-in mentality fueling Stanley Cup run

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LAS VEGAS — Since Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby has been one of the many issues that the Vegas Golden Knights have been unable to solve.

Vegas has found it difficult to create chaos in front of Holtby’s net and the Washington netminder has been able to see many of the shots he’s faced. 

Those shots that don’t get through to Holtby are one of those issues facing the Golden Knights.

Through four games, the Capitals have blocked 86 shots to Vegas’ 42. Even Alex Ovechkin, who blocked 21 shots during the regular season, has blocked four in the Final.

“If you want to win, you gotta do the not-so-sexy things and that’s one of the things,” said Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly. “It’s not exactly fun, but you gotta do if you really want to win. Everyone is on board with doing those things.”

It’s not just a simple act of dropping to the ice. Positioning plays a big part in a player deciding whether to get in the way of a shot. You don’t want to screen your own goaltender, but it’s a split-second decision, one that should you decide against it, could end up with a goal against. That’s why Holtby and Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray have focused a lot on seeing around screens from opponents and teammates this season.

“Obviously it’s tough sometimes when you get three or four guys in front, but we just want to get the guys confident who are out there to block a shot that we’re going to fight to see around them and that we’re working together as a unit,” Holtby said.

The inability to get shots through on net due to the Capitals’ commitment to blocking everything should cause the Golden Knights to alter their offensive zone tactics a bit. Getting shots off quicker, fakes and better puck movement are ways to improve in that area. Or, you could take Alex Tuch’s advice.

“If you shoot hard it doesn’t feel too good to block it, so maybe they’ll think twice about blocking it next time,” he said.

A collective effort to sacrifice the body and block shots is another way that the Capitals’ have bought into an all-in mentality under head coach Barry Trotz. It’s a big reason why they’re one win away from capturing their first Stanley Cup.

“If I’m being honest, it’s always all in. We’ve just executed it better than we have in the past,” said defenseman John Carlson. “There’s a big trickle down effect with things like that. Everyone’s doing it and everyone’s leading by example. The more leaders you can slot into the top of the totem pole that are doing whatever it takes, that’s big for the rest of the guys and the effect that it has in terms of confidence and togetherness.”

Previous Capitals teams may have had a similar mentality, but the end result wasn’t a positive. Here they are, still doing those same things and it’s worked through two extra months of hockey and put them on the cusp of a championship. This season wasn’t an easy one for Washington, which has made each victory a little more satisfying.

“I remember at the beginning of the everybody was saying we would struggle to make the playoffs. Even halfway through the year we really hadn’t gotten much traction in terms of a lineup or some guys were still trying to figure out where they fit in and what their role was,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “I think the last couple of years winning came a lot easier to us and we were supposed to win. I think maybe we didn’t enjoy winning as much as we did this year because it came easier. This year, when it was more of a struggle to grind out wins, it was more enjoyable for the guys. 

“The last couple of years we had a lot of pressure on us to win because we were supposed to win and it probably affected us in a negative way at times.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide
• Stanley Cup Final schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

How James Neal’s miss swung Game 4

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WASHINGTON — Maybe the Vegas Golden Knights would have still lost.

Maybe it would have still been a blowout.

Maybe they will still shock the world — again! — and run off three consecutive wins and make everybody forget about their 6-2 loss in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

But when James Neal had the puck on his stick early in the first period, staring at a wide open net, and then proceeded to fire it off the inside of the far post it felt like one of those moments that would be a turning point in the game, in the series, and ultimately, in their season.

At that point Vegas was in complete control of the early stages. They were dictating the pace. They finally looked like the team that had started fast in just about every game this postseason. They were finally, after three games of spotty, inconsistent, and sloppy play in the Stanley Cup Final, giving the Capitals their absolute best shot.

Then everything unraveled for them.

[Related: James Neal’s miss leads to Capitals’ offensive eruption]

Five minutes after Neal’s miss defenseman Colin Miller was sent off for tripping Lars Eller in the neutral zone.

Just 30 seconds after that play T.J. Oshie cashed in on his look at an empty net and from there the first period Capitals blitz was on, giving Vegas what would prove to be an insurmountable three-goal deficit.

The entire sequence was just another reminder as to just how fine of a line there is between winning and losing in the NHL and what a significant factor luck plays in all of this.

Heading into Game 5 in Vegas on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, NBC) the Golden Knights find themselves facing elimination for the first time this postseason with their entire season and Stanley Cup dreams on the line. It is incredible to look at how they got here.

After taking Game 1 of the series they were a miracle Braden Holtby save away from sending Game 2 to overtime where anything could have happened.

Then in Game 4, they hit two posts in the first five minutes including Neal’s wide open miss before everything started to go wrong.

“It was a perfect play,” said Neal after the game. “At the start I thought he was going to shoot it, then he held on to it and it was great. Holtby was kind of over there, he gave it to me, Niskanen laid down for a second so I wanted to wait a half a second and just shot it off the post.”

“It changes the game for sure if I score there,” Neal added. “But now we have to win a game at home that is what we will focus on. I like the way we played, you take the positives from tonight because there were a lot of parts of our game that we liked tonight.”

The latter part is what has to be a cruel twist for the Golden Knights as they finally seemed to be getting back to playing their brand of hockey, and then for the first time this postseason seemed to not have everything go their way.

“It was frustrating because of the score,” said Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant when asked how he felt after the first period. “I thought we played our best period of the Final so far. We hit two posts, we had some good chances, and we got nothing out of it. After the first period we came in here and said let’s keep going, let’s keep working hard, let’s keep playing well because things can change in a hurry so we wanted to keep going. Thought we played a pretty good game for the most part.”

“There was a lot of moments it was our game for sure. We played a lot of the game the way we wanted to play it.”

Here is where that becomes a concern for Vegas: After splitting the first two games of the series on home ice they came into Washington for Game 3 and got what was probably Marc-Andre Fleury‘s best game of the series (and he was pretty great for most that game).

It still was not enough to win.

In Game 4 they had their best start of the series, played what was perhaps their best game of the series, and still ended up getting blown out on the scoreboard and dropped their third game in a row.

It has to be crushing to give a team your best shot and still end up having that sort of a result on the scoreboard.

This all feels very similar to the way the Capitals’ second round series went against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In Game 5 of that series the Penguins played what they thought was their best game of the series. It still resulted in a loss. When both teams came out for Game 6 two nights later they both played like they knew it as the Penguins were suddenly the team that looked tight and the Capitals finally looked like they had the weight of the world lifted off of their shoulders. That seems to be where everything changed for this Capitals team. Every step of the way after that has looked the same as they finally seem to be exorcising all of the postseason demons that have haunted them for years.

In postseasons past Alex Tuch‘s shot late in Game 2 gets roofed under the crossbar and the game goes to overtime where they probably lose on some stupid play. Marc-Andre Fleury probably steals Game 3. James Neal probably buries his wide open look in the center of the net and Vegas is the team that goes on a roll to start Game 4.

Not this year. Because this year the breaks are finally going their way.

The common theme after Game 4 was that teams make their own breaks and create their own luck. Maybe to a point that is true, and it is not meant to discredit what the Capitals have done to this point to say they are finally getting a little puck luck.

No team has ever won the Stanley Cup — or any other championship — without a lot of luck going their way. It is an essential ingredient in winning, almost as much as talent, coaching, health, or whatever other factor you want to talk about.

For the previous 42 years it almost always seemed to work against the Capitals.

In year 43 it finally is not.

There was perhaps no better example of it than James Neal, with the first strike of a pivotal Game in the Stanley Cup Final sitting on his stick, firing it off the post for no reason at all.

Stanley Cup Final schedule
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Golden Knights 6, Capitals 4
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 1 (Capitals leads series 2-1)
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Capitals 6, Golden Knights 2 (Capitals lead series 3-1)
Game 5 Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

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.