Alex Wennberg

Blue Jackets stun Maple Leafs with Game 1 shutout

Leave a comment

After three straight opening round postseason exits there is no team under more immense pressure to advance through the qualifying round than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Their current core has yet to break through in the playoffs, they play under the most intense media microscope in the league, and they were already dealing with the criticism that was coming from a sub-par regular season performance before the season was paused.

They need to win, and they need to win now.

So getting shutout and losing 2-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 1 of their qualifying round series on Sunday night was probably not the start they were looking for.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Cam Atkinson and Alex Wennberg scored the only goals for Columbus, while Joonas Korpisalo stopped all 28 shots he faced for his first career postseason shutout.

This is not going to be well received in Toronto

For most teams this situation would not be anything to panic about. It is one game and even in a shortened series there is still time to turn things around, get back on track, and salvage the series. But given the way the regular season went and the fact this core is still looking for its first postseason series win and there is going to be no grace period here. No benefit of the doubt. No patience.

It is not just the fact they dropped the first game of the series, but the team they dropped it to.

Toronto and Columbus could not be at two more opposite ends of the NHL postseason spectrum even though their spot in the standings was virtually identical.

The Maple Leafs are the team loaded with superstars and the team that has had championship expectations. The goal is to simply not just make the playoffs, but to make the playoffs and win the whole thing.

To this point, fairly or unfairly, they are viewed as underachievers, especially after spending most of the 2019-20 regular season either out of the playoffs or teetering on the bubble.

The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, are a team that entered this season with zero expectations and have done nothing but overachieve all year.

Their roster was gutted over the summer in free agency, they were picked by most to finish near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division and perhaps even the entire league, and once the season did start they were absolutely ravaged by injuries all year to some of their best players.

Despite all of that being stacked against them they still exceeded all expectations and found themselves in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Even with all of their flaws they still had a strong core thanks to defenseman Seth Jones and Zach Werenski and a couple of criminally underrated forwards in Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois. The wild card was always going to be how their goaltending duo of Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins performed. They excelled, and on Sunday Korpisalo played one of his best games of the season.

A year ago the Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world by sweeping the 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.

Now they are one game closer to really sending the NHL world into chaos if they can upset the Maple Leafs.

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets

1 Comment
(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)
 
For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Uhhhhhh worse. Look, can the Blue Jackets surprise some people this year? Absolutely. It’s just tough to argue that they’re a better team today than they were at the end of last season. Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingle and Sergei Bobrovsky are all gone, but there’s still some talent on this roster. How good can they be? We’ll find out early on in the season, but counting them out from get-go might be a silly proposition. John Tortorella is a good head coach, but he’ll have to do the best coaching job of his career if the Jackets are going to make a trip back to the postseason.

Strengths: Not many teams can say that they have a one-two punch like Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. They’re both two of the best defenders in the league and they should continue to be key contributors for the Jackets in 2019-20. They also have solid depth contributors like David Savard and Ryan Murray.

Despite losing some big names up front, Columbus is still pretty deep up front. Cam Atkinson, Gustav Nyquist, Alex Wennberg, Boone Jenner, Josh Anderson, Pierre-Luc Dubois and a few others. Losing Panarin will hurt the offense, but it also gives a lot of these young veterans an opportunity to take the next step in their careers.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Weaknesses: There’s no denying that the Blue Jackets are unproven between the pipes. Losing a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in free agency will do that to a team. It looks like Columbus will head into the season with Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Korpisalo had a 10-7-3 record with a 2.95 goals-against-average and a .897 save percentage in 27 games last year. The issue with Korpisalo is that he’s never played in more than 31 games at the NHL level. As for Merzlikins, he’s been in the Swiss League for the last six years. He’s totally unproven as an NHL goaltender. So it’s tough to get a read on what he can bring to the team.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 6. The Blue Jackets stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were the talk of the NHL for a couple of weeks in the spring before eventually falling to the Boston Bruins in the second round. Even though they’ve lost key free agents, the expectations internally will be high for this group. GM Jarmo Kekalainen has spent the off-season telling people that the team isn’t going to be as bad as they think. If Tortorella can’t get the most out of this group, his job could be in jeopardy.

Three Most Fascinating Players: It’ll be interesting to see what Wennberg, Dubois and Korpisalo can do to help the Blue Jackets this season. Wennberg posted a 59-point season back in 2016-17, but he’s gone cold over the last two seasons, as he’s scored 35 and 25 points during that stretch. Can he finally get his career back on track offensively?

Dubois has taken a step forward in each of his first two seasons in the NHL. During his rookie year, he posted a 20 goals and 48 points in 82 contests. Last season, he followed that up by scoring 27 goals and 61 points in 82 games. Now, can he top those numbers? That would be huge for this team in transition.

As we mentioned earlier, Korpisalo could go into the season as the number one goalie on an NHL team, which is something he’s never had the privilege of doing. Can he be a solid starter? That remains to be seen. He could be the key to them making it back to the playoffs.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Jackets might be better than most people anticipate, but it might be difficult for them to sneak into a Wild Card spot with the other teams in the East improving significantly. Even with Panarin, Bobrovsky and Duchene, the Jackets only clinched a playoff spot on the second-to-last night of the season. Without those three, they will have their work cut out for them.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

WATCH LIVE: Blue Jackets visit Penguins on NBCSN

Getty Images
2 Comments

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Thursday night’s matchup between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game is the start of a home-and-home that will wrap up the season series between Columbus and Pittsburgh. The Penguins have won both meetings so far, including their game last week in Columbus. Overall, the Pens have won seven in a row in the regular season vs. the Blue Jackets.

This home-and-home series figures to have massive implications on the playoff race. Entering this game, just two points separate third in the Metro from being outside of the playoffs entirely.

Columbus picked up a much-needed two points on Tuesday with their 2-1 shootout win over New Jersey. The Jackets had been 1-3-0 since the trade deadline, so the win was a tangible measure of progress to keep them right in the playoff mix. However, the reaction in the locker room afterwards was hardly celebratory. The Jackets played very poorly, mustering only 18 shots on goal (a season-low) against a Devils team that had nearly half of its regular lineup out due to injury.

Pittsburgh also went past regulation on Tuesday, defeating Florida 3-2 in OT, thanks to Jake Guentzel’s second goal of the game. He now has 33 goals this season. Sidney Crosby had three points to surpass the 1,200-point threshold.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Columbus Blue Jackets at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Thursday, March 7, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUE JACKETS
Artemi PanarinPierre-Luc DuboisJosh Anderson
Nick FolignoMatt DucheneCam Atkinson
Ryan DzingelAlex WennbergOliver Bjorkstrand
Brandon DubinskyBoone JennerRiley Nash

Zach WerenskiSeth Jones
Markus NutivaaraDavid Savard
Scott HarringtonAdam McQuaid

Starting goalie: Joonas Korpisalo

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Jake Guentzel
Zach Aston-ReeseEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Dominik SimonNick BjugstadPatric Hornqvist
Teddy BluegerMatt CullenGarrett Wilson

Brian Dumoulin – Zach Trotman
Jack JohnsonJustin Schultz
Marcus PetterssonErik Gudbranson

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

John Forslund (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Pittsburgh. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Mike Johnson.

Capitals strike early, hold on to even series in chaotic game

13 Comments

After allowing three different two-goal leads to disappear on home ice this postseason, the Washington Capitals were able to hold on to one on Sunday afternoon, picking up a 4-1 win to tie their second-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins at one game apiece.

It was another fast start for the Capitals as they were able to jump all over a sloppy Penguins team in the first period.

Alex Ovechkin started the scoring just 1:26 into the game when he pounced on a Patric Hornqvist turnover at the blue line and wired a shot into the top corner behind Matt Murray to give the Capitals an early lead. Later in the period Jakub Vrana scored on the power play to give the Capitals what has become — for them — a dreaded two-goal lead. But unlike in Games 1 and 2 of the first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and also in Game 1 of this series against Pittsburgh, the Capitals were able to build on that lead and hold on for the win.

They were able to add to it when Brett Connolly scored on a breakaway early in the second period, again capitalizing on another sloppy Penguins turnover, this time by Dominik Simon.

With all of that important details taken care of, it was a pretty chaotic path to get us to the end result.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

You want replay controversy? We had that!

Vrana’s goal in the first period had to withstand a goaltender interference review after the Penguins challenged it due to Brett Connolly taking a whack at Murray’s pad.

Connolly clearly knocked Murray off balance, but in the eyes of the league he had enough time to reset himself and get back into position to continue to play his position.

The call on the ice was upheld and the Capitals had their two-goal lead.

The Penguins were not happy with it, but that seems to be fairly consistent with how these reviews have been handled. Murray had time to recover after the contact from Connolly while that contact did not really alter his ability to stop the puck. There is a lot of griping about how interference reviews have been handled this season — and in many cases the griping is justified — but not all of them are completely arbitrary and inconsistent. If the goalie has time to get back into position, they usually let it go.

That would not be the only review in the game.

Midway through the third period, with the Penguins now trailing 3-1, they thought they had scored to pull within one on a Patric Hornqvist rebound attempt on the doorstep. It was unclear whether or not Capitals goalie Braden Holtby was able to keep the puck out of the net or if it had entirely crossed the goal line.

The call on the ice was no-goal and after a lengthy review it was determined that there was no conclusive evidence to overturn the call.

Holtby’s leg blocked the overhead and in-net cameras from determining whether or not the puck was entirely across the line.

This was the only angle that clearly showed the puck.

The team you want to win — or the team you are playing for — will determine what you want to see here.

This was a play that no matter what the call on the ice was they were going to stick with it given the replay angles they had to work with.

Then there was Tom Wilson!

Wilson was involved in another controversial play when he knocked Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin out of the game with a hit to the head.

There was no penalty called on the play but it will almost certainly be reviewed by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Wilson avoided a suspension in the first-round when he knocked Columbus’ Alex Wennberg out of the series for a few games with a high hit.

Losing Dumoulin was a big blow to the Penguins because it not only forced them to play with only five defensemen for the rest of the game — not a great spot for a team that is already lacking blue line depth to be in — but because Dumoulin has been great for them this postseason. If he can not go in Game 3 they would have to turn to Matt Hunwick.

The Penguins are already dealing with some significant injury issues as forwards Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin have yet to play in this series due to injuries they sustained in their first-round series win against the Philadelphia Flyers. Malkin’s absence has been glaring on the power play, while he and Hagelin make up two-thirds of what has been the team’s second line this postseason. That is a major dent in their forward depth.  That said, they have still won two of the three games they have played this postseason without Malkin, managed to split in Washington without him and Hagelin, and head home on Tuesday night for Game 3 tied in the series.

There also needs to be some attention given to the game Holtby played in net for the Capitals on Sunday because he was outstanding, stopping 32 of the 33 shots he faced.

The only goal he allowed, a long distance shot from Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, was one that beat him through traffic that he probably did not get a clear view of. He made a couple of highlight reel saves — including two on Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel that really stood out — to help slow down the Penguins’ offense.

Related: Penguins’ Dumoulin injured by hit to head from Tom Wilson

————

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.

Penguins, Rangers, Capitals headline PHT’s mighty Metro Division preview

Getty
8 Comments

The Metropolitan Division hasn’t just produced the last two Stanley Cup winners (Pittsburgh Penguins) and last two Presidents’ Trophy winners (Washington Capitals).

It’s also a division that runs deep. The Columbus Blue Jackets took the league by storm in 2016-17, and while Sergei Bobrovsky might not be sensational again, many still believe they’re legit. The New York Rangers and New York Islanders still boast significant strengths, while the Carolina Hurricanes are dark horse candidates once more.

Even the New Jersey Devils keep adding promising talent.

Let’s preview what might once again be the best division in the NHL.

Also, check out these other previews: Atlantic Division, Central Division, PHT’s picks and predictions.

Carolina Hurricanes

Poll/looking to make the leap

Columbus Blue Jackets

Poll/looking to make the leap

New Jersey Devils

Poll/looking to make the leap

New York Islanders

Poll/looking to make the leap

New York Rangers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Philadelphia Flyers

Poll/looking to make the leap

Pittsburgh Penguins

Poll/looking to make the leap

Something noteworthy from today:

Washington Capitals

Poll/looking to make the leap