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

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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

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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.

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

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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

Would Duchene for Murray, Jenner trade make sense for Avs, Blue Jackets?

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With Colorado Avalanche training camp looming on Thursday, the urge to trade Matt Duchene might rise. For some Avs fans, it could be as much about getting some closure as anything else.

Now, it’s important to note that there’s no word on a trade being close.

Really, there are plenty of reports that indicate that Avalanche GM Joe Sakic continues to hold out for a great deal, whether you believe his aims are reasonable or not.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported in “31 Thoughts” that the Avalanche may have at least discussed P.K. Subban with the Nashville Predators, and updates back up the notion that Sakic is shooting high:

Wow.

So, to reiterate, it could be quite a while before the Avalanche trade Duchene. It’s really difficult to tell, especially since moves can come together quickly after laying dormant for what seems like ages.

***

So, again, this isn’t to say a trade is coming. With training camp nearing, it’s fun to break down the facets of a possible move, anyway.

On Tuesday, PHT pondered the Hurricanes giving up Noah Hanifin for Duchene. Such an idea didn’t seem particularly well-received by Carolina fans.

The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that the Columbus Blue Jackets have not offered up the combination of Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray to try to nab Duchene, but in a Wednesday newsletter, Portzline reported that such a combination could possibly meet the Avalanche’s needs.

Even beyond this post’s earlier disclaimer, it’s important to note that Portzline reports Jenner is a little banged up, so that would likely hold up a move even if Sakic would bite:

Let’s explore the logic of a possible move, though.

***

A game-breaker for Columbus?

The Hurricanes and Blue Jackets have at least two things in common that could make a Duchene trade more feasible and palatable: each franchise boasts a nice prospect stockpile and lack a true top center.

Now, you can argue that Duchene isn’t an “elite” No. 1 pivot, but he could really flesh out Columbus’ group (and take some pressure off, say, Alex Wennberg).

It’s easy to fixate on Duchene’s rough 2016-17 season, but at age 26, it’s fair to argue that last season was an anomaly. The Avalanche were a borderline historic disaster, and even if Duchene could have played better, it’s absurd to pin too much on the speedy scorer.

Look at his previous four sesaons and you’ll see evidence of a gamebreaker, especially in the low-scoring, modern NHL.

Duchene generated at least 20 goals in three straight seasons from 2013-14 to 2015-16, and he almost hit 20 (scoring 17) during the 48-game lockout season of 2012-13.

The Blue Jackets, to some extent, score by committee. Adding a little more dynamic skill could really help Columbus find that “extra gear.”

Murray, the mystery

Reports have already surfaced that Ryan Murray wouldn’t be enough of a showpiece to pry Duchene away from Colorado.

Portzline indicates that a package involving Murray and Jenner could move the needle more, so let’s ponder Murray for a moment.

Considering that the Avalanche are shooting high for a Duchene return, they’d have to figure that Murray, 23, needs a fresh start. Management might even see the potential for a high-draft-pick turnaround that parallels how Erik Johnson‘s enjoyed a nice run with the Avs.

Because, yikes, it’s been a bumpy ride. Injuries derailed his early development, and Murray seemed generally overwhelmed in 2016-17:

via Domenic Galamini

Yep, that would require a leap of faith … or the Avalanche would really need to be smitten by Boone Jenner.

On Jenner

Jenner is an interesting test case in perception.

Yes, he scored 30 goals in 2015-16, but nine of them came on the power play. Jenner was limited to 18 goals in 2016-17, with none coming on Columbus’ locomotive man-advantage. Realistic expectations probably place him at 20 goals with modest playmaking.

Jenner brings nice size and is only 24, so there are selling points.

Still, it’s possible that Blue Jackets management views his strengths as redundant. He averaged less than 30 seconds of power-play time last season after logging about two minutes per night in 2015-16, for instance,

Some conclusions

Jenner ($2.9M, RFA after 2017-18) and Murray ($2.825M, RFA after 2017-18) and Duchene ($6M, UFA after 2018-19) all have their strengths and weaknesses. They’re all at or approaching a fork in the road in their careers with little time on their current contracts.

A Jenner + Murray combo could make some sense for the Avalanche, especially with both being at prime ages. You’d think that the Blue Jackets might need to sweeten the deal with a prospect, at least considering how big Sakic is seemingly dreaming.

Personally, from a Blue Jackets perspective, this seems like a great deal.

It would set the stage for a potentially fascinating summer of 2019, as Duchene, Artemi Panarin, and Sergei Bobrovsky would all be eligible for unrestricted free agency. On the other hand, that would allow Columbus to assess where the franchise is at over a season or two, and pivot if they feel that this group just can’t get it done.

One understands the lure of hoarding prospects, especially with how fans can sometimes get attached to the daydream of production that may never come. Sometimes you have to swing for the fences, though, and the Blue Jackets might want to do that with Duchene.

You know, if they can actually convince Sakic to accept a reasonable deal.

Blue Jackets face big cap decisions after Wennberg signing

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Aside from some concerns about his numbers being inflated by a robust Blue Jackets power play, the majority of the reviews were very positive for Alex Wennberg‘s new deal with Columbus.

(Read more about his six-year deal with a $4.9 million cap hit here.)

Locking up the intriguing 22-year-old talent settles a big question for the Blue Jackets, but after looking at their salary structure, some agonizing decisions remain. Let’s look at some of those situations and their cap future overall, with help from Cap Friendly’s always-helpful listings.

Commitments

Wennberg is signed through 2022-23, making his deal the longest-standing contract on the Blue Jackets’ roster right now. There are other significant deals, though.

The best one, for my money, is Seth Jones: his $5.4M cap hit runs through 2021-22. The 22-year-old is already starting to put together the numbers (career-high 12 goals and 42 points last season) that make him more than what he already was: a developing star. Even if he bounces somewhere between “very good” and “legit star,” just about any team would fork over $5.4M per year for Jones.

David Savard isn’t too shabby at $4.25M through 2019-20, standing as the only other blueliner with a lengthy deal for CBJ.

Wennberg’s deal stands along with two other forwards as far as lengthier contracts go. Nick Foligno ($5.5M through 2020-21) really improved his standing in the league last season, while Brandon Dubinsky ($5.85M through 2020-21) poses some concerns considering his rougher style and the fact that he’s already 31.

(Then again, you can have worse things on your resume than “Premium Sidney Crosby Disturber.”)

Contract years

Several Blue Jackets face especially fascinating fork-in-the-road seasons.

Cam Atkinson exploded with an All-Star output last season, finishing with career-highs in goals (35), assists (27), and points (62). Ten of his goals and 21 of those points came on that power play, and being that he’s already 28, Columbus might be right to see if he slips a bit before making a big investment.

That said, Atkinson probably ranks as an underrated player, or at least he once did. This marks four straight seasons with at least 21 goals and 40 points.

The question isn’t about Atkinson getting a raise, but instead the keys are “How much of a raise?” and “For how long?” Atkinson carries a $2.9M AAV and would be an unrestricted free agent.

(More on Atkinson’s contract year here.)

After a surprising 30-goal season in 2015-16, Boone Jenner went to 18 goals and 34 points last season. At 24, he’s in an interesting spot as an RFA carrying a $2.2M cap hit.

Ryan Murray ($2.825M) and Jack Johnson ($4.357M) round out the headliners among the contract years, with all due respect to Matt Calvert and Oliver Bjorkstrand.*

Both defensemen are intriguing. Murray, 23, has experienced a frustratingly stilted development thanks to injuries. Johnson, 30, draws plenty of criticism for his defensive play, and one would guess that Columbus would prefer to get a discount on another deal if they bring him back.

(Here’s hoping Johnson sticks around the NHL one way or another, considering his financial/familial mess.)

Huge decisions

As significant as those expiring deals are, the two-year contracts stand as the biggest choices.

A year after injuries and inconsistency made Sergei Bobrovsky‘s $7.425M cap hit look questionable, a brilliant Vezina year (albeit somewhat tainted by playoff struggles) make that price look like a borderline bargain. Still, “Bob” is 28, so he’ll be 30 at the end of his current contract. If he wants a significant raise on a fairly significant clip, will Columbus be on board?

There’s some room for intrigue, as Joonas Korisalo’s $900K deal goes away after two years, as well.

“Cost certainty” was a theme of the Blackhawks’ explanations for their sometimes-shocking summer swaps, and that thought stands out in what Columbus got back in trading Brandon Saad, whose $6M cap hit expires in 2020-21. Artemi Panarin, meanwhile, is only covered through 2018-19 at the same $6M clip.

If Panarin proves that he can generate a ton of offense without Patrick Kane, his price tag could be significant; he’d only be 27 and is slated for UFA status. *Gulp*

The good news is that Zach Werenski (or Zachary?) stands as a tremendous rookie-deal-steal at $925K for two more seasons. The bad part is that Werenski would be in line for a big raise in 2019-20 and beyond.

With Bobrovsky, Panarin, and Werenski all having two years remaining on their contracts, it’s clear that Columbus has some decisions to make, whether they hand out extensions in the summer of 2018 or wait until deals expire.

***

Considering how dour things seemed for Columbus just a summer ago, the outlook is a lot sunnier today.

Even so, GM Jarmo Kekalainen faces some crucial choices in the next year or two. Which ways would you lean?

* – Some Blue Jackets execs might root for a Bjorkstrand breakout in 2018-19.

Goalie Nods: McElhinney gets the start for Leafs

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With Frederik Andersen unavailable for tonight’s regular season finale for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Curtis McElhinney will get the start against his former team, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

He made quite an impact on Saturday night, coming on in relief of Andersen and making a couple of huge saves late in the third period.

As we mentioned this morning this is still a relatively big game for the Maple Leafs. Even though their playoff spot is already clinched, they can still move up in the standings and avoid a first-round matchup with the Washington Capitals. But to do that they have to knock off the Blue Jackets.

McElhinney and the Maple Leafs are going to get a bit of a break on Sunday, not only because Columbus is riding a six-game losing streak, but also because the Blue Jackets have nothing (quite literally) to play for. Their playoff spot has already been locked in place for a week now, and they not only are still without defenseman Zach Werenski, but it also appears that Alex Wennberg, Seth Jones and Scott Hartnell will also be held out of the lineup for precautionary reasons.

The Blue Jackets are preparing for their first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Sergei Bobrovsky, perhaps the Vezina Trophy front-runner at this point, will also get the night off.

Joonas Korpisalo will start in net for the Blue Jackets.

Elsewhere on Sunday…

— In the final game at Joe Louis Arena it will be Cory Schneider for the New Jersey Devils going up against Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings.

Andrei Vasilevskiy will be in net for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Buffalo Sabres. No word yet from the Sabres on their starter.

Mike Condon gives Craig Anderson a break for the Ottawa Senators in their regular season finale in New York against the Islanders. The Islanders are starting Thomas Greiss.

— It will be Calvin Pickard vs. Jake Allen when the Colorado Avalanche visit the St. Louis Blues.

James Reimer helps the Florida Panthers close out their season when they visit the Washington Capitals. Braden Holtby gets one more tune-up start before the playoffs begin after getting the day off on Saturday.

Eddie Lack will play for the Carolina Hurricanes when they visit the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers will start Anthony Stolarz.

— Magnus Hellberg goes for the New York Rangers when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins. No word yet from the Penguins on their starter.

— The Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks have not announced their starters.

Cam Talbot will get a much-needed break for the Edmonton Oilers as Laurent Brossoit gets the start as they have a chance to maybe win the Pacific Division. Talbot will finish with a league-leading 73 starts, seven more than any other goalie in the NHL. The Vancouver Canucks have not announced their starter.