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High-scoring top lines dominating best defenders in playoffs

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Each time Boston’s top line jumps over the boards, the Tampa Bay Lightning are on red alert.

Make a mistake and Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak can make you pay. They have.

”You think it’s going all right and you’re playing well, and they only need one look,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. ”We knew that. That’s no surprise. They’re a good line.”

Top lines are lighting up opponents all over the playoffs, ratcheting scoring up to a pace not seen in more than two decades. Top trios from the Capitals, Golden Knights, Penguins, Jets and Predators are having their way against top opposing defensemen. Goals are supposed to be harder to come by in the playoffs, but after years of NHL rule changes to get goals, goals and more goals, that is exactly what’s happening.

”Every line, every group of forwards, give different challenges for defensemen,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. ”It’s the types of reads and the tendencies of the group and as a series goes on there’s going to be more and more deception happening from a forward group to our group of defenders and vice versa. It’s the constant reads and the constant communication and the constant positioning that you have to have against really dynamic people who are good collectively or individually.”

Especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s not easy being D.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

A total of 332 goals were scored through the first 54 playoff games, the most at that point since 1996 (338). Elite goaltenders are putting on a show, yet top lines like Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist (Pittsburgh); Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson (Washington); Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg); Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith (Vegas): and Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson (Nashville) are taking advantage of their opportunities.

Top lines have been on the ice for 42 of the 78 goals scored through Tuesday in the second round, a showcase of skill that shows great offense is beating great defense. So many of the game’s best defensemen are now counted on as much for their offense as the play in their own end, yet even those tasked with stopping the stars haven’t been able to do it.

”We’ve got a game plan, but I don’t think we’ve completely executed it yet,” Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon said of containing the Golden Knights’ top line. ”We’re kind of doing it in bits and pieces.”

The Penguins trail the Capitals 2-1 in their second-round series in part because they haven’t gotten much offense beyond Guentzel, Crosby and Hornqvist, plus the goals that top line is giving up to Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.

”They’re pretty aggressive, so there’s some open ice heading the other way against them,” top Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. ”You’ve got to defend hard when they have it and make your plays and have confidence to make plays when you do have it. If you’re only playing defense against them, it’s going to be a long night. You have to go on the attack, as well.”

That’s the risk-reward for elite defenders in the playoffs: knowing when to counterattack. It has worked some for the Bruins, who so far have limited the damage from Tampa Bay’s J.T. Miller, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and put up some goals against them.

Bruins defensemen Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy corralled Auston Matthews and Toronto’s top offensive performers in the first round and continue to draw the toughest assignments against the Lightning.

”The guys on the ice, that’s their assignment for 15, 18 minutes, whatever they play at even strength that night,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”There’s no magic formula about following them around or any particular structure other than Z and Charlie have done a good job of not getting caught up ice, giving them odd-man rushes for the most part.”

Pittsburgh’s biggest hole through three games defensively – outside of Matt Murray‘s apparently vulnerable glove hand – has been defending the Capitals on the rush.

”They’re a very skilled team,” defensemen Justin Schultz said. ”You’ve got to have numbers back and keep your head on a swivel because they’re very talented.”

It’s not just rush goals, though, as the Jets’ Connor, Scheifele and Wheeler showed in helping lead a comeback from down 3-0 to beat the Predators 7-4 to take a 2-1 series lead. Winnipeg and Nashville have combined for 25 goals despite two Vezina Trophy finalists in net and some of the best defensemen in hockey. It’s a blueprint for how the NHL wanted to crank up offense.

”I think the mindset is definitely to play well defensively,” Predators captain Roman Josi said. ”Both teams want to play a good game defensively, and for some reason these two teams seem to bring the best out of each other and they’re always high-scoring games.”

AP Sports Writers Josh Dubow in San Jose, California, and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and freelance reporter Matt Kalman in Boston contributed.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

The Buzzer: McDavid passes Kucherov

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A new points king, and some concerns for the Kings

With two goals on Saturday, Connor McDavid might just pull off an impressive-yet-depressing feat: winning the Art Ross Trophy and then sitting at home after his team misses the playoffs. He now has 96 points on the season, one more than Nikita Kucherov.

That nice output helped the Edmonton Oilers upset the Los Angeles Kings 3-2 in regulation. With this result, the idle Anaheim Ducks hopped into the third spot in the Pacific, while wins for the Avalanche and Blues force Los Angeles out of the wild-card spots, too. More on that here.

Here’s the goal that gave McDavid the lead, at least briefly:

If nothing else, McDavid might generate two 100-point seasons in a row.

Players of the Night

  • Nicklas Backstrom was dishing out some great passes in Washington’s 6-4 win against Montreal. His four-assist night is quite the accomplishment, though you could argue that it isn’t all that rare for the slick Swede.

  • Vincent Trocheck generated a clutch performance for the Panthers, collecting two goals and an assist during a third period rally that saw them avoid being spoiled by the Arizona Coyotes. Keith Kinkaid generated back-to-back wins for the Devils, with 35 of 36 saves coming in a tight win against the Lightning. This post has more on what all of that means for the playoff races.
  • Alexandar Georgiev getting more reps is one of the silver linings of the Rangers roughing it through the end of the regular season. He’s now 4-3-1, yet with a strong .926 save percentage after making 43 out of 44 saves in a win against the Sabres on Saturday.

An ovation for Karlsson

The fans in Ottawa gave Erik Karlsson a heartwarming ovation during his return to the Senators lineup following the death of his infant son. Karlsson collected an assist in Ottawa’s loss.

Courageous fight

Brenden Dillon probably gets the W in this jarringly aggressive fight, but give Garnet Hathaway credit for rallying back in the end, and merely for dropping the gloves against a larger competitor. Wow.

Highlights

Leafs great Borje Salming enjoyed himself during Toronto’s win, including this patently weird moment.

Fantastic save by Jake Allen, who helped the Blues thwart the Blue Jackets in a big game.

Carl Soderberg finished quite the sequence for Colorado’s only actual goal before the Avs edged Vegas in a shootout.

More Factoids

Year after year, Bruce Boudreau churns out regular-season wins. Maybe one of these days he’ll enjoy more postseason success? (It certainly wouldn’t be easy this year, but still.)

Clayton Keller might need to practice Teemu Selanne’s sniping goal celebration at this rate.

Not bad for a team that’s been without Auston Matthews for big chunk of the season.

Scores

Avalanche 2, Golden Knights 1 (SO)
Sharks 5, Flames 1
Maple Leafs 4, Red Wings 3
Capitals 6, Canadiens 4
Hurricanes 5, Senators 2
Panthers 4, Coyotes 2
Devils 2, Lightning 1
Blackhawks 3, Islanders 1
Rangers 5, Sabres 1
Blues 2, Blue Jackets 1
Wild 4, Predators 1
Oilers 3, Kings 2

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 Morning Skate: Barkov the hidden gem; Schwartz closer to return

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Nashville Predators threw some love the Tennessee Titans way Wednesday night ahead of this weekend’s playoff game against the New England Patriots. [Predators]

• If you missed it yesterday, the San Jose Sharks/City of Winnipeg controversy saw GM Doug Wilson weigh in about his disappointment with the team’s broadcast partner. [Mercury News]

Aleksander Barkov needs a bigger spotlight on him so people can see just how good of a player he is. [National Post]

• Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi on taking a puck to the back of the neck: “Very scary moment. It was definitely a weird feeling. Just kind of hurt everywhere. My arm was numb. Not sure if there was any damage. It was just a wait and see. But I got really lucky.” [Tampa Bay Times]

• The St. Louis Blues are close to getting Jaden Schwartz back in the lineup. [Post-Dispatch]

• What’s been killing the Edmonton Oilers? A lot of things, especially their weakness on the wings. [TSN]

• Praise to Bruce Cassidy and the job he’s done behind the Boston Bruins’ bench. [NBC Boston]

David Backes is healthy and playing his best hockey again a month after surgery to remove part of his colon. [NHL.com]

• What would Sweden’s Olympic roster look like NHL players? [Bruins Daily]

• Could Anthony Duclair help your hockey team? [Sportsnet]

• What’s gone wrong for Matt Duchene in Ottawa? [Spector’s Hockey]

• Referee Wes McCauley talks about some of his calls that have gone viral. [Yahoo]

• How does one Minnesota high school combat decreasing attendance at its hockey games? By charging $100 to livestream games. [Star Tribune]

• Finally, here’s Brenden Dillon of the San Jose Sharks assisting a Harlem Globetrotter’s trick shot:

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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.

The Buzzer: Milestones, shutouts and NHL firsts

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Players of the Night:

Marian Gaborik, Los Angeles Kings: 

Gaborik scored twice and helped propel a four-goal third period for the Kings, who came back from a 2-1 deficit after 40 minutes to win 5-2 against the visiting Minnesota Wild. Gaborik’s second goal of the night was his 400th of his NHL career. It came against the team he achieved his highest scoring prowess with.

Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings: 

Nyquist scored twice and added a helper as the Red Wings toppled the Western Conference-best Winnipeg Jets at Little Caesars Arena. Nyquist’s first-period marker held up as the game-winner in a big game for the Red Wings, who responded after getting shellacked 10-1 by the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.

Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks:

Markstrom made 30 saves in a 3-0 win for the Canucks against the Carolina Hurricanes. His shutout was the first of his NHL career.

Highlights of the Night:

Boo Nieves, the owner of one of the coolest nicknames in the league, scored his first NHL goal on a slick wrist shot in the first period of a 4-3 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

John Gibson committed this theft tonight. The victim failed to press charges:

Shea Weber did his best Clayton Kershaw impression to score against the St. Louis Blues:

Factoids of the Night:

Gaborik had a pretty good night:

And Nikita Kucherov put himself in some pretty elite company, both in Tampa Bay Lightning history, as well as NHL history in general:

MISC:

Scores:

Devils 4, Blue Jackets 1

Rangers 4, Penguins 3

Blues 4, Canadiens 3

Red Wings 5, Jets 1

Lightning 6, Islanders 2

Predators 5, Stars 2

Sabres 4, Avalanche 2

Canucks 3, Hurricanes 0

Golden Knights 4, Ducks 3 (SO)

Kings 5, Wild 2


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

Sharks’ Dillon handed one-game suspension by player safety department

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A nasty two-handed chop that already got Brenden Dillon booted from a game will earn him another night off.

Dillon was handed a one-game suspension by the league on Tuesday night have his slash on Washington Capitals defenseman Madison Bowey in a 4-1 San Jose Sharks on Monday.

Dillon was slapped with a five-minute major and a game misconduct in the third period.

The deed, which was explained as a “simply frustrated player delivering a retaliatory and forceful slash” to a vulnerable area of an opponent’s body, can be seen here:

Under the terms of the CBA, Dillon will forfeit $17,580.65 based on his average annual salary.


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