WASHINGTON (AP) The good news for Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals is they still lead their Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The bad news for the Capitals, counterintuitive as it may be: They host Game 4.
So far, Washington is 7-1 in away games this postseason, closing out each of its first two series on the road.
Heading into Thursday night, the Capitals are only 3-4 in their arena. The latest setback was a 4-2 loss to the Lightning on Tuesday, after victories at Tampa Bay by a combined score of 10-4 in the final’s opening two games.
Ovechkin simply shrugged when asked about that discrepancy.
“We don’t think about it,” the three-time NHL MVP said. “We just play our game.”
Others were less dismissive.
“We can take a few things that we’ve done on the road and put it into our home game,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “Just a little simpler. Simpler play. Just a kind of, like, more gritty style.”
Asked what his club could do to fare better at home, Capitals coach Barry Trotz said: “Just play the way we do on the road. We’re invested there. We’re playing with real good focus. I didn’t think we were as focused as we have been normally on the road. So just pretend you’re on the road. All the buildings are pretty well the same these days.”
Trotz notices a difference in his players’ attitude on home ice, saying: “It’s `us against the world’ when were on the road.”
There is a league-wide trend here: Road teams are 38-34 in these playoffs.
So much for any supposed home-ice advantage, right?
“For whatever reason, at this time of the year there are more distractions than in the regular season, for sure. A lot of people have friends and family coming down and ticket requests. Sometimes there’s that little added pressure of playing at home and wanting to obviously do good things in front of your fans,” Lightning forward Steven Stamkos said. “There’s something to be said, too, (for) winning games on the road, when you can just kind of hear a pin drop in the crowd, sometimes, which is always a good thing.”
“It’s easier to play on the road. It’s always that way on the road. Any team would say that,” he said. “Because you’re not focused on the excitement of your fans and all that. They bring you energy in good ways, but at the same time, you need to stay realistic and play your game.”
During the regular season, Washington was a strong home team, playing in front of loud, red-wearing sellout crowds in every game.
Only five teams in the 31-club NHL had more victories at home than Washington’s 28 – and that total represents seven more wins than the Capitals managed on the road.
So what is going on in the playoffs?
“I don’t really have an explanation for it, to be honest with you,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I know when we go on the road, I think maybe we feel a bit more relaxed, and when we do make mistakes, maybe we don’t let the groaning affect us or whatnot. I mean, that being said, I think we should be probably mentally stronger to not let that affect us. Just got to try to find a way to win the next one at home, for sure.”
NOTES: Injured Capitals C Nicklas Backstrom, who has missed the last four games with an injured right hand, took part in the team’s optional skate Wednesday. But Trotz wouldn’t give any hint as to when Backstrom might return. “When Nicky’s ready to go, he’s ready to go,” Trotz said. “You miss him in every way shape or form.” … Washington re-signed D Aaron Ness to a one-year, two-way contract worth $650,000 if he’s in the NHL, $425,000 in the minors. Ness had one assist in eight games for the Capitals this season.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
When it comes to the success of the Vegas Golden Knights the lion’s share of the praise is being thrown in the direction of starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the top-line of Jon Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. All of it, of course, is richly deserved. All four of them have been incredible all season and have arguably been even better in the playoffs. Other than the emergence of Karlsson — which is still kind of baffling — there was reason to believe that the quartet could make a positive impact immediately.
Fleury has been a No. 1 goalie in the league for more than a decade. His name is on the Stanley Cup three times. Everybody knew he was going to give them a chance to at least be competitive on most nights. Maybe we didn’t think he would be quite this dominant, but he has been good, is good, and will continue to be good. Likewise, pretty much everyone knew right away that the Jon Marchessault/Reilly Smith move had a chance to backfire on the Florida Panthers. Marchessault scored 30 goals last year! Smith has been a 50-point player in the NHL! It is not like their success this year is totally out of nowhere.
But perhaps the biggest actual surprise with this team has been the fact that the defense has been really, really good.
Leading the way on that front has been former Washington Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt who has finally had an opportunity to shine as a top-pairing defender.
It’s not that Schmidt wasn’t a useful player in Washington, because he was. He probably deserved more playing time than he was getting. He showed some offensive ability, he was consistently a positive possession player, and he always seemed to make an impact when he was in the lineup and on the ice. The problem was that he was playing for a team that was winning the Presidents’ Trophy every year, had a really good defense in place, and had invested a ton of assets in the players ahead of him on the depth chart, most of whom were really productive. The argument could be made that he maybe could have (should have?) been used a little more and players like Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner a little less, but those were great Capitals teams and there’s only so much ice-time to go around.
He was a good young player that was blocked on a good team. It happens.
When it came time for the expansion draft this past June the Capitals were one of the teams that was stuck between a rock and a hard place and was going to became a victim of their own success.
While some teams (*cough* … Florida … Minnesota … St. Louis … *cough*) either paid through the nose to protect certain players, or just flat out made bizarre choices on their protected lists, there truly were some teams that were just going to lose somebody really good and there was nothing they were going to be able to do to change that.
The Capitals were one of those teams as they had no choice but to leave players like Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer unprotected, either of which would have been an excellent selection for Vegas. It is not like the players they did protect were controversial, either. Of course Braden Holtby was going to be their protected goalie. You can’t blame them for protecting John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov as their three defenders. They could not have gone with the eight skaters route and protected an additional defender because that would have left a top forward exposed.
During the regular season no skater played more minutes during the regular season than Schmidt. He played close to 19 minutes per night in even-strength situations (nearly two more minutes than any other player on the team). He played on the power play. He played on the penalty kill. He recorded a very respectable 36 points from the back end (25 of them coming at even-strength, most among the team’s defenders) and was once again a positive possession player despite starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other player on the team. He played big minutes and did a ton of the heavy lifting on the blue line.
In the playoffs, his game seems to have reached yet another level.
He is taking on an even bigger workload, already has six points in the first 13 games (most among Vegas defenders), has helped Vegas to a 12-5 goal differential when he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play, and despite playing 24 minutes a night against the oppositions best players has taken just a single minor penalty.
He is doing everything in what is one of the most critical roles for a team.
Given what is going on around him with the play of Fleury and Marchessault it is understandable that his impact is taking a bit of a backseat and is getting overlooked.
Goaltending is a difference-maker, especially in the playoffs, and Fleury is playing out of his mind right now. Goal-scoring and points will always get noticed over a quiet, steady impact from a defender.
None of that should take away from just how important Schmidt has been for Vegas and how big of a role he is going to continue to play for them as one of the building blocks on their defense.
Anyone who has played with Marc-Andre Fleury can tell he’s dialed in by watching his mannerisms.
Last year, he rubbed the shaft of his stick after making a save with it on Alex Ovechkin. This year, he continued a career-long tradition of rubbing the post as a sign of appreciation for keeping a puck out.
”That’s when you know he’s in the zone,” Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta said.
Fleury is in one of the best zones of his career in the playoffs with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who have followed up a magical inaugural season with a trip to the Western Conference final. The goaltending of Fleury is the biggest reason they’ve gotten this far and is a continuation of his remarkable playoff reputation rehabilitation.
After taking the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and winning it all in 2009, Fleury lost four of the next five series he played and each postseason posted a save percentage under .900. He has since gotten his groove back, helping the Penguins win the Cup again a year ago, and now leads the NHL playoffs with a 1.53 goals-against average, .951 save percentage and four shutouts.
”I don’t think it was anything physically that he changed,” former Penguins teammate and current Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. ”It was all confidence-driven. He’s always been a guy who’s really competitive and really loose at the same time. I think it was just confidence. I think he needed a fresh start. Maybe he just needed a clean slate, and you perform better when you’re more appreciated.”
It’s impossible not to appreciate the impact ”Flower” has made in the desert as the face of a new franchise as he went 29-13-4 with a 2.24 GAA and .927 save percentage for Pacific Division-winning Vegas. The fresh start might have rejuvenated Fleury more than a decade into his career, but his bounce-back in becoming a great playoff goalie again is six years in the making.
The low point came in 2012. Fleury allowed 26 goals over six games to Philadelphia in a first-round exit. The next playoffs, backup Tomas Vokoun started more games, and it was fair to wonder if Fleury had lost it.
”You learn from losing,” Fleury said Wednesday. ”You learn from tough times and pressure and stuff like that. It made me a better goalie from it.”
Now-Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen was there for some of the struggles but didn’t level them all on Fleury. By 2014, he noticed a different goalie.
”There was a period of time there where maybe (it was) not entirely his fault, a few things went wrong and it snowballed on him and he had a tough go there, I think, mentally for a couple springs,” Niskanen said. ”But by the time of my last year there he was really good again.”
The scars of another second-round exit led to more blame for Fleury, who was scapegoated for a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin not doing more after the Cup in 2009.
”Sometimes it’s the way your team plays in front of you,” said Penguins winger Carl Hagelin, who beat Fleury with the Rangers in playoff series in 2014 and 2015. ”Sometimes, like any other player, you might have a bad series or a bad playoffs and I think for a goalie if you have that, people are going to be all over you.”
Following a forgettable first-round loss to Hagelin and the Rangers in 2015, Fleury had one of his best regular seasons. But he was nevertheless replaced as Pittsburgh’s playoff starter by Matt Murray on the way to the Cup in 2016.
Before he played a substantial role in the Penguins’ second consecutive title run, Fleury agreed to waive his no-movement clause to go to Vegas in the expansion draft. Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, whose 2009 Capitals lost to Fleury in the second round, said Dave Prior was insistent on adding Fleury because the veteran goaltending coach felt there was more improvement to be made in his game.
”He obviously studies goaltenders all around the league and looks at the way that they’re playing the game,” McPhee said. ”He was excited and he really advocated for him in our meetings and thought that he could make him even better than he’s been. We like the calming effect he has on this team. When he plays, he’s really good when you need him the most. Needless to say you don’t get to the third round in this league unless you got a goaltender that’s playing well.”
Fleury will be playing in the third round for the fifth time in his career, a testament to the 33-year-old’s willingness to adjust as he has gotten older, including eating the right food, training meticulously and allowing his body to recover.
”When you’re young, you eat whatever, you never hurt, I never stretched, I could do the splits, it was easier,” Fleury said. ”Now I got to do more to maintain that flexibility and comfortness in the net. The older you get, things tend to linger around longer and you got to find ways to feel loose and feel good when games come around.”
Players are rarely worried about Fleury being tight. Even when Murray took his starting job, Fleury didn’t let it affect his mood at the rink.
”For him it definitely wasn’t easy because I’m sure he knew how he good he is and everybody else knew how good he is,” Maatta said. ”He still kind of kept showing up smiling and being an awesome teammate all the time even though he was probably in a tough spot.”
The laughs during the bad times have endeared Fleury to teammates who watch his playoff success with Vegas with great joy.
”Cares about the group, has fun at the rink, competitive as heck, cares about the right things,” Niskanen said. ”It’s not surprising at all that he’s done as well as he has there. It’s surprising how well the team has done but not him specifically. He’s a really good goalie and a perfect fit for them.”
Freelance reporter W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed.
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?
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.
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.
1. What changes do you see if the Washington Capitals fail to get by the Pittsburgh Penguins again?
SEAN: The first is an easy one: Barry Trotz is gone. The head coach is without a contract beyond this season and Capitals GM Brian MacLellan quietly received an extension in March. The next part is a trickier one. You’re not trading Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov. If Braden Holtby regressing from his first-round play, does that make trading him more palatable, should a team that’s part of his his modified no-trade clause come calling?
T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller signed long-term deals within the past year and Brooks Orpik still has three seasons left on his contract. John Carlson‘s likely not returning given what he’ll bring in on the open market, so where do you make bold changes? It might just be carving the bottom six and maybe a little on the blue line, but a major roster overhaul isn’t likely.
Fascinatingly, John Carlson’s future is muddy either way. On one hand, losing might prompt the Capitals to balk at paying him the big bucks. If they win, a deep playoff run could conceivably price him out of Washington.
ADAM: I think the obvious is that Barry Trotz does not come back, but would it shock you to see a general manager change, too? I really don’t think they do anything drastic from a player standpoint. They’re not trading Ovechkin. They’re not trading Backstrom. They’re not trading Kuznetsov. Even though Grubauer looked good, they’re not trading Holtby. They might make some changes around the edges but I think the two big ones would be coach and maybe — maybe — the GM.
JOEY: Unless they’re ready to blow up their team, there’s not much they can do. I don’t think they’re going to unload Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom or Alex Ovechkin. Also, they inked T.J. Oshie to a long-term deal that might be hard to move. Even if they get bounced by the Penguins, they’ll probably still push to bring back pending UFA John Carlson, too. It’s hard to envision any major changes in Washington.
SCOTT: Figure out a way to go back in time and never trade Filip Forsberg. Then make a second stop at last July and never trade Marcus Johansson. And steal the Pittsburgh Penguins coach and general manager while you’re at it. That would be ideal for the Capitals, surely.
Realistically, it probably means Barry Trotz goes (although he might be gone even if they win the Cup). Not really his fault, in my opinion. Trotz is a good coach trying to lead a team that historically over the past decade can’t get it done in the playoffs, especially against their arch-nemesis in the Penguins. Then you got to figure out your goaltending situation and get that squared away. Two more years of Holtby until he’s an unrestricted free agent. Perhaps he needs to go to the same trainer as Devan Dubnyk and Connor Hellebuyck.
2. Will the time off for the Tampa Bay Lightning affect them against Boston Bruins?
SEAN: Any sort of rest during the Stanley Cup Playoffs is good for you, no matter how long. The Lightning will have had six full days off before Game 1 against the Bruins on Saturday. With the injuries that hit the lineup near the end of the regular season and Andrei Vasilevskiy publicly stating he was feeling tired, this will do nothing but benefit Tampa.
JAMES: It’s a huge plus for the Lightning, something Jon Cooper and even their owner acknowledged. Steven Stamkos probably benefits from a little more recovery time after he missed the end of the regular season, while we all know about Andrei Vasilevskiy’s energy questions. Meanwhile, the Bruins needed three shots to eliminate the Leafs, seeing Patrice Bergeron miss some action and Zdeno Chara log more than 28 high-stress minutes in Game 7 alone. Rest is worth the risk of “rust.”
ADAM: Not at all, I think it’s a huge advantage for them, especially for Andrei Vasilevskiy. There was already talk about him being tired and fatigued down the stretch and I thought they should have been resting some people off and on at the end of the regular season. Boston just played a marathon series, Tampa Bay is coming in fresh, I think it helps. I do not buy the “rust” factor here. Will it be the difference in the series? I doubt it. But I also don’t think it hurts.
JOEY: It might affect them for the beginning of Game 1, but judging by the speed and skill they have (especially up front), they probably won’t mind having guys like Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson get an extended period of rest. Victor Hedman averaged almost 27 minutes in the first round, so they’ll probably have to lean on him heavily going forward. Rest can only help in that regard. Getting the extra time off, while Toronto-Boston battled to Game 7 clearly gives the Bolts an advantage.
SCOTT: In a good way, I believe. I’m of the opinion that several days off is better than grinding out a series win in seven games. The Bruins could use a breather after Toronto gave them all they could handle. Tampa might struggle in the opening game, but I think the rest pays off later in the round, both mentally and physically.
3. What do the Vegas Golden Knights need to do in order to slow the San Jose Sharks’ offense?
SEAN: They’re going to need Marc-Andre Fleury to throw up another .977 save percentage in this series. They also need to keep San Jose’s shots to the outside. The Sharks did a good job of creating high-danger scoring chances, something Vegas was able to prevent against the Los Angeles Kings. The Golden Knights were able to keep LA’s top threats at bay and slow down and already slow team en route to a sweep. They’ll have their hands full against a San Jose team that couldn’t stop scoring against Anaheim.
JAMES: For Vegas, the best defense will be a good offense. The VGK are built to be speedy and to keep the puck moving. Jonathan Marchesssault’s line can hog the puck at times. While the Golden Knights lack a shutdown defenseman like Marc-Edouard Vlasic, they’ve been pretty solid by committee. Naturally, it would also help if Marc-Andre Fleury continues to play the best hockey of his career.
ADAM: Hope Marc-Andre Fleury keeps playing the way he did against Los Angeles would be a big one. This is going to be a big challenge for Vegas because the Kings were probably the best possible round one matchup for them. Los Angeles was slow, had an anemic offense, and just isn’t very talented beyond its top four or five players. Vegas could easily exploit them. The Sharks are faster, more skilled, and are going to pose a much bigger threat offensively.
JOEY: Exactly what they did to the Kings in the first round. Sure, the Sharks are more dynamic than the Kings, but the Golden Knights have shown that they can dictate the pace of the game against most opponents. As long as they keep using their speed and depth to their advantage, they can match up with any team. Having a razor-sharp Marc-Andre Fleury should also help keep the puck out of the Golden Knights’ net.
SCOTT: The same performance they displayed in the first round against Los Angeles should do the trick. They limited the Kings to just three goals in the sweep. That’s bloody impressive. Marc-Andre Fleury was sensational in the series and needs to continue that path. And the rest of the players in front of them just need to stay the course. The Golden Knights gave up a league-low 25 high-danger scoring chances in the first round. That’s pretty conducive to winning. MAF’s save percentage in those 25 chances against? 100 percent. Keep on keeping on, really.
4. What will be the X-factor swings the Winnipeg Jets-Nashville Predators series?
SEAN: The Predators didn’t rely on just the Ryan Johansens, Filip Forsbergs and Viktor Arvidssons to carry the offense against the Colorado Avalanche. Their depth help lead the way and entering Round 2 it’s Auston Watson (4 goals, 7 points) and Colton Sissons (3 goals, 7 points) leading the team in scoring. Add in Nick Bonino‘s five points and Craig Smith‘s two goals and it’s a team that, when healthy, can fight back against an impressive Winnipeg offense.
The Predators took the most penalties in the NHL – by a healthy margin – during the regular season with 372. Winnipeg was more in control, yet Dustin Byfuglien can lose his cool at times (with frightening results for his opponents and his own team) and both teams saw players suspended in their respective first-round series. Winnipeg (fourth, 64 PPG) and Nashville (sixth, 58 PPG) both finished in the top 10 in power-play goals during the regular season, so this might come down to who can walk the line between playing with an edge and shooting yourself in the foot with dopey penalties.
ADAM: Both goalies were amazing this season, but I also think both probably played over their heads a bit and could come back down to earth at any moment. If either one is going to do it might just be in a series against a powerhouse offensive team — and both of these teams are. So I think that’s my X-factor here: Which goalie is able to maintain his great season and not turn into a pumpkin at midnight.
JOEY: Both teams have great goalies, a strong group of defenders, but there’s clearly a gap up front. I’m interested to see if the Predators forward can keep pace with Jets players like Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Filip Forsberg did his part in the first round, but it’ll be interesting to see who steps up if any particular game opens up. Viktor Arvidsson, who led the team in goals during the regular season, scored three points in six games in the Colorado series. He’ll need to shoulder more of the load this time around.
SCOTT: Goaltending. Jets coach Paul Maurice said this week that the goalie that gives up one less goal will win the series. I tend to agree. Both teams have firepower, don’t give up much on the back end, and are physical as anyone in the league. They both also have Vezina Trophy candidates this year. It’s like they cancel each other out in all facets. Connor Hellebuyck posted back-to-back shutouts to close out the Minnesota Wild in five games and posted a 9.24 save percentage. Rinne had a shutout in Game 6 to see off the Colorado Avalanche and had a .909 save percentage, which is fairly pedestrian, if not below average. But it’s Hellebuyck who struggled to a .882 save percentage in four starts during the season series with Nashville.
They are both impressive netminders who have had incredible seasons in the crease. This series will come down to a showdown between the two and the winner will be decided by the goalie who plays the best.