Evgeny Kuznetsov

Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

Leave a comment

Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”

Wednesday Night Hockey: Kuznetsov’s season back on track after suspension

Getty
2 Comments

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The start of the 2019-20 season couldn’t have been an easy one for Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov. The 27-year-old was suspended for the first three games of the year for a positive cocaine test. When the suspension was announced, he admitted he was crushed, but he also mentioned that he had “taken many steps in the right direction”.

After missing games against St. Louis, the Islanders and Carolina, he came back and picked up six points in his first five contests. He went a little cold after that sizzling start, as he saw his ice time and production dip (he accumulated three points in seven games, but two of those points came in the same game).

NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire shared a story about Kuznetsov during his daily hit on Montreal radio, yesterday. Here’s what McGuire had to say about the situation between Todd Reirden and his player:

“Here’s the little secret behind (Kuznetsov’s success),” McGuire said during the interview. “I had a long visit with Todd Reirden (on Monday) and I asked: ‘How did you get Kuznetsov back on the track?’ Reirden answered: ‘There were five games in a row where I played him for 15 minutes or less and he wasn’t pleased. I was trying to get his attention. So, he came to me in Calgary and said ‘I’d like to have a meeting with you.’

“So (Kuznetsov and Reirden) sat down after a practice in Calgary and Todd said: ‘You want more ice? You have to prove to me that you’ve earned it.’ And so from then on, this guy has just run wild. He’s run wild over the opponents and he’s run wild in practice. Again, the coach got the player’s attention and the player actually went in and talked to the coach. There was a meeting of the minds and it worked!” 

In the game before they left for Calgary (they were in Chicago), the Caps forward had played just 13:46. In the game before that (at home against the Rangers), he played 13:03. Since those two games, the Russian center has played between 16:04 and 23:28. He’s regularly hovering around 18 and 19 minutes every night.

The result?

[COVERAGE OF FLYERS-CAPS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

He’s scoring more goals than he’s ever scored before. We’ve known him as a point producer, but his career-high in goals is currently 27. Now that he’s found the back of the net eight times in 16 games, he’s on pace to score 41 times this season. Can he keep that up? We’ll find out. But it’s nice to see him battle back from the personal issues that plagued him over the last little while.

The Capitals saw their six-game winning streak come to an end on Monday night, as they dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to the Arizona Coyotes, but they fought back after being down 3-0. Kuznetsov scored two of his team’s three goals in that one.

“You can tell when he’s feeling it and he’s going to be able to control the game, which he did most of the night,” teammate T.J. Oshie said of Kuznetsov’s performance in the game, per NHL.com.

This will be the start of a busy stretch for Washington. After traveling to Philly to take on the Flyers tonight, they’ll have a home game against the Canadiens on Friday, a road game against Boston on Saturday and another home game against the Ducks on Monday. Three games in four nights and four games in six nights are never easy.

The Caps are currently the top team in the East and in the NHL, with 30 points.

MORE: Why Flyers fans have reason for optimism

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Darren Dreger. Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Flyers from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA.

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.

The Buzzer: Streaks end for Capitals and Hurricanes

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Three Stars

1. Joel Edmundson, Carolina Hurricanes

Let’s be honest, Edmundson’s start in Carolina has been forgettable at best. He hasn’t been all that effective by any measure, having a negative impact on defense, and failing to score a single point through his first 17 games with the Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes have a big edge against the Senators on paper, and that translated to the on-ice product on Monday, and Edmundson took advantage. He scored a goal and two assists for three points, had a +3 rating, fired three shots on goal, and blocked a shot.

As you’d expect Edmundson’s three-point night wasn’t the only strong part of Carolina’s 8-2 win …

2. Sebastian Aho, also Hurricanes

Aho arguably played a bigger role in Carolina ending its four-game losing streak than Edmundson did.

The still-a-bit-underrated star scored the game-winning goal shorthanded (and unassisted), finishing Monday with two goals overall. Aho generated a +4 rating and went 9-6 on faceoffs.

Aho now has eight goals and 13 points in 18 games in 2019-20. This has been a slightly slow start for Aho so far, judging by a low on-ice save percentage (81.9 at even strength versus career average of 90.2 before Monday’s game) and so-so offensive numbers by his high standards. Maybe a hot game will get the ball/puck rolling in the right direction?

3. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

While the Hurricanes’ losing streak ended, the Capitals’ winning streak closed off at six on Monday.

Kuznetsov is the main reason Washington was able to continue Arizona’s run of blown leads, even though the Coyotes eventually won in a shootout. He showed plenty of speed and skill, collecting two goals and coming one attentive T.J. Oshie swipe from having three.

That two-goal output extended Kuznetsov’s point streak to four games, giving him three goals and six assists for nine points during that span, and 18 points in 16 games overall. Kuznetsov also logged 23:28 TOI. While that total was inflated by the two teams getting through a full overtime period, that’s still quite a strong night of work — but not good enough for another Capitals win.

Highlights from both games

With there only being two games, why not enjoy the best of both?

First, the Coyotes beat the Capitals in a shootout:

Meanwhile, there weren’t many twists and turns to the Hurricanes blowing out the Senators:

Brawlin’ Bobby

Bobby Ryan delivered a big hit, and then seemed to win his fight with Brock McGinn. Maybe not the greatest idea for a player who’s been doomed by hand injuries, but then again, Ryan didn’t have much of a choice:

Factoids

  • Rod Brind’Amour has had quite the start to his coaching career. NHL PR notes that his 56 wins is the most for any coach through their first 100 games. If “Rod the Bod” is as good as “Rod the Coach” as he was at winning faceoffs, then watch out.
  • John Carlson generated an assist, so his 29 points ties Brad Marchand for fourth in league scoring. The Caps are 10-0-2 in their last 12 games.
  • Dougie Hamilton has 26 goals through his first 100 games with the Hurricanes. That’s the second-best start for a defenseman in franchise history, according to NHL PR.

Scores

ARI 4 – WSH 3 (SO)
CAR 8 – OTT 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Coyotes cough up 3-0 lead, but end Capitals’ winning streak

Leave a comment

The Arizona Coyotes can’t feel happy about giving up yet another lead (this time a 3-0 advantage), but they were able to salvage a 4-3 shootout win against the Washington Capitals on Monday — albeit barely.

Upon further review

When the Capitals made it 3-3, it was awkwardly funny, as Evgeny Kuznetsov appeared a breath away from scoring a hat trick goal to tie things up. Instead, T.J. Oshie got to the puck first. Would it have been the same difference if Kuznetsov was shooting rather than Oshie? Probably, yet when a standings point (or two) end up on the line, it’s better not to leave anything to doubt. All the laughing on the bench underscored the mixed feelings, and served up a reminder of the “passing to a teammate so they can score the empty-netter” culture of the sport.

It looked like Oshie would then match Kuznetsov with two goals on the night when Oshie scored in overtime — only he didn’t.

The NHL’s review determined that the play was offside, as wires got crossed between Oshie and Lars Eller when Eller lost his footing close to the Coyotes’ blueline. This was the second review that didn’t go Washington’s way on Monday, as an Ilya Samsonov save instead turned out to be a Christian Fischer goal.

That’s how close it really was for Washington. They almost extended their winning streak to seven games, even though the Coyotes generated that 3-0 lead.

On the bright side, there were moments where the bounces did go the Capitals’ way. When the Coyotes were really pouring things on, they fired another breakout pass behind Washington’s defense to Clayton Keller, a soon-to-be $7.15 million player who already scored the game’s first goal. Keller might be “elite in every sense of the word,” but Samsonov showed the agility and patience to wait Keller out, and Keller didn’t even end up with a shot attempt on that breakaway opportunity.

So, it stings for the Capitals to lose in such an anticlimactic fashion, but the “what if?” game could go both ways. Finishing the night at 13-2-4 isn’t really so bad for this quietly dominant team.

Playing with fire when you play with leads

There’s an almost inevitable question when a team squanders a lead, or even comes close to squandering a lead: was this about the Capitals turning it up a notch, or are the Coyotes guilty of sitting on a lead?

It’s a point that’s relevant to the Coyotes, in particular. For one thing, they sometimes lean heavily on goalies, especially when it’s red-hot Darcy Kuemper. (In Monday’s case, Antti Raanta was mostly sharp even as he seems to settle into a backup role.)

The question is also especially pertinent right now, as the Coyotes have given up leads in five consecutive games. Winning the shootout bailed Arizona out on Monday, but they might not always be so lucky, especially when the leads are slimmer than three goals. Perhaps they need to do some soul searching about finding a better balance between avoiding back-breaking mistakes and getting to passive in “turtle mode.”

To be fair, the Capitals have been a tough team to keep down. They’re now 4-1-2 in games where they’ve trailed after the first period.

Kuznetsov on fire

Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t get that hat trick, despite hats mucking up the ice in DC. He’s still on quite the roll lately. With two goals on Monday, Kuznetsov has a four-game multipoint streak going (three goals, six assists for nine points). That also gives him 18 points in 16 games so far in 2019-20, as he’s clearly shaken off that suspension.

***

The Capitals became the first team in the NHL to hit 30 points this season, sliding to 13-2-4. The Coyotes ended a three-game losing streak and are now 10-6-2. Both teams showed flashes of brilliance while also waving a few red flags of warning about blemishes they need to clean up.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

The Buzzer: Capitals lead the NHL; Slim to Nilsson

Getty Images
1 Comment

Three Stars

1. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders

There were a handful of strong goaltending performances again on Saturday, and you can even gripe about the placement of stars here, as Greiss didn’t have the most saves in stopping 37 out of 38 shots on goal.

Greiss might have been asked to do the most of any winning goalie, though.

Not only was there no margin of error, as the Islanders beat the Panthers 2-1, but Greiss faced a mixture of quality and quantity against the Cats. According to Natural Stat Trick, Greiss faced 20 high-danger scoring chances, and the Panthers’ expected goals were at 4.41. To hold the Panthers to one goal – and only on the power play – is another great night of work for a goalie who probably deserves more hype at this point.

2. Anders Nilsson, Ottawa Senators

If you look at the bare stats alone, Nilsson had a “better” night than Greiss, allowing one goal on 39 SOG (38 to 37 saves).

We can debate Nilsson’s Saturday vs. Greiss’ Saturday, yet it’s getting tougher to reasonably argue which goalie should be starting for Ottawa — at least if the Senators don’t want to merely tank. Nilsson is now on a three-game winning streak, and his save percentage is up to a splendid .930. He’s shown some signs of being a well-above-average backup goalie for a little while now, especially since joining the Senators.

All due respect to Craig Anderson‘s tremendous accomplishments, particularly helping them come within an OT goal of advancing to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, but times haven’t been great for the veteran goalie. Anderson’s save percentage is a rough .897 this season, and he’s been putting up replacement-level numbers since 2017-18.

Frankly, tanking might be the best option for Ottawa, so theoretically they could merely split starts for at least a while. If this continues, they won’t be able to get away with even a platoon for a whole lot longer, though.

3. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals, or pick your favorite two-point night

Pointing to Kuznetsov’s goal and assist is a way of moving up the Capitals’ winning streak in the “batting order,” if you will.

The funny thing about the Islanders’ remarkable 10-game winning streak (and their still-active point streak of 12 games) is that, if you were looking at the standings, you might have thought “Huh, but the Capitals are still ahead.” That’s because Washington’s been almost as hot, and with a win on Saturday, the Caps are now at 29 standings points. Which means they’re leading the NHL.

Death, taxes, Capitals winning their division.

Nicklas Backstrom also had two goals in that win, but his was an empty-netter, so Kuznetsov feels like the safer choice. There are plenty of other options for star three, even if you limit your choices to skaters, including Cale Makar and Patrick Maroon, who both scored two goals.

Highlight of the Night

I didn’t mention Shea Weber yet, because one of his two goals earns highlight of the night consideration. If you want more on his night, there’s a fancy post for it and everything. Weber finished the night with two PPG to reach 101 for his career, the 11th most among defensemen in league history (or at least since the stat began being recorded).

Notable injuries

Factoids

Some might argue this package is the highlight of the night, then.

Scores

NYI 2 – FLA 1
TBL 5 – BUF 3
PHI 3 – TOR 2 (SO)
MTL 3 – LAK 2
OTT 4 – CAR 1
PIT 3 – CHI 2 (SO)
WSH 5 – VGK 2
MIN 4 – ARI 3
COL 4 – CBJ 2
STL 3 – CGY 2 (OT)
SJS 2 – NSH 1 (SO)

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.