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PHT Morning Skate: Jets’ secondary scoring; Preds and politics

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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 Winnipeg Jets could really use some secondary scoring at the moment. [Winnipeg Free Press]

Ryan Reaves, son of a Winnipeg sports legend, hopes to spoil the Jets’ Stanley Cup dream. [Featurd]

Cody Eakin is stepping up his game for the Vegas Golden Knights. [Review-Journal]

• The party in Vegas during Golden Knights games isn’t just inside T-Mobile Arena. [Las Vegas Sun]

• How will the Washington Capitals go about slowing down the Tampa Bay Lightning power play? [Japers’ Rink]

• Meanwhile, the penalty kill is working for the Lightning — at least in Game 4 it did. [Tampa Bay Times]

• Humboldt bus crash survivor Kaleb Dahlgren: “I want to play hockey again” [ESPN]

• “A trademark dispute over #HumboldtStrong and other slogans related to the fatal Humboldt Broncos bus crash in April is being resolved. The team took on the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League after it applied to trademark phrases that also included ‘Healing is in the Game’ and ‘Sticks on the Porch.’” [CP via TSN]

• The NHL returning to Quebec? It doesn’t look promising. [THN]

• A good look at what a potential extension for Jake Guentzel of the Pittsburgh Penguins would look like. [Pensburgh]

• Why it’s the right move for Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold to limit his next general manager. [Hockey Wilderness]

• Who should the Carolina Hurricanes grab at No. 2? Filip Zadina or Andrei Svechnikov? [Elite Prospects]

• The Nashville Predators are dipping their toes into the world of politics by throwing their support behind a mayoral candidate. [Puck Daddy]

• The good and the bad of Vancouver Canucks super prospect Elias Pettersson spending one more year playing in Sweden. [Pass it to Bulis]

• A good review of an important book: “Game Change” by Ken Dryden. [Puck Junk]

Anthony Duclair provided his mom with a very special Mother’s Day. [NBC Chicago]

• The Stanley Cup has an interesting connection to Denmark. [IIHF]

• Finally, ahead of Game 4 tonight, let’s relive the Vegas Golden Knights’ memorable pre-game intro from Wednesday night:

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

————

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.

PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Tampa’s advantage, underrated Gallant

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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?

SEAN: You might say depth, but Washington got contributions from the likes of Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana and Brett Connolly. Heck, even Alex Chiasson potted a big goal. If that continues, that category can be marked as even. I’d give them an edge on the blue line. Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh can play heavy minutes and Braydon Coburn has been excelling with fewer minutes compared to the regular season. The Capitals will look to give their third pairing of Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos favorable minutes, but that’s something Tampa can try and exploit with home-ice advantage.

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.

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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.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Capitals eliminate Penguins, Ovechkin gets first taste of East final

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The Washington Capitals did it. They finally slayed the black and gold dragon known as the Pittsburgh Penguins.

To really sell how tough a mountain this was to climb, of course the Penguins forced the Capitals to end it via sudden death.

Evgeny Kuznetsov experienced plenty of frustrating moments on Monday, but the talented center ended Game 6 in overtime with a semi-breakaway 2-1 goal. It only makes sense that Alex Ovechkin was the one to send Kuznetsov on that breakaway, and for Sidney Crosby to be on the ice for that season-ending goal.

With that, the Penguins’ bid at a “threepeat” is over after the Capitals took this second-round series 4-2.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Game 6 feels like a decent microcosm of the series as a whole. There were plenty of sloppy moments, surprisingly tepid stretches, and Washington ended up scoring the majority of the big goals (aside from that bizarre Penguins win in Game 1).

For much of this series, the first period has been barren when it comes to goals, and this one followed suit with a 0-0 start. Alex Chiasson gave the Capitals a 1-0 goal on one that Matt Murray would like back, and there was a surprising amount of doom and gloom surfacing for some Pittsburgh fans. To be fair, the Penguins looked remarkably flat at times with their season on the line.

That doesn’t mean that they just rolled over and gave Game 6 up, mind you.

Kris Letang‘s 1-1 goal included a fortunate bounce, yet the Penguins’ play improved. Granted, the Capitals still seemed like the better team during much of the third period and overtime, yet Matt Murray helped the Penguins hang in there.

The Capitals ended up eliminating the Penguins with Nicklas Backstrom missing Game 6 with an injury and Tom Wilson wrapping up his controversial suspension. Washington likely would have taken a victory over the Penguins under any array of circumstances, but advancing this way has to be a true confidence-booster.

And, of course, an igloo-sized relief.

Ovechkin & Co. won’t exactly get eased into their maiden voyage in the third round, as the Tampa Bay Lightning stand as a fresh, formidable opponent. Chances are, the Lightning will be far less leaky than the Penguins appeared at times during this series, including tonight.

Despite some incredible play from Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel during this series, the Penguins couldn’t best their rivals this time around. After consecutive titles, they must lick their wounds following their first failure with Matt Murray in net and Mike Sullivan behind the bench.

(Yes, that’s quite the accomplishment, and one that might soothe some wounds in Pittsburgh.)

It’s up to management to make sure that this wasn’t the last gasp of a great era. That sounds tough to fathom, yet championship windows can slam shut with cold suddenness in sports. These Penguins aren’t spring chickens, after all, and Game 6 gave the impression that some key guys were fatigued, hurt, or both.

Wait, about the Penguins being a dragon or spring chickens… maybe they were more like Washington’s Bowser?

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.

Conn Smythe Power Rankings: Fleury running away with it

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A lot has changed in the week since our first Conn Smythe Trophy watch, and by a lot, I mean a couple of the top contenders have been completely eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With Boston’s loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday, bringing their season to an end in Game 5, their duo of David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand gets removed from the list, as does San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones after they were the latest team to lose to the buzzsaw that is the Vegas Golden Knights.

The new leader in the Conn Smythe race should be pretty obvious at this point, while we also have a couple of new names to consider.

Let’s take a look at this week’s update.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

 1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. If Fleury isn’t the front-runner for the award right now then just what exactly are we doing? Along with a series-clinching shutout in each of the first two rounds he has a league leading .951 save percentage this postseason and four shutouts. The Sharks did get to him a little bit more than than the Kings did in round one, scoring at least three goals in four of their six games, but he has still been mostly great for the Golden Knights. This is the best hockey he has ever played in the NHL.

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. He has always produced in the playoffs. He is once again producing in the playoffs and is having some signature moments along the way that will stand out … especially if they finally conquer the beast that has been the second-round of the playoffs. After helping lead the Capitals back from a 2-0 series deficit in the first-round, he has come back in the second-round with six point in the first five games of their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That includes a last-minute game-winning goal in Game 3 of the series and setting up the game-winning goal with five minutes to play in Game 5.

3. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. He is doing everything he can to keep the Penguins’ quest for a three-peat going. And by everything, I mean almost literally everything. Through the first five games of the second round the Penguins have scored exactly one goal without Crosby on the ice. He has 19 points in 11 games, already matching his point total from his 2015-16 Conn Smythe run. The Penguins might lose, but it won’t be because of him.

4. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets. Perhaps the most underrated top-line player in the NHL. He has nine goals in the Jets’ first 10 playoff games and has recorded at least two points in six of their past seven games entering play on Monday night.

5. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. His point production slowed down a bit in round two but he still has 12 in the first 10 games for the Lightning and already three game-winning goals (most in the NHL at this point). During his career he has been one of the best postseason scorers in the league and is a big reason the Lightning have been in the Eastern Conference Final in three of the past four years.

6. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets. Byfuglien has been an absolute monster for the Jets this postseason averaging more than a point-per-game from the blue line, logging more than 26 minutes per night, throwing some devastating hits, and helping the Jets to a 15-6 goals advantage when he has been on the ice during even-strength play. He has stepped up in a big way for a Jets blue line that has been shorthanded at times this postseason.

7. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. Remember when this guy didn’t start the playoffs? Holtby has the second-best postseason save percentage in NHL history and has been outstanding for the Capitals since getting his starting job back in the first-round against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Washington is 7-2 this postseason with him in net while he has a .924 save percentage. Goaltending has been a huge advantage for the Capitals in the second round.

8. Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins. He is the NHL’s leading goal-scorer and point producer this postseason and along with Crosby is trying to carry the Penguins through their second-round series against the Capitals. Maybe he could (or should) be higher. But as I said a week ago trying to separate his production and Crosby’s production is tough. Have to give the edge to the player that is carrying the play and that still seems to be Crosby.

 

9. Filip Forsberg, Nashville Predators. The Predators are such a deep, balanced team that can get contributions from all over their lineup that there really isn’t a clear-cut Conn Smythe favorite for them at this point. Forsberg has been consistently productive for the Predators, is their go-to-player offensively and has a couple of highlight reel plays on his postseason resume at the moment.

10. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. In all honesty he may have been the Lightning’s best player in their second-round series win over the Bruins. This is what makes the Lightning so dangerous. Not just the fact they have superstars at the top of their lineup, but the fact their farm system keeps producing top-line talent. Point is just the latest in the line of homegrown stars.

Related

Marc-Andre Fleury is playing the best hockey of his life
Alex Ovechkin is putting the Capitals on his back
The Penguins’ top line is doing all of the heavy lifting
Byfuglien continues to be key difference-maker for Jets

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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.

Can Daniel Sprong help Penguins in do-or-die game?

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It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Penguins can’t afford to lose another game in their second-round series against the Washington Capitals.

The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions are facing elimination, as they trail 3-2 in this best-of-seven series. It’s a position they haven’t been in much over the last couple of years, but it’s not totally unfamiliar to them. After all, they went to double overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa last year, so they know they can perform in do-or-die games.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

But there’s a couple of major differences between this edition of the Pens and the last two that won titles. The biggest one is depth scoring. It’s been well documented how they used their depth up front to create mismatches against their opponents in their last two playoff runs. This time around, most of the damage is being done by one line.

Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist have been phenomenal this postseason, but they can’t do it on their own. To make matters worse, it’s clear that Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin aren’t healthy, so that means that they need even more from guys like Conor Sheary, Carl Hagelin, Riley Sheahan, Derick Brassard and Bryan Rust.

Those five players have combined for one assist in the first five games of this series. Yes, Hagelin missed three games because of an injury, but you get the point. They’re clearly too top-heavy right now.

Enter Daniel Sprong.

The 21-year-old had just two goals and one assist in eight games with the Penguins during the regular season, but he clearly has enough offensive upside to warrant a look.

In his first full season in the AHL, Sprong led the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in scoring with 32 goals and 65 points in 65 games. Jean-Sebastien Dea was second on the team in points, and despite playing five games more than Sprong, he had 15 less points.

“I think I grew a lot as a player,” Sprong said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I was excited about going down there after I got sent down and wanted to have a good second half. I thought as a team we had a good year as well. I’m excited about the year I had. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy.”

“I feel if I get thrown in, I’m ready. I have a lot of confidence with the year I had. If I do get the opportunity, I’ll be ready to go.”

As is the case with all young players, coaches tend to prefer guys that are more capable of playing a well-rounded game. Often times, experience is valued over offensive ability (just like the Ryan Donato situation in Boston during the playoffs).

It’s hard to criticize Mike Sullivan because he’s pushed all the right buttons since taking over as head coach. But he has to realize that this isn’t the same team he’s been dealing with over the last few seasons. They should still be confident in their ability to come back in this series, but they might need a shot in the arm to get it done.

It’s time for him to roll the dice on one of his youngsters.

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.