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Playoff lineup, injury notes: Islanders lose Boychuk; Flames scratch Neal

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There were quite a few noteworthy lineup notes surrounding teams in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Friday, so let’s rattle them off.

Thomas Hickey seems to be the most likely immediate replacement for Boychuk. While both defensemen have enjoyed some nice years in the NHL, both have been on the decline. Hickey was limited to zero goals and four assists in 40 games this season after generally coming in at 20-ish points during his previous five campaigns with the Isles, while Boychuk’s ice time was down to 16:16 minute per game during the Islanders’ Round 1 sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins. So the loss of Boychuk likely has more name value than on-ice impact.

Speaking of name value, allow a moment to dream. What if the Islanders instead turn to other Sebastian Ahoand the Hurricanes advance with far more famous Sebastian Aho? Would the Internet be forced to come up with something fresher than the Spiderman pointing meme for that? Might want to do some prep with all this time on your hands, Islanders fans.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

  • Maybe the Capitals feel like they need to bring back a playoff hero after seeing their 2-0 series lead against said Hurricanes dissolve into a 2-2 tie? They recalled Devante Smith-Pelly on Friday. Smith-Pelly scored eight points in 54 NHL games with the Capitals this season, and had been fairly productive (14 points in 20 games) with the Hershey Bears in the AHL. His seven goals during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run matched his seven goals from that 2017-18 regular season, so if DSP can carry over some of that playoff magic starting with Game 5 (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC [livestream]), the Caps would be very pleased. He’ll certainly be fighting to stay at the top level …
  • Could the Predators (another team locked in a 2-2 series tie) get some reinforcements back a lot sooner than anticipated? Both Brian Boyle and Wayne Simmonds were recently considered week-to-week, and perhaps that was always a nebulous descriptor, as they at least were able to practice on Friday.

Interestingly, each player was wearing regular practice jerseys, which bodes reasonably well for the future, as that indicates that they could take body contact. There’s an enormous gulf between being able to practice and being ready for the sometimes-traumatic damage of playoff hockey, yet this is all pretty promising for the Preds.

With the Flames down 3-1 to the Colorado Avalanche and facing elimination in Game 5 on Friday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream) this team badly needs a spark, and Neal really hasn’t been providing much of one basically since signing with the Flames. Neal failed to score a point through the first four games of this series, suffering through a -3 plus/minus, just 13:49 TOI on average, and not really excelling from a possession stats standpoint, either.

[To be fair, Neal is joined by Johnny Gaudreau and others as struggling Flames.]

One wonders if the Flames need to give Neal a pat on the back and say “We’ll get things back on track soon enough.” As mediocre as he’s been across the board, Neal also suffered from a terrible season luck-wise, managing just a five shooting percentage, way below his career average of 11.6. Maybe some of that is the aging curve, and maybe he’s depended upon some stellar linemates to grab his counting stats, but you’d have to figure that there’s some potential for a rebound … eventually. Perhaps just not this season?

Either way, it looks like Austin Czarnik is replacing Neal in the lineup. Hockey comes at you fast, gang.

For a rundown of Friday’s slate of playoff action, check out The Wraparound.

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.

Avalanche, MacKinnon keep Flames from stealing Game 2

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Despite being the team that barely made it into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it felt like the Avalanche were close to having a game stolen from them.

Colorado was carrying much of the play, yet the Calgary Flames forced Game 2 to overtime thanks mostly to Mike Smith‘s fantastic work (again) in net. Ultimately, two Avs made sure that Colorado got the win they worked so hard for. First, Philipp Grubauer made a fantastic save, then Nathan MacKinnon used his blazing speed and dangerous shot to score an OT goal that even a boiling-hot netminder couldn’t stop.

With the Avalanche’s 3-2 OT win, they head home to Colorado with the series tied 1-1. Not bad against the Flames, aka the West’s top seed.

That MacKinnon goal was a true beauty:

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The tension really escalated in Game 2, with Ian Cole taking a bad penalty on a hit on James Neal, while Samuel Girard‘s health is in question after he left the contest in apparent pain. Defense isn’t the greatest area of strength for Colorado, so that’s a concern.

As fantastic as this breakthrough season has been for the Flames, the Avalanche have basically been battling for their survival for months now. Maybe those stakes explain why they’re so focused right now, but either way, it seems like Colorado could make this an interesting Round 1 series.

Avalanche – Flames Game 3 takes place at the Pepsi Center at 10 p.m. ET on Monday (CNBC; livestream)

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.

After tough start, JVR is showing why Flyers brought him back

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For a while there, JVR felt a little … well, JV for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Two main factors seemed to complicate things for James van Riemsdyk as he tried to justify that five-year, $35 million contract to return to Philly. The first was a freak injury, right in the beginning of the 2018-19 season.

The other was even more out of JVR’s hands than the bad luck of getting hurt: the Flyers were transitioning from Wayne Simmonds to JVR, particularly on the power play, and it wasn’t exactly a seamless passing of the torch.

[JVR came into this season under pressure.]

Bumpy start

Flyers coach Scott Gordon saw JVR’s season firsthand, as he went from hurt and a bit lost to his current red-hot streak, where van Riemsdyk now has 10 goals in his last 11 games.

“I think being out that time and not really …he almost didn’t have a role with the team for a while there,” Gordon said, via Dave Isaac of the Courier-Post. “He wasn’t playing as much power-play time, not playing as much top-six ice time and so now I find he’s skating more consistent, getting involved in the play up and down the ice and just has the puck more often. Getting to the front of the net more often obviously, whether it’s a tip or a rebound, that’s critical for anybody but to do that you’ve got to be around the net and he’s been around the net more.”

The turnaround truly has been remarkable, as JVR now has 25 goals and 42 points despite being limited to 56 games played.

2019 has been kind to JVR, so far

JVR is tied for the second-most goals since 2019 began with 20, and no player has more goals than his nine since the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

As with any sniper who’s scoring at an even higher level than usual, a hot streak will eventually be iced, and that’s true with JVR. His 18.8 shooting percentage overall this season is a little high – even for a player who has a knack for getting to the areas of the ice where you can get quality shots, and one who is among the best at finishing such chances – and his luck has been even better lately.

But, to me, it’s the renewed clarity of it all that bodes well for JVR’s short-term future, and the Flyers’ chances of getting the most out of him in 2019-20.

Yes, scoring nine times on 35 shots on goal (25.7 shooting percentage) is unsustainable, but it’s a great sign that van Riemsdyk is firing the puck that often.

It sure seems like JVR isn’t just getting the green light, but that he knows it. Not only does he have eight goals in as many March games, but after averaging 16:26 TOI or less in previous months this season, he’s averaged 18:18 per game during March. That’s an exciting development for a player who went from heavy usage during Toronto’s awkward years, to being shuttled into more of a specialist role during his final two seasons with the Maple Leafs. The thought was that JVR scored incredibly well considering a bit under 16 minutes of ice time in 2016-17 and a bit under 15 in 2017-18, so imagine what he could do with fuller minutes … but he was sort of relegated to that same, more supporting duty through most of this first season.

If the Flyers carry over this finish to giving JVR a heightened role in 2019-20, they might just enjoy the sort of rewards that would get people to look at his $7M as a bargain.

… At least for a while.

Will it all line up?

Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher faces an interesting question, with an invisible deadline from Father Time: can he put a few more pieces together to take advantage of what this team has, before a decline happens?

JVR is already 29, and will turn 30 in May. Jakub Voracek is 29 as well, while Claude Giroux is 31.

For every Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, and other player who continues to play at a high level past age 30, there are scary examples of other steep declines. The stories are especially frightening for power forward-types like JVR. Wayne Simmonds himself has already been showing signs of decay, while Milan Lucic and James Neal rank as some of the starkest examples of how steep the falls can be.

Will the Flyers be able to best take advantage of the remaining high-level years of productivity, however many there might be? As much as Philly can look at many positive developments heading into 2019-20 (and beyond), it remains to be seen if they can make all the pieces fall into place at the perfect time to contend – for real – for at least a few years.

If nothing else, JVR looks far more capable of being a big part of that solution as of today, compared to earlier this season.

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: Pastrnak on injury; Nashville’s Turris problem

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.

David Pastrnak on his thumb injury: “Obviously I let the guys down a bit. It’s a tough time. It’s not an injury that happened on the ice, so I took full responsibility for that. That’s what hurt me most. Could I have avoided it? I wish [that I had]. But obviously things happen. The fact that I could let somebody down, I definitely hate that. The first couple of weeks were tough.” [NBC Boston]

• Just in time as the playoffs approach, James Neal returns to the Calgary Flames after a 14-game absence, hoping to find his scoring touch again. [NHL.com]

• When the postseason does arrive, who will get the starting gig in net for the Flames? [Featurd]

• A good look at the teams playing well with the Stanley Cup Playoffs less than a month away. [TSN]

• Playoffs might be out of reach but the Vancouver Canucks are now acting as a spoiler. [Sportsnet]

• Meet the only female full-time Zamboni driver in the NHL. [ESPN]

• The younger members of the St. Louis Blues are really enjoying this playoff push. [Post-Dispatch]

• The San Jose Sharks are trying not to think too far into the future when it comes to a possible first-round matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights. [NBC Bay Area]

Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey and Nick Leddy need to give more to the New York Islanders as the playoffs approach. [Islanders Insight]

• Examining who’s chasing and possessing the puck the most for the Columbus Blue Jackets. [1st Ohio Battery]

• The Nashville Predators have a Kyle Turris problem. [A to Z Sports]

• A product of the “Ovechkin Effect” in Washington D.C., the Capitals signed Yale product and local boy Joe Snively on Monday. [Japers’ Rink]

• Which AHL players could step up and make an impact with the Edmonton Oilers? [Oilers Nation]

• Finally, there were a good number of bloopers in the NHL over the last week:

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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.

Stone’s arrival has given Golden Knights new top scoring line

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It has taken George McPhee and the Vegas Golden Knights front office less than two years to assemble a roster that looks like it is going to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future.

In year one they rode some stunning play from their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in what was one of the most improbable seasons (individually and on a team level) in league history.

For as good as that trio was, it was also inevitable that their production was going to regress significantly this season (and it has). They are still very good, but their regression, combined with the free agency departures of James Neal and David Perron, meant that the Golden Knights were going to have to make up for that drop in production elsewhere on the roster.

Enter their three big acquisitions from the past year of Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, and recent trade deadline addition Mark Stone.

Together that trio has formed what is supposed to be the Golden Knights’ second scoring line, but they have been so dominant as a group that we should probably be starting to look at them as their new top line.

In the nine games since the trade deadline the Golden Knights have put together an 8-1-0 record, with their only loss coming against the Calgary Flames in the second half of a back-to-back.

During that stretch the trio of Pacioretty, Stastny, and Stone has spent more than 116 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together as a line and been the biggest driving force behind their late season surge. In those 5-on-5 minutes they have outscored teams by a 6-3 margin, are controlling more than 65 percent of the total shot attempts and scoring chances that take place when they are on the ice, and more than 75 percent of the high-danger chances.

You would be hard pressed to find a better trio anywhere in the league since the end of February when taking their all around play into account.

From the moment they acquired Stastny and Pacioretty in the offseason it was expected they would be the foundation of a newly formed second line, and one that might have been even better than the one they put on the ice a year ago. But injuries to both Pacioretty and Stastny at various times put a dent in those plans, as well as the fact they were missing a stable third presence on their wing.

That is where Stone comes in.

Spending his entire career in Ottawa on what has mostly been a dysfunctional, mess of a team has made Stone one of the league’s most overlooked and underappreciated top-line scoring wingers. But he is a steady 60-point, possession driving player that has always made everyone around him better. That is an incredibly valuable asset in the NHL and is not the type of player that is always readily available.

When you have a chance to acquire one, you should be willing to jump at it. The Golden Knights did.

He is not only in the middle of what is a career year, but he has proven to be an ideal fit alongside Stastny and Pacioretty.

Just look at how their ability to drive possession and scoring chances has spiked since Stone’s arrival.

They are averaging more goals per 60 minutes (0.4 goals to be exact), allowing fewer goals per 60 minutes (2.96 down to 1.55), and have seen a drastic increase in their shot attempts, scoring chance, and high-danger scoring chance numbers.

McPhee paid a pretty substantial price to put this trio together, giving up two of the team’s top prospects (Nick Suzuki in the Pacioretty trade; Erik Brannstrom in the Stone trade) and several draft picks (not including the three draft picks he sent to Detroit to acquire Tomas Tatar, who was also sent to Montreal in the Pacioretty trade) and committed a significant amount of salary cap space to them. Immediately after acquiring Pacioretty he signed him to a four-year, $28 million contract extension, and followed a similar path with Stone by signing him to an eight-year, $76 million contract. Stastny is playing on a three-year, $19.5 million contract.

Given their ages and the long-term salary commitments there is a degree of risk there in future seasons because at some point all of them are going to decline before the end of their contracts. But as shocking as it still is to say, the Golden Knights’ championship window is pretty much wide open at this point, and whenever that is the case you owe it to yourself and your fans to go for it.

The Golden Knights did that by acquiring three of three of the most prominent scoring forwards that were available over the past eight months and assembled them into a new top line that seems to be sending their overall play in the right direction as the playoffs get close.

With the top line of Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith still in place, and Alex Tuch helping to carry the third line, there is reason to believe that this Golden Knights team might be even better than the one we saw in year one. That does not guarantee them anything come playoff time because their likely playoff path is going to be significantly tougher this season (and their goaltending has not been quite as consistent as it was a year ago), but they have to like their chances.

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.