The Playoff Buzzer: Dominant Game 1 efforts for Backstrom, Marner, and Smith

  • Mitch Marner did something that only a handful of players in NHL history have done in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ big Game 1 over the Boston Bruins
  • The Carolina Hurricanes put up a great fight against the defending Stanley Cup champions but had just one flaw they have to correct
  • An unlikely hero emerged for the Calgary Flames
  • Capitals defenseman John Carlson tied an NHL postseason record
  • Alex Ovechkin continued to climb another goal-scoring leaderboard

Maple Leafs 4, Bruins 1 (Maple Leafs  lead series 1-0)

The Maple Leafs are already off to a better start in their playoff rematch against the Boston Bruins, jumping out to an early 1-0 series lead thanks to a huge night from Mitch Marner and additional goals from William Nylander and John Tavares. They need their stars to shine, and on Thursday night they did.

Capitals 4, Hurricanes 2 (Capitals lead series 1-0)

The Hurricanes may have been the better team at even-strength and showed they have a chance in this series, but the Capitals’ power play (and penalty kill) was the difference as the defending Stanley Cup champions stole Game 1 away. If the Hurricanes can repeat this effort in Game 2 they stand a great chance to even the series, but they must find an answer for the Capitals’ power play to allow that to happen.

Flames 4, Avalanche 0 (Flames leads series 1-0)

The Calgary Flames’ superstars had a fairly quiet night and they still rolled to a 4-0 shutout win over the Colorado Avalanche. Mike Smith was outstanding in net and the Flames’ defense did a great job shutting down the Avalanche’s big-three, including Mikko Rantanen in his return to the lineup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Mike Smith, Calgary Flames. All season, and especially leading up to the playoffs, the big question for the Calgary Flames was whether or not they had the goaltending to go on a deep Stanley Cup run. David Rittich is unproven and regressed down the stretch, while Smith had, for the most part, a brutal year. Playing in his first playoff game in seven years, Smith was the best player on the ice and for one night silenced the doubters.

2. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals. Backstrom was a beast for the Capitals in Game 1, scoring a pair of first period goals and then coming up with two huge blocked shots late in the third period to help the Capitals hold off a late Hurricanes rally. He is one of the best all-around centers in the NHL and showed why on Thursday.

3. Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs. Entering play on Thursday Marner had scored just three goals in his first 13 career playoff games. He scored two in the Maple Leafs’ Game 1 win and proved to be the team’s most dangerous player as they jumped out to an early series lead over the Bruins.

Highlights of the night

Not long after tying the game against the Bruins, Marner gave the Maple Leafs with the lead with what would prove to be the game-winning goal on a penalty shot and what a move it was! According to the NHL’s Public Relations department, this was just the fifth shorthanded penalty shot goal in NHL playoff history.

While Mike Smith was stopping everything, Andrew Mangiapane got the Flames on the board with this beautiful goal against Philipp Grubauer.

Factoids of the Night

John Carlson’s three first period assists tied an NHL postseason record for most assists in a period. [NHL PR]

Alex Ovechkin moved into 27th place on the NHL’s all-time postseason goal-scoring list [NHL PR]

Friday’s schedule

Columbus Blue Jackets at Tampa Bay Lightning, Game 2 (CBJ leads 1-0), 7 p.m. ET, CNBC (Live Stream)
Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Islanders, Game 2 (NYI leads 1-0), 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)
St. Louis Blues at Winnipeg Jets, Game 2 (StL leads 1-0), 9:30 p.m. ET, CNBC (Live Stream)
Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks, Game 2 (SJ leads 1-0), 10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)

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.

Capitals power play is difference in Game 1 win over Hurricanes

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If you are a Carolina Hurricanes fan there was a lot to like about the team’s Game 1 performance against the Washington Capitals, even if it all ended with a 4-2 loss and a 1-0 series deficit.

For one, the Hurricanes didn’t look overwhelmed against the defending Stanley Cup champions and actually carried the play at even-strength for much of the night. They started fast, had their chances, and mostly limited what the Capitals were able to do. It was a solid performance that showed they belong. Prized rookie Andre Svechnikov also had an incredible playoff debut by scoring a pair of goals in the third period to cut what had been a 3-0 deficit to just a single goal before Lars Eller‘s empty-net goal put the game away.

Because of those developments there is reason to believe the Hurricanes can not only give the Capitals a serious fight in this series, but that they are also perfectly capable of winning it.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

If that is going to happen, though, the Hurricanes are going to have to solve the one area that failed them on Thursday, and that of course is stopping the Capitals’ lethal power play. And also taking advantage of the opportunities they get.

The Capitals scored two power play goals in the first period — one from Nicklas Backstrom, another from Alex Ovechkin — to help jump out to a three-goal lead that was simply too much of a deficit for the Hurricanes to overcome.

While the Capitals power play converted on two of its four chances, the Hurricanes went 0-for-3 on their opportunities, including two chances in the final eight minutes when they had an opportunity to tie the game.

Simply put, the special teams were the difference in the game.

This is going to be the big issue for the Hurricanes in this series.

They can play a style that will give the Capitals issues. Their speed is an asset, they control the puck, and they will limit what the Capitals can do offensively at even-strength.

The problem is that for as good as the Hurricanes have been in the second half, and for as talented as their young roster is, the Capitals still have Hall of Fame players that can be difference-makers.

They may not get a lot of opportunities in this matchup, but they do not really need a lot of opportunities because of their skill.

We saw that on display on Thursday as Backstrom scored a pair of goals, Ovechkin scored yet another postseason power play goal, and John Carlson tallied three assists.

The Capitals still have the superstars in this series, and they shined when they needed to.

Hurricanes-Capitals Game 2 will be Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC

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.

Capitals vs. Hurricanes: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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As far as storylines go, Capitals vs. Hurricanes is up there for Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. At minimum, no two teams do the epilogue/final scene celebrating with ewoks better than these two teams.

First, you have Washington, the favorites. They didn’t just finally break their playoff curse last year; they also celebrated to the point that you basically need to fill in the blanks with “scene missing” screens.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, basically had an on-ice party after every home win via the “Storm Surge,” to the point that broadcasts would linger in Carolina to find out what they’d cook up (or reel in) next. Eventually, the storm built to the point where they had to eventually shut it down, for some combination of wanting to looking serious and maybe they also ran out of ideas.

Can the hockey of the Capitals and Hurricanes top those things? Tall task, but it will be fun to watch them try.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 7:30 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Capitals | USA, SN360, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 3 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Capitals | NBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 7 p.m.: Capitals @ Hurricanes | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Thursday, April 18, 7 p.m.: Capitals @ Hurricanes | SN360, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Hurricanes @ Capitals | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Capitals @ Hurricanes | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Hurricanes @ Capitals | TBD

FORWARDS

CAPITALS: If you paid attention to last year’s run … or, really, hockey in general, you probably know most of the deal.

Alex Ovechkin is the headliner, and he didn’t disappoint in 2018-19, winning his eight Maurice Richard Trophy with 51 goals. He’s joined by two stellar centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, along with T.J. Oshie and professional disturber Tom Wilson. (Wilson, by the way, justified that fat extension with 22 goals and 40 points despite being limited to 63 games.)

The scary thing is that you can argue this is a deeper group. Jakub Vrana‘s had a nice year, scoring 24 goals and 47 points. Brett Connolly might be the bargain to target in free agency this summer, as he scored 22 goals and 46 points despite averaging just 13:20 TOI per game. Even frequent doghouse resident Andre Burakovsky cannot be disregarded as a former first-rounder (23rd overall in 2013).

As a team, the Capitals are a group that tends to shoot at high percentages, making middling possession stats easy to stomach — and this isn’t a fluke, they’ve been doing this for years. Which brings us to …

HURRICANES: A group that, from forwards to defense, always made “fancy stats” people swoon, yet could never break through to the playoffs. While the Capitals made the most of every shot to a near-extreme, the Hurricanes have been posterchildren for quantity over quality. At least, that’s how it seemed.

Things have really started to come together lately, though.

Nino Niederreiter seemed to tie the Hurricanes’ offense together like The Dude’s rug. In 36 games since being traded to Carolina, Niederreiter generated an impressive 30 points. The Hurricanes boast a mix of guys with numbers impressive enough that they shouldn’t sneak up on people any longer (Sebastian Aho‘s 83 points; Teuvo Teravainen getting 76) along with players whose value shines greatest when you consider their all-around games, such as Jordan Staal. Andrei Svechnikov‘s rise has been impressive as a rookie, too, and he should only become a bigger part of the mix as Rod Brind’Amour gains more trust in him.

Oh yeah, they also have “Mr. Game 7” and “Storm Surge” innovator Justin Williams.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals. The Hurricanes are more potent in this area than many might realize, but the Caps are in the upper tier.

DEFENSE

CAPITALS: John Carlson probably deserves more Norris buzz than he is receiving.

Last season brought some red flags, as he generated 68 points, with his 53 assists nearly matching a previous career-high of 55. Well, he topped all of that in 2018-19, scoring 13 goals and 70 points, the fourth-best total among NHL blueliners. Oh yeah, he also skyrocketed from a possession stats standpoint, so this was a great all-around year.

The rest of the group is less inspiring.

After being an important duo during that magical Stanley Cup run, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen have struggled this season, which is part of the reason the Capitals invested in Nick Jensen at the trade deadline.

All of this makes the loss of Michal Kempny tough to stomach. While the Capitals aren’t outright bad on defense, it could be an area of weakness.

HURRICANES: Carolina lost a similar understatedly-effective defenseman in Calvin de Haan to injury issues, but the difference is that they’re deep enough that they can handle the loss more gracefully.

Despite rarely getting the chance to be a top power play unit’s QB, Dougie Hamilton just keeps scoring, particularly goals. He generated 18 this season, and his 48 goals over the last three seasons ranks second to Brent Burns‘ 57 during that span.

Hamilton tends to be a strong play-driver, too, and he’s far from alone on Carolina’s stacked blueline. Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin can often dominate possession, and the duo of Justin FaulkBrett Pesce was effective this season, too. This group can move the puck up the ice, generally prospers in their own end, and can chip in offensively, too.

ADVANTAGE: Hurricanes. This could be a “coming out party” for one of the league’s better defensive groups. Carlson may be the best single blueliner among both teams, though.

GOALTENDING

CAPITALS: For the second straight season, Braden Holtby‘s stats have been modest — in the regular season.

That concludes about all the negative things I can muster about Holtby, and even his .911 save percentage is passable on a team that scores so proficiently, and doesn’t always win the possession battle. As you hopefully remember, Holtby was fantastic during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run, and he deserved credit for being a postseason beast before that, as his career playoff save percentage of .929 is just bonkers, and 82 high-pressure games count as a healthy sample size, too.

There’s some concern if Holtby gets hurt or melts down, and not just because Pheonix Copley‘s name is spelled Pheonix, but Holtby’s as close to a sure thing as you can get in the unpredictable realm of hockey goaltending.

HURRICANES: Curtis McElhinney‘s quietly built up a resume as a very very good backup over the years, making an argument to rise to the level of a platoon guy.

That’s exactly what’s happened lately, as Petr Mrazek went from a guy whose career was continuing to spiral out of relevance the first few months of this season (.894 save percentage in 23 games before the All-Star Break) to someone who generated a .938 save percentage in his last 17 games.

This unlikely duo has finally shown what Carolina can accomplish with good (or at least competent) goaltending: finally make the playoffs.

At the same time, McElhinney’s been a journeyman and Mrazek was trending in that direction, and a 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs matchup against a team full of sharpshooting scorers could really expose both of them.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals, by a healthy margin.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can the Capitals’ defense hold up?

Carolina’s defense and two-way forwards makes them a potentially tough matchup, and they’ve also been a strong penalty kill team. If these games end up being tight, low-scoring affairs, will Washington’s perceived weaknesses on defense get exposed?

Will Carolina’s goalies fall apart?

It’s fair to wonder if shabby netminding may dry out the “Storm Surge” before the thunder really gets cracking. There just aren’t a lot/any hockey humans who can shoot the puck like Ovechkin can, and the Capitals have other players who can make goalies look bad. Carolina’s goalies are as uncertain as Holtby is seasoned when it comes to postseason play (and playing the role of a No. 1 in general, really).

PREDICTION

Carolina in 6. Look, I know this is an aberrant pick, and most of the details above give me second, third, and 651st thoughts. But the Hurricanes’ playoff-friendly, two-way play make me feel better about going with my gut. Kinda.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
• Predators vs. Stars
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins

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.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Canadiens on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday night’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Montreal scored a huge win on Tuesday with a 4-2 victory over the Presidents’ Trophy winning Lightning. The Habs rebounded from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits before outscoring Tampa 2-0 in the third. Their previous win came against the Central-leading Jets. They face their third straight division leader tonight.

The Canadiens enter Thursday one point behind the Hurricanes for the first Wild Card and tied with the Blue Jackets in points for the second Wild Card, but still on the outside looking in due to the ROW tiebreaker. After their game against Washington, they’ll end the season at home against Toronto.

With two games to play, the Capitals lead the Metro by three points over the Islanders. Washington is vying for its fourth consecutive division title.

Three-time MVP and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin is aiming to break a tie with Bobby Hull (7x) to become the first player in NHL history to finish atop the goal-scoring race eight times. Ovechkin (33 years old) can also become the first player since Phil Esposito in 1975 to lead the league in goals at age 33 or older.

On Saturday against Tampa, Ovechkin found the net twice, registering his 50th and 51st goals of the season. Those 51 goals are the most in the league, four ahead of Toronto’s John Tavares and Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, who both have 47. Ovechkin joined Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy as the only players to record eight or more 50-plus goal seasons.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Montreal Canadiens at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Thursday, April 4, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Canadiens-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

CANADIENS
Tomas TatarPhillip Danault –  Brendan Gallagher
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiAndrew Shaw
Jonathan DrouinJordan WealJoel Armia
Jesperi KotkaniemiNate ThompsonPaul Byron

Victor MeteShea Weber
Brett KulakJeff Petry
Jordie BennChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Carey Price

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Andre BurakovskyNic DowdTravis Boyd

John CarlsonNick Jensen
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

John Walton (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pre-game coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

NHL on NBCSN: Canadiens visit Capitals in pivotal game

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday night’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

There’s no shortage of storylines in this one.

Let’s take the Montreal Canadiens, for instance. They could move into a playoff spot with a win. Montreal’s lot in life heading into Thursday’s game has them sitting level on points with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second and final wildcard in the Eastern Conference. Columbus (who also play Thursday) holds the tiebreaker and the keys to the spot, providing they win out.

For Montreal, it’s about keeping the pressure on and bottling some of the resilience and tenacity they showed against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday in a 4-2 win. The Habs came back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in the game before scoring twice in the third period to knock off the Atlantic Division leaders. In their previous outing, they beat the Winnipeg Jets, who currently lead the Central Division and now have a chance for a division-leader hat trick against Washington.

If Columbus wins but the Carolina Hurricanes fail to do so in regulation against the New Jersey Devils, the Canadiens would leapfrog them into a playoff spot, too. For Montreal, they could still end up finishing in the first wildcard and a likely Round 1 matchup against these very Capitals.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Speaking of these very Capitals, they can clinch a fourth straight Metropolitan Division crown with a win against the Canadiens.

The Caps are coming off a 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers on Monday, one that snapped a four-game winning streak.

“Certainly it’s nice to see us battle, but there’s no consolation prizes for stuff like that,” defenseman John Carlson said following the game. “We needed to be better earlier, that’s really what it comes down to.”

Washington will be in tough against Carey Price, who’s been sensational over the past month. In his past eight games, he’s gone 6-1-1 with a .933 save percentage. That might not be a problem for Alex Ovechkin, however. He’s got 51 goals this season to pace the league and has one hand on the Rocket Richard trophy, leading Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers and John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs by four goals.

And while we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here, we just can’t help it.

Things get very, very interesting if Washington loses in regulation and the New York Islanders pick up two points against the Panthers.

Both the Capitals and the Islanders face each other in the final game of the season for each club. The game would be for the divisional crown, with the Capitals, theoretically on 102 points, and the Islanders on 101.

John Walton (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pre-game coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck