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PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1

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The first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs was filled with upsets, crazy comebacks, and incredible individual performances. Now that it is in the books and eight teams still have their Stanley Cup dreams alive, our focus in the PHT Power Rankings this week shifts to taking a look at the early favorites for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have combined to win the award in each of the past three seasons, but with both of their teams eliminated in Round 1 there will be a changing of the guard this year and some new names at the top of the list.

Let’s take a look at who some of them are.

To the rankings!

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche. One of the league’s best players and perhaps the most valuable asset in the NHL right now. MacKinnon was a force in the Avalanche’s Round 1 upset win over the Calgary Flames, finishing with eight points in five games, playing more than 23 minutes per night (more than any other player on the team other than defender Tyson Barrie) and looking as unstoppable as any other player in the league. From start to finish he was the most impressive player in Round 1 on any team.

2. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks. Hertl scored six goals in the Sharks’ seven-game series win over the Vegas Golden Knights, including at least one in each of the final three games as they erased a 3-1 series deficit. They were huge goals, too. After scoring two goals in the Sharks’ 5-2 Game 5 win, his shorthanded double overtime goal in Game 6 sent the series to a seventh game where he would record two points as part of that insane third period rally. He might be the single biggest reason the Sharks are still standing.

3. Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars. HIs Round 1 performance is just one more reason for hockey fans in Nashville to hate him as he helped knock out the Central Division champs in six games. Dallas’ big-four of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and Radulov were all great in the series, but Radulov was a special kind of dominant. He scored four goals in the series and looked like he was a threat to break the game wide open every single time he was on the ice. He not only helped carry the offense, the Stars only surrendered one goal in his 94 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time (they scored eight).

4. Robin Lehner, New York Islanders. He was a big reason the New York Islanders exceeded all expectations during the regular season, and he was a big reason they swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in four straight games. He allowed just six goals against one of the league’s most dynamic offensive teams and finished the series with a .956 save percentage, tops in the playoffs so far.

5. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes’ defense is by far the strength of their team, and they did a tremendous job in Round 1 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. Their best overall performer was Slavin, as he not only finished with nine points (highest on the team) but was also a crucial part of the Hurricanes’ ability to shut down the Capitals offense at even-strength. The Hurricanes were the better team for most of the series during 5-on-5 play, and there was probably no one player that did more to drive that defensively than Slavin. Every member of the Hurricanes’ defense is good, and he is starting to emerge as one of their best.

6. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. Marchand has been one of the NHL’s most impactful players for about four years now and he continued that in Round 1 for the Bruins. He had three multi-point games in their latest postseason win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, including a pair of three-point games.

7. Matt Duchene, Columbus Blue Jackets. This is exactly what you hope to get from a big trade deadline acquisition. Duchene was a monster for the Blue Jackets in their stunning four-game sweep over the Tampa Bay Lightning, finishing with seven points while averaging just 15 minutes of ice-time per game. He was at his best in Game 2 of the series when he finished with four points, helping to turn the Lightning into “a five-alarm fire.”

8. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. After what was probably the worst regular season performance of his career, Schwartz came through at just the right time for the Blues to help ruin the Winnipeg Jets’ season. He scored four consecutive goals for the Blues by not only capping off their stunning Game 5 rally with a game-winning goal with 15 seconds to play, but then recording a hat trick in their 3-2 series-clinching win in Game 6.

9. Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders. In his first Stanley Cup Playoff appearance during the 2016-17 season Eberle failed to score a goal in any of his 13 games. He pulled a complete 180 in Round 1, scoring in all four of the Islanders’ wins over the Penguins. Each one of them proved to be a game-changer.

10. Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars. He is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for the third time in his career and showed why in the Stars’ Round 1 win with a sensational performance against the Predators. With his .945 save percentage in the six games, he is now up to a .930 save percentage 42 career postseason games.

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.

Roundtable: Round 1 surprising players; toughest road to Stanley Cup Final

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What player surprised you most (good or bad) in Round 1?

SEAN: Entering Round 1, there wasn’t a whole lot of confidence in the Calgary Flames goaltending. They had enough talent to get by the Colorado Avalanche despite the up and down play from Mike Smith and David Rittich during the regular season. While they went out in five games, you can’t place any blame on the play of Smith, who posted a .947 even strength save percentage and a .935 high-danger save percentage, via Natural Stat Trick.

JAMES: Johnny Gaudreau, and frankly, the Flames’ top players overall, Matthew Tkachuk included. It’s one thing for Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen to dominate – they tend to do that when they’re even remotely healthy – but Calgary must be stunned by just how severely the strength vs. strength matchups went in Colorado’s favor. The Lightning getting swept was the biggest upset of Round 1, but the Flames’ play was the most upsetting.

ADAM: I almost think I have to go with Warren Foegele, even though I hate — HATE! —  the play that knocked T.J. Oshie out of the series and thought he was fortunate to not get suspended for it. But if you would have told me at the start of their Round 1 series with the Washington Capitals that not only would the Hurricanes win, but it would be Foegele that ended up leading the team in goals I would have laughed in your face. He only had 10 goals and 15 total points all season and finished the first round with four goals and six points in only seven games. Totally out of nowhere for me.

JOEY: Jordan Eberle had a tough regular season, but he really came to play in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not only did Eberle get his name on the scoresheet at least once in every single game but his team also controlled nearly 54 percent of the shot attempts when he was on the ice. He was also on the ice for 21 high-danger chances for compared to just eight against. The Islanders forward picked a heck of a time to put it all together, as he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. They’ll need him to keep performing at this level if they’re going to make it through to the next round.

SCOTT: Oskar Sundqvist. For a long time, Sundqvist was just that got that got pasted by Tom Wilson in the preseason. After watching him for six games in the series against the Winnipeg Jets, you start to see more than just that nasty hit. Against Winnipeg, he was physical, he produced, adding two goals and two assists in the series, and he played meaningful minutes alongside Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn on the second line (including a five-shot effort in Game 6).

RYAN: Warren Foegele had 10 goals and just 15 points in 77 games in the regular season, but he managed to be a factor in the first round. He had two goals and an assist in Game 3, scored just 17 seconds into Game 4, and chipped in another goal in Game 6. With six playoff points, he’s tied for second place in the Hurricanes’ scoring race, though I don’t expect him to be nearly as effective going forward.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Which Round 2 team do you believe faces the toughest route to the Stanley Cup Final?

SEAN: The most immediate challenge for the Colorado Avalanche is facing a San Jose Sharks team coming off the emotional high of a 3-1 series comeback and an epic Game 7 to advance to Round 2. That could benefit them early on in the series if the Sharks are still riding those emotional waves. But if Good Martin Jones is what we’re going to see, then the Avs are in for a challenge. The Blues and Stars would pose a similar challenge in going up against stingy defense and good goaltending. Plus there’s the change in play at how the Blues have played since January and the Stars finally finding an identity under Jim Montgomery down the stretch.

JAMES: The Blue Jackets, by a hair. I don’t think you can emphasize enough how unlikely that Lightning sweep was. We can dig through reasons all day, yet Columbus played at a high level — and the Blue Jackets had to. Next, they face a focused, versatile, and dangerous Bruins team. While a would-be third-round opponent seems less foreboding on paper, Columbus still isn’t in a spot to take anyone lightly. The West is likely to provide a robust opponent in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, too. There are plenty of other arguments because there aren’t many easy outs in this tournament (if Colorado goes deep, they’ll have a case), but the Blue Jackets get my vote.

ADAM: Honestly it is still probably the Blue Jackets for me, just because I think they have to play the most complete team still standing in Round 2. This was always going to be their issue for me in the playoffs, the fact they got stuck in the hardest bracket and that even if they got through Tampa Bay, they were going to have to face another top team in the very next round. If they get through this they will have more than earned their spot in the Eastern Conference Final and it would probably be one of the most impressive postseasons runs we have seen in quite some time.

JOEY: I have to go with the Carolina Hurricanes. Yes, they knocked off the defending Stanley Cup Champions in the first round, but all that did was get them a date with one of the stingiest teams in the league. That’s not to say that Carolina can’t beat the Islanders over seven games, but their journey to the next round definitely won’t be an easy one. Also, if they do find a way to win their second-round series, they’ll have Columbus or Boston waiting for them in the next round. No matter what happens though, they’re playing with house money at this point.

SCOTT: Columbus. Sorry, but can lightning strike twice? The Bruins are going to grind much harder than Tampa, and they likely know that they’re the frontrunners now with Tampa gone and the rest of the division winners. That’s going to provide some extra steam in the engine. Can Columbus beat Boston? After Round 1, anything can be done. But if we’re talking toughest route to the Cup, it’s got to be the team that has to knock off the first- and second-ranked teams in the NHL to get there. It’s an incredible tale to tell if they do. 

RYAN: The Avalanche. Although Martin Jones continues to give me pause, I still believe the Sharks are ultimately going to win the Stanley Cup and the Avalanche will have to go through them to get any further. Even if the Avalanche manage to pull off that, they’ll have to face the winner of the Stars-Blues series. The Blues are a great all-around squad while the Stars have an elite offensive core supported by a Vezina Trophy finalist in goal, so either of those teams would make life very difficult for the Avalanche even if they do manage to get past San Jose.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1

Lamoriello, Trotz orchestrate Islanders’ big turnaround

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NEW YORK (AP) — Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz say they didn’t know exactly what to expect from the New York Islanders this season.

There were plenty of questions after the Islanders gave up 293 goals – the most in the NHL since 2006-07 – while missing the playoffs for the eighth time in 11 years. There was uncertainty on offense when star center John Tavares left in free agency for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

”There were a lot of unknowns. We had no preconceived notions,” Lamoriello said. ”Whatever expectations there were, there were really none one way or another.”

The answers have come in the form of a stunning one-year turnaround that has the Islanders in the second round of the playoffs. New York gave up a league-low 191 goals, charged to second place in the Metropolitan Division and just swept the star-laden Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.

Knowing some had picked them to miss the playoff again, players just shrug it off.

”That’s kind of been a little bit of the story line here and we’re used to it,” said Anders Lee, who succeeded Tavares as team captain. ”That’s just the way it’s been, not just this year, it’s kind of always been that way. This year we’ve really taken it on and run with it.”

Both Lamoriello and Trotz say they knew they were going to give up fewer goals with a better defensive approach.

”We wanted to play a certain way,” Trotz said. ”We knew we could fix the goals against, that’s commitment and that’s work ethic, detail and structure.”

The 76-year-old Lamoriello, whose long career includes building the New Jersey Devils into an NHL power a generation ago, vowed to bring a culture change to the Islanders when he took over as the president of hockey operations last May. A few weeks later, he fired general manager Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight.

Trotz was hired as coach in June, days after he led Washington to its first Stanley Cup championship and then abruptly resigned in a contract dispute. The hiring was celebrated by the Islanders’ rabid fan base, which has seen just one postseason series win since 1993 – a far cry from the glory days of winning four championships in a row.

After losing Tavares, Lamoriello went about filling the roster with players with winning experience. Veterans like Leo Komarov, 32, and Valtteri Filppula, 35, were brought in to help the development of youngsters like Anthony Beauvilier. And 27-year-old Tom Kuhnhackl, who won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, was also a solid addition.

”We were looking for good people, the people who have won,” Trotz said. ”That’s so important for our growth as an organization and a group coming in. We looked for character people and Lou did a great job.”

The Islanders have embraced Trotz’s swarming, defense-first system.

”It’s helped us all along,” said forward Josh Bailey, now the longest-tenured Islander in his 11th season with the team. ”It’s a big part of our identity and I think the more results we’ve seen as the season went on, the more belief (it fostered) in one another and what we were doing, and trust in our staff and everyone.”

A big question in the offseason centered on goaltending after Robin Lehner was signed to pair with Thomas Greiss. Lehner was with Buffalo the previous season and left a game down the stretch because of a panic attack and was subsequently treated for alcohol and drug addiction and also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and PTSD. He talked openly about his personal life when he joined the Islanders, and credited the organization and his new teammates with giving him support.

Greiss and Lehner were solid all season. Greiss went 23-14-2 with a 2.28 goals-against average and five shutouts while Lehner was 25-13-5 with a 2.13 GAA and six shutouts. The two shared the William Jennings Trophy for the team allowing the fewest goals in the league. Lehner started all four games in the series against the Penguins, limiting them to six goals on 136 shots, and is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

The focus on defense has meant playing with more discipline. And while a few players enjoyed boosts in their offensive production, it meant reductions for others, including Mathew Barzal, Lee, Bailey and Jordan Eberle. The sacrifices have resulted in more overall success.

”We play as a team,” Trotz said. ”I think everybody has given up a part of themselves to be a part of something greater.”

The coach points to a road trip in December that became a springboard for the rest of the season. They had lost five of the previous nine after the Thanksgiving weekend, and then won three of four, shutting down high-scoring lines for Colorado and Dallas.

”I think from that point we really trusted our game,” Trotz said. ”We were sort of in-between a little bit and that sort of galvanized the group.”

In the second game after Christmas, the Islanders went to Toronto and shut out the Maple Leafs 5-0 in their first game playing against Tavares. It was part of a stretch in which the Islanders went 16-2-3 from Dec. 8 to Feb. 2 to jump to the top of the division.

”I came into this team and talked to the guys straight in the summer and a lot of the guys said ‘We’re going to go far,”’ Lehner said. ”That just grew during the season when the system started to jell and we started playing together.”

They Islanders say they’re not simply satisfied with just getting to the second round, where they will face either Carolina or Trotz’s former team, the Capitals.

”We’re nowhere near where we want to be at,” Bailey said. ”You have to win four (series) to win it all.”

Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Playoff Buzzer: Pacioretty continues Vegas dominance; Connor on point again for Jets

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  • All-time upset in Columbus as they grab the brooms and sweep Tampa out of the playoffs
  • The Islanders, too, snag some brooms and usher Sidney Crosby and the Penguins to the offseason
  • Connor the hero for Winnipeg after scoring overtime winner to even series vs. Blues 2-2 
  • Pacioretty continues second-line dominance for Vegas vs. Sharks

New York Islanders 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (NYI wins series 4-0)

The Islanders just don’t quit, and it proved to be too much for the inconsistent Penguins, who simply couldn’t answer New York’s relentless pace and persistence. Jordan Eberle had a great game. Robin Lehner was solid in net once again, and the Islanders continued their stingy defensive style that Barry Trotz has implemented to near perfection so far. The Isles deserve to move on, plain and simple.

Columbus Blue Jackets 7, Tampa Bay Lightning 3 (CBJ wins series 4-0)

The first signs of life from the Lightning since the first period in Game 1 were seen in Game 4 on Tuesday, but it didn’t matter one iota. The Blue Jackets were simply too good outside of the first period in Game 1. Forechecking at its finest. Goal scoring from everywhere. Tampa couldn’t breathe and was forced to tap out in just four games after winning a record-tying 62 in the regular season. It’s an all-time upset in NHL history.

Winnipeg Jets 2, St. Louis Blues 1 (Series tied 2-2)

A clean slate heading back to Winnipeg? The Jets could have only dreamed of that after dropping the first two games in their own barn. But they made a statement in Game 3 and may have done some psychological damage with a 2-1 overtime win in Game 4 on Tuesday. The Jets were not deterred after Vladimir Tarasenko gave the Blues a 1-0 lead early in the third. Mark Scheifele‘s tying goal was a product of hard work and the overtime goal by Kyle Connor was much of the same. Game 5 should be a dandy in this tightly contested affair.

Vegas Golden Knights , San Jose Sharks (VGK leads series 3-1)

Hard not to think that San Jose is done in this series. Vegas put the Sharks on the brink of elimination with an easy 5-0 win. They chased Martin Jones for the second time in the series. Their second line is unstoppable at the moment and now the Sharks can’t score. You can point to some issues they cannot control. Injuries, specifically. But when your goalie is playing at a worse caliber than he did during the regular season, there’s simply no chance.

Three stars

1. Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights

Two goals and two assists from Pacioretty meant another feast for the Golden Knights’ second line. After combining for 12 points in Game 3, the line returned for Game 4 and combined for another seven. Pacioretty got his moment after Paul Stastny and Mark Stone each had five-point outings in the previous game. Vegas looks unstoppable when San Jose can’t stop that line. Also, shoutout to Marc-Andre Fleury who turned aside 28 shots for the shutout.

2. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

Connor fed Mark Scheifele with a slick cross-ice feed to tie the game up 1-1 in the third period. From there, he was in front of the net when a loose puck found its way in front of him and quickly into the back of the net to give the Jets a 2-1 win in overtime. Connor had two goals in Game 3 and is producing in the clutch for Winnipeg at the moment.

3. Alexandre Texier, Columbus Blue Jackets

He entered the game with no playoff goals and left with two. Texier, 19, was impressive in a game where the Blue Jackets swept up the Tampa Bay Lightning, building off a Game 3 where he picked up an assist. In six total NHL games, Texier has three goals and an assist now. He’s an exciting young player.

Highlight of the night

This is extremely filthy.

Awkward moment of the night

Panarin just doesn’t care:

Factoids of the night

  • Fleury moved into the seventh spot on the all-time postseason wins list on Tuesday. (NHL PR)
  • More Vegas history: they became the first NHL team to score in the opening 90 seconds in three straight playoff games. (NHL PR)
  • A very good omen for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who became the fourth team in NHL history to sweep the NHL’s No. 1 team in the regular season. Guess what the three others who did the same thing ended up doing later that spring? (NHL PR)

Wednesday’s games

Game 4: Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs (TOR leads 2-1), 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)
Game 4: Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars (NSH leads 2-1), 9 p.m. ET, USA (Live Stream)
Game 4: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche (COL leads 2-1), 10 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)


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

It was the Jordan Eberle show for Islanders

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PITTSBURGH — Jordan Eberle‘s only playoff appearance before this season was mostly forgettable.

He went 13 games without scoring a goal, was limited to just two assists, and became the postseason scapegoat for a dysfunctional organization (Edmonton) that was on the brink of falling apart for reasons that were (and still are) far bigger than him. The response that offseason, naturally, was to essentially give him away to the New York Islanders in a one-for-one deal for Ryan Strome

It has been a very different postseason experience for him this time around.

Eberle was one of the driving forces behind the Islanders’ stunning four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins that concluded with a 3-1 win on Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.

After failing to score in all of his playoff games in 2016, Eberle has not only scored in every playoff game he has played so far in 2019, but he has scored some game-changing goals in the biggest possible moments.

Just look at the rundown of his goals so far:

  • In Game 1, he opened the scoring for the Islanders and set the tone for the series just 1:40 into the game.
  • In Game 2, it was the game-winning goal midway through the third period to help give the Islanders a commanding lead in the series.
  • In Game 3, it was a picture perfect snipe from a terrible angle that tied the game just one minute after the Penguins had taken an early lead.
  • In Game 4, it was exactly the same situation as his goal on an odd-man rush at the 2:09 mark of the first period came just a minute-and-a-half after the Penguins scored on the game’s first shift, erasing any momentum they may have been able to build.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In the four games the Islanders spent less than five minutes playing from behind due to their quick responses, and in two games it was goals from Eberle that erased those few deficits.

He has found a home on the Islanders’ top line alongside Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee, and in a series that featured the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on the other side of the ice, it was the Islanders’ trio that dominated on the scoreboard.

“[Barzal] is finding me in areas where I am able to finish plays off,” said Eberle after Tuesday’s win, when asked what is going through his mind when the puck is on his stick right now.

“Since they put me, [Barzal], and [Lee] together the puck has been going in a lot more. I don’t know what we finished the season with, but it seemed like we scored every game. That is obviously huge and we want to continue playing that way. These games get tougher and tougher as you move forward, we have to be ready and realize that.”

They may not have scored in every game, but they definitely showed they could be a dangerous trio that could spark the team’s offense. Over the final 10 games of the regular season that trio outscored opponents by a 6-2 margin in more than 122 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, while also dominating the scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance numbers.

That domination has carried over to the playoffs.

In the four-game series against Pittsburgh the Eberle, Barzal, Lee line combined for four goals, was not on the ice for a single goal against, and controlled more than 60 percent of the scoring chance and high-danger chances when they were on the ice.

Other than perhaps the play of the two goalies (and especially Robin Lehner in the Islanders’ net), that line was probably the difference in the series.

“You start to get a lot of confidence before the playoffs begin, and you want to continue to play well,” said Eberle. “The biggest thing about my game, and [Barzal], and [Lee] is you want to have the coach trust you, and I think Barry does now with the way we have played defensively and able to break the puck out and go down and score. We are known for our defense and I think first and foremost that is where we want to be.”

The Islanders have a lot of questions to face this summer when it comes to pending unrestricted free agents, with Eberle and Lee being two of the biggest. If nothing else, they are putting together a pretty convincing argument that they are worth keeping around and paying because of the way they have played alongside the team’s new franchise player (Barzal).

They also don’t have to worry about that decision for (at least) a couple more weeks, thanks in large parts to Eberle’s goal-scoring binge.

He had a rather simple explanation for how all of it is happening for him

“Sometimes when you shoot the puck, it goes in.”

Because the puck keeps going in, the Islanders’ season will keep going on.

Related: Islanders shut down Penguins again to complete sweep

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.