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Caps’ Backstrom a game-time decision to return from injury

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WASHINGTON (AP) Nicklas Backstrom could return to the Capitals’ lineup for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final against the Lightning.

Backstrom has missed Washington’s past four games with a right hand injury. Coach Barry Trotz called him a game-time decision and said early Thursday that Backstrom had not yet been medically cleared.

The 30-year-old Swedish center took part in the Capitals’ morning skate in Arlington, Virginia, mixed in on line rushes and participated in power-play drills.

Backstrom was injured May 5 when a slap shot from Pittsburgh’s Justin Schultz struck him in the right hand. If Backstrom plays, it’s possible he doesn’t take faceoffs.

Before being injured, Backstrom was one of Washington’s top players in the postseason with 13 points in 11 games.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

Capitals’ Backstrom to miss third consecutive game

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The Washington Capitals will once again be without star center Nicklas Backstrom on Sunday night when they take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Backstrom has been sidelined since the third period of Game 5 of their second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins due to a hand injury after he was hit by a Justin Schultz shot.

In his absence the Capitals have been able to continue winning, defeating the Penguins in Game 6 of the second round and then opening the Conference Final series with a 4-2 win over the Lightning.

In Backstrom’s absence the Capitals have been using Lars Eller on the second line between Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie. In 11 games this postseason Backstrom has three goals and 10 assists for the Capitals and is the team’s third-leading scorer, trailing only Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. That came after a 71-point (21 goals, 50 assists) performance in 81 regular season games.

Eller scored a goal for the Capitals in their Game 1 win over the Lightning and has four goals and four assists this postseason.

The Capitals are playing in their first Conference Final series since 1998 and have a chance to take a 2-0 series lead with a win on Sunday.

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

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.

Penguins should bet on a Kris Letang rebound

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The relationship between Kris Letang and Pittsburgh Penguins fans. Sometimes it’s complicated.

For more than a decade Letang has been a No. 1 defenseman for the Penguins, and for many of those years he has been a top-10, and at times maybe even a top-five, player in the league at his position. But there’s always been a sense (at least from this perspective) that he has never really been fully appreciated for just how good he has been, and the criticisms are always the same.

Turns the puck over too much.

Not good in his own end and takes too many chances.

Makes too much money.

Gets hurt too much.

There is an element of truth to some of that, but it doesn’t mean what his harshest critics think it means. Yes, he is guilty of turnovers at times. But so is every high-level player that plays a lot of minutes and always has the puck on their stick. Take a look at the NHL’s leaders in giveaways at the end of any season. It is a list of All-Stars. He does take some chances and at times gambles, whether it be pinching in the offensive zone or trying to make a play out of his own zone. But that is also a part of what makes him the dynamic player that he is. He is capable of doing things and making plays due to his skating and skill that other players not only can not make, but probably can not even attempt.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

It basically comes down to this: He is going to make some mistakes, but as long as the positive plays outweigh the negative plays you have to to take the bad with the good.

Sometimes his freakish athletic ability makes it possible for him to wipe out his own mistake with a brilliant play of its own.

And while he has missed a significant portion of his career due to injury, he’s probably been a little underpaid given the market rate for top-pairing defenseman that play at his level.

But because the bad plays are usually the result of that aggressiveness they will stand out more. And because hockey is a game of mistakes, we tend to focus almost exclusively on that big mistake when it happens and allow it to drive the discussion around that player.

That brings us to Letang’s 2017-18 season (and postseason) for the Penguins. To be fair, it was not a great season, and it reached its low point in Game 5 of the team’s second-round series when a third period breakdown allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov to score a game-tying goal just one minute into the third period, completely changing the direction of the series. The series ended with Letang trying to chase Kuznetsov down from behind on a breakaway as he potted the series-clinching goal. Viewed in the context of the Penguins actually winning the Stanley Cup a year ago without having Letang for any of the playoff games, it made him a focal point for blame when the team did not win this season (nevermind that they probably do not win that Stanley Cup the previous year without him, this is the ultimate what have you done for me lately business).

What made this season even tougher for Letang is that it wasn’t just the mistakes of aggressiveness or the Game 5 blunder against Kuznetsov that made it an off year for him. He seemed to get beat in one-on-one situations more often than usual. He also saw a pretty sharp decline in his offensive production and by the end of the year and playoffs was replaced by Justin Schultz on the team’s top power play unit.

Physically, Letang has been through hell and back in recent years due to both injury and health issues.

The most recent example was the neck injury that sidelined him for the second half of last season and all of the playoffs.

On Wednesday’s locker clean out day in Pittsburgh, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he had an inclination that the injury, surgery, and recovery in such a short period of time was probably going to be a lot for Letang to overcome.

He also talked about the inconsistency.

“He had stages of the year where he was really good for us and stages where he wasn’t at his best,” said Sullivan. “By no means does it diminish what we think of Kris as a player. He’s a guy that we think is certainly one of the elite defensemen in the league.”

Letang himself admitted that he thought it would be easier to come back and that he might have lost a little bit of his conditioning.

The thing about Letang is that for all of the struggles he had at times this year there were still elements of his game that were in place.

Fifty-one points in 79 games was a down year for him. That still placed him 17th in the league among all defenders in the NHL.

When he was on the ice the Penguins attempted more than 55 percent of the total shot attempts during even-strength play. Among defenders that played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time that was the 12th best mark in the entire league, so the team was still controlling possession and the shot chart, which should be seen as an encouraging sign. Players that help drive possession that much usually see that pay off when it comes to goals for and against. But of the top-20 defenders in the league in shot attempt percentage, Letang was one of just five that had a negative on-ice goal differential on the season. The other four (Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifan, and Brett Pesce) all played for the Carolina Hurricanes, a team with infamous goaltending issues.

Part of Letang’s issue when it came to goals for and against was his own inconsistency.

Another part of it was the Penguins’ inconsistent goaltending, both from starter Matt Murray when he was healthy, as well his revolving door of backups that all struggled. Improved play from that position would go a long way toward correcting both his and the Penguins’ 5-on-5 issues as a team (because it wasn’t just Letang that struggled in those situations for the Penguins this season).

In the end, though, he is capable of more than he showed this season, and everybody involved knows it.

That is why no matter how much criticism he takes, how many times there is a call for the Penguins to trade him, they are not going to do it. They shouldn’t do it, anyway. Because when Letang is right and on top of his game there are only a small handful of players in the NHL that are better than him at his position, and you are never going to get that upside back in a trade.

Especially now when his value is probably at an all-time low given the injury recovery and the fact he is coming off of a down year. Part of what made the Penguins such a success the past few years was pouncing on trade partners that were dealing players at lower value (Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley, and Schultz all come to mind). The good player usually rebounds. The good — and smart — teams usually make sure it happens for them and not somebody else.

Given his track record there is every reason to believe he can — and probably will — get back to that level.

The Penguins should be more than willing to take that bet that he gets there next season.

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.

Nicklas Backstrom will not play in Game 6 for Capitals

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The Washington Capitals will not have center Nicklas Backstrom on Monday night as they attempt to close out their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

He appeared to be injured in Game 5 when he was hit in the hand by a Justin Schultz shot.

The Capitals are simply calling it an upper-body injury.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Backstrom did not play the final 14 minutes of the game on Saturday. He also did not take part in the morning skate earlier in the day and was expected to be a game-time decision. The Capitals are already playing without winger Tom Wilson as he continues to serve his three-game suspension. Andre Burakovsky is also out of the Capitals’ lineup due to an upper body injury.

Lars Eller was skating in Backstrom’s place on the second line alongside Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie.

In 81 games during the regular season Backstrom recorded 71 points (21 goals, 50 points) for the Capitals, finishing as the team’s third-leading scorer behind Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

So far this postseason he has three goals and 10 assists for the Capitals. That includes five points in the series against the Penguins, three of which came in the Capitals’ Game 3 win when he set up Ovechkin for the game-winning goal.

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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.

High-scoring top lines dominating best defenders in playoffs

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Each time Boston’s top line jumps over the boards, the Tampa Bay Lightning are on red alert.

Make a mistake and Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak can make you pay. They have.

”You think it’s going all right and you’re playing well, and they only need one look,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. ”We knew that. That’s no surprise. They’re a good line.”

Top lines are lighting up opponents all over the playoffs, ratcheting scoring up to a pace not seen in more than two decades. Top trios from the Capitals, Golden Knights, Penguins, Jets and Predators are having their way against top opposing defensemen. Goals are supposed to be harder to come by in the playoffs, but after years of NHL rule changes to get goals, goals and more goals, that is exactly what’s happening.

”Every line, every group of forwards, give different challenges for defensemen,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. ”It’s the types of reads and the tendencies of the group and as a series goes on there’s going to be more and more deception happening from a forward group to our group of defenders and vice versa. It’s the constant reads and the constant communication and the constant positioning that you have to have against really dynamic people who are good collectively or individually.”

Especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s not easy being D.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

A total of 332 goals were scored through the first 54 playoff games, the most at that point since 1996 (338). Elite goaltenders are putting on a show, yet top lines like Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist (Pittsburgh); Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson (Washington); Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg); Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith (Vegas): and Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson (Nashville) are taking advantage of their opportunities.

Top lines have been on the ice for 42 of the 78 goals scored through Tuesday in the second round, a showcase of skill that shows great offense is beating great defense. So many of the game’s best defensemen are now counted on as much for their offense as the play in their own end, yet even those tasked with stopping the stars haven’t been able to do it.

”We’ve got a game plan, but I don’t think we’ve completely executed it yet,” Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon said of containing the Golden Knights’ top line. ”We’re kind of doing it in bits and pieces.”

The Penguins trail the Capitals 2-1 in their second-round series in part because they haven’t gotten much offense beyond Guentzel, Crosby and Hornqvist, plus the goals that top line is giving up to Ovechkin and Kuznetsov.

”They’re pretty aggressive, so there’s some open ice heading the other way against them,” top Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. ”You’ve got to defend hard when they have it and make your plays and have confidence to make plays when you do have it. If you’re only playing defense against them, it’s going to be a long night. You have to go on the attack, as well.”

That’s the risk-reward for elite defenders in the playoffs: knowing when to counterattack. It has worked some for the Bruins, who so far have limited the damage from Tampa Bay’s J.T. Miller, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and put up some goals against them.

Bruins defensemen Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy corralled Auston Matthews and Toronto’s top offensive performers in the first round and continue to draw the toughest assignments against the Lightning.

”The guys on the ice, that’s their assignment for 15, 18 minutes, whatever they play at even strength that night,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”There’s no magic formula about following them around or any particular structure other than Z and Charlie have done a good job of not getting caught up ice, giving them odd-man rushes for the most part.”

Pittsburgh’s biggest hole through three games defensively – outside of Matt Murray‘s apparently vulnerable glove hand – has been defending the Capitals on the rush.

”They’re a very skilled team,” defensemen Justin Schultz said. ”You’ve got to have numbers back and keep your head on a swivel because they’re very talented.”

It’s not just rush goals, though, as the Jets’ Connor, Scheifele and Wheeler showed in helping lead a comeback from down 3-0 to beat the Predators 7-4 to take a 2-1 series lead. Winnipeg and Nashville have combined for 25 goals despite two Vezina Trophy finalists in net and some of the best defensemen in hockey. It’s a blueprint for how the NHL wanted to crank up offense.

”I think the mindset is definitely to play well defensively,” Predators captain Roman Josi said. ”Both teams want to play a good game defensively, and for some reason these two teams seem to bring the best out of each other and they’re always high-scoring games.”

AP Sports Writers Josh Dubow in San Jose, California, and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and freelance reporter Matt Kalman in Boston contributed.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey