Capitals’ Stanley Cup Final run is Trotz’s masterpiece

30 Comments

This Washington Capitals team is a testament to people taking things for granted.

Think of all of the the achievements that were met, ridiculously, with a shoulder shrug:

  • Yet another Maurice Richard Trophy for Alex Ovechkin thanks to 49 goals. It will be his seventh such title.
  • Yawn: another division title, marking the eighth of the Ovechkin era.
  • Sheesh, they didn’t even win the Presidents’ Trophy this time around.

Hockey fans and pundits are probably also guilty of far-too-easily dismissing the brilliant work of Barry Trotz. Such things tend to happen for a bench boss who, much like the Capitals, never advanced beyond the second round before this magical run to 3-1 series lead in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Maybe it’s too easy to forget the uncertainty Washington faced before Trotz took over.

Consider that, during the three seasons pre-Trotz, the Capitals missed the postseason once (in 2013-14) and failed to win a single playoff series. Perhaps it was easy to get lost in the “Pittsburgh Penguins curse” narrative and forget just how seamlessly they shot back up the ranks of the NHL. Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy during Trotz’s first two seasons – only to fall to the eventual champions – and owned the Metropolitan Division crown during his reign.

With the benefit of hindsight, this playoff run might honestly be the perfect way for Trotz to receive at least some of the credit he so richly deserves.

Seamless transition

There might have been temptation to dismiss Trotz’s achievements because of all the talent on hand. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan viewed 2015-16 and 2016-17 as the Washington’s two-year championship window, or at least its biggest window for breakthrough success, only to face heartbreak and a hangover.

But maybe those letdowns and fewer roster riches allowed for some focus, and the release of some of the tension of “Oh, but you have to win with this team.”

Despite losing Nate Schmidt, Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Capitals maintained a high level of postseason success. While this postseason run has been about Alex Ovechkin turning back the clock, Evgeny Kuznetsov finding another gear, and Braden Holtby rekindling his Vezina form, it’s also spotlighted the structural genius of Trotz’s system.

Consider that:

  • The Capitals stood toe-to-toe with a strong possession team in Columbus to win that series.
  • Clearly outplayed the Penguins during that redemptive meeting in the semifinal round. Considering how lucky Pittsburgh’s Game 1 win felt, it’s fair to say that the right team – not just the fortunate one – advanced and justified it being called a “rivalry.”

  • Washington proved to be a riddle the Tampa Bay Lightning failed to solve, too. Andrei Vasilevskiy was able to help Tampa Bay steal some games, yet the Bolts failed to score against Holtby during the final two games of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning’s top line of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov generally lived off of the power play, as the Bolts had few answers for the Caps at five-on-five.

While the Vegas Golden Knights justifiably carry a “Cinderella” narrative with them, they also presented a fascinating stylistic challenge for the Capitals.

Through three rounds of the postseason, the Golden Knights have been able to create unyielding pressure on the opposition thanks to a ferocious forecheck and impressive team speed. Even the tight four-game sweep of the Kings was misleading, as Los Angeles was often hanging on for dear life, asking Jonathan Quick to carry a huge burden just to stay in games.

An experienced San Jose Sharks team was rattled early in their series via a 7-0 loss in Game 1, and Vegas kept rolling along. With all their waves of talent, the Winnipeg Jets never really found an answer for the Golden Knights’ gauntlet, falling in just five games.

Jonathan Marchessault and the rest of the Golden Knights’ top line made a strong argument that it was “for real” during the postseason.

The Capitals, in turn, made them feel a lot like Tampa’s top combo of Kucherov and Stamkos. Vegas had to feel a bit shackled and negated, not to mention frustrated. Some of that comes down to Washington’s talent, depth, and versatility. Still, it’s the Trotz blueprint that stands as the primary explanation for why the Golden Knights’ freight train approach screeched to a halt.

And, again, that unyielding structure is something people just came to expect from Trotz.

Beautiful hockey mind

Maybe we merely needed to see the game evolve to truly appreciate his work? The NHL is clearly (and from an entertainment standpoint, delightfully) turning to a more attacking, “modern” style. To some, it seems like coaches’ ability to kill all fun and offense hit a critical mass in recent years, and now it’s time for offenses to take over.

Trotz’s work stands as a counterpoint to that thought.

On the other hand, much of his genius is finding the right combination of offense and responsibility. Washington has shown an ability to be able to trade punches with the best of them when needed -Game 4 saw the adrenaline go through the roof, and the Caps were just fine, thank you – yet they’ve also thrived in the kind of grinding games people expect from the postseason.

Through some combination of design and necessity, Trotz has helped the Capitals transform into a hockey chameleon, and that versatility leaves them one win from the franchise’s – and coach’s – first Stanley Cup victory.

The beauty of it all is that Trotz is so widely loved and respected. His acumen and love of the sport can be seen in how he’d hold court with Nashville media, not unlike Herb Brooks going out of his way to teach sports reporters the finer points of hockey.

As you may remember, reporters including Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wondered if Trotz said that he was on his way out of Washington during a handshake line chat with Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella.

That moment came as the Capitals were heading into the uncertainty that was another second-round series with the Penguins. There have been denials about that statement being made, but if there was a kernel of truth to such scuttlebutt, maybe the drive behind such feelings was that Trotz didn’t feel appreciated. Maybe he felt taken for granted.

(And, sure, there also might be a succession plan involving assistant Todd Reirden.)

Maybe such feelings leave the door open ever so slightly that, even if the Capitals win it all, Trotz might be somewhere else. It’s tough to imagine that actually happening, but stranger things have happened in sports.

Whatever the case may be, Barry Trotz has now earned the right to call his shot, and reminded us all of how brilliant he truly is along the way.

Now he just needs to make sure the Capitals don’t take that next win for granted.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

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.

Capitals’ ‘under the radar’ season lessened pressure entering playoffs

LAS VEGAS — The expectations from the outside were different this year. Playoffs, sure, but while the Washington Capitals went through another successful regular season, one capped off with yet another division title, they entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs not high on the list of favorites.

That hadn’t been the case for some time. With previous division titles and Presidents’ Trophies, the high expectations had been attached. This spring? Not so much.

“Flying under the radar is huge,” said Capitals forward Jay Beagle during Sunday’s Stanley Cup Final Media day. “I don’t think we’ve done that here in a while. We’ve always had a stacked team and Presidents’ Trophy winning team where you’re expected to go to the Final or win the Cup. We put those expectations on ourselves as well. But with the expectations of the media and other people, it’s hard to develop your game as a team because there’s so much scrutiny going on. 

“It felt different this year because we were under the radar, there wasn’t as much pressure. I don’t know if that’s pressure from us or pressure from the outside, but it felt different. I don’t know how to describe it. It really was weird. It felt different the whole year.”

[How Golden Knights were built | How Capitals were built]

A year ago, Beagle got in his car and started the long drive from Washington D.C. to his home in Calgary. The Capitals had just lost Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Another elimination at the hands of their longtime rivals. He said during the ride he felt “broken,” something he’d never experienced following a loss before. 

From another disappointment, however, came motivation.

“You grow a lot from a loss. That’s what I’ve learned,” Beagle said. “You grow more from a loss than from a win of a series. For the core group, that loss last year, I think we came back a lot stronger and you didn’t see it right away in the year, but you could tell the whole group knew that something was special and that this year was different. You could kind of feel that come January, February.”

Expectations from the outside may have been different, but internally the group had all the confidence that they could be playing into June. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan was confident that despite the losses of veterans like Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Williams, there were younger players who could step in and contribute. His feeling became a reality watching the likes of Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson take on bigger roles and produce.

With success brought comfort for those younger players and that helped to improve the Capitals overall and aid them during this run.

With expectations unable to be met every spring, that kind of disappointment could easily slip into the minds of a team and affect them going forward. The belief never wavered in the Capitals’ dressing room.

“That makes it a little more special. When you’re younger, you don’t understand, at least I didnt, how special it is, even just to be in the playoffs,” said Beagle. “I’ve been on this team and you almost always make the playoffs every year and you kind of take it for granted, and then you miss the playoffs one year and it’s a shock. It’s the worst feeling ever. I’ve been really blessed to be with this organization and to be with a group of guys that have been here because it’s always been a group that contends.

“Even though we’ve come up short in the past, we always had a feeling that this core group had what it takes to go deep.”

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?
Who has better goaltending?
• Who has better special teams?

• Who has better coaching?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

————

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.

Master, then pupil: How Capitals were built

4 Comments

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

If trades were bad hair metal singles, then the Filip Forsberg – Martin Erat trade was to George McPhee’s time with Washington as “Cherry Pie” was for Warrant.

(Click here for the relevant VH1 moment, but don’t play it out loud if you’re at work.)

Whenever Forsberg does something amazing – an increasingly frequent occurrence, honestly – someone on Hockey Twitter will make fun of that trade by McPhee. Make no doubt about it; that trade looked bad in the moment and ages as well as expired cherry pie.

It’s fair to criticize that deal to this day, especially in picturing Forsberg playing alongside the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom. It’s also far too easy to forget that McPhee was also responsible for those guys being on the roster, and for generally setting the foundation of a powerhouse team.

Boiling down 17 years as GM to one trade is probably even more unfair than reducing a band’s discography down to one single. (I’d be able to go deeper if I made a Faith No More comparison, so if you know your Warrant, do tell about their better moments in the comments. Or, stick up for “Cherry Pie.” This is the Internet, after all.)

The truth is that current GM Brian MacLellan was a lot like Stan Bowman in Chicago. He’s done masterful work in taking the Capitals to the next level, but it was McPhee who put together the core of this team.

Granted, MacLellan was right there with McPhee much of the time (much like Bowman as Dale Tallon’s apprentice), so you could quibble all day about how to slice up the credit. It’s easiest to break things down by who was actually GM, so let’s go with that.

Ultimately, the building of this team was very much about both men.

Genuine drafts

Let’s ignore the Petr Bondra era (which produced the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final run before 2018) and skip to the Capitals selecting Ovechkin with the top pick of the 2004 NHL Draft.

From that point on, McPhee constructed the core almost exclusively through strong selections. Ponder the crucial choices McPhee made, with many of them coming from outside the high-end, “no-brainer” range of picks. Scroll for some additional interesting picks.

  • Again, Ovechkin (1st in 2004). They also nabbed once-essential defenseman Mike Green at 29.
  • Nicklas Backstrom (4th in 2006). That draft also included two attempts at finding a goalie solution in Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault as the 177th pick.
  • The 2008 NHL Draft ended up being key, even though Anton Gustafsson (21st overall) didn’t pan out. Washington selected John Carlson with their other first-rounder (27th) and Braden Holtby in the fourth round (93rd pick). As you can see in “additional interesting picks,” McPhee kept swinging at goalies and hit a home run here.
  • While MarJo is now with the Devils, the Capitals selected underrated defenseman Dmitry Orlov with their second-round pick (55th overall) in 2009. [Golden Knight Cody Eakin was the 85th pick.]
  • They made some great picks in 2010, too. McPhee shrugged off “The Russian Problem” and got a huge steal with Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26th. They had more luck with goalies in the fourth round, as strong backup Philipp Grubauer was selected at 112.
  • The 2012 NHL Draft was maybe McPhee’s most controversial, and not just because that’s when he took Forsberg – who fell strangely that day – at 11. Tom Wilson also went at the 16th spot. Some decent supporting cast members were also selected in Chandler Stephenson (77th) and Christian Djoos (195).
  • McPhee’s last draft yielded Andre Burakovsky at pick 23, while Madison Bowey (53) is also notable.

Additional interesting picks: Mike Green at 29th in 2004; Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault in 2006; Karl Alzner went fifth in 2007; Marcus Johansson selected 24th in 2009.

As you can see from that bulleted list, McPhee drafted most of the biggest names on this roster.

The Capitals’ playoff misfortune doesn’t just bring unwarranted abuse to players like Alex Ovechkin; it also obscures Washington’s knack for finding serious talent in the first round, even when they don’t have high picks. Players like Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Carlson, Holtby, and Grubauer are allowing the Caps to sustain their success. It’s a lot like the Blackhawks unearthing nice later-round players like Brandon Saad and Ryan Hartman.

MacLellan brings it to the next level

As great as McPhee’s body of work actually looks, there’s no denying that things were starting to crumble when he was fired in 2014.

One area of need was behind the bench, as the Capitals were a real mess once things fell apart with Bruce Boudreau. The team also stumbled a bit in net before Holtby emerged as the start workhorse he is today.

MacLellan didn’t put together the core, yet he’s responsible for really tying the room together.

While people will mention that Barry Trotz’s future was in doubt as recently as his much-discussed handshake conversation with John Tortorella, there’s little point in denying that Trotz was a great hire. He helped bring a great defensive system to Washington, stopped messing around with Ovechkin’s position and reversed the malaise with Holtby. And now he’s hot lapping to happiness.

While McPhee laid down the foundation through fantastic drafting, MacLellan has supplemented that work by making some strong moves via trades and free agency.

In some cases, the most important signings were ones Mac didn’t make. Lesser executives would have paid too much to keep a one-dimensional blueliner like Karl Alzner, but the Capitals had the courage to let him walk. (All but the most stubborn old-school types in Montreal would probably agree that the Canadiens regret signing him.) Washington allowed Kevin Shattenkirk to leave despite all the sunk costs in acquiring him at the 2017 trade deadline.

T.J. Oshie‘s signing might not age well, yet it should be acknowledged that, with Ovechkin already at 33, the Capitals realize that their best chances are still in the present.

Not every move was deft. The Capitals can spin it anyway they want it, but Brooks Orpik‘s $5.5 million cap hit limits choices and probably forced useful (if crestfallen) players like Marcus Johansson out. We’ll also need to wait and see if Washington was right in waiting things out with Carlson, a pending UFA.

Still, the good outweighs the bad, especially if you ignore hindsight and realize that the Capitals were right in swinging for the fences with the Shattenkirk move.

Now that the hangover passed

Yes, this deep run was unlikely, or at least oddly timed after the best window for success seemingly passed. Still, this team won its division (again) and was built with the elements you’d expect a championship team to possess:

  • A true superstar in Alex Ovechkin, who sure looks like he’s still in or near his prime.
  • Two great centers in Kuznetsov and Backstrom.
  • A Vezina-caliber goalie in Holtby, even if he experienced rare struggles before rebounding during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • John Carlson, a deadly scorer on defense.
  • The sorely underrated shutdown pairing in Matt Niskanen (MacLellan’s best addition, and one of his first) and Dmitry Orlov.
  • Some very nice young wingers in Burakovsky (McPhee’s last first-rounder) and Jakub Vrana (MacLellan’s original first-rounder).
  • That coveted third-line center in Lars Eller, one of MacLellan’s better trades.

Following all of the losses from that “Stanley Cup hangover without the Stanley Cup,” the Capitals still boast a lot of the ingredients you’d put together to get that hangover from actually drinking from the Stanley Cup.

***

It’s amusing that the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is, in some ways, McPhee’s old baby versus his new one.

MacLellan deserves ample credit for making the Capitals even better once he was promoted from assistant GM. We’ve seen instances where a team falls out of contention as stars age and executives leave. Instead, the Capitals won two consecutive Presidents’ Trophies and then merely settled for another division title and a run to the championship round since MacLellan took over. They’ve made the playoffs every year since 2013-14, the campaign that cost McPhee his job.

Capitals – Golden Knights offers a slew of great storylines, and they’re not only limited to Marc-Andre Fleury winning after being exposed to the expansion draft or Ovechkin’s ultimate redemption.

If you want a great example of a student trying to surpass his teacher, then MacLellan’s Capitals against McPhee’s Golden Knights is about as good as it gets in the NHL.

Just don’t forget that McPhee did a lot of the work for Washington, too.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Roundtable: Slowing the Sharks, X-factors

Getty Images
1 Comment

1. What changes do you see if the Washington Capitals fail to get by the Pittsburgh Penguins again?

SEAN: The first is an easy one: Barry Trotz is gone. The head coach is without a contract beyond this season and Capitals GM Brian MacLellan quietly received an extension in March. The next part is a trickier one. You’re not trading Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov. If Braden Holtby regressing from his first-round play, does that make trading him more palatable, should a team that’s part of his his modified no-trade clause come calling?

T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller signed long-term deals within the past year and Brooks Orpik still has three seasons left on his contract. John Carlson‘s likely not returning given what he’ll bring in on the open market, so where do you make bold changes? It might just be carving the bottom six and maybe a little on the blue line, but a major roster overhaul isn’t likely.

JAMES: It’s no secret that Barry Trotz lacks a contract extension with Washington, and we saw how such a situation played out for the Wild when it came to their GM who seemed to suffer from hockey’s version of “Groundhog Day.” If Washington fails to give its Penguins trilogy a happy ending, Trotz is almost certainly out.

Fascinatingly, John Carlson’s future is muddy either way. On one hand, losing might prompt the Capitals to balk at paying him the big bucks. If they win, a deep playoff run could conceivably price him out of Washington.

ADAM: I think the obvious is that Barry Trotz does not come back, but would it shock you to see a general manager change, too? I really don’t think they do anything drastic from a player standpoint. They’re not trading Ovechkin. They’re not trading Backstrom. They’re not trading Kuznetsov. Even though Grubauer looked good, they’re not trading Holtby. They might make some changes around the edges but I think the two big ones would be coach and maybe — maybe — the GM.

JOEY: Unless they’re ready to blow up their team, there’s not much they can do. I don’t think they’re going to unload Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom or Alex Ovechkin. Also, they inked T.J. Oshie to a long-term deal that might be hard to move. Even if they get bounced by the Penguins, they’ll probably still push to bring back pending UFA John Carlson, too. It’s hard to envision any major changes in Washington.

SCOTT: Figure out a way to go back in time and never trade Filip Forsberg. Then make a second stop at last July and never trade Marcus Johansson. And steal the Pittsburgh Penguins coach and general manager while you’re at it. That would be ideal for the Capitals, surely.

Realistically, it probably means Barry Trotz goes (although he might be gone even if they win the Cup). Not really his fault, in my opinion. Trotz is a good coach trying to lead a team that historically over the past decade can’t get it done in the playoffs, especially against their arch-nemesis in the Penguins. Then you got to figure out your goaltending situation and get that squared away. Two more years of Holtby until he’s an unrestricted free agent. Perhaps he needs to go to the same trainer as Devan Dubnyk and Connor Hellebuyck.

2. Will the time off for the Tampa Bay Lightning affect them against Boston Bruins?

SEAN: Any sort of rest during the Stanley Cup Playoffs is good for you, no matter how long. The Lightning will have had six full days off before Game 1 against the Bruins on Saturday. With the injuries that hit the lineup near the end of the regular season and Andrei Vasilevskiy publicly stating he was feeling tired, this will do nothing but benefit Tampa.

JAMES: It’s a huge plus for the Lightning, something Jon Cooper and even their owner acknowledged. Steven Stamkos probably benefits from a little more recovery time after he missed the end of the regular season, while we all know about Andrei Vasilevskiy’s energy questions. Meanwhile, the Bruins needed three shots to eliminate the Leafs, seeing Patrice Bergeron miss some action and Zdeno Chara log more than 28 high-stress minutes in Game 7 alone. Rest is worth the risk of “rust.”

ADAM: Not at all, I think it’s a huge advantage for them, especially for Andrei Vasilevskiy. There was already talk about him being tired and fatigued down the stretch and I thought they should have been resting some people off and on at the end of the regular season. Boston just played a marathon series, Tampa Bay is coming in fresh, I think it helps. I do not buy the “rust” factor here. Will it be the difference in the series? I doubt it. But I also don’t think it hurts.

JOEY: It might affect them for the beginning of Game 1, but judging by the speed and skill they have (especially up front), they probably won’t mind having guys like Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson get an extended period of rest. Victor Hedman averaged almost 27 minutes in the first round, so they’ll probably have to lean on him heavily going forward. Rest can only help in that regard. Getting the extra time off, while Toronto-Boston battled to Game 7 clearly gives the Bolts an advantage.

SCOTT: In a good way, I believe. I’m of the opinion that several days off is better than grinding out a series win in seven games. The Bruins could use a breather after Toronto gave them all they could handle. Tampa might struggle in the opening game, but I think the rest pays off later in the round, both mentally and physically.

3. What do the Vegas Golden Knights need to do in order to slow the San Jose Sharks’ offense?

SEAN: They’re going to need Marc-Andre Fleury to throw up another .977 save percentage in this series. They also need to keep San Jose’s shots to the outside. The Sharks did a good job of creating high-danger scoring chances, something Vegas was able to prevent against the Los Angeles Kings. The Golden Knights were able to keep LA’s top threats at bay and slow down and already slow team en route to a sweep. They’ll have their hands full against a San Jose team that couldn’t stop scoring against Anaheim.

JAMES: For Vegas, the best defense will be a good offense. The VGK are built to be speedy and to keep the puck moving. Jonathan Marchesssault’s line can hog the puck at times. While the Golden Knights lack a shutdown defenseman like Marc-Edouard Vlasic, they’ve been pretty solid by committee. Naturally, it would also help if Marc-Andre Fleury continues to play the best hockey of his career.

ADAM: Hope Marc-Andre Fleury keeps playing the way he did against Los Angeles would be a big one. This is going to be a big challenge for Vegas because the Kings were probably the best possible round one matchup for them. Los Angeles was slow, had an anemic offense, and just isn’t very talented beyond its top four or five players. Vegas could easily exploit them. The Sharks are faster, more skilled, and are going to pose a much bigger threat offensively.

JOEY: Exactly what they did to the Kings in the first round. Sure, the Sharks are more dynamic than the Kings, but the Golden Knights have shown that they can dictate the pace of the game against most opponents. As long as they keep using their speed and depth to their advantage, they can match up with any team. Having a razor-sharp Marc-Andre Fleury should also help keep the puck out of the Golden Knights’ net.

SCOTT: The same performance they displayed in the first round against Los Angeles should do the trick. They limited the Kings to just three goals in the sweep. That’s bloody impressive. Marc-Andre Fleury was sensational in the series and needs to continue that path. And the rest of the players in front of them just need to stay the course. The Golden Knights gave up a league-low 25 high-danger scoring chances in the first round. That’s pretty conducive to winning. MAF’s save percentage in those 25 chances against? 100 percent. Keep on keeping on, really.

4. What will be the X-factor swings the Winnipeg Jets-Nashville Predators series?

SEAN: The Predators didn’t rely on just the Ryan Johansens, Filip Forsbergs and Viktor Arvidssons to carry the offense against the Colorado Avalanche. Their depth help lead the way and entering Round 2 it’s Auston Watson (4 goals, 7 points) and Colton Sissons (3 goals, 7 points) leading the team in scoring. Add in Nick Bonino‘s five points and Craig Smith‘s two goals and it’s a team that, when healthy, can fight back against an impressive Winnipeg offense.

JAMES: Discipline.

The Predators took the most penalties in the NHL – by a healthy margin – during the regular season with 372. Winnipeg was more in control, yet Dustin Byfuglien can lose his cool at times (with frightening results for his opponents and his own team) and both teams saw players suspended in their respective first-round series. Winnipeg (fourth, 64 PPG) and Nashville (sixth, 58 PPG) both finished in the top 10 in power-play goals during the regular season, so this might come down to who can walk the line between playing with an edge and shooting yourself in the foot with dopey penalties.

ADAM: Both goalies were amazing this season, but I also think both probably played over their heads a bit and could come back down to earth at any moment. If either one is going to do it might just be in a series against a powerhouse offensive team — and both of these teams are. So I think that’s my X-factor here: Which goalie is able to maintain his great season and not turn into a pumpkin at midnight.

JOEY: Both teams have great goalies, a strong group of defenders, but there’s clearly a gap up front. I’m interested to see if the Predators forward can keep pace with Jets players like Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Filip Forsberg did his part in the first round, but it’ll be interesting to see who steps up if any particular game opens up. Viktor Arvidsson, who led the team in goals during the regular season, scored three points in six games in the Colorado series. He’ll need to shoulder more of the load this time around.

SCOTT: Goaltending. Jets coach Paul Maurice said this week that the goalie that gives up one less goal will win the series. I tend to agree. Both teams have firepower, don’t give up much on the back end, and are physical as anyone in the league. They both also have Vezina Trophy candidates this year. It’s like they cancel each other out in all facets. Connor Hellebuyck posted back-to-back shutouts to close out the Minnesota Wild in five games and posted a 9.24 save percentage. Rinne had a shutout in Game 6 to see off the Colorado Avalanche and had a .909 save percentage, which is fairly pedestrian, if not below average. But it’s Hellebuyck who struggled to a .882 save percentage in four starts during the season series with Nashville.

They are both impressive netminders who have had incredible seasons in the crease. This series will come down to a showdown between the two and the winner will be decided by the goalie who plays the best.

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Cory Schneider posts first win in 2018 as Devils claw back into series

1 Comment

After allowing 10 goals in the first two games to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the New Jersey Devils needed another look between the pipes.

Enter an old friend.

Cory Schneider‘s season can best be summed up as forgettable.

His less than stellar 2016-17 campaign tagged along into the current season and Schneider eventually lost his starting role to Keith Kinkaid. Schneider missed the whole month of February due to a groin injury and before Monday, hadn’t won a start since Dec. 27, 2017, a span of 12 starts without a W.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

But after Keith Kinkaid was pulled 33 minutes into a 5-3 defeat on Saturday, Schneider settled in and stopped all 10 shots he faced in relief. With the Devils needing a spark after falling down 2-0 in the series as it was shifting back to Jersey, Schneider was given his chance to assume to the reigns he previously held.

Some timely extra saves were helpful — Schneider made 34 of them — as the Devils tightened up defensively in 5-2 win to pull themselves back into the series, which sits at 2-1 in favor of the Lightning.

Taylor Hall helped out on offense, scoring his second of the playoffs and adding two assists in the win.

The Devils also got a boost with the return of Marcus Johansson, who missed 37 games with a concussion after an elbow from Brad Marchand.


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