Hall beats MacKinnon for first Hart Trophy

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Being that Art Ross and Ted Lindsay winner Connor McDavid wasn’t even a finalist, it’s clear that being indispensable to your team factored heavily into the 2017-18 Hart Trophy voting.

With those unspoken parameters in mind, it makes sense that the MVP race ended up being so close between runner-up Nathan MacKinnon and winner Taylor Hall. Anze Kopitar ranked a distant third, but he could take comfort in being a finalist and also taking home his second Selke.

Sometimes you need to dig deep into “With or Without You” stats to realize how much a player stands above his teammates. You merely need to glance at the gap between Hall’s scoring (93 points, sixth-best in the NHL) and the next highest-ranked Devil (Nico Hischer with 52). Hall clearly dragged the Devils to an unlikely playoff berth, scoring that many points in just 76 games.

Nathan MacKinnon, meanwhile, finished with 97 points in 74 contests, yet he enjoyed a bit more help as Colorado’s top line was rounded out by fantastic wingers in Mikko Rantanen (84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (62).

Now, the trickier part is figuring out if McDavid deserved to either win it or at least be a finalist. Ultimately, the PHWA viewed Hall as the “player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team,” no doubt weighing a playoff appearance in their decision:

As you might expect, the deeper voting is quite interesting. Kopitar narrowly edged Claude Giroux for third place, while there’s an interesting list of players who managed a single vote: Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Victor Hedman, and Eric Staal. Drew Doughty got a fourth place vote while Hedman receive one fifth, yet Hedman ended up the Norris winner.

During certain seasons, the Hart Trophy is an easy call. This was one of the tougher years to truly pinpoint a top season, but the beauty for hockey fans was because there were so many great choices.

However you feel about who should have been the actual winner, Taylor Hall generated an absolutely brilliant season.

For a player who was traded for flawed reasons and blamed far too often for his teams’ failings, it must be awfully sweet to receive such high recognition. It can’t hurt that this award came after his first-ever postseason appearance, either.

Naturally, Hall has his eyes on the sort of celebration that Alex Ovechkin is enjoying right now, but Hall’s 2017-18 season was “a long time coming” in its own right.

And, yes, the Oilers must weep at the thought that they voluntarily gave up an opportunity to deploy the 2018 Hart winner (Hall) and the 2018 Art Ross winner (McDavid) on the same team.

Kane leads U.S. into semis, Canada knocks out Russia

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Captain Patrick Kane scored two goals to lift the United States to a 3-2 win over the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals of the ice hockey world championship on Thursday while Canada beat Russia 5-4 in overtime.

Switzerland pulled off a surprise by eliminating Finland 3-2 and defending champion Sweden edged out Latvia 3-2.

Kane claimed the third-period winner to take the outright lead in the scoring table on 19 points, a U.S. record, with eight goals and 11 assists and set up a semifinal against Sweden on Saturday.

”It’s my job to produce,” Kane said. ”It’s always nice to contribute offensively.”

The U.S. is looking for its first medal since picking up bronze in 2015.

”We came here to put ourselves in a position to try to win the gold,” Kane said. “We’re on the right path.”

The U.S. took control with a couple of goals in the span of 1:43 midway through the first period in Herning.

Kane beat goaltender Pavel Francouz from the right circle before Nick Bonino fed Cam Atkinson in front of the net to stretch the lead with a backhand shot.

The Czechs hit back in the second period. Michal Repik reduced the advantage on a slap shot and Martin Necas netted the tying goal on a power play.

”It’s a pity,” Czech forward Tomas Plekanec said. ”We created enough chances to win.”

In Copenhagen, Ryan O'Reilly scored 4:57 into overtime to knock out Russia while captain Connor McDavid had three assists, including on the winning goal.

Hunting its third title in four years, Canada will face Switzerland in the semis.

”Canada are a great team, they always are,” defenseman Roman Josi said after his Switzerland team beat Finland for the first time since 1972.

Defenseman Colton Parayko blasted a slap shot past goaltender Igor Shestyorkin on a power play to give Canada a 1-0 lead in the first period before Ryan Nugent-Hopkins doubled the advantage on another power play.

But Alexander Barabanov and Ilya Mikheyev scored in the second period to tie the game.

Kyle Turris made it 3-2 to Canada in the third before Sergei Andronov leveled. Pierre-Luc Dubois put Canada ahead again but Russia answered with a goal from Artyom Anisimov.

Finland looked to be heading for victory after Markus Nutivaara‘s first-period goal, but Switzerland rallied with goals from Enzo Corvi, Joel Vermin and Gregory Hofmann in less than four minutes midway through the second.

”We didn’t start the way we wanted but we reacted in the second period and played very well from then on,” Josi said.

Mikko Rantanen cut the deficit to one goal in the third period.

”This wasn’t what we were looking for,” Finland captain Mikael Granlund said. ”They had the momentum in the second period and we were not able to turn it around.”

Sweden, which won all seven of its preliminary round games, beat Latvia thanks to goals from Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Teodors Blugers and Rudolfs Balcers replied.

Finland top US, Swiss make quarters at IIHF worlds

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HERNING, Denmark (AP) — Finland handed the United States its first defeat at the ice hockey world championship in a 6-2 thumping on Tuesday.

The Finns supplanted the U.S. to top Group B in Herning, and will face Switzerland in the quarterfinals on Thursday. The Swiss clinched a quarterfinal berth by beating France 5-1 to finish fourth in Group A in Copenhagen.

Canada shut out Germany 3-0 to secure third place in Group B and set up a quarterfinal matchup against Sweden or Russia, who will clash over the top spot in Group A.

”We didn’t leave ourselves in a great spot after the group stage but we’re going to have to play them at some stage,” captain Connor McDavid said about the potential opponents.

The Americans’ first defeat in seven games dropped them to second in the group and a quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, the third team in Group A.

”It’s not a good feeling losing,” U.S. captain Patrick Kane said. ”It could be good for us to make sure we won’t deal with this again and stay positive. We’re a good team, we’ve had a good tournament to this point.”

”(The Czechs) have some talents, it will be a tough game against them.”

Host Denmark will fight with Latvia over the last quarterfinal berth in the same group to play the winner of Group A.

Sebastian Aho scored a couple of opening-period goals for Finland and added one more into an empty net to finish the scoring to become the championship leader with nine goals and eight assists. Kane also has 17 points with six goals and 11 assists.

”We’ve played really well,” Aho said. ”We just try not to think who we play against, focus on our own system and play our game.”

Kane got a power play goal to reduce the deficit to 4-1 in the final period. Derek Ryan added another one for the U.S.

Brayden Schenn gave Canada an early goal just 20 seconds into the game. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made it 2-0 in the second and Tyson Jost sealed it in the third.

McDavid had two assists and goaltender Darcy Kuemper made 12 saves for his shutout.

”Everyone played hard and everyone played really responsible, so a good momentum for us,” Kuemper said.

Gregory Hofmann, Enzo Corvi, Ramon Untersander, Kevin Fiala Simon Moser had a goal apiece for the Swiss. France replied with one from Guillaume Leclerc.

Also, Slovakia beat already relegated Belarus 7-4 in their last game.

Which team is most likely to come back from 2-1 deficit?

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We’re midway through the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and although the Vegas Golden Knights have already punched their ticket to the second round, there are still other spots that are up for grabs.

The Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild are on the brink of elimination. That’s not to say that they can’t overcome their current deficits, but they have a steep hill to climb. So let’s look at the teams that are down 2-1 in their respective series.

The Devils, Maple Leafs, Flyers, Capitals and Avalanche are all in that predicament. Every one of those teams, except Philadelphia, came away with a huge Game 3 victory, so there’s a sense of optimism surrounding those clubs. They aren’t in an ideal spot, but they aren’t dead either.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Who has the best chance of coming back to win the series? Let’s rank them from least likely to most likely.

• New Jersey Devils

Taylor Hall was sensational in New Jersey’s Game 3 victory, as he recorded a goal and two primary assists. Hall has played at least 20 minutes in each of the first three games of the series. He’s a matchup problem for any of Tampa’s skaters, but getting Brayden Point on the ice against him is clearly the preference for head coach Jon Cooper. But will Devils bench boss John Hynes be able to get the desired matchups when the series shifts back to Tampa? Hall will produce no matter what, but there’s no denying that winning on the road and winning at home are two different things, especially for a team with quite a few youngsters.

The wild card in all of this is Cory Schneider, who picked up his first win of 2018 in Game 3. Schneider looked as confident as he’s looked in quite some time, so stealing a game or two would go a long way in helping New Jersey come back. Again, that might be a lot to ask from a guy that lost his starting job to Keith Kinkaid for a few weeks.

“Still a lot of work to go. One win is a starting points, so we have to make sure we come back with the same intensity (Wednesday) night,” Schneider said, per NJ.com. “But yeah, 2-1 and 3-0 are a big difference. It was an important game for us to win just to get into the series and make it a series. Hopefully we can continue to make it more difficult as it goes on here.”

It’ll also be interesting to see how the bad blood at the end of Game 3 affects this series. Can the Devils use Mikhail Sergachev‘s hit on Blake Coleman as motivation? Does the rough stuff help Tampa Bay focus on getting back to business? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered heading into Game 4.

• Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers have been overwhelmed by the Penguins in two of the first three games, but here they are trailing to just one game heading into Game 4. Discipline has been a big problem for them through three contests. Even in the game that they won, they still took silly penalties, but managed to kill them off. If that doesn’t change, this series will be over faster than you can say “Philly cheese steak with no onions and extra cheese whiz”.

As if the 2-1 deficit to the Penguins wasn’t enough, it now looks like they might be without Sean Couturier, who was injured during a collision in practice with Radko Gudas. Missing him for any amount of time would be a huge loss for the Flyers.

Whether Couturier plays or not, Philadelphia will need more from Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek.

“There’s a lot of guys in here that can pick up slack, guys that are itching to get more time too,” Flyers goalie Brian Elliott said, per NHL.com. “If he’s not available, if he is available, I think our guys are ready for that.”

The Flyers proved that they could beat the Penguins, now they just have to show that they can do it three more times.

• Colorado Avalanche

The Avs have surprisingly dominated the opening period of each of these first three games. Unfortunately for them, they only have one win to show for it, but they can pull positives from the fact that they weren’t skated out of the building on the road against the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Nathan MacKinnon and Hall are in similar situations, meaning that they’ll have to shoulder most of the offensive burden, but the Avs forward definitely has more help up front. Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog can also be difference-makers for Colorado.

You have to wonder how injuries have affected this series. How much do things change if Colorado has a healthy Erik Johnson, Samuel Girard and Semyon Varlamov. Missing Varlamov seems to be the biggest loss, as Jonathan Bernier has had his share of tough moments in the series. Is he capable of stealing a game in Nashville? That’s what it’s going to take for Colorado to move on to the second round.

Nothing is impossible, but it seems like the Avs are a year away from taking the next step. Overcoming this 2-1 deficit would be a huge surprise.

• Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs are an interesting case. They played a relatively strong home game in Game 3, as they managed to keep the Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak off the scoresheet. The thing is, they haven’t looked too good on Boston ice, where the desired matchups are a lot harder to come by. Deadline acquisition Tomas Plekanec along with Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey did what they had to do to keep that line in check in Game 3. Can they do it again? Even at home, that’s not a sure thing.

Boston’s first line had their share of opportunities, especially when the Bruins were pressing in the third period. You just get the feeling like the Leafs will have to do an impeccable job defensively and they’ll have to pray that the opposing trio doesn’t bury one, or two, or three.

Goalie Frederik Andersen is also an interesting case. He’s let in some bad goals during this series, including in Game 3, but he’s also managed to come up with some impressive saves at times. The Leafs are going to need a little more consistency from their number one netminder, or this thing could get away from them in a hurry.

And, of course, Toronto has to hope that Auston Matthews‘ game-winning goal in Game 3 will help give him the spark he needs to continue producing regularly. Monday’s goal was his first point of the playoffs.

“People find it hard to believe, but it’s easy to lose your confidence very quickly at playoff time,” head coach Mike Babcock said, per the Toronto Sun. “I think we’re in a great spot to get it back, and I really felt it helped Freddie (Monday) night, it helped Auston (Monday) night. A lot of guys are feeling better about themselves.”

•Washington Capitals

This is arguably the most interesting one of the lot. Sure, they’re the most likely team to come back from a 2-1 deficit, but they could easily be down 3-0 if Lars Eller doesn’t get that lucky bounce in double overtime on Tuesday night.

The Capitals have all the firepower they need to make a deep run, they just haven’t ever been able to do it. As the Caps have found out, the Blue Jackets are no joke, so they’ll have to be at their best to advance to the second round. Bowing out in the first round would probably bring about more changes in Washington, so they’ve got to come through if they want to stick together going forward.

Braden Holtby made some big saves during Game 3, but he also let in an incredibly weak goal to Pierre-Luc Dubois to tie the game at one in the second period. Holtby has been off for most of the year, but if there was ever a time for him to emerge as a hero, it’s right now.

“It puts us right back in the series,” Holtby said, per NHL.com. “I thought we held our composure really well in the overtimes. We didn’t cheat. We stuck to our systems and got a gritty goal to win it. It’s a good sign.”

Of the five teams trailing 2-1, there’s no denying that the Capitals are the most talented team. On the flip side, they also have the most playoff baggage of all the teams, too. It’ll be interesting to see if they can overcome these mental hurdles, but that lucky bounce in OT may have saved their season.

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Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Avalanche are mile-high threat to Predators in Colorado

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Despite giving up the first goal in each of the opening games of the first round, the Predators managed wins against the Colorado Avalanche in both contests in Nashville so far.

The Minnesota Wild have already shown that a change of venue can provide a team a shot in the arm, but the Avalanche’s home-ice advantage has the potential to be as extreme as any team in the NHL. Colton Sissons acknowledged how winded you can become thanks to the altitude in Denver, as NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski reports.

“For me personally, I’m second-winded a little bit more on the bench, especially early in games,” Sissons said. “You get adjusted to [the altitude] pretty quick. Having a pregame skate this morning also helps.”

The Predators boast some assets that make Sissons’ optimism seem reasonable. Sure, the Avalanche were 28-11-2 in Colorado this season, but as Sadowski notes, the Predators were robust on the road with an away record of 25-9-7 in 2017-18.

Still, it’s truly resounding just how much more dangerous this Avs team becomes when they are at home.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Consider special teams, in particular.

Avalanche power play at home: 39 PPG (tied with Penguins for first in NHL), 25-percent success rate.

Avalanche power play on the road: 26 PPG (still a solid sixth in the NHL), but just 18.6%.

Avs PK at home: 10 power-play goals allowed, 91.7 percent killed (both best in the NHL).

Avs PK on the road: 35 PPGA (third-worst in the NHL), 76.3 percent killed (sixth-worst).

Those are pretty extreme splits, and you can see the difference in the output of key players. Superstar Nathan MacKinnon is an excellent example of such dynamics. While he’s fantastic overall, MacKinnon generated 67 points in just 39 home games vs. 30 points in 35 road contests during the regular season. Tyson Barrie and Mikko Rantanen also seem to enjoy a mile-high spike, and both Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier saw remarkable swings in road vs. home effectiveness.

Again, the Avalanche already gave the Predators some headaches in Games 1 and 2. In each case, they carried 1-0 leads through the first intermissions. During Game 2, they also regained the lead at 2-1 before Nashville took over.

The Predators are a deep team, so they stand a chance to mitigate that altitude factor more than a squad that would ask a top-heavy roster to carry a huge workload. This could be the time when they really lean on the luxury of having a strong second pairing of defensemen and Kyle Turris‘ dangerous second line.

Still, it could be something that really tilts things in the Avalanche’s advantage, particularly if the altitude is rough on a towering goalie such as Pekka Rinne. If nothing else, it could make the heavy underdogs look, at times, like favorites.

It’s also the type  of advantage that could make the Avalanche downright terrifying if they continue to add speedy, skilled players to a solid (yet not especially deep) foundation.

You can see if the Avalanche are able to leverage their home-ice advantage in Game 3 on NBCSN tonight. Puck drop is scheduled for 10 p.m. ET.

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.