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Expect Blue Jackets to be very glad they signed Duclair

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The Vegas Golden Knights provided a lot of lessons to the rest of the NHL, if teams wanted to listen. One of the key messages many seemed to receive was that the Golden Knights took talented, unappreciated players, gave them great opportunities, and raked in the profits.

When we look back at free agency, John Tavares‘ signing will create the greatest impact (successful or not), but from a value perspective, the Columbus Blue Jackets landing Anthony Duclair for the league minimum will be tough to beat.

Consider the circumstances for a moment. Duclair is just 22. He scored 20 goals and 44 points for the Arizona Coyotes in 2015-16, albeit riding an unsustainable shooting percentage of 19. At just $650K in 2018-19, the intriguing winger will make less money than obscure Blue Jackets such as Markus Hännikäinen and Alex Broadhurst.

The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline sheds some light on why Duclair accepted such a cheap deal with Columbus (sub required), with his reps explaining that the Blue Jackets represent “the best situation, hockey-wise.”

“I’m a bit embarrassed how it happened,” Duclair said to Portzline. “Since my rookie season, the last couple of years have been a bit of a roller coaster. But at the same time, I’ve learned a lot about myself.

“It’s a huge wake-up call to be a free agent at 22 years old, definitely not ideal.”

Much of that article focuses on Duclair hoping to improve, and one can understand why he’d feel that way, especially considering that demand seemed tepid for his services.

The thing is, the Blue Jackets would easily get their money’s worth even if John Tortorella & Co. decide to give Duclair the same limited role he suffered through with the Coyotes and then Blackhawks last season. Consider his successes despite averaging just 13:17 TOI in 2017-18, and generally only getting 13 minutes of ice time so far in his young career.

As much as this seems to be a “prove it” season for Duclair, the Blue Jackets would be wise to keep an eye on his progress. If he reaches the “tremendous potential” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen spoke about with Portzline, then Columbus might be wise to sign him to a team-friendly extension as soon as the CBA would allow it.

It’s fair to wonder if Duclair risks getting lost in the shuffle once again, too.

While Columbus isn’t well-stocked with high-end forwards (making the possible exit of Artemi Panarin, one of their rare premium scorers, that much scarier), the Blue Jackets can be a tough team to deal with when their deep group of attackers gets it going. After also adding Riley Nash to a group that includes Panarin, Cam Atkinson, Pierre Luc-Dubois, Nick Foligno, recently extended Boone Jenner, Alexander Wennberg, and Oliver Bjorkstrand, Duclair is far from guaranteed a big-time role.

(That’s especially true if Columbus’ work is more or less done this summer, if Sonny Milano progresses significantly, and if Brandon Dubinsky is reasonably healthy and on-task.)

Such a scenario makes you wonder if there would have been an even more mutually beneficial situation out there for Duclair. Cap-challenged teams like the Oilers or Penguins could have done worse than to give the intriguing scorer a look, particularly at such a bargain rate. The Montreal Canadiens would have made a lot of sense for the Quebec native, too.

Duclair only signed a one-year contract with Columbus, so for all we know, the above teams may get another chance to land him.

If things are fairer, Duclair would receive far richer offers and greater opportunities next time around. As it stands, though, this is a fantastic, low-risk signing for the Blue Jackets.

More bargains in 2018

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.

How should Columbus feel about its season?

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are a team with a relatively young core. Even though Columbus was an “underdog” in its first-round series against the Capitals, Columbus has to be disappointed with the way things ended, and there’s a few reasons for that.

The Jackets caught the league by storm last season, as they went from a 76-point season in 2015-16 to a 108-point season in 2016-17. John Tortorella’s team went from being 15th in East to third in the Metropolitan Division, but they eventually lost to Pittsburgh in five games last spring. At the time, that outcome was widely accepted as being successful (by people outside the organization) because of the quick turnaround from one year to the next. This year’s playoff loss is a different story.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Before we dive into what went wrong during the postseason, let’s take a look at the 82 games of the regular season first.

Columbus won eight of 12 games in October. They followed that up by dropping four games in a row early in November, but they responded by rattling off six consecutive wins. Even though they got off to a good start, Tortorella made it clear that their stars weren’t playing well. A lot of their early-season success came from Sergei Bobrovsky‘s stellar play.

Their play fell apart in the middle of the year, but even though it looked like they were in trouble, they managed to get their season back on the rails.

Artemi Panarin eventually got comfortable and he became the offensive catalyst the Blue Jackets expected him to be. Pierre-Luc Dubois, who’s still just a teenager, also grew up quite a bit during the season. He looked more confident down the stretch. It took some time, but Cam Atkinson also picked up his play in the second half of the year. Combine all that with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and company on defense and Bobrovsky, and you have a team that ended up finishing in a Wild Card spot. For whatever reason, it simply didn’t end up working out in the postseason.

Things were looking good early on, especially because they found a way to win Games 1 and 2 in Washington. Going back home with a 2-0 lead should have resulted in the Jackets eventually punching their ticket to the second round. Instead, they’ll be hitting the golf course earlier than they wanted to.

That’s not to say that the Blue Jackets totally fell apart. Four of the six games against Washington ended in overtime. In Game 5, they completely dominated the Capitals, outshooting them 16-1 over the final 20 minutes of regulation. Unfortunately for them, they ended up losing in overtime on a perfect deflection from Nicklas Backstrom. Washington ended up taking a 3-2 lead in the series and they never looked back.

“We learned a lot about ourselves, but I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m tired of learning,” Nick Foligno said after being eliminated, per beat reporter Steve Gorten. I want to continue to get better, and continue to move on. I hope we understand that now’s the time for this team.

“We had a real good opportunity being up 2-0 and didn’t make the most of it. That’s how fine it is to win. It’s hard in the postseason to close out things. I hope guys understand and realize the window you have to win. This is a hell of a team. Now’s the time to start winning.”

The quote above says it all. They may have put together back-to-back solid campaigns, but they’re a team that has legitimate expectations when it comes to making a run. As well as they’ve played at different times over the last two years, it doesn’t mean much if they don’t take the next step when it counts.

The Blue Jackets aren’t just a good story anymore, they’re a team that people expect to see in the playoffs every year. But simply getting into the postseason isn’t good enough by the fans’ standards or the team’s standards.

There’s some solid building blocks in place, now it’s just about gaining the confidence necessary to overcome adversity in the playoffs. The next two or three seasons should be interesting for this organization. Still, you can’t help but feel that they didn’t take a step forward in 2017-18.

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.

Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs go home facing elimination

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A year after Mike Babcock told arena staffers in Washington he’d see them a few days later for Game 7, John Tortorella claimed his Blue Jackets would be back after winning Game 6 back in Columbus.

Now the trick is doing what Babcock’s Toronto Maple Leafs couldn’t last year: stave off elimination from the Capitals.

“It’s about finding a way to win a hockey game right now,” Tortorella said Sunday. “There are so many ways of winning and losing in playoff hockey, so many ebbs and flows. That’s just the way the game is.”

Toronto is in the same spot as Columbus, down 3-2 in its first-round series against the Boston Bruins with Game 6 at home Monday night (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, stream). The Maple Leafs held off a significant surge from the Bruins on Saturday night to avoid being eliminated in five and send the series back across the border.

“You got to look forward — there’s no sense and no good in looking back,” forward Connor Brown said. “We’re going back to (Air Canada Centre) where we love to play. Our fans are going to be excited so right now we’re all just thinking about Game 6.”

Game 6 in the Bruins-Maple Leafs series comes after Boston took a 3-1 lead in the absence of suspended Toronto center Nazem Kadri. Goaltender Frederik Andersen needed to make 42 saves to keep the Maple Leafs alive as they hope to avoid another first-round exit.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Blue Jackets are trying to do the same in their Game 6 Monday (7:30 p.m. ET, CNBC, stream) after losing to the Capitals in overtime Sunday in Game 5. Four of the five games between Columbus and Washington have gone to OT compared to one total in the other seven first-round series.

“It’s been a crazy series,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. “So much is happening. Calls and OT — it’s been fun. I think guys are enjoying it. It’s pretty nerve-wracking, but we’re going to keep pushing forward here. We know we have a good team. They have a good team, as well. It’s not going to be easy.”

It’s rarely easy for the Capitals, who are 2-5 in their past five chances to eliminate an opponent and 6-11 overall in those situations in the Alex Ovechkin era. They’re also 2-5 over that time in Game 7 at home, which they’d like to avoid another incarnation of Wednesday.

This is the same situation Barry Trotz’s team was in last year — an overtime-filled first-round series against Toronto — and it wrapped things up in six.

“If you have a chance to eliminate a team, you have to have that killer instinct,” Trotz said. “You have to have that ability to close out a team. And it’s the toughest game to win because the other team is desperate. Their backs are against the wall. They’re there. They’re going to give their absolute max effort.”

No one doubts max effort from the Blue Jackets or the Maple Leafs staring down elimination. Columbus outshot Washington 16-1 in the third period of Game 5, and while that kind of ice-tilting onslaught is unlikely, the Blue Jackets are going to try to push the pace and ratchet up the pressure on the Metropolitan Division champions after blowing a 2-0 series lead.

“The belief in this room is incredible,” captain Nick Foligno said. “There’s no better motivation than what we’re facing.”

Tactically, the Blue Jackets need to cash in on the power play after going 0 for their past 13. Goaltender Braden Holtby and Washington’s penalty kill have been the difference in the series.

“The penalty kill has been a major factor for us in the last few games,” Trotz said. “I think as a group, they’ve all stepped up. I don’t think I can single out anybody. They’ve all stepped up. The penalty kill is as good as the five guys that you have, your four and your goaltender. They’ve been very committed there.”

WAITING IT OUT

The Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks will meet in the second round of the Pacific Division bracket, while the Winnipeg Jets await the Nashville Predators. In the East, the Atlantic Division-champion Tampa Bay Lightning finished off New Jersey on Saturday and will face Toronto or Boston in the second round.

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AP Sports Writers Mitch Stacy in Columbus, Ohio, and Jimmy Golen in Boston contributed.

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

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

The Buzzer: Kane dominates in playoff debut; Forsberg puts on a show

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Five games on the second night

Tampa Bay Lightning 5, New Jersey Devils 2 (Lightning lead series 1-0)

The good news for the Devils is Taylor Hall scored a goal in his first ever playoff game. That is pretty much where the good news stopped for them in Game 1 on Thursday night as the Lightning rolled to a 5-2 win thanks in large part to a three-point night from Ondrej Palat. There was a lot of concern about the Lightning heading into the playoffs based on the way they kind of backed into the postseason down the stretch, but maybe those concerns were a little premature. They are still a great team.

Boston Bruins 5, Toronto Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 1-0)

It was the Brad Marchand show in Boston as the Bruins completely demolished Toronto in Game 1 of their series. Marchand had a goal, an assist, and continued to try and get under the skin of Leo Komarov in a rather unconventional way. The Maple Leafs looked like they might keep it close when Zack Hyman tied the game, 1-1, with a great individual effort, but the Bruins just completely dominated this one.

Columbus Blue Jackets 4, Washington Capitals 3 (Blue Jackets lead series 1-0)

This was a violent game with an ejection, Tom Wilson taking out Alexander Wennberg, Nick Foligno taking a puck to the face, and Brooks Orpik hitting Ian Cole so hard that it sent his stick flying deep into the stands. The Blue Jackets also made sure that things get a little tense in Washington by jumping out to an early series lead thanks to Artemi Panarin‘s overtime goal to help them overcome an early two-goal deficit to pick up the 4-3 win.

Nashville Predators 5, Colorado Avalanche 2 (Predators lead series 1-0)

This one was the Filip Forsberg show thanks to his two third period goals. His first goal goes in the books as the game-winner. His second goal is going to give Avalanche rookie defenseman Sam Girard nightmares.

San Jose Sharks 3, Anaheim Ducks 0 (Sharks lead series 1-0)

The Ducks were one of the best home teams in the NHL this season but it did not matter on Thursday night. Mostly because Evander Kane, playing in his first ever NHL playoff game, scored a pair of goals to help lead the Sharks to the win.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three stars

1. Evander Kane, San Jose Sharks. His production hasn’t always been consistent, but when he’s on he has been unstoppable at times for the Sharks. He had one of those games on Thursday night with a pair of goals in the Sharks win. This is his third multiple-goal game since arriving in San Jose at the trade deadline.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators. Rinne gave up a goal on the first shot he faced on Thursday night, but he rebounded nicely to stop 25 of the 27 shots he faced. Some of them were highlight reel saves. Like this one.

This season was by far the best of Rinne’s career and it is probably going to get him the Vezina Trophy nod. His first playoff game of the season showed he is ready to pick right up where he left off in the regular season.

3. Artemi Panarin, Columbus Blue Jackets. He has given the Columbus Blue Jackets the impact player they desperately needed, in his first playoff game with the team on Thursday night was sensational, scoring the first overtime goal of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it was one heck of an individual effort.

Factoid of the Night

That Columbus win was a big one and an historic one for the Blue Jackets.

Friday’s schedule

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 7 p.m. ET
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild, 7:30 p.m. ET
Los Angeles Kings vs. Vegas Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET

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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.

Capitals name Philipp Grubauer Game 1 playoff starter

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Philipp Grubauer will start Washington’s playoff opener against Columbus, the first Capitals goaltender not named Braden Holtby to start a postseason series since 2011.

The 26-year-old German started 10 of the final 16 games of the regular season, going 7-3-0 with a 2.32 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. Grubauer’s 2.06 GAA and .933 save percentage are the best among NHL goalies since Oct. 27.

”I just think that Grubi deserves the opportunity,” coach Barry Trotz said Tuesday, a day after telling Grubauer of his decision. ”It sort of evolved all year. There wasn’t a date or anything like that. It just evolved and Grubi got more games and a bigger body of work.”

Grubauer called it a privilege to start after spending the past three full seasons as the backup to Holtby, who won the 2016 Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender. It could be a short-lived privilege if he struggles because Trotz said his decision is only for Game 1 on Thursday night and the Capitals are going ”game by game.”

The opener will be Grubauer’s second career start in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Grubauer started a game against the New York Islanders in the first round in 2015 when Holtby was sick and entered in relief once in 2017.

”It doesn’t change how we go about our business,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. ”We’re just concerned about our game.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Grubauer led Windsor to the Ontario Hockey League title and won the Memorial Cup in 2010. He also helped Germany qualify for the 2018 Olympics. But it’s this recent stretch that gives him the most confidence going into the playoffs.

”It helps playing more and more,” Grubauer said. ”The more you get on the ice, the more experience you get. You see different situations and different teams. If you sit on the bench, you can get good from watching, but you’ve got to get the experience.”

He will likely see a lot of Columbus captain Nick Foligno, who is back after missing the final six games of the regular season with a lower-body injury. Foligno gives the Blue Jackets some net-crashing presence and will be in and around the crease often.

”I honestly feel great,” Foligno said after centering Oliver Bjorkstrand and Josh Anderson in practice on what is now the deep Blue Jackets’ third line. ”I’ve played this game long enough to know how you have to prepare during an injury to make sure you’re feeling good mentally and physically when you get back.”

Holtby has never sat on the bench for a Stanley Cup playoff game. Michal Neuvirth started all nine games for Washington in 2011 before injuries to him and Tomas Vokoun pressed Holtby into duty in 2012.

The 28-year-old has started 59 of the past 60 Capitals playoff games. But his struggles down the stretch – a 3.75 GAA and .886 save percentage in his final 17 appearances – cost him the ability to go into another postseason as the guy even after showing improvements following his four-game ”reset.”

Trotz said Holtby was a pro and told him: ”If you put me in the net, my job is to stop the puck. If I get that opportunity, I’ll stop the puck.” He was similarly gracious after practice about the demotion.

”My job is just to focus on my game, getting it the best it can get to,” said Holtby, who closed the season 5-1-0 with a 2.67 GAA and .911 save percentage . ”Coach’s decision who plays or not doesn’t have anything to do with me. I’ll just focus one practice at a time, trying to be a positive influence around the team and go from there.”

Holtby said in March it was good to ”clear the team’s head with that kind of stigma that’s kind of going on with me in net.” With Holtby and Grubauer splitting time down the stretch, the Capitals won 12 of their 15 final games.

”I think we have two good goalies who can play,” defenseman Dmitry Orlov said. ”Grubi was good for us all season. It’s not easy to be second goalie and not play some games. You need to always be prepared in practice. I think he did a good job like a professional player, and I think he’s got confidence right now.”