PHT Morning Skate: 3 reasons Pens got bounced; Is Thornton done in San Jose?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Capitals and Predators both came up with huge wins last night, so TSN’s Scott Cullen took a deeper look at the key numbers for each team. (TSN.ca)

• Sports books in Vegas may not have seen the Golden Knights’ success coming, but they’ve embraced the position they’re in. The Golden Knights have hit the jackpot with different players and it could result in a Stanley Cup. (Sporting News)

• The Tampa Bay Lightning have taken down the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins to make it to the Eastern Conference Final. USA Today looks at five reasons why the Bolts can go all the way. (USA Today)

• The Bruins are going to be watching the rest of the playoffs from home for a few reasons. First, they simply didn’t do enough at five-on-five. (NHL.com)

• If you’re not Tampa, Boston or Toronto, the Atlantic Division will be a brutal place to play for the next few years. All three of those teams are clearly ahead of the rest right now. (Sportsnet)

• Last year, the Sharks said goodbye to Patrick Marleau. Is it time to do the same with veteran Joe Thornton, who will become an unrestricted free agent in July? (Mercury News)

• Not only do the Golden Knights have incredible players on their top lines, but they’ve also built up a solid group of depth players that have helped them reach this point. (Las Vegas Sun)

• Penguins fans may still have fresh wounds from last night’s playoff exit, but it’s time to analyze why they failed to get by Washington. The Pittsburgh Tribune looks at the three reasons why they were eliminated. (Pittsburgh Tribune)

• Even though the Rangers have said that they’re going to be retooling, former NHL coach Dan Bylsma isn’t buying it. (New York Post)

• Former Islanders GM Bill Torrey passed away last week, so Newsday decided to look back at the top 10 moves he made during his tenure in Long Island. Bringing a guy like Denis Potvin into the organization was a home run. (Newsday)

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Jets and Predators.

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.

It’s all finally clicking at the right time for Capitals

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PITTSBURGH — Hockey can be a funny, random game that can make no sense on any given night or throughout any given season. Results are sometimes prone to luck, or one shot, or one bounce, or one mistake, or one play perhaps more than any other major sport. That is just the nature of the game. Sometimes you’re great and you lose. Sometimes you’re just average and you win. That randomness can also make the game extraordinarily frustrating, and no great team — and they have been a great team — has been on the wrong side of that more often over the past decade than the Washington Capitals.

It has almost always happened in the same round (the second) and against the same team (the Pittsburgh Penguins) every year.

On Monday night in Pittsburgh, after years of torment and heartbreak, the Capitals finally — FINALLY — toppled both of those demons and kicked the wall down.

Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s goal at the 5:27 mark of overtime lifted the Capitals to a 2-1 win in Game 6, sending them into the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998 and the first time in the Alex Ovechkin/Barry Trotz era (or any coach that Ovechkin has had).

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

To say there was a sense of relief and elation in the Capitals’ locker room would be an understatement.

It’s not only Ovechkin and Trotz’s first trip to the Conference Final as a duo, it is also Trotz’s first trip in his 19th year as an NHL coach. Not being able to conquer that obstacle has been an obvious thorn in the side of an organization that has been one of the best in the league for more than a decade. Finishing with the best record in the league three times in 10 years is a major accomplishment. Alex Ovechkin is one of the greatest players the league has ever seen and has consistently performed in every situation for them. That, too, is worth something (a lot, actually). But because they haven’t had that one season where everything worked together in unison for them at the right time of year the results were always the same.

Disappointment.

When great players and great teams consistently fall short, they can never shake that underachiever label, or choker label, or whatever label you want to throw on it, whether it is fair or not. And it is almost never fair.

“Oh absolutely,” said Trotz when asked if he ever felt some sort of a kinship with his players when it came to meeting the same result in the playoffs at the same point every year, and what it felt like to finally get over that hump.

“It’s so hard to move forward sometimes. It’s always thrown in your face everywhere you turn. I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns. He is a great player in this league. This league is a tough league, I think we’re only the team in the past few years to get to the second round [every year]. Even the Penguins didn’t, and they’ve won a couple of Cups. It’s a hard league to get there. I knew the frustration because you’re so close and you just can’t get it. You just have to stay with it. There is a kinship there, there is no question for that whole group. Backstrom. Ovi. Myself. Everybody.”

What makes all of this so surprising this season is that it is this Capitals team that has taken the next big step for the organization. That it is this Capitals team that might finally end up being the one.

There have probably been better Capitals teams than this one, both in terms of the roster on paper, and the results on the ice during an 82-game season. Any of the recent Presidents’ Trophy teams come to mind, and there were times this very season where it looked like the Capitals, on their way to a third consecutive division title, maybe just were not as good as their record.

But again, sometimes hockey is weird. And where better Capitals teams ran into a hot goalie, or didn’t have a little puck luck on their side, or didn’t have the depth around Ovechkin and Backstrom, this one seems to have all of that finally happening in their favor.

Braden Holtby has been a world-class goalie six years. He has won a Vezina Trophy, was a runner-up in another year, and entered these playoffs with the second best save percentage in NHL playoff history. But for as great as he has been there was always that one goalie, in that one series, that always just seemed to stand on his head a little bit more. Three years ago it was Henrik Lundqvist. Two years ago it was Matt Murray. Last year it was Marc-Andre Fleury when he, quite literally, stole the series from a Capitals team that probably carried the play through the seven game series.

This year it was Holtby that got the best of his counterpart, and it was a big difference in the series. Maybe the difference.

He did that after starting the playoffs on the bench in the first round. Since returning to the lineup he is 8-2 with a .926 save percentage. There were many playoff series in the past where he has posted better numbers and, somehow, still ended up on the wrong side of it.

In previous matchups with Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin would seemingly match each other goal-for-goal and point-for-point only to have the Penguins’ depth players end up being the difference.

This year it was the Capitals’ that had the depth scoring come through.

They managed to do all of that while overcoming a lot of the adversity that has typically sunk them in the past, whether it be the aforementioned goalie drama to open the playoffs, or injuries.

The Stanley Cup playoffs can sometimes be a battle of attrition where it is not just simply the best team that wins, but the healthiest team. The Capitals went into Game 6 on Monday night in Pittsburgh playing without half of their top-six. Tom Wilson was sitting out due to a suspension. Andre Burakovsky has not played since Game 2 of the first round. Then, the most damaging loss of them all came less than an hour before faceoff when it was announced that Nicklas Backstrom would not play due to an upper-body injury.

The stage seemed set for the Penguins to take advantage and send the series back to Washington for yet another Game 7 where anything could have happened.

Then the Capitals came out and completely shut the Penguins down, limiting a back-to-back champion that was facing elimination on home ice to just 22 shots on goal over 65 minutes of hockey.

“I don’t think anybody would have favored us being without him tonight, then with another two top-six forwards not playing,” said forward Lars Eller when asked about the absence of Backstrom.

“Having three top-six guys out, that just makes it so much better. It tells us how deep we are and what this group is all about. It’s great, it just tells how this group fought through this adversity because we faced some adversity without those guys.”

Without Backstrom (and Wilson, and Burakovsky), Eller said the Capitals didn’t really try to do anything different, but just had to make sure they had the right mindset and that everyone was prepared to step up and do a little more.

“You try to keep the same mentality, but just knowing obviously that you might play a few more minutes and stuff like that,” said Eller. “It takes a little bit more from everybody, and if you have the right people and the right mindset and attitude you can get it done, and we got it done. Guys stepped up. Our fourth line guys, [Nathan] Walker coming in, [Alex] Chiasson with a big goal, [Travis] Boyd came in after playing in I don’t know how long, they all did great in the hardest possible environment. Pittsburgh, Game 6, it doesn’t get much bigger and they handled themselves incredibly well. It was just great to be a part of.”

For years the the Joe ThorntonPatrick Marleau San Jose Sharks were the “so close, but couldn’t get it done” team in the NHL, and they carried that label for more than a decade through years of postseason exits. After everyone seemingly gave up on them ever breaking through and reaching the Stanley Cup Final, they finally did it two years ago. It may not have resulted in a win, but it was still a major accomplishment and huge step for an organization that had yet to take it. After years of premature first-and second-round exits there came a point where everyone wondered if the Penguins in the Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era would ever get another Stanley Cup. When it seemed that their window had slammed shut, they won two in a row.

This finally seemed to be the year where the Capitals reached that point where everyone outside of their organization and fan-base had given up on them after years of “this is the year” kept ending with the same result. Now here they are in the Eastern Conference Final after beating their long-time nemesis.

Given what this team has done in previous seasons, and given the way some of their top players have performed in both the regular season and playoffs, you can’t say they don’t deserve it.

Truth is, they probably deserved it long before this season. But that is not the way hockey works.

Sometimes you just never really know when all of the forces are going to align and work in your favor.

After years of “this is the year” proclamations coming up empty, this might actually be the one.

Especially after finally getting through second round and the Penguins the way they did it.

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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.

Lou Lamoriello not returning as Maple Leafs GM; time for Dubas or Hunter?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs will have a new general manager next season as Lou Lamoriello will not return in that role for the 2018-19 NHL season.

When Lamoriello was hired in 2o15, the deal was that he would be the GM for three seasons and then move to an advisor position. Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement on Monday that he wouldn’t be altering from that original plan. “I will now focus all of my attention towards making a decision regarding our next general manager,” he wrote.

It’s been quite a turnaround in the last three years for the Maple Leafs. Auston Matthews sure helps, but Lamoriello also dealt for goaltender Frederik Andersen (2016) and signed Patrick Marleau (2017), both of whom played big parts in helping the team return to the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. (Pension Plan Puppets has a great breakdown of all of his moves as Toronto’s GM.)

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Now comes the two-headed speculation monster: Who takes over for Lamoriello and will Lamoriello remain as an advisor with the Maple Leafs?

First things first, ever since Lamoriello was installed as GM in 2015, the thought was that next in line would be Kyle Dubas or Mark Hunter, the team’s assistant GMs. Both are still with the club with the Maple Leafs blocking Dubas from taking the job of running the entire hockey operations department of the Colorado Avalanche when they came calling last year. One issue that might stem from Shanahan choosing one over the other is what will happen to the one who doesn’t get the job? Will he stay or leave for a bigger opportunity elsewhere? Both are highly thought of in the organization.

The GM decision needs to happen fast as there are some big off-season decisions to make for the Maple Leafs. James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak are their big-name unrestricted free agents, while William Nylander, set to become a restricted free agent, needs a new contract. They could have around $28 million in cap space should the ceiling go up at least $3 million like it’s expected, so how would extensions, plus any other free agent signings fit into their plans for next season? Big decisions ahead.

Finally, the hot rumor of the week has Lamoriello leaving the Maple Leafs to join the New York Islanders and replacing Garth Snow as GM. Lamoriello’s son, Chris, is the team’s assistant GM. Would Lou head to Long Island, run the show for a few years and hand the reins to his son? Co-owner Jon Ledecky said last month that he will be “evaluating all aspects” of the organization this off-season. Could that mean “waiting for the right name(s) to come available” in regards to the futures of Snow and head coach Doug Weight?

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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.

PHT Second Round Preview: 10 things to know about Golden Knights vs. Sharks

NBC
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Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the better part of seven months, you know that the Vegas Golden Knights have been the surprise of the 2017-18 season. Will this incredible run continue or will they run out of steam against the San Jose Sharks?

Despite the Golden Knights’ incredible season, many picked them to bow out in the first round against the Kings. Yeah, big mistake. Not only did Vegas beat Los Angeles, they swept them in four games. That’s not to say that their first playoff series in franchise history was easy, but it went as well as anyone could have expected.

Of the 19 different skaters they used in the opening round, 13 picked up at least one point. That’s some impressive depth scoring for a team that should have been picking leftovers from the other 30 organizations during the expansion draft. If this season has taught us anything, it’s that the Golden Knights aren’t your typical expansion team.

As for the Sharks, they seemed to fly under the radar as much as any team that swept their first-round opponent can. Two of their games against the Anaheim Ducks were decided by one goal, but they also beat them 3-0 in Game 1 and they smoked them 8-1 in Game 3.

Five Sharks finished the first round on a point-per-game pace. Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski each had five points, while Evander Kane, Marcus Sorensen and Tomas Hertl each had four points in four games. 15 different Sharks registered at least one point in the last series.

Many hockey fans expected the Sharks’ window to be closed by now, but they’ve found a way to be more than relevant so far this postseason. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau aren’t leading the charge anymore, so it’s up to the current cast to take this team as far as they can go.

Schedule

Surging Players

Golden Knights: No player surged more for the Golden Knights than Marc-Andre Fleury. He was terrific against the Kings, as he allowed just three goals in four contests. The 33-year-old enters the second round with a stellar 0.65 goals-against-average and a .977 save percentage.

Reilly Smith was the only player on the team to pick up three points in Round 1. They were all assists and they each came in the last three games of the series. The 27-year-old registered the primary helper on Braden McNabb’s series-clinching goal in Game 4.

Sharks: Where to begin? Couture collected all five of his points in Games 2 and 3 of the series against the Ducks. He’s going to be counted on to play key minutes in the second round, so he’ll have to continue being productive if Sharks are going to be able to put the puck in the net.

Pavelski, who also had five points, picked up at least one in each game except Game 4. The 33-year-old had ups and downs through the regular season, but he seems to have found another gear in the playoffs.

Kane proved to be a lethal acquisition at the trade deadline. The 26-year-old has been the perfect for the Sharks, and it hasn’t even taken him long to find chemistry with his new teammates. He’s playing so well that the odds of him signing an extension in San Jose seem to be entirely possible.

As for Sorensen, he was the biggest surprise for the Sharks in the opening round. He had five goals in 32 games during the regular season, but he found the back of the net three times in four games against Anaheim. Can he keep it going?

And we have to mention Martin Jones, who was just as good as Fleury in Round 1. Jones gave up just four goals in four games. Yeah, goals might be hard to come by in this series.

Struggling Players

Golden Knights: Golden Knights GM George McPhee gave up some key draft picks to get Tomas Tatar from Detroit, and he simply hasn’t lived up to expectations. Tatar was a healthy scratch in the final two games of their first-round series and he failed to pick up any points in the first two. They clearly need more from their prized acquisition.

Sharks: Suggesting that Brent Burns struggled in the first round is a little silly, but it’s surprising to see that eight of his teammates finished with more points than he did. Burns has a goal and an assist in the playoffs, which is nothing to scoff at. He has the ability to produce a little more though.

Goaltending

Golden Knights: As we’ve mentioned a couple of times already, Fleury has been a monster in the postseason so far. He came up with big save, after big save against the Kings and he’s fully capable of doing that again against the Sharks. San Jose is a lot more dynamic offensively, so the upcoming challenge will be different for Fleury, but he just seems to be so focused and so steady. If the Golden Knights come up short in this series, it probably won’t be because of bad goaltending.

Sharks: The matchup between Jones and Fleury should be incredible to watch. What Jones accomplished in the first round was as impressive as anything any other goaltender did this postseason. Even though the Sharks lost in the first round last year, he still posted some impressive individual numbers. He’s clearly comfortable when the chips are down.

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Special Teams

Golden Knights: Vegas’ strength this postseason has been their penalty kill. They’re killing off opposing power plays at a 92.3 percent clip. During the regular season, they ranked 12th in the league at 81.4 percent. Obviously, the numbers are much better in the playoffs, but the sample size is smaller. Still, they’ve been running an affective PK unit all year.

The man-advantage is a different story. The Golden Knights’ power play operated at just 8.3 percent in the first round. Only their opponent, the Kings, had a worse percentage on the power play. They had the 11th best power play unit during the regular season.

Sharks: San Jose had a middle-of-the-pack power play unit during the regular season (they ranked 16th in the NHL), but they’ve hit their stride this postseason, as they clicked at 30 percent in Round 1. Only the Capitals and Bruins were better. The matchup between San Jose’s red-hot power play and Vegas’ stingy penalty kill will be something to keep an eye on.

Their penalty kill ranked eighth of all the teams in the first round at 83.3 percent. That’s a little surprising considering the Sharks had the second best PK in the league in 2017-18.

Fancy Stats

Golden Knights: Young blue liner Shea Theodore had the best possession stats of any player on the Golden Knights’ roster, as he finished the first round with a CF% of 61.96 percent. Not bad for a guy the Ducks traded away so that they could protect additional players in the expansion draft.

Believe it or not, only Theodore, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson had a better CF% than Tatar, who we already mentioned was scratched in the last two games. Clearly, possession isn’t everything to head coach Gerard Gallant. In fairness, the fact that Tatar started in the offensive zone 65 percent of the time helped boost his Corsi rating.

As a team, the Golden Knights had the fifth best CF% (52.91) behind Winnipeg, Nashville, Tampa and Anaheim. They also ranked fifth in FF%. Their PDO was third in the league at 1.047. More often than not, that number comes back down to 1.000, but Fleury’s incredible save percentage contributed to it being that high.

Sharks: Surprisingly, the Sharks possession numbers weren’t very good in the first round. As we mentioned above, the Ducks had a good CF%, which means the Sharks were lacking in that department. In the end, they controlled less than 50 percent of the shot attempts (46.7 percent). Well, whatever works for you. San Jose and Anaheim also finished 50-50 when it came to high-danger CF%.

On an individual basis, Sorensen led the way for the Sharks with a CF% of 63.64. Again, he was the team’s biggest surprise in the first round. He got shot attempts off and he found the back of the net a lot more regularly than he did during the regular season.

As for Burns, Couturier, Pavelski and Kane, they all found themselves below the 50 percent mark. That’s surprising considering how good the team looked in the opening round.

Injuries

Golden Knights: Vegas is relatively healthy heading into their second-round series against the Sharks. David Perron, who missed two games against Los Angeles, returned before the end of the series. Meanwhile, defenseman Luca Sbisa has been out since early March with an undisclosed injury.

Sharks: Thornton (right MCL) is the biggest name that’s been banged up for the Sharks. He took the pre-game warmup prior to a first-round game, but he didn’t suit up. It’s unclear when he’ll be able to return to the lineup. Barclay Goodrow and Joakim Ryan are depth players that are also banged up right now. Thornton and Ryan are considered day-to-day, while Goodrow (upper body) is done for the season.

X-Factor for Golden Knights

Golden Knights: For the Golden Knights to win this thing, Fleury will have to play like he did in the first round. That’s not to say that the guys in front of him aren’t good to get the job done, but facing the Kings’ attack and the Sharks’ attack are completely different things. The Sharks can come at you with strong skilled players and their depth guys showed that they can chip in as well if they have to.

X-Factor for Sharks

Sharks: It’s gotta be Burns. If he can start taking over games (especially offensively), he’ll add a different dimension to the Sharks’ offense that they didn’t necessarily have in the opening round. He led the team in scoring during the regular season, and he clearly has the ability to change a game and a series if he wants to.

Prediction

Golden Knights in 7: I find the Sharks haven’t received enough love from the hockey community for what they accomplished so far. But in saying that, I still don’t think the Golden Knights’ run ends in the second round. They came up with just enough offense to sweep the Kings, but I think their group of forwards can do even more. Now that they have one round under their belts, I expect them to come out and be a little more comfortable than they’ve been around the net. Yes, Jonathan Quick had a lot to do with their limited offense in Round 1 and Jones won’t be an easy goalie to solve, but I think they’ll do just enough to win the series in seven games.

More:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
10 things to know about Penguins vs. Capitals

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.

Bruins will way to Game 7 win against Maple Leafs

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Once again, the Boston Bruins finished a Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, riding an overpowering third period. In the case of Wednesday’s game, the end result was a 7-4 win for the Bruins.

The 2018 edition featured some similarities to the Bruins’ 5-4 win back in 2013.

  • A Maple Leafs team headed for the summer shaking their heads and with some serious soul-searching to do.
  • The heartache that comes with the Leafs giving up leads. Toronto was up 1-0, 2-1, and 4-3. This wasn’t a collapse of the “It was 4-1” variety, but the Maple Leafs squandered multiple leads nonetheless.

  • The Bruins simply ran away with things in the third period. Boston went from being down 4-3 to winning 7-4. That domination included the Bruins keeping the Maple Leafs from registering a shot on goal through the first eight minutes of the final frame.

In the case of this latest Game 7, there were times when it seemed like the last shot on goal might be the winner.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Really, it was a nightmare game for both goalies. Frederik Andersen‘s Game 7 heartache is no longer limited to his time with the Anaheim Ducks, as he gave up six goals, including a few that are likely to haunt him during the off-season. The Lightning must be licking their chops at the prospect of exploiting what might be a fragile goalie in Tuukka Rask; the Bruins ended up on top in this one, yet Rask gave up four goals on 24 shots.

(Maybe a solid finish will help bolster his self-esteem? Rask stopped all eight Maple Leafs SOG in the third period after giving up those four goals on the first 18 shots he faced.)

If you want to summarize Game 7 in one video clip, Jake DeBrusk‘s second goal of the night (and eventual game-winner) could suffice. The Bruins simply demanded this win, showing off their skill and will while flabbergasting the overmatched Maple Leafs and a struggling Andersen:

Several players came up big on each side. DeBrusk scored those two goals and was quite the presence overall. Charlie McAvoy logged 26:43 of ice time with a +1 rating, while a blocked shot apparently didn’t really throw off Zdeno Chara, who managed a +2 rating and 28:38 TOI. Despite some warranted criticisms, David Krejci did manage to generate three assists, adding to a substantial playoff resume for his career. Patrick Marleau provided more than just a “veteran presence” for the Maple Leafs, scoring two goals during a zany first period.

Still, when it comes to the Maple Leafs, many will linger on those who fell short.

Andersen’s struggles were considerable, rounding out a remarkably hot-and-cold series overall. Auston Matthews failed to score a point despite firing four SOG, finishing the series with just a single goal and single assist. Jake Gardiner had an awful Game 7, suffering a -5 rating and absorbing some of the blame for multiple bad moments.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Gardiner said “most” of the loss was on him and that the defenseman had tears in his eyes while asking questions.

“I didn’t show up,” Gardiner said.

The Bruins eliminated the Maple Leafs in an exhilarating fashion, carrying over an impressive regular season of puck-hogging play. They have plenty of room for improvement, something Jack Adams finalist Bruce Cassidy will surely emphasize as they turn their sights to a rested, versatile opponent in the Lightning.

If it’s anything like Bruins – Leafs, it should be thrilling … and maybe a goalie’s nightmare.

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.