Flyers turn to winner Vigneault to snap championship drought

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VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning team that just flamed out in the first round of the playoffs is dotted with former New York Rangers who played in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final:

Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, J.T. Miller all helped the Rangers to get within three wins of their first championship since 1994. Five years later, a new team and a stunning elimination. They were used to deeper runs in New York with Alain Vigneault running the show. He led the Rangers to the Cup Final in his first season and bumped the win total by eight in his second.

After a year out of coaching, Vigneault takes over a fallen Philadelphia Flyers franchise. He seems to expect a similar quick fix.

”I was looking for was an opportunity to win; an opportunity in the short term to win a Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said Thursday.

Vigneault also led the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final, is a former NHL coach of the year and will spend the summer as the head coach for Team Canada at the world championships.

”It’s unusual and difficult to find coaches like Alain,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

Indeed, Vigneault has done it all on the bench except win the Stanley Cup and he joins a franchise mired in one of the longest championship droughts in the league. The Flyers haven’t won it all since 1975 or even played for the Stanley Cup since 2010. Even worse, they missed the playoffs this season and haven’t made it past the second round since 2012.

And he thinks the Flyers can win in the short term?

Maybe, because the talent is there: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier all have some heavy miles on their skates but are still productive veterans. There’s still untapped potential in a group of promising 20-somethings that include Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick. All have shown flashes of stardom along with infuriating inconsistency.

”I can get them to be more consistent. The way that I prepare a team for games I believe permits a player to understand what he needs to do against that team to be successful,” Vigneault said.

Couturier will get an early peek at Vigneault’s system at next month’s world championships in Slovakia. So will Carter Hart, the 20-year-old rookie goalie who nearly carried the Flyers into the playoffs after his December call up. He won eight straight games and pushed the Flyers (37-37-8 for 82 points) to the verge of a wild card spot until they collapsed over the final two weeks.

The Flyers used a record eight goalies this season. Vigneault knows a true No. 1 should be enough to carry the load in a championship chase. Vigneault rode Henrik Lundqvist in New York to within three wins of a championship and Roberto Luongo had four playoff shutouts when the Canucks reached the Final in 2011.

”I was very fortunate to have maybe two Hall of Fame goaltenders,” Vigneault said. ”Maybe we have a young goaltender that’s got a tremendous amount of potential and might become one of the top goalies in the league.”

One thing Vigneault won’t do is ask former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol (fired in December) and former GM Ron Hextall (fired in November) for a scouting report on the team. Both men are part of his staff at worlds. Giroux, the Flyers captain, is the only player Vigneault has called.

Vigneault, who turns 58 in May, has coached 16 NHL seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, Canucks and Rangers. His teams made the playoffs 11 times and he was named NHL coach of the year in 2006-2007 with Vancouver.

”Players look for direction. If you give a player and a team a path and you do this, you do it this way, you put in the time, you’re going to have success,” Vigneault said. ”You do the same thing with your team, they’re going to follow you.”

History suggests players will follow Vigneault. He took two teams in major hockey markets to the Final and did it in large part because of a hot goalie and an overachieving roster. The Rangers wore down because almost every series went the distance (four Game 7s) and Vigneault took them way behind their talent level.

Vigneault has an offensive superstar in Giroux (82 points) but Patrick (a former No. 2 pick) and van Riemsdyk have more name value than skill. No matter, the coach always pays the price in Philly: Vigneault is the fifth coach since the start of the 2013 season, and he’d like this commitment to last.

”You know what we have to do? We have to win,” he said.

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Roundtable: Goaltending issues, challenging the Lightning

Which team in either conference can give the Lightning the toughest matchup?

SEAN: Still believe it’s the Capitals. Washington was able to do a good job of shot suppression in the Eastern Conference Final last year against the Lightning, and they have mostly the same roster. Losing Michael Kempny will hurt, but they also have Braden Holtby behind the blue line. The same Holtby who posted back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 a year ago.

JAMES: Honestly, there’s a credible threat every step of the way, including a relatively formidable Round 1 opponent in Columbus. My pick is the Penguins, for two simple seasons: 1) this accounts for two rounds of wear-and-tear and 2) Pittsburgh ranks as one of the few teams with firepower that at least approaches Tampa Bay’s ridiculous arsenal. I believe the Bruins/Maple Leafs are better teams than the Penguins, but I’d wager that Tampa Bay enters Round 2 far fresher than whoever wins that Boston – Toronto slugfest. With Matt Murray quietly finishing the season on a hot streak, the Penguins formula of “potent offense + deeply shaky defense + Murray standings on his head” might just pay dividends for another run.

(But no, the Lightning are winning it all.)

ADAM: The Lightning are clearly the favorites here but no team is unbeatable, and if anyone is going to knock off the Lightning it is going to be a team that has high-end talent at forward that can match them (or at least come close to matching them) and a really good goalie. I see two or three teams that fit that in the Eastern Conference. Boston is definitely one. Washington is one if Braden Holtby can get back to a Braden Holtby level of play. Pittsburgh is one if Matt Murray keeps playing the way he has since returning from injury in December. Those are the teams that I can see giving them the toughest fight. Boston would be the interesting one here because if both teams get through Round 1 you are going to have another situation where you have the two best teams in the league playing in Round 2 (the Bruins were tied with the Flames with 107 points for second best record), and the Bruins were every bit as good as that record indicates. That would be a brutally tough matchup that early in the playoffs for the Lightning.

JOEY: I feel like the Boston Bruins have the best chance of knocking out the Bolts. They’re not as deep as the Lightning (nobody is), but they found a way to overcome adversity throughout the year. The Bruins finished the year in the top five when it comes to man games lost due to injury, so their depth players also had to step up in 2018-19. Getting Tuukka Rask back on his game will be the key though. For the Bruins to sink the Lightning, they’ll need their goaltender to be better than Andrei Vasilevskiy. That might be asking a lot of Rask, but he’s shown that he can elevate his game when his team needs him most. It’s a shame these teams would have to meet in the second round though. Assuming this matchup happens at all, it will be a great series with a lot of high-end offensive players. 

SCOTT: Boston. Cut out the final game of the season for both clubs and two of their four matchups were affairs settled by one goal and the other was Boston winning convincingly 4-1. Sure, Tampa won three of four, but the Bruins showed they could run with the Lightning. Boston is the only team that compares. They ooze talent, too, and a good series featuring stellar goaltending from Tuukka Rask would throw a real wrench into things for Tampa. If Boston can remain disciplined, I think they could do it. And I’ve picked them to win the Cup this year because I believe they can be Tampa’s kryptonite.

RYAN: I picked the San Jose Sharks to win the Cup, but I think Pittsburgh or Washington will give the Lightning a really tough fight in the Eastern Conference Final, assuming that matchup happens.  Honestly, the Lightning don’t have an easy road to the Cup.  Even in the first round, while I fully expect the Lightning to beat Columbus,the Blue Jackets can’t be discounted.  If Sergei Bobrovsky plays at his peak and trade acquisitions Matt Duchene/Ryan Dzingel step up in the playoffs in a way they haven’t since being acquired by Columbus then the Blue Jackets could surprise people.  It’s a big if and the more likely scenario is that Tampa Bay will at least get past Columbus, but the point is despite winning 62 games in the regular season, the Lightning are far from untouchable.

Which team’s goaltending will be the reason they don’t make a Stanley Cup run?

SEAN: It’s hard to choose between San Jose and Calgary, but considering the season they had and expectations, I’d pick the Flames over the Sharks by a hair. Bill Peters has done a wonderful job in making them stronger on both sides of the ice. But the duo of Mike Smith and David Rittich gives me pause about thinking they could challenge for the Cup. You can’t win in the playoffs without having a number of tight, low-scoring games. I don’t see either goalie being capable of stealing a handful of a games to push the Flames ahead.

JAMES: It may actually come down to which coaches would actually change goalies if things went south, and which ones would stubbornly go down with the ship. I feel like the Flames would be quicker to move away from Mike Smith (on an expiring contract) than the Sharks would with Martin Jones (who’s terrifyingly signed through 2023-24). So, the Sharks are the biggest worry to me.

Allow one wild card, though: Vegas. Marc-Andre Fleury played to end the season, but he missed quite a bit of time with injury, and I can’t help but worry that Gerard Gallant ran the veteran goalie into the ground. If MAF is some mixture of rusty, injured, and/or beat-up, the Golden Knights could be in big trouble.

ADAM: As much as I do not trust the Calgary Flames’ situation, and for as hit-and-miss as Marc-Andre Fleury has been at times this season, and for as bad as Sergei Bobrovsky’s playoff history is, there can be no other answer here other than the San Jose Sharks. You can not hide from the worst team save percentage in hockey and two of the worst individual goaltending performances in the league. This team has everything to be a Stanley Cup contender this season except for the goalie.

JOEY: I have to go with San Jose. They have all the tools to go on a long run, but Martin Jones’ play has left a lot to be desired this year. If he can go back to playing like he did a couple of years ago, the Sharks would have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Without him, they could get bounced in the first round. That’s how big of a factor he’ll be for them this postseason. He doesn’t even have to be great, but he needs to make sure he’s not the reason his team loses big games. 

SCOTT: San Jose, who edge out the Calgary Flames because the Flames have two goalies they can turn to. Martin Jones had a .896 save percentage this season. Yes, a sub .900 save percentage on a team that finished in second place in the Pacific Division. While that might cut it in the regular season (and really, I don’t know how it did), it won’t in the playoffs. Just ask Sergei Bobrovsky what saving fewer than 90 percent the of shots you face in the playoffs means. Heck, you don’t need him to answer that. It means no playoff series wins.

RYAN: If the Sharks fall short, it will be because of Martin Jones.  He certainly left plenty to be desired in the regular season.  The Calgary Flames are another team that stands out with its questionable goaltending

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Who will be this year’s John Druce, the player who delivers an unlikely scoring surge?

SEAN: It may not last very long, but how about a nostalgic run from Jason Spezza, who only scored eight times during the regular season for the Stars. It was only three years ago he popped in 13 in the postseason for Dallas and 12 years since he scored 20 during the Ottawa Senators’ run to the Cup Final.

JAMES: When you’re looking for the next Chris Kontos/Devante Smith-Pelly/Fernando Pisani, you can do worse to look for someone fighting for a future job. With a cap crunch coming, Ryan Callahan has to know that the Lightning want to get rid of his $5.8 million contract one way or another. Callahan seems like the type who could have one of those inspiring runs where a veteran scores a bunch of unexpected goals.

Bonus choice: Teddy Blueger, because I smile every time I see his name, and is even better when he goes by Theodore. Also, he played a stretch with Phil Kessel on his line, so maybe that would happen again.

ADAM: Just keeping thinking the St. Louis Blues keep this roll they have been on going throughout the playoffs, and Oskar Sundqvist has quietly had a really good season with 14 goals, 17 assists. Maybe he does not reach double digits in the playoffs, but I could see him scoring quite a few big goals in the postseason.

JOEY: I’ll go with Bruins forward Chris Wagner. He found a way to score 12 goals for the Bruins while playing a bottom-six role. He’s a physical player that has 21 games of playoff experience. The Bruins can’t just rely on their top line plus David Krejci to get the job done. They need everyone chipping in, so I expect someone like Wagner to step up along the way. 

SCOTT: I’d like to take David Backes here for fun, but he may not play that much. Since I’ve got he Bruins winning the Cup, however, it’s a good bet that it would be someone on Boston. I’m going to go with Marcus Johannson. He was pretty solid in a couple of the Washington Capitals playoff runs. Teams facing Boston are going to have a tough time with their two top lines, meaning more to feast on for the bottom six. Johansson hasn’t done too much in his time with Boston, so now is the time to introduce himself in a big way.

RYAN: It’s a stretch, but as long as we’re talking about unlikely, I’ll say Derek Ryan.  He’s a 32-year-old late bloomer with 41 career goals and no NHL playoff experience, but he’s something of a hot-and-cold player offensively with some pretty good hot streaks to his name. He’s going into the playoffs on one of those hot streaks with six goals and 13 points in his last 13 games.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets

Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
• 
Roundtable: Goaltending issues, challenging the Lightning
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Crawford, Grabner, Lehner among 2019 Masterton Trophy nominees

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The 31 nominees for the 2019 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy have been announced. The award, which is given to the players “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey,” will be handed out at the NHL awards show in June in Las Vegas.

The 31 nominees are selected by each Professional Hockey Writers Association chapter.

Anaheim Ducks: Patrick Eaves
Arizona Coyotes: Michael Grabner
Boston Bruins: Zdeno Chara
Buffalo Sabres: Jason Pominville
Calgary Flames: Mark Giordano
Carolina Hurricanes: Curtis McElhinney
Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford
Colorado Avalanche: Carl Soderberg
Columbus Blue Jackets: Nick Foligno
Dallas Stars: Taylor Fedun
Detroit Red Wings: Niklas Kronwall
Edmonton Oilers: Andrej Sekera
Florida Panthers: Derek MacKenzie
Los Angeles Kings: Jack Campbell
Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter
Montreal Canadiens: Andrew Shaw
Nashville Predators: Rocco Grimaldi
New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider
New York Islanders: Robin Lehner
New York Rangers: Brendan Smith
Ottawa Senators: Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Elliott
Pittsburgh Penguins: Matt Cullen
St. Louis Blues: Jay Bouwmeester
San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ryan Callahan
Toronto Maple Leafs: Tyler Ennis
Vancouver Canucks: Jacob Markstrom
Vegas Golden Knights: Ryan Carpenter
Washington Capitals: Brooks Orpik
Winnipeg Jets: Dmitry Kulikov

Brian Boyle, then of the New Jersey Devils, won the award last season after his battle with chronic myeloid leukemia.

All very good choices, and it’ll be tough to narrow it down to three finalists. You have to believe Lehner will be one of the three considering his season and what he’s overcome. After that? Crawford, Grabner, Foligno, and Campbell could also find themselves heading to Las Vegas in late June.

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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.

Lightning’s Gourde ejected after hit to the head of Hurricanes’ Staal

Sportsnet
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Jordan Staal already missed 32 games earlier this season thanks to concussions, and he’s incredibly lucky to not have suffered another on Thursday night.

The Carolina Hurricanes forward was flattened by a hit to the head from Tampa Bay Lightning forward Yanni Gourde during the first period.

Gourde, coming across the ice, drove his shoulder through the face of Staal, who was leaning forward, not looking in Gourde’s direction given where the puck was, and beginning to fall after getting tripped up by Ryan Callahan.

Regardless of how you look at the hit, and any events leading up to it, it was completely avoidable.

While Gourde’s intention probably wasn’t to drill Staal, the video is plenty damning for the Lightning’s young gun.

To the surprise of no one, Gourde was given a match penalty on the play for an illegal check to the head. Staal, meanwhile, left the game for the rest of the first period but was back on the bench to start the second, which is fantastic news.

Coming back from his last concussion was hell, as Luke DeCock of the Raleigh News & Observer chronicled in a great story about Staals’ road to recovery last month, just days before he returned to lineup.

UPDATE:

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

The Buzzer: Blackhawks stay hot; Long-lasting Luongo

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Three Stars

1. Vladimir Tarasenko

Tarasenko generated a hat trick to help the Blues sweep their home-and-home set against the Predators, with his third goal being a sweet overtime-winner for St. Louis. Things were already looking great for the Blues coming into this weekend, and now they’re trending toward being the team top West contenders do not want to face in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“The Tank” extended his point streak to eight games. During that span, he’s generated seven goals and five assists for 12 points. Tarasenko’s at 22 goals in 2018-19, giving him six straight seasons with 20+ goals.

It’s a good sign that Tarasenko is firing the puck a lot, too. He generated eight shots on goal on Sunday, giving him 23 SOG over the last five games.

2. Alexandar Georgiev

What a performance by the rookie New York Rangers goalie.

Georgiev stopped 55 of 56 shots on goal by the Toronto Maple Leafs, including all 23 SOG he faced during Toronto’s four unsuccessful power-play opportunities. It was quite a way for Georgiev to celebrate his 23rd birthday.

He finished just four saves short of Mike Richter’s single-game Rangers record of 59.

3. Dominik Kahun

Six different players reached three points on Sunday. Tarasenko stands out from the pack being that he’s the only won whose three points comprised a hat trick.

Kahun joins Tarasenko as the only one of the six to score a GWG on Sunday. He generated two goals and one assist as the Blackhawks beat the Red Wings to win their seventh consecutive game.

The 23-year-old’s enjoyed a reasonably solid rookie season (27 points in 56 games), but he’s been really racking up points lately. Over the last four games, Kahun’s produced three goals and four assists for seven points. Kahun’s Blackhawks teammate Alex DeBrincat also had a three-point game on Sunday, with his coming via three assists.

Sharp on CHI

Speaking of Chicago’s winning streak, here’s Patrick Sharp on his former team’s turnaround, and their chances of making the playoffs.

Highlights of the Night

As nice a goal as Ryan Callahan scored, the biggest highlight is his celebration.

The Avalanche have really been struggling, but Nathan MacKinnon is still spectacular. Video evidence:

Factoids

Scores

STL 5 – NSH 4 (OT)
CHI 5 – DET 2
BOS 2 – COL 1 (OT)
WPG 3 – BUF 1
NJD 3 – CAR 2
NYI 2 – MIN 1
TBL 5 – FLA 2
NYR 4 – TOR 1

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.