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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Kucherov making plenty of points for NHL’s MVP consideration

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Connor McDavid knows better than to risk making end-of-season NHL award projections.

Through no fault of his own, the Edmonton Oilers captain was not included among last year’s three MVP candidates, causing a stir back home. So McDavid understandably deferred when recently asked to list his Hart Trophy front-runners this year.

”After last year, I’m not commenting,” McDavid said, chuckling. ”I have no idea who will win it at all.”

McDavid, who won the Hart in 2017 after leading the Oilers to their first playoff berth in 11 years, isn’t likely to be included among this year’s finalists even though he entered the final week of the season second in the league with 115 points. Trouble is, the Oilers have already been eliminated from playoff contention, and McDavid and everyone else are being overshadowed by the numbers Nikita Kucherov is putting up with the President’s Trophy-clinching Tampa Bay Lightning.

With 125 points through 80 games, Kucherov has already matched Joe Thornton‘s league-leading total in 2005-06. The highest total after that is Jaromir Jagr’s 127 points in 1998-99, and the last player to top 130 points was Mario Lemieux, who had 161 in 1995-96.

”It’s not at all surprising. He was unbelievable last year, and seemed to get no recognition for it,” McDavid said, noting how Kucherov finished third in the NHL with 100 points last season. ”They’re a team that scores a lot of goals. And he’s in on most of them. It’s pretty impressive.”

Kucherov is tied for the Lightning lead with seven game-winning goals and part of a team that became only the NHL’s third to win 60 or more games. Kucherov has also led the points race since Dec. 28, and gone no more than two games without registering a point this season.

That’s not to say there aren’t others worthy of mention.

Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, with a career-best 97 points already, has played a key role in helping the Flames clinch their first division title in 13 years.

Though Sidney Crosby‘s production has tailed off with just three assists in Pittsburgh’s past nine games, the Penguins could have been in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006 if not for their captain’s team-leading 95 points. Chicago’s Patrick Kane, who enjoyed a 20-game point streak, would deserve consideration if not for the Blackhawks sitting last in the Central Division.

Former NHL executive-turned broadcaster Brian Burke said it’s difficult to consider anyone ahead of Kucherov, suggesting he has essentially ”lapped the field.”

”You’d have to be statistically such an aberration, such a unicorn, that voters would have no choice but to say, ‘OK, that’s the guy,”’ Burke said.

”But that’s not the case where you’ve got Kucherov. So there’s no unicorns,” Burke added. ”You’ve already got a guy who’s blowing everyone away.”

That said, here is The Associated Press list of end-of-season award contenders:

HART (MVP)

In the conversation: Crosby, Gaudreau, Kucherov and Brad Marchand (Boston).

Who should win: Kucherov.

Comment: To quote Burke: ”There’s no unicorns.”

NORRIS (Top defenseman)

In the conversation: Brent Burns (San Jose), John Carlson (Washington), Mark Giordano (Calgary), Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay).

Who should win: Giordano.

Comment: A career-best season for a captain on the Pacific Division’s top team.

VEZINA (Top goalie)

In the conversation: Ben Bishop (Dallas), Darcy Kuemper (Arizona), Carey Price (Montreal) Pekka Rinne (Nashville) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay).

Who should win: Vasilevskiy.

Comment: Tightest race to call and could include Islanders’ tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, though each eliminate each other by splitting starts.

SELKE (Top defensive forward)

In the conversation: Aleksander Barkov (Florida), Patrice Bergeron (Boston), Sean Couturier (Philadelphia), Mark Stone (Vegas), Ryan O'Reilly (St. Louis).

Who should win: Stone.

Comment: Before being traded to Vegas, Stone had an exceptional plus-13 rating on a Senators team that has currently allowed an NHL-worst 285 goals.

CALDER (Top rookie)

In the conversation: Rasmus Dahlin (Buffalo), Andreas Johnsson (Toronto), Elias Pettersson (Vancouver) and Brady Tkachuk (Ottawa).

Who should win: Pettersson.

Comment: Pettersson leads rookie forwards in averaging 18:20 of ice time per game.

JACK ADAMS (Top coach)

In the conversation: Craig Berube (St. Louis), Jon Cooper (Tampa Bay), Bill Peters (Calgary), Barry Trotz (Islanders).

Who should win: Cooper.

Comment: Though Berube and Trotz deserve consideration, it is difficult to overlook the job Cooper’s done with a 60-win team.

THEY SAID IT

Blue Jackets John Tortorella wasn’t initially in the mood to divulge what was discussed during a team meeting after a 4-1 loss at Edmonton on March 21 that extended Columbus’ skid to 0-2-1.

”That’s none of your business,” he responded. Pressed further, given how Columbus rebounded to win its next five, Tortorella said: ”We (stunk) against Edmonton. I mean it was pitiful against Edmonton, so we tried to clean some things up.”

WATCH LIVE: Rangers visit Flyers on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday afternoon’s matchup between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Pride will be at stake between the Rangers and Flyers when they meet in the first game on Star Sunday on NBC.

The Flyers were officially eliminated from the playoffs after a tough 5-2 loss on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers, meanwhile, have been out of contention for a while, missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in 15 years.

“I think the poor start is the reason that we’re in this position,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said after Saturday’s game. “Every year it feels like it’s the same story. We need to figure it out…we know we can make the playoffs and be a dangerous team, but we can believe whatever we want. We just have to go out there and make it happen.”

For New York, stopping the Flyers’ six-game winning streak against them — including their three previous meetings this season — will be top of the order. The Flyers haven’t swept the season series since the 1984-85 season.

Philly put up a valiant effort this season after firing the general manager and head coach they began the season with. The Rangers began the season on a rebuilding foot, having brought in David Quinn while selling off several key pieces at the trade deadline.

Despite where both teams find themselves, there won’t be lacking for motivation.

“You want to win hockey games, especially when you’re playing a division rival,” Quinn said.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12 P.M. ET – NBC]

WHAT: New York Rangers at Philadelphia Flyers
WHERE: Wells Fargo Center
WHEN: Sunday, March 31, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Rangers-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

RANGERS

Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Vladislav NamestnikovFilip ChytilVinni Lettieri
Jimmy VeseyLias AnderssonRyan Strome
Brendan LemieuxBrett HowdenBoo Nieves

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk
Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Brendan SmithNeal Pionk

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

FLYERS

James van RiemsdykNolan Patrick — Claude Giroux
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Ryan HartmanScott LaughtonTravis Konecny
Michael RafflCorban KnightPhil Varone

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbeherePhilippe Myers
Robert HaggRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Ed Olczyk (analyst) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Liam McHugh will anchor studio coverage alongside Mike Milbury and Keith Jones.


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: Islanders reclaim top spot in Metro; Flames clinch playoff spot

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Three Stars

1. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers. This is the player the Philadelphia Flyers have been waiting decades for, a goalie that can be a difference-maker (for the better!) and steal them the occasional game. That is exactly what Carter Hart did on Sunday night as he stopped 41 of 42 shots he faced and gave his team a chance to score two late goals, one with 19 seconds remaining in regulation and another with three seconds remaining in overtime, to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, keeping their slim playoff hopes for at least another day. Read all about it here.

2. Brock Nelson, New York Islanders. The New York Islanders reclaimed the top spot in the Metropolitan Division with a 3-2 overtime win against the Minnesota Wild. Mathew Barzal had two more assists in the win, but it was Brock Nelson that gets the star in this one for his two points, including the overtime winner. He is now up to 47 points on the season, setting a new career-high with still 10 games remaining on the regular season schedule.

3. Tyson Barrie, Colorado Avalanche. The Colorado Avalanche have no margin for error the rest of the way and need to win as many games as possible if they are going to get back into a playoff position. Sunday’s 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils was a good place to start with Tyson Barrie’s two goals leading the way. He is now up to nine goals on the season and is just one goal away from what would be his fifth season with double-digit goals. There are only 17 active defenders in the NHL with at least that many in their career.

Other notable performances and notes from Sunday

  • Jonathan Marchessault scored two goals to help the Vegas Golden Knights keep rolling in a 6-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers. Read all about it here.
  • Entering play on Sunday Vancouver Canucks forward Tim Schaller had appeared in 37 games this season without scoring a goal. He scored two in the Canucks’ 3-2 shootout win over the Dallas Stars.
  • Alex Nylander had a pair of assists to help the Buffalo Sabres pick up a 4-3 shootout win over the St. Louis Blues.
  • Jakob Silfverberg‘s late third period goal was the difference in the Anaheim Ducks’ 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers. Not getting a point might be enough to put an end to the Panthers’ playoff chances.
  • The Pittsburgh Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin on a week-to-week basis due to an undisclosed upper-body injury. Read all about it here.

Highlights of the Night

Carter Hart was the star of the game for the Philadelphia Flyers in their win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, but Sean Couturier made the play of the game to score the game-winning goal with just three seconds to play in overtime.

The Minnesota Wild did not get the result they wanted, but they were still able to get at least one point on Sunday night thanks in large part to this incredible goal from Zach Parise.

Tyson Barrie provided enough offense for the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday afternoon and Philip Grubauer stopped all 22 shots he faced to help their team get two important points to keep them in pursuit of a playoff spot. This is Grubauer’s best save of the day.

Factoids

  • The Calgary Flames did not even play on Sunday night but they still became the first team to clinch a playoff spot in the Western Conference thanks to the Minnesota Wild’s overtime loss to the New York Islanders. [Calgary Flames]
  • It came in a losing effort, but Connor McDavid is the first player since Vincent Lecavalier to record multiple points in at least eight consecutive games since Vincent Lecavalier in 2007. [NHL PR]
  • The Minnesota Wild have lost six of their past seven games that have gone to overtime or shootout. Those are big points to leave on the table, especially considering they are just one point out of a playoff spot as of this posting. [Michael Russo]

Scores

Colorado Avalanche 3, New Jersey Devils 0

Buffalo Sabres 4, St. Louis Blues 3 (SO)

New York Islanders 3, Minnesota Wild 2 (OT)

Vancouver Canucks 3, Dallas Stars 2 (SO)

Philadelphia Flyers 2, Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (OT)

Anaheim Ducks 3, Florida Panthers 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Edmonton Oilers 3

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.

Hart, Flyers steal two points with late surge against Penguins

The Philadelphia Flyers looked like they were less than 20 seconds away from having what was left of their playoff chances completely erased. Somehow, though, there remains some small amount of hope thanks to their stunning 2-1 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins that looked to be a carbon copy of their Stadium Series win over their cross-state rivals just a few weeks earlier.

James van Riemsdyk scored the game-tying goal with just 19 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime, where Sean Couturier would tally the game-winner with just three seconds to play after he skated around Penguins captain Sidney Crosby in the neutral zone.

The Flyers are still six points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, so the odds are still overwhelmingly stacked against them, but coming away with zero points on Sunday would have probably been enough to completely end their chances.

When these two teams met in late February in the Stadium Series game at Lincoln Financial Field the Flyers trailed by two goals with less than four minutes to play and needed a last-minute game-tying goal to force overtime, only to win it early in the extra period.

They did nearly the same thing on Sunday.

The other big development that stood out in this game for the Flyers was the sensational play of goalie Carter Hart.

Appearing in just his second game since returning from injury, Hart played one of the best games of his young career by turning around 41 of the 42 shots he faced, including several dangerous scoring chances in the second period to help keep the game scoreless.

This is the type of performance that has to give Flyers fans — and the Flyers themselves — hope for the immediate future.

Nothing can change the direction of a team more than a franchise goalie, and after decades of searching the Flyers may have finally found somebody that can actually claim that title. Yes, it has only been 24 games at this point, but the early returns have been everything the Flyers could have hoped for from their top prospect. His arrival has been one of the biggest factors in their second half turnaround that has allowed them to at least get somewhat closer to a playoff spot.

Teddy Blueger was the only Penguin to beat him on Sunday night, pouncing on a rebound in front of the net early in the third period.

Blueger was skating on the Penguins’ second line on Sunday night in place of Evgeni Malkin who missed the game due to an upper-body injury suffered on Saturday.

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.