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Where it went wrong for Predators, and how they could fix it

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There has been a changing of the guard in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins? Out without winning a single game between them.

The Winnipeg Jets, a Western Conference Finalist a year ago and a popular Stanley Cup pick this season? They are finished.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Now the Nashville Predators, one of the top teams in the Western Conference for a couple of years now, have joined them. Just like the Jets, it probably should not be a huge surprise to see them go out as early as they did because something just seemed to be off with this team for much of the season, and especially in the second half.

It’s not hard to find the biggest culprit in their demise this season, either, and it begins with an inconsistent offense that was dragged down by the league’s worst power play unit. It was a unit that hit rock bottom in their Round 1 loss against the Dallas Stars.

To say it was bad would be an understatement.

It wasn’t just bad, it was historically bad. The type of performance that would make even an objective third party with no rooting interest scream at the TV at its overall incompetence.

After finishing the regular season converting on just 12.9 of their power play opportunities, one of the worst marks the NHL has seen over the past 15 years, the Predators went 0-for-the-series against Dallas, failing to score on even one of their 15 power play attempts. This is not something that just happens. The NHL has tracked power play success rates as far back as the 1933-34 season, and the Predators were just the 11th team during that time to get at least 15 power play opportunities in the playoffs and fail to score a single goal. You probably will not be shocked to learn that none of those 11 teams advanced beyond Round 1. You don’t need a great power play to win the Stanley Cup, but you need to get something out of it on occasion.

The Predators got nothing, continuing what turned out to be a season-long trend.

Dallas’ PK deserves a lot of credit here, and especially starting goalie Ben Bishop, but Nashville’s struggles on the power play weren’t a new thing in this series, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest it wasn’t just a run of bad luck — it was simply a bad unit that needs drastically improved.

Not only did they have the NHL’s lowest success rate, but they were only 19th in the league at generating shot attempts on the power play and even worse (24th) at actually getting those attempts on net. If you can’t generate shots, and if you can’t get them on net when you do, you’re not going to score many goals.

Now comes the question on how to address it.

Injuries were a big problem for the Predators throughout the season, with Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, P.K, Subban, and Kyle Turris all missing significant action, and when Turris was on the ice, his production took a cliff dive. It is worth wondering if they are in need of another big-time forward. Forsberg and Arvidsson are outstanding, but they might still need another impact player up front. Maybe a full season from Mikael Granlund will help (he was mostly silent after coming over from the Minnesota Wild in a pre-deadline trade), but even he is not really a player that is going to put the fear of God in an opposing defense. He is very similar to what the Predators’ forward group is already made of — really good and really productive players, but not really a game-changing, impact talent.

If there is one thing to be said about general manager David Poile it is that he is not afraid to swing for the fences in trades. He has made several blockbusters over the past few years and it has played a significant role in building the roster the Predators have today. Would he be willing to make another one, and would he consider dipping into his pool of star defenders and flipping one for another impact talent up front to help strengthen an offense that went stale this year and a power play unit that collapsed on itself from the very beginning of the year?

He already did it once when he traded Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Ryan Johansen, and it might be worth at least considering again. It is a delicate balance to strike because the Predators’ defense, especially their top-four of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm is a huge part of what has made the team so good. But it is also a very clear strength and could be used to maybe help address what is now looking like a pretty significant weakness.

The other option is to keep your All-Star defense, shed salary elsewhere on the roster (Turris, if you think he is done as a top-six performer; maybe a Craig Smith or Nick Bonino?) and try to position yourself for a run at an Artemi Panarin or Jeff Skinner in free agency.

Whatever path they choose, it would be awfully difficult to come back next season with the same collection of forwards after they struggled so much this season and helped assemble such a dreadful power play unit. They simply need another finisher somewhere on the roster that can bring a level of consistency to the offense and improve a power play that failed the team all season.

Related: Stars eliminate Predators in overtime thriller

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.

Blue Jackets cap off all-time upset, sweep Lightning

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Let this be a lesson.

A lesson that anything is possible, no matter the odds. A lesson in never writing off a team, no matter the circumstances. And a lesson that, no matter how good a team is in the regular season, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference come playoff time.

Yes, the Columbus Blue Jackets pulled off what many thought impossible, an upset for the ages after a 7-3 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night in Game 4 of their best-of-7 series.

Swept.

The Lightning certainly crashed (the first Presidents’ Trophy-winning team to be swept in the first round), and the Blue Jackets won their first playoff series in franchise history.

Gone are the horrors of that crossbar in overtime of Game 3 against Washington last year. So, too, with it, the agony of losing four straight after beating the Capitals twice in their own barn.

Columbus returned to the postseason this year with a vengeance, and my, oh my, did it ever show.

The formula for Tampa seemed simple enough. Do what you did all regular season: score at will, steal souls on the power play and suck the will out of teams with superb goaltending.

It’s a recipe that cooked up 62 wins, tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most ever in a season. But when the Lightning checked the cupboards for ingredients in Game 1, the cupboard was bare.

[2019 NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS HUB]

Sure, the Lightning exploded to a 3-0 first-period lead in Game 1. They then gave up four straight and lost in spectacular fashion.

Why you ask? The Blue Jackets implemented a near-perfect game plan from the second period of Game 1, onward. A relentless forecheck stifled the Lightning. A commitment to blocked shots took away scoring chances. Providing great screens in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy made a great goalie seem mediocre. And finding scoring from the up and down the lineup, both on forward and defense, added a layer of guesswork that Jon Cooper and his troops had no answer for.

Since the 17:50 mark of the first period in Game 1, Columbus outscored 19-5.

The stat actually looks better given that the Lightning scored twice to tie the game 3-3 in the second period. But as things went all series, the Blue Jackets had an answer, scoring on a delayed penalty to regain the lead.

Tampa poured it on for nearly 18 minutes in the third before pulling Andrei Vasilevskiy. That last gasp effort resulted in three empty net goals against. The clouds cleared and the Blue Jackets emerged standing, virtually unblemished.

Vasilevskiy came into the game with a .866 save percentage and a 3.73 goals-against average, numbers that look nothing like his stellar regular-season statistics that may win him a Vezina in June.

He was at his worst in this series, allowing four more on 22 shots in this game, and had just one game above a .900 save percentage in the series.

Two-hundred feet the other way, Sergei Bobrovsky was sensational, especially in the second and third games of the series, and masterful in the third period in Game 4, turning aside all 13 shots the Lightning could muster.

It certainly didn’t help that Tampa’s best scorers only showed up in the final game. Steven Stamkos finally scored. So did Brayden Point. Nikita Kucherov got two assists after being suspended for Game 3. The team was also without Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman due to injury. It’s unlikely they would have mattered. They didn’t when they were healthy.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets’ best came to play. Matt Duchene finished the series with three goals and seven points. Artemi Panarin added two goals and five assists. Seth Jones contributed two goals and four points. Pierre-Luc Dubois picked a great time to find the score sheet, picking up three points in the final game.

John Tortorella said his team was ready for the challenge a week ago. Man, was he ever right.

Columbus proved us all wrong, and it was incredible theatre.


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 Wraparound: Blue Jackets aim to pad series lead

The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

Can the Columbus Blue Jackets do it?

After stunning the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 on Wednesday night, the Jackets will look to go up 2-0 in their best-of-seven series against one of the best teams in NHL history. Even the most optimistic Blue Jackets supporter probably didn’t expect them to take the first two games in Tampa, but they’ll have an opportunity to do so tonight (7 p.m. ET; CNBC; live stream).

There are several reasons why Columbus was able to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the first game. They started winning more 50/50 puck battles, Sergei Bobrovsky came up with some big saves, Tampa Bay took their foot of the gas, but the biggest reason they were finally able to climb that hill was thanks to their special teams.

When they were trailing 3-2 in the third frame, Brandon Dubinsky took a four-minute hi-sticking penalty on Cedric Paquette that could have put an end to the Blue Jackets’ comeback bid. Instead, Josh Anderson managed to score the equalizer while his team was shorthanded. You may not realize this, but Tampa Bay and Columbus both finished the regular season with the top penalty-killing percentage in the league at 85 percent. So it’s not surprising to see this team excel in that area of the game.

The surprise came just over two minutes later, when Seth Jones put his team ahead for good with a power-play tally. They ranked 28th in the NHL on the man-advantage during the regular season. That was huge considering they gave up a shorthanded tally to Alex Killorn in the first period.

Winning the special teams battle against a team that finished first on the power play and tied for first on the penalty kill won’t be easy going forward, but for one night the Jackets showed that they could get production from both of their units.

Can they do it again? That might be the difference between going up 2-0 or heading back home tied 1-1.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

TODAY’S SCHEDULE

Game 2: Penguins vs. Islanders, 7:30 p.m. ET (Islanders lead 1-0): The Penguins managed to overcome three one-goal deficits in Game 1, but they eventually lost in overtime. To make the Islanders truly uncomfortable, you have to make them open up. And the only way they open up, is if they fall behind and are forced to chase the game. That’s the key for Pittsburgh. Doing that at Nassau Coliseum in front of that lively crowd is going to be easier said than done though. (NBCSN; Live stream)

Game 2: Blues at Jets, 9:30 p.m. ET (Blues lead 1-0): If you like big bodies flying around at each other on a sheet of ice, you’ve come to the right place. We saw a tight-checking game with two confident goalies that played really well. As Mark Scheifele found out in the final minute of Game 1, solving Jordan Binnington isn’t going to be easy. The Jets will have to find a way to find the back of the net more than just once. If this series goes the distance, will either one of these teams have anything left in the tank? (CNBC; Live stream)

Game 2: Golden Knights at Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET (Sharks lead 1-0): Game 1 couldn’t have gone any better for San Jose, as almost all of their top players managed to find their way onto the scoresheet. The Golden Knights have to find a way to slow down the Sharks and they need to stay out of the penalty box. Even though Martin Jones picked up the win in the first game, he still looked shaky at times. Vegas could stand to make his life a little more difficult. (NBCSN; Live stream)

SATURDAY’S SCHEDULE
Game 2: Hurricanes at Capitals, 3 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 2: Stars at Predators, 6 p.m. ET (CNBC)
Game 2: Maple Leafs at bruins, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 3: Avalanche at Flames, 10:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

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

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 shock Lightning with stunning Game 1 comeback

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After the first period of Game 1, it seemed like the Blue Jackets would be lucky just to protect their dignity. Instead, they’ll leave Amalie Arena with an absolutely shocking 1-0 series lead against the mighty, historically-great Tampa Bay Lightning after Columbus won 4-3.

Tampa Bay took a commanding 3-0 lead during the opening frame, and considering some posts hit and jittery moments for Sergei Bobrovsky, the margin could have been even larger. This contest provided the first goal and fight of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it seemed like Bobrovsky might be the first goalie replacement.

Instead, Bobrovsky helped the Blue Jackets pull off the first borderline-unthinkable upset of this young postseason.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Blue Jackets bounced back slightly during the second period, but they only managed to cut the Lightning’s lead to 3-1 going into the third. For a while, it seemed like the Lightning would cruise through this one.

Then things started to get strange. All due respect to a solid-enough defenseman in David Savard, but few would imagine him to pull off these moves and this goal, particularly in totally faking out Norris-winner Victor Hedman:

That goal gave the Blue Jackets some daylight for the first time in quite a while, but it seemed like a rally would be cut short by a stick that created a cut. Cedric Paquette was bloodied by Brandon Dubinsky‘s stick, prompting a four-minute minor. Perfect opportunity for easily the best power play in the NHL this season, right?

Uh, about that …

To start the metaphorical bleeding for the Bolts, Josh Anderson showed tremendous patience on a shorthanded breakaway, eventually waiting long enough for Steven Stamkos to slightly bump his own goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and scored a stunning 3-3 goal.

Alex Killorn then committed a high-sticking penalty himself, short-circuiting the remainder of the Lightning’s power play, and opening the door for an abbreviated Columbus power play. Despite not having a ton of time, Artemi Panarin found Seth Jones, who scored a tremendous power-play goal. It was then 4-3 for Columbus with less than six minutes remaining, and Tampa Bay failed to shake off the shock of this comeback.

The Blue Jackets fought for their playoff lives during this stretch, making people wonder if management made a huge mistake in going all-in at the trade deadline. It wasn’t always pretty, but Columbus hung in there, and now they lead an absolute Goliath of a team 1-0 in this Round 1 series.

Blue Jackets-Lightning Game 2 from Amalie Arena will be Friday night at 7 p.m. ET on CNBC

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.

Blue Jackets – Lightning provide first goal, fight of playoffs

After a high-scoring 2018-19 regular season, the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs are off to a fast start.

The Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning are setting the tone in Game 1. About three minutes into the contest, Dan Girardi was whistled for illegal hit to the head on his former Rangers teammate Brandon Dubinsky, which inspired something you probably didn’t expect this soon: the first fight of the postseason.

Check out the hit and fight here:

The Blue Jackets ended up getting a two-minute power play advantage from that ensuing fracas, but it really just started the bleeding for Columbus. Alex Killorn snagged the puck from Seth Jones, opening up a breakaway and a shorthanded goal, the first goal of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. You can watch that video in the clip above this post’s headline.

Things didn’t get any better for the Blue Jackets from that 1-0 goal. Anthony Cirelli made it 2-0 on a goal Sergei Bobrovsky would want back, while Yanni Gourde‘s deflection on a 3-0 goal was something Bob really had no chance on.

So, two-out-of-three goals weren’t Bob’s bad, but he had some other shaky moments, and the conventional wisdom that the Blue Jackets will need brilliant goaltending to steal games from the Bolts continues to hold.

It begs the question: will the Blue Jackets also provide another first for this postseason: the first goalie change?

Game 2 of Blue Jackets-Lightning is Friday, April 12, at 7 p.m. ET on CNBC

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.