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I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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In trying to keep out Penguins fans, Capitals continue great, petty tradition

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The 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs are really gearing up with the second round looming. Why limit the pettiness to social media?

Russian Machine Never Breaks’ Ian Oland passes along word that the Washington Capitals are attempting to take a page from the Vegas Golden Knights in barring unwanted Pittsburgh Penguins fans from their home games in round two.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The specific plan would (at least attempt to) prohibit fans from putting up special pre-sale tickets up for re-sale, again echoing the Golden Knights’ plan (which you can read more about in this post). Here’s an excerpt from the email Oland unearthed at RMNB:

We are offering Club Red 365 members the first opportunity to purchase additional limited inventory at preferred pricing through this exclusive pre-sale. Tickets purchased through this special offer will not be eligible for resale posting as we plan to create an amazing atmosphere in the building where we want all fans Rocking the Red in ALL CAPS.

That seems a bit silly and could even be a sign of mild insecurity, but also seems … kind of great?

For one thing, this series could go either way, and the last thing Capitals fans want to deal with is gloating Penguins devotees crowing about the Pens possibly stealing some games in Washington. Especially with the opportunities for high-profile gloating.

Some might be chagrined by teams taking measures to keep out opposing fans, yet if you ask me, it’s all fair game, especially if the arena’s going to be sold out anyway. (If you’re, say, the Ottawa Senators or some other team having trouble filling the building during a playoff game, then maybe you have to be more accomodating.)

Like it or not, this measure follows a pattern of behavior by the Capitals and for some NHL teams overall.

As Oland’s piece notes, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis hasn’t been shy about trying to figure out ways to keep Penguins fans out of his building. The AOL executive apparently even punched up his own computer program to try to do the trick. This latest measure is simply the latest strategy, as the Capitals have also tried to curtail an influx of hostile fans by restricting purchases by region and similar limitations.

And, again, the Capitals are far from the only NHL team trying different ways to maintain their home-ice advantage.

The Golden Knights provided a nice blueprint for trying to limit Kings fans when you consider the close proximity between the two franchises. The Nashville Predators have taken similar steps before and appear eager to do so again as their clash looms with the Winnipeg Jets and their passionate fanbase. Checking through PHT’s archives, we’ve seen plenty of examples, including one stretching back as far as 2012 when the New Jersey Devils ran a “No Blue” campaign against the New York Rangers.

(Feel free to mention some other similar campaigns in the comments, as there have probably been a ton of them.)

If such tactics make you grind your teeth, consider this: Penguins fans will almost certainly find their way to Capitals home games, possibly even in large numbers. There’s likely no way of avoiding such a situation in this technological age, particularly if Pens fans are aiming for spite.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s all in good fun, and it might even provide another talking point as these two rivals meet in the second round for the third year in a row.

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.

Bruins’ Donato, Predators’ Tolvanen can’t crack playoff lineups

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Late in the regular season, two strong teams seemingly got better when the Boston Bruins lured Ryan Donato from Harvard while Eeli Tolvanen came over from the KHL to join the Nashville Predators.

Fans of both teams waited with baited breath to see them join their squads, yet right now, it seems like they’re struggling to gain traction during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Let’s take a look at each situation.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Donato lost in the shuffle

The Boston Bruins have seen their 3-1 first-round series lead evaporate into a 3-3 tie against the Toronto Maple Leafs. NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty notes frustration for the dominant top line of David PastrnakPatrice BergeronBrad Marchand and is calling for more production from Rick Nash.

Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy’s done plenty of “tinkering” lately, yet if the most recent lines are any indication, Donato is still losing that game of musical chairs.

Whether it’s Tommy Wingels or Danton Heinen, the Bruins have mixed different forwards in, but Donato’s been absent most of the time, even when Bergeron was a surprise scratch. At this point, it’s fair to be confused, especially when you consider that Boston has enjoyed so much success by handing young players the car keys rather than distrusting them like many other teams do. It’s quite baffling for a Bruins team that currently looks a bit too dependent upon a few players to beat red-hot Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen.

Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones discussed the merits of choosing Donato over the likes of Wingels:

Through six games in this series, the Bruins dressed Donato once: in Game 2. He didn’t get much of a chance, receiving just 9:24 of ice time.

Now, it’s fine that they did as much there, as the Bruins dominated their way to a 7-3 win. Still, it doesn’t exactly give Donato much of an opportunity to prove himself, either.

The 22-year-old’s generally been running with his real opportunities so far in the NHL, too. Donato did so most dramatically in his NHL debut on March 19, scoring a goal and two assists against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was a heck of a statement for someone who was still worrying about grades.

His NHL career amounts to a small sample right now, but Donato made a compelling argument that he could help the Bruins with supplemental scoring. Through 12 regular-season games, Donato collected five goals and four assists for nine points. He never went more than two contests without generating a goal or an assist.

While Donato received the cushy zone starts you’d expect from a fresh face, he did his part by generating nice possession stats.

Sure, the jury’s out on whether he can be a consistent point producer at the NHL level … but it’s also bewildering that the Bruins wouldn’t look to him for a possible scoring boost.

If nothing else, Donato could make sense in a role as an offensive specialist, ideally adding some creativity to a power play that needs it. After scoring five power-play goals through the first two games in this series, the Bruins have only connected once in the past four contests, going 1-for-9. Some of that might be a matter of referees rarely reaching for their whistles (they only received three power-play opportunities in the series’ three games in Toronto, really emphasizing home-ice advantage?), but Donato could give them as shot in the arm.

Not doing so could lead to a lot of soul-searching if the Bruins fall in Game 7. Even if they advance, they really need to think long and hard about giving Donato more reps.

Tolvanen not yet fitting in

The Donato situation in Boston is more confounding because he’s shown that he can produce at the NHL level, and he’s also been thrust into prominent scenarios thanks to the Bruins’ wave of injuries.

Despite riding a wave of hype to North America, Eeli Tolvanen remains stuck in a holding pattern with the Nashville Predators.

Tolvanen failed to crack the Predators’ lineup during their six-game series against the Colorado Avalanche, even with Ryan Hartman receiving a one-game suspension. Much like Boston, Nashville saw its power play dry up after a hot start; the Predators went 0-for-9 during the last three games of that series. You’d think such relative struggles might have opened the door for Tolvanen to get a look, but that didn’t happen.

To be fair, Tolvanen hasn’t shown a ton so far with Nashville.

He only suited up for three games, failing to score a goal or an assist. It’s not as if this is a matter of bad bounces alone, as Tolvanen only managed three shots on goal, with all three SOG coming in his third appearance.

While Donato’s likely further along in his development at 22, Tolvanen is just 19 and isn’t that far removed from being drafted (30th overall in 2017). There’s a solid chance that Tolvanen simply is not ready.

***

That said, the Predators are readying for what could be an epic second-round series against the Winnipeg Jets. If they want to win, they’ll likely need to play some of their best hockey, so they’d be foolish not to at least consider putting Tolvanen back in the lineup.

The Bruins organization has seen firsthand how a talented rookie can revitalize a series, as Tyler Seguin memorably gave them a big surge after being a healthy scratch during Boston’s 2011 Stanley Cup run.

Considering the championship aspirations of both teams, they’d be wise not to dismiss their intriguing rookies.

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.

Holtby has been lights out for Capitals

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Heading into this season, Braden Holtby‘s calling card was consistency. Maybe he didn’t churn out the absolute best campaign every time, but in winning at least 41 games and generating at least a .923 save percentage from 2014-15 to 2016-17, Holtby put in elite work like clockwork for the Washington Capitals.

The 2017-18 season, meanwhile, has been more like a roller coaster ride.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division once again, but sometimes that success came despite Holtby. He managed 34 wins, yet Holtby struggled with a backup-level .907 save percentage, confessing to fatigue when things really slipped.

Things hit their lowest point toward the end of 2017-18, as impressive backup Philipp Grubauer outright won the Capitals’ starting job, suiting up as the top goalie for Washington’s first two playoff games against Columbus. Of course, both of those games ended in losses, and ultimately opened the door for Holtby to redeem himself.

So far, Holtby’s done more than that. Rather than merely grabbing the starting job, the 28-year-old is looking a lot like the elite goalie we’ve almost come to expect in a time when goalie output can be downright erratic.

Holtby stepped in for Grubauer in Game 2, giving up a goal on eight shots as the Blue Jackets won 5-4 in overtime. Things have picked up since Holtby was in net from the start, which really makes sense since the Capitals netminder is known for his focus.

The Capitals won three straight games to take their current 3-2 series lead, and Holtby’s been outstanding, holding up to the pressure of having little room for error. Two of the past three wins have been in overtime, while only one of Holtby’s appearances didn’t involve a game going beyond regulation (five of the series’ six games hit OT overall).

So far through four games and three starts, Holtby’s stopped 102 out of 109 shots for a splendid save percentage of .936.

Maybe the standout moments came during the third period of Game 5. While a deft Oliver Bjorkstrand deflection eluded Holtby early on in the third, Holtby was the reason Washington was able to survive into overtime, as the Blue Jackets generated an absurd 16-1 shots on goal advantage during that span.

It’s easy to consider the Capitals’ history of playoff disappointments and assume that Holtby’s failed to convert regular season brilliance to strong postseason goaltending, yet Holtby’s long been a dependable presence when the games matter the most.

Despite a 32-31 career playoff record, Holtby’s given the Capitals a chance to win on most nights, sporting a fantastic .932 save percentage so far during his playoff career. That’s the best mark for goalies who’ve played in at least 30 postseason games since 2011-12, and the gap widens when you zoom out to netminders who’ve played in at least 50 during that same span.

Playing at such a high level clearly takes its toll, and you wonder if recent setbacks might serve as a blessing in disguise for Holtby.

Most directly, he got a breather down the stretch, which is significant considering the workload he’s carried the past few seasons.

Beyond that, watching playoff games from the bench had to light a fire under him, possibly reminding him of the earlier days of his career when little was certain. After all, Holtby had to earn his spot as a fourth-round pick (93rd overall in 2008).

Goalies might be creatures of habit who prefer getting the most reps and knowing when their starts are coming, but perhaps it’s human nature to fall into a routine and not be at your very best, particularly when you’re serving as a workhorse goalie.

Whatever the case may be, Holtby’s playing some of his best hockey, and that’s making the Capitals a tough team to beat. If the Blue Jackets want to avoid elimination tonight, they’ll need to get the best of Holtby. That appears to be a far tougher task in April than it seemed to be mere months ago.

Game 6 airs on CNBC at 7:30 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

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.

Wild fire GM Chuck Fletcher, who leaves behind a mess

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The Chuck Fletcher era is over for the Minnesota Wild. After employing Fletcher as their GM for about nine years, the Wild dismissed him on Monday.

“I feel it is time for a new approach,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said in the team’s official release.

The team added that they are immediately searching for a replacement.

For better or worse, the Wild have been generous when it comes to giving their general managers time to make their new approaches work.

Fletcher was GM since May 2009, while Doug Risebrough served as the first GM for about a decade (1999 to 2009). While some teams employ their top executives for multiple decades (see: David Poile in Nashville, Ken Holland with the Red Wings), there are also plenty of front offices who receive precious few opportunities to get things right. Fletcher received plenty of opportunities to break through, and ultimately, his run with the Wild ends with a whimper … and some problems for the next GM to sort out.

Let’s ponder the biggest decisions of the Fletcher days.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Decisions

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

There’s simply no way to get around it: the dual signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were the defining moves of Fletcher’s tenure with the Wild. On July 4, 2012, Fletcher handed Parise and Suter matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.

Just seeing the total cash and term on those deals is staggering, especially as each contract seems to look scarier every time you consider the implications for the Wild as a franchise. Both players are 33 – and showing their age at times, especially in the case of Parise’s unfortunate health – yet their $7.538M cap hits (with no-move clauses) won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

At the time, Parise and Suter linking up in Minnesota as free agents felt as close to the NHL would get to its version of LeBron James’ “Decision.” The biggest of many differences is that, while the Miami Heat won two titles and made multiple NBA Finals appearances with James & Co., the Wild have settled for modest gains. Sure, they’re riding six straight playoff appearances, but they’ve never gotten beyond the second round and haven’t won a division title since signing Suter and Parise.

Spending $15M in cap space on the two already seems dicey. It may only look worse going forward, and if a new GM gets the Wild out of one or both of the deals, it will come at a cost.

Mixed bag

The bad tends to outweigh the good when you consider how much Minnesota is spending on its team (a final cap hit above $75M this past season for a team that won one playoff game, according to Cap Friendly).

This is an aging group, which is disconcerting when you consider that this team doesn’t appear to have a ceiling as a true championship contender.

Eric Staal stands as one of the best additions of Fletcher’s tenure – and make no mistake about it, Fletcher’s had some nice hits along the way – and he’s already 33. Staal also will need a new contract after next season.

Staal, Parise, and Suter are all 33. Mikko Koivu is 35. Even Devan Dubnyk (another nice Fletcher find, and a guy on a team-friendly contract) is already 31.

Again, it’s not all bad. The Bruce Boudreau addition helped players old and young flourish. Fletcher fleeced Garth Snow in getting Nino Niederreiter. The franchise has done a nice job in certain drafting and developing situations, particularly with the likes of Mikael Granlund.

The whiffs have been pretty epic, though, with Parise and Suter already entering albatross territory.

Questions ahead

The next Wild GM faces a tough haul.

Do you try to move Parise and/or Suter, even if it means sweetening the deal by giving up picks? Should the Wild keep Boudreau or let him move on if the plan is a more concerted “rebuild” effort? Would the Wild be better off making difficult decisions, such as parting ways with underrated Selke-caliber center Koivu while he still has value (if he’ll waive his no-move clause, of course)? How much will useful RFAs Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker cost?

Those are some difficult riddles to answer. Fletcher faced tough calls of his own, and enough went wrong that he’ll no longer be running the show in Minnesota.

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.

The Buzzer: Penguins, Predators advance; West second round set

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2017 Stanley Cup Finalists move on

Penguins 8, Flyers 5 (Penguins win series 4-2)

Despite Evgeni Malkin missing Game 6 and Sean Couturier playing through a torn MCL, these two teams still provided plenty of fireworks including big goal totals, some controversial/nasty moments, and ultimately the end of the series. Jake Guentzel ended up scoring four consecutive goals to erase the Flyers’ lead and then give the Penguins enough of a cushion to close things out.

After beating their in-state rivals, the Penguins await another familiar foe, whether that ends up being the Blue Jackets or the Capitals. The Penguins have to breathe a sigh of relief that they avoided a Game 7, as that was far from a foregone conclusion for much of Sunday (despite the odd final score).

See for yourself:

Predators 5, Avalanche 0 (Predators win series 4-2)

While there was plenty of drama before the Penguins advanced, the Predators turned Game 6 into a formality pretty early on. Former Penguins forward Nick Bonino scored a goal and two assists, Austin Watson continued his strong postseason, and some usual suspects (Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson) put the game out of reach. Pekka Rinne only needed to make 22 saves to earn a shutout.

Read more about Nashville’s Game 6 win here.

West second round is set:

Nashville Predators [Central first seed] vs. Winnipeg Jets [Central second]

Vegas Golden Knights [Pacific first seed] vs. San Jose Sharks [Pacific third]

PHT will provide schedule and TV information when it becomes available.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins – At one point, the Flyers were up 4-2 during the second period. Patric Hornqvist made it 4-3, then Guentzel went on a dizzying tear where he scored four unanswered goals. Guentzel also grabbed an assist on that Hornqvist goal, so the 23-year-old generated four goals and one assist to help Pittsburgh advance (and thus avoid a Game 7 against Philly). He was a +5 in Game 6, too.

Guentzel’s clutch credentials continue to climb; he now has 19 goals and 34 points in just 31 career playoff games. Wow.

2. Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers – You could make a very strong argument that Couturier deserves the first star, but the tie goes to the runner/guy whose team won. If the regular season didn’t serve as a convincing coronation for Couturier to go from a very good player to a bonafide star, then this postseason should remove any doubt.

Generating a hat trick and two assists with your team’s season on the line is already a ridiculous accomplishment. To do so with a torn-up knee is jaw-dropping. And, hey, Couturier drew penalties, and probably should have drawn another one on what ended up being Guentzel’s game-winner:

3. Nick Bonino, Nashville Predators – Sidney Crosby deserves an honorable mention, as both Crosby and Bonino generated one-goal, two-assist games in helping their teams advance to the second round.

Bonino collected assists on the first two goals for Nashville, then he found the net for his first goal of the night/second tally of the series. This marks the first three-point game of Bonino’s postseason career, which is really something considering how much success he enjoyed with Crosby, Guentzel, and the Penguins during his two Cup runs with Pittsburgh.

Factoids

Guentzel’s night was special in many ways. Here’s one historical angle:

The Predators aren’t the only team going for their first Stanley Cup. But you already knew the Golden Knights haven’t won one yet, of course:

Monday’s games

Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET (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.