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Yes, penalties are up in Stanley Cup Playoffs

Players take note: Referees aren’t swallowing their whistles so far in the 2018 NHL playoffs.

Penalties are up more than 17 percent over the same time a year ago and are playing a substantial role in several series. Through 19 games in the first round, there have been nearly 10 penalties per game. Last year, there was an average of eight penalties called through 20 games.

“The penalties that have been called in the series so far is an indication of how the referees are calling the game,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said Monday. “They’re calling it as they see it. I think discipline is of the utmost importance.”

While the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions haven’t been perfect in that regard against Philadelphia, they haven’t been derailed by a lack of discipline. Around the rest of the NHL, penalties and the ensuing power-play goals are making a big difference: There have been 38 power-play goals through Sunday’s games compared with just 21 in 2017.

The NHL wants officials to call playoffs at the same standard as the regular season, which is happening with penalties actually going up from the first period through the third. Each of the 10 pairings of referees working the playoffs has at least one who has worked the Cup Final, so the hope is having that experience helps maintain consistency.

The Washington Capitals blew two-goal leads in back-to-back overtime losses on home ice to Columbus because of ill-advised penalties and go into Game 3 on the road (7:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday, NBCSN) knowing it’s a problem that needs immediate fixing.

“We need to be a little smarter,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We need to play with better discipline – especially when we have the lead twice. … It’s obviously going to hurt you in the playoffs. That’s the way it is. It’s just fact.”

Nine of the 14 regulation goals in the Washington-Columbus series have come on the power play. The Blue Jackets, who surged into the playoffs by not taking a lot of penalties to tax one of the worst special teams units in the league, lead the playoffs in penalty minutes per game.

Coach John Tortorella said the Blue Jackets “have to cure that” because it’s too dangerous to keep taking so many penalties. His players know it even if they’re unsure of the standard.

“We need to stay out of the box, but you never know what’s a call and what’s not anymore,” forward Cam Atkinson said. “But that’s the game right now.”

In the West, where Winnipeg leads Minnesota 2-1, the teams realize how tight things are being called.

The Wild took five penalties in the first 31 minutes Sunday night and stymied the Jets’ power play in a 6-2 comeback win. The teams combined for 19 penalties – including some fights and misconducts – in the second game of their series.

“We’ve just got to watch taking penalties,” Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Both teams were really emotional at the beginning and you’ve got to worry about taking penalties and getting behind the eight ball.”

It’s chippy between the Golden Knights and Kings, too, with Vegas up 3-0 going into Game 4 (10:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday, NBCSN) in Los Angeles. All three games so far have been decided by a goal, L.A. defenseman Drew Doughty was suspended for an illegal check to the head of William Carrier and Kings coach John Stevens is none too happy about a missed call on Vegas forward Erik Haula for hitting Anze Kopitar in the face with the butt end of his stick Sunday night .

“We get a guy suspended for making a hockey play, and he butt-ends one of the best players in the world in the face,” Stevens said. “That’s an intent-to-injure play.”

COMEBACK KINGS?

Los Angeles is the most recent team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit, doing so in 2014 against the San Jose Sharks on the way to winning the Stanley Cup. Stevens, who was an assistant four years ago, said his team has “had some resilience all year,” and the tightness of the games against Vegas combined with the excellence of goaltender Jonathan Quick certainly makes an turnaround possible.

INJURIES

The Jets lost Tyler Myers to a lower-body injury that coach Paul Maurice thought was avoidable, and the big defenseman’s status is uncertain going into Game 4 (8 p.m. EDT Tuesday, CNBC). Young Tucker Poolman could draw into the lineup in place of Myers if necessary.

The Capitals won’t have forward Andre Burakovsky for at least Games 3 and 4 in Columbus because of an upper-body injury. Coach Barry Trotz said Burakovsky is going to “miss some time” after being crunched into the boards by Boone Jenner in Game 2. Speedy winger Jakub Vrana, a surprise scratch for Washington on Sunday, goes back in for Burakovsky.

WHO STARTS?

Trotz said he has decided who will start in goal for the Capitals in Game 3 but hadn’t yet told Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer. After Grubauer allowed eight goals on 49 shots before being yanked at the second intermission of Game 2, the smart money is on Holtby, the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner.

BARTON OUT

Linesman Steve Barton, who was injured when he inadvertently clipped skates with Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson and had to be helped off the ice by trainers, dislocated his kneecap and tore a quadriceps muscle in his left leg. Barton will require surgery but didn’t tear ligaments in his knee, which doctors said is good news because they expect him to make a full recovery.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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    Avalanche are mile-high threat to Predators in Colorado

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    Despite giving up the first goal in each of the opening games of the first round, the Predators managed wins against the Colorado Avalanche in both contests in Nashville so far.

    The Minnesota Wild have already shown that a change of venue can provide a team a shot in the arm, but the Avalanche’s home-ice advantage has the potential to be as extreme as any team in the NHL. Colton Sissons acknowledged how winded you can become thanks to the altitude in Denver, as NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski reports.

    “For me personally, I’m second-winded a little bit more on the bench, especially early in games,” Sissons said. “You get adjusted to [the altitude] pretty quick. Having a pregame skate this morning also helps.”

    The Predators boast some assets that make Sissons’ optimism seem reasonable. Sure, the Avalanche were 28-11-2 in Colorado this season, but as Sadowski notes, the Predators were robust on the road with an away record of 25-9-7 in 2017-18.

    Still, it’s truly resounding just how much more dangerous this Avs team becomes when they are at home.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    Consider special teams, in particular.

    Avalanche power play at home: 39 PPG (tied with Penguins for first in NHL), 25-percent success rate.

    Avalanche power play on the road: 26 PPG (still a solid sixth in the NHL), but just 18.6%.

    Avs PK at home: 10 power-play goals allowed, 91.7 percent killed (both best in the NHL).

    Avs PK on the road: 35 PPGA (third-worst in the NHL), 76.3 percent killed (sixth-worst).

    Those are pretty extreme splits, and you can see the difference in the output of key players. Superstar Nathan MacKinnon is an excellent example of such dynamics. While he’s fantastic overall, MacKinnon generated 67 points in just 39 home games vs. 30 points in 35 road contests during the regular season. Tyson Barrie and Mikko Rantanen also seem to enjoy a mile-high spike, and both Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier saw remarkable swings in road vs. home effectiveness.

    Again, the Avalanche already gave the Predators some headaches in Games 1 and 2. In each case, they carried 1-0 leads through the first intermissions. During Game 2, they also regained the lead at 2-1 before Nashville took over.

    The Predators are a deep team, so they stand a chance to mitigate that altitude factor more than a squad that would ask a top-heavy roster to carry a huge workload. This could be the time when they really lean on the luxury of having a strong second pairing of defensemen and Kyle Turris‘ dangerous second line.

    Still, it could be something that really tilts things in the Avalanche’s advantage, particularly if the altitude is rough on a towering goalie such as Pekka Rinne. If nothing else, it could make the heavy underdogs look, at times, like favorites.

    It’s also the type  of advantage that could make the Avalanche downright terrifying if they continue to add speedy, skilled players to a solid (yet not especially deep) foundation.

    You can see if the Avalanche are able to leverage their home-ice advantage in Game 3 on NBCSN tonight. Puck drop is scheduled for 10 p.m. ET.

    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.

    How can Maple Leafs turn things around vs. Bruins?

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    On paper, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins were supposed to produce a first-round series fit for a conference final.

    On the ice, it’s been a staggeringly one-sided first two games; the Bruins possess a 2-0 series lead after beating Toronto by scores of 5-1 and 7-3. During the season, Mike Babcock said that the Bruins were making so many plays that he had to just turn off his TV (or close his laptop?). Maybe Babs was merely shaken by unsettling puck premonitions?

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    Things seem pretty dire right now for the Maple Leafs as the series shifts to Toronto for Game 3 tonight, as suspensions, injuries, and struggles seem to thrust Tomas Plekanec in a role just about anyone not named Tomas Plekanec was expecting him to land.

    To be more specific, it looks like Plekanec will center a second line with Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner as his wingers.

    “You come in and you’re not quite as important on your next team, it’s harder to be impressive. He’ll get his opportunity tonight,” Babcock said of Plekanec, via TSN’s Mark Masters. “We’ve talked about this, to be prepared. I know he’s done the work. We expect him to be good.”

    Now that we know about a change necessitated by injuries, let’s ponder what could or should change.

    Drop the stubbornness

    During an April 5 appearance on The Hockey PDOcast, Justin Bourne discussed Babcock’s worldview. Bourne (a former employee of the Maple Leafs organization who analyzed video for the Toronto Marlies) believes that, while Babcock is willing to embrace change, the well-compensated coach sometimes needs to feel like it’s his idea. Babcock needs to see it to believe it himself, essentially.

    Frankly, such a mindset might have been to the Leafs’ detriment at times in 2017-18.

    You see, Toronto’s place as the third seed in the Atlantic Division seemed firm for quite some time. With that in mind, the Maple Leafs had months to experiment with different lineup combinations, and they had incentive to do a lot of mixing and matching with Auston Matthews in the mix and when he was injured.

    By being a bit rigid at times, Babcock & Co. have less data to work with when it comes to mixing and matching lines beyond just “throwing them in the blender.” (Just scan Matthews’ time on ice numbers at Natural Stat Trick and you’ll see that he was essentially attached to William Nylander and Zach Hyman.)

    Sometimes in hockey, you just have to wait out hot and cold streaks. Other times, you need to know when to change course.

    Babcock needs to be proactive if he sees an issue that can be mended by maneuvering. To some degree, you just have to cross your fingers and hope the coin flip goes your way. Still, it’s also important to cut your losses when appropriate. More than anything else, the Maple Leafs need a malleable coach right now.

    Things that should sort themselves out

    Even if you give the Bruins a special teams edge in this series (as PHT did), few expected the results to be this stark. So far through two games, the Bruins scored five power-play goals on 10 chances while the Maple Leafs only converted once on seven opportunities.

    There’s evidence to suggest that the Maple Leafs may struggle on the PK in this series, yet their power play has been getting its chances. Their PP converted on 25-percent of their chances during the regular season, a second-best success rate that stood as the Penguins only real rival in efficiency. Home ice might help them draw a stray extra chance or two, while the odds are in their favor to at least balance most of the special teams difference out.

    The Maple Leafs should also get better work from their top guns.

    Through the first two games, Auston Matthews hasn’t scored a goal or an assist. That doesn’t mean he’s shown no signs of improvement, though. After firing three shots on goal in Game 1, Matthews was prevalent in Game 2, unleashing nine SOG. Matthews generated 34 goals and 63 points in just 62 regular-season contests. Expect more from the American star, although sometimes a cold streak can submarine even a great player for a series.

    Be ready to bench Freddy

    Circling back to stubbornness, it’s totally fair for the Maple Leafs to be loyal to Frederik Andersen … up to a point.

    So far, Andersen’s been abysmal, allowing eight goals in 73 minutes of time for an atrocious .822 save percentage. There’s no doubt that the Maple Leafs have done him few favors, though.

    At this point, Babcock has to at least keep Andersen on a short leash. A couple of soft goals could really sink a Toronto team that seems fragile right now.

    Load up?

    Between additions such as Rick Nash and the ascent of quite a few quality young players, the Bruins sport some nice line combinations.

    Still, if you were to name their three best scorers, you’d likely not even flinch in naming Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak in some order.

    Babcock has been hesitant to load up with Matthews and Marner on the same line – as just one example – yet he might be wise to at least tinker with such a plan during the postseason. That’s especially true in Toronto, where he can take advantage of the last change to get them on the ice when Marchand and Bergeron are not.

    If he remains skittish, Babcock could at least go all-out if Boston’s lower lines get stuck in their own zone after icing the puck.

    ***

    At minimum, the Maple Leafs should be brainstorming different ideas. Maybe there are more granular considerations about handedness, such as what Tyler Dellow discusses in this article at The Athletic (sub required). On the other hand, maybe bolder moves are required, from loading up on offensive combos or making a change in net.

    The Maple Leafs should look to the Wild’s turnaround in Game 3 to see that a change in venue can inject new life into a series.

    Still, it might take more than home cooking and some lucky bounces to turn this series around. Then again, they pay their coach big bucks for more than just that scowl, right?

    Game 3 airs on NBCSN beginning at 7 p.m. ET tonight. Here’s 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.

    The Buzzer: Scary injury for NHL official; Robbery by Bob

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    Sunday’s games

    Penguins 5, Flyers 1 (Penguins lead series 2-1)

    Is this a series or a see-saw? So far, the Penguins won by a mile in the odd-numbered Games (1 and 3), while the Flyers won 5-1 in Game 2. In Sunday’s case, Sidney Crosby really took over the afternoon, while Matt Murray made some huge saves in stopping 26 out of 27 shots on goal. Special teams was one of the stories of the game. While the Penguins went 3-for-7 on the power play, the Flyers failed on their six opportunities.

    The Penguins really ran away with the game when they scored two goals in five seconds.

    Wild 6, Jets 2 (Jets lead series 2-1)

    Game 3 opened with an engaged Wild team taking a one-goal lead in the first period as the two teams seemed to take turns losing their cool and getting sent to the penalty box. Between Tyler Myers‘ injury and a two-goal burst in 21 seconds, things really fell apart for the Jets in the second period. The Wild ended up inflating their lead to 6-2 in the middle frame, and that was about it, as Connor Hellebuyck saw a hot start to the postseason hit a big wall.

    Blue Jackets 5, Capitals 4 [OT] (Blue Jackets lead series 2-0)

    Brutal. The Capitals squandered another two-goal lead, once again. This time around, the Capitals sent the game beyond regulation thanks to a T.J. Oshie tally in the third, but Washington once again fell in overtime. They absolutely dominated puck possession, and Alex Ovechkin scored two power-play goals (nearly nabbing a hat trick), yet Sergei Bobrovsky was brilliant in helping the Blue Jackets send the series back to Columbus with a 2-0 series lead.

    Again, brutal.

    Golden Knights 3, Kings 2 (Golden Knights lead series 3-0)

    Los Angeles put forth its best effort of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs so far, generating a 39-26 shots on goal advantage. The Kings scored first, but Vegas took over in the third, scoring three straight goals. Things really got out of hand for L.A. during a 21 second span when James Neal and William Karlsson made it 3-1. The Golden Knights managed to hold on for the win, opening the door for another franchise first: a possible sweep on their first try. Those Golden Knights are unbelievable, right?

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    Three Stars

    1. Sidney Crosby, Penguins: After generating a hat trick in Pittsburgh’s Game 1, Crosby enjoyed another standout performance in Game 3, scoring a goal and three assists. Crosby’s seven points in three games puts him second in scoring during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, trailing only David Pastrnak‘s ridiculous nine points in two contests.

    2. Marc-Andre Fleury, Golden Knights: Jonathan Quick was very close to stealing Game 2 for the Kings. Fleury produced a fantastic performance in Game 3, turning aside 37 out of 39 shots, and he enjoys the added bonus of grabbing the win.

    So far during this series, Fleury has only allowed three goals through as many games, generating a stupendous .970 save percentage. Considering how well he played for the Penguins during the 2017 postseason, he’s been on a playoff hot streak lately.

    3. Sergei Bobrovsky, Blue Jackets: Speaking of goalies who’ve developed reputations for struggles in the playoffs, “Bob” is really coming through Columbus so far. The Capitals ended up scoring four goals in Game 2, but Bobrovsky was astounding, making a whopping 54 stops. You could absolutely argue that he was actually the first or second star of the night instead.

    MISC.

    Warning: this might make you a little queasy. Official Steve Barton was helped off the ice during the Blue Jackets – Capitals game. Looks like he blew out his knee:

    The Kings didn’t win Game 3, but they did draw in celebrities, including Margot Robbie (think she was impressed by the skating after playing Tonya Harding?):

    And David Beckham:

    Factoids

    The Golden Knights are making more history in the postseason.

    Some perspective on the Blue Jackets’ comebacks.

    Monday’s games

    Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
    Tampa Bay Lightning at New Jersey Devils, 7:30 p.m. ET (CNBC)
    Nashville Predators at Colorado Avalanche, 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
    Anaheim Ducks at San Jose Sharks, 10:30 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.

    Golden Knights stun Kings, eye first playoff sweep

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    We’re far beyond the point of debating if the Vegas Golden Knights are “for real,” but the expansion team’s first-year accomplishments keep stacking up to a staggering degree.

    The 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs haven’t ruined the party. In Game 1, the Golden Knights grabbed their first-ever goal, win, and shutout in beating the Los Angeles Kings 1-0. Game 2 brought great drama, as even though Jonathan Quick played an incredible game, Vegas ultimately broke through for the 2-1 win in the waning minutes of double overtime. The Golden Knights leveraged their home-ice advantage during those first two games, but it turns out that a change of venue couldn’t stop them.

    This time around, Marc-Andre Fleury was the goalie who was stealing the show, stopping 37 out of 39 shots on goal as the Golden Knights pushed the Kings to the brink of elimination with a 3-2 in.

    Yes, that’s right, the VGK are now up 3-0 in this series. In their first crack at a playoff series, they’re already getting their first opportunity to complete a sweep in the postseason.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    At this point, it’s insufficient to call the Golden Knights “quick learners.” Instead, their prodigies on the Mozartian scale; maybe their mascot should be Doogie Howser?

    Speaking of quick, that’s how this game turned, echoing the Penguins running away with their contest and the Wild doing the same today.

    The Kings carried a 1-0 lead into the third period, but Cody Eakin buried a great David Perron pass to complete a busy sequence, tying things up 6:10 in. The dizzying turn of events happened later, as James Neal followed up his wonderful assist on the overtime game-winner in Game 2 to a sneaky goal to put Vegas up 2-1 with 5:37 left in the third:

    Neal’s goal is the rare one Quick would want back, although maybe that’s only relative to this series, as it was a pretty nifty move and release. Just 21 seconds later, the Golden Knights stunned the Kings as Reilly Smith made an outstanding play to set up William Karlsson for what would end up being the game-winner.

    Anze Kopitar gave the Kings a chance with a wonderful showing of hand-eye coordination for his first goal of the series with a little more than two minutes remaining in regulation, yet it wasn’t enough to nullify that two-goal burst.

    ***

    The Kings enjoyed a far better showing in Game 3 than in Game 2, demonstrating the difference that Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin can make in a variety of situations. Of course, the Golden Knights’ big addition mattered as well, as Perron generated that sweet assist on the 1-1 Eakin goal.

    Vegas isn’t just sticking with the Kings from a finesse standpoint, either. This has been a physical, sometimes grinding series, and the Golden Knights continue to match L.A. halfway. Between the heated exchanges and the controversial suspension, it’s clear that they’ve had Doughty’s attention the entire way.

    Now, the next and biggest challenge so far: eliminating a team on the brink of their season ending.

    So far, the Golden Knights have been exemplary in passing these tests, although the Kings have provide very little breathing room on the scoreboard. Vegas would be foolish to rest on its laurels, either, as they merely need to ask the San Jose Sharks how dangerous this Kings animal can get when it’s backed into a corner.

    Game 4 airs on NBCSN on Tuesday, with puck drop slated for 10:30 p.m. ET.

    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.