2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

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Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”

PHT Power Rankings: Next team to win its first Stanley Cup

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The past two NHL postseasons have given us first time Stanley Cup champions.

In 2017-18, it was the Washington Capitals finally breaking through and giving their fans a championship after years of torment and disappointment.

This season it was the St. Louis Blues doing the same thing and not only winning their first ever Stanley Cup Final game, but also winning their first ever championship in what was their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since the 1970 season.

With the Capitals and Blues finally getting their names on the Stanley Cup, there are still 11 teams in the NHL that have yet to win it.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we look at those 11 teams in order of who is most likely to be the next team to win its first championship.

To the rankings!

Teams knocking on the door

1. Vegas Golden Knights. This has not been your typical expansion team. In their first two years in the NHL the Golden Knights have already made the playoffs two times, were in the Stanley Cup Final in their debut season, and were an historic Game 7 third period meltdown away from starting what could have been another lengthy postseason run this season. They have a great core of talent in place, are already an established Stanley Cup contender, and have an ownership and a front office that is not afraid to take chances and go all in on winning. Their fans did not have to wait long for a taste of success, and they will not have to wait long for a championship.

2. Nashville Predators. The Predators have been one of the NHL’s most successful teams for the past four years now, and while they have some holes to address this offseason (like their power play) this is still an incredibly deep roster. They have what is perhaps the best top-four on defense in the NHL (barring a trade this summer) and a deep, talented group of forwards. Their core is still fairly young, it is all signed long-term, and they still have some salary cap space to play with when it comes to adding to it. They were in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago and still have a team that is capable of getting back to that level and finishing the job in the very near future.

3. San Jose Sharks. A lot of it depends on what happens with their offseason. Re-sign Erik Karlsson and Joe Pavelski and this team is right back as one of the favorites in the Western Conference. Heck, even if they only re-sign Karlsson and get a reasonably healthy season out of him they are right back at the top of the Conference. Goaltending is still a big question mark, but the rest of this team is so good that it is not going to need a game-stealer in the crease, just somebody to simply avoid losing games.

4. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets badly regressed in the second half of the 2018-19 season, but this is still a team loaded with talent, especially at forward where they are one of the deepest teams in the league. The defense has some holes, especially if Jacob Trouba gets traded this summer, and while they are probably not quite as good as the Golden Knights, Predators, or Sharks they are still definitely a step or two ahead of teams like Columbus and Minnesota.

Teams with some work to do

5. Columbus Blue Jackets. They are set to lose a ton this offseason and do not have a ton of assets at their disposal to replace them, giving general manager Jarmo Kekalainen one of the toughest jobs of any general manager in the NHL, but he still has a pretty solid core in place to work with thanks to Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and Pierre-Luc Dubois. They need a goalie, they need another impact forward or two, but they still have a core of players that can be built around. The big question mark in the short-term is going to be in net where it is going to be awfully difficult to replace Sergei Bobrovsky. Their ability to find a competent No. 1 goalie will determine how quickly they can get to a championship level.

[Related: Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer]

6. Minnesota Wild. Here is my biggest concern with the Wild: I am not sure how much trust or faith I have in the new front office based on what we have seen and heard from them so far. This was a really good regular season team for quite a few years, but was never quite good enough to get over the top teams in its own division. It hit its ceiling, its big-money core is aging and declining, and the front office has made some very questionable moves that might be setting the team back a bit.

7. Florida Panthers. The Panthers were a massive disappointment during the 2018-19 season and have probably been the least successful organization in the league over the past 20 years. It is still a team that is not far from being relevant for the first time since The Rat Trick team during its improbably 1995-96 run to the Stanley Cup Final. The core of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck is phenomenal and they are all signed long-term at team-friendly rates. They have salary cap space, they seem determined to spend and make a big splash this summer, and if they could get the right complementary pieces around their top young players this is not a team that is terribly far off. But getting the right complementary players is way easier said than done.

8. Buffalo Sabres. They have Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, one player that is already a star (Eichel) and another that is on the way to becoming a star (Dahlin). As long as they continue on their current paths they will be the foundation of this team for the next decade, and that is an excellent thing because star players are the toughest thing to acquire in a rebuild. The problem is the rest of the team around those two is simply not anywhere clear to a championship level. Eichel and Dahlin can not do it on their own, and for the foreseeable future they will have to try.

9. Arizona Coyotes. If you took a poll of random hockey fans and asked them which team in the league is furthest away from a championship I wager that one of the most popular answers would be the Arizona Coyotes because, well, it is an organization that does not get a lot of respect. That could soon be changing. The Coyotes nearly made the playoffs this season despite being hit harder by injuries than almost any other team in the league. They have a lot of promising young talent and a nice mix of veterans to go with them, but they are still missing a true difference-maker at forward. Getting that type of player is going to be their biggest hurdle in taking the next step in their development. That is the biggest reason I have them behind teams like Florida and Buffalo even though in some ways the Coyotes are better. The difference is those two teams have young franchise cornerstones that can change games. Those are the players you win championships with.

It might be a long wait

10. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are must-see players, but this entire organization just seems stuck in neutral. In terms of wins, they have been the least successful team in the NHL over the past four years but have never quite been bad enough in any one individual season to have a great chance to land a No. 1 or 2 overall pick, while they have also had terrible luck in the draft lottery. They have also never really been good enough to be anything close to a playoff team. Being stuck in the middle ground of the NHL is a terrible place to be, and that is where Jim Benning has put them with little to no sign of getting out of it anytime soon.

11. Ottawa Senators. It is downright astonishing that this team went from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final (double overtime of that Game 7, no less!) to a team that just seems to be completely hopeless. The truly frustrating thing about the Senators is they have some promising young players. They have some reasons for optimism. The biggest issue holding them back is ownership. If they would not pay to keep together a team that was on the verge of the Stanley Cup Final, and if they would not pay to keep a franchise icon and one of the best players ever at his position in Erik Karlsson, why does anyone think they will pay to keep the next wave of talent that goes through Ottawa if they continue to develop? There is no reason to believe anything will be different this time around. Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of ownership in Ottawa speak for themselves.

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.

Flyers ready for ‘next man up’ mentality with Couturier out for Game 4

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PHILADELPHIA — Before the Philadelphia Flyers fully trickled out to the Wells Fargo Center ice for their optional morning skate ahead of Game 4 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream), the word from the team was that there was no update on Sean Couturier, who was injured following a collision with Radko Gudas during Tuesday’s practice.

When pressed, all head coach Dave Hakstol would say is that it’s a game-time decision. If Couturier is out, that could mean rookie Nolan Patrick centering the top line or Claude Giroux moving from the wing to back down the middle.

“We’ll be ready and prepared, regardless of what the lineup is,” Hakstol said. “You can’t center it around one or two players.”

“Anytime somebody gets injured or traded, it’s a great opportunity for guys to step up,” said Giroux. The Flyers captain would reference their run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final that saw players like Ville Leino and Giroux himself step up when Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne were forced from the lineup. It’s understood that it’s next man up in these situations.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Patrick would see his responsibilities upped should Couturier sit, as there’s the possibility of him being matched up with Sidney Crosby.

“If the lines are different I wouldn’t change how I play against [Crosby],” Patrick said.

There’s no replacing what Couturier brings to the Flyers lineup. Patrick called him “one of the best two-way players” he’s ever seen, and if the option for Hakstol to play him in all situations is taken away for Game 4, that would leave a big hole in a vital game for Philadelphia.

The penalty kill would take a hit in his absence, a unit that was overwhelmed in Game 3 and allowed three goals on seven Penguins power play opportunities. Six of those penalties were stick infractions, and while relying on special teams isn’t something that necessarily built into Mike Sullivan’s game plan, the Flyers did make sure to talk about being smarter. Going back to Pittsburgh down 3-1 is something they want to avoid.

“I think everyone knows those mistakes before our coach even tells us,” Patrick said. “Can’t happen and we’ll be better in that area.”

More: Flyers hoping new lines can get offense going vs. Penguins

UPDATE:

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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.

‘Bread’ is the man in playoff surge for the Blue Jackets

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Artemi Panarin turned out to be everything the Columbus Blue Jackets were looking for when they traded for him last summer: A dead-eye sniper and deft puck distributor who can get game-breaking goals and make everyone around him better.

And, the Blue Jackets hope, a guy who can get them deeper into the playoffs.

So far, so good. Columbus heads home to Nationwide Arena after taking a 2-0 lead over Washington in their first-round series on Sunday night, a come-from-behind 5-4 overtime win in which Panarin contributed a pair of key assists.

That came three nights after Panarin won the series opener in overtime. With two assists already in regulation, he drove down the left side, slipped past Capitals defenseman Dimitry Orlov and snapped a shot over goalie Philipp Grubauer‘s shoulder.

”There’s very few people who can make that shot,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said.

”He can make a play from nothing,” Orlov said. ”He’s so smooth.”

The Blue Jackets probably wouldn’t be playing in the postseason without the 26-year-old Russian they call the ”Bread Man.” He was a steady presence and consistent scorer through a bumpy season of slumps and injuries to other key players.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Panarin led Columbus with 27 goals and 55 assists, and his 82 points were the most in a single season in franchise history. His plus/minus of 23 and average of just over 20 minutes on the ice per game were career highs.

Panarin – sounds like Panera Bread, hence the hockey nickname of ”Bread Man” or just ”Bread” – has embraced being a featured star after playing in the large shadow of Patrick Kane in Chicago in his first two years in the league.

”In Chicago, I played with Kane and got a lot of assists from him,” Panarin said. ”But I always wanted something more, to put more of the game on myself and be more accountable for the result. Here, I got that, what I wanted.”

Panarin, who won the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in the NHL in 2015-16, was acquired from the Black Hawks last June along with forward Tyler Motte for forward Brandon Saad and goalie Anton Forsberg. Saad was a reliable player for Columbus for two seasons.

”Bread is a different type player because he can make a special play to win a game,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. ”I just think for you to get through and find your way and try to be a better playoff team, you have to have some players that are dynamic. You’re not coaching it, they just see something, they seize a moment and they win you a game. Or they make a huge play to get you back in the game in another way.”

With the Blue Jackets on a power play and down 3-2 in the second period on Sunday, Panarin dribbled the puck and patiently waited for a lane to open up before delivering a pinpoint circle-to-circle pass to Cam Atkinson , who scored the tying goal.

Panarin’s line mates, veteran winger Atkinson and 19-year-old rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois, have benefited from his skills. Atkinson – who had two goals on Sunday – has come on strong after missing time with injuries, finishing the regular season with 14 goals and 14 assists in February and March. Dubois had 20 goals and 28 assists in the regular season, making him the most productive rookie in Blue Jackets history.

Panarin makes $6 million a year on a contract that runs through next season. He’ll be due a sizeable salary bump if the Blue Jackets decide to keep him around after that.

So far, he’s been an ideal fit.

”When they first traded me, of course for a couple days, I worried,” he said. ”But then I calmed down and understood that this is all good for me. I understood that here I would progress as a player first and foremost. What’s most important to me isn’t money, but the whole game.”

Associated Press Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington contributed to this report.

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

Devils turn back to Cory Schneider to salvage series vs. Lightning

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The New Jersey Devils are facing the prospect of falling behind 3-0 in the opening round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday night. In an attempt to shake what’s ailed them through two games, head coach John Hynes is making changes for Game 3 (CNBC, 7:30 p.m ET, stream here).

Most notably, Cory Schneider will get the start after watching Game 1 and coming in relief of Keith Kinkaid during Game 2 on Saturday afternoon’s 5-3 loss. Marcus Johansson, who was skating on a line with Pavel Zacha and Patrick Maroon during Monday’s morning skate, will also return to the lineup for the first time since suffering a concussion on Jan. 23.

“We believe we have two very good goaltenders,” Hynes said. “Keith had played extremely well, and we’re not taking Keith out really because he was bad, we have two guys that we feel can both help us win and it’s an opportunity to get Cory back in the net. He came in and played pretty well the other night, which was good to see, so we’ll give him an opportunity here at home.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Schneider had a subpar regular season that saw him miss over a month with a groin injury and struggle mightily when he returned. Kinkaid was given the opportunity to start and snatched the No. 1 job away, helping get the Devils to the playoffs. Monday night’s start will only Schneider’s sixth since March 1, but he feels the 24 minutes he played in Game 2 was good for him heading into tonight.

“It helps. It always helps,” Schneider said. “Just getting out on the ice, that was a great opportunity for me to go in, make some saves and show that I’m feeling good about myself. It doesnt mean much if you come out and don’t play well. Hopefully I can parlay that into a good start tonight.”

Tampa has 10 goals from six different players through two games, so why that will be a problem for Schneider and the Devils, they also have to figure out how to capitalize on their chances having out-shot the Lightning 54-47 at even strength so far.

Meanwhile, in other goalie matters, Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz has made up his mind on who will start Game 3 Tuesday in Columbus, but he hasn’t informed his players yet. All signs point to Braden Holtby getting the call yet again after Philipp Grubauer allowed eight goals on 41 shots as the Blue Jackets hold a 2-0 series lead.

More: What can Devils do to slow down Lightning offense?

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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.