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Bishop, Lehner, Vasilevskiy are 2019 Vezina Trophy finalists

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Awards season shifts to the crease as the three finalists for the NHL’s top netminder were unveiled on Saturday.

The nominees, voted by the league’s 31 general managers, including Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars, Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The award was first presented by Leo Dandurand, Louis Letourneau and Joe Cattarinich, former owners of the Montreal Canadiens,1926-27 in memory Georges Vezina, who died in 1925 from tuberculosis. Prior to the 1981-82 season, the goaltender(s) of a team with the fewest number of goals allowed during the regular season was awarded the trophy.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The case for Ben Bishop: Bishop was superb all season, leading all goalies with a .934 save percentage, finishing second in goals-against average with a 1.98 and third in shutouts with seven. Bishop came to life down the stretch, going 8-0-1 in his final 10 appearances as the Stars grabbed the first wildcard spot in the Western Conference. He had three straight shutouts during that span, setting a franchise record for longest shutout streak at 233:04. His .934 save percentage was also a franchise record and the eighth-best by any goalie in league history. Bishop was 27-15-2 in 46 games.

The case for Robin Lehner: Lehner had a turnaround season for the ages, overcoming some personal demons and switching teams from Buffalo to the New York Islanders. Lehner thrived in his move across state, posting the second-best save percentage in the league at .930, third in goals-against at 2.13 and tied for fourth with six shutouts. Lehner’s season play really shined between Dec. 18 and Jan. 10 where he won eight straight games. He, along with Thomas Greiss, formed a formidable one-two punch in the Islanders’ crease, one that ultimately helped the Isles into the postseason after losing John Tavares to free agency last summer. The Islanders went from worst in goals-against to first, a feat only done once before in NHL history. Lehner was 25-13-5 in 46 games.

The case for Andrei Vasilevskiy: Vasilevskiy posted 39 wins in 53 games and was a big reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning tied an NHL record for most wins in a season with 62. Vasilevskiy won 18 of the first 21 games he appeared in to get Tampa to the feat, including a 10-game winning streak between Feb. 9 and March 5. Vasilevskiy’s best play came after a loss. In fact, he only lost consecutive outings once all season, posting a 13-0-1 record following a defeat. He finished third last season and has a good chance to take home the hardware this year.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
• Selke Trophy
Lady Bing Trophy
Masteron Trophy


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

Predators’ power play headaches linger into playoffs

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War, war never changes. To Nashville Predators forward Craig Smith, the same can be said for the team’s power play lately.

“I’m frustrated, we’re all frustrated. It pisses me off,” Smith said, according to News Channel 5’s Jonathan Burton. “We’ve been doing the same thing for years; nothing changes.”

The Predators finished the regular season with the worst power play in the NHL, and that problem reared its ugly head during their Game 1 loss to the Dallas Stars, as that unit went 0-for-4. The Stars, meanwhile, went 1-for-3 in snagging a tight 3-2 victory. (Game 2 takes place at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday on CNBC [livestream])

Heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Smith and other Predators players remained all-too-aware of these power-play struggles … maybe too aware?

“I think it’s a mindset to go out there,” Smith said heading into Round 1, according to NHL.com’s Robby Stanley. “Sometimes you have to play it like it’s 5-on-5. I think that’s definitely a crucial part of it too, retrieving pucks and getting back and supporting one another, because you’ve got to find the 2-on-1 somewhere. We’ve worked hard at it and watched a lot of video.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Whenever a team’s power play is struggling, I tend to look to three things:

1. Is that team just having bad luck?

It’s just about certain that this plays at least part of the role for the Predators. Still, this bleeds into the next point.

2. Are the wrong players shooting, particularly too many defensemen?

They managed a respectable four shots on goal during those four power plays, although the shooters were a mix of defensemen (P.K. Subban and Ryan Ellis) and maybe not the ideal forwards you’d want firing the puck (Brian Boyle and Kyle Turris). After generating 34 goals despite being limited to 58 games played, Viktor Arvidsson didn’t even have a missed shot on the PP.

Too many point shots is one of those issues that seems all too obvious with power plays dealing with deeper-seated issues than a mere cold streak. In Nashville, you’d figure there’s a political element. After all, you want to keep your star defensemen happy. Either way, you’d want Forsberg, Arvidsson, and Ryan Johansen firing more shots.

3. Are the Predators making the right personnel choices?

Identifying the power play as a problem, GM David Poile brought in a big net-front presence in Brian Boyle (who was also sought after for his defensive acumen) and Wayne Simmonds (a player well-known for his resume of power-play prowess, though that’s faded recently).

There have been signs of at least mild improvement by Nashville’s power play in the last month or so, but allow me to get back on my soapbox and wonder if what the Predators’ PP really needs is Eeli Tolvanen.

Even if the young forward can’t earn Peter Laviolette’s trust at even-strength, you could easily fit Tolvanen into a role as a power-play specialist and hide him lower in the order otherwise. The Stars aren’t exactly the league’s deepest team, so Tolvanen’s skill could also create dividends if Laviolette decided to take the very mild risk of inserting the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

In particular, Forsberg and Arvidsson can be threats in these situations, yet for all that the Predators possess, they could really use a/another true sniper whose shot is simply a weapon.

That’s especially true since Ben Bishop has been one of the best goalies in the NHL this season, and considering his enormous frame, it might take next level shooting skills to beat him on some nights. You can quibble with Tolvanen’s all-around game, but few would doubt his shot.

***

One way or another, the Predators need to find answers as the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs go along. Maybe they can grind out a Round 1 series win against a generally low-scoring Stars team, but maybe not, as special teams might just move the needle. Beyond Dallas, the Predators would have to really dominate on 5-on-5 to beat the cream of the crop, if they can’t at least scrounge up respectable special teams.

And that might require not “doing the same thing for years.”

Stars-Predators Game 2 from Bridgestone Arena will be Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. ET on CNBC (livestream).

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.

Push for the Playoffs: Stars on brink of postseason return

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

Jim Lites’ chewing out of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin seems like it happened ages ago. For the Dallas Stars, their season, which was highlighted by their CEO calling out his team’s best forwards in separate interviews in late December, could take a turn in a new and brighter direction Tuesday night.

With just as single point against the Philadelphia Flyers (or a Coyotes loss to the Kings), the Stars will return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2016.

Since Dec. 28, when Lites went off, the Stars have accumulated the fourth-most points in the Western Conference. Seguin has 20 goals and 43 points in 41 games, while Benn has netted 12 goals and recorded 22 points in 38 games. But the biggest heroes of this season for the franchise have been their goaltenders.

Both Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin have been phenomenal between the pipes for the Stars. Their play is a reason why Dallas is battling the New York Islanders for the William Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed (194). Head coach Jim Montgomery has split their time in net, some of that having to do with the injury bug biting Bishop several times.

Khudobin has played 39 games and posted a .934 even strength save percentage. Bishop has suited up for 45 and has a .936 ESSV%. Those numbers put both in the top five of that category among net minders with 30 appearances, with Bishop leading the league.

Bishop is also third in the NHL with six shutouts, and you wonder if injuries hadn’t hit him in the last few weeks how much of a favorite would he be for the Vezina Trophy? Montgomery said on Monday that he expects Bishop to get in a game before the end of the regular season on Saturday, so that’s a good sign as they hope to be prepping for their Round 1 opponent by then.

“We want to play him, and he needs a game before we start the playoffs and it’s not good for (Anton Khudobin) to play every game, either,” Montgomery said.

The Stars are also waiting on Mats Zuccarello, who played a whole 13:35 after being dealt from the New York Rangers before breaking his arm. There’s an outside chance he returns this weekend as well.

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Bruins at Blue Jackets, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN; live stream link)
Hurricanes at Maple Leafs, 7:30 p.m. ET
Lightning at Canadiens, 7:30 p.m. ET
Penguins at Red Wings, 7:30 p.m. ET
Jets at Wild, 8 p.m. ET
Flyers at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET
Oilers at Avalanche, 9 p.m. ET
Kings at Coyotes, 10 p.m. ET

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

Lightning vs. Hurricanes
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Stars
Blues vs. Predators
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIOS
The Penguins will clinch a playoff berth:

• If they defeat the Red Wings in any fashion
OR
• If they get one point against the Red Wings AND either of the following occur:
-The Canadiens lose to the Lightning in any fashion
-The Hurricanes lose to the Maple Leafs in regulation
OR
• If the Canadiens lose to the Lightning in regulation

The Blue Jackets will clinch a playoff berth:

• If they defeat the Bruins in any fashion AND the Canadiens lose to the Lightning in regulation

The Dallas Stars will clinch a playoff berth:

• If they get one point against the Flyers
OR
• If the Arizona Coyotes lose to the Kings in any fashion

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)
Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — Clinched
Capitals — Clinched
Islanders —  Clinched
Maple Leafs — Clinched
Penguins — 99.9 percent
Blue Jackets — 94.1 percent
Hurricanes — 75.4 percent
Canadiens — 30.6 percent
Flyers — Eliminated
Panthers — Eliminated
Sabres — Eliminated
Rangers — Eliminated
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Flames — Clinched
Jets — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Predators — Clinched
Blues — Clinched
Golden Knights — Clinched
Stars — 99.5 percent
Avalanche — 77.5 percent
Coyotes — 22.3 percent
Wild — 0.6 percent
Blackhawks — 0.1 percent
Oilers — Eliminated
Canucks — Eliminated
Ducks — Eliminated
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE

Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Devils — 11.5 percent
Sabres — 9.5 percent
Red Wings — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Ducks — 6.5 percent
Oilers – 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Wild — 3 percent
Flyers — 2.5 percent
Panthers — 2 percent
Coyotes — 1.5 percent
Canadiens — 1 percent
(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 125 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 115 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 105 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 102 points
Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins — 98 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 51 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 47 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 46 goals
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning — 42 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets — 41 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 41 goals
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 41 goals

————

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.

John Gibson deserves to be Vezina candidate, if not the winner

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If there’s one travesty come June when the NHL’s awards are handed out, it’s that John Gibson won’t be up on stage receiving the Vezina Trophy for the NHL’s best goaltender.

Yes. John Gibson. An NHL goaltender on one of the worst teams in the league, a team that’s fighting for the right to pick first overall rather than raise a second Stanley Cup banner in Anaheim.

It might seem like insanity. Maybe it is.

The Vezina’s three finalists will probably look something like this: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Ben Bishop and Frederik Andersen.

Vasilevskiy, of course, because he’s an incredible goaltender playing on perhaps the best regular-season team in NHL history in the Tampa Bay Lightning. There’s a solid case to be made for a guy with six shutouts, a .927 save percentage and 37 wins entering Friday.

Bishop, because he leads the league with a .933 save percentage and has given a low-scoring Dallas Stars team every opportunity to be in the playoff position they’re in.

Andersen, because despite the milk carton defense in Toronto, has put together an impressive season sans help from his Maple Leafs teammates.

Their numbers are the shiny ones you see when you Google goalie statistics. Their names are atop the rankings of basic goaltending statistics.

They’re all elite goalies, don’t get me wrong, and this is taking nothing away from what they’ve accomplished.

But what John Gibson has done trumps them all.

Gibson’s numbers, on a surface level, look pedestrian. He’s posted a .915 save percentage and a 2.89 goals-against average in 56 appearances this season. There are several guys ahead of him in that category and likely where the wheels begin to fall off in his Vezina case.

Are the NHL’s 31 general managers, who vote on the Vezina, going to dig much deeper? Probably not, and that’s where Gibson’s case comes to a screeching halt.

Here’s some truth: Gibson has saved more goals above the league average than any other goalie in the NHL this season. His goals-saved above average is 17.8, nearly a full goal and a half above Jaroslav Halak and more than a goal and a half more than Bishop. Andersen? Gibson’s got him beat by over 10 goals. Vasilevskiy? 16.

More truth: Among the 37 goalies this season that have played 1,500 minutes or more, Gibson ranks lowest with an expected save percentage of .913 in 5v5 situations when you factor in the type of shot quality he’s faced. His adjusted save percentage when look at the difference in his actual save percentage of .927 and the expect numbers, you arrive a 1.37, fourth best in the NHL, meaning that Gibson is well above the average of what he should be given the quality of shots he’s faced.

Speaking of quality and the number of shots faced, Gibson has seen more high-danger shots fired his way (299) than any other goalie in the league, and despite this, he’s managed a .823 save percentage, good for ninth best — higher than Andersen and Vasilevskiy. Bishop (.854, 207 shots against) is third, but has seen 92 less high-danger shots.

One more thing: Gibson has seen the fifth-most shots against per 60 minutes played, just slightly behind Andersen, both of whom are well ahead of Bishop and Vasilevskiy.

All these numbers aren’t just for show. They’re important statistics that show just how incredible Gibson’s season has been with the Ducks.

Recency bias won’t help his cause. People will say his season was front-loaded as the Ducks surprised a lot of people with their playoff positioning early on. Does Andersen get the same treatment? Does Vasilevskiy get dinged for the fact he’s blessed by an offensive and defensive juggernaut in front of him?

But don’t blame Gibson because his back broke from carrying the team so hard. Without him, the lowest scoring team in the NHL might be giving the 1974-75 Washington Capitals a run for their money for worst record ever.

Look, all four of these goalies deserve Vezina recognition. There are others, too. Robin Lehner on Long Island, Pekka Rinne in country music’s capital, Marc-Andre Fleury in Sin City.

The point of this exercise is this: often we write off great players on bad teams. Connor McDavid not deserving the Hart Trophy because he plays for the Edmonton Oilers is just one example. The problem with this mindset is we miss the exceptional that gets neglected because of it.

People will brush off a season like Gibson is having, saying his surface statistics are nothing to write home about and will continue along their merry way.

And that’s a shame, because if the Vezina is truly an award for the best goalie in NHL, then Gibson deserves to be, at the very least, in the room in Las Vegas later this June, if not on the stage saying his thank yous.

(Stats courtesy of Corsica)

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

Stars’ Bishop leaves game with lower-body injury

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Things you see in your nightmares if you’re the Dallas Stars: Ben Bishop getting injured.

There’s no pinching your way out of this one at the moment after Bishop left Wednesday’s game with a lower-body injury while pitching a shutout in the second period against the Calgary Flames.

A likely Vezina candidate, Bishop was moving from left to right inside his crease to cover off a developing play in front of him. He stayed down in the butterfly before keeling over in obvious pain. From there, it was down the tunnel for and out of the game, with Anton Khudobin replacing him.

The Stars say he is questionable to return and Bishop didn’t emerge for the third period.

This is the second time this month the Stars have had to sweat a Bishop LBI. He left a game against the Minnesota Wild on March 14 and missed the next two games.

Bishop entered Wednesday first among starters with a .932 save percentage and fourth in shutouts with six. He was working on No. 7 after making 20 saves against the Western Conference-leading Flames prior to leaving.

Bishop’s numbers only get better when you dig a little deeper. He’s fourth in 5v5 save percentage at .935 and first among starters with a whopping 16.45 goals-saved above average. He’s second in high danger save percentage, too.

Khubobin has been solid with a .924 save percentage, but let’s not kid ourselves here: the Stars are likely going to face the high-powered Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Bishop was a stud earlier this week when the Stars beat the Jets 5-2.


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