Thomas Greiss

Capitals vs. Islanders: 5 things to know about their First Round series

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The First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins August 11. Before the NHL postseason resumes play, PHT will preview each of the eight opening round matchups, including Capitals – Islanders.

1. Barry Trotz vs. the Capitals team he won a Stanley Cup with not that long ago

You know, Trotz leaving the Capitals for the Islanders should be a stranger story than it ended up feeling like. You don’t see a coach just up and leave after winning a Stanley Cup, at least when that coach isn’t Mike Keenan. (Trotz gave a heartfelt speech to his former Capitals once he joined the Islanders, so you have to think there aren’t too many hard feelings … at least with the players.)

That’s likely because the Capitals kept performing (at least during the regular season), and the Islanders immediately prospered under Trotz. But this series gives that narrative a chance to get juicy again.

Does Trotz have any added insight against his former team? Maybe some ways to slow down Alex Ovechkin from his office? (Even if, you know, some wonder if an excessive reliance on that might actually slow down the Capitals’ power play, anyway?)

2. “Pupil vs. Teacher”

Few sports teams enact succession plans quite like the Capitals. When they moved on from George McPhee as GM, they promoted from within, and Brian MacLellan has largely been a smash success in the GM job. Then, seemingly sticking with a decision made before Trotz won a Stanley Cup, the Capitals passed the torch/decided to save a few bucks by promoting Todd Reirden.

Was it the right choice? That will come into focus in this series, as the Capitals had a strong 2018-19 season before losing in the First Round to the Hurricanes. If the Capitals follow another strong regular season with another early exit, Reirden might start hearing about how he couldn’t get it done, unlike Trotz before him.

(Even if critics might omit the disappoints Trotz and the Capitals endured before getting that ultimate prize.)

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

3. Holtby-or-bust vs. two capable Islanders goalies

Heading out of the pause, the Capitals seemed to have choices between possible goalie of the future (Ilya Samsonov) and maybe one who will be part of the past because of free agency (Braden Holtby). Those paying attention might’ve wondered if Samsonov would be the better choice after a superior regular season. Then Samsonov got hurt and likely removed that drama.

Now we set the stage for another bit of drama: as a pending UFA, Holtby has a massive amount of money on the line hoping for another big run. Meanwhile, the Islanders boast two steady goalie options in Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss.

It’s possible Holtby might outplay them. While those two haven’t experienced playoff hockey much at all/in the last few years, Holtby’s playoff resume is pretty incredible. But, with all due respect to Vitek Vanecek, there’s a lot of pressure on Holtby.

4. What pushes one team PDOver-the-top?

Interestingly, both the Capitals and Islanders (at least the Trotz Islanders) tend to be teams that outperform sometimes-modest underlying stats. These things can vary, but the Capitals sometimes out-shoot their scoring expectations, which you can attribute to Alex Ovechkin and other snipers. Meanwhile, the Islanders have received goaltending even stronger than one would expect (that was especially true last season, yet holds some water from 2019-20, too).

Will the Capitals ride hot shooting? Can Trotz, Mitch Korn, and the Islanders slow down Ovechkin and the Capitals while Mathew Barzal helps the Isles counterpunch their way to enough knockouts? Maybe this series will be more high-scoring than you’d expect and Trotz might want?

5. Prediction: Capitals in 7

With John Carlson possibly injured, an already-pesky Islanders opponent could be a nightmare. It’s no secret that Trotz can scheme a star out of series, as we saw his Islanders smother the Penguins during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. And with certain signs of decline in not just Ovechkin, but other veteran Capitals, the talent edge might be minimal.

Yet, these Capitals tend to find ways to make things worse. And, frankly, when in doubt, go with prominent players with the most money to lose. Ovechkin could sign an extension this offseason, and Holtby is a pending UFA whose pay could vary wildly. Meanwhile, Barzal and others present cap headaches, but his earning ceiling is limited by RFA status.

(Yes, splitting hairs like this is another way to indicate this could be close.)

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders

Wednesday, Aug. 12: NY Islanders at Washington, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: NY Islanders at Washington, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Washington at NY Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Washington at NY Islanders, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Thursday, Aug. 20: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Washington at NY Islanders – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Islanders beat Rangers in exhibition game; Shesterkin starts, but Lundqvist plays

The New York Islanders took care of business in a 2-1 exhibition win against the Rangers on Wednesday.

For the most part, the Islanders succeeded as you might expect. They seized on Rangers mistakes, making it difficult for the Blueshirts to get much going.

Rangers start Shesterkin, Varlamov gets nod for Islanders in exhibition

When the Rangers did manage to get things going, they didn’t have a whole lot of luck. Semyon Varlamov made the play(s) of the game with some impressive saves. It seems like the Isles’ net is Varlamov’s to lose, although Thomas Greiss also saw action during the latter portion of the 2-1 win.

Varlamov stopped all 19 shots he saw in two periods of action, while Greiss gave up one Filip Chytil goal.

For whatever it’s worth, Igor Shesterkin started for the Rangers, who eventually also brought Henrik Lundqvist into the action. Each goalie allowed one goal, with Lundqvist having a busier night overall.

From my vantage point, Lundqvist looked pretty sharp, although he’d probably want that Devon Toews game-winner back. It would be foolish to put too much stock in an exhibition game, anyway, but Lundqvist performed admirably.

The Rangers need to tighten things up as they’ll face a tough opponent in the Hurricanes on Saturday. The Islanders, meanwhile, must hope that they see the same Panthers effort as Florida burped up in getting thumped by the Lightning.

2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedules for Rangers and Islanders

(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers

Saturday, Aug. 1: Rangers vs. Hurricanes, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 3: Rangers vs. Hurricanes, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes vs. Rangers, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 6: Hurricanes vs. Rangers*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Rangers vs. Hurricanes*

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers

Saturday, Aug. 1: Panthers vs. Islanders, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Panthers vs. Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*

More on the NHL Return to Play:

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.

Islanders vs. Panthers: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifier Preview

The NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers kick off the Return to Play plan on August 1. This week, PHT will be previewing each series with a look at storylines and end with our predictions for the eight matchups.

(7) New York Islanders vs. (10) Florida Panthers — TV schedule, start times, channels

Saturday, Aug. 1: Panthers vs. Islanders, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Panthers vs. Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Islanders vs. Panthers, 12 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Islanders vs. Panthers*
Sunday, Aug. 9: Panthers vs. Islanders*

Islanders – Panthers preview: Top storylines for Stanley Cup Qualifiers series

Will Sergei Bobrovsky be worth the money?

Sergei Bobrovsky Panthers Islanders preview
(Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

Coming in with a whopping $10 million cap hit, Bobrovsky stands far above any other player in this best-of-five series from a salary standpoint. That said, you don’t need charts full of “fancy stats” to realize that the Panthers haven’t gotten their money’s worth from the debut “Bob” season.

Squint a little and you’ll realize there are reasons for optimism, though:

  • That’s all in the past, as the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers represent a clean slate for Bobrovsky, the Panthers, and Islanders.
  • “Bob” delivered with a .925 save percentage in 10 playoff games for the Blue Jackets after a mostly rotten contract year. He also heated up down the stretch. In 28 games following the 2019 NHL All-Star break, Bobrovsky produced a strong .924 save percentage.

Yes, there are plenty of counterpoints to throw water on those positive thoughts. Most obviously, the Blue Jackets really clamped down late in 2018-19 (just ask the shocked-and-swept Lightning), while the Panthers have been porous defensively.

But goalies are strange, and are likely to be even more unpredictable during the NHL Return to Play. Would it be that outrageous if a goalie with Bobrovsky’s resume bounced back?

Strength vs. strength: Can Islanders defense slow down Panthers offense?

With 3.30 goals scored per game, the Panthers ranked sixth in the NHL. Meanwhile, the Islanders limited opponents as you’d hope and expect from a Barry Trotz team (2.79 goals allowed per game, ninth-best in the NHL).

Assuming both teams maintain their basic styles and profiles during the NHL Return to Play, the Panthers and Islanders would present an intriguing battle of strength vs. strength.

Some might argue that Aleksander Barkov‘s defensive abilities have become overrated, but few would argue that he can produce for the Panthers. Jonathan Huberdeau (78 points, tied for 10th-most in NHL) has been even tougher to contain as he’s gotten healthier, and the Panthers possess plenty of other weapons. (Although depth isn’t their strongest point.)

Between Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss, it seems like the Islanders should have a capable goalie behind Trotz’s responsible defensive system. Will that rust benefit the Islanders, or will they struggle to stop the Panthers following the pandemic pause?

Barry Trotz Panthers Islanders preview 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers series NHL
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Weakness vs. weakness: Islanders offense vs. Panthers defense

Circling back to Bobrovsky, it’s grossly unfair to lay the Panthers’ goal prevention problems solely at his feet/skates. The Panthers regularly allowed far more offense than they created, often leaving Bob and others out to dry when it came to expected goals and high-danger scoring chances.

The Islanders’ offense checks out in certain areas more than one might think (and their defense gives up a little more than you might expect). That said, overall, one would expect the Islanders to avoid slugging things out offensively.

Can Mathew Barzal and several other scorers manufacture enough offense to outgun the Panthers? If Florida’s defense struggles like it did before the pause, the answer could be “Yes.”

Rare playoff appearances for Varlamov and/or Greiss

On paper, the duo of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss give the Islanders an edge over the Panthers, particularly looking at Bobrovsky in 2019-20 alone.

But it’s worth pondering just how long it’s been since either Varlamov or Greiss served as go-to playoff goalies.

Greiss has only played in 13 playoff games as (an often strong) career backup. He only appeared in 36 minutes worth of game time during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As experienced as Varlamov is, we haven’t seen him in the postseason very often lately. Varlamov hasn’t played a playoff game since 2013-14, and before that, his experience stretches back to his Capitals days.

That only means so much, of course. It’s worth at least mentioning because teams are far likely to painstakingly key on weaknesses and relentlessly go over game tape when you’re focusing on a single opponent.

Who’s out? Who might return?

Islanders: The Isles exit the pandemic pause about as healthy as you can ask for. The Islanders traded for Andy Greene in large part because of an injury to Adam Pelech. Now they’ll have both defensemen as options, leaving Barry Trotz with some potential conundrums. Casey Cizikas appears to have a clean bill of health, too. Oliver Wahlstrom ranks among the most intriguing Islanders players who didn’t make the training camp cut. Meanwhile, Ilya Sorokin can get acquainted with the team, but cannot participate in actual games.

Panthers: Aaron Ekblad missed significant training camp time, but Joel Quenneville said he should be ready for the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Injuries don’t look like much of an issue for the Panthers, either, so neither team will have many health-related excuses. (Of course, that can change quickly once the NHL Return to Play kicks into another gear.)

More on 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, NHL Return to Play series:

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.

Early returns: NHL players on getting back in small groups during Phase 2

As of Tuesday, we’re two days into Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan. To put things mildly, not every NHL team has approached Phase 2 in the same way. Considering the protocols for opening things up, plenty haven’t gotten the puck rolling just yet.

This post aims to round up some of the perspectives from players who have gotten the chance to get back a bit, though. Please note that this isn’t a comprehensive list of every team back in action for Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan.

Matt Benning on the Oilers skating

One curious question is: how long does it take to shake off the rust. Considering that the NHL is still trying to hash out details for training camps (aka Phase 3), the answer appears subjective.

“If I’m off the ice for two days, it feels like I’ve never skated in my life before, so three months was a little bit nerve-wracking …” Oilers defenseman Matt Benning said.

Benning noted that it takes different players different amounts of time to get used to edgework and other skating factors. But it sounds like Benning specifically sits in the “more the merrier” camp. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

If you need a moment of zen, enjoy this footage of the Oilers beginning Phase 2:

*refreshed Ahhhhh*

Tavares doing Tavares things early in NHL Phase 2

Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares is known for being something of a thinking man’s hockey star. Sometimes that drive can manifest itself in ways that are … honestly, kind of nerdy.

Tavares told reporters including TSN’s Karen Shilton that he quickly decided to start taping his sticks at home to get the most out of his time.

“There’s a pretty big-time crunch on being in the arena; you only have about 45 minutes to an hour to complete your workout and you’ve got about 40 minutes on the ice,” Tavares said. “The windows are fairly small, but the actual work we’re able to get in is going to go a long way in helping us prepare and get ready. The intensity is there.”

Shilton notes that Tavares is skating in a group with Jack Campbell, Cody Ceci, Mitch Marner, Ilya Mikheyev, and Jake Muzzin.

Josh Bailey among Islanders getting back to skating at facility

Bailey joined Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin, and Thomas Greiss for small-group workouts. Bailey admitted feeling some rust, and that there’s no substitute for skating.

There’s also no substitute for family. Bailey acknowledged that the “hub city” system will take some getting used to. At least he’d have his Islanders teammates, though.

“It’ll definitely be different,” Bailey said, via Cory Wright of the Islanders’ website. “No matter how it all comes together, when, how, if, whatever the case may be. It won’t be what we are accustomed to. But when you’re with the team it kind of gives you that feeling of normalcy.”

Plenty still needs to be settled before NHL goes from Phase 2 to Phase 3

Overall, the Phase 2 return to ice seems more like a trickle than a stampede.

For every instance such as Marc-Andre Fleury getting geared up with the Golden Knights, there are players who want to avoid taking risks, or teams facing restrictions.

In some cases, players are able to skate on their own. During an appearance on “Lunch Talk Live,” Blake Wheeler explained that he’s been able to get some reps in with Adam Oates in the Boca Raton area in Florida.

MORE NHL RETURN TO PLAY:

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.

Crawford, Howard, and other interesting veteran NHL free agent goalies

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Earlier this week, PHT looked at uncertain futures for veteran NHL free agent forwards. The league’s other positions face just as much, if not more, uncertainty. So let’s keep this going by tackling veteran NHL free agent goalies.

As with that forward focus, this isn’t a comprehensive list of NHL free agent goalies. This revolves around veterans, with an admittedly arbitrary cutoff of 30 years or older.

Said veteran NHL free agent goalies must also hit a sweet spot. We’re ignoring goalies who should be no-brainer signings (Robin Lehner‘s been one of the best netminders, and he’s also only 28). We’re also going to skate past goalies with dubious chances of being signed to NHL contracts.

You might think such specific parameters would mean zero veteran NHL free agent goalies. Nope, there’s a pretty interesting list. Actually, if you feel like someone prominent didn’t make the cut, do tell.

(We’ll know you are trolling if you blurt out “Robin Lehner,” by the way.)

[Players who might be considering retirement]

Corey Crawford

I was tempted to leave Crawford off of this list. The reasoning is simple enough: Crawford has plenty of name recognition, and he was actually quite good (16-20-3, but with a .917 save percentage) this season.

Ultimately, Crawford warrants a mention, though. For one thing, he’s not that far removed from injury issues that credibly threatened his career. Also, with the Blackhawks firing team president John McDonough and other signs of turmoil, there’s increased uncertainty regarding Crawford’s future with his longtime team. Crawford is 35, too, so there’s the risk of a 35+ contract likely limiting his term options.

Honestly, the Blackhawks might be justified in flinching at bringing back Crawford for a more cynical reason. If Chicago wants to blow things up, or at least institute a mini-reboot, Crawford may foil such plans by … being too good.

The 2018-19 season stands as one of just two seasons where Crawford’s Goals Saved Against Average was on the negative side. With a 9.01 mark for 2019-20, Crawford ranked ahead of the likes of Carter Hart (4.47), stellar backup Jaroslav Halak (8.83), and resurgent Cam Talbot (7.53).

It would be absurd if someone didn’t want Crawford. The NHL can be an absurd league sometimes, though.

Jimmy Howard

During the 2019 NHL trade deadline, it was a little surprising that the Red Wings didn’t trade Howard. Outsiders can only speculate if it was more about then-GM Ken Holland asking for too much, or the market being truly, totally dry.

But, either way, Howard’s market value looks much different (read: worse) after a brutal 2019-20, both for the Red Wings and for their veteran goalie. The 36-year-old suffered through a lousy .882 save percentage this season after being steady for two seasons (.909 and .910) and fantastic in 2016-17 (.927).

My guess is that someone will be interested in Howard, but it would be a surprise if he wore a Red Wings sweater in 2020-21. I’d also guess he’s slated to be a clear backup.

Mike Smith

There are goalies teams talk themselves out of (like, seemingly, Robin Lehner). Then there are goalies who gain a lot of leeway, such as Smith.

Familiarity sure seemed to help Smith land with the Oilers. It’s safe to assume that Dave Tippett fondly recalled Smith’s outstanding work during the Coyotes’ 2012 Western Conference Final run. That nostalgia didn’t lead to enough timely saves, though, as Mikko Koskinen soundly surpassed Smith (and Talbot was better in Calgary).

At 38, and with two straight below-average seasons under his belt, Smith may be teetering out of the league. Then again, he’s a big goalie, can handle the puck, and some might weigh those increasingly distant memories almost as heavily as Tippett and the Oilers did last summer.

Other NHL free agent goalies

  • I assume that 34-year-old goalies Thomas Greiss and Anton Khudobin should earn ample interest. They’ve both been fantastic, so I didn’t feel they needed a section. If interest isn’t certain though … it should be.
  • For the most part, Ryan Miller‘s future hinges on his own choices, and preference to be in the California area. Still, he’s worth mentioning, being that he’s 39 and didn’t perform as well in 2019-20.
  • Brian Elliott, 35, came through at times for the Flyers when Hart was injured. The overall picture of his season wasn’t pretty, however. It was fair to wonder about his future last offseason, and he’ll need to keep his expectations modest if he wants to stick in the NHL.
  • The curious trend of Craig Anderson flip-flopping average and elite seasons ended a while ago. It’s now been three rough seasons for the 39-year-old. Maybe someone would believe he could regain some of his past form on a more … hopeful team than the Senators?
  • Aaron Dell ranked as one of the NHL’s better backups in 2016-17 and 2017-18. Then the past two seasons happened, casting serious doubt over the 31-year-old’s future. Perhaps a team might pin that on the Sharks’ system and give Dell, say, a competitive third goalie spot?
  • Could be mostly sad emojis for 30-year-old Keith Kinkaid.

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.