Stars count on another great Game 7 from Ben Bishop

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With goals being very tough to come by during this Round 2 series, it’s only natural that the goalie matchup of Ben Bishop vs. Jordan Binnington looms large over Game 7 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) between the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues.

There are some fun narratives to wrap around the situation, too. Bishop, 32, is no stranger to big games, with 48 career playoff games to his name, and a sparkling .927 save percentage to combine quality with that quantity. Jordan Binnington, 25, only has 45 NHL games combined (33 regular season, 12 playoffs) in his career so far, yet he’s been a revelation for the Blues. It’s a shame that Bishop never seemed to provide Binnington tutelage during his growth as a goalie (as far as I know?), as this situation just begs for a “master vs. pupil” storyline.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also the elephant/Bishop-sized goalie in the room: is Bishop even truly healthy enough to play in Game 7 after being shaken up by that scary Colton Parayko shot that preceded a controversial goal in the Blues’ Game 6 win over Bishop’s Stars?

As with just about any prominent injury during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, those of us outside of a team’s inner circle can only speculate about a player’s health. We can only read what we can from Game 7 itself on Tuesday, and skeptically take the Stars’ word for it about Bishop being OK.

So, let’s play along and believe that Bishop is good enough to go for Game 7.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Stars think Bishop could be Game 7 difference-maker

With that in mind, Bishop’s experience comes to play in the very specific, very pressure-packed setting of Game 7s. He’s experienced two such contests during his NHL career, winning both and earning a shutout (and even an assist) in each Game 7 back during the Lightning’s charge to a defeat in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

As Matthew DeFranks reports for the Dallas Morning News, Stars coach Jim Montgomery does indeed believe that Bishop’s experience will come in handy.

“Yeah, for sure it is a big advantage when your goaltender has been in these games before,” Montgomery said. “He’s been to the Stanley Cup finals, and he’s had success in these kinds of games. … He’s very even-keel. The way he approaches his games, whether it is a regular season or a Game 7, Bish is always dialed into the right mind-set to give him success.”

Again, the Stars are opening themselves up to criticism if Bishop isn’t truly healthy. In years past (see: Martin Brodeur against the Avalanche; Pekka Rinne versus the Predators), a few early Game 7 goals allowed can be lethal in a tightly matched series. The Stars have a highly qualified backup in Anton Khudobin, so if Bishop gives up a regrettable goal or two — maybe top shelf stuff that he, erm, can’t reach right now? — then people will question the decision not just to go with Khudobin.

Yet, when you look at Bishop’s big-game performances, and his dominant work this season (especially lately), it’s easy to see why the Stars would lean on him.

Bishop’s two Game 7 shutouts

Actually, with that in mind, it might be fun to take a trip down memory lane. Here’s a deeper look at Bishop’s two Game 7 experiences from that Lightning run. It gives some insight on how alert and impressive Bishop was, and is also a reminder of how quickly things can change in the NHL. Admit it: this makes 2015 seem like ages ago, although maybe global politics also make those memories seem ancient, too.

April 29, 2015: Lightning beat Red Wings 2-0 in Game 7 in Round 1.

If you remember this game, you might recall it as Tampa Bay being pretty fortunate to get out of that series … and by a lot of indications, that Game 7 looks that way in retrospect.

There was an ice-in-the-veins moment for Bishop, as he went way out of his net, Hasek-style, to try to thwart a Drew Miller chance. It almost backfired, as Miller flipped the puck over Bishop, but it didn’t result in a goal.

Braydon Coburn‘s goal was the only moment where either goalie allowed one, as the second tally was an empty-netter, which Bishop earned an assist on. Bishop pitched a 31-save shutout against the Red Wings, while the Lightning’s goal came on just 16 shots against Petr Mrazek. Natural Stat Trick lists some interesting numbers that back up the Red Wings carrying the play, sometimes glaringly.

Tampa Bay did keep most of the Red Wings’ chances to the outside, as Detroit only enjoyed a more modest 5-4 advantage in high-danger scoring chances at even-strength. That could be a key element to Game 7 between the Stars and Blues; Jim Montgomery’s system (and defenders like John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen) has done a great job of mostly keeping chances to the perimeter, which can make Bishop feel that much more unbeatable when he’s “on.”

May 29, 2015: Lightning beat Rangers 2-0 in Round 3

The storylines were pretty rich with this one.

Heading into this Game 7, much was made about the “mystique” of playing such a big contest at Madison Square Garden, particularly against a very sharp Henrik Lundqvist. That wasn’t just media-friendly hyperbole, either; the Rangers had been undefeated in Game 7s at MSG at the time, and the Rangers won the Presidents Trophy for the 2014-15 season. As impressive as the Lightning were even then, it’s fair to place them as the underdogs in that one, after being the favorites against the stalwart Red Wings in that Round 1 matchup.

The Lightning did a much better job of controlling play against the Rangers in that Game 7 than they did against the Red Wings two rounds earlier. Via Natural Stat Trick, the Bolts generated a 10-4 high-danger chance advantage at even-strength, and Bishop needed only a fairly modest 22 saves to earn a shutout.

Interestingly, in both Game 7s, the score was tied 0-0 through the first two periods. A more “nervy” goalie might have been rattled by the low margin of error, but Bishop seemingly kept his emotions in check.

***

The Stars are a different team than the Lightning were, and Bishop’s an older goalie, but it’s still interesting to ponder the past. If Bishop’s anywhere near full-strength, then the Blues might just have to cross their fingers for a goal or two in Game 7.

At least if the right kind of history repeats for Bishop and the Stars.

Game 7 of Stars – Blues takes place at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday; You can watch it on NBCSN and stream it here.

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.

New Golden Knights GM faces big opportunities, challenges

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The Vegas Golden Knights announced a passing of the torch on Thursday, as Kelly McCrimmon becomes GM, while George McPhee is no longer GM, but sticks around as president of hockey operations.

It’s a move that echoes Steve Yzerman giving way to Julien BriseBois in Tampa Bay: like the Lightning with BriseBois, the Golden Knights didn’t want to lose a respected executive in McCrimmon. There are also parallels in the job McCrimmon is transitioning into. Much like the Lightning, the Golden Knights boast a talent-rich roster, and while Vegas features some Lightning-like bargains, the bottom line is that a cap crunch hovers over all of that luxurious skill.

Let’s take a look at the road ahead for McCrimmon, McPhee, and the Golden Knights.

Flipping assets for that hair flip?

After an out-of-nowhere 43-goal, 78-point breakthrough in 2017-18, William Karlsson needed a new contract last summer. The two sides settled on something of a one-year “prove it” deal for 2018-19, and while he didn’t sustain the unsustainable 23.4 shooting percentage from 2017-18, Karlsson confirmed that his ascension wasn’t a mere mirage.

Now Karlsson finds himself as an RFA once again at age 26, and paying up for his next contract is the pivot point for the Golden Knights’ off-season.

With Mark Stone‘s (clearly justifiable) $9.6 million cap hit set to kick in starting next season, and the Golden Knights’ well-stocked with other legitimate talents, Vegas is in a congested situation even before you factor in whatever dollar amount Karlsson will command. A glance at Cap Friendly gives the impression that Vegas is less than $700K under the ceiling, and maybe some final details might tweak that, the bigger picture is that this is a challenging situation.

Here are a few players who could get moved out to accommodate this situation. I’m leaving out plenty of names such as Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Tuch, Shea Theodore, and Nate Schmidt for a simple reason: they’re all on manageable, if not outright bargain contracts, and so I’d think McCrimmon would be making huge errors in moving any of them out.

  • Cody Eakin, 27, $3.85M cap hit expires after 2019-20: No, this isn’t because the major penalty he was whistled for that turned that unforgettable Game 7 on its head.

Instead, it’s simple math. The Golden Knights have a plethora of forwards, and Eakin’s pricey for a depth player, which is how he’d fall in the lineup under basically all circumstances.

  • Erik Haula, 28, $2.75M through 2019-20: His pretty scary injury wrecked his 2018-19 campaign after his 29-goal breakthrough the year before. This would be more about dumping salary than any indictment on Haula, and Vegas would be unlikely to get fair value in such a trade. That might have to do it if teams don’t bite on other trade possibilities, though.
  • Ryan Reaves, 32, $2.775M through 2019-20: Yes, he’s an entertaining quote and menacing presence, but it’s not quite ideal to spend nearly $3M on an enforcer in the modern NHL. Not when every dime counts. Really, the Golden Knights could save big money and force Gerard Gallant to put more talent on the ice.
  • Colin Miller, 26, $3.875M through 2021-22: If I were an opportunistic opposing GM, I’d circle Miller like a (not necessarily San Jose) Shark. He’s a good, useful player on a reasonable deal, but with Miller occasionally landing in Gallant’s doghouse, he could be almost $4M used in a less optimal way. Plenty of teams need RHD, and could get a nice gem if they pounce. And if, frankly, McCrimmon makes a mistake.

There are other possibilities (Brayden McNabb maybe?) but those are generally the most feasible salary dump options in trades, with different players appealing to different mindsets.

Supporting cast calls

Remarkably, Vegas already has a strong core, for the most part. They face some noteworthy decisions around those key players, though.

There are some free agents to consider. Is Deryk Engelland going to retire, and if not, would the veteran take a team-friendly deal to stay with Vegas? Brandon Pirri deserves an NHL gig somewhere, but would he be lost in the shuffle in Vegas’ deep offense? Can the Golden Knights retain surprisingly effective fourth-line Pierre-Edouard Bellemare?

Alongside the aging pieces, you have intriguing talent looking to make a dent. Vegas must determine if Cody Glass is ready for the big time, as he could provide cheap production on a rookie deal. What will they do with Nikita Gusev and Jimmy Schuldt, who spent last season in the KHL and NCAA respectively, and need new deals?

Some of these situations are tricky, yet it’s plausible that Vegas could end up with enviable depth if they make the right moves (and get some good luck).

Beyond the flower

And, personally, I think McCrimmon really needs to take a long look at the team’s future in net.

Considering this cap crunch, it’s probably best to stick with Malcolm Subban on another short deal. He’s an RFA, and as The Athletic’s Jesse Granger notes (sub required), the team seems to think he still has potential.

As a former first-rounder (24th overall in 2012), Subban’s potential may still be bandied about for years. Yet, at 25, there needs to be more real production to go with all of the theoreticals and hypotheticals.

Instead of spelling an aging Marc-Andre Fleury with regularity, thus keeping “The Flower” fresh for the spring and summer when the games matter the most, Gallant has been reluctant to start Subban, whose career save percentage is a middling .903 in 45 regular-season games.

Part of that might be attributed to Gallant’s tendency to lean heavily on his starters, yet it’s also easy to see why Gallant is reluctant to go with other options: those other options haven’t been very appealing. Fleury is 34, and you could argue “an old 34” with 940 games (regular season plus playoffs) under his belt, so this is an area the Golden Knights can’t neglect for much longer.

(Really, it’s one they probably should have been more aggressive to address already; it’s a little surprising they never pushed harder to land someone who ended up claimed on waivers like Curtis McElhinney, among other options.)

***

This is a challenging situation, no doubt. There are potential bumps in the road, especially if the aging curve hits “MAF” hard.

Yet the upside is also huge. If you saw the Golden Knights once they added Mark Stone, you’d likely agree that this team could be a viable contender, rather than a Cinderella story.

It’s up to McCrimmon to add volumes to this tale, rather than allowing cap concerns to slam that book shut.

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.

Crosby, McDavid, Kucherov are 2019 Hart Trophy finalists

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Award announcement season is almost at a close as the NHL has revealed the finalists for the 2018-19 Hart Trophy, which is given to “to the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers are your three finalists, as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association at the end of the 2018-19 NHL regular season.

The Hart Memorial Trophy was presented by the NHL in 1960 after the original Hart Trophy was retired to the Hockey Hall of Fame. The original Hart Trophy was donated to the NHL in 1924 by Dr. David A. Hart, father of Cecil Hart, former manager-coach of the Montreal Canadiens.

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 Sidney Crosby: The Penguins captain finished tied for fifth in the NHL in scoring this season with 100 points (35 goals) in 79 games. It was the sixth time in his career he reached the 100-point mark, and he trails only Wayne Gretzky (15), Mario Lemieux (10), Marcel Dionne (8), Mike Bossy (7) and Peter Stastny (7) as players with the most consecutive 100-point seasons. He was also tied for fifth in points per game (1.27) and tied for eighth with 3.62 points per 60 minutes. He was also the team leader with 69 points at 5-on-5. Already a two-time MVP, Crosby is a seven-time finalist and would be the ninth player in league history if he wins a third one.

The Case For Nikita Kucherov: The 2018-19 Art Ross Trophy winner, Kucherov recorded 128 points, the most by any NHL player since 1995-96, and his 87 assists were the most by a player since 2006-07. He recorded at least one point in 62 of 82 games this season and had 38 multi-point games, including two nights where he finished with five points. He averaged 1.56 points per game, the highest since Jaromir Jagr’s 1.57 in 1998-99. Only McDavid (81) had more even strength points than Kucherov’s 80. The Lightning forward would be the second player in franchise history to win the award, joining Martin St. Louis, who was voted winner in 2003-04.

The Case For Connor McDavid: The Oilers’ captain recorded his third straight 100-point season, finishing behind Kucherov in the Art Ross Trophy race with 116 points. He had a hand in 50.7 percent of Edmonton’s 229 goals (41) this season, the best in the NHL. He became the eighth player in NHL history to fail to go consecutive games without a point and led all forwards with 22:50 of ice time a night. He also recorded a league-best 81 even strength points. A Hart winner in 2016-17, McDavid is seeking to join Wayne Gretzky as the second player in league history to win multiple MVPs before turning 23 years old.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS
• Selke Trophy
Lady Bing Trophy
Masteron Trophy
Norris Trophy
Ted Lindsay Award
Calder Trophy
Jack Adams Award

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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.

Berube, Cooper, Trotz are 2019 Jack Adams Award finalists

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The NHL announced on Friday the three finalists for the 2019 Jack Adams Awards, which is awarded to the head coach who has “contributed the most to his team’s success.”

Craig Berube of the St. Louis Blues, Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Barry Trotz of the New York Islanders are the finalists after members of the NHL Broadcasters’ Association submitted their votes at the end of the regular season.

The award was presented by the NHL Broadcasters’ Association in 1974 in honor of the late Jack Adams, longtime coach and general manager of the Detroit Red Wings.

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 Craig Berube: Berube took over as Blues’ head coach on Nov. 19 with the team 30th in the NHL. By the end of the regular season St. Louis finished third in the Central Division and earned 65 out of a possible 90 points in their final 45 games, the most points accumulated by any team over that span. The Blues’ success was highlighted by a franchise-record 11-game win streak and a 12-1-1 record in February, which tied a team-record for wins in a single month. A win would make Berube the fifth coach in franchise history to win the award and the first NHL coach to earn the Adams after taking over midseason.

The Case For Jon Cooper: The Lightning finished the 2018-19 season with 62 wins, tied for the most in NHL history, and 128 points, which is good for fourth all-time. Cooper’s team were the first in league history with at least 30 wins at home and 30 on the road. Their 325 goals were the most by a team in 23 years. This is Cooper’s second time as an Adams finalist and a victory would make him the second winner in franchise history joining John Tortorella (2004).

The Case For Barry Trotz: In his first season with the team,Trotz helped the Islanders to a 23-point improvement from last season and a defensive turnaround that saw them allow 100 fewer goals, which earned goaltenders Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner the William Jennings Trophy. This is Trotz’s fourth time as an Adams finalist. He won the award in 2016 while with the Washington Capitals. Al Arbour (1979) is the only Islanders’ winner in franchise history.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
• Selke Trophy
Lady Bing Trophy
Masteron Trophy
Norris Trophy
Ted Lindsay Award

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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.

Explaining the unpredictable Round 1 results

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The story of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs has been all about upsets and a bunch of teams you’re not used to seeing this time of year making unexpected runs.

All four division winners lost in Round 1, five lower-seeded teams in total advanced, and a lot of the traditional powers that we have come to expect to be playing this time of year are already finished. Chicago and Los Angeles didn’t even make the playoffs. Pittsburgh, Washington, and Tampa were all bounced and won just three games (all from Washington!) between them. Winnipeg and Nashville, a Stanley Cup favorite for much of this season and a recent Cup Finalist, are also gone.

Other than Boston, San Jose, and St. Louis, we are left with a wide open field that is full of teams that are not normally here.

  • The Carolina Hurricanes are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season, and obviously playing in Round 2 for the first time since then.
  • This is the first time the Columbus Blue Jackets have EVER made it this far in the playoffs.
  • The Dallas Stars are in the playoffs for just the third time since 2009, and in Round 2 for just the second time since then.
  • The Colorado Avalanche have not been in Round 2 since the 2007-08 postseason.
  • This is only the second time since 1993 that the New York Islanders have made it this far.

The two main talking points as to how we got here seem to revolve around the highly controversial playoff format, and just how meaningful the regular season actually is.

Let’s start with the latter point, regarding the regular season and what it means. When you see all four division winners go down in Round 1 it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the 82 games you just played didn’t mean anything and that just getting in is all you need. There might be some element of truth to “just getting in” being important, but let’s not overreact to one year here and just assume the regular doesn’t mean anything. Because it does, and winning your division usually does get you a pretty big advantage in the playoffs because it means you are playing one of the weaker teams in the field.

The results before this season show just how big of an advantage that is.

In the five previous seasons under this current playoff format division winners won their first-round matchup 14 out of 20 times, and usually did so relatively easily. Those division winners won their series in an average of only 5.2 games, and none of them needed a seventh game to advance.

On the six occasions that they did lose, three of them were in a seventh game and two of them were in a sixth. You had the occasional upset, usually in an anything can happen Game 7, but it wasn’t anything like this. 

Obviously Tampa and Calgary are the two big upsets, simply because they were top seeds in their respective conferences and because they went out with such a thud. Tampa was swept, while Calgary managed just one win against the No. 8 seeded Avalanche.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The only thing you can probably say about each one is they were playing teams that probably weren’t your typical “No. 8 seeds” going in to the playoffs.

Columbus loaded up at the trade deadline with rentals to bolster what was an already strong lineup that was probably better than its record had indicated all season (I was high on them around mid-January, even before the trades!) because the goaltending had sunk it so much. Throw in a Victor Hedman injury and a Nikita Kucherov meltdown on the Tampa side and suddenly the gap closes a little. That doesn’t excuse the rest of the Lightning’s no-show performance, but if you dig below the surface “top seed loses four in a row” you can at least start to rationalize it a little (but only a little).

Even though Colorado was 17 points worse than the Flames during the regular season, the Avalanche still have three of the best forwards in the NHL, all of whom can take over a game at any time, and they had the better goalie going into the series. That isn’t to say Mike Smith wasn’t the reason the Flames lost, but Philipp Grubauer was great in the Avalanche net (and the three superstar forwards were also great) and sometimes that is all it takes for an upset.

These are still stunning results, and even more stunning when you add them to the other division winners going out. It’s there that things start to become a little more reasonable (and this also includes Pittsburgh and Winnipeg going out) because the gaps between the teams just weren’t that large.

If they even existed at all.

The Capitals were the defending Stanley Cup champions, but only finished five points ahead of their first-round opponent, the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes had been one of the best teams in the NHL since January 1, storming into the playoffs playing on a level that only a handful of other teams in the league were at.

The Predators, Central Division champions, were seven points ahead of the Stars, and that gap had been shrinking for weeks leading up to the end of the regular season as the Predators started to fade and the Stars started to trend upward.

The Islanders finished three points ahead of the Penguins. The Blues and Jets finished with the exact same number of points.

A No. 1 seed going down in Round 1 isn’t unheard of in the NHL. It happens. Not regularly, but often enough that it’s not a total shock when it does happen. We also know that the Stanley Cup Playoffs can be a bit unpredictable because of the nature of the game where a hot or cold goalie can swing a series, an injury can hold a team back, or a couple of forwards can simply shoot the lights out for six or seven games and carry a team.

It is at times a completely random sport.

This postseason has just been a perfect of storm where all of it came together at the same time to produce what has been, so far, one of the weirdest and most unpredictable postseasons we have ever seen. The wild card teams were, in a lot of ways, better than your typical wild card teams we are used to seeing. The division winners were maybe a little more vulnerable for one reason or another (injuries, goaltending).

I don’t think it’s a statement on the league or the format as a whole, I think it’s just a statement on the sport itself in that sometimes weird things happen.

And that might be the simplest way to explain the 2019 playoffs: It’s been a weird year.

MORE Round 2 coverage:
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Blue Jackets vs. Bruins
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars
Avalanche vs. Sharks

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.