NHL players forget outside world during long playoff runs

Two minutes after wrapping up a conversation with his wife, Lars Eller couldn’t remember anything.

”She would be, like a half-hour later, ‘Remember what we just talked about?”’ Eller recalled. ”I’m like: ‘No, I’m sorry. I completely forgot.”’

A lot of things were forgotten during the Washington Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run that culminated with Eller’s clinching goal. This is the time of year when hockey crowds virtually everything else out for players who go on deep playoff runs. Travel, hotel rooms, practices, sleep, playoff beards and, above all, the next game are front and center. Things like cutting the grass and paying the bills fall by the wayside. They can wait, right?

”The whole world is put on hold,” said Mike Rupp, who won the Cup with New Jersey in 2003. ”When I was playing in the playoffs, I wouldn’t pay bills back before I had automatic bill pays. Playoffs, if you go on a decent run, I have all these late payments because you just forget about everything. Nothing matters. You’re just so entrenched in it.”

Automatic bill payments have become Jordan Staal‘s friend growing up from a 20-year-old on Pittsburgh’s 2009 championship team to a husband and father a decade later with Carolina. As younger teammates like Teuvo Teravainen have no problem going all in on playoff hockey mode, Staal leans on loved ones to get him through the daily needs off the ice.

”There’s that small realm of what you’re focused on, and paying the bills may not be one of them,” Staal said. ”That’s when you’ve got a good family around you and good friends to kind of just take that stuff off your hands and let you focus on what you’ve got to do.”

Hurricanes captain Justin Williams loses track of what day it is: It’s either a game day or not a game day, though doing a daily newspaper crossword puzzle reminds him that it’s actually, say, Saturday. But after winning the Cup in 2006, 2012 and 2014 at different stages of his life and going on several other long runs, the grizzled veteran has it all figured out by now.

”It’s easy to do,” Williams said. ”You just deflect as much as you can and use the excuse of ‘I’ve got to focus on hockey’ for everything. When you’re home, it’s dad time. When you’re at the rink, it’s hockey.”

While Eller said his one-track hockey mind is always thinking about the last game or the next game during the playoffs, some players try to fight that instinct. Carl Hagelin, who won the Cup with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017, tries to forget about hockey when he’s not at the rink.

Easier said than done.

”Obviously you go into your own bubble,” Hagelin said. ”You’ve got to spend time with your family and do all that stuff. I guess stuff that doesn’t concern your family isn’t as important.”

This phenomenon isn’t limited to players, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman ‘s family knows all about how the playoffs take over. Bettman said his wife, Shelli, knows she can’t make any plans during the postseason unless it’s a place he can watch games on a TV or his iPad.

Bettman said he typically talks to director of hockey operations Colin Campbell multiple times on any given game day, well past midnight. But he loves every bit of it.

”This is the best time of year. This is just awesome,” Bettman said. ”As (Shelli) says, going out to dinner with my iPad and watching a game has become an excuse for our social life. But, yeah, everything’s on hold for two months because I never know where I have to be, what I have to do.”

Players and Bettman agree the thrill of the playoffs makes everything worth it. Rupp, now an NHL Network analyst, said ”you’re eating, sleeping and breathing this.”

Yes, about that: Players do have to remember to eat properly and get enough sleep.

”You’ve got to focus, prepare, eat, sleep and do whatever you can to be the best on the ice,” said Teravainen, who won the Cup in 2015 with Chicago. ”The playoffs, it’s all about hockey and you just prepare yourself for the game.”

Eller said he focuses on what matters most. And much like Staal, he knows his wife will keep his head straight.

”If you live with someone long enough, they know your tendencies and know you’re maybe not always quite there and at the end of the day it’s always things that can wait,” Eller said. ”But it can be a challenge sometimes because you give 100 percent of yourself to it and it means everything, right? You just live a little bit in your own world.”

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

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Hurricanes end Islanders’ magical run with sweep

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The New York Islanders exceeded just about all expectations this season, and getting swept doesn’t erase all of the great memories, but the run is now over.

After the Islanders swept the Penguins in Round 1, they suffered that fate against the comparably magical Carolina Hurricanes, who managed an emphatic 5-2 Game 4 win to clinch the series 4-0.

For much of this Round 2 feud, every goal and bounce seemed to count. The Hurricanes won both games in Brooklyn despite only scoring three goals combined, and things were tight going into the third period of Game 3, as both teams were tied 2-2.

The Hurricanes really ran away with the series from that point on, though.

Carolina scored three third-period goals to win Game 3 by a score of 5-2, and convincingly closed down the sweep with another 5-2 win in Game 4. Overall, the Hurricanes scored eight of the last 10 goals to end the Islanders’ season, limiting the Islanders to just five goals overall in Round 2.

It really felt like the series was over once the Hurricanes transformed a 1-1 tie to a 3-1 lead with two quick goals in the second period, chasing Robin Lehner in the process.

Curtis McElhinney looks sharp since replacing an injured Petr Mrazek in Game 3, making 26 saves to close this one out. It’s a testament to McElhinney’s work, as he’s been a gem since the Hurricanes claimed him off of waivers. It’s also a testament to the Hurricanes that they’ve weathered so many injuries without really missing a beat.

Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen remain red-hot for the Hurricanes, as both generated one-goal, one-assist point nights in Game 4. They factored into the first goals of Game 4, when things were still looking very close. Those two are becoming more prominent to casual hockey fans during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and at this rate, could become household names.

Ending this series quickly could be huge for Carolina

Getting this sweep isn’t just about the optics of a perfect round.

The Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes are currently locked up at 2-2, and the earliest that Round 2 series can end is on Monday. (The two teams bid for a 3-2 series lead in Game 5 on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBC; Stream here).

The Hurricanes were battered thanks to that seven-game series against the Capitals, with Andrei Svechnikov missing most of Round 2 because of that ill-fated fight with Alex Ovechkin, while Jordan Martinook and Micheal Ferland also suffered injuries. That only continued against the Islanders; Petr Mrazek’s injury was the most significant of the series, while Trevor van Riemsdyk and Saku Mäenalanen also missed time.

From players who were playing flat-out injured to those who were simply less than 100 percent, this break is big.

And, yes, this means the Hurricanes avoid games where they could have suffered new injuries. Sure, you can make a “rest versus rust” argument, but I’d be confident this is a net-positive for Carolina.

[The Hurricanes discussed finishing this heading into Game 4.]

Islanders run out of gas

Barry Trotz’s system can throw offense in a wood chipper. Even stars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can struggle to score against a Trotz team when it really clamps down.

That said, the Islanders often had to walk a tightrope where they had very little margin of error. Maybe the Hurricanes’ strong defensive personnel and deep rotation of two-way players simply presented a bad matchup for the Islanders. Perhaps Lehner and others were tired. It could be that the bounces dried up.

And that’s what GM Lou Lamoriello and others need to grapple with. This was a magical, affirming run, but he also must do his best to take a sober look at this team once the sadness from the sweep dissipates.

Is this club in more of a “rebuild” mode like people anticipated when John Tavares left for Toronto? How much should they weigh their success with troubling thoughts, such as only managing five goals in that entire series against the Hurricanes? Are they a few moves from being a contender, and thus should spend big to keep some key players from leaving? Lehner is on a list of pending free agents who could put a dent in the wallet, joined by prominent names such as Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Brock Nelson.

[Dive into the big decisions the Isles face here.]

For now, though, it’s all about mixed feelings. After finally winning a Stanley Cup, Trotz may have indeed topped himself with the work he did with the Islanders, and is almost certain to win the Jack Adams as a result. Sweeping the Penguins proved to be an emphatic statement. By my eyes, Mathew Barzal also confirmed his status as a legitimate star after his sensational Calder-winning 2017-18 season. Islanders fans had to love this ride, whether they were jeering Tavares or their team’s many doubters.

But for now, the magic’s over; we’ll have to wait and see if the Islanders have even more tricks up their sleeves. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, await the Bruins or Blue Jackets in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 30 free agents; Golden Knights could make changes

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Here’s the NBC Sports Stanley Cup playoff update for May 1

• What type of statistics should you expect from your backup goalie? (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• The Washington Capitals will have to shed some salary if they’re going to add to their talented roster. (CSN Washington)

Morgan Rielly has to be the front-runner to be the next captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Toronto Star)

• How has Anders Lee performed in the playoffs for the Islanders this year? (Lighthouse Hockey)

• The Pittsburgh Penguins have a rich history with the Hart Trophy. (Pensburgh)

• Like soccer, the NHL might have a diving problem. (Bleedin Blue)

• The Golden Knights roster could look very different heading into next season. (Las Vegas Sun)

• The fact that the Oilers will have a new GM this summer makes their offseason plan unpredictable right now. (Oilers Nation)

• The Hockey News breaks down the top 30 unrestricted free agents of 2019. (The Hockey News)

Cale Makar went from playing college hockey to jumping into the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a hurry. (ESPN)

• We can start thinking about Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby‘s next contracts. (Washington Post)

• The Lightning can’t use the laundry list of upsets in the playoffs as a “get out of jail free” card. (Tampa Bay Times)

Aaron Ekblad had a relatively quiet season, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t productive for the Panthers. (The Rat Trick)

• The Detroit News ranked the top 50 Red Wings in order of organizational value. (Detroit News)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Six questions facing Caps; Pens getting old

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Is the Columbus Blue Jackets success bad for the National Hockey League? (The Cannon)

• The Bruins power play has to stop letting the entire team down. (WEEI)

Jordan Weal and the Montreal Canadiens agreed to a two-year contract extension. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• NBC Sports Washington breaks down six questions the Capitals will have to tackle this offseason. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Broad Street Hockey takes a look at some of the potential free agents that have a history with Alain Vigneault. (Broad Street Hockey)

• The Maple Leafs have to find a way to come out on the winning end of the salary battle with Mitch Marner. (Toronto Star)

• Age is certainly becoming a problem for the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Pensburgh)

• How aggressive can Steve Yzerman be in his first year back with the Detroit Red Wings. (Winging it in Motown)

• Former Canucks forward Jannick Hansen has decided to retire from pro hockey. (Canucks Army)

• Jets Nation evaluates whether or not Winnipeg should make changes to their coaching staff. (Jets Nation)

• Which rookies are performing at a high level during the Stanley Cup Playoffs? (The Hockey News)

• ESPN provides us with a list of unexpected MVPs in the postseason. (ESPN)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Early exit a year after Cup win teaches Caps another lesson

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Nicklas Backstrom always wondered what it would take to win it all.

When he stood outside the Washington Capitals’ locker room following first- or second-round playoff losses in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, he lamented each missed opportunity but could never definitively say what it would take to get over the hump. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 and going out in the first round this year, Backstrom has a bit of a better clue for the future.

”It’s kind of like, ‘What do you need?’ You don’t know the answer to that,” Backstrom said Friday as players cleared out their lockers. ”You’re just guessing and going on your instinct. But now I feel like we’ve been through it and it is possible, especially when you don’t expect the team to do it.”

Despite a seven-game upset loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Capitals will again be expected to compete for a title with the core of captain Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman John Carlson and goaltender Braden Holtby intact. After so much went right for them to win the first Cup in franchise history, they didn’t get the good fortune of health or bounces and now have a long summer to think about what to do better next time.

”Everybody have to work hard, play hard and try to do their best,” Ovechkin said. ”You can’t win with only like half the team or two players. You have to compete. If you don’t score goals, you have to do some different job, different work. It’s good lessons for us.”

One lesson two-time Cup winner Brooks Orpik knows very well?

”You’ve got to get lucky,” Orpik said. ”Anybody that tells you differently hasn’t won before. You need a lot of luck on your side.”

Sometimes it’s a combination of luck, health, depth and coaching. After former Capitals coach Barry Trotz took the New York Islanders from losing John Tavares in free agency to the second round of the playoffs, general manager Brian MacLellan did not pin any of the blame for Washington’s early exit on Trotz’s replacement, Todd Reirden.

”They’re different coaches, they have different styles with the way they go about it,” MacLellan said. ”Are we saying that we underperformed because we had a rookie coach? I don’t think so. You look at the performance of the players.”

The top players – Ovechkin and Backstrom – were among the best on the ice, Kuznetsov struggled and the Capitals didn’t get the secondary scoring they did last year. And as much as it’s easy to say that’s needed to win again, Kuznetsov feels motivated by the disappointment as much as the joy.

”It’s all about the happiness when you win and when you lose, it hurt,” he said. ”That’s probably when you go next time on the ice, you don’t want to feel that again. That’s probably the biggest lesson.”

OVECHKIN AGAIN

After becoming the oldest 50-goal scorer since the 1970s, there is no reason to bet against Ovechkin reaching the mark again next season at age 34. Ovechkin led all players in the Capitals’ first-round series with nine points after being playoff MVP a year ago and continues to defy convention to the point that teammates don’t expect him to slow down.

”I just don’t know like a cutoff date on things like that,” defenseman John Carlson said. ”It seems like we’ve kind of been answering those questions for a couple years and the next year it’s a new spin on Ovi’s still great. I just, I don’t know. I can’t see it. Not next year.”

INJURY REPORT

Backstrom, center Lars Eller and winger Jakub Vrana said they were banged up with undisclosed injuries. Winger T.J. Oshie, who broke his right clavicle in Game 4 against Carolina, and defenseman Michal Kempny, who tore his left hamstring in March, said they would be ready for training camp.

”(Doctors) know how excited I get to try to beat recovery times, so they didn’t give me one, but I was pretty lucky,” Oshie said. ”It’s not like a separated shoulder or something that really takes a lot of rehabbing. It’s just the bone and plate have to heal, and I’ll be good to go and have a nice full summer of workouts.”

GOODBYE, ORPIK?

Orpik has intimated all season that this could be his last, and the thought went through his head that Game 7 was the final one he’d ever play in the NHL. But the 38-year-old defenseman isn’t hurrying a life-altering decision.

”We’ve got Disney World coming up – I don’t know, I’ll just wait till my daughter is done with school here and then take a couple trips,” Orpik said. ”But I’m in no rush in terms of deciding on my future in terms of hockey. That’ll be a more health-related decision down the road.”

MacLellan said it might be tough to fit Orpik in, and there are younger players who could fill his spot on the blue line at a cheaper price.

MORE CHANGES

Washington this season brought back 18 of 20 players who dressed in its Cup-clinching game, but that continuity isn’t realistic for 2019-20. Beyond Orpik, Brett Connolly could cash in on his first 20-goal season, fellow pending free agent winger Devante Smith-Pelly isn’t expected to be back and the Capitals face another salary-cap crunch.

Connolly pointed out contracts for Backstrom and Holtby are up after next season, and that’s going to factor into organizational planning. Backstrom said playing in Washington is all he knows, and Holtby would love for an extension to happen this summer, but he also knows top prospect Ilya Samsonov is waiting in the wings.

”I’m pretty realistic about what goes on in the business and such,” Holtby said. ”My focus is going to be to put in everything I can this summer to make sure I’m ready to help this team win next year. Everything outside of that you let sort itself out.”

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

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports