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Podcasts

DTFR Podcast #248- 2022 First Round Preview In Progress (Part 1)

Nick and Sean tackle a few leftover news items from the last week of the regular season and preview the Eastern Conference matchups in the First Round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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Podcasts

DTFR Podcast #246- Depth Chart Depth (feat. Sean Reilly)

Sean returns to the program to talk about the Boston Bruins, a plethora of injuries around the league, Doug Wilson, the Western Conference wild card race, Mike Bossy and more including an all-new segment where Sean flips the script and asks Nick stuff.

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Podcasts

DTFR Podcast #245- Higher Power (Not A Coldplay Cover)

Checking in with our resident Buffalo Sabres fan, Colby Kephart, about his expectations (or lack thereof) for Owen Power, what other undrafted college players might go pro, what’s considered good goaltending these days, as well as an Eastern Conference rundown and Colby’s “Off the Cuff” debut.

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Categories
NHL Nick's Net Numbers Game

Your Team Will Rise/Fail: 2021-22 Standings Projections

It is time. The 2021-22 season is upon us.

Technically it already started, but we’ll ignore the fact that the Pittsburgh Penguins spoiled the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2021 Stanley Cup champion banner night with a, 6-2, victory on the road before the Vegas Golden Knights held off a Seattle Kraken comeback in a, 4-3, win at T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday night.

And then Wednesday’s games happened too.

Let’s hit the “reset” button for a second and pretend the 2021-22 is about to get underway. All 32 National Hockey League teams have a chance at clinching 16 available playoff berths.

Any of the 16 teams that make the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs could etch 52 names from their roster, front office and organization on the Stanley Cup next June.

The usual divisions– Atlantic, Central, Metropolitan and Pacific– have returned as have the Eastern Conference and Western Conference. The regular playoff format is back (three teams per division, two wild cards per conference qualify, plus the Conference Finals round returns in place of the Stanley Cup Semfinals in 2021).

A full 82-game regular season schedule is slated from October through the end of April with a three-week break in February for the 2022 All Star Game in Las Vegas and the 2022 Winter Games taking precedence before a return to NHL action down the stretch with the postseason kicking off in May like last year and the 2022-23 season likely returning to the pre-pandemic timeline (2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs starting in April).

The 2022 NHL Entry Draft will be in Montréal on July 7th and 8th, while free agency begins on July 13th, but between now and then, we’ve got the 2021-22 regular season to enjoy.

Using last season’s team goals for and team goals against, plus some other “magic numbers” as part of an expected points model, we’re able to project what 2021-22 could be for all 32 teams (yes, even the Seattle Kraken, despite this year being their first season)– though you’ll have to pretend there were no transactions made in the offseason.

In other words, don’t think that any of what you’re about to see is set in stone– view it more as a suggestion for a possible outcome.

Also, please remember my degree is in communication, so any math beyond figuring out “goals + assists = season point totals” doesn’t exist.

In a normal year (like from 2017-18 to 2018-19, for example), you just take all the data from the 82-game schedule for each team plug it into a formula in a spreadsheet, then line things up accordingly in each division.

However, just like how the shortened 2019-20 season disrupted the regular process for projecting a 2020-21 standings outlook, going from last season’s stats in a 56-game schedule to projecting a regular 82-game season in 2021-22 necessitated the use of forecasting point pace as part of the formula.

As for Seattle, a simple means of taking the NHL stats from last season for every player on their roster and plugging it in for a 2021-22 result is exactly what I did.

We’re all just making it up as we go along, folks. These are projections. They are not absolutes.

For the sake of keeping it simple, here’s a look at how things could go (but probably not) in each division for the upcoming 2021-22 season.

The overall vibe of the Central Division for 2021-22 is that it’s just more of exactly what you’d expect. The Colorado Avalanche are lightyears ahead of everyone else, while Kirill Kaprizov and the Minnesota Wild continue to be on the rise and everyone else fights for what they can earn.

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on whether or not the Winnipeg Jets can breakthrough as Canada’s team and break the Canadian curse (become the first Canadian club to win the Cup since 1993).

Will Colorado finally break through the Second Round and win the Cup?

Are the Avalanche just the Toronto Maple Leafs but with a little more success? My column:

No, but really, it’s worth asking if the Avs making it back to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2002, is more like Toronto’s struggle to make it out of the First Round for the first time since 2004, or is Colorado’s struggle more like the Washington Capitals pre-2018?

The Caps won three Presidents’ Trophies in 2009-10, 2015-16 and 2016-17, but couldn’t make it past the Second Round– let alone the Pittsburgh Penguins– until they finally did and ended up surging in momentum all the way to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Colorado, on the other hand, has already won the Cup twice (1996 and 2001) and also has three Presidents’ Trophies to their name in 1996-97, 2000-01 and 2020-21, so if recent history has anything to tell us it’s that yet another team with high expectations for at least a few seasons now only to come up short could very well go on to win it all after winning the Presidents’ Trophy the previous year.

Either that or they’ll have to win it in back-to-back seasons like Washington did before they won the Cup in 2018.

Then again, the Tampa Bay Lightning tied the Detroit Red Wings’ record for most wins in the regular season (62), securing the Presidents’ Trophy in the process in 2018-19, then got swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 First Round.

The very next year, however, Tampa kicked off back-to-back Cup rings in 2020 and 2021, to be where they are now as the two-time defending champions likely standing in the path as the only other favorites outside of the Avalanche this season.

Anyway, the Avs mostly kept things the same from last season to this season, losing Joonas Donskoi to the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, Brandon Saad to the St. Louis Blues in free agency and making minor swaps among replacement level bottom-six forwards and bottom-pairing defenders.

Oh, then there’s this whole thing about how Philipp Grubauer left for Seattle in free agency too, so Colorado acquired Darcy Kuemper from the Arizona Coyotes.

Between Dallas, Nashville and St. Louis, who will realistically make the playoffs?

The Stars are projected to finish with about 94 points, the Predators sit at 92 points and the Blues are around 91 points in this one projection, but don’t let the points alone be your deciding factor.

Given the strength of the Central Division compared to the Pacific Division, you can bet on five teams making out of the Central among Western Conference playoff berths.

As such, the spread is the difference maker between these three teams expected to be in the wild card hunt– it’s going to come down to the wire one way or another.

Dallas bolstered their goaltending depth by signing Braden Holtby, Nashville traded Ryan Ellis to the Philadelphia Flyers and St. Louis is… …better than last season on paper?

I mean, the Blues signed Saad, acquired Pavel Buchnevich from the New York Rangers in exchange for Sammy Blais, let Seattle claim Vince Dunn at the expansion draft and let Mike Hoffman walk to the Montréal Canadiens in July.

You could say they took a hit here or there, but those aren’t “nobody names” by any means, however.

If Jordan Binnington and Ville Husso can stabilize things in the crease, then St. Louis has a better situation than the Predators.

The Stars, meanwhile, should benefit from a longer season where more of their core guys– like Tyler Seguin, for example– are healthy. Last season’s COVID-19 outbreak to kick things off in January really killed Dallas’ momentum as a team on the verge of being in the 2021 postseason.

Dallas should get back into the swing of things and St. Louis should be able to stay relevant for at least another year, but how hard the Preds rely on Juuse Saros as their starting goaltender will dictate whether or not they’re able to play spoiler with David Rittich as their backup since Pekka Rinne retired.

Can Arizona avoid the basement?

Anything is possible at this point. Loui Eriksson and Andrew Ladd were scoring goals in the postseason, so a fresh start could be just what both players needed for the last few years at least.

That said, Coyotes General Manager, Bill Armstrong, gave a Masterclass™️ in how to go about rebuilding by selling everything over the summer and taking on “bad” contracts with only one or two years remaining in hopes of playing just well enough to be bad enough without making it look obvious that you’re aiming to win the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery.

The Pacific Division is the new Scotia NHL North Division from last season. In other words, it’s the worst– which is great news for the Seattle Kraken as the league’s schedule allots more division play than any other opponents (though the Kraken will play every other team in the league at least twice).

Seattle’s riding the waves of new-age expansion, while the Vegas Golden Knights lead the charge for the Presidents’ Trophy campaign in 2021-22.

Wait, Seattle in 2nd in the Pacific, really?

Yes, really.

The Kraken have a great front office that goes beyond just Ron Francis as General Manager and have done their due diligence in scouting the best talent available to try to replicate the success of the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural season in 2017-18, as well as grow beyond just 2021-22.

That said, Seattle probably isn’t going to make it out of the First Round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, even if they have to face the Edmonton Oilers according to this projection.

It’s a best case scenario for the NHL’s newest expansion team to be in the weakest division, but aside from having recent Stanley Cup champions Yanni Gourde, Philipp Grubauer, Jaden Schwartz and Dunn on their roster, the Kraken have a plethora of players that are relatively inexperienced with deep postseason runs.

Head coach, Dave Hakstol, also hasn’t had the consistency of making the playoffs and making it out of the First Round in his NHL coaching days, but as a team that, again, is looking to develop long-term success, these are mere growing pains Francis and Co. are willing to accept as the fan base grows.

Why aren’t the Kings making the cut this year when everyone else says they’ll be the most improved?

The simple answer is that everyone’s overrating Los Angeles when it comes to the “ready now” factor.

Sure, Kings General Manager, Rob Blake, did a good thing by getting Viktor Arvidsson in a trade with Nashville this summer to solidify his top-six forward group and signed Alex Edler to fortify his defense, but Los Angeles’ goaltending leaves something to be desired.

Here’s hoping Jonathan Quick can find a little resurgence at this point in his career, while Cal Petersen continues to come into his own.

If Los Angeles has any injuries– and they already have with Arvidsson likely missing some time due to an injury in the last preseason game– they’re already close enough to the bubble that they’ll only fall further behind.

That said, if the Kings don’t make it back to the postseason hunt in 2022, there’s a good chance they make it in 2023.

Los Angeles is improving, but by how much remains to be seen.

Will winning the Presidents’ Trophy hurt Vegas?

Eh, it’s hard to say.

The Golden Knights have packed in just about every type of heartbreak since their inception in 2017, that fans of other franchises have only experienced over the course of at least 50 years, so if Vegas pulls out the Presidents’ Trophy win in 2021-22, don’t be surprised when the inevitable happens and they win the Cup instead of doing what most other Presidents’ Trophy winners in the salary cap era have done.

Only the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings and Chicago in 2012-13, have been able to win the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup since the salary cap was introduced ahead of the 2005-06 season.

Vegas would probably join Detroit and Chicago in doing so just so the Hockey Gods can spite us again.

It’s not easy to be in the Metropolitan Division these days because, well, let’s save that for the three questions below.

Is this the toughest division to project?

Absolutely.

The Carolina Hurricanes decided to just get rid of a few parts and pieces that helped make them good for the last few seasons, so they’re bound to regress even with Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teräväinen and Martin Necas still existing.

The Pittsburgh Penguins since 2009, have always found a way to be near the top of the division standings by the end of the regular season no matter whether or not you believe they’ll inevitably miss the playoffs for the first time since 2006, so anything could happen there.

The New York Islanders have made back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference Final, so I’d expect them to be good.

The Washington Capitals are better than the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, at least, but are probably the only team on the bubble if the New Jersey Devils can come out of nowhere and be competitive this season after signing Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar and Jonathan Bernier in the offseason.

Meanwhile, it’s time for a short rebuild in Columbus as the Blue Jackets would be quite pleased with a top draft pick in 2022.

What if Chris Drury never was promoted as General Manager of the Rangers?

They’d still fire David Quinn and hire Gerard Gallant. I don’t think that’s such a bad idea, but they’d definitely reconsider about 90% of the roster decisions made this summer.

There’s no reason why the Rangers have to go down this path and yet, here they are, fumbling at the one-yard line and possibly plunging their franchise back into the Dark Ages of another rebuild. Or is it the same ongoing rebuild?

What about a team to watch like New Jersey, for example?

I’m big on the Devils this season for some strange reason.

Maybe it’s because a part of me deep down misses the trap game of the 1990s and 2000s that led to Stanley Cups for New Jersey in 1995, 2000 and 2003.

Maybe it’s because they signed Hamilton, Tatar, Bernier and acquired Ryan Graves from the Colorado Avalanche as a supporting cast for Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha, Yegor Sharangovich, Ty Smith and friends.

Seriously, the Devils should be good in the next few seasons, but this year could be the biggest stride forward in terms of their improvement from the basement to their development as a playoff contender.

First, pour one out for Jack Eichel. Now, let’s move on and talk about everyone else.

What does this mean for the Leafs?

Just like how the Stars, Preds and Blues are all right on top of one another in the Central Division standings, the Atlantic Division is stacked from 1st through 4th, so though Toronto leads the way in this projection, I wouldn’t feel too comfortable as a Leafs fan.

The Maple Leafs played in the worst of the four divisions last year in the temporarily realigned divisions in wake of the ongoing pandemic.

No, it’s not just because they played all the other Canadian teams across 56 games, but rather it’s due to the fact that they haven’t been able to matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and even the Boston Bruins since the 2019-20 season.

A lot and not a lot has changed since then.

Tampa is still dominant as ever, Florida has emerged as a team that’s on the rise and Boston is unpredictable in that– much like the Penguins– it could really go either way with the Bruins this season.

So now Toronto has to take on better competition within their own division and square off with teams like the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche, New York Islanders and others that emerge towards the top of the standings outside of the Canadian teams that the Leafs are all too familiar with at this point.

That said, Toronto still has a great chance at winning the Atlantic Division regular season title or finishing 2nd and having home ice advantage in the First Round for the second-straight postseason.

Can anyone other than Toronto, Florida, Tampa or Boston make it out of the Atlantic this year?

No. Let’s be realistic here.

The Montréal Canadiens made it to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final despite being below .500 in the standings because every division produced four playoff berths and intra-divisional play through two rounds.

In 2020, they upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Qualifier despite finishing right at .500.

In any other non-pandemic timeline, the Canadiens would still be looking for their first playoff appearance since they lost to the New York Rangers in six games in the 2017 First Round.

That’s not to say that Nick Suzuki can’t lead the Habs back to glory, but rather that they need to improve all-around in the regular season and peaking in performance in the playoffs.

Though the Ottawa Senators promised unprecedented success from 2021-25, it’s looking like it’ll realistically be anytime between 2024-25 as in the 2024-25 season itself at this point.

Ottawa’s goaltending needs to improve, their defense could use some tweaks and the Sens are banking on their offense getting their feet underneath them and bursting in production in the coming years.

A little more patience won’t hurt them.

The same can be said for the Detroit Red Wings in that Red Wings fans already know– trust in General Manager, Steve Yzerman, is paramount. He’ll work his magic.

It just takes a little time to build a solid foundation and the first floor is almost ready to start going up.

As for the Buffalo Sabres, well…

At least they’ll hopefully give Rick Jeanneret a proper send-off before he retires as their play-by-play announcer for the last 51 years on television.

Hopefully.

Will Tampa win three consecutive Stanley Cup championships?

Probably not.

I’m not ruling it out entirely, but the Lightning have a better chance of winning three Cups in four years than they do three Cups in as many years as things stand currently.

The loss of their entire third line (Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow) from last season to this season is sure to leave a mark on the development and restructuring of their bottom-six forwards.

That said, Tampa’s top-six forwards still exist and, if you haven’t already noticed, they’re very good on their own, but the best teams in the playoffs have four lines that can roll without a doubt and the Bolts might just be off the ball for a year in terms of depth.


Alright, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for your patience. By now the season’s already going on a few days into the 2021-22 calendar, so the two of us (or more if you’re reading this to a group) should probably get back to watching games.

Stay tuned for more forecasts for both standings and assorted teams throughout the season.

Categories
NHL Nick's Net Previews

Pacioretty or Suzuki, hope you made the right choice in 2018

There are four teams remaining in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs and for the first time since 1981, there are no Conference Finals going on.

Due to the ongoing global pandemic, the National Hockey League was forced to temporarily realign the divisions and get rid of conferences for a season as the league and it’s players’ union did what they could to get an abbreviated 56-game regular season schedule and a full Stanley Cup Playoffs experience in the history books.

In May, ESPN‘s Greg Wyshynski reported that the league would not award the Prince of Wales Trophy and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl to the victors of the equivalent third round, but after the Vegas Golden Knights eliminated the Colorado Avalanche in six games to conclude the Second Round of this year’s postseason last Thursday, the league apparently changed its mind.

With a regular all-Eastern Conference matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders, as well as 50% of the teams representing the Western Conference in the other Semifinal series, both trophies will be awarded to the third round series winners after all.

The winner of the Lightning and Islanders series will take home the Prince of Wales Trophy, while either the Golden Knights or the Montréal Canadiens will win the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl.

Montréal can join a short list of teams to have won both trophies in franchise history, as only the Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks and Islanders have won each before.

How is this possible, you ask?

Well, for starters, the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl was introduced in the 1967-68 season and awarded to the team that finished with the best regular season record in the West Division (the precursor to the Western Conference in the modern era), while the Prince of Wales Trophy dates back to the 1925-26 season and, you guessed it, eventually became the East Division (pre-Eastern Conference days) equivalent.

Ahead of the 1981-82 season, however, the league changed its postseason to include a Conference Finals round, thus involving these trophies in the playoffs and eventually leading to the creation of the Presidents’ Trophy for the team with the best regular season record since the 1985-86 season.

So anyway, the teams mentioned above that won both have changed conferences and divisions over time.

Now let’s talk about the other half of the Semifinal matchups– the Golden Knights and the Canadiens.

(1) Vegas Golden Knights (40-14-2, 82 points) vs (4) Montréal Canadiens (24-21-11, 59 points)

Vegas: 56 games played, .732 points percentage, 30 regulation wins.

Montréal: 56 games played, .527 points percentage, 20 regulation wins.

The Vegas Golden Knights eliminated the Minnesota Wild in seven games (4-3) in the First Round before ousting the 2020-21 Presidents’ Trophy winning, Colorado Avalanche, in six games (4-2) in the Second Round to advance to the 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinals as the representative club from the Honda NHL West Division.

Vegas is making their second appearance in the third round of the playoffs– their first since 2018– and is in search of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup ring in just their fourth season of existence.

Mark Stone (21-40–61 totals in 55 games) lead the Golden Knights in team scoring in the regular season and was named a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, while Max Pacioretty (24-27–51 totals in 48 games) and Jonathan Marchessault (18-26–44 totals in 55 games) rounded out the top-three in scoring on the roster.

Through 13 postseason games thus far, William Karlsson leads the Golden Knights in playoff scoring with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in that span.

Marchessault, Stone, Pacioretty and Alex Pietrangelo are tied for the second-most points in the playoffs for Vegas so far with eight points each in 13 games (except for Pacioretty, who has eight points in seven games).

Alex Tuch, Mattias Janmark and Reilly Smith are tied for the sixth-most points on the roster in postseason scoring with seven points each.

In the crease, Marc-Andre Fleury led the way with a 26-10-0 record in 36 games played (36 starts) in the regular season, as well as a 1.98 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and six shutouts in that span.

Meanwhile, Robin Lehner amassed a 13-4-2 record in 19 games (19 starts) to go with a 2.29 goals-against average, a .913 save percentage and one shutout.

Oscar Dansk even made an appearance with a 1-0-0 record in one game (one start), as well as a 3.93 goals-against average and an .862 save percentage, while Logan Thompson made a relief appearance in one game, earned no decision and had a 1.000 save percentage as a result.

Fleury’s gone on to have an 8-4 record in 12 games (12 stars) this postseason, as well as a 1.91 goals-against average, a .923 save percentage and one shutout entering the Semifinals.

Meanwhile, Lehner made one appearance (one start) thus far in the playoffs and went 0-1 with a 7.03 goals-against average and an .811 save percentage.

At the other end of the rink, the Montréal Canadiens were the winners of the Scotia NHL North Division, having overcome a 3-1 series deficit in seven games (4-3) against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the First Round prior to sweeping the Winnipeg Jets (4-0) in the Second Round to advance to the 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinals.

Poised as Canada’s team, the Habs have not won the Cup since 1993, and were last in the third round in the 2014 Eastern Conference Final– losing to the New York Rangers in six games (4-2) in the process.

The Canadiens haven’t even been back to the Stanley Cup Final since 1993, when they defeated Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in five games (4-1).

Tyler Toffoli (28-16–44 totals in 52 games) led the way for Montréal in team scoring this season in a prolific display of offensive prowess over a shorter than normal regular season schedule.

Jeff Petry chipped in 42 points (12 goals, 30 assists) from the defense in 55 games and Nick Suzuki (15-26–41 totals in 56 games) rounded out the top-three in Canadiens scoring in 2020-21.

Thus far in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Toffoli’s continued to lead his teammates with 4-6–10 totals in 11 games, while Suzuki has eight points (four goals, four assists) in that span.

Joel Armia and Eric Staal are each tied for the third-most points on the Habs’ postseason roster, notching seven points through 11 games for Armia and 10 games for Staal.

In the crease, Jake Allen actually played in more games than Carey Price as Price dealt with injuries throughout the season.

Allen amassed an 11-12-5 record in 29 games (27 starts) and had a 2.68 goals-against average, as well as a .907 save percentage in the process, while Price managed to put up a 12-7-5 record in 25 games (25 starts) and had a 2.64 goals-against average, a .901 save percentage and one shutout in that span.

Cayden Primeau also had some action in the crease for Montréal this season, recording a 1-2-1 record in four games (four starts), as well as a 4.16 goals-against average and an .849 save percentage.

Thus far in the playoffs, it’s been all Price for Montréal as the Canadiens longtime starter has an 8-3 record in 11 games (11 starts), a 1.97 goals-against average, a .935 save percentage and one shutout in that span.


These two teams– the oldest in the league that predates the NHL (Montréal) and the new kids on the block (Vegas) at least until the Seattle Kraken pick players for their team next month in the 2021 Expansion Draft– are meeting for the first time in a playoff series in what is sure to be more than just an incredible experience.

They also didn’t get to play each other in the regular season because of the league’s temporary realignment, let alone the fact that the United States and Canadian border was closed.

It’ll be the first international matchup in the league this season with the Canadian government providing an exemption for games at Bell Centre.

Now, for starters, there’s the obvious “this would never happen regularly at least until the Stanley Cup Final” factor, but there’s also a shared history that has these clubs intertwined– the Max Pacioretty trade.

On Sept. 10, 2018, the Golden Knights made a splash by trading their second-highest drafted player in franchise history– Nick Suzuki at 13th overall in 2017– along with Tomas Tatar and a 2019 2nd round pick originally belonging to the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Canadiens for Pacioretty.

Vegas may have stumbled into “win now” mode to the average eye, but Golden Knights owner, Bill Foley, has long intended to replicate– if not beat– the Philadelphia Flyers’ emergence on the Stanley Cup scene.

Foley cried out for his team’s first Cup ring within three years of existence and something had to be done to spruce up their top-six forward group.

Enter Pacioretty, the longtime Canadien and former captain in Montréal in a bit of a disagreement regarding whether or not he and Habs General Manager, Marc Bergevin, could ever reach terms of a deal on an extension.

So Bergevin got bold.

He dealt Montréal’s most recognizable skater (not goaltender named “Price”, mind you) to Vegas for a high-caliber prospect, Tatar and a second round pick that he later flipped.

At the time, the Golden Knights claimed victory in the trade– acquiring the biggest star in the here and now, though they’re still searching for that elusive first Cup– while Canadiens fans lamented the loss of their prolific scorer in Pacioretty, but remained hopeful for the future with Suzuki coming into the fold as the team had just drafted Jesperi Kotkaniemi 3rd overall in the 2018 Draft in June.

Three years later, the Habs are a Cinderella team, while Vegas is right where they expected to be– except neither expected to play each other before the Stanley Cup Final, which only amplifies the magnitude of the Pacioretty trade even more.

Oh, then there’s the battle of Fleury and Price in net too, which by now, is worth pointing out that we haven’t even gotten into how each team could win the series.

For the Golden Knights, it’s their potent offense that’s generated throughout the lineup.

Vegas head coach, Peter DeBoer, rolls four lines and three defensive pairings and any and all players on the ice can find a way to wire a puck into the twine one way or another.

For the Canadiens, it all comes down to Price as the team’s offense has mostly relied upon a top-heavy approach.

That’s not to say that Corey Perry or Staal can’t be a determining factor in the clutch, but rather that in a standard “which team has the better offense, better defense and/or better goaltending” checklist, well, Vegas has scored 40 goals this postseason to Montréal’s 28 goals for.

Price should help the Canadiens steal a game or two in the series, but unless their miracle run finds a way to continue, the Golden Knights should wrap things up in six games.

Schedule:

6/14- Game 1 MTL @ VGK 9 PM ET on NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS

6/16- Game 2 MTL @ VGK 9 PM ET on NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS

6/18- Game 3 VGK @ MTL 8 PM ET on USA, CBC, SN, TVAS

6/20- Game 4 VGK @ MTL 8 PM ET on NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS

6/22- Game 5 MTL @ VGK 9 PM ET on NBCSN, SN, TVAS*

6/24- Game 6 VGK @ MTL 8 PM ET on USA, CBC, SN, TVAS*

6/26- Game 7 MTL @ VGK 8 PM ET on NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS*

*If necessary

Categories
NHL Nick's Net Previews

Lightning seeking back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Final

There are four teams remaining in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs and for the first time since 1981, there are no Conference Finals going on.

Due to the ongoing global pandemic, the National Hockey League was forced to temporarily realign the divisions and get rid of conferences for a season as the league and it’s players’ union did what they could to get an abbreviated 56-game regular season schedule and a full Stanley Cup Playoffs experience in the history books.

In May, ESPN‘s Greg Wyshynski reported that the league would not award the Prince of Wales Trophy and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl to the victors of the equivalent third round, but after the Vegas Golden Knights eliminated the Colorado Avalanche in six games to conclude the Second Round of this year’s postseason on Thursday, the league apparently changed its mind.

With a regular all-Eastern Conference matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders, as well as 50% of the teams representing the Western Conference in the other Semifinal series, both trophies will be awarded to the third round series winners after all.

The winner of the Lightning and Islanders series will take home the Prince of Wales Trophy, while either the Golden Knights or the Montréal Canadiens will win the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl.

Montréal can join a short list of teams to have won both trophies in franchise history, as only the Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks and Islanders have won each before.

How is this possible, you ask?

Well, for starters, the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl was introduced in the 1967-68 season and awarded to the team that finished with the best regular season record in the West Division (the precursor to the Western Conference in the modern era), while the Prince of Wales Trophy dates back to the 1925-26 season and, you guessed it, eventually became the East Division (pre-Eastern Conference days) equivalent.

Ahead of the 1981-82 season, however, the league changed its postseason to include a Conference Finals round, thus involving these trophies in the playoffs and eventually leading to the creation of the Presidents’ Trophy for the team with the best regular season record since the 1985-86 season.

So anyway, the teams mentioned above that won both have changed conferences and divisions over time.

Now let’s talk about one-half of the Semifinal matchups– the Lightning and the Islanders.

(2) Tampa Bay Lightning (36-17-3, 75 points) vs (3) New York Islanders (32-17-7, 71 points)

Tampa: 56 games played, .670 points percentage, 29 regulation wins.

N.Y. Islanders: 56 games played, .634 points percentage, 24 regulation wins.

The Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated the Florida Panthers in six games (4-2) in the First Round before taking care of the Carolina Hurricanes in a five-game upset (4-1) to represent the Discover NHL Central Division in the 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinals.

They’re also the defending Stanley Cup champions looking to be the first team to repeat as such since the Pittsburgh Penguins won back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017.

The Bolts have followed the league’s salary cap rules to a “T”, which enabled them to spend almost $99 million as the playoffs began because Nikita Kucherov had been on the long term injured reserve all season long and due to the fact that the cap ceiling disappears for the postseason.

Brayden Point led the Lightning in the regular season with 23-25–48 totals in 56 games, while Ondrej Palat (15-31–46 totals in 55 games) and Victor Hedman (9-36–45 totals in 54 games) rounded out the top-three in scoring on the roster in 2020-21.

Through 11 games this postseason, Kucherov hasn’t missed a beat, leading his teammates with 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in that span.

Tampa’s captain, Steven Stamkos, missed the last part of the regular season, but returned in time for the playoffs and has not missed any action due to injury.

As a result, he’s had 5-8–13 totals in 11 games– good enough for the second-most points by a Lightning skater in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while Point (8-4–12 totals in 11 games) and Alex Killorn (6-6–12 totals in 11 games) are tied for the third-most on the postseason roster.

In the crease, Andrei Vasilevskiy led Tampa’s netminders with a 31-10-1 record in 42 games played (42 starts), yielding a 2.21 goals-against average, a .925 save percentage and five shutouts in the process.

Curtis McElhinney served as Vasilevskiy’s backup and amassed a 4-6-2 record in 12 games (12 starts), as well as a 3.09 goals-against average, an .875 save percentage and one shutout in that span.

Christopher Gibson even got a little time in net, recording a 1-1-0 record in two games (two starts), as well as a 2.65 goals-against average and an .875 save percentage.

Thus far in the playoffs, Vasilevskiy has yet to be chased from the crease– putting up an 8-3 record in 11 games (11 starts) to go with his 2.24 goals-against average and .934 save percentage.

Oh and he’s more than doubled his career postseason shutout total– recording two so far in Tampa’s quest for back-to-back rings.

At the other end of the rink, the New York Islanders beat two teams they’re used to beating in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs– defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games (4-2) in the First Round and the Boston Bruins in six games (4-2), as well, in the Second Round to reach the 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinals as the MassMutual NHL East Division’s representation.

Head coach, Barry Trotz, is still using his modified trap, though New York’s potent offense is actually leading the way in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 43 goals for thus far.

Vegas is second with 40 goals for, while Tampa sits third with 38 goals for and the best goal differential in the postseason so far with a plus-12 differential.

Mathew Barzal (17-28–45 totals in 55 games) led the Isles in scoring in the regular season. Josh Bailey (8-27–35 totals in 54 games), Brock Nelson (18-15–33 totals in 56 gmaes) and Jordan Eberle (16-17–33 totals in 56 games) rounded out the top-three in team scoring in 2020-21.

Through 12 games this postseason, Jean-Gabriel Pageau has emerged at peak performance at the right time of the year to be on top of one’s game, leading the Islanders in playoff scoring with 3-10–13 totals.

Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier each have 11 points in 12 games, while Nelson has the fourth-most points on the playoff roster with 6-4–10 totals in that span.

In net, Semyon Varlamov led the way as New York’s starter, amassing a 19-11-4 record in 36 games (35 starts), as well as a 2.04 goals-against average, a .929 save percentage and tied for the league lead in shutouts with Colorado Avalanche netminder, Philipp Grubauer, blanking opponents on the scoreboard seven times each this season.

Ilya Sorokin’s first season in the NHL was served in a backup role, going 13-6-3 in 22 games (21 starts) and accruing a 2.17 goals-against average, a .918 save percentage and three shutouts in that span.

Though Sorokin ultimately helped the Islanders get over the Penguins in the First Round, his Game 1 performance against Boston left something to be desired, forcing Trotz to hand the keys to the crease back to Varlamov.

Varlamov’s gone on to post a 4-3 record in seven games (seven starts) this postseason, notching a 2.62 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage in the process.

Sorokin, meanwhile, has a 4-1 record in five games (five starts), as well as a 2.32 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage.

With the way Varlamov’s been playing as of late– recording 40 saves against the Bruins some nights– it’s not likely that Sorokin will see any action against the Bolts.

Unlike how the Lightning got a key component of their roster in Kucherov back in time for when it counts, New York’s captain, Anders Lee, remains sidelined until the 2021-22 season with a knee injury.


These two teams are meeting for the fourth time in a playoff series, with the Lightning holding a 3-0 all time advantage, having defeated the Islanders in five games (4-1) in the 2004 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, in five games (4-1) again in the 2016 Second Round, as well as in six games (4-2) in the 2020 Eastern Conference Final.

For the second year in a row, these two clubs are squaring off in the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but unlike last year’s neutral site at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, the home crowds may be a factor in 2021.

What’s more, these two teams have yet to play each other thanks to the temporary division realignment for 2020-21, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

If history is any indicator, it’s that Tampa should win the series and extend their all time advantage to 4-0, but New York presented a challenge to the Bolts last year that is sure to be amplified by both rosters’ familiarity with each other, as well as the fact that the Lightning will have to go through the ringer that is known as Nassau Live at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

This isn’t to say that the fans in attendance at Amalie Arena won’t be just as boisterous, but there’s something to be said about a Long Island crowd this time of year– especially one that’s been longing for their first Stanley Cup title since 1983.

Not only that, but it’d be a great way to send the building off into retirement as the Islanders move into their new home in Elmont, New York at UBS Arena next season.

That said, the Lightning have home-ice advantage in this series for the first time this postseason and they’ve been pretty good at stealing games on the road– winning two out of three games in the First Round at BB&T Center against Florida and all three games held at PNC Arena in their Second Round series with Carolina.

2020 Stanley Cup winning head coach, Jon Cooper, pitted against 2018 Stanley Cup winning head coach in Trotz (then of the Washington Capitals)– this rematch is sure to be one hell of a battle.

Though the Lightning have cruised thus far, there’s something to be said about the tenacity of the Islanders and the way momentum seems to be working in their favor.

For the first time, it looks like New York will come out on top against Tampa and they’ll likely do it over seven games of some of the best hockey fans desire leading up to the Stanley Cup Final.

If it’s anything shorter, it’ll be because Vasilevskiy continued to stay hot and the Islanders gave up too many power plays to the Lightning, but New York was one of the least penalized teams in the regular season.

If the offense doesn’t sputter, the Isles have their best chance at getting back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1984, when they lost in five games to the Edmonton Oilers.

Schedule:

6/13- Game 1 NYI @ TBL 3 PM ET on NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS

6/15- Game 2 NYI @ TBL 8 PM ET on NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS

6/17- Game 3 TBL @ NYI 8 PM ET on USA, CBC, SN, TVAS

6/19- Game 4 TBL @ NYI 8 PM ET on USA, CBC, SN, TVAS

6/21- Game 5 NYI @ TBL 8 PM ET on NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS*

6/23- Game 6 TBL @ NYI 8 PM ET on NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS*

6/25- Game 7 NYI @ TBL 8 PM ET on NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS*

*If necessary

Categories
NHL Nick's Net

Lightning strike three times in, 3-2, win against Boston

Is it really August or is it actually just Groundhog Day for the Boston Bruins? The B’s dropped another one, 3-2, to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday in their second game of the Round Robin tournament to determine the No. 1-4 seeds for the Eastern Conference in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Andrei Vasilevskiy (2-0-0, 1.92 goals against average, .933 save percentage in two games) turned aside 25 out of 27 shots faced for a .926 SV% in the win for the Lightning.

Meanwhile, Bruins goaltender, Tuukka Rask (0-1-0, 3.10 GAA, .914 SV% in one game) made 32 saves on 35 shots against for a .914 SV% in the loss at the NHL’s Eastern Conference bubble– Scotiabank Arena– in Toronto, Ontario.

Entering Wednesday, Patrice Bergeron had a day off at practice on Monday, which Bruins head coach, Bruce Cassidy, later clarified to reporters was just a maintenance day, while Rask was back to practice on Monday and returned to the lineup against the Lightning.

Rask mentioned at his media conference call after Monday’s practice that he spent a couple of days quarantined in his hotel room after having a cough and needed to have two negative tests for COVID-19 in order to return.

“I had a cough so I just clicked ‘yes’ on the app and then all kinds of red lights started blinking so I was quarantined for two days. They wanted to do two negative tests after that,” Rask explained to reporters via Zoom.

Nick Ritchie was also back in the lineup after missing last Sunday’s, 4-1, loss against the Philadelphia Flyers, while Ondrej Kase was ruled out of Wednesday’s action against Tampa, but should be good to go against Washington, according to Cassidy.

As a result, Cassidy switched up his middle lines from last Sunday’s matchup with the Flyers to Wednesday’s meeting with the Lightning.

Ritchie took to David Krejci’s left wing with Karson Kuhlman on the other side, while Anders Bjork was on the left side of Charlie Coyle on the third line– with Jake DeBrusk serving as the right winger.

The Bruins made no other changes to their lineup.

Meanwhile, Zach Senyshyn, Par Lindholm, John Moore, Kase, Maxime Lagace, Urho Vaakanainen, Jakub Zboril, Jack Studnicka, Connor Clifton, Dan Vladar and Trent Frederic served as Boston’s scratches.

Jon Cooper’s Lightning were without their captain, Steven Stamkos, in the lineup once again. Stamkos has yet to make his Round Robin debut for the Bolts (with their last matchup before the First Round against Philadelphia set for Saturday).

Less than a minute into the action, Jeremy Lauzon was caught trailing Blake Coleman and hooked the Lightning forward, resulting in a power play for the Bolts 43 seconds into the first period.

Tampa was not able to convert on the ensuing skater advantage, however.

Brayden Point (2) slipped a loose puck through Rask’s five-hole after Rask made the initial save and follow up stop, while the Bruins scrambled to defender after blowing a pair of chances to score at the other end.

Ondrej Palat (1) and Nikita Kucherov (1) tallied the assists on Point’s goal and the Lightning led, 1-0, at 7:33 of the first period.

A few minutes later, the Bruins had too many skaters on the ice and were assessed a bench minor for doing so at 10:19. Ritchie served the bench infraction, but Tampa’s power play struck fast.

Alex Killorn (1) redirected a shot with the back of his skate blade after the puck deflected off of Sean Kuraly’s stick initially off a shot from teh point by Lightning defender, Victor Hedman.

Hedman (1) and Tyler Johnson (1) notched the assists on the goal and the Bolts led, 2-0, at 10:32.

Late in the period, chaos ensued as both teams took issue with one another– culminating in Torey Krug and Coleman exchanging fisticuffs at 17:07, and continuing almost 90 seconds later when Point and Charlie McAvoy shared an embrace and with it roughing minor penalties.

Point earned two roughing infractions, while McAvoy was only charged with one at 18:25, yielding the first power play of the game for Boston, but the Bruins couldn’t hit the twine in the dying minutes of the opening frame.

After one period of play, the Lightning led, 2-0, on the scoreboard, but the B’s held the advantage in shots on goal, 9-8.

Boston held the advantage in blocked shots (6-2), but Tampa had the edge in just about every other statistical category, including takeaways (4-1), hits (13-11) and faceoff win percentage (61-39).

Both teams had one giveaway aside, while the Bolts were 1/2 on the power play and the B’s were 0/1 heading into the first intermission.

Early in the middle frame, Coleman was penalized for interference when he brought down Kuraly while crashing the net at 4:37 of the second period, but (in what was a trend for the afternoon) Boston’s power play wasn’t able to convert on the advantage.

Late in the period McAvoy (1) one-timed a shot from the point on a pass from Krug off a faceoff win by Bergeron and cut Tampa’s lead in half.

Boston was on the board, 2-1, while Krug (1) and Bergeron (1) picked up their first points of the Round Robin games at 16:43.

Entering the second intermission, Tampa was ahead, 2-1, on the scoreboard and, 19-18, in shots on goal– including an, 11-9, advantage in the second period alone.

The Lightning led in blocked shots (11-7) and takeaways (5-3) after 40 minutes of action, while the Bruins held the advantage in giveaways (7-3), hits (26-19) and faceoff win% (63-38).

Tampa remained 1/2 on the power play, while Boston dropped to 0/2 on the skater advantage.

Chris Wagner (2) tapped in a loose puck after Zdeno Chara fired a shot that leaked through Vasilevskiy at 1:47 of the third period and the Bruins tied the game, 2-2.

Chara (1) and Kuraly (1) had the assists on Wagner’s goal and Boston swung momentum in their favor– only until about the midpoint of the final frame.

Kucherov tripped Wagner at 5:13 of the third period, but the Bruins didn’t convert on the skater advantage.

Midway through the third, Barclay Goodrow caught Bjork with a charge and was assessed a minor penalty at 10:19. Once more, Boston’s power play couldn’t get anything going and did not convert on the advantage.

From there, momentum shifted back to Tampa as the Bruins let rush after rush enter their own zone.

Yanni Gourde threw the puck on net, Rask made an initial pad save, but Johnson (1) scored on the rebound while Brandon Carlo was trailing behind the play and Krug was defending the other side where the Lightning entered the zone.

Gourde (1) and Killorn (1) collected the assists on Johnson’s game-winning goal and the Bolts grabbed the, 3-2, lead at 18:33 of the third period– with just enough time to hold off any last ditch efforts from Boston.

Cassidy pulled his netminder for an extra attacker with about 1:15 remaining, but it was to no avail as the final horn sounded and the Lightning won, 3-2.

The Bolts finished the afternoon leading in shots on goal (35-27) and blocked shots (16-10), while the B’s finished with the advantage in giveaways (11-10), hits (31-28) and faceoff win% (61-39).

Tampa finished 1/2 on the skater advantage and Boston went 0/4 on the power play on Wednesday.

The Bruins fell to 0-2-0 in the Round Robin action and can finish no better than 3rd in the seeding with a win against the Washington Capitals in any fashion on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Lightning can all but assure themselves of the No. 1 seed with a win in any fashion against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday.

Categories
NHL Nick's Net Previews

2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier Preview: Eastern Conference

Hockey’s back. In August!?! In this economy?!?

Yes, truer words have never been spoken. Hockey. Is. Back.

But not in the way you’re probably thinking if you’ve been under a rock for the last– let’s see, what month is it now?

The National Hockey League paused the 2019-20 regular season on March 12th due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic before canceling the rest of the regular season in late May and announcing a 24-team playoff format for 2020.

Make no mistake, whether you put an asterisk next to the winners of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final or not– it’ll be the hardest Cup to win since Lord Stanley of Preston announced he’d donate the silver rose bowl to the best hockey team in the world (so Canada) on March 18, 1892.

Despite all the training world class athletes do in contemporary times, nothing could prepare any athlete to stop playing, go through training camp after months of (in some cases) not being able to skate on any ice, then go full throttle for a championship tournament.

If anything, the asterisk next to the 2020 Stanley Cup champions will simply be a marker for the challenging times and remarkable feats of athleticism that team went through to put it all together and lift a 35-pound trophy at the end.

By now you’ve probably heard how the 2020 postseason will work– 24 teams vying for 16 spots, with eight teams (four in each conference) already locked into the playoffs, but fighting for the top-four seeds as the other 16 teams compete in a best-of-five series to punch a ticket into the playoffs.

Those 16 teams are in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which technically isn’t part of the 2020 postseason according to the NHL, but the individual player and team stats will count towards the playoffs in the record books.

So for Arizona Coyotes fans, the long standing playoff drought since 2012, technically isn’t over yet. They’d have to beat the Nashville Predators first.

With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference Qualifiers, while the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers sort themselves out.

All Eastern Conference games will be at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario until the Eastern Conference Final and Stanley Cup Final (both of which will be held in Edmonton, Alberta at Rogers Place).

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, 86 points) vs (12) Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, 71 points)

Pittsburgh: 69 games played, .623 points percentage, 29 regulation wins.

Montreal: 71 games played, .500 points percentage, 19 regulation wins.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were 5th in the Eastern Conference at the time of the pause and being led by Evgeni Malkin with 74 points in 55 games played, while Bryan Rust (56 points in 55 games) and Sidney Crosby 47 points in 41 games) trailed the Russian star on the roster. 

Yes, Malkin missed 14 games and still amassed 74 points in a season for the Penguins, while Pens head coach, Mike Sullivan, carefully charted the course through a bevy of injuries to bring his team within striking range of the Metropolitan Division lead had the regular season seen its full conclusion.

The Washington Capitals topped the Metropolitan Division with 90 points. The Philadelphia Flyers had 89. Pittsburgh had 86.

An annual Stanley Cup contender since Sullivan led the Penguins to back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017 (their second and third since 2009– fourth and fifth in franchise history), Pittsburgh’s goaltending might be the only thing that holds them back from their 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup with the Montreal Canadiens.

Matt Murray had a down year with a 2.87 goals against average and an .899 save percentage in 38 games played– his worst goals against average since he had a 2.92 GAA in 49 games in 2017-18 and his worst-career save percentage in a season. Murray finished the shortened season with a 20-11-5 record and one shutout in 38 starts.

Backup netminder, Tristan Jarry, went 20-12-1 in 33 games played (31 starts) and had a 2.43 GAA, as well as a .921 SV% and three shutouts.

Murray’s leash through the exhibition games should be a short one, despite his career 2.16 GAA and .921 SV% in 48 Stanley Cup Playoff games. His goals against average reached a career-low 1.70 in 11 games en route to Pittsburgh’s Cup win in 2017, but rose to a 2.43 in 2018 (12 games) and a 3.02 in 2019 (four games) as the Penguins were swept by the New York Islanders in last year’s First Round.

It’s not that he can’t bounce back, but rather that Sullivan should ride the hotter goaltender and force a little healthy competition if it yields the best in Murray’s game. If not, it’ll either be sink or swim with Jarry in the crease.

At the other end of the rink, the Montreal Canadiens went .500 this season and were mired in 12th place in the Eastern Conference at the stoppage with what looked like little hope for a late season surge into the postseason, despite leading scorer, Tomas Tatar (22-39–61 totals in 68 games played) and starting goaltender, Carey Price’s best efforts.

Phillip Danault had the second-most points on the Habs roster this season with 13 goals and 34 assists (47 points) in 71 games played, while Max Domi was third in scoring on the team with 44 points in 71 games.

Price led Montreal in net with a 27-25-6 record in 58 games played (58 starts), a 2.79 GAA, a .909 SV% and four shutouts this season. Since his 2.23 GAA and .923 SV% in 62 games in 2016-17, Price has not had a goals against average below 2.30 or a save percentage better than .920. He had a 3.11 GAA and a .900 SV% in 49 games in 2017-18, as well as a 2.49 GAA and a .918 SV% in 66 games last season.

As he approaches his mid-30s and the league shifts more and more towards tandem goaltending, Price shouldn’t be playing more than 50 games in a regular season, but the Canadiens struggled with finding a backup this season.

Charlie Lindgren went 2-4-0 in six games (six starts) and had a 3.33 GAA, as well as an .888 SV%. Meanwhile, Cayden Primeau went 1-1-0 in two games (both starts) and had a 2.52 GAA and a .931 SV%.

Keith Kinkaid also made an appearance with six games played (five starts), a 1-1-3 record, a 4.24 GAA and an .875 SV%.

Claude Julien has over 400 regular season wins as the head coach of the Boston Bruins and won the Cup with the B’s in 2011, but that was nine years ago and he’s three full seasons into his second stint behind the bench as head coach of the Canadiens.

His teams aren’t known for keeling over and being swept out of the playoffs, so they’ll likely be able to win one as Montreal scratches and claws their way to victory in classic Julien-style blue-collar work ethic fashion, but can he get it done against Pittsburgh in today’s NHL?

Especially when falling behind the eight ball is even more significant in a best-of-five series than it is in a best-of-seven.

Price might be fresh, but Pittsburgh’s got an offense and a defense. Plus the Penguins did win two out of their three regular season matchups and Crosby and Malkin are ready to make yet another postseason appearance– regardless of how far things will actually go.

It’s not out of the question that the Habs will be able to steal a game, but the Penguins should have this series wrapped up in four games and punch their ticket to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Regular season outcomes:

4-1 MTL at PPG Paints Arena on Dec. 10th, 3-2 F/OT PIT at Bell Centre on Jan. 4th, 4-1 PIT at PPG Paints Arena on Feb. 14th

Schedule:

8/1- Game 1 MTL @ PIT in Toronto 8 PM ET on NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS

8/3- Game 2 MTL @ PIT in Toronto 8 PM ET NBCSN, SN, TVAS

8/5- Game 3 PIT @ MTL in Toronto 8 PM ET NBCSN, SN, TVAS

8/7- Game 4 PIT @ MTL in Toronto*

8/8- Game 5 MTL @ PIT in Toronto*

*If necessary

(6) Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5, 81 points) vs (11) New York Rangers (37-28-5, 79 points)

Carolina: 68 games played, .596 points percentage, 27 regulation wins

N.Y. Rangers: 70 games played, .564 points percentage, 31 regulation wins

Rod Brind’Amour and the Carolina Hurricanes have their work cut out for them in what just might be the only series that would be an upset if the higher seed wins. The Hurricanes lost all four regular season matchups against the Rangers, despite Sebastian Aho’s team-leading 66 points in 68 games on the season.

Aho set a new career-high in goals (38) and had a pair of goals against New York this season, but fell shy of establishing a new career-high in points after putting up 83 points in 82 games last season. Of course, a pandemic shortened regular season will have something to do with that.

Regardless, he was on pace for about 80 points at the time the NHL season was paused.

Teuvo Teravainen continued to show that he’s one of the most consistent performers in the league with a respectable 48 assists and 63 points in 68 games played as one of Carolina’s more “veteran” players, despite only being 25-years-old.

Meanwhile, Andrei Svechnikov scored two lacrosse goals this season and managed to improve on all fronts from his rookie season (20-17–37 totals in 82 games last season) with 24 goals and 37 assists (61 points) in 68 games in 2019-20. He was on pace for almost 30 goals and around 73 points in his sophomore season had the pandemic not called it short.

In goal, David Ayres led the way with– just kidding– Petr Mrazek went 21-16-2 in 40 games this season (38 starts) and had a 2.69 GAA, as well as a .905 SV% and three shutouts. Not great, but not the worst entering the Qualifiers.

He’ll have to do much better than his 2.73 GAA and .894 SV% in 11 games in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs if he has any hopes of catapulting his team over the Rangers and backstopping them to a deep playoff run like last year.

That said, Curtis McElhinney was the one that replaced him against the Boston Bruins in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final after Mrazek allowed ten goals against in the series, compared to McElhinney’s five.

The good news for the Hurricanes, however, is that McElhinney’s numbers have been way off the mark this season and he’s the current backup for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Plus James Reimer exists in Carolina.

Reimer went 14-6-2 in 25 games for the Canes this season and had a 2.66 GAA, as well as a .914 SV% and three shutouts– so basically he’s the same as Mrazek, only Reimer’s looking for a bigger redemption arc in the postseason than being remembered as the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender in Boston’s epic, 5-4, overtime comeback in the 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal.

That wasn’t even Reimer’s last appearance in the playoffs, however, as he had a brief stint (29 minutes) with the San Jose Sharks en route to their 2016 Stanley Cup Final appearance.

Brind’Amour might be wise to use his best defensive game and start Reimer in Game 1 against the Rangers, except Mrazek had an .861 SV% against New York in three games this season, while Reimer had a .792 SV%.

Advantage… …Mrazek? But on a short leash?

On the other hand, the New York Rangers enter their Qualifier matchup with the Hurricanes two points behind Carolina in the season standings and three spots behind them in the Metropolitan Division standings that are virtually obsolete this postseason.

The Hurricanes had 81 points. The Rangers had 79 points. First place through seventh place in the division was separated by 11 points at the time of the stoppage.

And at that point, 2019-20 Hart Memorial Trophy finalist, Artemi Panarin, had already amassed 32-63–95 totals in 69 games for New York.

He had nine points (three goals, six assists) against the Hurricanes this season, while Mika Zibanejad sat 20 points behind Panarin in team scoring with 41 goals and 34 assists (75 points) in 57 games– including four goals and three assists against Carolina this season.

Ryan Strome carried third place honors for the Rangers in scoring this season with 18-41–59 totals in 70 games.

Rangers head coach, David Quinn, also doesn’t have an easy decision to make with his goaltenders heading to Toronto for their series against Carolina.

Henrik Lundqvist made three starts against the Canes and went 3-0-0, while stopping 125 shots out of 132 shots against (.947 SV%) in that span.

Igor Shesterkin made 27 saves on 29 shots against (.931 SV%) in his one start and one win against Carolina this season.

Lundqvist went 10-12-3 on the season in 30 games played (26 starts) with a 3.16 GAA, a .905 SV% and one shutout.

Shesterkin went 10-2-0 in 12 games played (12 starts) and had a 2.52 GAA, as well as a .932 SV%.

Oh yeah, and Alexandar Georgiev went 17-14-2 in 34 games (32 starts) while putting up a 3.04 GAA, a .910 SV% and two shutouts.

One thing is clearer now more than ever before– “King Henrik” is no longer king in “The Big Apple”.

Shesterkin should receive the nod for the playoffs, but this is just the Qualifier. It technically doesn’t count unless you win three out of the next possible five games.

In that case, Quinn could rely on Lundqvist to get the job done, then give Shesterkin his first real taste of the NHL’s toughest job– being a goaltender in the playoffs– since Lundqvist has a history for seemingly always having Carolina’s number when it matters most for the Hurricanes.

Regardless of who’s in net, New York holds all the advantages coming into this series.

The Rangers scored 17 goals for against Hurricanes and allowed nine goals against over their four games against one another.

Carolina threw the kitchen sink at New York on net– totaling 161 shots on goal in their four regular season matchups with the Blue Shirts– but Lundqvist was the key difference maker.

That said, the Hurricanes knocked off the then defending Cup champion Washington Capitals in seven games in last year’s First Round.

But can Brind’Amour motivate his players enough to get the job done more efficiently when the series is only a best-of-five instead of having the luxury to drag things out all seven games like they did against the Caps?

And with back-to-back games incorporated in the schedule, conditions are clearly unfavorable for the Hurricanes in their David and Goliath matchup (again, despite being the higher seed).

One thing that works in their favor? There’s no travel outside the bubble to and from the games, so that’s a plus.

Knowing how The Hockey Gods work, it’d be foolish not to believe this series won’t go all five games just because. Either that or Carolina will pull off the three-game sweep of the Rangers after losing every single regular season game against New York in 2019-20.

Flip a coin and that’s your winner– this series might just be a lot closer and more intense than you think.

Rangers in five, but don’t be surprised if/when Carolina defeats them.

Sit back and enjoy.

Regular season outcomes:

4-2 NYR at PNC Arena on Nov. 7th, 3-2 NYR at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 27th, 5-3 NYR at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 27th, 5-2 NYR at PNC Arena on Feb. 21st

Schedule:

8/1- Game 1 NYR @ CAR in Toronto 12 PM ET on NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, SN360, TVAS

8/3- Game 2 NYR @ CAR in Toronto 12 PM ET on NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, SN360, TVAS

8/4- Game 3 CAR @ NYR in Toronto 8 PM ET on NBCSN, SN360, TVAS

8/6- Game 4 CAR @ NYR in Toronto*

8/8- Game 5 NYR @ CAR in Toronto*

*If necessary

(7) New York Islanders (35-23-10, 80 points) vs (10) Florida Panthers (35-26-8, 78 points)

N.Y. Islanders: 68 games played, .588 points percentage, 24 regulation wins

Florida: 69 games played, .565 points percentage, 30 regulation wins

Barry Trotz is still coaching the trap in today’s NHL, which, honestly, you have to hand it to him. His defense first mindset has turned the New York Islanders into a playoff contender since his arrival last season.

The only bad thing that’s come with Trotz’s arrival and John Tavares’ departure– a lack of goal scoring.

It’s no secret that to win games, your team must score more goals than the other team, whether it’s a, 10-9, high-scoring victory or a, 1-0, shutout.

Unfortunately for Trotz, the Isles ranked ninth in fewest goals for this season with 192, which is the worst among all the Qualifier team. Yes, even Montreal and Chicago each had 212 goals for this season, despite their minus-6 and minus-9 goal differentials, respectively.

At least the Islanders only allowed one more goal than they scored in the pandemic shortened regular season.

Anyway, Mathew Barzal led the charge for New York this season with 19-41–60 totals in 68 games played, while Brock Nelson (54 points in 68 games) and Anders Lee (43 points in 68 games) followed suit.

Barzal was on pace for 23 goals and 72 points this season, which would’ve been a career-high in goals in a season for the young forward only having just completed his third full season. Nevertheless, scoring at least 60 points in three consecutive seasons is respectable.

Nelson scored 26 goals this season, which marked back to back seasons of at least 20 goals for the 28-year-old. He was on pace for 31 goals in what was already a career-season in the making.

Lee was on pace for 52 points after putting up 20-23–43 totals in 68 games, which would have given him four consecutive seasons of 50-plus points.

But it’s not all about what would’ve been for the Islanders, because the future is here in goaltender Ilya Sorokin– oh wait, he can’t play in the 2020 postseason due to the NHL’s Return to Play rulings, which is fine– just means that next year’s looking good for the Isles.

In net, Semyon Varlamov amassed a 19-14-6 record in 45 games played (39 starts) with a 2.62 GAA and a .914 SV%, as well as two shutouts to go with it.

Ideally, you’d like a starting goaltender in the NHL to be closer to 2.50, maybe even 2.30 in goals against average and around a .920 in save percentage, but we addressed some of New York’s shortcomings this season– a lack of offense and injuries on defense with Adam Pelech limited to 38 games.

Thomas Greiss had a 16-9-4 record in 31 games (29 starts) with a 2.74 GAA and a .913 SV% in the process.

It’s likely his last season on Long Island/in Brooklyn with Sorokin signed for the next couple of seasons, so if he sees any ice time in the series, he’ll have to be better in order to prove his next payday at the expense of another team via free agency in November.

New York brought in Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the trade deadline from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for a conditional 2020 1st round pick (can become a 2021 1st round pick if the Islanders lose in the Qualifier and win the 1st overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft–a.k.a. top-3 lottery protected), a 2020 2nd round pick and a conditional 2022 3rd round pick (if New York wins the Cup in 2020), then signed Pageau to a six-year extension worth $5.000 million per season.

Though it was all too short to effectively judge Pageau in an Islanders sweater, it’s worth noting he scored two goals in seven games so far. That’s it.

A boost for the third line, sure, but his effectiveness in a new surrounding remains to be seen, which could be a key to New York defeating the Florida Panthers who lack an important figure in Vincent Trocheck since trading him to the Carolina Hurricanes for Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark, Chase Priskie and Eetu Luostarinen at the deadline on Feb. 24th.

Speaking of the Panthers, Florida was led by Jonathan Huberdeau in scoring this season with 23 goals and 55 assists (78 points) in 69 games this season.

Aleksander Barkov had his fifth consecutive 20-goal season– one season removed from his career-high 35 goals (and 96 points!) last season– and was on pace for 25 tallies this season at the stoppage.

And bringing up the rear in Florida’s top-three scorers this season was Mike Hoffman with 29 goals and 30 assists (59 points) in 69 games. Hoffman finished one goal shy of back to back 30-goal seasons and was on pace to match his career-high 70 points in a season had the regular season been uninterrupted.

In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky probably wishes he could ask for a mulligan this season after going 23-19-6 in 50 games played (49 starts) and amassing a 3.23 GAA, as well as a .900 SV% and one shutout.

Yes, you read that right– one shutout this season. After leading the league with nine shutouts last season, Bobrovsky was far beyond a disappointment in his first year of a seven-year, $70 million contract.

Meanwhile, Sam Montembeault (5-5-1) started the season as Florida’s backup, but things took a turn after his 3.34 GAA and .890 SV% in 14 games played (nine starts) were no better than Bobrovsky’s career-worst season as a starter.

Alas, Chris Driedger was called up from the Springfield Thunderbirds (AHL) and put up a 7-2-1 record in 12 games played with a 2.05 GAA, a .938 SV% and one shutout in that span.

The Islanders beat the Panthers in all three regular season matchups this season, but New York has yet to face Driedger.

A word to the wise for Florida’s head coach, Joel Quenneville– what more could you lose by starting Driedger in Game 1?

Bobrovsky hasn’t had the form all season and isn’t going into the playoffs as your surefire starter– $10.000 million cap hit or not. Pray he returns to his two-time Vezina Trophy winning ability in time for 2020-21, but for now he hasn’t earned starter duties and your main focus is on winning three games, let alone going for the Cup with whatever you have for a roster.

The Islanders scored eight goals in their three games against the Panthers this season. They allowed four goals against, while Florida– to their credit– forced New York to a shootout in their first meeting back on Oct. 12th.

New York had 94 total shots on goal against Florida this season.

The Panthers had 108 shots against the Islanders.

It should be a close battle with each team ravaged in some manner– whether by injuries that plagued them all season or lackluster goaltending, neither club is exactly turning heads out there.

The Panthers lost in six games to the Islanders in the 2016 First Round, but this time around it’s a best of five.

New York should win in four games as Trotz has more recent playoff success and the more recent playoff experienced roster to go off of than, yes, Quenneville’s three Stanley Cup Rings from the last ten years.

It’s not that Quenneville can’t pull off the upset, but rather that the Panthers aren’t ready to make a dent in the postseason picture without all the necessary pieces.

The good news for them, at least, is they have a tried and true coach to guide them through what for now will be some growing pains.

Unless 20-goal scorer Noel Acciari pockets a hat trick in three straight games, which sounds quite plausible these days, so who knows!?

Regular season outcomes:

3-2 F/SO NYI at NYCB Live/Nassau Coliseum on Oct. 12th, 2-1 NYI at Barclays Center on Nov. 9th, 3-1 NYI at BB&T Center on Dec. 12th

Schedule:

8/1- Game 1 FLA @ NYI in Toronto 4 PM ET on NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN1, TVAS

8/4- Game 2 FLA @ NYI in Toronto 12 PM ET on NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, TVAS

8/5- Game 3 NYI @ FLA in Toronto 12 PM ET on NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, TVAS

8/7- Game 4 NYI @ FLA in Toronto*

8/9- Game 5 FLA @ NYI in Toronto*

*If necessary

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9, 81 points) vs (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15, 81 points)

Toronto: 70 games played, .579 points percentage, 28 regulation wins

Columbus: 70 games played, .579 points percentage, 25 regulation wins

The Toronto Maple Leafs have home ice advantage and– well, technically, the Qualifier isn’t considered part of the playoffs and there’s a pandemic going on, so no fans are allowed inside the bubble.

But hey, at least there’s hockey in Canadian New York City, so we’ll take it!

The Leafs were led by Auston Matthews in scoring this season as the 22-year-old center finished third in the NHL in goals with 47 of them in 70 games played. He had 80 points overall, which established career-highs in both goals and points in his fourth NHL season– and fourth consecutive season with at least 30 goals.

Oh and for the second time in his young career, Matthews reached the 40-goal plateau and was on the cusp of 50 had it not been for the ongoing pandemic cutting things short. He was on pace for 55 goals at the stoppage.

Mitchell Marner was second on the Leafs roster in scoring with 16-51–67 totals in 59 games played– surpassing the 50-assist plateau for the second straight season and further proving his vital role as a playmaker on the roster.

Meanwhile, John Tavares had 26 goals and 34 assists (60 points) in 63 games, which was down from his 47-41–88 totals last season, but then again, he was on pace for 78 points this season had the regular season seen its proper conclusion, so really he wasn’t all that far off from a typical Tavares year.

As it is, the only time Tavares has ever had less than 50 points in a season was in the lockout shortened, 48-game, 2012-13 season, in which he had 47 points in all 48 games.

Yeah, he’s pretty good.

In the crease, the Maple Leafs were led by Frederik Anderson (29-13-7 record in 52 games played, 2.85 GAA, .909 SV%, three shutouts), but hold the phone! What’s this? Toronto acquired a legitimate backup netminder during the season!?!

That’s right, Jack Campbell (3-2-1 in six games with Toronto, six starts, 2.63 GAA, .915 SV% in that span) is a Maple Leaf and– heaven forbid– is more than capable of bailing out Toronto if things get dire with Andersen.

Oh and Sheldon Keefe is in charge behind the bench.

Plus there’s a wild card this year for Toronto that the rest of the league has yet to see– Nick Robertson. You know, the forward that had 55-31–88 totals in 46 games with the Peterborough Petes (OHL) this season and brings both even more speed and skill to the Maple Leafs lineup.

At the other side of the rink, the Columbus Blue Jackets were battered all season and had a trio of goaltenders at one point as a result, yet somehow, here they are to the surprise of all the experts that had them pegged for 8th place in the Metropolitan Division heading into the 2019-20 season after losing Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency.

It’s all just part of the plan.

Many had them out against the Lightning last year and, well, the Blue Jackets brought the thunder in that series.

Unfortunately for CBJ fans, they couldn’t bring the cannon through customs, but they were able to bring their leading scorer, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and his 18-31–49 totals in 70 games this season.

Gustav Nyquist had a respectable 42-point season (15 goals, 27 assists) in 70 games with Columbus after being brought in via free agency, while Zach Werenski was third on the team in scoring with 20 goals and 21 assists (41 points) from the blue line in 63 games.

Columbus has the better defense on paper, but Toronto’s offense has more than enough firepower to outmatch the Blue Jackets’ best efforts.

In goal, however, emerged the rise of a new king (but not of rock)– Elvis Merzlikins. Though Joonas Korpisalo (19-12-5, 2.60 GAA, .911 SV%, two shutouts) played in more games (37 played, 35 starts) than Merzlikins, No. 90 in red, white and blue had the better numbers with a 13-9-8 record in 33 games played (31 starts), as well as a 2.35 GAA, a .923 SV% and five shutouts.

It’s the dawn of a new age in Columbus as a hot, young, goaltending tandem has arrived with the departure of Bobrovsky.

It’ll be Merzlikins’ biggest test, but the Blue Jackets just might be a lot better off now more than ever riding the hot goaltender.

Plus they struck down the dragon last spring and made it out of the First Round for the first time in franchise history, so now anything’s possible moving forward.

On paper this is the most even matchup as both teams finished with 81 points, had 70 games played and went won one out of the two games they played against one another before the pandemic shortened the regular season, but it’s hard to ignore one thing– Tortorella.

Once more Tortorella is a Jack Adams Award finalist and, oh yeah, he’s kind of responsible for figuring out how to not only beat, but sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2019 First Round– you know, last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners.

But a newcomer has entered the chat and that’s Keefe. He led the Toronto Marlies (AHL) to the 2018 Calder Cup championship and many of the players in the Leafs system have encountered his touch in recent years.

Is Keefe the answer to Toronto’s prayers or will yet another team that’s come into the league since their last Cup in 1967 raise Lord Stanley’s mug over their heads while the Maple Leafs are off somewhere preparing for next season?

The good news, this isn’t technically the playoffs yet, so that means Toronto’s got a better chance off the bat.

There’s not as much of a distraction surrounding their opponent (*ahem* for once, it’s not Boston!– yet, anyway), let alone the “hasn’t made it out of the First Round since before the 2004-05 season-long lockout” specter that shadows the Leafs.

The bad news, they’re the Maple Leafs. Of course only something like a pandemic would throw off any momentum they had going into a possible playoff run, etc.

Imagine if the Chicago Cubs didn’t win in 2016, or the Boston Red Sox didn’t win in 2004– yeah, that’s how most Toronto fans feel day-in and day-out– no matter how confident– no matter how much belief they have in the team.

There’s always that chance that something something goes wrong and the curse or whatever remains hanging over the Maple Leafs dressing room and front office.

Leafs in five, then we’ll see what happens, but Tortorella’s teams aren’t easy to knock off their game. This alone might be Toronto’s greatest test in the Matthews, Marner and Co. Era.

Mike Babcock’s gone. They’re playing the “new age” game. Can they get it done?

Regular season outcomes:

4-1 TOR at Nationwide Arena on Oct. 4th, 4-3 F/OT CBJ at Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 21st

Schedule:

8/2- Game 1 CBJ @ TOR 8 PM ET on NHLN, SN, TVAS

8/4- Game 2 CBJ @ TOR 4 PM ET on NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, TVAS

8/6- Game 3 TOR @ CBJ in Toronto TBD

8/7- Game 4 TOR @ CBJ in Toronto*

8/9- Game 5 CBJ @ TOR*

*If necessary


2020 Eastern Conference Round Robin Action

Here’s a quick glance at the Round Robin schedule for the top-four Eastern Conference teams if you’re not at all interested in the Qualifiers for some reason.

Again, all games in the Eastern Conference are in Toronto this year and all times Eastern.

Boston Bruins

44-14-12, 100 points, 70 GP, .714 PTS%, 38 RW

Aug. 2nd vs. PHI in Toronto 3 PM ET on NBC, SN, TVAS

Aug. 5th vs. TBL in Toronto 4 PM ET on NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, TVAS

Aug. 9th @ WSH in Toronto, TBD

Tampa Bay Lightning

43-21-6, 92 points, 70 GP, .657 PTS%, 35 RW

Aug. 3rd vs. WSH in Toronto 4 PM ET on NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN360, TVAS

Aug. 5th @ BOS in Toronto 4 PM ET on NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, TVAS

Aug. 8th vs. PHI in Toronto, TBD

Washington Capitals

41-20-8, 90 points, 69 GP, .652 PTS%, 31 RW

Aug. 3rd @TBL in Toronto 4 PM ET on NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN360, TVAS

Aug. 6th @ PHI in Toronto, TBD

Aug. 9th vs. BOS in Toronto, TBD

Philadelphia Flyers

41-21-7, 89 points, 69 GP, .645 PTS%, 31 RW

Aug. 2nd @ BOS in Toronto 3 PM ET on NBC, SN, TVAS

Aug. 6th vs. WSH in Toronto, TBD

Aug. 8th @ TBL in Toronto, TBD

Categories
NHL Nick's Net

Rask enters “Save of the Year” contention in Boston’s, 3-2, win over Buffalo

A pair of goals from Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak’s 20th goal of the season and one game-changing save from Tuukka Rask catapulted the Boston Bruins over the Buffalo Sabres, 3-2, at TD Garden on Thursday.

Rask (10-2-2 record, 2.05 goals against average, .931 save percentage in 14 games played) made a season-high 36 saves on 38 shots faced for a .947 SV% in the win for the B’s.

Buffalo goaltender, Linus Ullmark (4-5-1, 3.01 GAA, .910 SV% in 10 games played) turned aside 24 shots on 27 shots against for an .889 SV% in the loss.

The Bruins improved to 14-3-5 (33 points) and remained in command of the Atlantic Division, while the Sabres fell to 10-9-3 (23 points) and stuck in 4th place in the Atlantic as the Toronto Maple Leafs were in action in Arizona against the Coyotes (a win in any fashion for the Leafs would drop Buffalo to 5th in the Atlantic Division standings).

Boston is 8-0-4 at home this season in 12 games, which is the longest home point streak since the 1973-74 season. 

Meanwhile, Pastrnak is the fourth different player in Bruins history to reach the 20-goal mark in 22 or fewer games, becoming the fifth fastest behind Phil Esposito (20 goals in 18 games in 1973-74), Cam Neely (20 goals in 19 games in 1993-94), Herb Cain (20 goals in 20 games in 1943-44) and Esposito again (20 goals in 21 games in 1974-75).

The B’s are now on a two-game winning streak and have won three out of their last four games, while the Sabres dropped to 2-8-2 in their last 12 games.

One more, the Bruins were without the services of Kevan Miller (knee), John Moore (shoulder), Karson Kuhlman (fractured tibia), David Backes (upper body), Torey Krug (upper body) and Zach Senyshyn (lower body) on Thursday.

Re-joining the long list of injured B’s was Brett Ritchie (upper body), as announced by Boston head coach, Bruce Cassidy, earlier in the day prior to Thursday night’s matchup with the Sabres.

Ritchie’s infection was reaggravated and kept him out of his 7th game due to injury this season.

Patrice Bergeron was back in the lineup after missing the last two games with a lower body injury. He returned to his usual spot as the first line center with Marchand on his left wing and Pastrnak on his right wing.

Cassidy moved Charlie Coyle to the second line right wing with David Krejci resuming his role as the No. 2 center and Jake DeBrusk remaining on the left side.

Par Lindholm was left as the third line center with Anders Bjork on his left wing and Danton Heinen on his right wing.

Cassidy left his fourth line trio of Joakim Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner alone, as well as his defensive pairings in the same shape as they’ve been with Krug out due to injury.

Steven Kampfer remained Boston’s only healthy scratch on Thursday.

Early in the period, Lindholm went down the tunnel with an injury after it appeared he might have been cut by a skate in a collision with Rasmus Asplund. He returned to the bench by the end of the period, but only played 20 seconds in his first shift of the night.

Lindholm later returned to the ice in the second period and resumed his usual duties.

Moments later, Kuraly tripped Buffalo’s Evan Rodrigues and was sent to the penalty box at 5:05 of the first period– yielding the game’s first power play to the Sabres.

Buffalo’s power play unit worked quickly and effectively as Rasmus Ristolainen (1) pocketed a rebound into the back of the net from right in the crease after Rask made the initial save.

Jack Eichel (13) and Victor Olofsson (9) tallied the assists on Ristolainen’s power play goal that made it, 1-0, Sabres at 5:25.

It was just the 6th time in 22 games that the Bruins allowed the game’s first goal.

What was more troubling for the B’s wasn’t that they were down early, but rather that they didn’t record their first shot on net until 12:11.

About a couple minutes later, Zdeno Chara fired a shot from the point that Marchand (14) tipped in from the low slot, tying the game, 1-1, on Boston’s 2nd shot of the night at 13:52.

Chara (5) and Pastrnak (16) had the assists on Marchand’s goal.

Less than a minute later, after a scrum in front of the net followed a puck frozen by a goaltender, Wagner dropped the gloves with Curtis Lazar in what was just Boston’s 3rd fight of the season (and first since Marchand fought Filip Hronek on Nov. 8th in Detroit).

Both players also received matching roughing minors at 14:14, resulting in no skater advantages.

Entering the first intermission, the score was tied, 1-1, despite the Sabres leading in shots on goal, 17-4.

Buffalo held the lead in takeaways (6-4) and hits (8-7), while Boston led in blocked shots (5-4) after one period.

The two teams had a pair of giveaways and were 50-50 in faceoff winning percentage.

Heading into the second period, Buffalo was 1/1 on the power play, while the B’s had yet to see any time on the skater advantage.

Buffalo’s 17 shots on goal in the first period were the 2nd most shots allowed in a period by Boston this season. The most shots against in one period for the Bruins thus far is 18 on Nov. 16th on home ice against the Washington Capitals.

Early in the middle frame, Matt Grzelcyk hooked Zemgus Girgensons and was sent to the box at 4:44 of the second period.

The Sabres didn’t convert on the resulting power play.

Midway through the period, Asplund held Krejci and was assessed with a minor at 13:15– presenting Boston with their first power play opportunity of the night.

It only took the Bruins 90 seconds to capitalize on the power play as Marchand (15) caught a rebound and slid the puck under Ullmark for the power play goal at 14:45.

Grzelcyk (5) and Heinen (6) had the assists on the goal as the B’s took their first lead of the night, 2-1.

Less than a minute later, Coyle took a trip to the sin bin for hooking Eichel at 15:16. Boston killed off the ensuing shorthanded bid with ease.

In the final minute of the second period, Ullmark denied DeBrusk with a sprawling leg pad save while DeBrusk entered the attacking zone on a breakaway, before crashing into the boards and heading right down the tunnel to the dressing room for a head start on the second intermission.

He returned for the third period without any issues.

After 40 minutes of action, the Bruins led, 2-1, on the scoreboard, but trailed the Sabres, 24-18, in shots on goal, despite having a, 14-7, shots on net advantage in the second period alone.

The B’s held the lead in blocked shots (10-9), hits (14-12) and faceoff win% (51-49), however, while Buffalo led in takeaways (10-6) and giveaways (8-4).

Heading into the third period, the Sabres were 1/3 on the power play and the Bruins were 1/1.

Jake McCabe opened up the final frame of regulation with a minor penalty for holding against Heinen 32 seconds into the third period.

While on the power play, Pastrnak (20) gathered a rebound and slipped the puck underneath Ullmark’s elevated leg pad and scored his 20th goal of the season– becoming the first NHL player to reach the 20-goal plateau this season.

Pastrnak’s power play goal was assisted by Heinen (7) and Bergeron (12) at 1:56 of the third period and the Bruins led, 3-1.

Less than a couple of minutes later, Nordstrom was sent to the box for tripping Rasmus Dahlin at 3:33.

Rodrigues thought he had a surefire power play goal for the Sabres as Buffalo pressured the Bruins into near submission, but Rask made a no-stick, inside of the blocker save, while diving across the crease.

Boston killed off Nordstrom’s minor as a result.

Midway through the third period, Brandon Montour (2) blasted a one-timer into the twine from the point, cutting Boston’s lead in half, 3-2, at 12:58.

Conor Sheary (3) and Dahlin (13) tallied the assists on Montour’s goal as the Sabres pressed, but couldn’t complete a third period comeback over the Bruins.

With 1:19 remaining in the game, Sabres head coach, Ralph Krueger, pulled his goaltender for an extra attacker, but couldn’t muster a 6-on-5 goal– even after using his timeout with 39.8 seconds left to drum up the perfect plan.

At the final horn, Boston sealed the deal on a, 3-2, victory over Buffalo– improving to 10-0-2 when leading after two periods in the process.

The Sabres finished the night leading in shots on goal (38-27) and giveaways (14-4), while the Bruins walked away with the advantage in blocked shots (17-11), hits (20-14) and faceoff win% (54-46).

Buffalo finished Thursday’s action 1/4 on the skater advantage as the B’s went 2/2 on the power play.

Boston finishes their two-game homestand (1-0-0) against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday.

The B’s close out November with back to back nights in Montreal (Nov. 26th) and Ottawa (Nov. 27th) before finishing the month at home against the New York Rangers in a Black Friday matinee on Nov. 29th.

Categories
NHL Nick's Net

Mike Babcock Fired: What Does This Mean for The– Bruins?

Wednesday afternoon, the Toronto Maple Leafs fired their now former head coach, Mike Babcock, and promoted Sheldon Keefe as the new head coach of the Leafs from his previous head coaching duties with the Toronto Marlies (AHL).

It’s a move that everyone likely saw coming, but this soon? That’s impressive.

Babcock was adamant in his coaching abilities and in his belief in himself as “the greatest coach who ever lived” (paraphrasing, obviously), but could not salvage his hubris when it mattered most– right now.

Toronto is currently 9-10-4 (22 points) on the season, 5th place in the Atlantic Division and outside of a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Luckily for the Leafs, the Pittsburgh Penguins (11-7-3, 25 points), Philadelphia Flyers (10-7-4, 24 points) and Buffalo Sabres (10-8-3, 23 points) aren’t that far ahead of them in the standings for now.

It’s the perfect time to be bold and make a move if you’re looking to provide a short-term spark that will hopefully re-ignite some cooling embers and launch the Maple Leafs back into playoff contention at the very least– if not Stanley Cup contention, as many have expected for a few years now before Toronto’s General Manager, Kyle Dubas, was forced to spend about $40.489 million on William Nylander, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner while somehow forgetting the importance of a defense and a backup goaltender in the process.

For a team that used to employ a coach that notoriously bet on himself and his process for better or worse, well, they’re betting heavily on the salary cap ceiling to make a significant jump by the time a new national TV rights distribution package in the United States is negotiated in 2022.

But that’s a separate discussion entirely.

For now, we’re left in the wake of a post-Babcock Leafs Era and what it means for the Boston Bruins– Toronto’s biggest rival most recently.

The 56-year-old former head coach in Toronto was in his 5th year of an eight-year, $50.000 million contract with the Maple Leafs.

Toronto went 29-42-11 in the 2015-16 season, which led them to drafting Matthews with the 1st overall pick in the 2016 Draft.

The following year, Babcock and the Maple Leafs improved to 40-27-15, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2013, before losing in six games to the Washington Capitals in the 2017 First Round.

Then history repeated itself as the Leafs went 49-26-7 in the 2017-18 regular season before losing in seven games to Boston in the 2018 First Round.

From there it was a broken record for Toronto– a 46-28-9 effort in 2018-19 led to another First Round matchup with Boston and another Game 7 loss on the road to the Bruins in the 2019 First Round.

This season, through 23 games, the Leafs have six wins in regulation. They have nine total.

Babcock hasn’t won a playoff series since he was still with the Detroit Red Wings in 2013. He hasn’t led a team back to the Stanley Cup Final since losing in 2009 with Detroit in the Red Wings-Penguins rematch from 2008.

He may be “Canada’s Coach”, but he isn’t “Canada’s favorite team’s head coach” anymore.

Enter Keefe, a 39-year-old, from Brampton, Ontario– a short drive from Toronto– emerging as “The Chosen One”.

Hired by Toronto to lead the Marlies on June 8, 2015, Keefe had a respectable first season with Toronto’s AHL affiliate in 2015-16, notching a 54-16-5-1 record (wins-losses-overtime losses-shootout losses, for those of you who aren’t AHL savvy).

Keefe pushed his team all the way to the Eastern Conference Final in the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs (his rookie season as an AHL coach, mind you) before the Marlies succumbed to the Hershey Bears in five games.

In 2016-17, Keefe coached his team to a 42-29-4-1 record and a North Division Final appearance in the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs that resulted in a Game 7 loss to the Syracuse Crunch.

That loss didn’t set the Marlies back, but instead motivated Keefe and his team as they marched to a 54-18-2-2 record in 2017-18 and a 2018 Calder Cup Final appearance.

They defeated the Texas Stars in seven games and captured Toronto’s first championship in ice hockey since the NHL’s Maple Leafs raised the Stanley Cup in 1967.

Though it was only the AHL, it proved that something was in the works.

Dubas’ masterplan was coming to fruition as the analytics guru rose to power– taking over as GM of the Maple Leafs with Lou Lamoriello’s departure in the 2018 offseason.

Keefe had followed Dubas from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL) to the Maple Leafs organization in 2015, but Babcock stood in the way of his destiny, it seemed.

Babcock was Lamoriello’s choice and fit with Brendan Shanahan’s “Shanaplan”.

Keefe fit with Dubas in the contemporary game, “Shanaplan” be damned.

In 2018-19, Keefe led the Marlies to a 39-24-9-4 record and an Eastern Conference Final appearance for the 2nd year in a row in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Though the Marlies lost to the Charlotte Checkers in six games, one thing was for certain– Keefe had it going in the minor league.

It’s not every day that a coach is able to make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final in his rookie season, let alone in three of his first four full seasons as an AHL bench boss.

Up until his promotion to the NHL, Keefe amassed a 10-2-2-1 record with the Marlies this season.

They were 1st in the North Division at the time of his departure for the big league.

In 320 career AHL games with the Marlies, Keefe collected a 199-89-22-9 record and a .622 winning percentage in the process– plus one Calder Cup championship in 2018.

So, what does this mean for the Bruins?

A lot when you factor in advantages and disadvantages for each team in the promotion of Keefe from the Marlies to the Leafs.

First, for Toronto, the advantages of having Keefe for a potential playoff matchup with Boston.

The core of Toronto’s current roster (Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly and even Frederik Andersen) has lost in the First Round in at least one of the last three postseasons (Tavares is the only member who hasn’t had to endure three-straight soul crushing First Round departures under Babcock’s reign).

Yes, this may seem bad, but it actually speaks volumes for their playoff experience.

This team is hungry– right from its core– and its fanbase, its front office and its backyard media wants to win sooner rather than later.

Plus, Nylander’s 2nd season in the AHL (although it was only a partial season) overlapped with Keefe’s time behind the bench of the Marlies, so there’s some familiarity between one of the four highest paid players on the Leafs and their head coach.

Additionally, Kapanen, Hyman and others have experience with Keefe and the Marlies’ system.

There’s enough familiarity there for something– potentially something dangerous.

Now for the advantages for Boston.

History is on their side. Boston’s core (Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask) has shown its capable of making another Cup run (even with an aging captain and 1-2 centers).

Bruins head coach, Bruce Cassidy, remains a constant and in control.

Boston missed the playoffs in 2015 and 2016, but Claude Julien was still their head coach then, so the combination of Cassidy, plus Chara, Bergeron and Krejci’s leadership made for an easier transition into getting the team back into a “top of their game” playoff performer (and eventual Cup contender in 2019).

This isn’t a luxury the Leafs have, where the team’s looking to get back into postseason contention, period, let alone win a series.

Toronto missed the playoffs in their first year with Babcock, but made it for the last three years and lost each year in the First Round.

This leads to Toronto’s disadvantages for another potential postseason meeting with the Bruins.

History is not on Toronto’s side and neither are the statistics.

Yes, Dubas’ 2nd favorite thing in the world– analytics– could get in the way of his 1st favorite thing in the world– bringing the Cup back to the Maple Leafs organization.

As things stand, the Leafs have a greater chance of missing the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs than making them currently.

Toronto– the city, the fans, the players, the front office and the media– wants to win right now. There’s no room for excuses (even if they’re legitimate, like taking one’s time to formulate a defense via prospects or trades and supplementing Andersen in the crease with a legitimate backup goaltender).

But, whereas Cassidy inherited broken pieces in Boston that were addressed and revamped as the team went from outside the playoffs two years in a row to making three consecutive postseason appearances under Cassidy in his head coaching tenure with the B’s– addressing the need for depth down the lineup in the process without the likes of a highly touted free agent acquisition– Keefe and the Leafs have the majority of this season to work on that necessary synergy with a better offense (on paper).

Cassidy was named interim head coach of the Bruins in Feb. 2017. Boston was ousted by the Ottawa Senators in six games in the 2017 First Round and lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games in the 2018 Second Round prior to their 2019 Stanley Cup Final appearance.

Keefe has Tavares, Matthews and Marner (when healthy) to unleash on any given night and could very well pull a turnaround in one season a la the St. Louis Blues last season (who beat the Bruins in the Final in Game 7 at TD Garden) or the Penguins in 2009 (when Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien midseason and won the Cup) and 2016 (when Mike Sullivan replaced Bylsma midseason and won the Cup).

In that sense, recent history is actually on Toronto’s side.

Boston had some growing pains to go with their dramatic improvement, but the Leafs are built to counteract that pain if Keefe can find a better way to manage it than Babcock did.

As it is, Cassidy is 130-55-27 in 212 games with Boston from 2017-present (good enough for a .613 winning percentage), but 207-128-21-24 in 380 games with the Providence Bruins (AHL) from 2011-16 (.545 winning%).

Babcock was 173-133-45 in 351 games with the Maple Leafs from 2015-19 (.493 winning%).

Keefe gets the final say and has his .622 winning% in 320 games with the Marlies going for him as he steps into the biggest role behind any bench in the National Hockey League.

Playoffs or not, the rest of this season is about to be a wild ride for the Maple Leafs and their fans.

Bruins fans be worried or not.